Tuesday 18 October 2016

Crowned up North 6th-7th October 2016

A birding colleague of mine, Hugh, who now has the responsibilities of a partner and a baby had a rare opportunity to enjoy two days 'over the fence' and contacted me a week or so ago about a birding trip, possibly to Norfolk. At first I was reluctant due to business pressures but a last minute change of plan enabled me to call him and advise that, yes I would be available, but I was not interested in Norfolk but much more interested in going for a White's Thrush that had been found today, Wednesday, in a small wood on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne just a few miles shy of the Scottish border.

It was an incredibly high risk venture as White's Thrushes are renowned for not staying for long anywhere and anything exceeding a day is really pushing the boundaries with this elusive, enigmatic and desirable bird. Ideally you should go the same day one is found but that was just not possible in this case. I called Hugh on Wednesday afternoon and told him about the White's Thrush and that Norfolk would have to wait for another day. He was quite happy to concur with my wishes as he was just keen to do some birding and the possibility of a White's Thrush was a definite bonus as far as he was concerned. I told him we were going for this bird come what may and I would collect him from his home in Yaxley near Peterborough at 3.30am on Thursday  morning and we would drive for five and a half hours through the night and early morning to Lindisfarne. We could not get across The Causeway to the island until 0935 as the tide would be too high until then and The Causeway would be under water.

By the time all arrangements had been made I only had two hours to get some sleep before I had to make the two hour drive to Hugh's house. I achieved this without mishap but felt more tired than usual. It was going to be a struggle to drive another five and a half hours to Lindisfarne but Hugh was insured to drive my car so he could assist with some of the driving. After a reviving cup of tea and a couple of biscuits at Hugh's we set off up the A1, not my favourite road as much of it is dual carriageway rather than three and it is always very busy with slow moving lorry traffic. After an hour I turned off into a Motorway Services and Hugh then took over the driving allowing me to relax and doze off as he steered us northwards and into the breaking dawn. We hit severe delays in rush hour traffic around Newcastle but once past there we had an open road and no more hold ups but still had quite some way to go in what was now a beautiful still morning of sunshine and blue skies in lovely Northumbrian countryside that was just beginning to show signs of autumn. I consulted my RBA app. regularly but there was no news about the White's Thrush. We pressed onwards and I consulted RBA one more time as we neared Lindisfarne and there was the dreaded news that there was no sign of the White's Thrush this morning. That was what I had feared. Although we were philosophical and knew it had been a very high risk venture to try and see it we could not avoid the disappointing fact we had dipped and our adventure had come to a crushing finale before it even started.

This is a White's Thrush that I saw in China. One day I will catch up with one
in Great Britain but it will take some doing. I live in hopes!
We decided to at least carry on and drive over to Lindisfarne as neither of us had been here before so we drove down to the still wet Causeway and took the car across to the island. Others were already walking across, a distance of some one and a half miles. On getting to the other side we parked in the main car park and walked into the tiny village. Large trees lined the only road and the first bird we saw flying into the trees was a Yellow browed Warbler and we soon found a second.

The whole place had a pleasant, genteel, other worldly feel to it but already it was  rapidly filling up with tourists as we debated whether to make a pilgrimage to the small clump of trees in the distance where the White's Thrush had been found yesterday but we decided against it as there seemed little point in prolonging the agony.

There were plenty of other disappointed birders wandering around too and we consoled each other on our bad luck as we passed each other by. Little else of birdlife interest was around apart from the Yellow browed Warblers. A Redwing was my first of the autumn and a male Blackcap was feeding on some blackberries but that was the sum of it. Normally a Yellow browed Warbler, let alone two would be the cause of some excitement but I had seen so many in this exceptional autumn for eastern vagrants, I really found it hard to get too enthused.

A chance meeting with another birder as we watched a Yellow browed Warbler elicited the fact that Britain's fourth Eastern Crowned Warbler at the RSPB's Bempton Cliffs reserve in East Yorkshire was showing really well in some trees near the Visitor Centre. This was another waif from Siberia that had migrated the wrong way and was now doing the best it could in the inhospitable climes of Yorkshire rather than the warmer climes of southeastern Asia and Indochina, its normal winter home.

Hugh and I held a brief discussion about our situation and reasoned that it was obvious that the White's Thrush had gone so there was little point to remain here and we could still save the day by going to see the Eastern Crowned Warbler. Hugh had never seen one either in Britain or anywhere else, although I had seen them, both in China and memorably in Britain two years ago near Cleveland but I was certainly not averse to seeing another as the previous one I had seen in Britain had not been seen that well.

