It’s only two weeks until I am down at good old Costessey House Private Estate again, so with that in mind it would be worth an overdue update on what was an immensely productive and extended spell on the patch during April, either side of my 10 day Spain trip. It was a month which produced plenty of quantity, as well as some real quality. Whilst perhaps not quite reaching the quality of 6 Cranes and Bittern in February, it was probably the best period of patching ever: a superb month, performing well beyond my expectations. Rather than going through a day by day account, I will instead deal with different families under their appropriate headings; take your pick!
Ducks, Geese and Swans:
This was the most prolific month for ducks yet on patch. After a great month for Teal (with maxima of 30) in February, a patch first at the time, I wasn’t expecting April to continue this trend when I arrived for the first time on 4th April. In fact, I was expecting for Teal to have cleared out completely, but to my surprise the boggy conditions of late winter remained, thus continuing to attract numerous Teal, particularly early on. 4th April held 18 Teal, up to 9 of which were on a small pool which had been formed on a previously flooded Mill Field. Numbers then decreased, down to 14 on 5th and below 10 generally from 6th onwards, averaging 2-4 in the final few days. Considering how difficult any ducks are on site however, even small numbers were greatly appreciated.
Rather better and surprising still was a surprise patch lifer in the form of several Gadwall, which entirely favoured Mill Field. A maximum of 6 were noted on 5th, including 3 pairs, but they had all cleared out when the pool dried up on 11th. This represents only my third duck species on patch, after Teal and the resident Mallards, so was a pretty riveting start to my patching that month.
The 4 Egyptian Geese of February remained throughout the month. This was surprising to me, as in 2012 they had departed by early April. Their stay was explained when I found one of the pair on eggs on 5th, much to my delight confirming that they have bred on patch. Having previously presumed that they were just winter visitors, this was great news; presumably the first successful breeding attempt since 2011. At the time I was down the main pair were partaking in very territorial behaviour, often wondering up and down the start of Mill Lane and even coming on to the front lawn, guarding their arboreal nest in a large hole in one of the tall trees that obscures Mill Field. I have since heard reports from family that there is a fresh load of goslings now around; I am looking forward to seeing how these are doing when I come down later this month.
I was also lucky to score another new patch goose species on 19th, though probably the most underwhelming of the possibilities – 4 Canada Geese on Mill Field. At least two were still present on returning from the Spain trip on 30th. This represents my 4th goose species on patch, after Pinkfoot, Greylag and Egyptian. The patch will do well from here to score any of the ‘trickier’ goose species, with Brent probably as the most likely.
The Mute Swan cygnets were progressing well, closely approaching adulthood and entirely independent from the adults. By now I imagine another load of cygnets will be on their way – hopefully more than just the two this time – and that last years will have moved off to further climes. Further Mute Swans remained from February, sticking around the 8 mark throughout.
April turned out to be sensationally good for waders by patch standards, overwhelmingly so, owing to the remaining boggy conditions on Drayton Meadows, Fishermen’s Field and Mill Meadow. No wader species is common on patch; the most regular being Snipe.
Indeed, it was a major patch influx of Snipe which prompted what was undeniably the best period for waders on patch ever. My previous maximum had been 16 in February; this was utterly trounced from day one. 4th-6th April was particularly prolific, with groups of 10 together often flushed at once not just from their favoured Drayton Meadows. On the evening of 4th I got a real taster of how many birds there were involved, when a flock of 29 flew over the cottage! This was an astounding spectacle, a sky of calling, frenzied gallinago, with a female Sparrowhawk in hot pursuit. Unbelievably, the same thing repeated itself the next day, and in greater numbers: a flock of 31 again right over the cottage!! This particular group seemed to be erupting from Mill Field, and on 5th a whole other 19 different individuals were flushed from various parts of Drayton Meadows shortly after this; taking the overall day tally to a mind-boggling 50 birds! Large numbers by normal standards remained throughout the stay, generally lingering between 12 and 20, though by 12th it seemed to have finally tailed off, with just 8 present. Bear in mind in the past that 8 would have been a pretty decent total…
Surely, with this arrival, there was a chance of more waders. I can remember my mind drifting towards thoughts of Jack Snipe on the first day. On 4th I was flushing Snipe all over the place from Drayton Meadows, so I ambitiously headed onto the ‘marsh’ itself to see how many more I could flush in the dying moments of light. I literally had 10 minutes before it was no go light wise. I flushed a group of 5 Snipe more or less as soon I left the path, but what followed shortly was beyond what I was expecting! A ghostly, earth-coloured hefty form with gleaming rufous uppertail coverts ascended ethereally from the marsh in front of me; a bloody WOODCOCK! It belted away from me, soon lost in the opacity of the darkness. This was patch birding at its most ridiculous. I felt that Jack Snipe might be a slight possibility, but Woodcock I hadn’t even pondered on.
