A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Norfolk Birding Bonanza - Blyth's Reed, Red-flanked Bluetail, Isabelline Shrike and warblers galore!

With a cluster of top quality birds on the Norfolk coast coupled with the promise of strong easterly winds all weekend, the tantalising lure of Sibes proved too much to resist, and we made the decision to head to Norfolk for two days in order to try and catch up with the bonanza of avian delights on offer.

Driving down on the Saturday and arriving at Wells Wood for around 1, a whole host of bad luck and timing meant that we missed both the Blyth’s Reed AND the Red-flanked Bluetail, with each one showing while we were searching for the other! The Isabelline Shrike at nearby Holkham also gave us the run-around, and no sooner had we got our bins on a distant Shrike (there had also been a Great Grey knocking around in the same area) it flew deep in to cover, with us not having been able to make out any detail in the now driving rain and approaching darkness.

Thankfully, after a tasty Chinese and overnight stop in Kings Lynn, Sunday dawned much more promising, and despite being on the back foot we were able to catch up with all our target species in just the one day.

Due to Blyth’s Reed Warbler being a lifer for both me and Alex, we started with what had proved to be the trickiest species for many to connect with, staking out the patch of scrub it was frequenting for the first hour in the morning in the hopes of getting a glimpse of what can be a difficult bird to catch up with. Despite some initial confusion as to exactly which area the bird had been reported from first thing that morning, those assembled eventually managed to locate it down to the exact bush, the harsh tacking call betraying its whereabouts – all we had to do was wait for it to pop up! After an excruciating few minutes it obliged, the dull brown head peeking up above the brambles before perching right out in the open for several seconds, looking straight at us and giving fantastic views (for a skulking and elusive warbler that is) to all those on our side of the bush. Moments later it was gone, vanishing back in to the depths of the bramble thicket and deep under cover.

Much more grey-brown in colouration than the rufous buff brown tones of our normal Reed Warblers, with a relatively short primary projection in comparison, along with a darker tipped lower mandible on the bill, the subtle differences were definitely noticeable in the field. Favouring shrubs and bushes as opposed to reeds, this was also a typical habitat for a Blyth’s Reed Warbler to frequent, and we were thrilled to have got such close views, with the bird being mere metres away.

Having got Blyth’s Reed in the bag before 10, we headed over to the dried up drinking pool in the hopes of catching up with what would be my second lifer of the day in the form of a Red-flanked Bluetail. This was a bird that I had been wanting to see for a very long time, having dipped one at Flamborough on a visit to Yorkshire a few years ago - on the day that typically the first for Cheshire turned up on Hilbre Island, just an hour away from my house! I’ve loved Red-flanked Bluetails since I was very small, having always admired the photograph of a beautiful blue male in my red Collins bird book, so this was probably the bird I was most eager to see.

After a 20 minute wait having just missed the Bluetail showing only moments before we arrived, we eventually caught a glimpse between the tangle of trees as this blue tailed wonder hopped between the branches. Flitting from bush to bush and feeding on the ground amongst the bases of the trees, we eventually got much better views as the Bluetail flew up to the tops of the taller trees right out in the open, flicking the characteristic blue tinged tail and with the rusty red patches on the flanks clearly visible.
Red-flanked Bluetail - Norfolk
TERRIBLE shots of the Bluetail!!
Red-flanked Bluetail - Norfolk
Being either a female or a first winter male due to the drab colouration (as opposed to the bright electric blue of an adult male) this bird has been loyal to the same small patch of trees for a number of days, and while elusive, tended to put on a good performance for the crowd of admirers at regular intervals.

Satisfied with our views and with the rain now starting to fall, we headed further down the path to hopefully connect with both the Hume’s Warbler and one of the many Pallas’s Warblers that had been frequenting the trees for several days. Whilst Hume’s wasn’t a lifer for either of us, having seen the Warwickshire bird that overwintered two Januarys ago, it was still nice to see another, and we literally bumped in to this bird, with me spotting it on an open branch right in front of us at eye level after another birder tipped us off that it was calling in the trees directly to our left. Getting much better views than 2 years ago, with the bird calling loudly and frequently as it darted through the branches, the subtly more silvery and washed out tones in comparison to a Yellow-browed were definitely noticeable, as was the shorter and faster call.

