Monday 22 September 2014

Barred in Norfolk 20th September 2014

The week leading up to Saturday 20th had been dominated by north easterly winds with the consequence that many scarcer migrants had been drifted across the North Sea to make landfall on the east coast of Britain, as well as further inland. We even had two Wryneck's in Oxfordshire! Yellow browed Warblers, Barred Warblers, Red breasted Flycatchers amongst others had arrived in unprecedented numbers and Norfolk was certainly getting its fair share of these.

So it was that on a gloomy Friday I called my good pal Clackers and suggested a sortie to Norfolk on Saturday with a view to seeing the aforementioned species. After re-assuring Keith we would not be making the eight mile yomp out and back to Blakeney Point for the Pallid Harrier, he said he would like to join me, especially, as there was the not inconsiderable incentive of an Olive backed Pipit that had been residing in Wells Woods for the past two days. This was a species both of us had never seen in Britain and this provided a golden opportunity to add a much wanted tick to our British birdlists.

With such a wealth of good birds scattered in various localities along the North Norfolk coast we were in a slight quandary as to what and where to go first. Olive backed Pipit was definitely the priority but we did not want to waste valuable time looking for this elusive bird and maybe run out of time to see the rest so we decided to drive to Wells and if there was no news about the pipit on the pager when we got there, then we would go on to Gramborough Hill near Salthouse where a juvenile Barred Warbler and two Yellow browed Warblers were currently viewable.

The long early hours drive eastwards from a grey and misty Oxfordshire into similar conditions in Norfolk brought us, at around 8.30am, to a relatively empty Wells Woods car park. There was still no news about the pipit and very few birders seemed to be about, just the usual dog walkers and what appeared to be a major charity fun run about to swing into full action.

 'What do you reckon Clackers?'  

'Up to you old boy'.

 'OK. Let's go to Gramborough and get the warblers.'  

We set off for Gramborough Hill, misleadingly named 'hill' as it is no more than the highest point in the dunes by the sea, opposite Salthouse. We drove up the approach road to the car park but at the end were met by a huge wall of shingle. The well known car park had been completely obliterated by the huge storm and tidal surge of last winter that did such damage along the Norfolk coastline. It was gone forever. We parked the car by the road and headed off across the shingle and into the dunes making our way to the nearby Gramborough Hill. It was a relief to leave the car and to realise we were birding at last.

Two Northern Wheatears bounced from fence post to fence post before us and then we came to the large bramble patch at the base of the hill which has hosted so many good birds over the years. I saw my one and only Blyth's Reed Warbler here some years ago. A couple of birders were already there but Keith was pessimistic about the situation as they appeared to not be looking at anything. 

'Anything about lads?'

'Yes, the Barred Warbler has been showing really well just a few minutes ago.

We stood and waited expectantly but after fifteen minutes there was not a sign of anything. A Merlin flew over and was gone in a flash of brown barred wings and a scattering of alarmed Meadow Pipits.

Fifty or so metres beyond the brambles is a small clump of stunted trees and bushes that is the only other bit of cover on the so called hill. 

'You hang on here Keith and I will go over there and check that patch out for the Yellow browed Warbler. Let me know if the Barred Warbler shows up.'

'No problem'.  

I wandered over and scanned the bushes and stunted trees and a slight movement betrayed a small warbler. It could have been anything but frustratingly it was gone into the depths of the foliage. Then another larger warbler appeared but it was a female Blackcap and then another one appeared. This is the fascination of looking at this type of cover at this time of year, you just do not know what is in there and what may pop out. I stood for a while longer and then on the edge of the trees a large, greyish non descript warbler hopped out into an Elder and clumsily started plucking at the elderberries. It was the Barred Warbler! 

I called Keith over and we both watched this large, chunky and charismatic warbler flouncing about in the still green elder leaves. Soon it flew back to the  original bramble clump. I wanted some photos so Keith stayed to try and see the Yellow browed Warbler whilst I returned to the bramble clump.

After just a few minutes the Barred Warbler ascended from the brambles and was sitting out in some dead twigs apparently drying out its feathers. 

It then dropped down into the brambles and started munching on the berries. Large and almost featureless apart from some barring on its undertail coverts, it had none of the agility or grace of its smaller cousins and with heavy movements would hang on the bramble stems ponderously balancing, even occasionally overbalancing, whilst snatching at the fruit. To me they almost look like a small shrike but I just love them. Why I cannot tell you. Perhaps its their size- you get a lot of warbler with this species. Perhaps its their appealing nature and slow deliberate, considered movements. Perhaps its their comparative rarity in this country. Who knows? Just enjoy the moment which is what we did. 

Finally it disappeared into the depths of the brambles. Keith returned telling me about the superb views he had of the Yellow browed Warbler. A lady nearby sauntered over. 

'Excuse me. You look like you know what you are doing?' 

'Well some of the time.' 

