Ten years ago, at Cley, I saw the first Western Sandpiper for Norfolk. It took considerable time and expertise by those involved before the identification was confirmed. Yesterday we went to look for the second Norfolk Western Sandpiper, at Snettisham. This bird is in summer plumage so, in theory, easier to identify. However, the challenge of simply finding the bird amongst the thousands of other waders was almost overwhelming – fortunately there were plenty of people on hand to help look for it. Something else was in our favour to – the bird’s very distinctive feeding behaviour. Showing a clear preference for keeping it’s feet dry, it ran around on the shore with it’s head down and bill extended – presumably catching flies (well illustrated in Ian Bollen’s photo in the Bird Guides gallery). Even at several hundred metres distance and in a melee of other waders, with practise, it was relatively straightforward to relocate. Supporting cast for this rare and highly entertaining bird included Little Stint and Turtle Dove (we missed out on the Roseate Tern in the failing light) and, earlier in the afternoon, the ‘presumed escaped’ White Stork, a few miles down the road at Ashwicken. Closer to home, an otherwise rather uneventful sea-watch on Friday, was enlivened when JJ arrived on the eastern esplanade and conjured up a juvenile Yellow-legged Gull! A good deal easier to identify in flight than when sat on the water.
I was on my bike yesterday, heading along Hall Road towards Felbrigg to lead the NENBC mid-week walk, when a medium-sized greyish bird flew out from the hedge and up the road. It crash-landed in the hedge on the opposite side, before zig-zagging it’s way towards the shelter-belt opposite the main gates. I immediately recognised the jizz of the bird but just needed to check it wasn’t a male Sparrowhawk – which can look superficially similar. Several close views, as it reluctantly left the shelter of the hedge, revealed a long rounded tail with distinctive white ‘pilot-lights’ down the edge, pale underneath, barring on the upper parts with warm brown under-tones and a prominent head with straight bill – a juvenile Cuckoo – my first in the NENBC area since August 2019 and a welcome addition to my ‘Eco’ list. The walk itself, though well attended, was hot and mostly bird-less.
Yesterday, between Cromer and ‘duty day’ at Cley NWT, I managed to clock up ten gull species. Greater Black-backed, Lesser Black-backed, Herring and Black-headed were all loafing on the beach during my early morning sea-watching – which included a lone Kittiwake east. A quick scan before I finished produced a good candidate for adult moulting Caspian – grateful to Andy H for comments on identification. The bird was still present during the evening. At Cley, a Common and a couple of Little during the morning session from Bishop’s hide, were joined on Pat’s Pool by an adult Yellow-legged – my first confirmed record for the year. In the afternoon, two adult summer Mediterranean were in the roost on Simmonds Scrape. Not a bad larid total for a hot July day!
The past few days has seen an up-turn in the number of waders moving west along the coast. On recent sea-watches we’ve had several species go by including: Curlew, Bar-tailed Godwit, Oystercatcher, Whimbrel and several ‘unidentified flying waders’ – UFW’s! Further along the coast at Cley, a White-rumped Sandpiper (rare American visitor) put in a brief appearance and led to several subsequent ‘false positive’ reports. It was whilst following up on one of these that we did manage to find a nice but very distant summer plumage Curlew Sandpiper on North Scrape. But the best wader of the weekend, without doubt, was the Pectoral Sandpiper – another ‘Yankee’ – at Hickling, found amongst a group of Dunlin and Ruff on the new Brendan’s Marsh. Insect activity has also picked up recently with Swallow-tail, White Admiral and Purple Hairstreak, all at the latter site.
In the summer of 1974, I think it was, my brother Rob, Neil – my oldest friend who was not really a birder back then – and I spent the summer back-packing around Shetland and the Orkney Isles. At one point we camped on the cliffs above the Gannet colony at Hermaness – on the most northerly island of Unst. It was only later, when we’d returned home, that we learned that a Black-browed Albatross had taken up temporary residence on the cliffs that summer – only the second bird in the UK to do so – following the long-staying individual on Bass Rock in 1967. Apart from several trips to Chile, Falklands and Australia, where we encountered hundreds of these majestic creatures, my only other ‘close encounter’ was of a bird off the Norfolk coast a few years back. Although I was pretty happy with the identification, those around me were less certain, so it went down as ‘unconfirmed’ in my book. Yesterday, after a 4.00am start, we headed north to Bempton in the hope of catching up with the latest ‘long stayer’. We were not disappointed – sat on the cliffs on Staple Newk, viewed from New Roll-up view-point, on our arrival, was the ‘target’. It was surprisingly difficult at times to find amongst the hundreds of Gannets, particularly when it turned to face us – only the large yellow bill and dark eye-brow betraying it’s location. We had to wait a further two hours before it finally took flight – when any doubts amongst the assembled throng about the bird where extinguished. It did several circuits of the bay, returning to the cliffs in an attempt to land, on each occasion. We finally left it, looking unsettled on the rock face. An hour later in went out to sea – and, so far, it has not been seen again!
