UK 2002 SIX-WEEK LUTMAN MOTORHOME BIRDING TRIP

 

Wednesday, May 1, 2002. Week 5 Day 3.

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I sleep in till 8, Sharon till 9. The male and female Mallards are calling because we've given them bread and there ain't no more. If I understand them correctly, they're asking for cake.

This morning the sky is blue, with puffy white clouds, it's cool and mildly windy. Birds are singing everywhere. We pull out of Tallington at 10 am. Well, more accurately, I stop at check-in to check out and pay for last night.

I WISH THEY ALL COULD BE IOWA GIRLS

The cost is 10.50 pounds and a cute blonde lady named Tracy checks us out. She has a nice English accent, and I tell her what we're doing. She said she is from America and has been here 14 years, having married an Englishman. "My husband is English and my two children are English," she says proudly. "We moved here from London two years ago." I ask where she's from in America and she says Iowa. I tell her I'm from Missouri and she says, "Oh, we have friends in Missouri." The phone rings, she answers and we wave goodbye.

ONWARD

As we pull out, we pass by the huge concrete factory across the highway. Last night we stayed at a leisure center, but there were signs that said DO NOT SWIM IN ANY OF THE LAKES. However, there were water ski jumps all over the place [I guess if you fall off your skis you can tread water but not swim until they pick you up]. Sharon pointed out a dry ski hill next door. That is where there is special plastic material you can ski on with snow skis.

We find a Supermarket, called Superstore here, and it's a Morrison one. We go in and I man the cart while Sharon goes off onto short missions. She comes back once with this story. She was behind an English woman, who asked for a Salmon Fillet, but "Fillet" rhymes with "Skillet." So Sharon steps up when it's her turn and asks for a Salmon Fillet. "Hu-wut?" asks the clerk, only in English. He can't understand her accent. She repeats it and again, he doesn't get it. So she points, and according to her, he said, "Oh, a Salmon Fillet," exactly like she just said. Wish I'd a been there.

We pay for our stuff, load up and take off. In Uffington, we pass what looks like a vehicle a traffic ticket lady would use, but a closer look reveals a very narrow wheelchair, enclosed in a plastic box, about the shape of a phone booth - tall and thin. The driver is bouncing along the sidewalk, and it looks like a stiff wind would blow him over.

We come to a train stop, and the gate is down. We know a train is coming. I whip out my camera and get a trainspotting shot, reminding me of a caravan park advertised in our book that features trainspotting as an activity.

As we approach Peterborough, sometimes it is fully spelled out, but other times, it says Peterboro', with the apostrophe. Like Foxboro, Mass. We pass through a roundabout, called a traffic circle in the U.S., where the village of Eye Green is to the left, Eye is to the right, and Thorney is ahead. Love them English town names.

A little after noon, we pass into the County of Norfolk. Later we come to the intersection of two canals, with a lock serving as the roundabout. We notice a very well-appointed canal boat. I have seen books about the history of canals here, and canal museums, and taking canal holidays. Later we cross over the famous River Ouse (say "oose", to rhyme with "loose," or is it "ooze?" I forget now). Then we come to a sign that says Denver is a few miles off to our right. I give my GPS a thump to make sure it's still working.

WEETING HEATH

We finally make the turnoff to the center of our next few days, Thetford. We immediately take a side trip though, to Weeting and Weeting Heath. This is famous in the bird world for being a nesting site of Stone Curlews. We stop in the visitor center and meet Graeme (pronounced like Graham, to our ears). He says that the Stone Curlews are semi-nocturnal and don't do much during the middle of the day, though a couple just came back from the hide overlooking their meadow, and they successfully saw a pair.

We learn that Woodlark are also present. Excitement!! A chance for two lifers right here. After paying the entry fee, we head off for the West Hide, where we hope for Stone Curlews. We enter, and open viewing ports, then settle down.

There are two side-by-side hides here, and we can hear people talking in the one next door. We start scanning. We can see other birds out there, like Lapwings, but realize we don't know how big the Stone Curlews are. I look them up and they're even larger than Lapwings, but their color is the same color as the heath that we are looking at.

