Tag Archives: Red-flanked Bluetail

17th October 2015 – Down to the Woods Today

Day 2 of a long weekend of tours today. Having walked the Holkham end of the coastal pines yesterday, we headed to Wells Woods today. It was very dull and overcast first thing, and rather windy with a very blustery NE, but at least it was sheltered in the trees.

We decided to concentrate on the open areas to the south of the woods initially, where the light was better. There were lots of Blackbirds and thrushes in the brambles and hawthorns – Song Thrushes, Redwings and a few Fieldfares as well today. While the latter two are the classic winter thrushes, which come here from the continent, our resident Blackbird and Song Thrush population is also swelled with large numbers coming in from colder climes at this time of year. There were also a couple of Bullfinches lurking amongst the bushes – we could hear them calling, but typically shy they flew away ahead of us. A Lesser Redpoll flew over calling, but dropped down into the birches out of view, and several Bramblings were flying around over the trees.

P1110807Fieldfare – there were lots of thrushes in the bushes first thing this morning

We worked our way west along the main track. There were flocks of tits to search through – Long-tailed, Blue, Great and Coal Tits – together with the odd Treecreeper… and masses of Goldcrests. Almost every tree seemed to have at least one Goldcrest in it today, all feeding feverishly. It made locating the rarities more complicated, with so many birds to sift through, but it was amazing to see them all.

P1110878Goldcrest – there were masses in the pines again today

A Pallas’s Warbler had been reported with the tit flock west of the drinking pool. We had no problem finding a tit flock, but we didn’t know if it was the right one. The flocks can move quite quickly through the trees, with individual birds stopping to feed for a few seconds even when the flock as a whole seems to be constantly on the move. We spent some time following this flock, but we couldn’t see any lost Siberian warblers in amongst it. There were one or two Chiffchaffs in with all the other birds.

We were then pointed in the direction of another Pallas’s Warbler, further west still along the track. When we got to the spot, there was no sign of it at first. Thankfully, a friendly birder managed to locate it, feeding on its own in some small oaks deeper into the trees. We could see it fluttering around in the leaves, with a deep yellow supercilium and prominent double wing bar. However, it was hard to see the distinctive lemon yellow rump patch from below, or the crown stripe.

P1110817Pallas’s Warbler – feeding in the tops of some young oaks

The Pallas’s Warbler suddenly flew from the oaks it had been in, to another taller tree further along where we could just see it, before it dropped out of the other side and disappeared again. Pallas’s Warblers are always a crowd pleaser. Almost as small as a Goldcrest and covered in bright yellow stripes, they flit and hover in among the leaves looking for insects. Breeding in southern Siberia, they should be on their way to winter in SE Asia or southern China. In some years, large numbers can be displaced westwards and turn up in western Europe. Having missed one last night, it was nice to catch up with a Pallas’s Warbler this morning.

There has also been a Hume’s Warbler along the path here, a little further towards Wells, and that was our next target. As we walked back along the path, we could see a large crowd gathered, but they had not seen any sign of it for a while. We walked into the trees, to try to refind it, but when we re-emerged onto the path, we could see the throng had moved a little further along. As soon as we joined them we could hear the Hume’s Warbler calling, and eventually we got some great views of it in the birch trees by the path. We followed it for a while, or followed the distinctive call as it moved rapidly up and down the line of trees, and saw it very well again when it paused for several minutes to feed in a low hawthorn.

P1110825Hume’s Warbler – like a dull Yellow-browed Warbler, with a distinctive call

The Hume’s Warbler is another bird blown over from Siberia, on its way to wintering grounds in the Indian subcontinent or southern China. Until recently it was considered just a subspecies of Yellow-browed Warbler, but with markedly different vocalisations and some mostly consistent differences in appearance, it was elevated to a species in its own right. It is best identified by its call here – a deeper, more strongly disyllabic ‘tchuu-eet’ (compared to the thinner, higher ‘tsooeet’ call of Yellow-browed) – but it is also a duller, greyer species than its close relative.