'Can you tell me was that the Barred Warbler we were looking at?'  

'It was.' I confirmed, and she smiled and said to her husband 'There, I told you so'. 

It's little encounters like this that add to the day.

The fact that Keith was so effusive about the Yellow browed Warbler and all its feathered magnificence was too much for me so I set off to see for myself, telling Keith the Barred Warbler had really been putting on a good show too. I stood for a very long time and saw absolutely nothing not even a Blackcap. The Merlin did another high speed flyover and then headed out over the dunes and the sea. I could see Keith getting up close and personal with the Barred Warbler and a dilemna set in as to whether I should go back and see more of the Barred Warbler or wait it out for the Yellow browed. I stuck it out, moving my position to the top of the dunes so I was now looking down on the tops of the stunted trees and bushes. Keith joined me, now exulting in the great views he had of the Barred Warbler! Ten minutes passed and there, suddenly in the top of one of the trees was the Yellow browed Warbler. A superb little mite, all stripey yellows on green in its fresh plumage. It delicately flitted through the twigs searching each and every one before descending again into the cover of the leaves.

During the wait for the Yellow browed Warbler I had consulted my RBA app. (Rare Bird Alert) on my phone and learned that not only had the Olive backed Pipit been seen in Wells Woods not thirty minutes ago but a Masked Shrike had been discovered at far distant Kilnsea in East Yorkshire. This was a true mega, only the third to be found in Britain. It would though, have to wait until tomorrow for any decision about going but meanwhile, what about the pipit? I informed Keith and we were unanimous in setting off for Wells Woods without further delay.

A quick cup of tea from the little mobile tea van which had now arrived at what remained of the entrance to the non existent car park - one tea and two packs of biscuits was £1.00. What a bargain. Revived, we headed off for Wells, driving along the winding A149 North Norfolk coast road, (was ever an A road more mis-classified?) through now very much gentrified and expensive villages such as Stiffkey and Cley. Every house seems to have had architect designed modifications and the paintwork is always immaculate. It just shouts money, wealth and middle class aspirations.

A very different scenario to our earlier visit now greeted us on our return to the Wells Wood car park. It was now almost full of cars, many more people were up and about and the charity run was in full swing. My pocket was relieved of an eye watering five pounds for four hours parking and then we were set to go and find an area in Wells Woods called The Dell where we hoped to see the Olive backed Pipit. Frankly we were pessimistic about our chances as these blighters are hard to see at the best of times and all the reports of this particular individual had said it was 'elusive'. Nevertheless we were here so were in with a chance but expected a long and anxious wait at the very least. The Dell is quite near to the car park and following the track from the car park for a short way we then enquired of a couple of young birders coming along a track out of the bushes as to where exactly it was and had they seen the pipit. They gave us directions and more excitingly told us they had been watching the pipit a few minutes ago and it was being seen really well. Both of us immediately received the proverbial jolt of adrenalin and headed with renewed vigour into the bushes to our right. We knew we were in the right place when we came across a small group of birders peering down from the top of a silver birch covered bank into a damp gully below.

The pipit was of course nowhere to be seen so we joined the others and looked optimistically down on the leaf mould at the bottom of the small gully. Half an hour passed and nothing was seen or heard apart from Jays flying to and fro above us, transporting acorns to be hidden away for later but then a slight movement came from our left as a birder located the pipit and whispered directions were passed on. A great surge of anxiety as I could not find it at first despite continued directions coming from my left. Then, there it was, walking along like a little mouse, unstreaked brown above, pale and streaked below and incredibly well camouflaged against the brown of the dead leaves. I whispered I too could see it but others around me still could not locate it. It was hopeless. I tried my best to give some guidance but in the end there is only so much you can do relating pointers about tree stumps, bits of grass, tree trunks, fallen branches, you name it, trying to give some sort of directional landmark into what is basically a complete mindtangle of tree trunks, branches, patches of grass and areas of leaf mould. The pipit wandered off into the grass and was gone from sight. 

I turned to Keith who was standing some way from me. A raised eyebrow. A thumbs up from Keith. Brilliant, we had both seen it. The surge of well being, triumph and joy after all the years of waiting was almost overwhelming. The companionship of birding is never felt greater than when sharing such a moment with a friend or friends. I wanted to jump up and shake Keith's hand and shout with the sheer elation that yet another high risk venture had borne fruit but instead I settled into, I confess, smug and silent contemplation, waiting for another view of the pipit. We waited and we waited. Time wore on and then the pipit suddenly re-appeared out of the grass and not where we were anticipating but much closer to us half way up the bank. I got a quick eyeful of its stripey underparts and strongly marked head, all brown and buff with a huge creamy white supercilium before it again was lost to view. Yet another futile attempt ensued to guide others around me to it. The problem being by the time they had located the landmark feature nearest to the pipit it was long gone and the whole process had to be repeated.

