A Bit of Birding

There was a time, many moons ago, when I was an avid, perhaps ‘over the top’, birdwatcher.  September and October were my special months, this was the time when migrants and rarities could and often did pitch up on our east coast.  I would eagerly watch the weather patterns and bird reports.  If everything fell in place I would head to the coastal ‘hotspots’ and spend my days scanning the scrub, bushes and trees for those lost waifs and strays hoping and sometimes finding something rare and unusual.

Nowadays my approach is much more relaxed.  A day in the field means just enjoying whatever is there.  Most of my photography is now based on insects especially the butterflies and dragonflies.  Bird photography is still something I am learning with the aid of the big 600mm zoom lens so it’s best to practice on ‘easier’ subjects before attempting those tricky rarities.  With that in mind last week, on a very pleasant day, Mrs H and I headed up to Titchwell RSPB reserve to see what was about.  This is a good time of the year for waders.  Most are returning from the northern breeding grounds.  There will be some in summer plumage, some in transition, others already in their winter dress, also juveniles who can look totally different.  Here are a few of our sightings.

Male Ruff (Philomachus pugnax) are so much bigger than their females, they look like two different species. Gone now are the elaborate plumes that give the bird it’s name
This Dunlin (Calidris alpina) still retains a lot of summer plumage
Juvenile Ringed Plover (Charadrius hiaticula) can be told apart from winter adults by its scaly feathering on back and wings
Autumn is well underway when the geese start returning. These are Brents (Branta bernicla) from Western Siberia that landed on the sea
Standing in the sea a winter plumage Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa) our second biggest wader after the Curlew
By contrast this juvenile Black-tailed Godwit resembles a faded breeding adult

Of course it’s always nice to see birds that are not ‘common’ and we were lucky that there were two species of wader that are only usually encountered on autumn migration and then it’s in variable numbers.  The Curlew Sandpiper (Calidris ferruginea) and Little Stint (Calidris minuta) both breed on Arctic tundra and winter from Southern Europe to tropical Africa.  It is the juveniles that mostly stop over in the UK for a quick refuel.

Curlew Sandpiper, surprisingly difficult to pick out in a flock of Dunlin, they are slightly taller and slimmer
My favourite shot of the day. Europe’s smallest wader the Little Stint

Well, that’s a lot more images than I usually post.  I hope you enjoyed just a small selection from our bit of birding.

Pensthorpe

The temperatures are rising again and the drought continues.  We have just had a wonderful few days as our daughter the ‘Lemming’ popped over from Berlin for a short break.  This is her first visit ‘home’ in over three years so we tried to cram in as many trips out to favourite places as we could.  One such spot is Pensthorpe Natural Park.  700 acres of flooded gravel workings gives many lakes to walk round plus the beautiful River Wensum, woodland and fantastic gardens.  The park is well known for being at the forefront in breeding rare species for release such as Corncrake and Red Squirrels.  There was also a big collection of exotic waterfowl from the around the world.  I say ‘was’, sadly in February the park suffered an outbreak of avian flu and a lot of birds were culled.  There was still plenty to see, here are a few images from a lovely day out.

A Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) enjoying the summer sun
Some ducks are ‘natural’ like this female Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula)
Juvenile Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) makes for a pretty picture
Another of the ultimate ‘little brown jobs’. Reed Warblers (Acrocephalus scirpaceus) are shy breeding migrants and this is my first image of one. Soon they will be heading back to sub-Saharan Africa
Relief! A Great-crested Grebe (Podicus cristatus) enjoys a good scratch
This Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) survived the cull
The Lemming in conversation with one of the park’s Barnacle Geese (Branta leucopsis)

Swallowtail Time

(or, Visiting Old Friends ptII)

One of the joys of living in our part of Norfolk is that in late spring/early summer  the UK’s largest, most colourful butterfly can be seen.  Of course you need to know where to look, they don’t pop up everywhere.  You also need our old friend the un-predictable weather to be favourable.  A good spell of warm, sunny and wind free conditions will bring this enigmatic insect out of it’s pupa deep in the reedbeds to grace the area we call ‘Broadland’

What it’s all about, the ‘Norfolk’ Swallowtail (Papilio machaon ssp britannicus) perhaps my best shot to date

Last weekend was ideal so a trip to my favourite haunt Hickling Broad was in order.  The usual area was disappointing, there had been clearance work over winter and few nectar flowers were available.  A few hundred yards further on and there was a good amount of Red Campion and with it a newly emerged, mint condition Swallowtail eagerly fueling up.  This beauty allowed plenty of photo opportunities.

