Friday 31 January 2014

Does it really matter? 31st January 2014

Not too far from my home in Kingham lies the Cotswold Water Park (CWP), a large area of lakes covering three counties, Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire. Some of the lakes are now surrounded by upmarket housing developments whilst others are used for windsurfing, waterskiing or fishing but some are set aside specifically for birds and nature. Today the now seemingly endless and almost daily rain was not due to arrive until lunchtime so I set out on the half hour journey from my home to the CWP this morning to check a couple of these 'bird lakes', one of which was reported to hold a Green-winged Teal, always a nice bird to see.

Due to the almost incessant deluge over the last few weeks the Cotswold Water Park is now enhanced with many temporary and impromptu stretches of water as more and more of the surrounding fields succumb to flooding. I encountered one such field by the road near to Down Ampney, a small rural village in Gloucestershire with the not inconsiderable claim to fame of being the birthplace of Ralph Vaughn Williams, the classical composer perhaps best known for his adaptation of Greensleeves but also responsible for a number of well known classical symphonies and choral works . 

The flooded field was initially unprepossessing but I nevertheless stopped for a scan and was delighted to find a pair of Ruddy Shelduck standing out on the flooded field.

Now like all ducks these are a very attractive species but there is much debate as to whether when they, like many other 'unusual ducks' are encountered in the UK they are truly wild  (they breed in southeastern Europe, Asia and northwest Africa), are escapes from a local wildfowl collection or originate from the feral populations that now exist in The Netherlands and Germany. No one knows or will ever know and each individual sighting has to be judged on its merits or whatever the relevant County records committee decides at the time. 

Currently there are another two Ruddy Shelduck in Pagham Harbour in West Sussex and it seems that this species does regularly appear in little pulses of occurrence. This would suggest that they are either wild or more likely from the feral populations. Either way, to me they are wild and free living, making their own way in the world and therefore can legitimately be assumed to be worthy of my attention irrespective of conjecture about their origin. All I can say is that when I saw them I got the same huge amount of innocent pleasure and thrill as I would do with any encounter with a rare or unusual species. Surely that is what birding is all about?

Ruddy Shelduck pair - female upper and male lower

Thursday 23 January 2014

Things can only get better 18th January 2014


Early Saturday morning. It has finally stopped raining. High rise run down flats loom above the road. Paint peeling. Low watt bare bulbs glimmer in the windows. Shops mouldering into bankruptcy. Dark, dingy possibly dangerous pubs that have given up any pretence of civilised drinking and certainly do not serve food. A hint of menace permeates the urban sprawl. The mud flats of Haslar Creek glistening, squat and opaque like a fat toad in the grey light at low tide. Discarded cans glint like cheap junk jewellery on the shore occasionally illuminated by a ray of brief sunlight in between rain clouds scudding in front of a cold southwest wind. 

The grassy surrounds of the concrete sided lagoon are sodden and muddy with too much rain. The water oozing in a brown slime from the waterlogged ground. An army of Black headed Gulls, like scattered litter is marching far and wide over the grass looking for worms and with their innocent white purity imparting an incongruous refinement that Gosport really does not deserve. 

Why are we here? 

To see a Ring billed Gull that has returned for yet another year to spend the winter in this most depressing of areas. We find it feeding with the other smaller gulls, steadfastly marching along with them across the grass before the dogs arrive and drive the gulls onto the lagoon or into the creek. 

Five minutes later all the gulls fly off to the creek as the first dog arrives. 

The wind blows, the clouds lower and Badger risks a visit to Morrisons across the road to buy some bread for the gulls. Two loafs of white bread for a pound. Organic or wholemeal are not words commonly used or recognised around here. The gulls eat the bread and we see the Ring billed Gull once again but only briefly. 

We leave vowing never to return until next year and never, ever, if the Ring billed Gull fails to show up for its umpteenth year next winter.This is not a pleasant place.

I never thought I would consider a Motorway civilised but it feels that way after Gosport. We drive further west in the rain to Lepe where a Lesser Yellowlegs is wintering on a marshy lagoon. We park in a large car park right by the sea in a pleasantly rural area. This is better. Gosport is consigned to oblivion. Forgotten. The wind blows hard and strong across the narrow channel of sea between us and the Isle of Wight. A ten minute walk along the beach by the tideline and we come to the marshy lagoon. The wind is very strong here. The Lesser Yellowlegs is briefly visible, blurry through wind vibrated, juddering scopes and watering eyes, before it flies to the back of the lagoon and becomes invisible. We wait. It gets colder and yet windier but eventually 'the legs' re-appears, albeit distantly. Turnstones run along the shoreline tempting Mark to photography. We wait and after what seems a long time 'the legs' comes much closer. Well close enough to at least see some detail in between scope blurring gusts of wind. Its legs are bright sulphur yellow. No mistaking, they glow in the intermittent sun. 

Dave Lowe rings to tell Andy he has a Mealy Redpoll on the feeders in his garden at Hinksey in Oxford. A Peregrine flies high over the back of the marsh towards the sea. All the birds on the marsh, which are not many, half a dozen Dunlin and a Bar tailed Godwit at most, fly off in a panic. A couple of Snipe hide in the reeds but 'the legs', exposed out in the open, crouches flat until the Peregrine passes. Danger averted. It slowly raises its body on yellow legs like some hydraulic lift until it is all spindly elegance again. The Peregrine returns. and 'the legs' sinks to its knees once more before rising again once it is all clear. We leave it there and return to the car park. A Cafe, very nice and clean, modern even, entices us to a beverage and something to eat. Badger, lagging behind to chat to someone, returns to unlock the car as we desert the warmth of the cafe..

