A late patch update; well overdue! From late July until the end of the August, I more or less lived in Norfolk, or more precisely Costessey House Private Estate. This, by an arm and a leg, is the longest I’ve ever stayed on the patch. There was ample opportunity for the patch to produce the goods and nip up towards the centenary, but unfortunately, even when taking a brief visit this October into account, I have yet to break that boundary.
It was a disappointingly quiet month’s stay, although many of the summering highlights from June were still around. The Hobby pair provided regular entertainment in the gorgeous summer weather, with views of singles and the pair together hawking over Drayton Meadows, Mill Field and Fishermen’s Field at numerous points, displaying their inimitable aerial prowess. My first night held what must have been the best experience I’ve ever had with these birds on patch, as I watched the male for 20 minutes above the woods behind Drayton Meadows, in a cerise canvassed sky. At one point it classically torpedoed from great height, catching a floating insect at god knows how many mph, before rising ethereally further to the left, back up to its original height. Imagine the whole action, no more than 6-7 seconds, as a massive letter V being formed in the sky – this is what the bird did in that short interlude as it caught the insect. Minutes later, it suddenly bolted across Drayton Meadows within 1oft of me in the half light, towards a swirling mass of 40 chattering, feeding Swallows. Pure chaos ensues. The Hobby wreaks havoc among the flock, stabbing into its very heart. Out of nowhere, the female appears and joins in with the frenzy, proceeding to ruthlessly pursue a group of Swallows towards Fishermen’s Field. I watched the pair disappear into the incandescent sky, over the top of Drayton Woods and away from the patch. I was blown away after that – a real day-maker on an otherwise quiet first day. My last record of Hobby was of a single on 28th August, although I imagine they stuck around for a bit longer after that. I will look forward to having them back next summer – perhaps I’ll find out a bit more about them yet…
The other two ‘patch specialities’, as I like to label them – Little Owl and Grasshopper Warbler – also remained throughout the period, though were considerably less regular. For the first couple of the weeks Little Owl was more or less daily out the back of the paddocks, with a single favouring the dead tree on most nights, but after 13th August they became increasingly elusive, with the last record being of a single calling on 19th. That was that, however, and there were no records during my visit this October either. 2 Grasshopper Warblers were noted on several late evenings from late July, with the last record on 17th. The Kingfisher pair and Nuthatch remained, while Swift numbers peaked at 80 and a single Snipe north over the cottage on 23rd was a decent record, as was 13 Greylag Geese that rested up in Old Costessey Fields on 4th August. Up to 3 Barn Owls were around, including what appeared to be a new individual, first noted on 9th August, a young bird with distinct muddier brown tinges to the mantle that were quite unlike either the usual very pale individual or the more standard individual. This likely refers to a bird recently fledged bird hatched by the pair in the last few months at two possible sites on patch that I have deduced are both suitable for nesting. The young bird was also seen during evenings on 13th and 20th August, though I imagine it has since dispersed to further climes. This is absolutely excellent news though, a real highlight of the patching year and something I hope will be replicated next year.
The two best moments of the month’s stay inevitably go to two patch lifers, helping to nudge up the patch list to 99, painstakingly close to that 100. The first came just three days in, on 31st July. I had been standing on Drayton Meadows, doing some mid-evening vis-migging, when I picked up a medium sized wader heading eastwards very high up towards me at quite a pace, all the way from Old Costessey village. The bird flew on a straight course, fortunately right above my head. Craning my neck, I noted stiff, rapid wingbeats, its general headless appearance and fine-edged wings, confirming the bird as a GOLDEN PLOVER. Score!! As the bird migrated determinedly over Low Road, it uttered out a single melancholy note, soon becoming lost to view. Adrenaline pumped through me: another patch wader, and one of the less likely at that. I have fancied Old Costessey Fields for an autumn group of GP, but given that even Lapwing are hard enough on there I had no reason to get my hopes up about scoring this species on patch. That said the patch does seem to have a habit of scoring trickier wader species while completing evading some of the easiest: e.g. Woodcock, Jack Snipe, Greenshank, Green Sandpiper and Golden Plover, but no Redshank or Curlew! If there’s are candidates for no. 100, either of the latter two species fit the bill, but somehow I doubt it will be either of them.
