Holkham, Salthouse and Cley - Birding Nirvana

Tuesday, November 25, 2014 Adam Tilt 13 Comments

Day two of our Norfolk break saw us rising at dawn once more though the clear skies of yesterday were sadly just a memory. Drawing back the curtains revealed instead thick cloud, light mist and persistent drizzle but none of that was going to stop us from attempting to build on our stunning first day at Titchwell. A quick croissant in the hotel's car park was enough sustenance to get me going and provided suitable alertness for Emma to spot the ghostly shape of a Barn Owl just outside Titchwell village. I quickly threw the car into a nearby drive and managed to spot the bird myself before it completely disappeared. Thinking that it may have continued further on we retraced our steps but could find no further sign though did manage to add a small flock of Stock Doves to our ever burgeoning tally.

Back on the road it was only another ten minutes or so before we were pulling into Lady Anne's drive on the Holkham estate. This arrow straight section of private road is one of the best places to see Pink-footed Geese in large numbers, particularly early in the morning, and despite poor viewing conditions today was to be no different.

P1100202 - Holkham

Until you've experienced the sight and sound of thousands of Geese on the move it's simply not possible to appreciate the sheer joy such a spectacle can bring. Your whole being becomes engaged in the simple beauty of nature and there could have been no better launch pad for the hours ahead. Even the closest fields offered their own additions to the rich tapestry of life on show with a couple of Egyptian Geese (which made an extraordinary sound in flight) plus numerous Moorhen, Wigeon and a distant Marsh Harrier quartering marshland off towards Wells.


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Titchwell - Dawn 'till Dusk

Friday, November 14, 2014 Adam Tilt 3 Comments

Last Friday afternoon saw us driving east for nearly seven hours, much of it through torrential rain. What, you may ask, could have brought on such madness? I could blame an early mid-life crisis or work related stress but no, what drew us inextricably across almost the entire width of England and Wales were the birding delights of the north Norfolk coast. I’ve been visiting this area for as long as I can remember but a couple of weeks ago came to the startling realisation that we were about to pass the two year mark since out last week in Wells. Clearly this was unacceptable and with no annual leave left this mad dash remained our only option. The plan was to rise at dawn each morning spending Saturday at Titchwell and Sunday further along the coast at Holkham then Cley. Each of these names has become synonymous over the years with truly top quality birding but even with such illustrious reputations we could never in a million years have predicted the 48 hours ahead of us. If that’s not whetted your appetite perhaps I should add that our trip included three lifers (two self-found) plus our best ever sea watching experience. This one is certainly going to live long in my memory.

Saturday morning at six are never phrases that you wish to combine but somehow we managed to drag ourselves out of bed at the superbly well-appointed Caley Hall Hotel. Drawing back the curtains revealed plenty of condensation (this is November in Norfolk after all) with a clear blue sky beyond. We were most definitely on. Jumping into the car Emma spotted a Muntjac Deer skulking across the field opposite whilst all around the sound of calling Pheasants filled the air. Two Red-legged Partridge waved us through Thornham before the short drive to Titchwell was complete. If you’ve never visited before the reserve map may look rather unpromising with a straight kilometre long path leading across the marsh to a beach. Let me assure you however that the sheer quantity and variety of birds hidden within is often breathtakingly broad, just one of many reasons why this has become my favourite nature reserve and one that I can happily spend an entire day or more exploring (others include WW2 tanks on the beach, stunning scenery, Sammy the Black-winged Stilt…..). Even the car park on this cold morning was fit to bursting with a very tame Robin taking food from my hand and a noisy flock of Long-tailed Tits making their way through the surrounding vegetation. You only need walk a short distance further to find the main path which today greeted us with a swirling flock of Golden Plover numbering in the thousands, several hundred Brent Geese arriving from their overnight roosts and, best of all, an immature Marsh Harrier quartering the reeds to our left.

Redshanks, Black-tailed Godwits, Water Rail, Teal, Little Egrets, Ruff and many more species lined our way as we made a beeline for the beach where a high tide meant that this morning that was the place to be. With only a couple of other early risers present we had the place pretty much to ourselves as long as you don’t count scuttling groups of Sanderling, Grey Plovers, Bar-tailed Godwits, Dunlin, Oystercatchers etc etc. A scan of the sea revealed a couple of passing Red-breasted Mergansers, thirty or so Common Scoter, Gannets, large groups of Wigeon, a single massive flock of Pink Footed Geese over towards Holme, one Sandwich Tern, two Great Crested Grebes and even eight Eider way off on the horizon. Such variety, and so easily obtained, simply puts our regular haunts to shame but unbelievably it was about to get even better. Movement amongst the dunes (at least what’s left of them following last winter’s tidal surge) quickly resolved into a group of nine Snow Buntings. I had planned on giving the camera a bit of a rest this weekend as usually most things here are out of range anyway, but how can you resist these gorgeous little birds.