Decision time. A Glaucous Gull and two Ruddy Shelduck in West Sussex? It's a longish drive. We are undecided. Tom rings to say he is watching the Mealy Redpoll in a tree in the park behind Dave's house. Minds are made up. We are unanimous. We head home, as a Mealy Redpoll is a good bird for Oxfordshire. Later we arrive in the park. Myself and Andy see the bird almost immediately but very briefly high in a silver birch before it flies off with some other redpolls. We wait but it does not return although several other Lesser Redpolls do. Passers by, curious, ask us what we are doing. The first few times is a novelty then it gets tedious. We are however invariably polite. This is Oxford after all. Andy rings Dave who tells us it is on his feeders again. We ask if we can come and see it in his garden. He says "Yes of course". We are diffident. "What all four of us?" "Yes not a problem". We go to Dave's house, sit in the warmth of his large open kitchen and watch the Mealy Redpoll on his feeders along with a Lesser Redpoll and a female Blackcap. 

Mealy Redpoll

Lesser Redpoll
Dave makes tea for all of us. It is warm and cosy.We sit and chat and look out of his picture window at the redpolls.

It's a long way from Gosport.

Sunday 19 January 2014

First Class Birding 14-16th January 2014

An American Coot, only the sixth for Great Britain had been discovered on Loch Flemington, some nine miles northeast of Inverness. This was just too good an opportunity to miss as not only was it a great bird to see but it was right on my ancestral doorstep.

I considered the Black Audi but she had done two recent trips to Holland to see the Hawk and Pygmy Owls respectively and was also in need of a service which could be done while I was away in Scotland. As the coot was only nine miles from Inverness I looked at trains. Consultation of the East Coast train timetable told me that with luck I could do it all in three days by utilising the train. Not only that but there was a First Class option which combined with my Senior Railcard made the fare extremely attractive. An hour with the wonder of the Internet had me booked on the midday 'Highland Chieftain' from Kings Cross on Tuesday 14th January arriving in Inverness at eight in the evening, booked for two nights into the nearby Glen Mhor Hotel by the River Ness, a hire car booked to be delivered to the hotel at eight fifteen on the morning of Wednesday 15th and then back on the early morning train from Inverness on Thursday 16th arriving at Kings Cross at four in the afternoon. I even printed my own tickets.

With suitcase duly packed I headed for London on the train from Kingham. There was a slight niggle at the back of my mind. What was  it? I dismissed it and settled back for the hour or so journey. Just after Oxford it came to me. I had forgotten my tripod! Frustration and futile rage at my own stupidity consumed me but my forgetfulness was beyond redemption. A period of further quiet contemplation on the train and I regained my equanimity. The coot from memory had apparently been showing really well so maybe a tripod and scope would not be required or I could use the scope from the car by resting it on the open window of the car. Also I was going back to my ancestral home. I could not forget this fact as for me it was almost as exciting  .

Kings Cross Station
So I duly arrived at Kings Cross station and made my way to the First Class Lounge where I sat back and enjoyed free tea and biscuits in the quiet and tranquillity of the lounge. The clock slowly came round to departure time so I made my way to the train. It was not quite Harry Potter's Platform nine and three quarters but Platform One would suffice, and felt just as magical as I boarded the train and was soon ensconced in the luxury of a first class carriage, and being offered yet more tea. A hot meal or sandwiches plus drinks both alcoholic and soft were also available free of charge throughout the journey, but I restrained myself admirably, refusing all blandishments from the crew and restricting myself to just Green Tea and a couple of sandwiches.

The train slid quietly, almost imperceptibly out of the station and I was on my way North. The adventure had begun. The same almost intoxicating excitement and childish glee gripped me now just as it had  all those many years ago when my mother took us as a family, north on the train for the summer holidays at my grandparents home in Ross and Cromarty. Memories long since buried under the stuff of life's passing years came back to the fore and I entered an almost zen like state watching the initially flat countryside moving past the train windows at speeds unheard of all those years ago. To some people eight hours on a train is purgatory but to me it is sheer joy as I indulge in the heady mix of tactile experiences brought about by my presence on the train combining with the subsequent resurrection of long lost happy childhood memories, returning like  forgotten old friends to take me pleasantly by surprise.

I slept, I read, I fiddled with my i-phone and I just relaxed. By the time we reached Edinburgh it was dark and then the train became more homely, the lights and comfort of the carriage reassuring as the vast empty wastes of the Highlands of Scotland, although unseen outside in the night, became more and more a part of my consciousness. Isolated stations came and went. Pitlochry, Kingussie  and Aviemore. The latter lightly covered in snow. Finally at eight in the evening we arrived in a wet and dark Inverness and a short taxi ride took me to the Glen Mhor Hotel.

Although seemingly unprepossessing when viewed on the Internet I was pleasantly surprised by the hotel and the attentiveness of the staff and decided to have a meal in their restaurant. Scottish cuisine is not renowned for it's quality but believe me this meal was outstanding. Nothing deep fried here but first class cooking to an imaginative menu. The surrounding tables were exclusively populated by single men, all presumably on business but they imparted to it a forlorn air as they whiled away the boredom and dead time until bed by staring into space as they ate or constantly consulted their mobile phones. Not me though. I was birding and an American Coot hopefully awaited me in the morning, so with eager anticipation I retired to bed to read yet another crime fiction novel on my Kindle before falling fast asleep.

Wednesday and my hire car was delivered on the dot at eight fifteen as arranged and the ensuing formalities were dispensed with quickly. It was still dark and indeed it did not get properly light until well after nine. The grey rain clouds did not help matters and a light rain was falling as I made my tentative way into the rush hour traffic of Inverness. The main road out of Inverness in the direction I wanted to go was closed due to roadworks and I had to make a diversion, crossing the River Ness that runs through the town and then re-crossing back onto the right side of the river further down. 

