Twite and Horned Lark at Holme Dunes NNR, Norfolk + Pallid Harrier again – 29th Dec

I fancied an outing to the north Norfolk coast this holiday period, and chose a day that offered some calm and sunny respite from Atlantic weather. Having tracked what birds were about over several days I opted for Holme Dunes. Here the local winter specialities Twite and Horned Lark were being reported and Snow Bunting was a possibility. If time allowed I could also fit in another visit to the wintering Pallid Harrier, and maybe an Iceland Gull in King’s Lynn.

I approached Holme Dunes NNR from a car park outside Thornham (TF727443) around 10am. This stretch of fragile coastline, managed by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, comprises a range of habitats: intertidal sands and mud, sand and shingle bars, saltmarsh, sand dunes, freshwater and salty pools and grazing marshes. Things felt like an uplifting spring day and there was a very pleasing light as I walked NW along the sea wall.

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View back along the sea wall

A flock of 20 or so small passerines bobbed past that I suspected must be the Twite, then I caught up with them feeding low down in the salt marsh a little further on. Always restless and mobile, these winter coastal finches for me have lovely subtle tones and are far more attractive to actually behold than they look in field guides. A few other birders were already watching them, then several more people stopped as well.

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Feeding Twite flock

Everyone was heading out to the beach where three Horned Lark (or Shorelark) were said to be showing well. Northern breeders like the Twite, these distinctive yellow and black-faced larks had moved some way out by the time I caught up with the group observing them. I asked others to point them out at that distance, but then the birds flew in quite close again and like everyone else present I tracked them feeding busily on the ground for some time.

It was noticeable that the birders all kept to the edge of the dunes but three big lens photographers just had to go onto the beach, putting the larks up several times. Rather embarrassingly one of these recognised me from Oxfordshire. When I told him he wasn’t popular with the birders he just said he had been there first. They always have an answer. But the disturbance didn’t spoil what was my best ever experience of Horned Lark.

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Horned Larks on the beach

After midday I headed back to the car park. Whereas the company had been mostly birders on the way out, the general public was now treading the sea wall in their droves and there was no longer any sign of the Twite. After buying a snack lunch in a village shop, I stopped to eat it 13 miles SW at the famed Wolferton Triangle on the off chance that a Golden Pheasant might choose to show itself. There had been sightings again in recent days but I wasn’t lucky during my brief visit.

It was now time to complete some unfinished business with Norfolk’s juvenile wintering Pallid Harrier. This raptor has relocated from Snettisham RSPB to a village Flitcham that is alarmingly on shooting land. I arrived mid-afternoon to find several birders patiently waiting by a gap in a hedge for the raptor to appear. It had not been reported today since 9:30am. I debated whether to move on and go for the Iceland Gull but decided the best chance of seeing the Harrier again would be when it came in to roost here.

After 3pm some birders gave up and went, leaving just four of us. Then the Pallid Harrier flew in and for the next 20 minutes put on a show of aerobatics around the landscape before us.  I had experienced this bird distantly at Snettisham (see here) but this time could identify all the diagnostics: just four primaries, the neck boa (dark patch) and the generally orangey appearance in flight. The views here were superb.

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Pallid Harrier (juv)

At one point a Merlin, always a nice bird to see, flew in and interacted with the Harrier. Two Common Buzzard and a Sparrowhawk were also active. As I left site the local cattle man asked me what everyone was looking at. For fear of what he might say in the pub I didn’t name the Pallid Harrier, just saying it was a small raptor. Having heard of the Lincs (see here) Red-footed Falcon’s fate, I hope the unknowing juvenile visitor departs this shooting land soon. Over our three encounters it has provided excellent value and I have gained a better understanding and views of this bird on each occasion.

Dusky Warbler at Ham Wall RSPB, Somerset – 27th Dec

I’m on an end of year roll now. The very mild weather is producing some equally unseasonable birds nationally, most notably Britain’s first ever December record of Red-rumped Swallow in Norfolk this week. Also a few lingering Yellow-browed Warblers here and there, and for me a tricky little lifer: a Dusky Warbler on the Somerset levels. Whilst small numbers of the last-named Tundra breeder pass through annually on autumn passage, this year there have been records right through December.

So today, armed with my picnic chair and prepared for a long stake-out, I headed west to the RSPB’s Ham Wall reserve. The Avalon marshes are familiar to me, having twitched Pied-billed Grebe and Hudsonian Godwit here in the recent past and European Roller years ago. The re-generated peat workings either side of Ashcott corner are also an excellent site for wetland birds such as Great White Egret, Bittern and Bearded Tit; like Otmoor on a grander scale. Today a Glossy Ibis was seen flying over just before my arrival.

