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Bird Race 2010

30th May 2010

Its the second bank holiday weekend in May, and that means Bird Race time! We had learnt a few things from last year, when we racked up 113 species over Norfolk and North Suffolk. This year we planned to leave earlier, start in a woodland and avoid King's Lynn at all costs. We left Norwich at 04:00 and headed for the brecks...

Breckland Leg

In order to maximise the dawn chorus, we headed to a woodland on the Norfolk/Suffolk border. We started well, seeing Treecreeper and Great Spotted Woodpecker, and hearing many other species. Unfortunately it was then that the rain started to fall. Other than the obvious problem (you and your optics get wet!), the rain reduced visibility and the activity of birds in the area. We did get a Kingfisher, and in brief spells between showers also got Bullfinch and Green Woodpecker. Tantalisingly Siskin and Crossbills flew over calling, but remained unseen.

A brief stop at Weeting Heath was all we needed to add Stone Curlew, one out in the open from the west hide. At Lakenheath we waited in vain for a Bittern or Crane, but were quickly accumulating commoner birds, including Cetti's Warbler, Barn Owl, Common Tern and Marsh Harrier. After a 20 minute wait a Golden Oriole emerged in a poplar right in front of me, I got a quick picture whilst birders converged on us to get a glimpse. A Hobby over the trees and a Cuckoo playing hide-and-seek peering around a tree were also good birds here. Whilst in the brecks we also visited last year's Tree Pipit site, which came good for us this year too.

The Fens and West Norfolk ("don't become a victim of car crime"*)

Having lost time and potentially a number of birds, we decided to bite the bullet and go to Welney. The guy at the entrance told us honestly that we were unlikely to see the Bluethroat because of the strong winds, but we figured it was still worth it. From the main hide we were straight onto male Garganey, Little Ringed Plover & Whooper Swan**, whilst a Yellow Wagtail flew in not long after. As predicted the Bluethroat wasn't showing, but a 1st summer Red Kite flew over. Someone reported it to the staff as a Black Kite, but the tail fork was clearly too divided to entertain that (see photo).

A couple of stops on our way north saw us add Woodlark, Buzzard and Little Owl, before arriving at Titchwell. Whilst admiring a male Ruddy Duck, a Bittern flew along the edge of the freshwater pool to the west of the path, landing at the top of the reeds and edging its way down. Excellent stuff. We sheltered in the hide whilst a violent storm passed overhead, before continuing to the beach. Here we picked up more waders and a flypast Gannet, though sadly no seaducks.

North Norfolk & the finale

Driving along a back road we stopped and scanned, and came up with the useful triumvirate of Lesser Whitethroat, Tree Sparrow and male Montagu's Harrier. Cley was not yet ready for any Trumpeter action, we only managed flyby Sandwich Tern and four Dunlin. The Dunlin were my 112th bird, one short of last years total. Beating my record should have been a formality, but with ever increasing rain, could we find anything else? We tried in vain for Little Grebe, Nightingale (heard only), Garden Warbler and Dartford Warbler, but dipped all. Finally a Stonechat popped up, enough to equal last year. After dipping Grey Wagtail and Turtle Dove, we called Phil, who supplied us with news of a Spotted Flycatcher near his house. Bird number 114! We finished the day at a heath in mid-Norfolk, where two churring Nightjars were out early, giving good views. Final total - 17 hours, 115 birds (+ 3 heard only).

* If you don't understand this, go to the loo at Titchwell.
** In the original Bill Oddie Bird Race days of the early 1980s, injured birds didn't count. I'm not that strict.