Inverness at dusk with the River Ness running through it and the illuminated
bridge over the River Ness. The hills of Ross and Cromarty in the background
I had no proper map but knew I needed to follow the road signposted for Aberdeen. This I managed without too much angst and soon left the chaos of the wet morning rush hour traffic behind as I reached the periphery of Inverness. The road ahead was now virtually empty passing through open countryside and all I had to do was drive east for some nine miles before I came to the minor road on my right leading to Loch Flemington and hopefully the American Coot.

I turned right at the designated turning and then shortly after came to a sign at the entrance to a single track road on my left pointing to Loch Flemington. I turned onto the road and after a quarter of a mile the shallow loch appeared on my right. I drove on looking for the 'layby with the white stones' which is where postings on RBA (Rare Bird Alert) indicated one should park, both to see the coot but just as importantly to maintain harmonious relations with the local residents by not blocking the narrow road. Another quarter of a mile and I came to the layby, on my right opposite a bungalow. 

Loch Flemington
'The Layby'
The view from the layby adjacent to Loch Flemington with the grassy bank
and floating vegetation favoured by the American Coot. When alarmed the
coot would swim and hide underneath the overhanging bushes on the left
I parked by a small grassed area bordering the loch. I was completely alone. It was still raining so I remained in the car and wound down the window to view the loch only some six metres away from the car. All I could initially see was half a dozen Moorhens feeding at the edge of the loch and on the floating mass of vegetation extending for some metres out into the shallow loch, with ten or so Mute Swans further out on the water. I looked closer and there was the American Coot feeding on the floating vegetation, in amongst the scattered Moorhens.

It really was as easy as that. Once I had turned the car engine off the Moorhens approached the bank and promptly marched up onto the grass and commenced feeding. 

The American Coot to my utter delight followed suit and was soon also feeding by plucking at the grass and, even better was, at most only some four to six metres from the car. You really could not ask for more. My anxieties about the missing tripod were now totally allayed. So long as the car engine was turned off the coot was relaxed but if I turned the engine on to slightly move my position it would rapidly return to the loch's edge, sometimes remaining there before hesitantly venturing back onto the grass but at other times retreating some way off into the floating vegetation or even out of sight under some overhanging bushes at the left hand side of the grassed area. It would repeat the same procedure every time  a car came along the road but eventually always returned to feed on the grass. 

I noted the differences from our familiar Common Coot. It was slightly smaller, much less aggressive and would feed quite happily in close proximity to the Moorhens and almost seemed to prefer to be close to them. 

Its plumage was overall dark grey with a blue tinge in some lights but the head and neck were black. The bill was pure white with no white frontal shield this being substituted with a reddish brown slightly swollen oval on it's forehead. There was an incomplete ring around the bill towards the tip which appeared to be grey but on looking at my photos was actually a similar reddish brown colour to the oval on its forehead. 

The undertail coverts were broadly edged white almost like a Moorhen and indeed when the coot and moorhens were facing away on the water one had to look hard to discern which was the coot, so similar looking were they. 

Its feet, as with our Common Coot, were enormous, the toes palmate and almost ungainly. Its eyes were a dark wine red colour.

Naturally I wanted to take some photos but frustratingly the light was truly appalling although it had now thankfully stopped raining and there was absolutely no wind. It literally was perfectly still with the cloud base lifting slightly. My first efforts at photography were all blurred as the camera and lens were just not up to the conditions or maybe it was the operator!  Slowly as the morning progressed so the light got better and in the end I like to think I managed some decent images. Well I could hardly fail it was so close at times.

When plucking grass it would turn its head and bill sideways to pull the grass
I really enjoyed watching this transatlantic vagrant. For some reason it struck a chord with me.The subtleties of its plumage, its behaviour, the sheer pleasure in realising that my elaborate plans to see it, made way back in Kingham, had come to fruition successfully, all combining to give me a sense of personal satisfaction and well being. This was also happening with my being the sole person present so there was no disturbance and myself, the American Coot and the environment all blended as one. Communed if you like. Happy times. 

I watched the coot for around two hours until eleven, just enjoying the experience and then decided I would go six miles further east to Nairn where yesterday a King Eider had been reported on the sea off the western side of the town. I did not hold out much hope as I had only sketchy details of directions, namely that it was approximately half a mile west of Nairn harbour. I arrived on the western outskirts of Nairn and turned towards the sea before entering the town. I had no idea where to go but figured if I reached the sea I could get some approximate bearings and possibly judge how far west I was of the harbour. I turned down another winding road which looked promising and reached the sea, parking the car in a tiny car park in front of a wet and isolated promenade running above a sandy beach. I could see what looked like a harbour wall some way off to my right. It was about half a mile away. I looked out to sea. Nothing at first but there was quite a swell and occasionally dark shapes would rise on the swell before disappearing again. They were too distant for my binoculars to aid identification. With no tripod I had to improvise by resting the scope on some railings and this worked quite well. I scoped the rising and falling dark shapes. They were Herring Gulls which was a bit of a disappointment. I panned left to another group of 'shapes'. These were better.They were Common Eiders. Hmmm? Hopeful? 

There were only five, four apparent drakes and one female. I upped the zoom and looked harder and there bang in the centre of the scope, one of the drakes turned out to be a fabulous drake King Eider, swimming with the Common Eiders. What luck, although forgive me if I indulge in a little self congratulation at finding this beauty based on so little information. 

The tide was coming in and the ducks came a little closer but still were way too far out to take a picture. I watched the King Eider and then as often happens started to pick up other bird shapes out to sea. Some smaller brown blobs materialised and turned out to be Long tailed Ducks, all bar one were females or immatures, the exception was a lovely male. Chocolate brown and grey with his white head and breast gleaming against the cold sea. There were around twenty Long tailed Ducks, all in small groups which dived and surfaced in unison. Four female Common Scoter came into view as did several Red breasted Mergansers whilst a distant Red throated Diver headed east, low over the sea. Cormorants and Shags were fishing further out. The group of Common Eiders and their exotic cousin took off, flying past me going east. I even managed to take some photos although the ducks were still very distant. 

