Monday 3 November 2014

Norfolk part 3- sketching at Titchwell

 Here we go! In the third and last part of my series of posts about Norfolk, I return to Titchwell and bring my sketchbook too. Btw the above photograph was taken at Titchwell beach. In contrast to Cley's shingle beach it has lovely sand. But the weather was pretty blowy and wild that day so not many sunbathers!

I went to Titchwell by bus. In my post about Cley I didn't even mention that there's a regular bus service in North Norfolk called Coasthopper which stops literally just outside both Cley and Titchwell. This is really unusual; a lot of nature reserves simply aren't accessible by public transport and in my experience, unless a nature reserve is in or near a large-ish city it's likely there will be no public transport that will get you there. And back when I lived in Kent I would go to many nature reserves that were accessible by public transport but it wasn't easy- you had to change trains many times, or do train and bus, and walk a long way too. In contrast going to Titchwell by bus was as easy as walking two minutes to the bus stop in Wells (ok, the place I was staying was well situated too which helped), staying on the bus until I saw the RSPB Titchwell sign, and once I'd got out, walking down a short path to the visitor's centre. It was soooo convenient! And there were stops in all the small villages we went through on the way.

Titchwell was another reserve they took us to on the Wildlife Explorers trip 12 years ago. That was back when Titchwell's famous long-staying Black-winged Stilt, Sammy, was still present. Black-winged Stilts are vagrants in Britain usually, but as sometimes happens with vagrant birds this one decided to stick around, and according to Titchwell's wikipedia page was there from 1993 till 2005! I remember walking up the access track with the group and becoming very excited when I suddenly spotted an elegant black and white wader with long, long red legs that could only be Sammy himself. The leaders were all looking at something else and I tried to attract their attention to say I'd seen the stilt, but when they did spot him they didn't seem all that surprised. I don't think it had ever crossed their minds that we wouldn't see Sammy as he was such a fixture around the reserve. I expect they had all seen him many times before given how long he was there. As for me, I'm immensely happy I got to see Sammy when he was still around. And I was greatly taken with him at the time, as you can see from my old field notebook: there are no less than three sketches of Sammy doing different things, at different times. We must have had a lot of very good views!

Just look at those legs!

This last picture is interesting because it shows a Ruddy Duck, which I don't remember seeing at all, but clearly I did, or we wouldn't have this fine picture! (note the scribbling out, an artist no-no. If you don't have a rubber just leave it and start again, young Esther!) I remember reading about the problems of Ruddy Ducks as an introduced species and the proposals of a cull back when I was a very young birdwatcher. I don't think I've seen one since this was drawn- they have been thoroughly culled, and if there are any left in Britain now it's not many. There certainly aren't any at Titchwell any more and it seems weird to think of a bird so 'plastic' (birdwatcher term for introduced species, most often used for ducks and geese because there are so many kept in this country uncaged that new birds may be joining established feral populations all the time) being in such a wild place. Mind you, there were those Egyptian Geese at Cley too, that I remembered so vividly. I wonder why I remembered them and not this Ruddy Duck?

As for Titchwell itself I remembered very little about it except that it had a long path, which wasn't much to go on. When I arrived I walked down to the visitor's centre all ready to pay admission because its an RSPB reserve and I'm not currently a member. But surprisingly there are no per person admission charges! I read somewhere that there may be a car charge, but as I didn't arrive by car this didn't affect me. I'm not sure where you pay the car charge though. As I set off into the reserve I realised it is pretty much all one big main path, though there with a few extra trails. From the path as you set out you can scan across farmland to the left, lagoons and reedbeds to the right, and the path leads directly onto the beach.

Upon approaching the big lagoon overlooked by the first hide, I scanned over it and quickly spotted no fewer than 16 Spoonbills! And I'd thought four at Cley was a lot. They were all resting with their heads under their wings, but they were still very conspicuous, being so tall. And just after spotting them I suddenly heard a close, unfamiliar call coming from the reeds, and almost as soon as I'd turned to look, out popped a Bearded Tit! It was one of the best views I've ever had of this frustratingly hard to find bird. It was very scruffy as if it was moulting, its tail that would usually be very long was only about half the length and other feathers looked out of place, but the bright golden colour was so distinctive! It bobbed about for a moment before 'doing the splits' (that classic pose you often see them doing in bird books and photos, where one leg is out to each side holding reeds) and disappearing into the reeds. I couldn't believe it! The amount of times I've spent fruitlessly searching for this bird in Hampshire is unbelievable. What I'm trying to say is that amazing birds seemed to be falling into my lap suddenly with practically no effort. Norfolk was living up to its reputation in my eyes!

I would describe Titchwell as one of the least elitist nature reserves I've ever been to. For starters there's no per person charge, making it easier for people to visit, and with the reserve being just one flat, well-maintained path it's accessible to wheelchairs and pushchairs. It's an easy walk for young children, and I saw many families. Not only is this great because children can get interested in wildlife themselves, it means that parents who don't have anywhere to leave the kids when they want to go birdwatching are able to bring them. In the hides there was a wide mixture of experience levels, from experts to beginners. As I approached one of the hides I saw a large group of people with telescopes looking out onto the lagoon, which can often mean there's a rare vagrant, and I always find it so scary to ask if that's the case- to be honest, I'd rather miss the bird. However I soon realised from their conversation that they were all admiring the Spoonbills, and hoping they would take their heads out from under their wings and show off their amazing beaks. There was a reserve volunteer with a scope making sure everyone got to see the Spoonbills and explaining how they are increasing in numbers in Norfolk.