Pushing the shutter up to 1/1000th almost freezes the action. Those wings are nearly always fluttering

The dragonfly season is also now in full swing.  The early species were dominated by the Four-spotted Chasers (Libellula quadrimaculata).  I have never seen so many in one place, almost swarm like!

Fresh Four-spotted Chaser, one of thousands
Male Broad-bodied Chaser (Libellula depressa)

As well as these ‘old friends’ there were a couple of surprises.  Firstly a butterfly that has been in very low numbers in my part of the world and I have never seen at this site, the Wall Brown (Lasiommata megera).

The Wall Brown, a small butterfly that nearly always is seen sunning itself on the ground (or walls!)
LBJ?

So, a small brown bird sitting in an alder tree.  I was so pleased to get this shot even though I was using my macro lens!  This is a Cetti’s Warbler (Cettia cetti).  This bird first bred in the UK in 1972 and unlike all the other warblers (except one) does not migrate.  As an insect eater it’s population could crash in harsh winters.  The thing is the Cetti’s is extremely difficult to see, keeping deep inside vegetation by rivers or ditches.  It gives away it’s presence by it’s explosive call repeating the cetti name (though it was named after an 18th century Italian zoologist, Francesco Cetti).  An unusual fact, this is the only UK bird with 10 tail feathers, good luck trying to count them!

All in all a great day out and I’m glad to get my upload issues sorted so I could share it.

 

Parenthood

Those of us who have raised children will know the demand the ‘little darlings’ can place on us.  Then spare a thought for the Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleus) parents.  An average brood is 7 or 8 and I have read that each chick will be fed around 100 times a day!  Those adults are run ragged and their plumage soon gets a bit scruffy.

When we moved here almost two years ago I brought one of our old nest boxes with us and put it on the north facing end of my workshop.  Last spring, much to my surprise, a pair of Blue Tits took advantage and raised a brood (only one per year), this year they, or another, are back so I thought I would try and snap some comings and goings.

“Wait your turn!” At times it can get busy. The bird emerging is carrying a faecal sac which helps keep the nest clean
“Come on then, out you go”
An adult brings a small insect. I have zoomed in but can’t identify what it is
This time a small, green, moth caterpillar. These caterpillars are the staple diet of the chicks. The Tits will time their breeding to coincide with the opening of the new leaves on deciduous trees which the catties feed on before the leaves produce more tannin which is poisonous

The chicks will remain in the nest for about three weeks.  Then they will emerge, usually in the early morning, they quickly disperse to learn to fend for themselves.  Survival rate is not that high hence the large broods.

The type of nest box is called ‘Woodcrete’ by Schwegler.  Though they are slightly expensive they will out last all other types and offer perfect insulation for the nesting birds and are easy to clean at the end of the season.  They are available for most species who use cavities to nest in.

Flying Kites

Following on from my last post.  After we had watched the goose for a good hour and the crowds increased it was decided to take advantage of the sunny day and carry on west around the coast.  Stopped at Titchwell for our pack up of filled pittas and coffee.  The car park was quite full and I didn’t feel the pull to visit the reserve.  We headed just a mile inland away from the flat coastal marshes to the gently rolling countryside around Choseley village.  Mrs H spotted a Red Kite (Milvus milvus) so I drove to a vantage point with the sun behind us.  What we witnessed is something I never dreamed I would see in my home County.

Six Red Kites in the sky over Choseley

The first Kite we had spotted swooped down to a stubble field where another flew up to meet it.  These where then joined by a third.  There seemed to be a bit of an argument going on.  As the birds flew across the road two more joined in the tussle, as they passed the drying barns a sixth was counted.  Here they wheeled around to and fro looking all the world as if they were playing a game of tag, yet I suspected that even though they roost communally this was a territorial dispute.

