Monday, 12 March 2018

Thoughts on The Beast

With The Beast From The East in the rear view mirror, driving past the frozen drifts that scatter the countryside today I reflected on what was an unprecedented few days in my experience. I remember well digging my car out when I lived in Norwich around 5 years ago, before the call came in from work to remain at home. If anything, temperatures were even colder then, but this year the sheer amount of snowfall and strong winds caught almost everyone out. To be genuinely cut off in the village was a unique experience (the road to Rockland the only passable route, and the shelves of the village shop were ransacked with no plan nor recipe in mind) and I am sure we will talk about this for years to come.

The local wildlife made instant changes to behaviour. On the final day of February, a female Reed Bunting appeared amongst the snow in the back garden, and 2 males arrived over the next couple of days. Fieldfare and Mistle Thrush became firsts for the garden, both hanging around until Saturday the 3rd when a gentle thaw began and the garden was empty by mid-morning. A fascinating Thrush v Thrush battle played out in the arena of the lawn, and a Barn Owl and Kestrel showed interest in proceedings, flying through once each between Wednesday and Friday.

I managed to get to Rockland Broad, which turned out to be a great decision as 9 Pochard (7 drakes) were on the broad, a bird that has not graced the year list for over 3 years. Weather can have that affect I guess. Down on frozen Claxton Marshes, I watched a little sad as Green Sandpiper, Golden Plover and Common Snipe drifted aimlessly past me, presumably looking for a piece of open ground or water to feed. No doubt some of these birds would have perished over that week. Very unusual to see these species so close, but desperate times and all that. On the river, I found Wigeon, Teal, Gadwall and Mallard all sheltering from the wind against the river bank. A tiny Wren and a Robin shared the same hollow tree stump, away from the Arctic conditions.

Now things have warmed up (a little) I had the Moth trap out on the night of March 10th. First trap session this year incredibly. One stunning Oak Beauty ushering in Spring at Claxton, along with the timely March Moth (3), Chestnut (2) and Dotted Border (2). A single Oak Nycteoline was in the bathroom.

 Claxton Marshes
 9 Pochard, record flock size for the patch, Rockland Broad
Oak Beauty

Monday, 19 February 2018

Hawfinch cracked

I began the half term week at Wrentham cemetery, whereby upon arrival I raised my head to the bare branches towering over the yews and there atop the tree was a Hawfinch, easy as that. I was starting to think this species was getting the better of me, having dipped at another Norfolk Churchyard on 2 occasions. This bird was soon joined by 2 more, and I enjoyed views of them feeding up high before flying low through the churchyard and disappearing into a Holly bush. Great to hear them calling too.

The weekend's WeBs counts were disappointing, and after a week of ice on the car early in the morning, I had hoped for more especially on Rockland Broad. Teal, Coot and Tufted Duck are expected species in small number. The Black-headed Gull pre-roost of 180 was more impressive. Teal and Mallard were the only birds I was able to record at Church Marsh, although the small private lake behind the church held at least 2 Wigeon and a male Shovelor, a first for the year. 2 Little Owl called from the gun club meadow, another first for the year and always nice to hear that they still hold onto this territory, seemingly not bothered by the full bore club. Lesser Redpoll, Siskin and Marsh Harrier the other bits of note. Singing and calling has picked up on the patch in general, and yesterday a singing Marsh Tit at Rockland was added to the list of songsters which now includes Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Song Thrush, Mistle Thrush and the odd burst of Cettis's Warbler.

A walk down to the river through Claxton Marshes yesterday, and a record count of 92 Mute Swans were loafing out on the grazing meadows and marsh. At least 4 Buzzards loudly proclaimed their presence, unsettling the gathered Corvids. A single Barn Owl hunted distantly as the light began to slip away.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

WeBs recap and old red returns

My wife nonchalantly dropped into conversation that a Red Kite had been present for most of the day out the back of the house on Friday. Out for most of the day Saturday, I finally managed my own sighting earlier today. The heavy, drooping wings and forked tail unlike any other Raptor in the valley and a welcome return to the patch. I am almost convinced that breeding took place last summer, but from September onwards the birds disappeared and I never had the smoking gun in the form of a nest or a juvenile to prove my thinking. Hopefully this will be the year. In other local news, I am still enjoying at least 1 Tawny Owl on my drive home from work in the evenings. A bird remains around Pond Farm, and on Thursday evening I had a second near the old church. The bird at Pond Farm is around half a mile away from a substantial block of deciduous woodland, so unless it is using a garden or not breeding at all, this individual must be making a short commute each night to what on the face of it looks like fairly inconspicuous farmland. Presumably the local Rat population is healthy enough for it to continue its endeavours.

