A diary of my birding activity covering highlights and photos from my birding adventures. Mainly Norfolk (UK), occasionally beyond. I might mention the odd thing that isn't avian, but for moth and other insect news check out my mothing diary.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

A perfect seawatch

The weather chart for Tuesday 1st November looked interesting - a northerly wind coming down from a long way up picking up mid-late morning.  Not classic, but I thought there might be a few wildfowl moving and perhaps a handful of semi-scarce birds if we were lucky.  It was worth a punt - worth taking a day off work for.  I arrived early, about 6.30, and was the first one there, soon to be joined by Justin and, in the first glimmers of light, this Common Scoter just below the prom.

Common Scoter, Sheringham, 1st November

The wind wasn't very strong first thing - just a few white horses so force 4 but only just.  A few wildfowl were moving - not large numbers but a good variety.  Highlights included 27 Eider, 5 Shoveler, 3 Gadwall and the first few of 6 Goldeneye.  I missed the first 2 Velvet Scoter but saw another 2 Velvet Scoter later on and Common Scoter eventually reached 438 including up to 2 birds sitting on the sea just off the Leas.  There was also a Red-breasted Merganser and later on a Scaup moving with a flock of Common Scoter.

Eider and Common Scoter, Sheringham, 1st November

My total for Red-throated Divers only reached 56 and the vast majority (over 50) were moving east.  None of them had looked remotely interesting in terms of being anything else, so it was a bit galling when we heard news from Cley that they had had a White-billed Diver flying west.  Had it passed us, perhaps high up out of the line of our scopes?  Or had it come in from the north somewhere between Sheringham and Cley?  Annoying to have missed that but we weren't as gutted as we might have been because by this time it was already shaping up to be an enjoyable morning.  The wind had picked up and seabirds were starting to move.

I can't remember exactly what order everything came in but we'd seen the first of 5 Sooty Shearwaters pretty early on and the first of 14 Pomarine Skuas, one of which was a lovely close adult with full spoons.  It was clear fairly soon that it would be a good day for Bonxies and in the end we totalled 147 Great Skuas.  Not so many smaller skuas early on but eventually we got 25 Arctic Skuas and in the afternooon one close party of four Arctics accompanied a nice juvenile Long-tailed Skua.  Other Shearwaters included 5 Manx Shearwaters but the bird of the day came through early afternoon.  We'd had a message about a Cory's Shearwater flying east at Burnham Overy already and then news came through of a probable Scopoli's Shearwater flying east at Cley!  Just a Cory's Shearwater would be fantastic - they're rare off Norfolk although a tiny number are recorded most years.  I've personally got a poor track record with them having not seen one in Norfolk for 20 years.  Scopoli's Shearwater would be on another level!  Until recently considered to be a subspecies of Cory's Shearwater it is now treated as a separate species - its status is hard to be sure about due to the difficulty in identification but I think (I haven't checked) there is only one accepted record for the UK.  Others have been suspected in the south west, and I think I remember hearing of one or two reports on the English east coast, but I don't recall any claims in Norfolk before.

We made sure we were ready for it and started looking hard to the left.  It was Nigel who picked it up first and I think we all got on it pretty soon.  It wasn't all that far out and came through nice and slowly, staying in view for nearly all of the time.  In fact it was the best view I've ever had of a Cory's-type shearwater ever, anywhere.  It was not, however, quite close enough to be absolutely sure of the detail of the underwing pattern.  We got the impression that white extended well into the dark at the primary tips but we could not be sure of the detail.  And the bill?  Well we couldn't make it out - it was just too far to see the bill clearly.  That in itself is interesting: most of the Cory's Shearwaters I've seen have been much more distant but one I remember fairly well - the first I saw in Norfolk - was maybe a similar distance to this bird or thereabouts.  And on that bird a big yellow bill was quite easy to see.  So its tempting to imagine that this bird did not have such a big and yellow bill, which would make sense if it was a Scopoli's Shearwater.  I don't know how well Richard and others saw it at Cley so don't know if they'll be submitting it as a definite Scopoli's, let alone whether it has any chance of being accepted as such, but even if I can't ever count it on any list watching it was a fantastic and exciting experience.  Wonderful bird, wonderful flight action and brilliant to see.

Another feature of the day was the gulls and terns.  We amassed an impressive total of 1300 Kittiwakes although attempting to extrapolate from timed counts I was quite conservative and the true figure may well lhave been a great deal higher.  We got news of a Sabine's Gull heading our way from Cley and kept a close eye out for that.  Dave H picked it up first and we all got nice views of this juvenile Sabine's Gull as it moved through with a party of Kittiwakes.  Not the closest I've ever seen but it wasn't too far out at all - close enough to see it well.  We didn't pick up the second Sabine's Gull that was reported off Cley but we did see 116 Little Gulls, all flying east, which were delightful.  An adult Mediterranean Gull flew up from the beach and was seen several times during the day and in the afternoon a second-year Mediterranean Gull flew east too.  There were also a handful of Herring Gulls migrating east throughout the day.  It being November now any tern is noteworthy and this morning a Sandwich Tern flew west high up and in the afternoon a juvenile Arctic Tern flew east.

There were lots of auks moving today too - both Razorbills and Guillemots but of the ones I identified Guillemots were in the majority.  In total my estimated total based on a number of timed connts was 2420 - quite possibly another underestimate.  The biggest count of the day was another potentially underestimated estimate based on conservative extrapolation from a number of timed counts - 3000 Gannets.

Other birds of note included a Shag that I picked up on the sea seconds after a conversation about the fact that we hadn't heard of many Shags being reported yet this autumn.  This first-winter bird later appeared on the groynes.  The last good bird of the day was predicted and then picked up by Dave H.  Despite nearly all the larger auks flying east a Little Auk had been seen flying west at Cley.  Re-orienting Little Auks often fly west close inshore after a blow and although this blow wasn't quite finished the news from Cley got Dave looking down the beach to the right.  And this technique came up trumps as he soon picked up a Little Auk heading our way through the surf.

A great end to a fabulous day.  On reflection it wasn't just the great birds and the company that made it such a good day.  I've sat throught lots of seawatches with similar quality of birds, except perhaps the Scopoli's assuming that's what it was, but this was somehow different.  I think I know what it was - it lacked the frustration factor that often comes with seawatching.  Often I'm cramped in an uncomfortable position, I'm freezing cold, I'm getting wet (or else the sun's so bright everything looks too contrasty), I end up sitting next to some dofus who keeps shouting "what's this" every time a Gannet or Kittiwake flies past close enough for them to notice it, my eye isn't in, people are seeing things I can't pick up on, I'm struggling to identify things that I feel like I should be able to identify, and I go away having seen some good birds but feeling more frustrated than elated.  None of the above applied today.  It wasn't too cold, I had an uncrowded seat in a good position, the company was good, it was windy enough but not so windy that everything was lost below the crests of the waves, the light was excellent nearly all of the time.  My eye was in and I was picking up nearly everything all of the time and I don't think I made any significant blunders.  And some great birds exceding my expectations for the day.  A perfect seawatch!

I sometimes drive the track between Heacham North Beach and Hunstanton in my lunch breaks at this time of year in the hope of a rare Wheatear or something.  No such luck during my lunch on 3rd November but as I scanned the Wash from the raised bit at the north end I saw 6 Whooper Swans (4 adults, 2 first-winters) heading south along the edge of the beach.

Whooper Swans, Hunstanton, 3rd November

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