TEXT ONLY VERSION
Generally, my birding falls into two main categories – local patch and foreign trips. I don’t tend to twitch, certainly over long distances, although I am always tempted if I know of a new bird for my UK list or something juicy in the North-east. This has resulted in a very limited experience of birds and locations in other parts of the country, hence the decision to take a week off work and look at birds around the UK.
The original plan had been for three of us to do this as a group, at least for part of the week. However, circumstances prevailed, and I was left to complete the task myself, something which I was more than happy to tackle. I didn’t know where I was heading until the night before I set off, since the decisions on where to go were to be based on a balance on which “rarities” had been reported, and the speciality birds from other regions which I would like to see. The latter would include East Anglia, the South-west, and Scotland. Since I had spent a few days in Scotland a couple of years ago, a South-easterly direction on the first morning was the order of the day.
Equipment was simple – a car, walking gear, optics, video camera, and a few choice field guides (I am one of the first to admit that I am far from an expert in identification, and they were fingered well throughout the week, along with the sites guide). Many miles were covered (over 1600), and the general plan was to be at the preferred location early each morning, and check for birds on the pager throughout the day. This often resulted in a journey late afternoon, and finding accommodation early evening. The latter was often a B&B pub, which strangely all hosted local cask ales. It would have been bad manners not to sample these!
Hartlepool (Day 1)
First landfall after much deliberation over the birds around the country wasn’t too far from home. A juvenile Woodchat Shrike had been around the Croft at Hartlepool for a day or two, so an extra night’s sleep at home resulted in arriving here well after first light. No other birders were around – always a good thing – and no sooner had I walked through the open gate of the Croft, than a spuggy like bird flew up from the ground to mid height in a straggly buddleia. This was the first of two encounters, the second being also non-shrike like, semi-hiding half way up another bush in the gardens. Another few birders appeared during the next half an hour, but had to wait until I had left the scene to score with their own views.
Another relatively short jaunt found Flamborough Head. The weather had deteriorated swiftly after leaving Hartlepool, with a strong southerly wind bringing in plenty of rain. I did make a short detour via Filey Country Park on the way, where a Wryneck had been reported, but decided against the venture due to poor weather. The quarry at Flamborough was a juvenile/female Rustic Bunting, a species I had seen only once before many years ago. It had been seen again early morning, with an iffy second sighting not long before I arrived at the scene of the crime. Despite the report being from a stubble field, the actual sightings were from a single bush in the field. Busy flocks of mixed House and (occasional) Tree Sparrows provided some entertainment during the wet vigil, but the only reward was an eventual Whinchat (and hiding Magpie) on the bush.
The intermission of the day was a long drive through poor weather to the North Norfolk coast, and Cley in particular. Despite having seen one or two before, a Red-necked Phalarope on Simmond’s Scrape was worth the drive. It had been late morning when the last report appeared, but the bird was indeed at the rear of the lagoon when I scanned from the hide, and was thusly watched for about an hour and a half until the light began to fade. There were other birds of interest, the main being a regular female Marsh Harrier quartering the reed beds, and a pair of Spoonbills in flight teetering over whether or not to land on a distant lagoon. A Kestrel zipped in front of the hide to the spot where a female Wheatear had been feeding, but it looked as if the latter had escaped with its life when an empty-taloned falcon departed the scene.
Cley (Day 2)
After a good night’s sleep at the George Hotel in Cley, I woke up early with the monstrous void that is a late breakfast – 8.30 at the very least. Hence, a two minute ride in the car found me back at Cley Marshes. The rain of yesterday had subsided for a short time at least, and I made my way towards the hide overlooking Simmond’s Scrape again. Quarry this time was not the Red-necked Phalarope in particular (which as it turned out was on the North Scrape), but for Bearded Tit along the boardwalk. A quartet of Egyptian Geese took off and arrowed overhead, and I followed a Weasel along the planks of the boardwalk itself. A seat half way along provided some height to look over the heads of the rushes, where the calls of the reedlings were tantalisingly heard. Some time was spent at the task, with only brief glimpses to show for the effort.
After a brief visit to Daukes hide, I rounded the scrapes to emerge on the opposite side in Bishop Hide, which may have offered a different perspective. Highlight was what appeared to be a young Water Rail erupting up and over the reeds offering the briefest of views. On the walk back to the car and the call of breakfast, a Hooded Crow was something of a shock. This is a Norfolk rarity, and I didn’t know at the time that this single misfit had been in the area since July. A hunting Sparrowhawk in the same field was much more predictable.
