17th March 2018 – ‘Mini-Beast’ in the Brecks

A group tour today down in the Brecks. With the so-called ‘Mini-Beast from the East’ due to arrive with us overnight, we were forecast plunging temperatures, blustery easterly winds and snow flurries. Not exactly ideal conditions – but as we know, forecasts are notoriously unreliable these days.

When we looked more closely, the detailed forecasts were not necessarily that bad, the worst of the snow was predicted to fall on Saturday night, there was just 10-20% risk of precipitation during daylight hours today (Apparently! It turned out to be a bit more than that.) and there was even the chance of some sunny intervals. With the group keen to give it a go, we pressed ahead (despite two of the group dropping out at the last minute, early in the morning). We were all very glad we did!

A quick check on the way confirmed a Stone Curlew was in one of its regular locations, tucked down in a field, so after meeting up down in the Brecks, we headed straight out to see it. Unfortunately, by the time we got back there just a short time later, there was no sign of it. It had started to snow now and, although it wasn’t settling, it was whipping across the field on the blustery wind. We decided to have another look later, once the weather calmed down again.

We headed off into the forest to look for Woodlarks instead. They should be singing at this time of year, but in the cold and snow they were quiet early this morning. We walked round the edge of a couple of clearings where they are regularly to be found, but it was very quiet. So we decided to try to find a more sheltered spot. As we walked down a ride between two plantations, several Song Thrushes were feeding on the path. Two Great Tits and a pair of Coal Tits had dropped down to feed in the grass on the edge of the trees.

As we came out of the plantations, there were open fields on one side of the path. Scanning over the trees beyond, we saw a big flock of Woodpigeons erupt in the distance and a few seconds later picked up two raptors tussling even further off behind. They looked like Goshawks – one of our main targets for the day – but unfortunately as we tried to get everyone onto them, we lost them in the swirling snow. They had probably dropped straight back down out of view. It didn’t feel like our lucky day.

Fortunately, our luck was about to change. We made our way round to another clearing which was more sheltered behind the trees. As we walked up, we could see a big flock of Fieldfares and Redwings out on the far side, flying up periodically and dropping down into the grass. A flock of Long-tailed Tits was calling in the pines beside us and we could hear a Goldcrest singing too.

Walking quietly along the most sheltered edge, we heard a Woodlark call. It was very quiet, and it seemed like it might be way out in the clearing, but they are great ventriloquists and often sound much further away than they really are. We stopped and scanned, then as we turned a Woodlark came out of a furrow not ten metres away from us! We had a great view of it, as it picked its way through the grass – we could see its bold pale supercilium and, from behind, they way they met in a shallow ‘v’ at the back.


Woodlark – feeding quietly in the grass very close to us

We stood quietly and watched for a while. Suddenly a second Woodlark appeared, next to the first. A pair were feeding here together, the male occasionally uttering a brief song phrase, while he accompanied the female. They could be nesting soon, as soon as the weather improves, so the females in particular need to feed up now. The two Woodlarks gradually worked their way away from us, back the way we had just come.

The snow had eased off now, so we headed over to another part of the forest to have a go to see if we could find any Willow Tits. Walking down along the ride, it was very quiet at first, until we came to an area with two feeding tables set up. There were lots of tits constantly coming and going, and in amongst the commoner Blue, Great and Coal Tits, we picked out one or two Marsh Tits. They would dart in, grab a seed, and dart back to the bushes nearby. But there were no birds singing today and few even calling, which would make our chances of locating the Willow Tits much more difficult.

We hadn’t been there long when the sky started to brighten. First we could see the sun through the clouds, then we saw a patch of blue above us. It even started to feel a little milder! We could wait and see if the Willow Tits started to sing now, but this was probably our best chance to see a Goshawk today. The latter was our real priority today, so we hurried back to the car and headed round to a nearby site to try our luck.

On our way, we spotted a Red Kite circling over a field beside the road, a good sign. It was already clouding over again when we arrived, but as we got out of the car, a Common Buzzard was hanging in the wind over the trees. We only had to wait a few minutes before we picked out two Goshawks in the distance.

The two Goshawks were chasing each other, gradually getting closer towards us. It appeared to be an adult after a juvenile, presumably trying to chase it out of its territory. We got them in the scope so everyone could get a good look at them. One dropped down into the trees, sending the Woodpigeons scattering. The other turned and headed towards the road, keeping low and eventually dropping below the tree line too.

Goshawk 1

Goshawk – one of three we saw this morning, when the weather improved

It was a bit brighter still on the other side of the road, and first one Goshawk crossed away in the distance, then another came over much closer, scattering the Lapwings and Starlings from the fields behind. Remarkably, one of the Goshawks, the juvenile, then started to display over the trees, starting with a bout of slow-flapping with deep, exaggerated wingbeats, then doing a quick rollercoaster dive before turning back up vertically.

Even better, a third Goshawk then appeared over the field too, another juvenile, this one with rather tatty wings. We watched it as it headed over to the trees at the back too, and once again managed to get good views of it in the scope here. A couple of minutes later, we picked one of them up again, circling up high in the distance.

Goshawk 2

Goshawk – the rather tatty-winged juvenile

To have such good views of Goshawks on a day like today was a real bonus. But they do like the wind, more so than a bright but still day, which undoubtedly helped, as well as the briefly brighter skies. We were glad we had hurried over. We were then given a tip off that two Stone Curlews had been seen flying across to one of the other fields, back where we had started out this morning, where they had taken shelter along the edge. Having had such good views of the Goshawks and with the snow still holding off, we decided to head straight round there next.

When we arrived, we had a quick scan around the field edge from the other side of the road, but couldn’t immediately see anything. As we walked up to the hedge, suddenly a Stone Curlew flew up from the long grass on the far side of the field and helpfully landed right out in the middle. We got it in the scope and had a good look at it – the staring eye with bright yellow iris really stood out.

Stone Curlew

Stone Curlew – flew out and landed in the middle of the field

The Stone Curlew stood in the field for a couple of minutes, then ran across towards the other side in stages, stopping still for a while each time, before eventually disappearing from our view behind the trees. It was great to catch up with it here this time.

With three of our main targets for the day already seen and seen well, we decided to have a go at catching up with Lesser Spotted Woodpecker next. Unfortunately, when we got to Santon Downham we found that the footpath alongside the river had been closed.

This footpath is always muddy and slippery in winter, particularly if you try to walk along the sloping parts of the bank which appear superficially drier. A few days ago, a birdwatcher down looking for the woodpeckers had unfortunately slipped and seemingly broken her ankle. It is not an easy place for the emergency services to access anyway and there seemed to be a misunderstanding initially that the casualty was stuck in the mud, which she was not. There was quite a response as a result – two fire engines, fire support vehicles and two fire officers’ cars, one ambulance, one paramedics car, and a police car!

Hopefully the birdwatcher concerned was eventually rescued without too much distress and we wish her a speedy recovery. However, in the light of this incident it appears the Forestry Commission have closed off the whole footpath for an indefinite period, which means there is no access to look for the Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers in their favoured spot.

We contented ourselves with a quick walk round the area instead. There were lots of Chaffinches and Goldfinches in the trees, plus a couple of Marsh Tits, one of which was singing beside the road. A large flock of Redwings, about 50-60 strong, flew up from the paddocks and into the poplars by the river, along with a group of Starlings. A Great Spotted Woodpecker landed high in the poplars too.

A quick look at the feeders in the garden by the bridge revealed several Bramblings. A brighter male showed particularly well, on the ground and perched in a nearby tree, as well as several slightly duller females.


Brambling – several were in the gardens down by the bridge

We had intended to eat our lunch down along the river bank, but instead we drove down to St Helens picnic area. It was quiet and fairly birdless here today, so after eating and having a quick look down at the river, we decided to make our way round to Lynford Arboretum.

As we walked in along the track past the Arboretum, we stopped for a quick look at the feeders from the gate. There was very little food left, just a few fatballs in the cage feeder which had attracted a handful of tits. Nothing was feeding on the ground here this afternoon.

Continuing on down the hill towards the bridge, a Redwing was feeding under the trees with a couple of Blackbirds. The latter flew off, but the Redwing appeared pretty fearless. Perhaps it was hungry, and we had great close views of it as it probed around the base of the trunks, hiding in the buttresses, or hopped out across the grass between the trees.


