Aylmerton Nature Diary

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The last post – hello to CNN

The AND last post….

After 20 years local birding from our rural cottage in Aylmerton and, since September 2014, blogging about my wildlife encounters, it’s time to move on. From today I’ll be posting on a new site Cromer Nature Notes. As in it’s previous incarnation, most of my posts will be about wildlife and conservation in the area local to our home – now mainly, though not entirely, focused on the parish of Cromer with Suffield Park, and the adjacent parishes of Northrepps, including Overstrand, Sidestrand & Trimmigham, Felbrigg and Roughton, Aylmerton and The Runtons, including Beeston Regis. All destinations walkable from Cliff Avenue. The map under ‘Locations’ provides more detail – currently under construction. For ease of access I’ve incorporated a link on the Home Page which will take you straight back to historic postings on the AND website. As now, journeys further afield – when permitted- will continue to appear on Trevor On Tour

As we move into a new year – hopefully one where we will begin to get on top of the covid pandemic – it will be interesting to see if the general shift in focus towards community, sustainability and the environment will be maintained. Covid restrictions have forced us all to stay at home more and, as a consequence, explore areas close-by – rather than travelling further afield. This has led – at least on a temporary basis – to a renewed interest in ‘local patch’ birding. Let’s hope that this trend continues. In that spirit, my NENBC New Year Birding Challenge tomorrow will be done entirely on foot. Doubtless I’ll see fewer species than in previous years – and any total I achieve will be overtaken by the gorilla twitchers who will, inevitably, remain in our midst – but at least it will be compliant with covid guidance and feel more in tune with the moment.

Watch out for the highlights on my CNN blog.. I hope you’ll join me.

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Review of 2020 – home and away

2020 has been a year like no other. A year when the Coronavirus pandemic impacted on every aspect of society, community and our personal lives – including birding. Periodic restrictions on travel and mixing changed the way most of us birded during the year – with covid forcing a return to (or, at the very least, renewed interest in) ‘local patch’ birding, whilst severely curtailing opportunities to ‘twitch’. As a consequence, the flow of birding information slowed – became less timely and more non-specific. It was like the clocks had been turned back forty years – to a time before Birdline and the advent of universally available birding information, combined with unfettered opportunity of travel to see interesting birds. With this general reduction in scale & scope you’d have thought then that 2020 would have been a bit of a flop as far as birding was concern – but actually quite the opposite was the case. Acting within the spirit as well as the letter of covid restrictions – spending more time walking to local birding hot-spots and when, legitimate opportunities occurred, travelling further afield – 2020 has produced some outstanding and memorable personal birding moments.

Aleutian Tern – one of a recently discovered tiny Australian wintering population – a ‘world tick’

From Christmas until the end of February we were travelling in South America and Australia – visiting family and taking the opportunity to bird along the way. In the early New Year I was struck-down by a mysterious bug which put me in bed for a week – caused sore-throat, extreme fatigue, breathlessness and sickness. I felt the worst I’d felt in thirty years. I assumed it was ‘airline lung’, caught on the plane, but looking back it seems possible – even probable – that I’d managed to contract Coronavirus in the early days – before we knew what symptoms to look out for. That aside, the undisputed high-light of the trip, on our second attempt in the searing NSW heat, was Aleutian Tern – a most unlikely ‘world tick’. We eventually returned to the UK, when awareness of the impending disaster was growing but before the introduction of covid restrictions and the first national lock-down. A brief window of opportunity, during which I managed to catch-up with a much-needed ‘NENBC tick’ – Tree Sparrow, a regular visitor to garden feeders in Little Thornage.

Tree Sparrow – a much-need ‘NENBC tick’ – which had been visiting a garden feeder for weeks whilst we were abroad!

The first national lock-down restricted outdoor activity to daily exercise for two months, from the end of March to the middle of May. During this time I did a daily walk from home to the end of Cromer golf course and back, taking my binoculars and camera with me. During these daily outings I recorded a total of 90 species – highlights included four additions to my NENBC List: Hooded Crow, Spoonbill, Tree Pipit and Hen Harrier which, together with a supporting cast of Crane, Short-eared Owl, Black Redstart, Woodlark, and Ring Ouzel, was a creditable effort and testimony to the value of local patch-watching.

