Bungay Swift Walk (and maybe swift pint…..) July 20th
In spite of the COVID pandemic, the Swifts have returned to Bungay as usual; and as usual, need counting before they fly back to Africa at the beginning of August.
So, virus not withstanding, we are planning once again to hold our Swift Walk on Monday July 20th, albeit in a different format. The ‘pint’ bit may be possible by then, but at the time of writing (June 23rd) we can’t anticipate this.
Five routes have been mapped out, hopefully hitting all the Swift hotspots, which converge on the Butter Cross in the middle of town from all the edges. The plan is to assemble groups who are willing to walk in from these points on prescribed routes, observing whatever distancing measures are recommended at the time, meeting up more or less at 7.30om at the Butter Cross, where we will compile the numbers.
Walk departure time will be 6.45pm; for those on slightly shorter routes (4 and 5) – take your time!
St John’s Rd (Bungay Medical Centre) – Southend Rd – Laburnham Rd – Botolph St – Lower Olland St – St Mary’s St – Butter Cross
Flixton Rd (Pennyfields) – Boyscott Lane – Castle Lane and up to Castle – Butter Cross
Earsham St (bridge) – Outney Rd – Webster St – Chaucer St – Earsham St – Butter Cross
Bridge St (Smith’s Garage) – Nethergate St – Broad St – Butter Cross
What is important is that we don’t overcrowd, so numbers will be strictly limited to 4 on each route.
Obviously if a group of 4 can be assembled independently (e.g. a family) this would be ideal. However, we really do need to control this, so if you are interested, please email email@example.com where the groups will be assembled.
Please mention your preferred route, but accept that if that is already allocated, we may offer you an alternative.
If all places are already taken, we hope you will not be too disappointed and hopefully by next year we can do it again with less restriction.
We will contact you with confirmation ASAP and your email address will only be used for the purposes of this event.
It is suggested you allow 35-40 minutes to walk the routes, but by all means take longer if you want to.
Binoculars are not really necessary for Swift counting, but please bring them if you want to do some general birding along the route!
The survey is requesting data in three areas: recording Swifts in flight (never easy!); recording traditional next sites, and records of Swifts using provided nest sites (where boxes have been erected).
The BRO site has links to other Swift-related web pages, including the RSPB, Swift Conservation and Action for Swifts.
If you have any confusion telling your Swifts from your Swallows and Martins (which are also in trouble!), you may like to check the BTO’s video highlighting the essential differences:
Those hip young things for whom a PC is an antiquated bit of kit may be interested in the SwiftMapper app for smartphones (Android/IOS). This also links to Swift recording, but there is no need to double-enter data, as the Suffolk survey will be accessing the Mapper numbers at the end of the season. The Swift Mapper will be very handy if you are on the road this summer though, as you can log numbers from wherever you end up.
Look out for further info on the ‘Swift Walk, Swift Pint’ events later in July, when we will be pounding the streets of Waveney Valley towns (Beccles, Bungay and hopefully Harleston) and counting Swifts once this year’s broods are airborne. Then having a pint.
To coincide with this, there will be a ‘just for fun’ Swift-related quiz on the WBC website. You can, of course, award yourselves a prize if you get any of it right…….
Edward Jackson will be giving a talk on the plight of Swifts at Needham Market on June 28th. Details at (paste link into browser) https://www.suffolkwildlifetrust.org/events/2019-06-28-save-our-suffolk-swifts
BTO Surveys in Suffolk: Opportunities to get involved
Although there are probably more birders per square metre in Suffolk than most other counties in the UK, it’s not always easy for the BTO to get the coverage in terms of surveys that the area so richly deserves.
There’s something very satisfying about survey work; perhaps it’s the ‘concentrated birding’ aspect, or the feeling of giving something back in the way of citizen science and contributing to the overall pot of knowledge. There are many who think they should get involved, but perhaps baulk at the perceived commitment, or think they couldn’t for some other reason.
I jumped in a few years back on a BTO Nightingale Survey, and got the bug for it, taking on a Breeding Bird Survey square the following year. Sure, you have to get a bit organised, but I’ve loved doing it to the extent of taking on a second one this year.
So, for those who think they might like to get involved, here are some of the BTO’s current surveys you can take part in without leaving the county. If you’re tempted, get in touch with the regional representative, Mick Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org
BTO/JNCC/RSPB Breeding Birds Survey (BBS):
This involves two survey visits (usually in mid-to-late April and again in May/June) to a 1km square, with two (roughly parallel) transects being walked. All birds present are recorded, whether by sight, song or call.
Although Suffolk has around 50 squares covered, this only represents about 1% of the county area, so there is more work to do.
The survey produces very robust results, the outcome having a significant influence on Government policy.
There’s still time to take a square for 2019 – just get in touch with Mick at the email above for a list of the currently available squares.
JNCC Seabirds Count: Urban Nesting Gulls
As part of the Seabirds Count census, volunteers across the UK will be participating in surveys during the Spring/Summer of 2019 and 2020, from late March to mid June. The count of urban-nesting gulls (April 23rd to May 7th) will provide valuable information on how the UK population of Herring and Lesser Black-backed gulls are faring. This is particularly so in the context of the decline by over 30% in Herring Gull numbers at natural cliff, rocky coast and moorland sites. Is this in any way a result of movement into urban areas, or part of a more general decline?
Again, this count will focus on an allocated 1km square, and be carried out from the ground. Even if the square contains no gulls, the result is important.
One visit is all that will be required, recording apparently-occupied nests, apparently-occupied territory and individual adults, with Herring and Lesser Black-backed reported separately.
Mick really needs help on this one, with 80 random 1km squares to cover!
Farm Woodland Survey
Since 1988 over 22,000 farm woods have been planted in England; usually small and thus quick and easy to survey, checking how these new environments are being colonised.
It involves 4 morning visits between March 15th (it’s now April, so get a move on!) and July 15th, recording all individual birds (and some basic habitat recording). A 1km square may involve a few sites, but several could be covered in a couple of hours.
If checking this one out on the BTO site, it’s found under ‘English-farm-woodland-bird-survey’ in the volunteer surveys pages.
For those who haven’t used this before or have let usage fall away (as I did): the data and site entry has been revised, making it much more straightforward and quick. You can record either a complete list (species plus count) or just a species list, so there’s really no excuse not to do it! This is the basic entry point for anyone considering a bit of ‘citizen science’ and making your birding count!
Please also check out the information on the Rook Survey, which is a separate entry on the News page of this website.
For further information on any of the above, make Mick Wright your first call at the email at the head of this article.
One of the most evocative sights and sounds of Suffolk winter mornings and afternoons are the noisy, black clouds of Rooks and Jackdaws commuting to and from their roosts and daytime feeding grounds – hundreds of Corvid cousins, calling to each other as they struggle against the wind or are blown forward on it.
Soon they will be rediscovering their nest sites – Jackdaws to the chimney pots (and Barn Owl boxes!), and Rooks to the rookeries.
It is at that point that you come in.
Suffolk Ornithologists' Group (SOG) is seeking the help of their brothers and sisters in birding across the county to help in a two-year survey of Suffolk’s Rooks, counting total bird and nest numbers at as many sites as possible.
The last count by SOG (supporting a BTO survey) took place in 1975, with 15,850 nests recorded in 929 rookeries across the county.
Now, generous funding from Suffolk resident Jenifer Bridges-Adams and support from the highly respected naturalist and conservationist Gathorne Gathorne-Hardy, Fifth Earl of Cranbrook has enabled the Rook to once again take centre-stage in this latest survey, taking place in 2019 and 2020.
SOG is hoping that birders will involve their families and particularly any children in the count, as a relatively easy way to engage with the natural world of their own communities. Scout and Guide groups, schools and other local organisations and institutes will be encouraged to participate.
You will be able to submit your counts on the Suffolk Biodiversity Information Service website, where you can accurately map your rookeries and record bird numbers.
This would be the first WBC trip of the year, and we picked a great day to do it. Although the Beast from the East was just around the corner, bringing Siberian winter to the east coast, Sunday 18th February was looking good.
Steve Howell and myself had shown a degree of maturity at Keith and Jane’s wedding in Beccles the day before, and arrived at Thorpeness Mere fairly bright-eyed for an early pre-scan. There was actually some warmth on our backs as the sun rose over the North Sea. We might even have fooled ourselves that Spring was almost here….
The small group slowly assembled, and we spent the first 45 minutes of the day catching the Mere at its most attractive: the hint of mistiness, low-slanting sunlight from behind us, and hardly anyone else around.
Highlight of this section of the day was a group of male and female Goosander (some displaying), handily located fairly centrally on the Mere, with a good representation of other geese, ducks and grebes of a more expected nature – teal, wigeon, shelduck, shoveler, mallard, greylags etc.
Although there usually seems something a little bit weird about the artificiality of Thorpeness, without the mirror of a couple of score of people staring at it, you could almost imagine you are in some earlier version of England.
So to the first scheduled site of the day, half a mile up the road at RSPB North Warren. We were fortunate in that – this early on a Sunday – the whole pull-in opposite the derelict cottage was empty – until we turned up, and then it was full.
Rather like the Goosander at the Mere, our principal target – White-fronted Goose – were amassed obligingly in a large flock in the grass just beyond the cottage, rubbing scapulars with a similar number of Barnacles. And right in the middle of the flock – one lone Brent, which spent a good while disguising itself amongst the Barnacles before departing presumably to find others who spoke its language.
We were diverted from the geese by the ‘there and gone’ appearance of a warbler, atop a nearby bush. Following from reported sightings of a Siberian Chiffchaff at this location, some effort was made trying to re-locate it. A bird eventually flew out – but this was a normal Chiffy. Whether it was the same bird seen earlier, we couldn’t say.
The presence of the White-fronts so close had saved us a slog across towards the old railway line, so we headed towards the hides facing west, looking over the south marsh.
While not scoring anything ‘twitchable’, there’s a lot to be said for scanning wildfowl in good winter light; something about the combination of sun angle and plumage detail, which always seems to be so well organised and demarcated on duck. And here was one of my particular favourites – Pintail, particularly the stunning males, with that elegant white circling up from the breast and round the back of the cheek. It was one of those no-pressure kind of days, where the species list was ratcheting up almost without realising, with the kind of light that makes you realise just how fantastic binoculars and scopes really are…..
We decided to cross over the road, and wander back skirting the beach, in the hope of running into Snow Bunting. However, the public and their dogs had now woken up and feeling like a bracing stroll. Too much activity for too many birds to be found, so we headed back to the cars, lunch and then the short drive up to Hazlewood.
Everyone seems to have their own strategy regarding hitting the tide right at Hazlewood. My own is to look for high tide at Orford Quay and get down there about an hour before; others look for Slaughden or Snape/Iken, but I’ve rarely been let down by mine, so I stick with it.
The landscape had changed; the seed crop which had been breakfast, lunch and supper for the three variants on the Redpoll theme had been taken up. Although the Coue’s Arctic Redpoll had been reported earlier that day, the back-and-forth activity wasn’t apparent. As most of us that had wanted the ‘tick’ already had it, we didn’t hang around the cottages long, and headed for the SWT reserve.
On the way down, we ran into Mr Piotrowski, who was leading a private party round the delights of this part of Suffolk; while his group headed to the base of the field just beyond the houses, we went down to the path along the bank towards the hide.
The good light was holding on, and the sun was again behind us (the advantage of a good strategy!). The tide was also just about right, and was pushing up as we arrived.
Dunlin, Bar and Black-tailed Godwit, Snipe (perched on a fence), Knot, Grey and Golden Plover, Ringed Plover, Avocet, Redshank, Turnstone, Curlew, Little Egret (of course!) all in varying numbers, together with a good range of gulls, including a distant Caspian, probably just short of full adult.
Anyone who knows Hazlewood wouldn’t be surprised at the number of Teal, Wigeon, Shelduck etc.
This is fast becoming one of my favourite Suffolk birding spots; always the chance of the unusual, but plenty of the usual if nothing else turns up! The walk down is great too. A very compact and varied site, and all due to the Storm Surge! I don’t like the hide though….feels like you should be firing arrows at the Normans….
We re-assembled, and decided that as the light was holding out, we should finish the day at Slaughden, where we’d meet up with Steve P. The party was now dwindling, but for those that remained, this was a great place to close.
Firstly, Snow Buntings feeding and drinking on the wall (although they had to dodge the 4-wheel drives of a large quantity of fishermen returning from Orfordness, presumably). Secondly, the odd out-of-context sight of Purple Sandpipers feeding at the edge of the mud on the river in the company of Dunlin and Redshank. Last additions to the list included Barn Owl on the other side of the river, and Red-throated Diver on the sea.
On the way back, I was musing on how many environments – and how many birds – you could access within a few miles on this coast; I’d left the listing to Steve H, but had no idea we’d ticked off 92 species on just one day in February, with no rush, no pressure….
Despite a virtual deluge throughout the day, as promised by Kathy the weather cleared for our guided tour across Carlton Marshes, although the sky was threatening the rain held off.
The evening started with Steve Piotrowski donating a well received £100 cheque to Suffolk Wildlife Trust from Waveney Bird Club.
Our tour guide Matt Gooch then gave a brief explanation of the work done and proposed expansion of the Marshes along with their funding achievements and aims.
Suffolk Wildlife Trust has the chance to buy and restore 384 acres of land for wildlife in the Broads National Park. The land links up three nature reserves that are home to some of the UK’s rarest wildlife.
The Trust have so far raised a total of £557,000 of their required £1 million, so have already raised 55% of their target. They are hoping for private donations as well as Lottery and Heritage funding to make Carlton Marshes a wildlife haven to equal the RSPB’s Minsmere. Every pound donated will be tripled by other funding, giving £3 to the Trust
Anyone who would like to make a donation to assist in the growth of this fantastic site can do so by following the link below to the Suffolk Wildlife Trust website. Remember your donation will be tripled
About 20 members turned up to take part in what turned out to be a very interesting and varied walk.
Our first encounter or non-encounter in this case was the Fen Raft Spider which apparently is quite common lazing in the sun in the dykes at Carlton Marshes. Described by Matt as Britain’s largest spider with two go faster stripes.
Unfortunately despite many pairs of eyes and binoculars we didn’t spot one, the picture shown is a download for those of you who have never seen a Fen Raft Spider.
Undeterred we marched on and were soon treated to the sight of a Chinese Water Deer Bounding through the reedbeds.
Almost immediately after this a Jay was spotted sitting on a fence and shortly after that the same Jay beating and eating what appeared to be a Caterpillar.
Ably assisted by Steve Piotrowski and Roger Walsh, Matt continued our walk through the Marshes stopping regularly to explain the current and proposed boundaries for the Marshes and pointing out birds and items of interest en-route. Reed warblers and reed buntings were singing to us from the reedbeds, while Swallows, Swifts and Sand Martins’ hoovered up the abundance of insects above us. The highlight for me was the male Cuckoo, at first singing high in a tree and later giving us a much better view ( through Steve’s scope) in a dead tree about 100yds from us.
As we walked along the main path, to our left the scrape afforded us sightings of a pair of Egyptian Geese an Avocet, Redshank and Shelduck along with the usual mixture of wildfowl. To our right in the reedbeds Sedge warblers were dodging in and out.
A pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers flew past into a nearby tree and a Brown Hare was spotted in a field by one of our eagle eyed group. Roger Walsh spotted a Hobby briefly before it flew behind a tree and Steve pointed out a couple of Common Terns as they flew overhead.
Having walked a couple of miles we boarded the ferry for a short crossing to the Waveney Inn where we indulged in light refreshment for an hour. Cheesy chips and a pint went down very nicely
After about an hours break we left the comfort of the Pub and headed back to the Suffolk side of the river on the Ferry and despite the alcohol, everyone made it across without incident although Steve managed to stand immediately in front of the skipper, completely obscuring his view of where we were heading.
On landing we immediately heard a Water Rail calling in the reeds beside us but it was well hidden by the dense vegetation. As dusk started to darken the skies we took a slow amble back to our start point noting water voles in the dykes and a distant Barn Owl quartering a meadow as we meandered back to the Car Park.
About 100yds from the car park we stopped to listen to a Grasshopper Warbler singing from a Bramble bush. Although we couldn’t see the bird I am told he was in fine voice, (my ears aren’t what they used to be).
All in all everyone enjoyed a very pleasant and informative walk with a good number of birds seen or heard as can be seen by Steve’s attached list
And lastly the species list:-
Blue Tit 2
Carrion Crow 2
Common Tern 2
Egyptian Goose 2
Great Spotted Woodpecker 2
Greylag Goose 4
Lesser Black-backed Gull 12
Little Egret 1
Reed Warbler 12
Sand Martin 8
Water Rail 1
Yellow Wagtail 1
Barn Owl 3
Canada Goose 2
Cetti’s Warbler 4
Feral Pigeon 3
Grasshopper Warbler 1
Grey Heron 2
Herring Gull 8
House Martin 1
Marsh Harrier 2
Mute Swan 1
Pied Wagtail (yarrellii) 1
Reed Bunting 8
Sedge Warbler 2
Song Thrush 1
Stock Dove 1
Total number of species 57
Fen Raft Sider
Chinese Water Deer
Jay on post
(Despite a 400mm lens this was the best picture I could achieve of our elusive Cuckoo)
This was to be the club’s second expedition to Bulgaria following Waveney Bird Club’s tour in 2013. It was perhaps to be a little overshadowed by the club’s forthcoming, more eye-catching and exotic trip to Kazakhstan, but it nevertheless proved memorable and very successful for a variety of reasons.
Neophron Tours looked after us extremely well in 2013, providing an exceptionally sharp and knowledgeable bird guide in the shape of Minko Madzharov, so we had no hesitation of booking with them again.
In 2013, our tour went without a hitch and our route took us to the Western Rhodopes, then on through Eastern Rhodopes, Sakar Hills to Burgas, followed by a return drive to Sofia via the Vitosha National Park. This meant that we had missed out on the spectacular migration spots along the north-eastern Black Sea coast and the lakes close to the Romanian border, so this tour was to be much more ambitious. We discussed the options with Neophron’s boss, Dimiter Georgiev, at last year’s Rutland BirdFair. Dimiter suggested that we fly to Varna to explore birding sites on Bulgaria’s north-eastern border, and then drive to the Eastern Rhodopes and on to Sofia from where we would fly back. Our intelligence revealed that the Wallcreepers, the main target in the Trigrad Gorge in the Western Rhodopes, had failed to put in an appearance after April 2016, so this site was deleted from our plans (it was related by Minko that the female was thought to have died, and the male had moved to another area to seek a new mate).
To follow this itinerary meant that we had to fly out from Luton and return to Stansted which was a logistical nightmare for Kathy who organised the whole trip on behalf of the club.
There were eight in our party: John Garbutt, Carol Elliott, Paddy Shaw, Stevie Howell, Keith Watkins, Steve Piotrowski, Richard Knightbridge and Paul Jespersen. Keith and Paul had done very little birding abroad and so were going to see a host of new birds.
We had no designated ‘trip photographer’ with us this time, but all those who took pictures have pitched in with bird shots and others that will give you a flavour of the environments we encountered.
Above Madzharavo - E Rhodopes
Asphodel-steppes-endless windfarms at Kaliakra
9 May – Paul
Varna to coastal Dobroudzha
Kravevo – Lesser Spotted Eagle
Balchik (White Cliffs)– Eagle Owl
Bolgarevo – Tree and Tawny Pipits, Whinchat, Stone-Curlews, Spotted Flycatcher, Calandra and Greater Short-toed Larks
Kaliakra – Black-throated Diver, Hobby, Mediterranean Gulls, European Shag (Mediterranean ssp. desmarestii), Yelkouan Shearwater, Savi’s Warbler, Squacco Heron, Pied Wheatear, Common Reed Bunting (thick-billed race reiseri) and Black-necked Grebe
Kavarna – Arctic Skua and Black Tern
Following the precedent of the first trip, the flight was once again an early one; 6am from Luton, requiring a local overnight stay the previous night, in a charming, if eccentric, inn. The more cultured members of the group, on requesting red wine with their supper, were surprised to be presented with a bottle of wine and a corkscrew, as the waitress was “frightened of opening wine in case it went off”.
Notwithstanding some hi-jinks at Luton Airport as we searched with increasing anxiety for the drop-off point for our hired minibus, our group of eight enjoyed an uneventful flight to Varna, on the Black Sea coast of Eastern Bulgaria, and a happy reunion with Minko (our 2013 guide) and his taciturn but endlessly obliging minibus driver Stan. Needless to say, birding began as soon as we touched down at Varna at 11.25am local time, with early sightings of Hooded Crows and Yellow-legged Gulls. The itinerary for the rest of the day comprised a number of stops en route to our hotel in Kavarna. The bus screeched to a halt as a soaring Lesser Spotted Eagle was seen but our first “official” stop, in the vicinity of Balchik, revealed an absolute corker. The bus pulled up and we were confronted on the left-hand side of the road with a high craggy bluff and, in very short time, Minko had located an Eagle Owl – a “life tick” for many of the group. The bird was magnificent, perched high up in the rocky cliff face, preening, while overhead, Alpine Swifts and Red-rumped Swallows made their first appearances of the trip.
Another impromptu stop was brought about by the sight of twelve White Pelicans flying in formation overhead, low enough for close observation. This turned out to be a great vantage point to add more sightings, overhead and across the fields, to the list, including Turtle Doves and a flock of maybe 20 Bee-eaters.
This was followed by a stop in rural Balgarevo, on some scrubby grazing land bisected by a stony path, where birds were in abundance, including Red-backed Shrike, Isabelline Wheatear, Tawny and Tree Pipits, Whinchat, Stone-curlew, Spotted Flycatcher, Cuckoo, Marsh Harrier and Greater Short-toed Lark. We also heard Calandra Lark but the views were very distant. As with many of our stops throughout the week, time was all too short – we would have been happy to stay here all afternoon. However, we moved on, and came to the Kaliakra Reserve. The habitat here is really interesting and varied; rocky coast, reedy marshland, high cliffs, lanes lined with bushes and undergrowth, providing for a good variety of birds: Black-throated Diver, Hobby, Tree Sparrow, Mediterranean Gull, European Shag (Mediterranean ssp. desmarestii), Yelkouan Shearwater, Savi’s Warbler, Great Reed Warbler, Squacco Heron, Pied Wheatear, Common Reed Bunting (thick-billed racereiseri) and Black-necked Grebe.
Once again it was tough to leave such a great spot, but it was time to head for our hotel at Kavarna, which turned out to be very pleasant; fairly modern, with all rooms having sea-facing balconies overlooking trees and bushes, irresistible for a brief seawatch while others wasted time on such trivia as phoning home, having a shower etc., and being rewarded with sightings of Arctic Skua and Black Tern. Kamenitsas all round!
The Steppe joins the sea
Scanning the steppe at Sveti Nikoli
Alpine Swift at Cape Kaliakra
Black-necked Grebes at Kaliakra
10 May – Paddy
Kavarna – Little and Mediterranean Gulls and Harbour Porpoise
Durankulak Lake– Dalmatian Pelican, Little Ringed Plover, Curlew, Sanderling, Turnstone, Wood and Green Sandpipers, White-winged Black and Whiskered Terns, Squacco and Purple Herons, PaddyfieldWarbler,Pygmy Cormorant, Red-footed Falcon, Ferruginous Duck, Garganey, Marsh Harrier, Black-headed Wagtail (subspecies feldegg), Tawny Pipit,Bearded Reedling, Savi’s Warbler and Fire-bellied Toad
Shabla Lake – Citrine Wagtail, Syrian Woodpecker, Quail, Pied Flycatcher, Greater White-fronted Goose, Ferruginous Duck, Gadwall, Garganey, Glossy Ibis and Little Bittern, Wood Sandpipers, Avocet, Ruff, European Souslik and Red Squirrel
The hotel at Kavarna was delightful, made even more so by our second-floor, sea-facing room with a spacious balcony, allowing sea-watching straight from bed – what a way to start the day!
There had been substantial overnight rain and it was cloudy and cool, which of course would suit us completely, being right under the Via Pontica migration flyway in the middle of migration season.
As our eyes slowly began to focus after the tiredness of the previous long day’s traveling, the Black Sea presented us with Little, Mediterranean and Yellow-legged Gulls and glimpses of a breaching Harbour Porpoise, while in the gardens below us, we were visited by a flock of Bee-eaters, accompanied by the songs of Nightingale and Golden Oriole. Thousands of House and Sand Martins and Swallows were passing below balcony level. We had to drag ourselves away from what for us was the world’s finest sea-watching shelter (although Stevie Howell was still dressed like it was Southwold!) to get breakfast at 7am before the minibus journey to the area on the seaward side of Durankulak Lake, also known as Eagle Marsh – the northernmost point of the trip, and only a few miles from the Romanian border.
This was quite familiar terrain to Norfolk and Suffolk birders – a long beach and dunes with reedbeds behind. The weather was fairly East Anglian too, with still a threat of rain and a nip to the wind.
Before descending the steps down to the beach, we’d picked up a small flock of Curlew Sandpipers, accompanied by Sanderlings, Little Stints and Little Ringed Plovers, feeding by the shore line, and it just went up from there. After only about 300 metres walk between the dunes and the reeds, the list included Hoopoe, Hobby, Black Tern, Whiskered Tern, Ferruginous Duck, Squacco Heron, White-winged Black Tern, Black-headed Wagtail, Pygmy Cormorant, Purple Heron, Red-footed Falcon and a “hepatic” Cuckoo, with Yelkouan Shearwater over the sea. This was getting ridiculous, but completely justified the decision to fly out from Luton to Varna, to get at this fantastic area of lakes, reedbeds and steppes.
Savi’s Warblers round here don’t care what time of day it is to start reeling away, sitting three-quarters up a reed in full view, about 50 feet away, and a Tawny Pipit bounced down into the dunes a similar distance off.
There had been some doubt as to whether Paddyfield Warblers would have arrived by now, as many migrants this year had been late. Minko however was determined, as he had been on our previous Bulgarian expedition in 2013, and eventually we had it, hopping around a very nearby reedbed, and giving everyone a good view of what (it has to be said) is quite a plain-looking bird. It is more the context – this is the extreme western edge of its range, so you’ve got to come this far to see it, and it’s still only a ‘maybe’. Timing is everything, as the depressed drummer said as he threw himself behind a train…….
Job done, we drifted back to the car park, but stopped for a brew in celebration small beach-side coffee shop – even here, the surprises continued, with a fly-past solitary Dalmatian Pelican, while Nightingale sang and Turtle Dove purred.
Next stop was Durankulak Lake itself, driving past arable fields that were bigger, richer and obviously farmed with heavy machinery than anything we‘d seen on the 2013 trip. This is Bulgaria’s bread-basket, with agriculture and slightly battered beach resorts side by side. Rather like Norfolk I guess. The other obvious feature was the massive wind-farms, which seemed to stretch all up the Dobroudzha coastline and particularly around Cape Kaliakra. Anyway, this is another lovely spot and a contrast to the coast itself. The lakeside path passed below sloping scrub and grassland, low bushes and small trees, with reedbeds full of Great Reed Warblers; their deep, scratchy songs led to a discussion with Paul as to whether they were singing the intro to ‘Right Place, Wrong Time’ by Dr. John or the guitar part to ‘The Distance’ by Cake – maybe both, at the same time….
It was here we picked up on the first Barred Warbler of the trip – fantastic birds, with a sharp contrast between the liquid, Garden Warbler-like song and the harsh alarm, like a Whitethroat going through puberty. Angry, bar-chested and yellow-eyed, giving rise to its German name of Sparrowhawk Warbler. I quite like psycho-cuckoo as an alternative.
The short walk – which included a boardwalk and slope leading up to an archaeological site – kicked off another full page-worth of birds in the notebook, including Lesser Spotted Eagle, Savi’s Warbler, Common and Whiskered Terns, Black-winged Stilts and a host of others, slowly becoming the ‘standards’ of a Bulgarian day out; Cuckoo, Nightingale, Corn Bunting accompany nearly every foray outdoors round here.
So, into Shabla town to pick up some lunch. This is slightly inland, and seemingly untouched by the tourism and agricultural economic benefits of the coast. Grabbing edibles from small shops and a hotdog kiosk is a bit of a lottery – sort-of pastry things, slightly greasy and filled with cheese and spinach, a bit of fruit and a bottle of drink is the standard approach. There’s also plenty of bags of toasted seeds and garish sacks of snack items, full of salt, potato starch and chemicals you can’t pronounce. I’d noticed in 2013 that you could tell the economic fortune of an area by the gardens – more well-off belts had decorative gardens; in poorer areas, they were mini-allotments, and I suspect most veg is grown at home; there’s little in the shops.
