Monday, June 28, 2010

Suffolk and Minsmere

After successful birding in the RSPB's Rutland Water, Titchwell Marsh, Snettisham and Cley Marshes along the North Sea coast and wildlife trust Hinkley Broads in Norfolk it was time to move on the meet with birding friend, Malcolm Richards, and his wife, Angela, for a weekend of birding at Minsmere RSPB.

Departing Norfolk on Friday morning for our 10:00 am meeting with Malcolm and Angela, our route took us to a chain ferry to cross the Yare River.  By taking the Reedham ferry across the Yare we cut 30 miles off the bridge route for the river crossing and drove through many rural villages and along narrow roads that where just light gray lines on the map.  In the photo above, you can see the chains pulling the ferry across the narrow waterway - clever ferry design for a narrow crossing.

People live on boats and boat recreationally along the Yare River.  It was early on a gray, cold morning but the people on the boat above to be heading somewhere.

Finally, we arrived at Minsmere RSPB shortly after 10:00 am to meet Angela and Malcolm Richards in the Minsmere cafe.  I met Malcolm in Michigan in September, 2008 when he was visiting Angela's brother who lives in South Lyon and was looking for a birding partner for a Saturday outing.  He returned for another visit this past May and we went to Point Pelee and to Magee Marsh to see spring migrants.  My 5/18 and 5/23 blog entries focus on the birding we did those weekends. Malcolm also birded with others during these visits and thanks to another visit he and Angela made to Florida in 2009, he has quite a nice North American list.  After coffee together, Joy and Cliff left to return to Leamington Spa and Angela, Malcolm and I started birding.   

At Minsmere I finally got a fairly close photo of a Magpie (Pica pica). These birds are everywhere and, like our common Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata), they are spectacular.  However, also like our Blue Jay, they are not greatly desired birds secondary to their aggressive and carnivorous reputation.  I'm not sure there is a discernible difference between this bird and our Black-billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia).

Yes, that is a bird in the photo above.  Two [Eurasian] Spoonbills (Platalea leucorodia) were reported in one of the Minsmere ponds, but by the time we got to this location they had already departed.  Later in the day we were in a different hide and watching a Marsh Harrier hunting over, what else, the marsh, when suddenly a large, long, white bird flew by.  I yelled out, "hey ... what's this?" and others got on the bird as well.  A review of the range map for this bird in the newly released second edition Princeton Field Guide Birds of Europe suggests that the Spoonbill may be the most uncommon bird we saw at Minsmere.      

Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus) was seen again, much closer this time, at Minsmere.  Unfortunately, another silhouetted raptor photo - a specialty of mine.

At some point on Friday afternoon, we came upon this perched Kestrel and I was able to see the bird up close, especially to see the differences with our American Kestrel.

On Saturday morning I was awakened with daylight and the sound of a Cuckoo calling.  Angela, Malcolm and I had arranged to meet for breakfast at 7:30 am and I wanted to get out before this to look for a Barn Owl.  I thought it must surely be 6:00 am at least, so when I checked the time I was shocked that it was only 4:00 am.  I knew that daylight arrived much earlier there, but I didn't know that it was as early as this!  The Cuckoo called continuously (more about this later), and thinking that it might be perched on the easily viewed utility wires, I had a quick, but unsuccessful, look out over the open area of the inn parking lot before returning to bed.  I finally got up for good around 6:00 am and out to explore the village of Eastbridge and to look for a Barn Owl.  

The village of Eastbridge is very small and completely charming.  I apologize for my cliched description of an English village.  As for the Barn Owl (Tyto alba) - I flushed a largish, pale bird from some weedy trees growing against a barn along the roadside - but never did see the bird.  Later, at breakfast, an elderly couple who are annual visitors to the village, described seeing the Barn Owl hunting in a field when they stopped to talk with one of the villagers they were acquainted with. I felt a pang in my stomach.  I knew I should have tried harder to chase that bird. 

After an English breakfast in the Eels Foot dining room, we departed again for Minsmere, but this time to a different area nearby called Dunwich (pronounced dunich) Heath.  Target birds:  Dartford Warbler and Stonechat.

We saw both birds well.  With the Dartford Warbler (Sylvia undata) there was absolutely no chance to get a photo.  The first bird we saw was a male, perched on the heath vegetation and singing.  Later in the day we saw a family group moving through the heath and there were a couple of other brief sightings.  This was a bird I had wanted to see, but honestly did not really think I would.  It is a completely beautiful and unique little bird.  The above photo is the backside of the Stonechat (Saxicola torquata).

Stonechat is another bird I had hoped to see.  Late in the day we saw another flycatching in the late evening sun even as a Hobby (Falco subbuteo) was hunting nearby.  Above is the distant evening Stonechat.

This is one of the final birds of the day - Yellowhammer (Emberiza citrenella).  This bird was perched and singing up high on a large conifer tree.  This was the only Yellowhammer I saw the whole trip.

