Monday, 31 December 2012

The last post

Jaques (Act IV scene i):
[…] but it is a melancholy of mine own, compounded of many simples, extracted from many objects, and indeed the sundry contemplation of my travels, in which my often rumination wraps me in a most humourous sadness.

William Shakespeare
As You Like It

So it ends, this year, and with it my list. My blog perhaps too, though I’m not yet sure. We have seen together 1,240 vertebrate species; an unremarkable achievement, yet each bird, each mouse, each tree, each smile has itself been remarkable. For this is life, this puff of feathers where a sparrowhawk has slain, this fading footmark where a tiger trod, this winter light in an alder’s bough, this full glass with firm friends, this lone soul.

I don’t know what is to become of this blog. I kept my word, I watched, I wrote, I felt, but a marsh tit is a fickle thing, fleet, flighty, flown. I have other quests ahead, some of which perhaps may find their way here. For now I am deeply, humbly grateful for this quest past. I am grateful for the indri's wail in the far forests of Madagascar; I am grateful for the loud, bright parrots and the sweat of Amazon Peru; I am grateful for the stench of fox at the top of a Norfolk marsh; I am grateful for the kind white smiles which have met me the world over; I am grateful to you, for reading, for sharing, for meaning much. I am grateful for me too, and this, this is new.

Whatever is to become of this blog, wherever this marsh tit flies, I wish you joy of 2013. I wish you wide horizons and warm, welcoming homes. I wish you wild wings and roadside weeds. I wish you words not understood in faraway languages and looks entirely understood without language. I wish the sun on your face and the wind in your hair. I wish you wildlife and a wild life.

To be healed by skies and fens and flowers and the knowledge of these things, how wonderful.

Ronald Blythe
A Year at Bottengoms Farm


Friday, 28 December 2012

Dates for your diary

When returning from time away - six weeks in Madagascar, six months in India, six years in Bolivia – I need to nest. I need to put away thoughts of travel and curl up by my fire, eat my own food and visit my friends, sit at my desk and write for Norfolk Wildlife Trust, and lose myself in the wild marshes of my Norfolk. Then, as always, there comes a moment when worry over my next trip bites and I spend a night tossing and turning, telling myself I’m not ready, I don’t know what I’m talking about, and that it will all be a disaster.

The next day I get up and apply myself. I read and re-read past reports, I send off emails to Naturetrek asking questions that have crept into my mind, and I immerse myself in books. Between this day – the day of connecting with my next trip – and my departure I will spend hundreds of hours reading on the subject, until I know the field guides cover to cover and am ready. Ready or not, time soon comes knocking and I must leave for another country, another continent, another culture and another fauna.

For weeks now I have been desultorily flicking through the excellent field guide to the birds of South East Asia, greeting the many birds I know from my travels in Asia and attempting to familiarise myself with those which I will see for the first time on my scouting trip to Burma and, shortly thereafter, Naturetrek’s first ever Burma tour in March. Today, curled by my fire, I began in earnest the process of re-learning every plate until the name of each bird rolls effortlessly off my tongue, until I know which type of forest each inhabits and until I can instantly identify even the brownest, dullest, plainest and, as my long-ago friend Sam would have said, scrottiest little bird in Burma.

March, I hear you say, March is months away. True, March is months away but there’s a hitch. I have rather a lot to achieve before March. And a frightening amount to take on thereafter. I mentioned the things I’ll be doing in 2013 in an earlier post; however, since then I’ve taken on two new tours and many of you have been kind enough to ask for an update. Here then (with apologies for the dullness of the information) is where a marsh tit will be in the next year.

17th to 28th January I shall be in York, Glasgow, Edinburgh, WWT Martin Mere, WWT Welney, Hatfield, Exeter, WWT Slimbridge and Winchester giving talks for Naturetrek's Winter Roadshow. My first talk each evening will be on Andean and Amazonian wildlife in Ecuador and Peru and my second will be on Gondwana: from Madagascar, through Sri Lanka, to India and into the Himalayas. Travelling with Paul Stanbury and David Tattersfield will no doubt once again be a delight and I look forward to seeing many of you during the roadshow.

7th to 20th February I shall be in Assam, leading our incomparable Brahmaputra Cruise with my witty, erudite friend Sujan Chatterjee. This tour is full so you'll just have to go on it in 2014.

21st February to 6th March I'll be in Ladakh leading our extraordinary Snow Leopard Quest. This tour is definitely running but spaces may still be available.