Redwing – this fearless individual was feeding around the base of trees

There was no food put out for the birds down at the bridge either this afternoon, but thankfully we had brought a bag of sunflower seeds with us. Within seconds of spreading some out, first the Blue Tits arrived, quickly followed by Great Tits and Marsh Tits. This is a great place to get close up views of the latter in particular.

Marsh Tit

Marsh Tit – coming down to sunflower seeds at the bridge

Eventually the Nuthatches got involved too, with several different individuals coming in to the seed from time to time. They are a bit shyer than some of the other birds, and spent quite a bit of time perched in the trees nearby before making a very swift visit.


Nuthatch – waiting to come down to the sunflower seeds at the bridge

There were other birds here too. Robins, Dunnocks and Chaffinches came in to investigate the seed too. Several Long-tailed Tits were hanging on one of the feeders which still had a couple of fatballs left. We heard a Treecreeper calling but it didn’t show itself today. There were lots of Siskins in the alders and we watched a male singing and displaying to a female above our heads.

After a while, a large group of people out for an afternoon stroll came down along the path beside the lake and stopped on the bridge. We took this as our cue to go and look for Hawfinches in the paddocks. As we walked down along the path beside the fields, towards one of the larger gaps in the hedge, we could see lots of Redwings in the hornbeams in the middle, along with a Mistle Thrush.

It was not forecast to snow again until later tonight, but at that point a thick flurry started once more, which for a minute or two made it difficult to see into the trees. It eased off a bit and we did manage to have a good look, but there was no immediate sign of any Hawfinches there and very few other finches feeding below the trees today. When all the Redwings and Chaffinches which had been there spooked and flew off towards the Arboretum, we decided to go for a walk round.

There were several pairs of Gadwall on the lake and two Canada Geese on the lawn in front of the Hall, along with several Moorhens. We could hear a Little Grebe laughing at us, but didn’t see it here. A Great Spotted Woodpecker was in the trees beside the path, before flying off behind us as we passed. A little further on, we flushed a drake Mandarin from the water under the trees beside the path, which flew off into the wood beyond, and we eventually found two Little Grebes tucked in under the overhanging vegetation, fast asleep.

Circling round through the trees, it was fairly quiet, apart from the far side where a Marsh Tit called as it came in for some seed. As we made our way round to the far side of the paddocks, we stopped to look in the top of the firs beyond, to see if any Hawfinches were coming in. It was snowing quite heavily now, although at least it was still not settling on the ground, and the wind seemed to have picked up again, which meant it was hard to see them perching in the tops of the trees for long.

It felt like we might have run out of luck at the last hurdle, but as we walked back beside the paddocks we could see all the Redwings were now busy feeding under the hornbeams. We have seen the Hawfinches feeding in with the Redwings before, so we stopped for another careful scan and there was a cracking male Hawfinch down on the ground. We all managed to get a good look at it through the scope, before something spooked all the birds and they flew up into the trees.

Making our way back up to the car park, we had nice views of a Goldcrest in the low fir trees here. We continued on to the old gravel pits beyond, where there were not as many ducks as there have been in recent weeks. There were plenty of Tufted Ducks and a few Cormorants. A flock of Gadwall dropped in, accompanied by a few Teal. On the larger pit, it was pretty exposed – the pair of Great Crested Grebe were still present, but swimming around at the back.

With occasional flurries of snow still falling, it was time to call it a day and head back to the warmth of home! Once again, we had seen the benefit of getting out despite the weather and giving it a go, seeing all the main species we might have hoped to see today.


11th March 2018 – More Snowy on the Coast

Sunday was a day off, and Mother’s Day, so with family commitments to attend to it looked like it would be a day in. Then news came through that the Snowy Owl had been relocated at Snettisham RSPB and was ‘showing well’. As quickly as we might be allowed, we ate our Sunday lunch and then headed up to the coast.

The Snowy Owl had been hunkered down in the grass before we arrived. Thankfully, it was in a fenced off area where it couldn’t be disturbed, and it was not at all phased by all the people gathered behind the fence. By the time we arrived, it had flown up onto a nearby fence post, where it continued to doze.

Snow Owl 2

Snow Owl 3

Snow Owl 4

Snow Owl 5

Snowy Owl – showed amazingly well at Snettisham

We watched the Snowy Owl here for some time. It was clearly still rather sleepy, and would regularly close its eyes, but also spent a lot of time looking round, presumably to see if any threats might be approaching. It showed no interest in a Brown Hare which ran almost underneath it and a couple of Red-legged Partridges walking through the grass nearby.

At one point, a group of Black-headed Gulls circled overhead and started to mob it briefly, the Snowy Owl ducking a couple of time, but remaining essentially unmoved. It stretched and preened a couple of times, showing off its enormous rounded wings, bigger than a Common Buzzard’s!

Snow Owl 8

Snowy Owl – having a stretch

As the afternoon wore on, it gradually started to become more active and alert. Eventually, after craning its neck to look round, the Snowy Owl took off and flew a short distance, landing again on another fence post just a little further down.

Snow Owl 9

Snow Owl 10

Snowy Owl – flew along to another fence post

Here the Snowy Owl was even closer to the fence, and it was now very much awake. Still, it stayed here for some time, clearly waiting for the right time to head out hunting or to head off on its way.

Snow Owl 6

Snow Owl 7

Snowy Owl – woke up as the light started to fade

Some video of the Snowy Owl this afternoon is linked below:


Eventually, with the light starting to fade, the Snowy Owl flew again, up onto the top of the inner seawall beyond. At that point, we had to leave. Apparently it then flew again, circling up and heading off south. At the time of writing it had disappeared and not been seen again.

It is almost 27 years since I was lucky enough to see the last Snowy Owl to turn up in Norfolk, in March 1991. Before that, you had to go back to 1938 to see one! It is certainly a rare bird here, and a magnificent one too. Well worth the effort to go and see again!

10th March 2018 – Back to the Brecks

A group tour today, down in the Brecks. The forecast earlier in the week had been for rain all day, but thankfully prospects had improved since then. It was still a rather grey and cloudy day but we just had a short, light shower over lunch, which was perfectly acceptable under the circumstances!

With the possibility that it might brighten up through the morning, we headed out to search for Woodlarks first, but ready to go looking for Goshawks if the weather improved. As we got out of the car, a Redwing was perched in the top of a tall tree and a Nuthatch was piping from the wood opposite.

As we walked in along the ride, we could hear a Yellowhammer singing and we found the male high in another bare tree in a nearby clearing. A female was less obtrusive in a small oak on the side of the path and the bright yellow male flew across to join her. We had a good look at them through the scope.

Walking round the edge of the clearing, we stopped to watch a Green Woodpecker which flew across and landed up in one of the trees over the far side. Suddenly we heard a Woodlark calling behind us and turned to see it had flown up and perched in the tree out in the middle, where the male Yellowhammer had been earlier.

That seemed to be the trigger for a burst of activity from the Woodlarks, as two started singing over the other side. We looked up to see one of the males high overhead, fluttering rounded bat-like wings and short tail, song-flighting. We could hear a second male doing the same, further away. The ringing, slightly melancholic song of the Woodlark is one of the sounds of early spring in the Forest, great just to stand and listen to.


Woodlark – one of several song-flighting this morning

The first Woodlark then started to sing from the tree too. It took off and flew across towards us, landing in a small oak towards the front of the clearing. We had a good look at it through the scope, noting its small crest and well marked pale supercilium. At that point, three Skylarks flew across in front of us too, noticeably longer-tailed than the Woodlarks.

Continuing on to the next clearing, we could still hear Woodlarks singing all around. One flew up from the edge of the path as we approached but disappeared off over the back. We stood and scanned here for a minute – there were several Yellowhammers here too and a couple of Linnet in the hazels on the edge of the grass. Having enjoyed good views of the Woodlarks, and with the weather still looking rather grey, we decided to have a quick look to see if we could find a Willow Tit. We made our way over to another block of forest and walked in along a different ride.

