3rd Dec 2016 – Winter Wonders, Day 2

Day 2 of a three day long weekend of Winter Tours in North Norfolk today. It was a nice dry and mild winter’s day, brighter in the morning though clouding over a little later on.

While we were loading up the car in Wells first thing this morning, we happened to scan the trees in a garden next to the road. A Coal Tit appeared in the top of an apple tree and, while we  were watching it, a Waxwing popped up next to it. There have been lots of Waxwings about so far this winter, but most of those which arrived on the coast here have moved on inland. So this was most a welcome surprise.

6o0a1185Waxwing – just one, in the centre of Wells briefly first thing

The tree was full of Blackbirds feeding on the apples still on the tree, and the Waxwing dropped down and joined in. It fed for a few seconds, then climbed up into the back of the tree. It was on its own and probably looking for other Waxwings – it called a couple of times. At that point, something spooked the Blackbirds and everything scattered. We waited a while for the Waxwing to come back down to the apples but we hadn’t seen where it had gone and there was no further sign of it. It had probably just dropped in to feed briefly, before carrying on its way.

While we were waiting, we did see a Brambling which flew down to the feeders in another tree in the same garden. Another nice surprise to start the day.

6o0a1199Brambling – coming down to the feeders in the same garden

Our first destination proper was Holkham. As we drove down Lady Anne’s Drive, there were a few flocks of Pink-footed Geese in the fields either side, so we pulled up for a closer look, admiring their pink legs and bill bands.

6o0a1203Pink-footed Geese – in the fields along Lady Anne’s Drive

At the north end, a little group of Redshank were feeding on the pools in the grazing marsh on one side of the road and a large flock of Wigeon was out on the grass on the other side. Nearby, we found a single Curlew and a lone Common Snipe in the grass too. There was a bit of a commotion further over and we turned to see a male Marsh Harrier chasing a Carrion Crow. The Crow had something in its bill and obviously didn’t want to give it up. The two birds went round and round in tight circles for a minute or so, until the Marsh Harrier eventually gave up.

Walking out towards the beach, we could see a small group of Brent Geese out on the saltmarsh as we made our way down the boardwalk. One of the geese was subtly different from the others – darker bodied and with a more contrasting flank patch and a larger white collar. It was not dark enough for a pure Black Brant though. It was a Black Brant hybrid (the offspring of a Black Brant and a Dark-bellied Brent mixed pair), and it has been returning here for several years, presumably with the same group of Dark-bellied Brent Geese.

img_9082Black Brant hybrid – a returning bird with the Dark-bellied Brent Geese

Right in the far corner of the saltmarsh, we found the Shore Larks. We could see them from some distance away, flying round, flashing white underneath as they turned. They landed again and we were able to approach carefully, stopping ahead of them and waiting as they worked their way towards us.

6o0a1225Shore Larks – some of the 28 at Holkham first thing this morning

There were 28 Shore Larks in the flock today, while we were there at least. As they came closer, we had a great view of them in the scope. Their bright yellow faces shone in the morning sunshine, contrasting with the black masks. Very smart little birds!

6o0a1266Shore Larks – the flock gradually came closer to us

In the end, we had to tear ourselves away from the Shore Larks and walked out towards the dunes to look at the sea. Just about the first bird we found out on the water was a Red-necked Grebe. It was a little distant at first – thankfully it would come much closer inshore later. While we were trying to get everyone in the group onto it through the scope, a different bird surfaced in front. It was a Great Northern Diver. We all had a quick look at it before it dived.

The more we scanned the sea, the more we found. Not everyone had seen the Red-necked Grebe yet, and while scanning to find it one of the group found two grebes together. They didn’t sound like the Red-necked and taking a look through the scope they turned out to be two Slavonian Grebes. Then we found another Slavonian Grebe and another two, further out. Then a careful scan revealed at least 6 Slavonian Grebes scattered across the sea in ones and twos. A great number to find together in one place here at this time of year! There were lots of Great Crested Grebes out on the sea too.

The sea duck were further out today, and it took us a while to find a raft of Common Scoter. Looking carefully through the flock, we started to find a few Velvet Scoters in with them. The Common Scoter were almost all females, with large pale cheeks. Next to them, the Velvet Scoters looked much darker headed, with two smaller pale spots visible on a good view. It was not easy to pick them out at first, given the distance and the swell, but they drifted a bit closer inshore and the sea flattened off to make it a bit easier. In the end, we could see there were at least 10 Velvet Scoters out there today. A single Eider was similarly distant.

While we were watching the sea, we heard Shore Larks calling and a small group of nine flew along the beach and landed down on the sand in front of us. We presumed they were part of the group we had seen earlier, back on the saltmarsh, which had probably been disturbed by the increasing number of dogs out for a Saturday morning walk.

Four Snow Buntings had earlier flown east along the edge of the dunes. After the Shore Larks had moved on, another group of five Snow Buntings dropped down onto the tide line, where we could get a great look at them. One of them appeared to be an adult male Scandinavian bird, with lots of white in the wing.

6o0a1309Snow Buntings – 3 of the 5 which landed on the tide line

By this stage, the Red-necked Grebe had come closer inshore, giving us much better views. We could even see the yellow base to its bill, glinting in the sunshine! It gave us a better chance to compare it to the Slavonian Grebes, and the Great Crested Grebes as well. The Great Northern Diver had reappeared, at least we assumed it was the same one we had seen earlier, and for a few minutes it stopped diving and allowed us to get a great look at it too.

On our way back over the saltmarsh, we had a quick scan and there was no sign of any Shore Larks where they had been first thing this morning. We eventually stumbled across a small group, closer to the dunes, as we walked back. There were nine of them, so they were possibly the same birds we had seen out on the beach earlier. It seemed likely that the large flock had been disturbed and had disbursed. There were a lot of people out today, walkers and dog-walkers.

When we got back through the pines, we turned and walked west along the track on the south side of the trees. There were lots of Jays calling and flying back and forth across the path. At Salts Hole, we found a couple of Little Grebes on the water among the ducks. A Mistle Thrush flew out of the trees and dropped down onto the grass beyond. We could hear Long-tailed Tits calling and a tit flock duly appeared on the edge of trees. As well as a variety of tits, we could see lots of tiny Goldcrests flitting around. We heard a Treecreeper calling, and shortly after it appeared, working its way up the trunk of a pine tree. A Green Woodpecker flew off through the tree tops.

6o0a1339Long-tailed Tit – we found a mixed tit flock on the edge of the pines

We stopped briefly on the boardwalk by Washington Hide to scan the grazing marshes. A rather dark Common Buzzard was perched in a bush behind the reeds. A distant Red Kite circled over the trees in Holkham Park beyond. Four Gadwall were upending on the pool in front of the hide.

Making our way quickly further west, we climbed up to Joe Jordan Hide. Our first target was achieved as soon as we looked out of the flaps. A large flock of White-fronted Geese were out on the grass just to the left of the hide. We could see the white band around the base of the pink bill and the black belly bars of the adults. There were quite a few duller juveniles  too. In all, we counted at least 96 White-fronted Geese here today.

