Monday, 30 May 2016

Operation BBC "Mystery Shopper" - aka Suffolk Coast and beyond *

At last, I'd been waiting for the day when I could re-visit the Suffolk Coast for a bit of R&R.  Finally my contract with Auntie Beeb had been prepared and I just needed to sign on the dotted line to complete the deal, which, of course, I did.

The plan was 3 nights B&B in Southwold, Suffolk, about 30 minutes from RSPB Minsmere - for the BBC task, and an hour from Norwich, which is relevant because I wanted to visit another site in that area.

Day 1 - Home to B&B via Suffolk Wildlife Trust's Hen Reedbeds.

Journey went OK, and I arrived at Hen Reedbeds without incident, thankfully.  The entrance to the reserve is signposted but is on a sharp bend on the main road from the A12 to Southwold.  Decent sized car park, well kept and just one other car.

This is a large reserve of reedbeds, as the name suggests, and tidal river / estuary shoreline.  It is split by the main road with a large reedbed on the car park side and a combination of reedbed and shoreline on the other.  There is a safe place to cross the road. There are 4 hides in total, all on the shoreline side looking over the reedbeds, and a viewpoint on the each side of the reserve, again looking out over the reedbeds.

The weather was reasonably warm but windy so I opted for a light fleece - I'm glad I did!

I started on the car park side of the road where there is a small viewing platform looking out over a large and expansive reedbed.  In 15 minutes from this viewpoint I'd seen Marsh Harriers, Swallows, Lapwings, Greylags, Hobbys, Magpie, Grey Heron.  Not a bad start though all were too distant for photos. 

I headed off towards the other side of the road, not knowing what to expect as this was my first visit.  On the path I spotted Hairy Dragonfly, Large Red and Blue-Tailed Damselflies plus a few unidentified "Tenerals".  Peacock & Holly Blue butterflies plus one other which I saw and then lost almost immediately - small & brown!  I could hear Reed & Sedge Warblers chuntering away in the reedbeds adjacent to the path but none stuck their head up!

Crossing the road (Green Cross style!) I walked along a raised bank which separated the reedbeds (on my left) and the river / shoreline (on the right) until I came across a viewing platform over the reedbeds.  I dropped down below the level of the bank and the temperature immediately rose by several degrees and the eye-watering wind disappeared.  No wonder there weren't many birds about! I did see Reed Bunting (1), Redshank (1),  and Hairy Dragonfly (1).

It's a decent walk to the first hide - about 15 minutes at steady pace - and when I got there all the birds, with the exception of this group of Greylags, had done a bunk! I stayed for 30 minutes or so, had a picnic and saw 2 Lapwings in addition to the Greylags, not what I'd hoped for really.

On to the next hide, 5/10 minute walk. 

On the way I saw Oystercatcher (2), Swallow (several), Kestrel (1) and Marsh Harrier (1).  The Oystercatchers were on the shoreline side, the others over the reedbeds.  From inside the hide I saw another Oystercatcher, the same Marsh Harrier - always too far away, Little Egret (1) and Pied Wagtail (2),

and at one point was looking right down the line of this approaching Shelduck which I thought was going to come and sit alongside me!

Decided not to go on to the other hides which were some walk away by all accounts, but to head back to the car park view point. I arrived at the road crossing without any significant improvement in the bird count but did hang around just before the crossing as the Marsh Harrier, clearly a female, was working the reedbed closer to the path I was on.  I sat for 15-20 minutes and watched her get slowly further and further away, I won't tell you what I said to myself!

Back at the car park viewing platform there were two other people looking out.  After the usual greetings I established there wasn't much doing but it was finally sunny and the warmth was most welcome.  We sat and chatted for about half an hour and I discovered that the "husband" had never seen a Bittern and right on cue, you couldn't write it you really couldn't, guess what appeared about 35 yards in front us - a hovering Kingfisher! (I know what you thought Katy!).  It was good to see and we watched at it dived into the pond, caught a small fish and sat on it's perch, and then, as I finally got a focus on it, flew away - rule 3 again! Damn! 