Hooded Crow – first highlight of my daily exercise walks, between March and May, along the cliffs to Overstrand and back

Easing of covid restrictions coincided with the tail-end of peak migration, and as Spring slipped into Summer the birding scene began to quieten down… or so we thought! A Squacco Heron – only the second ever on the North Norfolk coast – discovered metres outside the NENBC boundary was a bitter sweet moment. But news of a Rosy Starling – one of a large eruption from their breeding grounds in Eastern Europe and the Middle East – found by a novice birder on a local housing estate – was an NENBC ‘first’.

A Rosy Starling, found on a Cromer housing estate – was an ‘NENBC tick’ and concluded Spring migration

Locally, the Summer contained few surprises – except perhaps the unhappy news from Felbrigg about the lack of breeding Spotted Flycatcher or Hobby. In the case of the former – the first time in the twenty years I’ve been watching in the park this species has failed to nest – possibly the lamentable end of a birding era. In the case of the latter – a recent colonist – hopefully just a temporary set-back. However this disappointment was tempered by the welcome news that the Cromer church Peregrines successfully hatched, reared and fledged three more youngsters. Elsewhere, the big mid-year birding news story was happening on the Debyshire / South Yorkshire border. A Bearded Vulture – Lammergier to my generation of birders – had taken up temporary residence in the Peak District. We were lucky enough to see it there and, a couple of months later, in Norfolk ‘air-space’ as it made it’s way back to the Continent.

Bearded Vulture – contender for ‘Bird of the Year’ – in Derbyshire. Insert over Norfolk, photo courtesy of Steve Gantlett

Any ‘down-time’ in the Summer was filled with a combination of conservation and survey work. The main thrust of Felbeck Trust this year has been at West Beckham Old Allotments where, working with the RSPB’s Operation Turtle Dove, we are improving the breeding habitat at the site for this iconic, though fast disappearing, farmland species. Another rare breeding bird is Honey Buzzard and I’m delighted to say that during the course of many hours of surveying, over several NENBC locations, we managed to locate two likely breeding pairs at least.

Turtle Dove – photographed in Cornwall this year – are fast disappearing from Norfolk. 2021 will see renewed efforts to save them

Autumn started early with increasing sea-bird movement off the coast. On one occasion, whilst sea-watching, a call from a friend produced excellent views of an un-ringed immature White Stork, in off the sea and heading west over the golf course. A good prospect for a genuine wild bird and an excellent new ‘local patch’ tick.

White Stork over Cromer golf course – a good prospect for a genuine wild bird

As the Autumn progressed so did the incidence of scarce and rare migrant arrivals. Multiple Blyth’s Reed Warbler in the NENBC area was an event in itself, followed by Dusky Warbler, Siberian Chiffchaff and then, on the 15th October a Red-flanked Bluetail was found in near-by Warren Woods. A long-distance migrant from the far-east – until the last decade, this dazzling bird held near mythical status in the UK, and here, for a select number of NENBC birders, was one on the doorstep!

Billy Bluetail’ (at Holme). Until a few years ago a near-mythical autumn migrant – and here (insert) in near-by Warren Woods

A few days after this momentous event came another – a new bird for Norfolk and the first twitchable mainland occurrence in 60 years – a Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin. It was a nail-biting 36 hours before I could go for the bird but the superb views on arrival were a massive stress-reliever. The bird remained in the Stiffkey area for several days and for many, socially distanced birders, will be the Norfolk bird of the year.

Not a particularly rare species in mainland Europe but a mega in the UK and a ‘first’ for Norfolk – Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin

Meanwhile, back on the patch, several late autumn occurrences brightened up my less-frequent visits to the park. A pair of Bearded Tit took up temporary residence in the reed-bed – only the second record of this species in Felbrigg – whilst a flock of up to 25 Crossbill roamed between the Old Deer Park and the lake.

Bearded Tit in early morning sun-light – Felbrigg Lake
Part of a flock of two dozen Common Crossbill seen one morning in Felbrigg

In November we decided to sell our little cottage in Aylmerton and so the remaining weeks up until Christmas were filled with sorting, clearing and removing the contents – leaving little or no time for birding. However, a phone-call from a friend, telling me of his discovery of a winter Scaup on Felbrigg lake was too tempting. There have been less than a handful of records in the park – the last in 2007. This was a ‘Felbrigg first‘ for me, a fitting conclusion to 2020 and the finale for Aylmerton Nature Diary – at least in its present form.

Scaup – a ‘Felbrigg first’ for me – rounding-off another year of Aylmerton Nature Diaries

I’ve not really had the time or opportunity to go looking for other nature in the local area this year but I have been lucky enough to encounter Otter on an increasing basis. This one was particularly obliging in the summer at Felbrigg Lake.

