Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Norfolk and Scotland - March 2007

A Taste of Norfolk – Spring Break 2007 – March 5-8, 2007

Gervase and Ann Orton had met me on one of my Kirtland’s Warbler tours this past summer in Grayling, MI. We had hit it off nicely and they were privileged enough to hear the first Black-billed Cuckoo of the year at the site that morning in early June. They had generously extended an invitation to put me up and show me around in Norfolk if I ever came to the UK. Well, I had several options for where I was going to go this spring break (including visiting my friend Luke DeCicco in Nova Scotia, Andy Bankert near Orlando, Florida, or Alan Contreras in Eugene, Oregon. Any of these spots would have been a welcome change of pace from birding in SE Michigan in the dead of winter (where Caleb Putnam and I birded our tails off on the Lake Michigan coast for a respectable but still rather meager 55 species a week prior)! But I also sent off an email to the Orton’s to see if a trip to the UK may work this break. Well, I hadn’t heard back from them for a little over a week so I figured it wouldn’t work out when I did get a reply they welcomed me to come for half a week and they would show me the works out in coastal Norfolk (one of the best birding areas in England) based out of their “Bungalow” (left) out by a small village called Little Snoring (I’m not making this up - Great Snoring was the neighboring village!). Well this was fantastic and I began to make flight and train arrangements to get out to Peterborough from Heathrow so they could pick me up on Monday morning. At about this same time I saw an email to the “Youngbirder” listserv from Torcuil Grant, a young birder from Scotland who I had communicated with a few times via email but didn’t know that well just seeing if he might be interested in hosting a “Yank” for a few days for the second half of my week in the UK. A couple days later I heard back from him saying that would work out well to do an extended weekend with me coming up via train to Dundee on Thursday and he would skip university on Friday so we would have two full days of birding before I had to fly back to London out of Edinburgh early on Sunday to connect to my flight back to Chicago and back to school in Grand Rapids. Had a few killer weeks of school when I really couldn’t think about the trip too much without seeing an associated drop in test grades so tried to stay focused for the next few weeks and then before I knew it I was through and managed to get back home in Wisconsin on Friday night in the midst of some nasty sleet and snow all the way around the bottom of Lake Michigan and through Chicago. I enjoyed a day with my family before heading out on the early flight to Heathrow on Sunday morning. A rather uneventful flight and I was thankful that the agent had put me on the bulkhead with both my neighboring seats being empty which gave me a lot more space for the 8 hour flight. After having flown to Delhi, India nonstop from Chicago this flight really seemed like a short hop over the pond and before I knew it we were turning off our electric equipment and putting the seatbacks up for arrival in London. We landed in quite the crosswind and it was the most I’ve ever felt a 777 being pushed around and made our way to Terminal 3. A long walk from the extended piers they have at Heathrow got us to customs and I had to explain to the immigration official that I didn’t have the address of the Orton’s who I was staying with first and would the address of Torcuil in Scotland do? No that wouldn’t but the phone number of the Orton’s would do this time but he gave me a stern warning about having the address of the person I would be meeting in the future before he allowed me through... A short wait at baggage claim revealed my checked luggage had made it safely and I went out towards the bus station that I was to wait at for about 4 hours before I caught the bus to King’s Cross where I was to catch my 521AM train to Peterborough. I watched a movie and guarded my things in the bus terminal basically staying up all night as I didn’t feel safe leaving all my optics and such in my bags laying next to me. I was only heckled by one homeless type who was actually caught by bus terminal staff for attempting to steal a small metal sign (idiotic I know!). After refusing to give back the sign, 12 Metro Police came with flak jackets on and searched him finding something of note before carting him off in the Paddywagon. The buses over to Kings Cross were fairly uneventful, but I did have the pleasure of traveling on Doubledeckers which provide quite a view as we made our way through quiet London at 4AM. The train (left) wasn’t bad and I arrived to meet the Orton’s at the station at about 7AM. From then on it was all birds!

I don’t know the names of most of the places we went so my account will be rather limited by that. Suffice it to say that we birded some outstanding areas in the course of the next three days. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to keep my eyes open as we got into the afternoon of the Monday as I’d been up for close to 48 hours with only about 4 hours worth of naps. So we weren’t able to bird as many areas as we could have conceivably been able to if I had been able to keep my eyes open a few more hours!