The joy was intense. I returned to the cottage thinking I had got lucky; that it was a one-off. But oh no, this wasn’t the last time. From 4th-13th Woodcock were present daily on site, with a single seen on most dates, 2 on 9th and a maximum of 3 on 5th; two on Drayton Meadows and another from Mill Meadow. I struggled to adapt to this insanity at first, but half way through my stay I soon became accustomed to flushing at least one Woodcock from the beginning of Drayton Meadows, often from the same spots along the western edge and the point where Drayton Woods opens out into reeds. I was even lucky enough to hear one utter a tiny ‘pissp!’, a soft redolence of their roding call. It was quite an extraordinary 11 days, having these charismatic birds around; true birds of the ground, the earth, the soil. As far as patching highlights goes, this is right at the top.
I suddenly felt as if the ‘set’ was on by 5th; a Jack Snipe would complete it. And on 9th, it happened. As I wandered along Fishermen’s Trail, I had been flushing several Snipe. As I approached the Mute Swan nesting site, I flushed a considerably smaller Snipe sp. from under my feet. It barely lifted off the ground, making a short flight across to the vegetation on the other side, where it landed somewhat clumsily. I noted conspicuous golden tram-lines on the mantle contrasting with silvery secondaries, a short bill and a complete lack of a golden median crown stripe. I was buzzing; I had just had JACK SNIPE on the patch. This in itself, was exhilarating, but even more so was that I had now managed Snipe, Woodcock and Jack Snipe on patch in under a week‘; something I expected would never happen. And it can all be attributed to that unprecedented influx of Snipe. On its own, this Jack is one of the main highlights of the year; a species I imagine will be very tricky to get again soon.
And that wasn’t it. On 4th I felt like I’d had a patch wader overdose, with 15 Lapwing adding to the Woodcock and large Snipe numbers of earlier; easily the largest number of this species I had had on patch. The 5th, however, was a day of total madness on the patch. Lapwing numbers soared dramatically; a further wader influx. 138 Lapwings were on Old Costessey Fields that evening, 93 in the field nearest the paddocks and 35 in the further field. On 6th, this had risen again to 152 Lapwings. They had all gone by 8th; part of quite a large movement west of Norwich at that point. Of only 3 previous occurences of 1s and 2s, again, the record had again been utterly smashed.
What was going on with waders and the patch? This level of general wader movement was beyond what I had expected this waterless patch could produce. 50 Snipe, 3 Woodcock and 138 Lapwing in one day was a superb enough show from the patch, but 152 of the latter the next day and Jack Snipe on 9th was the icing on the cake. Most days of the year, there are no waders on site whatsoever; surely this was a one off. True, true patch gold!
What was a very productive month for warblers was kicked off by the first arrivals of two singing male Chiffchaffs on patch, which remained throughout and were joined by a third on 13th. On 19th at least 4 singing males were present, suggesting that there may be more on site this summer than in 2012. Willow Warblers were also present on passage mid-month, with at least 2 birds present on 19th and Steve Chapman, whose patch skirts mine and I met during my visit, reporting several around Drayton Woods. This represents only my second and third records of Willow Warbler on site. At least 3 Whitethroats were singing on 19th, whilst the first Blackcap of the year was noted as late as 30th.
The warbler highlights of the month came within a short space of another. Wandering onto Drayton Meadows on 30th, I was delighted to hear and get brief views of a singing Lesser Whitethroat. This represents the second consecutive year that I’ve had Lesser W on site, both within the same week (last year’s on 5th May), so presumably this will become a trend on patch over the years. This year’s individual, as with lasts, was present in the hedges at the back of the ‘marsh’ by Low Road, so this appears to be the place to catch up with this uncommon Norfolk breeder during spring passage. Indeed, Steve reported it as still present on 5th.
