After intermittent patching in October, I had to wait a painful 3 and a half months before staying at Costessey House Private Estate again. At the beginning of the month, after what had felt like absolutely ages, I was down again, ready to embrace it once more. Having submitted the patch for the Patchwork Challenge, I was anxious to get myself off the mark and patch it hardcore. Luckily I had bags of time on my hands to make sure that aim was fulfilled, much unlike my October visit when the coast proved too irresistible. Periods of up to 5 hours were spent patching per day thanks to the motivation provided by the challenge. This time proved to be extremely beneficial, providing the best patching I’ve had yet.
Things kicked off on 2nd February, when I awoke to a flooded Mill Field and Fishermen’s Field. Aware of the patch’s performance the first time it had flooded, I was keen to get to work. I wasn’t disappointed; in fact I was overwhelmed. Mill Field was predictably the first stop before breakfast, which despite extensive flooding did not hold any wildfowl apart from at least 10 Mallards and 60+ Black-headed Gulls. During the two weeks Mallard and Black-headed Gull numbers would remain the same, with a couple of adult Lesser-Black Backed Gulls joining them for at least a week; including one smart intermedius bird. 20 Fieldfare and 15 Redwing were also noted here, numbers of which would fluctuate throughout the visit, with a maximum of 31 Fieldfare on 11th but surprisingly no increase in Redwing from the first count. 31 Fieldfare was also a patch record, one of a number of previous highest totals that would be broken throughout the visit.
After breakfast that morning I was lucky enough to discover a new part of the patch. This was achievable through walking across a small field adjacent to the front lawn. It allowed for an alternative view of the paddocks and the cottage, which I thought would be a good place to stand during dusk to look for Little Owl. What I hadn’t quite expected was flushing one in broad daylight within just a few minutes of the thought! I heard it first in the depths of a bush, its singular, echoing hoot completely out of place in the height of the crisp morning. After being successfully flushed, the Little Owl landed on an oak, where it seemed to stare straight at the bins. I was too slow to get a photo on the DLSR (as usual), as it flew deep into cover once more, not emerging again despite my best efforts. That was the only time I was lucky enough to connect on the entirety of my visit, despite plenty of time spent at the new paddocks viewing point . Unsurprisingly, this was because they are supposedly on the other side of the river, at least a mile away. Some stunning views of the darker of the two Barn Owls were also had here. Both this individual and the paler bird made appearances throughout the visit. Tawny Owls were conspicuous by their absence until 10th, when one finally gave up the ghost and flew briefly bove the trees at the start of Mill Lane mid evening.
Shortly after the Little Owl I was glad to connect with only my third Little Egret on the patch, a new arrival on Mill Field. After 5 minutes or so it flew off west but what I can only presume was the same bird stuck around for at least 5 days due to the flooded conditions throughout the patch. It was also seen on 4th, 5th on Mill Field and 7th on Drayton Meadows. To have a long stay Little Egret was testimony to how prolific the patch would be that visit. The quirks of flooding; always seems to produce! In a similar vein to this Little Egret, a single Cormorant stuck around for the entirety.
Very glad with the start, I wasn’t too fussed that things were quiet as I worked Fishermen’s Trail. I didn’t expect much else frankly, but Drayton Meadows would hold a few surprises. The meadows were in fine fettle, much to my interest still nice and overgrown and a very marshy feel due to partial flooding. This proved to come up trumps as I walked to the edge of the meadows, where a flock of 30 Teal erupted from meadows in line with Hidden Pool. Patch first! Anyone who reads my patch accounts will know that all duck species aside from the resident Mallards are basically patch rarities, or at very least uncommon. The flooded conditions had made me hopeful for a flyover Teal, but I certainly hadn’t expected such an infestation of them. I wasn’t expecting any more Teal action during the visit, but I was very glad to find that the flooded conditions would attract them throughout my visit, with 6 sticking around which would then rise to 15 on 12th. Definitely a highlight of the visit, and a much appreciated patch lifer.
Within a couple of mintues Teal got completely and utterly thrashed for quality. Trounced. As the Teal disappeared I made way my back down the meadows towards Drayton Woods. About half way along I happened to pick up a small flock of sizeable birds around a mile off without the bins, heading towards the woods over the other side of Low Road, but could get nothing on structure from that distance without binoculars. I lifted the bins as they came gradually closer and closer… “Jesus Christ”!
