Tag Archives: Siberian Stonechat

Scillies – October 2020

With tours on hold again due to the latest UK Covid lockdown (we hope to restart again as soon as lockdown ends), I thought I would write a blog post about my recent trip to the Isles of Scilly – something to read as the winter nights draw in! This was the 25th year I have stayed on Tresco, with only one or two missed years, and we spent 12 days on the island(s) this year after a couple of unplanned extensions, from 17th-29th October.

This year’s trip started badly. With lots of talk ahead of time about the possibility of a ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown over half term, we brought forward our departure by two days. So we drove down on Friday night and were just having coffee early on Saturday morning, before the heliport opened, when news came through that a Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin (aka Rufous Bush Chat) had just been found back in Norfolk. Even worse, it was at Stiffkey, about 15 minutes from home and a site I visit regularly, including on Friday morning!

Things didn’t get any better as we checked in for our 8.30am helicopter flight to St Mary’s. This is the first year of the new helicopter service and we thought we would try it out. As we sat in the lounge, the helicopter was towed out onto the landing pad, started up and promptly shut down again. After the engineers had stared under the bonnet for a bit, it was towed back into the hangar. We were then informed that there was a technical fault with the helicopter – although we weren’t told that it had already been out of action for most of the previous two days! With only one helicopter leased to run the service, there is no alternative when it goes wrong – a bit of a disadvantage compared to some of the other travel options available like Skybus.

With it being a Saturday, if we didn’t travel today we wouldn’t get over until Monday, losing two days of our trip. We were offered no other option but to travel on the MV Scillonian (rather than putting us on a Skybus flight instead), which would still lose us the best part of a day. Despite the boat being much cheaper than the helicopter tickets, we were refused a refund of the difference and were told we couldn’t book ourselves on the boat and take a refund on the cancelled flight. Not great customer service and not a good first impression for the new helicopter service – an experience we would certainly bear in mind before booking on it again.

When we got down to the Scillonian, we had to wait on the quay because we didn’t have any tickets. When we finally got on board, we took our seats up on deck as it started to drizzle! Thankfully things improved from there, as the skies cleared from the west as we steamed out of the harbour at 10.25. The crossing was unusually calm – good for those with sensitive stomachs, but it did mean there were not so many birds today, aside from the regular Gannets, Kittiwakes and little flocks of auks, and two Arctic Skuas as we neared the islands.

It was mid afternoon before we finally got over to Tresco and were transferred to the cottage where we were staying. After a very late lunch, there was just time for a quick walk round the island. The first impression was rather quiet bird-wise. There had been a good arrival of American birds the week before, but they had gradually dwindled, moved on in the clear weather. With a run of easterlies since, most of the best birds arriving had been on the other side of the country. Still, there were a couple of lingering rarities remaining on St Agnes, so I resolved to head over there tomorrow.

After a quick walk round early morning, which yielded a couple of Yellow-browed Warblers and a small flock of six Common Crossbills flying over as the highlights, I met fellow Tresco regular Steve Broyd on the quay at New Grimsby for the 10.15 boat to St Agnes, and we were joined by John who was staying in the New Inn.

There was no news of either of our targets by the time we arrived on St Agnes and we made our way down to Horse Point fearing the worst. Thankfully just as we were scouring the area looking for the American Buff-bellied Pipit someone called us over to say they had just refound it. We watched it for some time, feeding on the short grass between the rocks and low stunted clumps of bracken and brambles. The bird was mostly on its own but sometimes loosely associating with Meadow Pipits.

American Buff-bellied Pipit – feeding on the short grass at Horse Point

There have been 48 previous records of American Buff-bellied Pipit in Britain up to the end of 2019, so they are fairly regular here these days. This was the third I have seen on the Isles of Scilly, but the first since 2012, so always good to have a refresher, particularly as they can turn up anywhere, not just in the SW.

While we were watching the Buff-bellied Pipit, news came through that the ‘Eastern Stonechat‘ had been refound on Gugh, the neighbouring island attached to St Agnes by a bar. Thankfully the tide was low, allowing us to cross, so we made our way over there next. There were only a couple of other photographers present and the bird was now showing really well in the tall bracken, flicking round catching insects.

