Hume’s Leaf Warbler nailed in Newhaven, Sussex; then those Holkham Shorelarks – 15 & 17th Jan

I feel on a roll now. After two days taken up largely by writing, picture editing and housework following my Fuerteventura trip, I was ready for the road again by Tuesday (15th). The excess energy and inner tension that arise from a preference to stay active had built up again immediately upon my return. To relieve it there was a choice of going for a tricky little lifer, Hume’s in East Sussex or trying again for the Norfolk Shorelarks. I opted for the former since they were nearer (115 cf 150 miles) and the latter were likely to stick around for longer.

Hume’s Leaf Warbler (also known as Hume’s Yellow-browed Warbler – pictured above, left) is one of three autumn drift migrant Warblers that still occur in Britain into mid-winter. The others are Dusky and the closely related Yellow-browed, both of which are on my British and hence Westpal and life lists. I had previously dipped Hume’s twice in Dorset exactly seven years ago, an experience that entailed staring at a dense bank of vegetation for hours for no reward.

That served to put me off going for another one until now, and so Hume’s lingered amongst three other regular drift migrants – Greenish and Marsh Warblers, and Olive-backed Pipit – that I still need and really ought to have gained by now. I anticipated today might be a necessary chore, involving getting through the most perennially traffic choked section of the M25 motorway (between the M40 and A3), then another unforgiving stake-out on site. But in the event I cannot recall the south-western M25 being so un-congested, and the connect was surprisingly simple as well.

A fortunate feeling grew further when upon my arrival on the northern edge of the port of Newhaven, around nine miles east of Brighton, a parking space awaited rather invitingly in the access road to the Hume’s site (TQ 44299 02192). There I did my credentials for becoming a proper birder typical harm by polishing off a particularly delicious pasty from Pease Pottage services on the A23, rather than running for the target. Thus sated, I then “sauntered” as is my wont into Riverside Park, a former landfill site and the location quoted on RBA.

Those directions said opposite a waste incinerator (that is actually on the far side of the river) and as I approached two other birders were walking away unsuccessfully. They advised me to listen for a call not unlike Pied Wagtail. Setting up my chair I next saw off an as tasty M&S Wensleydale and carrot chutney sandwich (more food!) before at last starting to go about things more seriously.

The young tree scrub habitat here on the re-generating landfill site looked excellent for warblers, but though less dense than that previous Dorset location there was also a lot of it in which the Hume’s might be skulking. Two more birders had now arrived and we all began to search in different places. Ever incorrigible, I moved my chair to a clearing from which I could scan a good area of habitat, Googled the bird to check on it’s diagnostics, then sat and waited. That seemed preferable to walking around and risking the bird flying off ahead as I went. Five hours in that forest park in Costa Calma had clearly had some influence on my mind set.

Blue Tit, Robin and Chaffinch all moved through, before after maybe 20 minutes I indeed heard a call such as had been described to me. A small and very different passerine, the Hume’s Leaf Warbler had landed in the top of the nearest clump of saplings, rather like in the outsourced picture below. Oh that I could always enjoy such luck, but on this occasion at least my laid back approach had paid dividends. It was now 13:25pm.

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Hume’s Leaf Warbler © rights of owner reserved

Over the next 40 minutes the Hume’s came and went several more times, always announcing itself with a pronounced dsu-weet call. In this period more birders also congregated here and all got to see the Warbler well. I understand that vocalisation is the easiest way to identify Hume’s, since for non-expert observers such as myself the plumage closely resembles Yellow-browed (whilst being generally paler). The species breeds in central Asia and the most extensive wintering area is the Indian sub-continent. Yellow-browed, from which Hume’s was separated by the BOURC in 1997, has a more northerly Siberian breeding range.

At 14:15pm it began to rain and most of the birders dispersed. Mindful of avoiding rush-hour traffic on the dreaded south-western M25 I now headed home, feeling immensely relieved at having laid this long-avoided and difficult lifer to rest. This day had been a hugely satisfying experience at the opposite end of the birding scale to those boring and frustrating 2012 sojourns in Dorset. Apparently I had made a wise choice of location as there have been six previous occurrences of HLW along the 18 mile stretch of coastline from Brighton eastward to Beachy Head since and including the first accepted record for Great Britain in 1966.

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For a very informative guide to migrant leaf Warblers in Great Britain see here. And for a detailed, scientific paper on separating Hume’s and Yellow-browed in the field see here.