We returned to the car and set the Satnav for Bempton. It looks relatively close on the map but it took the best part of four hours to get there with the Satnav taking us first through some depressing industrial parts of the north and then across much more welcome, lovely open Yorkshire countryside and through picturesque rural villages.

We arrived at Bempton around lunchtime and found the reserve packed with birders, all obviously intent on seeing the Eastern Crowned Warbler. There were so many cars that the reserve had marshals out to guide you to a free parking space if there was one. We were lucky in that we got a space literally yards from where the warbler was. You could hardly mistake the location as a long line of birders were standing and viewing a stand of small trees, mainly birches, in front of them. 

The ground where they were standing was elevated so that you stood looking almost half way up into the trees and even better the side they were viewing from was sheltered from the strong northeast wind. This obviously was also the warbler's preference and it remained on the leeward side of the trees throughout.

We saw the Eastern Crowned Warbler almost immediately, darting in and around the leaves and branches of the trees and Hugh had his lifer and I had my second in Britain. The trees were in fact full of warblers, mainly Common Chiffchaffs, with one or two Yellow browed Warblers amongst them, the occasional Blackcap and also many Goldcrests. 

Common Chiffchaff
The Eastern Crowned Warbler spent all the time working its way back and fore along the tree line and in contrast to the one I saw in Cleveland was very showy and would come very close at times giving excellent views. It was distinctive amongst the foliage in that its white underparts were quite easy to pick out in the bright sunshine. Its movements were slightly more deliberate than the Chiffchaffs  and it would occasionally sit still for a few seconds, but it could fly, flick and swoop through the twigs and leaves with just as much dexterity as the other warblers when necessary. Sometimes it was hard to follow it in the wind tossed leaves but on other occasions it showed itself really well, especially on the occasions when it caught a large bluebottle, which prompted it to stop on a slender branch and deal with the fly by whacking it against a thin branch to soften it up before swallowing it.

For a leaf warbler it was quite brightly coloured. Its attractive plumage tones were those of the trees it was inhabiting with upperparts that were a yellowy tinged moss green with a yellowish wing bar that matched perfectly the colour shades of the leaves and lichen covered branches and twigs of the trees. Its head was distinctively striped, patterned with a long yellow white supercilium curving up behind its eye and a dark eye stripe whilst its crown was dull black with a noticeable pale grey stripe bisecting the middle of its crown. The underparts were white with some faint yellow streaking on the breast and distinctly yellow on the undertail coverts.  It was quite a robust warbler and looked more compact than a Common Chiffchaff although of similar size

Eastern Crowned Warbler
There was also a report of an Arctic Warbler and a Greenish Warbler having been present in some bushes nearby and Hugh went to investigate them but I wanted to concentrate on getting some good images of the Eastern Crowned Warbler so resisted the temptation to go with him. Seeing the Eastern Crowned Warbler was all well and good but getting some decent images proved a lot more difficult as it always seemed to contrive and confound by having a twig or leaf in the way but with persistence I managed to get what I wanted. My prolonged stay also gave me the added bonus of seeing and photographing one of the always elusive Yellow browed Warblers, which for a brief precious moment perched in the open

Yellow browed Warbler
After some ninety minutes I went to join Hugh but there had been no sign of either the Arctic Warbler or the Greenish Warbler. Nearby a couple of Yellow browed Warblers were calling and would give occasional glimpses, and of all the warblers present they were the hardest to see, never remaining still for a second, always seeking the taller trees and remaining well hidden in cover. Numbers of Goldcrests were also  turning up everywhere, in bushes, in trees and even in the grass and constantly raising false hopes that they may be a rare warbler.

Apart from the warblers many migrants had made landfall on the reserve with Bramblings and Redwings regularly flying over. The large number of Blackbirds suggested that these too were migrants. Hugh found a Common Redstart skulking in some brambles and the ubiquitous Tree Sparrows that are resident here, flew in loudly chirping groups across the fields between the feeders that undoubtedly sustain their population.

Tree Sparrow
The day was drawing to a close now and we went back for one final look at the Eastern Crowned Warbler that was still feeding frantically, almost manically in the trees. We remarked that this was possibly a sign it was getting ready to migrate but really this was just speculation on our part but it was noticeable how the warbler had never stopped energetically feeding for the entire time we had watched it.