Eastern Stonechat‘ is the current term used for two aggregated species – Siberian Stonechat (Saxicola maurus) and Stejneger’s Stonechat (S. stejnegeri). Only recently treated as separate species, the authorities currently require a DNA test to determine which is which (and we had neglected to bring a DNA testing lab with us!). But it may transpire that they are fairly easily separable in the field, and some individuals certainly appear to be distinctive enough. This one looked like a slam dunk Siberian Stonechat (maurus) to my eyes, pale and frosty, with a pale peachy-coloured rump.

Siberian Stonechat – a lovely pale frosty individual
Siberian Stonechat – with a pale peachy-coloured rump

It was a lovely sunny day now and there seemed to be birds on the move. There were several Chiffchaffs flycatching in the nearby pittosporum and others appeared to be making their way through the bracken and brambles. There had been a report of a Red-breasted Flycatcher on Gugh earlier, so we decided to explore. We didn’t find the flycatcher – it turned out the directions given were not especially accurate and we had looked in the wrong place – but we spent an enjoyable couple of hours wandering round Gugh.

We still had over an hour before our boat back was supposed to leave, so we decided to cross back to St Agnes and circle round via The Parsonage. As we walked along the road towards the front wall, we could hear a distinctive call, a repeated ‘tsk, tsk’ rather like someone tutting, coming from the front garden. It was a Dusky Warbler! It had gone quiet when we got to the wall and looked over, and someone walked round the house and went in through the front door.

We stopped to scan the garden – a Pied Flycatcher and a Spotted Flycatcher were flitting around in the trees above. Further along, from the top of the driveway, there were several thrushes under the apple trees and one or Blackcaps. As I was looking through them, something small shot across through the foreground of my bins. Steve saw where it landed, in the far corner of the garden, and announced it was a Pallas’s Warbler! As I got onto it, I noticed some movement in the pittosporum just behind and the Dusky Warbler popped out briefly.

We watched the Pallas’s Warbler as it fed in the ivy in the sunshine, hovering and flashing its lemon-yellow rump, before it disappeared up into the trees behind the annexe. There was a Yellow-browed Warbler in there too. Then the Dusky Warbler started calling again, from the hedge behind the apple trees and we had fleeting views as it flicked in and out several times, before making its way round behind the house.

Several people had gathered here now, and the Dusky Warbler had disappeared back into the tangles in the front garden, where we could still hear it calling on and off. It was time for us to make our way back to the quay to catch our boat back to Tresco. What an amazingly productive hour it had been at The Parsonage!

There had been several Little Buntings on Tresco over the last week, and one was refound while we were on St Agnes, behind New Grimsby along the track up to Castle Down. By the time we got back, it had disappeared – there were lots of people out walking, up and down the track. But the following morning I found it again, before it got too busy. It was initially in the gardens in front of the Coastguards Cottages, but eventually moved back to the track where it proved to be very obliging.

Little Bunting – this very obliging bird was lingered behind New Grimsby

Things then settled down over the next few days and there seemed to be little in the way of new arrivals. The excitement of yesterday’s Dusky and Pallas’s Warblers did not continue. With a strong southerly airflow from the Mediterranean building, I had high hopes for some overshoots but a lone Glossy Ibis on 21st was the only notable new bird. After touring St Agnes, Gugh and St Mary’s it made the briefest of visits to Tresco mid afternoon. Thankfully it flew in past me and landed on the grassy heliport, just in time for Steve to see it as he waited for his flight off. It only stayed three minutes before flying off towards Carn Near, and was back on St Mary’s soon after.

Glossy Ibis – flew in and landed on Tresco heliport for just three minutes!

The southerly airflow also brought with it a small arrival of Black Redstarts. I usually see them here at this time of year, in variable numbers depending on the prevailing weather conditions. Most of them are grey female/first winters, but a smart male Black Redstart took up residence in the churchyard at Old Grimsby for a couple of days.

Black Redstart – this smart male spent a couple of days in the churchyard

I had taken with me a small portable Skinner 20W actinic moth trap but the southerly airflow failed to produce much in the way of migrant moths on Tresco, despite high hopes. Two Palpita vitrealis (Olive-tree Pearl) were all I had to show for my efforts, despite there being a couple of Crimson Speckled on other islands. This year proved to be rather quiet for moths.