6o0a1343White-fronted Geese – there were at least 96 at Holkham today

Before we had even had a chance to sit down, someone else in the hide pointed out a Great White Egret which had appeared on the edge of a reedy ditch. We got that in the scope next and had a great view of it, an enormous white bird, the size of a Grey Heron, with a long, pointed, yellow bill and black feet, distinguishing it from a Little Egret. The Great White Egret flew across and landed on an old bridge, where it stood preening for a while. Eventually it flew again and disappeared back behind the reeds.

img_9110Great White Egret – out on the grazing marshes from Joe Jordan Hide

There were lots of Marsh Harriers out here too. At first, we could see a couple perched in the bushes, but then more appeared and the next thing we knew there were six Marsh Harriers circling together. One of them was carrying bright green coloured wing tags and when it landed we were able to read the code on them. It turned out the bird had been ringed several miles inland from here in the summer of 2015 and this was the first time it had been seen again!

It was time for lunch, so we made our way back to Lady Anne’s Drive and made good use of the picnic tables outside. After lunch, we drove west to Burnham Overy Staithe and made our way out along the seawall towards the dunes.

There were lots of Wigeon and Curlew out on the grazing marshes by the start of the seawall. Several Redshank and Grey Plover were feeding on the mud along the edges of the harbour channel and we counted at least 10 Little Grebes in the channel itself. As we turned the corner on the seawall, the larger area of open mud was covered in waders, predominantly Dunlin. On the grass the other side, lots of Brent Geese were busy feeding. A little further along, we stopped to look at a striking pale Common Buzzard perched on a post.

6o0a1362Brent Geese – lots were feeding on the grazing marshes by the seawall

Once we reached the dunes, we made our way straight over to the beach. It had clouded over more now and, with the shortness of the days at this time of year, we were already starting to lose the light. There was no sign of the Isabelline Wheatear in the dunes around the end of the boardwalk as we walked past. It has seemingly been hiding out on the beach for the last couple of weeks, so we thought we would look for it out there, although we knew we were probably a little late in the day.

We walked quickly west along the tideline. There were lots of gulls out on the beach, a huge number of Common Gulls in particular, with more large groups constantly flying in to join them. There were a few waders too – a Bar-tailed Godwit, a handful of Ringed Plovers and Oystercatchers and a couple of Turnstones. What looked at first like a raft of scoter in the distance out on the sea turned out to be a large flock of Wigeon when we got them in the scope. Presumably they had been frightened off the saltmarsh, perhaps by a raptor, and had sought safety out here.

When we saw movement ahead of us on the beach, we looked to see six Shore Larks picking along the high tide line. We lost sight of them behind a ridge and walking on the next thing we knew they appeared right in front of us. They scurried ahead of us for a while, before flying up and doubling back, landing behind us back down on the tide line again.

6o0a1381Shore Lark – six more were feeding along the tide line out at Gun Hill

The bushes round Gun Hill were very quiet now and there was no sign of the wheatear in the dunes on the walk back to the boardwalk. From the seawall, we scanned either side on the way back to Burnham Overy Staithe. We picked up a distant grey male Hen Harrier over the saltmarsh, quartering low over the bushes. It seemed to drop down into the bushes, but the next thing we knew we picked up a grey male even further back, towards Scolt Head. Perhaps it was a different bird? The next thing we knew, a ringtail Hen Harrier was flying round with it.

With lots of yelping, we watched as a large flock of Pink-footed Geese dropped down off the fields and onto the grazing marshes. Even in the growing gloom, we could see there were several Barnacle Geese with them, although as usual there is no way of telling whether they might be wild birds or just part of the feral flock from Holkham.

It was the time when the Pink-footed Geese come in to roost at Holkham, and we looked up into the sky in the distance beyond and saw thousands and thousands of geese in a vast skein smearing the horizon. They were flying across from us, heading towards the back of Holkham Park. When we got back to the car park, we heard more geese yelping and looked up to see several more skeins of Pink-footed Geese coming in from the west. We loaded up the car as several more skeins passed overhead and then it was time to head for home ourselves.

2nd Dec 2016 – Winter Wonders, Day 1

Day 1 of a three day long weekend of Winter Tours in North Norfolk today. It was a nice morning, cloudy with some brighter intervals, but the cloud thickened in the afternoon and brought some misty drizzle with it at times.

Our first stop was at Blakeney. As we set out towards the seawall, a small group of Brent Geese were feeding on the edge of the saltmarsh the other side of the harbour channel. The first half dozen were our regular Dark-bellied Brent Geese but a pair a few metres further on were more interesting. One of the pair was much paler on the flanks and belly. It was a Pale-bellied Brent Goose and it appeared to be paired with a male Dark-bellied Brent. It really stood out next to the Dark-bellieds.

6o0a0923Pale-bellied Brent Goose – this one is paired with a Dark-bellied Brent

Dark-bellied Brent Geese breed in arctic Russia and come here for the winter in large numbers. Pale-bellied Brent Geese breed from Svalbard across Greenland into the Canadian High Arctic. We regularly get a small number of Pale-bellied Brents in with our regular wintering flocks of Dark-bellied Brents.

While we were looking out over the saltmarsh beyond, suddenly lots of birds took to the air. A flock of Golden Plover whirled overhead. Low over the vegetation we picked up a Hen Harrier further back, quartering the marshes. A ringtail, it flashed its white rump patch as it flew away from us.

As we walked out past the harbour, a Rock Pipit flew across and landed on one of the small boats tied up on the water, where we could get it in the scope. We flushed several Meadow Pipits from the grassy banks of the seawall and a few Reed Buntings too. We heard the distinctive calls of a Lapland Bunting flying over, a dry rattle ‘t-t-t-t’ and a ringing ‘teu’, but it was long way out over the grazing marshes and we didn’t manage to find it.

There were various waders which flushed from the saltmarsh as we walked past, Curlews and Redshanks. A Little Egret was busy feeding in one of the channels. A group of Turnstone ran along a path ahead of a couple of dogs until they got too close and the Turnstone flew off towards the channel.

At the corner of the seawall, we stopped to look at a small flock of Dunlin on the edge of the harbour. A smart drake Goldeneye surfaced on the water just behind and then a raft of duck appeared in the channel. As well as a few more Goldeneye, there were several Red-breasted Mergansers with their spiky haircuts. While we were admiring them a rather nondescript brown duck bobbed up in their midst. It was a 1st winter female Scaup, normally difficult to find here in the winter but this appears to be a good year for them.

There were a few more waders here now too. A Ringed Plover and a Grey Plover, both picking at the surface with their short bills. An Oystercatcher too. The tide was starting to go out and more mud was beginning to appear. A little further along the seawall, where the harbour starts to open out, there were some bigger numbers of waders and sifting through them we found a small group of dumpy Knot and a couple of Black-tailed Godwits closer to us. The Bar-tailed Godwits were much further over.

We had seen a female Marsh Harrier earlier, on our walk out, flying over the reeds out in the middle of the Freshes. When all the Wigeon erupted from the grazing marshes, we turned to see a male Marsh Harrier flying towards us. It turned slightly and cut out across the saltmarsh, flying past us and flushing all the Brent Geese as it went.

6o0a0942Marsh Harrier – a smart, grey-winged male

There were a few Skylarks feeding on the short vegetation on the inland side of the seawall, which flushed as we approached. They circled round and landed again on the edge of an open area. A slightly smaller bird was with them now and through the scope we could confirm it was a Lapland Bunting. It was creeping around in the short grass at first and hard to see, but then it flew a short distance towards us and landed out in the open where we could get a great view of it through the scope.

img_9054Lapland Bunting – feeding with Skylarks below the seawall

The Skylarks were nervous and kept flying round. The Lapland Bunting also flew around a couple of times and landed back on the short grass. Then suddenly it was off, calling as it went.

