Friday 10 January 2020

My Third Eastern Yellow Wagtail 10th January 2020

A business appointment in Chelmsford Essex yesterday, meant that I could plan to go and see my third Eastern Yellow Wagtail in the space of three months. Having already seen two individuals of this newly split species my only incentive to go and see this one was that it was a male and in a much more attractive plumage than the other two. It would also be instructive to spend time observing  the bird, the better to understand and compare the subtle plumage variations of this species, as undoubtedly others will now be discovered in the months and years to come.You never know, I may even find my own, but to do so I will need to know what to look for.

The bird itself was frequenting open farmland near to an unremarkable village called Sedgeford in north Norfolk, where it favoured two large heaps of dung to feed on and according to reports was very approachable. It has been present for over two weeks at Sedgeford and looks like it may  attempt to spend the entire winter there. It is remarkable that no less than two individuals are attempting to winter in Britain, both near the east coast and one wonders if this form of the Yellow Wagtail complex has been overlooked in the past. Maybe birders are taking more interest because it is now a full species, as records seem to be coming on a more regular basis. On the other hand, perhaps this is just an exceptional year for the species to put in an appearance in Britain.

Essex, being nearer to Norfolk than Oxfordshire, I called my sister who lives in Harlow. also in Essex and arranged to stay the night there and leave very early in the morning to make a two hour drive to Norfolk.

All went well as I left Harlow at five the next morning, taking it steadily and driving well under the speed limit along the already busy roads to East Anglia.There was no need to hurry as it would not be properly light until at least eight. I finally came to a stop in Sedgeford just after seven thirty and then followed the directions given by RBA (Rare Bird Alert) and drove out of the village northwards, for a mile, through a landscape of wet, muddy and bare winter fields. I had hoped there would be someone already there to show me where to find the dung heaps but I was too early and out of luck, so parked by what I thought was the correct place but was none too sure if it was.

I lowered the car window and the cold Norfolk air rushed in and banished the cloying warmth of the car's interior. The sky was full of geese, Pink footed Geese, noisily arriving from their roost out on The Wash, looking for a beet field in which to spend the day, feeding and resting.

Another car drew up alongside me and the driver enquired  'Where do I go for the wagtail?' 

'I was about to ask you the same' I replied. 

A man then came out of an adjacent house to open his gate and noting our confusion told us we needed to drive further down the road to the next track on the right that lead out through the fields. Two more cars stopped to join us and in convoy we drove a short way further down the road.

We parked on the grass verge, got our birding gear and  the four of us walked along a wet and muddy track.

Two Grey Partridge scuttled across the large fallow field to our left as we walked up the track. Soon we came to the  now well publicised dung heaps, situated in a little open area on our right.

The dung heaps

Would the Eastern Yellow Wagtail be here?

It took all of a minute to find the wagtail. It was the only bird here, feeding at the base of one of the dung heaps, just as everyone had reported it as doing on previous days. The wagtail's pale yellow plumage was in stark contrast to the dark mound of dung, as it wandered around the wet ground and puddles seeking sustenance. We stood, watched and admired, took some photos and then the wagtail ran towards us until it was no more than fifteen feet away, completely unconcerned. Brilliant, just brilliant. I admired its much more colourful and strongly patterned appearance than had been evident on the previous two duller individuals I had seen. Its head was a subtle bluish grey with a bold white eyebrow running above and flaring out behind its eye. The upperparts were greyish brown with a slight olive caste and the underparts yellowish white with patches of deeper yellow. Each side of its breast still showed a vestigial dark smudge, a remnant of its juvenile breast band and thus identifying it as a first year bird.

We watched it for around ten minutes and it looked settled but then, without warning, it rose silently from the ground and flew off to where we had just come from. I followed its flight in my bins and saw it drop over the track, to land behind a hedge bordering the vast fallow field where we had seen the partridge earlier. We did not follow but stood and waited, assuming it would soon return, as every prior report said it was particularly faithful to the dung heaps.