It was rather quiet as we made out way through between the dense blocks of commercial pine plantation, but we did come across a pair of Treecreepers which chased each other round and round the trunks of the trees, stopping occasionally for us to get a better look at them. A Goldcrest was singing from the pines by the path and showed nicely flitting around above our heads.

There are a couple of feeding tables set up here for the tits, and we stationed ourselves overlooking one of them. A steady stream of Blue Tits, Great Tits and Coal Tits was coming in and out all the time. We saw Marsh Tits too and a Nuthatch, but no sign of any Willow Tits. It is not clear how often they visit the feeding stations, but they can sometimes be heard singing or calling in the surrounding trees.

Unfortunately there was very little vocal activity from any of the other tits either this morning, until the weather started to brighten. We hadn’t been looking here too long but we were then torn as to wait to listen for Willow Tits or to head round to look for Goshawks. As the latter was the priority for the day, we decided to head back to the car, briefly distracted by a smart male Yellowhammer perched obligingly in the bushes by the road.


Yellowhammer – this smart male was perched in the bushes by the road

Parking at a convenient location nearby overlooking the forest, we were only just disembarking from the car when we spotted a Goshawk circling behind the tops of the trees. After a hasty exit, everyone managed to get onto the bird in question, although it was only just visible behind the firs. It was a young Goshawk, a juvenile, darker grey-brown above and orangey streaked black below, with very ragged wings.

As the first Goshawk started to circle up a little higher, a second bird appeared. This was an adult and by the looks of it a big female, very pale grey above and appearing almost white below. It was heading over towards the juvenile which was now moving off right as the adult Goshawk started to display, flying after it with deep, exaggerated wingbeats. The juvenile had strayed into its territory and the adult was flying up to see it off.

We lost sight of the two Goshawks behind a line of trees, before the adult appeared again further over. It then launched into a series of rollercoaster display dives, stooping straight down before turning sharply and climbing almost vertically, stalling at the top, before repeated it all over again. It did this several times, gradually losing height before it disappeared down into the trees.


Goshawk – circling up briefly before displaying after a juvenile entered it territory

It was very fortunate we had made the decision to come looking for Goshawks when we did. Talking to some other people who were already there, this was the first Goshawk they had seen this morning. It was already clouding over again when we arrived, and the short-lived period of warmer weather had just been enough to stimulate some activity. Rather quickly, it returned to being grey and cooler.

We stayed for a short while to see if the Goshawks might reappear, but there was no further sign while we were there. We did see lots of Common Buzzards circling over the treetops, a couple of Red Kites hanging over the fields behind, and a pair of Kestrels too. A Woodlark was singing in the distance and a little flock of Chaffinches which flew overhead had a couple of Bramblings with them too, although they were hard to pick out in flight.


Brambling – showed well in the tree by the feeders

With lots to pack in today, we decided to head off and try something different. We made our way over to Santon Downham and parked in the Forestry Commission car park there. A Goldcrest was singing in the fir trees nearby as we arrived. As we made our way down towards the river, a flock of Redwings and Fieldfares flew over. We stopped briefly to look at the feeders and a smart male Brambling flew up into the tree above our heads, giving us much better views than the flyover earlier.

Down at the bridge, we had a quick scan up and down the river. A pair of Grey Wagtails flew towards us calling and the male landed on a branch overhanging the water, just below the bridge, and started singing. When the female flew on downstream, he followed after her.

Grey Wagtail

Grey Wagtail – stopped to sing in a tree by the bridge

As we made our way down along the path on the riverbank, a Great Spotted Woodpecker flew across and landed in a tree on the other side briefly. A Marsh Tit was singing and there were some Long-tailed Tits in the sallows alongside the ditch, where a Goldcrest had just been bathing and stopped to preen. We could hear another Woodlark singing in the distance.

The poplars by the river were rather quiet today. A Nuthatch flew up and perched above us on one of the trunks and a Treecreeper climbed up past it. We had brought our lunches along with us, and sat on some of the sections of sawn up trunk helpfully left here to eat them. We were hoping we might get lucky and come across a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker here, even though it was not really the best time of day to look for them, but there was no woodpecker activity at all here now.

It started to spit with rain and a brief light shower passed through, thankfully not even enough to get us wet. Once we had finished eating, we started to make our way back. We had a quick look in the poplars the other side of the road too, but a Great Spotted Woodpecker was the only bird calling here. A smart Little Grebe in breeding plumage now showed nicely down on the river, diving repeatedly along the far bank.

Little Grebe

Little Grebe – on the river at Santon Downham

Back in the car, we paid a brief visit to the car park at St Helens. After not being reported since 22nd February, the Parrot Crossbills were apparently seen again yesterday, but it was unclear exactly where and there was no obvious sign of them here. We only spent a few minutes here though and decided not to hang around and to make our way round to Lynford Arboretum, which is where we had planned to spend the rest of the afternoon.

As we walked down the path past the Arboretum, we stopped for a quick look under the beech trees from the gate. There were lots of tits on the cage of fat balls and coming down to the seed spread liberally on the ground. A Nuthatch came down to join them too, but there were only a couple of Chaffinches otherwise here today

Down at the bridge, there was a little bit of seen put out on the pillars already, but we added a generous handful of black sunflower seeds too. There were lots more birds coming and going and we enjoyed great close views of Marsh Tits and Nuthatches in particular here, even though you had to be quick as they darted in, grabbed a sunflower seed or two and zipped off back to the trees repeatedly.

Marsh Tit

Marsh Tits – great close views at the bridge again today

A pair of Reed Buntings kept coming in to the seed at the bridge too and there were lots of Siskins feeding in the alders on either side of the path and down by the lake.


Siskin – lots were feeding in the alders here

After a while, we had to tear ourselves away from all the activity at the bridge and we made our way down to the paddocks to look for Hawfinches. We walked along to a gap in the hedge and looked over to the hornbeams in the middle where the first bird we spotted was a smart male Hawfinch perched up in the top!

We got the Hawfinch in the scope and had a good look at it. It was picking at the lichen on the branch, turning from side to side, giving us a great view of its huge bill, white tip to the tail and ornate wing feathers. When we heard a Hawfinch calling, we could see it was not the bird we were watching and a scan of the tree revealed a female Hawfinch climbing up through the branches nearby. It came over to join the male and we had the two of them in the scope together, the female noticeably duller grey-brown.


Hawfinch – a male, perched up in one of the hornbeams in the paddocks

Eventually, the male Hawfinch took off and started to fly over towards us, quickly followed by the female. They turned and headed away strongly south-east, over the pines and away out of view. A quick scan of the grass in the paddocks revealed a Mistle Thrush which flew up and perched nicely on a gate for us to look at it.

We walked back towards the bridge and round by the lake, where a pair of Gadwall were a nice addition to the day’s list. The drakes look rather plain grey and black at first glance, but closer inspection reveals intricate patterning, the connoisseur’s duck! A pair of Canada Geese were feeding on the lawn in front of the hall. When we got back to the bridge, a Great Spotted Woodpecker came down to investigate the seed but flew up into the trees behind when it saw us approaching.

Great Spotted Woodpecker

Great Spotted Woodpecker – in the trees by the bridge on our way back

Back in the car park, all we could find this afternoon were a couple of singing Goldcrests, so we made our way down the track beyond to check out the pits. There were not as many duck on here as there have been in recent weeks. A couple of drake Goldeneye disappeared round into one of the bays on the western pit, out of view. As we walked round to the eastern pit, we heard a distinctive call and looked up to see a pair of Mandarin flying past, the first we have been here this year.

The sun was finally starting to show itself just as we were finishing, totally contrary to the forecast which had suggested it would cloud over through the afternoon and may rain later. We stopped to watch a couple of Great Crested Grebes diving out on the water, looking very smart now in their breeding plumage. A male Reed Bunting was singing in the alders nearby – not the most exotic of songs, but it made it feel like spring already.

Great Crested Grebe

Great Crested Grebe – very smart now in breeding plumage

It was a nice way to end, but unfortunately that meant it was time to head back to the car and finish the day.


9th March 2018 – A Different Type of Snowy!