Lapland Buntings can be very hard to find out in the open, so this was a great way to cap off our walk here. As we started to walk back, we could see five or six small birds perched on the fence and a closer look confirmed there were five Twite.They had obviously been bathing in the puddles by the path and were now busy preening. We got them in the scope and could see their yellow bills and burnt orange faces.

img_9074Twite – five were preening on the fence after having a bathe

The sixth bird was a single Linnet which perched on the fence near the Twite for comparison for a few seconds. We could see it had a grey bill and was not as brightly coloured on the face as the Twite.

Back to the car, and we made our way further east to Salthouse. We parked at the end of Beach Road and walked east along the edge of the shingle towards Gramborough Hill. Local photographers have been putting seed out for the Snow Buntings here, so when a small group of buntings appeared from around the back of the Hill, we initially thought they would be the Snow Buntings. They headed south, inland across the grazing marshes, which would be an odd direction for Snow Buntings to go and when they turned and dropped down, with the fields behind them, we could see they were actually more Lapland Buntings.

There were at least 15 Lapland Buntings in the flock, a very good number, but they kept on going and we lost sight of them as they flew off west. We weren’t finished though, and yet another lone Lapland Bunting circled over the grazing marshes calling a few minutes later before dropping down into the grass out in the middle.

The day’s delivery of seed had just been put out for the Snow Buntings and we didn’t have to wait long before they flew back in to enjoy it. They landed on the top of the shingle ridge first, where they had a good vantage point to check for any danger, before running down the slope to where the food was waiting for them. There were at least forty of them here today, although not all of them came down to feed.

6o0a1033Snow Buntings – coming down to feed on feed put out on the shingle ridge

The Snow Buntings can be quite tame and we had great close views of them when they came down to the food. Looking at the flock, we could see a variety of different looking birds, some much paler ones amongst a mass of darker, browner ones. We get two different races here in the winter from different breeding areas. The duller ones are predominantly female Snow Buntings of the Icelandic race, insulae, whereas the paler ones are from Scandinavia, of the race nivalis.

6o0a1017Snow Bunting – of the Scandinavian race, nivalis

Regardless of where they come from, the Snow Buntings are always great to watch. Along with Lapland Buntings, they are our two sought after winter buntings, so we had enjoyed a very successful morning getting such great views of both species.

We walked back over Gramborough and along the remains of the now flattened shingle ridge. The sea looked fairly quiet but we did see a loose groups of six Red-throated Divers flying past distantly. Another Red-throated Diver was on the sea, along with a single Guillemot, but both were hard to see out in the swell and diving constantly. A couple of Grey Seals surfaced just offshore and were much more obliging – they seemed to come in to investigate a couple of fishermen down on the beach. Back to the car and a very obliging group of Turnstones had flown in to feed on some food put out for them. We watched them feverishly turning the stones over – they had a lot to choose from here!

6o0a1092Turnstone – very tame, feeding by the Beach Road at Salthouse

It was already time for lunch, but we still wanted to make one last stop at the Iron Road before heading back to the visitor centre at Cley. Rather than have lunch here, the group decided on a late lunch back at the visitor centre, so we set off straight away to see what we could find. The water level on the pool by Iron Road has gone down nicely and there was a good flock of Dunlin on here today. However, apart from a Redshank, we couldn’t immediately see anything else. With time pressing, we headed out along Attenborough’s Walk.

There were four Pink-footed Geese on the grazing marshes close to the path, which flew off as we passed. A little further along, we could see a large flock of Brent Geese. The vast majority were Dark-bellied Brents, as we would expect here, but a quick look at them and we found our second Pale-bellied Brent Goose of the day, right at the front of the flock.

6o0a1163Pale-bellied Brent Goose – with Dark-bellied Brent behind for comparison

There were lots of Dunlin right in front of Babcock Hide but they were very nervous and kept flying round. A single Common Snipe, feeding on one of the islands nearby, took fright when they did so and landed much further back, out of sight in some taller vegetation. A single Ruff (or, more accurately, a female Reeve) was picking around on one of the islands further back, in amongst a large flock of sleeping Teal. Two Black-tailed Godwits were feeding up to their bellies in the deeper water.

6o0a1145Dunlin – one of several feeding right in front of Babcock Hide

At first all we could see were dabbling ducks out on the water, but then one of group picked up a Long-tailed Duck which emerged from behind one of the reed islands in the deep water right at the back. It was diving constantly, but when it surfaced we could get a good look at it through the scope. We could see its white face with large dark brown cheek patch. Long-tailed Ducks are mostly found out on the sea in winter, where they dive for shellfish. Occasionally one may wander to an inland water for a short time, especially after gales. This one is unusual in that it has been on this small pool for over a month now. It must be finding something good to eat here!

We didn’t linger too long in Babcock Hide, and stopped only briefly on the walk back to the car to admire a pair of Stonechats on the fence. We made our way quickly back to the visitor centre for a late lunch. As it was so mild, we decided we would eat outside on the picnic tables, but we were only half way through when the weather turned. Some low cloud blew in and brought with it some misty drizzle, so we retreated to the car.

After lunch, we drove back west along the coast road to Stiffkey. We wanted to finish the day at the harrier roost, but with the weather having deteriorated we thought it best to watch from here today. When we arrived, we were told we had already missed a ringtail Hen Harrier and a Merlin – it seemed bird may have come in early tonight given the conditions.

As we stood and scanned the saltmarsh, a Brambling flew over calling and headed inland over the campsite. Looking away to the west, we picked up a distant grey male Hen Harrier flying low over the vegetation. Unfortunately, it dropped quickly down out of view, before everyone could get onto it. Then a second grey male appeared over in the same area, but it was even less obliging. The Hen Harriers were flying straight into the roost this evening, without flying round, probably due to the mist. Even when it temporarily brightened up a little, there was no sign of a pick-up in Hen Harrier activity.

The light was starting to go and we were just thinking our luck had run out when a large bird flew in from the fields behind us, just a short distance to our left. It was a ringtail Hen Harrier and we could see its white rump patch as it flew out across the saltmarsh, before disappearing out into the mist. That was a great way to end, so we called it a day and headed for home.

 

 

20th Nov 2016 – A Week in Early Winter

As the migration season comes to an end, the delights of winter birding in Norfolk take over. Even in the winter, the bird watching can be very exciting here. This week was certainly a good example of that.

Geese play a huge part in our winter here. The sight and sound of thousands of Pink-footed Geese flying in or out of their roost sites at dawn and dusk, or feeding in the fields during the day, is one of the real spectacles of the season in Norfolk. The flocks of Pink-footed Geese sometimes act as carriers, bringing other scarce geese with them, or attractants, pulling in other species to feed alongside. Looking through the massed ranks of Pink-footed Geese can often reveal other birds in with them.

Tundra Bean Geese are one of the more frequent species to be mixed in with the Pinkfeet, regular visitors here in small numbers, we are on the western edge of their regular wintering range. Superficially similar to Pink-footed Goose, they are most easily distinguished by having orange legs and bill band, replacing the pink. There have been good numbers of Tundra Bean Geese here in the last week or so.

A party of five Bean Geese at Titchwell earlier in the week attracted more attention. Initially reported as Tundra Beans, not surprisingly given the number around at the moment, questions started to be raised about their identity. In particular, they appeared to have a lot of orange on the bill. Tundra Bean typically has a narrow orange band around the bill, but they can be very variable. Still, it would be unusual to find five Tundra Beans together with so much orange on their bills.

