Archive for Dec, 2014


The year of 2014

2014 will remain in my mind as a good year despite some issues I would rather have not faced. I guess when we go through life there will always be bitter less palatable times mixed in with the sweeter parts of the whole cocktail. When we look back it’s almost always the best times that stand out in our memories; and thank goodness that’s the case.

So what happened in the last twelve months to balance the scales of enjoyment in favour of the positive? Well the answer is simple; LOTS! I’ve tried my best despite difficulty of choice to ‘condense out’ just ten special moments. I’ve listed them here in escalating order of delight.


1) Having visited the enchanted Isles now for over 26 years it has to be said it wasn’t a classic autumn on the Isles of Scillies. No mega rarities; but as always there was still a lot to see. The place is so beautiful it’s just gratifying to be there… God’s acre.

2) Sitting in bright sunshine and enjoying the sheer tranquillity of the rocking of the boat anchored among The Cairns of Col on our Mull Tour was unforgettable.

3) Wandering locally along the cliff tops and hedgerows on the hill here at Northrepps I’ve bumped into and found several birds of note this year. Corncrake, Greenish Warbler, Red breasted Flycatcher, YB Warblers and more. Local self-find birds are so gratifying.

4) Finding your own scarce bird is always a special moment. Finding an Icterine Warbler with friend Andy 500 yards from Falcon Cottage and having him there to share it will stick in my memory for a long time.

5) On the Farne Islands being surprised as the Bridled Tern flew over my shoulder and perched among the other terns just yards away.

6) After receiving a phone call from Steve Gantlett and Paul Lee stating they were watching Pilot Whales of Cley we made the journey from Gorleston to see them. Watching Long finned Pilot Whales off Norfolk was a treat we will wait many years to repeat.

7) When in California we went out to sea with Nancy Black; a skipper of unprecedented skill and expertise. She placed us in among a school of some 700 Risso’s Dolphins of all ages. We were surrounded. Nancy cut the engine and we floated among them. All we could hear was the gentle lapping of the waves against the hull punctuated with the rhythmical blowing of the dolphins. A magic moment I was so pleased to share with Sharon.

8) We went to California to photograph Grey Whales and Bobcats. That side of things was very successful but California had so much more to offer. Watching Black footed Albatross’s sail past the boat, being astounded at the bulk of bull Northern Elephant Seals just metres away and walking through quaking roosts of Monarch Butterflies was just so memorable; as was being dwarfed by Sequoya’s, their tops hidden in the mist raking the sky. One moment that stands out however was seeing two Californian Condors sail above us around the mountains; living dinosaurs and a dream realised.

9) Four tours to Scotland gave all they should do and more; all the specialities and a few special moments. The Golden Eagle carrying a Hare over us on Mull, the Minke Whales offshore and the Common Dolphins that played around the boat. The moment that is most memorable however was being aside friend Bob as a Capercaille strutted its stuff at our feet.

10) The top moment of the year however has to be while visiting Minsmere at the end of October. I was leading a small party of bird watchers. As we walked to the sea I had the audacity to think that I might re-find the previous year’s revisiting Humpback Whale … and bugger me I did. Nobody was more surprised and delighted than me when I looked towards the horizon and actually saw it. Finding Suffolk’s second Humpback and also watching it the following month from the Norfolk coast was just simply the best feeling.

So those are my highlights for this year. What on earth can we look forward to in 2015?


2013 06 08 Golden Eagle Mull Scotland_Z5A4847 2014 02 12 Capercaille Abernethy Highland Scotland_Z5A9039a 2014 03 04 Monarch Butterfly Monterey California_Z5A3385 2014 03 05 Risso's Dolphin Monterey Bay California_Z5A4010 2014 03 06 California Condor The Big Sur California_Z5A5084 2014 03 06 Elephant Seal Piedras BlancasThe Big Sur California_Z5A4823 2014 03 08 Black footed Albatross Monterey Bay California_Z5A6340 2014 05 12 Cairnes of Coll Mull Scotland_Z5A7247 2014 05 12 Common Dolphin Mull Scotland_Z5A6949 2014 07 06 Bridled Tern Inner Frane Farne Islands Northumberland_Z5A4657 2014 08 27 Icterine Warbler Sidestrand Norfolk_Z5A1401 2014 10 04 St Agnes Isles of Scilly Cornwal!cid_1FF3EF79-BB08-494D-B5D5-628F581AA139 2014 10 07 Barred Warbler St Marys Isles of Scilly Cornwal_Z5A6871 2014 10 15 Yellow browed Warbler Walsey Hills NOA Norfolk_Z5A8449 2014 11 09 Humpback Sea Palling Norfolk_Z5A1305 2014 11 12 Long finned Pilot Whale Weybourne Norfolk_Z5A1832!cid_A87238A5-EF5D-45D4-9C4C-66A57852121A