I headed back towards the cottage satisfied with Lesser W as the main highlight, but as I snaked along the reed-encompassed path towards Drayton Woods I flushed a very drab warbler without a super from the grass, sedge-like in structure, from right under my feet. It plunged into the reeds, where I managed a few seconds binocular view before it immersed itself into the undergrowth; Grasshopper Warbler! Exhilarated, I contained my enthusiasm to go in there and flush it, hoping it would reel. But it was recalcitrant, never emerging in the end. This was a top patch bird, a patch first , although I presumed I might manage one after second-hand reports from previous springs of reeling birds in the Costessey area.
This Gropper means that 8 species of warbler have been recorded on site: all the expected warblers in Norfolk apart from Garden Warbler. A superb end to an equally brilliant month’s patching.
Away from the above families, the patch lifers came on 4th and 5th, the two best days on patch during the month. As if Snipe and Woodcock weren’t enough as I did my first trek away from the main path at Drayton Meadows on 4th, I flushed a WATER RAIL about 100m away from where I’d flushed the Woodcock. The bird landed clumsily not far away, where I got a brief view of it face on before it scuttled away and proceeded not to flush or be seen afterwards. This was a much appreciated new patch bird, albeit one that was expected in the boggy conditions. At the time it was decent patch bird overload, so it was hard to digest and was trumped by Woodcock. Retrospectively though, it was an exhilarating record: proving that the habitat can be marshy/boggy enough on site to produce not just Bittern but other typically reclusive marshland species.
The morning of 5th was quieter than the evening, but did produce a big surprise in the form a gorgeous male STONECHAT at Drayton Meadows, by the river; a very unexpected patch bird and a species I had not seen in Norfolk away from typical breeding sites. As they do, it put on a fine show, perching up on various pieces of vegetation and allowing for several photos, the best of which is below. Unfortunately it was not accompanied by a female, but a superb patch bird nonetheless that will be a tricky one to get on site again; presumably heading inland to a Breckland breeding site, having spent the winter on the east coast.
Other highlights came in a flurry on 9th, as I showed Steve around the patch. A female Brambling was the highlight of the morning, moving through the trees by Witches’ Field and Drayton Woods. This represents only the second record of Brambling on patch after a male in October, so was thus much appreciated. Shortly prior to this 3 Linnet went over Fishermen’s Field, with another one over Drayton Meadows on 10th; representing just the second and third patch records. During the evening, an adult Little Grebe on the Wensum at Drayton Meadows was only a patch second; an immensely productive day on patch.
The first Green Woodpeckers of the year were around from 5th onwards, with 2 on 8th, and the first Song Thrushes (up to 3) of the year were noted from 6th onwards and up to 3 Swallows were noted from 12th onwards. A Common Tern on 30th was the first of the summer. February’s Little Egret lingered daily, and was joined by a second on 4th, whilst a near daily Cormorant was joined by a second on 12th. 2 Mistle Thrushes favoured the paddocks most days, as did a Fieldfare on 5th-6th, with 8 also on 9th. More notably, a passage of Redwings took place on 12th, with 90+ favouring the paddocks , the second highest total on patch. 2 Meadow Pipits were noted on 4th and 13th, whilst a few Grey Wagtails and Siskin were around on several dates. The Barn Owls were worryingly elusive, with the paler bird noted on 6th and the darker bird on 11th.
Perhaps the major highlight, however, was chancing upon an OTTER in the early morning of 19th at Fishermen’s Field. It was about 7:30am; strands of mist hugged the river and dew carpeting the meadows. I neared the corner when I heard a dog like bark emanating from nearby. I turned suddenly to see an Otter looking straight into my eyes, a large fish dangling helplessly from its bloodied canines, its snarling mouth. We were both inert, frozen by awe and surprise, but the Otter kept on barking at me, as if trying to ward me away. The staring went on for some 4 or 5 seconds, when I then turned back, taking the opportunity to photograph this inimitable moment. It then dived and swam into cover, where it was present for half an hour or so. That was enough to make the year though, let alone the month. It was truly one of those moments that will remain a core natural memory: a moment I will always associate with my time at Costessey, with Otters, and with my wildlife photography as a young man.
As always, but perhaps more than any other time before, this visit proved that this unknown piece of private land can be teeming with birds, that it is a properly important site for not just avifauna, but fauna in general. With that visit, the patch yearlist stands at 80 species, my original year target for the Patchwork Challenge already and only 14 off the total patch list, which now stands at 94 species all thanks to how superb it has been this year. I am revising the year total to 90, which will be hard to get, but persistence could pay off. Bring on late June, and the summer! After that account, I think I’ll go and lie down now…. !
Thanks for reading,