Having made clear a few targets in my last blog, it was with great surprise and excitement that I watched a male Goosander flying down river at Surlingham Church Marsh on the 20th. Not even on the list, I exclaimed! I love how patch birding can still surprise even after over 5 years patching at Surlingham. Goosander are unpredictable in the valley, and more reliable at quiet inland lakes and pools such as Sparham or Thorpe Little Broad. A great bird to add to the lifetime list here, and after a relatively lean year in 2017, this was a species I had never recorded, in the bag, before January slinks away. Elsewhere on the reserve, a Nuthatch was calling near the church, at least 2 Bearded Tit pinged from the reeds near the gun club and 17 Mallard were on the lagoon. Most interesting was a possible Siberian Chiffchaff. At the time, I noted that this was the palest Chiffy I had seen (bar of course an actual Siberian) with grey tones to its plumage. The breast though was strikingly pale. Annoyingly it never called, and remained low in scrub. I saw it on and off for around 30 seconds before it moved away, lost to view. I expect this probably was a Siberian, but without the call to clinch it, it won't go down as anything more than a very pale Common Chiffchaff.

At Rockland the following morning, I was struggling to keep warm with the temperature hovering around zero. Warming the cockles slightly was the long-staying drake Goldeneye, nice to get this not only into the New Year but on the WeBs count too. 7 Teal, 2 Coot, GC Grebe 2, Little Grebe 2, Mallard 2, Tufted Duck 3, Kingfisher 1 and Heron 2 completed the count. Again, Bearded Tit were pinging here too, this time on the Rockland Marsh side rather than the more likely Wheatfen land. 2 Marsh Tit, 2 Buzzard, 1 Marsh Harrier and a single Snipe rounded off the morning before I returned home to warm myself up.

Friday, 19 January 2018

Tawny in the hedge

For the last few days, arriving home in the dark via Carleton St. Peter I have been treated to splendid views of a Tawny Owl. If anyone reading knows where Pond Farm is, drive past there around 5-6pm and you have a bloody good chance of seeing this bird sat atop a hedge. One night, I pulled up alongside it and we just stared at each other for around half a minute until it grew a little more anxious and flew. I have watched it hover by a verge and drop into the undergrowth, and tonight I had a nice flight view over the road and beyond into the field by headlight. The local Tawnies are getting ready to raise a family once again, and are fairly vocal. Perhaps this bird is a youngster, as the territory does not seem ideal for breeding, but then one cannot tell how far they wander in a night.

Before the New Year we made a family visit to Santon Downham in the hope of connecting with the Parrot Crossbills. I did not let on about the tolerant Otter family on the river, but need not have worried for one individual performed superbly in front of a small gathering on the river bank, close enough for even Rose to see. Although tough to beat the wilderness that accompanies a sighting on a Scottish loch or coast, this was certainly my best sighting in terms of views. No Crossbill sadly.

The following day, we blanked with Hawfinch at Sotterley Park but an evening stroll down the marsh allowed for a close encounter with both Barn Owl and Woodcock. I managed to time it right so that I was on the track to the Beauchamp Arms just before darkness, with the Corvid roost erupting above me. A sight and sound I never tire of.

The New Year crept in and so did the birds. A drake Goldeneye on Rockland Broad remained from at least the 5th of December, and at the staithe a Grey Wagtail is again over-wintering. The common Raptors have all been recorded, including a male and female Marsh Harrier at Surlingham which bodes well. 

A Hume's Leaf Warbler had been present at Waxham for over a week, so on Sunday the 14th I caved and went for a look. I had not added a bird to my British list since the Cliff Swallow at Minsmere (probably due to the fact I rarely choose to make those longer journeys) and this was a species I had wanted to observe for some time. On arrival I was the first birder on site, and walking past the impressive new Shangri La Passivhaus I instantly heard the vocal Hume's calling. The first couple of notes were similar to a Coal Tit, but then the classic call I had been listening to on my Aves Vox app kicked in. The call began to drift beyond the cottage, so I followed north past Bide a Wee cottage and managed a glimpse of the elusive Phyllosc as it dived into a bramble. I did wonder whether that would be it, and although other birders had turned up not all knew the call so I felt a little isolated with this one. Thankfully, as I was creeping through some low scrub south of Shangri La, the Hume's decided to make an appearance right in front of me. I whistled and got others onto the bird, which again called and moved within 2 inches of the ground gleaning whatever insects it could find from the foilage. It was pale, with grey tones especially around the mantle. The supercilium was there but not bright, it didn't jump off the bird. What was most striking was the behaviour, reminiscent of a Cetti's Warbler. I didn't even bother with a photo, and just counted myself lucky that I had observed the bird so closely as it went about its business. 