The afternoon sun was still warming us when I and "the wife" heard a deep "Booooom, Boooooom", I looked right, "the wife" turned and said "Did you hear that?", I nodded, "the husband" said "Do what?" wife: "Did you hear that?" Husband: "Hear what?", wife: "That sound, a "booooom", husband: "No", wife (to me): "He can't hear very well", Husband: "Do what?" Me: "Me neither but I heard that, that was a Bittern"  We kept a look out for the source of the sound and I (yes I!) eventually saw a Bittern stalking along the edge of the lagoon in front of us, but not great views, and quite a way off.  Now to get "the husband" to see it, bearing in mind his hearing.  I pointed out where the Bittern was - standing still and in the reeds, not great if you're not sure what you're looking for or where you're looking!  After what seemed like an hour, he did finally see his first Bittern, just a shame it wasn't a better view but when they left to get back to their digs, he did have a big smile on his face!

I left shortly after and found my B&B in Southwold.

Hen Reedbeds I'm sure will have better days and if I'm in the area I'd certainly give it a couple of hours.

In all 25 different species excluding gulls, so not too bad.


I've not been to Southwold before and for some reason I thought it was a shipyard town but it's not, it's a fishing town or a least it was - that's what wrong thinking does for you!
I wanted to try some long exposures on the beach and pier - I figured if I left it until late in the day the local plod would all be indoors!

Anyway, it was windy, not very warm and I was getting hungry but the light was decent and tomorrow didn't look as promising, I was hoping to get a look at the moon but not tonight it seems, so, "he who dares Rodders", I took myself of to the beach - at 7.00pm!  The photos aren't too bad, here are a couple of the pier area, at least I've got a reason to go back!

Dinner tonight in The Red Lion, and a couple of pints on Adnams, well as the saying goes "When in Southwold . . . hic!" 

Day 2 - Strumpshaw Fen

I've wanted to get here for a few years, mainly to see the Swallowtail butterflies so took this opportunity to visit.  After breakfast (very nice thanks Jo & Vincent) drove to Strumpshaw - just outside of Brundall nr Norwich, took about an hour.  Car par was packed but I got a space OK, good sign I thought, must be something worth seeing, there was even a mini-bus from Writtle Agricultural College which is in the town of my birth & childhood - until 27 yoa! (I'm a late developer!).  So off to "reception" poste-haste".

Just a couple of people in reception and having shown my RSPB card I listened to the volunteer explain about the reserve and the trails.  "Any Swallowtails" I asked, "No not yet, we're about two weeks behind this year due to the cold & wet weather we've had" Merde! just you wait til I see that Carol Kirkwood next!

So the main reason I came here isn't here and I'd tried to find out from the website but it was crap not up to date, clearly!  Oh well, I guess you just have to pick the right moment sometimes, maybe I'll get it right next time!

Anyway, this is a large reserve of reedbed, some woodland, meadows and a path alongside the River Yare, one area was particularly wet and muddy and as I didn't have my bog-snorkelling gear with me I decided to give that area a miss, which meant an outward & inward walk rather than a circular one.  Hey ho!

To the first hide (Fen Hide), and on the boardwalk approach a Drinker Moth caterpillar was sitting in the nettles.

A mid-size hide looking out over reedbed and a small lagoon with a channel running along the back.  From the hide several Marsh Harriers were visible, up to 5 at one stage but always distant.  A couple of Hobbys flew over and the chuntering of warblers could be clearly heard but none on the chuntterers showed themselves. On the water were a couple of Pochard at the back, a Coot looking for a fight as usual, and a pair of Swans with junior.

After an hour I walked on to the river path toward Tower Hide.

The path was alive with the sound of Cetti's Warbler, Blackcap, Chaffinch, Robin, Blackbird and Song Thrush, all very vocal and mostly buried deep in the bushes, shrubs and trees which line the path.  Only quickly glimpses and no photos.

There were plenty of Damselflies around too but hardly any resting, I spotted Large Red, Azzure & tenerals, plus several pairs of Hairy Dragonflies but not one to photograph.  Butterflies were also visible, Orange Tip, Brimstone, Peacock & Green Veined White (a photo at last!)

Tower Hide - a high hide as the name suggests - looks out over a medium sized lagoon surrounded by reedbeds.  The Marsh Harriers were still in the distance, Common Terns flew overhead chased by Black-Heads trying to prise the Terns' love offerings from them with some success.  On the water were Greylags, Gadwall, Mallard & Coot - a bit disappointing really.  Only these Greylags in phot distance.

The walk back to the car park took a couple of hours, I wasn't in any particular hurry and I stopped in at Fen Hide again - with the same result as previously.

I walked back through the woodland area, plenty of Blue and Great Tits, Robins in abundance but not much else except this Jay which I think felt sorry for me and sat a few feet away.