A Private Tour today, with a difference. It was to be an early start, a full day ranging widely up and down the coast, with a particular list of target birds to go after. We had to be flexible too – as anything can happen! Thankfully, the weather was kind to us – sunny in the morning, cloudier but dry in the afternoon, with light winds.

As we set off from the meeting point, a Barn Owl was still out hunting and flew across one of the fields by the road as we passed. A good way to start the day, with that being one of the species we were after. A little further on, and a Fieldfare flew over – another one we wanted to see today.

The first part of the morning was to be spent looking for gulls. In particular, we were hoping to catch up with one of the Iceland or Glaucous Gulls which have been along the coast in the last week. They have been very mobile though, some may even have moved on already, and we knew it would be a real challenge to find them today. Still, nothing ventured.

On our way down to the coast, we took a quick detour via Felbrigg Park. As we drove in along the access road, we spotted some thrushes in the small trees out in the grass. As well as a couple of Redwings, which flew off as we got out of the car, we managed to get two Fieldfares in the scope, better views than we had of the flyover on our way here.

Then it was on to the beach at Cromer. As we walked up to the clifftop, it was immediately clear there were not many gulls here today. A quick scan of the sea did produce a Shag swimming past just offshore though, quite a scarce bird here and a welcome surprise.


Shag – swimming past Cromer, viewed from the clifftop

There are sometimes more gulls on the beach the other side of the pier, so we walked down to that end of the prom for a closer look. There were some gulls here, but just Great Black-backed, Herring and Black-headed Gulls, not what we were looking for. We decided to head back to the car and try our luck further east along the coast.

Back on the clifftop, we continued to scan the sea. We spotted a Fulmar flying past offshore and watched as it circled up and came in towards the top of the cliffs. It joined three more Fulmars we hadn’t noticed before, a short distance away to the west of us, which were flying in and out of the sandy cliff face, presumably prospecting for potential nest sites.

Our next stop was along the coast at Mundesley. There had been a Glaucous Gull here earlier in the year, although it has become more elusive recently and has not been seen for a few days. Again, we started by walking over to the top of the cliffs and scanning the sea below. There were a lot more gulls here, which at least gave us something to work through. We had checked out quite a lot of them to no avail and we were looking quiet a long way back to the north when we picked up a juvenile gull on the sea with very pale wing tips. It seemed to have long pointed wings and looked good for an Iceland Gull, one of our targets.

It was a long way off from here, so we followed the path down the cliffs and set off along the beach. Fortunately, when we got there, the gull we had been watching was still present and we could confirm it was indeed a juvenile Iceland Gull. We had a good look at it through the scope, swimming round, before it tucked its head in and went to sleep. We could see its long wings, paler than the rest of its body, and its bill which appeared mostly dark from a distance but close up could be seen to have a diffuse pale base.

Iceland Gull

Iceland Gull – a juvenile on the sea off Mundesley

We had a good scan of the rest of the gulls out on the sea as we walked back to the steps, but could not find anything else of note. We did manage to spot a Guillemot out on the sea and three Red-throated Divers flying past in the distance. A Grey Plover and a Sanderling flew along the shore. As we climbed back up the cliffs, a Stonechat landed on a bush not far from the steps.

It was still early, so we decided to have a short drive further down the coast to Walcott. Gulls have sometimes been seen on the groynes here, but when we arrived there were just a few Herring Gulls there. However, as we got out of the car, several pipits flew up from the stubble field on the other side of the road. They sounded mostly like Meadow Pipits, but a couple of them flew towards some wires which spanned the middle of the field.

As we watched the pipits, they joined another bird which was already on the wires. It looked a different shape – plumper, with a more rounded head and shorter bill. A quick look through the scope and we could see it was actually a Lapland Bunting, not what we were expecting here! It appeared to be singing too.

Lapland Bunting

Lapland Bunting – a surprise bonus, singing from the wires

Through the scope, we could see the Lapland Bunting‘s rusty nape and the black outline to its ear coverts and bib. They are scarce winter visitors here, but can sometimes be found in fields around the coast. Stubble fields are often a particular favourite.

Making our way back along the coast, we stopped at West Runton. There has been a large roost of gulls over high tide on one of the ploughed fields here, but there was no sign of any gull there today. A flock of about twenty Brent Geese flew east offshore, presumably heading off back to the continent. The sea was in already when we walked down to the beach, and there were next to no gulls here either. A little flock of Redshank and Knot, accompanied by a single Dunlin, was feeding on the water’s edge but flew off ahead of the rising tide.

Purple Sandpiper was on the target list, so we made our way over to Sheringham next. As we walked along the prom, we could see lots of Turnstones picking around on the shingle or perched on the rocks. There were a few more gulls here, but nothing we hadn’t seen already, apart from better views of several Common Gull.

On the rocky sea defences below the Funky Mackerel cafe, feeding unobtrusively and very well camouflaged apart from its bright yellow-orange legs and bill base, was a Purple Sandpiper. It was beautifully lit and almost looked purple, but was perhaps more subtle shades of grey.

Purple Sandpiper

Purple Sandpiper – feeding on the rocks below the prom at Sheringham

Purple Sandpipers are great birds, full of character. We watched as this one shuffled around or clambered up and down the boulders. It was picking at the algae growing on the face of the rocks.

We walked down to the far end of the prom. A distant Gannet flying past offshore was the only other bird of note, but it was nice to see another two Fulmar‘s prospecting the cliffs here and they gave us a nice fly by as they continued on west. A Rock Pipit flew past calling and we looked up to see a Common Buzzard circling high over the town – possibly a bird on the move already.


Fulmar – one of several prospecting the cliffs at Cromer & Sheringham

The immediate possibilities for gulls along the coast here were just about exhausted, so we decided to change tack and look for some other birds now. As we continued on our way west, a quick stop by Walsey Hills added three Little Grebes and a Common Pochard on Snipe’s Marsh. There were lots of Brent Geese out on the grazing marshes opposite, but no sign of the Black Brant with them today. A drake Pintail was swimming down one of the channels.

When we got to Holkham, we decided to stop for an early lunch. There were lots of Wigeon out on the grazing marshes by Lady Anne’s Drive, along with a few Teal and Shoveler and a pair of Egyptian Geese. As well as Oystercatchers, Redshank and a flock of Curlew, we managed to spot several Common Snipe round the edges of the grassy pools. When the Snipe froze and looked nervously into the sky, we noticed a Red Kite drifting lazily over.

A Little Egret was hiding in one of the ditches and a Great White Egret flew over in the distance. As we made our way down towards the pines, we stopped to look at the Pink-footed Goose with the injured wing, which seems to be permanently here now. That was another species on the target list, so good to see it up close.

Pink-footed Goose

Pink-footed Goose – the regular bird with the injured wing

Out on the saltmarsh the other side, we made our way east. It was fairly quiet out here today, so we headed straight towards the Shorelarks favourite spot. While we were still some way off, we could see a couple standing sensibly on the edge of the saltmarsh and three photographers right out in the middle. We saw the photographers look up, scan round and then go charging across to the other side. As they stopped again, we noticed nine small birds flying away, disappearing off towards Wells. They had flushed the Shorelarks!

Thankfully, by the time we had walked out to join the couple – who were none too impressed with the behaviour of the photographers either – six Shorelarks had flown back in and landed down on the saltmarsh well away from their pursuers. We stood and watched them from a discrete distance – admiring their yellow faces and black bandit masks.


Shorelark – one of the six which flew back in after they had been flushed

Woodcock was another species on the list, but they can be very tricky to find during the day. We made our way back to the car via the pines. It was generally very quiet in the trees, although we did come across a tit flock – Long-tailed Tits, Coal Tits and a Treecreeper. We did manage to find a Woodcock, but it flew up from underneath a tree before we got anywhere near it and all we saw of it was a large rusty brown shape disappearing off through the pines.

At that stake, we noticed a missed call and then several messages to say that a Snowy Owl had been seen just along the coast at Scolt Head. Thankfully, we were almost back at the car and it was not very far away, so we got round there very quickly, before the crowds arrived. We could see a couple of people out on the saltmarsh as we walked out and they helpfully called us to say we would be best viewing from up on the seawall.