P1100185_2 - Snow Bunting, Titchwell

P1100181_2 - Snow Bunting, Titchwell


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Llanelli Waders Including a Late Common Sandpiper

Tuesday, November 11, 2014 Adam Tilt 6 Comments

It was over to the Met Office and their radar maps on Sunday 9th in an effort to spot a gap in the series of weather fronts blasting their way across south Wales. My best option seemed to be early afternoon along the north shore of the Burry so it was no surprise that I arrived in perfect synchronicity with a torrential downpour. I guess there’s still a long way to go yet in improving our weather forecasting accuracy! At least the delay was brief and I did get to enjoy an impressive display as the clouds first obscured then slowly revealed the landscape before me.

P1100112 - Llanelli

The first rays of sunlight started to poke their way through only a couple of minutes later allowing me to pick out an impressive count of 368 Redshank on the mudflats above. Mixed in were a few Teal and Curlew plus a lone Little Egret but despite much searching I couldn’t turn any of the floating debris into a Phalarope. Believe me I tried. Nearby a trio of Carrion Crows looked suitable glum as I made my way across to Llanelli’s north dock.


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Return of Mumbles Pier

Monday, November 10, 2014 Adam Tilt 2 Comments

A summer plumaged Great Northern Diver drew us inextricably towards Mumbles Saturday before last where, contrary to recent form, the bird was not only located but also found to be performing extremely well. Although too far out for a record shot, binoculars allowed its active feeding to be observed well and it was nice to see one in such neat condition after an almost total absence of the species during our time on Mull. Closer to hand a roosting group of 17 Turnstone and 4 Redshank were on the old RNLI slipway whilst a single Common Scoter flew strongly out beyond the lighthouse. Best of all though was our viewpoint for this afternoons birding which for the first time in a couple of years found us at the end of Mumbles pier.

P1100108 - Mumbles Pier Lifeboat

For those of you who've not been following this long running saga perhaps a little background is in order. Built in 1898 Mumbles pier has walked the well-trodden path of many of Britain's piers with a typical story of boom and slow decline though thankfully without the devastating fires which have claimed so many of these magnificent Victorian structures. Its last major refurbishment took place in 1956 and despite ad-hoc maintenance during the following years its state today is far from sustainable and resulted in a major redevelopment plan being drawn up. Spearheading this work has been the construction of a brand new multimillion pound lifeboat station in place of the old pier-head with work elsewhere being funded through the sale of land along the foreshore. Needless to say various planning wrangles have left much of the plan as just that though thankfully the lifeboat station is now up and running with access via a temporary path along the increasingly decrepit pier. You only need to look at the photo above to see why these improvements are so urgent.


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Remember, Remember the 5th of November

Wednesday, November 05, 2014 Adam Tilt 3 Comments

I find fireworks are best enjoyed gratis and around here you don't get a much wider view than that offered from Penclawdd. Below are just a few of the long exposure shots I took from there tonight. More could undoubtedly have been produced but have you felt how cold it is outside? Absolutely nobbling.

P1100170 - Fireworks from Penclawdd


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November Arrives in Style

Tuesday, November 04, 2014 Adam Tilt 1 Comments

It's hard to believe that November is already upon us but arrive it has and with no sign of changing October's grey and showery conditions. Both Saturday and Sunday were compromised by heavy downpours and leaden skies so it was nice to see a splash of colour with which to sign off the weekend.

P1100163 - Sunset


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Review - A Message from Martha by Mark Avery

Saturday, November 01, 2014 Adam Tilt 4 Comments

September 1st, 2014 marked the centenary of one of the best-documented extinctions in history - the demise of the Passenger Pigeon. From being the commonest bird on the planet 50 years earlier, the species became extinct on that fateful day, with the death in Cincinnati Zoo of Martha - the last of her kind. This book tells the tale of the Passenger Pigeon, and of Martha, and of author Mark Avery's journey in search of them. - Amazon
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Format: Paperback / eBook
Released: July 24th, 2014
Rating: 8/10