Back to reception, cup of tea, flapjack (as per routine) and sit and reflect on what might have been if only Ms Kirkwood and co had got their collective act together.

Nice reserve, would have been so much better with the presence of a Swallowtail or two so hard to judge on today's evidence.  I suspect butterflies & dragonflies would be a big plus.

In review 30+ species - you decide.

Back to B&B.

For tonight's dinner I went posh! at Sutherland House, Southwold, and very nice it was too, I gave it 5/5 on TripAdvisor! Mainly fish, pricey but really friendly and good food & a nice pint of St.Peters Golden Ale.

Day 3 & 4 - RSPB Minsmere - mystery shopper for BBC prior to Springwatch.

Two pretty similar days as it happened, second day had better weather and therefore more birdie opportunities.

BBC contract - First task - check presenter M.H-G is on site.  Done, he's outside the production area chatting to a lady with a clipboard at 9.45am, and in the café for lunch at 12.30pm.
(That's 2.75 hours at £50 per hour = last nights dinner bill sorted!)

I have a routine at Minsmere providing the weather is OK.  I do coffee, North Walls, Beach, Scrape, coffee/lunch, Bittern Hide, Island Mere Hide and then whereever the mood takes me (today it took me through the woods to the Canopy Hide), so that's what I did.

North Walls - very windy, reeds mainly horizontal, absolutely no birds at all.  Up to the end of the path, left down the dip (not sure if I'm supposed to be down here). Shelter from the wind at least, and the sun is breaking through.  A group of Stonechats flitted between the brambles and the gorse bushes, I managed to capture this male.
 and this female

On to the beach to blow the cobwebs away - took about 2 seconds, shit it's windy!

Tried to capture "the weather" and failed miserably, so after 10 or 15 minutes I headed back towards the North Walls.  Having decided to forego the scrape for today in view of a). the wind and b). the forecast of Armageddon later, I popped in to the North Hide on my way back to coffee/lunch.  All the usual suspects were visible, plus those worthy of note - Avocet, Barnacle Goose & Black-Tailed Godwit - but no Longhorn Cattle! (see blog of last years visit!)

Pot of tea, Cheese Scone - MH-G in queue for lunch (another £50!) I bet he can't wait for next week when BBC Catering arrives!

Off to the - hopefully appropriately named - Bittern Hide for the first part of the afternoon before the threatened rains set in.  Lovely scent of Bluebells as I enter the wood, and a Greater Spotted Woodpecker watches from a high view point.  The hide is packed and included a "group" of RSPB members from my part of the world, I recognised several faces, and they turned out to be the noisiest group in there, you would have thought . . . .  Thankfully they left after about 10 minutes and the rest of us all just said "Thank f... for that" to our collective selves! 

If you are patient enough this hide will eventually give you some views of something interesting.  Today it was the usual (for Minsmere) Marsh Harrier, Hobby and Bittern, as well as a couple of distant deer (who showed up again tomorrow).  Weather was worsening, photos aren't great but some of the Bittern aren't too bad - you can see the rain!

and just one Marsh Harrier made the cull.

When the rain stopped I headed for the Island Mere Hide and can you guess which group were here?  They were inside the hide and I could hear them as I walked down the board-walk, I would've stayed outside but the rain had started again and the wind was getting up too! 

Not surprisingly given the conditions and the noise the birds were very few and far between, at one point the only bird visible was a Cormorant on the mere and he looked distinctly peeved!

When the rain stopped and the wind abated the RSPB Noisy Group decided to head out - after a long discussion - and so did I.  They head back toward the Bittern Hide, I went the other way and eventually came across the Canopy Hide, the rain was starting again so I went in and up and sat down.  Two other people came in after me and didn't realise I was there so when I said "Hello" they nearly fell down the stairs!

Not much doing up here either, though this Greater Spotted Woodpecker did sit on the tree in front of the hide for a couple of minutes, but he didn't hang around.

I headed back to the visitor centre through the drizzle which looked like it had settled in for a while.  Back at the car I took a look around and decided to head back to Southwold for a final time hoping for a better day tomorrow.

Dinner tonight was cheap and cheerful at The Sole Bay Inn, it was OK and the beer was good.  I sat with a local who had a small dog with her which I later found out from her was a "Yorkshire Chihuahua" - there had to be a joke there but I just couldn't think of it - and still can't!

Quick walk along the "front" back to the B&B, I was pretty tired and I'm no night owl these days.  I got back in time to watch the second half of the Europa Cup final and then went to bed!

