Thursday 12 June 2014

Spectacular Norfolk 7th June 2014

Arriving back from Scotland on Saturday I had little time to get my act together before making a middle of the night departure for Norfolk to catch up with the Spectacled Warbler that was making its home in the dunes near to Burnham Overy Staithe. I barely had two hours sleep before slipping quietly out of the house at just after midnight determined to get to Burnham by first light.

Three hours later I drew up in a tiny car park by the A149  North Norfolk coast road. Opposite was the entrance to the track that wound out across the saltmarshes for a couple of miles to the dunes by Gun Hill, the Spectacled Warbler's current home. At 3am it was already getting light but not enough to set off on the thirty minute walk to the dunes. I slept for forty five minutes and awoke to find the sky now glowing a soft peach above the distant dark outline of the dunes. A Blackbird was already singing and shortly afterwards a Common Whitethroat issued his cheery warble. Another car arrived with a couple of birders who set off immediately for the dunes.

There was really no need to hurry. Although daylight was rapidly approaching the light was still subdued. I calculated that the half hour walk would get me to the dunes by 4.30 at which time the light would be much better. I set off down the track, initially winding through hedgerows. Now all the birds were awake and very vocal, with many Skylarks already in the sky proclaiming their existence from on high. The sky in the east, over the still distant dunes, was now a deeper flame orange as the sun slowly rose. It was going to be a good day weather wise.

Leaving the hedgerows behind  I went up some steps and the track now traced its way along  an elevated bund with tidal marshes on one side  and marshy fields on the other. A cacophony of Sedge and Reed Warbler song came from both sides. Harsh in tone, you could hardly call their songs tuneful but they were extraordinarily loud in the stillness of early morning. I walked onwards coming to the boardwalk running up into the dunes. I was close now and I could see the two other birders walking west along the dunes.

In turn I followed them into the dunes some minutes later and could now hear the Spectacled Warbler singing. A thin warble similar in some respects to a Common Whitethroat but less throaty and weaker. I joined the two birders who were intent on photos, showing me some impressive lenses and cameras. We were now stood some metres in front of a large Wild Privet bush. The warbler was singing in the bush but invisible, seeming to be more to the other side of the bush. Giving the bush a wide berth I skirted round to the other side but still could not see the warbler. Frustratingly it sang on. Then it was suddenly visible popping out from cover and singing from an exposed perch before slipping back into the dense cover of the privet.

Spectacled Warbler singing from Wild Privet
My first priority was to see it which I ahd now accomplished but I also wanted to take some photos. The light was still too dull for that so I rejoined the other two and we stood and waited for the light to improve and the warbler to show itself again. We were entirely alone, presumably because most people had seen it in the previous week. Slowly the sun rose and now the warbler became more mobile moving from its song perch on one bush to a song perch on another. It became apparent it had two favourite bushes one each end of a swathe of low growing Salicornia below the dunes on which we were stood. I watched it constantly singing  and now seemingly emboldened it would perch prominently in the open. On a couple of occasions it danced up into the air as if in an ecstacy of emotion as it poured out  its song.

An 'ecstatic' Spectacled Warbler
It looked superficially similar to a Common Whitethroat but was smaller, slimmer and generally more petite. Its head was a shade darker grey with distinct black feathering around the bill and front of the eye. The white eye ring, hence the name 'spectacle', was incomplete but prominently white over the eye. Its wings were chestnut brown all over and the brownish pink breast contrasted with its pure white chin and throat as it sang in the morning sunshine. 

Now more people had joined us on the dunes and I could see a steady line of birders making the long walk out to the dunes

The warbler never remained for long in one spot, moving on after a bout of singing and now keeping more to the Salicornia, where although often invisible, it could be tracked by its constant singing. After a while it became apparent it was building a nest in a low patch of Salicornia, bringing thin pieces of straw and once a piece of sheep's wool, diving into the depths of its chosen bush, then re-emerging to give another burst of song before flying off to retrieve more nest material. At times it seemed to have conflicting priorities when trying to sing whilst holding nest material in its beak. The song always seemed to take priority and the nest material was discarded almost as an afterthought as it burst into song.

With sheep's wool nest material which it eventually dropped in favour of singing
I changed my position, moving fifty metres east and dropped down off the dune and stood by the Salicornia. Virtually everyone else remained on the top of the dunes looking down into the Salicornia.

I looked up. A harrier was flying towards me from the sea side of the dunes, coming in fairly high above the other birders. They did not notice it. I looked at it closely. It was definitely not a Marsh Harrier as it was small, slim and elegant. It was pale brown in the early morning sunlight. What was it? It must be a Montagu's Harrier. It banked and there was the white rump. A female Montys! I attracted everyone's  attention pointing to the Monty's passing over their heads. The harrier flew onwards and inland, gradually rising higher in the sky

So the morning wore on with the warbler singing, zipping through the Salicornia and continuing its nest building.

I had watched the warbler for two hours now and noted every so often it favoured one particular thorn bush half way up the dunes where it would sing from and which would be ideal for a photo as the sun would be behind me. My two photographer friends were of like mind and our patient positioning by this bush  bore fruit as the warbler gave us a couple of opportunities to get close up pictures of it singing.We were left alone as everyone else was concentrating on the other areas where the warbler was to be seen more frequently but every so often it would come to this particular bush and perch out in the open to sing for a minute or so. On arrival at the bush it would dive into the centre as if not too sure about its security but then slowly wend its way upwards to emerge onto the topmost bare twig and commence to announce its presence by singing loudly before diving down into the Salicornia below the dunes. 