I've been reading virtually non-stop today, so deeply engrossed in Mark Avery's latest book "A Message from Martha" that finishing has left me at something of a loss as to what to do next. The only suitable option I could come up with was to switch on this computer and write a review, though not having undertaken such a task for over a decade I've no real idea what form it should take. Perhaps therefore it's best to start at the beginning with an admission that despite my love of birds I'd never really heard of the Passenger Pigeon. Carrier yes, Wood definitely but what was once the most numerous bird in the world? Somehow not. Take your pick at whose door the fault for this omission should lie but in reality we should, as the human race, take a collective responsibility for not holding up the Passenger Pigeon as a lesson against which all our future actions should be measured. Perhaps it's a general malaise at hearing about just another extinct species, and an American one at that, but to not have learnt from the loss of a bird whose flocks could number in the billions would have been to waste one of the most dramatic and sobering extinction events of recent times.

And by recent I really do mean recent. In his opening chapters Mark gives a dramatic overview of the Passenger Pigeon in the mid nineteenth century when flocks a mile or more wide could be seen passing overhead often for several days at a time. Such was the density of these mass movements that there are numerous accounts of the sun being obscured but that's as nothing compared to the impact of seeing a nesting site first hand. One account from 1871 speaks of two arms stretching through the woodlands of Wisconsin, one stretching for fifty miles by eight and the other seventy five miles by six. Within this huge area birds would have been densely packed, often hundreds of nests to a single tree, for mile after mile after mile. Beneath them the ground was reported to be inches think with droppings whilst all around the sound of crashing timber would herald the failure of a large branch or whole tree, crushed beneath the weight of nesting birds. Just trying to imagine such a scene today with hundreds of millions of birds concentrated together is virtually impossible so the presence of numerous excerpts from contemporary observations, combined with Mark's scientific analysis, are invaluable. In fact the collation of those accounts for me was one of the highlights of this book as hearing the same sense of wonderment from many different and unconnected authors only serves to enhance the feeling that the Passenger Pigeon truly was something special.

Of course spectacle is only one part of the Passenger Pigeon story and this book takes a detailed look at other elements of its biology. Though much remains unknown Mark's journey through fact, fiction and deduction kept me engrossed as I slowly built up a better understanding of what it meant to be a Passenger Pigeon. Obviously nothing can replace first-hand experience and Mark takes us on a thought provoking road trip through the final years of this once numerous bird. From the last recorded wild individual (shot) to the Cincinnati zoo where Martha, last of her kind, passed away, there's almost a sense of inevitability concerning how few of the people encountered during his travels are aware of the story and how changed America has become since western invaders (I thoroughly approve of Mark's use of this term) arrived.

By this point I could already sense where we were heading and that, of course, was the reasons why we can't still enjoy massive flocks of Passenger Pigeons today. In a way I almost wanted things to turn out differently but in the end it all comes down to careless (for in this case extinction was certainly not deliberate) actions of the human race in its ever searching desire for progress. I got the distinct impression that Mark didn't think a lot of this so-called progress but I'd be a hypocrite not to acknowledge, as Mark does, that we certainly appreciate the easier lives we have today. However the same levels of comfort could undoubtedly have been achieved without such whole scale destruction of the natural world.

And this, for me, is where "A Message from Martha" really starts to hit home. Had the book finished there it would undeniably have been a fascinating and engrossing look back at one of the great extinction events of our time, but many would have put it down with a knowing shake of the head aimed squarely at our less educated ancestors. Thank goodness we don't make the same mistakes today!

The inclusion of the current plight of our Turtle Dove therefore is a master stroke and turns this book from a valuable account into something entirely more purposeful. Though never pushed I found myself nodding along to Mark's views on the current state of our own countryside and whose declining wildlife is figure headed by the magnificent, and rapidly disappearing, Turtle Dove. The book mentions on numerous occasions that each generation only measures a population on its own experiences and for me that means seeing Turtle Doves as a rarity. I've spotted the occasional individual over the years and always thought that was good going until reminded that barely thirty years ago large flocks were the norm. How could I, considered by myself to be reasonably well informed, have made such a glaring error? And that right there is why I enjoyed reading this book. It wasn't just a lively look back at a special bird but a warning that we have yet to learn from past mistakes. I've been left questioning whether I've really been doing as much as I could to help our struggling wildlife instead of simply taking it for granted, and sadly found myself wanting. My only hope is that in reading this book more will come to the same realisation and that Martha's message will not have fallen on deaf ears. The alternative doesn't bear thinking about.

I highly recommend checking out Mark's daily blog here to keep abreast of current conservation issues and of course think that you should read his book. It really is excellent.

Disclaimer: all views are my own based on a personal purchase, of my own volition, that I think others may enjoy.


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