Sea-watching has produced a few surprises recently – including yesterday when, at 5.50am I couldn’t actually see the sea! Visibility got slightly better during the three hours we were there, but not much. Recent highlights have included a reasonable movement of sea ducks – mostly Common Scoter and Eider (over 30 of the latter), up to four Puffin lingering off-shore, a large movement of Black-headed Gulls (1046 west in the first hour yesterday) and four Little Egret which emerged out of the mist and headed west over the town. We scored a direct hit for our ‘speed check’ project with one of the flocks of Eider, which were measured at an average flying speed between Cromer and Weybourne of 37.5 mph. I’d just got back home when the nearby nesting gulls alerted me to ‘stranger danger’. Turned out to be two Spoonbill, flying reasonably low over Cliff Avenue, heading towards the coast. A welcome garden tick.
In general birdwatching and, perhaps more particularly, in the case of sea-watching you’d do well to expect the unexpected. Yesterday was a case in point. I’d been scanning the horizon for passing seabirds when, after an hour or so, I was aware of a shape passing from left to right in my near peripheral vision. When I took my eye from the telescope and re-focused I saw an Egyptian Goose flying east along the shore-line. Not an everyday sea-watching occurrence. Today we were again in the shelter looking out when I became aware of a strangely familiar call coming from somewhere. Because we were sea-watching my brain told me to look for a sea-bird. I looked but couldn’t see anything. Then the penny dropped – or more like the thunder-bolt struck – ‘flipping heck‘ I shouted at Phil – BEE-EATER! We dived out of the shelter to see nine Bee-eater passing overhead calling continuously, as they do. They did a couple of circuits of the church tower before moving off west. We immediately put the word out, at the same time as we started receiving news of the birds earlier along the coast. A very welcome NENBC tick. Later, whilst doing a spot of yet more unfruitful survey work I got a much appreciated text from Ian – ‘Alpine Swift heading west towards Cromer’. We packed up and headed for the golf course where there were lots of swift – but not the one! Eventually it was re-located closer to the lighthouse and, at one point, I watched it in an aerial display above our house. Thanks to all involved for accurate and timely reporting.. very much appreciated.
My day at Cley yesterday was mostly spent along the East Bank helping visiting birders, where needed, to find and identify our two lingering celebrities – Pacific Golden Plover and Roseate Tern. From time to time both birds went missing and took a bit of re-locating – particularly the tern. At one point we had a mini sterna & larid ‘master class’ going on, with Black-headed, Little and Mediterranean Gull and Sandwich, Common and Roseate Tern all in the roost at the same time.
After a hectic day in the field, I’d had my tea and was just settling down to watch a bit of telly when the phone pinged – ‘Pacific Golden Plover, Serpentine, Cley’. Phil and I had speculated on the Hickling bird, which vanished on Sunday morning, turning up at Cley.. and here it was! I picked him up from Gresham and we were parking up, within half an hour of the bird being found. A short ‘stroll’ down East Bank and bingo – what a bird! Full summer plumage, spangling in the evening sun. Near-by, on Arnold’s, was a Roseate Tern – a real ‘bonus bird’. Unfortunately, it chose that very moment to fly off east. With the prospect of it reaching the NENBC boundary we made a quick exit and headed for Weybourne beach. It never made it that far but, as we were scanning, I noticed a tight flock of waders fly out from the shore and return to the shingle, somewhere beyond Coastguards. We speculated on their ‘make’ and, in the end, decided to yomp along the beach in pursuit. As we drew ever-nearer to the spot, there was no sign and I began to think I must have imagined them. Eventually they flew out to sea and circled back round to land behind us – 18 Common Sandpiper! By this time the Roseate had returned to it’s roost so we re-traced our steps and got good views in the fading light. What a day!
More of that terrific Pacific GP
A call from Eddie this afternoon alerted me to a flock of Bee-eater heading from Northrepps towards Felbrigg. These exquisite creatures – which have been hanging about in various North Norfolk locations – continue to evade me. I jumped in the car and set off for the Felbrigg estate, via a number of stop-offs. There were plenty of Swift hawking insects over the eastern edge of the park and I carefully checked the various telegraph wires on route – not a sniff! Resigned to having missed out again I decided to check out the lake. I’d been joined by Tom and Harvey by that stage and together we enjoyed the various species on show. I’d just reached the exit sluice when a brown-bodied, green-eyed ‘drag’ hoved into view. Once it settled I was able to confirm the identification as Norfolk Hawker. A careful search around the rest of the lake produced at least four. This is only the second or third time I’ve seen this scarce but range-expanding insect at Felbrigg. In other news, another Puffin on the sea-watch this morning and a long-range speed check on an early returning Brent Goose. Oh – and I added Quail to my NENBC ‘eco’ list!