Tuesday 19 February 2013

Four for four thirty 16th February 2013

Four thirty is not the best time to be up and about anywhere and especially in Kidlington but that is what myself, Badger, Andy and Terry found ourselves doing as we met up for the long drive to Norfolk courtesy of Terry. Our reason for such an early start was to get to Norfolk at dawn and specifically to the Wolferton Triangle near Sandringham in an effort to see the Golden Pheasants that frequent this small area of woodland and thick rhododendron cover, lying between two small minor roads that meet in an apex, hence the name 'triangle'. 

On arrival there are two options. Either park the car at the side of one of the two narrow roads and await developments or if impatient, kerb crawl in a suspicious manner round and round the two roads (it only takes all of ten minutes) until hopefully you come across a pheasant. An additional hazard is that if the Royal Family are in residence at nearby Sandringham you may find a menacing, black windowed Range Rover, full of security men following you closely, checking what you are doing. This happened to me once but they seemed quite happy with my explanation that I was looking for Golden Pheasants. 

Thankfully we had no such interruptions this time. We opted to combine both viewing options, a bit of judicious kerb crawling plus some static time and eventually on one kerb crawl I espied a glorious male Golden Pheasant through Terry's windscreen strutting along the narrow grass verge twixt rhododendrons and tarmac. A first for Andy and Terry. The pheasant then retired back into cover but as it was at the narrow apex of the triangle we reasoned it might come out on the other side on the verge bordering the other road. We drove down the road and parked up at the apex and, yes there it was on the other side. Views were now much better side on and we watched this beauty parading around on the verge feeding and scratching about like a domestic chicken.

The dark green of the rhododendrons served to set off the riotous colours of this spectacular bird. The iridescent golden mane of feathers on its head was like a cape of pure gold and I could not help but recall the similarity of it's head adornments to images of the mask of Tutan Khamun the legendary Egyptian Pharaoh. The pheasant needless to say looked every bit as regal. All this was set off by deep lustrous red underparts, an iridescent turquoise mantle, wings the colour of midnight blue silk and the longest tail you could hope to see. Not one part of this pheasant could be called dull or understated. 

Yet paradoxically they are the shyest of birds hiding their glory away in the stygian depths of rhododendron clumps and running for deep cover at the slightest alarm. Stunning is a word much over used in birder parlance but this apparition of loveliness, positively glowing with iridescent colours in the light of an early, grey dawn, could only be described as such. It was almost too much for so early in the morning. To add to our excitement another equally vivid male came out of the shrubbery to join it. Seemingly oblivious to some idiot in another car watching them who managed to sound his horn and leave the engine running all at the same time, they fed on the verge for some twenty minutes until both retired, as is their skulking nature, back into the dense rhododendrons. 

The show was over. 

We relaxed, enjoyed our first success and now made for the North Norfolk coast. Badger wanted to attend an urgent appointment with a Rough Legged Buzzard that had been seen at Burnham Overy.  We halted along the way to make a brief roadside stop just after Burnham Deepdale, a favourite place to see Barn Owls and sure enough a distant one appeared quartering the fields, along with two Egyptian Geese flying over. Soon we were on our way again and came to the layby where one can park and view the extensive wet fields, marshland and dune system that is Burnham Overy marshes. The morning, still comparatively early, was very still and atmospheric. Bird sounds were all around with Skylarks singing and the constant conversational chatter of geese calling to each other. Scoping from the layby we were thrilled at the large number and variety of birds before us. Two Grey Partridges aggrieved at our presence flew a short way down the hedgerow, calling loudly and stood glaring at us from the field's edge. Initially there was no sign of the Rough Legged Buzzard but Marsh Harriers seemed to be everywhere, floating over the fields and regularly scaring the wildfowl. Two Common Buzzards showed up and then Andy noted a buzzard with a pale head perched distantly on a fence post. Just as we all got onto the bird in question it flew from the fence post and there was our Rough legged Buzzard, showing it's white tail and dark brown flank patches to good effect. It flew along the fence line and perched on yet another fence post and commenced preening. Better and better. We spent quite some time here as there was just so much birdlife to see. Every time one made a sweep with the scope something else seemed to turn up. A Green Woodpecker perched incongruously on a twig at the very top of a hawthorn bush. A large flock of Dark bellied Brent Geese flew in and examining the flock we found two Pale bellied Brent with them but sadly no Black Brant. Further away to the east, Greylag Geese, Pink footed Geese and a small group of Barnacle Geese rested in the juncus dotted, wet fields. A ghostly moth like apparition morphed into a Barn Owl. Badger located a distant Red Kite over the dunes, they are by no means usual in Norfolk, and a huge flock of Golden Plover swept in from the north to be followed by five Bar tailed Godwits. Shelduck, Mallard, Wigeon, a few Teal and Shoveler made up the duck numbers and a myriad of Skylarks hassled one another across the open fields. 

Finally we had our fill of this delightful spot and decided to move on as there were other goodies tempting us  further east along the coast. 

Another brief stop at Cley Visitor Centre where Badger and myself purchased a copy each of Bryan Bland's book The Profit of Birding  and resisted purchasing any of their over priced food, thence onwards to nearby Salthouse. Snow Buntings are usually to be found around the car park here as food is regularly put down for them by photographers and birders. This morning there was no shortage of photographers but there was a decided absence of Snow Buntings.They had been replaced by over fifty Turnstones that provided as many close and personal photo opportunities as you could wish. 

Personally I am of the opinion that they are nowhere near as desirable as Snow Buntings, however close you can get to them, so it was with some disappointment that we viewed this first hiatus of the day. Never mind, the Shore Lark was still in evidence and close by, beyond the adjacent Gramborough Hill, which really is no more than a rise in the dunes. We had a brief look out onto the flat calm sea but there was not much out there, just some Eiders, two female Common Scoter and a Red throated Diver. We joined the steady parade of birders going to pay homage to the shorelark and as we walked along the shingle ridge a flock of Snow Buntings flew the other way! Perhaps they were heading for the car park. 