WeBs count tomorrow, so back to the patch. A few targets for the year ahead- Merlin (always), Med Gull (hoping for a bird in the Rockland pre-roost), Firecrest (migrant, has been recorded but not by me), Long-eared Owl (have been recorded relatively locally in recent years), Marsh Warbler (the ultimate) and finally Glossy Ibis (maybe the likeliest of the lot?). 

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Midwinter Solstice seems like a good time to reflect

After a quiet November, I had to wait until the 20th of December for one of the patch days of the year. I began with a casual pre-lunch stroll down to Claxton Marshes, hoping for the first Short-eared Owl of the Winter. The marshes themselves were quiet, save for the small gathering of Mute Swan and 2 hunting Marsh Harriers, both female. The dyke alongside the footpath caught my attention however, with the pings of Bearded Tit emanating from the lower stems. There were at least 3 birds here, at least 1 a male, and these birds constituted my 3rd, 4th and 5th records in Claxton. Much closer to home than the last; a garden bird next?! I watched them feed for a while, then lost sight and turned my attention to the wet flashes across the grazing meadow, which had caught the interest of a group of Lapwing and Starling. One of the Harriers flushed a Snipe, and walking back I looked up to hear the monosyllabic call of a Pipit, and one I had been after for a while- this one was a Water Pipit, my first on the patch! I know that Ben gets them every year, often in off-piste locations, but this year he had seen flyover birds in Rockland and birds on the deck at Church Marsh, so I had felt like this Winter was a good chance to connect. And so it proves to be.

Later that afternoon, I met Ricky and James for a walk to Rockland Broad and back. Beguiled by the local Muscovy Ducks and slowed by Ricky's missing phone, we headed out as dusk approached. We had at least 2 Redpoll call overhead and briefly circle before being lost to view. Upon checking the water levels, I flushed a Woodcock from the damp carr woodland. The Broad at first appeared to hold very little bar a c300 strong Black-headed Gull roost. A flash of white of a diving Duck, and my hopes were raised. It was indeed a Goldeneye, a stunning male. This is not an easy species at Rockland, and I believe this is my 4th or 5th record. According to the sightings sheet, this bird has been here since the 9th and presumably arrived on the cold weather system that swept the UK in early to mid December. A nice addition this late in the year. At the back of the broad, mist made Raptor watching difficult. A large group of Bearded Tit went unseen, and singles of Marsh Harrier and Buzzard slipped through to roost.

Looking back over my notes for the past couple of months, a ringtail Hen Harrier was certainly the bird of November, at the back of Rockland Broad on the 4th. 8 Little Grebe on the 19th were a site record count, and 2 Woodcock over Claxton on the 18th of December flew in the absence of a traditional Woodcock moon. Away from the patch, I was lucky to catch up with one of my favourite species. Sotterley Park in Suffolk, along with neighbouring Henham, have historically been Hawfinch breeding and wintering sites but have been blank for at least 5 years. The nationwide invasion of this bullish Finch has bought birds back to Sotterley, and on the 3rd of December I connected with 2 (1 male) in the dell at Sotterley. I wonder how many birds are here altogether, and fingers crossed they hang around to breed. I need to spend more time here to find out what is going on. A roost count would perhaps be the best way of establishing numbers.

My year list on the patch looks like it is all done at 118, my lowest total since counting and 3 off last year's total. Water Pipit was bird 150 heard or seen on or from the patch, so a genuine landmark. Looking ahead to next year, Merlin still evades me as does Firecrest and these would be 2 likely additions one day. A singing Marsh Warbler is still the number 1 target! I can only put the lower than usual total, and lower number of blog posts down to family life, and I wouldn't change this for anything. I am still lucky enough to have the patch on my doorstep, and Rose's fledgling list already includes the likes of Barn Owl and Marsh Harrier. What a place to grow up.