Follow the leader
After a while one of the Kites returned, a bit closer this time

So why did I think I would never see anything like this here in Norfolk?  Well I have mentioned about this bird in past posts so here’s a quick recap.  Due to persecution the Red Kite almost became extinct in the UK in the 1960’s.  A handful of pairs survived, hidden in almost secret valleys of Mid-Wales.  It was decided to re-introduce this bird by releasing captive bred Scandinavian stock over the years in four areas.  The scheme is a great success and now in certain places big numbers of Kites can be seen gracing the sky with their elegant gliding flight and forever twisting, forked, red tail.  Gradually these birds have spread out from the release areas and are now colonising most of the Country.  This day we saw more Red Kites (10) than any other bird of prey, even outnumbering the Buzzard (8) another raptor that has increased it’s range over the years.

A female Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus) tries to slip by unnoticed past a patch of dead Sunflowers

A superb day out and it helps to take my mind off more worrying and depressing issues a few hours flight east.  💙💛

Crowd Pleaser

Nice to get out at the weekend.  We have the builders in and everything is a bit all over the place as we have lost the use of three rooms for a few weeks, the ‘kitchen’ is now a camping stove and microwave in a tiny spare bedroom.  The sun was shining but the wind was still a bit cool.  After a bit of deliberation it was decided we should go along the North Norfolk coast to see if we could locate a very rare goose that has been in the Cley/Salthouse area this past couple of weeks.

The goose in question has been hanging around with a mobile flock of Brent Geese (Branta bernicla) so I slowly drove past the marshes as Mrs H scanned the fields.  A flock was spotted just past Salthouse village but it was distant and there was no where to stop safely.  I carried on and thought I would try down Beach Road in Cley.  A van was parked by a field gate and my faithful spotter called out “geese!”  Sure enough they were Brents and a quick scan revealed our ‘target’.

The most beautiful goose in the world? Red-breasted Goose (Branta ruficollis)

Now that is a goose definitely worth looking out for.  A little phrase in England for such a beauty is ‘Bobby Dazzler’.  A bit of caution must be taken when seeing these birds in the wild and that includes any rare or exotic species, are they really ‘wild’ or have they hopped over a fence from an ornamental wildfowl collection?  Well it seems this fellow is as good as it can possibly get to being the ‘real deal’.  It wasn’t long before other birders turned up, word travels fast in the rare bird world, and soon there were dozens “oohing” and “aahing” and to make it better it was very close to the road, just the swaying reeds in the roadside ditch making photography tricky at times.

Our boy was more than a little bit vocal!
And at times a bit feisty!

So where does it come from?  The Red-breasted Goose breeds in Arctic Siberia on the Taymyr Peninsula (the same area as some Brent Geese).  They over-winter near the Black Sea coast of Romania, Bulgaria and to a lesser extent Northern Greece and a Country in most peoples thoughts right now, Ukraine.  Sometimes the Red-breasted will join the Brents and head west into Europe and pitch up in the Low Countries mostly the Netherlands.  Then it’s a short hop over the North Sea to England.  This one turned up, with another of it’s kind, in Essex.  The Brent Geese flock then split up with half heading north up to Norfolk with this one among them.

Some more Brents come to join the party

East

About 35 miles away, over the border in the neighbouring County of Suffolk, lies the coastal town of Lowestoft.  Once a thriving fishing port and a centre for ship and boatbuilding.  College days during my boatbuilding apprenticeship were spent here so I got to know the area well.  The town went into decline with the loss of the shipbuilding and the fishing industry is a mere shadow of it’s former self.  North Sea oil and gas brought a period of prosperity before that too declined.  Now the future seems based on manufacturing for the renewable energy market and a reliance on tourism.

The Town’s main claim to fame however is that, at Ness Point, it is the most easterly place in the UK.  Now, you would think that the ‘Point’ would be a place to show off, not everywhere is the easternmost spot of the Country after all.  Make a bit of an attraction out of it, pull in the tourists?  Sadly no.  The area can, at best, be described as ‘a bit rough’.  Reached by narrow, lorry lined, roads, past factories and failed businesses that are now wasteland, under the shadow of ‘Gulliver’ a massive wind turbine.  What could possibly draw local birders to this unattractive location?  The answer…. Purple Sandpipers.

The Purple Sandpiper (Calidris maritima) not totally un-approachable!

It’s been a few years since I last went to admire these cute waders, time for a visit.  So if the Sandpipers attract the birdwatchers what attracts the Sandpipers?  Well, these shorebirds like to winter on rocky coastlines.  They do not feed by probing mud like most of their kin but by picking through what the tides deposit, like seaweed.  Now East Anglia is not graced by rocks, this is an area of soft sandy cliffs and much coastal erosion.  To counteract this, vulnerable places have been ‘protected’ by the installation of sea defences.  At Lowestoft the concrete walls were supplemented with the placement of a barrier of huge granite boulders and it is these the Purple Sandpipers found much to their liking.