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Two days later on Thursday  (17th) I made a third attempt at the Holkham NNR Shorelarks on the north Norfolk coast, since missing them twice previously this winter still rather rankled. Given my current run of good form it seemed now might be the time to belatedly nail those too. Since my abandoned visit on 28th December (see here) a 20+ Shorelark flock, and up to 50+ Snow Buntings that I observed then, have been recorded regularly on RBA. Like the Buntings, the main attraction of the Larks for me was the comparatively large numbers involved, since I had only come across single figure groups in the past.

When I arrived at Lady Anne’s Drive just after 9.00 am a bitterly cold gale was blowing along the coast, which I suppose I should have anticipated. But I was wearing just about enough layers and so strode out defiantly to the roped off area at approx TF895455. There several other birders were already watching the Shorelark flock, so the connect was immediate this time and my luck was holding. At first the birds were too far away to get pictures of but then they moved quite close in … which was when I found my camera battery was flat. Oh dear! Cue a sinking feeling.

Back at the car park, having watched the Shorelarks for a while, I retrieved my camera charger and the on-site cafeteria proprietor very kindly rescued the situation while I warmed up again with a coffee and local pasty. Meanwhile a Lapland Bunting was discovered out at the sharp end, presumably amongst the Snow Bunting flock. On my walking out for the second time, the conditions had if anything deteriorated further with light snow flurries in the mix. But the Shorelarks were still present so today’s result despite my earlier faux pas was definitely meant.

Again the flock was mobile around the roped-off area, then once more they moved closer. Given the circumstances any sort of records would suffice, and the images (above, top row) purport to be no more than that. Local birders arriving now were naturally far more concerned with locating the Lapland Bunting. I neither picked it out nor came across anyone else who had seen it since that original report, but I did speak to the finders. The today 30+ Snow Bunting flock (above, bottom row) was active throughout.

My carelessness with the camera battery had at least ensured I spent all of my four hours parking time on site, but by the end of it I was glad to head back home. I think I might have had my fill of Holkham for this winter season, but I am taking the “arduous” journey to north Norfolk in my stride now, and those aforementioned Greenish Warbler and Buff-bellied Pipit now seem a little more reachable.

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Fuerteventura III: the Dwarf Bittern re-visited and some island insects – 10 & 11th Jan

This mini-break was my third visit to Fuerteventura. I came here previously in February 2015 for five days (see trip reports), then in December 2017 just for a weekend to twitch a Dwarf Bittern, possibly the desert island’s most renowned avian resident. I was one of the earlier Brits and first Oxon birder to go for what was then the fifth Westpal record. But the urgency of that madcap adventure was not in the end necessary as this celebrity has remained faithful to it’s adopted home to the north-west of Rosario and Fvta airport ever since. Experiencing the bird again was an important aim for this new trip.

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Dwarf Bittern (adult male) at Barranco de Rio Cabras © and courtesy of Lars Theng

So Thursday morning (10th) found me driving out through the rugged though languid grandeur of the Fvta landscape heading for Barranco de Rio Cabras, the Bittern site. This river gorge runs close by an access road to a waste recycling plant off the FV20 main road. An approximate GPS from which to start searching for the DB is N28.4758′ W13.9030′. There I met two birders from Sweden who were unsure exactly where to look, so I took them out to the spot where I was successful those 13 months ago (see here).

As we walked across the stony plain from the road out to the Barranco the air overhead contained around nine Egyptian Vulture. This is a reliable location to find that raptor since they are attracted by the waste recycling plant. Then as we reached the gorge a similar number of Spoonbill flew out from it and circled around, the first I have seen here. Then we crossed the Barranco to watch for the Bittern in an area between two dams that it frequents regularly.

Barrancos such as this containing water in places act as a magnet for birds. Some of the more noticeable ones moving up and down on this occasion were Little Egret, Black-winged Stilt, Ruddy Shelduck, Little-ringed Plover and Common Snipe. A Hoopoe was active on the opposite cliff face, while Raven seemed omni-present overhead. After a while one of my companions went to search further downstream while the other remained with me.

When the call came to say the Dwarf Bittern had been located around 500 metres away the ensuing dash to connect was seriously off-piste. I could not keep up with Lars who had 20 years on me, and as I had seen the bird before it didn’t seem worth breaking an ankle or otherwise going arse over tit for. In the event I took just the one tumble, suffering no more than a bruised finger. None of this now is as easy as it used to be when I started birding abroad eight years ago.

