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Mega-bird-blur! Force and Mooney's Avian Adventure

Mike Force at Rye Harbour
It's been just over a week since I picked up Mike Force from Woking train station in Surrey England. The following days birding have already morphed into a most memorable and epic adventure! We tallied a species list of 122 and clocked over 900 miles or 1400 kms. Mike got 6 lifers and many good looks at birds he hasn't seen in over 20 years. I myself got three lifers which made me very happy! It was so good to see Mike again. The last time had been December 2011 when he was visiting family in Gloucester. 

Little Owl
Friday 30th May 2014
Papercourt Water Meadows and Papercourt Lake
Our adventure started with a swift pint in the Jovial Sailor in Ripley followed by a casual stroll down the canal from Tannery bridge, past Papercourt Water Meadows up to Walsham Gates. We then made a quick stop at Papercourt Lake before heading home. Stand-out birds  included Sedge Warbler, Reed Warbler, Blackcap, Mistle Thrush, Linnet, Hobby, Reed Bunting, Great Spotted Woodpecker and wicked looks at Mike's lifer Little Owl! (53 species)

Force and Mooney in Norfolk
Saturday 31st May 2014
Titchwell Marsh RSPB, Weeting Heath and Lakenheath Fen RSPB
A 05:00 am departure from Woking put us in Norfolk by 08:00 am for a full day of birding. Our start point was the famous Titchwell Marsh. As always this site delivered the goods with fantastic views of many species.


Mr. Force scanning distant waders

Red-crested Pochard (male)
Red-crested Pochard - female with 9 young - photo Mike Force

Going through the waders

Hard to condense the highlights but I guess Spoonbill, Marsh Harrier, Bearded Tit, Little Tern, Cetti's Warbler, Red-crested Pochard, Garden Warbler and 110 Avocet should get a mention. Other waders included: Oystercatcher, Little Ringed Plover, Lapwing, Sanderling, Knot, Black-tailed Godwit, Bar-tailed Godwit, Curlew, Greenshank, Redshank and Turnstone. Not a bad start to the day: 68 species - Yellowhammer seen en-route.

A Norfolk Twitch
Not wanting to be rude Mike and I had a nice Cornish pasty, flapjack and cuppa tea at the reserve restaurant - very civilized! We made a quick stop at Cley Spy where Mike picked up a Mule Pack and another at Cley Marshes; to see what had been reported. The board showed all species we had already seen at Titchwell Marshes so we decided to make a short dash for a rarity that had been reported only 20 minutes away. 

On arrival at West Runton there was already a crowd gathered in a field. Body language and faces already informed us on status: "not been seen since 10:45 mate." It was now 14:45 so the 'gen' was not looking optimistic. We set our scopes up and decided to wait it out for a while but we still had more to do on our own agenda. At 14:50 someone called out "its back!" A mass scramble began and only a lucky few 'got on the bird.' Luckily, a kind gent allowed both Mike and I to look through his scope. Unsatisfactory looks were had at this mostly hidden rarity. 

Another few minutes past then the bird flew over and behind a building, then finally perched on a bush directly in front of us. Both Mike and I got good views of a female BLACK-HEADED BUNTING! Unfortunately I had not set-up my iPhone with adapter, so by the time I had got it ready the bird flew again; this time behind some houses, where it is presumed to be feeding. After a few pats on the back we headed southwest for 52 miles to Weeting Heath.

Spotted Flycatcher
A Spotted Flycatcher stopped us in our tracks while we were headed for the hide; allowing good views of this sadly declining African migrant. The inside of the hide was pitch black until we oped two of the shutters; which looked out onto grassland. After a short scan we located our target bird: sitting 100 meters away with its back to us was a Stone Curlew! We had got a tip from some birders who had just left the hide on where to look. They also told us there were more Stone Curlew with young  but they had disappeared over a dip and out of sight. About 10 minutes into our vigil we both heard and noticed some crows mobbing a Stoat! This sleek hunter was speeding across the grassland until it finally vanished down a burrow. We then panned back to the Stone Curlew nest: there were now 2 STONE CURLEW! Both birds were up and swapping nest duties. One bird took up the same position, facing away from us. The other, however, took a slow walk away from the nest, giving us brilliant views until it finally took flight and faded out of sight through the trees.

Mike taking notes at Lakenheath Fen
Just a hop-skip-and a jump from Weeting Heath we pulled into Lakenheath Fen RSPB. Here we clocked up a few kilometers (3 hour walk) around the reserve and tallied up 39 species. Highlights were Bearded Tits, Marsh Harrier (10), Hobby (3), Barn Owl, Bittern (2), Common Crane (heard only) and Cuckoo (10).

Listening to Bittern
What was really cool was hearing and finally seeing Cuckoo! We got amazing looks, especially in flight. At one point there was 3 Cuckoo all flying together, all calling; trying to out sing each other! Barn Owl slowly quartering with reed beds behind made for a nice memory and low flying Hobby; hawking dragonflies off the water finished our evening off nicely on the fen. 3 hour drive home.

