Great Grey Shrike near Enstone – 24th Jan

It seems worth recording that despite my modest British bird list currently 305, out of all the birds reported yesterday on RBA there were only seven species that I have not seen. And those were mostly very far away. Without national motivation this left local birding to make the weekend worthwhile. One of the notable birds in Oxfordshire over the last few days has been a Great Grey Shrike in the north of the county, so that was where I headed this morning.

On arriving at the location just north of Enstone airfield, where the bird was reported a day earlier, a local birder was starting his search southwards on the B4022. So I decided to park a little further on and walk back to that spot, but the Shrike was not visible in the roadside hedges. A familiar silver Skoda then drew up containing Oxonbirders Badger and Andy Last, and company was very welcome as I could tell this would not be an easy twitch. Together we searched up and down and to one side of the road for about an hour, then a fourth Oxonbirder Barry Batchelor also arrived. That was a good omen since in my experience when this man is present the bird is usually found (just an observation!).

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We next checked further south towards Enstone where the GGS had been seen two days ago, but still without success. Badger and Andy decided to move on but Barry said he’d give it a bit longer. I headed back towards my car scanning around as I went, then my phone rang. Sure enough it was Andy saying that Barry had located the Shrike. As I walked quickly back towards where I had last seen Barry, something very pale flushed out of a hedge on my left (pictured above) and settled a little further away. This had to be the GGS and indeed it was. I attempted to melt into a hedge on the opposite side of the road and reached for my digiscoping collar. The record shot (below) is of my usual Shrike quality.

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This is so typical of Great Grey Shrikes: you cannot find them for an hour or two then suddenly they sit up to be noticed. Once the four of us were back in the same place the bird went down into the hedge then reappeared a little further away. We all hung around for a while hoping it would come closer and allow some reasonable photography, but the subject chose to conceal itself instead. I decided to retrieve my car then things started to get crowded. More vehicles arrived and these newcomers’ prospects lessened when they were quickly succeeded by members of the local field sports fraternity. It seemed that a shoot was soon to commence in the fields before the growing group of observers, and so we four Oxonbirders dispersed.

From left: Andy, a visiting birder, Barry, Badger

From left: Andy, a visiting birder, Barry, Badger

Surf Scoter nailed in Essex – 17th Jan

I pretty much had to go back and locate this bird. After all, to my mind the most meaningful life list additions are those that might involve a “dip” (or maybe two or three) along the way. I decided against returning last weekend, but a working fortnight into the new year the lure of the road was calling once more. This weekend’s better weather forecast was for Sunday, but I reasoned that something more interesting might turn up somewhere a bit closer by then – it didn’t. And without distraction I could spend sufficient time on Saturday looking for the north American sea duck on the Stour estuary.

This Surf Scoter, a first-winter male had been reported fairly regularly on RBA (see picture) since my previous visit here. I chose to start my search at Stutton Ness, Suffolk again as I wanted to experience the location in a better light than on that foggy but nonetheless evocative afternoon two weeks ago. The far side of the estuary was visible from the village of Stutton when I arrived mid-morning, but threatening grey cloud seemed to pursue me along the bridle path to the shoreline. Once there (below) I scanned around for 30 minutes or so in deteriorating light and freezing wind. Red-breasted Merganser were prominent again, with smaller numbers of Goldeneye and a solitary diver also present. Various black dots further out could have been anything and I decided to cross over to the Essex side.

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As I headed back to the village, a local birder walking down relayed a message on the Suffolk grapevine that the Scoter was viewable from Bradfield almost opposite Stutton Ness. So I drove round to there while the grey stuff mercifully went on its way. Parking on the B1352, I walked an unmade road Shore Lane down to the water’s edge (TM142316). The estuary was now bathed in an attractive, sunny light and it was low tide so there was just a concentrated area of deep water to scan.

There in the middle of the channel was the Surf Scoter, drifting downstream from the green buoy in the picture (below). Though the bird would have been closer back over at my start point, the advantage from this side was that the sun is behind the observer. Hence the white nape and other white bits stood out nicely. Sorry, I’m not a great one for plumage topography!

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This was not just a result, I had found a difficult bird unaided which is always at least doubly satisfying. As is usual in these moments of birding success the tension of the chase flushed out of me, and any negativity I might have been confronting received a retaliatory smack in the nuts. But not for long. I got back to my car at 2pm which left sufficient daylight to relocate 13 miles to Holland Haven Country Park just outside of Clacton-on-Sea, to try for a second American vagrant Black Brant.

The challenge of picking Brants out in the Brent Goose flocks they associate with is added to by those flocks’ mobility. To put it another way they aren’t usually where they were reported the previous day. There was no sign of a 700-strong Brent Goose flock on the grazing marsh at Holland Haven, but I picked some out on a golf course about 1.5 miles to the north-east. I walked for some way below the sea wall towards Frinton to see if I could get nearer but saw these geese were in an inaccessible location. So this extra lifer had to wait for another day.