The target after breakfast was the East Bank of Cley, for hopefully better views of Bearded Tits. This hope was rewarded many times over. The reedbeds seemed alive with the birds, usually marauding in flocks of up to 20-30 birds. They were first spotted from some distance away, but were eventually seen just below the track along the bank. A few Cetti’s Warblers were also calling from the confines of the reeds, and a couple of birds may have been seen, but were not 100% identified. 4 more Water Rails were also heard but not seen. The lagoon to the East of the bank, just below the shingle, was alive with waders, but particularly notable for Little Egrets. This vista exemplified the upwards expansion of a bird that was at one time a major catch, with 23 on the open water.
With the rain starting again, I decided on the coastal journey to Hunstanton Cliffs, where a Wryneck had been in residence for a day or two. The rain had faded again when I arrived here, with tales of the bird perching in the open on fence posts occasionally. This proved to be no idle boast. After combing the narrow band of vegetation on the seaward side of the lighthouse, the bird obligingly and repeatedly found the comfort of the fence posts to its liking.
Welney Wildfowl Trust
And so on to Welney, where a Wilson’s Phalarope would provide an ideal contrast with yesterday’s smaller mite of the same family. This was an easy one – it was spinning its way amongst a throng of wildfowl directly in front of the main hide. I decided on the quieter option of the open observatory hide, where only one or two birders were stationed. About to start filming, some dimwit sat near to me, with the excuse that the closed glass hide was too noisy. No sooner had I started the video camera running than he piped up with “are you videoing then?”. I don’t think he saw the irony in the comment. However, a stroll to the more distant Lyle Hide was even more of a treat. 2-3 Short-eared Owls were quartering the open pasture, but more entertainment was dispatched by a Barn Owl. It was gliding over the meadows, when it suddenly wheeled and sprang on to its quarry. Some minutes later, it took off with what looked like a vole, only to be hassled out of its catch by a female Marsh Harrier. Directly in front of the hide was a lone Whooper Swan, which seemed a little early, and above my head (in the hide) was an active Swallow’s nest with well grown young still being fed. The parents were at one time both perched in the eaves of the inside of the hide, with one making an error of judgement when it tried to leave via a closed window!
Dunwich Heath (Day 3)
Today was a day of contrasts – a notable birding hotspot proved disappointing, the rarest bird of the trip thus far was somewhat boring, and the highlight of the day was a pre breakfast sortie.
To the latter first! As with yesterday, breakfast wasn’t until 8.30, so I made the 20 minute drive to Dunwich Heath. I was met with the warm glow of early morning sunshine, and plenty of moist dew underfoot. Target bird here was Dartford Warbler, and they didn’t disappoint. To the not too distant sound of a Green Woodpecker, a pair of scratchy calls helped pinpoint the birds to a bush not far from the path, only 5 minutes or so from the car. The weak sunshine lit up the birds, one of which perched at the top of the bush. Having made the mistake of leaving the now fully charged camcorder in the car, I switched to observation mode, and trained the telescope on the showy individual. At the time, scores of Meadow Pipits were passing overhead in a southerly direction, along with lower numbers of hirundines. The first 5 of subsequent hundreds of Barnacle Geese formed skeins heading towards their breakfasting fields. When trying to follow more Dartford Warbler calls, a family party of Stonechats was followed across the heather.
Minsmere has long been a prime birding destination, and many a birder is likely to have claimed foreign hotspots as being “like another Minsmere”. It was not at its best today. A strong southerly wind was blowing across the area, and this may have kept some of the reedbed species down. Some Bearded Tits were seen, with a quartet particularly close, but not in the impressive numbers of Cley the day before. The scrapes held plenty of birds, but these were almost exclusively eclipse wildfowl, with only singles of Avocet and Grey Plover the wading representatives. There was also a large raft of Wigeon offshore, found when searching for the young male King Eider which had been here for some time. It apparently liked a parading swim from Sizewell to Dunwich each day, but waited until long after I had gone to do its daily dip.
