Birding Trip Report: Lincolnshire 12th January 2019
First off, I have a bit of a confession to make...Lincolnshire was not our first choice for a birding trip on a cold Saturday in mid January. Instead, we had originally intended to venture 80 or so miles southwest to Gloucestershire and to the world famous Slimbridge Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) Reserve, home to up to 200 Bewick's Swans during the winter months. However, a change of plan resulted in us casting our eyes eastwards instead. Truth be told, as much as I love Slimbridge, the change of plan actually came rather easily, mostly due to the lure of a rare American wader that had eluded me on my previous visit there, the fabled Long-billed Dowitcher. A bird that had first appeared there back in August 2018, only to go missing for my visit to twitch the Stilt Sandpiper. Shortly after, it reappeared and was reported regularly, right up to the end of the year and into 2019. It's a bird that apparently shows well at times, but has a tendency to go missing for considerable periods.
Reports of the bird had increased significantly from New Years Day onwards, presumably due to birders paying it a visit in order to add it to their year lists. Reports did come to a halt however, on the 9th January, but I was unperturbed; instead I put the cessation down to the fact that the number of birders actively looking for the bird had dropped, so on the morning of the 12th, as we set off from the West Midlands I felt quietly confident that my time to add the Long-billed Dowitcher to my list had come.
One of the curious things about relying on satellite navigation technology is that it rarely takes you the same way twice, especially if your travel time is greater than say 2 hours. The last time I drove directly from Birmingham to Frampton Marsh, the route took me through the picturesque village of Stamford. However, on this occasion I was denied that chance, indeed the route involved driving along many tiny and winding roads that seemed to make the journey longer than it actually was. I recall my spirits lifting slightly when the landscape became flatter, and they lifted further once I started seeing signs for Boston.
We arrived at Frampton just after midday, and to my great surprise found that conditions were actually rather pleasant. On my previous two visits, I had been soaked through to the bone and blown from pillar to post by gale force of winds. But upon exiting the car, I couldn't help but nod in approval at the relatively calm conditions. Whilst Paula was tending to the two dogs, I eagerly walked into the visitor centre and consulted the sightings map, which helpfully pinpointed exactly where the bird had last been seen a few days before. The Long-billed Dowitcher had helpfully relocated since my last visit, back within the confines of the reserve and away from the vast salt marsh that separates Frampton from the sea.
Paula and I walked together along the public footpath right up to a patch of marshland adjacent to our left that apparently housed the bird. Paula carried on, whilst I set up my scope for the first of my many scans of the day. An initial scan brought large numbers of grazing Eurasian Wigeon into focus, along with equally large numbers of Northern Lapwing, European Golden Plover, Dunlin and Black-tailed Godwit. Every now and then the masses of Waders would rise as one creating a truly magical spectacle. I scanned the flocks carefully to check if anything could have flushed them and sure enough I managed to catch a glimpse of a Peregrine Falcon tearing across the sky like a speeding bullet.
The temporary absence of Waders gave me a great chance to check the shoreline thoroughly for the Dowitcher, but no joy. I then walked up the familiar embankment and once again found myself staring out at the vast salt marsh. Now on higher ground and completely exposed, the winds blowing in from the North Sea hit me with full force and it took a fair bit effort just to stand up right, let alone continue to scan. But scan I did, but once again in a terrible moment of deja vu, I couldn't locate the bird.
The Location of Frampton Marsh
I'm not quite sure how many times I scanned the patch of marsh from my vantage point, but it was at least five times, I also scanned virtually every other scrap of land that my telescope was capable of homing in on, but still nothing. A Common Snipe half concealed in the reedbeds made my heart flutter slightly, and a glance out at the salt marsh produced both a male Hen Harrier and a Short-eared Owl. For a moment, I forgot about the absence of the Dowitcher and instead revelled in the sight of the pale grey that characterises male Hen Harriers. He was quartering low over the marsh, presumably on the lookout for prey, but with none forthcoming he soon drifted out of view. The Short-eared Owl similarly quartered the salt marsh in the wake of the Hen Harrier, and likewise had no joy and was soon lost to view.
Back to the Dowitcher hunt, and by now I had been joined by another birder who uttered those famous words to me: 'Anything about?' The wind was unrelenting and all I could think about was the rarity that continued to elude me. I couldn't help but notice the man's accent though, unmistakably Black Country, so fairly local to me. I told him about the Hen Harrier and the Short-eared Owl, but admitted that I was primarily looking for the Dowitcher. He then, pointed out where exactly he'd seen the bird a few days ago on his last visit, but likewise was unable to pick it out on this occasion. I tried scanning again, before we both agreed that the bird was probably hiding from the howling winds. Before he left, the Black Country birder informed me of a Merlin that he had seen from the 360 Hide just before he'd reached me. After taking the chance to scan for a final time, I packed up my scope and made my way down off the sea wall and back round the reserve. I didn't go to the 360 Hide as time was pressing on, but I did manage to catch distant distant glimpses of a female Merlin perched on a fence post. I also managed obtain a brief glimpse of a female Greater Scaup, which served as another very welcome addition to the year list.