Hot week roundup

w/c 17th May 2010
I don't like the heat. As someone who does a lot of walking, the last thing I want is to arrive at my chosen location already sweating and dehydrated. But hey ho, its Britain and it will probably hail next week (I don't like hail either. Maybe I'm just very hard to please?).
No new bird arrivals. A Whitethroat has taken to singing from a tree adjacent to the main carpark, which is a nice serenade as you walk around the broad. A pair of Blue Tits are nesting in a hole in the visitors centre, and several piles of fluff could be separated into huddles of Greylag, Canada and Egyptian Goose goslings. On the river Great Crested Grebes had three young, including one piggybacking. A Redshank was wading in the shallows across on Thorpe Marsh. A number of damselflies have emerged, including two Banded Demoiselles and some Common Blue Damselflies. My first Small Copper of the year was flying in the conservation area.
Earlham Cemetery
There really should be Spotted Flycatchers here, but I couldn't find any. Several blue butterflies (unable to id them in flight) were flying around the trees.
Cathy has asked me to highlight her contributions to wildlife finding, so I would like to point out that she found my first Hedgehog of the year in her back garden.
Venta Icenorum
A walk around the old Roman Town. The short "breck-style" grass still hasn't been colonised by Stone Curlews, mores the pity. A Meadow Pipit and a Yellowhammer were the best birds, despite scanning old trees looking for Little Owls. The River Tas was crystal clear, enabling me to pick out a Pike lurking amongst the weed.

A Pratincole Worth Waiting For

15th May 2010
After a nervy week-long wait, the news that the Oriental Pratincole had stayed in Lincolnshire came as a great relief. Despite the relatively short distance from Norfolk, train coasts to Boston were huge, so I was grateful to get a lift from Gary & Claire. Cathy also accompanied us, as did Adam who had booked a day off work in case we saw anything new.

Before we went to Frampton we had to detour to Welney, as Gary's yearlist record could hinge on picking up highly mobile birds like the wandering Great White Egret. We checked with a volunteer outside, who confirmed that it was showing well from the Buxton Hide. We paused briefly in the observation hide to have a look at two male Garganeys, before walking down to Buxton Hide. Along the path Orange-tips were out in force, along with at least one Green-veined White and a Brimstone. Of course there was no sign of the egret, despite walking the half mile long Buxton Hide. We did see presumably injured Whooper Swan, feral Barnacle Goose and flyover Yellow Wagtail.
My first visit to Frampton RSPB gave a favourable impression. The vast expanses of marshland look excellent habitat, reminding me of Saltholme RSPB in Cleveland. There was understandably loads of birders on site, and I was greeted on the path towards the hides with the knowing words that this was a real bird, not like that House Finch. Can't disagree really. Further on I tried to figure out whether I recognised another birder, only for Jim to help me out with an introduction. He gave us some info on the best place to view from and other birds of interest on the scrapes.
Halfway round towards the East Hide we stopped and scanned, seeing a couple of Ringed Plovers and my first Temminck's Stint of the year. Walking into the East Hide I was immediately concerned by the fact that people were looking in different directions. It soon became clear that the bird wasn't on view, and had flown off 15 minutes ago. Surely it couldn't have waited all week, only to bugger off now? Luckily it hadn't, eventually the Oriental Pratincole flew back in and onto a spit. I didn't get on it as it came in, but after that it treated us to some close fly-bys in front of the hide, and enough resting to get good views on the deck too. My favourite Pratincole moment was probably seeing it run, the tiny legs making it look ridiculous and beautiful at the same time. As it moved round to the other side of the hide the sun showed off the red-chestnut underwing, and through a fluke I managed to photograph the wings showing the lack of a clear white trailing edge. Two down, one to go, as I still need to see Collared Pratincole.

Whilst waiting for the Pratincole we saw five Little Gulls, several Yellow Wagtails and a one-legged Redshank hopping along. Outside the hide the clear water in the dyke allowed us to see Sticklebacks coming up to the surface, and worryingly for a bird point of view a Stoat bounded along the bank on the way back. A very nice reserve this, all we need is a cheap ferry across the Wash to visit it more often.

Rockland Broad

14th May 2010

In a change to my usual Friday evening Whitlingham jaunt, I joined Gary at Rockland Broad. In theory, anything good here carries on west along the river to Norwich (if only). At first there seemed to be very little about, 9 Great Crested Grebes and 4 Common Terns. Eventually a 1st-summer Little Gull started flying around the large areas of pond scum near the back of the broad. A calling Common Sandpiper then used the broad as a giant pinball machine. Leaving Rockland we called in at Coldham Hall for a quick half. Nothing new added to my pub list, but Marsh Harrier, Grey Heron & Swift were all of note.