Taiga Bean Goose is a different subspecies, Anser fabalis fabalis compared to rossicus for Tundra. A group of Taiga Bean Geese have traditionally wintered in Norfolk, in the Yare Valley, but they are very rare away from this area. This is one of only two areas in the UK where Taiga Beans regularly winter, the other being in Scotland. They differ from Tundra in generally having more orange on their bills, as well as a structurally different bill shape. They also tend to bigger and longer-necked. Could the Titchwell Five be Taigas?

They were certainly intriguing birds to see in the field. The bill structure immediately looked wrong for Tundra Bean, being rather long, with a thin lower mandible and lacking a prominent ‘grinning patch’, more consistent with Taigas. The amount of orange on the bills was also more in line with that subspecies. They looked long-necked when alert, but perhaps otherwise lacked some of the structural features of Taiga and did not look much larger than the accompanying Pink-footed Geese (though looking at measurements, there is a surprising amount of overlap with Taiga Bean Goose).

6o0a8841

img_8639Taiga Bean Geese – these five, most likely this subpecies, were at Titchwell

So, Taiga Bean Goose seemed like the best fit for these geese, even if not perfect. However, on the continent, where they are much more common, it is accepted that there is quite a lot of overlap between the two subspecies and some are considered best left unidentified to form. They were certainly Bean Geese and interesting birds to look at.

Also with the Pink-footed Geese this week has been a Todd’s Canada Goose. It took quite a bit of tracking down though, as it wandered about between the fields with the roving flocks.

img_8682Todd’s Canada Goose – with the Pink-footed Geese in North Norfolk this week

There is a large feral population of introduced Canada Geese in the UK, the scourge of many an urban park! However, genuine wild vagrants from North America do occur from time to time, mixed in with flocks of other wild geese, such as Pinkfeet or Barnacles. There are generally considered to be 11 different subspecies of these ‘white-cheeked geese’, which are now most commonly divided into two separate species – Canada Goose and Cackling Goose. Several of these different subspecies have been suspected in the UK in the past.

Based on size and structure of this week’s Norfolk bird, the best fit would appear to be what is known as Todd’s Canada Goose. Some video of it is included below. Hopefully it will linger now with the Pinkfeet for much of the winter.

Both Whooper and Bewick’s Swans come to East Anglia in significant numbers for the winter, and we regularly see them on our Winter Tours. There are generally large herds of both species in the Fens, particularly around Welney in west Norfolk. A smaller mixed herd typically 100-200 strong over-winters in the Broads. Small groups or family parties can often be seen arriving in from the continent at this time of year.

On Friday, a family of eight Whooper Swans appeared at Cley. Like many fresh arrivals, they seemed to be looking for a place to rest after their long journey and were first to be found loafing on the pools off the East Bank, before flying across to Pat’s Pool late morning. Interestingly, what was presumably the same family group was seen flying west along the coast later that afternoon, presumably continuing their journey to the Fens after taking a break at Cley.

6o0a9600Whooper Swans – these two adults stopped off with their 6 juvs to rest at Cley

Shore Larks are also often a feature of winter here in Norfolk. They come here in varying numbers from Scandinavia each year. After a few comparatively lean years for them, this winter is looking like an exceptional one. A flock of over 70 was being recorded regularly at Holkham – an amazing sight – but the numbers here seem to have declined somewhat in recent days. It is a very popular spot for dog walkers and it is possible they were getting rather too disturbed.

This week, a smaller group of about twenty Shore Larks has been along the shingle ridge at Salthouse. They are stunning birds, with their bright yellow faces, particularly in the winter sunshine. They should hopefully stay along the coast now for the rest of the winter.

6o0a9449

6o0a9440Shore Larks – it is a proving to be a good winter for this species here in Norfolk

Snow Buntings are also a regular feature of winter along the coast here. Some good sized flocks have now started to build up at favoured sites and they are now being seen regularly. Interestingly we get a mixture of two different subspecies of Snow Bunting here each winter, mixing together freely in the flocks – nominate nivalis from Scandinavia and insulae from Iceland. The two subspecies look rather different and can be separated in the field with practice.

Snow Buntings are great birds, full of character, ekeing out a living through the winter on the beaches. They can also be very confiding at times – great for photography!

6o0a9832Snow Bunting – a smart male Scandinavian nivalis

6o0a9811Snow Bunting – a duller female Icelandic insulae

It is also possible to find Lapland Buntings here during the winter. There were a few this week along the coast sometimes with the Shore Larks. However, at the moment they are tending to be mobile and more often heard and seen in flight. Hopefully as winter progresses, we will have some of them settled, as we have done for the last couple of years.

Less expected things can also still turn up from time to time. Spoonbills breed in Norfolk, but most leave here in autumn and head somewhere milder for the winter. An unseasonal juvenile Spoonbill spent the day at Cley on Saturday. It is not unknown for them to overwinter here, so perhaps this individual will remain along the coast.

6o0a9892-001Spoonbill – this juvenile spent the day at Cley on Saturday

There is still scope yet for 2016 to spring a bigger surprise or two. Saturday saw the discovery of a Forster’s Tern on the Stour Estuary, along the Essex / Suffolk border so a quick trip down to see it was necessary on Sunday. Forster’s Tern is a North American species, breeding across the USA into southern Canada and wintering along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts south to the Caribbean and northern Central America. It is a very occasional visitor here, with 20 previous records in Britain and more in Ireland. Records from the east coast are very unusual, with one previous record from Essex back in 1998.

Forster’s Tern in winter has a very distinctive black ‘bandit mask’, which could be clearly seen as the bird flew back and forth along the Stour Estuary in front of a grateful crowd. This bird is a 1st winter, so was born in North America during the summer and presumably got blown across the Atlantic on its way south for the winter. Several previous Forster’s Terns have stayed here through the winter before, so hopefully this one might do the same.

forsters-tern-mistley-2016-11-20_1Forster’s Tern – from North America, currently on the Stour Estuary

On the way back, we stopped off at Needham Market in Suffolk to see the Black-bellied Dipper which has taken up residence on the River Gipping. It took a little finding, but thanks to some excellent directions from one of the local young birders, we were able to locate it feeding along a mill stream.

Dippers breed fairly commonly in the UK, but are normally restricted to fast flowing rivers and streams in the north and west. They also occur as occasional winter visitors from the continent, when they can sometimes be found on lowland watercourses in East Anglia. The British birds have a distinctive chestnut belly, below the diagnostic white bib, but the belly of most of the continental visitors is all or largely black, hence this subspecies is know generally as Black-bellied Dipper.

6o0a0370Black-bellied Dipper – a visitor from the continent, spending the winter in Suffolk

Black-bellied Dipper is another bird full of character. We watched it as it bobbed along beside the river, wading deep into the water and dipping its head repeatedly under to look for invertebrates in the shallows. A great bird and a great way to round off an exciting week!

If you would like to come and enjoy the delights of winter birding in Norfolk or East Anglia, please get in contact.

13th Nov 2016 – Autumn Meets Winter, Day 3

Day 3 of a 3 day long weekend of Early Winter tours today, our last day. It was a lovely day, dawning sunny and clear and remaining so through most of the day. A great day to be out on the coast.