With two Siberian warblers seen already, we made our way back to the drinking pool. A second Red-flanked Bluetail, a different bird to the one we had seen at the Holkham end of the pines recently, had been found at the drinking pool yesterday and was still present today. With so many rare birds in North Norfolk at the moment, there were unprecedented crowds at Wells Woods today, and once again we joined a large group waiting for the Bluetail to appear. It didn’t take long, flying out of the dense vegetation and up into the low bushes by the side of the pool.

P1110859Red-flanked Bluetail – our second in two days, well hidden at first

It was well hidden at first, hiding amngst the foliage, but still couldn’t escape the attention of the local Robins, which tried to chase it away. Thankfully, the Red-flanked Bluetail then flew out and perched in the open on a dead branch for a minute or so. We got stunning views of its bright blue tail. Unfortunately, it wasn’t going to get any peace and flew off into the pines. We could see it in the trees on and off for a while, before it disappeared completely.

P1110877Red-flanked Bluetail – showing off its blue tail

With reports that at least one Pallas’s Warbler was showing well again back where we had been earlier, we decided to go back for a second look. It now appeared there might be at least three along the path there. The other birders we met coming towards us on the way reported that they hadn’t been seen for a while, and sure enough the one we had seen earlier had disappeared into the trees as we passed the spot. But a little further on, we found a couple of people watching not one but two Pallas’s Warblers!

We eventually got everyone onto them – they were moving quite quickly through the trees again, so were hard to follow at times. Finally they stopped for a minute or so to feed in a low oak, and we could see them really well – crown stripe, square yellow rump patch and all. Cracking birds, Pallas’s Warblers, and that made three for us in the morning! A Swallow hawking over the pines would have been more of a surprise, had we not also seen two late ones yesterday.

Having seen all the main target birds in this area of the woods, and with it approaching lunchtime, we made our way back east towards the car. We were told that the Bluetail had returned to the drinking pool, but a quick diversion round that way and we found it had disappeared into the pines once again.

There has been a Blyth’s Reed Warbler skulking in the brambles at the eastern end of the woods for the last five days but it has been very mobile and extremely elusive. They can be difficult to see at the best of times, but given the amount of thick undergrowth here, such a skulking bird can be nigh on impossible to pin down. However, there was some interest in the group in looking for it, so we took another detour round via the area where it has been seen most often. There were lots of people milling around, but it appeared that it had not been seen or heard. We had a quick look, but eventually the call of lunch won.

After lunch, we decided to go back and have a more concerted effort to see the Blyth’s Reed Warbler. Still it had not been seen or heard from since the morning. We walked round all the likely areas, but there seemed little chance that we might stumble across it. In the end, we gave up and went to explore the area around the Dell. We had just emerged back onto the main path when we got a message to say that the Blyth’s Reed Warbler had just been seen. We hot-footed it back, but once again we found it had disappeared again as quickly as it had appeared. The trail had gone cold. Various reports from around the general area had us chasing shadows for a while, until once again we decided to give up.

We had a walk down the path beside the caravan park and out into the fields. A Great Grey Shrike had been in the bushes here earlier in the morning, and afternoon is a classic time to see this species out hunting, but we couldn’t find that either. We decided to head back to the car. It so happened that the area the Blyth’s Reed Warbler frequents was pretty much on our way back, and as we walked through the trees we came across a large crowd. They were watching the Blyth’s Reed Warbler, or at least the undergrowth where it was hiding.

After a few moments it hopped up and perched in full view on a curved wild rose stem. Half the group managed to get onto it, before it disappeared again into the vegetation. We stood for a while with the dawning realisation that it had moved on again – it was clearly very mobile and covering a large area. A whistle saw the crowd move further through the wood to where it had just been seen again. We spent some time chasing after it through the trees like this – it was always in the deepest tangles and hard to follow. We saw it fly and heard it call a couple of times, but unfortunately, it didn’t perch up nicely again and eventually we lost it once more. Time was running out, the light was fading, the weather was closing in and it started to drizzle as we walked back to the car.

It had been hard work, but what a selection of birds we had seen – waifs and strays from the east, all real rarities in this country. A Hume’s Warbler, three Pallas’s Warblers, our second Red-flanked Bluetail and a Blyth’s Reed Warbler. Wow!

16th October 2015 – More from the East

Day 1 of a long weekend of tours today. Norfolk has been enjoying a real purple patch in the last week, with a succession of rare vagrants from the east turning up in the county, brought to us on an ongoing easterly airflow originating from far across onto the continent. We set out to try to catch up with a few of those today.