Palpita vitrealis – the only migrant moths I managed to find on Tresco

The next couple of days felt a little like Groundhog Day. There were 5 or 6 lingering Yellow-browed Warblers on Tresco and the variety was provided by which I could find where on different days. A couple of Ring Ouzels were in the fields between New and Old Grimsby at the start of our stay but seemed to move on after a few days in the calm, clear weather.

Ring Ouzel – there were a couple on the island at the start of our stay

There were small numbers of Fieldfares and Redwings on the island throughout and the lull in new arrivals did at least give me a chance to spend some time studying some of the Redwings more closely. Many of them were noticeably darker than the Scandinavian birds we typically get back in Norfolk, more heavily streaked and blotched below and with more noticeable dark markings in the undertail coverts. They looked like Icelandic Redwings, of the race coburni, though there was clearly a lot of variation which only added to the interest.

Presumed Icelandic Redwing – of the race coburni

I have blogged before about the changes I have seen on Tresco over the years. This year, my wanderings around the island were continually disturbed by the grinding noise of the tractor flailing the pittosporum hedges. In places they are now getting very thin, as the flailing goes ever deeper each year (it must be no fun for the tractor driver just to trim one year’s growth – it makes a much better noise if you can really dig it in to the thicker branches!) and the cattle are pushing through and making big gaps. Perhaps this is deliberate – I am sure if the hedges were to die then the larger fields would make it easier for managing the cattle.

Flailing – the hedges on Tresco were taking a bashing again

I remembered fondly my first visit to Tresco back in the 1980s. The fields along Pool Road were still used for growing bulbs and vegetables back then and by October were full of weeds. The fields were smaller and the hedges overgrown, full of brambles. There were lots of birds. Now, with a combination of improved grass and overcut hedges, they are much less attractive to wildlife.

For many years, the fields at Borough Farm were still managed the old way, but since they have been taken back under the control of the Tresco Estate for the last couple of years they are now grassed over and the hedges have been cut back here too. I have fond memories of all the birds I have seen here over the years as well but they are sadly increasingly a shadow of their former selves too. Shame. It really brought it home spending time on St Agnes this year, which is still more like the Scilly Isles of old (as are most of the other islands), with weedy fields and overgrown hedges, full of birds.

There are still some good, birdy places on Tresco though. The areas around the Great Pool and Abbey Pool are some of the most promising still, but despite my best efforts, I hadn’t yet managed to find anything unusual here this year. A Firecrest and a late Reed Warbler in the sallows, along with 2-3 of the Yellow-browed Warblers. Shelduck, Shoveler, Pintail and Tufted Duck put in appearances. The three Black Swans which have taken up residence here this year provided a welcome distraction.

Black Swan – one of three which have taken up residence this year

The wind swung round to the west on 23rd and the weather became more unsettled. It was wet and windy on 24th with the arrival of a weather system straight across the Atlantic bringing a passing weather front. Late in the day a Rose-breasted Grosbeak was found on Gugh. The change in the weather had done the trick and brought with it some new birds from North America!

There was no way to get to Gugh that day, but I resolved to head over to St Agnes on the scheduled boat tomorrow morning. Louis Cross, another Tresco regular and friend of mine, had recently arrived and I told him of my plans that evening. We bumped into each other first thing the following morning and spent an hour or so birding around the Great Pool. An early boat had gone across from St Mary’s to St Agnes and now negative news came back – there was no sign of the Grosbeak. I changed my mind – I figured there would be lots of birders on St Agnes and I had a better chance of finding something good on Tresco, brought in on the same weather system. Louis had arranged to go to St Agnes with his family, so decided he would go anyway.

Needless to day, I failed to find anything on Tresco that morning – a Reed Bunting by Abbey Pool was the only new bird. I was already kicking myself for not going to St Agnes when news came through mid morning of a Red-eyed Vireo there. Then, after heading back to the cottage for lunch, I had a call from Louis on St Agnes. Words to the effect of ‘I’m looking at a bird and I’m not sure what it is’ but with a bit more ‘colour’, I immediately knew it had to be something good!