The Location of Gibraltar Point
We left Frampton at approximately 2 pm, conscious that at best we had around 2 hours of daylight left. I'd always wanted to visit Gibraltar Point, so what better opportunity considering that it was only 30 miles away. Plus, there was the added bonus of a potential first for me- Hooded Crows. I'd seen reports dating back at least a month prior to my visit that at least 3 of them were present on the beach, so was eager to try my luck. Moreover, there was the prospect of catching up with 5 Bewick's Swans that had chosen a small patch of salt marsh nearby as a roosting site.
Gibraltar Point is just a few miles south of the famous resort town of Skegness or 'Skeggy' as its more commonly known, and marks the point where the Lincolnshire coast turns into the Wash. Its home to a Bird Observatory that was first set up in 1949 and to this day continues to study the movements and populations of birds in the area. That same area is essentially two sandy ridges divided by a vast expanse of salt-marsh. The East Dunes also serve as the beach, and offers the best chance of watching a variety of shorebirds such as Eurasian Curlew, Sanderling and Bar-tailed Godwit; and of course, keeping an eye on any passing sea bird can yield almost anything.
We passed by the first (Beach) car park in our eagerness to get to the main Visitor Centre car park. The Centre itself is only a little over a decade old, but the main attraction for me wasn't the prospect of a cup of tea, but the possibility of seeing a Black Redstart that had frequenting the grounds just a day before. Ultimately our stay at one of the UK's top birding sites was brief and despite an extensive search saw no Black Redstarts in the vicinity of the Centre. Even from Frampton, the journey still took the best part of an hour, and thus due to limited daylight, we were unable to explore the site fully. Instead, we quickly consulted a helpful notice board complete with a map directing us to the beach, and hopefully the Hooded Crows. Along the way, whilst Paula marched on with the two dogs, I caught glimpses of both Corn and Reed Buntings, along with both Water and Rock Pipits. Distantly, I heard the distinctive sounds of geese, and after cocking my head slightly, noted that they were mostly Brent (Brant) Geese, but closer examination revealed the honking of Pink-footed Geese in amongst the Brent din.
By the time I'd reached the sandy dunes that separated land and sea, Paula had already settled into entertaining her dog Eddie by chucking stones into the sand. Eddie in his naivety thought that the stones were toys to play with. My dog Marley could only look on in bemusement. Meanwhile I busied myself with scanning the distant shoreline, that was absolutely stacked with birds- mostly gulls (Herring, Black-headed and Great Black-backed), but with a fine collection of waders, including Eurasian Oystercatcher, Eurasian Curlew and Sanderling. However, my attention was soon diverted by three corvids that were foraging some distance away from the main congregation of gulls. Even in the scope they were distant, but I decided against trying to get closer as I didn't want to risk disturbing them. I zoomed the lens in as far as it would go and breathed a sigh of relief as I noted the black head and grey body that marked them out as Hooded Crows.
Hooded Crows look very similar to the more familiar all black Carrion Crow, and indeed were once treated as merely a subspecies, but are now a full species in their own right. In Britain, they only breed in north-west Scotland, but are commonly found along the east coast during the winter. Farther afield, they are common in Ireland and are found in Europe, ranging from Scandinavia, Italy, Greece to Russia, and parts of the Middle East. Its these eastern birds that turn up in eastern Britain during the winter.
Satisfied with my distant but good views of my first ever Hooded Crows, we left the shorebirds to their foraging and headed back to the car Dusk was fast approaching, and as beautiful the place was, neither of us fancied being locked in for the night. As we left the car park, I suddenly remembered the roosting Bewick’s Swans and alerted Paula, who assumed driving duties. I hoped that the light would hold just enough for me to catch a glimpse of them, it was already probably too dark for a photo, but just a glimpse would do for that all important year tick. The 5 birds (2 adults and 3 almost fully grown cygnets) were roosting at a site just a quarter of a mile up the road called Tennyson Sands. A quick look at the map revealed that the best strategy was to park up at the Beach Car Park, and simply walk across the road to the bird hide. However, with the light disappearing fast, I didn’t much fancy entering a small and presumably very dark place. I hoped that I’d be able to view the birds from the pathway.
Fortunately the Beach car park wasn’t gated, so we simply pulled in, and leaving Paula and the dogs in the car, I shuffled off in search of the migrants from Russia. Sure enough, after crossing the road, the pathway led me to a rather small bird hide. But I barely looked at it, instead I set up my scope and silently thanked my father for passing on his tallness genes to me, as I easily peered over the reed wall and scanned the marsh. Sure enough, I found the five birds fairly quickly. They were loafing on a small island in the middle of the main pool, with one of the cygnets busily preening itself. After confirming mentally that they were indeed Bewick’s Swans on account of their smaller body size and greater proportion of black on the bill when compared to the similar looking Whooper Swans, I simply turned about and walked briskly back to the car. It was now time to embark on the 3 hour return journey to Birmingham.
© 2019 James Kenny