Upon reaching the spot where the others were sitting, in a green and watery area of the barranco floor, the DB had gone back into cover. They had watched it feeding very closely and Lars had good images on his big lens HD camera. A tense wait then ensued without the bird re-emerging before my companions, being satisfied with their experience decided to move on. But as soon as they left I beheld the Dwarf Bittern striding out of cover again a little upstream from where I was sitting.

barranco de rio cabras.1901 with dwarf bittern

“Hello old friend … what have you been doing since we last met?”

Now this famous and iconic lone wanderer gave itself up to my camera for the second time. It was a rather more tranquil setting than the place upstream where I had observed the bird previously. And unlike then I was now completely alone with it and so able to enjoy especially meaningful communion. I watched and took pictures as the DB foraged along the water’s edge, practising it’s repertoire of Heron poses as it went and moving gradually upstream.

Though the habitat here clearly caters for this adult male’s sustenance I pondered upon what else might keep it in this adopted home: far from the usual range, away from his own kind and without a mate. Maybe there were similarities between us in these moments at the back of beyond. Whether or not such vagrants eventually return home is something I have thought over many times. Or do they either just settle where they have strayed, or as is more often the case die fairly soon? Might this solo Dwarf Bittern just have a low libido or could it be escaping a troubled relationship history? Perhaps I should stop there.

From close to where I was now a track led up the gorge side to the plain above, so the walk back to my car was much easier than the outward one. It now being early afternoon plenty of time remained to re-visit the lower end of Barranco de Rio Cabras where most of Fvta’s regular small passerines may be encountered. This is accessed via a dirt track from Playa Blanca, just off the FV2 road immediately south of Puerto del Rosario.

Retracing a route I first trod in 2015, the first small birds I came across were some Spectacled Warbler (pictured above, left). And in amongst them were at least two Fuerteventura Chat (above, right), an island endemic without seeing which no visit here would be complete. A little further along two Trumpeter Finch landed just ahead of me but I could not get pictures before they went on their way. What were probably Berthelot’s Pipit and Lesser Short-toed Lark were buzzing about the arid habitat, being much more frequently heard than seen. And inevitably there were Spanish Sparrows.

Once I reached the barranco’s lowest dam, the height of water behind made it impossible to walk on north-west to the Dwarf Bittern site. Things seemed far less birdy here than in 2015, and so instead I took some time to pay attention to the remote location’s insect life. Odonata comprised Blue Emperor, Red-veined Darter, Broad Scarlet and Sahara Bluetail; the last of those being Fvta’s only damselfly. And as in other locations this week there were a lot of dark brown-toned Pyrausta moths.

Butterflies were represented by the same five polyvoltine species (all-year flyers) that I encountered throughout this trip: Painted Lady, Red Admiral, Clouded Yellow, Small White and African Grass Blue; the last of those being a welcome lifer. Everywhere I went I was impressed by the significant size variation in Painted Lady. All were smaller than the migrants that regularly reach Great Britain, but I wondered if the smallest of all were an endemic form. Having read things up that is not so. There is a second Painted Lady species in the Canaries but I did not find any of them. So I must assume the size of adult butterflies depends on how much individual larvae find to eat in this arid region.

The trip lifer, African Grass Blue (pictured below) is one of the tiniest Blue species that is widespread and often common across much of north Africa and the Middle East, but extends into parts of southern Europe as well. It is discreet and very low flying, particularly favouring coastal localities in which irrigation maintains vegetation; but is also frequent in hot, dry habitats such as here. I also noticed this butterfly in the forest strip in Costa Calma while staking out the Allen’s Gallinule there.

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Greenish Blacktip © and courtesy of Lars Theng

On the walk back I crossed paths with a few Greenish Blacktip (pictured above), another common north African butterfly that I had seen lots of in 2015 though most then were very worn. Like Orange Tip at home this restless and fast flying species is difficult to get pictures of. Tired from my day long exertions I couldn’t summon the energy to chase them across the rocky ground this time and so publishing my own images of GBT will have to wait.

On Friday morning (11th) I couldn’t resist going again for Houbara Bustard on Tindaya Plain in Fvta’s north-east. On both my previous trips I had seen those local specialities further to the north nearer El Cotillo, but this time I opted for where most of the images published online come from. Arriving at first light I eventually observed three Houbaras in flight, and then another more distantly, but there were no roadside encounters such as I sought. That was rather annoying, especially as my Swedish associates of the previous day had photographed displaying males at 50 metres here (pictured above).

