Wednesday, 5 November 2014

When the wind blows.....

if it's from the East and it's November then birders head to the coast. Out in the North Sea there are lots of birds moving along the coast and if the prevailing wind is onshore then they come close in. This is probably the first time this Autumn when all the signs came together so it was another early start and heading East.
My first stop though wasn't the coast. At the start of the year I had targeted Richard's pipit as a lifer to get and there was one at Fordham which was only a few miles off the normal route to Norfolk. This is a large pipit, structurally similar to a meadow pipit but much more robust in build. It's large beak especially makes it stand out as does it almost sparrow-like flight call. They are notorious though for disappearing into long grass for long periods. This one was no exception. It was reported as being in an area of rough grass and that was indeed the case. On arriving on site two birders had got it on the ground on a path 20 minutes previously but it then relocated into the rough ground and promptly disappeared. Five of us waited about 30 minutes and the only excitement was when a mipit tried to persuade us it was it's larger cousin until it flew with a very distinctive sharp flight call.
There was only course of action. After a brief "shall we, shan't we" conversation we formed a line and took a stroll through the long grass. Tow hundred yards and success. A large pipit flew up with a very different call, almost sparrow like. It also had a very different flight pattern compared to mipits, floating down to earth as if it was doing a display flight. We had it in flight again 10 minutes later but it was clearly not going to settle to I called it and headed for the coast. Lifer in the bag though and it wasn't even 9am!!! There was one other bird on site, this really confiding snow bunting. I should have stopped longer for more photos but the light was rubbish and I had bigger fish to fry!

I had two targets on the coast to get my year list going. First was stopping at Thornham for twite. There was a flock of about 20 on the salt marsh mixing with their very similar cousins linnets. By the time I got there it was good and bad news. Both were that the wind was really getting up. This would be good for later on the coast but bad for here as standing on the bank was challenging and the birds were really flighty. A small group had gathered though near some puddles in a field and it was clear small groups of finches were coming down to drink. 'scoping the pool soon revealed a number of twite. My phone was already going off though with reports of a big movement happening on the coast so I hightailed it back to the car and sped along the coast to Cley. Well, sped is not possibly along the A149 as you have lots of people wearing hats in very sensible small cars driving at 37mph! Still, got to the beach car-park by about 11.30.
Cley is basically a large shingle bank looking north/ north west onto the North Sea. There is a small shelter which is the favoured area for sea-watching as it does provide some shelter. Already about 15 people had gathered slightly below the shingle ridge but with 'scopes pointing out to sea. A quick questioning and it was clear I had made a good choice. The sea was hot! Viewing conditions were good to average. There was a fair swell running with surf breaking in-shore. Visibility was good to a least a quarter mile and fair up to a mile. There was lots of stuff moving though. As usual, coming from rural Hertfordshire it took me 30 minutes or so to get my eye in with picking up birds moving by quite fast but with good teamwork between about 6 or 7 of us we were soon picking up birds moving in both directions.
Rarest were little auks. These are small relations of guillemots but almost starling-sized. Some years you get hardly any down south, other years you can get thousands. Today was in-between. I guess I had 20 or 25 but missed many more. They were reasonably close in and moving from right to left. A few settled on the surf but most were just heading North, presumably into the Wash.
Mainly moving from left to right though and generally further out were the skuas. Great skuas or bonxies, told by their brown plumage and white "mirrors" on the wings were coming past every 10 minutes or so. We were limited to only identifying stuff up to about a half-mile out with any confidence so we probably missed many more. As well as bonxies, pomarine and arctic skuas were also going by, some in singles and one flock of up to 12 birds. These are much darker with more swept-back wings, almost resembling a hawk or falcon in shape. Most we tentatively id'd as poms with most just being "skuas" as they were too far out. Pom's are larger, with a deeper chest but the plumage of both are quite close. A few were called as arctic based on size and slimmer profile.
Other birds moving included a group of 4 Velvet scoter, told from their common cousins by obvious white wing-bars. Common scoters would have been in the hundreds. A few dozen eiders flew past, including one flock of 15-18 birds. I only had one shearwater, a manx, but again you had the feeling there were a lot more about. Hundreds if not thousands of kittiwakes were also on the move, often with skuas in close attendance. I tried to study them to see if there was a Sabine's gull, whose plumage is similar to juvenile kittis but it was pretty much a lost cause at distance and speed. Guillemots and razorbills made up the supporting cast, again with numbers in the hundreds. Three hours of solid sea-watching had added 3 new year-ticks the best being little auks.
I did pop into the marshes to see if the grey phalaropes were still there but no sign. There was lots of the normal birds but nothing on any rarity.
Overall a great day though. Sea-watching is either a very special day or a very dull one. Today was special. It also took me to 248 for the year, only 2 short of my personal record of 250 which is now well in sight (or 252 against 253 on 400club rules!!).Sorry about no photos but everything was way too far away!!!1