Another Red Letter Day

I have been lucky to enjoy many red letter days out bird watching. Two of them stand out way above the others.

Twelve years ago on April 30th 2004 I took part in a Birdathon to raise funds for the Hawk and Owl Trust’s new reserve at Sculthorpe Moor in Norfolk. There were several teams taking part. The “star” team was made up of Richard Mabey, Mark Cocker and Tim Dee. They were going to be difficult to beat. I needed an expert pair of eyes guiding me if I was going to be in contention.

Andy BloomfieldAndy Bloomfield was the expert I needed. I’d known him for some time and he’d written an excellent guide on birds of Holkham. I asked him if he’d like to join me. I’d do the driving and provide food. His knowledge and sharp eyes would spot the birds.

As we left my home we heard Turtle Doves churring and at Tatterford church there was a Little Owl roosting on the ledge below a stained glass window. From there we used my pass to enter Sculthorpe airfield which was still used for military training exercises. Here we expected to see Stone Curlew. We patrolled the taxi runways scanning the edges. Suddenly I saw something unbelievable. I pulled up gently I pointed it out to Andy. Yes, it was a Stone Curlew but standing next to it, quite companionably, was a Short-eared Owl. Of course, neither of us had a camera at hand! It was the high point of our day. I can only assume the owl was migrating north and had flopped down for a rest.

There were other good moments. I remember a Goshawk soaring over Dersingham Bog but nothing to top the Stone Curlew and Owl standing side-by-side. Andy and I came second with 131 birds beaten by the experts, Mabey, Cocker and Dee, with 132.

“Another red letter day” was on my birthday, early in May, this year. For some time Andy Bloomfield, now full-time Warden at The Holkham Nature Reserve, had been asking me to let him show me all the improvements that had been made.

My wife, Liza, and I met Andy at the reserve office, crammed into his vehicle and shot off up one of the droves that lead off the coast road into the reserve. When I’d last visited this part of the reserve the four of five big fields were down to arable. Now, what a transformation! They’d been put down to grass, channels had been cut so areas could be kept flooded all year round.

We stopped and Andy pointed out the exciting assembly of wading birds that were taking advantage of the new, controlled conditions. Little Ringed Plover, Avocets, Lapwing, Curlew, Whimbrel, Greenshank and Wood Sandpiper; some of them were quite difficult to pick out as they flitted through the clumps of grass and rushes. There were also Little Egrets delicately probing the pools for prey. Overhead circled a noisy hoard of Blackheaded Gulls eyeing up the chance of catching a newly hatched chick unawares. Above them floated a cock Marsh Harrier – its pale blue wing panel glinting in the afternoon sun. What a handsome chap he was!

shelducks quarles marsh smlMoving on we came to another partly flooded meadow where many waders were busy feeding. But then, from behind an island covered in grass and rushes, emerged a veritable armada of Shelduck. 11 adults escorting 11 ducklings. Andy pointed out there were 8 drakes and just one duck. The 7 extra drakes had taken it upon themselves to support and protect this family during this first hazardous period of their life. Already 3 or 4 ducklings had been taken by ever watchful predators with their own growing families to feed. Somewhere 7 female Shelducks were sitting on eggs waiting for them to hatch.

I was reminded of filming a Shelduck’s nest at Braunton Burrows in Devon many years ago. Mike Herd was the cameraman and we agreed that the key shot we needed was the family of two adults and the newly hatched ducklings emerging from the rabbit hole in the sand dunes. It would only happen once. We knew the number of days she’d been sitting and therefore more or less knew when the eggs were due to hatch. To make absolutely certain that we didn’t miss the key shot Mike inserted a tiny microphone in the burrow. At first light each day he was in his hide listening for the peeping of the newly hatched ducklings. 28 days after incubation started the duck emerged leading her 15 ducklings away from the burrow with the drake bringing up the rear. She lead them away through the sand and marram grass down to the estuary running a gauntlet of harassing gulls eager for a taste of freshly hatched duckling.

Back at Holkham the family of Shelduck had made it to the safety of land, a tussocky island on the edge of one of the scrapes.

Wryneck emailAs we drove on Andy told us that a Red-backed Shrike had been seen in the sand dunes at the end of the Meals Woods. Would we like to look for it? A passing bird watcher told us he had a distant view of it. Encouraged, Liza and Andy set off into sand dunes while I sat in the car and scanned the tops of bushes and poles for a glimpse of a shrike. Eventually they returned. No, they hadn’t seen the shrike but had seen a Wryneck which Andy had photographed.

It was time to turn for home. Driving down the old railway track with hedges on either side we got glimpses of pools of water in the water meadows. On one side were three families of Mallard with their ducklings trailing behind. Eyeing them hungrily were three Grey Herons, still as statues, waiting for them to come in range.

On the other side was a Spotted Redshank, a “Dusky Maiden” called it, and two Green Sandpipers. More ducklings skittering about and wheeling above them was a male Marsh Harrier, gorgeous in his full adult plumage.

Andy Bloomfield Marsh HarrierAndy dropped us off at our car. It was a day that I will always remember and we were mightily impressed by the way Holkham had changed arable fields into water meadows benefitting wildfowl and waders in summer.

Thank you, Andy.

PS. When we got home there was birthday card waiting for me from my great friends John and Maggie Nichols. It was a sketch of a bird by local bird artist, Steve Cale, and it was of a Wryneck in almost exactly the same pose as Andy’s photograph. Isn’t that marvellous! A surprise ending to a wonderful, “red letter day.”