That the snow leopard is, that it is here, that its frosty eyes watch us from the mountain – that is enough.

Peter Matthiessen
The Snow Leopard

17th March to 29th March I will be leading Naturetrek's first ever tour to Burma. Thereafter I'll be leading an extension to the bird-blessed forests of Mount Victoria. This tour is confirmed but spaces may still be available. Book now!

On 7th April I'll be leading a workshop on bumblebee ecology and identification at the Hawk and Owl Trust's Sculthorpe Moor Community Nature Reserve.

On 4th May I'll be leading the dawn chorus walk at Sculthorpe Moor.

11th to 20th May I'll be in Romania, leading a tour of the Danube Delta and Carpathian Mountains. This tour is full.

In a recent addition to my schedule, 27th May to 5th June I will be leading our West Greenland cruise (with a quick shimmy to Iceland) in search, principally, of bowhead whales and king eiders.

7th to 17th July I will be in the Arctic, leading our annual Spitsbergen Wildlife Cruise with the brilliant Lee Morgan. This tour is full.

In another addition to previously published dates, from 3rd to 12th October I have agreed to join Naturetrek's second Festival of Wildlife, this time to my old stomping ground along the Napo River in Ecuador. I will also most likely be on one or both of the extensions: to the east and west slopes of the Ecuadorian Andes. Places are available on this tour.

2nd to 14th February 2014 I'll be leading our Burma tour again.

No rest for the wicked.

There are other things in the pipeline too but this is what's been signed and sealed for now. Apologies, again, for being so dull but several of you did ask, so I blame you.

Monday, 24 December 2012


In someone's dream, once, two winter-plumaged puffins flew to the pond outside my house. This year among many birds I have not seen - tree pipit, pied flycatcher, willow tit and lesser spotted woodpecker - I have not seen a puffin.

Today has been another strange day - wild weather outside and wild weather in - but today came a still small voice and the knowledge that beyond this list are new adventures and challenges, new dragons to hunt down and windmills at which to tilt. New birds to see too. And old.

Even a puffin perhaps.

Sometimes people leave you
Halfway through the wood.
Others may deceive you.
You decide what's good.
You decide alone,
But no-one is alone.

Honour their mistakes.
Everybody makes,
One another's terrible mistakes.
Witches can be right.
Giants can be good.
You decide what's right.
You decide what's good.
Just remember:
Someone is on your side.

Stephen Sondheim
Into the Woods

Sunday, 23 December 2012


A troubled week this, my mind as restless and relentless as the North Sea's waves, my body weakened by a cold that's seen three friends in bed. Yearning to get outdoors, today I covered my cold in a woolly hat and went to the restless waves in Holkham Bay. Red-breasted mergansers were here, two drakes and a duck, fidgeting from one patch of rough sea to another, and a red-throated diver, coming headlong to land in the breakers at my feet. In a patch of youthful saltmarsh - muddied sea purslane and the crisp rosettes of rock sea lavender - a big flock of linnets fed. I stalked them (still time for a twite, after all) but they were linnets. Linnets and here and there a skylark and a meadow pipit.

Outside the day was short and cold but at home was an email which melted a year of frost.

I know now that when the loving, honest moment comes it should be seized, and spoken, because it may never come again.

Gregory David Roberts

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Ol' blue-eyes

It is widely acknowledged that, apart from some humans, blue-eyed black lemurs are the only primates to have, well, blue eyes. This fact was cast into doubt recently by my witty tour client Rhoda Allen (also responsible for the 'nongoose' epithet) who took a photo of a Verreaux's sifaka with blue eyes. As everyone knows, Verreaux's sifakas have yellow eyes, piercing yellow eyes, all the better for staring at you. Not this one.

Yesterday Naturetrek sent out the trip reports for my recent Madagascar tours. Today I received an email from Rhoda, tongue-in-cheekily expressing disappointment that Allen's blue-eyed sifaka had not made the report. I promised to make good the slight on my blog.

Ol' blue-eyes by Rhoda Allen

I've loved, laughed and cried.
I've had my fill, my share of losing.
But now, as tears subside,
I find it all so amusing,
To think I did all that,
And may I say not in a shy way.
No, no, not me,
I did it my way.

Paul Anka
My Way
performed by Frank Sinatra

Wednesday, 19 December 2012


This morning I work from six o'clock (have to be free to rush to Cley if there's a smew later). Despite the fret which covers the common my sparrow chirps at thirteen minutes to eight. Am I, I wonder, his human?

