Monday, 5 November 2018

Pallas's Warbler and A Return to Spurn 2nd November 2018

I had not seen a good friend of mine, Hugh, for a year, until we met in Norfolk last week looking at a Siberian Stonechat. While there we hatched a plan to go birding together for a day somewhere, anywhere, but finally narrowed it down to the Norfolk coast or Spurn Point in Yorkshire. It all depended on the weather and where the good birds were on the day we planned to go birding. Hugh's time is constrained by a young family and work, whereas I am now semi- retired and virtually free to go anywhere at any time, so it was obvious we had to optimise our birding to allow Hugh to make the most of the day.

In the end we settled on Spurn as both of us have had very good birding days there in the past and currently a number of exciting birds were being reported from there. We planned to go to Spurn on Friday and arrive at dawn, which is around seven am, and would require a two to three hour drive from Hugh's home near Peterborough. To accommodate this I spent the night at Hugh's home and we left at 4am the next morning for Spurn.

The hours passed quickly as we caught up on news and chatted about this and that. We crossed over the mighty Humber Bridge and passed through an awakening Hull, to set off eastwards on the familiar tortuous and slow road that wends its way out through various isolated villages to Spurn. Well not quite Spurn as we planned to spend the morning at Easington, which is a few miles before Spurn, as this was where our main target was to be found. A Pallas's Warbler, frequenting trees in Vicars Lane which runs parallel with the adjacent and huge North Sea Gas terminal.

Before looking for the Pallas's Warbler we headed for the nearby Easington Cemetery to make this our first point of call, on our day of birding. 

Easington Cemetery
Dawn had broken and the eastern sky was theatrically underlit with orange and pink from a sun yet to rise above the flat horizon. We were on our own at the cemetery and leaving the car on the grass verge by the gate, stepped out into the cold, clear air of East Yorkshire and a chilling wind blowing from the west. We were in rural Yorkshire and the surrounding farm fields stretched away on all sides, a patchwork of green and ploughed brown earth, bisected by straggling, ragged, red berried hawthorn hedges, populated by Blackbirds, chuckling Fieldfares and demure Redwings. A cock Pheasant, his burnished feathers fluffed against the cold, crowed his morning clarion call from a field edge.  

I shivered involuntarily after sitting so long in the warmth of Hugh's car but soon got going and entered the small and ancient cemetery. The minute we had left the car we heard Bramblings, their harsh scraping tchaaay alarm call so different from the more melodic chink chink of Chaffinches, their British counterparts.

The Bramblings were calling from the tall sycamore trees encircling the cemetery. The trees were devoid of most of their leaves but still retained enough leaves, wind blasted, withered and twisted though they were, to attract the Bramblings which were feeding on invertebrates that they gleaned from the undersides of the leaves and twigs. There were, maybe half a dozen, together with a few Chaffinches and the occasional Goldcrest. The sun broke the horizon and the Brambling's flanks turned from pale to rich golden orange as the sun illuminated them in the tree tops, whilst below, the boughs and trunks of the trees still remained in shadow as the sun had yet to rise sufficiently to flood the flat landscape with its rays.

Bramblings are such lovely birds, especially the males, with so much variable patterning to their plumage.  Orange and white underparts, black heads turned grey with white feather fringes, broken white eye rings and bright yellow bills all contributed to their overall beauty.

It was a bit of a nightmare trying to photograph them as they ran and hopped above me amongst the bare twigs and branches that stood out, stark in silhouette against a lightening sky.Weather wise it was going to be a good day and the Bramblings were an excellent beginning but we hoped for much better. A female Sparrowhawk circled the cemetery and gave chase to a Woodpigeon but gave up and after another circuit over the cemetery flew off to seek a victim elsewhere.

Hugh found a Lesser Whitethroat in the hedge across the narrow lane from the cemetery and then we found at least three chiffchaffs, also consorting there, with at least one looking very good for being a Siberian Chiffchaff, its plumage pale fawn above and dull white below, with not a trace of green or yellow in its plumage tones. The three chiffchaffs came very low, feeding on dead umbellifer stalks in a grassy ditch, flying around at incredible speed and hiding in the dense foliage, before fleeing into the cemetery and its sheltering yews.