By now there were a lot of people present and I could see a still steady procession of people coming out on the elevated track to see the warbler but everyone behaved themselves and did not get too close, although the warbler seemed quite oblivious to its many admirers. The sun was now warm but it was still only nine in the morning. I had been here five hours! It seemed to go very fast but why wouldn't it with a very rare bird such as this to look at? Only the eighth ever to be recorded in Britain and never before has one stayed this long.

Salicornia - home to the Spectacled Warbler with the dune ridge on the right
The Salicornia  bush (front centre) in which the Spectacled Warbler built a nest
Birders admiring the warbler. Don't think standing on the skyline helped though!
Tired but happy I finally gave it up and walked back to the car park passing a singing Sedge Warbler and later, two dapper Little Terns resting on a mudbank. Common Redshanks called constantly in alarm, living up to their old country name of 'warden of the marshes' whilst pairs of Shelduck flew over at regular intervals heading inland

The tiny  car park was now crammed with cars as was the narrow lane next to it. I vacated my space which was occupied immediately by another anxious group of birders. It was now a beautiful day and I headed west to Titchwell RSPB to do some general birding and just to relax.

A reviving cold drink from the cafe and then, following the main track out onto the reserve, I came to the Freshmarsh which was alive with birds. Two Spoonbill were, as ever, asleep at the back of the marsh and Avocets were everywhere. A large mixed flock of Black tailed and Bar tailed Godwits were resting in the middle and on closer inspection hid a Ruff and a few Knot. A Greenshank, almost silver in the harsh bright sunlight waded by some distant reeds and a Marsh Harrier flew over. 

Just standing minding my own business, enjoying the day and at that moment finding a Little Gull, it happened. A birder sidled up to me and asked if I had anything good in my scope. I told him about the Little Gull. 'Oh yes' he said, 'I saw it earlier. First summer bird'. We have all met this sort before. They are not remotely interested in what you have seen but want to tell you everything they have seen. By asking you what you have seen this gives them the opportunity they are seeking to engage you in a one sided conversation. Theirs. Any bird you mention they will have already seen it or something better. Its really annoying as it ruins the excitement of finding your own birds and generally just birding quietly to oneself.  To me its almost an invasion of one's privacy, like invading one's personal space. He was still reeling off everything on the reserve when I walked off. I did not look back.

Now where? Well first to Cley to get a reviving pasty, a coffee and walnut slice from the amazing but expensive delicatessen there. Cley is so very upmarket these days. Then onto Cley Spy at nearby Glanfield to get a new tripod strap. It's some time since I have been here and its variety of stock seems a lot less comprehensive than in former times which was a little disappointing.  

During the day I had, at the back of my mind, formulated a vague plan to try and see Swallowtail butterflies as it was a sunny day in June, I was in Norfolk with the whole afternoon before me and now would be the ideal time to do it. I asked the assistant at Cley Spy where was the best place to see Swallowtail butterflies and he suggested Hickling NWT near Norwich. I entered the details in the Satnav and forty minutes later was traversing the sunlit, narrow lanes leading to the well hidden reserve car park. I had no idea where to go from here so just followed the signposted trails out towards Hickling Broad. I had no conception of how extensive this lovely reserve was, containing as it did huge reed beds and with obviously new boardwalks and trails made through the reed beds.

Hickling NWT reed beds where I saw the Swallowtails
There were also a few scrapes for wading birds and a couple of hides overlooking them as well. I found Avocets and Lapwings breeding on the scrapes and another Marsh Harrier flew over my head harassed by a Common Tern. Huge numbers of dragonflies, mainly Black tailed Skimmers and Broad bodied Chasers were on the wing and a few unidentified hawkers and damselflies were also patrolling the many ditches and areas of water but I was here for one thing really, Swallowtails.

At first I found nothing but undeterred wandered onwards towards the Broad. Turning on the path by the Broad I came to an area of reeds on my right. A flicker of movement, almost imperceptible but then it was gone. The flicker returned and flew fast and low with fluttering wing beats and short powerful glides over the top of the reeds. My first ever British Swallowtail! 

A unique sub species of its continental cousins and found nowhere else but in Norfolk. Big, bold and looking more yellow than I assumed and surprisingly fast in flight, it was hard to follow  amongst the similar coloured swaying reed tops. I moved  further on and found another area with a loop of boardwalk specially cut into the reeds. Here I remained for a good hour and a half as many Swallowtails, always singly,  came flying across the reeds, some stopping to feed on the scattered Yellow Iris and an unidentified pink flower growing in the reeds. It was difficult to get a good photo as the butterflies were always obscured by the swaying grasses and reeds but somehow it did not matter. It was such a pleasure to see them. Another long time desire fulfilled and a quite magical time with the wind caressing the reeds whose leaves, brittle and hard, rubbed against each other creating a soothing susurrus of sighs and sounds, infinitely restful, and all the time a regular procession of Swallowtails flew from all points to briefly feed on the iris before hurrying onwards to distant  and inaccessible parts of the reed beds

Such a delightful afternoon interlude, restful and uplifting after the tensions of my early morning tryst with the Spectacled Warbler

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