Back to Blighty – July 2017

South Stack Lighthouse, Anglesey, North Wales

As always, click images For Higher-Res versions

It had been a while since I had revisited the homeland. So, a summer trip to England to see my family was overdue.  Mid-July is not an ideal time to bird the best of Britain, but going in summer meant I had a chance to catch up on some birds I hadn’t seen in a while. My good friend Nick Bonomo planned to fly-out to join me. So, some meticulous planning with old friends Paul Derbyshire, Si Smethurst, Chris Mills, and Andy Culshaw ensured Nick would bag as many UK ticks as was possible.

The week leading up to departure had been rather chaotic and stressful, so I was looking forward to getting away and seeing my mum and sister. I arrived jet-lagged in Manchester on 1st July and enjoyed some r&r for a few days. Nick arrived a couple of days later and we left Bolton in the early hours of 4th July, heading for the Welsh valley at World’s End, hoping to bag some lingering “chickens”.

4th July – World’s End, North Wales
Heading through the sleepy and mist-enshrouded town of Minera at dawn, we climbed up onto the moor and within minutes found 11 Black Grouse loafing at a lek site by the road. We had great looks at these molting males before they suddenly dispersed into the surrounding area.

Black Grouse, World’s End, May 2014

Skylark and Meadow Pipits and a brief Mistle Thrush surely enlivened Nick’s morning, but the second target “chicken” aka  Red Grouse, was seen distantly as we exited the valley. We drove through the scenic Conwy valley, adding several common or garden birds to the list – Grey Wagtail, Bullfinch, Chiffchaff, Nuthatch, etc.

We arrived in Penmaeanmawr to meet up with longtime friend Paul Derbyshire. After some coffee, we all headed off to Anglesey. We stopped off en route at Aber Ogwen’s estuary and pools. A good spot that produced a number of Little Egrets – a strange sight considering this was a real rarity during my childhood birding days. Redshanks, Oystercatchers and two unexpected Greenshanks were good shorebirds for my Yankee companion. After a productive stop here, we continued on to Anglesey. With the Cemlyn Bay terns deserting the breeding grounds due to predation, we skipped that spot and headed for South Stack, Holyhead. The weather was overcast and damp, but it didn’t hamper birding. The seabird cliffs at South Stack are picturesque and buzzed with the to-ings and fro-ings of Guillemots and Razorbills and a few Fulmars. The specialty of the spot, Chough, obliged with great views. A few Puffins or “sea clowns”,  as they are known locally,  were loafing in the cove below the cliffs, while careful scanning offshore produced several Manx Shearwaters.

Heading back, a lunch stop in Holyhead for some Fish and Chips was welcomed. A stop at the Inland Sea produced several dapper Mediterranean Gulls, a top target bird for Nick and were surely breeding birds dispersing from nearby Cemlyn?

Aber Valley Falls, N Wales

Back on the “mainland”, the sun had come out and we headed for the delightful Aber Valley Falls to try for some woodland birds. Being mid-July, nothing was really singing, and birding was tough and we failed on Redstart and Wood Warbler. A nice Sparrowhawk and several Common Buzzards appeared overhead as well as a fly over Siskin. Continuing up to the falls, careful scanning of the hilltops revealed a distant raptor that both Nick and I noticed independently. It was an Osprey, carrying a fish, a good bird for this part of Wales and the first Paul had seen here.
Back to Conwy to meet up with another longtime friend Fred Fearn for dinner. We all enjoyed a nice evening at a pub by the harbor, catching up and drinking some beer!

5th July Conwy, North Wales

A flock of juvenile Little Egrets, Burton Mere, Cheshire

A nice day dawned, and we headed off to Conwy RSPB reserve which appeared dead, so we bid adieu to Paul and Fred and continued on to Burton Mere RSPB….a  nice reserve, built on the opposite side of the mere to the famous, and rarity-delivering spot of Inner Marsh Farm. Little Egrets were breeding here and recently it transpired that Cattle Egrets had also nested here…the first breeding occurrence of that species in the UK.

Juv Little Egret…long overdue back home in CT!

We did not see the Cattle Egrets, but highlights included a distant flying Spoonbill and the worst ever view of a Great White Egret, in flight heading away – only my 2nd in the UK. Little Ringed Plover and a Ruff were nice for Nick, but nothing else of note.