[The stone curlew is here because it is a "heath", which is to all appearances bare ground with many rabbits running about. We find out that is because of the rabbits that the meadow is perfect for the curlews who like bare, open ground to nest on. These parts were famous for huge rabbit "warrens" where they would raise rabbits for fur and meat. Over the years, the rabbits eat all the foliage taller than grass. Now the nature reserve fences the rabbits in to this area so that it is kept suitaable for the curlews because of their rarity.]

We both scan with binoculars and scope, but can't find them. Then... I get one! A STONE CURLEW*. Me! Not Sharon! Me! I'm serious.

Then Sharon gets another one, and it is a pair. They stand pretty tall, and have large eyes for seeing in poor light. They walk around a little like shorebirds, and they are a long way off, even with the scope. But there's no doubt. We enjoy them a while then decide to go try for a double.

It's off to the East Hide, and again there are two hides side by side. We choose one, and again we have it to ourselves. We begin scanning, and Sharon picks up a bird which immediately flies out of range. I set the scope up on the area that it seems to be going back to and we wait. Then Sharon gets it feeding a baby, with her binoculars. I don't mean the bird is using her binoculars to feed the baby, but rather, oh you know...

While it is relatively still, we confirm all the key ID marks. Strong white or cream colored eyebrow, black and white mark on the wing. No doubts. It's a WOODLARK* feeding two recently-fledged young. Graeme told us to expect this, and we have come at exactly the right time.

GOLDEN ORIOLES NOT IN YET

The day is going so well that we decide to go and try for a triple. Golden Orioles nest near here, but we talked with a man today who said he didn't know if they were in yet. He was going over, and he might be still there when we get there. We pull into the RSPB temporary car park, and we can see the man returning from his walk. He says they are not in yet, and later, another fellow estimates it won't be for another five days or so, he figures.

FACTOID OF THE DAY: I know what a crumpet looks like now. It looks like an English Muffin, but the consistency appears more like that of a pancake.

SLEEP IN: Dower House Tourist Park, near Thetford, Norfolk County, England

LIFE BIRDS (Never seen or heard by us before): Stone Curlew, Woodlark (feeding fledglings)
Today's Total: 2
Trip Total: 54

TRIP BIRDS (First time for trip, but already on our life list): 2 lifers
Today's Total: 2
Trip Total: 136

 

Thursday, May 2, 2002. Week 5 Day 4.

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FAMOUS LYNFORD ARBORETUM

We make our way to Lynford Arboretum, in this general area, where we've been told that we might see Hawfinches and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers. On the way in, we can't help but check out the hay bale-building-block fellow someone built, advertising "The Scarecrow Event," although we have no idea what this event is.

We walk the length of the stream on the property, clear up to the fence where a sign says "Warning. Military property," or something like that. Then we walk back, but no LSWs. Next we find the isolated Hornbeam trees in the middle of a field, but there are no finches, neither Haw nor Chaff.

On the way out, Sharon gets three arches lined up neatly in Lynford Hall.

Making our way further back out, we stop in a park long enough to admire the Trojan Horse-sized stag that kids can play on.

This is near the Lynford Stag, a metal figure of a deer that was dug up from the grounds here, and was originally a target practice object of the 1800s or so.

SANTON DOWNHAM

There is another place to try for LSWoodpecker and we find our way there. A hiking trail goes along a railroad track, under the track, then out the other side, and through some great woods. We take this for about an hour, and it's odd to hear and see trains coming and going. Why, I bet we could be sitting on the train, zoom past, and spot one of them little woodpeckers easy as steak and kidney pie.

We get a nice calling Cuckoo, but can't draw him in. It's a beautiful day and the walk is great. As we pass back under the RR track, I hear a train coming, so I have Sharon stand just inside the opening to the passenger underpass and I click her photo as the train zooms over.

Then I write a song titled (get ready now)... Grandma Got Run Over By A Train, Dear.

I know, I know. Sorry. It just had to come out. If you keep stuff like that inside you, without sharing it, pretty soon it starts to turn bad.

We finish up, and vacate the premises.

WHERE CAN WE SEE WOODCOCK?

