Sunday 30 October 2022

An Alpine Accentor in Suffolk 28th October 2022

What a year this has been for seeing rare birds in Britain. New for my British List was an Eleonora's Falcon in Kent in May followed by a first for Britain in the form of a Cape Gull in Cambridgeshire during August. A ten day stay on Shetland this October produced three more new species for me; a Lanceolated Warbler, a White's Thrush and a Least Bittern which was also the first to be recorded in Britain. Not forgetting two Yellow-rumped Warblers, which were my second and third for Britain.Then, with hardly time to catch up on my sleep it was a day trip to Bryher in The Isles of Scilly, four days later, to see Britain's fourth ever Blackburnian Warbler and my first, before managing to add yet another new species for me in the form of  a Wilson's Snipe on St Mary's the same day.

Surely there would be no more?

I had just sat down with a cup of coffee on Thursday 27th October when my phone rang. It was Mark my twitching pal. He rings me frequently with bird news that he always manages to get earlier than me. So much so I have given him his own personal ring tone on my phone.

There's an Alpine Accentor in Suffolk. Get going, you need it I don't!

The phone went dead.This is Mark's idiosynchratic way of communicating a major rarity. He rings all of us on our small WhatsApp group in a similar manner and we take no offence as it is just his way of relieving his excitement and we are all well used to this eccentricity.

The Alpine Accentor had been discovered that afternoon at a place called Slaughden which is an extension of Aldeburgh, a pleasant, gentrified village that lies by the North Sea in Suffolk. Some of you may also know it as the home of the world famous Aldeburgh Festival founded by the equally famous classical composer Benjamin Britten who lived there.

Alpine Accentor has been a bird I have dearly wanted to see in Britain, as not only would it be another species to add to my British List but also because it is rather attractive.Think of a Dunnock but slightly larger and with colourful bits to alleviate the familar drab brown and grey of our humble Dunnock.

Alpine Accentors breed  discontinuously in the mountains of northwest Africa, Spain and central Europe as far north as southern Germany and southern Poland then through the Balkans to Greece.  In Asia they are found in all major mountain ranges from central Turkey across central and southern Asia east to Japan and Taiwan. I have seen them in the Picos de Europa in northern Spain and they have been recorded on Mount Everest  in the Himalayas at the incredible height of 8000m.

They are altitudinal migrants with birds forsaking their alpine breeding grounds in autumn, moving to lower, warmer altitudes below the snowline for the winter and some can then wander more widely and be found, as this one at Suffolk was, well out of their normal range. Thirty nine have been recorded in Britain, prior to this latest arrival and only thirty percent of these records are from Autumn, the rest are in Spring, so this was a true mega in twitching parlance.The first to be seen in Britain for twenty years.

One of our group, Gavin, had dropped everything at work, gone for it immediately and as he lived in Hertfordshire which is nearer Suffolk than Oxfordshire, got there in time to see it that afternoon. However it was not possible for me to get there in time as it is a four hour drive from my home and it would be getting dark if and when I got there, traffic permitting. I would have to wait until tomorrow which meant I had a much increased chance of missing out on seeing a new bird for me in Britain. Such unexpected arrivals have an unhappy knack of disappearing overnight. Only 30% of the Alpine Accentors found in Britain have remained for more than a day, but there was little I could do but try and curb my excitement and anxiety. Oh! - and just hope.

I called Mark later on Thursday afternoon and we discussed the situation. Mark had already seen one but was happy to accompany me the next day as he had noticed some really good photos of the bird posted on social media. If anything gets Mark motivated it is the opportunity to get close up photos of a rare bird. Here was such an opportunity.

What time do you want to be there? he asked

First light if possible or just after. I will collect you on the way at 5.30am. That should get us to Slaughden by 8am when it will be just about light enough for you to photo the bird, if its there. I replied

So it was, that rising at 4am on Friday morning, I drove the now familiar route cross country to Mark's home in Bedfordshire and from there we headed for Suffolk. The roads were already very busy with commuter traffic, this being a workday but we made steady progress on fast roads and then took a tortuous route on narrow back roads across rural parts of Suffolk, learning on the way that the Alpine Accentor was still present. Eventually, in high spirits we arrived at Aldeburgh.

Our destination, Slaughden, required us to drive to the end of Aldeburgh where the road came to an end and continued as a wide elevated dirt track running along the top of a massive sea wall leading to a Martello Tower, where you can drive no further, with the sea on one side and saltmarsh on the other.  This area is known as Slaughden and I realised that this is where I came to see another rarity, a Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll, in December 2012 with another of my birding pals, Clackers.

The seawall with the Martello Tower in the distance and the rocks favoured
by the Alpine Accentor

The morning was still early as we came to a stop by the Martello Tower.It was mild with a gentle southerly wind blowing and a sky of pastel pink and grey stretching away to the horizon. Redshanks called from the saltmarsh and a couple of Little Egrets dashed through pools of seawater chasing fish.

