Member’s Trip Reports – 2013

Penzance for Christmas and New Year:    a  report by Ann and Geoff Jones

A 12 day break in the West Country in our touring caravan was our plan for Christmas and New Year. We parked up at a caravan site right behind Marazion Marsh RSPB Reserve, the reserve being just a minutes walk from the site. Not that we could get on it the winter rain had the water levels over the paths. However there is a good view overlooking the reserve from the coastal road, where in winter there is always chance of picking up an over wintering Bittern.
Mounts Bay is a good place to catch up with many overwintering sea birds. It is very popular with Diver Species, Grebe, Scoter, Auks, Fulmar, Gannets. One of the best viewing spots is by Newlyn Harbour, in fact we had excellent view of Black Necked Grebe literally 20 feet away from us in the harbour and excellent views of Great Northern diver again in the harbour. The buildings around the harbour usually hold over wintering Black Redstart and on occasions Rose Coloured Starling. This corner of the bay is somewhat protected by the land from westerly winds and with consequence seabirds seem to quite like it. The Marazion side can be quite choppy and your are often looking in to the sun.
We paid a couple of visits to Carbis bay of St Ives fame. Here we found many hundreds of Kittiwake along the shore line. The odd Balearic Shearwater was seen flying by, it is thought locally that a small group overwinter out in the bay. A Bonxie
A couple of fruitless visits to St Just near to Land’s End were made to try for Subalpine Warbler. This bird had taken p lodgings in the gardens of the back to back tin miner’s cottages. We failed to see it as did the majority of birders. We did meet the birder who found it and he probably was the chap who kept the bird on Rare Bird Alert.

Nearby to St Just is Kenidjack valley, reports had come up of overwintering Siberian Chiff Chaff at the small sewage farm, another dip coming up? No as soon as we arrived we picked up two of them on and around the filter bed machinery picking up insects disturbed by the rotating sprayer. Not only that we had 2 Willow Warblers with them.
A lovely week made better by seeing all five species of Grebe in the first two days of January.

On leaving Penzance we stopped over at Cheddar in Somerset for three nights before heading home. That gave us chance to do the family visit bit and also see the huge Starling Roost on the Somerset levels. According to the web the Starlings roost at one of three sites. However we know different. Our first try was at Ham Wall reserve, that night they had chosen Shapwick Heath a couple of miles or so westwards!!!. Our second try started at Shapwick Heath where the RSPB have their Starling watch nights. There were thought at that time to be about 1 million birds and as they come to the roost site they literally fly in great flocks from all points of the compass and that night they were all flying off to the west. Following them by road as best we could we found them roosting in reeds about 200 yards off the road and about three miles from Shapwick Heath. Not only that as they came in they were against the sunset giving us fantastic views as they swooped in and around before settling down. The noise was incredible and also just how black the reeds became as they landed. We were so enthralled at the view that we did not notice a huge flock come from behind us to join the roost. This flock was so big and so close together that is was rather like the scene from Independence Day when the alien invaders flew over America. What made this so special was the fact that a hundred or more people were at Shapwick Heath waiting for them and there were only about 20 of us enjoying this wonderful spectacle.

So all in all a wonderful break, not only that on Christmas Day we had Norfolk Turkey breast with homemade Chestnut stuffing all the trimmings and even Christmas Pudding for afters, all cooked in the van. What more can you ask for?  West Cornwall apparently is very good in August for migrating seabirds, but at the same time it is very busy with tourists. Marazion is good for Aquatic Warbler and Spotted Crake. We usually venture down there in late September and early October when there is plenty of chance to catch up with migrant species and also some of the migrant bird watchers who seem to take up roosting there for an autumn break almost every year.

The Somerset Levels around Shapwick Heath during the summer has more booming Bitterns than you can shake a stick at, 27 in 2012 and in the winter from late November to March has the Starling roosts, both jolly good reasons for making a bee line there for a winter break. Superb in May too for a spring holiday.

Montserrat Antigua and Barbuda:            9th – 23rd January 2013 by Chris Kirby

The chance to visit the Caribbean island of Montserrat came about at fairly short notice a) to visit an old friend who now lives there and b) to do a journalism piece about the island and its recovery from the island’s ‘double whammy’ of cataclysmic events caused by firstly Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and then the subsequent eruptions of Mt. Soufriere from 1995 and 1997 which left two thirds of the island a barren ‘no-go’ wasteland, with its former capital Plymouth buried like a latter day Pompeii.

During my visit there I managed to meet everybody of note, from the British Ambassador to (Sir) George Martin the former Beatles producer who suffered his famous AIR Studios being wrecked by the volcano’s pyroclastic flows. Of course, whilst there, I also wanted to do a bit of birding – with the hope especially of seeing the elusive and now very threatened Montserrat Oriole, a bird that has lost so much of its habitat due to the disasters and is the subject of an on-going monitoring programme by the RSPB.

A bit of research before hand told me that there weren’t that many birds to actually see in Montserrat – according to some records only about 110, with a little more in nearby Antigua and Barbuda. Apart from a few endemics – the Oriole in Montserrat – the Barbuda Warbler (in Barbuda!), most birds could be ‘ticked’ in the Dominican Republic or Cuba – usually the ‘bird tour’ birders preferred destinations of choice.

Never-the-less Montserrat holds some truly lovely birds, which in most cases I was able to identify thanks to a newly purchased copy of ‘Birds of the West Indies’ (Helm), which I’d recommend. Top of my favourites were the three local Humming Birds: the Antillean Crested, the Green Throated Carib and the rather splendid Purple Throated Carib. Close behind, two types of Thrashers: the Scaly-Breasted and the Pearly-Eyed, which were both fairly difficult to locate and therefore rewarding to find, and the Forest Thrush (also a good bird to see).

Of the really common species that I saw most days, these included: Bananaquits (everywhere). Lesser Antilian Bullfinches, Grassquits, Zenaida Doves, American Kestrels and the odd Yellow Warbler. On the ocean were: Brown Pelicans, wonderful Red-Billed Tropic-Birds and Magnificant Frigate Birds. I never got tired of seeing in the Frigate Birds in flight.

I knew the Oriole would be a tough find without some insider knowledge – so to my rescue came Montserrat’s answer to Steve Cale, one James ‘Scriber’ Daley. A meet up at 6.30am and we were soon scrambling up the steep forest trails. Montserrat is still covered by dense woodland, not quite rain forest as described in some tourist literature, although it looks and feels it. By 7.30am, I had two Orioles in binocular view, a splendid male and a female. This was easier than Lakenheath, I thought! ‘Scriber’ proved to be a good guide, we notched up over 20 species that morning including a rather nice Antillean Euphonia (I just love that name) – pretty good for Montserrat.

