I’m not referring to the fungal infection of mankind nor the bacterial infection that horses get on the soles of their hooves. We’re talking Turdus. Late October 2012 saw arguably the largest fall of thrushes (and passerines in general) of recent years thus far along the east coast, likely even of the century. Thousands upon thousands of them. Utter infestation. On Tuesday 23rd October it provided me with what can only be described the most evocative and enrapturing birding experience of mine to date.
Ironically, it all kicked off in Norfolk the day after Dan and I had been bashing Burnham Overy and Holkham. Only when I got back from my day out in London did I realise the enormity of what I had missed out on along the coast: thousands of winter thrushes and hundreds of Robins and winter finches, with a seemingly very obliging Red-flanked Bluetail at Stiffkey as the creme of the crop. I very hastily organised transport for the following morning. After the hard graft three days out beforehand I needed satiation, so made the decision to start at Stiffkey for the Red-flanked Bluetail. Norfolk was shrouded in fog that day, so dense at points visibility was down to no more than 30ft; trees and whole landscapes entirely obscured. Adrenaline levels were at an all time high as I headed up to Sheringham on the train, anxious to immerse myself into the fall atmosphere. On that train journey alone I could see the great extent of the fall, with at least 150 winter thrushes seen on the train route before reaching the coast. Three species of thrush (Redwing, Fieldfare, Song Thrush) were in a single tree by the bus stop in Sheringham and erupting from most roadside thickets on the way to Stiffkey. As soon as I was able to get out there, I knew I’d be in for a truly breath-taking spectacle.
Getting off the bus, I followed a couple of birders down a path towards Stiffkey Campsite Wood. Needless to say progression to the campsite was slow, finding myself immediately immersed in the fall. Hundreds upon hundreds of thrushes, infesting every thicket, ever tree. Whole throngs of thrushes were ascending constantly from the stubble fields surrounding the grass lane; the air filled constantly with the chattering of Fieldfares and the metallic zips of Redwings. Estimated counts on this small stretch alone were 150 of the former and 400 of the latter, as well as some 40 Northern Blackbirds , outlandish looking with their entirely dark bills, 30 continental Song Thrushes and 10 continental Robins. This number of birds in such a small area was astonishing in its own right, but was nothing compared with what was to come. I was hoping for a few Ring Ouzel in amongst them, but it wasn’t to be at this point.
After what seemed like a while I made it to the campsite wood. Brambling was heard immediately, and I bypassed a few folk watching a Redstart. Moving west through the wood, it became clear this Bluetail hadn’t been seen in a while as the twitch seemed to be strewn across quite a large area. I joined the search and to my luck had a glimpse of a passerine with very fiery flanks dipping into a small thicket beside me more or less immediately. It popped its head up and fully confirmed itself as the gorgeous, stonking 1st winter male Red-flanked Bluetail. The twitch became a tightly knotted group once more. The ensuing 45 minutes were spent watching this extremely obliging fella as it did an endless circuit of a small area. It was like being in heaven; gracing the admiring crowd with crippling views down to 5-6ft at points. This is a species of timeless beauty, one of those birds that will personally always be the stuff of dreams regardless of how many I see in the future. This particular individual was a more well defined individual than my previous 2010 bird on Fair Isle, with both the white throat and the flanks being far more accentuated on this individual. The actual tail comparatively didn’t seem quite so fresh as the Fair Isle bird, perhaps because of the outstanding nature of the aformentioned two other features. Having seen this bird so well, all the disappointments of the previous days birding had well and truly vanished. This was already a lastingly memorable day. It was however, going to get even better.
Spellbound already, I pondered on the enormity of what had just happened on the bus to Salthouse. Such pondering meant time flied by and I was wandering up the road to the beach at Salthouse in no time at all. A Snipe and 2 Ruff were noted on one of the roadside pools, whilst a female Marsh Harrier was ambling around. Once at the car park I headed slowly east towards Kelling along the path, new territory to me. This walk would normally take 20 minutes or so, but ended up taking about an hour due to the insane amount of activity going on. At least 150 Redwings, 60 Fieldfares and 20 Song Thrushes were noted along this mile long stretch, exploding out of tiny pieces of cover and heading straight inland. The areas of covers and fenceposts along this stretch were brimming with other birds, primarily continental Robins which were in massive evidence, at least 30 noted, many perched upon the barbed wire. At least 10 Goldcrests were dotted around, whilst a single male Brambling and a late Northern Wheatear were noteworthy. I clocked this Wheatear more or less at the same time as a super looking 1st winter Snow Bunting, which proceeded to show its adorable self at close quarters. I took lunch as these birds went around their business and Robins, Redwings and other winter thrushes coming in off the sea landed exhausted on the shingle. After a while I picked something large on the horizon. Interested, I watched it come closer with ghostly, floppy wingbeats: a Short-eared Owl. This majestic beast veered eastwards as it was midway towards the shore, so instead of it flying right overhead I watched it drift low over the shingle about 70ft away, before disappearing over the bank of the dunes. Watching this happen brought back nostalgic memories of the previous October after seeing a few come in off Titchwell, so I continued towards Kelling enthused and exhilarated.