Coming to see what I’m up to
The sea walls also attracted Turnstones (Arenaria interpres). Their plumage is starting to brighten up before heading north to Arctic tundra to breed

I was in luck.  Two of these winter visitors were present and with a little patience allowed me to get very close.  I sat down on the promenade and had to wait awhile for the sun to come out from behind a stubborn cloud to get the best shots.  Passers-by were curious as to what I was photographing and were delighted when I pointed out the birds and explained a little about them.  Soon these two will wing their way north to the Tundra of Iceland or Northern Scandinavia for the breeding season and hopefully they, or their offspring, will return for the enjoyment of birders in future years.

Cute or what?
I didn’t pay the Sandpipers to pose for any of my photographs, that would have been stupid as they would have no use for pound notes when they migrate north. However, if I had done this shot would have cost me a pretty penny!

Titchwell Thrills

Nice day forecast, I felt the RSPB reserve at Titchwell on the North Norfolk coast calling for a re-visit.  Now this is one place I don’t mind spending £5 for a days birding!  The site has many different habitats so there is always something of interest to look for whatever the season.  The only downside is it is a very popular place, the most visited RSPB reserve in the Country, but everyone’s here to enjoy the same experience and it never feels overcrowded once people spread out.

The first spot I stopped at was the feeding station at the back of the visitors centre.  A steady procession of small birds came to the feeders which is great for close up photography but to get them in a natural setting was the source of great frustration, always a twig in the way!

Don’t talk with your beak full! A Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis) at one of the many feeders

I continued on the boardwalk past the dragonfly pools where you can imagine the larvae are waiting for the first signs of summer so they can emerge into those flying jewels. Through reedy scrub, quiet now but in a few months will be reverberating to the song of the returning warblers.  Onto the main path to the sea and past the freshwater lagoons and marshes.  There was one particular spot, close to the bank, that was a magnet for a mixture of waders.  I plonked myself down and enjoyed a wonderful hour or so photographing them.

Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa) is the second largest of our waders. Like all shorebirds at this time of the year in it’s greys of winter plumage. It took ages before one posed among these dead plants, they preferred to feed in the open water where their long legs and bill give them an advantage
Our other Godwit is the Bar-tailed (Limosa lapponica). A bit smaller than the Black-tailed, it has more patterned plumage and a slightly up-curved bill. In summer this bird is a striking brick red in colour on the underparts
A different ‘style’ of wader. Chunky body, short bill and legs, feeding on the mudflats in a stop start action. This is a plover a Grey Plover (Pluvialis squatarola) another wader with a lovely summer plumage this time black and white. They breed in the high-arctic

While I was engrossed in act of filming these different species something caused every bird on the reserve to take flight in panic.  It had to be a bird of prey.  I looked for a Peregrine Falcon or Sparrowhawk scything through the flocks but it was when I looked up the culprit became clear, the massive shape of an immature White-tailed Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla).  With a wing-span of 8 feet (2.4m) this is Northern Europe’s largest raptor, it has the nick-name of the ‘flying barn door’.  Now, eagles in Norfolk are not un-heard of but are a very rare occurrence, this is only my third sighting, they breed on Western Isles of Scotland like Mull but some do drift across the North Sea from the Continent.  I would like to say I got some stunning shots to record this event, sadly no, by the time I got my wits together, picked my jaw from the floor and the camera focused it was very distant.

A heavily cropped record shot of the White-tailed Eagle, you can still make out the massive bill and huge wings

There was still one more surprise in store.  As I made my way back to the car a Little Egret flew over the footpath landing on the Thornham Marshes.  Nothing unusual in that, Little Egrets have become quite numerous in recent years, however it landed next to another egret that dwarfed it, a Great White Egret (Egretta alba).  This is only my third ever sighting (my first was on the day my daughter was born, twitchers do the strangest things!) but people passing by didn’t seem that bothered, perhaps they are no longer a very rare visitor.