Tuesday, 18 December 2012



19:23 An email arrives from DTH: long-tailed duck, red-necked grebe, Slavonian grebe and great northern diver have all been seen today at Titchwell. Nothing for it: I shall have to go tomorrow when one high tide is in daylight and before the weather gets worse again.

19:45 I leave to drive along two local lanes where long-eared owls have recently been seen hunting. I am undeterred by the fact that I have driven along these lanes at night in winter hundreds of times without once seeing a long-eared owl. I see no owl. Bach’s Magnificat on Radio Three is a splendid consolation.


04:40 I get up. I have NWT work due before Christmas and if I’m to make high tide at Titchwell this morning I must get in a few hours’ work before I leave.

06:00 Work is going well, the blackbirds begin to chime and the female mallards start their raucous laughter.

07:30 A touch of inky light can be seen.

07:50 A dunnock sings, the first I’ve heard in months.

08:05 The jackdaws get up, strewing themselves across the sky in noisy sine-waves. A house sparrow chirps.

08:15 I leave for Titchwell.

09:00 I reach Titchwell. The first bird I hear is a greylag; the second is a waxwing and, looking up to the top of a youthful car-park oak, I see him, cheerful and perky-crested. I take this as a good sign for my morning.

09:05 I pass the island hide. The water has dropped, so I peer diligently at the newly-exposed mud in the hope of seeing a jack snipe or a water pipit. No such luck, though a spotted redshank flies off the marsh towards Thornham, calling sharply.

09:15 I reach the sea. It is raw: bleak, misty, grey and raw, in a manner dickensian. A lone birder struggles off the beach looking blue. He saw a Slavonian grebe on the sea much earlier and long-tailed ducks have been flying past.

09:16 I train my ‘scope on the large raft of goldeneye and two long-tailed ducks fly past. Long-tailed duck! At last! 999!

09:16 to 10.38 I scan the sea. I scan the sea some more. I scan the sea again. I chat to other birders. There are many goldeneye today, more than I remember ever seeing here. Among them are female eider and a few female common scoter. Occasionally a long-tailed drake drops in to visit.

All around them on the sea are winter-plumaged great-crested grebes, none of which I can morph into a red-necked or Slavonian, no matter how much I squint. Razorbills purr past, three red-throated divers drift through, and a female red-breasted merganser joins the duck flock. In the surf sanderling whirr to the west and with them are bar-tailed godwits and redshank.

I scan harder. The sun rises and the mist lifts. Despite their distance, we see the ducks superbly in the morning's gathering light.

10:38 I scan the duck flock once more and do a proverbial double take. One of them is a broad-backed, smudgy-grey-backed, round-headed, glossy-greeny-blacky-headed Aythya with a pin-prick golden eye. An advanced first-winter drake scaup. In January I saw a female lesser scaup, a hugely rarer bird in the UK, dozing under Peter Scott’s window at Slimbridge, but until now I have not seen a greater scaup this year.

He bobs on the sea in a flock of goldeneye, oblivious to my presence, oblivious to my list. I though shall never forget him.

New today


long-tailed duck
Clangula hyemalis
greater scaup
Aythya marila

2012 Totals
Mammals: 129
Birds: 1,000
Reptiles: 76
Amphibians: 23
Fish: 12

Monday, 17 December 2012


There comes a point in every marsh tit's life when he realises it's time to take up his wellies and squelch through a flooded sedge-bed in search of jack snipe. On Saturday night I met Nigel and Trine under the flickering lamp of a windswept, half-abandoned car park (actually it was Morisson's but where's the intrigue in that?). In return for a briefcase full of used notes Nigel slipped me information on where to find jack snipe. In the week he'd been driving his herd of Highland cattle off a sludge-laden SSSI managed by the Hawk and Owl Trust in the Wensum valley. During his cattle-rounding he'd put up a jack snipe. I should go there.

Today I made fine progress on one of two contracts I am finishing for Norfolk Wildlife Trust. At lunchtime a rare winter sun was smiling on the landscape and, as a pat on the back for good work done, I resolved to hunt snipe. I rang Leanne. She would like to go with me. Two pairs of wellies later we were squelching.

