orford3 DN

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.

controlled ruinationlighthouse landscape DN

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.

The WBC Scope Forest comes to Orfordness

The WBC Scope Forest comes to Orfordness

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.

Mist nets in the easterly

Mist nets in the easterly

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.

Seawatching in the cheap seats...

Seawatching in the cheap seats…


DC Siberian Stonechat 2 (2)

DC Siberian Stonechat 1 (2)


DC Siberian Stonechat 3 (2)

DC Siberian Stonechat 5 (2)

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.

pale supercilium DN
DC Sib Stonechat in bush

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.

A fairly unpressured seawatch, Saturday p.m.

A fairly unpressured seawatch, Saturday p.m.

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.

Considering Stonechats

Considering Stonechats


Mike Marsh DN


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.

resting upSat night takeaway

The men's room, Sunday morning......

The men’s room, Sunday morning……

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…

seawatch side view

One basic mistake in my seawatching apprenticeship.....

One basic mistake in my seawatching apprenticeship…..

Redpoll from the nets

Redpoll from the nets

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.

Tea break

Tea break

Searching the bushes

Searching the bushes

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.

Pallas' Warbler

Pallas’ Warbler

Clancy's Rustic

Clancy’s Rustic

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.

Goldcrest and Firecrest - different birds, different attitude!

Goldcrest and Firecrest – different birds, different attitude!

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.

Sun eve commuteboots bag and lighthouse

Pictures: Dave Crawshaw, David Norton, Paddy Shaw


Avocet 71
Bearded Tit 2
Black-headed Gull 200
Blackbird 1
Blue Tit 4
Buzzard 1
Carrion Crow 4
Collared Dove 1
Cormorant 9
Dunlin 1
Goldcrest 35
Goldfinch 25
Green Sandpiper 1
Greenfinch 6
Guillemot 1
House Sparrow 2
Jackdaw 25
Kittiwake 1
Lesser Black-backed Gull 1
Linnet 88
Magpie 6
Marsh Harrier 2
Merlin 1
Pheasant 2
Pintail 16
Redshank 51
Reed Warbler 2
Rock Pipit 3
Shoveler 42
Siskin 25
Snipe 10
Spoonbill 4
Stock Dove 2
Teal 36
Wigeon 328
Wren 14
Barn Owl 1
Black Redstart 2
Black-tailed Godwit 1
Blackcap 2
Brent Goose (Dark-bellied) 1565
Canada Goose 25
Chiffchaff 6
Common Gull 2
Curlew 18
Dunnock 10
Golden Plover 2
Great Black-backed Gull 31
Green Woodpecker 1
Grey Plover 1
Herring Gull 38
Jack Snipe 1
Kestrel 4
Lapwing 27
Lesser Redpoll 12
Little Egret 21
Mallard 27
Meadow Pipit 35
Mute Swan 2
Pied Wagtail (yarrellii) 1
Red-breasted Merganser 1
Reed Bunting 10
Robin 12
Shelduck 14
Siberian Stonechat 1
Skylark 50
Song Thrush 2
Starling 1500
Stonechat 8
Wheatear 2
Woodpigeon 4
Total number of species 71


Arctic Skua 1
Balearic Shearwater 1
Bearded Tit 4
Blackbird 1
Brambling 2
Buzzard 4
Carrion Crow 5
Common Gull 1
Cormorant 15
Dunlin 2
Firecrest 3
Gannet 3
Golden Plover 247
Great Black-backed Gull 12
Grey Heron 1
Herring Gull 25
Jackdaw 83
Kittiwake 1
Leach’s Petrel 1
Lesser Redpoll 6
Little Egret 22
Long-tailed Skua 2
Mallard 24
Meadow Pipit 22
Mute Swan 2
Pallas’s Warbler 1
Pheasant 2
Red-breasted Merganser 4
Redshank 22
Reed Bunting 2
Rock Pipit 1
Shelduck 17
Siskin 2
Snipe 9
Sparrowhawk 1
Starling 120
Stonechat 6
Teal 34
Whitethroat 2
Woodpigeon 3
Avocet 35
Barn Owl 1
Black-headed Gull 250
Blue Tit 1
Brent Goose (Dark-bellied) 475
Canada Goose 63
Chiffchaff 1
Common Scoter 9
Curlew 12
Dunnock 8
Fulmar 2
Goldcrest 160
Goldfinch 5
Greenfinch 3
Guillemot 3
Jack Snipe 1
Kestrel 7
Lapwing 79
Lesser Black-backed Gull 2
Linnet 14
Little Gull 3
Magpie 6
Marsh Harrier 5
Merlin 1
Oystercatcher 1
Peregrine 1
Pintail 1
Red-throated Diver 8
Redwing 5
Robin 25
Ruff 1
Shoveler 38
Skylark 19
Song Thrush 20
Spoonbill 4
Stock Dove 1
Swallow 1
Wheatear 2
Wigeon 218
Wren 5
Total number of species 80