But fuelled up on our diesel diet, we headed for Shabla Lake – or rather, a track alongside it, as the lake itself was obscured by more reedbeds as the gentle walk meandered between them and trees and shrubs before bending round across grassland and up to the road we’d parked on, making this one of the rare circular walks.
I just checked my notebook for this walk and the last site of the day, and my species list alone numbered 75 (in about 3.5 hours) – and I probably missed some! Highlight however was probably a Citrine Wagtail, which we surprised on a small water-body, surrounded by marshy ground. This I think was Minko’s bird of the trip, even better than……..nope, you’re gonna have to read May 11th for that one…..
A great, slow walk, picking up all the regulars, plus another Lesser Spotted Eagle, Red-footed Falcon, Short-toed Lark, Syrian Woodpecker, Tree Pipit, Savi’s, Squacco Heron, Roller, Hawfinch and another star bird – Little Bittern. Steve P made a persistent effort to locate a calling Penduline Tit, which remained elusive, (translated as ‘impossible to find’) before we moved onto the cattle-cropped grassland, inhabited by Souslik, the cute little marmot-like mammals that the Bulgarians have a very impolite nickname for, which I can’t tell you. There are no rabbits in Bulgaria, so these chaps make fine raptor-tucker. Isabelline Wheatears use their burrows for nest-sites too – sometimes sharing an active one with Sousliks – ‘excuse me…sorry…coming through…how’re the kids?’ etc.
A last bonus of the grassland track was a Quail, with its distinctive ‘Wet m’ Lips’ call. Needless to say, we didn’t see it.
We made our way back to the bus along a deserted, straight road, surrounded on both sides by full-flowering lilacs, filling the air with perfume, before the short drive to the final site, around a section of the Shabla Lake complex itself. A short walk through a small wood revealed a coastal, reed-fringed, shallow lake, which wouldn’t have looked out of place on the North Norfolk coast.
(A later conversation with Dimiter revealed he had been responsible for its creation, in his pre-Neophron days in conservation)
The weather and light was much improved now as we scanned the open water, small islands and reedbeds, finding Curlew Sandpiper, Little Stint, Wood Sandpiper, Glossy Ibis, Dunlin and Little Ringed Plover amongst the waders. Birds were dropping in and out of the picture constantly – few terns, then a sudden selection of marsh species and Common Tern, then they were gone again.
In the distance, a cloud of hirundines, too distant to identify, numbering several hundred were equally there, then gone. This was obviously an important staging post on migration, as we were to find on a subsequent visit the next day.
So that was it for the first full day birding, and it was time for the trip back to Kavarna, dinner and several bottles of Kamenitsa. Can you have too much of a good thing?
The Birdtrack Brothers at Shabla Lake
Glossy Ibis - Shabla Lake
Lunch break at Shabla
Scanning for Barred Warbler at Durankulak Lake
Early seawatch at hotel
View from balcony at Kavarna
Paddyfield Warbler at Eagle Marsh
Paddyfield ticked and back for coffee...
The optically-disguised Minko
Red-breasted Flycatcher at Kaliakra
Peony Pereegrina in full bloom
Corn Bunting, mid key-rattle
11 May – Keith
Kavarna – Baltic, Little and Mediterranean Gulls and Scops Owl
Cape Kaliakra – Alpine Swift,Thrush Nightingale, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Common Redstart, Yelkouan Shearwater,Black-necked Grebe, Slender-billed Gulls and Common Dolphin
Sveti Nikola – Long-legged Buzzard, Montagu’s Harrier, Stone–Curlew, Red-rumped Swallow, Calandra Lark, Greater and Short-toed Larks, Tawny Pipit, Isabelline and Pied Wheatears and Black-headed Bunting
Shabla Lake – Demoiselle Crane, Glossy Ibis, Baltic Gull, Avocet and Garganey
Today we were to visit Cape Kaliakra, a spectacular peninsula with towering cliffs jutting out into the Black Sea.This is a hotspot for migrant birds.The first birds to greet us on our arrival were many Alpine Swifts.These large swifts put on a fantastic aerial display for us, zipping around at head height.They came so close you could feel the wind from their wings.I could have stood and watched them all day.Fantastic!
We hadn’t moved far from the bus when Minko pointed to a bush and said “Thrush Nightingale singing”.This would have been a lifer for me, but despite our best efforts the little blighter remained hidden in the dense foliage singing its heart out.
Steve P. then found the first of the many Red-breasted Flycatchers we were to see that morning, they seemed to be everywhere on the Cape.
A little sea-watching was called for and to our surprise there seemed to be Black-throated Divers and Black-necked Grebes everywhere you looked.There were at least 40 of the latter, with many in summer plumage.Great views were had by all.
After a short break for coffee (and very nice it was too), we headed back when the shout went up “Slender-billed Gulls!”Another lifer for me and a magic sight as 18 of the beauties flew past in formation just above the sea.
Not a bad day’s birding so far but I was still hoping to see a Thrush Nightingale to add to my list.Our luck was in as one could be heard singing from a nearby bush.I think it was sharp-eyed Steve H who first got onto the bird; he’s definitely so sharp he’s dangerous.Anyway, we all had good views in the end and I was one happy bunny!
Our next stop was an area of steppe at Sveti Nikola (St. Nicholas); this was quite a windy site so we stood behind the van and scoped the area.Lots of Calandra Larks were seen – a large lark recognised in flight by its dark underwing with white trailing edge.Short-toed Lark, Tawny Pipit, Isabelline and Pied Wheatears were also noted along with Black-headed Bunting.
We had an hour or two to spare so it was suggested that we go back to the fabulous Shabla Lake.This would prove to be a wise decision, especially for Steve P.I was one of the first out of the van and set my scope up next to Minko.After a few seconds scoping, Minko leapt up into the air, arms and legs waving like a madman.“What’s up Minko?” I asked. “DEMOISELLE, DEMOISELLE, DEMOISELLE!” he shouted at the top of his voice then proceeded to run around flapping his arms like a headless chicken.
The others were soon on the scene and Steve P was overwhelmed with excitement – he was actually speechless for once! What a moment, a lifer for all of us and especially for Steve P as this completed the set of all 15 cranes for his world life list. Indeed, THE MOMENT of the trip. The drinks were on Steve P that night for sure.
There were still a number of good birds on or over the lake, including both an adult and immature Baltic Gull, but most of us were still mesmerised by the crane! Minko had been on his phone and we were soon joined by Dimiter and a party that had been attending a conference locally. Unfortunately, all the birds on the lake had been spooked and the crane had taken flight and was lost from view just before the arrival of Dimiter’s party. However, they did manage to locate the bird in a field some distance away.
As we returned to our hotel, Minko spotted a Little Owl perched on a chimney and there was a little time for a final seawatch of the day. Another Baltic Gull was seen but little else – but what a day!
Coffee break at Kaliaikra
Black-headed Wagtail at Shabla
Record shot - but it IS Demoiselle Crane!
12 May – John and Carol
Kamchia riverine forests andEastern Balkan Mountains
Kavarna – Little and Mediterranean Gulls
Albene and Batova Forests– Semi-collared Flycatcher, Eurasian Nuthatch, Middle Spotted and Black Woodpeckers
Kamakja Forest – Hawfinch, Lesser Grey Shrike and Little Ringed Plover
Garika Forest– Black Stork, Honey Buzzard, Lesser Spotted and Short-toed Eagles, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Semi-collared Flycatcher, Tree Pipit and Eastern Green Lizard
Diulino Pass nr Danitsovo village –Barred Warbler, Sombre Tit (heard), Wryneck, Woodchat Shrike, Eastern Bonelli’s Warbler, Cirl Bunting and Large Whip Snake
Piroy Reservoir – Crested Lark, Ruddy Shelduck, Squacco and Purple Herons, Ruff, Curlew Sandpiper, Little Stint, Lesser Spotted Eagle and Montagu’s Harrier
On a sunny morning, we looked out from our balcony at the Hotel Venera across the harbour to the Black Sea. A nearby Common Nightingale was still singing as it had in the previous evening. There was some excitement about some Black-headed Gulls – common in the UK but these were the first for the trip and, unlike their UK cousins, were generally still not in full summer plumage. Also seen were the more common Yellow-legged Gulls along with Mediterranean and Little Gulls. We checked out from the hotel and started to drive south.
After a short drive, we arrived at the Albene and Batova Forest – the party quickly fell out of the coach as a Black Woodpecker was heard calling nearby and was seen very well by most. We then saw Eurasian Golden Oriole, Song Thrush, Semi-collared Flycatcher, Eurasian Nuthatch, Middle-spotted Woodpecker and there was constant sound from singing birds including European Robin and Common Starling. We then set off south again through traffic jams in the large town of Varna and joined the road towards Burgas.
We arrived at Kamakja Forest – a pine plantation beside a large sandy Black Sea beach where Little Ringed Plover and Common Skylark were found. The forest is close to a large formerly marshy area that was drained during the communist era and produced Common Nightingale, Lesser Grey Shrike and Hawfinch.
We then travelled to the Garika Forest, which is used as a research area for the study of Semi-collared Flycatchers. Numerous nest boxes were visible and we were able to get very close views of the birds as they returned to feed their young. Tree Pipits were easy to see as were Eastern Green Lizards – vivid green with sky blue heads, they seemed quite common and stayed still until the cameras got too close!
We then travelled through the Diulino Pass near Danitsovo village and parked beside an open grassy area with woodland on the other side of the road. We found more Eastern Green Lizards, Eurasian Nuthatch, some hirundines, Common Nightingale, Barred Warbler, three Eurasian Wryneck were calling and seen, plus Woodchat Shrike and Hawfinch. A Sombre Tit was calling but could not be found. Black Stork, European Honey Buzzard, Lesser Spotted and Short-toed Eagles, were seen, a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker was heard and Minko located Large Whip Snakes under a discarded car bonnet. Eastern Bonelli’s Warblers were heard by some of the party as were Cirl Buntings.
On the road to Orizare we saw White Storks on their large nests that provide important nesting opportunities for Spanish and Tree Sparrows. Passing through the edge of The Balkans, and extra to the itinerary, we travelled to Piroy Reservoir to locate Ruddy Shelduck. We had some amazing views of Crested Lark as we parked the bus and then were able to view a huge flock of Bee-eaters as they hawked insects around the trees along with Green Woodpecker, Woodchat Shrike and Barred Warbler. About 20 Ruddy Shelducks were feeding in the shallows close to the reservoir shore and other species noted included: Common Shelduck, four Eurasian Spoonbill, Squacco and Purple and Grey Herons, three Great Egret, Great Crested Grebe, White-winged, Black and Little Terns, Ruff, Curlew Sandpiper and Little Stint. Overhead, Lesser Spotted Eagle, European Honey Buzzard, Western Marsh and Montagu’s Harriers, Common or Steppe Buzzard of the ssp. B B vulpinus and many hirundines were noted. It was perhaps surprising to find a large colony of Spanish Sparrows nesting in bushes beside the footpath. En route to the reservoir, a few of the party became distracted by the presence of a very confiding Lesser Spotted Eagle that was most obviously nesting nearby. Minko returned red-faced as he was anxious that we had taken the wrong fork in the track.
After the unplanned but very worthwhile trip to Piroy Reservoir, we arrived late at the Hotel Mirana in Sarafovo (north of Burgas) for two nights’ accommodation.
Large Whip Snake
Weather warming up at Piroy Reservoir
Hotel at Kavarna
Lesser Grey Shrike
Semi-collared Flycatcher on approach run.....
First week of life for Semi-collared Flycatcher chicks
13 May – Richard
Wetlands around Burgas
Lake Vaya (also known as Lake Burgas) – White and Dalmatian Pelicans,
Mandra Dam (or Lake Mandra or Mandrensko) – Pygmy Cormorant, Squacco Heron, Black-crowned Night and Purple Herons, White-tailed, Booted, Lesser Spotted and Short-toed Eagles, Savi’s and Eastern Olivaceous Warblers, Ortolan Bunting and Penduline Tit
Pomorie Lake and nearby wetlands – Black-winged Stilt, Pied Avocet, Kentish Plover, Little Tern, Collared Pratincole, Gull-billed Tern, Curlew, Black Stork, Honey Buzzard (passage of 200+) and Black Kite
Severno Atanasovsko Lake – Broad-billed and Curlew Sandpipers
We had a slightly delayed start this morning, reflecting an improvement in the weather that prompted everyone to look for shops selling water. As a result, we left the hotel car park at 8 am, rather than our normal departure time of 7 45 am.
From the hotel, we headed south towards Burgas, where we had our first stop of the day at Izvorska on the eastern shore of Lake Vaya (also known as Lake Burgas), which, according to Wikipedia, is the largest natural lake in Bulgaria. Along this shoreline, there are opportunities to pull off the dual carriageway which runs parallel to the shore. We stopped at one of these locations, flushing a Black-crowned Night Heron as we walked to the edge of the lake, from where we had good views of both species of pelican that occur in Bulgaria. Most of these birds were loafing on large floating rafts. White Pelican was more numerous of the two, with most being tightly packed on just one of the rafts with small numbers of Dalmatian Pelicans spread over a number of other rafts.
Also on the lake were Great Crested Grebe, Coot, Common Tern, Great Cormorant, Pygmy Cormorant and the first Pochard of the trip. From patches of reeds along the shoreline the harsh, grating song of Great Reed Warblers announced their presence.
From Lake Vaya, we drove on to the eastern end of Lake Mandra (also known as Mandra Dam or Lake Mandrensko). Whilst Minko attended to running repairs to his telescope, which had a broken eyepiece, we scoured a shallow lagoon and surrounding habitats below where we were parked. Here there were about 10 Squacco Herons together with three Glossy Ibis; the latter flock had increased to 12 by the time that we drove past this end of the lake again later in the morning. Also notable at this location were the many House Martins that were nesting under the bridge over part of the lake.
Our next stop was along the southern shore of Lake Mandra near the Fakiiska river. Here we had much closer views of pelicans than we had had earlier in the morning, providing good opportunities to hone our skills in differentiating the two species before the flock took off and disappeared – only to reappear later flying in spectacular formation above the hills that surround the lake. A walk along the quiet road that runs parallel to the southern shore yielded overflying Short-toed and Booted Eagles, Lesser Spotted Eagle (including a flock of five) and several Honey Buzzard. Meanwhile, on the lake itself, we had fantastic views of a Pygmy Cormorant perched on a dead branch alongside a Great Cormorant, and of an adult Black-crowned Night Heron perched in the open; nearby, we watched another adult Black-crowned Night Heron, in the margins of the lake, wrestling to swallow a large fish. A few Purple Herons were flushed as we walked along the shoreline.
The next stopping point at Lake Mandra provided long-distance views from high ground. Notable species at this location were a distant White-tailed Sea Eagle, Rollers, our first Ortolan Buntings of the trip and numerous Red-backed and Lesser Grey Shrikes. Also notable was our first Eastern Olivaceous Warbler of the trip; Minko pointed out that they were late arriving this year.
The grassland in the vicinity of the viewpoint was alive with fritillary butterflies, which were reluctant to reveal their underwings, making identification very difficult. A Brown Hare was also seen and was the only record of the trip.
We left Lake Mandra and stopped at a supermarket to buy lunch, from where we drove on to Pomorie Lake located to the north-east of Burgas. Here we found shelter from the sun at the Salt Museum Visitor Centre, from where we saw large numbers of Black-winged Stilt and Pied Avocet together with Sandwich Terns, and smaller numbers of Common and Little Terns. As we settled down to eat our packed lunches, we were puzzled as to where Minko had gone! We were soon to find out as he approached with a face like thunder, upset that we had left him alone with the bus and he, as the guide, hadn’t a clue where we had all gone. Those in the 2013 party knew where it was and had just headed off….
Stevie Howell attempted to explain in Cockney rhyme (that even his fellow travellers couldn’t understand) which made things a whole lot worse. Minko was bemused by his reference to eating our grub, which he probably thought was some sort of caterpillar!
After lunch, we drove on to several viewpoints around the edges of the lake where we had good views of Kentish Plover and distant views of Grey Plover. We also saw a pale morph Booted Eagle and a European Pond Terrapin. A stop at a nearby saltpan yielded a Broad-billed Sandpiper together with Little Stint and Pied Avocet.
Driving into the hills above Pomorie, we stopped at a water-filled quarry, which supported few waterbirds, but was an excellent site for raptors, which included up to 200 Honey Buzzard and a Black Kite. Also overhead were seven Collared Pratincoles and a Black Stork. A short drive took us to another lake which was accessed through damp willow scrub where we saw Penduline Tit. The lake supported Curlew, Ruff, Little Stint and Curlew Sandpipers, whilst overhead we saw Peregrine, Gull-billed Tern and Collared Pratincole.
Our final stop of the day was Lake Atanasovsko on the northern edge of Burgas. Here the highlight was up to nine Broad-billed Sandpiper together with a large number of other wader species, including Curlew Sandpiper, Ruff, Dunlin, Temmink’s and Little Stints.
On our return to our hotel, it was time to say goodbye to Minko and meet Dimiter who would take over as our guide for the remainder of the trip. He was replacing Minko who was needed to meet a group of German-speaking Swiss travellers.
White Pelicans on the move.....
Raft of White Pelicans at Vaya
Pygmy Cormorants at Mandra
White Pelican - Lake Mandra
Night Heron versus Rudd....
Black-crowned Night Heron - Mandra Lake
Kentish Plover at Pomorie
Female Red-backed Shrike
Transluscent hands of Honey Buzzard
14 May – John and Carol
West Stranja – Grey-headed Woodpecker, Masked Shrike, Wood Warbler and Roe Deer
Sakar Hills – Eastern Imperial Eagle (stronghold of the Bulgarian population), Lesser Spotted Eagle, Long-legged Buzzard, Montagu’s Harrier, European Roller, European Bee-eater, Calandra Lark, Lesser Grey Shrike, Woodchat Shrike, Eastern Orphean Warbler, Isabelline Wheatear, Ortolan Bunting, Black-headed Bunting, European Souslik and Golden Jackal
Madzharo – Eurasian Griffon and Egyptian Vultures, Black Kite, Booted and Short-toed Eagles,Long-legged Buzzard, Black Stork,Chukar, Scops Owl, Black-eared Wheatear (the eastern race ssp. melanoleuca), Isabelline Wheatear, Blue Rock Thrush, Eastern Bonelli’s, Eastern Orphean, Eastern Subalpine and Eastern Olivaceous warblers, Lesser Grey Shrike, Woodchat Shrike, Western Rock Nuthatch, Ortolan Bunting, Black-headed Bunting, etc.
Krumovgrad – Scops Owl
We took our luggage to the Hotel Mirana’s entrance lobby to assist with achieving an early departure from Burgas towards the Eastern Rhodope Mountains that form Bulgaria’s southern boundary with Greece and Turkey – this was confirmed by a road sign to Instanbul. The first 1¼ hour drive was through intensively farmed land – perhaps the reason why fewer birds were seen. However, while driving towards Elhovo, a Grey-headed Woodpecker was clearly visible on a bare branch and the woods hosted Masked Shrike, Ortolan Bunting and European Green Woodpecker. Another feature of this area (around Topolovgrad for example) are the numerous derelict factories and houses from the Communist era. The quality of domestic buildings is noticeably poor with the unstable mortar used in brick walls and chimneys often leading to the collapse of those structures. We were told that there had been a majority of Turkish people living here and that many had returned to their homeland.
Throughout Bulgaria, many of the electricity and telegraph poles are made of cast concrete. Holes are moulded into them to enable such things as insulator brackets to be easily fitted. The open post tops are frequently used by nesting Common Starlings and the empty holes allow access to the cavities for nesting birds such as Sombre Tits.
In the West Stranja Mountains we found Common Cuckoo, Hawfinch, Red-backed Shrike, European Robin, Great-spotted Woodpecker, Eastern Bonelli’s Warbler, purring European Turtle Dove, Masked Shrike, Black Stork, Wood Warbler and Roe Deer.
From the coach we saw Common Raven, Long-legged and Common Buzzard (Steppe ssp. B B vulpinus), White Stork, and Lesser Spotted Eagle before arriving at the Sakar Hills. Here we had distant views of several raptors including Eastern Imperial Eagle (the Sakar Hills are a stronghold of the Bulgarian population), Lesser Spotted Eagle again, Long-legged Buzzard, Montagu’s Harrier and Common Kestrel, a very close Northern Goshawk, Isabelline Wheatear, Eurasian Hoopoe, European Bee-eater and Roller, Common House Martin, and Common Nightingale, Calandra Lark, Lesser Grey and Woodchat Shrike, Eastern Orphean Warbler, Spanish Sparrow, Ortolan and Black-headed Bunting, European Souslik and a Golden Jackal.
Lunch was bought from a small supermarket and a grocer in Topolovgrad where Red-rumped Swallows flew from the edge of a puddle that they were using either for bathing or collecting mud for nesting.
Our next stop was at the Lesser Kestrel Recovery Project situated in the Sakar Hills, where three areas have been given Natura 2000 designation within the borders of the European Green Belt – an international ecological network of regions on either side of the former Iron Curtain. Lesser Kestrels became extinct as breeders in Bulgaria due the use of certain insecticides that had decimated their food source. Captive birds were brought from Spain and continue to be bred in captivity before release. It is clear that the project has been successful because free-flying Lesser Kestrels are visible in the open countryside near the project’s buildings. Many have returned from migration and now breed with “non-project” birds and their successors, in the artificial nest boxes provided by the project. The project also breeds and releases Little Owls.
Beside the road we saw a refugee camp and a road sign informed us that we were only eight kilometres (5 miles) from Bulgaria’s border with Greece.
We stopped near Georgi Dobrovo to locate a Levant Sparrowhawk but were unsuccessful. We could not find an Olive-tree Warbler that was calling but had better luck with European Bee-eater, Corn and Black-headed Bunting and a singing Common Nightingale which stayed in view for several minutes. While we were waiting a shepherd appeared with his flock accompanied by a donkey with a neck bell that sounded to help keep the animals together.
Still in the Eastern Rhodopes, we stopped on a road with cliffs above and below over a wide river near Madzharavo where Eurasian Griffon and Egyptian Vultures were circling and perching close overhead. We also found Ortolan Bunting, Blue Rock Thrush, Peregrine Falcon, hawking Eurasian Crag Martin (the first of the trip) and European Turtle Dove. Further along the same road a Western Rock Nuthatch was found beside its nest on the cliff above us. We also noted Eastern Subalpine Warbler, more Eurasian Griffon Vultures, Black-eared Wheatear (the eastern race ssp. Melanoleuca), and surely one of the most elegant and beautiful evolutions of nature – a Spoonwing Lacewing.
Other birds seen from the coach and elsewhere were Black Kite, Booted and Short-toed Eagles, Long-legged Buzzard, Black Stork, Chukar, Isabelline Wheatear, Eastern Bonelli’s and Eastern Orphean and Eastern Olivaceous Warblers, Lesser Grey Shrike and Woodchat Shrike.
Lastly, we drove over a reservoir dam to enter the Kardzali Region of Bulgaria. We were staying in Krumovgrad and, after dinner, walked a short distance to the town’s park where Eurasian Scops Owl were calling and therefore proved easy to locate.
Griffon showing flight feathers
Spoon (Thread) Lacewing, or Kite Bug
Masked Shrike at Stranja
Spanish Sparrow using old House Martin nest
Crags above Madzharavo
15 May – Steve Howell
At Potochnitsa (raptor feeding station) – Eurasian Griffon and Egyptian Vultures, Booted and Short-toed Eagles,Long-legged Buzzard, Black Stork,Olive-tree Warbler, Sombre Tit, Isabelline Wheatear, Sardinian, Eastern Orphean andEastern Olivaceous warblers, Woodchat Shrike and Roe Deer
Krumonsta Valley – Black-eared Wheatear (the eastern race ssp. melanoleuca), Lesser Grey Shrike, Kingfisher, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Chukar, Black-headed and Cirl Buntings
Our 7th and penultimate day of the trip started a short distance from the hotel at the Vulture Feeding Station at Potochnitsa where we were treated to a sight of up to 35 Griffon and two Egyptian vultures feeding on a carcass provided by the conservation project that manages the site.
Watching these birds feeding and squabbling up on top of the high ridge surrounded by several old dried out skeletons and carcasses of cattle, sheep and donkeys was something akin to being on some far-flung African plain and was one of the many highlights of the holiday.
We spent most of the morning in this area and among the more regular birds (Nightingale, Corn Bunting and Red-backed Shrike) we also obtained two more trip ticks – the first being a cracking little male Sardinian Warbler flitting around us in a rather large arc for such a small bird.
Although elusive at first it eventually gave itself up for everyone in the group. The second bird noted was the large and chunky Olive Tree Warbler, first picked up by its song which was similar to Great Reed Warbler, but with a slightly more ambitious repertoire of calls and phrases than that species. It also showed well, with tail-dipping at times, although my favourite moment with it was when one flew behind us being chased by a Red-backed Shrike. It uttered a twangy call, not dissimilar to a low guitar strum – but don’t ask me what chord! (E minor – Ed.)
A late bonus when scanning a nearby row of small trees was an Eastern Orphean Warbler – again, elusive at first, but eventually sitting up well and giving good views. It was shortly after this when I had to endure a real crushing blow on the trip. I hung back from the rest of the group to answer a call of nature and this 30-40 second convenience stop ended up being a very inconvenient stop, as the group had just clapped eyes onto our only viewable Sombre Tit of the holiday, and my much-needed pit stop cost me a very sought-after life tick – one of my target birds of the trip. Although I heard the call, the bird itself had disappeared back into the dense undergrowth and never re-appeared.
Unfortunately I had to carry this disappointment onwards to our next destination at the Krumonsta Valley, where the temperature rose to become the hottest afternoon of the trip (around 29-30 degrees) and the only afternoon when I had to dispense with the trousers and put on some shorts. This coincided with a down-turn in fortunes for the group on this particular afternoon regarding finding new species and we were unable to find birds like Chukar and Cirl Bunting, although I had been the only member of the group to see a Chukar in flight the day before. However, in a country like Bulgaria, there is always something to keep you interested, including a couple of Honey Buzzards, Lesser Grey Shrike, Eastern Olivaceous Warbler and a superb Black-eared Wheatear in truly black-and-white splendour – this species should have been named the Pied Wheatear!!
As often happened, by late afternoon the burning sun had receded and levels of energy peaked again, helped along by seeing my only Cirl Bunting of the trip, with a lovely singing male found by Richard, and the third Booted Eagle (dark morph) identified by our guide Dimeter.
Unfortunately I missed Paddy’s fly-through Kingfisher – the only one seen on the holiday.
By now it was early evening and the “last chance saloon” for Chukar. It took a while but eventually we heard one and sharp-eyed Paddy saw one not too far up the slope – then one became two and they both showed well.
I was still somewhat disappointed about missing the Sombre Tit earlier, but with such a good variety of birds seen throughout the day I realised that enjoyable birding (and it doesn’t get any more enjoyable than birding in Bulgaria) is about enjoying the experience as a whole and appreciating what you can see, and not what you miss and even then – there’s always next time!
Cirl Bunting at Krumonsta
Thunder skies at the Sub-alpine Warbler site
A summit on insect-spearing....
Wildflowers at Potonitza
Warbler heaven at Potochnitza
16 May – Steve P
Eastern Rhodopes and Vitosha Mountains
Krumovgrad – Syrian Woodpecker and Crag Martin
Road stop between Krumovgrad and Momchilgrad –
Zvezlel – Pallid Swift
Vitosha Nature Park – Spotted Nutcracker, Ring Ouzel (the SE ssp alpinus), Willow Tit, Firecrest, European Siskin, Crossbill, Dunnock, Tree Pipit and Red Squirrel
Sofia(for departure at 22.00 hrs) – Rook and Alpine Swift
It was another early start in preparation for our long journey across Bulgaria from Eastern Rhodopes to Sofia. Our final stop would be the Vitosha Mountains just south of Sofia, but our first port of call was the grounds of a nearby riverside hotel in which Minko and his new Swiss birdwatching group were residing. Our quest was for Syrian Woodpecker that some of the group missed early on during our tour. One was soon heard but, with trees now in full leaf, our bird was not giving itself up easily! Eventually, we got flight views and then we were able to scope a male as it climbed up a bare patch of tree trunk. He was soon joined by his partner enabling the group to get good views of both a male and a female.
We had a short roadside stop for a last gasp grasp at Sombre Tit for Steve Howell (he missed the pair the rest of saw near the raptor feeding station), but it was to no avail and then we stopped at a small town called Zvezlel to view a Pallid Swift colony. There were no real surprises on our journey that crossed the central Thracian Plain back to Sofia, no doubt due to most on the bus snoozing. The highlights were a Black Kite and three Black-winged Stilts and an Avocet on rice paddyfields beside the motorway.