Drake King Eider leading two male Common Eider
Thrilled with my find I walked the half mile of beach towards the harbour looking for Snow Buntings but all I saw was a single Carrion Crow picking at something on the tideline, so I returned to the car and decided to go back for just one last look at the coot.

I drove back down the narrow approach road to Loch Flemington and noticed, sadly, a dead Mute Swan lying in a field under some power lines. Arriving at the layby I was disappointed to find there were now two cars parked in it and even worse some idiot sitting on the grass with a huge lens pointing out at the centre of the loch. One car still had it's headlights full on and various other people were wandering at the loch edge with telescopes and binoculars presumably looking for the coot which unsurprisngly had taken evasive action under the bushes and was nowhere to be seen.

Selfish peron with a huge lens
I debated whether to approach these people and politely suggest they would be better to return to their cars if they had any sense at all and wanted to get good views of the coot, not only for the benefit of themselves but for anyone else coming to see the coot but in the end decided they were not worth the effort. I doubted if they would thank me anyway or take my advice. So I left them to their inconsiderate ways and formed a plan to bird various random spots by turning onto side roads off the main road leading back to Inverness. Mid afternoon I planned to go and look up my ancestors in the graveyard at the tiny village of Urquhart which is situated on the Black Isle just north of Inverness

My first random venture was to turn off the main road to the right and onto a small road leading to a village called Ardersier and then go on to Fort George to see if the famous Bottle nosed Dolphins were around off Chanonry Point. As I turned off the main road a huge flock of Pink footed Geese flew overhead and then spiralled down like an inverted vortex into the fields to my left. I stopped the car and admired the sheer spectacle of so many geese There were in excess of two thousand. 

Part of the flock of Pink footed Geese
No sign of the dolphins but a few Great Northern Divers were scattered on the flat calm sea and Oystercatchers were busy probing the sodden grass by the roadside. I retreated back to the main road and a mile down the road another flock of again two thousand Pink footed Geese were feeding in a field right by the road.

My next venture off the main road was to go to Alturlie Point where up until about two days ago a Lesser Scaup had been reported. The tiny deserted road ran right down to and then along the seashore and here were many ducks just offshore but all, on examination, proved to be either Wigeon, Mallard or Teal. Two distant ducks, diving, got me going but on checking in the scope they proved to be Common Goldeneyes. Common Redshanks and Oystercatchers were roosting on the weed covered shore and a couple of Hooded Crows patrolled the rocks near the point. Interestingly at Nairn, just fifteen miles up the coast, there were only pure Carrion Crows around the shore. I did not see any hybrid crows so is this region a transition area from Carrion Crow to its northern sub species the Hooded Crow?

No matter, I was birding and thoroughly enjoying myself. A lifer in the form of an American Coot and good views of a King Eider, all in one morning, were more than enough. If I found anything else it would be a bonus.

Now with the time inexorably moving on and conscious that the short hours of daylight in the north of Scotland would terminate at around four in the afternoon I decided to head for home territory in Ross and Cromarty. Dingwall, a short drive north of Inverness and well known to me was currently hosting a Ring billed Gull which was frequenting either the boating lake or the roof of the adjacent Dingwall Academy. There were only Herring Gulls and Black headed Gulls on the boating lake and even a visit to the nearby Tesco's to purchase a loaf to feed the gulls failed to lure the Ring billed Gull. I demurred from going to the school to look for it on the roof. It would probably be alright but why ruin a perfect day by risking potential misinterpretation of my actions.

Birdwise I called it a day in Dingwall and made the pilgrimage I had  promised myself on the way north on the train. My surname is Urquhart. I am from the Clan Urquhart and on the Black Isle there is the tiny village of Urquhart. This is my spiritual home. In truth you can hardly call Urquhart a village, it is just a few houses, a farm and a graveyard.

The ancient graveyard in Urquhart is where many of my ancestors are buried. It is in a most beautiful situation overlooking the southern shore of the Cromarty Firth and looks across northwest to the currently snow covered mountains of Easter Ross. 

Urquhart graveyard
As I stood in the silence of the graveyard I remembered a sunny Sunday afternoon a very long time ago, when as a wee boy my grandmother took me on the tiny ferry boat from Invergordon, across the firth to this graveyard where she wandered around studying the inscriptions on the gravestones (a very Scottish trait) while I played on the beach, heedless of care or the wider world and my interest in birds and nature was unwittingly born. 

That was in the early years of my life and now here I was back in the same place but towards the other end of my life. The bitter sweet feelings of remembrance and communion made me feel very strange. Emotional, more so than usual. But why? The love I have for the Highlands and the joy of being here, albeit briefly, is tempered by the memories of those long gone and innocent halcyon days, the sadness that they are gone never to return and now here I stand amongst my ancestors bearing mute witness to my emotional turmoil. I like to think they understand but I doubt they would offer much sympathy. 

It was a hard life all those years ago and Scotsmen don't cry - or do they?

Friday 17 January 2014

Six go to Norfolk 10-12th January 2014

Friday 10th January

What better way to drive away the blues than go to the Norfolk coast with five Oxonbirder friends and have three days dawn to dusk (well almost) birding? Myself, Andy and Badger joined Terry in his car whilst Mark and Geoff conveniently took all the birding equipment, of which there seems to be so much these days, plus the food and drink  for self catering, in Geoff's white van. The journey as usual was fairly tedious, but we whiled away the time chatting whilst Terry coped admirably with the rush hour traffic at all points East.

