Thursday, 31 January 2013

Foot It Challenge

Most, in fact all, of the last month has been taken up with the 'Foot It' Challenge, namely trying to see as many birds as possible within walking distance of your front door. With a take up of over 100 birders from all over the country, and indeed from abroad too, it was going to be a great challenge as to just how many species could been seen. Upon having a count up I settled on the target of 90 species to be seen, and below is a round-up of the species that my daily 'Foot It' walks produced.
With my traditional Jan 1st patch day-list taking precedence, birding by foot was limited on the first day of the year, although a look around the immediate environs of the house, and then a walk down to the clifftop for a look at the sea produced a few species.

Robin (1), Black-headed Gull (2), Magpie (3) Woodpigeon (4) and Jackdaw (5) were seen in the garden, and Chaffinch (6), Goldfinch (7) and Starling (8) on the walk down to the sea. Looking out to sea from the clifftop Red-throated Divers (9) were present in good numbers, and the wintering flock of Common Scoter (10) were quickly located. Common (11), Herring (12) and Great Black-backed Gulls (13) were all noted, and a few Fulmars (14) were noted passing by. Carrion Crows (15) were flying around the prom, where a Turnstone (16) was also present.

A familiar call then had me looking skyward as the surprise sighting of a Bullfinch (17) headed east along the cliffs and then a Goldcrest (18) was seen in the clifftop bushes. A mixed flock of Wigeon (19) and Teal (20) headed west and a few Guillemots (21) were noted on the sea. Although good numbers had been present earlier in the winter, none have been seen roosting at the pier for a few weeks now, so it was a nice surprise to find a couple of Shags (22) out on the sea.

Heading back home Wren (23) and Blackbird (24) were noted, and back around the garden Great Tit (25), Blue Tit (26), Coal Tit (27) and Long-tailed Tit (28) were all noted along with a Jay (29) and that was it Foot It wise as I headed out on patch in the car.

The 2nd found me again doing a bit of seawatching first before heading out on patch, with new Foot It birds including an Eider (30) on the sea, a Curlew (31) heading west was a nice bonus bird for the list, and a Cormorant (32) was roosting on one of the groynes. I then picked up a couple of distant grebes so I headed off along the clifftop and onto the golf course where they were confirmed, as expected, to be Great Crested Grebes (33). Both Dunnock (34) and Pheasant (35) were seen along the golf course and then heading back to my original vantage point an Oystercatcher (36) was noted feeding along the tideline. Looping back through the village on the way home produced Collared Dove (37), House Sparrow (38) and Greenfinch (39).

Nothing new was seen on the 3rd, but with Felbrigg Park currently having a purple patch with Bittern, Green Sands and Little Egret seen during a couple of visits by car, I decided to embark on the 6 or so mile walk to there on the 4th. Passing through Northrepps and Roughton on the way, a good number of new species were recorded including Lesser Redpoll (40), Yellowhammer (41), Mistle Thrush (42), Common Buzzard (43), Grey Heron (44) and a few skeins of Pinkfeet (45) heading over. Then investigating some small pools Moorhen (46) and Mallard (47) were found, and a Woodcock (48) burst out of the undergrowth in front of me.

Heading further on, I was keen to check out a finch flock that I had noted in passing yesterday, and indeed this came up trumps as the flock contained good numbers of Linnets (49) and even better a few Bramblings (50), and as a bonus for me rather than the birds, it also attracted the attention of the local Sparrowhawk (51). In the adjacent fields the first Skylarks (52) were noted along with a small flock of feeding Redwings (53) and a bit further on both Rook (54) and Red-legged Partridges (55) were found.

Arriving in Felbrigg Park, it was straight down to the lake with Meadow Pipit (56) seen enroute. On the lake Mute Swans (57), Gadwall (58) and Tufted Duck (59) were noted, and the resident Whooper Swan (60) was in the adjacent water meadow. Frustratingly given the long walk, none of the star birds seen in previous days could be found, but a surprise Peregrine (61) hunting over the adjacent farmland was some compensation. A Marsh Tit (62) was located in the trees adjacent to the lake, where a good sized flock of Siskins (63) were also present, and both Treecreeper (64) and Nuthatch (65) were also noted there too. Continual checking of the reedbed for the Bittern eventually produced a Water Rail (66) and a Reed Bunting (67) was also seen feeding along the reed edge.