For an hour we quartered the rushes and sedges in search of our bird and I began to understand how life must feel to a marsh harrier. We put up seven common snipe, which flicked away giving their opening-a-shaken-can-of-Pepsi call (or any cola of your choice; it doesn't do to endorse). I got my welly wedged in a deep patch of cattle-pocked mud and Leanne fell on her hands in the blackish ooze (as my Norfolk great-grandfather would have said: she cut an arser). We laughed and we loved our afternoon's squelch in the kindly light of a December afternoon by the Wensum. But we saw no jack snipe.

So 998.


Saturday, 15 December 2012

Double dip

At Whitlingham this morning there was no ring-necked duck, or if there was she was asleep somewhere out of view. Later at Bawburgh there were plenty of wigeon but no American, despite my scanning the flock many times as they fed, as they raised their heads in alarm and as they went about their wigeon business. So we stick on 998. As my mother put it: You never know with a duck.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Guess the birds

While rummaging this morning through my notebook from this season in Madagascar, I found these feathers, which I picked up while there and snuck home. Does anyone know what they are?

This is probably the easiest, though it's the only one I myself had to guess. The others were, sadly, from dead birds whose identification was therefore straightforward. This feather is 12cm in length.

The larger of these two feathers measures 9cm. They are from a dead juvenile bird in an abandoned nest.

This will, I imagine, be the hardest of all to identify. It measures 4.5cm and is from a bird that we were very sad indeed to find dead.



With her customary ornithological flair, my mother has set the ball rolling.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Pour encourager les autres

I know, I know, Strictly Come Birdwatching has gripped the nation like a fever and in the street very little conversation may be heard that's not about the death throes of my list. The social media too are buzzing with support for me as I hunt down the last species which stand between me and a thousand birds this year. My friends and family in particular have been clamouring.

Kerrie opted for excitement and encouragement.

Trine too opted for encouragement, though with a tiny touch of stick to her carrot.

Rebecca's tactic, last week, was decidedly more stick and less carrot.

As for CJV, well his approach was more Death Star.

My mother, never one to mince her words, she went for succinct.

And my niece Emma, most helpfully of all, she drew me a lion.

All your support and encouragement, from all over the world this strange year, has been most, most meaningful.

Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer un amiral de temps en temps pour encourager les autres.


(No admirals were harmed in the making of this blog post.)

Monday, 10 December 2012


A drake teal comes to the pond with the muddled mallards. His posture - long neck, ready to spring into flight - tells me what his instincts are telling him. This isn't right. I shouldn't have joined this flock. I'm too exposed. Too close to humans.

Sometimes in life you join the wrong flock and you end up in the wrong place. But for me his wrong place is the right place and I can see a wild teal from my desk. A blessing on my week.

There is something childlike about the best of birdwatching: the sensation of seeing wonders – and it gives endless savour to the more grown-up aspects of the pleasure, the naming and understanding and relishing.

Simon Barnes
How to Be a Bad Birdwatcher

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Ferally we roll along

The kindly man I met on the cliffs at Sheringham yesterday said to me: Go west, young man. Actually that was Horace Greeley, encouraging white US citizens of the mid nineteenth century to colonise the Native American territories of central and western North America. The hideous doctrine of manifest destiny, which lay behind the white expansion to the west, led of course to the death and displacement of uncountable thousands of Native Americans.

Chivington became violently angry at them and brought his fist down close to Lieutenant Cramer’s face. ‘Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians!’ he cried. ‘I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians.’

Dee Brown
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

But I digress, further perhaps than I’ve digressed at any point this year. For this is a blog about nature and in particular now about three last birds. What my cliff-top interlocutor meant, and what I already knew, was that the bulk of the birds which I could still see before the year is over are to be found in West Norfolk. (Though if I did follow Horace Greeley’s advice I could probably add the odd rosy finch to my list, and perhaps a Ross’s goose or a phainopepla.)

Today I journeyed once more to West Norfolk, listening as I went to Strauss’s Four Last Songs, never performed until after the great man’s death. As I went, his soul-rending music in my ears, I reflected on the many ashes in the hedge, doomed too soon to go the way of all things.

So isn’t this turning out to be a cheery blog post?

At Titchwell the sea was a craze of gulls. Among hundreds of common, black-headed and herring gulls were plenty of kittiwakes, a few little gulls and a Mediterranean gull. When did kittiwake and little gull become winter birds in Norfolk? Did I miss something? And when did long-tailed duck become so difficult to see? The same goldeneye (or ones that looked just like them) were on the sea today, and the same masses of sanderling and knot on the beach, but I saw no long-tailed ducks and none of the scarcer grebes.

