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....

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Crake or Break - the quest for 300

With a whole host of goodies available in East Anglia, we decided to head down to Norfolk and Suffolk for the weekend, making the long drive down to Kings Lynn on the Friday night ready to hopefully connect with the confiding Steppe Grey Shrike the following morning that had taken up residence in a hedge at nearby Burton Norton. Found the weekend prior, shrikes have a good reputation for sticking around (just take a look at the much-twitched Masked Shrike at Spurn) so we were pretty confident it wouldn't be a wasted journey.

Sure enough, the first two birds on RBA after waking up were the shrike and the Little Crake (our other target for the day) so we headed to the site in high spirits. As soon as we arrived at the viewing area we caught up with our target, perched obligingly in one of the nearby Hawthorn bushes and showing particularly well. It soon became evident that locals had been scattering mealworms on the freshly turned earth, as a few minutes later the shrike dropped down and began to take advantage of the abundance of food, at one point stationing itself on a conveniently place bramble bush in front of the crowd.

Steppe Grey Shrike in the Hawthorn bush when we arrived

There was a little confusion as to exactly the status of Steppe Grey Shrike, and this website illustrates the taxonomic background with the Lanius genus perfectly. A subspecies of Southern Grey Shrike (the Iberian race of which I have seen in Spain) Steppe Grey (pallidirostris) is the only form of Southern Grey Shrike to have occurred in the UK. This particular form usually occurs in Central Asia, with the last previous record for Britain being an individual that took up residence in Shropshire back in 2011.
The Shrike quickly moved to this bramble perch

Satisfied with our views, we left the shrike to enjoy its mealworm brunch, before heading south to our next target of the day – the Little Crake that had been fairly regular at RSPB Minsmere throughout the week. Whilst a long way from Cheshire, Minsmere is a cracking reserve and I won’t turn down a twitch there – on our last visit we were lucky to catch up with the Collared Pratincole that had taken a liking to the pools back in the Summer.

Upon arriving at the hide, we were told that crake hadn't been seen since 10am, and now, 3 and a half hours later, we (stupidly!) assumed it was due a trip out of the reeds. And so we waited…….and waited…..and waited…..

With a false alarm of someone mistaking a shadow for the crake (?!) and a sighting of an otter or mink dubiously emerging from the reeds where the crake was last seen, it eventually became clear that we were fighting a losing battle and as dusk swiftly approached we had to admit defeat. The distinctive calls of Cetti’s Warblers and patrolling Marsh Harriers were our only consolation for over 5 depressing hours spent staring at the same patch of reeds…..

After staying the night in an amazing hotel that actually turned out to be a Chinese restaurant (with some of the best Cantonese chicken I've tasted) and early news that the previous afternoon’s Arctic Warbler was still at Donna Nook, we headed back up North to try and catch up with the bird (Alex’s random target for the Autumn that I had all but written off for this year). Luckily the bird was showing well on arrival, and the mass of scoped and long lenses that greeted us on the reserve path quickly betrayed the bird’s whereabouts.

We soon locked on to the warbler, and for the next hour or so enjoying cripplingly close views as the bird flitted about feeding in the Hawthorn trees running alongside the path – completely undeterred by its ever increasing crowd of admirers. Quite a large looking warbler, the ID can be clinched by the long primary projection and the exceptionally long supercilium which unlike Greenish, stops short before the bill.

The Arctic Warbler in one of the rare moments it kept still!
The bird was often obscured in between the branches where it fed on flies.

After lunch, we strolled round the reserve, on the lookout for any more migrants lurking undetected in the bushes. After contemplating how the Arctic Warbler was my 299th species of bird in the UK and wondering what number 300 would be (I was hoping for a mainland Rubythroat – why not aim high!) we were greeted with an excited birder exclaiming he had just found a Radde’s warbler a little further down the path. Following him to the patch of shrubs he had seen the bird in, excitement began to creep in as after weeks of speculation as to what number 300 would be and a year long target to achieve that milestone before the year was out, we were finally there.

Approaching the Blackthorn shrubs where the bird was last seen, everything was still – no movements or sounds apart from the eerie cries of the distantly feeding Brent Geese on the adjoining saltmarsh. I waited, baited breath, my eyes sharp and seeking out any small movements, any tiny flutter of wings. Then, out of the corner of my eye, a brown bird quickly darted across the track in to the nearest bush, instantly catching my attention. My binoculars instinctively raised, I called out to the others to alert them, and watched as the bird revealed itself to the three of us, perched in full view on one of the lower branches – an unmistakable Radde’s and my number 300.

The obvious supercilium was plain to see, reaching from the bill and extending to the back of the nape, slightly diffused before the eye and with a slight kink to the rear.

The birds prominent supercilium was plain to see, even from a distance
Annoying piece of grass!

The bird swiftly disappeared as quickly as it materialised, doing what Radde’s do best and skulking in the undergrowth – keeping close to the floor (a more characteristic behaviour of Radde’s than the very similarly marked Dusky Warbler).  As news got out, the Arctic Warbler was seemingly forgotten as the masses of birders on site got wind of this find and headed towards where we were viewing, the assembled crowd soon able to enjoy brief views when the bird made its presence known when flitting from bush to bush.

The olive back was now clear to see, with a small bronze patch on the closed wing, and as the bid dashed through the shrubs, the buff/rufous undertail covets more apparent – another key feature when separating these two species.

The buff/rufous undertail covets

As more and more people arrived and being satisfied that I had captured this personal milestone with some record shots, we left the warbler in peace, making the journey back West after a satisfying weekend. Not even the news that the Little Crake had reappeared that day and was showing well – quashing my theory that it had in fact been eaten by the otter - could spoil it (what a menace!!!!).

1 comment:

  1. Great timing. The Steppe Grey Shrike seem to be greeting you as you arrived. That sure is a great way to start your trip. Really nice shots there by the way. You came in at the right time to enjoy such a splendid view. Cheers!

    Lucille Foster @ The George Hotel At Cley


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