Walking round the park to kill time produced Kestrel (68) and Song Thrush (69) and the resident Egyptian Geese (70) finally noisily appeared, and as dusk approached the hoped for Barn Owl (71) eventually materialised as it began hunting the meadow by the lake, and then as darkness fell both Tawny Owl (72) and Little Owl (73) came out to play, and all that was left was a 6 mile walk home in the dark!

The order of the day on the 5th was to again head down to the clifftop to look at the sea and whilst sifting through the scoter flock, a Gannet (74) was noted heading east and four Shelduck (75) west. Then just as I was on the point of heading off elsewhere, I was delighted to pick up a Long-tailed Duck (76) flying along from the east which then joined the scoter flock before they all headed off further west but thankfully they pitched down again allowing a few locals to sucessfully twitch it. Whilst watching it a flock of Brent Geese (77) were also seen heading west.

The 6th saw me heading out again, a seawatch produced nothing new so my intentions were to check out some inland areas around Northrepps. Walking through the village a pair of Stock Doves (78) were noted and then a Pied Wagtail (79) added to the tally. A little further into the walk and my phone rang - it was my Dad saying he had a Velvet Scoter on the sea off East Runton. So the dilema do I walk for it which would take an hour by which it could be long gone or head back home and go by car to get what is always a good patch bird? I choose the latter so that was my foot it birding over for the day!

I had intended to make the walk along to West Runton for waders etc at some point during the month, so overnight I made the decision that I would take the chance that the scoter would linger, so set of early on the morning of the 7th and headed west along the coast. Feral Pigeon (80) was added as I walked through Cromer, but nothing more new was seen before I reached West Runton. Scanning along to where I had left it yesterday, I picked up a duck on the sea in the distance, but after walking further along to get better views, I was initially disappointed to find it was an Eider, but a bit more scanning revealed that the Velvet Scoter (81) was also nearby, an excellent addition to the list and it made the 5 mile walk very worthwhile.

I'd timed my arrival to coincide with low tide, so scanning the rock pools on the beach below for waders resulted in Lapwing (82), Grey Plover (83), Redshank (84) and eventually Ringed Plover (85) being seen. Back in the beach car park I took out my trusty slice of bread and within seconds the wintering Mediterranean Gull (86) appeared for its mid-morning snack.

With all my targets secured, I headed back along the clifftop path towards East Runton and just as I was about to divert off through the caravan park a call attracted my attention and after a few seconds or so it emerged from the vegetation Chiffchaff! (87) a really unexpected bonus. Buoyed by my good luck I took the decision that I'd make the trek up to Felbrigg for the afternoon, and on the way added Greylag Goose (88) in East Runton.

Arriving at the lake my heart sunk as my target bird Pochard was nowhere to be seen, despite it being there the previous evening, I had now failed twice! Knowing that the Bittern was still being seen here, I was going to stick it out for the rest of the afternoon now that I was here, and whilst waiting I had the nice surprise of a Coot (89) materialising out from under the trees. These are the very trees that when present the Mandarins hide in, tho I haven't seen any here for months, but nevertheless I continued to scan back and forth just in case whilst waiting for the Bittern to hopefully emerge from the reeds. It was on one such scan I noticed a buff coloured bird obscured through the trees, and upon moving my position was more than delighted to see it was the Bittern (90) which had left the comfort of the reedbed and was feeding out in the open! It obviously noticed my prescence and slinked behind the trees, but after a short while flew out and around the lake before landing in the reedbed where it showed for a while on the edge before disappearing inside.

So an excellent bird bonus bird, and a fitting one to reach my projected target of 90 species, which is amazing given that I thought I would genuinely struggle to achieve it. So I headed quickly off home not really wanting to repeat my walk back in the dark of the other day, and also given there was some daylight remaining I had a couple of other targets in mind. Heading back through 'Dick Bucks Burrows', some tapping got the hopes up and after a bit of searching a Great-spotted Woodpecker (91) was indeed spotted! Quickening the pace, I made it back to the golf course in good time and after a lot of checking of the course itself, along with the cliffface below, I was delighted to locate my other target a Green Woodpecker (92) which rounded off an excellent day with 13 new species under the belt, and 16 miles walked!

The morning of the 8th saw me as usual take a walk down to the seafront for a look at the sea, where the Long-tailed Duck was quickly seen to be still present amongst the scoter flock, and a few Red-throated Divers were loafing around on the sea. As it was low tide I had a scan of the beach too and picked up a wader feeding on the shoreline some distance along. I expected it to be a Ringed Plover which I occasionally see there, but getting my scope on it I was deligted to see it was infact a Sanderling (93).