Following a quick lunch stop at a service station, we made our way up the Vitosha Mountain, a National Park which is very popular with skiers during winter. We stopped short of the car park to look for Black Woodpeckers in thick conifer forest and, although we failed to see this bird, we did manage superb views of Spotted Nutcracker and Firecrest. On reaching our parking spot, we set off to climb higher up the mountain. It started to rain but this didn’t dampen our enthusiasm and we were quickly rewarded with views of European Siskin, Willow Tit (or was it Alpine Tit?) and a fly-over Red Crossbill. On reaching the snowline, we were treated to exceptional views of Ring Ouzel of the south-eastern subspecies alpinus and noted our first Dunnocks of the tour – they occur only at high altitudes in Bulgaria.
However, we failed to locate an Alpine Accentor which had been seen at this site only four days previous to our visit.
Time was running out fast, so it was back down the mountain for our last meal with Dimiter, to say our final goodbyes and then onto the airport. Our Ryan Air plane took off on time and we normally report an uneventful flight home! However, this was certainly not to be the case on this flight as about an hour into our journey a fight broke out at the rear of the plane! Thankfully, our group occupied the front seats, but we all turned round to see what was going on! There was a massive brute of a man throwing punches at other passengers and, try as they might, two stewards and two stewardesses were unable to restrain him.
He appeared to be completely out of control and there was blood everywhere, so much on the steward’s shirts that they looked like they had been working in a butcher’s shop! We noticed a sudden change in engine speed and the plane began to descend, but still the fight went on with other passengers attempting to aid the crew. Eventually, the man was calmed and led to the rear of the plane with injured passengers taken to the front. The plane made an emergency landing at Linz in Austria where police and paramedics boarded to remove the main protagonist and treat injured passengers. He surprisingly went quietly, which was a pity as we were all hoping that he would be tasered – none of us had seen such a weapon being used before! We lost over an hour of flight time and the crew had to continue the journey serving passengers in their bloodstained shirts, obviously, no money for Ryan Air to have spares onboard? The rest of the journey was really uneventful, but there were more complications with our car hire resulting in our arrival back to Suffolk being delayed to well into the early hours.
After a couple of days at home, we found the eventful flight had made national news, via the Daily Mail.
Interesting that the only real complications on the trip were around getting to Luton Airport, getting back to Stansted and picking up the minibus we’d hired at this end – all the Bulgarian aspects went brilliantly – birds, guides, hotels, beer, food…what could be better?
Thanks are due to Dimiter and Minko of Neophron Tours for looking after us all so well and to Kathy for her hard work in organizing the tour.
Sofia from Mt Vitosha
Salad and Kamenitza - the perfect health food.
Dimiter and Steve discuss the partridge family....
Griffon exaggerating about the last fish he ate....
Heads down for the log - put that phone away, Keith!
Keith proposes a toast....
Ring Ouzel, Mt Vitosha
Wildflowers and de-population - the story of the Eastern Rhodopes
Although the events planning committee tries to vary the programme by at least a third year-on-year, this trip is one of the ‘gotta-be’s’ in the WBC calendar.
The Brecks represent a major change of diet for those of us who spend most of the time on the Suffolk coast and provide a range of environments you would otherwise have to go some distance to find – and that goes for the birds too.
So, we met up at 7am in the car park at Lynford Arboretum on what was a chilly but gorgeous morning, with the promise of some warmth later. Slanting sunlight through the blend of coniferous and deciduous grand old trees and early spring birdsong in branches coming into leaf. Plenty of Goldcrests about as we assembled, but all attempts to find a Firecrest while we waited were futile.
So we headed onto the track, down towards the bridge, with open grass areas, woodland and hedges around us.
The Brecks this year seems to have attracted more than its fair share of Brambling – flocks were calling all around us, as they had done on a recent trip to Santon Downham. I can’t say I’ve heard this before – most Brambling have been in ones or twos – not numbers like this, or this particular call.
A sudden moment of excitement as a couple of Crossbills flew across us, to be followed shortly after by top views on the other side of the track – a perched bird, conveniently situated in one of the few small willows growing through a rough pasture.
Only a few metres further on, we hit the main target – Hawfinch. They were roughly in the same trees as I’d seen them last year, and the party gathered round those who’d brought their scopes down.
Mission accomplished – more than making up for the three hours trudging around Sotterley unsuccessfully looking for one two months back. A bonus on the return leg was a small group of late Fieldfares, perched in the top of a distant tree.
Next stop was Santon Downham for the Lesser-spotted Woodpecker – and the toilets in the Forestry Commission car park.
Of course, moving 20 or so people around various locations takes a certain amount of time, which presented an opportunity to get ahead of the game and get down to the river – or at least the small path on the Suffolk side, leading up towards the church. There were multiple Firecrests in here – possibly 5 or 6, without having to go too far up. By the time the group assembled, one particular individual was making a real show of it, bouncing impatiently on the outer branches of a nearby tree.
There always seems to be something ‘angry’ about a Firecrest, in a way that Goldcrests don’t seem to be. I remember getting a picture on Orfordness of Mike Marsh with both in the hand – the docile, gentle face of the Goldcrest against the wild-eyed, aggressive ‘what’re you looking at?’ attitude of the Firecrest.
Time marches on, however, and we had to leave them to their territorial sort-outs and head up the river.
The flight calls of a couple of Mandarin were rewarded almost instantly with a pair moving serenely across the river just beyond the road bridge. Although the drake is a stunning bird, I get a slight twinge that there’s something ‘not quite right’ seeing them on the Norfolk/Suffolk border – a bit too much, perhaps, like Ring-necked Parakeets in huge flocks in Windsor Great Park. Like they’re from too far away for it to feel natural……or too colourful…or something like that.
So, the Great Snake of WBC moved in single file up the river, towards the Pecker Zone. You know you’re nearly there when you see the sign, requesting you to keep on the path etc. It’s a shame that such a sign is necessary – perhaps genuine fieldcraft needs to make a comeback.
A small group of birders moved back down the track on our arrival, having not seen the Lesser Spot and muttering about not having a chance now because there was ‘too much noise.’ I positioned myself between the WBC group (almost silent) and this group of four (the mutterer now relating birding tales at some volume) – and who was rewarded with the bird? WBC 1, Mutterer 0. Home win and three points.
A small diversion up towards the railway track on the return journey was enlivened by a small and brief raptor-fest, with Buzzard, Sparrowhawk and a possible sighting of Goshawk in quick succession, followed by calling and flying Lesser Redpolls. I thought I heard a brief burst of Woodlark song, but I usually do. A really good burst has eluded (or eluelueluded) me so far.
Taking our lives in our hands against the various forms of lycra-clad performance cyclists, we headed back along the road to the cars and the lunch break at Lackford Lakes.
It was warming up nicely now, and Lackford is a popular spot, with its pushchair-friendly paths and multiple hides and many family groups making the most of it. We gave it a couple of hours and pleasant enough it was, with Nuthatches particularly very audibly evident, along with a few Blackcaps.
Then it was time for one last site, out on Cavenham Heath for Stone Curlew. We didn’t need to move too far along the wide, rutted track through the heath itself before Andrew Green and Steve P picked up the same three birds from different angles and some distance apart. As usual, fairly motionless, although a Buzzard fly-over caused a brief moment of alertness, before one bird quietly got up and hid itself behind some vegetation, tired of the scope paparazzi’s attention.
No Woodlark unfortunately, but views of a Stonechat – apparently not too common out here.
The day was coming to a close, but not before a walk out to the lake and a scan through the surrounding fence from one of the few breaks in vegetation. Over the Tufted Duck and Little Grebe floated a Marsh Harrier – again, an unusual sighting here.
So that was it – except there were two Grey Wagtail just below the weir on the way back.
Another great day in the Brecks, and thanks for Stevie Howell and Andrew Green for the leadership.
Apologies for not presenting a full bird list, as I don’t have one – yet. I hope the highlights are adequately reflected in the report.
Any errors or inaccuracies in this are purely the result of not paying enough attention to what was going on.
It’s that time again – when the great and good minds of Suffolk ornithology temporarily cease outdoing each other with their year lists, and bring it all down to a couple of hours at the Staithe Maltings, Bungay in the challenge that is Bird Brain 2017.
Could it really be a year since the trophy came romping back to the WBC home team after a couple of years at BTO HQ in Thetford?
But there have been some unexpected results since then – Trump, Brexit, Leicester City – so who knows how this one will turn out?
Four teams as usual submitted themselves to the WBC high-tech extravaganza of computers, screens, buzzers, PA equipment and projectors, under the quiz-mastership of Chris McIntyre and the double-scorers of Steve and Kathy Piotrowski who ensured there were no stringy results…..
And here they are:
RSPB: Ian Barthorpe, Adam Rowlands, Jon Evans and Robin Harvey
BTO: Andy Musgrove, Mike Toms, Steve McAvoy, Paul Stancliffe
BINS: Craig Fulcher, Lee Woods, Scott Mason, Craig Holden
WBC: Roger Walsh, Jon Warnes, Steve Howell, Eric ‘D’Weasel’ Patrick
We start at the semi-finals (assuming all the other rounds against lesser mortals have already taken place), with WBC vs RSPB and BTO vs BINS
Two fairly ‘nip n tuck’ rounds ensued, competing on bird i.d., calls and song, chicks and nestlings and general natural history.
But….both champ teams of the past 4 years crashed out, WBC going down 25 points to 20, and BTO by 28 to 21, guaranteeing a new engraving for 2017.
So to an interval, with a superb supper provided by Kathy and Jane Bond, raffle (organised by Jon Evans) and a couple of beers while the finalists applied Oil of Wintergreen and talked tactics.
Round one (identification of mainly warblers) stayed fairly tight, but it was round two where the temperature changed, identifying birds by their eyes only, with BINS streaking away, points-wise.
Perhaps somewhat shaken going into round 3 (identification of Suffolk reserves), Adam Rowlands and Robin Harvey missed their buzzers on an aerial shot of Minsmere, while Jon Evans failed on Dunwich Heath, even though his own house was just out of shot!
By the 4th round (‘What Bird Am I?) it looked like a long way back for RSPB – and that’s how it turned out, with BINS taking the trophy by 42 to 31.
So, it was just to award the prize for the winner of the audience rounds, which went to Ivan Levett, with a very impressive score of 48 out of 60 – of course, a typical birder would spend the rest of the year listing the ones he missed…..
Thanks from WBC to everyone who took part and contributed food, raffle prizes, tech equipment, and particularly Kathy and Jane for the buffet and Chris McIntyre, who annually devotes many, many hours putting the quiz together.
The usual trek round Outney Common in Bungay on a Spring evening before a couple of beers at the Green Dragon received a promotion this year, with its own, whole day billing.
A little earlier in the season than usual, so we were not expecting the usual serenade of Whitethroats, Willow Warbler and Nightingale, but this is a site that, with a little patience, can throw up a good bird list at almost any time of the year.
But of course, being British, we have to start with the weather. A warm, sunny week had broken down into showers driven on a cold westerly wind on the Saturday, with the expectation that not much would change for the Sunday.
The wind was still there, and the skies overcast at 7am as 18 of us assembled in the car park, but at least rain was not predicted until well after dark.
With large groups and single-track walks communication can be tricky, so I positioned myself up front (being extremely familiar with what I regard as ‘my patch’) and Steve Howell rode shotgun at the back.
For those who don’t know it, the various trails run around the golf course. Taking an clockwise route takes you alongside the Waveney, with large willows separating you from a driving range and on to an area of scrubby undergrowth with some mature hawthorns – over the past few years, a good site for Nightingales and warblers.
Being mid-March, the main targets were Chiffchaff (one had been singing here the week before) and Sand Martin, which had just begun to arrive across the county, plus perhaps Blackcap.
We weren’t very far round before we got the first of an eventual 8 Chiffchaffs – probably the same bird I’d heard last week, as it was roughly in the same tree, but with another singing further back.
This had followed a good sighting of a Kingfisher, skimming up the river before finally perching in a riverside sedge.
The wind was still ripping in from the left, but there was hope that there was a little more shelter ahead as we moved to an area where the river – having looped round under the Earsham gravel workings – rejoined the track, and where a lone Whooper At first, I thought it had gone: something I thought might be a mixed blessing, as it would have proved this was a genuine wild bird, leaving for the north with its buddies.
But no – there it was, actually on the river, trying to be nonchalant as it attempted to hang out with a group of Mutes, that haven’t wanted much to do with it previously. A Whooper had been present at the former Earsham Otter Trust, and there is some suspicion that this is that bird – but it has behaved much as a wild Whooper would over the winter. At first it was very skittish, whooping away at anyone walking on the opposite bank and retreating into the marsh fairly rapidly. As time has gone on, it’s either learnt from the Mutes, or just become much more familiar with dog-walkers and birders, and is a little more restrained in its departures.
So we headed to where the common track joins the Lows – the extensive, wet grazing meadows which adjoin the river. We didn’t have time for this, so veered right round the back of the common. Good decision as it turned out, as we stopped to watch a small flock of Lesser Redpoll, located in one of the trees in this sparcely-treed area of the site. With still leafless branches, this gave us pretty good views to this ‘soon-to-be-unsplit’ version of the Redpoll species.
Another common favourite – Mistle Thrush – had struck up what bird guides describe as its ‘loose verses’; like a Blackbird that has lost something, and is going through all the places it might have last seen it.
We slowly ambled back towards Station Pit, where the number of parked cars indicated a fishing match was in progress, so we kept to the high ground above the sandy cliff which would be home to Sand Martins and kingfisher as the season picked up speed.
To their credit, the Common owners have acted on WBC advice that a proper, permanent fence be installed on the cliff top, rather than the insubstantial wooden one that was eternally subject to vandalism. We have suggested this is followed up by signs down below requesting people to keep their distance from the nests themselves.
And as we walked along the top – Sand Martins! Two of them angled themselves westward, vanishing off over the golf course, and a sign of warmer weather to come…..
There was now to be a breakfast break, with a slight but not deal-breaking diversion into Bungay due to myself thinking the venue was the Earsham St Café, not Earsham Hall tearooms, which it actually was….so, 15 minutes lost, but no problem. It just meant going back to Outney and picking up a few cars.
So, perhaps we can ask for a little silence while 18 birders get into a full English in the refined setting of Earsham Hall…….
Thanks. We’ll now continue with the tale.
Back to the Outney car park, with a reduced party of about 10, joined by Steve P who had returned from his own breakfast meeting at Heveningham Hall. Don’t we live quite the life?
Part two was the extended walk, across the Lows to pick up the Bath Hills trail, rising between Bungay and Ditchingham which gives spectacular views across the Lows, the common, to Bungay and beyond towards Earsham and Flixton. The wooded slope drops down towards Ditchingham Lodge, while the right-hand side is largely arable fields.
The first section is not the most bird-rich, but is worth it for the view. Storm Doris had done a bit or work up here, opening out some of the vistas, and by now we had good light and a bit of warmth.
We picked up Marsh Tit as part of a mixed tit flock as we ambled towards the end of Free Lane, Ditchingham, which marks the start of the descent towards Cold Bath House. It’s here that things usually become a bit more interesting. There’s one particular slender tree, just clinging to life, where I’d found a Nuthatch nest two years back, which had been re-used last year. As if on cue, finding the tree meant finding the Nuthatches – a pretty vocal pair, who were obviously attempting to do their place up for the new season, and were politely requesting us to be orf. While common in many areas in the west of the county, they’re a good find round here….
From here the path moves through a conservation area, with wet, tangled woodland on the left and a rise of mixed trees on the right before it opens up to a field containing Highland Cattle, where in the past there has been Little Owls – but not today.
So, onto the surfaced road towards the Earsham Gravel works and the lakes, which were not heavily populated – a flock of Tufted Duck and randomly-spaced Great Crested Grebe. It’s mainly arable fields from here towards the A143 and the crossing-over into Earsham village itself, and out the other side, down the footpath beside the village hall, with a few urban birds dropping onto the lists – Sparrow, Blackbird, Starling, Chaffinch, Greenfinch mainly.
A left hander as the path meets the road takes you down past the church and the Atlantic Superstore towards a small bridge which has been a favoured spot through the winter for a Green Sandpiper and a pair of Grey Wagtail. There has regularly been 3 Green Sands between the Lows, Outney Common and Earsham over the last three or four years, but this year, the only one I found was at Earsham. Here’s hoping a migration chain hasn’t been broken….
Anyway, neither species were at that location today, but Ruth (designer/supplier of the WBC clothing range) was doing some gardening……and it was time for a brew….
So, into Ruth and my old mate Chris’ large garden, and onto the deck in front of their marvelous, Finnish-style wooden chalet, and Ruth got busy with the kettle, mustering enough mugs for the whole party while we identified the birds in the garden by song, and checked the owl box Steve put up last year for Chris’ birthday.
And then off again for the last leg, back to Bungay and probably the best birding moment of the day…
(Before that, I had to stop for a while to get the ‘context’ of my house, which is visible from a 20 metre stretch of the path and which – when I’m in it, or walking back from the Green Dragon – never seems to be in the place it actually is….I think the drugs are wearing off)
We’d split into two groups, when Steve Howell (in the front group) started shouting back at us and pointing in the air above the town. ‘Red Kite!’ And as we scanned through the gulls and corvids, there was not just one, but three, wheeling slowly over the castle in that very un-deliberate mode of travel, seemingly unconcerned with very much at all. Great views as they turned in what was now very good light, and on towards…MY HOUSE! Damn – would have been a great one for the garden list. Anyway, it was a Bungay tick for me.
And there we were, on the edge of Outney Road and Earsham St, with the pedometer reading 10.5 miles for the day. A great early Spring walk, with the early songsters going for it, singing-in the others which are going to make up the Outney Orchestra by early May…Blackcap, Garden Warbler, Whitethroat, Nightingale…all those to come – but that’ll do for today!
And so for the species list:
Barnacle Goose (4)
Egyptian Goose (3)
Tufted Duck (32)
Great Crested Grebe
Red Kite (3)
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Tawny Owl (calling)
Green Woodpecker (7)
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Sand Martin (2)
Grey Wagtail (3)
Song Thrush (5)
Mistle Thrush (3)
Chiffchaff (8 singing)
Marsh Tit (2)
Nuthatch (6 – 2 nesting)
Lesser Redpoll (9 incl summer plumage male)
Chinese Water Deer (male, with tusks)
Whooper Swan, Outney
The Outney trail
The Redpoll Twitch.
All eyes on ...
The Sand Martin protection fense
The expanse of The Lows
How Low can you go?
Hellebores at Bath Hills
Mollie advises on the location of Tufted Duck flock....
In 2016, the Hollesley/Boyton WBC trip featured a wind that could remove vital organs, blowing over river walls, making eyes run and dropping tears on optics. But we still had a right good time and some good birds at these great south Suffolk sites.
A year later, and a misty morning in the Waveney valley, which seemed to lift as we headed for the rendezvous at the RSPB Hollesley car park to meet up with Dave Fairhurst, warden for the RSPB’s south Suffolk reserves, who would be leading us between here and Boyton.
Of course, linear walks need a bit of planning, requiring vehicles at both ends. Just as we’d sorted the vehicles, drivers and numbers to get us from Boyton back to Hollesley, the latecomers arrived, throwing the advanced maths into some confusion….but we got there, and those of us left behind guarding the scopes got onto a gloriously plumaged Peregrine, sitting conveniently in a tall tree.
And slowly, it disappeared as the mist descended again, taking the temperature down a few notches as the sun lost its battle with visibility, just as the 20 or so WBC members re-assembled.
But birders are optimistic folk (apart from one or two we could mention…) and with a ‘glass half full’ attitude, we set out for the scrape.
It has to be said that Hollesley is a wonderful birding site, and one that deserves a lot more attention, combining wet meadows, dykes and reeds with the scrape, protected behind badger-proof fencing.
Dave told us it had been sold off by the prison more than 15 years back, and management of the grazing land had brought it to this varied wetland habitat. A recent addition has been the viewing platform, allowing a full view of the scrape itself, at this time of year packed with Wigeon, Teal, Mallard, Pintail, Gadwall, Shoveler, Greylags, Canadas and host to an often noteworthy gull roost.
Waders included Redshanks, Black-tailed Godwit, Curlew and Dunlin, while Ringed Plover and Ruff occupy the adjacent wet meadows.
As we moved between the platform and the river wall we paused by the meadow edge, where Water Rail regularly feed with Moorhen out in the open; eventually a total of 5 were located, tail-ticking their way round the wet reed edges.
Further up, the track rises to meet the wall protecting the marshes from the River Alde, separating Hollesley from the southern tip of Orfordness – a good place to practice counting Cormorant, should you ever want to do it. You can sit up here and scan most of the reserve, which is what we were doing just at the time 10 Tundra Bean Geese accompanied by one White-fronted whiffled down onto the meadows between the wall and the prison buildings.
One rather obliging Bean sat up on an island on the scrape with Greylags, allowing comparisons on size and head/bill shape and colour.
The river wall comprises the start of the walk through to Boyton, along the edge of the Alde and round along the Butley River – much amusement as a Mute Swan picked up the speeding current down towards the sea, looking like it was motorised. Hope it wasn’t planning a return journey, as all the poise and grace would have evaporated…..
The path snakes out, with great views all around, particularly of the shape-shifting shingle bank of Orfordness. A Yellowhammer sat up in the top of a tree, as Skylarks decided it was time to get going, fluttering and singing above us in the cold breeze that had driven off the earlier mist.
Moving up to the bend where the Butley and Alde join lies a more recently-acquired (by the RSPB) field which is yet to be developed and left wild, invaded by wild mustard. It holds a winter flock of up to 600 Linnet, almost mummerating as they moved about the seed heads. Dave Fairhurst mused on the future of this corner – whether it should be flooded to create more marsh, or left as a wild patch to service over-wintering passerines.
There are Bearded Tit here too, in the reeds along the point where the Butley runs into the Alde – just quick flashes of ones and twos in this wind though.
This point constitutes the boundary between Hollesley and Boyton as the path moves inland and up towards the flood which is home to all the usual suspects, duck-wise.
However, on the other side of the path we found a small flock of Pink-foots, half-hidden behind a reed-fringed dyke.
The WBC cars virtually took over the small parking area at Boyton – but then they were gone, whisking the party back to Hollesley, where there were reports of a Glaucous Gull now on the scrape, and relatively easily-found from the platform.
So to lunchtime. By pre-arrangement, the café located up by Warren Point (and which does one of the best espressos in Suffolk!) had prepared chilli/lentil dhal and rice as a WBC special. If you’re down this way, you really ought to stop off here for a break – a really good little caff.
With Dave’s WBC-leader duties over, those who weren’t departing for the Italy-Wales rugby match (or other family commitments) headed down to Bawdsey for a walk up towards Shingle Street from East Lane, with the target of Short-eared Owls, Purple Sandpiper and whatever else we could get.
Visibility was now pretty good, but it hadn’t got any warmer. We scanned the pools and the sea, getting onto Red-throated Divers and Scoter, Rock Pipits and the usual assortment of winter wildfowl, while Steve P explained the habit of Gadwall ‘mugging’ Coots when they return from a dive with a mouthful of weed. Look out for this – it’s more common than you might think!
We took the track in the direction of Shingle Street – not particularly a good afternoon for passerines, but we eventually spotted a couple of Short-eared Owls, one slowly checking out a reed-fringed dyke, showing that long-winged flappy flight, that looks like it momentarily pauses at the extremities…I only noticed this earlier in January, but haven’t seen it in Barn Owls or Tawnies.
The Purple Sandpipers were more elusive, but we did eventually get onto two on the return walk.
The light – which had been pretty inconsistent all day – was now at a premium and it was time to cut and run.
This area of Bawdsey, Hollesley and Boyton is definitely a top one for birding. It’s a rare time that one or other of these sites doesn’t produce something interesting, whatever the weather. If you don’t know it particularly well, you should get down there – but wrap up warm!
So the calendar comes round to the first ‘official’ event of the WBC outdoor events programme (not counting the NYD Lizardland Challenge, of course), and once again, we returned to the fantastic Ditchingham Hall Estate on Good Friday.
Easter seemed ridiculously early this year – the clocks hadn’t even changed yet, so the 7am start would hardly be the publicised ‘dawn chorus’ event. However, weather-wise it was fine – a gap between a couple of fronts, and Storm Katy still three days away, putting on weight out in the Atlantic.
We’re also in a kind of gap bird-wise. The winter visitors making their staggered departure northwards to pack their entire family life into a couple of seasons, and the first early migrants presenting their passports along the south and east coast.
As we’d put the WBC signs out the previous evening, a flock of over 400 Redwing had been assembling in the fields around the estate prior to departure.
So the question was – was Easter too early?
Whatever birds were about were unlikely to evade the 28 pairs of eyes which set off from the Beaters’ Lodge that Friday morning – probably the biggest assembly we’ve had for one of these walks, despite the early start.
Obviously, such a big group has its own problems – mainly one of noise, just from walking, so as we headed up the track, we kept to the grass to avoid the almost military crunching on the path.
The best technique here is to make frequent stops for some intense listening. Leafless trees allow for easy scanning to detect and confirm the singer. At this early stage in the Spring, it’s a great opportunity to practice this technique, before the solo singers get swallowed up by the massed chorus of later in the season.
It wasn’t long before we heard the first singing Chiffchaff and Blackcap; songs that for many are the equivalent of hearing a starting gun for the summer breeding season.
The track we follow on these walks moves up, across then back through the woods, and as we moved, Sparrowhawk and Buzzard fell to various notebooks, and the calls of Nuthatches were never far away. It is obvious the careful management of the Estate has provided these birds with a valuable local habitat, as they are not a common sight in our part of Suffolk.
Half-way round, Nick Clitheroe (the estate’s head gamekeeper) explained the strategy for Grey Partridge re-population at Ditchingham Hall, standing by a pen containing a male and female bird, who were very skittery at our presence. This is a complex tale, involving surrogate parents, homicidal females and it was obvious some very important work is going on here. The evidence is substantiated by the small breeding population that has migrated from the Hall to Outney Common, where they have been regularly seen for more than a year. Hopefully this project will result in the ‘Englishman’ being seen more commonly in this area. They’re less obvious than the Red-Legged, and their habit of laying low until almost trod on makes them a more difficult ‘tick’.
So, after pausing for a brief performance by a Marsh Tit, we moved into the woods for the last leg back down to the lake, and time with a Treecreeper.
After all the months of restricted daylight, wet and (some) cold, there’s something that should be bottled about this time of year; it’s not here yet, but it’s coming. Roots taking up nutrients, buds swelling, shoots of as-yet-unidentified plants poking a small green head above the ground…..all of a sudden, it will explode, but for now, it’s like the theatre lights going down before your favourite band takes to the stage.
The Nuthatches were really going for it – all three typical calls in evidence at the same time – as we followed the little Waveney tributary back down towards the daffodil-bedecked banks by the little ornamental bridge which crosses it.
By the road bridge, which had sustained damage from a fallen tree during the winter, we halted for great views of a pair of Grey Wagtails, gathering nest material for their den on the opposite bank, before straggling back to the Beaters’ Retreat, where Kathy had spent the morning preparing bacon rolls, hot dogs and hot crossed buns (thanks Kathy!)
A brief ceremonial moment saw Susannah Ferrers, who accompanied us throughout the walk, present Steve Howells with the BINS Cup for the New Year’s Day walk bird count of 111, which was the winning total. This, of course, was more easily achieved because none of the other teams could get it together to actually enter, but that’s not the point – WE WON IT! WBC – the Leicester City of Birdclubs!
And so it was over for another year – Redwings on the way out, Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs on the way in – just the way it ought to be.
A big vote of thanks to Susannah Ferrers for allowing us to visit this fantastic estate, and to Nick Clitheroe for all the info on the practical aspects of managing for conservation, and to Kathy for the very welcome refreshments!
‘Hi, Just to say a big thank you for this morning’
‘What a lovely walk this morning, not to mention hot X buns and bacon butties! Thanks to both of you – huge thanks. You’ve created such a warm friendly group that’s great at sharing and not making anyone feel small if they don’t know something (quite important!). Just wanted to say that we really appreciate what you do and sorry not to have been able to be more sociable afterwards’
‘Thank you to both of you for a lovely walk in the sunshine and then a delicious bacon butty back at the Beaters Retreat.’
‘A great walk – some very inspiring work going on there, and lovely to hear so many Nuthatches and that the efforts with the Grey Partridge has spread out to Outney Common!’
‘It can’t happen again – if they win it three years on the trot, do they get to keep the cup?’