Then on to Abberton Reservoir, and my first ever birding mission within the confines of Essex. This is a large and on the whole monotonous waterway, with newly constructed banks holding little vegetation. That being said, one or two scarce birds had decided to make this their home for a day or two, including a Semipalmated Sandpiper which had taken a couple of hours to identify when found on Sunday. The problem was that there were large numbers of birds on the small spits of exposed mud, and these mostly at some distance. Thankfully, most were wildlfowl and larger waders (Lapwings and Black-tailed Godwits galore), leaving much smaller numbers of smaller waders (mainly Ringed Plover) to sift through. A likely trio of (probable) stints was one of the distant throng, so I made the decision to make the short yet muddy trek to the furthest hide. No-one was there, but I picked up a likely candidate, which turned out to be the aforementioned Semi-P, roosting on one leg, but giving scopable views. A Black Tern zippering up and down the open waters was definitely a more interesting feature. Before setting off for the journey to Devon (and the thrill of avoiding accident holdups on the M25), a visit to Layer de la Haye Causeway at the end of the reservoir added a much more obliging Yank in the form of Pectoral Sandpiper. A chap shooting off multiple megabytes of SD card memory on his long lens next to me seemed to have some great shots of the bird for his blog or some such, until he turned to me and asked what the smaller brown bird was next to the Ruff! He now knows that such a bird as a Pectoral Sandpiper exists!
Prawle Point (Day 4)
This destination had been in my mind for some years, the objective to see Cirl Buntings in Britain. I had seen this species on other trips to the Med in past years, but this prime site for a limited distribution bird in the UK seemed to stand out. The locality was much different to what I had expected. I pictured a cliff top car park, with a sparse bush lined coastal path, and copious buntings. The only part of this vision any where near the mark was the latter. The scenery was so much more impressive, and the coastal path a dream – cliff lined shores with a rocky backdrop, and next to no-one to share it with. Bliss! It didn’t take long for the bunting host to enter the scene, with obliging birds being buffeted by the strong south-westerlies early into the walk. They remained common throughout, and a male was even singing amongst the cliffs. The only birds which outnumbered the buntings were Meadow Pipits, and probably Pied Wagtails, which may have been passing through. Raptors were in the form of a very pale Common Buzzard, and a pair of Kestrels quartering the area. I did meet a local birder who mentioned a House Finch which had been in East Prawle for some time. Before I left Prawle Point, I videoed a bird which looked very much like a juvenile or female Carpodacus in the company of Goldfinches. Apparently, the bird in question was a full male, yet this made the situation interesting!
This site proved to be the opposite of Prawle – hugely disappointing. The NNR is set back from a mini Blackpool-by-the-Devonish-Sea (sorry Blackpool!). I hadn’t expected Dawlish Warren to be such a seaside town (or village in reality!). The warren is a large spit licking the Exe estuary, and can harvest a good range of birds. One problem I had was that the tide was very low, rendering the hide overlooking the estuary more or less useless. The walk along the dunes was particularly uninteresting, with only a couple of Stonechats and a flyover Grey Wagtail for company.
Enter the need for a rarity. I had seen Spotted Sandpiper a few times before in Britain, but the added bonus of a lovely view across the Exe estuary, a nice walk along the canal towpath, and virtually no-one else to share the spoils was a tonic indeed. This bird had been at the end of the canal, seen from the “garden” of the Turf Hotel for some days. It was also an extremely easy bird to nab, given its habit of feeding to and fro along the mud edge, not far from the shore, and also being one of the only small waders to be seen. It did have the company of a Redshank, as well as a Black-tailed Godwit and very long billed Dunlin (resembling a Curlew Sandpiper in many ways) throughout. I wanted decent video shots of the bird, so sat rooted to the same spot for some time as the tide slowly crept towards me. The end result was a very close Spotted Sandpiper. Earlier, it had also tipped me off to a flyover Peregrine – while I was watching, it craned its head sideways in alarm. A Little Egret also tried to get in on the act along the same stretch of the shore.
Mevagissey – Lost Gardens of Heligan (Day 5)
Where? The message came out mid afternoon the previous day that a Green Heron had been found at this mysterious place. Erroneously placed as SSW of Mevagissey by Rare Bird Alert, I headed for the area after drinking in close views of the Spotted Sandpiper at Exminster, and located the spot NNW of Mevagissey. It was as I suspected – a tourist gardens with padded entry fee (£10) and a late opening time (10am). Another worry was that the bird had been reported as seen from a hide – I could only imagine how many irrational twitchers would be lining up and jostling for pole position.