Bird Nerds
1st June 2014
Bowling Green RSPB Reserve - Devon
A short (very) nights sleep and a 4:40 departure put at us at a roadside services at 07:30 am. This location was also just a five minute drive from our target bird. However, rumbling tummy's and a little bit of wisdom told us to fuel up before, what could be, a long vigil. So, after we downed a nice Costa fry-up, we continued to Bowling Green Marsh. On arrival at the hide the mood of the keen watchful birders was optimistic but without euphoria. The bird had not been seen.

A salty-old-seadog enjoying a land twitch in the old country

We got ourselves comfortable and joined the others in the search. In front of us was main high tide roost for the northern part of the Exe Estuary. Already there was a line of Black-headed Gulls on the mud fringe.  Across the water and against the reeds was another more hidden line of Black-tailed Godwit; most with their heads tucked and asleep. 

Every few minutes more gulls joined the roost; jostling and occasionally squabbling for a good spot. Someone called "small gull flying in". We all panned around and locked onto the bird. It landed in the middle of the flock, a quick check of field marks confirmed its identity - Little Gull. 

Little Gull is a good bird on any day but not the one we were after. This individual was getting a hard time off the other gulls and though it held its ground; a wise tactical retreat put it on the outside and out of harms way. At least for a while. Another disgruntled neighbor once again put this Little Gull into flight; again landing in the middle of the gull roost. We sat there for a few seconds looking at its field marks when we noticed the bird behind it: ROSS'S GULL! After a few anxious directions most of the hide got onto the bird!

Ross's Gull - 1st summer

This high arctic breeder had been located a few days prior but had been misidentified as a Little Gull. Luckily, that was corrected and was posted on Rare Bird Alert and Birdguides. Though classified as 'Rare' this bird to me was MEGA! I have had it pedestalized since living in Canada and though now 'unblocked' on my life list; it will remain as always :ROSS'S GULL - the holy grail of gulls.. We spent about an hour in the hide, continually trying to get a decent record shot. The bird seemed determined to make us work for our trophy - flying up with the other gulls, only to return to another spot where only some in the hide could see it. We finally left the hide with a couple of grainy record shots - but then again, are they not the best?

Cheers from The Mill at Elstead
Victorious we returned to Surrey and a nice pub lunch at the Mill at Elstead. After a relaxing afternoon Mike and I headed out to Ash Ranges (Heathland Habitat) where we added a few trip birds: Dartford Warbler, Redstart, Tree Pipit and Goldcrest. However, the best and most memorable bird was Mike's lifer NIGHTJAR! Two to be exact. Not only did we hear the strange churring call, we also witnessed it in flight. Mike stood slack-jawed as one circled around him and sat in a tree only a few meters away. It was an incredible finale to what had been an amazing weekend.

Mike Force watching a Black Redstart on Dungeness Nuclear Power Station
3rd June 2014
Dungeness and Rye Harbour Nature Reserve 
The original plan was that Mike would head back to Gloucester on Monday morning. In fact that just about happened. I went to work, Lori went to work and Nolan went to school. Mike was to get a lift to the train station from my dad. Bottom line was the weekend went to quick and I wasn't ready to say goodbye to my friend. I asked him if he wanted to stay a couple more nights. He agreed.  Another early start put at us Dungeness point in Kent, right next to the power station. Almost immediately we nailed a singing male Black Redstart on the station. The sea watch was a little slow with Gannet and Black Scoter flybys. A single Fulmar drifted by and a few terns kept us scratching our heads but all identified as Common Tern and Sandwich Tern.

Rich scanning at Dungeness RSPB
Redshank - photo Mike Force
Next stop Dungeness RSPB. Yet another awesome reserve to explore producing about 66 species. Top birds included Hobby (4), with crippling views, Marsh Harrier, Tree Sparrow, Ringed Plover, Sparrowhawk, Bearded Tit and yet another lifer for Mike: LESSER WHITETHROAT!

Sandwich Tern
Our final port of call on our extension tour was at Rye Harbour Nature Reserve across the border into East Sussex. Here we yet again added a few more species to our trip list including Wheatear (2 adults and to juvenile), Grey Plover, Dunlin and Mediterranean Gull! Got killer looks at these med gulls, looking awesome in their breeding best dress. They cruised the gull colony side by side; looking menacing - like a couple of east end gangsters! There strange cat like calls alerted us to their presence - that was a good tip to listen for from the warden!

I had been to this site once before; twitching a Kentish Plover, but hadn't realized how big the reserve was. We were extremely impressed with the close views we got from the hides of breeding Black-headed Gulls, Sandwich Tern and Common Tern. Avocet were another great bird here.Thanks Mike for being an absolutely fantastic birding pal, who was as happy as me to get up at stupid o'clock, grab a coffee and go birding!


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