Siberian Chiffchaff
We heard no calls from the chiffchaffs to give us complete satisfaction about their respective identities but I remained convinced, based on the colour tones of the plumage that we had indeed seen at least one Siberian Chiffchaff, possibly two. 

The Lesser Whitehroat presented more problems as to its sub specific identity however. We knew that Lesser Whitethroats of the Siberian race blythi had been claimed from the cemetery in the past few days and locals we spoke to later confirmed that any Lesser Whitehroat we saw at the cemetery was probably 'a blythi' but it is always nice to confirm it in one's own mind and to one's own satisfaction.

Unfortunately the light was not good enough to discern any really detailed plumage tones so we left it as a probable. It soon left the hedge and flew into a yew in the cemetery to join the chiffchaffs.

Having spent around forty five minutes here, the light was now very much better and it was time to go to look for, what we mutually agreed, would be the main event of the day, the Pallas's Warbler along Vicars Lane. We drove the short distance back into Easington and left the car, as instructed by RBA, in the tiny village square and walked up Vicar's Lane to where it turned left to run parallel with the gas terminal complex. This is a highly sensitive area with regular police patrols cruising the surrounding lanes but the police are obviously used to birders wandering around with high powered optics and cameras and they never stopped to trouble us.

Hugh and other birders looking for the Pallas's Warbler

Vicars Lane. A rarity mecca
Many rare birds have been found in the vicinity of Vicars Lane and it can be said to be a true rarity hotspot. Two years ago it was the scene of a huge twitch to see what was only the second record of a Siberian Accentor in Britain, which caused a huge logistical operation to swing into action to cope with the hundreds of birders that came to see it on the first few days after its arrival, swamping the village of Easington and prompting security concerns about the adjacent gas terminal. It all passed off peacefully though, due to the combined efforts of the Spurn Bird Observatory Staff and the co-operative attitude of the police 

The Pallas's Warbler was to be found, according to reports yesterday, in the tall trees somewhere along Vicars Lane. First though, we heard another chiffchaff calling, and its call sounded very much like that of a Siberian Chiffchaff  so we spent a little time investigating and found the bird flitting around in some nearby trees. It looked pale but not as pale as the one we had seen back at the cemetery, so again there was a slight element of doubt but in hindsight it probably was one. 

However this was a distraction and now we needed to concentrate on finding the Pallas's Warbler. We separated and, with only one other birder present, set about searching for it. For a little while there was nothing to excite us but then  I saw Hugh waving silently to me from the far end of the lane. I walked down to where he was and he announced that he had seen and heard the Pallas's Warbler, high in the huge willow and poplar trees by the lane. We waited for a few minutes and then I too heard it calling from somewhere high up in the trees and then, after an agonising wait,  at last, I saw it. 

An absolute gem of a bird, only the size of a Goldcrest, which made it a real struggle, with my tired eyes, to follow it in the wind disturbed leaves and myriad of twigs and branches. It was endlessly moving, a hyperactive sprite, a tiny blur of feathered nervous energy that zapped acrobatically and erratically back and forth through the tree tops, constantly flicking its wings. Fortunately it called frequently so, at the very least, you could follow its progress in the canopy of the trees  but keeping your eye on it required constant attention and effort. 

Pallas's Warbler
We must have remained in the lane for at least an hour with Hugh trying to satisfy himself that he had seen all the salient plumage features and me doing the same, often less successfully or at a slower pace, as well as not very successfully trying to capture it on camera. We were joined over the hour by other birders, so in the end there was 'a crowd' of around a dozen birders but there was plenty of room to follow the warbler as we stood in the virtually traffic free lane.

Pallas's Leaf Warbler, to give it its correct name, is a truly long distance migrant breeding in the mountain forests of southern Siberia and east to northern Mongolia and northeast China, then migrating  to spend the winter in southern China and parts of southeast Asia. It has become an increasingly regular autumn visitor to Europe and in Britain it is now an annual visitor. In fact it has become so frequent that it is no longer regarded as a national rarity in Britain. In 2003 for example no less than 313 were recorded in Britain although this was exceptional and yet it still holds an undeniable attraction for birders and it is fair to say they are one of the most coveted of the rarer leaf warblers to visit Britain and most birders will make an effort to see one. Perhaps it is because they are so small and so elusive and come from so far away that serves to maintain  their mystique and charm and if this were not enough their plumage is also immensely attractive with what appears to be a disproportionately large head with  a prominent long yellow supercilium and another thinner paler yellow stripe through the centre of the crown and a short green tail.The upperparts are entirely plain green and the underparts silky white but it is the yellow bars and stripes in its plumage that add the vital wow ingredient. The wings have two prominent yellow bars and it also has a large and distinctive lemon yellow rump, which can be very hard to see, as the bird zips around erratically in the foliage. 