So what does the score-card for 2020 look like? Well, in truth, pretty damn good in the circumstances! A top five pick which includes: Best World tick – Aleutian Tern, Best UK tick – Bearded Vulture, Best Norfolk tick – Rufous-tailed Bush Robin, Best NENBC tick – Red-flanked Bluetail and Best AND tick – Scaup would take some beating, even in the best of times. But wait… I’m forgetting perhaps the most important category – certainly in these Stay at Home covid times – Best Garden tick. Well, you might think that the party of seven Cranes or the White Stork might take the prize, but no, this accolade goes to Moorhen – an amazing addition to a small town garden with only a drinking pool for wetland habitat!

Moorhen, seen in a small town garden in the centre of Cromer – an amazing garden tick!

But what, I hear you ask, about the one that got away? Well there’s always one, and in 2020 that was definitely Rose-ringed Parakeet. A record of one, photographed in North Lodge Park – a stones throw away from our Cromer flat – was a missed opportunity. But one, possibly two, heard calling from the shelter-belt in Felbrigg in November just added salt to the wound! Oh well, you can’t see them all!

Finally to conclude this review – to the 4,300 visitors from 27 countries, who made more than 13,000 visits to the Aylmerton Nature Diary in 2020 – my sincere thanks. A happy and safe New Year to you all and I’ll be back in 2021, in one form or another.

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Tuesday 22nd December

An obliging Water Rail yesterday at Cley NWT ended my birding drought of the past two months

A session of volunteering at Cley NWT, after the the hiatus of the latest lockdown and nearly two months off-grid whilst we cleared and sold our cottage in Aylmerton, and I finally get my birding life back again! The weather was grim and the birds thin on the ground but at least I was back out birding. The birding highlight was prolonged views of a Water Rail, as it quietly fed in front of Dauke’s Hide, late morning.

I’m still coming up for air after all the upheaval and emotion of leaving a place after twenty years – one which has provided such wonderful shared wildlife moments. Over the coming days I hope to publish my annual review of the wildlife high-lights of this extraordinary year and take time to reassess the future of AND. In the meantime let me wish you all a Happy & safe Christmas & New Year.

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Friday 4th December

Scaup on the lake this morning – only the fourth record for Felbrigg

I finally interrupted my birding exile – taking a break from the never-ending house-swap activity – to catch up with the Scaup at Felbrigg. I was there as dawn was breaking – difficult to spot the moment in the dark and wet conditions! Most of the duck were in the south-west corner, including an obvious male Tufted Duck and a less obvious Aythya species which rapidly swam away from me as I approached along the dam wall. In the dim light the white blaze of the bird was the most notable feature, but that’s not an uncommon feature in some female Tufties. Inland Scaup candidates therefore require a bit of attention to detail – particularly the size and shape of the bill, the head profile and the general structure and diving-style all need close scrutiny. As the weather worsened the ‘target’ moved into the centre of the lake and briefly came along-side the male Tufted – giving a useful comparison. This bird was a ‘Felbrigg first’ for me and only the fourth record for the site – the last being a one-day pair in October 2007. Thanks to Phil – the finder – for the shout.

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Monday 16th November

Desert Wheatear at Gramborough Hill this afternoon – always brighten-up a November day

Last week was a write-off, at least as far as birding was concern – combination of bad weather and too much DIY! Yesterday was my scheduled WeBS ‘Duck Count’ day at Felbrigg, but with strong winds and pouring rain I decided to give it a miss. I went instead this morning. No real stand-out birds but a pair of Shoveler was a nice addition to the autumn wildfowl. A couple of Snipe and a Water Rail on the water-meadows added interest. As a reward to myself, after spending the morning helping dig a pond at WBOA, I went to see the Desert Wheatear at Gramborough Hill this afternoon. A typically showy bird in superb plumage. They always brighten up November birding.

Best from the WeBS count at Felbrigg this morning – a pair of Shoveler
And in other news – a gathering of ‘OWL’s – Richard & Tony being the other proud owners