Louis sent me a photo, taken with his phone off the back of his camera, but it came through upside down and there was a reflection across the screen so it was hard to make out. He had already mentioned the possibility of it being a North American bunting – and when he sent me another, better photo it looked good for Indigo Bunting. I quickly downloaded a photo of the Ramsey Island bird from 1996 and sent it to him, while reassuring him that a 1st winter female Indigo needn’t have any blue in the tail, which seemed to be his main reservation. Then someone he had called over to the see the bird posted a photo on the Scilly WhatsApp group and the news went out.

Cue scramble to get to St Agnes! I could see people over on the quay at New Grimsby waiting for one of the St Mary’s boats, so while I cycled over to see if I could get over via St Mary’s, my wife tried to contact Tresco Boat Services. Despite it being a Sunday, she got through and managed to arrange a jet boat special to St Agnes. The game was on! On my way back to the quay, I scooped up a fellow Norfolk birder who was over on Tresco from St Mary’s and we had a nervous wait as the jet boat failed to appear. ‘Straight away’, turned into ‘3pm’ and eventually at 3.15pm finally the boat appeared.

We were whisked across to St Agnes (despite a big swell once we got out of the lee of Samson) and Louis met us on the quay to lead us to the bird. Several birders over from St Mary’s were leaving but there was still a small group watching the Indigo Bunting which was feeding on the path by the old bonfire with a couple of Chaffinches.

Indigo Bunting – feeding with a Chaffinch

Indigo Buntings breed in eastern North America and winter from southern Florida down to northern South America. They are extremely rare visitors here with only two previously accepted records – apart from the 1996 Ramsey Island bird, one was photographed on a bird table on Anglesey in May 2013 but only identified retrospectively. The adult males are bright indigo blue in summer, but first winters, particularly young females, can lack any blue at all.

Indigo Bunting – only the third record for Britain

A fantastic find by Louis – many congratulations to him – and it was nice to be able to share the moment with him, watching it together. We even had time to nip round and see the Red-eyed Vireo nearby, another vagrant from North America, before our jet boat returned to take us back to Tresco. Not surprisingly, we had a couple of celebratory pints in the New Inn afterwards (before we both had to go back to family duties)!

We were supposed to be leaving the next day, but it felt like there had to be more to find on the islands. With all the excitement on the Scillies, my elder son, Luke, announced that he was coming down from Spurn for a few days with a couple of his friends, Jacob & Bethan. We decided to stay on too, although it required some hasty rearrangement of travel plans and we would have to move cottage in the morning.

I got up early to pack up, and figured I had enough time for a quick couple of hours birding before we had to move cottage at 9.30am. I thought the pools offered the best chance to find something in the time available, so rather than setting off on foot I cycled down to Swarovski Hide. There was no sign of anything on the Great Pool and the bushes along Pool Road were pretty quiet as I cycled down to the far end. I left the bike propped up against the bushes and had a walk round the bushes.

As I started to walk over towards Abbey Pool, I noticed I had a message from Dick Filby on St Mary’s. He had photographed a rainbow which appeared to end on the south end of Tresco and had joked ‘And today’s #ScillyBirds rarity is awarded to….Abbey Pool, Tresco!’. Little did he know how right he was! I had a quick look over the bracken on the east side of Abbey Pool, but couldn’t see anything of note, so cut across round the woodpile and out to Pentle Beach.

When I got back to the SE corner of Abbey Pool, I walked through the bracken to check along the near edge of the water. I could see a wader on the shore now, right up in the NE corner. It seemed to have yellow legs, but I just had my bins and camera with me and it was too far to be sure. I had a pretty good idea what it was, but I spent the next 10 minutes or so working my way carefully up along the shore, using the vegetation as cover so as not to disturb it. I needn’t have worried. As I got up towards it, the juvenile Lesser Yellowlegs turned and walked back along the shore towards me, before walking past about three feet from me! It was too close to focus on!

Lesser Yellowlegs – this juvenile was a nice find on Abbey Pool

So the rainbow and Dick were both right – the Scilly rarity of the day was indeed on Abbey Pool! I messaged him back with a photo. Louis came over to see it and then I headed back rather later than planned. Lesser Yellowlegs is another visitor from North America, not as rare as the others but a nice find nonetheless.