Our first stop saw us drive east along the coast to Beeston Common, just beyond Sheringham. It was overcast and blustery when we arrived, but that doesn’t seem to put off our first target. As soon as we got out onto the Common we could see the Isabelline Shrike perched atop a hawthorn bush, looking all around. We got it in the scope and watched it catch a wasp and eat it.

IMG_2003Isabelline Shrike – still present on Beeston Common today & showing well

Suddenly it flew towards us, and landed in another bush much closer by. It was obviously actively looking for food, as it flew again to another perch. It dropped sharply down to the ground, but disappeared deep into a holly when it flew back out so we couldn’t see what it had caught this time. We waited a few minutes and it reappeared on our side of the holly, before flying across back to the hawthorn it had just come from.

From there, it dropped down into the grass again and this time flew up with a small frog. It took it into the hawthorn and we could just see it through the scope, impaling the frog on a thorn. Shrikes are also traditionally known as ‘butcher birds’, as they will store excess food in a ‘larder’ by impaling them on a thorny bush or even barbed wire for later consumption. The Isabelline Shrike seemed unsure whether to eat its frog now or leave it for later. It appeared to eat a little, then moved back to the outside of the bush to resume hunting, before changing its mind and dropping back in to eat some more. Fascinating to watch.

There have been thrushes arriving in numbers for days now, and out on the common we saw a Blackbird or two drop into the bushes and a large flock of Redwing flew over our heads calling. A Sparrowhawk flew over as well – there is a real bounty for predators at the moment, with many small birds arriving here exhausted from the continent.

Having enjoyed such great views of the Isabelline Shrike, we decided to move on and try our luck elsewhere. Heading back west along the coast, we stopped at Muckleburgh Hill next. An Olive-backed Pipit had been found here yesterday, but it had been very elusive. They have a habit of creeping surreptitiously through the grass unseen, so it seemed like it might be difficult for us to see this one. A text message also confirmed that it had been elusive so far this morning. We thought we might as well have a go.

When we finally found the assembled crowd, the Olive-backed Pipit was on show, but getting everyone onto it was easier said than done at first. It was creeping around on an area of cut bracken, amongst the dead stalks and short regrowth, so had lots of places to hide. We kept getting glimpses of it. Frustrating. Finally it crept over to a more obvious place under a large rowan tree and proceeded to work its way round the edge of the taller bracken at its base. Now everyone got onto it, we managed to get it in the scopes and get some cracking views.

IMG_2040Olive-backed Pipit – eventually showed very well at Muckleburgh Hill

Olive-backed Pipits breed in Siberia and just into European Russia, migrating down to India and south Asia for the winter. They are a rare visitor to our shores, though they turn up more often these days than they used to. They are still a great bird to see and full of character, as they creep around pumping their tails slowly up and down.

We left the crowd to it, and continued our way back west, stopping off next at Stiffkey Greenway. A Great Grey Shrike had been seen earlier in the morning, but had disappeared off to the west along the coastal path. There were lots of people here, birdwatchers as well as dog walkers and joggers, so we didn’t fancy our chances of seeing it. This is a good site to look for other recent arrivals in the coastal bushes, so we decided to go for a walk anyway.

Scanning the saltmarsh, we could see lots of Brent Geese out amongst the vegetation. A Greenshank dropped in on the path out across the marshes and started to feed around the small pools. A Grey Plover was on the path further out and there were lots of Curlew and Redshank. Several of the scattered pools also held a Little Egret.

P1110756Brent Geese – feeding out on the saltmarsh

There were not so many birds in the hawthorns and brambles as there have been in the last couple of days. Perhaps fewer new birds had arrived overnight, or possibly they had already moved off inland, disturbed by all the activity up and down the path. We did see plenty of Goldcrests in the bushes, and flushed a steady stream of Redwings, Song Thrushes and Blackbirds. There were several finches – Chaffinches, Greenfinches and Goldfinches, though they were keeping down in the bushes out of the wind. We caught up with a tit flock – Long-tailed Tits and Blue Tits – working their way through the gorse around the whirligig. In amongst them we found a couple of Chiffchaff.