Crustacea Crawl

9th May 2010

A non-birding day in order to socialise a bit for once. I embarked on the Cromer leg of the "Crustacea Crawl", a crab and lobster sculpture trail leading up to the Crab & Lobster festival. We managed about 35 of the sculptures, before stopping at the Red Lion for a pint of Woodforde's festival beer "Pincer Pale Crabster Ale."

Finding the insanity line, and then crossing it.

8th May 2010
I decided in advance that I would get up at 4am in the morning and go down to Whitlingham. My logic was a sort of vague "I'll see more birds if its early" type thing. The weather was drizzly, hardly ideal for a dawn chorus, but I was up, so I went anyway. No sign of any owls, I once saw a Barn Owl along Whitlingham Lane and despite never seeing another one I always look out expectantly. The drizzle was persistent enough for me to abandon plans to do some counts, maybe I need to get some waterproof paper (does that exist?). All the birds you'd expect to be singing were, the pick probably being a Reed Warbler that was doing a slightly odd call (not odd enough to be Marsh though, unfortunately).
I finished my wandering around the Great Broad just before 7, and still hadn't seen another person, let alone a canoeist. Looking down the river produced a single Common Tern, rather than the swarm of Black Terns I had secretly hoped for. Similarly I didn't hear any Cuckoos, and even a walk around the ever-so-slightly pointless area that is Whitlingham Marsh failed to serenade my ears with a Grasshopper Warbler, or in dreamland a Savi's. My one and only notable bird of the trip was a pair of Bullfinches along the edge of the sewage works. Wet and somewhat demoralised I returned home.
That should have been the end of the days birding, were it not for some crazy fool calling me and offering me a lift to Cornwall. Figuring that I had the afternoon free anyway I went along, and seven and a half hours later I was queuing up to look over a tall gate and into the garden of England's most westerly birdwatcher. We saw the House Finch (which hopefully didn't escape from an aviary in Sennen) for a few minutes before the owners shut the gates. It was yellow and finchy. A quick look over the cliffs revealed a Gannet and a small party of Manx Shearwaters, and following that we headed back to Norfolk, arriving back in Norwich at 3am. To say I was tired would be an understatement.

Picture courtesy of Gary White. Note the look of wildness of the bird.


3rd & 4th May 2010
Normally Whitlingham would be a no-go zone on a Bank Holiday, but as it was raining I figured it was safe. Adam came along and after a few short showers we arrived in moderate sunshine. The broad was covered by criss-crossing House Martins (96), Swallows, Sand Martins and 300+ Swifts. An amazing sight. It would have been even better if there had been a Red-rumped Swallow in there, but Suffolk are hogging those at the moment. We saw the usual warblery stuff around the back of the broad until we were alerted by the call of a Lesser Whitethroat. Up it popped, bird number 97. A few Common Terns were still around over the Great broad.
On Thorpe Marsh a Common Sandpiper was walking along the margins, whilst a Kestrel and a Sparrowhawk shared the skies. Whitlingham Marsh was rubbish, although the bypass was handy shelter from more rain. The sewage works was quiet, but a Rook (98) walking around the boundary fence, a ridiculously late patch tick. Not much on the way back, but with only two more birds to see, the champagne was on ice.
At work on Tuesday a couple of messages alerted me to Arctic Tern at Whitlingham. Adam confirmed one was still present, although spending some time over the river. I managed to get down in time, seeing my first Whitlingham Arctic Tern (99). I also saw flyover Grey Wagtail, CP Common Sand, Common Terns and some Whitethroats. What I really wanted was a brilliant and colourful bird for my 100th, a Bee-eater maybe, or even just a Blue-headed Wagtail. Predictably then it was a Garden Warbler (100), calling from a Hawthorn near the car park that brought up my patch ton for the year. Still, better that than remain on 99 for the rest of the year.