Another very long wait ensued and then it re-appeared further down the gully and we had to move our position a few metres to watch it running around in full view for a minute or so before being lost behind some vegetation. We waited for a while but nothing happened, so we left the others and walked off further along the top of the bank and descended to the gully and had one final and really good view of the pipit feeding amongst some fallen branches before it flew away up into the trees and that for us was enough.

We had been watching the pipit for three hours or I should say more accurately we watched the pipit for five minutes spread over three hours. It was now around lunchtime and with neither of us having had any breakfast it was mutually decided to adminster some much required refreshment, which was duly achieved in a little cafe at Burnham Deepdale.

Still elated at our triumph with the Olive backed Pipit our final destination was to be Burnham Overy Staithe where up to four or five Red breasted Flycatchers and another Barred Warbler were currently charming one and all. After a little difficulty finding a place to park the beloved Audi we headed off on the long trek out to the dunes. The weather had been dull and gloomy all day. Grey and with no sign of any sun, it would be depressing if it were not for our birding successes. The  northeasterly wind was now getting stronger as we walked the elevated track past expanses of saltmarsh and mudbanks, looking sullen and bleak below leaden skies.

Coming to the dunes we learned that a clump of stunted trees and brambles in front of us, in the lee of the dunes, was currently home to at least a couple of Red breasted Flycatchers and a Yellow browed Warbler. We regarded the clump of wind blasted trees but as usual we had to wait for any sign of birdlife. Then all of a sudden a small bird whizzed across the foliage and perched very briefly before whizzing off again up and over the vegetation and out of sight. The merest hint of pale buff plumage and a black and white tail was enough to tell us that this had been a Red breasted Flycatcher! We waited on and could hear it often announcing its invisible whereabouts with a ticking alarm call somewhat similar to a Robin but faster and higher pitched. Then with incredible speed it landed in front of us, perching low down in the brambles and haws nervously flicking its wings and tail. 

Hyperactive is the only word that can adequately describe this sprite's behaviour. Utterly charming, delightful in demeanour, it exudes constant energetic restlessness. Never still for more than a few seconds, its black and white tail frequently cocked and with wings held slightly down it looks at you demanding that you accept its cuteness and sheer joi de vivre.  It appeared to have a regular circuit of the clump so we waited and sure enough it returned after a lapse of time but never more than for a couple of minutes before it was off again like some frenzied wood nympth. 

With time, other birds revealed their presence in this clump of  wind stunted trees and bushes; first a brief, very brief view of the Yellow browed Warbler as it disappeared into the thick fastness of the impenetrable clump, a male Blackcap and then a Garden Warbler, spent time feeding on some elderberries. More mundane were a Robin and a Dunnock and most bizarre of all a large brown lump at the top of an Elder turned to reveal it was the back of a Brown Rat. 

A very pleasant hour passed by as we waited for and got occasional views of the restless flycatcher. I chatted quietly to fellow birders in the flycatcher's absence, all of us happy and sociable due to our encounters with the diminutive Red breasted Flycatcher.

Then, as often happens, two couples arrived and although they sported binoculars they were only passingly interested in birds. There is nothing wrong with that but what was annoying was that they seemed intent on having a loud conversation relating what they had done and planned to do with their weekend in Norfolk. It got really tiresome as they insisted carrying on their conversation close to where the flycatcher would regularly come but not if they persisted in their loud conversing. I decided to move off up and around to the side to get away from them and sat down there to regard a small tree on the edge of the clump. Immediately the flycatcher announced its presence, calling its distinctive ticking alarm and hopping around in the branches and occasionally flying out to seize an insect from a dead plant stem. I watched it, coming and going, noting it was distinctly nervous about being right out in the open but appeared to have a couple of favoured branches at the edge of the tree, so I focused my camera on these and managed to get some passable images of it when it briefly paused there. I watched it for at least an hour, for the most part just sat on my own. 

The light of a very inspiring day was now gently fading but still the flycatcher was active, always returning to this, its favoured tree. Irresistible, irrepressible, its energetic movements were a constant delight and nothing was done other than at breakneck speed. I suppose this is an anti predator adaptation as well as feeding strategy to catch fast flying insects but for me it was just entrancing and a real test of my observational skills as I endeavoured to follow its progress through the leaves and twigs. Watching this scrap of feathered vitality it was not hard to believe in fairies and maybe that is where the legend came from.

It was beginning to get cold in the wind and the light was now quickly fading. Keith joined me. He too had been indulging in some close and uplifting encounters with a Red breasted Flycatcher on the other side of the bushes.

'Shall we go?' enquired Keith.

 'There's another Barred Warbler five hundred metres over there. What do you think?' I replied. 

'Not really, we've done very well.'  

'Yes you're right Keith let's leave it. It's been quite a day'. 

'You can say that again.'  

'Cheers me old mate.' 

We headed back to the warmth of the Audi.

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