On my way back to the UK, I managed some birding in Antigua with a number of water birds and waders added to my list. These included good close views of Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs (a chance to study the differences) – Little Blue and Tricoloured Herons, Great and Snowy Egrets, Caribbean Whispering Ducks (which were quite noisy), Pie-Billed Grebes and the very smart White-Cheeked Pintail. I also saw the occasional Osprey.

I managed also to fit in a day-trip across to Barbuda, Princess Di’s favourite island I was told by my guide, who almost then immediately pointed out rather splendid Barbuda Warbler. That was both endemics in the bag! The BIG birding highlight in Barbuda – as members may know – is a trip out to Bird Island, the mangrove home of literally several thousands of Magnificent Frigate Birds. This is truly one of the great birding and nature sights in the world. Many of the males were sporting their large red inflated balloon pouches and I got so close I could almost touch them. The odd Brown Booby accompanied them, but they were vastly out-numbered 1000s/1.

My bird total for the trip was 51, not bad for a working, non-dedicated birding trip – AND I managed to see that orange thing that lives up in the sky every day for 14 days. But, reality soon set in again with a cold, snowy arrival back at Gatwick – the only consolation was seeing a Woodcock at Lynford Arboretum on the way home.

Twitch to Shetland to see Pine Grosbeak:        Reporter Lucy Topsom

The mega alert went out on Saturday 2 February and Glenn was excited as it was a bird he had not seen… and certainly one that I hadn’t either. This may not sound very unusual, but when you have seen over 500 birds, most megas are birds that he has already seen before. My response was SHETLAND! And as it was very snowy and would be even snowier up in Scotland, thought that our trip would be dashed or at least very dangerous due to the weather conditions so we held off a few days, hoping it would stay. The last grosser that came to the UK was approximately 20 years ago, so you can understand the need for us to see it and the great rarity of it.

Glenn consulted with his birding mates to see what was being organised, cars, planes, trains to see which would be the best route to take. I realised that we would have to take 3 days so booked a day off on Friday from work. All my work colleagues thought I was mad! We arranged to go for it on Friday 15 February by car to Peterborough train station, then train up to Aberdeen and then take the overnight ferry to Lerwick. Then hire a car up to North Collafirth on the northern end of the mainland of Shetland.

We left home at 5am on Friday and got to Peterborough in good time to catch the 8.15 am train to Aberdeen, changing at Edinburgh. We then had a 3 hour wait until we could board the ferry, but this gave us time to locate the other birders who had come from other parts of the country. The ferry trip over was calm, thank goodness, and we arrived in Lerwick by 7.30am. It was raining, but then what else would we expect. We hired a car for the day and followed in convoy to the given spots that the grosbeak had been seen over the previous few days. These were pine belts around houses, in a bleak location. In fact, they were the only trees for miles so that was why the grosser was mostly sticking to this small 1 mile area. We went to the first area of pine and all the birders circled it, looking closely for any sign of movement. After getting quite wet and very cold, some of the birders went on to the next location to see if there was anything going on there. After 4 hours of looking in the rain, one of the birders thought he had located it, and yes, others got on it and confirmed it. Yeah, at last, we had fantastic views of the grosser feeding from the pines. Scopes up, and we had lovely close views for about an hour. We drifted off after a while for a warm up, and to dry out in the car with the heater on full blast. We made our way back to Lerwick harbour near the canning factory where we had a tip that there were 2 glaucous and an Iceland gulls. There was a ring billed gull but we dipped that. Luckily others had beaten us to it, so we had easy birding, locating them. There were also about 30 seals watching us, wondering what we were up to.

We then handed the keys back in for the hire car, and back onto the ferry for a well deserved meal. We had another calm ferry ride home before returning back to Peterborough via Edinburgh on the train. We drove back home by 7pm on Sunday evening. Back to work on Monday and at least I could say that our trip was worthwhile as it was a tick for both of us, so RESULT. It was a lovely 3 day break seeing Shetland’s natural life and I was lucky enough to even see an otter.

The Gambia:  February 2013                             report by John Cotterill

We had long considered a birding trip to The Gambia, but could not really afford the advertised birding tours, so we decided to travel to the country and use local guides. We chose to stay in the Bakotu hotel overlooking the Kotu Creek, where, we had read, it was possible to see up to 100 species.

Walking round the extensive hotel grounds on our first afternoon, we bumped into “George” the Bakotu Hotel official bird guide. He told us of the trips he offered and whilst chatting I heard a bird calling in a nearby bush and George told us it was a bronze babbler, and pointed it out to us. This convinced us that he knew what he was talking about, and arranged a local walk with him the next morning.

The next morning we joined George for a stroll down to the Kotu bridge and saw three species of kingfisher almost immediately, pied, blue breasted and grey headed. Later in the walk we saw little and swallow tailed bee eaters, along with african grey, red billed and african pied hornbill. The list is too extensive to indicate here, but suffice to say that in 2 hours we saw 62 species, which we thought was pretty special.

We went on four longer trips with George, to the Abuko Reserve, the Brufut Reserve, to Senegal and a short trip on the River Gambia. Highlights that stick in our memory were, giant, pygmy and striped kingfisher, abyssinian, blue bellied and rufous headed rollers.

We also had good birding around the hotel grounds with red billed fire finch, the ubiquitous common bulbul, western plaintain eater, cordon bleu (which is very blue), and long tailed glossy starlings. From the platform overlooking the creek we saw many spur winged, and wattled lapwing, whilst overhead flew dozens of black kite and palm swifts. We found it interesting to spot birds well known to us on the other end of their migrations like, whimbrel, red and green shank, and various sandpipers.

On these trips we were struck by the people who were “dirt” poor, but always happy and beautifully dressed. They lived in tin shacks, but we did not see malnutrition, nor open sewers, which seems to dog other parts of Africa. We decided that if we were rich we would go to The Gambia with a lorry load of footballs for the kids. They all wore their football shirts (mainly Man U it has to be said, no Canaries, except real ones as far as we could see), but kicked cans or knotted rags around.

Eileen was dismayed by the obvious poverty, but overall a wonderful holiday in the sun, and lots of stunningly beautiful birds. Altogether we identified 159 species, with which we were more than satisfied.