Migrant hunting

2nd May 2010
Despite the northerly winds and showers, I had agreed in advance to a trip to the North Norfolk coast looking for newly arrived migrants. I met Gary & Adam in Sheringham after they had been on an unsuccessful ride round listening for Wood Warblers. Following a very brief stop at Salthouse, where we abandoned seawatching before our telescopes got coated in salt. Seeking out somewhere sheltered, we sat ourselves down amongst the alexanders overlooking Stiffkey Fen. The standout bird was a first-summer Kittiwake, presumably blown inland. We also saw 2 Arctic Terns, a Sandwich Tern, Common Sandpipers and LRPs. A Lesser Whitethroat was singing from along the coastal footpath.
Next stop Burnham Norton, a place where "rarities are born" apparently. Today they'd clear gone to visit relatives, but left behind 10+ Wheatears, some if not all Greenland race birds. It actually wasn't that bad, a couple of Little Terns dived in the creeks, a Yellow Wagtail flew over and some Bearded Tits pinged in the reeds. A late Pink-footed Goose flock flew past some Swifts, which seemed wrong somehow. On the way back we stopped to look at a Snow Goose wandering along the marshes. The noise of a pen on paper was heard distantly, probably a yearlister crossing out the Holkham bird...
We had lunch at Titchwell, generously leaving the one sausage roll that gets cooked every day for Gary. The Woodpigeons have got so tame that one sat on the table, and looked like it was going to nick some of my cake. Once I'd finished it ate crumbs from my hand, then wandered off. Whilst this was going on, Gary's pager went off - Wood Warbler on the Meadow Trail. Was this to be my first Wood Warbler? No. We did a lap then sat and listened for a while, but no sight or sound of one, nor of anybody that had seen one. Strange. We did see the two summer-plumaged Black-necked Grebes on the freshmarsh though.
We finished the day at Cley, waiting in Bishop's Hide in the rain, hoping that the Garganey would show. It didn't, but the waiting made me look at the gulls, picking out a 1st winter/summer Yellow-legged Gull. Also during the day, but at mysterious secret places we watched a pair of Montagu's Harriers, Firecrest, Garden Warbler and still didn't see or hear any Wood Warblers. The final hurrah of the day was looking for a Turtle Dove near North Walsham, but it hadn't read the script and wasn't showing.


1st May 2010
The first day of the Bank Holiday weekend, and showers were forecast. The inevitable compromise was to go somewhere fairly close, with hides, and Strumpshaw is that place. Me & Cath set off with the intention of spending a bit of time in the Fen Hide, as she still hasn't seen an Otter yet. Looking on the hide noticeboard, I found the RSPBs solution to the photographer-blocking problem - "if you have been in the hide for 15 minutes, please move on to allow others to use it". What? Don't get me wrong, I realise that something has to be done to prevent the hide being taken up for long periods by the same few people spread out, but this is silly. Ignoring the fact that it is uninforcable (unless a volunteer hands you a ticket as you go in and then calls your number 15mins later), how many birders would want to just spend 15 minutes in a hide?
"Are the Bitterns showing today?"
"Yes mate, one every 14 minutes"
"Thank goodness, I've only got 15"
"Yeah I know, oops, I'm 30 seconds over, got to dash"
Anyway, we spent just over an hour in the hide, although there was plenty of room for anyone braving the rain. The main attraction was a first summer Little Gull, which flew backwards in front of the hide for the whole time, showing the black upperwing markings and a faint pink wash to the breast. I picked up a Hobby, which eventually became three, and was remarking on hearing the Bearded Tits when one flew from left to right. We didn't see an Otter, the closest to one came when a GC Grebe swam across just below the water, creating a plausible wake until it popped up. Damnit!
We continued our walk round to the Tower Hide. A Cuckoo was calling across the river (presumably the edge of Wheatfen), and we quickly located it. Numerous warblers called from the trees along the river bank, and my first Orange-tip took advantage of a break in the showers to fly past and close its wings at the site of my camera. From the hide we saw a brood of Canada goslings, a few Pochard, Shelduck and heard a booming Bittern. As the rain increased, we walked back the way we came. On the way back a black Pheasant was in a field off Low Road.