Siberian breeding warblers are now beginning to filter through Britain on autumn passage, and two such scarcities turning up close together on the north Norfolk coast this weekend, ahead of a non-working day proved too much of a temptation to resist. Arctic Warbler is a passerine most seasoned birders will have on their lists, but Pallas’ Grasshopper Warbler is much trickier.
The latter is rarely seen away from those offshore Scottish islands where to date I have feared to tread and is very skulking in its habits. Both these “drift migrants”, so called because they have strayed west of the mainstream migration path, are amongst a difficult group of lifers that I must pay attention to in the upcoming and future autumn passage seasons.
But first, this morning I had another local birding matter to attend to. September has been quite lively so far in God’s own county (Oxon) and one of the attractions has been a juvenile Osprey visiting a gravel pit location to the south of Oxford. Today was my third attempt to witness at close quarters what is a spectacular seasonal raptor fishing at the site. And having missed out by six minutes 24 hours earlier I now did things properly and got there at dawn. Soon after my arrival at around 6:20am the bird flew in from the direction in which it has often been seen departing and took up a tree top perch (pictured below, left) overlooking one pit.
For the next two hours this youngster went through quite a range of amusing facial expressions while surveying all before it, often indulging in what looked like neck stretching exercises. Throughout, noisy Canada Geese would come and go overhead; Water Rail squealed from the reedy margins and Eurasian Coot went about their own business on the water’s surface. But no resident corvids or raptors seemed to be over bothered by the showy visitor that just sat and watched, and preened, then watched some more. After more than an hour of this the Osprey made its only flight around the site (above, right), then perched once more against a better lit background (below).
At some time after 8:30am this local celebrity departed in the opposite direction from whence it had come, not having attempted to fish. I assumed it must be going on to somewhere else on a feeding circuit that might be more productive, then myself headed home to check out what was transpiring in Norfolk. By 10am both migrant Warblers had been reported on RBA. Connecting with them might be risky, but I had an adrenalin buzz now and needed to hit the road to burn it off. Spending the day at home in the garden would not satisfy, and after all nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Before setting off I contacted Ewan who had got to the PGW site at Burnham Overy Staithe (TF853448) at dawn. He called back to say the early starters had given up at around 8:30am, then having travelled part of the way back home he was returning for another try now this bird had been sighted. Undaunted, I myself went to join him, appreciating I would not arrive until mid-afternoon but there must be some opportunity to see one or both warblers before dusk.
As I passed Titchwell Marsh on the A149 north Norfolk coast road, Ewan phoned to say he had seen the PGW briefly in flight at around 2:20pm and was moving on to Wells Woods, the Arctic Warbler location. We agreed to rendezvous which would make connecting with the latter bird somewhat simpler for me since he knew exactly where to find it. His day’s experience neither surprised me nor sounded especially enjoyable, more like a bit of a scrum, but he had secured his own lifer and so relaxed could help me gain an easier and important one of my own.
At Wells-next-the-Sea we walked westward from the car park (TF914455) and after a while came upon 15 to 20 birders all pointing their binoculars and cameras upwards into a silver birch at one side of the main track. The Arctic Warbler really was that easy to locate and my 160 mile journey had been well worthwhile. The bird was quite hyperactive, seldom keeping still for long and moving fairly high up. But eventually I gained some record shots (above and below) that showed the diagnostics to some extent.
Those are a sturdy bill, long supercilium, blotchy ear coverts, neat wing bar, and a long primary projection that is roughly equal to the tail projection beyond the primary tips. That is more than the usual degree of plumage topography I quote, but the first two and last of those features were the most noticeable to me as everyone craned their necks and tried to direct one another onto this bird as it flicked around constantly above us.
Meanwhile, here’s how the professionals do it (below): both pictures © and courtesy of Ewan.
Arctic is between Willow and Wood Warbler in size with an overall long-winged, short-tailed appearance. A forest breeder in northernmost Fenno-Scandia, the usual wintering ground is south-east Asia, one of the longest migration routes for a small passerine. This is one of the more regularly occurring autumn drift migrants in Britain and hence one that I particularly wished to see, so I was very pleased with this day’s outcome. The other bird would have been a bonus but was not seen again while we were at Wells Woods.
When I dropped Ewan off again at Burnham Overy Staithe the roadside cars suggested many people were still looking. Today had been much windier than Sunday (17th) when the PGW was first discovered, causing the bird to keep low in cover much more than when this picture (here) was taken. That elusive little number will have to wait for another occasion, if ever for me.