A weekend birding in Scotland with Lee Evans:         by Sue Gale

To be more accurate this should be called Scotland Twitching with Lee Evans, because that is undoubtedly what we were doing.
The trip started officially at 5.00am at Stirling Services (between Edinburgh and Glasgow), Lee and others having driven up overnight. Three of the more sane of us travelled up the day before, seeing birds as we went, and had a night’s sleep in Stirling.
On the way we had excellent views of a lesser scaup at Anglers country Park near Wakefield, followed by waders, including whimbrel and our first eider ducks at Holy Island. We then stopped at Musselborough in a howling gale to try and find a surf scoter. It was hard to hold the scope still, and we didn’t find it, but there were lots of velvet scoter, long tailed duck etc.
After a short night we visited Braco Moor, where a total of 10 black grouse were seen. This was especially pleasing as we saw two females among the lekking males, and some red grouse nearby. At Loch of the Lowes we saw the resident osprey, and collected a first wood warbler, and two lovely pairs of bullfinches. On the road to Portsoy there was our first hooded crow and a dipper. At Portsoy Lee quickly found the target bird (he usually does) which was white billed diver. In fact he saw at least 6, although I managed only two of those. Also there were great northern divers and most of the auks, including puffin, plus a great display from some bottle nosed dolphins.
Before breakfast on the Saturday we did some hard walking in the forests in search of capercaille, and then stumbled on an amazing male displaying some 30 yards from a road. He had been there an hour before we arrived we were told, and was still there an hour later when we passed by again, feeling hungry! An unexpected extra, while viewing crested tits and redstart at Loch Garten, was an ice-bow. Like a rainbow upside down in the sky and caused by ice crystals instead of raindrops. It was pointed out to us by Mr Osprey himself, Roy Dennis. Later that day we had excellent views of 2 beautiful, smart black throated divers on Loch Morlich, climbed Snector to see ptarmigan, ring ousel and wheatear, and then birded around the area for the rest of the day. We saw many more crested tits and a large number of ‘capers’, but no crossbills. These have been scarce this year, as they have in Norfolk, because of a shortage of cones on their usual food trees.
Sunday found us on Tulloch Moor before breakfast for more black grouse, but also a good sighting of a tree pipit and a cuckoo. After breakfast the Findhorn valley provided merlin and kestrel, and for the lucky ones who didn’t bother to walk, a golden eagle. Sadly I had gone on the long walk and missed it. The next day, in better weather, 7 were reported in that area!
We then raced across to the Ythan Estuary where a magnificent king eider was really close and easy to find among several hundred eiders, and then on to Bridgend Farm, near Glasgow where a blue winged teal had arrived.
On Monday Lee found us the surf scoter at Musselborough. Not all down to him as the sea was flat and the light was wonderful. Then on to a green winged teal in Northumberland, although there was no sign of the purple heron reported nearby. We parted company with Lee in Gringley Carr, Notts, after seeing 5 dotterel in a field of peas. They were basking in
the warm sun, which was something of a shock for us as the weather had been really cold all weekend. We noticed it even more as the remaining 4 of us walked around Lakenheath Fen in our thermals, but worth the discomfort to see the red footed falcon.
This account gives no real flavour of the weekend, and of course only lists the birds that were a highlight for me. This was fairly tame for a LGRE trip, as we stayed in much the same area and actually had two nights pre-booked in the same B&B. We did have some problems over accommodation for the Sunday night, booked at the very last minute, but we did end up with a bed each. And we did some fast driving at times, but it was great fun and we did see a lot of birds!

An Englishman in New York:                               reporter Paul Riley

This was my first time in America, so thought it would be great to experience the sights and sounds of the Big Apple together with some birding.
My wife had picked out a hotel which turned out to be very well placed, being only 200yds from Central Park, the subway and the Natural History Museum. We would be there for the last week in April and the first two days of May 2013.
My hope would be to see some of the American Warblers in their Spring glory along with any other birds new to me. This is a short account of what I experienced during a couple of organised bird walks and pre breakfast forays before touring the city.
Central Park is a 2 ½ by ½ mile rectangular green oasis bang in the middle of Manhattan surrounded by skyscrapers. The park attracts birds migrating in Spring and Autumn along the Eastern coast. An area of particular note within the park is the Ramble,a 37 acre wooded area which produces a banquet of insects just in time for tired Spring migrants.
It was colder in New York than back home but with a warming cup of Joe in one hand and bins in the other I took my first step into Central Park only to trip over an American Robin at the gate. I took hand held photos of it only to see there were another three by the Diana Ross playground. In fact they were everywhere. What was that singing? I had to investigate, it was a White-Throated Sparrow. It was a lovely tuneful whistle that would put my postman to shame. Described as “My Sweet Canada,Canada, Canada”, the song came from all around. I moved on across a road dodging the joggers, cyclists, roller blades and a fast moving Chevy to the Shakespeare Garden. I could see nesting Mourning Doves. Back home I had travelled to the opposite ends of the British Isles to see these birds. I carried on to the Turtle Pond, here I met Birding Bob who for $7 leads a 3 hour bird walk around the most productive areas of the Ramble.“How ya doin?” he asked and introduced me to a couple from Florida, complaining they hadn’t brought the Florida sunshine along with them. “How yer dewin?” I asked. “How yo, doin”. They replied. Bob had an iPod connected to a tiny speaker and explained that although some birders are against tape luring, he hadn’t known it to kill a bird yet. He also taught us the art of“pishing”. So with Bob in front playing alarm calls of Blue-Headed Vireo and the rest of us pishing about behind, we soon connected with the birds.
Pishing from the wooden bridge brought in a Northern Waterthrush, a cracking new bird for me. Playing its call brought it in even closer. On the other side of the bridge were Swamp Sparrow, Great Egret and Black-Crowned Night Heron. A Belted Kingfisher shot across the lake. We moved around the shore of the lake seeing Barn Swallow, Rough-Winged Swallow and Chimney Swift. We stopped at the Evodia Field an area of less dense trees giving way to a layer of understory. Feeders placed here enabled easy birding from park benches of the commoner birds. Everybody was keen to blow my mind pointing out Northern Cardinals, Blue Jays and American Goldfinches. There were Brown-Headed Cowbirds, Common Grackle, Mourning Doves and White-Throated Sparrows by my feet whilst I was watching Tufted Titmouse, Black-Capped Chickadee, Chipping Sparrow and White-Breasted Nuthatch. The bird calls were mind blowing too, Red-Winged Blackbird and Common Grackle seemed quite strange, then the haunting call of a Red-Tailed Hawk overhead. “I’ll show you its nest later” Bob said. At an area called the Oven there was another Waterthrush. This one was a little plumper, had lighter underparts and a broader white supercillium. “Look at the bubble gum pink legs, it’s a Loozy Anna” exclaimed Bob.The walk ended at a cafe/restaurant called the Loeb Boathouse where the bird log is kept. Here Bob pointed out the Red-Tailed Hawk’s nest high above 927 5th Avenue where it meets East 74th Street. It was the nest of Central Parks famous Pale Male. The story goes that the board of this exclusive apartment block had been so tired of seeing blood and pigeon bones at their front entrance, they removed the nest in 2004. So enraged were the birding community and resident Mary Tyler Moore, they picketed the building, disrupted traffic and held up signs, Honk for Hawks.

