Sunday 30 May 2021

Of Avocets and Gannets - Part Two 24th May 2021

Monday morning arrived and Mark and myself discussed what we would do. Norfolk was looking distinctly underwhelming birdwise so we decided to go to the RSPB's Frampton Marsh Reserve in the adjacent county of Lincolnshire. Our reasoning being there was more chance of seeing waders there than anywhere currently in Norfolk.

A quick coffee and croissant from the store at Burnham Deepdale and we were all set. We left around 7am and the drive took an hour, crossing the flat landscape of Lincolnshire on roads that stretched for miles without deviation, passing through an agri-desert of huge farm fields that used to be fens but now were harbouring whatever crop had been sown in them. I tried to imagine this landscape before it was turned to intensive farming but became too depressed at what had become of it.

We arrived at Frampton fairly early in the morning with very few people around and set about birding.Sadly there were precious few waders or anything else to spark the birding juices and we found ourselves driving to the end of the reserve and parking near to the sea wall.

Mark was getting excited about a Thrush Nightingale that had been found singing at Flamborough Head in North Yorkshire and announced that if there was any more news on it this morning we would be going for it. Fair enough. I was totally in agreement. He was doing the driving and a Thrush Nightingale is a very rare vagrant to Britain. It would be nice to see one, both of us having only ever seen one each and in my case that was in Shetland a long time ago.

While discussing the logistics of getting to Flamborough, we noticed two pairs of Avocets that were guarding their newly hatched young, cute tiny balls of fluff already showing signs of the distinctive upturned bill. The families were feeding on a marshy flash right by the track we were standing on.

Avocets are a strikingly coloured large wader with black and white plumage, possessing a long and  extraordinary bill that is recurved towards its tip and which they sweep from side to side when feeding in the muddy water where they find their food. They are iconic, being surely the ultimate symbol of what can be achieved if protection is provided and the right habitat is created for a particular species. In 1947 concerns after the end of World War Two led to a large area of coastal East Anglia being flooded to deter any future potential invasion and this created the ideal habitat for Avocets, which had been extirpated from Britain for over a century due to  habitat loss, egg and skin collecting.Four pairs, presumably from the populations found in Europe nested at Minsmere in 1947 and a reserve was created for them which is now the world famous RSPB Minsmere Reserve, currently threatened by EDF Energy wanting to build a nuclear power station right next to it. 

The Avocet also became the emblem of the RSPB and a symbol of the bird protection movement. The nurturing of the first Avocets has been so successful that now there are over 1,500 pairs nesting in Britain, 50% of which are on RSPB Reserves throughout England.Many more come to winter here on coastal estuaries and reserves, with up to 7,500 being present during the winter months.In Europe there are estimated to be between 37-54,000 pairs breeding. Avocets are even a rare annual visitor to my home county of Oxfordshire in Spring, as birds presumably migrating, pass through the county. I can also recall seawatches in April and May on the Sussex coast and the thrill of seeing long lines of migrating Avocets, heading east, low over the sea.

Avocets are notably aggressive in the breeding season, both to other species and amongst themselves, despite the fact they nest in loose colonies. When the two respective families by the track came close a territorial dispute ensued with much calling, flying about and aggressive posturing amongst the adults whilst their young completely ignored the commotion and got on with the urgent business of feeding.

The territorial dispute gradually escalated until the adult Avocets were regularly flying up into the sky and even landing on the track very close to us. 

I noticed that when other birders came along the track, one pair  forgot their differences with their neighbours and went into a distraction display, feigning a broken wing and grievous injury, fluttering along the track in an attempt to lure away the perceived danger to their young. 

All of this behaviour was a heaven sent opportunity to put our cameras to good use and record this iconic species and this aspect of its breeding behaviour. All birds are beautiful in flight and the Avocet is no exception so forgive me the large number of images.

For the next half an hour we indulged ourselves with the Avocets but RBA (Rare Bird Alert) put an end to this when their app. confirmed the Thrush Nightingale was still singing at Flamborough. 'Right, let's go' Mark informed me and with no further ado we headed for East Yorkshire.

Three long hours spent crossing the Lincolnshire Wolds and then the Humber Bridge eventually got us to Flamborough and we found fifteen or so birders scrutinising some stunted willows from a steep cliffside path. The nightingale had been seen and heard to sing from here earlier in the day but at midday, unsurprisingly it was not singing and after a frustrating hour we gave up, planning a trip to nearby Bempton Cliffs to see the seabird colony and then returning to Flamborough in the late afternoon, when we felt the nightingale might be more inclined to sing. From conversations with local birders it looked likely that seeing it would be a whole different matter to hearing it. No one had seen it well as it was always in deep cover and had only been partially visible through a tangle of branches and twigs. Oh well!