We headed back to Bolton, dropped off the rental vehicle and grabbed a brew before Si came by and we headed off straight for the Norfolk coast. We stopped off in East Leake, Notts in the early evening, to twitch a small group of Bee-eaters that had taken up residence at a working quarry and were showing signs of breeding – a rare occurrence in the UK.

A splash of color…this is what Bee-Eaters look like when you get close views, not like when you see them in Nottingamshire. This was one of several at Po Marshes in Italy in 2006.

Nick and Si wondering when we might get good views..

Strangely enough, they showed only briefly, so views were in flight and far from exceptional, and they showed only briefly and distantly by the time we had to leave. They are currently raising two broods! Confiding Yellow Wagtails and a juvenile Green Woodpecker were our only good views of the trip.

Pressing onwards, we had a rendezvous in north Norfolk with some heathland species, European Nightjar being a much-wanted bird for Nick. We made a quick pit-stop to pick up a sandwich, and made it onsite at dusk. Unfortunately, since it was late in the breeding season, there wasn’t much activity. As the light waned, we finally were serenaded by a churring male. It was too dark for decent views and, although it came close and wing-clapped, views in the spotlight were poor. We had other sites, but this first try was a tad disappointing.

We arrived late at our digs, driving by a Barn owl on a sign that only Si saw. Our digs for the next few nights were Deepdale Backpacker’s – a great little set-up. As Nick and I unpacked the car, Si had heard a Tawny Owl calling in the churchyard across the street. Grabbing the flashlight we headed off into an archetypal English graveyard, only to be shouted at by a local busybody from a window “’ere, what are you lot doing over there?” A quick retort of “Just go back to bed” was offered, and the night again fell silent, except for the squeaking of a juvenile Tawny Owl that we saw quickly but briefly. BOOM!

6th July, The Brecks

My longtime friend and top guy Chris Mills had arranged to meet us and give us the benefit of his local knowledge. Chris runs Norfolk Birding and I recommend anyone that wants to bird Norfolk, to seek out his birding skills and guiding expertise  (www.norfolkbirding.com).

The famous four do the Brecks. Nick Bonomo, Simon Smethurst, myself and Chris Mills scouting for Goshawks… (Ssshhhh…we can’t tell you where…)

The weather was great and we hunted down some Breck’s specialties that included: Tree Pipit, Goshawk, Red Kite, Marsh Tit, but struggled with Woodlark at a couple of spots. We had a great laugh and headed off for an afternoon at Lakenheath, our only good spot for some fenland specialties and our best shot at Bittern, Hobby, Crane and Bearded Tit. The weather at this point, suddenly took a turn for the worse and we took shelter in a blind. Si managed a brief flight view of a Bittern and we had great views of Marsh Harrier, Reed Warbler and Kingfisher. Several untickable views for Nick of Bearded Tit and  a heard-only Cetti’s Warbler were frustrating. To be honest, having lived in the US now for many years, I can’t defend how atrociously shite Old World warblers are, and it was no surprise to see Nick less than enthralled by worn Chiffchaffs and Reed Warblers!

My best-ever view of Bittern in the UK, Lakenheath, Suffolk

The rain abated and we headed back, and as the sun came out again, we were treated to a first-summer Hobby that gave good views and also superb flight views of a Bittern that crossed over the path in front of us. No cranes were around, having failed at breeding.

We left enough time in the evening to hit a spot in north Norfolk that held a pair of Montagu’s Harriers. A rare breeding bird, this site was actively monitored and we found ourselves taking position overlooking some beautiful rolling hills and fields. It wasn’t long before I spotted the female in flight. She flew around and landed in a field. Shortly afterwards, the male, tiny by comparison to the female, flew in and made a food pass. We enjoyed distant, but prolonged views of the male sat perched and in flight.

Female Montagu’s Harrier, soaring over the Norfolk countryside at dusk…a rare sight in the UK.

Male Montagu’s Harrier, Extramedura, Spain….this is what the Norfolk bird looked like through a scope instead of a camera!

We headed back to Deepdale and treated Si and Chris to some ale and dinner at the White Horse for their hard work and organization.

7th July – North Norfolk Coast

Up early doors and out to Kelling Heath, picking up Andy en route. On the heath, a calling Turtle Dove refused to give itself up. Continuing on, looking for Woodlarks, we were surprised to bump into a Dartford Warbler without much effort.