I then decided to head off to do what I had been intending to do on Sunday, before the scoter appeared, namely a check round Northrepps. Heading south through the fields to the 'Shrieking Pit' my attention was grabbed by a call, and there was my target bird albeit in an unexpected location, Grey Wagtail (94). So now that I had secured that one I changed my intended route and headed of to a nearby lake where, after a lot of patience the hoped for Little Grebe (95) eventually appeared and then disappeared almost as quickly back into the reeds.

After a couple of blank days, my daily seawatch on the 11th produced a drake Goldeneye (96) heading west, the first of hopefully a few bonus birds to be brought to the patch by the impending cold weather. I then headed inland to Northrepps and was delighted that after alot of searching for one during the month I finally flushed a Snipe (97) up from one of their regular haunts. Heading further inland I targetted a tractor ploughing to check out the birds attracted to the newly turned soil and after a while of scanning the familiar calls of Fieldfare (98) attracted my attention to three or four birds in an adjacent hedge before they dropped down into the field to feed, with these being the first ones I have encountered locally since the October fall.

The 12th saw me again footing it to Felbrigg as the Pochard were again present early am, but typically they had moved off before I got there, as had the Green Sandpiper which was also present! However it wasn't a wasted journey as the Little Egret (99) which I had found during my Jan 1st day-list had reappeared and showed well in the stream before roosting in the trees at the back of the lake. Hopefully we've since discovered where the Green Sands are mainly hanging out when they are not at Felbrigg, so I feel another long walk is in the offing tomorrow before the big freeze comes!

As planned the 13th saw me heading off to Felbrigg again, and yet again no sign of the Pochards! However I thought it would be a good idea to check the stream there where I had discovered the Green Sands on Jan 1st as this would be a good feeding area given that some areas of water had frozen overnight, and indeed having got about halfway along out flew two Green Sandpipers again making the long walk worthwhile and bringing my Foot It total to 100 for the month so far.

After the morning seawatch on the 14th failed to produce anything new, I headed into town to stock up on essentials should we get snowed in this week, and whilst out thought I'd just check West Runton to see if there were any Golden Plovers in the fields there. An initial search drew a blank, but whilst sitting in the beach car park and just about to tuck into my lunch, I noticed a flock of birds wheeling around in the sky back towards East Runton. Grabbing my bins I quickly confirmed they were indeed GP's and watched as, after a couple of aborted attempts, they all pitched down on the grass inside the caravan park.

So sandwich went flying, car screeched out of the car park and I was heading home at a rate of knotts. Back home frozen stuff was thrown in the freezer, cold weather gear was donned and off I set. On the way the local hybrid Hooded Crow was noted on the carnival field at Cromer, and then an hour and 5 miles after leaving home I was starring empty field! No worries they'd be in the adjacent field....nothing! I then glanced skywards and there was a Peregrine circling round which probably accounted for there disappearance! Hope was still there that they may be on the beach but a school party of kids rockpooling dashed that idea too and I was seriously questioning my sanity at what I'd just done. Gladly I had little time to feel sorry for myself as a loud whistling call had me quickly swinging round and there were 2 Golden Plovers (101) circling above me before landing in the clifftop field, never had I been so pleased to see a GP and of course my decision to hot foot the 5+ miles was always the right one! A check of the beach for any other new waders drew a blank, so I quickly headed homeward bound and just made it back before the predicted snow arrived.

Optimism was high on the 15th that there would be some cold weather movement with the east coast being snow bound, so it was up and out for dawn and down to the seafront. However after 2 hours of seeing very little I headed back home for a warm up somewhat disconsolate. After about half hour I headed back out and just thought I'd do a little more seawatching just incase, but again nothing much was happening and on the horizon was a belt of snow fast heading our way, and then to my relief after the many hours of looking, a Kittiwake (102) materialised in front of the snow, quickly followed by another, then another three, and then another, and I'd finally nailed the most obvious ommision from my foot it list.

With nothing else moving infront of the blizzard, and visibility down to virtually zero, I dashed home mid snow storm, and waited for it to subside before heading back down for more. As the afternoon progressed it became obvious that there was a movement of waders taking place, and this was to be my source of my next new foot it birds with both Dunlin (103) and Knot (104) amongst the species on the move, and then the final bonus of the day came when a Pintail (105) was picked out amongst a flock of Wigeon heading west, and rounded off an excellent few hours of watching.