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After two hours of frustration I decided to drive north along the dirt road to El Cotillo, but ended up circuiting the north side of Mount Tindaya back to the main road from EC to La Oliva instead. The route I intended now appears to be blocked by a private open cast mining site. Though some of the vistas here were well worth the detour the overriding sentiment was of disappointment over the lack of Houbaras, so I continued on to La Oliva to refresh my spirits. This village is rather like an oasis in the desert and unusually wild flower rich for this island, and so once again my attention turned to butterflies.

There must be trillions of Painted Lady in Fuerteventura and here it would not be an exaggeration to say the waste ground I now walked around shimmered with them. This all rather put into context the occasional spectacular irruptions that occur at home, such as one around 10 years ago. But the mind simply boggles at how many trillions of trillion there must be across the species’ entire range. The images I saved from La Oliva are all of Clouded Yellow, of which these (below) are the most pleasing.

Unfortunately on this trip my laptop charger failed and so I lost contact with Canary Islands RBA. It wasn’t until Friday evening I got a message from Eduardo saying a Desert Wheatear had been rediscovered at the reservoir site of Las Molinos that I drove past on my way back to Costa Calma. So missing what could have been my second record of that bird was also a little disappointing. It remains to present a few other and random bird images (below) from the three days featured in these two posts..

So returning to my original question, was this retro-tripette truly motivating? Where the star attractions of Allen’s Gallinule and Dwarf Bittern were concerned the answer is a most definite yes. But revisiting places for no particular reason did not grab my imagination quite so much. Possibly that is because there is only one habitat on Fuerteventura – rough, dry and very stony – in which it is always difficult to pick birds out. But despite slightly anxious doubts in the days leading up to departure, once I got off the plane all the tension slipped away and I was well and truly back into overseas wildlife travel mode. Next up will be Agadir II in February, also through lastminute.com. I might as well do all this while I can.

Allen’s Gallinule and Red-breasted Flycatcher at Costa Calma, Fuerteventura – 9 & 11th Jan

It was just a short, four-night mid-winter break for me this year with the aim of seeing whether re-visiting the locations of past wildlife adventures can still be motivating. The answer appears to be yes provided there is something new and different in the mix. The Canaries desert island of Fuerteventura is also very affordable in it’s low tourist season, as myself and other Oxon birders discovered on visiting at the time the now resident Dwarf Bittern first arrived 13 months ago. Since my week in Crete last October I have received regular mail-shots from lastminute.com and so am now aware of some good and agreeably priced packages that cater for solo travellers.

For my base this time I chose Costa Calma on the peninsula at Fvta’s far south west, as I had not reached that part of the island before and some good birds turn up there. After making the booking things became interesting when another Westpal rarity from sub-Saharan Africa, a juvenile Allen’s Gallinule turned up at Caleta de Fuste on the east coast. That bird, the island’s third remained from 13th to 24th December, then the plot took another twist. Just before my departure this week what was believed to be a second Allen’s was discovered in Costa Calma itself by birders no doubt searching for the Canaries’ ninth Red-breasted Flycatcher. This bijou tripette was by now seeming seriously meant.

The Allen’s Gallinule (pictured above), a first winter had been frequenting a long and narrow forested strip that runs through the resort’s centre, at a spot between El Palmeral shopping centre and a communications mast opposite the Costa Calma Palace hotel. I arrived here at 11am on Wednesday (9th) armed with GPS co-ordinates provided by Dr Eduardo Garcia del Rey, president of the Sociedad Ornitologica Canaria who administers Canary Islands RBA on Facebook. And as soon as I walked in the bird flew up from one side of the path, a pattern that was to repeat itself over the next three hours.

Some other reports I had read suggested this lifer was approachable but that was not my experience. It was an easy bird to see but not to observe well. Whenever it caught sight of either myself or other people, the Allen’s would fly up into the tree cover overhead and that was what surprised me most. I have never thought of Gallinules or any other Rail or Crake as tree dwellers, but this one seemed totally at home up there (pictured below).

Stalking this bird while trying for acceptable pictures, I adopted a routine of sitting on an earth mound at the heart of it’s patch then walking a circuit at intervals. Occasionally I was joined by other birders there. Several more times the AG went up from close by always seeing me before I noticed it. From my impromptu base I also paid some attention to the small passerines that were active in the tree cover, as well as some rather more noisy and colourful characters.