I have wanted to try for Woodcock since we arrived in the UK (never having seen one in the U.S. either), and tonight might be the night. Our books point us to a place called the Thetford Warren. We then find out we need to get a ticket to drive through the area, information that turns out not to be true for the area we want to get to.

But in the meantime, we find a place where we might buy the ticket. We drive in there, as our information suggests to get more information, but the saleslady says no rangers are present right now, and if we could just come here in the winter, and drive around on the roads, we would see one sooner or later flying up off the road as we approach.

We discuss this idea, and reject it in favor of trying something a little sooner

It seems to us that we need to find a piece of woods that have been harvested by the lumber companies in the last few years. The Woodcock are supposed to fly over them just about dark. They fly over clearings in the woods making their frog-like call to attract a mate, and the logged areas create just such clearings. We try one more location in the Thetford area - Wayland Wood, for Golden Pheasants, and as we're walking fruitlessly down the path, Sharon says, "Look at it this way, we're not seeing birds. But we're not seeing birds in England!"

We bump into two couples who are admiring some large fields of blue flowers when one of the guys tells us about a platform in a tree. We can use it to watch and wait for the pheasants. We walk around the area, then climb the ladder to the plaform.

It doesn't help us get our Golden, but it's fun sitting up here nonetheless. We go back to the carpark for our motorhome, and we get a trip penguin, resting on a log.

We decide to try to walk to a clearing near the camp we saw earlier as we drove in, and be there just before dark. We go back to our site, where we admire the country residence where the owners live.

Sharon fixes dinner, and we head back out. Woodcock tonight? We hope so.

WAITING FOR WOODCOCK

As we wait, it gets darker, darker, ever darker. We see individual Woodpigeons fly over in straight lines, but we recognize them immediately now. At about 8:30 pm, we decide to walk down one side of the clearing, which is starting to fill with thick ground haze or fog.

After walking about five minutes, I say, "Let's go back to camp. I want to take a shower before it gets too late."

So about 8:45 pm, we are at the edge of the clearing, starting to hit the path back to camp when we hear a "peep" overhead. We watch a bird fly over the clearing, a smaller bird, different than the Woodpigeon. It disappears and I say, "If that's our Woodcock, he'll fly back over again in a minute or two." Then here he comes, and as the WOODCOCK* comes overhead, I hear a froggy "grump, grump" then the "peep." We watch this behavior another time or two, and once two birds fly over together.

Sort of like when my Stanford classmate and friend Bill Petrick and I used to go to the Tiger-a-Go-Go at the San Francisco Airport, looking for girls. I never thought to try the grump-grump-peep line though, I must admit.

We head back, then Sharon says that I should go on to my shower, and she wants to stay back because she hasn't heard the "grump" yet.

We split up, but after six or seven seconds, the little Woodcock flies over, and she hears both types of calls this time. "I heard the frog!" she yells, laughs, and we go back together.

Sharon is currently reading Lorna Doone, and a week ago or so, she read me this bit about them enjoying their "woodcock on toast." In fact, there are lots and lots of references to the birds throughout the book.

I have my shower, chuffed as I think about the Woodcock I've been after so long. Sharon does her nails.

FACTOID OF THE DAY: If you are lost in the northeastern Norfolk woods about dusk, and it's getting dark, you will hear a call that will make you wish for the security of the North Yorkshire Moors. It is a cross between a bark and a scream. We must get to the bottom of this. Could it be that strange little tapir-like animal we've been seeing, the muntjac? I hope that's all it is.

SLEEP IN: Dower House Tourist Park, in the woods, southeast of Thetford, Norfolk County, eastern England (East Anglia)

LIFE BIRDS (Never seen or heard by us before): Woodcock
Today's Total: 1
Trip Total: 55

TRIP BIRDS (First time for trip, but already on our life list): 1 lifer
Today's Total: 1
Trip Total: 137

 

Friday, May 3, 2002. Week 5 Day 5.

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DAVE

It's 8 am and we are walking around the camp grounds here, hoping for Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. As we continue walking, Dave shows up exercising their dog Brucie. I show him a photo of the LSW and he says, "That's the one!" No doubt at all, the speckled one.