Our first stop was to be Buckenham Marshes in the east of the county and where we planned to remain in the general area all day, and finish by watching the famous corvid roost at dusk. Around about nine am on a bright, cold and sunlit morning we parked in Buckenham Marshes car park, crossed the railway and set off down the track to view the vast area of marsh and grassland that comprises the reserve.

Buckenham Marshes with Cantley Beet Factory in the far distance
Wigeon were everywhere. Parties of them were feeding adjacent to the track and untroubled by our close proximity. The drakes were resplendent in their pastel shades of grey and pink, almost rotund with fluffed out feathers to insulate themselves against the cold.

They were the epitomy of contentment as they basked or fed in the sun. At this time of the year they are looking at their best and surely are one of the most beautiful ducks to be found in this country. Gone are the drab browns of eclipse plumage to be replaced by colours of subtle beauty and patterned complexity, gloriously harmonious as the colours merge into each other. The reserve rang with their evocative whistles as we progressed up the muddy track. Huge numbers of Wigeon were also on the River Yare which borders the reserve and two canooists put them to flight as they paddled downriver. The birds rose in a frenzy of whistling  and panicked rush of wings, and gaining height turned to fly over the cause of their anxiety.  

Smaller numbers of Teal floated, tiny and dainty in comparison to the Wigeon, on the water filled drains running across the marsh, moving across the water like clockwork toys, unexpectedly darting and changing direction on virtually their own axis.

Further out on the marsh a huge flock of Golden Plover, forever restless and fidgety, stood and then flew and then settled again, along with a similar large number of Lapwing. The reason for their nervousness was all too apparent when we located two Peregrines perched together on some gate posts far out on the marsh. A few Ruff, small headed and hump backed, were easily discernible as they constantly moved in their endless quest for food through the vigilant but motionless Golden Plover flock.

Male Ruff c Andy Last
There was today, sadly, no sign of the Buckenham specialities, the Taiga Bean Geese. They had been seen a couple of days prior but today we had to accept they were absent. Geese were present in the form of around 130 Greater White-fronted Geese plus a few Greylag and Canada Geese, the latter two appearing clumsy and coarsely raucous in comparison to their wilder cousins. Some twenty Barnacle Geese were also of dubious origin but good to see nevertheless.  In amongst the whitefronts was a lone Pink footed Goose and another two hundred flew over the reserve, calling to one another in that querulous squealing voice of theirs as they passed overhead.

We retraced our steps and made our way to Great Yarmouth where two Shore Larks were residing in the dunes north of the town, but not before diverting to nearby Acle to find two Common Cranes feeding in a stubble field by the road. We found the cranes but unfortunately they decided, as we got out of the cars, we were just that bit too close for comfort and they took to the air, running ponderously to take off before rising slowly and with huge grey wings slowly beating  moved further away to land in a more distant field.

Common Crane c Terry Sherlock
We pressed on to Great Yarmouth, a town rightly condemned in my opinion for it's tacky and dated seaside ghastliness. Luckily for us the shorelarks were north of the main town so we were spared the dubious pleasure of driving through Great Yarmouth. Out of season the dunes were virtually deserted although a number of decrepit looking coffee bars along the promenade, now closed for the winter, foretold of the hordes that will descend on the town in summer.

Shorelarks can be difficult to find at the best of times, scuttling as they are wont to do around, in and amongst the marram grass and sandy wastes of the dunes but we were lucky in that we espied some birders intently looking at the ground. Surely they had them in their sights and it duly turned out that they did. 

We spent almost two hours watching and taking photos of them. Relatively fearless, as they always seem to be, they fed together, moving in unison over the sand with little runs and if you had the patience to stand still they would come quite close. 

Shorelark sandbathing  c Terry Sherlock
One stopped for a sand bath, adopting strange convoluted shapes as it sought to immerse it's plumage with sand grains, presumably to get rid of feather mites or some other parasite. Then it was on with their incessant search for food, their constant movement a nightmare for a photographer.

Reluctantly we left them and returned to the cars, deciding to head for nearby Ludham before returning to Buckenham to view the corvid roost in the evening. Ludham allegedly is or was a small landing strip complete with wind sock but appeared to me to be just a vast area of flat green fields. Our interest was in the flock of a hundred or so wild swans sat or stood in the middle of it. Distant from the road their white forms stuck out like the proverbial thumb as we drove  along.

A track led off the road and would get us much nearer so we followed this, stopping at a discrete distance as all the swan's necks shot up, no doubt worried about our intentions. A tense minute passed as we got out of the vehicles but then they relaxed, as did we and we surveyed the flock. There were eighty five Bewick's and twenty two Whooper Swans with about twenty Egyptian Geese, all together in the field. We looked at and admired them for half an hour but frankly there is not much more you can get enthused about so we left them to make our return visit to Buckenham Marshes. 

The daylight was slowly fading into a desolate winter landscape of grey, brown and dull green as we arrived at Buckenham. A lone Goldcrest scuttled along a hedgerow on it's way to roost. Not a corvid was to be seen but I was confident from past experience that the spectacle would materialise and the others, none of whom had seen this amazing event would not feel let down. Slowly Rooks started to appear, mainly silent and settling in the topmost bare branches of the larger trees.

Jackdaws, in contrast, noisy, loud and conversational with their explosive calls, followed the Rooks and slowly the numbers of both built until there was a black stain of corvids, like spilt ink, motionless in the middle of the huge bare field adjacent to the road we were standing on. Yet other corvids in their hundreds perched side by side on the telephone wires crossing the field. A veritable Hitchcockian homage. Other birds constantly arrived, mixed flocks of Rooks and Jackdaws or just single species flocks, landing in the field or perching in the tops of the surrounding large oaks. They just kept coming, flock after flock after flock until almost dusk. The light was now no good for photos so I put the camera away and just stood, quietly watching. Then suddenly for no apparent reason they all took to the air, a spectacle of nature right up there with anything in the world. The noise was incredible as thousands of these most sociable of species, Rooks and Jackdaws, passed over us as we stood on the road in mute awe, and flew the short distance to the wood on the other side of the road where they roosted. Where had they all come from, how far away and what made them come here? Questions, questions but just for now we enjoyed this nightly winter wonder. The sky over the wood was a kaleidoscope of milling black shapes, constantly changing in eye straining patterns, fifty thousand birds with yet others coming from the opposite direction to join the roost. Fifteen minutes of seemingly winged bedlam and disorder and they had settled, albeit still in full voice, into the wood. 