Away from home, we have a family holiday in Spain to look forward to in April which although not for birding I hope to see a few Vultures, some continental Butterflies and enjoy nice wine amongst the mountains. Although a year with endless highlights, it has not always been a cake walk and the holiday is much deserved for Debs and her dad for reasons I won't go into here. UK-wise, I was talking with James about a trip to see the Marsh Fritillaries in Lincolnshire and we just need to pick a decent weekend nearer the time for this to come off. Black Hairstreak is another target, and I recall a weekend either side of Father's Day should work for this species and perhaps Wood White. Cirl Bunting? Maybe......patch? Without question. Seeing and understanding the wildlife in the South Yare Valley is what continues to drive me, and I look forward to the arrival of the first Willow Warbler back at Church Marsh just as much as the first Autumn foray to the coast.

Merry Christmas to all my readers, and I will endeavour to blog just a little more often in 2018.
 Church Marsh at its best

Hawfinch country.

Friday, 27 October 2017

The month of promise......and westerlies

Like a child in a sweet shop, I studied the charts for my two weeks off in October. However, the shelves appeared empty of treats, for westerlies were forecast to set in for the foreseeable future. But were they really empty, or is this just a Norfolk-biased perception? Understandably, there has been much lamenting on Twitter of 'the worst Autumn in Norfolk's history' and indeed I believe more Autumns like this will follow with climate change impacting on both the frequency and ferocity of Atlantic storms. Having said all this, migration across our isle has continued and the expected visual changes that glorious Autumn brings are all there to see.

On the 8th, I was at Church Marsh early doors and this was the day that the Redwing officially reached the arrivals lounge. Flocks of 52 went north, 165 South. Brambling and Redpoll also called and flew over the bus shelter hide. This was fantastic to observe and proof that migration doesn't have to be rare for it to be an enjoyable spectacle.

One thing with the mild days and nights has been a longer than expected Mothing season. Not that the seasons end of course (I intend to trap throughout winter weekends when cloud persists overnight) but the middle of Autumn has proven to be fruitful. Merveille Du Jours are regular, and classic October Moths like Feathered Thorn, Blair's Shoulder Knot, Green-brindled Crescent and November Moth are all often on the other side of an egg box. Moth of the Month and probably the year was a migrant, Norfolk's 9th L-album Wainscot. A flurry of records over the last few weeks meant that this was one I was ready for, if not expecting. I was absolutely thrilled to find it sat on the conifer above the trap, and tentatively added a photo to Twitter to have it quickly confirmed as an L-album. The wonder of social media, and mild nights in October. Doubt I would have caught that in premium east coast birding conditions.

Continuing my exploration of the Covehithe-Benacre area, I was back on the 18th and flushed 8-10 Twite from the cliff face. There were a good range of Waders on Benacre Broad, including Knot, Dunlin and Sanderling. There were 10+ Goldcrest amongst coastal scrub, a single Chiffchaff and a few Thrushes had come in on the North Easterly Winds. Redpoll and Siskin moved overhead, and Gannets ploughed a course at sea. It finally felt like Autumn. As it turned out, the next day saw a few rares filter through off the back of the short window of easterly winds including a Radde's Warbler in Suffolk and a small fall of Yellow-browed Warblers.

It was great to meet up with birding pal Paul Newport ( on the 25th, and after a quiet Moth trap we headed to my new hunting ground of Benacre, a site Paul was familiar with, albeit as a young lad. Glorious sunshine accompanied us throughout the day, perfect conditions for birds wishing to move. Upon arrival at the ruined Covehithe Church, Paul picked up a Brambling overhead flying north. Walking along the cliff edge, again a group of 5 Twite were flushed, followed by a further 2 hanging on the coattails of a charm of Goldfinch. Small numbers of Meadow Pipit and Skylark moved overhead throughout the day, but it was the Redpoll migration that really caught our attention. A steady trickle of these attractive winter visitors moved through all day. The broad was looking interesting, Grey Plover and 50+ Black-tailed Godwit in with the more common Waders. A pair of Kingfisher were perched on a fence as we arrived, and when panic set in amongst the mud and reeds the culprit became obvious- a juvenile Peregrine was circling above us. I remarked to Paul that whilst the Norwich Peregrines were always nice to see, you can't beat a true estuarine Peregrine at one with its surroundings.