It was very easy to spot the Snowy Owl as it was being mobbed by two Red Kites, which were flying round and diving down at it repeatedly. We could see an enormous greyish-white bird on the ground beneath them. This was definitely not a species which was on the list, but only because it is so unusual here that it wasn’t even considered as a possibility! The last record of one in Norfolk was back in March 1991.

Snowy Owl 1

Snowy Owl – a big surprise to see this today

The Snowy Owl was quite a dark bird, possibly a young female, heavily marked with thick black bars above and finer bars below, on a white background. The face was more contrasting white. It sat on a shingle beach on the edge of Scolt Head Island, looking round. We joined the others out on the saltmarsh and had a great view of it through the scope.

Snowy Owl 2

Snowy Owl – the first in Norfolk since 1991

Having watched the Snowy Owl for a while, enthralled, we decided we should move on and try to see something else before the end of the day. We headed round to Titchwell. As we walked down the path towards the visitor centre, a smart male Brambling appeared in the sallows nearby. Another one from the target list.


Brambling – a male, in the bushes on the way from the car park

There were not so many birds on the feeders in front of the visitor centre, and just Chaffinches and Greenfinches on the ones the other side. We headed straight out onto the reserve. The Thornham grazing marsh ‘pool’ was very quiet – no sign of any Water Pipits. The reedbed pool had Tufted Duck and more Common Pochard. As we stood and scanned, a Marsh Harrier was quartering over the reeds and a Barn Owl was out hunting along the bank at the back.

The water level on the freshmarsh remains quite high, so there were few birds of note here today. The one thing of interest is the number of Mediterranean Gulls which are now back on the reserve. Several pairs flew back and forth calling and we could see at least 15 with the Black-headed Gulls on the fenced off island.

Mediterranean Gull

Mediterranean Gull – there are lots back at Titchwell now

There were a few waders on the Volunteer Marsh – Curlew, Black-tailed Godwit, Redshanks and several Avocets. A big flock of Linnets flew up from the islands of vegetation. There was a lot of water on the Tidal Pools too and not much on here either, apart from a few Gadwall and a Little Grebe.

Black-tailed Godwit

Black-tailed Godwit – showing well on the Volunteer Marsh

What we had really come here to look for though was out on the sea, so we made our way quickly out onto the beach. It didn’t take long to locate our target – three Long-tailed Ducks out on the water. They were rather distant at first, but a little while later we found them much closer, at least 14 of them now, and we could see the long tails on several of the drakes.

There were other ducks out here too – the headline being a flock of six (Greater) Scaup, plus several Red-breasted Merganser and Goldeneye and a small number of Common Scoter. There were plenty of Great Crested Grebes offshore too. Looking down along the shore, we added Bar-tailed Godwit to the list and had a better look at a Sanderling.

With everyone suitably exhausted after such a mammoth day along the coast, we made our way back. A Sparrowhawk flashed past across the saltmarsh and disappeared out over the reeds. The light was already starting to go as we headed for home, but what an amazing day it had been.


7th March 2018 – Winter Coast & Forest #2

Day 2 of two days of Private Tours today, and it was down to the Brecks for the day. We were originally forecast showers and brighter intervals, but this morning they changed their minds – a more organised band of rain was now expected. So it turned out, but at least it cleared through quickly and we even had a bit of brighter weather in the afternoon. As ever, it didn’t stop us getting out and seeing some really good birds!

One of the targets for the day was to be Goshawk, but the weather forecast was far from ideal now. We swung round first thing via one of the sites where we might hope to see them, but it was very damp, grey and misty. We decided to try for some of our other targets in the general area, so we could come back if the weather improved.

As we drove away, we noticed lots of thrushes, Fieldfares and Redwings in some low winter wheat. On the other side of the road, several Chaffinches were dropping down to feed in a weedy field. When we stopped to look through them, we noticed there were thrushes out here too. A single Mistle Thrush flew out to join them.

At least it wasn’t raining when we pulled up at the head of one of the rides leading into the Forest. Three Yellowhammers were sitting in the top of a small oak tree as we walked along the track. They flew off as we approached and landed in the top of another very tall tree out in the middle of a clearing.

We walked along the path around the edge of the clearing and, as we did so, we noticed a Woodlark flutter up from out in the middle and land in the top of the same tall tree. It wasn’t singing – perhaps not a surprise given the weather – but we had a nice view through the scope. This was the species we had come here to see, so it was good to get one under our belt.

Woodlark 1

Woodlark – showed well on the edge of the clearing

A little further along the path and we heard another Woodlark calling, in the edge of the clearing much closer to us. We stopped and scanned the ground and it flew up and landed a short distance back along the path. When we looked across where it had landed, there were now three Woodlarks together here. We walked back slowly and had a great view of them as they walked around in the low grass.

Two of the Woodlarks seemed to be following each other closely, while the third fed quietly nearby. The two were bobbing up and down nervously, calling. It looked like they might be two males, having a bit of a territorial dispute, while the female was busy feeding – the third bird looked a little duller coloured.  Eventually, one of the two Woodlarks flew up in one direction, where a fourth bird called in response, and the pair flew off the other way.

Woodlark 2

Woodlarks – these two were following each other, bobbing and calling

Having had great views of the Woodlarks, we headed off to another ride through the Forest to look for Willow Tits, while we waited for the weather to brighten up. As we walked in through the trees, it was rather quiet initially but when we got to one of the feeding stations put out for them on the edge of the pines, there was a lot more activity. A steady stream of birds were coming and going.

As we stood and watched for a while, we saw a very good selection of tits – lots of Coal Tits, Blue Tits and Great Tits, and several Marsh Tits. A family of Long-tailed Tits passed through the trees overhead. A Nuthatch came in to grab some sunflower seeds too. The Willow Tits here don’t seem to visit the feeding tables very often, but they can often be heard calling and singing in the vicinity. Unfortunately, in the cold grey weather there was very little vocal activity from any of the birds today.

Then it started to rain. We decided to head back to the car and go off to try something else instead. With no sign of the weather improving, we headed over to look for one of our other targets for the day, Common Crane. As we drove west towards Lakenheath, the sky seemed to brighten and the rain started to ease again.

Given the weather, we decided to drive round the area and try to find the Cranes feeding in the fields first, rather than walk out across the road. As we checked out some of the favoured spots, a Kingfisher perched on the edge of a drainage ditch by the road was a welcome sight. A Great White Egret out in the middle of a field took off as we pulled up and flapped away lazily, dropping down out of view.

Scanning the rushy meadows carefully, we found a pair of Cranes out in one of the fields. The rain had stopped now and they were busy preening, presumably drying themselves out. For such tall birds, they are remarkably inconspicuous on the ground, but when they stretched up we could see their black and white heads and long necks.


Common Crane – we found this pair drying out in a rushy meadow

With the weather improving and our main target here achieved, we headed round to the RSPB reserve at Lakenheath Fen for a quick look out at the Washland. There were lots of Reed Buntings on the feeders, but they flew off into the bushes as soon as we came outside. As we walked down the path towards the river, the sun came out and it was lovely and warm as we climbed up onto the bank.

The water levels here are not surprisingly high at the moment – lots of water for wildfowl. A quick look at a party of five swans over the back of the pool confirmed they were Whooper Swans – we could see their wedge-shaped bills with a long tongue of yellow stretching down to a point.

Whooper Swans

Whooper Swans – a party of five on the Washes

There were plenty of ducks on here too – Wigeon, Shoveler, Gadwall, Teal and Shelduck. This is always a good spot for Garganey in spring and with the very first birds already arriving in the country in recent days we had a careful scan just in case. There was no sign of one today, but surely it is just a matter of a week or so, if the weather continues to warm up. Lots of Tufted Ducks were diving on the river.

The only egret we could see at first was a Little Egret tucked down in the reeds on the far side of the river. There are normally Great White Egrets here too, and we eventually managed to find one in the distance away downstream.

A Water Pipit had flown off calling as we walked up onto the bank and after a while what was presumably the same bird flew back past us. Another one flew up from the thick vegetation below the bank as it called and landed a little further along. We had a quick look for it, but with the water levels high they were feeding in the thicker rushes today.

With the weather now warming up nicely, we decided to have another go for Goshawks while we had our lunch. Unfortunately, it proved to be just a transitory window of brightness and it clouded over again as we drove back into the Forest. At least it was dry now though.

