I guess the story starts around midnight on Thursday 13th January. When checking Bird Forum just as I was going to bed, I read this post. The UK’s first Slaty-backed Gull (probably), on a rubbish tip near Rainham Marshes RSPB. That’s big news, err, for people interested in that sort of thing, and one that would surely cause a massive twitch if the bird stuck. The bird was indeed refound the following day, so the weekend twitch was on…
Luckily, I had a weekend in Norfolk booked starting that very Saturday - firstly, a day in the Yare Valley looking for wild geese, returning via the hotspots of the North Norfolk coast the following day. Surely I could easily fit in a few hours effort trying to see this most rare of gulls (if confirmed it would be the third ever seen in Europe). Now, as I’ve said before, I find twitching a slightly grubby business, and heading down to the Big Smoke to stare at a huge pile of stinking garbage in the hope of picking out a gull that looks very similar indeed to the other 1000s of gulls with it is high on the grubby scale. But, in the same way I feel about Pot Noodles and Queen – I can’t help it, I love it. And this was something I was determined not to miss...
I got to Rainham around 08:30 and legged the two miles to the waste site (after a failed attempt to tow a guy’s car out if the muddy car park – the poor sod was only in there to turn round). But I got a sinking feeling before I even arrived at the tip. The breeze off the Thames carried this complex smell of cheap sherry, stale bird shit, rotting fruit, and grandma’s piss. Tips are among the best places to watch gulls – that’s why so many birders don’t do it.
There were maybe a thousand twitchers there already (the more eyes the better, I guess), the majority of whom were stood, precariously, three-deep on top of a steep, muddy bank looking through a chain-link fence at a distant mound of filth. And this was the problem: the smell I could deal with; I simply couldn’t get a decent view. I tried to muscle in nearer where the gulls were congregating, but received short shrift (and short tempers), and made futile attempts to scan the gulls as the flew over (I don't think many could have of picked the Slaty-backed Gull out from below...).
1000+ people staring at a rubbish tip, hoping to see
the UK's first Slaty-backed Gull. It wasn't there.
So, after an hour or so I decided to cut my losses and head for the beauty of rural Norfolk. Probably the best decision of the day: the bird wasn’t seen all day.
I walked back to the car park with a guy called George, who was working the turnstiles at Hendon Town FC (his Saturday job of 40+ years) as they entertained Tooting & Mitcham United. And in possibly the best result of the day, Hendon won 4-1.
Norfolk, particularly the bit east of Norwich, is not what I’d call “near London”, although it looked it on the map before I set off. So, I drove like Jehu to the Yare Valley, with Celtic Frost's 2006 album Monotheist on the stereo (their best since Into the Pandemonium in 1987: weird, dark, pretentious - classic Celtic Frost, although the band have split - again - this time "for the last time"...). My goal was to see one of only two flocks of Taiga Bean Goose (Anser fabalis fabalis) that winter in the UK (the other gaggle preferring sites around Scotland’s central belt). This was the real aim of the whole trip, a place and a time I’ve wanted to experience for some years. Wild winter geese are really something to behold. Obviously, I’d been blinded by the chance of adding a “mega” gull to my puny list, jeopardising the chance of seeing these fine birds before they leave in early February. But luckily I got to Strumpshaw Fen in plenty of time to get the latest gen on their whereabouts, and then get my arse down to Cantley.
The Beans are generally seen to the north of the River Yare with Greater (European) White-fronted Goose (Anser albifrons albifrons), and as added bonus, this year’s flock was carrying a Lesser White-fronted Goose (Anser erythropus), the best bet for a truly wild bird for ages. Wild examples of this cute goose are becoming as rare as Slaty-backed Gulls(!), with quite a few escaped birds around to confuse people.
I crossed the railway line, and a beautiful, flat floodplain stretched out before me, covered in fertile green grass and patches of rich mud. I trudged across the fields, taking on both information (from other birders) and water (in my old boots), and reached the levee. From here I could survey the geese with the sun behind me, as they waddled over the tussocks and bowed their heads to munch on that lush vegetation. Occasionally they would look up showing the dark head and long neck of a Bean Goose, or the white blaze and paler breast of a Euro White-front. High above, small groups of geese honked away as they passed over (check out the xeno-canto site for a taster, or even some in-depth analysis, of this wonderfully evocative sound). Absolutely fantastic, and made all the sweeter by knowing I wasn’t stood next to a pile of rotting garbage. Result.
I moved on to join a group of ten or so birders who were looking for the Lesser White-front. We all noticed a smaller bird with a group of Taigas, and went through the diagnostic signs… The white blaze extending up over the eye; the long primary projection as the wing tips drooped over the tail; the small bill, the small size of the bird compared with the Greater White-fronts nearby; the obvious demarcation of the neck/breast shades when compared with the Eurasian White-fronts nearby; and, of course, the small size of the bird. A nailed-on Lesser Whited-fronted Goose, but a genuinely wild one? One for the ten rare men to decide…
After a pleasant enough night in some kind of cheap golfers’ hotel in West Runton (although there’s something a bit weird about the whole golf thing), I was traipsing around a field by the coastguard cottages in Weybourne at sunrise, looking for Lapland Bunting.
The Lappies could be in this field…
…or maybe they’re in this field.
While birding in these parts, I find it's de riguer to listen to North Norfolk Radio: a station so cheesy, you wouldn't be surprised if Alan Partridge really did work for them. Not that they need him - I remember one classic NNR moment that came during an interview with a member of Marillion, who were due play a "hot and sweaty" gig in Norwich that night. Interviewer: "So what's it like working with Fish?" Guy from Marillion: "Dunno, I only joined 6 months ago, and he left 20 years ago").
On to Salthouse to catch the usual Snow Bunting flock, and the chance to film one of my comedically poor videos:
Yep, if that one doesn’t disappoint, then this one of a flock of ten Shore Lark at Cley later the same morning certainly will:
Cley NWT is a wonderful place, and I got my fill of all that’s good there that morning, including an American Wigeon among its Eurasian cousins, and some of the best food your likely to get at a nature reserve. Then after a cheeky viewing of the Pinkies and White-fronts at Holkham from the roadside, I rolled up at Thorham Harbour to see the putative Northern Harrier (or Marsh Hawk, or North American Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus hudsonius) that had been the subject of much discussion. The bright orange beauty appeared on cue, quartering the marshes to the West, against a backdrop of three hunting Barn Owls, and then came close overhead as it flew towards Titchwell.
Titchwell: there are c. 2000 Common Scoter out there somewhere.
I had a long journey back up north, driving through the only rain I'd seen all weekend, accompanied by the brilliant Warpaint album The Fool. Let me tell you, it's a great record: the songs seem so simple, the production is so spacious, and the musicianship is good enough to excite a muso like me. It gives me this feeling that I’ve not only heard the record before, years ago, but that I used to love it back then too, and I'd somehow misplaced it and forgotten it. Warpaint seem to have incorporated a diverse mix of familiar influences into something unique: there are nods to the 80s UK indie scene, as well as 80s New York post-punk, plus goth (though more from early Cure or The Chameleons, rather than the cheesy stuff from Leeds), shoegaze, and even prog rock. Not a bad end, to a weekend that started off so, err, rubbish.