Trip reports

Field Trip - Frampton Marsh

Field Trip - Frampton Marsh
Stonechat at Frampton Marsh Photo: Bob Russon

Sunday, 14 November 2021

Thirty-five of us in a thirty-six seater coach plus rucksacks, scopes, tripods and coats didn't leave a lot of spare room! However, it was a very smart new coach and the two hour journey to Frampton Marsh passed smoothly meaning that we were at our destination by 10am. It was dry and not too cold and the prospect of six hours quality birding at this excellent reserve brought a smile to all our faces.

Frampton Marsh is an RSPB reserve of about 430 acres of saltmarsh, lagoons, tidal creeks, reedbeds and grazing land. Its mix of habitats and its location at the western edge of The Wash is an irresistible draw for many thousands of birds all year round. It is earning a well-deserved reputation for its range of species and the frequency with which rarities are found there. 26 species of waders have been recorded and on one occasion in 2016, more than 200 curlew sandpipers were on site at the same time. But despite this, unlike Titchwell and Minsmere, it doesn't seem to attract the crowds and, even at a weekend, it is possible to lose everyone else and enjoy a bit of solitary birding.

After a quick coffee and loo visit our group spread out across the reserve, some heading down the long track to the seawall to scan the saltmarsh and others to the two centrally-located hides. On previous visits I've seen Frampton practically flooded out with the main track barely passable but, on the day of our visit, water
levels were low and some of the lagoons had all but dried out.

From the hides little of interest was visible, though a few distant avocets and brent geese were a welcome sight. The most numerous birds by far were the thousands of wigeon grazing the pastures. Frampton is well
known for the huge numbers of this colourful duck and no doubt they were also the target of the wildfowlers on nearby marshland. Every now and then thousands would rise into the air spooked by a passing raptor or fox. I wondered what the collective noun for wigeon would be and came up with 'wave' or 'wash'. Looking it up once back home, I discovered that the collective noun is 'coil' - don't ask me why, perhaps it's an ancient hunting term.

With high tide due in the late afternoon most of us made our way onto the high grassy bank which separates the saltmarsh from the reserve. This is where the day became more interesting. Frampton is noted for the raptors which hunt the marshland - particularly on a rising tide when small mammals are driven inland. Although we weren't lucky enough to be there for a really high tide there were still raptors looking for an afternoon meal. From our vantage point we could see marsh harriers floating across the distant horizon. A short-eared owl gave a good display to a few lucky birders but after a while the target bird for most of us appeared way in the distance. While marsh harriers are fairly common, for instance often seen at our local Old Moor RSPB reserve, the elegant hen harrier is a bird which really sets the pulse racing. It's a much rarer bird which has suffered considerable persecution including in the Peak District and any birder is delighted to see one, especially if it's the beautiful ghostly-grey male. So the distant views of a couple hunting way out on
the marsh was very satisfying. With buzzard, merlin, kestrel and peregrine also seen, the day proved a good one for raptor-watchers.

While we all come across problem birds which are difficult to identify, it's not often that three fairly experienced birders spend over an hour with scopes trained on a stationary bird perched in the open, about 70 yards away and still don't manage a positive ID. This was a small raptor perched on a post about two feet off the ground. It had every appearance of a merlin but the light was poor and it was facing us so its back wasn't fully visible. The streaky front, small head and beak, and low perching position gave every indication of a merlin but we all had just a niggle of doubt. We waited for it to change pose or fly but it remained perched, facing us, giving nothing away, showing less life than Monty Python's parrot. When, after a fruitless trek along the sea wall in search of the short-eared owl, I eventually returned to the 'merlin' site I was met with rueful smiles and shaking heads. The sun had finally emerged, revealing the chestnut-coloured back of a female kestrel. Disappointing, but somehow satisfying that our patience had been rewarded and the mystery finally solved.

As the light began to fail, we drifted back towards the bus all having enjoyed a good day's birding with a total of 70 species seen by the group.