The statuesque Great White Egret catches the breeze

Freebies

I had it all planned out, where to go, what to see and (hopefully) photograph and even how I was going to present my post!  So when I turned into the ‘village’ car park at Holkham, for the first time since this pandemic began, to be greeted by a pay-and-display machine I spat out my dummy!  What has always been free is now £5 for 2+ hours.  Want to park nearer the beach?  That will be £9 thank you very much, kerching!  Ever since Ms G Paltrow graced the golden sands in a scene from the movie ‘Shakespeare in Love’ Holkham Bay has been a honeypot for the ‘well-to-do’.  Rocking up from their holiday retreats around the coast with their designer clothes, designer children, designer dogs and highly polished 4×4’s which only ever go ‘off road’ when they mount the pavement to drop aforementioned kiddies off at prep school!  Not one’s to overlook the chance of a bit of spare change the local landowners are rubbing their hands together.  Well they are not getting my money!  Free birding may be getting thin on the ground but there are places if you know where to look, just don’t tell his Lordship, he might stick in another pay machine!

Greylag Geese (Anser anser) The largest of our geese. These are not truly wild birds (they can be found in Scotland) but ancestors of re-introduced stock
Bath time! Egyptian Goose (Alopochen aegyptiaca) another non-native (there’s a clue in the name!)
Always a pleasure to be greeted by a Robin (Erithacus rubecula)
The gorgeous Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatas). This tiny bird’s tail is longer than it’s body. They are hyper-active moving around in flocks of a dozen or more looking for insects on bare twigs
Sentinal. A male Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) scans the marshes from atop a lone Spruce
The Wigeon (Anas penelope) form big flocks in winter and graze the marshes. I love their ‘wheeoo’ call
As early as January birds of prey start to display over their territories. This is a Buzzard (Buteo buteo) which circles around emitting a cat like mewing call

All these shots were taken in the last couple of days in places I could go free of charge.  I had a bit of a rant at the start of this post and don’t get me wrong I’m more than willing to pay for conservation work.  What I dislike is what seems to be the never ending ways some use to help lighten your wallet and say the money is used for their projects.  As a born and bred local with little income it seems we are being priced out of the market.  What we once took for granted is no longer so and is it a good idea to have hefty charges when you want to encourage the younger generation?

Bleak Mid-winter

Awoke yesterday to a sharp frost, everything was white and a thin layer of ice covered the pond.  As a lover of butterflies, dragonflies and warm sunny days the winter months can be a depressing time.  What for me is cold (around 0c) is to others in chillier climes almost tropical!  It’s all subjective.  Stuck out in the North Sea on the east coast of the UK we don’t get the hard winters others experience.  On occasion we get a blast all the way from Siberia but mostly it’s dull, gloomy, leaden skies with various amounts of mist, drizzle or proper rain.  So if the sun threatens to put in an appearance grab the camera and make the most of it.

That is what happened yesterday.  Mrs H suggested a trip out looking for birds and trying out the new lens.  Did I really hear that?  Needing no further persuasion it was hat, coat, gloves, camera gear let’s go!  We went 20 miles west around the coast to the shingle ridge at Salthouse.  From the beach road two vegetated areas are worth a look.  To the west the ‘Little Eye’ and east the much larger ‘Gramborough Hill’ and that is where we went.

The shore pool by Gramborough Hill had only one bird on it, a Redshank (Tringa totanus). These waders can be quite nervous and flighty but this one allowed a nice set of shots in the soft light

I was hoping that there may be Snow Buntings near the hill, this is an area they have visited for many years.  It was not to be but a small ‘charm’ of Goldfinches flitted through and frustrated my attempts to get a decent shot in the failing light by keeping low and not hanging around.  Two other birds were noted and by their behaviour I could tell they were a pair of Stonechats (Saxicola torquata).

The male Stonechat. A species I have photographed several times but never get tired of them. They like to sit up on a vantage point to survey the ground for a tasty morsel but rarely return to the same perch
‘Wonder what’s up there’ The female Stonechat
‘Wonder what’s down there’ At times the Stonechats came really close
A Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) briefly hovered over the hill but any brightness had gone and it was difficult to get much detail
Me and my shadow. a Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) appears to have a Redshank mimicking it

Today we should be on a plane jetting off to Berlin to spend the week with our daughter.  Sadly it’s not to be as the German government banned entry to us Brits four days ago in a bid to control this new covid variant, well good luck with that.   Wherever you are around the world and whatever your beliefs (or not) take care, be safe and if you are with your families, cherish the moment.  Have a good one.  B