The big, wide sky that stretched overhead looked like a water colour painting. Layers of cloud ranging from various shades of grey to bluish purple. Swirling and billowing, streaky and smooth all at once. Over the horizon a curtain of dark purple swept past where rain deluged the scrub and dunes of the North Norfolk coast. They were only passing showers. Overhead came the high pitched ‘ziittt’ of Redwings as they poured in from the continent. The bramble bushes behind the sand dunes were buzzing with Robins, Dunnocks, Wrens and Blackcaps. Large Blackbirds with dark bills and eye rings, characteristic of continental birds, gorged themselves on the blackberries. The leaves of the sycamore trees near the road were alive with movement as waves of Goldcrest move through. Amongst the thin high pitched zee of the crests comes the striking call of a Yellow-browed Warbler, one of the more scarce migrants arriving on our shores. From one of the bushes a Ring Ouzel kicks up, while a Short-eared Owl glides out from a small copse of trees.
A week of prolonged easterlies had got the British birding community into a bit of a flutter and flocking to the east coast. All sorts of scarce migrants were being found among the usual migrants that head our way at this time of year. As bird ringers the conditions provided an excellent opportunity to ring these migrants as they arrive, in the hope that ultimately they will be caught again and will provide more information about their migration routes and destinations.
And so we set a series of mist nets through the bushes and trees in order to try and catch even a small proportion of the birds that are arriving and moving through the site. The moody skies of morning break to a bright sunny afternoon with white puffy clouds, and still birds continue to arrive. A night under canvas and a starry sky dawns to more billowing clouds brightly lit with autumn sunlight that dances across the dunes, brambles and trees.
It is a success, with over 200 birds caught over two days. Well over half are Goldcrest, weighing just 6 g on average (the same as a 10 pence coin!) it is hard to imagine they have just crossed the North Sea! Next most numerous species was the Robin, with nearly 50 birds caught. Not necessarily a species many would think of as a migrant, what with them being so conspicuous in our gardens year round. But here we have large numbers of birds coming over from the continent to boost our resident population. Song Thrush, Dunnock, Wren and Blackcap were all also caught in good numbers, and that Latvian love song did its trick for Redwings.
Then there were the treats of the weekend (not that Goldcrest, Robins and Redwings are not treats enough). Not one, but two, striking and stunning Yellow-browed Warblers. An unusual Snipe, given the habitat. But star of the weekend… a young female Stonechat. A gorgeous little bird, short stocky body and big head with large dark eyes. A beautiful orange wash to the breast and smokey grey brown head and back. It is a bird I have wanted to see in the hand for a long while, ever since I did my MSc field work looking for them in Thetford Forest. Just seeing a Stonechat brings back memories of walking round compartments of the forest recording Yellowhammers and in just a few the charismatic Stonechat. Seeing them flick up and perch on a high point with a call that to me sounds like ‘sweet chuck’ which irresistibly then reminds me of Police Academy….