One of the highlights of Monday’s birding was an area on the coast where we were looking over these cliffs and had Northern Fulmars less than 30 feet away as they glided on the updrafts over the cliff where they were nesting. Looking down on the beach and the tidal flats held foraging parties of Bar-tailed Godwits, Eurasian Oystercatchers, Sanderling, Ruddy Turnstone, Grey Plover, and Common Redshank. The stiff winds (30mph plus) prevented us from locating very much on the sea but the great looks at fulmar were really quite a treat. A stop by some sugar beet fields on our way to the bungalow yielded a resting flock of Pink-footed Geese (~1000+) along with 6 Whooper Swans. Some open country roads also yielded a good sized flock of Yellowhammers (a bright yellow bunting) with a few Corn Buntings also tagging along with the flock. My first European Golden Plovers flew over while we were here too. We lucked out with a nice Red Kite that flew over town not a mile from the Bungalow in Little Snoring – one of the rarer birds we saw during my three days in the area and probably our best self-found bird. A female Stonechat was seen near a flock of Fieldfare, both of these species are winterers and it was problematic whether we would be able to find these species or whether they would have already headed north. We saw a lot of other common species (like the Dunnock pictured to the left) before heading to the bungalow so I could take a short nap and we could head back out. That turned into an all afternoon nap and I was woken by Gervase at 6PM for supper as they said I was dead asleep at 3 when they tried to awake me. We had a great supper which included parsnip which is sort of a sweet legume. Unlike anything I’d tasted before and quite good. Turns out Ann is quite the cook and she either packed us nice sandwiches and pack lunches for our days out so we were never wanting for food or treats. Some sort of pudding with nutmeg and raisons was our desert and the next morning I had Crumpets – a sort of English muffin meets pancake – very difficult to describe but quite delicious. I also had the beloved Scone with clotted cream and jam – something that I can’t begin to describe to someone from the States who has never tasted it – tastes simply divine though. It was nice having hot tea wherever and whenever we went as it seemed that Ann was always making some up or packing it for us in thermoses.

Tuesday we hit up several woodlands trying to target some of the songbirds that are found in SE England. A nice variety of tits (Parus old world chickadee/titmouse types to the recipients of this email who aren’t up on their birding vernacular and think that I’m being crude) were seen including Coal and Marsh Tit which I hadn’t seen in Kensington Gardens last March when I was in London for a day with my dad (also the Great Tit pictured right). Things like European Goldfinch and Chaffinch were abundant and Great Spotted Woodpecker, Treecreeper and Wren (Winter Wren) were also well seen. A nearby stop at a ford gave us very nice looks at the moth-like pale Barn Owl as it hunted over the edge of a marsh (the fact that it was out hunting at 11AM means that it is stressed and having trouble finding food according to Gervase). A Little Egret stalked the marsh and a nice flock of Redwings (30+) were also seen in the field before flying off. A different wood which was actually owned by the Earl of Leceister was well birded for the elusive lesser spotted woodpecker (downy woodpecker sized). We whiffed on the Lesser Spot but did manage a very nice calling Green Woodpecker (a real treat!), several Nuthatches (literally look like Red-breasted meets White-breasted with a very different call), a flyover Common Buzzard, and a few distant Egyptian Geese. We then headed for the coast to chase a reported dartford warbler – a rather good bird this far north in England at a spot we were going to be going anyway. We got there and found quite a few birders there and after a few minutes we had nice looks at the Dartford Warbler that was frequenting a small patch of Gorse (small yellow flowers on a shrub of heathland) on a hill right by the sea. Skylark, Meadow Pipit, and a couple more Stonechats were present at this nice site right along the shingle bank (basically a sea barrier of built up pebbles that keeps the tide and large breakers from washing into surrounding villages/lowlands. A quick scan out to sea yielded only a few Red-throated Divers (Loons). The adjacent tidal flats held my long-awaited Pied Avocets – definitely one of the most elegant and beautiful looking birds I’ve ever seen. Northern Shelducks, Eurasian Wigeon, Common Teal, and hundreds of Dark-bellied Brent (or Brant) grazed the grasses in the area as well. Continuing on to look for bearded tit and cettis’s warbler a little ways up the coast. The wind was rather high for the bearded tit which we whiffed on but we did manage 4 Marsh Harriers which was nice. On our first try for Cettis’s Warbler we missed it but when we came back and were just leaving we heard one call down the same path so we hurried back over and we were able to get a brief glimpse of this skulking species in the fading light.