It is but a few miles to Bempton Cliffs from Flamborough and despite dire warnings from the local birders about a lack of parking due to one of the car parks being closed for 'covid security' we found a space easily and went through the usual RSPB faff of track and trace and showing membership cards.

Bempton is well known not only for its seabird colony but also for its thriving population of Tree Sparrows. It is one of the few places now where you can be guaranteed to see them and on getting out of the car they were immediately obvious, chirping loudly and making themselves highly visible in the trees and bushes around the car park and cafe area. There were already a number of fully fledged young evident as well as adults.

The Tree Sparrows were of course nice to see but everyone takes the short walk to the clifftop viewpoints to get up close and personal with the Gannets. Bempton's Gannet colony is expanding rapidly (14,000 pairs and rising) and space is now at a premium for nesting sites. This means that often you can get within a few metres of this magnificent seabird as they find unoccupied pieces of cliff, usually the last to be taken because 

they are near to the cliffside paths and viewpoints. 

The Gannets show no obvious signs of recognition or allowance for the assembled humankind gawking at them and come close, both when on land and in the air. Their eyes are expressionless, betraying no emotion as they perch on the cliff top or sail past on the wind currents. 

To see them thus is totally exhilerating and looking through the camera lens you become detached from the distractions of the many other birders, photographers and general public sharing the viewing platforms with you. The cliffs are not the exclusive domain of the Gannets, although they dominate by sheer size and numbers. Rows of gentle looking Kittiwakes nest on narrow secluded ledges, while sturdy Fulmars revel in the wind currents, performing aerial manoeuvres of which any acrobat would be proud, hanging in the wind with feet outsplayed acting as wind brakes, their wings acting as rudders. Razorbills, dinner jacket black and white, stand like blunt statues on impossibly narrow ledges or mass on the sea far below with the more populous Guillemots and the occasional Puffin.

Fulmar Petrel





It is early in the season and the cliffs are still being prospected by many of the seabirds, territories are being established and nests constructed. We found an area on the cliff right by a viewing platform and where the Gannets were coming to pluck grass to construct their nests.So close to the viewing platform were they it was hard not to feel you could lean out and touch them. A number clustered on a slope of grass, plucked as if by a lawnmower to just an inch high from the attentions of their huge bills, while many others cruised past watching,  as if curious and checking on the progress of their fellow Gannets. It was a constant, ever changing, never ending procession of Gannets, gliding past on enormous wings or landing to collect a beakful of grass to construct their nest.

I could have remained here all day watching these magnificent birds as there is never a dull moment and to be able to observe these birds so closely, going about their natural existence and apparently without disturbing them, must be almost unique on mainland Britain. No wonder it is so popular a place with the public.

There was sound too, an insistent growling background from the Gannets and higher pitched urgent cries from Kittiwakes, echoing from the nesting ledges on the tall cliffs. Smell too, a faint sickly aroma, that comes on the wind, a combination of gauno and rotting fish but somehow in tune with the teeming life that has transformed the cliffs into a city of birds.

Heady stuff!

News came through that the Thrush Nightingale had been heard singing again at Flamborough so we  made our way back there. About twenty birders were lined up along the track but from the nightingale there was nothing. I  went to the other side of the stunted trees to stand on my own away from the crowd. Looking into the tangle of lower branches and twigs of the trees, almost at ground level, I saw a small grey and brown bird for a fleeting moment before it was gone.Was it the Thrush Nightingale or could it be a Dunnock? Who knows as I never saw it again. For some time afterwards there was not a sound, until there came a curious low trill, vaguely similar to a Wren, repeated several times, an alarm of sorts, the nightingale surely but still no sight of it. Then the shortest burst of distinctive notes,  just for seconds, came from the hidden depths of the trees and bushes, followed by silence. Forty minutes later came another seconds only snatch of song to tease. I looked at the impenetrable foliage.We would never see it through all that cover. Recognising a lost cause we left it at that, close but not close enough and headed back to Norfolk.


Not a bit of it. 

The Gannets at Bempton had truly made my day😊.

Friday 28 May 2021

Of Avocets and Gannets - Part One 23rd May 2021

On Sunday Mark and myself left for three days of birding in Norfolk. It was a long planned and longingly anticipated trip, both of us keen to get over the disastrous events that have convulsed the world these last eighteen months and try to find in birding something that was familiar and re-assuring.

With the easing of restrictions we were relatively free now to go birding virtually anywhere we chose and Norfolk is always a good bet for birds, although the poor weather has meant that there have been precious few chances to see what we would term 'good' birds.

We were staying at the hostel in Burnham Deepdale, a place we have stayed at before so we knew what to expect which was comfortable and basic self catering accommodation at the eminently reasonable price of £25.00 per person per night. In fact we had a very large room with en suite facilities so could have  no complaints. There is a well stocked village store next door where you can buy food and drink. The North Norfolk coast has been gentrified within an inch of its life and the store reflects this by being rather upmarket with prices to match. I'm talking Bollinger Champagne and Quails eggs amongst the other more expected artisan loafs, cheeses, olives and other delicacies.