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Avalon

Shortly after midday I joined a group of birders near a path to Ham Wall’s Avalon Hide (ST461398), who had been tracking the Dusky Warbler for a while. Soon I too began to hear the bird’s hard clicking teck, teck call coming from the reed bed edge in front of me. Some amongst us were picking out the bird low down in cover, but I had to wait a little longer. Then some birders who had gone left called everyone else over. The DW was now moving around in trees to one side of the path, up to two metres off the ground. Here I gained good views of the plain-looking sprite going about its business.

My companions seemed more like locals on their patch than twitchers, and after 1pm someone said the DW stops calling in the afternoon so would be hard to relocate. The group then dispersed but I had nowhere else to go and was content just to chill out here, feeling glad of the dry if still grey conditions. For the few who remained our bird was heard calling several times more over the next two hours and seen occasionally.

I need not have brought my chair since there was a bench overlooking one spot favoured by the Dusky. I have a limited knowledge of calls but having learned this one a couple of weeks ago it just seemed particularly easy to retain. Then there had been a bird near Bognor Regis, Sussex for three days. But on 12th and 13th it wasn’t reported and Mike and I stayed with the Penduline Tits at Titchfield Haven, Hants seeing only the male at distance. Two females there eluded us.

On that occasion we had talked with a birder who had been the last to report the Bognor DW. He described how it was moving around calling all the while and today’s bird was just the same. The highlight came at 2:30pm when this Dusky Warbler moved around the lagoon edge in front of my bench, showing well at times but not for long enough to capture an image. So here I was tracking a rare warbler on call, not something I can boast of very often.

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Dusky Warbler © rights of owner reserved

The only pictures posted on RBA to date (see here) look much the same as I could have managed. So I have outsourced an image from the species’ usual wintering grounds in south-east Asia (above) to show what this is all about. The absence of big lens photographers at a twitch always separates the birders’ birds from the media stars. And though it is good to get close to birds and even obtain reasonable pictures myself, I know what ambience in the field I prefer. Not that I have anything against photographers of course!

This was a nice relaxed afternoon whiling away time observing a life-list addition and gaining an understanding of the species. I left around 3pm as large numbers of visitors were assembling to watch the local Starling roost. Then given what must have been post-Christmas congestion around Bristol it took almost four hours to get home.

Festive Goose: completing my Black Brant education in Sussex – Christmas week 2015

During a dull phase of national birding dictated by December’s mild Atlantic weather pattern, identifying the Brent Goose sub-species Black Brant has been a priority task for me. Individuals are dotted around the country every winter in Brent Goose flocks and I really should have seen a Brant before now. My first attempt was at Cley, Norfolk on 2nd Dec but I later realised I had not paid sufficient attention to the ID, my mind being more on getting to the Snettisham Pallid Harrier on that occasion.

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Black Brant (left) with Dark-bellied Brent Goose © rights of owner reserved

So needing to fill an umpteenth (since my Maroc experience) grey, damp and oppressive day, directly beneath the jet streams in England, I elected on 22nd to learn more about Black Brants by visiting another regularly reported goose (pictured above) near Chichester Marina. The location is about 4 miles SW of that Sussex town on the A286, along a road of the same name that my satnav doesn’t know about. I had stopped here once before during the interval since my last post, with fellow Oxonbirder Mike Kozniowski. But we had three difficult species on our agenda that day and ended up not getting any of them. Now I intended to devote the necessary time to tracking down one bird.

After first thinking I had identified that Black Brant at Cley, Adam advised that the whiteness in the flank is a more reliable diagnostic than the broad neck collar. Then after scrutinising more Brent flocks on that interim occasion I indeed felt the need to be sure of having seen this sub-species. After all, another Oxon birding colleague had called Brants “a birder’s bird that separates the men from the boys”.

Pre-visit research on Tuesday directed me to fields beyond Salterns Copse, a local nature reserve to the marina’s immediate north. Following a footpath “Salterns Way” I could see two smallish Brent flocks rather distantly and close by a lane to Dell Quay (SU835028). But first I tried to get nearer to these geese from where I was, crossing over to another path skirting Chichester channel. There attractive groups of Curlew, Oystercatcher and Shelduck were feeding behind the receding tide, but only 8 Brents awaited me at my waterlogged walk’s end.

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There’s a soggy Black Brant in there somewhere

Returning to the car I drove around to Dell Quay, finding at 1:45 pm what must have been the entire local Brent flock (pictured above). They were in a field on the far side of the lane I could see earlier. This was overlooked, rather conveniently by a muddy lay-by and the remaining hours of daylight were available to scan for the Black Brant using my car as a hide. Various candidates suggested themselves over the next 2 hours during which it rained quite steadily, but none that were obvious.