It took us a long while to see this feature but eventually Hugh found the warbler, for once static though very much hidden, preening deep within a bush and then we could see the rump being fluffed up on the partially obscured bird as it sorted out its plumage before recommencing its endless search for food. Remarkably this individual began singing regularly as it moved around, the song sounding vaguely like a distant Willow Warbler, being a similar whimsical descending cadence of twinkling notes but sounding fainter.

I could have remained here for much longer but Hugh was keen to press on and as it was really his day out I was happy to leave. Now with our main target well and truly seen and enjoyed the day was already a success but there were other goodies to be searched for, the first of which was a Great Grey Shrike that had been reported nearby this morning, frequenting telephone wires by some riding stables.

We drove the short distance to the riding stables and parked the car on the verge and walked down a muddy track called Green Lane to join some birders scoping a very distant Great Grey Shrike that was sat in the top of a hawthorn bush.

The aptly named Green Lane

The shrike did not remain long before flying further away. Fair enough, it cannot always be that we get perfect views but we had both seen it well, although we would have liked to have seen it for longer. Either side of the lane fields stretched away, demarcated by bare scratchy hedgerows. The fields were populated by Fieldfares and Starlings, the respective flocks wheeling around in periodic alarm and then in the case of the Fieldfares settling in a cluster on top of a hawthorn, their white underwings flashing briefly in the sunshine as they alighted before flying down to the fields once more. A Roe Deer sat incongruously in the middle of one field, untroubled by the wheeling birds or our presence.

A distant dung heap adjacent to the lane produced a pleasant surprise as, amongst the Carrion Crows, a Hooded Crow appeared, to turn over the earth in search of worms along with its commoner close cousins. We walked back to the car as Redwings and Blackbirds flew from the hawthorns and House Sparrows chattered from the stables.

The day was going well, with no long waits to see a bird and so we headed back to Easington to search for an elusive Barred Warbler. This was to be our only unsuccessful effort of the day. We split up again, with Hugh checking out a field and long hedgerow while I maintained a vigil by the hedge of the house the Barred Warbler had last been reported from. Neither of us had much to report. Hugh heard a Yellow browed Warbler call in the hedge whilst I saw little more than a few Goldcrests. With time to spare, standing around at the garden gate I did manage to find the time to appreciate a Starling's winter plumage, which when regarded closely is exquisitely beautiful with the purple and green iridescence underlying the liberally buff and white spotted, superficially black plumage.

Reunited we moved on to the end of the road which led to Easington Beach. Here, via a perilous ledge, we walked down onto the beach and towards the northern end of a series of small lagoons called Beacon Ponds, as two Shore Larks were said to be frequenting the nearest lagoon to us. The sands of the huge beach stretched away southwards towards Kilnsea and Spurn Point, shining bright and brilliant in this morning of sunshine, imparting that sense of seaside spacial loneliness  and melancholy that comes at this time of year. It was hard to remind myself that only two months ago I was viewing a Greater Sand Plover from this very spot on a very much more populated beach.

The beach at Easington
Far out to sea the inevitable wind turbines, their giant white propellers lazily turning, disrupted the horizon and on the beach some sea fishermen were mounting stoic vigils, standing in cold looking huddles behind their unbending rods.

We could see three birders obviously looking at the shorelarks on the far side of the lagoon which meant we would have to walk round to join them in order to get to see them too.First though we looked out to sea. Maybe a Little Auk would fly by? A very slim hope indeed but you never know. We found an auk but it was a sickly looking Guillemot, riding the waves close into the beach and not looking long for this world. A Greater Black backed Gull sat, waiting, a little way off, while much further out a Red throated Diver passed northwards, low over the sea, looking almost completely white in the bright sun.