Pre-match nerves before BirdBrain 2016 while setting up ‘the stage’ and awaiting the arrival of the BTO team, which had swept the board in 2014 and 2015.
And here we were once more. Four teams representing some of the most experienced and well-stocked brains in Suffolk birding, with population data, i.d. details and songs/calls almost dripping from their ears as the equipment was tested.
With sound working, projector working, buzzers working (yes they are, Roy!), Quiz Finder General Chris McIntyre took his seat and the lights dimmed for the semi-final draw.
First up was BINS versus Acorn Brown, a new team made up from the former RSPB Minsmere outfit, plus the National Trust. This draw, of course, meant that the previous two years’ finalists would be meeting earlier in the competition….
Semi-final questions featured rounds on ‘What bird is this?’; songs and calls; chicks and nestlings and natural history.
There’s a real science behind translating what you know in the field to identification in this environment; sometimes what you know vanishes somewhere behind your head. A cool head, fast analysis and a quick buzzer finger is what you need, plus the ability to take things out of context. The experienced BINS team came out on top on this occasion.
So to the re-run of last year’s final, as champions BTO took on the revised line-up of WBC under the captaincy of Roger Walsh, with Eric ‘D’Weasel’ Patrick and Lee Gregory joining Mike Marsh.
Same rounds, different questions and – whaddya know! – WBC won a tight contest and got one mandible back on the trophy.
So take your seats for the final…..
This was a real tester, with the ‘which bird is this?’ i.d. round being followed by trying to identify birds just by close-up shots of the eye, identifying East Anglian reserves from one photo, and naming the bird from population/breeding distribution maps. (Every year, I come out of these events thinking I’ve got to pay more attention to this stuff….)
It was tight….it was tense…there was conferring and even D’Weasel managed to whisper….clocks ticked…..but slowly, the home boys started to edge a lead and it ended with a narrow victory by 31 to 26 for WBC.
Of course, being East Anglian birders, there was no raucous chorus of ‘BirdBrain’s comin’ home,’ laps of honour, being carried to the bar shoulder-high: no – just a solid chuck on the shoulder, a firm handshake and a ‘well done, chaps!’ It just wouldn’t do to be too Latin about this kind of thing, would it?
So the final of the audience round, and 25 short clips of music with a bird name in either the title of the piece or the artist. Rock, folk, music hall, funk, pop and classical ensured an even spread, and resulted in the top eight audience scorers stepping up to the quiz tables to sort out the chicks from the 3rd winters….
The prize finally went to Peter Napthine, who received an equally hearty shoulder-chuck, firm handshake etc.
And that was that.
So, huge thanks to all involved:
The teams for putting themselves into the spotlight;
Chris (Quiz Finder General) McIntyre for another example of research, technology and devillry;
Kathy for supplying the prizes and another superb buffet (it’s worth the admission alone!)
The raffle prize donators and especially Jon Evans for including examples of his photographs;
Steve P for hosting the evening (although Graham Norton’s job is probably safe)
And all the other WBC committee members who contributed to another great evening at the Maltings.
PICS BY Sue Alderman (the good ones), Paddy Shaw (the others.....)
It is the policy of the small group that plans the WBC calendar of events to change around a third of them annually.
This trip was one of the new ones and – from a subjective point of view – coincided nicely with my intention to get to know some of the more southerly sites better in 2016. I’ve always found navigating the area south of Aldeburgh and east of the A12 a little tricky. The proof of this was a speculative visit to Hollesley the week before, on which I found Boyton, Shingle Street and Bawdsey before I discovered the left hand turn by the water tower before Hollesley village which takes you down to the reserve.
So others didn’t go where I went, Steve and I went down early to bang the WBC signs into the verge next to the crucial bits of the journey.
The Hollesley site is a particularly well-planned piece of conservation. The wetlands and ‘scrape’ form a tidy pocket between the river wall, prison and village, with the scrape itself protected behind a predator-proof fence, which doesn’t interfere with the views from a number of points around it.
It’s starting to prove quite a hit with birds too, and a number of notable species have been spotted here.
Today’s magnet was a Glossy Ibis, which had been present for a week or two, seen at a range of spots between Hollesley and Boyton.
The latest addition to the reserve is an observation platform on the mound; very recent, in fact, as it had only been completed the previous Thursday. By coincidence, a member of the construction team was present on this cold, blowy Saturday morning, watching with some trepidation to see if it would hold under the combined weight of 11 WBC members, plus mud.
If you’re a bird counter and contributor to BirdTrack, sometimes your heart can sink at such numbers of Wigeon, Teal, Black-headed and Common Gull as this small site can hold. And just when you’ve stashed the abacus, there are the 800 or so Cormorant on the sand spit. But there, amongst the wall of white, black and grey in the middle of the gulls was a Caspian, so everything was ok.
Although most species of expected duck were present in varying numbers, waders were in shorter supply, and – with totals in the notebook – we tried to find the Ibis.
It turned out to be in the company of Curlews on the wet meadow to the south of the scrape, and although distance and light prevented really good views of it, there it was, consorting with its Fellows of the Curved Bill.
The wall and pillbox between the reserve and this meadow makes a top spot for surveying the reserve, and we picked out a small group of Ringed Plover before deciding to move on to site 2 at Boyton.
Not before a coffee stop at the café just by the high security wing of the prison though.
I’m a right ol’ coffee snob, and judge everywhere on the quality of the espresso, and I’d have to say this was one of the best. A few of the party got into the sausage rolls too, which were more like the size of a pie and tasted fantastic. Make sure you visit if you go down to the reserve! (Follow the signs for ‘Coffee Republic’ on the right as you come up from the reserve).
Either the wind had picked up, or we’d been protected from it at Hollesley, but out on the river wall at Boyton it was blowing more than somewhat. Although we didn’t find the Hen Harrier reported regularly, there was the unusual sight of around 70 Mute Swan to the south. Planning the revolution, perhaps? When the newspapers are full of reports of swans carrying off toddlers in their talons and stealing your chips, remember you were warned here first!
Again, a great birding site, and perhaps better known to other WBC members than to me. However, this was not the weather to be out on exposed river walls, so we headed towards Snape, with a stopover planned at Iken to check if the Cattle Egret was in the mood for company.
And indeed, this was the case. I made two unsuccessful visits here in January, spending a total of around 4 hours looking for it. The subsequent two visits have resulted in almost instant sightings. We got out of the cars, and there it was, scuttling around the hooves of the herd of Redpoll cattle. (At this point i have to admit to taking loads of pics of it, but the wind, the zoom, the new camera and other excuses meant none were any good….)
Numbers in the party were dwindling now, (with some hearing the call of the Six Nations opening weekend) and with just one unscheduled stop by a small flood pool on the way out of the village where David Elliott had spotted a Green Sandpiper, we headed towards Snape.
The site here Is sometimes called Abbey Farm, and sometimes Botany Bay, located inland from the Maltings. Although not open to the public, we had been granted access for this visit by Dave Fairhurst, who also manages Hollesley.
Another fantastic wetland area, holding good numbers of duck, geese and a handful of Black-tailed Godwit, and – like Hollesley – you can just feel the potential in this reserve and the rough scrub and woodland around it. Almost the last bird of the day was Little Owl (heard but not seen), putting another year tick in the book.
Well, the predicted rain had held off until the journey home and the strong wind had not promised much for birding, but it had been a fantastic day. When you consider the number of reserves and protected areas stretching south from Benacre/Coverhithe, through Easton Bavents, Walberswick/Dunwich shorepools, the Dunwich and Westleton Heaths, Minsmere, Sizewell, North Warren, Slaughden, Hazlewood Marsh, Snape, Orfordness, Iken, Boyton, Hollesley, Bawdsey and on down to Languard, Alton Water, the Stour….this is the place to be a birder!
SPECIES LIST FOR HOLLESLEY: Total number of species 42
Brent Goose (Dark-bellied) 1
Carrion Crow 1
Green Woodpecker 1
Greylag Goose 2
Lesser Black-backed Gull 12
Marsh Harrier 2
Mute Swan 2
Ringed Plover 8
Black-tailed Godwit (islandica) 1
Blue Tit 4
Caspian Gull 1
Glossy Ibis 1
Great Black-backed Gull
Grey Heron 2
Herring Gull 200
Little Egret 3
Pied Wagtail (yarrellii) 2
Song Thrush 1
SPECIES LIST FOR BOYTON: Total number of species 31
Canada Goose 119
Cetti’s Warbler 1
Greylag Goose 22
Lesser Black-backed Gull 2
Little Egret 6
Marsh Harrier 2
Mute Swan 97
Pied Wagtail (yarrellii) 2
Stock Dove 4
Blue Tit 2
Carrion Crow 2
Grey Heron 2
Lesser Redpoll 1
Rock Pipit 1
SPECIES LIST FOR IKEN: Total number of species 22
Carrion Crow 1
Green Sandpiper 1
Little Egret 7
Black-tailed Godwit (islandica) 67
Blue Tit 1
Cattle Egret 1
Herring Gull 2
SPECIES LIST FOR SNAPE AREA: Total number of species 29
Waveney Bird Club’s year-starting birding trip has for years centred on Lowestoft and Lothingland; an area offering a range of environmental choices at this time of the year.
Since 2015 though, this has evolved into a co-operation with the Lowestoft Lounge Lizards and the ‘Lizardland Challenge’ – perhaps inspired by (or in competition with) the Suffolk Bins New Year Bird Race, where teams scour Suffolk for the common and the rare, seeking to break the New Year’s Day maximum of 130, set a few years ago.
While the WBC team makes up the infantry, with around 20 members scouring 2 or 3 sites, the Lizards are the commando teams, in groups of 2 or 3, starting before dawn and hitting as many sites as possible.
Another departure was away from our usual starting point of Carlton Marshes, moving to the south wall of Breydon Water. It had been thought that Carlton’s tracks are quite often quite ‘gloopy’ at this time of year, and was only likely to turn up species we were likely to catch elsewhere. It also takes quite a while to get round it, so the decision had been made long before Breydon offered the lure of a peek at the Lesser Yellow Legs, which has been in residence for a while (although sightings have been a little off and on).
So to the morning itself. Winter so far had not been too promising. Most December days had been warmer than the May 2015 equivalents, with the jet stream stuck over the UK and most of England to the south of it, drawing warm, wet air off the Atlantic. Wind, cloud and rain seemed to be a permanent feature.
So, what a surprise on New Year’s Day to be scraping ice off the windscreen at 7am, and to drive across to Lowestoft with a spectacular red sunrise slowly taking shape to the east. Could that actually be the sky up there?
By the time we assembled at the rugby club car park, we had a cool, crisp winter morning, with a bit of a southerly blowing up the estuary. Steve Howell was leading today, and had already arrived, to bag a Barn Owl on the adjoining meadow.
So, it was crisp new 2016 notebooks out, and off along the wall. The south side of the estuary is still Suffolk according to the Watsonian boundaries, established to keep wildlife recording consistent in the context of local/county authority territory re-drawing, so the Suffolk listers were up and running.
Breydon can turn up extraordinary numbers of certain bird species. A recce trip a couple of days before had, for instance, established there were 10,000-plus Golden Plover currently in residence.
There were also huge numbers of Lapwing and Wigeon, interspersed with Dunlin, Common and Black-headed Gulls (with several Mediterraneans amongst them), Curlew and smaller numbers of Turnstone, Ringed Plover and Redshank.
Of course, such an abundance is going to attract raptors. The sight of thousands of birds taking to the air providing a display of black, white, grey and golden wings in order to provide a kaleidoscope of confusion immediately sets the optics scanning for the perpetrator. At first, it was Marsh Harrier but then – Peregrine! In the course of the walk along the wall, the falcon made several passes, usually high above the wheeling flocks of waders, presumably suiting the in-built attack programming.
We walked as far as we dared, bearing in mind the time factor and the other sites on the schedule, hoping for a Short-eared Owl on a meadow used for grazing horses, where one had been sat a couple of days before. No owl, but distant skeins of Pink-footed Geese flying north over Great Yarmouth was a bonus, as were the Stonechats, Reed Bunting, Meadow Pipit and Skylark adjacent to the estuary.
Starting from below the Church, we located a couple of Spotted Redshank and a single Knot, but no LYL. There was more chance of that with the larger groups of Redshank up by the castle itself.
A fairly large group were already assembled at the watch point below the castle walls, and a few ‘stretch and peek’ views were available, but the bird (and associated Redshanks) were moving up river as the tide came in, so a group of us went over the wall to where a grassy slope provides a break in the trees and a more open aspect towards the river and marshes around the Berney Arms.
And there it was – for a while in glorious isolation, away from its Redshank mates, in Suffolk territory! We hung around long enough for Jon Warnes to get a few of us onto a Short-eared Owl, which we’d not been able to add to the list at the GY end of Breydon. Now Lowestoft called, and the lunchtime ‘late arrivals’ rendezvous at Leathe’s Ham.
Deciding to tot up the lake’s inhabitants and get down to Lake Lothing before lunch (so as to fit a sea-watch in), we headed off down to the railway bridge, which gives views up Lothing towards the sea and back into the marina in the Oulton Broad direction.
It didn’t take long to get on to the Great Northern Diver, which was seeming to enjoy its winter break in Lowestoft – in the same spot it had been in a couple of days before. We also picked up the first Lesser Black-backed Gull of the day in the party assembled on the quayside towards the silos.
To make the trip even better, the Guillemot (which hadn’t been reported that day) had moved upstream, and was contentedly floating about between the boats. It was a ‘now you see it, now you don’t’ event, but most of the group picked it up from the vantage point of the bridge.
The tide was high now, leaving little mud around Mutford Lock Bridge, so there was no sign of the Common Sandpiper reputed to be spending some time there. A few Redshank and an excellent Kingfisher flight completed this part of the day.
So we picked our way back through the curious blend of boatyards, derelict sheds, piles of rubble and weeds and human rubbish that is the bank of Lake Lothing
Last stop – Ness Point, for Purple Sandpipers and sea-watching. The sandpipers were ridiculously easy; our arrival on the Ness put up a group of Turnstones, leaving 13 braver purps to continue to forage for whatever it was they were finding there.
The wind had built up, and the clear skies of the morning were a distant memory as we assembled the WBC Scope Forest under Gulliver, the huge wind turbine which – for some unfathomable reason – was not turning in the strong southerly.
Visibility wasn’t great, but we did ok – Brent Geese, Red-throated Diver, Kittiwake, Gannet and the bonus of Little Gull and Eider fell to the notebooks. The party was dwindling now though, as we were treated to a shoreline fly-past by a Shag.
This was the cue to break the group even further, as we tried to discover the roost point, thinking it to be somewhere on Hamilton Dock. Hamilton Road turned up nothing, so we hared round to the South Pier to race the light. Nothing there either. Oh well…..
And so to the pub, and the Great Reckoning with the Lounge Lizards. A message came through from Andrew Easton that he would be delayed by the presence of a Glaucous Gull in the roost at Oulton Broad, so still it went on into the dark hours.
Eventually, we were all there, and glasses were donned and lists compared, by those who are good at such things. The rest of us just chatted and drank, because that’s what we were good at. Each man to his own profession, I say.
With the late addition of a Green Woodpecker which hadn’t been included, the Lizards had 99 and we had 88, having not taken in any woodland/arable sites.
Comparison of the lists turned in a very impressive total of 111 species for the day, which was a marked jump-up from the previous year.
As a last opinion, it must be that the Lesser Yellow Legs was bird of the day. However, the sight of thousands of Lapwing, Golden Plover and Dunlin wheeling against a pale blue sky with a Peregrine cruising above was a Top Birding Moment, and a fantastic start to a new year.
(We’ll try and present a full species list to accompany this report on Steve P’s return from Cuba)
And a last thanks to the Lumix TZ3 that has supplied most of the pics for the trip reports in the last year. The TZ3 is dead – long live the TZ70!
Well, it was good to find it was all still there – the lighthouse still standing, the Bomb Ballistics building with its observational roof, the Bailey bridge, the ringing hut have all got through another year of weather-beating without collapse.
The ringing team went over on the Saturday morning, driving down to the quayside at Orford in a light shower that turned out to be the last of the weekend. Instead, we had sunshine, occasional cloud cover and a NE wind that was working its magic along the east coast, bringing in Isabelline Shrike, Dusky Warbler and Red-flanked Bluetail to North Norfolk, and continuation of Yellow-browed Warblers and numerous other wind-blown migrants.
As well as providing ringing services to the National Trust, WBC also provide a fairly comprehensive survey of the Ness for the weekend, which involves many a mile of trudging the tracks and beach to capture the range of environments this precious site has to offer.
As had the equivalent weekend in 2014, the sea-watch delivered large numbers of Brent geese, heading for their balmy winter holiday on the south Suffolk and North Essex estuaries, occasionally with a couple of sneaky Wigeon taking up positions in the skeins and hitching a ride on goose-vortex; one flight was accompanied by a leucistic Brent, quite dramatic against his black companions.
Goldcrests seemed to be everywhere in the bushes – tiny, exhausted migrants but still as restless as ever, hopping through the brambles. There were still a few late Wheatear in a couple of spots, presumably waiting for a change in the weather to start heading south, with one down by the lighthouse taking a tremendous pounding from a Robin who obviously took great exception to its presence.
Various nets had been set by the ringers around the Holm oaks, reedbed and bushes and a fairly brisk morning ensued. This however was reduced to concentrated consideration of a pale female stonechat species, with fairly obvious supercilium, white throat and a rusty-red, unstreaked rump.
The Stonechat tribe was formerly considered to be races of the nominate Saxicola torquatus with variations including ‘our own’ hibernans, but also rubicola, stejnegeri and maurus, or Siberian Stonechat. However, taxonomists at the British Ornithologists Union (BOU) have decreed that Stonechats have evolved sufficiently for the Siberian or Eastern race to be split from the nominate, with maurus and stejnegeri grouped together This has put a whole new perception on things as Siberian/Eastern Stonechat is now a tick! Identification involves microscopic inspection, and this bird kept Mike Marsh fairly preoccupied, and it was finally judged to be Siberian. It was after release, when it flew to a nearby hedge top, that you could see how different it appeared to the ‘normal’ female stonechat.
For those out on the survey, bird of the day was possibly a Jack Snipe, which flushed from an area of wet meadow across the airfield. Raptors had been surprisingly rare, other than Marsh Harrier and Kestrel. There had been sightings of Merlin and Peregrine, but none for us on the Saturday, and no presence of the Hen Harriers that had been so obvious the year before. The shingle areas around the Bomb Ballistics building were much lower in numbers of Meadow Pipit and Skylark than in 2014, perhaps due to the prevailing winds, but it was here we were, counting Wigeon, Brent geese and Spoonbill (4) on the pool as the public visitors drifted away to the last boat of the day.
It’s at that point I’m always reminded of 1960s science fiction films, or early William Hartnell ‘Dr Who’: the abandoned military buildings, windswept landscape, big skies – and no people. Just the ringing team furling the nets, the last additions to the survey list before roost-time, the 1940s accommodation block and the Suffolk night approaching.
We’d come prepared this time though – Thai green curry (thanks Kathy!), rice, saag aloo, chana dahl, cucumber raita, naan bread, lime pickle – all prepared before the show and heated in the industrial catering oven, meant we survived the night.
And so to Sunday, and the WBC trip, which swelled the numbers on Ness to over 30 and made it one of the most popular days of the 2015 calendar.
The wind had freshened and chilled a little as we divided up between those who wanted an early-morning seawatch and others who wanted to take a slow stroll across the airfield tracks which cut through wet areas of marsh, reed, rough pasture and pools.
Down by the sea, the Brent resumed their relentless move south. We’d had 1300 in 90 minutes on Saturday, and we added another 300 or so to that. Among other highlights through the day (and another contender for bird of the trip) were Balearic Shearwater, with two Long-tailed Skua and Leach’s Petrel punctuating the Brents, occasional Gannets, Red-throated Divers, Cormorants, Common Scoter, Wigeon and other more regular commuters.
Seawatching isn’t to every birders’ tastes, but – when the conditions are right – there’s nothing quite like the combination of immobility and anticipation, and slowly ‘getting your eye in.’ I couldn’t see the appeal for ages, but now start scanning the weather pages mid-week, looking for those northerlies…
The whole party re-assembled at the accommodation block, where tea-making on an industrial scale took place before snaking our way back down towards the sea via the bushes and the shingle, through the clouds of Goldcrests, always looking for a view of the Siberian Stonechat and the possibility of Ring Ouzel, of which there were reports without any confirmed sightings.
The ever-helpful David Fincham of the National Trust team drove the lunch bags down to the beach so the seawatching continued, before we split the party again at the Bomb Ballistics building, with half the group heading for the roof and the others prepared to put some more work in around the bushes. Halfway up the track, the birds on the pool (having just settled again after being put up by a low-flying helicopter) went up once more. The reason this time was a high-flying Peregrine, which had been spotted earlier in the direction of the pagodas. It didn’t hang around though.
Up at the ringing hut, we had ‘in the hand’ views of Pallas’ Warbler and Firecrest, the latter held side-by-side with a Goldcrest for comparison. It’s not only the markings which contrast these birds – it’s the expression on their face. Goldcrests are cute – Firecrests most definitely aren’t! There’s a punchy aggression about them which is definitely at odds with their size.
By the time we’d taken an afternoon tea break, it was getting time to start the slow meander back across the airfield, and a consideration of the differences there can be from one year to the next.
The 2014 visit had Ring Ouzel, Little Owl, Hen Harrier and quite a varied number of waders. Wader species were definitely restricted in 2015, but there had been Jack Snipe, Pallas’ Warbler, Firecrest, Siberian Stonechat, Long-tailed Skua, Leach’s Petrel, Balearic Shearwater….obviously wind direction/weather is playing a great part in this, along with the prevailing conditions in the weeks before and conditions up north. It is perhaps one of the great aspects of the trip that the players may change, but the great theatre that is Orfordness remains; evolving, decaying, shape-shifting – but essentially the same in spirit.
Pictures: Dave Crawshaw, David Norton, Paddy Shaw
SPECIES LIST SATURDAY:
Bearded Tit 2
Black-headed Gull 200
Blue Tit 4
Carrion Crow 4
Collared Dove 1
Green Sandpiper 1
House Sparrow 2
Lesser Black-backed Gull 1
Marsh Harrier 2
Reed Warbler 2
Rock Pipit 3
Stock Dove 2
Barn Owl 1
Black Redstart 2
Black-tailed Godwit 1
Brent Goose (Dark-bellied) 1565
Canada Goose 25
Common Gull 2
Golden Plover 2
Great Black-backed Gull 31
Green Woodpecker 1
Grey Plover 1
Herring Gull 38
Jack Snipe 1
Lesser Redpoll 12
Little Egret 21
Meadow Pipit 35
Mute Swan 2
Pied Wagtail (yarrellii) 1
Red-breasted Merganser 1
Reed Bunting 10
Siberian Stonechat 1
Song Thrush 2
Woodpigeon 4 Total number of species 71
If you’ve never been there, or thought about it much, Hungary is likely to be a bit a surprise. Firstly, it’s flat – very flat. Think of the Fens on a national scale, then take away the cabbages and potatoes, and you might be close. But then think of the Fens in the grip of a heatwave previously unknown in Cambridgeshire/Lincolnshire and you might get closer. We’re talking about temperatures of 38 degrees, and around 90% humidity, which was unremitting for the duration of the WBC 20-strong Away Team’s visit to the beautiful city of Eger and its surroundings.
Hungary is landlocked, so it’s no use looking for a cooling sea breeze – or any breeze at all at this particular time. What respite there was came in the form of visits to woodland sites around the Bukk Hills early in the morning searching – successfully – for woodpeckers. Most of the time however, we were out on the plains, or on the tracks between the wetlands in the Hortobagy National Park, where shade was hard to find.
Our guide for the week was Roy Adams, who retired to Hungary having fallen for the place during trips to the country looking at hawfinch populations. He also contributed chapters to Gerard Gorman’s ‘Woodpeckers of Europe’ book, concentrating on the Sikfokut oak woods, to which we made two early-morning visits. An American university made a 12-year study of woodpeckers in these woods, demonstrating their importance to the birds’ populations.
The Hotel Villa Volgy was more luxury than we’re used to on these jaunts – swimming pools, saunas, spas etc. and the limit of nine hours on minibus driver time meant we were back in time to make the most of it on most evenings. Of course, most of us spent the time in our rooms, studiously writing up our notes……the fact that Eger is the centre of production for the famous Bull’s Blood (Bidaver) might have tempted us out for 10 minutes or so, if we had the inclination. And then there was the 6am early-morning birding to consider, around the wooded suburban lanes next to the hotel, so there was no misbehaviour at all. (That’s £10 each you owe me, folks! 4000 forints will do)
Our drivers for the week were Zoltan and Lewis, apart from a couple of days when Zoltan was ‘between minibuses’ and we had to use a Bond-villain lookalike surly local driver, who wouldn’t hire ‘bus only’, ignored many of Roy’s ‘STOP!’ instructions when a major bird appeared, and obviously thought we were all crazy….
Lewis was a major competitive off-road cyclist, who took Sunday off to compete in a national race, coming in 7th in a field of 160 in 40-degree temperatures, with the first 5 places going to professionals, and was a really good bloke. He works 11 months as a municipal bus driver in Eger, and takes a month off a year to work for Roy; he’d developed an interest in birding, and had become a really good spotter as well as a great driver, being responsible for the first Montagu’s harrier of the trip. He seemed to live purely on tomatoes, was fit as a butcher’s dog, didn’t break sweat once during the whole trip and had a great sense of humour.
Eger is a very attractive place. As well as its wine vaults, where you can try out a range of local product of various styles and vintages, it has a wonderful paved centre, based around Dobo Square (named for Dobo Istvan, a Hungarian soldier who successfully defended the town against the Ottomans in 1552). Dobo Square has restaurants, bars, large-scale municipal buildings, and a water feature consisting of gentle water jets that erratically would treble in size, presenting an interesting challenge for various members of WBC to run through, while visiting the nearby H and H Restaurant.
As well as the wine, Eger also had a garishly-muralled real ale bar, conveniently situated on the route into town. The beer seemed to change regularly; the first visit led to the conclusion that Hungarian brewers had never heard of finings, with a couple of cloudy concoctions. The second however featured a really pleasant summery pale ale (called ‘Brand’ I think) which slid down like an eel down a heron. The owner seemed really pleased a bunch of Brits had visited his place.
Hospitality was thick on the ground in most places, and fortunately there was enough English-language about, as Hungarian (being part of the Uralic group of languages along with Finnish and Estonian) could be described as ‘difficult.’ In most European countries you can at least guess at some words on billboards, road signs etc., but not here.
As far as the birding is concerned, we thought this best left to individual’s personal accounts, so hopefully, this is what follows.
However, as an overview, Hungary is a great place for birders. You’d have to know the sites, as they’re not obvious, but the range of species is vast if you know where to look. The people seem robust and hospitable, the beer and wine very acceptable, the topography fairly familiar to an East Anglian and the moustaches wonderful!
Other worthy mentions are the goulash house Roy took us to one lunchtime; not the thick stew-like dish you might think, but a meat/potato/paprika ‘soup’ in a slightly opaque, oily liquid, served by a large, flat-footed waiter and accompanied by raw green Jalapeno chillies, which seemed slightly at odds with the ambient temperature of midday in a heatwave.
Elaborate and ornate graves seem to have been bought in advance in the Eger cemetery; there may be the name of a husband and wife, with birth years followed only by a hyphen. How do they feel when they walk past it?
Also; the Hungarian word for wine is ‘bor’. The word for cheese is ‘sajt.’ This is pronounced ‘shite.’
We plan a reunion bor and sajt event sometime in the future.
The observation platform at Hortobagy Halisto (PS)
And now, over to views of the touring party, consisting of: Steve Piotrowski, Roger Walsh, Chris McIntyre, Tony Butler, Derek and Lesley Walduck, Rob and Helen Gooderham, Steve Howell, Dick Walden, Ali Riseborough, Eric ‘D’Weasel’ Patrick, Will Brame, Roger Buxton, John Garbutt, Carol Elliott, John and Rebecca Bedwell, Brenda Sullivan, Paddy Shaw
I was delighted to be part of WBC’s seventh foreign tour and, as leader, planning this one couldn’t have come much easier. After receiving some sound advice from WBC’s friend and veteran tour leader Richard Drew, we hired the services of Roy Adams, an ex-police Chief Inspector from the UK, but now based in Hungary. Roy liaised with Kathy back home to sort all the logistics, which included an amazing four-star hotel and took us to some wonderful birding sites. My birding highlight was the early-morning views of four species of woodpecker: Black, White-backed, Middle Spotted and Grey-headed, soaking up the first rays of sunlight on exposed perches in spacious deciduous woodland, part of the Sikfokut Project site in the Bukk Hills. All ten European woodpeckers were seen during WBC’s tour of Poland, but none were viewed as well as those in Hungary. What a sight?