The last-named were Red-vented Bulbul, (below, left) a native of the Indian sub-continent and parts of south-east Asia that has been introduced to many other countries. I knew there must be a reason for not coming across it in my pre-trip researches, and now learn this bird is regarded as one of the world’s most problematic invasive alien species. But it was still my second lifer of the morning and interesting to see here.

At one point the Red-breasted Flycatcher (above, right), also a first winter popped out and posed nicely, and I also noticed it from time to time darting about a very concentrated area in that species’ restless manner. But I did not find a Yellow-browed Warbler that had also been reported from this hot spot, seeing only Chiffchaffs and Spanish Sparrows besides the RBF. At one point I saw a Monarch butterfly, a resident species in the Canaries, but it did not settle.

At 14:00 pm I took a break, returning after an hour and in the late afternoon the Allen’s Gallinule became rather more confiding. A sequence of events next unfolded that turned my sojourn here into a very satisfying experience. First I spotted the bird right out in the open beside then atop a large mound (pictured below). And thereafter I was able to follow at a discreet distance wherever it went without it seeming concerned by my presence.

allen's gallinule.1908 costa calma

Just look at those legs … it should have been a supermodel

The Gallinule next began feeding in some longish ground cover and so I realised how I had put it up inadvertently a number of times earlier. This bird liked to keep in semi concealment in that habitat, but still seemed to allow a closer approach now than had been the case in the morning. I was all this time gaining a better understanding of its movements and habits and the end game was coming into sight.

When my quest relocated again to the spot that features at the top of this post I at last obtained pictures (below) to compare with all the others seen online. It had been a real privilege to spend five hours in this superb bird’s company and to gain such a variety of other images in the process.

allen's gallinule.1901_01 costa calma

Oh you beauty! This first winter is just beginning to acquire it’s blue adult colouring (per E G del R)

On Thursday evening (10th) I received a message from Eduardo asking if there was any further news on this rarity. I took that to mean the AG had not been reported again whilst I had been otherwise engaged with the Dwarf Bittern. So on Friday (11th) I returned to check out the same place from 15:45 to 17:20 pm, but without encountering the former again.

Instead, from my earth mound I followed the hyperactive antics of the Red-breasted Flycatcher (pictured below) through that entire interval. This tiny sprite was in exactly the same spot as two days previously, dashing about constantly, feeding in low trees and on the ground, and sitting up on a number of favoured perches. This trip’s individual was only my second record of what is a widespread central and eastern European breeder.

I wondered if I had observed the Allen’s Gallinule so well on its last day in Costa Calma, and even feared I might have spooked it, but there had been a sighting earlier on 11th and another again on Saturday (12th). Something different had indeed gone into the mix for this retro trip and my first day in Costa Calma had been a resounding success.

Note: On 18th January the Caleta de Fuste Allen’s Gallinule was re-found in it’s pre-Christmas location, confirming there were indeed two first-winter individuals on Fuerteventura through the period under discussion.

Great Northern Diver at Beale Park, Berks; and Black-throated Diver at Redditch, Worcs – 30th Dec & 2nd Jan

The opportunity to observe two wintering Divers (or Loons) within easy reach of home, both juveniles and both in public parks, has been a pleasing diversion either side of this turn of the year. I am at present finding myself going further afield to view mid-winter birds I might more usually hope to experience in Oxfordshire, but the birding scene has been unusually quiet in my home county in recent weeks. So quelling the dark season restlessness that set in after I stopped counting down to the shortest day this winter has involved more time on the road.

My previous records of both species have mostly come from Oxford’s own Farmoor Reservoir, where more recently three GND were present together in Dec 2015 but not since; and an injured BTD in full breeding plumage remained for several days in May of the same year before, sadly dying. The only exceptions were a GND in Portland Harbour (Jan 1992), and my first ever wintering BTD at a gravel pit site near Bedford (Nov 93).

The new sightings presented in this post both arrived at their respective sites on 22nd December. When I saw the GND was still just across the border with Berks last Sunday (30th), having done everything I needed to at home it filled the afternoon nicely to go and have a look. This bird was at Beale Park (SU618783), a kind of mini-zoo and visitor attraction in the Thames valley to the north-west of Reading.

I had been there previously a few times to search for Clubtail dragonflies in the adjacent riverside meadows. Unusually on-site parking appears to be free, or I have certainly yet to encounter either an attendant, ticket machine or CCTV installation; and on this occasion there was the added advantage of having the place mostly to myself. The juvenile Great Northern Diver was on view as soon as I arrived and it was certainly different to watch and enjoy one on such a small water body, a private fishing lake to one side of the car park.