Saturday evening we had dinner at a pub, The Ship, in the village of Dunwich.  At one point, I think we were the only diners in the pub without a dog.  Our plan, hatched early that morning, was to remain out late enough to see Nightjars (Caprimulgus europaeus).  In England this is going to be very late, because it does not get dark until very late. Earlier we had spoken to a fellow who told us where to find them.  He also told us where we could find Stone-curlew (Burhinus oedicnemus), too, but if we found the right field, we did not find the bird.  It was not quite dark yet, but getting colder.  We found our field and walked along a farm fence to a corner where we could also scan for Stone-curlew.  It got colder and duskier, but still not dark.  Finally, Malcolm said, "I hear one."  The bird called again and he said "there," pointing in the direction of the vocalization - a completely unique sound described as churring.  We heard it over and over but no birds were leaving their perches to fly over what appeared to be a perfect field for their hunting. It was also hard to tell exactly where the vocalizations were coming from or even how far away the birds were.  We felt certain there was more than one.  Finally, we were all freezing.  We left our spot to see if we could get closer and possibly see the birds.  We hiked back out on to the heath.  The birds were vocalizing and seemed very close, but we never did see them.  The Nightjar churring is linked here.  It was 10:30 pm when we left and there was still light in the sky.  We walked quickly to keep warm and also because we had last call on our minds.  We arrived back at the Eels Foot just in time to order a much anticipated nightcap.  We suddenly remembered to inquire about the score of the World Cup USA vs. England game.  The game had been played to a 1-1 tie (I think the English might say draw) while we had been out birding. A great end to a great day!       

Sunday morning began at a more leisurely pace (see The Eels Foot Inn and the Cuckoo) and we birded Minsmere for our final day there.  This is the Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos), a bird that is most often heard singing rather than seen - indeed, the very bird that so inspired Milton, Keats, Wordsworth and many others with its song. In our case, we saw the bird but did not hear it.  A nightingale nest in the center of a bush was found near the trail and both parents were actively working to feed the begging young.  I took three dozen or more photos of the bird while it came back and forth to the nest and perched reliably on the same branch.  I ended up deleting all but about five.  In an arbitrary decision, this is perhaps my best.

We first saw Sedge Warbler (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus) at Rutland Water RSPB and again at most other marshes, but they are fast and disappear into the grass quickly.  This bird at Minsmere was singing vigorously on perches along both sides of the marsh trail.  It was a pleasure to photograph this cooperative little bird.

I had brief views of Bearded Tit at a couple of locations, but none that I felt were really satisfying.  While photographing the Sedge Warbler, I was distracted by a male Bearded Tit carrying a fecal sac flying toward me just over the top of the marsh grass.  I thought it might perch.  No such luck.  It steered itself to a bush in the marsh and dropped into the center.  Watching the bird fly across the marsh was the satisfying view I had hoped for.

Malcolm wanted very much to try again to find Mediterranean Gull (Larus melanocephalus).  This is a bird he knew was around, but we could not locate it on Friday.  Spending Saturday on Dunwich Heath allowed no time to look for it, so this was our last chance.  By this time we had visited all the hides.  Finally, about mid-morning, in the birdiest pond, Malcolm was finally able to pick out two Mediterranean Gulls. He let out a shout of relief.  Each year, apparently two to three pairs will breed at Minsmere.  Surrounded as they were by hundreds of very noisy Black-headed Gulls (Larus ridibundus), the pair stuck close to each other.  It is a beautiful gull reminding me very much of our Laughing Gull (Larus atricilla).   

By this time on late Sunday morning, we had spent most of the past 72 hours birding.  We paused for a welcome moment of relaxation and Malcolm and Angela posed for this photo in the dune grass at the edge of the North Sea surf.  

Like our Semi-palmated Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus), their Ringed Plover (Charadrius hiaticula). Curiously, we saw none of the more widely distributed Little Ringed Plovers (Charadrius dubius).  The uncommon Kentish Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus) would also have been possible, but unfortunately there were none around for us.

Against the gray sky, this photo of a closely perched Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis) is not great, but it was a fun bird to see.  One of our final sought out birds of the weekend, we watched this bird displaying in the sky before coming down to perch on this thorny perch.  Typically a common bird, this is the only one we saw all weekend.  After watching this bird, we reversed our direction on the path and came up to some birders lounging in the dune grass who asked what we saw. When I responded Meadow Pipit, they shrugged their shoulders and continued to sit.  Walking on further, we saw another bird land on the dune trail ahead.  Malcolm said it was another pipit.  I said it was a sky lark. Later, when he had time to review the data on bird sightings for Minsmere, Malcolm suggested that it may have been a Woodlark (Lullula arborea).  We'll never know for sure.

Minsmere and Dunwich Heath was a perfect weekend of birding.  I feel so fortunate to have received Angela's and Malcolm's invitation to spend the weekend with them at Minsmere.  Never having met Angela before (who made me laugh when she described herself as "only half a birder really") I had no idea what to expect, but the whole weekend was great.  

Next:  The Eels Foot Inn and the Cuckoo   

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