Yesterday, when we talked about woodpeckers, Dave had said they have three woodpeckers - red, green and speckled. I love local bird names and especially to try and figure out which bird they are. Dave also said that the speckled one comes to the feeders in the camp. He saw one on their bird feeder a few days ago, and he knows one comes into the owner's garden feeders. And a bird photographer with a caravan down on the corner gets them at his feeders. Sharon asks what a Muntjac sounds like, and he says like a dog barking. So THAT'S what we heard last night. Whew. Ha! I knew it wasn't a werewolf. There ain't no werewolves.

ANOTHER L.S. WOODPECKER TRY

As we continue walking the edges of the "Woodcock" field, the Muntjacs start up, as if they'd been waiting for their cue. It sounds like a dozen wolves or lions growl-barking. We see a couple of Roe Deer running through the woods, away from us. We get Coal Tit and Treecreeper as we continue, then a pair of Yellowhammers. The male's head and neck are brilliant yellow in the morning sun. But no LSW. After encountering a beautiful butterfly,

we go back to the motorhome and prepare for leaving.

LEAVING THE AREA.THE PHEASANT FARM.

We do motorhome chores, fill the water tank and take off. But we have asked Dave if there are any Golden Pheasants in the area. He say there is a farm that raises them, and directs us there. If they are being raised, we can't count them, but Sharon wants to see them anyway.

We come across the farm, surrounded by high fencing, so I stand up on top of the motorhome. However, all the pheasants are regular ones. Well, except for this red piece of skin or something around the eyes. We've never noticed this before. We decide to try to find somebody on the farm and ask them what's going on. We see a gravel road going between two buildings and we take it.

A woman is talking on a cell phone, and we'll ask her when she's off. But a red van drives in and we ask the young driver what's up with the pheasants. He doesn't know much except that they're regular "Old English" pheasants. We ask him about the red skin things around their eyes, but he doesn't know about them.

I make a phone call to see if the Golden Orioles are in yet (they're not) and to Mark, the manager of the firm that rented us the motorhome, to give him our status and arrival date and time estimate. Just as I'm ending this call, a Rover drives up.

MARTIN, THE HEAD KEEPER

An initially suspicious fellow named Martin identifies himself as "the keeper, the head keeper." This means he is the head game keeper, the game being used for the owners of the property here to hunt.

We tell him what we're up to - that we've heard he raises Golden Pheasants. He laughs and says no, they're normal ones. We ask about the red skin flaps around their eyes, and tell him we don't see them on the wild pheasants. He laughs and says they are anti-pecking devices, called "peepers" and he thinks they've come from the U.S. So THAT'S what's going on.

He goes on to say that if we continue on the road in front of the house, in about a half-mile, we'll come to a right-hand turn that is enclosed by heavy trees and foliage on both sides, so be careful, and specifically don't stop in the road near that curve on either side. He says that ever so often, as he is driving by, he looks through the opening that enters the crop field (for tractors and farm equipment) and sees a Golden Pheasant near the back of the field, walking along. We believe him because of his expertise regarding regular pheasants, but how on earth would we ever get a chance to try for this fellow?

Nevertheless we drive on, go around the corner he's talking about, but since it's not a sharp 90 degree turn, we dismiss it. Then, after about three more miles, it's clear that that was the one he was describing. I find a turnoff and, well, turn off. We discuss it, but we won't be here this evening or this morning, so we continue on, knowing that we have an excellent site for Golden Pheasant this evening or tomorrow morning.

We leave this part of the Thetford area, and pass a sign on one roundabout that says, "Bury St. Edmunds 14 miles." This is where daughter Tara's new friend runs a B&B with her husband. What a great town name.

We continue on through Kings Lynn and north to the so-called Wolferton Triangle, THE place to pick up Golden Pheasant. We make a slow drive around the three roads that make up the triangle. Two of them seem to have no traffic at all, but the third leg is the highway we arrived on, and is very busy. The early morning or late evening technique is to very slowly drive this triangle, listening for the Goldens (though we don't know what they sound like, because they weren't on the CDs I bought), then stop and wait for one to cross the road.