As we ate our sandwiches, we scanned the trees. There were a few raptors up from time to time. The Common Buzzards were spiraling up in little groups, looking for thermals to gain height, although they never seemed to gain any great elevation. At one point, we had eight in the air circling together. A Red Kite appeared behind us in the distance, and a Sparrowhawk was displaying a long way off too. A Kestrel perched in the top of a fir tree.

Common Buzzards

Common Buzzards – circling up trying to find a thermal

After a while, we did manage to spot a Goshawk. It too was some way off, but it circled up and started displaying, flying across with deep, exaggerated wingbeats. It dropped down behind the trees, but we guessed it was still in the area as the Woodpigeons over that way scattered in alarm. A short while later, what was presumably the same Goshawk circled up and displayed for a couple of minutes more.

The forecast had indicated it might brighten up early in the afternoon, but there was no sign of that happening yet. There were a few other birds here to distract us. Lots of Chaffinches were feeding under the trees and when they flew out a Brambling appeared with them and landed in a small oak in front of us.  A Treecreeper appeared too, working its way up and down the trunks, and a flock of Fieldfares flew over, ‘tchack, tchacking’ loudly.

At least we had managed to see a Goshawk, despite the weather. We decided to head down to Lynford Arboretum for the rest of the afternoon. As we walked in along the path, we could hear a Siskin singing high in the larches. There were lots of tits covering the cage of fatballs looking in from the gate, and plenty of Chaffinches down in the leaf litter below.

Blue Tit

Blue Tit – Lynford is a great place to see – and photograph – tits up close

There was no food out down at the bridge when we arrived, but fortunately we had brought supplies with us today. Only a few seconds after putting out some sunflower seeds, the hordes began to descend. At first, the Blue Tits, Great Tits and Coal Tits appeared, quickly joined by a couple of Marsh Tits.

Marsh Tit

Marsh Tit – quickly came in to take advantage of the sunflower seeds

They were then joined by a couple of Nuthatches, which made repeated forays in from the trees, grabbing a beakful of seeds each time, presumably stashing them somewhere away in the wood. We stopped and spent a while photographing all the birds coming in to feed.


Nuthatch – one of two which came in repeatedly to the seeds we put out

There had been a lot of disturbance out over the paddocks when we arrived, with military helicopters repeatedly circling out very low from the battle area. We had a walk down to see if we could find any Hawfinches feeding there, but there was no sign of them this afternoon. There were fewer other finches feeding under the trees than normal too, with just one Brambling today and a 2-3 each of Greenfinch and Chaffinch.

The flock of Redwings had been in the trees just beyond the bridge when we arrived, but had now flown back out into the paddocks, along with a couple of Mistle Thrushes. A Great Spotted Woodpecker was chipping away at a branch low down in the hornbeams.

While we were standing and looking at the trees in the paddocks, we heard some distant yelping, honking noises. It was hard to work out where they were coming from at first, but then we realised they were swans calling and a large flock of 58 came over the trees at the back. They flew straight towards us over the paddocks and over our heads, Bewick’s Swans heading off east.

Bewick's Swans

Bewick’s Swans – some of the 58 which flew over us this afternoon

Bewick’s Swans are on the move at the moment, leaving their wintering grounds at Welney and Slimbridge and heading back to the continent on their way back towards their breeding grounds in Russia. It was great to see and hear them as they passed over us. It was quite late in the day and they were flying rather low, so perhaps they were planning to stop off somewhere in east Norfolk for the night.

We still hadn’t seen any Hawfinches though, so we walked further up along the edge of the paddocks, scanning the trees. The sky had cleared and the sun was out now. Suddenly we noticed two birds fly in and land in the top of a fir tree at the back – two Hawfinches. They were silhouetted against the light, but we assumed they would sit in the tops for a while in the late afternoon sunshine. We walked round to where we might get a better view of them, but by the time we got there they had dropped down out of sight.

We waited a while, scanning the trees, and it wasn’t long before another Hawfinch appeared in the tops. From where we were standing, we had a much better look at this one, catching the sun. We could see its enormous bill, bright chestnut plumage, and white tip to the tail. We had a good look at it through the scope, a cracking male, but when we tried to reposition ourselves for a closer look it too had dropped down into the trees.


Hawfinch – a smart male perched up in the late afternoon sun

We still wanted to have a quick look at the gravel pits, so we decided to make our way back. At the bridge, the sunflower seeds we had put out had already all gone! As we walked up towards the pits, a Green Woodpecker laughed and flew across behind us. We had received a message to say that there was a pair of Goosander on the pits this afternoon and when we arrived we immediately spotted one, a redhead, resting on one of the platforms.


Goosander – this redhead was resting on one of the platforms

There was no sign of the male Goosander though at first, but after scanning from the hide for a few seconds, he appeared from behind the trees at the back, accompanied by another female. There was a single male Goldeneye on here too, and three further drakes on the other pit.

It was getting late now and we had to be back, so we made our way back to the car. As we got to the car park, a Firecrest was calling from somewhere high in the fir trees, although it proved difficult to see before it went quiet. That would have been a nice way to end, but it was starting to get dark as we drove back and the return journey added no less than 4 Barn Owls and a couple of Woodcock zipping past in the dusk. Then it was back home for tea (and medals?!).


6th March 2018 – Winter Coast & Forest #1

Day 1 of two days of Private Tours today. It was mostly cloudy, with some brighter intervals, at least until late in the day when it cleared to blue sky and low sunshine. Another very pleasant day to be out, particularly after all the snow last week.

With lots of gulls reported along the NE coast yesterday, we decided to head over to Sheringham first thing. The storms last week washed up large quantities of sealife onto the beaches – fish, starfish, urchins, etc – and the gulls have been gathering in their hundreds to feed on the bounty, bringing a few of their scarcer cousins with them. We particularly hoped to catch up with one of the two Iceland Gulls here this morning.

As we walked down to the prom, we could immediately see lots of gulls on the sea just offshore. The tide was in, but rather than feeding on the fish washed up on the beach, the birds were busy picking food from the surface. We looked through them as we made our way east along the front – plenty of Black-headed, Common, Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls. A Rock Pipit flew in and landed on the concrete below us.


Gulls – there were hundreds feeding on the sea off Sheringham this morning

A quick stop to scan the rocky sea defenses, just below the prom, revealed a Purple Sandpiper with all the Turnstones. It was just below the top of some steps, so we walked over for a closer look. Two more Purple Sandpipers were roosting here too, partly hidden on the back edge of one of the large blocks. We had a great view of the three of them here – smart birds, with their yellow-orange legs and bill base, more subtle shades of grey than really purple!

Purple Sandpiper

Purple Sandpiper – one of three along the prom this morning

The other two Purple Sandpipers did wake up when a large wave crashed in beneath them, but quickly went back to sleep. The original bird continued feeding, clambering around the faces of the blocks. It then flew down to a small shingle beach where it started to pick around in the detritus washed up here, finding a worm to its liking, before flying back up onto the blocks again.

Continuing on east to the end of the prom, we couldn’t find any other gulls of note among the throng – there was no sign of the Iceland Gull which had been here yesterday. We did spot a couple of Fulmars and a distant Red-throated Diver flying past offshore. We decided to head back and try our luck further along the coast, but at that point we had a message to way that there was no sign of any of yesterday’s gulls at Cromer either.

A change of plan was in order, so we turned round and headed west. Our next stop was at Salthouse. As we got out of the car on Beach Road, a scan of the wet grazing marshes revealed several Wigeon and Teal hiding in the pools and three Ringed Plovers out on the mud. Walking out towards Gramborough Hill, several Meadow Pipits flew up from the grass calling. A Linnet landed on the fence in front of us. Three Dunlin were feeding on the pool beside the path, along with two more Ringed Plovers and a Redshank.

Another pipit flew up from the back of the pool, with shriller call and not repeated like the Meadow Pipits. It was a Rock Pipit. It landed on the shingle at the back of the pool and we could get a closer look at it. When it turned in the light, it was possible to make out a pinkish-apricot wash behind the streaks on the breast. The Rock Pipits here are winter visitors from Scandinavia, of the race littoralis, and they can get very pink below in spring, leading to much potential confusion with Water Pipit.