A week later the board had erected a cradle for the nest. I took a couple of photos and pondered the eerie sight to be seen from its apartment windows of  Pale Male bringing home its prey.

Back at the hotel I told my wife it was a job trying to remember the birds and names of the sites within the Park. “No Humming Bird or Magnolia Warbler yet, it’s a jungle out there” I said. “Telling me, we went looking for the Magnolia bakery in Greenwich,started off at Bleecker Street but got lost in China Town and ended up in Little Italy, hope we do better tomorrow with Broadway and 42nd Street” she said.

The next bird walk started from the Imagine memorial in Strawberry Fields. Here we saw Eastern Towhee scratching away in the leaf litter under the bushes. The weather had warmed up quite a bit and lots more people were in the park. From here we moved out of the heat and hubbub and then into the cool and calm of the Ramble on the promise of some Warblers from Bob. The warmer weather over the past couple of days had made all the difference. We were soon looking at Palm, Pine and Parula Warblers, soon to be followed by Yellow, Black and White and Yellow-Rumped Warblers. There was great excitement about the rumour of a Hooded Warbler between the Azalea pond and Willow Rock. It soon gave itself up, another jewel of a bird, keep them coming I thought.
A young birder at the Point had found an Ovenbird. It was a relief from searching the canopy for the nose bleed warblers to watch this one on the ground moving through the shady undergrowth. Bob asked if any of us had seen the film “The Big Year”, most of us had. He then said the birder who passed us three or four minutes ago was the one portrayed by the actor Steve Martin. Al Levantin is apparently a regular birder around Central Park.

At the hotel I asked my wife what she had been up to during the day. She told me she had been to Macy’s? Bloomingdales?? and Tiffany’s????? Before I could draw enough breath to complain she pointed out of the window at a big bird perched close ona rooftop water tank. It was a Red-Tailed Hawk which flew off before I could photograph it. She asked me how my day went. I told her about a little old lady from Long Island asking about our Skylarks and how her English father would tell her about them  long ago when she was a little girl. “She asked me to describe what they were like” I said. “And what did you tell her?” she asked. “Just a boring little brown job with a bit of a crest” I replied. “You mean you didn’t tell her how they rise in exaltation singing non-stop and hovering high up until a dot in the sky. The voice of  Spring. Poems have been written about them. They obviously mean a lot to her” she ranted. I felt bad for the rest of the day.

 Back home I find woodpeckers are often heard but never seen. A chip or a yaffle maybe, I’m sure the Lesser Spotted must be fitted with a cloaking device. In the Ramble woodpeckers are dead easy, there are plenty of them and they can be seen very close. Red-Bellied (no red belly) are the most common. Downy and Hairy are very similar to each other being black and white, the Hairy is bigger but dropping in numbers as it nest hole is the perfect size for the invading European Starling. Northern Flicker is another large woodpecker. It has a barred brown back, a spotted belly, a gorgeous yellow underwing, black breastband and a big bunny rabbit white rump. The Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker does exactly what it says on the tin. It drills rows of shallow holes in the bark, and feeds on the sap and the insects trapped in it with its bristle tipped tongue. I was lucky to have the patterns of their actions pointed out to me. They are considered a tree pest in some parts. I met two Irish birders who told me they were doing the trip on the cheap. They were brothers and walked in most days from Harlem where they were self catering. They told me I must be a millionaire staying in Uptown Manhattan. We talked of birds and an Irish birder I knew, who they used to baby sit for. Another day I bumped into an English birder while watching an Eastern Phoebe fly catching from a fence along the Tupelo field. He told me that he had been living in New York for the last twenty plus years but had been birding in Sculthorpe Moor only two months ago. He talked of Norfolk birders who I knew of. Small world I thought.

Americans are unfortunate in having birds with long and weird names e.g. Black-Throated Green Warbler, Chuck-Will’s-Widow, Black-Capped Gnatcatcher etc. Probably serves them right for calling Buzzards Hawks and Thrushes Robins. They are fortunate however in having a clever way of adopting a four letter alpha code for all of their birds (unlike the less adopted two and five codes used by the BTO). This comes in handy for recording those birds with long names. Thus a Yellow-Bellied
Sapsucker becomes a YBSA. However a Purple Martin becomes a PUMA, a Mountain Thrush becomes a MOTH and Worthen’s Sparrow a WOSP. A Dickcissel is a DICK, poor thing.

With 44 lifers (11 new warblers) I was pleased with what I saw. I was too early to see the much hoped for Ruby-Throated Hummingbird and a few other warblers. The main wave of migration is usually Mid May when over twenty species of warbler can be seen in a day but the canopy starts to thicken up and viewing becomes restricted. I had planned to bird Jamaica Bay but was told by the Irish birders that hurricane Sandy last year had damaged the rail track in places which meant changing from rail to bus and back again leaving not much time for the birds which were they said were thin on the ground anyway. Liberty Island had also suffered the wrath of Sandy with no landing allowed but the view of the statue from the boat was well worth it.

Central Park no longer has the bad reputation it had twenty years ago. Watching the masses walking around Muggers Woods with their latest cameras and fad white lenses is proof of how much the New Yorkers love their park and feel safe in it. Anyone remotely interested in migration, American birds or New York should check out the one hour long documentary “The Central Park Effect” on YouTube and Birding Bobs website/YouTube videos. They certainly bring back fond memories when I watch them.