It was over for another night.

Now it was a long drive to Burnham Deepdale on the north Norfolk Coast where we were booked into a hostel in a six bunk bedroom. Nice and cosy chaps! Geoff's van was loaded with all the food and drink we required for self catering and after we had checked in to the hostel it was duly carried to the kitchen where Terry was going to prepare a spaghetti extravaganza for us with even a vegetarian option. The rest of us assisted or probably hindered where we could or just set about making inroads into the red wine, beer or tequila, whatever was your fancy. 

The meal courtesy of Terry was terrific and his wife had even made a sponge cake. Delicious! Excellent!  Once finished we retired to the lounge, pulling up the comfortable sofas close to the wood burning stove, shutting out the night and as more and more alcohol was consumed so the volume of debate and friendly argument rose. The bottle of tequila diminished rapidly as did the red wine and then it was time for bed.

Saturday 11th January

The day dawned bright, icy from the overnight rain and cold with a biting northeastly airflow. I  had arranged to meet Hugh who is another birding friend, at Kelling Marsh. Badger had a tequila face and I was a bit woozy from the red wine but the fresh air soon sorted us out. We were late getting on the road but finally set off on icy but thankfully almost car free roads. The sky was pink and yellow as the sun rose and skeins of geese like scribbled writing drew long lined patterns across the bright sky as they headed inland to feed. A huge detour was required around Cley due to the fatal helicopter crash on the marshes the week before and this served to delay us yet further. Hugh sent a text advising me that he would see us there and was already birding the shingle ridges at Kelling. 

Finally making the small car park at Kelling we made good time getting down the muddy track to the seashore. The sole reason for visiting Kelling was to attempt to see the presumably wintering Richard's Pipit that was frequenting the landward side of the shingle ridge by the sea. A female Bullfinch piped it's melancholy note as we went down the track and flew to a garden tree. On getting to the shingle ridge the devastation from the huge tidal surge of a few weeks ago greeted us. Part of the boardwalk from Cley, five miles west, was washed up on the huge mounds of dead reeds and vegetation pushed in by the tidal surge and the contours of the landscape had drastically changed since last I was here. 

I could see a line of ten or so birders looking along to the wet grassy area running inside the shingle ridge. I also saw Hugh standing on his own on the grass and scoping further along this area and then waving to the crowd who seemed to ignore him. I passed the line of birders and headed straight for Hugh. The other birders followed me. 

"Morning Hugh, sorry we are late"."

"That's OK. I am looking at the Richard's Pipit. It took me ages to find it"


"It's feeding in that brown band of detritus running along the base of the shingle ridge"

I looked and there was the Richard's Pipit feeding unconcernedly and right out in the open. It's not often you see this grassland skulker so clearly. The best you can usually hope for is a calling flyover, or a head briefly raised above the grasses it prefers to hide in. This behaviour was truly exceptional and we savoured the extended views. It was always wary of us, so we kept a good distance from it but the scope views were good as it worked it's way down the strip before stopping to preen in the shelter of some overhanging grasses. Then it flew. We followed but it had gone some way and we only saw it briefly and distantly on a distant mound of vegetation, before it finally disappeared. A lifer for Andy,Terry, Geoff and Mark so a good start to the morning and well done to Hugh for locating it in the first place. A brief, very brief seawatch  due to the biting wind coming in off the sea, produced a number of Red throated Divers moving mainly East and the surprise of a distant Great Skua also moving East with the huge wind turbines far out to sea, shining white in the sunlight and forming a backdrop to its progress. 

Mark and Geoff now left us and headed off for Titchwell to take photos. Badger and Andy went with Terry whilst I joined Hugh in his car for our next  venture to Edgefield to try and locate a Glaucous Gull that was frequenting the local landfill. There is no public access to the landfill but the gulls after feeding loaf in nearby fields and by scoping the flock in their chosen field we hoped to locate the Glaucous Gull. Gulls were constantly coming and going in the field but there was no sign of the Glaucous Gull. We gave it an hour but we were out of luck.

We heard later the gull showed up about thirty minutes after we left. That's birding.

Winter days are short on daylight, so having decided to cut our losses at Edgefield we set off for Titchwell making a brief stop at Burnham Overy on the way to try and find a Black Brant which would be a lifer for Terry and Andy. Parking beside the road we scanned the huge panoramic area that is Burnham Overy marshes. Geese and ducks were everywhere, mainly Pinkfeet and Wigeon but including some Dark bellied Brent Geese. A Marsh Harrier put up all the ducks and a Sparrowhawk flew down a distant hedgeline. I scanned the brent geese and thought I saw our target through a gap in the hedgeline but I was wrong. I tried again and bingo, this time I found the Black Brant as it wandered past a gap in the distant hedgeline. Andy saw it briefly but sadly Terry did not before it disappeared behind the bushes. Hugh and myself set off for Titchwell determined to get there and get out to the beach and do some seawatching before the light went. The others remained to see if the Black Brant would come back into view but said they would follow soon after.

Titchwell on a Saturday afternoon was, as expected, heaving with birders of all shapes, sizes and competence as we made our way out towards the beach and the sea. The wind was now very cold and blowing hard so we sought shelter in what was left of the dunes, noting the trashed boardwalk and various other damage caused by the tidal surge. Virtually the first birds we set our eyes on were a nice flock of seven Velvet Scoters, a mixture of immatures and females riding the waves not very far offshore, the white in their wings prominent, with a male Common Goldeneye tagging along with them. 