Wednesday was a rather gloomy looking day when we first got up (remarkably the first day I wasn’t seeing the sun – quite the feat in March in England!). We headed over to Titchwell which Gervase had been talking about constantly and I can see why! The place had easily 40 birders about when we were there and we took a back path so that I could see Eurasian Bullfinch (right) which were cooperative with two pair showing very nicely in the Hornbeam that they favor. Continuing out we observed Tufted Duck and Common Pochard in the freshwater portion of the pools. The next pool was 50/50 brackish water and had our first Common Goldeneye of the trip along with a nice flock of European Golden Plover. My long sought after Ruff was well seen here with at least 6 foraging along an island not far from the dike we were standing on. I spotted one of the three 1st winter Little Gulls that we had seen reported in the Nature Center sitting out among the golden plover. A few Linnets flushed from the path as we continued out and made our way to the sea watch where we saw a few Common Scoter (Black Scoter) along with some Red-breasted Mergansers, Red-throated Divers, and several more Great Crested Grebes. The beach yielded a few Common Ringed Plover among the hundreds of Black-tailed Godwit, Oystercatcher, Grey Plover, and Sanderling. The walk back yielded mostly the same birds on the way in and we continued up the coast to look for Twite at a place that had hosted a Lesser Yellowlegs not a week before. I got some nice photos of a Common Redshank (left) at the same pool but the Twite were nowhere to be found. A female Merlin zipped past us while we were sitting there though and a couple of Marsh Harriers were seen as well. A massive flock of at least 700 Golden Plover were also seen in the air over the tidal area – unusual to see them in such a large number in a coastal area.

We then went to Abbey Farm to look for a little owl that is supposed to be very reliable – haha. We spent over 2 hours waiting for the bird to stick its head out of a root bundle with no luck. We did finally catch up with Stock Dove here – the wild version of a Rock Pigeon basically – only rather tough to find when you actually go looking for them it seemed. Many Gadwall were present in this pond and we had nice looks at a lot of other species like Red-legged Partridge, Egyptian Goose, Redwing, Fieldfare, Mistle Thrush, Song Thrush, Eurasian Jay, and Northern Lapwing (pictured right), Eurasian Curlew that we had seen along the way but this gave us more opportunities to enjoy them. We finally left with about 45 minutes of light left to try for golden pheasant – a species we had tried for on Monday at midday with no luck. We arrived at the golden pheasant spot with about 35 minutes of daylight left and waited for most of it without seeing more than a couple of Goldcrests (the old-world equivalent of Golden-crowned Kinglet – which sound almost identical) when Gervase spotted a pheasant walk across the road behind us – a quick look in the fading light revealed that it was indeed a male Golden Pheasant – what a magnificent bird. About a 10 second look and it and disappeared into the brush on the other side of the road.

Thursday morning Ann took me to the Peterborough train station where she helped me negotiate the delays that were associated with the Scottish Signal Workers strike which nicely coincided with the one day in the year that I would be traveling via rail in Scotland… Due to the disruptions I was able to catch an earlier train that had been delayed over an hour and basically left when I was scheduled to out of Peterborough. The train trip was really rather nice as I had basically four seats to myself and they have a plug for the laptop and I’ve typed up my whole report thus far on the trip. We are about 30 minutes out from Edinburgh right now. Only noteworthy birds of the trip up so far have been a few Mistle Thrush, Kestrels, Stock Dove, and Redwing. The countryside has changed from the rather boring agricultural land of Lincolnshire and is nice and hilly now with heather on the edges, more Scotch Pine stands and smaller, older houses and cottages. Since the Scottish signal workers are on strike I will have to take a bus from Edinburgh up to Dundee so we’ll see how that goes. Spoke with Torcuil on the phone this morning and told him I’d call him and update him on my ETA when I sort things out here in Edinburgh. Ann sent along a lovely packed lunch including some delicious carrot cake that have kept me from going hungry or shelling out £7-8 for a rather pitiful lunch onboard the train here. BTW – Salt and Vinegar Crisps (chips) are fast becoming my favorite chip. They have a strong enough kick that I can’t just pound them down like I can most potato chips in the States. All for now – next update will probably be from somewhere over the Atlantic on my way back to Chicago. Cheers!

