Thursday, 16 October 2014

Shrike, rattle and roll

There are some things which auger well for bird-watching. October and a low pressure over Scandinavia normally means a good fall of migrants onto the East coast. So it transpired, but that was on Tuesday and I couldn't get there till Thursday. Yellow-browed (y-b)warblers all over the place, Raddes and Pallas's warblers, olive-backed pipit, Isabelline shrike and the long staying Steppe grey shrike were all there. Two cloudy nights meant I left home at 5am with a reasonable hope of being able to connect with at least some of them. First stop was Wells' woods. My main target was the olive-backed pipit, which would be a lifer for me, but the back-up cast was y-b warblers and a possible Raddes although that was no show on Wednesday.
As ever this Autumn the weather was ridiculously warm if overcast. All the action was in an area called the dell, which is basically a large open area of ground surrounded by mixed conifers and deciduous trees, mainly silver birch. Right from the car-park there was loads moving. Flocks of long-tailed tits numbering into the few dozen, quite a few goldcrests mixed up with them and not insignificant numbers of chiffchaffs. Quite a few birders were on site as well, so many eyes made light work. By the east end of the dell there was a stand of silver birches which held a sizeable flock of small birds. Quite quickly I heard the distinctive call of a y-b warbler but it took a good 10 minutes to track it down. Everything was very mobile near the tops of the trees and the light was very dull with the cloud cover. Consensus was that there was at least two birds there, which showed briefly in the canopy. I also picked out 5 bramblings feeding in with them. Of the olive-backed pipit though, no sign. Talking to others on site it was apparently a swine to see as it was very un-pipit like in that it stayed in the trees rather than coming into the open.
By about 9.30 I decided to move off and try my luck elsewhere. I went only about 5 miles or so to Burnham Norton where a Steppe grey shrike had been holding court for some weeks. This is a very rare bird, itself being a sub-species of the southern grey shrike (Lanius meridionalis meridionalis). Initially it attracted crowds of a few hundred but now there were about 20 at any one time.
Many birds of this species are incredibly tame, perhaps coming from the Russian steppes they don't meet many people. This one was no exception and made more so by being baited in with mealworms!!
First of all it was perched on a bush about 50 yards away, nice views but distant.

After about 15 minutes it decided it was hungry and flew down to an area right in front of us, then back to a bush but slightly nearer.

Finally, it plucked up courage and spent about 15 minutes feeding on the ground on the mealworms and on flitting onto perches (both put there by photographers!). It gave great views just a shame the light was so flat it didn't bring out the colours of the bird.

By now my phone was alerting me to the fact that the other star bird of the area, an Isabelline shrike, had been refound at Warham Greens. So, I bade the SGS goodbye and moved about 20 minutes along the coast. There was a much bigger crowd here. I would guess 50 cars parked along the lane plus I saw other groups at other tracks down to the coast. There was a constant flow down and back, and those coming back had all seen the bird. It took about 10 minutes I guess to find around 50 people all looking at a bush. I could see a bird in it, which I was assured was the shrike. It only took 30 seconds for it to pop up and sit right out in the open. Same family but a very different looking bird, and this one not being fed mealworms.

This was a young bird, without any distinctive facial markings and showing the lovely scalloped pattern on the breast. It only stayed for about a few minutes then flew off along the coast. I was lucky on that one. It was refound again later but, as for the SGS, didn't stay much longer so I timed them both right.
So, what else did I manage to connect with. I had another go for the olive-backed pipit without any luck. Moving long the coast though I stopped near Holkham looking out over the freshmarsh. This is a well-known spot for rough-legged buzzards and there was a crown onto a bird in the field a long way out. The views weren't great but the jizz of the bird, the very light plumage including a very pale head and a hint of a pale-rump in flight were good enough for me.Finally I moved onto Holme where there were 2 Pallas's warblers feeding in sycamores in the car park. No chance of a photo as they were moving like lightning and rarely showed well but when they did you got glorious views of what is termed the 7-striped sprite. This is so-called because of distinctive pattern of stripes on its head.
Overall a very good day. One lifer, 4 more years ticks, taking me to 242 for the year against BOU and 245 against 400 club rules. Two and a bit more months to get another 10 birds to break my personal record.