Velvet Scoter c Andy Last
A few Red throated Divers passed offshore but there was little else to get excited about. Hugh spoke to a young guy who had just come along the beach from the west and he told us that there were three Snow Buntings a long way off, back along the beach. We shrugged off the daunting prospect of a tiring walk along the now deserted beach and set off in the direction he had indicated. The dunes had taken a real hammering courtesy of the extremes of wind and wave and the sand was littered with millions of razor clam shells crunching like egg shells beneath our feet as we walked west. On and on we went, Hugh storming ahead while I went into old lag mode and tarried a bit. Just as well, as with Hugh some hundred yards ahead I flushed a small bird from virtually under my feet in the wreck and tangle of weed and shells. It was a Snow Bunting. I called Hugh with no response as the wind was obviously in his ears. I yelled at the top of my voice, once, twice, thrice until he heard and came back to join me. The bunting had by now disappeared in amongst the tangle of weed on the beach but we soon relocated it together with another and then another. This must be the three the young birder had mentioned. Two were females but the other was much whiter overall and presumably was a male. We watched them for an hour or so, being joined by other birders who came along the beach unsuspecting of the treat in store for them. The Snow Buntings fed on tiny seeds they found in the mass of weed and vegetation, their golden yellow bills dexterously cracking open the seeds as they shuffled along. We looked to our right and found two more quietly going about their business. So now there were five Snow Buntings.

The sea rolling onto the sand sang it's timeless surf melody as the winter sun dropped lower to the horizon. The tide was ebbing and as the wet sand was exposed so came hordes of waders big and small to take advantage of the feeding opportunity.Grey Plover, Knot, Sanderling, Ringed Plover, Bar tailed Godwit and Oystercatcher all scattered over the sand, their calls carried away on the wind. Out to sea a huge and distant flock of in excess of two thousand Common Scoter wheeled  above the waves in the sunlight before the ducks crashed breast first back down onto the sea. We had alerted Andy and Badger to the Snow Buntings but as they had not shown up we assumed they had baulked at the long trudge across the sand so we made our own way back and spent what little remained of the rest of the afternoon looking at the birds on the scrapes. Waders were everywhere, Black tailed Godwit, Ruff, Golden Plover, Lapwing, Avocet, Common Redshank and a Spotted Redshank, Common Greenshank, Turnstone, Common Snipe and Dunlin all shared the scrapes. We lingered near to the Visitor  Centre boardwalk  to see if a Barn Owl would come to cap the day but it was not to be. Instead we were rewarded with a Marsh Harrier and best of all a ring tail Hen Harrier came to patrol the reeds almost in front of us. The setting sun infused a golden glow to the dead reeds and as the Hen Harrier passed over you could see the harrier's bulging crop, a distinct bump in it's profile,  as it turned side on against the sun. We made our way back to the hostel and joined the others in the kitchen.The wine and beer was already flowing and Andy produced a bottle of Polish vodka from an ex girlfriend.

Another exceptional meal of curry then followed courtesy of Geoff and his wife who does the catering at one of the Oxford Colleges. She had given Geoff all sorts of goodies and all we had to do was cook the rice. This time, on retiring there was no animated discussion as we all settled down instead to a Paul Docherty DVD about birds in various countries. A couple more glasses of the red infuriator and some vodka finished me and I retired to bed to be followed shortly after by the others.

Sunday 12th January

Our last day and the weather was much as yesterday. Bright and cold, still with  a biting wind from the northeast. We set off on a long drive back to the east of the county as our target was two Rough legged Buzzards on Haddiscoe Marshes. A Barn Owl, perched low down in a roadside tree got the day off to a good start and we amused ourselves by arguing about lists both county and national. It was pretty juvenile stuff but who wants an intellectual debate on an early Sunday morning? We arrived at the vast area of Haddiscoe Marshes with frankly not much idea of where to start. 

Haddiscoe Marshes c Andy Last
The fields were white with frost, the churned earth of the rutted tracks frozen solid with ice puddles and the sun shone through a blue haze of still, cold air. We stopped first in a layby on the road and found distant Chinese Water Deer in the reedy ditches and Common Buzzards perched on the electricity wires. A Marsh Harrier and a Barn Owl floated along the far side of the marshes. All was quiet and still in the frosty air. No sign however of any Rough legged Buzzards.

We had a second option which was to go to the traditional viewing point in nearby Waveney Forest, which is no more than a mound at the edge of the wood but giving a panoramic view over the marshes. A text came from Hugh telling me that there were now two Parrot Crossbills, a male and a female in the forest with a flock of Common Crossbills. They had just been reported that very moment. This was tempting as Parrot Crossbills are my kind of bird but first we had to see the Rough legged Buzzards, yet another lifer for Geoff and Mark. We made our way down the forest tracks to the viewing area. There were some other birders already there and one young local birder directed us immediately to the two Rough legged Buzzards, perched miles out on some wooden fence posts. You could just about see the dark brown plumage and pale heads but according to the local birder this was about as close as they ever came. I asked him about the Parrot Crossbills and he said it was him that had reported them earlier. He gave me directions and told me the location where he had last seen them which was not very far away, but  cautioned that the birds themselves were elusive in the mainly conifer forest. I set off immediately and Geoff and Mark joined me. We headed in the general direction we had been given and came to a track with some twenty or so birders looking intently at a line of conifers. They had to be looking at crossbills and I was pretty sure this flock would contain the Parrot Crossbills. After what seemed an age we joined them and I set up my scope on the tree in question. My first view was of a Common Crossbill, as was my second and my third and so on. Very frustrating.