We only went as far as the eastern track at Warham Greens. As we walked out at the whirligig, a small falcon swept up along the edge of the saltmarsh and powered away behind us, a Merlin. We scanned the marshes out towards East Hills and initially picked up nothing more than a couple of distant Marsh Harriers. Then a smaller, sleeker, slimmer-winged harrier swept up above the horizon briefly before dropping back down and resuming quartering low over the vegetation. Through the scopes we could see the paler underparts and square white patch at the base of the tail – its was a young ringtail Hen Harrier.

With no sign of the shrike and time getting on towards lunch, we decided to walk back. On the way, we stopped briefly to admire a bush cricket which walked out onto the muddy path – a Short-winged Conehead.

P1110778Short-winged Conehead – a type of bush cricket, on the coastal path

We ate lunch at Lady Anne’s Drive and afterwards walked west along the path on the inner edge of the pines. It was fairly quiet at first, apart from the ubiquitous Goldcrests and the regular Little Grebes on the pool at Salts Hole. Just beyond there, we could see some other birders on the top of a low bank, scanning the bushes in the reeds by the path. There has been another Isabelline Shrike here at Holkham in the last few days (there have been an unprecedented three in Norfolk!), but apparently we had just missed it. It had dropped down from one of the bushes and disappeared. We decided to walk a little further along to the gate, from where we could scan the grazing marshes.

There was no sign of the shrike from further along either, but we did see a rather late Common Whitethroat in a low rose bush by the gate. There are lots here in the summer, but this one should probably be well on its way towards Africa by now. Out on the grazing marshes, we could see a few Pink-footed Geese together with the Greylags. It was while we were scanning the marshes, that someone coming along the path broke the news to us that the shrike had reappeared further back along the path.

We walked back quickly and there it was – perched up in a wild rose bush amongst the reeds, our second Isabelline Shrike of the day. How greedy! It was rather similar to the one that we had seen at Beeston Common in the morning, but noticeably more extensively marked with dark chevrons on its pale underparts. There is typically some variation between individuals.

IMG_2046Isabelline Shrike – our second of the day, at Holkham

When it flew down again, we continued on our way west along the path. We stopped periodically to scan through the Goldcrests, in case there might be something more interesting in amongst them. It has been amazing just how many there were here in recent days – it would be fascinating to know how many have come in from the continent and moved on inland this week.

Just past the crosstracks, we came to the clump of sallows which the Red-flanked Bluetail has been frequenting, since Monday at least. There is always something of a dilemma – whether to try to see it flicking around quietly in the sallows, or whether to wait our by the brambles where it likes to come to feed on blackberries occasionally. We decided on the latter.

We didn’t have to wait too long until the Red-flanked Bluetail put in a typically brief appearance on the brambles. It perched for a few seconds feeding on the blackberries, but it was mostly hidden within the foliage. Then it flew across the front. Most of the group got a glimpse – a flash of the blue tail as it went. We waited again and then got a repeat performance – the Bluetail fed on a blackberry from within the brambles and then flashed off. It was clearly nervous – the local Robins have been giving it a hard time, chasing it away.

IMG_2062Red-flanked Bluetail – showing off its orange flank patches

Finally, on its third visit of our vigil, the Red-flanked Bluetail came out onto the brambles in full view. We could see its rather Robin-like appearance front on, but lacking the red (orange!) breast and instead sporting two orange flank patches and a triangular white throat patch. We were missing its best feature from this angle, but it even did the decent thing and turned round, flashing its bright blue tail at us. What a cracker! Than it darted off back into the sallows.

IMG_2076Red-flanked Bluetail – helpfully turned around to show off its bright blue tail

Red-flanked Bluetails breed in the Siberian taiga and migrate down to spend the winter in SE Asia. They were almost a mythical rarity in the UK in years gone by but only in the last 10-15 years have they become annual visitors and are now almost an expected find after a period of east winds at this time of year. This is probably because they have been expanding their breeding range steadily westwards and now breed in eastern Finland. Still, that does not detract at all from the delight at seeing one – electric blue tail, and all.