On the bright side, the late opening of the gardens allowed for a laid back breakfast at a nice B&B in Mevagissey. I eventually rolled up to the car park of the gardens at 9.15. What I couldn’t comprehend was the empty car park – no massed twitch here then! I was also second in line at the entrance gate. The gardens summarily, and pompously, opened the gates at 10am prompt, with still only about a dozen birders to show. However, the good news was that the staff had already located the Yankee wanderer, and a BBC wildlife crew was now on the filming job. The pond hosting the heron was a tortuous trek through the gardens, and the hide more of a gypsy caravan with shutters! It took some time for the Green Heron to be even glimpsed – I ticked a bottle green and rufous head and neck initially, since it steadfastly refused to come out of its cover alongside a narrow part of the pool.
Eventually, the throng of 50 or so – still not a mass twitch by any standards - nervously moved as one to the more open part of the pond, where the bird could be seen in the open from the aforementioned hide. It took up residence on a bare branch, showing a more adept skill at talking large dragonflies from the air than fish from the water. Final view before I left the gardens (some 4 hours after entering them) was a much closer bird from the path alongside the pool.
This is probably now one of the premium seawatching sites in the country, harvesting huge numbers of impressive seabirds at its height. This usually goes alongside a planned visit with appropriate winds at the correct time of year. I probably had the latter in place, but the former was in the lap of the gods. The location is terrific – a small village in a valley surrounded by low cliffs jutting into the last vestiges of the western English Channel. The brilliant sunshine of the morning had plunged into a wet gale on arrival – with decent south-westerlies forcing the showers almost horizontal. However, a short walk along the coastal path found a natural respite from the wind, and the rain had by now ceased. My vantage point looked down on the sea, and had a wide field of view. I spent almost 2 solitary hours in this spot, and turned up 4 Balearic Shearwaters and 2 Arctic Skuas during this time. Main passage was of Gannets, and smaller numbers of Kittiwakes. A handful of auks looked most likely to be Razorbills.
Porthgwarra (Day 6)
Back again to Porthgwarra (7.30 – 10.00), where the wind was still fairly strong but had shifted slightly towards the South-east. The rain which greeted me yesterday afternoon had subsided to a much more pleasant dry sunshine. Best plan was again to walk a little way uphill to find the shelter of rocks, and seawatch for an hour or two on the lee side.
The most obvious passage birds were again numerous Gannets, many passing very close in to the shore. Following a pair of early shearwaters, which could not be clearly identified, a slow but steady stream of interesting birds went by. 3 Balearic Shearwaters prefaced 3 later Manx Shearwaters (both species passing as a pair and then a single bird). One of the 6 Arctic Skuas had the tables turned, since an obviously larger Great Black-backed Gull harried it for some time. The separate Great Skuas had a much easier time of their flypast.
There were also a few interesting incidents. 3 Pied Wagtails heading directly out to sea looked a little strange, but they were presumably migrating southwards for the continent. A flurry of some of the local Feral Pigeons was enough to see a large female Sparrowhawk scattering them just behind my clifftop perch. The best encounter was a pair of noisy Choughs only a few metres over my head, with a third bird landing a short distance from me briefly. After their first tentative return around a decade ago, seeing these slender corvids is not the surprise it once was, although they are apparently yet to breed around Porthgwarra.
Last good bird of the trip was a very confiding Snow Bunting. I had aimed for and achieved locating Nanquidno, since it had been the spot for a few bits and bobs over the last week, including Siberian Stonechat, Firecrest and Lapland Buntings. A few birders were already present, and reported no joy this morning. The area might well have been worth more coverage, until I was told by one person of a very tame Snow Bunting a mere stone’s throw from my overnight gaff at Penzance. After parking the car on the seaward side of Newlyn, the cycle track where the bird was purported to reside was quickly found. A mere 5 minutes walk along this track, and the bird was summarily found, happily feeding on a small patch of man made shingle adjacent to the tarmac of the track. It was quite happy to pose this way and that before an approaching walker seemed for some reason to dish out concern, and it flew a short way along the coastal rocks.
Just before final assault on the motorway network for home, I decided to
head for Budleigh Salterton, just South-east of Exeter, for a trio of Glossy
Ibis which seem to have been in the area for some weeks. This should have been
a doddle – field next to the cricket pitch, and next to the River Otter. No-one
had mentioned to the birds that they were honoured guests, and should stay put
for visitors. A walk in both directions along the footpath adjacent to the river
revealed nothing except for a lone Little Egret. After a sit and cup of coffee,
I returned to look again in one of the nearby fields, to find the three birds
at the opposite corner, mainly out of view while looking for food within the