It really felt like there should be more North American vagrants to find on the Scillies, given the birds which had appeared over the last couple of days, but we couldn’t find anything else on Tresco that day and the other islands came up blank too. The Indigo Bunting had flown off before Luke and friends arrived that day, so we went back to St Agnes the following day in the hope it might reappear. It didn’t, but we did finally manage some great views of the Red-eyed Vireo just before we had to leave.

Red-eyed Vireo – finally showed well just as we were about to leave

The sun had come out by the time we got back to Tresco and we figured the light would be great at Abbey Pool. With the last of the birders over from St Mary’s departing as we arrived, we had the Lesser Yellowlegs to ourselves now. The gusty wind had whipped up foam which had piled up along the shore, and it was great to watch the Yellowlegs feeding, picking at the foam, as it made its way up and down the edge of the water, at times just a couple of metres away from us.

Lesser Yellowlegs – feeding in the foam whipped up along the shore

It was very windy the next day, as ex-hurricane Epsilon came in across the Atlantic, bringing with it some huge swells. The combination of the wind and swell produced some impressive waves which were amazing to watch from the top of Castle Down as they battered the north end of Tresco, Bryher and crashed over the lighthouse on the top of Round Island.

Waves – striking the north end of Tresco
Waves – crashing up and over Round Island!

On my way back from watching the waves in the morning, I called in at Gimble Porth to catch up with the bunting double – a Lapland Bunting and another Little Bunting were both feeding with the finches in the fields there and eventually showed very well. With no inter-island boats due to the weather, we had them to ourselves today.

Little Bunting – showed well with the finches at Gimble Porth
Lapland Bunting – also with the finches at Gimble Porth

Epsilon did bring with it some more North American vagrants across the Atlantic, but unfortunately not to the Isles of Scilly. We were almost out of time again anyway and had to content ourselves with a couple of late additions to the Scillies 2020 list – a smart male Golden Pheasant along Abbey Drive last thing that afternoon and the Hooded Crow which had been around all week but finally put in an appearance as we were getting ready to leave the following morning.

Golden Pheasant – feeding by Abbey Drive at dusk

Unfortunately our departure from Tresco was to be no less eventful than our arrival! Not the fault of the helicopter service this time, but Tresco Estate. We had waved Luke, Jacob & Bethan off on the Firethorn in the morning, as they were flying from St Mary’s, and after lunch in the New Inn we walked over to the heliport. We had left our luggage outside the cottage for delivery to the heliport, but when we arrived there was no sign of it. We were repeatedly assured it was on its way, but the longer we waited the more worried we became. Eventually just two of the six bags there should have been arrived!

We were spun a right old web of stories and excuses before eventually it all unravelled. The Estate office had clearly made a mistake and somehow thought all our luggage was Luke and his friends’ (despite them having taken their own bags), so unbeknownst to any of us they had put our bags on Firethorn and we had unknowingly waved them off with Luke earlier! Despite there being no one on St Mary’s to claim them, they had just left all our bags there on the quay. Once they realised the mistake, presumably when we arrived at the heliport, rather than confess and ask us how many bags there were, they had tried to cover it up while they sent a jet boat over to St Mary’s to try to find them. The person sent over had found two bags and assumed – wrongly – that was all of them.

Our helicopter was now due to depart, so I had to send the rest of the family on ahead while I tried to track down the rest of our bags. Another jet boat was dispatched and the rest of lost baggage was eventually found and returned. Luke had run over to the quay on St Mary’s and was able to confirm the correct bags were on their way. I would like to say that the Estate Office staff apologised for all the upset and delay it caused us but instead they pointed out how much it had inconvenienced them having to send two jet boats to collect the luggage they had lost! The best I can say is that in 25 years of staying on Tresco, this is the first time we have had problems like this, so hopefully it was a one-off and will never happen again. And I eventually managed to catch the next helicopter across to Penzance, together with the four bags, and we were only an hour late setting off on the long drive back to Norfolk.

So leaving aside the unusually chaotic travel experience this year, looking back on the trip now and scanning through the great list of birds seen it was well worth the effort again! Perhaps one to think about as a possibility for a future tour, once Covid is behind us?