I eventually stumbled my way through the fog into Kelling, pitching up about a quarter of a mile’s walk from the water meadows. A path straight ahead of me seemed to be leading to Muckleburgh Hill, so I opted to take this path. This proved to be a very worthwhile move, as I stumbled across a huge flock of winter thrushes and Starlings on the airfield. Once the airfield was fully in view I was presented with a sheen of thrushes and Starlings strewn right across it; probably the biggest numbers of passerine I had ever seen together, in one field. I took the opportunity to revel in this lastingly memorable experience, spending at least 20 minutes stuck by choice to that single vantage point. The field was predominantly made up of Redwings and Fieldfares, with good numbers of Blackbird and comparatively very few Song Thrushes; estimate totals in this field alone were: 600+ Starlings, 400+ Redwing, 200+ Fieldfare, 150+ Blackbirds and 40+ Song Thrushes! As if they had formed a clique, a group of 7 Ring Ouzels (4 males and 3 females) were gorging on a nearby bush and chucking away at each other, their lovely silvery wing coverts blessing my scope’s eyepiece. These were my first of the year and easily the largest group I’ve ever seen together on the coast. They weren’t the last in this general area, with at least three other males at Muckleburgh Hill. Asides from ‘the obvious’ in the context of the day, also on said hill were a sizeable group of at least 20 Goldcrests, a Chiffchaff, 15 Lesser Redpoll, a 1st winter male Reed Bunting and a flyover Snipe. On the way back down towards the water meadows I flushed a cracking smoky 1st winter Black Redstart. This beauty of a bird proceeded to show well on a pillbox for a good minute or so, before dipping right over the end of the airfield, becoming lost amongst the throng of thrushes.
I finally met the first birder of the afternoon as I got to the water meadows. A patcher, I told him about the Black Redstart and other things I’d had, and as it was a patch tick he went off to see if could search it out. I met up with him an hour or so later and he confirmed it was still around the pillbox. Once down at the Water Meadows, I proceeded to check thoroughly the different quags and the entirety of the thickets along Meadow Lane. Activity was so insane that I found myself spending what time remained entirely in this area. Thrush numbers were absolutely astounding, tons upon tons exploding out of every little bit of thicket along a lane that I had imagined would be amazing and brimming with birds on a fall. To see this thought becoming realised on just my second visit was just ineffable. In the entire area (including surrounding fields), I estimated another 600 Redwings, 300 Blackbirds, 100 Fieldfares and 10 Song Thrushes on top of the numbers noted at Muckleburgh and the airfield. I can safely I’d never been in such a bird filled situation ever before.
Not only were there immense numbers of thrushes, but it was also chock a block with Robins and to my excitement Bramblings. Covering the entire area (Muckleburgh Hill etc.) at least 200 Robins were noted, numbers which just would seem completely surreal on any other day but tangible on such an extraordinary day as this. The Bramblings were located as I headed up the western quags (locating a second Chiffchaff on the way). As I reached the top of the quaags a field appeared into view which positively erupted with finches as I approached. I discovered that this wasn’t due to my approach, but due to the re-appearance of the Short-eared Owl I’d had coming in off at Salthouse earlier, gliding across the field and wreaking absolute havoc before scanning the area from the comfort of its briefly adopted perch with a cat-like intensity. After it dipped away I focused on the finches which were once again feeding in a tight group intently in the field. After some very meticulous counting, to my great excitement I noted at least 150 Bramblings, 60 Chaffinches, 20 Goldfinches and 6 Siskins. After everything that had happened prior, this seemed just ridiculous!
This was a birding paradise, and I was dreading the darkness. I steaked out the last half an hour of light close to the water meadows, reveling in the thrushes (including more Rouzels) and the Robins. The water meadow itself held a Little Egret, 10 Teal and of most interest 3 Swallows south through, amongst the latest I’ve ever seen. A birding couple appeared late on, and shared the invigorating beauty of this experience with me. As darkness descended I made way to the bus stop at Kelling village. As I waited a Tawny Owl called from afar.
It really was one of those days when the birding of your wildest dreams has just come true. Though I have had a few better days from a rarity perspective, this was the first day that these wild hopes had been realised, and beyond proportion. That day I can safely say that I saw a higher density of birds during a fall and non-stop than I had ever done before (and probably ever will for years yet) and plenty of decent birds for good measure ; Rouzels, Bramblings, Black Redstart, SEO etc. To have this more or less all to myself, Add that to fantastic views of a Red-flanked Bluetail and you have pretty much the best day’s birding I’ve ever had. The overall mig totals from your’s truly on a 5hrs 30 min stint from Salthouse to Kelling are below. When you consider that these totals were not as high as those seen elsewhere on the coast in those few days such as at Holme and Wells, that says something about just how inimitable this period of birding was…
Black Redstart (x1 1w), Ring Ouzel (x15+), Short-eared Owl (x1 in off then at Kelling), Brambling (x150), Redwing (x1000+), Blackbird (x600+), Fieldfare (x300+), Song Thrush (x50), Robin (x200+), Starling (x600+), Goldcrest (40+), Snow Bunting (x1 1w male), Chiffchaff (x2), Wheatear (x1), Swallow (x3), Chaffinch (x60), Goldfinch (x20), Siskin (x6+), Lesser Redpoll (x15), Reed Bunting (x1), Snipe (x2)
Thanks for reading,