Aylmerton Nature Diary

Review of 2020 – home and away

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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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