26th Sept-4th Oct 2019 – Shetland

Not a tour, but I spent a few days up on Shetland enjoying the delights of Autumn migration there. Here are a few highlights:

Isabelline Shrike

Isabelline Shrike – found at Levenwick on 28th Sept

An Isabelline Shrike was found at Levenwick on 28th September. An interesting bird, it was identified initially as probably a Turkestan Shrike, but lacked the strongly defined pale supercilium of that (sub)species. However, it was not a particularly good fit for Daurian Shrike either, being rather too pale below and especially on the throat, with too much contrast between the upperparts and underparts.

A pellet was collected, which hopefully will yield some DNA and might shed some light on this bird’s identity, but even the genetics of this complex group is not simple. Both Turkestan and Daurian Shrike are thought to interbreed with Red-backed Shrike, and possibly with each other, which further complicates the situation.

Eastern Stonechat

Eastern Stonechat – probably a Siberian Stonechat, maurus

An Eastern Stonechat was found the same day at Brake. The Stonechats are similarly complex, now most frequently treated as two species – Siberian and Stejneger’s Stonechats. This one looked a good fit for Siberian Stonechat, but again DNA may be required to confirm its identity (apparently someone did manage to acquire a sample).

Semipalmated Sandpiper

Semipalmated Sandpiper – on the beach at Grutness

It was a busy day on 28th, with a Semipalmated Sandpiper found on the beach at Grutness. Coming from the opposite direction to the shrike and stonechat, it had perhaps come over from North America previously and just relocated to the beach. It remained for several days, commuting between Grutness and Pool of Virkie.

Little Bunting

Little Bunting – Sumburgh Head, also on 28th

There were several Little Buntings around throughout my visit, and I managed to catch up with a couple of them. One around the lighthouse buildings at Sumburgh Head also on 28th was very confiding.

Olive-backed Pipit

Olive-backed Pipit – found at Cunningsburgh later on 28th

Likewise, there were several Olive-backed Pipits found during my stay on the islands, but the only one I managed to catch up with rounded off my day on 28th, when we watched it creeping through the grass between the irises at Cunningsburgh.

Red-breasted Flycatcher

Red-breasted Flycatcher – this one at Quendale on 27th

Similarly, there were several Red-breasted Flycatchers found throughout my stay and I managed to run into several of them.

 

Red-backed Shrike

Red-backed Shrike – a juvenile on 2nd Oct

A juvenile Red-backed Shrike on 2nd October was a lot less controversial than the Isabelline Shrike. One of two which turned up later on in the week, this one near Gott.

Barred Warbler

Barred Warbler – in the middle of Lerwick

Several Barred Warblers turned up later in the week too. I stopped off to see one in the middle of Lerwick on a shopping trip on the afternoon of 3rd, where it was gleaning insects from the tops of some sycamores around the bowling green / tennis courts.

Greenish Warbler

Greenish Warbler – minus its tail

A Greenish Warbler at Levenwick on 27th was one of two during the week, a distinctive bird lacking a tail.

Yellow-browed Warbler

Yellow-browed Warbler – everywhere at the start of the week

There were Yellow-browed Warblers everywhere at the start of the week – on 27th there seemed to be at least one in just about every bush. However, after a clear night, numbers thinned out considerably after 28th, but they were still seen almost daily. The commonest warbler.

Eastern Lesser Whitethroat

Eastern Lesser Whitethroat – presumably of the race blythi

Several Lesser Whitethroats seen all appeared to be birds of one of the eastern races, most likely blythi. It was a nice opportunity to get a better look at several of these interesting birds.

Bee-eater

Bee-eater – a long way north

 

A Bee-eater at Ollaberry was a nice distraction late on 29th.

Orcas

Orcas – a pod of Killer Whales in Clift Sound off Wester Quarff

But the highlight of my trip was not a bird. A pod of Orcas (Killer Whales) was sighted off St Ninian’s Isle and then Maywick heading north on the morning of 2nd. There was nowhere to look for them until Wester Quarff, much further north, so I positioned myself there, not knowing if they would come all the way up Clift Sound. It was a long wait, but eventually they appeared in the distance.

This was the so-called 027 pod of Orcas, eight in total. They took their time to get to us – by now, quite a crowd had gathered – seemingly stopping having made a kill successfully a number of times. Eventually they passed only 150-200m offshore. Amazing!