From the Martello Tower we walked along the top of the seawall to a scrum of birders spread right across it, standing behind a barrier which forbade anyone to go further as there was supposedly unexploded ordnance from the war. It was obvious that this was widely ignored as a track led down and around the barrier so one could carry on walking south.

On joining the birders, one kindly pointed out the bird to me, some seventy metres beyond, shuffling about on the shingle,moving in and out of the grass that bordered the track. It was barely discernible in my bins but at least I had gained my first view of an Alpine Accentor on British soil.

For quite some time we stood immobile, no one daring to go closer in case the wrath of the crowd was incurred but inevitably we began to grow impatient and soon had circumvented the barrier. Others went down the bank and walked along by the saltmarsh to by-pass the bird and emerge onto the top of the bank at the far side.We had the bird covered.

We moved closer as did the birders at the other end. Closer still and closer we moved until we had an acceptable view of the bird without disturbing it. I could plainly see its rufous flanks, streaked upperparts and each of its black greater wing coverts tipped with a white spot looking like a string of pearls spread across its closed wing.

The bird flew over our heads and settled on some rocks not far behind us.Everyone about turned and trying not to run we all made haste back around the barrier to get closer to the bird, now somewhere amongst the huge rocks which bolstered the seaward side of the seawall.

The focus of our undivided attention was re-found perched on a huge grey rock which presumably, for an alpine species, would seem familiar and it preened for some time before flying back along the seawall.

As one we about turned and followed after it, so now it was back to square one. I decided to go down onto the shingle beach and walk along there to get closer to the bird and  my luck was in as it had chosen to feed just under the lip of the bank. I and several others on the beach could see it clearly but others at the top could not.

The accentor decided to rest here and for some minutes remained still and even closed its eyes for a spell.Eventually it roused itself and then wandered up onto the top of the bank and commenced feeding, shuffling in and out of the grass in true accentor fashion.

Then it took another short flight back to the rocks where it perched for a while before dropping down between the rocks to feed on the shingle below. It appeared to be eating the seeds of Yellow horned Poppy mostly but other plants such as seeding Sea Campion were of obvious interest.

The number of birders had grown to around eighty strong and with the restricted viewing the situation was getting a bit fraught. Myself and Mark having got some reasonable images and seen the bird well decided to leave and have a leisurely breakfast in Aldeburgh. Once our hunger was satisfied we would return to hopefully find the crowd diminished and the general situation easier and more relaxed. It was only 9.30am after all.

We found a cafe, Delphine's, at the far end of Aldeburgh High Street. It was done out in retro style as were the two ladies who ran it. The all day breakfasts on offer were huge and after consuming them with a coffee we returned for more communing with the accentor.

Any hopes of the situation having eased  on our arrival back on the seawall were dashed as we found no decrease in birder numbers and everyone ensconced behind the barrier and the accentor back where it was first thing in the morning, seventy metres away along the seawall. More birders were positioned at the far end beyond it. We stood here for twenty minutes and no one seemed inclined to do anything, let alone to go closer.

Growing exasperated with this situation I descended once more to the beach and walked along it to join the others at the far end. Slowly like some advancing army we moved  towards the bird and as before eventually got much closer to it.

Standing to the right of the vanguard, close to the edge of the seawall, I felt relaxed, having already had ample close encounters with the accentor. The pressure was off and I was freewheeling in mind and body. The rhythm of the sea crashing onto the shingle, dragging on the pebbles was a soothing accompaniment. The sun was coming out too. A long line of Brent Geese flew south, parallel to the shore, and a Purple Sandpiper searched the nooks and crannies of the wooden groynes.

The afternoon wore on and as it did so the number of birders became much smaller, no more than twenty or thirty. Slowly everyone came to realise the accentor was quite confiding, well not so much quite but very, as towards the end I and everyone else were standing on the top of the seawall looking down on it as it fed unconcernedly no more than three metres away, on and amongst the huge boulders protecting the sea wall.

These massive rocks seemed to be its area of preference and I suppose this is not surprising as it must be reminiscent of its native alpine habitat in southern Europe. We spent two more happy hours watching and photographing it before deciding to leave at around four thirty.

We stopped once more at the far end of the High Street and entered the estimable Delphine's. I ordered a milkshake of epic proportions and Mark had a coffee, our way to celebrate the day and to set us up for the long journey home as the sun slowly began to set over Aldeburgh.


The next morning the Alpine Accentor was seen very briefly roosting on the Martello Tower but when it left its roost at around 7.30am it flew up high and disappeared south never to be seen again.

Remarkably on Sunday the 30th of October a different Alpine Accentor was found at Blakeney Point in the neighbouring county of Norfolk.

No comments:

Post a Comment