After great views such as those, we set off back suitably elated. Once again, we paused regularly to check through the flocks of Goldcrests and tits on the way back. Two Swallows hawking for insects low over the pines around Washington Hide were another unseasonal surprise, with most of their brethren well on their way to Africa by now.

There had been a Pallas’s Warbler in the trees further along from Lady Anne’s Drive towards Wells during the day, so we thought we might walk that way and try to see it. Unfortunately, the weather started to close in a little on our way back and the light levels dropped early. The trees where the Pallas’s Warbler had been were quiet. It had been a tiring day in the field and energy levels were waning by this stage, so we decided to make our way slowly back. But what a day it had been – 2 Isabelline Shrikes, Olive-backed Pipit and Red-flanked Bluetail amongst others. We needed to leave something for tomorrow!

13th October 2015 – Full of Eastern Promise

Another Autumn Tour today. With winds from the east, it has been very exciting here in recent days, so we set out to catch up on a few of the recent attractions and check out if there had been any new arrivals.

We started at Stiffkey, with the intention of walking west from Greenway towards Warham Greens. With the wind veering NE and picking up, with cloud and rain, it felt like there might have been some new birds in overnight. The coastal hedges here seemed like a good place to look.

It was very exposed out along the edge of the saltmarsh, with the wind gusting over 30mph, and at first the bushes seemed rather quiet. We scanned the saltmarsh as we walked – there were plenty of Brent Geese in now, feeding on the eel grass, plus lots of Curlew and Redshank and several Little Egrets. A couple of Marsh Harriers were out quartering the saltmarsh.

P1110513Brent Geese – when they first arrive, they all like to feed on the saltmarshes

We could hear a couple of Goldcrests calling from the bushes, but couldn’t see them at first. They were obviously keeping down out of the wind. Then we came across a flock of Long-tailed Tits and two Goldcrests with them were more obliging. Still, there didn’t seem as many here as in recent days.  We flushed a few Song Thrushes from the hedges as we walked, and a Redwing, but there was nothing to suggest any significant numbers had come in overnight. We were making our way back when a red tail flicked over a bush by the path and disappeared – presumably a Redstart, although it didn’t show itself again. As we stood and waited to see if it might reappear, a Blackcap hopped up to feed on the blackberries.

P1110499Blackcap – feeding on blackberries

We had a quick look in campsite wood – and the place was absolutely alive with Goldcrests. We stopped to watch them dropping down out of the trees into the bushes out on the campsite to feed, then zooming back up into the trees again. There had been a report of a couple of Firecrests further along, in some trees on the edge of the campsite, but all the crests had moved on by the time we got there. While it was amazing to watch all the Goldcrests feeding feverishly, it was a struggle to see the birds in the canopy of the wood itself. Eventually, we decided to move on.

We made our way east along the coast to Beeston Common. There has been an Isabelline Shrike here for a couple of days already, and it has been a real performer. It was on form again today – perched high in the top of a hawthorn as we arrived, for all to see. We watched it in the scope for a while, then it set off on  a sally out across the common, catching a bee and taking it back to the bush to incapacitate and then eat it.

IMG_1976Isabelline Shrike – showing well at Beeston Common

It flew around several times, moving between bushes, looking around all the time for prey. Even when it started to rain lightly at one point, it still sat up in the bushes. It was great to watch. Some video of it from yesterday is below.

After that crowd-pleasing performance, we had a short walk over the common to see what else we could see. There has been a Yellow-browed Warbler or two here in recent days, but we couldn’t find the tit flock today – it was just a bit too windy out there. We decided to head back to the car.

We drove to Cley and, after a stop at the Visitor Centre, we drove round to the beach car park. The morning had already gone, so we ate our lunch in the beach shelter out of the wind. While we were eating, we kept one eye on the sea. Seawatching can always produce interesting birds, with a decent onshore wind. There were plenty of Gannets going past today, adults with black-tipped white wings and lots of slaty-grey juveniles. And a steady stream of little groups of auks – mostly Guillemots, but we also picked up several blunt-billed Razorbills too.

P1110527Gannet – one of the many juveniles past today

While we were eating, the vigilence paid off. We picked up a distant Sooty Shearwater flying past, alternately arcing up high over the sea and dipping down to skim low over the waves. We could see its dark underparts, ruling out the commoner Manx Shearwater. After we had finished eating and suitably emboldened by the shearwater, we decided to move round to the side of the shelter to have a more concerted effort at seawatching.