 

3rd Nov 2018 – Late Autumn, Day 2

Day 2 of a 3 day long weekend of Late Autumn Tours in North Norfolk today. It was a cloudy start, but it brightened up nicely and the brisk southerly wind was mild, coming all the way from North Africa! Another nice day to be out. We planned to spend the morning trying to catch up with some lingering rarities along the coast, and then head out for some more general birding in the afternoon.

As we made our way east along the coast road this morning, we stopped first by the duck pond at Salthouse. Down along Meadow Lane, the ‘Eastern’ Stonechat was hiding at first, down in the reeds in the ditch which runs along the side of the track. It was just visible from the gate when it perched up. Helpfully, it then flew out to the taller reeds out in the middle, along the channel straight out from the gate, where we could get a really good look at it in the scope.

Eastern Stonechat

‘Eastern’ Stonechat – presumably of the form now called Stejneger’s

We could see its pale peachy orange breast contrasting with its white throat. When it flew, we could see its large, unstreaked, orange rump. At the time of writing, we are still waiting to hear back on its specific identity (which will hopefully be confirmed by DNA analysis!), although we know for sure it is one of the forms of ‘Eastern’ Stonechat.

The more easterly-breeding birds have been split out as a separate species, Stejneger’s Stonechat, which is what this bird is believed to be. However, the criteria for the separation of the two ‘Eastern’ Stonechats in the field are still largely untested so if this one isn’t Stejneger’s Stonechat, it will be back to the drawing board. Still, it is a really interesting bird to see whatever we end up calling it!

While we were watching the Stonechat, small flocks of Lapwing and Starling were passing west overhead, presumably more fresh arrivals from the continent coming in for the winter. A Sparrowhawk skimmed low over the grazing marsh and disappeared up across the field behind us, thankfully well away from the Stonechat.

Our next stop was at Sheringham. We parked at the Leas and made our way up along the coastal path to the Coastguard lookout on Skelding Hill. There were a couple of people already there who quickly put us on to the immature drake King Eider, which was out on the water. It was rather distant today, and diving constantly, but through the scope we got a good look at it. The distinctive bulbous frontal lobes on the base of its bill caught the morning light and shone bright orange.

King Eider

King Eider – an eclipse immature drake

Scanning the sea from the clifftop, we could see a few Cormorants diving among the fishing buoys. One looked a little smaller and had a different profile – a squarer head with a steep forehead and a thinner bill, as well as a more contrasting white throat. It was a Shag, a 1st winter. Shags are not common here, so this was a nice bonus bird to see. A few Gannets were circling and plunge diving offshore too.

A small flock of Pink-footed Geese flew over calling, possibly birds on their way up from the Broads to North Norfolk, rather than fresh arrivals. A few Skylarks in off the sea were more likely just arriving here for the winter.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese – possibly moving up from the Broads to North Norfolk

There has been a Richard’s Pipit lingering along the cliff top at Trimingham for the last few days, so we made our way along there next to see if we could find it. It had been reported already a couple of times this morning, but as we walked down along the path to the cliffs, we met a couple of people leaving who had not seen it for the last couple of hours. We carried on along the cliffs anyway – it was a lovely day now, and the view from here is stunning.

Trimingham cliffs

Trimingham Cliffs – a great view, but you can see the problem with erosion here

There were a few small flocks of Starlings coming in off the sea here too. We flushed a few Skylarks from the edge of the field as we walked past and a small group of Golden Plovers were hiding further out in the winter wheat. Looking over the edge of the cliffs, we could really see how the coastline is eroding here, with large areas below which had slipped down creating some substantial patches of undercliff. A Kestrel and a Meadow Pipit perched on one of the ridges.

When we got to the spot where the Richard’s Pipit had last been seen, there were a few people standing on the top of the cliffs looking, but there was still no further sign of it. It had been seen briefly in the long grass by the path but had then dropped over the cliff edge and disappeared. No one had seen which way it had gone, and it seemed like it had been roaming along a mile or more of the cliffs. We had a quick scan of the undercliff here, but it was like looking for a needle in a haystack. We didn’t want to waste too much time here, so we decided to walk back.

As we got to the path which cuts back across the fields to the road, we heard what sounded like a Rock or Water Pipit, but we were looking into the sun as it flew round. As we turned inland, a Water Pipit flew back over us. Two Common Buzzards drifted over from the small wood away to the east, passing right over our heads.