I learned of the second Diver in the field whilst hoping for as iffy images of drake Smew north of Worcester on Monday (31st), by when those ducks had moved on. Then during a rather demotivated new year’s day off from birding I decided I would fill Wednesday (2nd) by making an easy trip to the end of the M40 motorway. There this bird had taken up residence at Arrow Valley Country Park (SP061673) in the town of Redditch, to the south of Birmingham.

When I arrived on-site just before midday, the juvenile Black-throated Diver was easy to pick out on the park’s main lake. It was drifting around while going through a preening routine that often involved sitting up in the water and flapping its wings. I recalled the 2015 Farmoor bird behaving in the same way. Then today’s bird began to dive again, and as with the GND two days earlier I was impressed by for how long a time it could stay under water before coming up again almost anywhere. Lastly it dozed for a while with head tucked over shoulder.

Several other birders were staking out various points around the lake’s perimeter, all hoping the bird would surface near them, just as I was. But for the most part it remained about two-thirds of the way across in water that appeared dark brown from the shadow of trees beyond the opposite bank. When it did at last pop up in the brighter-toned water near where I stood, my camera setting was then all wrong; cue a loud curse. It is at moments like that when I wish I could get my head around bird photography.

I kept 18 pictures from my two hours in the BND’s company and whilst fully appreciating how grainy and low-resolution they are, in my own way I like them well enough. Even were I a photographer I rather suspect it might become boring to always have to produce competition entries, and anyway I’m much better at insects.

So what was it like birding on the general public’s turf? I have to say things were rather more agreeable than the reverse situation of the previous post. As an often lone male of a certain age I seldom go to public parks for obvious reasons. But despite the constant procession of parents and children around Arrow Valley Lake, my motivation in standing around looking through optics was not queried at all. And I was only accosted once by someone who just had to talk at me about a Goldeneye when I was trying to get pictures of the Diver. Eventually he got the message and “left me to it”.

Enjoying prolonged encounters with the 2015 summer plumaged adult (pictured above, left) locally, and now this wintering juvenile leaves me feeling pretty well versed in things Black-necked Diver. This had been a pleasant enough and far from arduous day out.

A Snow Bunting flock at Holkham NNR, Norfolk – 28th Dec

This day was more about burning off pent-up energy on the road rather than any specific birding agenda. The period immediately following the winter solstice, when daylight hours seem barely to lengthen before the final week of January, is a tedious time for an outdoor person such as myself. So the as arduous seven hour round trip to the north Norfolk coast seemed not unattractive on this occasion, so long as it was undertaken in darkness.

In the interval since my last visit on 5th November (see here) there had been frequent reports of both Snow Bunting and Shorelark flocks in the dune area behind Holkham Bay (TF895455) that is a regular wintering ground for both species. I now arrived at the Holkham NNR car park along Lady Anne’s Drive shortly after dawn to seek them out, making my way to an area that has been cordoned off for these birds protection.

snow bunting.1810 holkham

There were just several other birders and a few dog walkers present and all was pleasant and tranquil as the morning brightened. I soon noticed a ground feeding group of birds within the impromptu enclosure that indeed was the 50-plus Snow Bunting flock (pictured above), and at once became captivated by them. Their collective charm seemed to be augmented by the plumage variation amongst individuals; the warm, rusty tones of winter plumaged females contrasting attractively with the whiter colouration of males. Juveniles contributed in their more understated way to what somehow resembled an undulating patchwork quilt as the entire ensemble buzzed about feeding restlessly all the while and moving from place to place.

Snow Bunting is an annual winter visitor to Great Britain from Arctic and trans-polar breeding grounds, though a small number are resident in the Scottish Cairngorms. A fairly large and long-winged, ground dwelling Bunting, its breeding colouration evolves from a gradual wearing and abrasion of the feathers rather than a conventional spring moult. Having encountered this bird only in very small numbers previously this now was a very worthwhile experience to come across so many together and hence note the degree of plumage variation that exists.

I continued to enjoy the mini spectacle being played out before me for the next two hours while wandering about Holkham’s vegetated dune habitat and chatting to the other birders. There was also a larger flock of Twite here, another of Norfolk’s speciality winter passerines. Offshore there were Divers, Grebes and what looked like a raft of Scoter, though I am not a great one for identifying dark specks on the sea at distance. But of the reported Shorelark flock there was resolutely no sign.