Eventually we came across the Shore Lark feeding in the short, shingly vegetation. They are such an attractive bird and for Andy doubly so as it was a lifer.We watched it feeding and I noted how wary it seemed compared to their usual confiding demeanour. Perhaps it was so because it was not in a flock or had a companion, as is usually the way with this species.

I left Andy and Badger admiring the lark and headed back to the car park but sadly still no Snow Buntings were in evidence. I think it was just too busy around the car park, with cars, people and dogs creating too much noise and hustle. This was scenic north Norfolk on a mild, sunny Saturday after all and it was bound to attract a lot of people. I waited around watching the Turnstones and the photographers, having first availed myself of a really good value hot chocolate and some biscuits from the mobile refreshment van. The others returned advising the Shore Lark had been disturbed by some walkers and flown off. We then walked west along the dunes and lo! there was the flock of Snow Buntings feeding on the shingle. So marvellously camouflaged when seen against the different coloured pebbles, they only really stood out when some birds flew to catch up with their companions as they scuttled around and along  the shingle. There were two very bright males, almost white and they shone in the sunshine. I joined another photographer and we walked around and ahead of the direction in which the flock were moving. By waiting patiently we had the luxury of the birds coming closer and closer, unalarmed by our immobile presence and I managed to get some reasonable images as they ceaselessly searched for seeds in the shingle.

It is only when you try to photograph them that you realise just how constant their movement is and for how little time they remain still. Every so often a 'dread' would seize them and with a conversational twitter the entire flock would sweep a few hundred metres low over the shingle to settle, then melt into the pebbles and resume their restless manoeuvres. 

So lunchtime arrived and we had seen just about all we could here. So what to do now? Well yours truly dearly wanted to see the Black bellied Dipper, the race of Dipper that comes from northern and eastern Europe, parts of France and northwest Spain, that was spending it's winter at the unlikely venue of Thetford and as there was little else here it was agreed that we should head inland for Thetford. About an hour's drive but in the right direction for heading home. Still gloriously sunny we passed through the bleak February Norfolk countryside and duly arrived at what we perceived to be the correct location on the River Thet, and where, according to the pagers, the dipper was performing for all comers. I could see a few people by the river bank peering intently with binoculars across the small river to the opposite bank. So this must be the spot. They could soon point it out to me. I set off to join them assuming they were all looking at the dipper. There was no path on the bank so it was route one through a jumble of brambles, dead stalks of cow parsley and whatever else had been growing there from last year. I arrived at the riverside and looked across to where everyone was looking. They then all moved left, quickly. I had seen nothing. Had the dipper flown off up the river? I followed them rapidly, stumbling through the cussid bramble twines to where they were now looking. Still no dipper. What are those two dogs doing splashing about in the water on the other bank and why are those people looking at them? 

The two dogs came out of the water and onto the bank. Otters! Yes, Otters, not  twenty feet away and seemingly oblivious to our presence. A mother and a full grown cub energetically playing around in the water, rolling over and over, diving and play fighting, occasionally whistling to each other and steadily working their way upriver by the far bank. I silently motioned to the others who were following some way off and soon they were seeing them as well. We were then treated to a half hour of Otters playing and messing around at almost point blank range. The views we were getting are only normally obtainable from a hide but they just seemed not to care so presumably they must be used to the presence of humans. On a river this small I suppose that would be inevitable.They rolled and play fought in and out of the water and eventually crawled out of the water between two small tree trunks and remained here for ten or so minutes. One of the Otters seized, from the edge of the water, what at first I thought must be some old white paper caught up in the branches dragging in the river but on closer examination it turned out to be the rancid and waterlogged remains of a long dead chicken which the Otter seemed to somewhat relish. Yeeughhh! Colonel Sanders would have been proud! After a good chew on a bright yellow foot and presumably satisfied with its noxious meal the Otter then resumed playing and after a short while the two Otters separated and returned downriver, floating just a few feet past me. We could hardly believe our good fortune. Having got the wrong location we had  literally stumbled on a couple of Otters and we agreed that for all of us these were the closest and most prolonged views ever of this normally secretive mammal.

Once the Otters had gone I made enquiries from one of our companions watching the Otters and it transpired the dipper was some way further down the river and entailed a short drive to a place called Three Nunns Bridge. Initially the river we looked at there seemed totally unsuitable but we followed the track from the car park over a smaller wooden bridge and located a couple of birders staring downwards at a slow moving tributary stream, running at right angles from the river and flowing through some marshy ground and woodland, strewn with the first harbingers of Spring - Snowdrops. It had to be here and sure enough it was.

Ridiculously confiding it dipped up and down and flashed it's white nictitating membranes in true dipper fashion whilst perched on twigs poking out of the stream. It would put its head under water and every so often it dived into the water and disappeared completely, coming up to float like a miniature auk on the surface but always quickly regaining a perch. I noted the absence of a chestnut band on the belly which is indicative of our native race. It was brilliant to observe it so closely and also to have the opportunity to study it's feeding behaviour and how it went about catching it's food. 

Apart from the usual invertebrates it seized from under the water, it seemed very attracted to small leaves floating in the water which it would seize and flick before discarding them.We could only assume it was finding invertebrate prey on the undersides of the leaves which it removed by flicking the leaves away. We must have remained with the dipper for over an hour. We just did not want to leave this almost unique experience. All of us took countless images which we relentlessly showed to each other in the car on the way home. 

An unbelievable ending to a sensational day of birding. It really does not get much better than this - does it?

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