From the hide I got fantastic views of all the waders, including an incredible 70+ Avocets (!!), and many, many Ruffs. It was really great to see so many and really get used to them as a species and hopefully I'll be able to apply what I learned if I see Ruffs elsewhere. Even when the males aren't in their incredible breeding plumage they are a bird of understated beauty, with a slim, graceful build and lovely scalloped back feathers. And even though the bird book will show a brown bird, they can be surprisingly bright because of how variable they are. There was one bird that was extremely close to the hide- so close even my camera could get a photo- that had an really bright orange-brown base colouring under its scalloped feathers that was really distinctive.

The orange coloured Ruff. Sorry it's so dark- my camera has light levels problems a lot of the time!

And here's a couple more Ruffs in slightly better light:

And here are a few sketches:

The bird in the middle is the orange coloured one who seems to be doing the foot thing from the above photo. Maybe it's a Ruff thing? And the one below it is an Avocet. I find Avocets quite challenging to sketch for some reason, you'd think they'd be easy as they are so boldly patterned. The birds from the 'sketchbook post' image above are also Ruffs and probably the Ruff sketches that came out best. (hehe, or should have be 'rough sketches'? Oh dear.)

I was really enjoying the close views of waders and took advantage to take a few more photos. Look at this Lapwing that has to be somewhere very important!

And there was a lovely Black-tailed Godwit halfway through moult, which I took a detailed sketch of. Maybe one day I'll use it as reference for a painting. That's what I always hope to do with my sketches
of birds, but it hasn't really worked out yet. Maybe one day. For now, though, I'm happy with this sketch as it is:

There's a Lapwing there too: I was interested in the shape of its face markings when seen from the front.

Throughout all this time I really wanted to sketch the Spoonbills but they had their heads under their wings still and all looked like shapeless white blobs. But then a Peregrine went over and put up practically everything on the lagoon, including the Spoonbills, and once they'd landed again they began to preen and feed. This was my chance!

I was pleased to catch this one feeding and using that spoony beak! Then I became fascinated with one bird that was preening and the way it moved its neck in order to get that long beak into the right positions.

First it reached down to preen its shoulder....

...Then it reached along to do its wing....

...Then it reached under to do its underwing! See how that neck has to change position to accommodate the length of the beak? Does the foot have to get involved when its time to do the upper neck and the head? It does sound weird but some birds do scratch and maintain feathers with their feet. Some have to- I'll never forget the footage of a Sword-billed Hummingbird scratching with its feet that was on The Life of Birds.

Once I'd finished sketching the Spoonbills I wandered down to the beach, but on the way what should I see but the boldest Spotted Redshank I'll probably ever see! I was even able to get a photo with my crappy camera:

It was so close I could see every feature that the Collins Bird Guide shows that identify it from the Common Redshank, in particular the white patch on the head and the much longer beak with just the teeniest, tiniest droop at the end (details not visible in my photo! At least you can see the longer beak). It was brilliant to get such a good view of all these distinctive traits and really get a sense of how this bird differs from the Redshank. Hopefully I'll remember all this wader learning I've done.

When I had walked all the way down to the beach I scanned the sea (no proper seawatching though as I'd left the tripod behind to get around more easily) and saw a dark coloured bird pursuing a light coloured one. It was just like a bird of prey being mobbed, except the mobber was in this case the predator! Or rather the parasite. It was a skua of some kind, I was sure. It may have been too far away to tell the species but the behaviour was unmistakable. Skuas harass other seabirds like terns to get them to drop or regurgitate their food so they can grab it. I think they're amazing. Later I saw Arctic Skua had been recorded on the sightings board so I'm guessing that was the species; it's one of the commonest anyway. I expect the bird being pursued was a Sandwich Tern as there were soooo many about.

Of course I could never talk about every single thing I saw at Titchwell, but one thing I didn't see was quite interesting: apparently there are Chinese Water Deer in the reserve, and one was seen that day! How interesting is that? I know they aren't a native species but they are still fascinating to me just as Muntjacs are (as you can see from my dead Muntjac post- and I have another post planned to do with them! Spoilers ^^). As you can see from this stuffed one from the Norwich museum, Chinese Water Deer have fangs!

Well, tusks really. But still cool!

So that's the end of my 3 part series on Norfolk- thanks for sticking with me! I wish I lived closer so these wonderful reserves weren't once-in-a-decade-type visits for me. But sometimes part of the fun of visiting new places is learning skills you can apply closer to home. I know I've learned a lot about waders and hopefully will be able to apply that knowledge in local wader hotspots like Keyhaven or Farlington Marshes. And Norfolk certainly lived up to its reputation as being filled with wonderful birds, and to my childhood memories of long ago visits. Though I do wish I had seen more Marsh Harriers there. Maybe late summer is a quiet season for them but I only saw one the entire week, at Cley. I did see plenty of other raptors though , the highlight being that cathedral Peregrine, so I really shouldn't complain!

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