I resolved to make a last attempt at golden pheasant: to sit by their favourite patch of rhododendrons at Wolferton until dusk fell or I saw one, whichever came sooner. I drove the short side of the triangle first, where the pheasants are less often seen. As I turned onto the longer stretch, the better stretch, I spotted a patch of roadside grass where I could park. At the same moment I spotted a golden pheasant cock, tiptoeing on slender legs through fallen leaves. Seconds later he was joined by another.

If you’ve never seen a golden pheasant furtively materialising from beneath a blackish-green wall of rhododendron in the last hour of a December day, you must. These birds are of a dazzling beauty which defies description. (They have red bellies and blue wings and golden ruffs with black bars and their tails are very long…)

But should I count these breathtaking birds on my list? The arguments against are as follows:

1)     The golden pheasants at Wolferton are of the form known in captivity as dark-throated and it’s very probable that they have some Lady Amherst’s pheasant genes swilling around their DNA. Thus they are most likely not a pure population of any single species.

2)     According to the rules of my list I’ve been counting feral vertebrates all year, though they make up a very small proportion of the birds I’ve seen. Even accepting this, the Norfolk, indeed British, population of golden pheasant is dwindling to nothing. They’ve vanished from some of their traditional sites in the Brecks and declined in the rest. Here in West Norfolk there are very few left and in a few years there will probably be none. Theirs is no longer a viable population.

On the other hand, there are significant arguments in favour of counting them:

1)     Though it’s likely that there are some Lady Amherst’s genes swilling around in them (I’m not implying Lady Amherst herself did anything untoward with a golden pheasant but you catch my drift) this is nonetheless a long-established population of Chrysolophus pheasants that phenotypically is overwhelmingly golden.

2)     The birds themselves didn’t seem too het up about their identity.

3)     I have been seeing golden pheasants at Wolferton for almost twenty-five years. It’s quite obvious that for that time, and longer, the population has been self-sustaining and that the birds I saw today were hatched wild (well, feral). Should they disappear in the next few years it will be sad but that takes nothing away from their wildness now.

4)     I just love golden pheasants and if you’ve been following this list since the start (have you really nothing better to do?) you may remember that rule eight is that I may bend the rules whenever I see fit. To date, though we’ve seen 129 mammals, 997 birds, 76 reptiles, 23 amphibians and 12 fish, I’ve never once bent the rules. Today, on behalf of the gorgeous golden pheasant (which in any case I think counts), I am bending them.

5)     As I watched these exquisite birds emerging from a bank of rhododendron, with them was a muntjac, and I felt more as though I were in China than in West Norfolk. (I’m not sure that helps my argument but it was jolly evocative.)

6)     In a strange, round-about sort of way, golden pheasants at Wolferton set in train the whole series of events that, via a doomed faerie story and a cow with a crumpled horn (there’s always a cow with a crumpled horn), brought this daft blog and list into being. There is poetry to golden pheasant joining the list now, so near its end.

So the ayes have it. Golden pheasant. 998. Two cock birds. Yes, two cock birds. No wonder the poor things are becoming locally extinct. At least they’ll die out in the knowledge that they have Boris Johnson’s full support.

New today in the last hour of light


golden pheasant
Chrysolophus pictus

2012 Totals
Mammals: 129
Birds: 998
Reptiles: 76
Amphibians: 23
Fish: 12

Saturday, 8 December 2012

A long walk for a longspur

I find myself in tears, not knowing why. A shingle ridge and a cold sea, a flurry of snow buntings, and in my ears still, in my heart, from my just extinguished radio, Wagner's Wolfram sings, sings in the knowledge that his love and its object are doomed. In the gilt light of a Norfolk winter morning, in the company of snow buntings, I cry for the beauty of it all.

At the water meadow, to the east, Marcus and the Kelling coven of birders are hunched over their scopes peering to the North Sea. They've not seen much today but red-throated divers, though I show them a round-shouldered shag sulking on the shore towards Salthouse. Two days ago they saw a great northern diver. (Marcus, Marcus, where's your compassion? Don't you know I haven't seen one this year?).

At the camp, Moss is on his morning round; all the birders out to celebrate this one bright morning. Himself on 900 birds or more this year, he's full of tales of Australia. Of great knot on the mud at Cairns and southern cassowaries in the garden of a rainforest lodge. Of scarce birds on the camp too: nightingale and thrush nightingale ringed from the same net, but a month apart, in the spring. (Moss, don't you know I've seen none of those this year?) I ask about Lapland buntings.