Day 4 - Minsmere & home

At breakfast I chatted to the man on the next table - he was on the next table in the pub last night too but we didn't know then that we were in the same B&B! Small world.  He was in the area for a bit of birding and some genealogy - researching the family tree.  He'd been round Norwich yesterday, was doing some local stuff first off today and then heading to Minsmere for a few hours before driving down to Billericay - I know it well.

So, back to Minsmere, better weather today don't need to wear a jacket, just carry it.  Same routine as yesterday except this time I "did the Scrape".  From the East Hide everything seemed to be in front of the South Hide, I could (just) see a group of Little Terns and did manage a shot of this Redshank before moving on.

 Along the beach path there were several "LBJ's" hoping in and out.  I finally caught up with a couple of them, a male Linnet and a Cetti's Warbler - not too shabby!

The Cetti's moved on and so did I.  At the sluice there were plenty of Swallows about, clearly more flies about today with the warm temperatures and drop in wind, and between the sluice and the South Hide I spotted 5 Bearded Tits flying over the path and heard them "pinging" in the reeds, but photo? no chance!

The South Hide was quiet, all of the Little Terns were on the far side of the island in front of the hide and stayed put - Little Terns? not what I called them.  They didn't show any intention of coming out so I left and continued my trek.

Just before the West Hide I passed a Hawthorn "thicket" and right at the end, sitting there as plain as you like was this Sedge Warbler - he was really giving it some!

and then he saw me and shut up!

It was coffee/lunch time 12.15 when I hit the café, hardly anyone here, and no queue.  I'd bought a couple of filled rolls from "Two Magpies" bakery cum deli in Southwold so just a snack and drink today.  I sat down, had a quick review of my few photos and had "lunch".  M.H-G I noticed was in the queue which had formed (another positive sighting, another £50 - sometimes you just have to take the money and run!), he took a table outside, he must be hankering for BBC catering by now!

Afternoon session plan - Island Mere & Bittern Hides in that order.  Island Mere for hopefully Bearded Tits which had been reported as "giving excellent views" and Bittern Hide for - well the usual, it was also the closest to the car park and with a 2+ hours drive ahead it seemed sensible.

Island Mere hide was busy, I stood outside on the boardwalk as the "Beardies" had been reported on both sides and it's easier to change sides outside the hide.  Waited for 30-40 minutes for my first sight but like this morning just a quick glimpse, but the sun was out and the wind was less than yesterday so the signs were good.  Fleeting glimpses continued for the next hour or so punctuated by Bittern alerts.  One flew in directly over the hide and disappeared into the reedbed, 15 minutes later another flew out about 150 yards away but headed off in the wrong direction for me.  Another 20 minutes and the first Bittern flew out again, this time I managed to fire off a few shots, he/she was pretty close, my final shot showed it's tail disappearing over the roof of the hide - about 20 feet away! Here he goes . . .

After that excitement - a lull, I stood looking out back towards the Bittern Hide in the distance, when this landed in front of me, looked around and flew off - 2 or 3 seconds at most.  I got two shots both the same, but it was what I came for so I'm not grumbling!  A male Bearded Tit! and no one else got the shot - get in!

Happy days, I was just about to head back to the Bittern Hide when  . . .

here we go again, "Bittern up" was the shout.  If cameras were guns this poor bugger wouldn't have stood a chance!

So back to the Bittern Hide as happy as a pig in merde!

Busy again in here but I found a seat,  quiet for a while then in 15 minutes we had Hobby, Marsh Harrier, Bittern (oh, not again!), and deer.

I got the Bittern & Marsh Harrier to a point, the others? I'll come back for another day.

Good day all in all, in fact good 4 days, if only I felt rested!

Back home after just over 2 hour drive, quick visit to Tesco, and a Chinese takeaway.

Thanks to BBC for sponsoring my visit to RSPB Minsmere, I hope we can reach the same arrangement next year.

My report was positive with a few suggestions - how a about a bird of prey nestcam? where are the Owls? Bees & Wasps might be interesting, Stone Curlew? Get Iolo up in Scotland this year.

Enjoy my Springwatch on the Beeb!

PS Did you spot the 10 song titles in here? Who sang them then?

No comments:

Post a Comment

Now is the winter of our discontent . . .

or so Bill wrote all those years ago, and this winter "we" seemed to have proved him to be correct. As someone who is interested...