A brief account of Scotland

Friday we headed for the Scottish highlands in search of some of the specialties like the highly sought after capercaille, the endemic Scottish crossbill, and crested tit. We started the day out quite well finding a distant Black Grouse out along the grassy edge of distant heather. A couple of Eurasian Siskins also flew over at this point, unfortunately they were the only one’s of the trip. Pheasant were abundant and we even saw a couple of Green Pheasant – a very striking looking subspecies of the more common Ring-necked Pheasant. Continuing on we moved up into higher elevation where there was more bare rock visible along with some snow cover. We began scanning for Ptarmigan (Rock Ptarmigan to those of us in the US) and saw a few Red Grouse (unique all dark subspecies of the Willow Ptarmigan we have in the US...pictured above right) flying around in the heather and giving their unique rattling call. It was snowing at this point and our scanning for Ptarmigan up along the bare rocks was being hampered as a result. The snow began to let up maybe five minutes after we got there and we saw a few Ptarmigan feeding on the edge of one of the larger patches of snow. I was amazed that we had gone 3 for 3 on our first three target species of the day – grouse are by no means a predictable or easy bird to find so I was quite pleased. As we continued on towards the Scotch Pine strongholds that held the remainder of the real goodies we stopped for my first White-throated Dipper – a sharp looking relative to the rather drab dark grey American version of the same species. The brown head, dark back, and white breast all sharply contrasted to give the bird quite the smart appearance. Common Buzzards were all over the place and there were also a fair number of Eurasian Kestrels. We were unable to find any golden eagles which are also found in the area. The coniferous stands that we were targeting actually were rather birdless. The high wind hurt our detection rate and we ended up with a good number of Great, Coal, and Blue Tits but none of the sough after and specialty crested tit that apparently is quite common in the right habitat up there (according to Torcuil). A few roving bands of Goldcrest, Treecreeper, Winter Wrens, and Chaffinch rounded out literally almost all the birds we saw during our four hours in the habitat. Not even a single flyover crossbill…remarkable. The scenery was breathtaking though and was still a very pleasant afternoon in the highlands of Scotland. Some backroads near Dundee yielded a Tawny Owl that was seen briefly in the headlights of the car as it was perched on a fence post right by the road and flew ahead of the headlights for a couple of seconds before peeling off. We had an enjoyable dinner and evening at Torcuil’s father, David Grant’s, house.

Saturday was my last day of birding in the UK and was basically just a mop up of species that I hadn’t seen yet but that were still fairly getable in Scotland. We started out the day at a nearby Loch though and were able to refind a reported female Smew – a very nice looking bird that I hadn’t been expecting on this trip (pictured on the left). Good looks at Whooper Swans along with a couple of Pink-footed Geese (or “Pinks” as Torcuil called them). [At this point I ceased typing as I was arriving at ORD, I apparently forgot to finish the report and did the rest by memory…9 months later when I was reading through this again] Some random Chaffinch flocks that we stumbled upon had a decent amount of Linnet mixed in as well as at least one Brambling, a bird I have wanted to see for a long time! A couple of houses with hedges surrounding the premises also yielded a good-sized flock of Eurasian Tree-Sparrows, a bird I hadn’t seen prior to that on this trip. The rest of the day we birded coastal regions and I enjoyed my life looks at Razorbill, as well as my first ever looks at adult Northern Gannet, European Shag, and gorgeous views of Common Eiders (right) all along the coast. A Rock Pipit was a nice evening bird in another coastal village where we also waited among a large number of locals for some smashing fish and chips. A reservoir nearby had large numbers of gulls and waterbirds and also had my first Slavonian Grebe of the trip (Horned Grebe in the States).

The following morning Torcuil drove me down to Edinburgh airport and I caught a British Airways 757 down to Heathrow where I was able to connect to O’hare without issue. All in all an excellent trip and one where 123 different species bumped into me, 53 of which were lifers!

A photo of me scanning the North Sea for seabirds in coastal Scotland (taken by Torcuil).

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