The reason for that soon became clear. By 11am this SSSI began to heave with general public and their dogs. Though people kept out of the roped off area as requested the identical adjacent habitat, that it is not rocket science to realise is equally sensitive, was being roundly trampled. Even had any Shorelark been concealed in there somewhere they would hardly be sticking around now. Meaningful birding was over for the day.

That was merely a foretaste. By the time I reached the boardwalk leading back to the car park, the human and canine tide flowing in the outward direction was assuming near biblical proportions. Since I was in this place for a purpose, namely to observe wildlife, to my mind it seemed these crowds were mostly just walking about doing very little other than being out and about together. So why go to a national nature reserve that is meant to exist for the benefit of wildlife then do just what they would in a public park? I must confess to not actually getting it.

In retrospect I should perhaps not have been so taken aback. Holkham is Englands’ largest NNR and a significant contributor to the local economy, and whilst the Holkham Estate and Natural England take measures to protect habitats from visitor pressure they likewise have jobs and the regional tourism infrastructure to support. Everywhere now, though birders are a well represented group in the visitor total, conservation charities have long since decided that green clad optics carriers are a less ready resource than the general public when it comes to hands being put in pockets.

Whether we are less likely to go to forward slash gizyerdosh when we get back home, as appears to be reserve managers’ perception, I cannot say. But we travel long distances and so accrue that cost before arriving, we like to avoid paying to park if possible, we bring packed lunches, we spend our time in the field rather than in cafeterias or on-site shops, etc, etc. But might I ask quietly herein once again: “What about the wildlife, and is there not a better way than what just seems like a self defeating cycle where conservation is concerned?” These views are not intended as a rant but needless to say I headed out of there pretty sharpish.

Some other birders were still arriving as I left, and as throughout the morning all were asking one another if anyone had seen any Shorelarks. But during what must also have been two previous days of pressure and disturbance the prime reason for actual wildlife enthusiasts to visit this site must simply have gone elsewhere, just like before my previous visit. By contrast the Snow Buntings (below) seemed unconcerned by all the company and continued in their own busy and alluring way throughout.

snow bunting.1808 holkham

I had planned to spend the rest of daylight at nearby Wells Wood to try for two Coues’s Arctic Redpoll, but now thought better of even attempting to negotiate the car park there. Instead I moved part way home to a reservoir site in Leicestershire, finding nothing of note but re-attaining some peace and tranquilly while quietly watching birds until dusk.

December has been unusually uneventful nationally for notable birds. I have not been inactive in this mid-winter, having enjoyed good experiences locally of four seasonal finches – Common Crossbill, Siskin, Redpoll and Brambling – and gone a bit further afield to cover that most charismatic of winter wildfowl, Smew. But I do not assume people will wish to consult this journal if I am not presenting something of national or European interest. And though not a photographer I prefer to include pictures of some kind. Gaining my best ever experience of Snow Bunting, with pictures today seemed worth including here albeit with a certain degree of frustration over not observing more.

White-tailed Eagle in the New Forest, Hants – 16th Dec

The opportunity to experience my second British White-tailed Eagle at the far end of the A34 / M3 / M27 run from Oxford provided welcome respite from birding doldrums that have set in since my last entry in this journal. That 5½ week interval has been very quiet both nationally and so far in December locally too. Hence reading of this raptor on RBA upon rising this morning made it a fairly easy decision to get straight out of the door.

The site in question was quoted as Milkham Inclosure (SZ210100) lying to the north of the A31 trunk road between Cadnam and Ringwood in the New Forest National Park. But RBA had yet to give more directions. OS Explorer map OL22 shows a number of parking areas along a road skirting the forestry plantation’s northern side that I checked on arrival for assemblages of birders. But finding no signs of activity I returned to the first car park where two locals fed me information from a Hampshire source that I suspect was Going Birding.

The WTE, a juvenile had first been reported on RBA two days previously, but I now learned some reports were saying it had been in the area for up to 10 days. Also the bird was being encouraged to stick around by carcasses being put out in the area between the A31 and the plantation. The best viewpoint was cited as a lay-by on the A31. Though some birders were visible on foot between there and where I was, with the skies looking threatening I opted to follow that advice and drove on.

The right place had to be on the north-east bound carriageway, judging by the numbers of cars parked there. This meant turning back at the Picket Post Services junction, after which it was the second lay-by heading the other way. Once there I beheld a twitch line a short distance to one side of the road. Another birder then pointed out the White-tailed Eagle flying over the tree-line to the north, before going down into Roe Inclosure, just west of the first cited plantation. So priority one: “see the bird” was achieved immediately.