Col de Pourtalet France/Spain                         reporter John Cotterill

We have friends that live just North of Pau in South West France whom we visited this June. They are keen birdwatchers too, and our visit usually involves trips to places like La Teich on the Arcachon Bay. However this time our friend was not well and we had to forego trips like that. However, to the South of Pau a road runs through Gan and Laruns, winding it’s way up into the Pyrenees following the River Oissau, and crosses into Spain at the Col de Pourtalet at 1794m above sea level. We decided to spend a day driving this route in the hope of some different birds. Towards the summit we noticed a flock of 20 or so jackdaw like birds, which, from a convenient lay by we saw were in fact the yellow beaked alpine chough, and no matter how hard we tried we could not convert any of them into the red billed variety. Being in an unusual habitat and at a height of 1600m or so, we were a little disappointed when the bird of prey just across the river turned out to be a red kite, and the bird perched on a rock nearby, a kestrel. But lovely close up views nonetheless.
On to the car park at the summit to have good views of raven, wheatear, white wagtail, and at last a red billed chough. Snow still lay about in drifts of up 5m, but where it had melted the high meadows were covered in alpine daffodils, growing to no more the 5 cm tall, along with wild hellebores.
On the way down the pass we called in at the Falaise aux Vauture, a huge cliff rearing above the tiny village of Beon. True to it’s name, circling above the cliff were 5 or 6 griffon vultures and the white outline of a single egyptian vulture, and across the valley a booted eagle.
We pulled onto the drive of our friends house, got out of the car to hear golden oriole, and perhaps even better, turtle dove, in the small wood at the bottom of their garden.
Not a great birding day in terms of number of species seen, but of high quality, which, along with the stunning mountain views, made it a day to remember.

The Bus Pass Boys Spreading Their Wings:                 Part 1 – Allan Hale

The Bus Pass Boys on this trip are Allan Hale, Alwyn Jackson, David Pelling, Ray Gribble, Richard Norris (all of whom are both WVBS and NarVOS members) and NarVOS members Ian Black, Malcolm Rains and Stewart South.

Having managed several trips to Great Yarmouth for Mediterranean Gulls without serious mishap the Bus Pass Boys have been to France. Malcolm has birding friends in southern France so a trip was planned to target some decent birds, including Wallcreeper. All eight of us were to sample the joys of Ryanair and spend four nights near Beziers, not too far from the Mediterranean coast.

We were worried about the weather leading up to the trip with plenty of snow forecast for much of England. We were to muster at a hotel close to Luton airport the evening before, thus getting a bit of sleep prior to the 5.05am check-in. The plan was for Alwyn to drive down with Ray, Richard and David, and for Malcolm to take Allan, Ian and Stewart, plus Margaret
(Malcolm’s wife) who was to stay with friends near Beziers. It did not start well. The snow was falling fast as the ‘western quartet’ approached Malcolm’s farm. The road was closed to traffic – as the EDP put it “the worst road in Norfolk was finally being repaired”. To avoid a lengthy diversion the road closure was ignored and we slithered and slipped the final couple of miles. It was certainly the most hazardous road in Norfolk that evening!

We duly arrived at the hotel, but Malcolm’s sleep was soon interrupted. He had parked his car with the hand brake off to stop the brakes freezing. The car had wandered across the car park of its own accord and had blocked the car park entrance. He was summoned from his bed to rectify the situation.

After all too little sleep it didn’t get any better. Firstly our two-car convoy got separated resulting in a fractious journey to the long-term car park. Then Ray had problems with security when part of his gear went down one route with the rest going down another. Result – a lost watch as well as his dextrose confectionary (to help with his diabetes). Neither was located until we got back to England; at point of writing Luton Airport has found his watch but if he wants it back he has to go and collect it!

It is customary for us to have a sweepstake on these trips. How many species will we see? There’s nothing at stake other than a huge amount of pride. Ray and Alwyn each guessed 135, Ian 128, Richard 124, David 115, Allan 109, Stewart 104 and Malcolm (who had already been birding in the area a couple of times before) only 73. Lots of muttering from the rest of us.

The flight itself was uneventful and we were duly met by Malcolm’s friends Paul and Jan. Margaret was to leave with Jan whilst Paul said that Derek Moore (ex Suffolk Wildlife Trust) was looking for the Little Bustards at the other end of the airfield. We unpacked the gear only to find that Allan’s tripod had been broken in transit. Since Allan had brought his amera,the tripod (and ‘scope) was for Richard’s use. Another good plan down the drain! Anyway Derek couldn’t find the Bustards; the grass had been recently cut and they had moved. Nevertheless we ticked off our first few birds, Cormorant, White Wagtail, Great Tit, Magpie, Buzzard, Starling and the pick of the bunch, Crested Lark.

After a circuitous drive round to the other side of the airfield we tried again, adding Chaffinch, Goldfinch, Sardinian Warbler, Black Redstart and Collared Dove along the way. This time we had more luck; Derek wandered over the rank grassland and put up no less than five Little Bustards. After watching a splendid flying display we also got Lapwing, Jackdaw, Kestrel, Carrion Crow, Fan-tailed Warbler and Cattle Egret. Next a journey to Moureze, where our prime target, Wallcreeper, was to be searched for. Enroute we added Stonechat, Hen Harrier, Red-legged Partridge, Robin, Blue Tit and Blackbird. We clambered up a path to some hugely impressive rock formations. There we settled down to scan the cliffs for our target bird. Before long a cry of “there it is!” rang out and we enjoyed prolonged views of this most spectacular bird. We climbed up higher in search of Bonelli’s Eagle, but all we managed to add to our list was a Dunnock. On the road again, this time to look for a Southern Grey Shrike. Linnet and Sparrowhawk were additions on the way and after a short walk we connected with the Southern Grey, all very satisfactory. On the way back to our accommodation we picked up House Sparrow, finishing the day with 31 species on our list. Not bad considering we didn’t get out of Beziers airport until after mid-day, plus the list really did contain some tasty birds.

We did question Derek Moore regarding his O.B.E. and whilst he was suitably modest about it all he did say that the award cost him in excess of £600 for new outfits for “the two ladies in his life”. He further mentioned that one of them had chosen a hat which looked like a dead rook stuck on top of her head!

The day concluded with a visit to a local café. Several beers were sampled until we found one that was acceptable (it was Dutch!) followed by a sadly ‘international style’ meal. Never mind, we enjoyed ourselves and had a good laugh with the language. Back at our accommodation, timings were finalized for the morning with Richard volunteering for ‘kettle on at 6.15’.

There was to be yet another twist. We had 4 twin rooms for the eight of us. Half of us found their bedding whilst the other half had a very cold and uncomfortable night, with the temperature outside going well below freezing.
To be continued ———-

The Bus Pass Boys Spreading Their Wings.       Part 2 –  Alwyn Jackson

The Bus Pass Boys on this trip are Allan Hale, Alwyn Jackson, David Pelling, Ray Gribble, Richard Norris (all of whom are both WVBS and NarVOS members) and NarVOS members Ian Black, Malcolm Rains and Stewart South.

Wednesday morning 10th Jan dawned wet and murky but we stuck to our original plan to visit the Pic du Nore, the highest point at 1210m in the Montagne Noire, a mountain range at the south-west end of the Central Massif. The idea was to bag Snowfinch which some of the party needed for their lifer list. When we met up with expat Derek Moore he advised us not to go any further as the mountains were cloaked in mist and snow and the immediate forecast was not good. We diverted to the mediaeval village of
Minerve to do some birding at lower altitude in and around the limestone gorge below the village.