We met in Wells. As we got into the car, a Red Kite circled lazily over the harbour, flushing all the Brent Geese which were feeding out on the saltmarsh. On our way west along the coast road, we stopped to look at some geese in a winter wheat field. As well as a large number of Greylags, there were also several Pink-footed Geese, smaller and with a darker head and bill, plus a couple of Egyptian Geese and a family of Brent Geese.

6o0a8685Red Kite – circled over Wells Harbour this morning

Titchwell was our destination for the morning. The overflow car park was still quiet, so we decided to have a quick look to see what was in there. A couple of Bramblings were calling wheezily from the bushes, but flew off as we tried to walk round to see them. Two Greenfinch flew out of the hedge as well. Round at the visitor centre, we found one Brambling which was on the feeders briefly before dropping down to feed on the ground below. A Chaffinch nearby was suffering badly from the papilloma virus, with its legs and feet covered in growths.

As we walked out onto the reserve, we stopped to scan the Thornham grazing marsh. There was a large flock of Pink-footed Geese loafing down in the grass. Over at the back we spotted two Common Buzzards, one on a fencepost and one on the top of a large hawthorn, enjoying the morning sun. A male Stonechat was perching in the tops of the tall vegetation at the front, periodically dropping down to the ground.

As we walked up to the dried up ‘pool’ on the Thornham side, a Marsh Harrier was quartering over the reeds. A Grey Heron was standing in the sunshine in front of the reeds in the far corner. A Water Rail called from deep in the reeds down at the front, sounding a little like a squealing pig.

Scanning the mud, we picked up a Water Pipit on the edge of the vegetation right at the back. Its white underparts really stood out in the morning light. While we were watching it, two more Water Pipits flew in calling. One landed out in the open, much closer to us, and we got it in the scope briefly before it flew down to the front behind the reeds. As well as the whiter ground colour to the underparts, we could see the more obvious pale supercilium than the Rock Pipit we had been watching on Friday. A little further on, a Chinese Water Deer was feeding out on the saltmarsh.

With the high water levels on the freshmarsh at the moment, we were intending to walk straight past Island Hide but as we were alongside we heard another Water Rail down in the vegetation near the bridge. As we walked down towards the hide to look for it, it scurried out under the trees and disappeared into the reeds beyond. We could still hear it calling further back and with our best Water Rail impression, we were able to coax it back towards us and out onto the mud in amongst the sallow roots. Another two Water Rails then started duetting in the vegetation just beyond. While we were trying to see the Water Rail, we could hear Bearded Tits calling from out in the main reedbed.

We stopped on the bank just past Island Hide to scan the freshmarsh. The ducks seem to appreciate the high water levels. There were lots of Teal, mostly asleep but a few were feeding just below us. The adult drakes are now mostly out of eclipse and looking very smart again. A few Wigeon were grazing on the bits of the islands that weren’t under water. In amongst them, we could see a few Gadwall and Mallard and a little group of Shoveler were swimming around further back. Little groups of Brent Geese kept flying in and out from the saltmarsh.

6o0a8748Teal – there are lots on the freshmarsh

There are not so many waders on here now. Most of the Avocets have left for milder climes, but nine were still here today, sleeping in a little huddle. There are more Ruff, with a good number still around the remaining islands. It was hard to know how many Dunlin there were, as they were scattered around and running in and out of the taller vegetation. In with them, we found a single Ringed Plover. A small flock of Golden Plover flew in, whirled round over the water and flew off again inland.

img_8500Avocets – still nine on the freshmarsh today

There were not so many gulls on the freshmarsh on the walk out this morning. We did quickly locate a single adult Yellow-legged Gull. It was sitting on the water, so we couldn’t see its yellow legs, but we could see its darker grey mantle and relatively unstreaked white head.

img_8508Yellow-legged Gull – this adult was loafing around on the freshmarsh all day

Outside Parrinder hide, we stopped to talk to a couple of locals who were standing with their scopes pointed back along the edge of the freshmarsh. It turned out that a Jack Snipe had been seen earlier but had disappeared some time ago in towards the bank, behind the reeds. Our timing was spot on because, while we were talking to them, someone spotted it come back out onto the island.

We watched the Jack Snipe through the scope for a few minutes while it worked its way back along the edge of the island. Unusually, it wasn’t bouncing much today – the distinctive feeding Jack Snipe action. Then suddenly and for no apparent reason it flew off, over the main path, and dropped down out of view onto the saltmarsh beyond. There were also two Common Snipe asleep on the island, so we had a look at those too, noting in particular the pale central crown stripe which Jack Snipe lacks.

img_8517Jack Snipe – feeding on the island from Parrinder Hide

From inside Parrinder Hide, we could see two more Common Snipe feeding along the bank out of the right hand side. The reeds have been cut back here, giving them fewer places to hide and they were much closer than the ones we had just been looking at. They gave great views as they probed in the wet grass along the edge of the freshmarsh.

6o0a8708Common Snipe – two were feeding just outside Parrinder Hide

While we were watching the Common Snipe, we happened to look a little further back along the water’s edge and noticed a Water Pipit working its way towards us. It was picking around in the cut reeds.We hadn’t seen or heard it fly in, and apparently one had been here earlier, so it is possible this was a different bird to the three we had seen on the Thornham grazing marsh pool. It certainly seemed more heavily marked below than the two we had managed to get in the scope.

This was an even better view than the closer Water Pipit we had seen earlier, on our walk out. It looked like it might come all the way to the hide at one point, but turned and started to work its way back away from us again.

img_8545Water Pipit – possibly our fourth today, from Parrinder Hide

There didn’t look to be a lot on the Volunteer Marsh, so we started out to walk towards the beach. As we were back on the main path, we stopped to look at a single Black-tailed Godwit on the mud. Just at that moment, all the waders scattered, flying off in different directions. We looked up to see a stunning adult Peregrine which flew across the path right in front of us. The light was perfect and we could see all the plumage details,but unfortunately cameras were not at the ready! It dropped away over the saltmarsh and turned, powering low out towards the beach.

As we walked towards the tidal pools, we could hear a Kingfisher calling. When we got over the bank, a quick scan back along the bushes revealed it perched distantly in the far corner. Still we had a look at it through the scope, shining bright blue in the morning sun. There are always Little Grebes on here during the winter, and today was no exception. We counted seven, with two diving just below the main path. Two female Pintail were upending out in the middle.

6o0a8738Little Grebe – one of the seven we counted on the tidal pools

Out at the beach, the tide was out. As we arrived, all the waders on the mussel beds were flushed by people walking along the shoreline. There were lots of Oystercatchers, several Grey Plover and a good sized flock of Knot. They landed again a little further over towards Brancaster. Once we had walked down the beach a little, they started to drift back again. We picked up several godwits, both Bar-tailed Godwit and Black-tailed Godwit. A few silvery grey Sanderlings were running up and down on the edge of the sea.

There were several small parties of Common Scoter on the sea, the majority of them pale-cheeked brown females. A single adult drake was closer in, just behind the breakers, and we had a good look at it in the scope. We could even see the yellow stripe down the front of its bill. A Guillemot was diving in the surf too and a couple of Great Crested Grebes drifted past. A single Red-breasted Merganser flew across and a distant juvenile Gannet made its way slowly east.

