Upper photo: Long-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus scolopaceus) NWT Cley Marshes April 2023
Lower photo: Taiga Bean Goose (Anser fabalis fabalis) (it is possible the righthand bird could be a hybrid Taiga/Tundra Bean Goose) Weybourne February 2023
'Wildlife roundup published in the Summer issue of 'Tern' magazine by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust covering period January-March 2023 by Robin Chittenden
Some species of American wader turn up in the UK more regularly than others. Long-billed Dowitcher fits into the fairly regular camp, but even so they only seen in tiny numbers each year. In winter plumage the Long-billed Dowitcher looks like a grey, overblown Common Snipe. They also appear almost identical to the closely related Short-billed Dowitcher, which is also from America. This species, though is a quantum leap rarer to the UK. You would think from their names that bill length would be a easy way of telling them apart, but as their sizes can overlap, it is not fool proof. You actually have to inspect some of the patterning (or lack thereof) of the feathers, including the tertials (longer floppy feathers by the base of the upperwing) and the tail. This can be quite tricky, especially if the bird is very distant or only seen in flight. Happily the underwing plumage is more distinctive. The Long-billed Dowitcher has a small white patch at the front of the underwing, nearest to the body. This is because the feathers there, which are called lesser coverts, are unmarked. The axillaries, that is the armpit feathers, are also less barred. The whole effect results in a paler underwing compared to that of the Short-billed Dowitcher.
Birders were delighted that a Long-billed Dowitcher chose north Norfolk to overwinter. It decided that NWT Cley Marshes was its favourite place, but frustratingly, it initially spent much of its time on some of the distant and more awkward to view pools. It even travelled about a bit being seen at RSPB Titchwell, Holkham Freshmarsh and Stiffkey Flood. In late winter its habits changed slightly and it started feeding and roosting nearer to the East Bank and some of the hides on the reserve, allowing better views. Even so it could be awkward to find. There are so many potential places to check. And it could hide for hours, roosting just out of view, behind a clump of rushes. It preferred to mix with the Black-tailed Godwits. Presumably it felt more at home with another wader, which has such a disproportionately long bill. On that basis you think it could have chosen Common Snipe. Hopefully it will stay a little while longer, maybe even allowing birdwatchers the pleasure of witnessing it moulting into the gorgeous orangey brick-red breeding plumage.
Also overwintering in Norfolk was a juvenile Pallid Harrier. Although still a vagrant this species of Harrier has become much more regular as a visitor to the UK. Indeed this is not the first time one has overwintered in Norfolk. Only as far back as 2016 one resided in south-west Norfolk often roosting at Flitcham. When this winter’s bird first arrived it was tracked by different observers as it flew virtually the entire length and breadth of north Norfolk, but eventually it settled down to roosting regularly on the saltings between Warham Greens and East Hills. This is also a well-known and regular sleeping area for Hen Harriers. Here it could spend the afternoon quartering the saltings on the look out for prey or more likely just suddenly appear over the fields before heading to its bed for the night at dusk.
Bean Geese arrive from Siberia to winter here in small numbers. There are two forms that occur in Norfolk: the Taiga and Tundra. The names refers to their preferred breeding habitat. Tundra Bean Geese arrive and then usually quickly hook up with the flocks of Pink-footed Geese. They are similar looking. There’s joy to be had scanning through flocks of Pink-feet to find that needle in the haystack. The orange feet, less grey backs and narrower white band at the end of the tail give them away, eventually. The Taiga (pronounced ‘tiger’) Bean Goose is a much rarer beast. Norfolk used to be famous for the returning wintering flock of Taiga Bean Geese in the Yare Valley at RSPB Buckenham & Cantley Marshes. Sadly the numbers wintering there have dwindled for the first in living memory to zero this winter. Its thought with global warming there is simply no need for them to leave the continent. It does not get cold enough for them there to continue heading westwards to the relatively warmer Norfolk.
It was a surprise then when twelve Taiga Bean Geese were found in the Bure Valley. They commuted between fields by St Benet’s Abbey and South Walsham Marsh. In addition one and most likely two Taiga Bean Geese (it’s possible one could have been a hybrid Taiga/Tundra) were found at Weybourne with Pink-footed Geese. In both locations the birds, although fairly distant, were nothing like the vast range you had to ‘scope them with, when they overwintered in the Yare Valley. There they always seemed to tuck themselves away at the furthest point from any public access. Presumably they were super timid of humans. Closer views this winter allowed birders to actually enjoy the subtleties of bill and head shape used to help distinguish between to two forms.
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