We were just about to leave the beach to go and see the Shorelarks when two birds flew over us and settled on the sand between us and the sea. Yes, they were the Shorelarks. The three birders looking at them by the lagoon must have got too close and flushed them. What luck for us! The larks shuffled around briefly on the sand and then settled to preen amongst some stones. Their cryptic upperpart plumage camouflaged them superbly against their chosen habitat and it was noticeable how they favoured the stones and clumps of dead seaweed that offered some sort of meagre cover and camouflage. 

With this species it is the head pattern that attracts. A sulphur yellow face is broken up by a band of black on the forehead and a face mask of black stretching from across bill, over the eyes and thence curving downwards to almost join with a black band of feathers on the upper breast. One bird was markedly brighter and more strongly marked on the head than the other, even showing the black horns that protrude from each side of the black band across the forehead.These horns give it its alternative name of Horned Lark.  I assumed that the duller, less well marked bird was a female and the other an adult male. 

Male Shorelark

Female Shorelark

We watched as they scuttled along, briefly stopping to preen once more and then move on to sit quietly in the sunshine by some dead seaweed.Their life, like all birds, is one of constant vigilance and must be especially so, exposed as they are out on the wide open expanses of beach which is their winter home of choice. They visit Britain  annually in autumn and winter, arriving in variable numbers from year to year. This autumn is a good one as they have been reported from a good number of locations along the east coast of Britain. The Shorelarks flew back towards the lagoon just as the three birders that had flushed them from there joined us on the beach. Poetic justice.

We decided on a return to Easington Cemetery via a farm just down the lane from the cemetery. A Waxwing had been reported on and off there over the last few days, feeding on hawthorn berries, from a tree by the farm entrance, so it might be worth a try. We left the car at the cemetery and walked the few hundred metres down the lane to the farm entrance. 

Just as we got near to the entrance Hugh saw the Waxwing fly down to a puddle in the lane but it immediately flew up again and into the hawthorn. I missed it as it was so quick. We waited for quite some time but the Waxwing did not return and in the end we concluded it had flown beyond the hawthorn. Plenty of Blackbirds and Redwings, came and went, feeding on the berries along with Robins and House Sparrows but the Waxwing was conspicuous by its absence. Two Sparrowhawks circled overhead and then were gone in the clear blue sky.

Hugh returned to the cemetery while I continued to watch the hawthorn by the farm gate. My phone rang fifteen minutes later and Hugh told me had refound the Lesser Whitehroat in the sycamores. Giving up on the Waxwing I walked up the lane to join him and watched the Lesser Whitehroat feeding in the tops of the sycamores. It looked very pale but the bright sunlight would add to its paleness so it was difficult to  apportion any definitive plumage characteristics to this bird. Anyway it was surely a bonus to see a Lesser Whitehroat as late as November in Britain. 

Lesser Whitethroat
All I will say about its possible origin is that last winter I went to see a Lesser Whitethroat in a back garden of a house at Kew in Surrey and it looked identical to this one, being pale with warmer brown upperparts and with paler ear coverts than normal. The Lesser Whitethroat at Kew was identified by DNA analysis and found to be a Lesser Whitehroat of the Siberian race blythi.

We watched the Lesser Whitethroat in the sycamores for some time and then a very pale chiffchaff appeared but proved incredibly hard to follow amongst the moving leaves. Its tiny body was completely hidden by the larger leaves and the movement of the leaves in the wind made it nigh on impossible to follow as it energetically flicked around in the tree top. 

It looked good for a Siberian Chiffchaff, however, and it called, which sounded good also but I will leave it there.

We drove back down the lane and stopped at the hawthorn by the farm gate. There was a very slim hope that the Waxwing just might be here although we really did not take this too seriously. A Redwing and a Blackbird flew out of the hawthorn and then there was another fawn looking bird sat right in the centre of the bush. A quick scan with our bins revealed it was the Waxwing, very much obscured but definitely the Waxwing. We were still in the car, so viewing was badly restricted and we had to get out to get a better view but this alarmed the Waxwing which moved to the back of the hawthorn.It then flew onto some wires behind the hawthorn and I managed to get brief views of this beautiful bird. The yellow on the wings and red wax like tips on the flight feathers stood out clearly in the sunshine but then it flew and we never saw it again despite waiting for some time.