As if to underline this fact, another juvenile Peregrine showed itself to us at Hen Reedbeds, engaging in what turned out to be a failed hunt and strike on a pigeon. Curlew, Dunlin, Redshank and Ringed Plover probed the mud just ahead of the rising tide. What a superb day for Bearded Tit this was turning out to be, with sightings at Covehithe Broad and now again at Hen Reedbeds. The best record of all though came at Claxton Marshes, new for here and suggesting Beardies have had a good breeding season. Finally, we observed 5 Hornet feeding on the late-flowering Ivy on Mill Lane Claxton, and hopefully Paul got some decent pictures of these impressive beasts in the tired afternoon sun.

I am yet to encounter any winter Raptors on the marsh, but signs that things are moving are there. A Nuthatch on the edge of Claxton Marshes was a second record for the parish (much suitable woodland is private) and one bush held 5 Goldcrest on the 24th, and a pair of Bullfinch uttered their sombre call as I was walking home.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

A patch lifer, forays into Suffolk and of course some Moths

On the 25th August I attended the Norfolk Moth Group meet at Brickyard Farm Surlingham. By midnight the temperature had dipped to 9 degrees celsius and the mist was settled over the reeds, which put pay to the session but nonetheless a few interesting species were trapped. Oblique Carpet was a new Moth for me, as was Round-winged Muslin. We also trapped Latticed Heath, Webb's Wainscot, Currant Pug, Pinion-streaked Snout and Bulrush Wainscot. Dave Appleton took a few micros away with him, and came back to us with some good news: Gynnidomorpha permixtana, was new for Norfolk and we think East Anglia. I look forward to coming back to Brickyard in the future, hopefully when the temperatures hold at 15+ and we catch more Moths than Hornets!

Returning to work after a long hot summer is always tough, so when news broke of a White-winged Black Tern at Rockland Broad on the 4th of September I felt properly summer-sick. Thankfully, I was able to get to the broad straight from work. The heavily moulting Tern was seen hawking for insects over the broad with a small crowd of enthusiastic twitchers. My first views of this species in a few years, and crucially my first on patch! Marsh Terns really are a joy to watch, but with dinner and baby duties calling I was not able to stop for long on this occasion. Rockland had been delivering of late- I had an Osprey on the 28th August too.

We the Autumn equinox under our belts, that time of year is here where I turn my attention firmly to the coast. With a whopping 2 week half term to play with in October, I cannot wait to get to Waxham at first light with Pink-footed Geese commuting overhead and the calls of Redpoll and Siskin punctuating the air. Until then, and with the weather still fine, I have been exploring some of the not so well trodden areas of Suffolk. I had assumed Corton was the closest location from house-coast, but it actually looks to be Benacre/Covehithe. For a few weekends now, I have been checking out Benacre Broad, Beach Farm, Covehithe Church and Kessingland/Benacre sluice. I twitched a Wryneck at the latter site with the girls in tow, more to get a feel for the area but never a bad day when you get to watch this odd-looking Woodpecker feed at close range. Beach Farm looks promising, on fine days I have had Whinchat, Wheatear and Lesser far. It has been years since I have been to the broad, and how erosion and time has changed this site. I must remember to bring a scope though, that much hasn't changed!

I felt an instant connection to this part of the coast, probably due to the nostalgia of visits 10 years ago with mum before and after uni, when I seemed to have so much time on my hands. I recall seeing my first Honey Buzzard at Covehithe Church, and first flock of Snow Bunting on the cliffs here. Wherever you turn, you are birding in beautiful surrounds with a stunning backdrop. The permissive paths and byways that cut through the Benacre estate look promising for passing migrants, and surely Yellow-brows filter through these hollows. So, whilst the October image for me is still very much Waxham north to Happisburgh, I do want to see the seasons through here and with a 33 minute drive from door to coast, it would be silly not to do so. I've worked Caister, Corton (a bit) and enjoyed both, but neither 'felt' like Benacre. Had to quantify or define, but that matters to me when I'm out birding.

Back home, a Grey Wagtail down river at Surlingham was typical for the time of year on the 1st of October. My first pinks have been heard over the village, and I uncovered a Merveille du Jour in the Moth Trap at the weekend, all signs that Autumn is here now. However, on the final day of September a Wall Brown was in the garden, and another was at Rockland Broad along with a Small Copper and Large White. Looking out of the window this evening, I wonder if we have seen the last of the Butterflies on the wing this year.

I was pleased to receive an email from birding friend Paul Newport who had found a Yellow-browed Warbler on his patch over in The Brecks. Paul is a passionate patcher, and I know he will have been thrilled to find this Siberian sprite close to home. You can read an account of that here:   With the wind in the west, and barring a Tanager at Wells, I need to get off the sofa and find my own this weekend.