Back at the tidal pools, the Kingfisher had come much closer. It was perched in the vegetation on the edge of the small island nearest the beach, a much better view than we had on the walk out. There were also a few more waders roosting on the spit, including a Black-tailed Godwit and a Bar-tailed Godwit side by side, giving us a great opportunity to compare the two species.

img_8610Kingfisher – gave better views on the tidal pools on the walk back

After lunch back at the car, we drove over to Holme. A quick chat with one of the wardens who happened to be driving past suggested there may still be a Waxwing present (there had been several here earlier in the week). We had a walk round behind the paddocks but there was no sign of it. Several Blackbirds and Redwings were enjoying the hawthorn berries though, and a few Greenfinches. A couple of Mistle Thrushes landed briefly before flying off over the saltmarsh.

Coming back along Broadwater Road, we took a little detour out towards Redwell Marsh. Several skeins of Pink-footed Geese appeared to come up from the grazing marshes to the east and flew off towards the Wash. We could hear a flock of Long-tailed Tits in the bushes down by the river, and looked up to see a late Chiffchaff flitting around in the trees.

6o0a8750Pink-footed Geese – flying off towards the Wash

Our final stop of the day was at Thornham Harbour. We had hoped to catch up with some Twite here, but they seem to be rather elusive at the moment and there was no sign of them. As we walked out along the seawall towards Holme, we did have four Lapland Buntings which flew over calling.

As we walked up towards the boardwalk overlooking Broadwater, we could hear more Water Rails squealing. A young Sparrowhawk sent a flock of Starlings scattering, before landing on a fence post. A covey of Grey Partridge exploded from the edge of the saltmarsh as we passed. On the Broadwater itself, there were lots of Gadwall and Coot, along with three Tufted Ducks.

As we walked back, the tide was coming in fast. There were loads of gulls gathered out on the mud, being pushed in by the rising water. We could hear Greenshanks calling and eventually spotted them when they were forced out from where they were hiding on the saltmarsh and flew up and down looking for somewhere dry to land.

Tomorrow night is full moon, and it is also going to be a ‘supermoon’. More properly known as perigee-syzygy, this is when the full moon is at its closest point to the Earth, and it appears bigger and brighter than normal. Tonight was almost a full moon and only a fraction smaller (the closest approach is actually at 11.23am tomorrow morning!).

It was a fairly clear evening, so we were treated to a stunning ‘supermoon’ rise as we got back to the car. Flocks of Pink-footed Geese flying across the saltmarsh in front of us, calling, only added to the atmosphere. It was a great way to end our three days birding.

6o0a8784-001Supermoon – rising over Thornham Harbour

 

12th Nov 2016 – Autumn Meets Winter, Day 2

Day 2 of a 3 day long weekend of Early Winter tours today. After glorious sunshine yesterday, the weather forecast for today was not so good. Although it did rain at times, it wasn’t quite as bad as forecast and we did have some drier spells. Even so, it doesn’t stop us from getting out birding.

Given the forecast, we started the day in the hides at Cley. Pat’s Pool looked rather empty from Bishop Hide – perhaps a raptor had just been through and flushed a lot of the birds? There were a few Wigeon scattered round the edges and a bigger group of Teal on the island in front of the Teal Hide. A single Lapwing and a Dunlin flew back in and landed on one of the nearer islands, next to a little huddle of Black-headed Gulls.

We had arranged to meet part of the group here, off the bus, so having collected them on our way back, we made our way out towards the main complex of hides. Along the Skirts, a male Stonechat flew along the path ahead of us and sat on a fence post, watching us for a minute or so, before flying a little further back. As we continued on our way, it always stayed a discrete distance ahead of us until we got to the junction in the path.

6o0a8549Stonechat – this male was along the Skirts path this morning

As we opened the shutters on Dauke’s Hide, a small group of Wigeon were on the bank just in front. There were more duck out on Simmond’s Scrape, a nice selection. Several Shoveler were whirling round with their heads constantly down in the water. A lot more Teal were sleeping on the flooded islands. A few Gadwall were feeding over towards the back – one of the smartest but the most underrated of ducks, we had a good look at them in the scope. A single Pintail flew over and disappeared off to the east.

6o0a8552Wigeon – these three were on the bank in front of Dauke’s Hide

Probably avoiding the weather out on the sea, there were several Great Black-backed Gulls on Simmond’s Scrape this morning, a mixture of adults and various ages of immature birds. A single Lesser Black-backed Gull was conveniently standing on one tiny island, next to a lone Great Black-backed Gull, providing a great side-by-side comparison. As well its noticeably smaller size, we could see the yellow legs of the Lesser (pink on the Great) and its slightly paler slate grey mantle.

We could hear a pipit calling, but despite searching round the margins of the scrape, we couldn’t see it. We did see two pipits come up from Billy’s Wash, calling. They were Water Pipits but, despite flying towards us at one point, they circled back round and landed out of view on Billy’s Wash again. When the rain eased off, we decided to make our way back. We could hear Bearded Tits calling by the boardwalk, but they were tucked deep down in the reeds this morning, perhaps not a surprise given the weather.

6o0a8587Egyptian Goose – a pair were on the grazing marsh next to Attenborough’s Walk

Our next destination was Iron Road, where we parked to walk out to Babcock Hide. It had stopped raining completely now and even seemed to have brightened up a little. There was a large gaggle of Greylag Geese on the grazing marshes by the start of Attenborough’s Walk and, further along by the junction to the hide, a pair of Egyptian Geese too. Several small groups of Pink-footed Geese appeared to fly up from the direction of Salthouse. Some of them flew west over the fields to the south of us, while others seemed to head straight inland over the village.

Three Marsh Harriers flew up from Pope’s Marsh and started circling together over the reedbed, presumably taking advantage of the dry weather to head off hunting. Two of them drifted off east towards Salthouse.

As we walked out to the hide, we had seen a flock of about ten Dunlin whirling round over the water before disappearing off over the reeds towards Cley. When we got into the hide, there were thankfully still two Dunlin on the mud right in front. We had great close views of them feeding just in front of us. They were both first winter birds, having mostly completed their moult but still retaining a few juvenile upperpart feathers and the odd remnant of black belly spotting.

6o0a8573Dunlin – two were feeding right in front of Babcock Hide

A single Little Grebe was diving in the deeper water at the back, between the islands. Nearby, were a few Teal and a single Shoveler. When we looked back, the Little Grebe had disappeared but a single female Pintail had floated out from behind the islands. It was most likely the one we had seen flying off in this direction earlier. There were a few Wigeon on here too, but not as many as in recent weeks – presumably they were feeding somewhere more sheltered today.

There were not so many other waders on here today. A couple of Redshank were picking around the edge of one of the islands. A Common Snipe flew over and dropped down beyond the reeds. However, there was a steady progression of small groups of Lapwings flying west overhead, presumably birds arrived from the continent and making their way inland.

A report came through of three Bean Geese with Pink-footed Geese between Salthouse and Kelling, so we decided to head over to have a look. On our walk back to the car, one of the Marsh Harriers was circling over the marshes just the other side of Iron Road. Two Carrion Crows decided to have a go at it and the three birds chased each other for a while. When the crows gave up and landed a short distance away, the Marsh Harrier decided to get its own back and promptly stooped at them, before drifting off back past Babcock Hide.

6o0a8591Marsh Harrier – chased by Crows over the marshes by Iron Road

Unfortunately, by the time we got to the field where the Bean Geese had been, there was no sign of them. It transpired that they had only been seen there much earlier and had probably flown off with the Pink-footed Geese we had seen heading inland on our walk out to Babcock Hide. There were still about thirty Pink-footed Geese in the field so we had a look at them through the scope. In the short winter wheat, it was easy to see their pink legs and feet. Another small group flew in calling and landed with them, but they all had pink legs too.