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Sunday 8th November

Some of the 24 Common Crossbill at Felbrigg Lake yesterday

With the new lock-down comes yet more DIY and redecoration – so birding this week has been pretty much non-existent. I did manage an early morning visit to Felbrigg yesterday though – still and warm (for the time of year) with a touch of mist in the valley and a beautiful sunrise. There were hundreds of Pink-feet flighting between their coastal roost and inland feeding grounds and an increase in wintering wildfowl – mainly Gadwall and Teal. A couple of Wigeon are still hanging around, also two Little Grebe and a pair of Tufted Duck. Other than a small flock of Siskin in the Alders and several Reed Bunting leaving their roost in the reed-bed there were very few small birds in evidence around the lake. I was just chatting with Chris on the steps by the top sluice when we heard the unmistakeable call of parakeet coming from the western shelter-belt – possibly two birds. Most likely Rose-ringed (Ring-necked) but with the news of the escaped young Alexandrian Parakeet nearby in Erpingham it’ll take more detail to put the identity beyond reasonable doubt. Despite searching the area as far as the Old Deer Park I couldn’t relocate it / them. I’d spent too long looking for them and needed to get back. On my way along the path to towards the lake a flock of noisy ‘chupping’ birds flew by me and landed in the Alders near the top sluice. A flock of mostly male Crossbill settled briefly before heading towards Common Plantation. From views at the time, and examinations of my record shots since, they all looked like ‘regular x-bill’ to me – although one or two did have fairly hefty bills. My best views of this species in the park though. As I write this blog four Golden Plover have just flown east over Cliff Avenue!

A couple more record shots of the Crossbill flock yesterday

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Tuesday 3rd November

A sad end to an exquisite bird – it’s in my freezer if anyone can do something positive with it

It was mostly a good day at Cley NWT yesterday – the last for us for a few weeks. The weather was surprisingly warm but with a fresh southerly wind. The Lesser Legs was still showing well on Keeper’s Marsh first thing but it did go missing late morning and hadn’t returned by mid-afternoon. There was a reasonable selection of wildfowl – including a nice flock of 38 Pintail on North Scrape, the usual selection of winter waders, plenty of big gulls – including two adult Caspian on Simmond’s, Bonxie west off-shore, Water Pipit and several pairs of Stonechat. The highlight – found by Jane – was a female-type Goldeneye in the Catchwater Drain on our way back to the Centre mid-afternoon. The low point was when a Kingfisher struck one of the Centre windows, with fatal consequences:(

iPhone record shot of this continuing crowd-pleasing Lesser Yellowlegs
iPhone record shot of female-type Goldeneye in the Catchwater Drain

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Friday 30th October

Lesser legs at Cley NWT today

We popped over to Cley NWT this morning to catch up with the Lesser Yellowlegs. Although the light wasn’t great the bird was reasonably obliging as it pottered around the edge of one of the water-filled depressions on Keeper’s Marsh. Much better views than the last one I saw in Norfolk at Breydon, which never came nearer than half a mile for me. Today’s bird was my third, possibly fourth, for the County.

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Wednesday 28th October

Ring-necked Duck at Holkham. It appears to be considered as a genuine bird

Ducks have featured strongly over the past few days. Yesterday we took a trip to Holkham Park to catch-up with Ring-necked Duck which has been there for the past week. Described as an ‘adult male’ it was, none-the-less, tricky to find amongst the tufteds, being in eclipse. To my mind it looked more like a 1st winter bird, with a darkish eye and narrow white band around the base of the bill. On Monday the best bird at Cley NWT was a female Scaup on the Brackish Marsh – often difficult to find as it stayed hidden in the vegetation close to the edge. Whilst waiting for the Bearded Tit to put in an appearance at Felbrigg on Saturday I picked up what I assumed was one of the Tufted x Ferruginous Duck on the lake – although something didn’t look quite right at the time. Looking back at a couple of record shots I realise that this bird has a pale sub-terminal band on the bill – not a feature seen on the two regular hybrids. Ducks always demand close attention.

Presumed Tufted x Ferruginous hybrid – but this individual has a pale bill band
The regular hybrids – lacking the pale white sub-terminal bill band of Saturday’s bird

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Sunday 25th October

A pair of Bearded Tit in the reed-bed – only the second NENBC record for Felbrigg

This week, in contrast to the previous one, has been pretty quiet on the birding front. A couple of days wildlife site surveying for Felbeck Trust and a very damp mid-week walk on Wednesday left little time for much else. On Tuesday, whilst out surveying in the west of the NENBC area I watched a pair of Red Kite drift slowly over Bale, heading for Field Dalling. They were joined briefly by a stunning male Hen Harrier. The week drew to a close with the welcome discovery by ‘Gresham Phil’ of a pair of Bearded Tit in the reed-bed at Felbrigg – a fitting conclusion to the NENBC Felbrigg Walks Week. I was quickly on the scene and managed to get brief but excellent views – alas no photos. This is only the second NENBC record of this species in the park – the first coming almost exactly five years ago. I returned this morning in the hope of obtaining at least a record shot… which I did!