It was a great fun trip and we had some wonderful nights out either at our hotel or in Eger town square. My favourite night was when Roy took us on a tour of the wine cellars. I hate wine! D’Weasel was determined to get his money’s worth, so tried samples of all the wines before paying 20p for the bottom of a barrel of Beaujolais (2010 – a disastrous year!), which they found in a backroom somewhere! He came back to our table triumphant with a beaming smile, boasting about his cunning ploy! “Must taste awful Eric” I said. “No – it’s not bad” he replied. “Let’s have a taste” I said and then proceeded to swig the contents of his glass. “Your wine cost 20p Eric, mine cost nothing” The look on D’Weasel’s face was priceless! I hate wine! We then went to a restaurant, which without doubt offered the worst service in the world! We were served by Igor the Hunchback of Notredame who was the only member of staff who could sort of speak English. We were entertained by the lounge pianist who played everything out of tune, but was richly applauded at the end of every song to which he took a bow! As the wine flowed the music got better so the pianist was even more enthusiastically applauded. The highlight came when Igor challenged us to take wine spurting from some sort of Hungarian wine vessel at a huge distance from our mouths. “I hate you Butler” won hands down as he has the biggest mouth and I’m proud to say that my effort really doesn’t warrant a mention. The service was abysmal to such an extent that it was hilarious! I hate wine, but what a night! Steve P
Steve – really hating wine!! (PS)
Hungary is truly an inspiring place that is full of surprises from fine wines to endless fields of sunflowers. My seven day trip (I left a day early to get back to work) was full of birds of the highest quality as well as lasting experiences.
Bearing in mind this was penned as a ‘birding trip’ my wife, Linda, nearly killed me when she realised what a fantastic hotel we were going to be based in. No basic 2* quarters for us – we were treated to the full 4* Villa Volgy with its pools, Sauna’s (yes there was a bit of fun in the ice sauna) spa’s and food to die for. Those of us who enjoyed a nice deep red wine were also in our element both at the hotel and in the various wine vaults in the town. Eger is a beautiful town situated above the vast Hungarian plains on the lower slopes of the Bukk hills.
Of course, I should mention the birds, because it was a balance of quality and quantity (and usually both). I saw more Imperial Eagles, Red Footed Falcons, Saker’s, Crane’s, Long-Eared Owls, Roller’s, Middle Spotted, Syrian and Grey Headed Woodpeckers, Red Backed Shrike’s and Hawfinches than any other trip I have been on. Roger Walsh
Long-eared owl, hearing that West Ham beat Liverpool 0-3… (PS)
Just exiting the plane and feeling the warm sunshine on my back at Budapest airport on the day of our arrival and I already knew that I was going to enjoy this holiday. Having left England just two hours previously where it was cold, dank and wet, I was positively lapping up this newfound warmth.
I like to make a special note of the first form of wildlife I see upon leaving the plane and in this case it was a Large White Butterfly. I could have sworn I saw one of those in my garden the day before. The first bird… Woodpigeon. That, I definitely saw in my garden just before I left!!
Of course, these humble beginnings were just the start of an amazing holiday which I thoroughly enjoyed. There were far too many great sightings to fit into this small account but highlights that immediately spring to mind was the marsh we visited on the second day where 250 Spoonbills, 100 Great White Egrets and 50 Night Herons frequented, along with hundreds of waders including several Black-winged Stilts, Wood Sandpipers and a Turnstone… a pretty good bird for a landlocked country as far as I was concerned. Of course, if you were more interested in raptors then you could enjoy any one of the five White-tailed Eagles present or maybe an Imperial Eagle or two!
A few teething problems with the mini-bus hire meant we were lumbered with substitute driver and Grumbleweed look-alike ‘Miserio’ for a couple of days. It’s a shame but if only he had the humour of a Grumbleweed he may have got through the two days a lot easier as we dragged him from pillar to post in pursuit of our Saker target species which we finally achieved on the fourth day of the holiday along the ‘raptor road’ which also produced dozens of Red-footed Falcons, a pair of Montagu’s Harriers, five Imperial Eagles and a Short-toed Eagle.
Not having any experience of birding in hot weather countries before, I must admit that I felt almost scared of being exposed to the full glare of the sun in the middle of the day in temperatures which never dropped below 32 degrees and which at their hottest, climbed to 38. I was even contemplating backing out of the trips for a couple of days in favour of staying around the cool surroundings of the hotel but I’m so glad that I decided to dig deep, persevere and stick with it as best I could. In the end I surprised myself with how well I coped, and for the most part warded off the extreme humidity. This was definitely helped by the fact that there were so many good birds around. On one particular morning we encountered a flock of up to 50 Bee-eaters, Red-necked Phalarope, Moustached Warbler, Icterine Warbler and one of my birds of the trip, an adult Short-toed Eagle skilfully hovering right above heads during the lunch stop.
The early morning forest walks towards the end of the holiday were notably memorable and I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking of in particular, that twig on that branch on that tree, which one after the other, pulled in (in order of size!) Middle Spotted, Grey-headed and Black Woodpecker…all within a few minutes of each other. Wonderful happy birding!!
Apart from the birds themselves, there were several other plus points adding to the all round good holiday experience. We had a luxurious four star hotel awaiting us upon our return each day after a hard days birding and it was everything you would expect it to be with such a rating. And there were some lovely nights in the beautiful and historic town centre of Eger where apart from some excellent local cuisine, we also indulged in some wine and beer tasting (on different nights I might add!) fountain skipping (has to be seen to be believed) and general naughtiness which could warrant its own reality TV show “Senior Birders Behaving Badly Abroad”. I’m sure Channel 4 would be interested next time!! Steve Howell
Crested Lark (WB)
Two things come to mind when remembering the Hungary trip – the birds and the heat.
The heat first. Leaving Stansted at 8.30am in the morning at around 15 degrees and arriving in Budapest at around midday to pick up our guide in very hot conditions, Carol still wearing her thick jacket!
We were told the weather was hot and the temperatures soaring. At first it was rather pleasant to have some heat after the miserable weather at home but as the days went on the heat built.
“Switch on the air conditioning!” “It is on!” These refrains were the most often heard in the bus, even more than Eric and his numerous sightings! We were hot! And there was nothing we could do about it.
The thought of a swim in the luxurious wellness centre at the end of a hard days birding was a thought I kept in my head. As soon as we got back we rushed to the pool and dived in – absolute bliss!
We all had time in the pool and a few members of the party indulged in ice bucket challenges and crushed iced escapades – no need to say more!
Now back to why we came – the bird watching. This was fantastic and every so often looking up to see another cracking bird, the heat was momentarily forgotten.
For me the birds that stay in my mind overall were the long eared owls in the trees – from the older birds with their big eyes looking threateningly down on us to the younger ones stretching or preening – looking oddly back at us wondering what an earth we were doing.
“Oos and ahhs” and “look at that one” coming from all of us as we gazed up into the branches.
These birds were a sheer delight. We were told by Roy that as many as 600 roost over the winter in these trees – what a sight that must be. John and Rebecca Bedwell
We spent wonderfully cool early mornings in the beech and hornbeam forests of the Bukk hills near the hotel searching for woodpeckers. Later in the week we were at the very different and vast, impenetrable wetlands of the Hortobagy National Park fed by the magnificent Tisza River with its strange saline ecology and prominent sea lavender.
But maybe the real Hungary is on the plains, the Great Hungarian Plain part of the vast Eurasion Steppe. This is a semi- agricultural landscape, very flat with vast fields of maize and blackened triffid like sunflowers. This is the unlikely habitat of Saker Falcon where nesting boxes are visible in the upper sections of distant pylons. No tradition or history here of hedges, but ragged field boundaries, wild groups of black and white poplars, an edge-land which is very isolated and non-intensive and provides a habitat that is so beneficial for a specialised bird life.
With our now warm water bottles to hand, we drove slowly and sweatily down the 10 kilometer baked mud track, often leaping from the van as our usual companions including Common Buzzard, Red-backed Shrike, flocks of Corn Buntings and notably Red-footed Falcons appeared in abundance. As we neared the end of the track, a large raptor suddenly burst from nearby low trees, quickly followed by a second….we had astonishingly close views of two magnificent Short-toed Eagles. Rob Gooderham
Strolling around Balmazujvaros in the heat of the afternoon members of the WBC counted in excess of thirty Long-eared Owls, the birds were seen roosting in trees above the pavements and gardens, eventually the heat tempted the group to seek out and sample the wares of the local ice cream shop. Four stragglers following the main group were treated to great views of two Syrian Woodpeckers in a tree positioned, rather awkwardly, in a children’s play area. The group of binocular wielding men met no response here from the locals, however, back home this innocent behaviour would almost certainly have meant missing the ice cream for an unscheduled visit to the local constabulary. Whilst watching the woodpeckers a couple of Hawfinches were also seen flying over.
Re-grouping outside the ice cream shop someone shouted ‘Crested Lark’, there then followed amazingly close views of this daredevil as it dodged the speeding traffic to feed on the tarmac, eventually the Lark rested with wings spread and beak open on the verge allowing approach to within three metres, a remarkable bird! Dick Walden
There were many potential favourite moments on this excellent trip. We enjoyed the flocks of Red-footed Falcons, Night Herons and roosting Long-eared Owls, but our favourite birds were the Black Woodpeckers seen following two early starts to get to the Bukk (Beech Tree) Hills. We first had fleeting views on the 31st August but, with maximum telescope magnification, did manage to watch one climbing around the base of a distant tree before it disappeared into the adjacent wood. The following day, at the same site we had one of those memorable rarities – a bird that seems to want to be seen and stays in view for long enough for you to have a close look at it. This Black Woodpecker landed nearby in full view on a dead branch at the top of a tree, with only the bright blue sky behind. This species is big for a woodpecker (as big as a crow) and, if ever there was a bird “with attitude”, this is it – jet black plumage, white eye and bright red crown. It was one of those exceptional episodes that will stay in the memory forever. John Garbutt and Carol Elliott
Our Hungarian Hadventure
Our first overseas club trip. A month on and what were our impressions?
What a lot of knowledge there is in the club. Helpful and skilled spotters. Fiendish heat, especially on the Hortobagy plains. Two bustards like flying turkeys. It’s a mistake to sit at the back of a minibus on bumpy roads. Unexpectedly tasty food including a grilled duck liver salad – sounds suspect, tasted marvelous (three times). A flock of yellowhammers bigger than any we’ve seen. Lots of mickey-taking and in-jokes. What a comfortable hotel, even better if you master the aircon before your leaving day. Hungarians don’t conform to the dour central European stereotype – they’re as smiley and friendly as anyone else. Several lifers – white-tailed eagle, Montagu’s harrier, lesser-spotted eagle, Syrian woodpecker to name a few. Isn’t Hungary flat? “The Log” is actually quite enjoyable when treated as a piece of performance art. Long-eared owls roost in large numbers in the middle of villages. Some people can sleep no matter what the circumstances. Hungary is the next big thing in wine. And finally, what a great job Kathy does for the club. A trip to remember. Derek & Lesley Walduck
Hungary to me was an ex eastern – bloc country but that was as far as it went all apart from knowing the people ate some sort of stew called Goulash travelling there was going to be a completely new experience.Passing through the Hortobagy area I could not help notice how flat this region was with wide open grasslands dotted with farmhouses and low single storey white painted buildings that are used to house the herds of Hungarian Grey Cattle during the harshest months of winter.These cattle,Magyr Szurke Szararasmarha in Hugarian, pronounce it how you will,are mostly responsible for shaping the landscape as traditionally an enormous amount of acreage of the Puzsta was given over to grazing pastures for these historically and economically viable beasts.Even today the Grey Cattle with their long elegant uprising horns are grazed within the National Parks to keep the region as it was but they are no longer driven on foot sometimes up to 620 miles by Hungarian “cowboys” the Gulyas which brings me neatly back to my meagre knowledge of this fine country,the word Goulash being derived from this name and thanks to Helen we all had a real taste of this dish. Will Brame
The major highlight of the Hungary trip for me has to be the birds, not only individual species but the sheer numbers at times.
Seeing a Saker Falcon for the first time ever was a real, personal thrill, especially after the group had worked so hard in the blistering heat to find one. The final tally of four was a real bonus. However, I never want to seen another electricity pylon for as long as I live!
Equally exciting were the two Great Bustards seen flying over the plains of the Hortobagy, again a lifer for me.I think we were very fortunate to get them, probably our one and only chance given the merciless conditions.
Moustached warbler was also another Hortobagy lifer.
Eight species of woodpecker on the trip was a further big plus, especially enjoyable were the stunning views of black woodpecker obtained. I’d only previously ever had a brief and rather distant flypast in Estonia.
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker was also nice to see, especially given how scarce they are locally.
Hungary was also eagle heaven – the stunning views of Eastern Imperial, White-tailed and Short-toed Eagles will long live in the memory and, of course, not forgetting the Lesser-spotted Eagle on the last morning.
The sheer mumbers of birds at times was also a memorable spectacle.The sheer numbers of Red-footed Falcons, Great-white Egrets and Night Herons was incredible. It is not very often one can return home from a bird outing boosting a ‘flock’ of Red-footed Falcons!
A further memorable highlight was getting back to the hotel mid afternoon cooked to a cinder, drowning oneself in a life-affirming shower and then emerging to the delights of a couple of cool beers. Satisfying heaven! Tony Butler
The second visit to tranquil Lake Tisza was even better than the first. It was still very hot indeed although the Pigmy Cormorants were no longer in the dead tree we had seen them in the first time. However the sun was behind us so we could now enjoy the shade of the bus at the top of the grassy slope as we viewed the lake. Still sitting at the water’s edge were the same two men outside their makeshift tent, the tiny patch of earth with the ripening tomatoes and their punts waiting for hire.
Across the first expanse of water were wonderful views of a Purple Heron standing, preening and showing itself to us for the whole time we were there.We were speculating about seeing a Little Crake when one appeared balancing on weeds and mud right in front of the heron, foraging to and fro. Someone suggested the heron might grab the crake and gobble it up. Nothing so terrible transpired and eventually two of us couldn’t resist following our driver and his son in to the farmhouse behind us, past the cow that produced the milk to buy a cheese studded with pumpkin seeds and walnuts from the farmer’s wife.
This subsequently inspired Waveney Bird Club’s first cheese and wine party. A plastic bottle of rather dodgy wine had been kindly provided by the lunchtime goulash restaurant the day before in grateful thanks for having twenty customers and the cheese proved good. Helen Gooderham
We had the privilege of visiting Hortbagy National Park – the Puszta in Eastern Hungary, rich with folklore and cultural history. It is a world Heritage site and Hungary’s largest protected area and the largest semi-natural grassland in Europe. It is an outstanding example of a cultural landscape which preserves intact and visible evidence of its traditional pastoral use over more than two millennia and represents the harmonious interaction between people and nature
Hortobagy is a steppe, a grassy plain with Hungarian Grey cattle, racka sheep,water buffalo and horses. It provides habitat for various species including 342 birds species.
The Red-footed Falcon, Stone curlew, Great Bustard and Aquatic warbler are represented by breeding populations. The area is also an important stopover site for migrating Common cranes, Dotterels and Lesser White-fronted geese. The birding was spectacular Moustached, Great reed warblers, Red-necked Phalarope, Saker and Red-footed Falcons, Squacco heron and impressive views of Short-toed Eagle….I could have spent a week there. Chris McIntyre
The open landscape of the Southern Palins, Hortobagy was the venue for hopefully sightings of Great Bustard amongst other species of bird. The vastness of an extraordinary empty landscape, totally treeless broken occasionally with a puszta well for watering the grazing cattle and with a dome of cerulean blue sky punctuated with the occasional fluffy white cloud. Where are the birds one asks in this huge empty plain, all are scanning the distance with their scopes and bins with the interminable sun beating down creating a heat haze making it more and more difficult to find our target birds. Time goes by and we’re on the point of giving up when a shout goes up, two Bustards flying right, there they are in tandem like two huge bomber aircraft their light plumage making them very distinct against a deep blue sky. What a fantastic site. Roger Buxton
Wednesday: Our first stop for refreshments it wasn’t long before we were watching two Imperial Eagles, quite a spectacular show for the start of our trip.
Thursday: Polga wetlands, most impressive was the sight of seventy plus Night Heron.
Friday: Our first visit to the Hortobagy today, target species Great Bustard, amazing to see these wonderful birds in flight, “we were very lucky”.
Saturday: Our first Saker Falcon, also perched and hunting Red-footed Falcons, Montagu,s Harrier and a very close encounter with a Short-toed Eagle, on the Hortobagy Plains.
Sunday: We visited the fishponds today with a wonderful selection of wetland birding although quite trying in 37 degrees
Monday: After breakfast we visited a valley near Roys village where several Long-tailed Tits of the white headed variety were seen “what a treat”
Tuesday: One of my favourite birding experience of the week this morning while watching a Middle-spotted Woodpecker on a dead branch it was then replaced by a Grey-headed woodpecker to be then replaced by a Black Woodpecker
Wednesday: A great finish to the week this morning with a Lesser Spotted Eagle on the deck in a hillside meadow followed by Rock Bunting. Ali Riseborough
Water buffalo, buffaloing in water (WB)
I was asked to give my thoughts on the recent WBC trip to Hungary in 200 words. I can do that in one – Great! Great birds, great weather, great food, great people; in fact, the whole holiday was simply great, and there’s nothing more to say! Eric Patrick
I think ‘best birds’ and ‘best birding moments’ are quite different, and this is usually down to the context. In terms of best birds, seeing Saker Falcons and Little Crake take some beating. The Moustached Warbler was just a glimpse really and Red-necked Phalarope – although a major strike for where we were – was quite distant and didn’t really rival the three Grey Phalarope we saw close-up and repeatedly at Cley last year.
But then, you get into ‘best birding moments,’ and there might be four for me.
First up was the Black Woodpecker in the Sikfokut Woods – early morning oak woods covering rolling hills, with plenty of dead branches, and one particular tree that seemed to be a woodpecker magnet. Perhaps the Grey-headed woodpecker may have been more of a tick, but when the Big Boy just suddenly appeared, like a big black fridge magnet being thrown at a metal tree; that it gave the best views of this stunning bird I personally have ever had – a very special moment. That it came in a stunning bill of Grey-headed and Middle Spotted Woodpeckers made it even better – all using the same tree.
Second was the Red-footed Falcon. A dusty track runs through the middle of the Borsod-Mezo Plain, and it was a haven for raptors. At a rare lightly-wooded section, we got glimpses of these stunning falcons from the windows of the buses. We stopped, only to find the count of three birds instantly escalated, until at least 30 were swooping above our heads. And then – they were gone. Why? Slowly floating from right to left over the track came a Short-toed Eagle – enough of a beast to ensure the falcons got out of the way. The same frantic 30 minutes had produced a Saker Falcon chasing a cuckoo, Montagu’s Harrier and Imperial Eagle, in one of those sessions when everything seems to be happening at once. A later scoped view of a beautiful male Red-footed Falcon capped it off – like a kestrel dipped in black and vermillion.
Third – the Short-toed Eagle itself. After a gruelling walk back from Hortobagy wetlands on the hottest day of the trip, I got back to the covered shade of the visitors’ centre picnic area just short of heatstroke. 2 litres of water later and dehydration a retreating possibility, and a call went up for a raptor. Another slow approach by one of these stunning eagles, who seem to have a great curiosity regarding birdwatchers, and like to put on a bit of a show. With a clear blue sky behind it, I got it dead-centre of the bins just as it started to hover above us. This is nothing like a kestrel-hover; this is a big, slow-motion business, with the tail rippling laterally. I’d seen it before from a distance, but not in such detail or so close. Definitely a big birding moment!
Last one: Night Heron. Again, not so much the bird, as the circumstances. We were heading back from an afternoon on the Polgar wetlands, when the first of the herons was spotted. Either leaving the roost for an evening of feeding, or put up by a raptor, suddenly there were Night Herons everywhere – probably over 70, in flocks the way we might be used to Rooks. This rivalled the spotting of two Squaco Herons in the middle of the Hortobagy wetlands, and the sight of a Purple Heron at Lake Tisza with a Little Crake stepping delicately across the algae almost at its feet.
To be honest, I could have picked a completely different four. Two flying Great Bustards on Hortobagy, White-tailed Eagle, Imperial Eagle, Penduline Tit, a fleeting glimpse of a Little Bittern, the roosting Long-eared Owls….a trip extremely rich in great birding moments. Paddy Shaw
Pics: Will Brame, Lesley Walduck, Steve Howell, Paddy Shaw, Roger Walsh
Diary of events
Wednesday August 26 (Day 1): We had a very early start, ready and waiting for the coach at our pick-up points along the Waveney Valley for our pre-breakfast Ryan Air flight to Budapest. We arrived on time at midday and were met by our guide, Roy Adams together with his two drivers Lewis and Zoltan. It was hot and sunny with cloudless skies and a temperature of 32 degrees C. It was birding straight away and we swiftly made our way to our first stop, which was the OMV motorway service station at Km83 on the M3 motorway for refreshments. The next stop was Lake Tisza, then (via a Long-eared Owl roost) back to the luxurious Hotel Villa Volgy in the Szeppasszony Valley on the outskirts of Eger where we were to spend the week.
Thursday August 27 (Day 2):Some of the group participated in some pre-breakfast birding near the hotel and after breakfast we went to a riverine wooded area alongside the River Tisza near Tiszafured. Late morning was spent by an area of lakes at Polgar and after lunch we explored the other side of the lakes. It was getting hotter!
Friday August 28 (Day 3):More pre-breakfast birding by some and then a longish drive to the Hortobagy, where we were introduced to the Ranger. He took us to an area known as the Southern Palins to look for Great Bustard and Saker Falcon. Scored with Great Bustard but failed with Saker despite scouring every pylon in the area! It was getting even hotter and temperatures were now up to 35 degree C, so an ice-cream stop at Valmazaubaros was a welcome relief. The Long-eared Owl roost in the town was amazing. It was Friday night so it was off to a lovely restaurant (H, H and H) for dinner beside the beautiful Dobo Square in Eger.
August 29 (Day 4): Today’s main birding venue was the Bukk Hills and then to Bogacs Lake en route to another part of the Hotobagy Plains. Our hotel had been taken over by a wedding party, so it was off to town again for dinner. Unfortunately, most of the restaurants in town were also hosting weddings – the last Saturday of the summer being a very popular day to get married in Hungary. Roy had arranged a visit to the wine cellars and then to a restaurant in town. It was all quite bizarre, with a pianist – see Steve P’s notes above for musical critique.
August 30 (Day 5): It was back to the Hortobagy where we caught the tourist train to the fishponds. We stopped out there for a while and then walked from halfway back. After lunch we returned to Tiszafured. Birding in scorching temperatures (37 degrees C) was challenging, but we were rewarded with some very good birds.
August 31 (Day 6): It was an early start for the whole team in some woodland known as the Sikfokut Project site in the Bukk Hills in search of woodpeckers. We returned from a late breakfast before going to Novaj, a more open area of Bukk Hills. After lunch we visited Mezokovesd Ponds. It was yet another hot day with temperatures exceeding 37 degrees C.
September 1 (Day 7): It was another early start at the Sikfokut Project site and after breakfast back to the Hotobagy site to check pylons for Sakers. We stopped for lunch at a doughnut restaurant overlooking the ponds at Poroszlo. Most of the savory doughnuts were fed to the fish. It was by now exceptionally hot at 38 degrees C.
September 2 (Day 8): Our morning was spent in the Bukk Hills to look for Lesser Spotted Eagle and Rock Bunting. After breakfast most took a leisurely work along the Szeppasszony Valley before bag packing, last-minute shopping and then the airport for our 21.00 hrs flight home. The weather was still hot with temperatures again to 37 degrees C.
U = ‘present/seen’ (formatting conversion problem when uploading!)
Between July 30th and Aug. 2nd, a group of WBC regulars took a trip to the Portland Bird Observatory in Dorset, going via a few good sites in the New Forest.
The aim was principally damselflies, dragonflies and butterflies, but it turned out to be pretty good for birds, wildflowers and other insects too.
Rather than go through an exhaustive trip report, taking each site in turn and producing endless species list, we thought it would be better to just present some pictures, and invite the participants to submit their ‘champagne moment;’ what they might remember most about the trip.
There were certainly quite a lot of contenders: some were because they were ‘life-ticks,’ some because they were just unexpected, and others just because of the vibe of the trip, the weather, the company….the beer…..
So, I’m going to start off with my two moments, and both because they were lifers. As is our usual habit when staying on the coast, we were out seawatching most mornings. Mostly this required a short work down to the Bill itself, and the ‘new’ lighthouse, where the rocks below provided good, flat platforms for scopes. However, it was equally good from the patio at the Bird Observatory itself. A bit of evening seawatching with a fridge full of cold beer is almost like too much luxury.
On the last morning – having seen several Manx shearwaters – we were treated to a real closeup of a Balearic; so close, you could see it clearly without optics. This was a rare moment, particularly as it stayed within range of the scope for quite a while. This was on top of getting a Sooty shearwater from the Observatory the evening before.
The other moment comes from Martin Down, right on the border of Dorset and Hampshire; a beautiful stretch of unimproved grassland, with hardly a glimpse of a man-made artefact anywhere.
It was in this large-frame landscape that we found one of the country’s smallest butterflies – the Small Blue. This is a stunning little insect, not just because it’s so perfectly ‘butterfly-shaped’ but on a miniature scale, but that the blue isn’t really blue at all. As Helen described it, more a ‘smokey lilac’.
Both the butterfly and the Balearic were firsts for me, but there were so many other moments in the trip, that it would be possible to fill the page. But – over to the others…..
I’ve had a memorable four days with the WBC, looking for insects and birds in Dorset and Hampshire. It was full of highlights, and here are just a few of my numerous ‘firsts’: Marbled White and Small Blue butterflies; Golden-ringed, Emerald and Beautiful Demoiselle odonata; Corn Bunting, Raft Spider, two hoverfly ‘firsts’ and a Great Green Bushcricket. Not a first, but none the less memorable were the Dark Green Fritillaries flitting through the sun-baked flower-rich grasslands of Morton Down NNR. In addition to the wildlife was the beautiful and varied scenery – New Forest bogs and pools, Portland Bill’s dramatic coastline vistas and the amazing Chesil Beach, Morden’s extensive heathland and the gently rolling grasslands of Morton Down. Throw into this mix the novelty of staying at the BTO’s Portland Bill Old Lighthouse, lunch at a high security prison! (the Jailhouse Rock cafe), the company of a lively group of people full of good humour, and the good fortune to have sunshine all the way. Many thanks to the organisers and experts for such a brilliant four day experience.
Well what to say. Highlights for me of our excellent few days in Dorset/Hampshire is firstly our location. The Isle of Portland is such an ace place especially as were blessed with such brilliant weather. The Observatory too, with its’ superb location, an inspired idea to make this our base.
Other highlights has to include bog orchid at Matley Bog. Have long wanted to see this & although not especially grandiose was well worth the wet feet suffered as a result. As I am on a flower theme, the unimproved grassland we encountered throughout, with its’ myriad of wild flowers, was a delight to behold. So much I could say, finally though really have to mention birds if only briefly. Has to be the Balearic if only for the fact it was a ‘lifer’ & hadn’t really expected I would have an avian one. Plenty of non- avian though, that’s for sure!
Best bit, not really sure, but my endearing memory of the whole area must be the sight of Chesil beach as Jon drove down the steep streets of Portland. It was just breathtaking. On the Saturday after our lunch we went to the beach to look for waders, not many to be seen and eventually some of us decided to walk over the top of the beach. Paul our guide for the day explained how the beach was formed millions of years ago and the difference between the different shaped pebbles and a few of us scoured the beach picking up, flats, rods and angles. To look out to sea and then the other side watching people hang gliding and enjoying the area made me think how lucky we all were to be here.
Wildlife best bit was seeing the Beautiful Demoiselle in the woods while we were trying to find Steve his elusive Golden Ringed Dragonfly. Truly well named handsome male with its iridescent colours of blue and green. (The demoiselle not you Steve –Sorry!) Or Maybe?!
It was exciting to see two new butterflies. There was my first ever sighting of Chalkhill Blues at Portland Bill – aren’t they accommodating by staying still like they do, unlike the flighty Holly and Commons that I try to identify in my garden – and my first ever sighting of Small Blues at the lovely Martin Down NNR, much more difficult to see but such a super little butterfly.
Looking back over our fantastic weekend I think my favourite time was the early mornings on the Bill. Up and out in the glorious sunshine by 5.30am the peace and quiet was only broken by bird call. Watching the family of ravens in the quarry as the youngsters squabbled and rooted around the rocks, the male linnet trying to keep two hungry fledglings satisfied and the pipit who sat on the post with the deformed leg looking at me as if to say “I’m alright, I can cope”. Then the icing on the cake joining the “lads” for a spot of sea watching and with the help of the lovely John Grant (and I’m reminded with the lovely Keith’s scope) being able to watch the Balearic Shearwater as it danced with the gulls around the fishing boat. A truly magical time and all too soon it was over.
A midsummer lull in bird activity gives birdwatchers a chance to focus on other animal forms and the study of more spectacular insect groups such as the butterflies and dragonflies has become popular. It was therefore delightful to see the uptake for a Waveney Bird Club insect foray to The New Forest and Portland Bill during a long weekend from 30th July to 2nd August. We had negotiated a good deal for accommodation in the old lighthouse at Portland Bird Observatory, which was an attraction in its own right and really couldn’t lose as good weather would give us a good showing of insects and poor weather would encourage us to look for birds? What blistering weekend it turned out to be with wall to wall sunshine and not a hint of rain? Personally, I have always been a keen dragonfly recorder, so was hoping to catch up with the exquisite Golden-ringed Dragonfly, which had somehow eluded me both home and abroad for many years. We stopped at a few well-known New Forest dragonfly sites on our first morning, lunched at Hatchet Ponds and then it was off to Crockford Bridge a traditional site for the Golden-ringed Dragonfly, Southern and Small Red Damselflies and Beautiful Demoiselle. The landscape was amazing, but the site itself didn’t look large enough to support an abundance of dragonflies, being basically a bridge carrying a very busy road over a small stream that flowed through willows to an area of heathy bog. We earnestly set about our search and soon located Southern Damselfly and Beautiful Demoiselle along the stream. Some of our party who lingered near the bridge saw a Golden ringed, another was spotted over the heather and then a third further upstream. Alas, I didn’t clap eyes on any of them!
The next day we explored the tranquil Dorset heaths and were guided by an old friend and ex-Suffolk birder Daragh Croxson. He took us to some to some amazing insect sites and we were treated to some stunning views of Silver-washed Fritillary and Silver-studded Blue butterflies and several Raft Spiders, which we watched as they hunted over a small boggy pool. Raft Spiders are one of Britain’s largest spiders and are a New Forest speciality and is a different species to the East Anglian Great or Fen Raft Spider. In the afternoon, we went to Morden Bog, a vast area of heathland, which makes our Suffolk heaths look like allotment gardens in comparison! A stream ran through an boggy area, a similar habitat to Crockford Bridge, so another chance of Golden-ringed we thought? Jon Warnes and I explored an area upstream when a large blackish dragonfly zoomed past us. “Golden-ringed” Jon shouted. I saw it, but only just and the insect did not return. Well, at least I had now seen one even if they were terrible views! We were carrying two-way radios that allowed us to split up during our search. A call on the radio sent us scurrying up the hill as some the party had located a perched Golden-ringed! We arrived huffing and puffing, but thankfully the insect was still there, a wonderful male with stunning green eyes, striped black and yellow thorax and a jet black body with alternate broad and narrow yellow rings. This was my champagne moment.
Paddy has asked us all for our favourite moment from our trip Portland. This is no easy task for me as I have so many fantastic memories of this special place. The ravens, the any beautiful butterflies, golden ringed dragonfly, and many, many damselflies, but for me as an avid birder it has to be the sea watching from behind the lighthouse at the Bill. That wonderful moment the Balearic shearwater came into sight giving us all fantastic views of it shearing back and forth over the waves.
As we round a corner of the cliff path, the sea to our right a glorious blue, a kestrel glares at us from a nearby rock, yellow foot firmly holding down a rat. We stand and look at one another for long moments, time to raise the binoculars and admire its beauty, before it takes off carrying its prey
*Champaign moments on the stone island…………..
For generations the island has been quarried for architectural limestone for use in major buildings including St Paul Cathedral. These quarries, now largely abandoned provide a rich habitat for a specialised flora and fauna, particularly on the coast. Walking in the early morning to the The Bill at the southern end of the island to sea watch, the craggy floral rock faces echo to the tranquil and resonant cronk of ravens soaring in the blue skies. These enormous birds dwarfing the accompanying gulls and other corvids.
At the north of the island the quarried stone provides a habitat of a different kind where guests of her majesty reside within the walls of Verne Prison. The inmates provided us with a memorable meal while viewing the panorama of Weymouth bay and the Jurassic Coast.
*Champaign: a little known effervescent wine produced on the south facing terroir of the Suffolk town of Bungay.
Going back to one of the most beautiful areas of Britain after so many years brought back many happy memories for me, and gave me the chance to meet up again with so many old and lots of new friends. I had a wonderful time.
For those who don’t know, the Farne Islands are a long way from Suffolk. A very long way.
But, if you ain’t out there, you won’t see it, as the birding saying goes. So we went there.
Not only is it a long way, but it’s also a gamble – quite often the weather can kick off and the boats don’t sail, and things were not looking too bright for the Saturday, when we were planning to get out there. But this was Friday, and things could change.
We met up at Morrison’s car park in Beccles and loaded up, with Jon Evans wearing the Captain’s hat (and the chaffeur’s, as it turned out). There was a bit of rain about, and Suffolk’s drivers responded by crashing their cars on the A143, with two fairly severe accidents between Gillingham and Earsham. We got through just before the police closed the road, and started the bird count, which would be list one: only birds seen on the journey counted, there and back.
The hours and miles passed – up the A1, past Newcastle and the Angel of the North, looking like a white-tailed eagle stuck in the ground (this is, after all, a bird related trip…)
It gets less crowded north of The Toon, but there were still plenty of miles to Bamburgh, where we were staying, and at which we arrived at about 5pm. So, a quick check-in, then a 3 mile drive back to Seahouses harbour to check out the eiders.
There they were – little rafts of eider families, tame enough to come for bread and pose for pics. This was a very pleasant way to unwind from the journey, with a wander up the jetty giving up a few offshore gannets, auk species (presumably guillemot), passing puffins skimming the wave tops, shag, plus a few waders including sanderling and ringed plover.
Time was getting on, and there was still more to do before beer-o’clock, so we took the bus up into the town, visited the chippy then headed just out of town to a nearby cliff edge to check for fulmar. Again, a pleasant stroll down to the beach, now at low tide with exposed rock pools, and along under the song of skylark, meadow and rock pipit, to check the nest sites.
Almost all the birds were kittiwake, which is fine enough – but with persistence, there was a pair of fulmar up there too, with sandwich tern and common gull adding to the aerial cast.
We headed back into town to visit the local Co-op and pick up supplies for the (hoped for) boat trip the next day and a quick pint at a very crowded but very pleasant pub before heading back to Bamburgh.
Seahouses is probably like a smaller Cromer, whereas Bamburgh is obviously a little more refined: one main street under the shadow of the impressive castle, sheltering the village cricket pitch, with small tea houses and craft shops. The hotel was a maze of staircases, with every available space turned into a bedroom, but comfortable with a certain old-world charm. Do you need to know about the subsequent local brewery product sampling? No, probably not. Very good though!
Not strictly necessary.....use the zoom!
WBC look for fulmars
What am i bid? Seven grand?
Jon and I went out early to taste the weather – down to the castle and out to the beach. Man, it was blowing a hooley, and it might be time for Plan B – if we had one. Still, the walk through the dunes turned up sandwich and arctic tern, so a good start anyway.
After breakfast, we headed back to Seahouses, but – as suspected – the boat folks were planning to review the situation at 11am. Nothing was likely to change though; this wasn’t a wafty little wind, but a huge air mass moving east at quite an alarming rate and consistency.
And so for Plan B, which came together slightly on the fly. Firstly, up to Holy Island (Lindisfarne) via Budle Bay, where we stopped in the shelter of a slight rise and trees; shelter enough to get the scopes out. The tide was low, leaving creeks through the mudflats. Although not packed with birds, we got onto a distant red-breasted merganser, summer-plumage dunlin and curlew.
The trip out to Lindisfarne means crossing a causeway which is closed 2 hours either side of high tide, so we were good for a visit between 10am and 4pm. It’s an odd journey – a road that disappears under the sea, past mud and eventually salt flats. This wind was becoming a bit of a caution though, as we headed up to what was once Aidan’s saintly retreat, and is now obviously a tourist trap.
The best bet seemed to be to head round the edge to a beach on the leeward side of the island and do a bit of seawatching. Guillemot and gannet were evident, but it wasn’t over-busy out there, so we braved the wind again and headed back to the bus.
The next bit of Plan B involved heading down to Amble, and the Low Hauxley reserve just south of the town. The reserve is the nearest fresh water to Cocquet Island, which is maintained as a tern colony, including roseate tern, which was our new target.
We got on the beach facing the island, which had tern nests all over it, but with the wind and shaky scopes, identifying roseates was impossible, although there were an awful lot of terns out there.
Finding a pair of rock pipits feeding a fledgling who was having trouble maintaining its position on the cliff side in the wind gave Jon and Gavin a rare chance to get photographic though.
We headed further south to the small lane that tapered out to a footpath leading to the reserve, which was – unbelievably – shut! Some kind of construction work was underway, but we found a spot to overlook the water. A previously-unconfirmed roseate sighting (I think only I saw it, so that means ‘unconfirmed’) became confirmed sighting, with all of us getting over this beautiful, streamlined bird sailing over our heads. Now that was a great moment, and almost worth the soaking we got on the walk back, particularly when you add in little gull, which was consorting with the terns on a small island in the middle of the reserve.
A small coffee house in Amble was trying to close for the day – until WBC walked in, looking for a brew and a dry-out. The weather was not conducive to further birding, so it was back to base, where we’d booked a table in a local pub (and there was another couple of local brews for myself, Jon and Alastair to check out). A very pleasant evening ensued, with increasing optimism about Sunday’s weather and the chance to get out to the islands before the drive back.
The causeway to Holy Island
Sea watching at Lindisfarne
Hooray! The wind had dropped as Jon and I took the early stroll down to the beach; it was still there, but hopefully the boats would cope with it.
And indeed they did. We paid for the half-day trip and got on board, seen off by a sparrowhawk in the car park, with the warning that it was likely to be a bit choppy once we cleared the harbour, with a bit of splash about. No matter – bring on the seabirds!
Before long we were in the company of commuting puffins, guillemots, razorbills, terns (common arctic and sandwich), gulls, shag and cormorant. It’s always amazed me on sea trips how birds of a pelargic disposition completely ignore the presence of boats and just get on with the business of sand eel collection.
The destination was Staple Island, with a quick scoot round some of the closer islands. Hitchcock comes to mind with the ranks of guillemots and razorbills standing like sentries along the clifftops.
We landed at Staple, and it was a quick scramble up the rocks (and via the National Trust ticket people) to a strange landscape of mainly flat-topped rock, marked out with blue rope to dissuade you from plummeting over the edge, in a strongly guano-tinged atmosphere. Imagine sticking your head in a chicken coop, and you’ve got it close. These birds don’t like to travel far to the toilet.
The sheer numbers take some absorbing. Guillemots are the most numerous, with quite a few bridled birds, sporting the ‘white spectacles’ quite evident amongst their plainer brethren. Plenty of razorbills too, with puffins further up on the softer ground, coming back with beaks full of sand eels before hopping rabbit-like into their holes.
On the evidence of this trip, food seemed to be plentiful this year, with an almost constant to-and-fro from the food source to the island.
What also was fairly surprising was the other bird species out here, including pied wagtail, swallow and song thrush.
We were out there about an hour, by which time the aroma has got completely into the back of your throat. I could still smell guano about 4 hours later.
So then it’s back into the boat, a quick look at Grace Darling’s lighthouse home, admiring the control of a lesser-black backed gull as it maintained position above the aft of the boat as Gus threw it bits of sandwich, and back to harbour. Then of course, the quick trip home, and the road list continues…
Well, we had to wait for it – but it was worth it.
Big thanks to Jon Evans for leading a great trip, which ended up taking in a lot more than we intended, but gave many of us a quick overview of some of the better birding sites of the north east coast. And thanks indeed for all the driving!
Ah, Minsmere! The Suffolk coastal birder’s spiritual home! I still can’t remember if this or Cley was the first reserve I was thrown off. These days you’re more likely to be greeted by an affable character in an RSPB fleece with a membership pack in his/her hand than an angry bloke on a tractor, but that’s the changing face of conservation for you…..and it was an awfully long time ago…
And so, some **years later, I joined the other 12 WBC members in the reserve car park, in bright light and a brisk SW wind, with just a hint of chill on it. And, as usually happens, the bird list started moving up like a pinball machine immediately. If you ever do a shift as a bird lister, try and get a late one. Getting up to around 50-60 in May at Minsmere is a work of clerical hysteria; moving from 60-90 a more sedate affair altogether.
We compiled the birds seen by the various members on the way in, including nightingale, turtle dove, barn owl and red-legged partridge, before moving under the cloud of sand martins onto the reserve itself.
The north bushes kept the tally rising with the usual woodland edge varieties, including singers that have now become part of the soundscape like blackcap and chiffchaff.
Steve and Andrew were leading, and – through sheer persistence and raptor-like vision – pulled out a single stone curlew from the field between the north wall and visitors’ centre, before we headed down the sonic pathway between reed and sedge warblers, reed bunting, beardies and Cetti’s warblers, with bitterns booming from undetectable sites in the reeds.
The sea was fairly quiet as it can be at this time of year, so we didn’t waste much time watching it, and headed along the front towards East Hide. A Cetti’s was hollering his warning about Col Gadaafi (that’s how I hear it, anyway!) right by the gate, and as Andrew and I went through, up he jumped to a top bramble. He stared at us, and we stared at him – you can’t really move a muscle at these times, or call out to anyone else, but a rare eye-to-eye close up with one of the great elusives. And then he was gone, and we could breathe again.
Pity the poor solo birder, thinking he’d have a quiet early morning down at Minsmere – perhaps a slow contemplation of the sluice from the hide. Now he’s got 13 WBC members for company. Still, he should look on the bright side, as the assembled company ‘called the birds.’ A common sandpiper decided it was all too much, and left the scene fairly early, while kittiwakes collected nest material before heading off with a muddy beakful to the nest site on the rigs off Sizewell.
Waders were fairly thin on the ground, but we caught dunlin in their summer suits, ringed plover, turnstone, blackwits and a solitary greenshank, with a couple of bitterns flying high topping the rarity list.
Off again, to head down just south of the sluice and check Lucky Pool, the chapel field and the levels.
Scanning the skies Steve got onto a hawking hobby, while Keith got a distant glimpse of the great white egret shifting feeding grounds – causing much debate about the chemical composition of ‘string’ as no-one else had got it at the time. He was right, though, as we found out later……
A single spoonbill feeding in the distance was perhaps the other highlight.
Our route then took us along the south path, with the note-book tally starting to ease up a bit. Andrew spotted two little gull heading east towards the sea, before we realised we were in the middle of SERIOUS hobby activity. Were there 8? Or 9? The damn things just wouldn’t fly slow enough to tell, but we reckoned in the end there were 9 (or maybe 10?)
We got in the ‘Wildlife Explorer’ hide to settle down a bit, and a hobby shot over the water, chasing a butterfly, which looked like one of the whites. Now, these things can catch dragonflies and swifts, but it couldn’t get this little white flapping insect, which evaded the claws three times by my count, almost imitating the hobby’s mastery of acrobatics.
They were hawking across the woods and reeds around Bittern Hide, so we headed up that way.
The hide was – as expected – pretty full, so myself and a couple of others took up position beneath it, where we had brilliant, brilliant views of the bird I now reckon to be the champion of the air. Watching their swift-like swoops and the virtual halt in the air while food is passed talon-to-mouth, and the sudden acceleration again with a couple of clipped wing beats was for me one of the best birding moments of the year. What they were eating I don’t know – one seemed to have something the shape of a bumble bee, and while there were hairy dragonflies in evidence, there wouldn’t have been enough to keep these chaps going. They were also probably gobbling up clouds of insects rising from the reedbed, but how they could change direction mid-flight and at full speed was a revelation.
The next venue was Island Mere – again, fairly popular, and again I chose to stay outside, so what the others saw, I don’t know. Outside, there was the occasional glimpse of bearded tit, and some stunningly-coloured male sticklebacks in the water below, with shoals of females around them and a future few weeks of solitary parenthood ahead of them. Mr Stickleback doesn’t trust Mrs Stickleback anywhere near his offspring.
Coming towards the end, we climbed Whin Hill past Chateau Springwatch, to have a last scan across the reserve – and there, in the company of a little egret just to provide some scale, was Keith’s great white egret, in full view! String stuffed back into the pocket…..
Thinking that was a great bird to end on, we started heading back to the car park – but it wasn’t over. A nightingale was singing deep in the scrub, accompanied by a goldcrest, somewhere up above.
I know one of these field trips is one day going to be a struggle to make anything text-wise from, but it certainly wasn’t this one – or any of them so far this year. 90 species in about 7 hours has got to be rated as pretty good!
Thanks again to Steve and Andrew for the excellent leadership! And to the hobbies for an unforgettable birding hour.
Post-script: Steve P had been leading a BTO bird i.d. course, so hadn’t joined us for the main course. However, on completion, we returned to the East Hide in the company of Suffolk’s 4th-best gull man, John Grant, to see what the dipping sun brought in.
Not part of the WBC tally, but we ended up with Caspian gull, little ringed plover, little tern, whimbrel and yellow-legged gull to end the day.
A slight furrowed brow of how you could be out for 13hrs (my day having started at 6.30) and not see a starling though…….I hope it’s just because they are all en famille at the moment.
The species list below is presented with the BTO i.d. code for those of you who may like to get familiar with this much quicker way of listing……..
Whether you’re a Christian, or whether you’re a birder, or whether you’re both….. there’s no doubt that the time around Easter is a signal for a period of transformation.
Whether it actually happens or not on that particular weekend is not the issue; the clocks have gone forward, so the Time Gods have dictated that it is ‘British Summer Time’, but I think in the year 2015 they might have jumped the guns a bit…
It was still cold. The wind was still from the north. The forecast was for occasional rain, followed by rain of the non-occasional variety.
But – the Good Friday WBC walk isn’t really about that. The Brecks trip had obviously been a blinder, and had served as a great ‘curtain raiser’ to the outdoor season.
So here we were; all green lights on, and off into Spring, whatever it turns out to be. The great thing about the start of the season is exactly that – you don’t know how it’s going to be. A sudden southerly wind and a flood of early migrants, or continuing cold with little ‘windows of opportunity’ with all our summer visitors coming in one at a time.
Judging by this Good Friday, the latter seemed more likely.
The other great thing about membership of this particular club is occasional access to some of the estate environments managed for nature.
We’ve already been out to Heveningham once for the Conservation Day, and have the BioBlitz looming in May, and now a chance to walk the paths and tracks around Ditchingham Hall, just outside Bungay.
And a good turn-out too; Steve and I turned up what we thought was early, but the flock had already assembled, in spite of the lousy forecast.
As it turned out, the rain kept off, and in the company of the Countess Ferris and Nick Clitheroe (Head Gamekeeper) and his amazingly well-trained dog, we walked up between hedgerow and woodland.
The power of these walks as a ‘survey machine’ can’t be under-estimated. If you have 20+ birders moving in a phalanx, there’s not much going to escape going into the book. In this regard, WBC walks are an invaluable tool, not only to estate owners, keen to know the health of their management techniques, but also to the BTO and the county recorders.
Ditchingham Hall is a case study of how agriculture, environment and other country pursuits (including shooting) can be managed to the benefit of all concerned. Grey Partridge releases and management of field margins to encourage breeding are coupled with stringent penalties for any member of a shooting party who kills an ‘Englishman.’ These are the concepts of balance that have become so skewed elsewhere, and which require pressure from groups such as Campaign Against Raptor Persectution (CARP).
But this is digression. Here we are, all togged up, making our way round the estate through woodland (and beautiful and rare wet wood areas), past last year’s buzzards’ nests (see that for use of apostrophes?), being checked out by Mr and Mrs Red Deer, past ‘banks of sweet primroses’ and cowslips, debating the differences between mistle thrush and blackbird song, listening for the ‘garden gate’ sound of bullfinch and the ‘two-three’ bounce of chiff-chaff….. it’s a very pleasant way to spend a cold morning.
And so, down to the lake – another blend of ornamental and environmental. Grey wagtails, little grebes, gadwall, teal, little egret etc. desport themselves just below the hall itself.
And suddenly, you’re back in the warm – in the “Beaters Retreat”, with a bacon roll, a cup of tea and a roaring wood stove; and a barn owl hunting the field opposite to top it all off. And all this before a lot of folks have even got out of bed.
That’s what’s great about birding.
DITCHINGHAM BEATER’S RETREAT SIGHTINGS FOR Friday, 3 April, 2015
Around 30 members of WBC together with scouts from Earsham and other friends and family met at Heveningham for the annual Conservation Day.
The estate and its surrounding woodland has 2000 nest boxes, principally for blue, great and coal tit – birds not famed for leaving their accommodation the way they found it.
So, armed with screwdrivers, chalk and rubber gloves, WBC cleans up for them, removing old nest material, re-fixing boxes where possible and generally getting them ready for the breeding season ahead.
In return for this annual spring clean, Heveningham Hall owners Jon and Lois Hunt make a generous donation to the BAPS fund through the bird club – plus supplying the workers with a great lunch (and barrel of Adnams) in the great ambience of the old stable buildings.
After meeting at Huntingfield, we split up into groups and –with almost military precision – set off for our target areas.
Even though we were sharing the territory with cross-country county trials, with muddied, fluorescent runners having their version of fun, this estate is seriously good.
A range of environments exist, from formal parkland to oak woods, meadows and wet woodland, and the opportunity to explore it on foot is a rare one. Tree-planting has been taken very, very seriously, and this visit whets the appetite for the Bio-Blitz later in the year.
With the numbers and dedication to the cause, what is normally a day’s work was over by lunchtime, and a big thanks to all concerned for a successful day.
The team from the British Trust for Ornithology kept their collective grip firmly on the Waveney Bird Club Birdbrains trophy for another year, beating the WBC team by 52 points to 34 in the final at Staithe Maltings on Feb. 16.
Four teams started the evening, coming in at the semi-finals stage, with RSPB Minsmere and the Bird Information Network Service (BINS) narrowly losing out on questions on bird song, eggs and nestlings, natural history and bird close-ups to the home team and the BTO. Last minute substitute for WBC Lee Gregory (for Mike Marsh) saw WBC safely through the final.
Scoring remained tight through the rounds on warblers, identification of Suffolk reserves, and birds of Suffolk. However, the BTO took an unassailable lead in the ‘What Bird am I?’ final round. A series of questions, each with decreasing points, slowly reveal the identity of a bird through its size, habitat, migration etc. drew astonished gasps from the audience as the BTO team of Nick Moran, John Marchant, Neil Calbrade and Andy Musgrove hit the right answer while many of the onlookers were still checking what a 60cm wingspan was by holding their hands apart…..
Chris McIntyre provided his usual sterling service in preparing the quiz and serving as question master, with Kathy performing as WBC’s answer to Carol Vooderman on the electronic scoreboard and Steve doubling the score security with his trusty paper and pencil version (unless it was just a bird list he was doing…..)
Audience participation rounds were won by Sue Alderman, with Jon Evans as raffle-meister – and a big thanks to Kathy for providing the supper!
The technology of computers, projectors, buzzers, scoreboard and PA system all held together too, so another winter social triumph for WBC (unless, of course, you count not actually winning it…..)
WBC: Andrew Green, Roger Walsh, Chris Allen, Lee Gregory
BINS: Scott Mason, Roy Marsh, Lee Woods, Craig Fulcher
RSPB: Jon Evans, Ian Barthorpe, Robin Harvey, Rachel Coombes
BTO: Nick Moran, John Marchant, Neil Calbrade, Andy Musgrove
There are few better places to be on a winter’s day than the Suffolk coast – even if you’re trudging shingle with a north-west wind blowing across you. Big sky country, definitely.
So to Dunwich and Blythburgh for the plucky Bird Club. We had to change the order of events after the tide tables for February became available, as an early start at the estuary would have been greeted by hectares of mud and a few sullen shelduck glooping about in the middle.
So we started at the Dunwich beach car park and headed towards the track across Westwood marsh and what is known as the feeding station, where seed is put out to help bulk up the twite and snow bunting often found in this area. These birds were the morning’s targets, along with spotted redshank, which are sometimes found on the larger pools closer to Westwood.
The instantly obvious change to my previous walks here over the past few weeks was the soundtrack of singing skylarks, rising into what was a cloudy sky. For those interested in bird song, this period provides a great opportunity to study each new singer as they join in, from the great tits and blackbird sub-song, to song thrush, nuthatch and coal tit, then the chaffinches, goldcrests and treecreepers etc. etc. until the whole orchestra is assembled.
Both venues for today’s walk can be notoriously variable, and this one started quietly. The usual suspects were around – little egret, mallard, wigeon, small flights of greylag, black-headed, herring and common gull accompanied the scrunching shingle march. 6 great-crested grebes were picked up by David Elliott on the sea, and a couple of distant buzzards attempted a display, trying to ignore the clouds of corvids who were trying to cool their ardour, or at least move it on someplace more private.
There were now meadow pipits, linnet, more skylarks, redshank, curlew, snipe, wigeon, slow-flapping marsh harriers and a rock pipit (intent on feeding on the edge of a creek) as the quantity of water and reedbed increased, until we approached the spit of shingle cutting inland near the Westwood/Dingle track. While we’d scored a big fat ugly zero on twite, here were over 50 snow buntings, flitting around the shingle over the head of a photographer, lying prone in the shingle like a beached seal. Of all the days to try and stick a zoom lens up the beak of a snow bunting, he had to pick the WBC one!
Incidentally, if meadow pipits are mipits, shouldn’t rock and water pipits be ripits and wipits?
A bonus was a ringed plover, sitting motionless a little further up towards Walberswick, which was my first one of the year. So, no twite or spotted reds, but stonechat was added to the list, followed by a solo reed bunting as we passed the photographer again on our way to the marsh track, which is normally good for bearded tit and views across the largest reedbed in England, stretching from the edge of Walberswick back to Old and Hoist Coverts and on towards Hinton.
And here, ladies and gentleman, was Bird of the Morning. A bittern took to the air north of the track ahead of us, and – rather than adopt the usual bittern reedbed-hop – stayed in the air, flying determinedly, on and on and on until finally dropping far down the marsh. Probably only a minute, but felt like a week. A year tick for most of the group!
So – back to the shingle, the walking on which I’ve been told is one of the best exercises for ankles and Achilles tendons. Hard to believe though.
Also hard to believe was that we were on schedule, and following a 25 minute lunch-break, we saddled up for the brief drive up to Blythburgh to meet up with those joining us for the afternoon.
The tide was pushing up nicely, and we started on the wall just off the A12. While the Blyth often doesn’t deliver dozens of species, it certainly does bird tonnage; lapwing, avocet, wigeon, gulls in great number.
I’d come out on a recce an hour earlier on the Saturday, and it had been depressingly quiet. As I left (being an old mate of the Blyth and paying it frequent visits) I’d asked politely if it wouldn’t mind turning it up a bit on Sunday, just as a favour, like….
So it did. We headed out to track tracing the estuary on the south side, and those veterans of the shingle appreciated the leisurely approach of the afternoon, which now was sunny and actually getting warm! So, we scanned as ham-strings re-assembled themselves, like the robot in Terminator 2.
The best views of the estuary are usually in the first quarter mile or so, before the reeds cut the view. In good light, it can be one of the most stunning sites on our coast, with Southwold’s water tower and lighthouse providing some perspective on the wide-open blue and white sky, with its tan reeds, grey water and dark green trees.
We were getting dunlin, redshank, black-tailed godwit, curlew, wigeon, teal, shelduck and – amongst the lapwing on the far shore – Mark Broughton picked out a white bird, which turned out to be a leucistic lapwing. (Maybe the others talk behind his back – ‘who does he think he is? Freddie Mercury?’)
The gulls were assembling, and Steve P (who had joined us at lunchtime and was now in charge of the bird count) picked out a Med gull, its white wings glinting in the sun. The black-headed gulls floating behind it gave a great chance to check out the comparisons between the two in their winter clothes.
The light was now perfect, and it felt like scoping the estuary would be just fine for the rest of the day. A group of grey plover had commandeered some old posts protruding from the increasing tide and an enormous flock of barnacle geese dropped from the sky and down onto distant Reydon marsh, with small groups of dunlin flashing white closer in.
Many of the waders were taking the high-tide opportunity for a quick nap, and – amongst the snoozing redshank and ever-alert lapwing – Steve picked out one of our targets from the morning: the elusive spotted redshank! Perhaps one of the birds often seen at Dunwich, who obliging brought its beak from under its wing to demonstrate the obvious supercilium and lengthy beak. This prompted a discussion on the meaning of the word ‘vermiculated,’ which in its meaning of ‘covered with a dense but irregular pattern of lines, as if made by worm-tracks’ appears to be more related to vermicelli than vermiculite. Anyway, the flanks of a spotted redshank are vermiculated; a sparrowhawk’s chest is barred. Every day’s a school day……
While half the remaining away team headed to the hide for more scanning, a small group of us headed up to the woods. Although fairly quiet, with a few great tit, chaffinch, goldfinch, goldcrest etc. it provided an opportunity to show a few people the little loop that can be taken later in the season, when birding would be more productive. Quite a range of habitat is available in a relatively short walk around the edge of the Blyth between Blythburgh and Walberswick, and it isn’t usually ‘over-birded’ or hugely dog-walked.
We met up back at the hide, which – although getting a bit battered – seems to fit nicely in the environment and provides a counter-balance to the new generation of ‘deluxe’ hides like those at Island Mere and Titchwell RSPB.
We sauntered back along the track and past the White Hart’s garden, in that mellow mood that usually follows a good day of birding, walking, sparkling weather, coastal air, good-humoured wind-ups and all the things of which the winter couch potatoes know nothing.
At this point, it is usual to comment on what a great day it was (it was!) and to thank the leaders: so thanks to Andrew and me, and Steve for taking over the duty of bird-counting, just when you have to start having to count in hundreds…..
A new day and a new year – but who to believe on the weather? For those who behaved themselves on New Year’s Eve, there was a bit of a split. The BBC radio news had given a brief warm spell, with temperatures of between 10-13 degrees. Metcheck, however, was predicting ‘6 degrees, feeling like zero.’
Well, Metcheck won that particular prediction, and it was a chill, windy morning, full of cloud as 19 sober birders assembled at Carlton Marshes car park for the annual WBC visit to Lowestoft, led by the two Steves (Howell and Piotrowski).
For those into such things, there was also the business of the New List; a pinball day of seeing your tally rocket with every flap and tweet. There’s usually about three or four of these days at the start of the year if you pick your venues well; a wildfowl day, a wader day and a ‘general’ day – before getting into the serious business of specialists.
So, pencils out, and here we go…..
Somewhere out there in the Lowestoft area, various Lounge Lizards were doing the same thing, and the plan was to meet later at the Triangle Tavern to put the Lizard Land Challenge list together.
With a bit of a wind and muddy tracks, we single-filed in two groups round Carlton, SP leading a group towards Oulton Broad and SH heading straight out towards the Scrape.
Obviously, walking in this kind of order means some get birds that others don’t – despite my best efforts, I failed to pick up a passing yellowhammer, which was probably the best individual bird for our group. However, a large flock of distant pink-foots heading inland from Lowestoft was a pretty good reward.
Steve Howell’s group picked up a lone stonechat and redshanks on the Scrape and we got a marsh harrier, but the conditions made it a bit of a struggle, and an hour or so of slipping along the tracks was probably enough.
We re-assembled at the car park with a plan to head to Leathe’s Ham on Normanston Park, and walk through to what is now called ‘The Boulevard’ at Mutford Lock, separating Oulton Broad from Lake Lothing.
Leathe’s Ham is much improved from when I was a teenager in Lowestoft, and produced the unusual sight of almost-tame pintail, scuttling about with the mallards by the edge of the car park. Large numbers of gadwall were accompanied by tufted and one or two wigeon, as well as common gull and kingfisher. A lone heron stood sulking at the sight of all the dog walkers, as by now, the public was out and about in force, so we moved off down the track.
Curses! Loitering about at the back, I missed the lone chiffchaff hopping about in the bushes. Two dips already and it wasn’t even lunchtime.
The path is full of character, passing over the railway line just before the Ipswich-Norwich split, then down towards the edge of Lake Lothing, past the boatbuilding school and small repair yards with their links to Lowestoft and Oulton Broad’s past, before emerging onto the Boulevard – a swank new tarmac pathway, sweeping under the Mutford Lock bridge at the end of Lake Lothing.
And here was a possible Bird of the Day – a feeding common sandpiper amongst the turnstones and redshank, apparently quite happy to spend a winter’s day in the cold mud of Oulton Broad. Another kingfisher showed off by catching a small fish and posing with it on some brickwork nearby.
Lowestoft’s resident biking birder, Richard Chilvers, picked up on a rusty-backed fern growing in the brickwork of an old outbuilding – a bit of a rarity, apparently – and we briefly paused on the railway bridge on the way back where an interesting little garden had sets of feeders out.
So, off to the lunchtime rendezvous (where some were due to depart and others arrive) at Asda’s café – but it was shut! So we made ourselves obvious to the arrivals by scanning for peregrines on the old tower opposite (unsuccessfully). Lunches were assembled from Asda’s shelves before heading down to Ness Point in what was left of the light and what seemed to be an increasing wind.
Joined now by John Grant, firmly in the Champions League places of Suffolk gull experts, the ‘scope forest’ was assembled in what shelter could be found from the cut of the breeze. We picked up 7 of one of Lowestoft’s winter specialities, the purple sandpiper, before a massed scan located gannets, kittiwake, med gull and red-throated diver over what was a particularly uninviting-looking North Sea.
Three of us headed up to Hamilton Dock to check for anything taking advantage of the protection of the harbour walls, but the cold wind made it almost impossible to use bins without your eyes drowning, so gave that one up as a bad job.
The sea had also given up all it was going to, so those of us remaining headed back to Oulton Broad to use the last of the light checking the gull pre-roost by the sailing club, and perhaps pick up on a glaucous gull that had been reported the day before.
We did about an hour, but with usable light rapidly dimming and the cold biting into our inactivity, decided at last to de-camp to the Triangle Tavern for the meet-up with whatever Lizards were about.
Of course, as we arrived at the pub, Steve P received a tweet that the glaucous had come in 5 minutes after we left, apparently! Still, the pub was warm, and the Green Jack Golden Best on top form……so never mind.
Lizards began to arrive, the beer flowed and the Birding Tales began, some – but not all – featuring D’Weasel and other notable listers.
Still – that was it. Another year, and another list started. What the Lizards got that WBC didn’t added 8 to the total, which ended up in the mid-seventies for the day; not bad considering the adverse conditions.
Thanks to Steve P and Steve H for the leadership, and to Metcheck for getting the weather forecast right!
Well, the programme announced a ‘weekend in North Norfolk, where the migration will be far from over….’
However, after Kathy wheeled and dealed accommodation that could hold 15, and got the place for a week, it suddenly became necessary to book some time off.
The 5 or 6 days that followed our arrival at the house called ‘Madge’ in Montague Road, Sheringham included some of the most exceptional birding in East Anglia most of us had experienced in many a year. At times it seemed more like one of the WBC foreign trips in the numbers of exceptional birds we found.
Click on images to enlarge and view caption
And also, the numbers – Pink-footed Geese by the thousand, Golden Plover flocks that made marshes look they were covered in golden syrup, Gannets and Scoter all over the sea, Brent Goose fly-bys, hundreds of Oystercatchers at Wells etc. etc. etc.
But also, the numbers of the unexpected. Seeing over 200 Bonxies in one sitting, with Pomarine and Arctic Skuas and Little Auks as support for example.
And then there were the exceptional individuals – Yellow-browed Warblers, Rough-legged buzzards, Surf Scoter, Great White Egret, Hen Harrier.
Perhaps we should have known, from the early-morning cup of tea moment on Sunday outside the kitchen door to find the garden already occupied – by a Yellow-browed Warbler! There were maybe 100 other gardens it could have been in, but I think it was sent – like in some Shakespearean production of epic proportions – to deliver the prologue.
A lot of us may have come from Suffolk, but on this occasion – you have to hand it to Norfolk.
(However, to keep it even-handed: it was Suffolk that provided the Desert Wheatear at Lowestoft for three of us, while the trip clock was still ticking on the Friday!)
This report departs from the norm. It includes contributions of ‘top moments’ from some of those who were there, quite a lot of pics and some consideration of some of the sites we visited. It would have been impossible to record all the great things that happened, and would have required a full-time scribe. However, I hope that it captures something of what was a truly exceptional week.
Of course, a huge thanks to Kathy for all the organisation and great breakfasts (prepared while we were sea-watching), to Steve P and Steve H for the leadership, and to Moss Taylor for the great day at Titchwell (and for vocalising a Cetti’s Warbler alarm call to bring a rival up to a reed stem, tail all cocked like a big brown wren and ready to take him on!)
Some of the group give there own ‘top moments’ reports – click on name tabs to view.
[tabs slidertype=”left tabs”] [tabcontainer] [tabtext]Keith[/tabtext] [tabtext]Lesley & Derek[/tabtext] [tabtext]Helen[/tabtext] [tabtext]Rob[/tabtext] [tabtext]Steve H[/tabtext] [tabtext]Paddy[/tabtext] [tabtext]Steve P[/tabtext][/tabcontainer] [tabcontent] [tab]Keith (his words are spoken by an actor) We had gone to Wells Woods on the last full day of the trip to try and get to our target of 150 species, and we had three to go. The pagers had told us there was a Pallas’ Warbler here, and that’s what we’d come for, as well as some more obvious birds we hadn’t run into yet, including Song and Mistle Thrush.
We didn’t get the Pallas’, but picked up on some GreyPartridge and put up a couple of Woodcock, as well as clearing the 150 with the thrushes and a Blackcap.
The great moment, however, was when a juvenile but beautifully marked Rough-legged Buzzard sailed slowly over our heads. He was heading into a strong west wind, and seemed to be hardly moving – he almost seemed to have stopped. You didn’t need binoculars he was so close, and it was like looking at the Collins Guide, with all the characteristic markings incredibly clear.
The bird is rare enough, but to get a sight like that – and as close as that – may only happen once in your life. [/tab] [tab]I knew the week was going to start well when we all had great views of a Yellow-browed Warbler in the back garden of the house in Sheringham!
My favourite moment was when I had just sat down in the Tower Hide at Holkham (hadn’t even raised my bins) and saw an enormous bird flying low near the hide, being mobbed by a Marsh Harrier. Steve Howell shouted ‘Rough legged Buzzard!!’ and the rest of our group who had been on the track came haring up the steps and got a good view of the buzzard perched up. It was a beautiful majestic bird and it really raised my spirits as we’d had the mother and father of a drenching that day, dried off and then had another drenching!
My favourite bird was the Firecrest – we were walking back to the car park along the track at Holkham and stopped to look at a tit/crest flock in the conifers – suddenly Steve Howell (again) shouted ‘Firecrest!’ and everyone raised their bins to see the gorgeous little bird flitting around, hovering and shimmering like a Christmas tree decoration. It was so confiding, and put on a real performance for us flashing its crest time and again and being a real show off.
Derek’s favourite moment was seeing the cooked breakfast that Kathy had prepared for us all. What a star! [/tab] [tab]Sea watching is a special birding art and the compulsion to sit in a cold, windy sea-front shelter, possibly liberally splattered by driving rain, on a hard seat and slowly turning to stone as the hours go by is not everyone’s cup of tea.
It wasn’t mine until a day of tremendous spectacle as wave after constant wave of birds tore past us driven by a fierce northerly – ducks west and everything else east. At first the shouts from the other birders in the shelter were pretty meaningless and it was hard to find the dots above or below the horizon, near or far. By slow degrees things made more sense and by the end of the day, although I could hardly climb the steps back up to the town and the promise of a hot bath, I had begun to distinguish a few things.
The Gannets, adults and juvenile became easy. Two Short-eared Owls came in high and slow and sometimes a Little Auk rested among the breakers near to us for a while, mere dots before bravely taking off again. Well, lots more of course and now somehow I have a bit of a taste for sea watching but will such an exciting day come again very soon ?
[tab]Early in the week we were sitting in a hide at Cley. It was the last area for us to explore that day and the main interest was the gull roost. Thanks to a well known expert in these matters who we all know, a Caspian Gull and possibly a second was found. The previous day, from the the beach hide we had seen three Grey Phalarope and this evening to our delight, they again performed their characteristic circling and feeding behaviour.
The wind had dropped and the sky had cleared, the light faded and it was time to leave. As we stepped into the darkening norfolk landscape the sky was streaked and glowed with autumn colours. There was the sound and sight of thousands of Pink Footed Geese high above with their intersecting skeins moving to the west to their night time roosting sites. As we walked through the reeds there was the rustling sounds of hundreds of roosting Starlings.
It was the last day, and our numbers were diminished to five, the rump of the WBC Norfolk trip 2014! We were at Wells Wood. We are 3 short of the magic 150 species which is soon resolved with sights of winter thrushes and Woodcock. Earlier in the week we had encounters with wintering Rough-legged Buzzards but these experiences were eclipsed by an astonishing view of a RLB gliding over us, head to wind and unconcerned by our presence. We could see clearly in text book clarity its fantastic colouring, shape and aerial movements.[/tab]
[tab]When you have just had one of the most amazing weeks of Norfolk birding in your whole life – a week packed with many scarce and at least one rare bird, a week capped off by a seawatch which will easily go into your top five ever and a week full of beautiful birds everywhere you looked, it is to say the least, somewhat difficult to compact all of these many highlights into just a few short paragraphs.
So to begin with I have to mention the obvious highlight. Had I taken time to read the small print in regards to the fantastic and spacious Sheringham holiday home where we stayed, I would have noticed after paragraph 23b of the legal occupancy standings, clause 23c which surely would have read something like “All Yellow-browed Warblers must be observed while they are calling in the garden on the first day of your holiday!” What an amazing start!
The first full day was rather inclement and a major soaking had to be endured in the completely exposed (no naturist pun intended) area of Holkham Bay which almost seemed like a trial and tribulation that had to be experienced before the great birding week commenced – and what a week it was – with three scoter species in the same field of view through the scope, a total clean-up of all the species of winter raptors in the area, beautiful birds like Firecrest, Short-eared Owl, Long-tailed Duck and Arctic Tern, and a spectacular all-day seawatch packed with Pomarine, Great and Arctic Skuas, Little Gulls, Kittiwakes, Little Auks, Gannets and shearwaters.
On a rather more subtle note, one of the other unexpected highlights for me occurred while I was calling out the log at the end of the last full day. It was a good day but clearly the bubble had burst on our run of amazing days. Therefore, I was really pleased and heartened to hear how happy Paddy, Keith, Rob and Helen were over having had great views of a low down flyover Rough-legged Buzzard at Wells Dell. The day before, myself and Steve P had already had fantastic views of Rough-legged Buzzards in the dunes at Burnham Overy and on the back of those sightings, I kind of took this one for granted, forgetting that this was the first really amazing view for the rest of the party.
There wasn’t any real downsides to the holiday for me, apart from a frustrating moment at Cley when I picked up a very well concealed Jack Snipe in my scope. Only myself and Rob were in the hide at the time – the others were outside watching the Starling roost. I quickly bolted to the door to alert everyone to the birds presence but by the time everyone was back in the hide, the bird had crept back into deep cover and was never seen again. However, there is an upside to this story. Myself and Keith tried for it again first thing the next morning. Unfortunately, it still didn’t show but instead we got a bonus Bittern tick right at the last knockings of the holiday when this cryptic beauty flew over the reedbed, so in the end, alls well that ends well![/tab]
[tab]Rather than one experience, this was one that ran throughout the week, but rose to a peak on the Wednesday…..
The house was within 5 minutes of the seawatching shelter and it was a great way to start the day, every day. I only started to get into this particular specialism last winter and it’s not easy. Initially the sea always looks empty – it’s only when you start getting your eye in you start to see the activity out there.
But we knew a north wind was coming on the Wednesday, and sure enough, the shelter soon filled up.
What happened next was exceptional. The lonely country road that was the North Sea became a motorway, with most of the traffic in one direction. WBC chaps had to get used to shouts of ‘going South’ becoming ‘going East’ and it was easier to deal with right and left. Want to start learning the jizz of Bonxie and Pom Skua? Or the difference between Manx and Sooty Shearwater? Or see how many Gannets you could count? Or what a Little Auk looks like close up? Or the difference between Common and Velvet Scoter? Well, you should’ve been there….i’d love to think a seawatch could be like that again, but wonder if it could. Just check the species lists (and the numbers) for Wednesday![/tab]
Granty’s phone: After purchasing herself a plush new mobile phone, John Grant’s daughter Mhari gifted her old “Blackberry” to her poor ol’ dad. Initially, he was grateful for his gift, but his appreciation soon dwindled when he realised that some of the buttons didn’t work, including an ability to turn down the volume of the ring tone or an option of turning the phone off or on!
Group intelligence revealed that an impressive gull roost was gathering each evening in front of Dorks hide at Cley. In military fashion, we marched down to see what would come in and as we had Granty, Suffolk’s fourth best gull expert, we were confident of seeing some real specialities. Granty was appointed Captain and was therefore awarded prime position on a front seat in the hide. We took his professional lead and clustered around the masterful one in awe as the gulls began is to join
As the gulls came in, more and more birders arrived until there was standing room only and then there was little of that left, so we could say that the hide was bursting at the seams! We were all scanning the roost intently when suddenly and very noisily Captain Granty’s phone went off to the tune of “all the nice boys like a sailor”! He was highly embarrassed about this intrusion and was forced to retreat from his prime position and shuffle out of the hide to answer the call, giving
grovelling apologies to all and sundry as he went! It was Mhari who wanted to talk to her dad about something trivial! He managed to rid of her fairly quickly to reclaim his prime position. He had just about settled down to continue his scan when his phone went off again. There were lots of moans as Granty again noisily egressed the hide to answer his phone. This time it was his wife Sheena and his first words to her were “bloody phone” to which Sheena retorted “well if that’s your attitude”
and hung up! Granty immediately rang her back to apologise for his mister meaner, but Sheena had switched off her phone in disgust! There then followed a period of intense grumbling as our captain knew he was in the doghouse! Despite such major distractions, we managed to find a couple of Caspian Gulls and one Yellow-legged Gull, so not a bad evening’s gull watch!
Some ol’ twitcher’s here to see our Yellow-browed!: Before we set off for our “Big Brother” house in Sheringham ready for our week’s birding, I spoke to local birder Moss Taylor to gather birdy intelligence. He gave me a few hints about where to look and I suggested that we took his mobile number so we could ring him if we found anything. Fat chance he must have muttered under his breath and said “don’t worry I hardly ever use it, just put any bird finds on the line”.
Some of us were up before dawn and sipping tea in the back garden on our first morning ready for daybreak and a pre-breakfast seawatch, when we heard the distinct call of a Yellow-browed Warbler. The few early-risers present were soon onto the bird and good views, albeit in gloomy light, were enough to clinch its visual ID. Not so good news for those still in bed though as the bird soon flitted away into neighbouring gardens. We put our find on the line, as Moss had suggested, and departed for the shelter for a seawatch. Not much was seen offshore during our two-hour vigil, so we returned to the house for breakfast. Those who had stayed behind still hadn’t relocated the bird, so we all got tucked in to our full English. After breakfast, there was a call that the Yellow-browed was back and this time we were rewarded with stunning views as it was appeared in full sunlight to the whole group. Again, we put out news that the bird was showing well and got ourselves ready for our day’s excursion to Holkham Gap to look for a Surf Scoter, which had been present for several days. As we were loading our gear in the car, there was a call that some ol’ twitcher is here to see our Yellow-browed. It was none other than Moss Taylor who managed to get some superb photographs of the bird.[/tab]
Paddy has also described the birding at two of the top sites, Holkham and Cley – see below.
[tabs slidertype=”left tabs”] [tabcontainer] [tabtext]Holkham[/tabtext] [tabtext]Cley[/tabtext] [/tabcontainer] [tabcontent] [tab]Monday had been a tough day at Holkham. The beach is a risky spot to get in the middle of when the weather is a bit dodgy, and that’s what it became. There are hides on the marsh side of the Holm Oaks, but once you go through ‘The Gap’ and hit the beach, there’s nowhere to hide. The rain decided to wait til we were right out there to really give it some, and we huddled together like Emperor Penguins, as there seemed no point in doing anything else.
It had still been a great day, and at least I got a Neil Sedaka parody out of it: ‘Oh, I see Scoters in the rain – walking hand in hand with a one-eyed dove….’
Tuesday was completely different. We’d already had a splendid morning at Titchwell with Yellow-browed Warbler (almost as soon as we were out of the visitor’s centre) Hen Harrier and fantastic displays by a huge flock of Golden Plover and another spell of seawatching. So perhaps we weren’t owed anything else, but it just went on and on.
A low tide at Holkham means a long walk to the tide line, but worth it for Surf Scoter; the Jimmy Durante of the sea duck world. Remember those fake plastic noses you could put on, with elastic round your head? Well, that’s our feller. Bobbing about in the company of Velvets, which would be enough to write home about on their own.
After further thrills courtesy of Med Gull and Arctic Tern, we split up. The Steves headed further up the beach and got Snow and Lapland Bunting, the main group headed towards the Joe Jordan Hide (I wondered where he’d gone since Tottenham!) and Keith and I split the difference. Collectively, we got some splendid views of a perched Rough-Legged Buzzard and a long view of Great White Egret.
The Holkham hides and Titchwell – between Monday and Tuesday – had provided nearly a full-house of raptors, with Peregrine, Merlin, Kestrel, Sparrowhawk, Marsh Harrier, Barn Owl, with Short-Eared Owl coming off the sea at Salthouse, where Steve P, Keith and I had migrated to after the epic Wednesday seawatch to try and find Shorelark in a fearsome onshore wind.
On the way back we stopped off at Warham Greens for a raptor roost – perhaps slightly late with the light almost gone, but enough to get Hen Harrier and Merlin before it got too dark. [/tab] [tab]Cley Marsh is one of those ‘needs no introduction’ birding sites. It was also the first reserve I was thrown off when I was 20, (no, sorry – it was Minsmere two years before….) when the warden mistook me for an egg thief.
We were there for Grey Phalarope and Spoonbill, which we’d picked up on through Twitter and the various electronic devices of the modern birder.
A quick trudge across the shingle from the Beach car park to the North Pool towards the – presumably temporary – blind that has replaced the ‘Swarovski’ Hide, taken out by the surge at the end of last year. The Spoonbill didn’t take long to ‘get’, and the Phalaropes not much longer. Three of them, circling like little clockwork toys, with some kid’s thumb stuck on the wrong button of a remote control. They seemed to be creatures of habit, despite not being at home, swapping their time between a spit of mud and a creek running to the left of us. Lovely little birds, with a unique character, and constantly busy, although they were aware of the clock ticking.
There was also a kingfisher on the creek running east from us, good views of rock pipits perched, a late wheatear and over 500 golden plover. But this was just a flying visit, because we were off to Holkham….. We returned to Cley later the next day, with John Grant with us, to ‘go through the gulls’ from the hides overlooking Simmond’s pool, with their weird horizontal struts that are either too high or too low for scopes….if you’re 5’8”. Gulls are a patient business – checking walls of white, grey, black, yellow for tell-tale head shapes, postures, speckling on napes or heads etc. But while John did the checking for us, we got entertained by our little phalarope friends again, just as busy with the light fading, only to have attention pulled back to a 2nd year Caspian that he’d found. There were actually two amongst the large roost in front of us.
A third trip took place on the Thursday night. Steve and Kathy had left on Wednesday evening to get to Wales for Derek Moore’s funeral, so with Steve Howell leading the pack of 5, we dropped in at Bishop’s Hide to check for a reported jack snipe (the subject of Steve’s ‘top moment’ report, so I’ll leave that for him. [/tab] [/tabcontent] [/tabs]
An evening hosted by Waveney Bird Club and SOG enjoyed a lively and interesting talk by Richard Crossley, who flew in from America the previous day to talked to a packed house about his amazing and innovative new ID Books. He went on to answer questions from the audience and applauded both clubs for holding the event in aid of local wildlife projects.
The event also included the launch of the Campaign against Raptor Persecution and talks by Guy Horrocks (RSPB Senior Investigations Officer), shocked and amazed the audience by the horrific crimes taking place against our wildlife. In response, Simon Barnes launched the local project and explained to the audience that nobody can pick and choose what laws we all follow – a crime is a crime and those committing them should be held accountable.
SOG and WBC are very pleased to welcome Simon as the patron CARP.
Proceeds from the evening will fund local conservation projects; a final figure will be announced later.
Is there an adjective you couldn’t use for Orfordness? It’s one of those areas that can be everything, and sometimes all on the same day – in bright sunshine, the fantastic skyscapes can rival anything in the UK; with grey, rain-filled clouds scudding in it can be bleak, threatening; in the half-light of morning or evening, the deserted and broken war-time buildings make it ghostly.
However, whatever the mood, once you get on that boat from Orford Quay, someone throws the bird-switch. Salt marsh and grazing marsh, reed-bed, estuary and tidal flats, shingle, pools, busted buildings and the sea. If you’re a bird, you can take your pick.
Having the opportunity to spend the whole weekend there, accompanying the National Trust/WBC ringing team, was an opportunity not to be missed. Like a WBC international trip, it was also an excuse to focus for every waking hour on the business of birding – if not doing it, then talking about it.
So at 8am, Steve and I joined Roger Walsh, Patrick Barker and Dave Crawshaw on the quayside with enough vittels to choke a horse, sleeping bags, liquid refreshment and a couple of toothbrushes, while Glen Moon from the National Trust brought the boat over. A quick Landrover trip to the accommodation block, dump the stuff, swallow a brew and grab the bins.
Roger, Patrick and Dave joined Mike Marsh and Gill Hammond at the ringing hut for a morning of demos, while Steve and I went off a-surveyin’. This was going to principally feature a morning on the roof of the Bomb Ballistics building, and an afternoon sea-watching (but what we really wanted was a merlin….) However, it was also the weekend of the BTO’s golden plover count (we got about 280 of them on the Saturday, and I’m expecting the call to Thetford to receive our medallions any day)
The expected foul weather never arrived, but we could see it from there … nasty clouds covered the coast, while Orfordness remained bathed in sunlight, except for a blowy squall while we were on the roof. A National Trust warden on a bike cycled out to open the lower floor of the building so we could shelter if it got out of hand; a trip down the stairs revealed a museum room dedicated to the function of the building as a filming centre for bomb tests on the sea, with a bench and a window which made it into a serviceable hide, if we’d have needed it.
The bird count was rising steadily (a full list will be attached to the report); 5 spoonbill, golden plover, lapwing, wigeon, teal, marsh harrier, egrets (a quick chorus of Je n’Egrette Rien was probably appropriate), blackwits, curlew adding to the skylarks, rock and meadow pipits which were all over the shingle.
Apart from the harriers and a kestrel, very few raptors though – and no lesser black-backed gulls.
A quick trip back to the ringing hut, a lunch break, then out to the beach, where it was actually warm in the sun and reducing wind. There were quite a few lighthouse-visitors about, but we set about a brent count. We’d already got to around 500, flying south in skeins of between 20 and 30, but in the next couple of hours, added another thousand. There were also a few common scoter, three bonxies (these birds heading north) and a solitary Iceland gull going south, adding to the Arctic skua we’d got earlier. There’s something about sea-watching that reminds me of fishing – you may not be doing anything in particular, but it’s totally absorbing, and time flies past. Makes you look forward to the winter.
So, a target was set: we’d stop at 1500 brent or 3.30pm, whichever came first. They just about coincided in the end.
The public were starting to dribble away, being rounded up by Glen in what looked like a golf cart, as we headed back to the roof for another merlin-scan. For some reason, I was certain we were going to get one sometime this weekend. I’d seen one at Spurn the weekend before, but Steve had gone a couple of years merlin-less. There are very few occasions this happens, and – for shame! – I was milking it. ‘5 days without a merlin is long enough for me!’ (I’d better shut up, before he shows me his world list)
Odd… we got back on the roof, but no skylarks, no pipits, no plover – a few Chinese water deer (actually about 7) but all quiet, bird-wise.
Steve spotted it first – an adult peregrine, sitting down on the shingle to the left of a water deer.
Despite a guide, I couldn’t get on it. Wrong deer! I got with the programme just in time before it took off; an absolutely stunning bird! Explained the lack of pipits, anyway. It was also good to see quite a few hares, re-populating after the decimation of last December’s tidal surge. The ringers had seen a peregrine earlier, but that had been a juvenile. This was definitely adult, and so a different bird.