We had another discussion, this time about whether to drive home tonight as originally planned or stay for the night in Yorkshire and have another day's birding here at Bempton and possibly then go on to nearby Flamborough. There was obviously a good number of migrants arriving on the easterly wind and who knows what might turn up tomorrow. The upshot was that we decided to stay and Hugh got us booked into a youth hostel in Scarborough, just up the coast, for the night and at the not unreasonable cost of £45.00 for the two of us in our own double room. A quick stop at a supermarket in Scarborough to purchase a toothbrush and toothpaste and we were all set but first we needed something to eat and an obviously popular restaurant on Scarborough seafront provided a nice glass of red wine and a pizza before we made our way to the hostel.

A friendly welcome awaited us at the hostel and without further ado, once we were shown to our room we hit the beds as both of us were very tired and were planning a pre dawn departure for Bempton tomorrow.

The next day was damp and blustery and by the time we got to Bempton it was apparent that the weather was going to be worse than yesterday with little sun and the wind, contrary to the forecast seeming stronger. Despite this there were many birds arriving from the sea, most of which were Redwings and Bramblings.  A few birders were already checking out the trees for the Eastern Crowned Warbler but there was no sign of it although it was still very early to tell if it really had left. After the rain of last night I could hardly believe it would have gone. We walked down a path through the hawthorn bushes that had been frequented by the Arctic and Greenish Warblers yesterday but there was no sign of either just some Goldcrests and Common Chiffchaffs. We walked right down to the cliff path and then followed the path along the edge of the cliffs looking for an elusive Bluethroat that had been reported from here yesterday but again it appeared that this too had gone. Gannets were cruising offshore from the cliffs some still attending fully grown young on the cliff ledges.

Bempton Cliffs

The wind was very strong, coming from the northeast and most birds were keeping well down in cover. An extensive band of nettles and weeds by the path's edge harboured some Common Chiffchaffs and a very tired female Blackcap just about managed to fly into them from the cliff edge presumably having just made landfall after a difficult crossing of the North Sea, and then it happened. A bunting flew up and then settled in the nettles .We went to investigate and caught a brief glimpse of it sat on the ground. I am pretty sure from its face pattern it was a Little Bunting and Hugh thought he heard it call its diagnostic tzick tzick  call but our view was only seconds and before we could get to grips with the identification the bunting flew off and disappeared further away in the nettles. Try as we may we could not flush it again and without a further conclusive view we had to accept that we could not definitely claim it as a Little Bunting although 90% positive that this is what it was. Sometimes it happens this way but it is nonetheless galling to come so close, especially as Little Buntings had been reported from various points along the East Coast yesterday.

We walked back along the cliff path disturbing just a male European Stonechat and a flock of Goldfinches before making our way back up to the top of the reserve where it became all too apparent that the Eastern Crowned Warbler had indeed gone. I met three friends from Sussex who had driven up overnight especially to see it. They were not happy and who could blame them.There is nothing you can say in such situations apart to commiserate which is sometimes worse than saying nothing at all. We parted and Hugh decided to have one further look around the reserve for warblers whilst I decided to stake out a feeding station and try and get some images of Bramblings that were feeding below on the ground.

Feeding station at Bempton
I counted about seventeen Bramblings, the colourful northern cousin of our Chaffinch and so much more interesting plumage wise with their complicated patterning and attractive colourations. One in particular was a very showy male but the females are almost as attractive. 

The feeders were dominated by Tree Sparrows, their sharp calls ringing out constantly as a family of Brown Rats fed below and a group of balding Moorhens chased them off when they got too close.The Moorhens seemed to have caught some disease that caused all the feathers on their crowns to fall out. A sudden, breathy, anxious pssweeet call, repeated frequently signalled the hypercharged arrival of a Yellow browed Warbler which whizzed around in the branches of a small hawthorn before disappearing still calling loudly.

Another Yellow browed Warbler
Hugh returned and we debated what to do next. It was obvious that all the 'exotic' warblers had indeed done a bunk overnight and all that was left were the Chiffchaffs and Yellow browed Warblers. A Taiga Bean Goose associating with a flock of Pink footed Geese in fields at the nearby Flamborough Lighthouse was tempting so we gave it a go. We found a couple of birders scoping the extensive fields that ran away and across from the road leading to the Lighthouse and they told us the geese were viewable but distant in some stubble fields so we had a look but all we could find were Greylag Geese. Despite this disappointment there were many migrant birds coming in off the sea and so we watched them for a while.