This was indeed an excellent spot from which to view the plantations to the north. After getting all my kit together I went over to join the other birders, though some were already walking away being satisfied with their views just gained. I soon wondered if they should have stayed a little longer since the Eagle re-emerged then perched in the top of a tall Pine tree. Priority two: “see the bird well” was quickly followed by priority three: “get any kind of picture”. But at that range in overcast conditions the distant records (above) were all I was going to gain. It was now about 11:35am.

When the WTE next flew further back and out of sight, more birders also moved on. But the location of the carcass in Buckherd Bottom having been pointed out I decided to stay and see if the bird might come closer to feed. I remained on-site for some time during which the twitch line built up again as RBA was now directing people to the lay-by. After a while our quest was relocated, perched very distantly in two more locations. Most of the later arriving birders had to make do with those views. At around 1:10pm, having noticed a squall approaching from the west I headed back to my car, reaching safety just before the weather turned foul. Priority four: “get a better picture” would have to wait for another day.

The New Forest has some past form where Eagles are concerned, with both White-tailed and Short-toed being recorded in this decade. English WTE records remain uncommon away from the east coast, and especially this far south. Though today’s bird appears to be ringed it is not yet known where it hails from, but across the North Sea the species now breeds as far south as Holland. My only previous record of White-tailed Eagle in Great Britain was in Suffolk in January 1989, much closer to when they began to be re-introduced into parts of Scotland. I have also observed this impressive raptor in Estonia but have yet to bird in Scotland where WTE is now a popular tourist attraction. Not a bad Sunday out then, all things considered.

A British Hula Hoopoe at Hilmarton, Wilts – 7th Nov

This was an agreeable twitchette to follow on from my longer excursion of the previous two days. For some weeks I had been on alert to locate a Hoopoe within reasonable range for my Oxon birding colleague Sally Hula, who had not seen this rather exotic bird before. While I was in Norfolk one was reported on RBA from the Wiltshire village of Hilmarton, between Lyneham and Calne, and so upon my return it was game on.

As we drove south-west from Oxford along the A420 quite heavy rain prevailed. Arriving at Witcomb Farm (SU025756) to the north of Hilmarton, where our quest had been sighted a day earlier, we found two other birders sheltering in their cars as the elements eased up. My companion first went to speak to those locals to find out what they knew, then we came upon a new image online that prompted further enquiry. This time Sally kept on walking up the road with the other birders, and so I too followed.

There, when I caught up with them, was the splendid sight of the Hoopoe feeding at the end of a driveway (above) on the far side of the premises from where we had parked. A lodger at the farm alerted the others, saying he had watched it in the rear garden on each of the last few mornings. Eventually the bird moved out of view behind the buildings and I went back to our vehicle to retrieve my camera.

Upon my return Sally re-found the Hoopoe feeding along the roadside verge a little ahead of us and we beckoned over the other birders who were searching further away. Inevitably the next passing car sent the bird out of view again, but I myself then relocated it back in the original spot. Things looked like nobody was at home in the farmhouse, so I moved closer between a horse paddock and a hedge along the driveway, which did not seem too much like trespassing.

This is a bird I have observed twice before in England: at Frensham, Surrey (Jan 1989) and Longham Lakes near Bournemouth (Dec 2010). Though encountering many more on my travels through southern Europe in this decade, I had only ever gained one half decent picture. Now I was as pleased to get the better images in this post as Sally was thrilled to obtain her lifer.

After the other local birders went on their way we were joined by two more of Oxon’s finest, Keith and Shirley Clack. But the property owner also returned home at this point and so we all needed to be a little more circumspect. The Hoopoe had meanwhile gone missing again, and with the next glowering rain band approaching Sally and I departed. Heading home rain fell steadily again the whole way, but we had enjoyed the perfect weather window at the farm in which to enjoy a special visiting bird.

hilmarton.1801

Sally (left), Shirley and Clackers at Witcomb Farm

Hoopoe is a scarce rather than rare bird in the British Isles, and hopefully another one that might become more frequent with climate change. In Oxfordshire I still need it for my county list but whilst annual, sightings have invariably been reported after the event in recent years and from private locations. So now I have observed this bird in a neighbouring county just like Spotted Crake, Pallid Harrier and Pectoral Sandpiper earlier in the autumn just passed. All four of those might no doubt come eventually to he who waits.