Moss: I saw plenty in the autumn. None for a few weeks though. You know the call?

Marsh tit (smiling): You taught me Moss, right here, I was thirteen.

At Sheringham, by the golf course, I meet a quiet, friendly birder. He too has seen little but red-throated divers. No purple sandpipers on the groynes, nor this week's surf scoter on the sea. He's looking though. I tell him of common scoter - five females - and eider - one drake - that I've seen and we wish each other luck.

At the highest point of the golf course, two hours out across shingle and cliff, I turn back and soon meet the friendly birder again. Did I see the glaucous gull? I had not seen the glaucous gull, an adult, which had flown by. I'm doubly grateful now that Gav took me to see one in Kent.

We turn to Lapland buntings. He's seen none but they were here, a month past, in their usual stubbly field by the coastguards' cottages. Surely they're here still but no-one's been looking. So I look. I trespass across these barley stubble fields, kicking up meadow pipits - tseep tseep - linnets - puchupuchup - and skylarks - tsirrrp. As I'm nearing the cottages, through the same woolly hat (La Paz, remember?), I hear a clear trill and in a small flock of linnets come two larger birds, fat-bellied, long-tailed, making a distinctive call. A call I've known since I was thirteen.

Tears for snow buntings, but now a lone figure in an Ice Age cliff-top field gives a little dance for their cousin. 997.

As I trudge back across the shingle, among the many herring gulls, the first winter great black-backs and the blade-winged black-heads, one big, power-chested gull shines. Glaucous, adult.

New today on a North Norfolk cliff-top


Lapland bunting
Calcarius lapponicus

2012 Totals
Mammals: 129
Birds: 997
Reptiles: 76
Amphibians: 23
Fish: 12

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Masefield and the marsh tit

As DTH and I strode the cold kilometre to the sea at Titchwell today, we mused over a marsh tit version of Masefield’s celebrated lines:

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is:
  1. a velvet scoter
  2. a long-tailed duck
  3. a red-necked grebe
  4. a Slavonian grebe (horned if you’d prefer, either would be fine)
  5. a purple sandpiper
  6. a shag
  7. a great northern diver
  8. and a black-throated diver. 

Aaah, black-throated diver; thereby hangs a tale. Earlier we’d been at Holme (sorry Rebecca, NWT Home Dunes). Picture the scene: two birders donning their every last scrap of clothing, risking life and limb to cross a beach where even the sand was frozen, much in the manner of Scott and Oates (not to be muddled with Scott’s Porridge Oats, mind), all in heroic pursuit of six last birds to complete an entirely fatuous yearlist.

There wasn’t much happening on the sea to be honest. A female red-breasted merganser went by and plenty of common gulls were in the shallows. A flock of common scoter whirred past, far out to sea, and over our heads bounded a single snow bunting. (I suppose if you live in Oxfordshire this sounds like quite a lot happening on the sea but for us Norfolk types this doesn’t qualify as a great deal happening.) After we’d turned back along the bleak, cold dunes (did I mention it was bleak and cold?) we spotted a diver on the sea. Focusing on it we saw two more. They looked decidedly black and white and penguiny. Definitely more black-throated diver than red-throated diver. I took a quick look at these distant shapes in my little scope – yes they looked like BTDs – and called DTH to have a look. Immediately another bird hoved into view and had an altercation with the first three. Our attention shifted to the newcomer. We followed it. We identified it (red-throated diver). We went back to the earlier birds. Which weren’t there. No amount of searching could draw them from the bleak, cold water. Did we see three black-throated divers? Probably. Are they on my list? No. At Compare the Marsh Tit we deal in truth. If you want falsified statistics, half truths and guesstimates, ask the coalition government.

Crestfallen from our so-near-but-yet-so-far encounter with the divers, we strode the cold kilometre to the beach at Titchwell. The tide was high and there were lots of birders. The signs were good. Among the assembled birders there was gossip of velvet scoters. We set to searching for them. Goldeneye, there were plenty of those. Cormorants here and there too. Lots of sanderling on the beach and plenty of black-headed gulls in the surf. A few posses of teal whizzed by. Then I picked up a duck, a black duck, a scoter, with big white flashes in the wing as it flew. Velvet scoter! Several more joined it. 995 and one of my favourite sea ducks to boot.

Not long afterwards a cormorant dropped into the cloud of gulls in the surf. A cormorant? Too slight, too black, too glossy. DTH and I quickly scoped it. A slender bill, a bulging forehead. Shag! We enjoyed some punning that would have made Masefield blush; but this is a family blog so I'll refrain.