Some time after 3:30pm all the furthest away Brent Geese went up and flew to join those closer to the road. It had stopped raining and with the entire flock now in one huge and scannable group I set up my scope by a gap in the hedge. I picked out a whitish-flanked individual with a broad neck collar that I felt more confident about, but was this really my bird? In failing light I didn’t attempt a digiscoped photograph.

Over the Christmas period I managed a morning re-visit to the site, this time finding the Brent flock in the field between Dell Quay and Salterns Copse. Once again creamy flanked candidates suggested themselves as the Brant but then I would realise other geese nearby looked much the same. At first I kept my distance but when a jogger went through without consequences I moved a bit closer. Guess what? The whole flock went up, then resettled on the far side of the field close to Salterns Way by a farm. And that proved to be the turning point in my fortunes.

I next watched a dog walker getting closer and closer, fearing the worst as he did so. But with his impeccably behaved Labrador on a lead he stopped and took pictures with his phone, and the geese were not the slightest bit bothered. That was it, and I hot footed it over to that side myself. There I soon picked out a goose that relegated all those I had considered previously to mere possibilities. The Black Brant was fortunately at the nearest end of the flock to myself, and now the brighter whiteness in the flank was obvious. Checking the collar, and a clean diagonal line with the darker breast markings that Adam had advised me to look for, this was definitely my bird.

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Black Brant (centre in front)

Conditions were quite wet again and this digiscoped image (above) was captured in poor light through a smeared eyepiece and front end. Having got my eye in I could now relocate the Brant over and again, eventually getting some grainy telephoto shots in the rain (below).

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Black Brant (6th from right standing upright)

This has been an interesting and ultimately very satisfying exercise, since I solved the riddle of identifying the sub-species completely unaided in the field. So now I am a man separated from the birding boys where Black Brants are concerned.

Though glad I didn’t have to scan all these geese looking into low sun, the present weather pattern is making me feel I could gladly quit this country if the jet streams don’t move back soon to where they flowed prior to the present decade. A whinge this might be but I just yearn for the kind of cold, crisp winter days remembered so often and well from the 1990s. In the new year I’m heading for hopefully sunnier climes again and cannot wait to get out.

Local headliners at Farmoor Reservoir – 3rd & 4th Dec

After a frustrating autumn passage period in which almost all birds of note barely lingered, Oxford’s Farmoor Reservoir has enjoyed a purple patch over the last fortnight. Grey Phalarope, Great Northern Diver and Red-necked Grebe is a good threesome for an inland site and many visitors have been drawn to our “concrete basin” to experience these scarce birds.

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Great Northern Diver at Farmoor

First up was an adult Grey Phalarope that arrived on Sunday 22nd November. I observed this one the following day and again on Thursday of that week, both times at close quarters in common with other local birders several of whom posted photographs on Oxon Birding. Then last Monday this hyperactive little wader was joined by a second that was identified as a first winter individual. These two Phalaropes have since been pretty much inseparable, delighting an almost constant audience along the north shore of Farmoor One.

Our now long-staying Red-necked Grebe remained throughout this period, prompting a resurgence of national interest on the part of visitors. Indeed this is the bird I have been asked about most often during my own visits in between commuting to a work project in Suffolk. Then on Wednesday 2nd December a juvenile Great Northern Diver appeared while I was birding in Norfolk, and that was another must see.

I myself have trod the concrete basin’s bleak and goose-turd strewn perimeter on each of the last three mornings since returning from Suffolk. On arrival on Thursday I called patch worker Dai who was searching for the Diver with fellow Oxonbirder Tezzer. They suggested I walked the other way around Farmoor Two and upon meeting we had all drawn blank. So I took the opportunity to photograph the Phalaropes instead in that morning’s poor light. These are what I consider to be my most interesting and slightly different, if grainy “watercolour” shots.

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Grey Phalarope

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The GND was reported again by a visiting birder that afternoon when I was otherwise engaged, so yesterday morning saw me back on site again. This time Dai and Badger had seen the bird on F1 before losing it to view again. Once more we agreed to walk in opposite directions around F2, and part way round I got a call saying the diver was close to the south shore. I eventually picked it out swimming across this larger of the two reservoirs, before meeting the others and more birders and getting my pictures. Some of those posted on Oxon Birding exhibit a pleasing blue tint, but my own modest and muddy efforts (below) are of the more frequent grey hue. The bird was still present this morning (5th).

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Great Northern Diver (juv)

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All bar one of my sightings of each of these species have been at Farmoor. Though not actively year listing in 2015 I have still kept track of my Oxon tally that these sightings brings to 166, two more than my 2014 total. Whilst this is disappointing given the extra time I’ve had for local birding this year, I will be satisfied to pass my 2011 figure of 171 before year’s end. 2012 and 2013’s 181 species each, when I took all this more seriously, is completely out of range.