It certainly paid off! Next up, another Sooty Shearwater came past, much closer this time, giving us all a great view. Then a skua appeared low over the sea to our left, heading our way. We got it in the scope and could see that it was a Pomarine Skua and a super smart adult to boot. As it came past we could even see the ‘spoons’ – the elongated, spatulate central tail feathers which project out the back, characteristic of the species. Stunning! Then another shearwater appeared, a bit further out and this time keeping very low over the sea. It was fairly dark again, but shorter winged and dumpier than the Sooty. It was a Balearic Shearwater from the Mediterranean. To round things off nicely, a Great Skua flew past us next – big, bulky & dark, with steady and deliberate wingbeats. We hadn’t intended to seatwatch today, and only gave it about half an hour, so this was an amazing return. If only every day seawatching could be as good as this!!

There was still no real sense of any major new influx of passerines on the wind, so we decided to make our way back to Holkham to try to catch up with the star bird there – a Red-flanked Bluetail which had been found lurking in some dense sallows yesterday. We parked at Lady Anne’s Drive and made our way west along the inner edge of the pines. We were serenaded by the yelping of Pink-footed Geese as we walking. At Salts Hole, we stopped to admire the Little Grebes. At least 5 today, there was lots of territorial chasing going on and lots of maniacal laughter.

P1110536Little Grebe – one of the pairs at Salts Hole

A little further along, we heard a Marsh Tit calling. We could see it moving around in the low elm suckers alongside the path. It was fascinating to watch – it pulled a dried leaf from one of the trees and took it to a nearby perch, where it starting pecking at the leaf violently. It gradually became clear that the leaf was curled over and after a second or two the Marsh Tit pulled out a caterpillar. It had obviously cocooned itself into a leaf, but the Marsh Tit had realised it was hiding in there and had taken the leaf off to extract it. Very clever.

We detoured up the boardwalk by Washington Hide. The trees here can be very good for birds, but it was just too exposed and gusty there today and they were quiet, apart from yet more Goldcrests. We stopped to look at a small party of Pink-footed Geese out on the grazing marshes. In the bushes down on the edge of the reedbed, several Redwings were feeding on berries. A Sparrowhawk flew in and landed in a hawthorn, looking round hungrily.

The pool in front of Washington Hide was fairly empty today, and we were just walking back down the boardwalk when a large white shape started to take off from one of the ditches just to the east. The Great White Egret had obviously been hiding in there, out of view, today. We watched it fly across and then drop down into another ditch further over, out of view again.

P1110546Great White Egret – flying between ditches this afternoon

We continued our way west, stopping occasionally to watch the tit flocks or the Goldcrests coming down to bathe in a puddle. A very white Common Buzzard has returned to the bushes over by the church – it was there last winter and was causing some confusion again today.

There is always lots to see here, but we had really come hoping to see the Red-flanked Bluetail and time was getting on, so we made our way to the trees where it had been showing. We hadn’t been there long, when it suddenly appeared from the sallows behind and started to feed on the brambles. We could see the bright blue tail as it flicked around on the bushes, and the deep orange flank patches. Once an almost mythical rare visitor here, they are now turning up more often, but are still an absolute delight to see.

P1110554Red-flanked Bluetail – a record shot in poor light this afternoon

It has been hassled repeatedly by the local Robins and obviously didn’t fancy spending too long out in the open, so darted back into the sallows. Having seen it so easily, we hung around a short while to see if we could see it again. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. However, while we were waiting we did hear a Yellow-browed Warbler calling loudly from the sallows. When a bird appeared on the edge of the sallows immediately after, we thought that would be it – but it turned out to be a Firecrest instead. It didn’t stay long and disappeared back into the bushes.

We didn’t have time to linger too long, so set off back to the car. We still had time for one last bird – on our way back, another Firecrest had been seen in the holm oaks beside the path. We arrived just in time to see it flicking around amongst the branches, before it suddenly darted out and disappeared into the trees behind.

It was time to call it a day, but it had been a great Autumn day out – with some top quality rare visitors and a classic seawatching session in the middle!