Derek set the scene on our arrival, telling us that the village had been besieged for six weeks by Simon de Montfort, 5th Earl of Leicester in 1210 after a group of Cathars had sought refuge there during a Crusade initiated by Pope Innocent II to eliminate Catharism. Eventually, the commander of the 200 strong garrison gave in after the destruction of the water supply. One hundred and forty Cathars refused to give up their faith and were burned to death at the stake.
It was obvious by looking at the car parking facilities and the way the village had been “restored” that it was now a place that attracted and catered for visitors, but not on this particular day as ours were the only vehicles to be seen. As we descended into the village we enjoyed views of two Blue Rock Thrushes as they moved across the steep face of the gorge and we noticed numerous Blackcaps in the bushes below us and alongside the roadway. We walked past the only remains of the original fortifications, a slender octagonal tower standing on the very edge of the gorge and continued on our way through the deserted but picturesque streets of what is considered to be one of the most beautiful villages of France.

We took a path along a slippery limestone ledge above the river bank. Thrushes were moving around the shrubs and trees and as we rounded a corner a Black-bellied Dipper was seen searching for food at the water’s edge. Within a short distance a Firecrest in its breathtaking breeding plumage was watched as it searched for food among the bare twigs of a small tree below and within a few feet of us. Several minutes were spent admiring this minute gem – what a change from having to search for this species amongst dense foliage back home in Norfolk. We retraced our steps a short distance before climbing out of the gorge using a twentieth century metal staircase. One last look at the river below revealed a Grey Wagtail on the bank far below.

As it was sleeting heavily it was decided to move to a coastal area of lagoons, marsh and scrub south of Vendres. At least we would be able to use the vehicles as mobile hides as the weather was not improving. As we moved about the site we happened upon a group of roosting Great White and Little Egrets in a roadside tree. Amongst the low scrub a Dartford Warbler was moving stealthily and proving to be difficult for some of us to locate. A group of forlorn Greater Flamingos were either feeding or roosting as a way of sheltering from the elements. Among the other species present we managed to find Sandwich Tern, Water Pipit, Yellow-legged Gull, Bittern and a Chiffchaff. We moved on to the shore of the River Aude where we noted two Black-necked Grebes. The weather conditions were worsening so we decided to head back to our gites at Malagas. The rest of the day was spent mulling over the day’s highlights and hoping for better weather on the morrow.

 The Bus Pass Boys  Spreading Their Wings:            Part 3  Ian Black

The Bus Pass Boys on this trip are Allan Hale, Alwyn Jackson, David Pelling, Ray Gribble, Richard Norris (all of whom are both WVBS and NarVOS members) and NarVOS members Ian Black, Malcolm Rains and Stewart South.

With a significant downturn in the weather midway  through yesterday, we were more than a little apprehensive as to how today would pan out. Would we be putting our feet up in front of a big open fire and watching the snow deepening from a few centimetres to several metres? Would the temperature plummet any further and what possible effect could this have on the likelihood of moving our cars? Word from our leader, Paul, in an early morning phone call was that we should try to stick to our plan, starting with a meeting in his village a few kilometres  from Magalas. There were still questions as to whether this would be possible, given that we were having real problems walking the short distance from our gite to the car park in the middle of town. The short hill outside ‘our pub’ and en route to the car park had been closed to traffic due to compacted snow and ice.

The boulangerie had already become totally unphased by the sight of eight British birders strolling in, with ‘scopes and binoculars, to purchase their daily rations of pastries, quiches and sausage rolls – achieved for the most part in a mixture of high-volume English and a smattering of Franglais. The cars, with an extra layer of now frozen snow, took some time to get ready for the off. The car park was an ice-rink and the adjacent roads were like a down-hill slalom course but we managed to exit the town and make it, slowly, to Paul’s house in nearby Pouzolles. “Why didn’t you warn us about this sort of weather at this time of year?” we asked Paul. “Because, in ten years, we haven’t seen this sort of weather” he retorted. Our plan for the day was to make, perhaps, the longest trip of our time in France, up to the gorges to the West of the Cevennes National Park. So icy conditions, a long journey, climbing to altitude and then navigating the narrow roads which, in parts, cling to the sides of the most spectacular gorges – how did this sound to the Bus Pass Boys, more used to staying within a few metres of sea level? “Let’s do it” was the consensus and off we set along icy roads, lined on either side with snow-covered vineyards. Once on the Autoroute  A75,  we breathed a sigh of relief as the icy surfaces disappeared and we could get out of third gear. Travelling North toward Millau we were also climbing fairly steadily and my co-pilot for the morning, David, not only took to calling out the altitudes as we passed the roadside signs but also photographing the car’s external temperature gauge which at one point, at a little over 800m, we hit -10.5C (just as we hit more surface ice!). Driving down into the valley and around Millau we had fantastic views of the magnificent Millau Viaduct. The climb back out from the city, took us fairly quickly up to the Gorge du Tarn and then across the river into the Gorge de la Jonte – at last our target site for the day. By now we were seeing the first of the day’s target birds. A brief lay-by stop to clean our screen (as the washers had frozen) gave us a chance to view Griffon Vultures and Ravens high above the gorge. A Peregrine Falcon was viewed as we moved off for a few more kilometres to the car park at La Maison des Vautors (The House of Vultures).

Many years ago the French started an immensely successful project to reintroduce vultures to the Causses and Gorges in this region. For good reason this centre was constructed in order to promote the programme and to offer the opportunity to watch the vultures from the Belvedere (lookout). The centre is closed in the Winter but the car park presented an ideal spot to set up ‘scopes and to watch the activity along the gorge. At any one time there were upwards of a dozen Griffon Vultures in the air or perched high on the cliffs above us. By late afternoon, we counted at least 27 Griffons moving gracefully in the clear air. Although the temperature never got above -8C, they seemed to be finding sufficient uplift to move effortlessly from crag to tree and onwards to ledges where several were
depositing nest material. Having got our ‘eye in’ on Griffons, we soon spotted the different form of some of the birds circling above us – we had our second vulture species of the day, Black Vulture. At least one pair was planning a family and as all ‘scope were trained in their direction, they copulated on top of a precipitous crag. A number of corvids had been moving through the gorge and, in addition to the Raven, spotted earlier, we were also seeing the occasional Red Billed Chough. Around us, as we watched, we had Blue Tit and Marsh Tit flitting through the undergrowth and a Green Woodpecker yaffled away in the conifers which line the gorge but failed to show itself.