Then, as I turned around, two small, stubby looking birds were flying past, “WOODLARKS!!”. The birds flew by, exhibiting their short tail, but against the overcast sky, looks were just silhouettes. They appeared to go down in a patchy area of heathland, so we headed over. As I skirted around a bush, I kicked up a roosting Nightjar from under my feet and shouted out in surprise. The bird, a male, flew past in broad daylight and gave good, if brief, views before disappearing into cover..awesome! Good views of Garden Warbler and Lesser ‘throat eluded Nick, still not bothered, since old world warblers really lack kerb appeal compared to our bright American wood-warblers.

Off to Cley for some tea and bacon sandwiches and a nostalgic trip down memory lane for the boys, regaling Nick of twitches here to see Greater Sandplover, Little Whimbrel and Pacific Swift. There were a couple of roosting Spoonbills out on Arnold’s marsh, but we decided to press on to Titchwell, stopping to look on the sea at the coastguards.

We had high hopes for Titchwell, one of the premier reserves on the east  coast.

Waders abound! “Twitchwell” delivers.

Even in July, it was packed with Avocets and a host of ‘common’ waders that Nick was happy to grill. Several amazing-looking Ruffs, some molting Spotted Redshanks, Black and Bar-tailed Godwits, Redshanks, Curlew, Lapwing and Little Ringed Plover.

Avocet doing it’s thang!

Donald Trump Ruff..one of many killer-looking birds!

On the beach, two Ringed Plovers were good to see, especially since Nick and I had been looking for this long overdue vagrant back home in CT! That they looked like Ringed Plovers to us was refreshing and encouraging!

Scoping godwits and gulls, Titchwell

Simon “vis-migging”…it is hard getting old…

Mr Andrew Culshaw pondering if there is any upside to texting the wife from the field…

A Eurasian Whimbrel hung about on the beach, but was distant. A breeding plumage Common Gull on the beach was the best view of one that we had on the whole trip. Back on the reserve, a few non-breeding Little Gulls were mixed in with the breeding Black and Med Gulls, but little else was seen, though Bearded Tits finally gave themselves up.

Adult Med Gull..always dapper!

Bagging Turtle Dove at last in the parking lot we headed west to Hunstanton where we spent some time photographing swifts and the cliff-nesting Fulmars!

Fulmars cliff-nest at Hunstanton, Norfolk

Common Swift, Hunstanton

We then headed off to look for owls.  At a spot Andy knew of, we managed…finally..decent looks at a Barn Owl quartering the countryside, but no photo opps. As light was waning, a quick stop at a local Abbey, turned up Little Owl..squeaking it onto the list in the last rays of the day!

As usual, off to the pub for some much needed nosebag and some, as Nick put it,  “nice, but weak as piss” ale!

8th July- North Norfolk Coast

Our last morning. We opted for another bash at Titchwell, since that’s were the birds were!

Burnham Norton Abbey…there was a Barn Owl here before Andy scared it off 🙂

A brief, pre-dawn look for Barn Owl came up negative, but good views of a Red Kite overhead and some juv Marsh Harriers were nice.

Red Kite

During the previous afternoon, we had been looking amongst the ducks trying to pick out a Garganey that had been present. It was with a bit of a surprise when Si said, “How close do you want to see a Garganey?”. Confused and intrigued, we looked in his direction and that direction was down. Right outside the hide..literally in the grass was the eclipse male Garganey. Now, I’ve seen birds in Spring, and I know it was a lifer for Nick, but what a pile of shite this bird was!

Eclipse make Garganey

As noon approached it was time to bid adieu to Andy and we made our way back to Bolton, thankfully encountering no traffic.

A brief trip, it was great to spend time with family and great friends and see some birds. Thanks to Andy, Si and Chris for not just scoping out the birds, but to Si and Chris for driving us around and helping with logistics, and also for being great company!

View from Choseley..a spot were Corn Buntings often can be found…but not this morning!

 

 

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One Response to “Back to Blighty – July 2017”

  1. Nick Bonomo Says:

    A really fun week for sure. Thanks again to you guys for your efforts getting me on quite a few lifers. Titchwell might have been the highlight, with all those waders in nice color.

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