We arrived at noon and quickly settled in. Then, having triumphantly solved the toilet roll dispenser initiative test in our room, we were all set for an afternoon of birding along the adjacent coast. We chose the nearby  RSPB Reserve atTitchwell which was, as it always is, relatively populous, but it was very disappointing as there were very few waders in evidence, in fact very few birds at all. Even the Avocets which are usually abundant were notably scarce.

There had been reports earler in the day of a swift with a white rump being seen from nearby Holme and currently there were a lot of Common Swifts flying low over Titchwell's lagoons and main path, hunting insects in the cold wind.We thoroughly checked the flock for over half an hour but there was no sign of any swift with a white rump. It was no great loss as it was thought the bird involved was an aberrant Common Swift, masquerading as a mega rare White rumped or Pacific Swift.Now wouldn't that get the adrenalin running?  However a photo published on the internet showed that the swift in question undoubtedly had a white rump but also white on its undertail coverts as well. So near but so far, and content we had not missed a mega rarity we left the swifts to their endless hawking of insects and walked out to the beach.

On the way I found a pair of Little Terns on the last lagoon before the dunes.The female had stationed herself on a distant mud bank and remained rooted to the spot while her mate busied himself hovering above the lagoon, close to the path and every so often dropped like a stone to seize a small fish which he took back to his mate, who noisily and greedily accepted it while her mate returned to find yet another fish to keep her happy.

I presume this was a form of bonding prior to nesting but could not help but reflect on how the male tern seemed to have got the short straw in all of this, having to constantly feed his very demanding mate.

The male, when seen close, was a smart and charismatic little bird with a tern's typical bouyant, energetic flight and blessed, courtesy of long pointed wings with a touch of elegance. Slim and angular are the adjectives that spring to mind when regarding this bird, neatly patterned in maritime shades of white and grey with a large head, capped with black apart from a white forehead and a long yellow dagger of a bill tipped with black. An attractive combination of colours, the female looking virtually identical to her forever active and solicitous mate.

We moved onwards to the beach. The wide expanse of sand and sea never fails to entrance me.Here the soul can lose itself in the sound of surf and the cries of seabirds. The stretch of sand is so wide and extensive  it is impossible not to feel a benign isolation and oneness with the elements. The sea and its distant horizons always do this to me, bringing the hope and expectation that there must be something better beyond.

Reigning in my fantasies I scanned the shoreline for any wading birds. The tide was slowly coming in, gentle waves describing lazy curves on the sand's contours but vast areas of sandy beach were still to be covered and right out at the confluence of sand and sea small shapes, about a dozen, were running back and fore.They were Sanderling, bound for the Arctic Circle to breed but for now stopping to refuel before making another prodigious long flight northwest.

A Sanderling's life is one of virtually constant motion, running, picking at and probing the wet sand, stopping to double back and examine something and then speeding up to catch their fellow Sanderlings feeding twixt sand and sea. They live constantly in the open. Night and day. No hiding place but  in perfect harmony with such an existence. Following the retreating wave lines, they run out in the  shallow water as the sand is exposed  then return shorewards in the vanguard of another incoming wave rippling across the sand.They are the natural harvesters of the countless tiny morsels being borne in on the seawater. 

If they stop it is only for a moment in time, a brief sleep maybe, with one eye closed, one eye open, for this is how they rest, half the brain shut down at a time.They twist their body so the open eye scans all around whilst with bill snuggled into fluffed back feathers they embrace a brief moment of comfort and stillness. 

I walked out on the sand to get closer to them and as is often the case they showed very little concern at my presence. If you get too close for comfort you soon know as they run away parallel with the sea at an incredible speed on blurring black legs, like some clockwork toy that has been wound up, released and abandoned to run its random course. Flight comes as only a very last resort.

I watched them countless times. fussily squiring the lapping sea as each ripple moved in, all the while probing the soft sand for food. I reflected on how different it was for them here to the Sanderling I see at my local reservoir, where they have to pick morsels from the unforgiving concrete.Here in a more natural environment their black stub of a bill has free access to probe the soft sand and seawater.

There is a wildness here, out on the sand, that can catch one unawares. Space enough to forget any fellow humans on the beach as it is never crowded, all of us give each other a wide margin as if aware that we cherish this connection with wildness and semi solitude in a crowded world.

Reluctantly I turned my back on the shore and headed back into the reserve

Time was pressing and we were going for an early evening meal at the Jolly Sailors and then back to our room with a couple of beers to share. Even now the covid pandemic weaves its malignant influence into our lives as we forewent the opportunity to sit in the hostel's lounge. Safer on our own. This accursed virus has so affected human behaviour. Like a spectre it forever haunts one's thoughts and actions.

to be continued