The sheer abundance of Goldcrests in this area was overwhelming, seemingly on every branch of every tree, their tinny high pitched calls echoing all around. A beautiful male Firecrest further in to the pines was a fantastic find by Alex, showing amazingly well and providing my best views in years of this often hard to come by species. My second favourite British bird, I always love to see one, but yet again this one proved to be camera shy and was determined to avoid my lens.

With the car park running out we needed to head back, but a large crowd gathered around a line of trees further down the path caught our eye. Hurrying over, it transpired a Pallas’s Warbler was on view and showing – one of my target species for this year and another bird I have been wanting to see for a good while. With some top directions, we were soon able to get on this tiny warbler, flitting amongst a Holly tree like a small fairy, continuously feeding and hovering between the leaves. With the bright yellow supercilium clearly visible through the leaves as if fed, along with the large white wing bar, it was fantastic to watch as it dashed through the branches, only occasionally coming out in to the open and providing typical Pallas’s views! With several present over the weekend but proving very difficult to pin down, it was great to jam in on this eastern wanderer by chance.

Despite the Holkham Isabelline Shrike having been reported that day, the individual at Beeston Common near Sheringham had been showing amazingly well, and even though there was an additional 35 minute drive, we opted to head there instead of trying Holkham again. This proved to be an excellent decision, and as soon as we had arrived at the layby and walked the 2 minutes to the patch of ground the shrike had taken up residence at, we caught sight of it in a bush perched right in front of us. No running, walking long distances, waiting for hours on end or tracking a bird endlessly over a site – the ideal twitch!
Isabelline Shrike, Norfolk
Isabelline Shrike, Norfolk
Isabelline Shrike, Norfolk
Isabelline Shrike, Norfolk
With a much plainer back as opposed to a Red-backed Shrike, the Isabelline performed like a star, regularly diving to the ground for prey and hovering to catch insects mid-air, often returning to the same perch to impale or eat a number of wasps. 
Isabelline Shrike, Norfolk
Isabelline Shrike, Norfolk
The beautiful rusty coloured tail
Isabelline Shrike, Norfolk
Isabelline Shrike, Norfolk
Isabelline Shrike, Norfolk
The Shrike and a Blue Tit determined not to look at each other!
Satisfied with our views, having watched the shrike flit from bush to bush in front of us for a good while, we headed back to the car where a Long-eared Owl had been found in a nearby Sycamore tree. Having only just arrived in off the sea, this tired visitor seemed settled amongst the boughs, cryptically camouflaged and requiring just the right angle of view to make it out behind the leaves.

With a showy Olive-backed Pipit just a few minutes up the road (our route back would take us directly past the site) it would have been rude not to call in. Having only seen one bird prior to this at Spurn last autumn, with very brief views of it in a bush before it flitted out, I was keen to see one well in a lot more detail. Despite an initial wait of 20 minutes or so when the bird was assumed to be in a tree, the call eventually went up as one eagle-eyed birder had spotted it in the wood – behind us! All the assembled birders had their backs to it, and who knows how long it had been strutting about unnoticed while everyone was looking the other way.

The light was far too poor for any decent photos to come out, but through binoculars we enjoyed great views as it pottered amongst the leaf litter. Quite a large pipit, the prominent gold supercilium was unmistakeable, and it reminded me slightly of the Northern Waterthrushes in New York earlier in the year – if this was foraging at the side of a muddy water inlet I would definitely have done a double take at first glance!

With four lifers over the course of what had been a fantastically productive day in Norfolk, along with a whole host of other amazing birds, our trip had been a complete success, resulting in what was probably one of our best days birding in a good while. Cleaning up on all our targets, huge thanks to Alex for driving and convincing me Norfolk would be better than Spurn! With Isabelline Shrike also being a milestone bird in being my 350th species for Britain, the quest for 400 is now well and truly underway! 

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