On Saturday morning I had yet another insight into the degree of luck that is involved in finding a rare bird. I was in north Norfolk with my family, but first thing Saturday morning I had arrange to meet up with great mate Richard Campey, who lives and works in the county. Burnham Overy dunes is the nearest thing that Richard has to a local patch, he found a nice blythii Lesser Whitethroat there on Thursday and with persistent easterly winds Richard was keen to get out there again. Until a Pallas’s Warbler was found there on Friday afternoon. One thing, of many, that Richard and I share, is dislike of crowds. North Norfolk being north Norfolk, even a Pallas’s Warbler will draw a small crowd, especially on a Saturday. So late on Friday evening Richard rings and we agree to a last minute change of plan. We will abandon our plans to go to Burham Overy dunes but will go to Wareham Greens and work the long hedgerow that runs east towards Stiffkey.
Saturday morning dawns dry after overnight rain, with the brisk easterly wind still blowing. Despite the fact that there could not be better conditions for bird hunting in late October on the east coast, ours is the only car on the concrete pad at the end of the first track to Wareham Greens. Immediately we hear the harsh calls of Brambling in the hedgerows. Goldcrests are everywhere, calling loudly, it feels super-rare! Thrushes are everywhere, Fieldfares clacking overhead, Redwings seeping out of every tree. We work our way east, past the pit, we check the bushes around the whirlygig. Yellowhammers and Redpolls pass overhead, we flush a flock of at least 12 Brambling.
We then bump into another birder, working his way west along the hedgerow. We exchange sightings – lots of common migrants, but so far, nothing rare. After a few moments chatting we realise that we know each other – it is Geoff Wyatt from Oxfordshire! Geoff has spent the last few days on the coast, including the last few mornings at Burham Overy dunes, where he was the first to find the Fin Whale that washed up on the beach on Thursday morning. And then Geoff’s pager goes off – an Isabelline Wheatear has just been found at Burnham Overy dunes. All three of us exchange grim looks and smile at the hand that fate has dealt us. We all could have easily been in the dunes at first light this morning. That could have been our bird, but for our last minute change of plans. Such is the element of luck in birding.
Still, my time in particular being limited, it is time to eat humble pie and join the crowds. We drive the short distance back to Burnham Overy and walk out along the track to the dunes. The Isabelline Wheatear is skittish and mobile, but this just helps show off the distinctive half black, half white tail. The other plumage features were much more subtle, though the black centered alula stood out. Below, looking typically upright and short-tailed:
Below, looking more plump and less structurally distinctive:
Below, a Northern Wheatear at the same site for comparison. The stronger supercilium behind the eye and the more orange tones on the flanks and ear coverts helped pick out the Northern bird from the paler, less contrasting Isabelline. That evening a Desert Wheatear was also to be found at this site.
On Saturday afternoon, I head out to the beach at Burnham Overy with the family to see the Fin Whale. Seeing a dead whale is a strange mixture of emotions, but is the sort of experience that stays with you, whether adult or child. It generated lots of questions from the children. The blood filled pool around the head attracted the most comment. A day to remember, for lots of different reasons.