As we rounded Gramborough Hill, we could see several small birds picking around the grassy patches on the remains of the shingle ridge just beyond. These were the Snow Buntings we had come here to see. They are very well camouflaged against the stones, but watching carefully, we could see that there were actually at least 30 of them here.

Snow Buntings

Snow Buntings – some of the 30 still on the shingle ridge today

With a bit of care and patience, we managed to slowly edge ourselves into a position just below the grass where the Snow Buntings were feeding. They came down the ridge back towards us, giving us great close views. We could see they were a mixture of darker brown birds and paler white/grey/orange ones, the former from Iceland and the latter Scandinavian birds.

Snow Bunting

Snow Bunting – a young male of the Scandinavian race

After enjoying the Snow Buntings for a while, we backed away carefully and left them to feed in peace. We planned to head for Holkham next, but on the way was drove round via the beach road at Cley. There were just a handful of Brent Geese here today, on Cricket Marsh, and nothing in the Eye Field. No sign of the main flock, which was probably feeding further inland.

We turned inland and headed up towards Wighton. A quick stop on the way produced a Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming in the trees. There had been a Great Grey Shrike seen just west of Wighton a week ago, before the snow, so we thought we might have a quick look in passing to see if it was still in the area. Perhaps not surprisingly, there was no sign of it – in previous years, it has appeared to roam over a vast area.

We had stopped by a small farm reservoir. There were lots of Greylag Geese and Shelducks around the top of the bank, a few small gulls were flying in to bathe and a couple of Tufted Ducks appeared, diving out on the water. Then we noticed another duck right in the far corner. It was face on to us and fast asleep with its head tucked in. Like this, it could easily have been overlooked as another Tufted Duck, but we just caught a flash of what looked like grey on its shoulder. Reaching for the scope, we could confirm it was actually a Scaup.


Scaup – a 1w drake, asleep on a farm reservoir

There have been a few Scaup seen along the coast in the last few days, so this one had possibly sought shelter from the weather on this small reservoir. It bobbed along the back edge of the water and turned sideways so we could see its grey back properly, very different from the black back of the Tufted Ducks. It appeared to be a young drake, still with some darker brown feathers in the flanks and mantle.

Dropping down to the coast at Holkham, there were various ducks and geese out on the marshes as we made our way up Lady Anne’s Drive. A pair of Egyptian Geese were out in the field just inside the gate. Further up, several Teal and Shoveler were feeding on the pools. A big flock of Wigeon was out in the grass at the north end, in front of where we parked.


Wigeon – a large flock was feeding by Lady Anne’s Drive

It was time for lunch, so we made good use of the picnic tables here. While we were eating, we heard a call high above and looked up to see a Marsh Harrier displaying way up the sky. We watched as it tumbled and twisted, calling periodically. There were lots of other raptors here too. A Common Buzzard was also displaying over the edge of the pines and a Red Kite drifted in over the trees and across the grazing marshes. At one point, they were all in the air circling together!

A lone Pink-footed Goose was sitting down in the grass not far from the path, which meant that we could get a really close look at it. When it got up and started feeding, we could see it was not holding its left wing properly. Possibly it had been shot and injured, and had now recovered sufficiently to get around but unable to join the rest of the flocks on their way back to Iceland.

Pink-footed Goose

Pink-footed Goose – an injured bird, feeding by Lady Anne’s Drive

A single Brent Goose the other side of Lady Anne’s Drive was similarly very tame, but showed no sign of any obvious injuries to explain why it was on its own here.

Brent Goose

Brent Goose – also on its own right by Lady Anne’s Drive

After lunch, we made our way out through the pines and down onto the saltmarsh. As we walked east another five Rock Pipits were feeding in the vegetation on the edge of the path. A party of six Skylarks were incredibly well camouflaged against the browns of the saltmarsh plants.

The Shorelarks were not in their favoured spot today, so we continued on a little further and quickly located them on the edge of the dunes. We walked over for a closer look. They were initially feeding on the high tide line, picking at the line of dead vegetation looking for seeds, but then they ran up into the dunes and started to poke around in the marram grass.

Shorelark 1

Shorelark – one of the 9 which were still on the beach at Holkham today

We edged our way a little closer and had great views of the Shorelarks as they emerged from the grass and stood preening on the edge of the dune. We could see their yellow faces and black masks and collars, and we could even make out the small black horns on one or two of them. Then they ran down onto the beach and started to feed along the high tide line again.

Eventually, we had to tear ourselves away from enjoying watching the Shorelarks. As we walked back towards the pines, we had a quick look out towards the sea through the gap in the dunes. A single Great Crested Grebe was diving offshore. Back at the car, a scan of the grazing marshes again revealed a Common Snipe tucked down on the edge of one of the pools.

Common Snipe

Common Snipe – out on the grazing marshes by Lady Anne’s Drive

There were several options for the rest of the afternoon, but with a report of one of the Iceland Gulls seen flying past Cromer again, we decided to head back for another look. On our way back east, we noticed a white shape on a gatepost beside the road as we passed, a Barn Owl. After struggling to hunt in the snow, they have been hungry since and have been spending much more time out in daylight hours. We turned round and tried to sneak up on it in the car, but with another car coming past the other way, it flew off over the field as we approached.

When we arrived at Cromer, there were surprisingly few gulls on the beach. With the tide out, we had assumed that lots of birds would come in to feed on all the storm debris again. We spoke to one of the people who had seen the Iceland Gull fly past earlier, but there had been no further sign of it.

We decided to try our luck back along the coast at West Runton instead. The clouds had cleared now and the sun was out, bathing the beach in glorious late afternoon light. There were lots more gulls here, so we set about scanning through them. We hadn’t gone too far, when we spotted a smart adult Mediterranean Gull.

Mediterranean Gull

Mediterranean Gull – one of three on the beach at West Runton today

The Mediterranean Gull‘s bright red bill and white wing-tips particularly stood out, relative to all the commoner Black-headed Gulls. It was still mostly in winter plumage, with a black bandit mask behind the eye and peppering of dark in the rear crown.

There were lots of waders around the rock pools down on the beach too. Several Grey Plover, Knot, Redshanks and Dunlin, feeding in between the gulls. Another Purple Sandpiper was harder to see among the rocks. A flock of Sanderling appeared, running around on the sand over towards the water’s edge.

We couldn’t find any sign of the Iceland Gull here, but we did manage to pick out a 2nd winter (3rd calendar year) Caspian Gull among the Herring Gulls. It stood out immediately with its long legs and long neck, standing tall. It also had a distinctive long, pointed face with a long bill, exaggerated by its white head and small dark eye. Unfortunately, we were just admiring it when a dogwalker came around the end of the groyne and flushed all the gulls from that part of the beach.

The school group which had been out on the beach had just left, so a lot of the smaller gulls flew in to feed on the sand just beyond the access ramp. In with all the Black-headed Gulls and Common Gulls, we found another two more Mediterranean Gulls. These had much more black on the head that the one we had seen earlier, meaning there were at least three different individuals here this afternoon.

It was lovely out on the beach in the late sunshine, but the owner of the car park came down to tell us that it was about to be locked up, so it meant we had to walk back up to the top of the cliffs to get the car out. It had been a great day, but it was now time to head for home anyway.


5th March 2018 – Thaw in the Brecks

A Private Tour today, down in the Brecks. After the snow and cold weather over the last week, warmer temperatures and rain overnight brought a very welcome rapid thaw. It was then a lovely day today – partly cloudy with some nice sunny intervals and the temperature up to 9-10C!

Our main target for the morning was Goshawk. We headed over via a favoured spot first thing, but it was still rather cool and cloudy. A quick stop and scan revealed a Sparrowhawk flying past over the trees, but otherwise there was very little raptor activity yet. So we decided to head off and look for Woodlarks instead first.

By the time we got there, the sun was already starting to break through the clouds. We parked again at the head of a ride and walked into the start of the forest. At the first clearing, we could hear a Woodlark calling. We looked across into the top of one of the tall trees which had been left out in the middle and there were two Woodlarks and a Yellowhammer. We had a quick look in the scope – a good start, but they were a little distant and we were looking into the light.