We left Easington and tried the Canal Scrape Hide at Kilnsea. There has been huge controversy about Yorkshire Wildlife Trust recently building a visitor centre here, upsetting all the locals and the Spurn Bird Observatory in the process. The attitude and behaviour displayed by the Trust has been appallingly arrogant and unsympathetic with a consequent disaster in public relations. Sadly, what was previously an area of unspoilt fields and quiet freedom has become dominated by the visitor centre, a huge car park for which you have to pay and an exclusive staff car park which was formerly for use by anyone visiting the Hide.

We were hoping to see some Jack Snipe here as it is, or was, a well known spot to see them but sadly there was no sign of them today, only a single Common Snipe and three Little Egrets. A female Merlin was perched in a bush off to the left of us but soon flew, sweeping across the small lagoon in front of the Hide.

Common Snipe

Little Egrets

We left the hide and moved on down to the very end of the lane and were told by some birders about some Snow Buntings they had found on the far side of 'The Breach',  which is where the sea breached the narrow spit of land leading out to Spurn Point in February 2017. This would involve quite a walk but there was no choice. We set off across a huge area of sand and shingle with many roosting waders on the inner side of The Breach beginning to stir as the tide commenced  to fall. Grey Plover, Dunlin, Sanderling and Common Redshank were the majority with a few Curlew and Oystercatchers amongst them. Further out Shelduck and Wigeon floated on the sea.

The Breach
We marched on across the huge area of exposed sand which is now completely covered when there are very high tides, ever since the sea first breached the spit. Hugh, being that much younger pressed on regardless but I began to flag as the soft sand provided little support as we trudged ever onwards. We separated, me to take the easier going on the metalled track through the dunes on the other side of The Breach and Hugh to continue along on the foreshore. It was a huge area in which to try to find the buntings and we had little idea of where they might be as the previous birders had told us they had flown off when they saw them.

Hugh eventually found the buntings on the tideline and called me just as they took to the air and flew around, rising higher and higher. I hoped they would not fly off and they circled back but seemed restless and loathe to settle. Round they went once again but obviously wanted to land on their chosen spot which fortunately was right in front of us. They eventually fluttered down to become immediately almost invisible in the rocks and stones on the foreshore.

Snow Buntings
They were wary at first and crouched immobile for a period but finally they relaxed and began to move amongst the stones and feed, picking at bits of straw and other vegetable matter, to nibble in their golden yellow bills. Snow Buntings in winter plumage are very attractive birds, being a combination of marbled black, brown, buff orange and white, the white in their wings only showing well when they fly. We sat quietly in the dunes until they seemed perfectly settled and then edged closer to get better views. Closer and closer we crept and the Snow Buntings showed little concern and eventually we were as close as felt comfortable. We watched as they fed quietly amongst the small stones, progressing in shuffling hops and runs, always staying close to each other, bodies held in a crouch close to the ground.

There were six in all but as to what sex and age they were, as usual it proved difficult to ascertain. I believe there was at least one adult male, judging by how white its plumage was and possibly two adult females and with retrospective study of my images I can possibly identify more but for the moment, on the beach, I just wanted to enjoy looking at them and not worry too much about details. Sometimes simple enjoyment can get swallowed up by worrying about the technicalities and the minutiae of identification.

The sun was now sinking lower over the outer expanses of the Humber Estuary, casting a golden diffused light on both sea and land as we made the reverse long trek back across the sands of The Breach to our final destination, Grange Farm near the Spurn Bird Observatory at Kilnsea. Here  were meant to be two Black Redstarts and after a little wait I saw one and Hugh saw two, perkily hunting insects on a barn roof.

We went back to the Canal Scrape Hide for a final dusk watch, just in case a Jack Snipe flew in but all that came was a single Black tailed Godwit, while a couple of Water Rails slipped out of the reeds, doubtless feeling re-assured in the dwindling light. It was five in the afternoon and dusk had brought our day of birding to its conclusion.

We retired to the Crown and Anchor pub at Kilnsea for a meal to sustain us on the long drive back to Peterborough and then set off into the night, tired but very pleased with our day of birding.

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