Common Buzzard

Common Buzzard – flew overhead as we walked back

When we got back to Cley, we stopped for lunch at the picnic tables overlooking the reserve. A Marsh Harrier drifted over the scrapes, flushing all the gulls, ducks and a large group of Black-tailed Godwits. A lone Ruff flew over, heading inland presumably to feed in the fields. We could hear Pink-footed Geese calling from the field behind the Visitor Centre, and when something spooked them, they all flew round and landed again behind the hedge just to the east of us.

After lunch, we headed out up the East Bank. We could hear Bearded Tits calling from the reeds, but it was a bit too windy this afternoon for them to show themselves. A Marsh Harrier was hanging in the wind out over the reedbed.

Looking across to Pope’s Pool, we could see lots of Wigeon and Teal, together with a few Shoveler and one or two Gadwall. More Black-tailed Godwits were feeding along the back edge and several Cormorants were drying their wings on the island. More ducks were loafing in the grass around the Serpentine. When a noisy motorbike raced along the coast road, revving hard, everything spooked.

Wildfowl

Wildfowl – disturbed by a noisy motorbike on the coast road

Looking down along the main drain, we could see several Little Grebes on the water. There were lots of waders on Arnold’s Marsh today, so we stood on the bank to go through them. There were more Black-tailed Godwits here, together with several Curlews and Redshanks. In amongst all the Dunlin, we found a single Knot. A Grey Plover and a Ringed Plover were feeding on the stony spits on the north side.

On the brackish pools opposite, a Little Egret was feeding just below the path, but flew up and landed again next to a Grey Heron further back.

Little Egret

Little Egret – feeding on the brackish pools by the East Bank

Out at the beach, the sea looked quiet at first glance. A couple of Grey Seals surfaced just offshore, watching some people gathered down on the shoreline. We could see one or two Gannets circling over the sea and then we found several Red-throated Divers and a single Razorbill on the water. Four Common Scoter flew past, but the highlight was a Great Skua which we picked up flying west offshore.

Back at the car, we headed west to Warham Greens. As we walked down the track, we flushed a few Blackbirds from the hedges but when we got to the paddock a large flock of Fieldfares flew up from the fields and landed in the bushes.

As we stopped to look at the Fieldfares, a harrier came up over the hedge beyond them. It was a ringtail Hen Harrier and as it dropped down low over the grass in front of the barn, we could see the white square at the base of its tail. It flew up over the hedge the other side and we walked over to the entrance to the field to find it quartering over the cover strip beyond.

Hen Harrier

Hen Harrier – having a last hunt before heading in to roost

The Hen Harrier flew round past us and disappeared through the hedge by the track. We crossed over and watched it as it continued hunting, patrolling either side of the hedge which runs along the far side of the field the other side. There were several Brown Hares in the field, but they didn’t seem particularly concerned by the Hen Harrier just beyond them.

When the Hen Harrier disappeared from view, we continued on down the track. A flock of Curlews and Lapwings was feeding in the winter wheat in the next field. A Sparrowhawk flew low across in front of them and perched up in the hedge briefly.

As we arrived down on the edge of the saltmarsh, another ringtail Hen Harrier was patrolling distantly along the far edge, out towards the beach. There were little groups of Brent Geese, Little Egrets and Curlews scattered over the saltmarsh. Flocks of Starlings were making their way west, although it was hard to tell now whether these were more migrants arriving or local birds heading in to the town to roost.

A small party of Pink-footed Geese had already settled out on the beach beyond and more flew in to join them. Further skeins of Pink-footed Geese looked to be gathering in the fields just inland from us.

It was a good evening for watching raptors. A couple more ringtail Hen Harriers appeared and quartered the saltmarsh, one coming quite a bit closer to us at one point. A ghostly grey male Hen Harrier flew in from the east, along the back edge of the saltmarsh, and shortly after a second male flew in too. A Common Buzzard flew back and forth. A rather dark looking young Peregrine flew in over the beach and tussled with a Marsh Harrier briefly, before flying off towards Wells. A male Merlin appeared on one of the posts out on the saltmarsh and perched preening in the last of the evening’s light.

It was a great way to end the day, but dusk was drawing in fast now, so we decided to head back to the car before it got dark.