Male Common Crossbill c Terry Sherlock
Someone in the crowd claimed to have found the Parrot Crossbill and following their general directions I finally focused on a definite female Parrot Crossbill. Bull headed and bull beaked. There was no doubt about it.

Female Parrot Crossbill c Mark Chivers
It's bill was huge, no mistaking this brutish bird for anything else and she remained out on an exposed twig for some minutes giving one and all excellent views. Geoff and Mark looked through my scope as this was a lifer for them. There then ensued frustration and elation in equal measure as the female Parrot Crossbill would at one moment be in plain view and then the next disappear behind clumps of pine needles and cones but in the end we all had excellent views and she was even joined by the male for a minute or so. I called Badger and told him to get up here fast. Mark went to wave to show him where we were and flushed a Woodcock! Badger and the others joined us and they too got great views of the Parrot Crossbill. It remained like this for half an hour or so until the entire flock, comprising around twenty birds, calling loudly, left the tree and moved fifty metres down the track to another conifer, perching prominently at the top and then descending in small groups to a partly frozen puddle to drink. The female Parrot Crossbill sat a few inches from a Common Crossbill in a conifer tree and in profile she looked huge and bulky compared to her more demure cousin.

Parrot Crossbill on the left and Common Crossbill on the right c Andy Last
The crossbills flew down, a few birds at a time, to drink from the puddle which was no more than a few metres from us and the male Parrot Crossbill landed on the ice right in front of us but almost instantly took off again. I noted how with their crossed mandibles they had to drink holding their bills laterally to the water. Another burst of calling and the flock flew back to their original tree to resume feeding. 

It was time to go to our final destination. Stubb Mill near Hickling Broad for the Marsh Harrier roost.

We arrived about ninety minutes before dusk and walked the mile down to the viewing point along a waterlogged and icy lane. The viewing point, which is a raised bank is now no longer just a pile of mud but gentrified with hardcore and two benches.Whatever next! Andy almost immediately found three Common Cranes feeding off to our right, their heads appearing sporadically, periscopic like above the reeds. A Marsh Harrier did a close pass with others floating around in the distance. The wind was achingly cold and my feet started to go numb. More and more Marsh Harriers started to arrive until they were present in double figures, some perched and others flying slowly above the reeds. A Sparrowhawk flew fast and low above the reeds and pitched into a hawthorn bush. I could not feel my feet anymore. The wind seemed to get stronger and even colder as the sun disappeared. Marsh Harriers appeared from all directions, immatures, females, including an old female with a huge amount of cream on her brown head and forewings, like splashed paint, and males beautifully patterned in grey, brown and cream. There must have been in the region of thirty to forty Marsh Harriers floating around pre-roost. The light was fading fast now but three more Common Cranes came flying from Horsey, crossing the reeds in line, their outstretched necks and extended legs making them even more outlandish looking as their broad wings flapped slowly in between stately glides. They landed far out of sight to our right but we could hear their bugling calls echoing around the dank, increasingly dark and stilled marshland right up until we left. A final flourish as two separate ringtail Hen Harriers came into roost, hardly visible against the dark bushes way off to our left, to be followed by a ghostly grey male sinking ever earthwards to his roost behind the hawthorn bushes over towards Horsey. Then all was quiet apart from the distant cries of the cranes.

Birds seen

Common Buzzard/ Rough legged Buzzard/ Common Kestrel/ Eurasian Sparrowhawk/ Peregrine Falcon/ Marsh Harrier/ Hen Harrier/ Barn Owl/ Tawny Owl (heard only)/ Carrion Crow/ Rook/ Jackdaw/ Magpie/ Jay/ Great Crested Grebe/ Little Grebe/ Common Moorhen/ Common Coot/ Water Rail/ Whooper Swan/ Bewick's Swan/ Mute Swan/ Pink footed Goose/ Greater White-fronted Goose/ Black Brant/ Dark bellied Brent Goose/ Greylag Goose/ Canada Goose/ Barnacle Goose/ Egyptian Goose/ Common Shelduck/ Eurasian Wigeon/ Gadwall/ Mallard/ Northern Pintail/ Common Teal/ Northern Shoveler/ Common Scoter/ Velvet Scoter/ Common Goldeneye/ Tufted Duck/ Common Pochard/ Red breasted Merganser/ Great Black backed Gull/ Lesser Black backed Gull/ Herring Gull/ Yellow legged Gull/ Common Gull/ Black headed Gull/ Great Skua/ Fulmar Petrel/ Razorbill/ Guillemot/ Great Cormorant/ Red throated Diver/ Common Crane/ Little Egret/ Grey Heron/ Eurasian Curlew/ Oystercatcher/ Avocet/ Black tailed Godwit/ Bar tailed Godwit/ Lapwing/ Golden Plover/ Grey Plover/ Common Redshank/ Spotted Redshank/ Ruff/ Common Greenshank/ Woodcock/ Common Snipe/ Knot/ Turnstone/ Ringed Plover/ Sanderling/ Dunlin/ Common Pheasant/ Grey Partridge/ Red legged Partridge/ Woodpigeon/ European Nuthatch/ Tree Creeper/ Common  Starling/ Shorelark/ Eurasian Skylark/ Richard's Pipit/ Meadow Pipit/ Mistle Thrush/ Blackbird/ Fieldfare/ Redwing/ European Stonechat/ Robin/ Dunnock/ House Sparrow/ / Common Crossbill/ Parrot Crossbill/ Chaffinch/ Common Bullfinch/ Goldfinch/ Greenfinch/ Linnet/ Cetti's Warbler (heard only)/ Bearded Tit/ Great Tit/ Blue Tit/ Coal Tit/ Long tailed Tit/ Reed Bunting/ Snow Bunting/ Yellowhammer/ Wren/ Goldcrest [115]