‘It’s only half a mile’ he said. And I foolishly believed him. ‘Just past the church and you’ll see the bunkers dead ahead’. That much of the directions given by a fellow birder I encountered in the car park was literally true, you could indeed see the bunkers when you passed the church, but they were dots on the horizon. My poor aching knee protested at the injustice. ‘It’s only half a mile’ turned out to be a 3 mile round trip with every step an agony. I’ve no idea what caused the injury, don’t really care, but the resulting swollen knee was in no shape for such fun and games. What was the object of such understated clifftop yomping, or more accurately, limping? To see some birds of course, and not just any old birds, these were rather lovely strays that, making their way to breeding grounds in Fennoscandia, had somehow found themselves on the east coast of Norfolk occupying a dung heap just north (one and a half miles north) of Happisburgh beach car park. Too good to miss – sod the pain!
Yellow Wagtails are a complex species with ten races being depicted in the Collins Bird Guide. The British race, flavissima, is an uncommon summer visitor that is quite difficult to find nowadays. It has suffered catastrophic reductions over the past 50 years, with something like a 94% crash in numbers. As with all these things, the reasons for decline are not fully understood, are probably multi faceted, but seem linked to modern intensive farming practices and drainage of wetlands. Whatever the reasons, seeing a Yellow Wagtail has become something of a notable occasion. The dung heap referred to above didn’t just hold some members of our very own British race, but also a couple of Grey-headed Wagtails of race thunbergi. Thunbergi are go!
Having narrowly avoided a thorough soaking courtesy of a passing thunderstorm, once safely within the shelter of the old concrete bunkers, a proper appraisal of the dung heap could ensue. It’s not an activity I indulge in too often, but today it had its rewards. Within a couple of minutes a couple of perky Grey-headed Wagtails flitted into view and commenced to strut around on their long elegant legs, mopping up the abundant flies that buzzed around the festering pile. They were joined off and on by some proper yellow Yellow Wagtails, allowing excellent side by side comparison. This encounter did not represent an additional species for the 220 for 2022 year list, but that hardly matters – it had its own special magic.
I do love these little cameos, feeling privileged to see such small, colourful birds as they enact their annual northwards migration. They will only be stalking flies amongst the manure for a few hours before once more taking wing to move even further north. The Grey-headed still have the North Sea to traverse, and then some, before they reach their summer home, the Britishers would be near the end of their journey. But here they were gleefully feasting on the myriad buzzing flies and other small invertebrates that call a dung heap home. Many thanks to the person who found these jewels and alerted us birders to their temporary appearance. As I watched and clicked away, a thought struck me: it was 30 years ago bar a single day that I last saw a Grey-headed Wagtail, here at Happisburgh, a little bit further south. There in the afternoon, I sat with my 4 year old son and watched these sprites, in company with some Red-throated Pipits, adorning an otherwise uninteresting ploughed field. It still ranks up there with my best birding memories; feelings of pride, warmth and contentment for my life and the simple pleasure to be derived from watching nature. Hard to believe that that self same child has now grown to have a boy child of his own, himself now 4 years old. How the world turns.
The Yellow Wagtails were reward enough for a painful coastal path limp, but I found it quite interesting to observe other birds and animals that were also clued in to the bounty to be found amongst the spoil. Wheatears, both male and female, perhaps of the Greenland race, leucorhoa, helped themselves to the buzzing cloud, Blackbirds tended to poke around a bit deeper to fill their beaks with grubs and worms to cram down their offspring’s throats. Jackdaws did not miss out, and a perky Pied Wagtail made short work of anything that came close. In a quieter moment, a large brown rat ventured onto the pile, getting stuck into what seemed to be a spider. Quite a good array of wild visitors to a single pile of horse crap!