No,99 came on 12th August, a day that I somehow managed to predict would herald a patch tick. I was on prophetic form. As I began my patching on an extensive check of Mill Field, I thought ‘been a while since I’ve had a Little Egret flover’. A few seconds later and BAM, a Little Egret west over towards Taverham. The rest of the patch held many of the usual suspects, so my hopes of a patch lifer were dwindling. However, as I headed along the field at the back of the paddocks, I flushed an interesting looking drab passerine from a piece of foliage. It landed on a small bush, revealing itself to be a cracking SPOTTED FLYCATCHER. DSLR at hand this time, I capitalized on the opportunity to wrap out a couple of shots instead of follow the bird in the bins. This worked against me, as no sooner had I managed a couple of photos did the Spot Fly flush deep into the trees, not to reappear. I was absolutely buzzing though, a proper early autumn migrant had just graced the patch! Not the most stunning admittedly, but a species I had not even thought of as being a possibility. I tried in vain to search it out from the green mass, but was rudely interrupted by an intense bout of rain, forced to run home before my DSLR got too exposed. This Spot Fly takes the accolades as the month’s highlight, and as it stands is the last decent species I’ve had on patch.
I was back down on the patch for a long weekend in October, managing a couple of days on 26th and 28th. The nettes that had obstructed the path along the river had been cut down, leaving much more ease of access to a suitably marshy looking Drayton Meadows. Far more wintery fare were in prevalence, including a roving flock of 100+ Black-headed Gulls on 26th, a maximum of 11 Meadow Pipits flushed on 28th, and the first three Snipe of the winter also on 28th. 2 Cormorants were around on both dates, and I was glad to see that the 4 Egyptian Geese had returned. Passerine passage was reduced to a small group of 10 Redwings on 26th, and 60 Starling on 28th, the latter total being the largest amount of this species I have had on patch. The visit was marked by its distinct lack of Barn Owl however: hopefully these birds will be around when I am back in a month so. That however, was that, but it was nice to show fellow young birder Jake Gearty around on the Sunday: to give him a taster of the habitat and to talk him through what the patch could offer on better days.
So, the question is begging. What will the no.100 be? Will it happen before the end of this year? It is impossible to know the answer to the first, but if it comes this winter then I reckon it could be Wigeon. As for the second question, what with a Christmas stay now lined up, I’d like to fancy I have time to hit the centenary by, or even on, 31st December. I will be an intensely happy man if it does happen to work out.
Thanks for reading,
Great post! My grandad is taking me North from Dundee to Aberdeenshire to a small village near Banff. On the way there/back I am hoping to stop off at the Ythan for a bit of birding. Although, I probably won’t have long there and Im wondering if you can suggest some spots or a good route that would provide a good number of birds for the small amount of time I have there?
Thanks a lot
Cheers! Glad to hear you are getting some birding done in Aberdeenshire, especially at the Ythan, a place I’m going to miss as time goes on. The Ythan itself is obviously worth a look, you can view ithe estuary from the three car parks along the A975 to Cruden Bay, or equally just as you come in to Newburgh for the first time can check the Ythanmouth by turning off at the Ythan Hotel (white building, pretty conspicuous). This will all be clearer if you look on google or road maps. If you just plan to work the Ythan, then I’d reccommend stopping at all those spots, in any order you like; best at this time of year during low tide.
If you have time to check other sites, there’s always Loch of Strathbeg near Fraserburgh – probably the best site in the region – or Blackdog for seaducks, although scoter numbers will be a lot smaller now than they are in the summer (just off the A90 main dual carriageway a couple of miles north of Aberdeen city).
Have a good trip,