With nothing new on the 16th despite a good look round, the 17th saw me as usual seawatching but apart from the wintering Long-tailed Duck still in with the Common Scoter and 150+ Red-throated Divers in the air at once having been flushed off the sea by a boat it was looking pretty quiet. A flock of Wigeon were then noted heading west, and 6 Gadwall were a notable sighting, and then I picked up 3 more ducks heading west through my bins. Getting my scope quickly on them I was astonished but of course delighted to see that they were Pochard (106) my most dipped foot it bird! With c50 miles walked in their pursuit I was beginning to take it personally but now here they were flying past the end of my road, and as a result all of my 'likely 90' were under the belt.

With some fairly stiff easterlies now setting in, more seawatching was undertaken on the 19th, and after a number of fruitless and very cold hours I was finally rewarded with a Great Skua (107) heading slowly past. With the strong winds continuing, expectations were high to add someting else, so pretty much all of the day on the 20th was again spent seawatching with a good passage of Gannets, Kittiwakes and Fulmars taking place, the latter of which included at least two 'Blue Fulmars', which were very noteworthy, as were another 4 Great Skuas which passed during the day. First new bird of the day was a female Goosander (108) picked up on the sea, before heading off west along with a flock of Wigeon, and then a Bar-tailed Godwit (109) was noted flying through, later followed by another two. With little shelter on the clifftop the cold was starting to get to me, despite having 10 layers on, but news on the pager that some Little Gulls had been seen passing other coastal localities had me sticking it out for longer, and finally after a couple more hours I finally picked one up slowly heading east bringing the Foot It total to 110. A Pale-bellied Brent Goose which passed by amongst a flock of dark-bellied birds on the 21st was also a notable record.

Much of the next snowbound week was spent dividing time between the sea and a decent sized finch flock at Nothrepps, and it was the latter which produced the next new bird for the month. The flock consisted of around 160+ Linnets, 50+ Yellowhammers, 50+ Reed Buntings, Goldfinches, Bullfinches, Bramblings, Chaffinches and around 15 Redpoll, and it was the latter species that I was concentrating on the most. Sadly the flock was continually under attack from both the local Sparrowhawks and a Common Buzzard making getting a prolonged look at everything very difficult, but after a good number of hours I finally nailed at least one Mealy Redpoll (111) amongst the Lessers. I also continued to check Felbrigg Lake in the hope of a Smew with no luck, but a fine drake Goosander was nice compensation.

With a further large snowfall overnight, the 26th as usual saw me seawatching in the hope of some cold weather movement and this was rewarded with an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull (112) heading past. I then decided to check the local farm reservior for birds as it had remained largely ice-free over the last week, but just before I reached it I flushed a bird from off the field edge which I immediately realised was going to be a Woodlark (113) a real patch goodie, and although mobile, it eventually behaved itself allowing a few locals to also connect with it over the weekend.

An early morning phone call on the 27th from a birder who lives at the opposite end of the village saying that he had just had some Waxwings fly over his house had me heading out to try to relocate them, and no sooner had I left the driveway I noticed a couple of birds glide down to the berry bush a couple of hundred yards down the road. I had been checking this bush daily just in case, so after a quick prayer as I raised by bins, I was delighted to see that they were indeed Waxwings (114) and eight in all. They hung round long enough for my Dad and next door neighbour to see before heading off into the village centre but evaded further detection despite others looking for them.

A tip off that some Canada Geese were coming into roost to some private fishing lakes in the south-east of the patch saw me heading over there on the 28th, and having arrived a bit early I was just killing time when I casually glanced over the largely still frozen lake nearest the road and was delighted to see a Kingfisher (115) fly up into a tree on the bank. This was only my second ever Kingfisher on the patch, following one on the beach at West Runton a few years ago, so was a real patch rare and certainly made up for standing there in the wind and drizzle. I then heard what I thought was the call of Canada Geese (116) in the distance, and upon changing my vantage point to a high point there they were indeed feeding in a field behind the lakes bringing up a very welcome double for the day, and as it transpired my last new birds of the month leaving my Foot It total on a very respectable 116 for the month and the highest total achieved by any of the other participants in the challenge.
My final total far exceeded any expectations that I had at the start of the challenge, but was due reward for being out in the field every day throughout January. I walked well in excess of 100 miles during the month and was amazed as to how hooked I became as the month progressed, and despite it just being a bit of fun to get you out and about more around your local area, coming first was still an achievement to be proud of.

A map of the area covered during the challenge: