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…..