As we drove back towards Cley again, it started to drizzle again, so we made our way round to the beach car park and had our lunch in the shelter there. While we were eating, a small flock of Golden Plover flew in over the Eye Field and circled over the grass in front of us, before flying back towards the reserve. Several little groups of Brent Geese flew in from the direction of Blakeney Freshes. We kept one eye on the sea, but there was very little moving offshore today. As we were packing up a flock of Teal flew west.

It was starting to rain a little harder now, so we retired to the visitor centre for a warming coffee. Afterwards, it seemed a good time to go exploring inland, so we drove up to Holt first. There had been some Waxwings in the trees here during the week, but we couldn’t find them today. There were just a few Blackbirds in the rowan where they had been a couple of days ago, despite there still being quite a few berries left. The trees where we had seen them last weekend, however, have now been stripped bare.

We drove further east to Felbrigg Park next. We had a look in the trees along the main drive first, but they were quiet. Down at the main car park, by the Hall, there were lots of Blackbirds on the grass. Presumably they were all or mostly continental migrants, having stopped to feed just in from the coast. A single Redwing was trying to bathe in a puddle, when the Blackbirds were not chasing after it.

6o0a8607Redwing – trying to take a bath in Felbrigg Hall car park

On our way back round, we turned into Lions Mouth. Just through the gates a load of finches flew up from the edge of the road and back into the trees, flashing white rumps as they went. Bramblings. We stopped the car and yet more flew up from down below the low brambles on the edge of the woods. We could see several of them perched in the holly trees beyond.

6o0a8625Bramblings – several perched in the holly trees

We parked in the car park and walked back to the road, standing on the verge and looking back towards the gates. Gradually, the Bramblings started to drop down again and we got them in the scope. They were dropping down to feed on beech mast and they were surprisingly well camouflaged against the fallen beech leaves, despite their bright orange breast and shoulders, particularly on the males.

It was still raining a little, so we made our way back to the car and drove down to Sheringham. By the time we got there, the rain had eased again, so we set off for a walk along the prom. There was mist offshore which meant the visibility wasn’t great, but once again there seemed to be nothing moving past. There were plenty of Herring Gulls on the sea and Great Black-backed Gulls and Cormorants adorning the end of each of the groynes.

As we walked along, we came across several Turnstones. One of them in particular was very tame and came running towards us and almost between our feet. Further along, we could see why, as people were throwing out chips for the Black -headed Gulls and the Turnstones were grabbing a share of the fallen ones too. The Turnstones had to be quick, because the Black-headed Gulls proceeded to chase a couple of them – they were fairly relentless too, pursuing them up and down along the beach and out over the sea until the Turnstones dropped their chips.

6o0a8633Turnstone – waiting for chips on the prom

The rocks below the prom are a regularly wintering site for Purple Sandpipers but there didn’t seem to be at any of their regular haunts this afternoon. We walked right along to the eastern end and, as we walked past, one Purple Sandpiper appeared below us. We watched as it climbed up and down, picking around at the seaweed growing on the rock’s surface. When a wave came in and crashed in through the bottom of the rocks, a second Purple Sandpiper appeared from below and climbed up to the top of one nearby.

6o0a8680Purple Sandpiper – two were on the rocks below the prom at Sheringham

When the first Purple Sandpiper appeared, we had just seen a distant diver on the sea and when we had had a good look at both of them, we turned our attention back to looking for it. It was obviously diving as it took a while before we picked it up again. Through the scope we confirmed our suspicions – it was a Great Northern Diver. Then it disappeared again, and despite scanning back and forth for a few minutes it was nowhere to be seen. It had probably drifted back out into the mist and the light was now starting to fade so we decided to call it a day and head for home.

11th Nov 2016 – Autumn Meets Winter, Day 1

Day 1 of a 3 day long weekend of tours today. The middle of November traditionally marks the time when autumn starts to merge into winter, at least as far as the migration season is concerned. However, there are sill birds on the move, arriving here for the winter, and there is still the odd lingering migrant yet to move on. It was a gloriously sunny day today, even warm at times, a perfect day to get out and see some of those birds.

We started at Burnham Overy Staithe. As we climbed up onto the seawall,a small bird flew past us and into the bushes below. It was a Chiffchaff. Presumably a late migrant, it seemed to be in a hurry to be on its way and disappeared off down the line of bushes in a series of long flights. A Common Buzzard perched in a large bush out on the grazing meadows, enjoying the morning sunshine.

img_8390Fieldfare – in the bushes by the seawall at Burnham Overy Staithe

There were lots of Blackbirds in the hawthorns below the seawall, presumably winter migrants arrived from the continent and stopped to refuel on berries. As we walked along, we heard first the tchacking of a Fieldfare, which we found perched in the top in the sunshine, and then the teezing of several Redwings, most of which were less obliging. A Song Thrush completed the set.

6o0a8480Redwing – several were also feeding in the bushes below the seawall

Looking out over the other side, in the harbour, we stopped to look through the waders. The tide was out, so there was lots of exposed mud. First we picked up a Grey Plover with a lone Ringed Plover over on the far bank. Then several more Ringed Plovers appeared, and started to bathe in the shallow water, with a Redshank conveniently close by for size comparison. A little further along, at the bend in the seawall, we could see a good sized flock of Dunlin out on the larger mudflats, feeding feverishly.

As we walked past, we flushed a Little Egret from the near edge of the harbour channel, and it flew out to the mud, flashing its yellow feet as it went. In the channel, we found four Little Grebes together. They proceeded to haul themselves out onto the far bank – always off to see Little Grebes on dry land, they look so ungainly.

6o0a8448Little Egret – with bright yellow feet

Several Rock Pipits had flown around calling, but typically dropped down out of view. Finally one dropped down in front of us and perched nicely on a pile of rocks, appropriately enough! Through the scope, we could see its plain, oily brown upperparts and the dirty ground colour to its black-streaked underparts. We get a lot of Scandinavian Rock Pipits, of the subspecies littoralis, coming to Norfolk for the winter, but we don’t have any British petrosus breeding here.

img_8392Rock Pipit – eventually one perched up nicely for us on a pile of rocks

There were lots of Wigeon out on the grazing marshes. As we stopped to have a look at them in the scope, we could hear them whistling – a real sound of winter on the marshes here. There were plenty of geese too. We were looking straight into the sun on the walk about but we could still see lots of Brent Geese, Pink-footed Geese and Greylags. In with them were 12 Barnacle Geese, presumably feral birds from Holkham Park.

As we passed the reedbed, we could hear Bearded Tits calling but, despite the lack of wind, they were not to be seen. A Cetti’s Warbler shouted at us, but was similarly elusive. At least the Reed Buntings were slightly easier to see. A Marsh Harrier perched in one of the bushes at the back of the reeds and another one or two flew backwards and forwards across the channel to and from the saltmarsh beyond.

There were lots of Starlings on the move today, little flocks passing west overhead constantly on the walk out. Some were not flying so directly as they sometimes do, instead taking advantage of the warm conditions to try to catch flies on the way. A small flock of Golden Plover flew over calling and dropped down on the grass by the dunes. When we got there, we got them in the scope and found a little covey of six Grey Partridges with them!

When we got to the dunes, we turned left and walked out towards Gun Hill. The Isabelline Wheatear was still present earlier in the morning – it has been here for three weeks now – but had not been seen for over an hour when we arrived. Could it have taken advantage of the sunny weather finally to continue its journey? We decided to have a walk round the dunes to see if we could find it.

