Friday, 23 September 2016

A Couple of Whinchats, A Corncrake and a Parakeet

18th September 2016
An Afternoon in Norfolk
For the last couple of days easterly winds from Scandinavia have been blocked from reaching the east coast by a strong north-westerly airflow. I felt that this would result in birds being blown onto the North Norfolk coast, but the windy conditions would make seeing any birds very difficult. So I resolved to wait till Sunday afternoon to hit the coast in the hope that all the exhausted birds would be hopping about in the calm, sunny weather.


Once this idiot (there's always one who has to stand closer
than everyone else) left, the birds started coming to the
front of the bush.
I started at Salthouse where a small clump of willows held a surprising number of birds, including a Red-breasted Flycatcher. Not particularly rare, but I only see one or two of these a year so they are always nice to catch up with. The crowds were out in Norfolk today but I had a nice chat to a couple of novice birders for whom this bird was a first. They were from near where I used to live in London and we discussed the raucous parakeets which have taken over that area. The flycatcher took a bit of patience, giving just brief views mostly inside the bush, but after about 40 minutes it came and sat right out in the open for a minute or so, giving everybody a great chance to study every single detail.
As we came away from the bird we had fantastic views of a Hobby hunting Swallows just over one of the gardens in Salthouse.
The flycatcher had been found by somebody else the previous day, but I really wanted to get to a quieter spot to try to find my own birds. So I headed to Stiffkey, one of the few spots on the coast where you don't have to part with an arm and a leg for parking. I usually follow the path westwards, which takes me along the edge of the saltmarsh. There is plenty of hedgerow along here and one day I will find something very good.
But today the small strip of coastal wood to the east seemed relatively devoid of birders, so I headed along the edge of the saltmarsh with the intention of cutting up into the wood and working my way back. Near the end of the wood I heard a Yellow-browed Warbler calling loudly from up in the sycamores. These used to be scarce in the autumn, but so many reach our shores now that you would half expect to bump into one on the Norfolk coast in late September or October.
I cut up into the wood to try to locate the bird, but it stopped calling and seemed to move on unseen. But I lingered in the area waiting for it to reappear. As I stood quietly in the wood, suddenly a bird flew up from the long grass about 15m away from me.
My first view was of a short, fanned tail with pale feather tips. It reminded me of a snipe and Great Snipe briefly crossed my mind but that has white outer tail feathers. This would be a very rare bird to find. But then I caught reddish wings. I quickly discounted the two partridge species and pheasant poult and as the bird flew round below me I suddenly clocked that it looked like a crake! The body colouration matched corncrake!
This would be a very unlikely, though not impossible find. I have only ever seen Corncrakes on their breeding grounds in the northern isles, but they do migrate to Africa and do occasionally get flushed from the unlikeliest and most unpredictable of places.
I had only seen the bird for maybe three of four seconds but as I ran through every other possibility in my mind there really wasn't any other explanation.

I alerted a nearby birder and we walked through the general area where I thought it was heading for. However, it had flown out of view so it was a bit of a needle in a haystack. Corncrakes are famously difficult to flush, preferring to run away in the long grass or stay motionless. After about half an hour I gave up.
The only thing I was unsure about was that initial view of the fanned tail. It wasn't something I recognised. When I got home I managed to track down a photo on the internet which showed exactly the same. This was the first Corncrake I had ever seen in England and a most unexpected find.

Not the best picture
But the day was about to get curiouser. For walking back through the woods I heard a raucous screeching sound which was unmistakeable. It was the call of a Ring-necked Parakeet! I had only just been discussing them earlier in the day. It flew through the campsite and landed atop a tall conifer just long enough for me to get a record shot by putting the phone up to the telescope. It was then chased off by the local crows and jackdaws who weren't happy with this stranger. This was the first time I had seen this bird in Norfolk.
It really was a day of surprises.

19th September 2016
Farm tick 108!

My streak of birding good luck continued today.

The carpenters were supposed to come and finish off the Velux window early today, but by 8:45 they were 45 minutes late. I rang to be told they had gone to another job first. Nice to know. Somebody did turn up, but it turned out to be someone come to match the bricks for the conservatory we are about to have built. I could so easily have not been in. For the sake of a courtesy phone call these people must waste an awful lot of time calling on empty houses.
By 10am I got bored waiting for the carpenters and headed down to check on the sheep and chickens. I took my binoculars with me as the sky was a bit drizzly and there was a good chance something new would have dropped into the farm.
I kept checking back towards the farmhouse in case the roofers arrived and I just happened to notice a small bird hop up onto the top of one of my young poplar trees. I assumed it to be a  Meadow Pipit, then when I raised the binoculars it was quite the wrong shape and it had a nice pale supercilium (stripe above the eye). This was a WHINCHAT, a new bird for the farm (at least new for me). My first new bird for nearly a year.

It quickly dropped down to the ground somewhere near the dyke and didn't come back up for a while. I sprinted back to the house to get the telescope and my phone so I could grab a record shot, but when I got back I could not find it. After about ten minutes I relocated it facing away from me right at the end of the land. I lined the scope up on it, but just at that moment I noticed the roofers' van driving away along the road!

Another dash back to the house to call their office, then back out to search for the whinchat. By now I was out of breath! Again no sign for about ten minutes when it just popped up right in front of me on top of the Jerusalem Artichoke stems which form a windbreak for the pumpkin patch. This time I managed to get the telescope onto the bird and I just got my phone up to the eyepiece when I heard the roofers' van pull up again!

Back to the house to make clear what work needed to be done and to offer them a cuppa before heading back out to search for the whinchat again. This time it was drizzling and after over an hour I had to give up. I did find a fresh young chiffchaff passing through as well as observing a jackdaw perched on top of one of the Shetland lambs.

The carpenters finished and I bade them farewell. They had done a very good job. I then headed out for what turned into a fantastic hour's birding on the farm. I quickly refound the whinchat before noticing that it was with another! TWO WHINCHATS!


The rest of the farm was alive with birds too. The canopies of the old ash trees were jumping with linnets, chaffinches and goldfinches. The chaffinches were flycatching from the treetops, but then I picked up one which seemed to be remarkably proficient at this activity. I managed to glimpse it through a gap in the leaves and the bill I saw was not that of a chaffinch, but of a flycatcher! It turned out to be a Spotted Flycatcher, only the third I've seen on the farm. With that, I lost it. Lower down in the ash trees a pair of goldcrests were flitting and picking along the branches. Clearly these birds were ditching in the garden to avoid the drizzle. In the flower borders a couple of chiffchaffs were manically feeding up.
I wanted to carry on birding for the rest of the day, but unfortunately the drizzle just got heavier and heavier and the birds took cover. The rain continued until dark.

It's been a great couple of days of birding with a day on the Norfolk coast and a day on the farm. I'll be up early tomorrow to see what else is out there, but I wouldn't say no to a trip to the Outer Hebrides if something really good gets found!
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