Every day is a school day

The books I have read about seals always state that Common Seals are good parents; staying with their young for some time as they learn about the world around them with weaning taking longer than their Grey cousins. It is Grey Seals that are cast as the poorer parents. Grey seal mothers are documented to abandon their pups at just short of three weeks when their offspring are carrying enough fat to get them through the next three weeks as they teach themselves to swim, catch fish and feed. The mothers get lured into mating with the beach masters before dispersing. This is how it’s told in such excellent books as ‘Seals’ by Sheila Anderson; my seal bible. You certainly get the impression therefore that Grey Seal pups change to a silver grey coat when the free meals stop and every pup becomes a beach orphan fending for itself. I have spent a lot of time with seals over the past ten years, Grey Seals  in particular, and indeed this is as I’ve seen it myself … up until one weekend before Christmas.

I always use Jim Temple to travel out to the Blakeney point rookery. Temples in Morston are in my opinion the best of the operators on offer and Jim and his crew always do their best to give people a good and informed visit and I’ve always seen them treat their guests with care, patience and politeness.

We were out with Temples, during the weekend in question, in the still waters of Blakeney Harbour and the dunes, beaches and sea were full of seals, and I mean full.

I caught sight, among the many, of a pup with mother in the water. The pup was obviously a freshman in the sea. It behaved awkwardly moving with little grace but in an excited manner; it had found its element and was learning the ropes not on its own but under the watchful eye of its mother. She would keep herself between her pup and us at all times and pushed her offspring from underneath as it occasionally succumbed to the waves. I was left with no doubt she was teaching her young to swim. This is totally at odds with what I’ve understood and observed previously.

Every day is a school day!

2014 12 15 Grey Seal Blakeney Norfolk_Z5A5907 2014 12 15 Grey Seal Blakeney Norfolk_Z5A5986



Where do you wander?

Among the Brents on the Norfolk north coast again this year is a dark moody mantled bird with pale flanks and a dark belly extending well back between the legs. Coupled with the wide full neck ring it means we have a Black Brant. Because this bird is with Dark bellied Brents which come from Siberia the Brant probably came from the eastern Siberia breeding population rather than the Canadian population.

Black Brant


Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas to all ‘Letter from Norfolk’ readers.

As we walked the coast the other week we came across this little chap. Well actually there were six Little Grebes on a small pool. A little removed from six swans a swimming … but you get the picture.

Is it just me or do Little Grebes look like they are in a really happy place wearing that ‘dolphin smile’?

Little Grebe



Smelly Birds

When I was a boy we were always told that birds, with the exception of tubenoses (Albatross’, Petrels etc), didn’t have a developed sense of smell. A group of scientists in Toulouse and Vienna have been doing analysis of preen glands on Kittiwakes and they’ve found that this is not the case.

Apparently they have found that Kittiwakes are able to choose partners on the basis of their smell. There’s a group of chemicals correlated with a special group of genes called the “major histocompatiabilty complex,” or MHC, which helps individuals resist diseases. It has now been proven if Kittiwakes choose a mate that does not have a similar smell to itself then it will not be related and will have dissimilar MHC increasing its offspring’s resistance to disease. Well that tends to blow a hole in the textbooks doesn’t it?

Full details of the research are available at

Photo taken on our trip to the Farne Islands – East Coast Seabird Weekend – two places left in June 2015.



Well are they or aren’t they?