Whilst watching here a report came in of a Richard's Pipit and a Little Bunting having just been seen in the long grass behind and below the Lighthouse and as Hugh had never seen a Little Bunting we drove the short distance there but were unsure where precisely to go but as luck would have it a local birder arrived at the same time and he knew where to go. We walked three abreast across a field he indicated but flushed nothing more than a few Meadow Pipits and Skylarks. It started to rain. Just as we were about to give up another birder commenced walking the same field and then signalled to us that he had found the Little Bunting in the same field that we had just walked up! How had we missed it?

A record shot of the Little Bunting at Flamborough
We rapidly joined him and sure enough the Little Bunting flew up in front of us  from the long grass and perched briefly in a twiggy bush at the edge of the field before flying high and away never to be seen again. The Richard's Pipit was never seen or heard of again either.

We returned to the car and drove back to rejoin the two local birders still scoping the fields by the road and this time our luck was in as the Pink footed Geese were now visible in the stubble field but there was no sign of the Taiga Bean Goose. Hugh eventually found it hunkered down in the grass with some Greylag Geese and you could only see its head and bill but that was enough. A Ring Ouzel fed in the field below us along with numerous Redwings, Song Thrushes and a few Fieldfares whilst smaller migrants such as Bramblings, Chaffinches, Skylarks and Meadow Pipits were also coming in off the sea. A Peregrine flew over, high in the grey wind torn sky,

A report now came of a Great Grey Shrike on telephone wires at Thornwick Bay  which was very close by so we drove there and parked. As soon as we got out of the car there was the shrike perched high up on the wires but someway off over a fallow field. It flew down to an even more distant hedge and was gone from view.

Time was drawing on and Hugh wanted to head for Alkborough Flats where a Purple Swamphen which would be another lifer for him, had been in residence for some weeks. Hugh was in a quandary as to whether it would be preferable to go to Spurn rather than Alkborough. He had always wanted to go to Spurn and here was an opportunity to put that right but as Spurn was further away and slightly in the wrong direction we decided on Alkborough as it was roughly on our route home.

We set off and after thirty minutes a report came through of a Rustic Bunting at Church Fields which is part of the Spurn complex! It took all of five seconds for us to change our minds and we set the Satnav for Spurn. After a couple of hours of cross country dodgems in the now steady rain we arrived at Kilnsea and made our way to Church Field where the Rustic Bunting had been reported some hours ago.

It was not there when we arrived but the rain had stopped and the wind died down and it became apparent there had been a major fall of migrant birds as the hawthorn hedges and trees were alive with Goldcrests and Robins. The rough, tangled grass of Church Field was infested with hundreds of Goldcrests, feeding frantically in every clump of grass A Yellow browed Warbler was also amongst them atypically also feeding at ground level in the grass.

Church Field with the Heligoland Trap

Migrant Goldcrests having just completed a crossing of the North Sea 
We waited and eventually the Rustic Bunting flew in but only for a few seconds before departing once more. We carried on waiting, watching the Tree Sparrows and the occasional Brambling coming to the feeding station. A two way radio crackled on the hip of a nearby assistant warden. 

The voice was loud and clear. 'Red flanked Bluetail at Easington Cemetery!' 

Most of those present including us instantly headed for the cars and we drove down the road to nearby Easington. Pulling up at the small cemetery we fell out of the car and anxiously surveyed the gravestones.

The Red flanked Blue Tail twitch
There was not a sign of the bluetail. 

Five minutes passed and then a voice from a few yards down the road said 

'It's here under the conifer hedge'.

We raced down the road and there was the Red flanked Bluetail perched under the conifer hedge that formed the eastern border of the cemetery. The bluetail remained perched here for a few minutes and then disappeared back into the depths of  the hedge. We waited but after no sign of it for ten minutes we decided to go back to Church Field  to try and see some more of the Rustic Bunting

Red flanked Bluetail
A long wait ensued at Church Field which produced absolutely nothing and as the light was beginning to fade we cut our losses and went to the Canal Scrape Hide to look for Jack Snipe and certainly were not disappointed. Four were feeding out in the open right in front of the hide and others were feeding in more distant areas of the scrape.We counted eleven in total but the four right in front kept our attention most. Busily probing their bills in the mud and every so often typically freezing into immobility when something troubled them.They were as always a delight to see, their iridescent green and purple shot plumage on their backs shining in the last of the subsiding sun.

Jack Snipe 'frozen' into immobility

                                            A good note on which to end the day.

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