Another Woodlark was singing further along the ride, so we walked on to the next clearing. A couple more Yellowhammers landed high in a tree by the path as we made our way over there. Here we found the Woodlark in full song flight, fluttering high over our heads, flying round over its territory. It is a wonderful sound, despite the song having a somewhat mournful quality to it, a Woodlark singing over a forest clearing, a real sign of early spring.

As we walked round the edge of the clearing, another Woodlark flew up from the grass out in the middle and landed in a small oak tree by the path, calling. We had a good look at it, but as we tried to get round onto the other side where the light was better, it flew across and landed down in the grass a short distance away.

Woodlark 1

Woodlark – flew up and landed in a small oak tree

It was non-stop Woodlark action now. With some warmth in the air, they were making up for lost time, back in full spring-mode after the cold spell over the last few days. We decided to walk along and try to see the one which had just landed in the grass, but on our way we were distracted by the songflighting Woodlark doing another circuit above us.

The other Woodlark then flew up from the ground ahead of us, followed closely by a second bird. We watched as they flew across and landed on the edge of the clearing. By moving slowly and quietly, we were able to follow them and had fantastic views of them on the ground.

Woodlark 2

Woodlark – we had great views of one pair on the ground

The Woodlarks were feeding quietly, in and out of the replanted furrows. The female was busy feeding while the male would periodically stop to sing quietly.

Woodlark 3

Woodlark – the female was busy feeding around the furrows

Eventually, we had to tear ourselves away and left the Woodlarks feeding in peace. The sun was out now and we had a date with Goshawks!

Back where we had looked earlier, it was immediately apparent that raptor activity had increased significantly. There were already several Common Buzzards up in the sky now. Scanning carefully, we picked up our first Goshawk of the day, an adult, grey above and white below. It was rather distant and simply circled up, gradually gaining height into the patches of cloud before drifting off.

When the Goshawk disappeared, we had a bit of wait before we saw what was possibly the same bird circling again. Possibly they were waiting for enough thermal activity in the air because there was then a flurry of action. A young male appeared, catching orange below as it turned, and it started displaying, flying over the trees with deep and slow wingbeats. That prompted one of the adults to respond, and we even had a burst of roller-coaster display, swooping down before turning sharply back up again.

While we were back watching the juvenile Goshawk again, the next thing we knew two adults appeared together. They were both displaying and at one point seemed to have a coming together, grappling talons, chasing each other down into the trees. A fourth Goshawk, another adult, then circled up away to our right, much closer this time, giving us a great view of it through the scope.

As well as the Goshawks, there were lots of Common Buzzards up now. A Red Kite drifted across over the trees and a Kestrel circled up too. We could hear another Woodlark singing here, off in the distance.

Common Buzzard

Common Buzzard – there was lots of raptor activity once the air warmed up

Eventually, we decided to move on. There are small numbers of Willow Tits still clinging on in the forest around here and some feeding stations have been set up for them. We headed over to one site to see if we could find them. As we walked up the ride, there were lots of tits in the trees, Blue, Great and Marsh Tits, but not the one we had come to see.

There were a few people gathered staring at a bird table in the edge of the trees. A steady stream of tits, mainly Coal Tits, were flying in and grabbing a sunflower seed before taking it back into the trees to eat. A Marsh Tit did the same, as did a Nuthatch. It appeared there had been no sign of the Willow Tits.

We hadn’t been standing there very long before we heard a distinctive song coming from deep in the trees. A Willow Tit! It seemed like none of the others there recognised it, so it was hard to tell if it had been singing before we arrived. We walked a little further up the ride, in the direction of the song, which seemed to be coming from behind a second bird table in amongst the pine trees. When the Willow Tit went quiet again, we stopped to see if it was coming in to feed here, but all we could see was another Nuthatch and a couple more Coal Tits.


Nuthatch – making regular visits to the feeding tables

When the Willow Tit started singing again a couple of minutes later, it had crossed the ride and was now in the trees behind us. It was moving very quickly through the trees, so we followed the song. It was quite high up in the dense pines and impossible to see anything beyond a shape moving when it flew, but it appeared to be working its way back towards the ride. Then it shot out, over our heads and back across the ride and disappeared into the trees again.

At least we had heard the Willow Tit singing, and had the briefest glimpse of it, before it now went quiet again. We decided to move on. On our way back to the car, a Goldcrest was singing in the trees and another Marsh Tit was much more obliging than its cousin.

The middle of the day is not the best time to look for woodpeckers, but we decided to give it a shot and have a walk along the river to see if we could find one of the Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers. After the recent cold weather, we thought they might be extra active today, but it was rather quiet on the way out. A pair of Mute Swans and a couple of Little Grebes were out on the water. We could hear a Woodlark singing in the distance, and a Reed Bunting calling in the reeds.

As we got to the poplars, a small flock of Redwing flew up from the wet ground beneath into the trees, where they perched waiting for us to move on. A Marsh Tit was singing and a Nuthatch climbed down a tree trunk.


Redwing – feeding below the poplars along the riverbank

We had brought our lunch with us, so we sat on a couple of logs which had been cut from one of the recently fallen trees. It was a lovely place to stop and eat, listening to the sound of the water flowing past. At first, there was not much else to hear but all of a sudden there was a burst of activity. The number of tits singing seemed to increase and then a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker called. It was deep in the trees on the other side of the river, but at least we now knew where it was.

We hoped that might be the start. A Green Woodpecker laughed at us from somewhere downstream. We waited and then a Great Spotted Woodpecker called too, but its smaller cousin had gone quiet. After we finished our lunch, we walked a little further along the riverbank, but we didn’t hear it again, so we made our way back to the car

Lynford Arboretum was our final destination for the afternoon. As we made our way in along the path, we stopped by the gate overlooking the feeders in the trees. There were plenty of tits coming to feed on the fat balls in the big cage feeder. Lots of Chaffinches were down in the leaf litter when we arrived, but they were very nervous and kept getting spooked – by a Woodpigeon flying over or two Rabbits chasing each other through the trees.


Tits – coming to feed on the fatballs

Continuing on down to the bridge, there was lots of seed mix spread out on the pillars today, but no sunflower seeds. The Marsh Tits and Nuthatches which are usually here were conspicuous by their absence today, possibly not appreciating the food on offer. The other tits were more interested in the feeders – a steady stream of Great Tits, Blue Tits, Coal Tits and Long-tailed Tits. Several Reed Buntings did seem to be enjoying the selection though.

Great Tit

Great Tit – coming down to the food at the bridge

As we turned onto the path which runs alongside the lake, several birds flew up from the wet meadow beyond the fence. In amongst the Redwings, three slightly smaller birds flashed white in the wing and a white tip to the tail as they took off – Hawfinches! They landed again just before the next fence over and started to feed down in the wet grass. We got a smart male Hawfinch in the scope and had a great look at it.

Unfortunately, just at that moment, a particularly loud group of people walked past along the other side of the paddocks and scared all the Redwings again. There was a large flock of them still here today, at least 60 birds. The Hawfinches flew up with them and disappeared into the hornbeams out in the middle.

We continued on a little further along the path and could see one of the Hawfinches feeding now, down on the ground under the trees. There were lots of other finches feeding there too – several Bramblings in with the Chaffinches and Greenfinches. However, the Hawfinches were very flighty and the next time we saw them they disappeared down below one of the other trees, further back in the paddocks, where we couldn’t see them.

Turning our attention to the lake instead, a large flock of Siskins was feeding in the alders, and flying round calling. The water was still mostly frozen, but a single Gadwall feeding in a patch of open water round one of the islands was an addition to the day’s list.

We decided to try our luck round on the other side of the paddocks and as we stopped to look around the first hornbeam out in the middle, we heard a Hawfinch calling from the next tree over. We hurried along to a gap in the hedge and had great views of it perched in the hornbeam calling. We could see its huge cherry stone-crushing bill and black mask and bib.


Hawfinch – perched up in one of the hornbeams, calling

Then the Hawfinch dropped back into the trees and disappeared. It was that time of the day, when the finches are starting to go to roost. The other birds had also disappeared from under the trees, so we decided to call it a day and head for home ourselves.