Upper image: Barred Warbler (Sylvia nisoria) Wiveton Norfolk December 2021
Lower photo: Guillemot (Uria aalge) Cley Norfolk October 2021
'Wildlife roundup' published in the 'Tern' magazine by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust covering period October 2021-January 2022 by Robin Chittenden
Writing about the unusually high number of scarce migrant birds appearing along the north Norfolk coast for a few days in August in the last issue of ‘Tern’ turned out to be the ‘kiss of death’. The rest of the autumn was in complete contrast. In fact many birdwatchers were left disappointed, if not despondent, by the almost complete lack of continental scarce migrants. Weather conditions presumably conspired to ensure that those birds heading south for winter on mainland Europe managed to do so without being blown into Norfolk en route. The fact that many of the species involved have also declined, substantially, over the last few decades would not have helped the stats in their arrival chances. However there are always exceptions to the rule.
The Barred Warbler is a one such scare autumnal migrant from Europe. They usually arrive in Norfolk in small numbers every autumn. A birdwatcher wandering around the back lanes near Cley discovered one that had made its home, among the species rich hedgerow shrubbery, besides Leatherpool Lane, in Wiveton. What made this exceptional was that it was in December. It was the latest ever recorded in Norfolk and by some way as there have only ever been a small handful of records in November.
All the Barred Warblers that arrive in Norfolk are birds that hatched earlier in the year. That is they are only a few months old. For some reason the adults never make it to Norfolk. For a warbler they are a chunky affair, and in their ‘young’ plumage they are, rather confusingly, not barred but actually rather plain grey. Two plants by Leatherpool Lane were the major draw for this late bird. The Common Ivy was one, as this was still attracting flies, on which the Warbler devoured with visible relish. The other was the Spindle tree whose exquisite orange and pink berries supplemented its diet. This lane had a fabulous number of Spindles so there was even some talk of the Warbler having a large enough larder to overwinter. The mere suggestion had it departing a couple of days later, unless it had moved a few hundred meters away and is yet to be re-discovered.
What do birdwatchers do when there are few birds at the migrant hotspots? Some look out to sea (wistfully) in the hope something different might fly by. Luckily there were a few days of northerly winds, which are more likely to push seabirds closer to land. There were unusually many sightings of White-billed Diver, a normally rare diver from the Arctic. They were seen anywhere between Cley and Great Yarmouth, with most sightings concentrated at Winterton and Cley. There were a good numbers of Grey Phalarope seen, especially off Cley. Other highlights included a brief Bonaparte’s Gull again off Cley, Sabines Gull, and a couple of Storm and Leach’s Petrels.
At the same time there were unusual gatherings of Auks (mainly Guillemots and Razorbills) off the coast. These are the Arctic equivalents of the Antarctic penguins, the major difference being that Auks can fly. Both can sort of ‘fly’ underwater in pursuit of fish and other titbits. Why were there so many auks just offshore? Was it because there were good populations of small fish close in or were perhaps they were hunting close inshore because they couldn’t find any fish further out? Whatever the reason it turned out that many of them were in a weakened state and ended up as tideline corpses. Such a seabird die-off is called a ‘wreck’ and happens from time to time. Investigations are still going on for the reasons why but it seems that many were emaciated.
Other more unusual species of Auk were also found including several Puffins, Little Auks and a few Black Guillemots but the rarest was a Brünnich’s Guillemot. The Brünnich’s Guillemot is from the high Arctic and was seen initially in Holkham Bay before swimming into the Wells channel. Sadly it was not healthy and it died a few hours after its discovery. Brünnich’s Guillemot is an incredibly rare bird in the UK but this individual was part of a unique influx with many sightings along the north-east coast.
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