A very cold wind was blowing unhindered across the prairie like fields. A huge gathering of Pink footed Geese were landing to feed on a distant beet field to my right,  their squealing, bickering calls coming to us across a shallow decline in the land. Then the volume increased as the entire flock, maybe in its thousands, took alarm from a passing tractor and rose up into a multicoloured sky of pastel grey, blue and pale gold, there to circle around, before descending to another more distant field. This scene is the essence of north Norfolk in winter, evocative and made memorable by the undulating contours and desolate emptiness of the fallow beet fields with huge, windy skies above, complemented by the querulous cries and sight of thousands of geese, in ragged formations, strung across the sky or clustered in ranks on the dank wet earth below.

A winter landscape in North Norfolk
We stood and waited for the wagtail to return as more and more birders arrived up the track. From four we increased to thirty but still there was no sign of the wagtail. Chaffinches, Dunnocks and Pied Wagtails visited the dung heaps and a male Yellowhammer briefly sat on telephone wires to bring some diversion. Over an hour passed before a diagnostic buzzy call signalled the wagtail was back, or at least that is what we assumed, but it kept on going and disappeared again, far beyond the dung heaps. I mustered a resigned shrug and another freezing vigil ensued but at this point doubt was beginning to set in. My resolve was wavering. 

I consoled myself with the knowledge that I was one of the lucky ones this morning, having already seen the wagtail and very well too. Peter, a birder friend from Oxford joined me, having driven to Norfolk through the night on an abortive  trip to see a Lesser White-fronted Goose that had been frequenting a field near to Kings Lynn yesterday. At least if he saw the Eastern Yellow Wagtail his trip would not be in vain as he had never seen this species either.

Lesser White-fronted Goose is now very rare, a mega, due to its rapidly declining world population and many birders were very keen to see this one in Norfolk but to their frustration it seemed unwilling to remain in one area for more than a day and for days it is not seen at all, as it roams around the vast open spaces of north Norfolk with the Pink footed Geese flocks. Much of the farmland is inaccessible or invisible from public roads or paths which makes matters even more difficult in locating the goose. Yesterday it was seen really well from a public road but today no one could find it anywhere. 

Never mind. The wagtail was the prime target for me today but it was certainly not behaving in its usual compliant manner. By now I had lost all feeling in my wellington encased feet and my fingers were following suit  but I stuck it out, determined to wait just a little longer and see the wagtail one more time.

The cold, tiredness and boredom served to further undermine my resolve. 'I am going to give it  ten minutes more Peter and then I am going to the car to warm up and find a cafe. If the wagtail comes back I will return'.

A few minutes later I heard the wagtail's distinctive call as it dropped from the sky and landed in the fallow field on the other side of the track from the dung heaps. It could not have landed in a better place, right by the assembled birders.

Everyone made for the side of the track and there was the wagtail, stood on the wet ground. Eventually it began wandering across the rich  earth, giving everyone excellent and prolonged views in the process.

It walked towards us, completely unabashed at the sight of thirty to forty birders intensely watching and photographing it. Parading back and fore, it then stood on a little ridge, looking around, before, calling loudly, it flew across the track to descend onto the ground in front of the adjacent dung heaps.

We made our way back to the other side of the track and the wagtail duly strutted around before us, coming very close in the process. Here it remained feeding for some minutes before making its way to the dung heaps. We had been watching the wagtail for twenty or more minutes but all things come to an end and it flew up and away, back out into the middle of the fallow field again. I surmised its change in behaviour from favouring the dung heaps may have come about because the heavy rain that had fallen overnight had made the earth in the field so waterlogged it forced invertebrates to the surface and gave good feeding opportunities to the wagtail. It could not be coincidence that some Black headed Gulls, Pied Wagtails and  Blackbirds also seemed to be joining it in taking advantage of the situation.

Cue a mass departure of birders. Everyone happy and content with their exceptional views of this ultra rare bird. I was so glad I  had waited and, dare I say it, even more pleased to be able to get some circulation moving in my feet and say farewell to this bleak and sodden landscape.

We decided to reward ourselves with a breakfast and mug of tea in a tiny cafe at nearby Heacham and very nice it was too as we sat in the warm and savoured the joy of another successful twitch.

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