Holland Haven local nature reserve, Essex

Holland Haven local nature reserve, Essex

North Warren RSPB and Stour estuary, Suffolk – 4th Jan

I fancied a day trip before returning to work for the new year, and so looked to Suffolk for two birds that I might not have considered going for normally. Why so? Well Lesser White-fronted Goose is one of those grey areas that often apply to wildfowl (read on!). And Surf Scoter, usually being a black dot in the distance somewhere, might not be my best idea of value for petrol money. But together they offered good reason to hit the road on what was forecast as another of the bright winter’s days that had so blessed the holiday season.

LWFG is in decline throughout its range and there is always debate (see here) about the true wildness and purity of the few birds that turn up in East Anglia. Just recently four juveniles from a northern Scandinavian reintroduction programme had settled at North Warren RSPB reserve. Whatever their status (see here) these were more “wild” than the only previous LWFG I had seen that was in a pen at Slimbridge WWT. North Warren also holds a wintering flock of Eurasian White-fronted Goose and on good days some tundra Bean Goose.

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Arriving at 8:30am after a foggy journey, I walked out into a frozen landscape (pictured above) from a car park off the B1122 road just north of Aldeburgh. This didn’t look like goose habitat at all and after a 45 minute circuit during which the fingers of my left hand froze inside a thermal glove, I conceded that I had not chosen the best access point into the reserve. The information boards here pre-date the RSPB’s current house style and so are a little more informative with an accurate site plan. A check of one put me right.

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I headed for Aldeburgh’s beach car park then walked northwards along a road towards Thorpeness. Inland lay a wetland area (above) with reed fringes and meadows, overlooked by viewing platforms. In the increasingly attractive morning light this held good concentrations of winter wildfowl but the geese amongst them were all feral Greylags. Another birder was standing on a bund between this area and a similar one just to the north, and so I headed that way. He was local and friendly and gave me the lie of the land. Good sized flocks of Barnacle Goose and White-fronted Goose were visible northwards. But the latter were too distant to scan for the smaller LWFG, besides being in a difficult to view position.

I next walked inland along the bund, then north along the course of a former railway that dissects the reserve. North Warren’s great variety of habitats was now making an impression upon me. Looking west I could retrace the frozen walk with which I had started the day, then further north there was woodland and fenland. I stopped to survey the last named (below) from another viewing area and a Bittern flew across then down into the reeds.

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Nearby a higher viewing platform served the meadows eastward (pictured below) towards the beach road. Enough Curlew, Godwits, Ruff and other common waders were active here to recall the Algarve wetlands in which I had spent the last two Januarys; and the WFG were again just visible in the distance largely concealed beyond reeds. The Barnacles all went up for a fly around, making a brief but breath-taking spectacle. Occasionally I would meet other birders but no-one had seen the LWFG today.

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The more I walked in the stunning midwinter light the less important it became to see particular birds in this beautiful place. Things just felt relaxing, refreshing and renewing: all the reasons why I wanted to be out on this day. And there was little of the disturbance here that the RSPB so loves to encourage, or at least not on this cold morning. From the fenland a path led east through an attractive hotel and golf complex to Thorpeness, and from there I followed the beach road back towards my start point. I had not felt so grabbed by or at home spiritually in one wildlife location since Larnaca salt lake in Cyprus three years ago, and so I stored North Warren away to revisit in the future.

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It was now midday and the car park was filling up with general public. There were two options. 1: hang around here all afternoon and hope the LWFG came in to a viewable spot, which would be a lot of trouble to take over a “plastic” species. Or 2: relocate 20 something miles homeward to the Stour Estuary to look for a different needle in another haystack, the Surf Scoter. I chose the second.

A few vagrants of the north American sea duck Surf Scoter are recorded offshore around Great Britain annually and they are usually seen distantly. One had been present on the Stour estuary since mid-November, most reports on RBA coming from Wrabness on the Essex side or Stutton Ness nearly opposite in Suffolk. Weather conditions had seemed almost mild when I left Aldeburgh, but as I followed a bridle path from the village of Stutton fog was setting back in and with it the temperature plummeted. A birder coming back the other way said the Scoter had been showing well on the Essex side two hours previously and I could see the mist gathering over the estuary itself.

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I persevered: it was still early afternoon and too early to turn around and head home. I reached the shoreline at Graham’s Wharf (or the ruins thereof – see picture above) from where murk coated the vista before me. A lone birder was scoping from Stutton Ness itself nearby. When I joined him he had seen the Scoter but could not relocate the bird. After he left I scanned around for a while in the deteriorating visibility but without success. Numbers of Red-breasted Merganser, Goldeneye, Shelduck and Great Crested Grebe were all confusing things in the gloom here. But this dull grey setting still had a certain evocative charm that prevented what had been a very positive day from being spoiled.

So this day trip’s results matched the dodginess of the original targets, but the overall experience was what had counted. The LWFG were not reported on RBA today, but the Surf Scoter was observed at different times from both sides of the Stour estuary. Perhaps the revisit will be sooner rather than later.