6 CRANES; patch gold! As I clocked their structure and their identity I shouted a range of expletives to myself anf kept on the birds like glue. As they headed low over Drayton Meadows and Hidden Pool, I snapped out of the excitement of the moment and realised if I wanted pics and prolonged views of these birds I needed to bomb it towards Drayton Woods so as to not lose sight of them. Filled with a preternatural adrenaline, I hared across the meadows. I probably didn’t need to. Luckily their flight was languid and meandering, their elegant silhouettes set against the sombre sky as they continually gained height. They wheeled around over Old Costessey village, allowing for some distant photos, before heading roughly over the cottage in the direction of Taverham at 12:15pm. By 1:30pm they had apparently made it to Lynford; surprisingly slow! Wow, was my basic feeling after that. I struggled to believe that the patch was capable of producing a Crane, let alone six, but it had. Whether you put it down to pure luck, serious patch potential, or simply being in Norfolk, there’s no doubt that this was the best it had ever produced and that’ll be hard to match quality wise. As for the origins of these birds, the default assumption would be that they were the Hickling birds taking a bit of a detour, but it is apparently unusual for this population to move so early on in the year. With populations in northern France often on the move at this point, its tempting to play with the idea that they were continental birds, but the former option seems more likely.
That’s how that day ended. After that experience, I couldn’t ask much more of the patch. Not only had February patching been made, but the patching year. I would not care that much if it was quiet from then on, it had worked wonders that day. But the quality kept on going. After a brief hiatus, I managed more full-on patching on 5th. With bags of time on my hands, I checked Hidden Pool after working Drayton Meadows. I found myself entertained by a mixed flock of passerines on crop by Marriot’s Way, including 25 Fieldfare, 13 Redwing, 25 Chaffinch, 15 Greenfinch, 2 Reed Buntings, 5 Yellowhammers and a Mistle Thrush, the latter the fourth patch record. There was nothing on the pool however, so I headed back towards Marriot’s Way via a small field skirting Drayton Meadows. Within moments I flushed this:
BITTERN; the patch strikes again! Once again I found the expletives escaping from my lips as I frantically tried to think of a way to keep tabs with this bird and not lose sight of it. The camera was luckily at hand, so I managed to get the above shot. Chance would have it though that the memory card was full, not allowing me to take any more photos. I didn’t have time to delete photos at the expense of missing the bird, so with the necessary shot I watched as it flew ungracefully towards the reeds at the back of Drayton Meadows, where a few Jackdaws harried it and forced it to land in the reedbeds. All this was over within under a minute; all too brief but exhilarating. Another patch dream had been realised, prolonging the buzz that had been provided by the Cranes a few days earlier. Areas of reedbed on the patch are basically confined to two small areas along Fishermen’s Trail and Drayton Meadows, so scoring this Bittern was well off the radar, in the realms of distant possibility. To think that these reeds were capable of holding a nationally important species such as Bittern proves just how much potential Costessey House Private Estate has. The fact that the patch genuinely held a Bittern almost makes it as valuable a record as the Cranes, maybe more so, given that they didn’t land.
I didn’t see the Bittern again, despite my best efforts for the rest of my visit. The impetus to try and re-find it however helped me to discover another new area of the patch. A small path running just east of Hidden Pool allowed for close access to the reeds at the back of Drayton Meadows, which whilst not the best for keeping dry was productive throughout the visit. It provided me with 2 Lapwings north over also on 5th, only the third patch record, as well as a long staying flock of up to 30 Siskins from 6th-11th, just a patch second, flocks of up to 40 Magpies and mammal highlights of Fox and a Muntjac on 7th. The 4th patch first of the visit came on 7th in the form of a Little Grebe on the Wensum at Fishermen’s Trail, only seen diving on a couple of brief occasions before flying far downstream. A valuable first, as with any grebes on site. Other highlights included an influx of 16 Snipe at Drayton Meadows was very entertaining on 8th, almost double the previous patch record. Hardcore patching also resulted in other record totals, including 15 Skylarks and 9 Red-legged Partridge on 8th and 8 Stock Doves on 6th all in the Old Costessey fields by Marriot’s Way. Aside from record totals, 2 House Sparrows in the hedgerows below Drayton Woods was just a patch second, the first since October 2011, as were up to 7 Greylag Geese on Mill Field on 11th (with 4 again at Drayton Meadows on 12th).