One of our two cars was driven up onto the causses – these are the flat areas at the top of the gorges. By all accounts, traction was in very short supply and the track was especially difficult to spot in the undisturbed snow, so having had a few eye-to-eye views of the Vultures, a multi-point turn and a managed retreat were in order. The excursion up this tiny track wasn’t, however, without its reward – an Alpine Accentor was spotted popping up and down through the roadside scrub. The call went
out to the rest of the group and we manoeuvred the second vehicle into place so that no one missed out on what we agreed was a spectacularly pretty member of the accentor family. By now, several in the group had added a few more ‘lifers’ to their trip list from our French excursion. Concerned that he was going to have to buy a round of drinks for each new ‘life tick’, Richard was beginning to wonder whether he needed to exchange a few more Euros.

Reluctantly we left the beauty of the gorges and the spectacular aerial displays of the Griffon and Black Vultures and headed back to the Languedoc. The return trip wasn’t without interest. My new co-pilot (no names) was clearly overwhelmed by the day’s experiences and was spotted dozing in the front seat. The Bus Pass Boys rarely let this sort of behaviour go without comment – photographs were taken (purely as a record, you understand) and ribald comments were lobbed from the back seat for much of our journey South. Also, as we were travelling basically South-West, we had the setting sun on our screen and, as the washers hadn’t thawed, it became more and more ‘hazy’ as we approached home. As we turned into a village, with the sun now full on the screen, visibility disappeared completely. My co-pilot now redeemed himself by lobbing a bottle of water to me which I was able to splash on to the screen though my open window and he was able to do the same on the other side – luckily the local gendarmes weren’t there to see this behaviour. And the good news? Most of the snow and ice had disappeared as we headed back to our gite.

We were treated tor a splendid meal at Paul and Jan’s lovely house together with a fine assemblage ofex-pat birders who had been or would be our guides throughout the trip. A round trip of over 300km into the most stunning of landscapes had yielded another super clutch of birds and we went to bed tired but satisfied and looking forward (?) to another very early start to our final day’s birding.

Don’t miss the concluding part of this epic trip in your October Newsletter. Order early to avoid disappointment.

The Final Day:  Ray Gribble

The Bus Pass Boys on this trip are Allan Hale, Alwyn Jackson, David Pelling, Ray Gribble, Richard Norris (all of whom are both WVBS and NarVOS members) and NarVOS members Ian Black, Malcolm Rains and Stewart South.

Our final day’s birding and another early start as we set off to the Camargue. This is a huge area of 360 square miles and like  Breckland you really need to know where to go to find the key birds. Surprisingly Derek, that other “Good Old Norfolk Boy”, had never been to the Camargue and had reservations about what we might see. But us Bus Pass Boys were not to be put off. Previously I have only spent a day in the Camargue in mid-summer when it was extremely hot with a heat haze that blurred everything. There could not have been a greater contrast as, after a 2 hour journey in freezing conditions, we arrived at our first stop near Gallician in the Petite Camargue. The skies were grey without a hint of sun and a light breeze ensured that we felt perishing cold. On one side of the road was a canal with crack-ice where half a dozen brave (or stupid) locals were lure fishing, for what we never did find out as none caught anything while we were there. The other side of the road was a mixture of reedbed and frozen shallow pools. Marsh Harrier and Common Buzzard were soon “clocked”.
Any of you who have doubts about the effectiveness of ”pishing” would have been amazed as Allan McBride, another ex-pat with us, called in a few Reed Buntings, a Cetti’s Warbler, a couple of Bearded Tits and the highlight of 8 Penduline Tits to within a few feet of us. A little further along the road and we could see 3,000 Common Cranes in the distance. At the end of the day we were to get much closer views of them feeding in the stubble of ricefields. We then headed to the visitor centre at Capaliere on the east side of Etang de Vaccares. En route we, saw on what little open water there was, Mallard 100’s, Shelduck 20, Pochard 1 or 2, Gadwall 1, Teal a few, Shoveler a few, Great crested Grebe 10’s in small flocks and up to 20 Black-necked Grebe. There were also 100’s of Reed Bunting and Chaffinches. At the visitor centre we walked the frozen trails and managed to add a few new species including Great White Egret, Long-tailed Tit, Meadow Pipit, Kingfisher, Hen Harrier and Water Rails. The latter were running about on the ice desperately seeking food but also giving great photographic opportunities. Returning via the west side of the Etang de Vaccares we found a few Curlew, Dunlin, Grey Plover, Avocet, Common Snipe,
single Redshank, Spotted Redshank and Green Sandpiper. This was the area where we saw the famous Camargue horses and fighting bulls. Before leaving the Camargue we saw a couple of Black Redstart, a flock of a few hundred Linnets and several flocks of 20+ Corn Buntings plus a cracking male Hen Harrier.
Derek had proved right in his scepticism because although we had spent an enjoyable but extremely cold day in the Camargue it was not easy to find the birds. We certainly did not find the vast flocks of waterfowl the Camargue is famous for.
13 of us (the bus pass boys + Margaret, our hosts Paul & Jan, Derek & Beryl) spent a most convivial last evening having dinner at the restaurant in Magalas before our early morning flight to Luton the next day.

Mad or What?                                                 from Mary, Sue and Liz

Mad or what? but so exhilarating and exciting! Abandoned the car half way down to Cley Beach, a foot of water on the road. Water at the sides, normally quite low, almost reaching the bank and the road. Cows, herded awaiting transport to drier pasture. Such high waves leaping up over the shingle bank; water seeping through it. The sea, very grey and having so much energy. An
occasional driving rain squall. Could birds survive in this? We could, taking cover in the shelter and standing on the benches to keep dry feet. Two other wvbs stalwarts were there as well. Did we see birds? Well yes, as they appeared and disappeared in the waves or were obscured by the spray. Gannets, Skuas both Bonxie and Arctic, Little Gull, a diver, a cormorant, Red- Breasted Merganser, Eider, Scoter; was that a Sooty Shearwater, and then a very, very distant Pomarine Skua only able to be identified by the man with the ‘scope. Meanwhile a small group of Turnstone and a lone Purple Sandpiper being blown along the shingle.
Did we enjoy ourselves? You bet we did! But now it was time to retire to the Visitor Centre for a hot drink.