We take off to check out the rest of the area and to find a camp for tonight, noting that Sandringham estate is across the road from the triangle. We come to Sneddisham RSPB nature reserve, but find a bar across the entry way that allows vehicles shorter than 2.2 meters to pass under, eliminating us from entry. We could park and walk in, but there's nothing on the expected bird list at this site that makes us want to do that, and we're hungry so we stop for lunch.

We check in at a caravan park called Giglea Touring Park, then head right back out on the road. It's 2:21 pm and we're at one of the RSPB star nature reserves. Titchwell shows us a gorgeous, beautiful day, with a temperature about two degrees shy of perfect. A few puffy white clouds add their bit.

TITCHWELL

We walk towards the sea but before we get there, we stop at the big pool where all the people and birds have collected.

We get SAND MARTINS, HOUSE MARTINS and Swallows, all hawking insects over the marshes. There is supposed to be a Black Brant in with the Brent Geese, but nobody has spotted it that we talk to.

There are Goldfinches, Redshanks, Golden Plovers (Black-bellied Plovers in the U.S.). Black-headed Gulls are the most numerous bird around. We read a sign that says there are only 30 booming male bittern in all of Britain. This is hard to believe.

We continue scanning and get Avocet, Shoveler, Shelduck. Then we hear someone name a bird we haven't seen yet on the trip, and they help us get on the LITTLE GULL, smaller than the other gulls.

Then, again with assistance from extremely friendly and helpful English birders, we get a LITTLE TERN*. We can see the white "windshield" on the forehead of the tern.

A SNIPE turns up in the mix of waders too. We also get Common Sandpiper. A PINTAIL tips over, beak down in the water, and becomes a pinhead.

There are Coots, Mallards and Oystercatchers. We begin our walk for the sea, past this great muddy marsh area, but stop immediately when the Little Gull man walks up, points up in the air and says, 'obby - a pair.' Hobby! We look up and only see a single Herring Gull gliding lazily. "Higher," he says. Then we get them, very high and small, so far away, but it's our HOBBY* lifer all right. Times two.

They dive and drift over our heads. I can see the Peregrine Falcon-like head markings as the second one passes over. I am on it with binoculars all the way, and watch it make a few lazy passes at high-flying swallows (Later when we talk this over, Sharon thinks they were trying very hard to catch the swallows, but just weren't able to accomplish it). To me, it's like they are saying, "We could if we wanted, but we don't feel like it right now." They continue on, along the coast, and disappear out of sight. Wow, how powerful they seemed. They are one of the fastest birds flying and can even catch swifts out of the air. We turn back to the marsh and get a nice Ruff, about halfway to his unbelievable lion mane-like plumage of breeding season.

GOLDEN PHEASANT HUNT

We leave the birding behind and go back to the car, ready to return to the pheasant triangle. Upon our arrival, we make seven or eight rounds of the triangle with no activity. Except a car has stopped and four birders are out. We stop beside them and meet Neil, Allen, Paul and Paul's wife Stefanie, who is in pain with some sort of back problem and over by their car.

Neil says he finds that you have to "really peer" under the bushes to see the pheasants. We talk with them a lot and Allen has made many trips to America. They are lots of fun and we park, get out and all bird together, but there are no birds and no Golden Pheasant calls either.

We finally decide to come back tomorrow in the early morning and take off for camp, having the hunting tips from our four new friends.

FACTOID OF THE DAY: The Sneddisham RSPB carpark is sort of like the US Air Force Academy. If your vehicle is taller than 2.2 meters, you can't get in (There is a thing like an old football goalpost with a crossbar over it, all welded on).

SLEEP IN: Giglea Camping and Caravan Park

LIFE BIRDS (Never seen or heard by us before): Little Tern, Hobby
Today's Total: 2
Trip Total: 57

TRIP BIRDS (First time for trip, but already on our life list): 2 lifers + Sand Martin (seen before but not claimed till now), House Martin (seen before but not claimed till now), Little Gull, Snipe, Pintail
Today's Total: 7
Trip Total:144

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