We tried at Choseley for corn buntings. We tried at Thornham and Brancaster Staithe for twite. No such luck, but it was a beautiful day in the easy company of an old friend and on 996 birds in 2012 I am happy.

New today on a bleak, cold sea


velvet scoter
Melanitta fusca
Phalacrocorax aristotelis

2012 Totals
Mammals: 129
Birds: 996
Reptiles: 76
Amphibians: 23
Fish: 12

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

John Masefield
Sea Fever

Wednesday, 5 December 2012


In the great swirl of common and black-headed gulls over the pond this winter there is a single first year lesser black-back. This is hardly breaking ornithological news but it's the first one I've seen in the four winters I've owned my house (though they breed here in summer) and it gives me pleasure.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Pocahontas, among other things

1. The big dipper rides again

Today the sky was bright and clear and the day was cold. I leaped out of bed and knew that today I would make progress on my list. Just eight birds to go to reach 1,000 species in 2012.

Not long after dawn I trawled, a little suspiciously perhaps, around the queen's woods at Wolferton. We have history the golden pheasants of Wolferton and I, much history. I failed to see them today.

Next I made the long cold walk to the far end of RSPB Snettisham. Snettisham and I have history too. There were no scaup today, no black-necked or red-necked grebes, nothing in fact that was missing from my list. As I reached the car park a photographer showed me an image he'd shot just moments before: a full frame waxwing. I lurked under the rose tangle the waxwings had been visiting. They didn't come back.

I called at Hunstanton cliffs where many shags have recently been coming to roost. On the sea around the cliffs were no shags. No scaup or velvet scoter either.

At RSPB Titchwell Marsh I met my grandmother's neighbours. They're birders and had caught one of the much-reported waxwings over the car park. I told them I hadn't seen one this year, to which they replied that last winter they'd seen one on my grandmother's television aerial. A little further on the membership recruiter in the car park had just seen the waxwing flock fly off.

I pressed on: in the visitor centre there were reports of Slavonian grebes on the sea and a water pipit on the scrapes, and all week there's been a red-necked grebe here too. On the track to the beach I met Marcus Nash returning from the reserve. He's as sharp a birder as anyone I know and he'd seen no Slavonian or red-necked grebes. He'd also searched high and low for the water pipit, but to no avail. I reeled off the increasingly improbable list of birds I still hadn't seen this year. Long-tailed duck: yes, there was a female on the sea!

I scarpered to the sea. I looked from every conceivable angle. I panned left to right, right to left. I walked up and down. No grebes. No long-tailed duck. It was a shame there was no long-tailed duck as the old North American name for this lovely bird is oldsquaw and, having waved at Pocahontas' memorial as I passed through Heacham (for old times' sake), I thought how satisfying it would be to name my blog post Two old squaws. The moment was lost and all I had managed to see on my West Norfolk adventure was the memorial to a long-dead Native American noblewoman.

I gave up hope, I confess, of moving beyond 992. At Choseley, despite concerted searching, I saw no corn bunting. Naturally.

You think you own whatever land you land on,
The earth is just a dead thing you can claim.
But I know every rock and tree and creature,
Has a life, has a spirit, has a name.

The rainstorm and the river are my brothers,
The heron and the otter are my friends,
And we are all connected to each other,
In a circle in a hoop that never ends.

Have you ever heard the wolf cry to the blue corn moon?
Or asked the grinning bobcat why he grinned?
Can you sing with all the voices of the mountain?
Can you paint with all the colors of the wind?



2. Wild winter

It was a wondrous day, though.

At Snettisham the bold drake goldeneye clung to their dusky ducks and they dived into the frigid waters of the pits. A cruel wind slammed across the mudflats, which were bright with many silvered shelduck, loud with the TEW tew of redshank and the mournful deeeoooEEE of grey plover, and quick with the hundred thousand wings of waders.

At Titchwell, the many wigeon wove over the marsh, plucking winter grasses and shrilly whistling. Little grebes (how recently I watched their Madagascan cousins in a T-shirt) slipped beneath the ice-clear water of the tidal scrape and bobbed again to the surface with science-defying buoyancy. On the beach were the shells of millions of lost razor clams, cracking sharply underfoot, and the sea's edge was an orgy of herring gulls - hundreds - black-headed gulls - hundreds too - and oystercatchers.