Scilly Adventure:                                                                         by  Sue Gale

It’s mid-October. A dramatic storm on the North coast of Norfolk brings a long-awaited fall of interesting birds. So of course it’s off to the Isles of Scilly via Penzance! We hoped to see many special birds on the islands, and pick up some more on the journey each way.
Four of us assembled in Kingston on Thames on the Friday night for an early Saturday start. We drove straight to Portland, where we saw the Short-toed lark that had been there for a while;  a lovely and obliging bird pecking its way along a track. Too obliging it seems as it has since been taken by a merlin. Then we pressed on to look for a Glossy ibis at Radipole Lake.
Absurdly we sat patiently in the hide for quite some time, having missed its last appearance by ten minutes. There were water rails etc to watch, and we were excited to see a Sparrowhawk pursuing its prey. Unfortunately while all four of us were glued to that spectacle the ibis flew right past the hide and away! No-one called it and we were astonished to look round and find the hide emptying with satisfied smiles all round. This was to prove something of a theme, and the cirl buntings had gone to bed by the time we reached Paignton.
Some difficulty finding a Travelodge for the night resulted in a cross-Dartmoor drive after dark on a horrendously narrow and twisty road that passes for an A road on the moor. Next morning we nursed a failing clutch all the way to Penzance, via a look at the Hayle estuary and Pendeen, where we managed some Skuas and 2 Balearic shearwaters. We also found the Rosecoloured starling at Marazion quite quickly. At least the B&Bs were booked for here and the Islands, and we were able to arrange for the car to be fixed while we were away.
Next morning our peaceful ferry trip to St Mary’s was followed by an immediate rush to Tresco to see the sora. I had never even heard of this bird before, let alone seen one, and it’s a pretty good crake to start with. Sadly by the time we got back to St Mary’s the grey-cheeked thrush had disappeared and was not seen again. We had another good look for it the next morning, and for a spotted crake, but no success. A quick taxi across the island did result in brief views of a Richard’s pipit though. Plenty of Yellow-browed warblers all over the island, and Craig spotted a Black redstart in the Old Town. We also had good views of a Whimbrel on the beach, and a Wryneck in a quarry.
On the Wednesday we ventured over to St Agnes in hope of finding something of our own. The Short-toed lark was an easy spot, and to my knowledge this one still survives! Plenty of common birds to see, and a lovely walk around the island, but nothing special until we were interrupted while having a beer and waiting for the 2.15 boat back. ‘Have you heard about the Pallas’s Grasshopper warbler on Gugh?’ Oh goodness. Chris didn’t even finish his beer and people trailed sandwich filling as we rushed to the causeway, which we had been warned was going to be covered by the tide from 2.00pm onwards. Just made it with wet feet. The PG tips, as twitchers call it, is a notoriously skulking bird that inhabits deep grass and brush. It had been seen by half a dozen people, including Dick Philby, so it was a fairly certain identification, and they knew which bit of marram grass tussocks and brambles it was in. We found ourselves part of a line that was going to walk across and flush the bird. This was a surprise to me. I have never been part of an organised flush before, and probably won’t again, not only because of the shredded feet and ankles afterwards. Not my kind of birding. Several more of these increasingly perilous walks followed, although not including me. Only one other small group saw the bird, and they had to lean down and part the grass in order to
see it. Because of the tide it wasn’t possible to get off Gugh in time for the last scheduled boat, but I imagine the Isles of Scilly boatmen are used to this kind of performance, and they laid on several extra boats up until 7.00pm to take off the 200 or so birders who had managed to get there. Over the last two days we got to know St Mary’s very well and wore our feet down a bit. We made very close acquaintance with a Lapland bunting and a truly remarkable Snow bunting that walked around our feet. It seemed entirely fearless except when dogs appeared. There are some charming hides at Lower and Upper Moors, where we had the best views I have ever had of Jack snipe. There were 7 of them showing well at Lower Moors at one time. The last day was blowing a gale and should have rained hard, but only did so in fact when I was waiting to cross the end of the runway on an exposed headland with no shelter. I enjoyed the wind and wildness, but the men all stayed in the B&B. No stamina.
The boat trip back was more exciting than most. Pretty rough, but not a lot of birds. On the way home we managed to call in at Hayling Island for the Semi-palmated plover, and pick up a couple of Parrot crossbills in Kent. So we were a bit disappointed with the bird count for the trip, but it was good fun anyway and you can eat well on the Isles of Scilly in the evenings. Now I just need a holiday to recover!

Birds by Barge  –  The Stour Estuary                     reporter Mary Walker

 Like many others, we, that is Liz, Sue and Mary, have been meaning to venture into Essex for a spot of birding. The RSPB advertised a “Birds By Barge” trip that caught our eye. So a date was fixed, tickets and accommodation booked.

The day of departure dawned. A cold and foggy December morning. The cars’ Sat Nav was instructed to take us to Harwich.

First stop was Mistley Walls. Still in thick fog. Debating the parking restrictions, we left the car along the sea wall “just for a few moments to have a look”. The few moments turned into several hours as the fog slowly lifted revealing a sort of Snettisham bird spectacular, but by the road. No hiking necessary. Bit by bit visibility improved and we were soon scanning huge flocks of waders, taking care not to walk on any of the numerous very muddy Mute Swans that were hoping for food. Then moored fishing boats appeared out of the mist. One with a kingfisher sitting on it, and finally the other side of the estuary was visible.

The Stour is one of the most important estuaries in Britain for wintering birds with internationally important numbers of Grey Plovers, 1400 this year, but most significantly for the numbers of Black- Tail Godwit.

A brief stop in Copperas Wood was deathly quiet, as one would expect on a late December afternoon, but the views over the estuary towards the Orwell were fantastic.

After unloading at our B&B, we made our way to the local pub in search of sustenance, only to find ourselves taking part in the weekly quiz, and so departed well fed, wined, and clutching our third prize winnings of several bags of sweeties.

Next morning after the owner of the B&B insisted we visit his barn to wake up the tiny micro piglets (so tempting to pop one down my jumper – just adorable), we de-iced the car and headed to Ha’penny pier in Harwich. Every trace of fog had gone, and it was the brightest, clearest morning imaginable.

We climbed aboard the 117 year old Thames Sailing Barge “Victor” which provided a wonderful platform for the half day excursion, run by the RSPB. There was ample room, guides to help with identification, and several scopes were also provided to view the masses of wading birds and wildfowl within Copperas Bay. There were birds everywhere, Mergansers, various Grebes, Avocet, Knot, Plovers, Godwits, Redshanks, Curlew, but the treat for us was so many Golden Eye. It was hard to break away to go downstairs for the enormous breakfast that was waiting. But we managed!

It was an excellent voyage, ending with a haughty Peregrine watching our return to dock.

So, yes, a visit to Essex comes highly recommended.

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