I’ve seen them … so they must be wild … right? ;0)

Two Trumpeter Swans swanning around the Suffolk saltmarshes at the moment have one of two origins. 1) They have gone AWOL from some local bird collection … or 2) They have crossed the Atlantic together from North America and are genuine wild birds.

Given the fidelity of the species and the observed behaviour of these two I would suggest they are a pair. Reintroduction/released Trumpeters tend not to migrate although wild birds regularly migrate between Canada and Alaska south into the lower states in North America.

The thing is Trumpeter Swan has not been recorded in a totally wild state on British shores previously. But why wouldn’t they be wild. We know small passerines can make it to the UK and they can’t rest on the sea. They aren’t wearing anything such as rings that would indicate they are from a collection and they are wary. We noted how they moved to the back of the flock of 48 Mutes with which they were associating when we broke the skyline.

If enquiries of local collection reveal a ‘full attendance’ … they get my vote.

2014 12 19 Trumpeter Swan Boyton RSPB Suffolk_Z5A6178 2014 12 19 Trumpeter Swan Boyton RSPB Suffolk_Z5A6286 2014 12 19 Trumpeter Swan Boyton RSPB Suffolk_Z5A6429

Update – they are escapes. See the following site for details of how they fledged from Letheringham Lodge near Wickham Market

They are apparently not a pair but siblings. I do wish they would place a ring on birds in collections it does so make monitoring genuine vagrants a nightmare! Still … nice to see and I’m pleased the owners have located and identified them as their Trumpeters.




One of my favourite images from the summer; a purple hairstreak. Why one of my favourites? These butterflies normally inhabit the tops of trees. This one came down low enough for me to be able to climb up to it with a macro lens. I had to work hard to get the shot … and I just love his curly tongue.

Purple Hairstreak


Thinking back

All the media and Facebook storm about the Long finned Pilot Whales in Essex last month made me think of our trip to Tenerife a year last spring. We were lucky enough to spend some time on the water with their Short finned cousins. Beautiful blackfish.

2013 02 28 Short finned Pilot Whale Off Cristianos Tenerife_Z5A1106

Sadly one of the Long Finned Pilot Whales, a female, stranded and died in Essex but the remaining pod looks as though they then went back out to sea.



You would think it would stand out like a new shilling in a sweeps … well … pocket; but it didn’t. An all white goose among the many grey geese in North Norfolk this year should have been easier to locate. No matter where we searched for the Lesser Snow Goose floating around Norfolk among the 10,000 or so Pink footed Geese it just didn’t materialise. We played hide and seek for hours and couldn’t find it no matter how hard we tried.

The search starts with harvested sugar beet fields. The geese just love the sweet taste of those sugar beet tops. When we found a good field and then returned to it the following week we discovered it had been ploughed. Tut. However a tip off (thank you Pete) that it had been around Egmere in mid Norfolk saw us giving it a go. Sighting skeins of Pinks  in the distance and watching them land we soon found the flock and there … eventually … at the back of the field was the white goose we’d been seeking.

I’d only just crept around the back of the car to get the camera out and the geese were flushed by the farmer. Double Tut. I managed to get a few flight shots but would have liked for us to see it for longer. No matter how many more fields we looked in we just couldn’t relocate it. I suppose we’ll cross paths again as it will probably be around all winter. Who knows it may even fly over Falcon Cottage at some point … plenty of Pinkfeet do!

2014 12 12 Snow Goose Egmere Norfolk_Z5A5641


… Tundra’s

At Weybourne here on the coast a harvested sugar beet field hosted a nice sized Pinkfeet flock. Among them were eight or nine interlopers. It’s amazing how folds in a seemingly flat field can hide something as large as a goose. Add rain, mist, failing winter light and a considerable distance to the birds into the equation and it wasn’t without some degree of difficulty we photographed the Tundra Bean Geese; pushing our cameras to the limit.

As they suddenly appeared, and then disappeared just as easily, we struggled to even find the Tundras in camera viewfinders. Big geese with sloping flat bills like wedges of orange and black compared with the stubby bills of the Pinks… and then there’s the orange feet and legs… if you can see them!

Tundra Bean Goose 2 Tundra Bean Goose

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Dec 2014


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