I will end where I usually start, with an update on the Mute Swans and the Egyptian Geese. 4 Egyptian Geese were present throughout; the usual wintering pair and a new pair. This arrival was not welcomed by the usual resident pair, with several squabbles taking place involving a lot of noise and wing-flapping. Similarly, the resident Mute Swans had to put up with an influx of other Mutes, with up to 12 present on 6th, a patch record. Most days 8+ were present, which on 11th resulted in a similar face off to the Egyptian Geese. This involved the resident family and another family with two considerably younger looking cygnets, in which the residents came out victorious. Its always fascinating to watch territorial behaviour, as it was to watch the resident adults ‘busking’ and successfully fend off the invading pair. The busking went wrong at one point, as the resident pair found themselves threatening each other, before smelling one another and doing the trademark ‘love-heart’ neck ritual. The resident cygnets tried to do likewise with the other cygents, only to shy out and feed alongside them. They are well-developed now, one with more adult feathering and bill colouration than the other, but both are nearly fully grown. Neither are independent from the parents as of yet, but I imagine my next visit will be the last time I see them before they fly off to pastures new. Lovely birds.
In 12 days a total of 60 species were seen on patch, around 70% of the total patch list, which now sits at 87, and just 20 off my yearlist aim of 8o species. I think its fair to say that the flooding paid dividends, resulting in the best birding at Costessey House Private Estate I’ve had yet by some margin, a visit I’ll look back on with nostalgia for a long time to come. With 6 Cranes and Bittern gracing the patch, amongst a wide range of other decent patch species, it’s clear that it has an endless ability to shock me with decent quality birds. Long may that continue!
Thanks for reading,
Wow Joseph, what an astonishing and comprehensive account of your patch, and some truly fantastic sightings! I love cranes, they are such evocative birds – time stands still when they’re around. To see them over the valley is superb and thanks for reporting them so promptly – I rushed out into the garden in the early afternoon but I guess they’d long gone. Such a shame as I’d almost gone down Marriott’s Way that lunchtime…ah, well,nothing beats time out in the field…However, a few years ago I was amazed and delighted to see 4 cranes pass over our garden heading westwards so, if they were the Norfolk residents then maybe they occasionally meander overhead.
But I’ve never seen a bittern along Marriott’s Way! Great sighting and great photo – I’m actually pretty surprised because, as you say, the areas of phragmites are quite small, although bitterns do wander a bit when the weather is harsh. What a fantastic couple of sightings, and great reward for your time outside.
I can see that I should get out in the field more often, even when the skies are grey and the weather still, you never know quite what you might stumble across! I’m glad you caught up with the dabchick on the Wensum – there were a couple recently, often frequenting a small pool the other side of the river towards the cottages on Costessey Lane near Drayton. I’ve also seen a relatively good selection of ducks for me – 8 gadwall, 6 teal and a drake wigeon – on the quiet, flooded meadow 100 metres to the west along the Drayton stretch of Costessey Lane from Costessey Mill road bridge, which were my recent birding highlights!
And you can be sure I’ll be scanning the skies for the return of the cranes! Now if that white tailed eagle were only to meander down the Wensum valley…..
Thanks very much for your comment John, some really good points to pick up on. Interesting to hear you’ve had them over Drayton before; I’ve had responses from a couple of other folks who have also seen them over the village. I reckon that they must pass over the general Drayton and Costessey area once or twice year, especially in the spring on the way to Lakenheath or Welney. Having said that I probably won’t get lucky like that again, especially with 6 rather than just one. Got very lucky with the Bittern; was wondering whether it may have related to a single seen at Bawburgh and Colney earlier in the winter, but it was probably a completely new bird. As you say they both seem to prove that you can muster up a whole range of species simply by just patching an area a lot and being outside; I certainly hadn’t expected either of them!
Great to hear of your own birds in the area recently. I’ve got to say I am jealous of your duck selection! Gadwall and Wigeon would be much appreciated patch firsts, especially Gadwall. I am taking it you are referring to the field opposite Costessey Mill Sluice? If so that’s what I’ve called Mill Field; painful to imagine that range of ducks there after working it so hard earlier in the month, given its just opposite the cottages where I am based. Well done, and please keep me updated with anything else you manage on site, would be very interested to hear them. I’ll be down again at the end of this month/beginning of April; already looking forward to seeing what the spring can muster. The return of the Cetti’s? Passage Gropper or Nightingale? Only time will tell…
As for that White-tailed Eagle, we can only hope! Had been hoping the American Wigeon or Great White Egret might just pop in whilst I was down, but that thinking was clearly too wishful!
Great post! Wish I had a patch like that! 🙂