Heading back over the bridge, a largish bird whipped over the path ahead and into the brambles, accompanied by a machine-gun call….ring ouzel?
Then there was Patrick and Roger, acting as beaters. They’d got on it, and were trying to drive it back to the nets to catch it. Steve joined them, skirting the river wall. To cut a long story short, they won – a female ouzel in Roger’s hand for the first time. I think he was quite pleased at that – a ringed ouzel!
The light was starting to dip now. There was just time for a ring-tail hen harrier between the ringing hut and the accommodation block before calling it a day, and an evening of cooking the burgers originally made for the Minsmere barbeque (it’s a long story!), a couple of tinnies, a drop of wine, bird tales and bed.
A slamming door before light meant Mike was out to unfurl the nets for another day of ringing. We were on deck about 6.30am, with the boat carrying the main WBC party expected at 8am. This gave us time to brew up, get out with the sunrise and take a slow stroll up to the jetty. We got the hen harrier again on the way back from its roost, and a little owl, silhouetted in the half light on a distant hay bale. Motionless, it should have been accompanied by the whistle theme from ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’.
The list started mounting immediately; a peregrine overflight (perhaps the juvenile spotted on Saturday), golden plover, shelduck, stonechat, skylark, linnet, mipits and rockits – it was difficult to keep up, and we already had a species list of around 50 by the time the boat turned up.
There were now 15 of us, and the action didn’t stop. Greenshank, spotted redshank, gadwall, wigeon, teal – the tally was going up like a pinball machine.
The weather was mellower today, and after a stop for tea, we headed back to the Bomb Ballistics roof for a shingle scan. Still no merlin – but there was still time…..
The shingle is perhaps the most atmospheric environment on Orfordness; unidentifiable piles of rusted something-or-other, curled wire providing a perch for wheatear, derelict concrete huts, the radio masts, the almost classical columns of the buildings used for atom bomb business, designed to blow out and drop the vast concrete lid in the event of disaster, almost swamped by blown-in sand and shingle slopes, signs warning of ‘unexploded ordnance’ dropped by both sides in the war. It was hard to imagine how busy this place must have been in what is fairly recent memory.
And then there’s the lighthouse, with its uncertain future as the North Sea bites into the beach below it. Will it be rebuilt in Orford village, or will erosion get it first? Pretty ironic, that it stands there intending to warn the sea-goers of the land, when perhaps it should be warning the land-dwellers of the sea…..
Poetry over – back to the birding.
The ever-helpful Glen was going to drive the lunch bags down to the beach so we could head down there unencumbered. So we got down to sea-watching.
The wind was swinging now, moving round towards the north. You could watch enormous weather moving either side of the ness, and not be quite certain of what bit you were going to get next.
We settled in to the sea-watch, which also featured seals and a harbour porpoise – and more brent, of course!
Scoter skimmed the choppy edges of the waves, but no skua today. A party of gannets (two adults and 4 juvenile) made a rapid passage north, with one of the youngsters making an unscheduled stop before setting off again to catch the others up. Small numbers of passerines made their way towards the land, most of them pipits, presumably.
Radios kept us in touch with the ringers, who were pretty busy themselves. We were too far off to sprint back when a kingfisher hit the nets, but Mike obligingly came halfway down with the vehicle to show it to those who wanted a close-up.
After the lunch break, with Glen driving down again in the Landrover to pick up the bags, we headed back to the roof. One last chance…..
Golden plover were back on the pool, and Chinese water deer and hare did whatever it is they do on shingle. Marsh harrier skirted the marshes towards Aldeburgh. Then…all the plover lifted simultaneously, giving that ‘ayup!’ feeling…. and, powering out of the right hand side of the flock with a faster wing beat, down curved and direct – could it be? YES IT BLOODY WAS! Merlin – heading straight towards us then veering north, low and fast – a perfect, adult female. It seemed like it was giving us a flypast, and kept in view for much longer than we deserved. Steve borrowed the grin of triumph from Roger’s ring ouzel moment. I was very, very grateful to Mrs Merlin – I was so certain we’d get one, I would have started questioning my own sanity if it hadn’t happened. Can we go now?
So, we headed slowly back – a trip back to the ringing hut for a bearded tit, looking extremely angry but strangely dense (they have a very thin head close-up) was ‘in the hand’ which provided a great opportunity to examine the wing and back markings; again, not something that happens every day.
It was coming to an end, but not before the straggling party heading back to the river caught the hen harrier, quartering the banks around the sheep fields.
And then, suddenly, the boat fired into life, and it was over. The second boat party returned to the accommodation block to pick up bags, before we tried to see how many people, bags, binoculars and scopes we could fit into a vehicle. The answer is ‘too many’.
Sometimes, you get a trip that reminds you why you invest so much time, effort and money into birding. A whole weekend in the open air and this mystical place, surrounded by sky, weather, birds, mammals, with dedicated individuals who survey, ring, report, maintain, monitor and manage the environment that is so important to this area and its future – and a merlin…..
Only a handful of WBC trip stalwarts made the almost transcontinental journey down to Bawdsey Hall on Sunday 7th September; perhaps the 8am start influenced others, but they missed a treat.
Imagine you could go back to being a kid, and could design the ‘best garden in the world’…..
Wouldn’t it have ponds, and woods, and paths that wander off out of sight, and rough bits, and big views, and owls, and badgers, and – and – and……
Well, that’s what Dave Hermon’s got here. He runs it as a B&B (although that description definitely understates it) , with guided wildlife walks, camera traps, moth traps and has a range of environments to work with, including fantastic skyscapes looking over the Deben valley and on to Felixstowe docks. I would imagine Springwatch’s city-bound fans would love it!
Any escapee garden shed gets converted into a hide, and these are strategically placed to cover the variety of possibilities on offer. But how he manages to get anything done, I don’t know. If I had the place, I’d constantly be off to ‘check’ something…..for a couple of hours at least….
Matthew Deans had been down there from an early hour emptying moth traps, and that was how the day started, with the first of several cups of tea kindly provided by Dave and his partner Rosie.
Matthew traps here regularly, and reported it as a top spot for Convolvulvus Hawk Moth, although none had turned up this particular night. Picks of the bunch were Lunar Yellow Underwing, Ruby Tiger, Old Lady, Centre-barred Sallow and the migrant Rusty Dot Pearl.
The Lunar Yellow Underwing in particular is worth noting, as it is only found in East Anglia and Salisbury Plain. Although not rare, it is very range-restricted.
For those used to the route-march approach to WBC trips, this one was very different, very mellow and very relaxed. Nets had been set in the gardens of the hall, with a ringing station set up on the patio. The small number of us enabled a detailed look at this fascinating and vitally-important process, particularly when a Treecreeper turned up in the nets later in the morning.
All the walks at Bawdsey are easy-access trails, and we explored the lot, including the woodland walk that leads to a hide overlooking a coastal field and allowing for a bit of sea-watching. (A full species list is included with this report, as is a picture of Dave’s Buzzard feeding station, with what’s left of the road-kill dinner)
Although at this time of year the range of species had dropped, this is also a great site for dragonflies and damselflies. A late bonus of the morning was the discovery of a small colony of Willow Emeralds on one of Dave’s ponds, with two in tandem, planning for the next generation……
Thanks from all of us who attended to Dave and Rosie for the great hospitality (particularly tea and bacon rolls!) and to Dave’s dad Paul, and the guided tour of the vintage car collection, many of whom have starred in feature films, stage shows and musicals. Also, thanks to Steve for the patient explanation of the finer points of ringing, particularly as he had spent half the summer doing exactly the same at Minsmere…..
To finish the trip off, a reduced number of us headed to the coastal pools at East Lane, where we picked up a number of Wheatears with their bags packed, Marsh Harrier, Buzzards, several Little Grebes, Wigeon (welcome back, mates!) and Clouded Yellow butterflies, which finished the morning on a real high.
I don’t know this patch of the south Suffolk coast particularly well, but made a vow on the road back to make more of an effort to correct this. Just a look at a map of the area just north of Felixstowe shows what there is to explore round here. Perhaps a weekend break at Bawdsey Hall might be a good start…….
As so many times before on the Suffolk coast, the weather forecast was wrong. The promised dry weather seemed to have gone round Hulver at 7.30 on this Saturday morning, heading for the glamour of Kessingland Sewerage Works and perhaps a morning of migrant encounters.
The plan was to liaise with the Kessingland ringing team and Colin Carter at the nets set up around the site, and then to head down to Benacre Sluice under the guidance of Roger Walsh.
Colin explained the layout of the Kessingland site and its blend of environments in a very contained area. The Works themselves attract plenty of insects (at least no-one asked ‘why?’) which proves an attraction for birds lining up on the coast waiting for a favourable tail wind to head off south, while surrounding it are unmaintained reedbeds, deep dykes, fishing lakes, light woodland and rides, together with scrubby areas.
Ringing itself is a long-term commitment, and is probably not for everyone. The training takes several years, and regular attendance at a ringing site is critical if data relating to trends is to be established. It is also important that both trainer and trainee turn up!
It has its own language too – pullis, re-traps, scribes – a table-full of different size rings, identification guides dealing with the minutiae of tertials and the like, pliers, bags, notebooks, digital scales etc.
Ringing at Kessingland (Chaffinch & Wren in hand). Click to enlarge.
Colin explained that the team were licenced to use recordings of calls and songs, and these were now supplied on MP3 loops, played into small speakers and hidden around the site. That explained the sudden song of Wood Warbler and ChiffChaff which – even when you know it’s a recording – still fooled me twice. Goldfish memory….
Ringing also gives you the chance to examine birds in a detail not even Swarovski or Zeiss can match: the V-shape of fat on the breast, revealed by blowing the feathers gently, or the spots on a young Wren’s tongue, for instance. But – as Colin pointed out – it is critical the ring goes on first, each one meticulously logged. Too many times a fulsome explanation of the bird’s anatomy and migration weight has been followed by its release, with the ringer realising no ringing happened…
We explored the site, catching ChiffChaffs, Whitethroat and Lesser-Whitethroat, Chaffinch, watched sullenly by a sickly Wood Pigeon, perching out the rain. Must have been something it ate….but let’s not go there at this location.
Rings were clamped onto a couple of Wrens and a rather portly Garden Warbler, and then – RAPTOR ALERT! At first thought to be a Common Buzzard, but – although against the now clearing sky and fairly lofty – there was much about the profile that suggested Honey Buzzard. But that’s how it had to remain – ‘probable’ Honey Buzzard, which was one up from ‘possible’….
And so, to stage 2, and a big thanks to Colin and his team.
The weather was cheering up as the breeze picked up and we headed towards the beach.
The coast had been fairly active during the previous week, bringing Wryneck and Icterine Warbler to various spots – Twitter was announcing a Greenish Warbler at Southwold that very morning.
The extensive, flat, grassy, shingly terrain of Kessingland is a top spot at migration time, with low bushes, brambles and the River Hundred separating the scrub around the caravan park from the Bencacre reserve.
You’ve got to get up pretty early to beat the dog walkers though, and it seems compulsory that everyone in Kessingland must own at least three.
The breeze was certainly picking up now, keeping what birds there were down, so we headed round the inland edge of the site, picking up Swallow, a few House Martins and Whitethroat on the way.
Bushes round the river produced Linnet and some good views of a pair of Stonechat (and a few alarm calls from a hidden Blackcap) before we got onto the first of four or five Wheatear.
The way they scamper a few paces then stand bolt upright always gives the impression they are announcing themselves to the birder trying to identify them -‘I, sir, am a WHEATEAR!’ before scampering off again.
We headed off over the Sluice (after Roger had picked up on a couple of Sandwich Terns heading south over the sea) aiming for Beach Farm at Benacre, where the track runs in a gully for a couple of hundred yards, and thus was likely to provide calmer conditions. We were accompanied on-and-off through this journey by a female Sparrowhawk, which obliged us with a brief perched view.
Turning right up the track to the farm, Kevin spotted a Hobby, flying south and right over our heads.
Dragonflies had been fairly obvious throughout the morning, and I suspect this is what the bird was after. We’d had pretty good numbers of Southern Hawker, Brown Hawker and a few Common Darter. Butterfly-wise, it had been quiet – mainly Speckled Woods at the ringing site, but it wasn’t good weather for them.
It was Helga who first located the Pied Flycatchers; a pair of them, using a dead tree as a feeding perch. At first they frustrated the scopes – perching briefly before heading right and down, out of sight, before returning to not-quite-the-same branch. However, one finally settled, providing rare east coast views of this cute little migrant, with its little slashes of white on the wing, like lobster claws….
Eventually, we had to walk on and disturb them, as others were trying to use the path. We scanned the paddock hopefully, looking for something like the serpentine head of a Wryneck, but it was pretty quiet. Further up past the farm, large flocks of Linnet and Goldfinch were located in the hedges.
So, we headed back. The beach had been breached between Beach Farm and Benacre Broad, so it probably wasn’t worth heading any further south.
Rob, Helen and myself dawdled a little at the turn-around, and got further good views of the Flycatchers, which were now in another dead tree on the other side of the paddock – or perhaps these were another pair? Or were we just being greedy?
Altogether, an absorbing morning, taking advantage of Colin Carter’s encyclopaedic knowledge gained over a lifetime of birding, a good walk, good company and good birds.
But – Bird of the Day? Does a ‘definite’ Pied Flycatcher and Hobby outweigh a ‘probable’ Honey Buzzard?
Meanwhile, Mr. Piotrowski was at Southwold, picking up on the Greenish Warbler. But he can tell you about that when you see him……
Report: Paddy Shaw
LESSER BLACK-BACKED GULL, HERRING GULL, BLACK-HEADED GULL, JACKDAW, ROOK, GOLDFINCH, HOUSEMARTIN, BLACKBIRD, ROBIN, COLLARED DOVE, CROW, SWALLOW, GREAT TIT, BLUE TIT, WOOD PIGEON, PHEASANT, MAGPIE, SWIFT – 5 OR 6 DURING THE DAY, SONG THRUSH, CHAFFINCH, WREN, SPARROWHAWK – AT LEAST THREE, WHITETHROAT, LESSER WHITETHROAT, GREEN WOODPECKER, JAY, MUTE SWAN – FAMILY PARTY 2 ADS AND 2 JUVS, KESTREL, PIED WAGTAIL, GREENFINCH, STARLING, KINGFISHER, STONECHAT, LINNET, WHEATEAR – AT LEAST 5, BUZZARD – 4, POSSIBLE HONEY BUZZARD, MARSH HARRIER, SANDWICH TERN, LITTLE GREBE – 4, HOBBY, PIED FLYCATCHER, DUNNOCK, FERAL PIGEON, STOCK DOVE
Pictures from the first barn owl box monitoring visit, May 31st.
Most boxes occupied by jackdaws, but two (Sibton and Bungay) with tawny owl. Sibton contained one chick; Bungay an adult and a chick. 16 boxes were checked at Heveningham, Sibton, Cockfield Hall and Bungay (Beccles Road).
Perhaps we don’t consider often enough how lucky we border people are: Norfolk and Suffolk are separated in the east by the glorious Waveney, and in the west – at least for a part of it – by the Little Ouse in the Brecklands. Contrasting environments and birds, but both equally beautiful.
And so it was that an intrepid group of 17 – led by Steve Howell and Andrew Green – sacrificed a Bank Holiday lie-in to assemble at the St Helen’s picnic site at Santon Downham near Brandon on a sunny Good Friday. A slight nip to the air, but mist rising on the river and the trees clad in what Dorothy Casey of SWT calls ‘willow warbler green.’
Part one of the day was to follow the river towards the village and cross the little road bridge, heading up towards Brandon through some typical Breck riverside woodland of willow, alder and silver birch. Sadly, no-one really talks of finding willow tit here anymore, although there was still possibility of lesser spotted woodpecker.
This is a genuinely delightful walk, and worth the drive alone, particularly in the early-morning light of mid-April, when each green is a different green, with a soundtrack of distant green woodpeckers, mistle thrush and the calls of crossbills and nuthatch.We moved slowly, slightly astonished by the number of crossbills, and rather late bramblings (probably 50 plus of each in total), the latter in their summer plumage. Calls coming from the other side of the river further up proved to be mating toads.
A pair of mute swans were busily nest-building against a semi-submerged willow, and we paused to watch a pair of nuthatches who were furnishing their new home and goldcrests attempted perpetual motion in river-level vegetation on the opposite bank.
As we approached the bridge, a lone duck flew fast downstream – Steve immediately identified it as a drake mandarin, which of course elevated it instantly to Bird of the Day – so far!
So, over the bridge and onwards, with conversation turning to ‘different drums;’ particularly the audible difference between identifying great spotted and lesser spotted woodpeckers.
But no lesser spots – each drum burst was examined for the abrupt stop rather than brief fade, but it was not to be. However, the question did arise that – if the lesser spot drum is higher in pitch – perhaps the head might be a ‘resonating chamber,’ with a smaller head producing a higher note?
We headed back to Santon Downham churchyard, a famous spot for firecrests. The main party went to the churchyard itself, while I trawled the conifers by the roadside, where I’d found them before, with a total of 5 birds between us (located mainly on their song, which is like a goldcrest that has forgotten the words).
So on to part two at Mayday Farm, located on the road that joins Brandon to the A11 at Elveden, with a series of parallel tracks that cut through the forest. The principal targets of this location would be woodlark, perhaps goshawk (although maybe getting late for display flights) and a double-perhaps of tree pipit. And of course, crossbills…..
What you’re looking for with woodlark is an area that has been grubbed up, so that’s where we headed, with Andrew taking the lead. You’ve also got to have your eyes tightly screwed in to spot these birds, as they often stand still and are well disguised against this particular environment. But we got them – two of them, hanging around long enough to get scopes lined up and everyone getting a good view.
A real bonus was on the way back (at what must remain an undisclosed location) was when Graham got onto a tree pipit! Not only an increasingly rare sight, but also a sound – perched in the top of a 20’ tree, it gave us a tremendous burst of songflight before returning to its favoured spot. Sorry, mandarin – BoTD second spot. This bird was vocal enough to see how the black ‘moustachial’ lines fluffed out in song, giving the appearance of a dark throat.
This experience led to a brief exploration of the various descriptive words typical of bird forums, such as ‘obliging,’ ‘confiding,’ ‘elusive’ and ‘though mobile.’ It also eliminated any thought of a goshawk-hunt being necessary, although the day had been rather raptor-light – sparrowhawk, kestrel and a couple of buzzards at the Mayday car park area so far.
However, as with the Outney walk, it was noticeable how many butterflies were about, with green-veined, copper, speckled wood, orange tip, peacock, small tortoiseshell, red admiral all in fairly good numbers.
So to part three at Lackford Lakes, and the convoy set off across the A11 for a lunchbreak.
The rest of the world had now got out as well, so the car park was fairly full. Lackford is a popular spot, offering a linkage of easy-walking trails through a range of environments, all built around the lakes themselves. While some of the party took themselves upstairs to the glass-fronted visitors’ centre, a few stayed outside on the benches, where we got a good clear view of a buzzard passing – and after that, a heron, and then – what looked to be another heron, but through the bins (although much more distant) was clearly bigger, with slower wing beats and a noticeable white and black wing pattern. It was slowly descending from evergreens on the right to disappear behind poplars. Ok, there are cranes at Lakenheath, but a quick check of the staff Collins’ Guide pretty much ruled that out. No-one else seemed to have seen it, but my reaction had been white stork, having seen that lazy wing beat in Bulgaria.
What with the winds onto the east coast over the past week and it being the migration time, it wasn’t impossible – later information showed one to have been seen on the Welsh coast, which is certainly further west last time I looked.
So, while the rest of the group took in the calm of Lackford and views of red-crested pochard, mediterranean gull, tufted duck etc. I tanked round the whole reserve twice trying to get to where I thought it had gone down – but couldn’t. And anyway, it might not have landed. And it might have been something else. But what, at that size, wing speed and colouration? However, I got as far as a good view of the trees it had disappeared behind, and this was a fair distance from the visitors’ centre, so it was BIG. Why hadn’t I noticed how the head was held in flight? Too late now….but better to call it and be wrong than not to call it, I reckon.
We met up again at a hide at the far end of the reserve, and we tried not to mention it. At least no-one said anything about telling stork from butter (at least within earshot).
A few of the group thought they might make a late charge to Cavenham Heath for stone curlew and wheatear, but the majority felt the Brecks had been largely done, and we’d been out around 9 hours. It had been another great day, with much thanks to Steve and Andrew.
And with that, we storked off home…….
Report by Paddy Shaw
Species List Birds:
Mute Swan Greylag Goose Canada Goose Barnacle Goose Egyptian Goose Shelduck Mandarin (3 drakes flying at Santon Downham) Gadwall Teal Mallard Shoveler Pochard Red-crested Pochard (Lackford) Tufted Duck Pheasant Great-crested Grebe Cormorant Grey Heron Red Kite (2 from car park at Lackford) Sparrowhawk Kestrel Common Buzzard Moorhen Coot Oystercatcher Little Ringed Plover (pair at Lackford) Lapwing Black-headed Gull Lesser Black-backed Gull Great Black-backed Gull Herring Gull Stock Dove Woodpigeon Collared Dove Green Woodpecker Great-spotted Woodpecker Woodlark (2 at Mayday Farm, Spinks Lodge) Sand Martin Swallow House Martin Tree Pipit (displaying male, Mayday Farm) Pied Wagtail Dunnock Wren Robin Blackbird Song Thrush Redwing Mistle Thrush Cetti’s Warbler Willow Warbler Chiffchaff Blackcap Sedge Warbler Goldcrest Firecrest (total 5 around Santon Downham church and road) Long-tailed Tit Marsh Tit Blue Tit Great Tit Nuthatch (2 nesting pairs at Santon Downham) Treecreeper Magpie Jay Jackdaw Carrion Crow Starling Chaffinch Brambling (60 Santon Downham, 1 Mayday Farm) Greenfinch Goldfinch Siskin Linnet Lesser Redpoll (8 Santon Downham, 1 Spinks Lodge) Crossbill (50 Santon Downham, 8 Mayday Farm) Yellowhammer Reed Bunting (Total 77)
Orange Tip, Small Copper, Small White, Green-veined White, Speckled Wood
Muntjac (2 at Mayday), Bronze Ground Beetle, Common Toad
Part 1: Outney Common, the Lows, Bath Hills and Earsham
Leaders: Steve Piotrowski and Paddy Shaw
After several days of static, dirty air, Saharan dust and cloud, April 5th clear and the sun shined on WBC as a group of 15 joined leaders Steve Piotrowski and Paddy Shaw for a ‘bird yomp’ across the Outney Common Lows, Bath Hills and Earsham just outside Bungay.
The theme for the day would be early migrants and in particular, a concentration on songs and calls, and differentiating the more tricky ones. Target species were Blackcap, Willow Warbler and Marsh Tit, with hopes that the southerly air flow over the past week would have assisted migration back to breeding sites.
Often the first few minutes of a walk can give a notion of whether a site is going to turn it on or not, and things were looking good from 7.10am, with Song Thrushes nest building, Oystercatchers over and enough of the usual suspects to push a species count to 11 before the party had fully assembled.
Click on images to enlarge
A pause by the scrub alongside Station Pit fishing lake gave an opportunity to examine the song differences of Dunnock, Wren and Robin, with Linnet, Goldfinch, and Chaffinch also present. And then, through the Chaffinch song, a longer, less brassy downward cascade of notes revealed the first Willow Warbler of the year. That’s it then – it’s definitely Spring!
The previously-drenched Lows had obligingly dried out so a crossing that would have required wellies three weeks ago presented no problem at all. The Lows are extensive wet grassland and pasture, set in the loop of the Waveney, which regularly floods in winter and provides a rich habitat for birds throughout the year. The intention was, however, to simply cross this and take the path along Bath Hills, which rises to the lip of the bowl in which Bungay lies. At this time of the year, the still bare trees provide stunning views over the Lows and beyond, while enabling at least glimpses of the woodland bird species that breed here.
Following a discussion on the differences between Blackbird and Mistle Thrush song, two Mistles struck up in competition as we passed through the light tree cover by Baldry’s Mill, together with a Blackcap. Less than a kilometre, and two targets ticked….
A steep climb up the side of ‘Mount Ditchingham’ across from Ditchingham Lodge gains height quickly to an easy path above the river, full of Wren, Blue, Great, Coal and Long-tailed Tit, more recently-arrived Blackcap, Chiffchaff with Jay, Green and Great Spotted Woodpecker providing occasional emphasis (the latter supplying some fairly tentative and non-committal drumming, together with its hysterical ‘yip!’ calls). Just once, we got the repeat-call of a Nuthatch, like a shepherd whistling his dog round (rather than the tremulous other song, which always reminds me of kids making ghost-noises).
The explosion of hearing a first Chiffchaff a few weeks ago had now dulled as that song receded into a growing orchestra – like building a band one by one, where the new musician is always seen as a soloist as it steps into the spotlight. Soon, Willow Warbler will do the same, I suppose, and take its part in the woodwind section.
The path meanders up and down along the ridge, between the woodland slope down to the Waveney on the left and rape seed fields on the right, before linking up with the unmade road down to Cold Bath House (and a conservation area). It then descends until it is finally level with the Lows again, affording views across the cattle meadows and the new scrape, which has been built in the middle for the benefit of winter waders and wildfowl.
Highlights along this track had included Bullfinch, Marsh Tit (thanks for not letting us down, chaps – targets hit!) and a heard-but-not-seen Little Owl. A moment of potential ‘twitch-ness’ concerned the over-flight of a female Sparrowhawk with extremely pale rear underparts, extending up the sides and almost to the rump – was it a young Goshawk?
Nope – flap, flap, flap glide as it moved off. But, we’d been doing well for raptors, with Buzzard, Kestrel, Sparrowhawk already in Steve’s list.
As we approached Valley House, there was a shout of Swallow and we all gazed up to see what was for most their first Swallow of the year accompanied by the usual cries of “one Swallow doesn’t make a summer.”
The path eventually joins the road which accesses the Earsham Gravel site, and on to Earsham Gravel Pits. Often through the winter, this site is alive with duck and geese, but gives way in Spring to the displays of Great Crested Grebe. I was watching a head-shaking routine between a courting pair while John Sampson was calling the season’s first Common Tern and then – a grebe – not Little Grebe, not Great Crested…..
It took Steve’s scope to finally nail it as a full summer-plumage Red Necked Grebe, which was (as bird reports often say) ‘obliging,’ diving and feeding fairly close in on the right hand side of the Pit. Bird of the Day!
We’d taken our time wandering round, and some of the party departed at this point, while the remainder headed through Earsham to come back to Bungay across the Earsham marshes. Perhaps we’d get Grey Wagtail on the way.
Well, of course we did, and very early, on the drain that connects the Waveney at Earsham to the river again on the Lows loop. A pair, bathing and luxuriating in the Spring sunshine, taking no notice of us at all.
From there, it’s a leisurely stroll back to Bungay via the Earsham Bridge and Outney Road, over the roadbridge and back to the golf club car park.
Of note throughout the walk had been the number of butterflies – Comma, Brimstone, Orange-Tip, Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock and Small White had all been constant companions. Let’s hope for another good year for them.
Five of us decided the day was only half done, so after going back to Steve and Kathy’s for lunch, tea and hot-crossed buns (thanks Kathy!) we set off for part two, at Carlton Marshes on the edge of Oulton Broad…..
Part Two: Carlton Marshes
We’d targeted 50 species for the day, and already had 62 – could we make 70?
The weather was holding up well, although some cloud was building. A few more marsh-based species may well push the list up…..
We strolled out on the main path from the visitors’ centre towards ‘Wilton’s Viewpoint, which overlooks the new scrape’ adding Marsh Harrier and Peregrine to the raptor list.
By the time we’d looped round and walked back, we were up to 68…so, we hung around the car park, hoping for something to turn up and then – 8 Fieldfares!
It was getting like praying for your team to find an injury-time equaliser…
We optimistically scanned the gulls on a nearby field – another birder spoke of an Ouzel having been in the paddock earlier…but no, we were going to have to live with 69, as a beer back in the Green Dragon was long-overdue. A count up in the pub revealed that our illustrious scribe (Steve) had miscounted and we had knotched up 71 birds after all!
That was my debut as a co-leader, and I’d really enjoyed it (although Steve did most of the work!) I eventually had given in to my slightly left-handed way of looking at song i.d. once the crowds had thinned, and describing the difference between Reed and Sedge Warbler song as the difference in Scouse accent between Ringo Starr (reed) and Steven Gerrard (sedge), but we’ve all got our own ways of getting to the same place….
That was a great day.
Full species lists for morning and afternoon attached below.