At Choseley a ring-tail hen harrier swayed in the wind across a straggly field of sugar beet, song thrushes tip-ped in the hedge and a brambling bounced over, unusually silent. A male yellowhammer popped to the top of a hawthorn hedge, impossibly bright, as though all the colours of this brilliant day were distilled into one bird.


3. Progress

I did see new birds today. As I returned to the car park at Titchwell, through the wind and my woolly hat (alpaca wool, bought on a street in La Paz), I heard the high thin trill of waxwings and there in a rosebush (only the rose hips are left for them this year), in the gold light of a winter afternoon, was the flock, just momentarily. But momentarily is enough: Bohemian waxwing. 993.

And in the ebbing light of the day I visited the cold dun saltmarsh between Stiffkey and Warham. Another ring-tail hen harrier was here and many curlews probed the mud. Little egrets were in every creek (how quickly they've become normal to us) and, only once I'd given up and turned for home, I saw my prize. A female merlin lunged across the wind-torn marsh, so low to the ground she almost stroked it. She perched on a short post, then again was gone, with the dying day.

Is this the real life? 
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide, 

No escape from reality.
Open your eyes. 
Look up to the skies and see:
I'm just a poor boy,

I need no sympathy,
Because I'm easy come, easy go, 
Little high, little low.
Any way the wind blows,
Doesn't really matter to me.

Bohemian Rhapsody

New on a cold bright afternoon


Bohemian waxwing
Bombycilla garrulus
Falco columbarius

2012 Totals
Mammals: 129
Birds: 994
Reptiles: 76
Amphibians: 23
Fish: 12

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Worth a thousand words (especially if they're my words)

I promised pictures from Madagascar. Here, courtesy of my lovely Naturetrek colleague Kerrie and our equally lovely client Ann, are pictures from our delightful Madagascar's Lemurs tour last month. I thank them both, for their photos and for their splendid company on the tour.

All images are by Kerrie Warburton, unless stated otherwise; they are in the order in which we explored Madagascar.

Female red-bellied lemur at Ialatsara 

Female and infant red-bellied lemurs at Ialatsara 

Satanic leaf-tailed gecko in Talatakely, Ranomafana 

Infant red-fronted brown lemur in Talatakely 

Madagascar tree boa in Ranomafana 

Small-toothed sportive lemur in Talatakely

Mantidactylus lugubris 

 Boophis tephraeomystax

Naturetrekkers give a giraffe-necked weevil the paparazzi treatment 

Aforementioned giraffe-necked weevil 

Milne-Edwards' sifaka in Vohiparara, Ranomafana 

Brown (rufous) mouse lemur exits stage left in Ranomafana 

Brown mouse lemur defies gravity 

O'Shaughnessy's chameleon in Ranomafana 

Blue-legged chameleon in Ranomafana 

Greater bamboo lemur in Talatakely, Ranomafana 

Naturetrekkers admiring greater bamboo lemurs in Talatakely (or vice versa) 

Female Parsons' chameleon in Ranomafana 

Male belted chameleon having lunch in Ranomafana 

Infant ring-tailed lemur at Anja 

Mother and infant ring-tailed lemurs at Anja 

The eponymous tail 


Giant male Oustalet's chameleon in the Canyon des Rats, Isalo 

Verreaux's sifaka in Isalo  

Infant Verreaux's sifaka in Isalo 

Verreaux's sifakas eating buds at the start of the wet season in Zombitse 

Hubbard's sportive lemur looking anxious in Zombitse (popularly voted the cutest lemur of the tour) 

Spiny-tailed iguanid at Toliara 

Male spiny-backed chameleon at Toliara 

Naturetrekkers sharing the love with an Adansonia rubrostipa baobab at Reniala

A graceful photographer and her equally graceful muses 

 Spiny forest at Reniala

Long-tailed ground-roller at Reniala 

Indri in Analamazaotra 

Infant diademed sifaka in Analamazaotra 

Comet moth in Andasibe 

Short-legged ground-roller in Mantadia 

Baron's mantella in Mantadia 

Black-and-white ruffed lemur in Mantadia 

Female Madagascar paradise flycatcher on her nest in Analamazaotra

 Eastern avahis in Analamazaotra (our last new lemur of the tour)

Infant eastern avahi (or ewok) 

A photographer and a marsh tit, by Ann Mellor

A photographer, a marsh tit and the perfect primate, by Ann Mellor

Close encounter (for an earlier Assamese encounter between a marsh tit and a primate click here)