There was no sign of it where it had been feeding for the past couple of weeks. From the northern edge of the dunes, we stopped to look out towards the sea. We could see lines of wildfowl flying in, migrants arriving for the winter. There were several groups of Brent Geese and a larger flock of Wigeon coming in. A line of around twenty Eider flying west over the sea was a nice bonus, particularly as it included a couple of smart drakes.

There were lots of waders down on the beach. There were plenty of Oystercatcher and a few Sanderling out on the sand. Down around the tidal channel, we found a little mixed flock of Knot and Dunlin – a nice opportunity to compare their relative sizes. Several Turnstones had gathered for a bath.

Out at the point, looking out towards Scolt Head, we picked up two Red Kites circling out over the saltmarsh. They seemed too concerned with swooping at each other to worry about the Marsh Harrier which was trying to have a go at them. There were a few people standing on the top of Gun Hill looking for the Isabelline Wheatear, and as we turned to walk back one of the locals started waving to us. It had reappeared!

img_8405Isabelline Wheatear – looking very sandy in the sun

We stopped to scan in the direction they were all looking and there was the Isabelline Wheatear on the edge of the saltmarsh. It looked particularly pale and sandy in the sunshine. It flitted around the bushes for a few seconds and then disappeared off behind the Suaeda. It was proving very mobile because, by the time we got over to the others, it had flown again to the other side of Gun Hill. We had some nice views of it on the grass and back down to the edge of the saltmarsh again before suddenly it was off again. It flew  off up over Gun Hill and disappeared.

It was around this time that we heard trilling and looked up to see a Waxwing heading towards us.  It flew over our heads and carried on west, unfortunately without stopping.

Having had good views of the Isabelline Wheatear, we decided to walk round onto the beach and head back along the tideline to see what we could find. We didn’t find any Snow Buntings today, but we did come across the Isabelline Wheatear again. The reason we couldn’t find it earlier in the dunes was because it was now out on the beach! There were lots of flies buzzing around the high tide line, and it was busy catching them. Chasing up and down the beach, occasionally flying up after a fly.

img_8451Isabelline Wheatear – catching flies out on the beach today

We watched it for a while, but in the end had to tear ourselves away and head back, taking a detour via the base of the dunes to avoid disturbing it. We walked quickly back along the seawall, stopping briefly to watch a large flock of Linnets and Goldfinches whirling around over the saltmarsh. When they landed, we could see several Golden Plover out there too, surprisingly well camouflaged, despite the bright golden-spangled upperparts we could see through the scope.

The light was better on the walk back, so we stopped at the corner to look at the geese again. This time, we found four White-fronted Geese in with the Pinkfeet. One had its head up for a while, so we could see its pink bill surrounded at the base with white, but then they all went to sleep. Then it was back for lunch, led along the seawall by a pair of Stonechats which flew ahead of us. We ate our lunch sat on the benches looking out over the saltmarsh back towards Gun Hill – a stunning view!

6o0a8464Stonechat – a pair led us back along the seawall

After lunch, we drove back round to Holkham. There were lots of Pink-footed Geese out on the grazing marshes east of Lady Anne’s Drive. While most were distant, a little group of about a dozen were right next to the road, so we stopped for a close look. We could see their pink legs and delicate dark bills with encircled with a pink band.

6o0a8494Pink-footed Goose – showing very well close to Lady Anne’s Drive

As we walked through the pines, we could hear Goldcrests calling high up in the pines. A Jay flew across and started scolding from the trees the other side. Out on the saltmarsh, a large flock of Linnets was whirling round, reluctant to settle.

A little further along, we came across a small group of Brent Geese. Looking through them,  we quickly found the Black Brant x Dark-bellied Brent hybrid which is regular here. It is not as dark or contrasting as a pure Black Brant but is still subtly darker bodied, with a slightly bolder flank patch and more obvious though not complete collar. In with them too was a single Pale-bellied Brent Goose. When it turned, we could see the bold wing stripes which meant it was a juvenile. Along with several or our regular Russian Dark-bellied Brents, that meant we had 2 1/2 subspecies of Brent Goose in one very small flock!

img_8457Black Brant hybrid – out on the saltmarsh at Holkham

At the eastern end of the saltmarsh, we found the Shore Larks in their usual place. We could see several of them flying around before we got there, but when we got closer we noticed there were lots more still down on the ground. There was a mass of bright yellow faces, shining beautifully in the late afternoon sunshine. Shore Larks are always stunning birds, but it was fantastic to watch so many of them in such great light, a real treat.

6o0a8521

They were feeding in the slightly taller vegetation today, picking seeds from the dried seedheads of the saltmarsh flowers. Several of the Shore Larks were hidden from view, which made it harder to get an accurate count, but there were at least 65 today and very probably a few more that we missed. After years of declining numbers it is great to see so many back again this year. While we were watching the Shore Larks, a Tawny Owl started hooting from the pines beyond, a reminder that days are short now.

Out at the beach, the tide was in. There was a surprising amount of swell, given how little wind there was today, which meant we had to climb up into the dunes to get a higher vantage point. Even from there, the ducks kept disappearing in the waves. We did manage to find a couple of Long-tailed Ducks which were not too far out. The large flocks of Common Scoter were more distant but little groups kept flying around and a flash of white in the wing alerted us to two Velvet Scoters in with one of them. They landed on the sea and we could see them in the scope before they started diving and disappeared into the larger flock.

We could see several Great Crested Grebes on the sea too. A little flock of Cormorants flew overhead, heading in to roost. Then it started to get a little misty and, with the light fading, became increasingly difficult to pick out anything different. We decided to head back to the other side of the pines.

Lots of Pink-footed Geese could be heard calling as we walked back through the pines. There was a lovely view across the marshes, with low-lying mist enveloping the bases of the hedges and trees. We watched and waited for a while, with several smaller groups of geese flying in and whiffling down. Then we picked up some bigger skeins in the distance and several thousand flew in together, in a cacophony of yelping calls. Perhaps put off by the mist, several groups flew straight over, perhaps heading out to roost on the flats instead. Many of the others did drop down and disappear into the mist.

6o0a8536Pink-footed Geese – dropping down in the mist to roost

It is quite a sight and sound to watch the Pink-footed Geese coming in to roost on a winter’s evening. Then, with the light fading, we headed for home.

6th Nov 2016 – Late Autumn Birding, Day 3

Day 3 of a 3 day long weekend of tours today, our last day and the last Autumn Migration Tour for this season. The weather forecast for today was dreadful but thankfully, as usual, the Met Office had got it wrong. It was windy all day and we did have to dodge some squally showers in the afternoon, but in the morning we were presented with most unexpected blue skies and bright sunshine.

Our first stop for the day was at Snettisham.As we made our way down to the reserve, we saw a group of swans on the northern pit and a quick look confirmed they were Whooper Swans, presumably stopped off on there way down to the Fens. There appeared to be two families – a pair with six juveniles and another pair with three young and an extra adult tagging along. There was a bit of squabbling going on between the two groups – wing flapping and adults chasing after each other with necks outstretched.

6o0a7585Whooper Swans – one of two families on the northern pit at Snettisham

It was getting on for high tide already, but it was not a particularly big tide today which meant that the waders would not be pushed very high up the mud. Scanning from the seawall, we could see huge flocks of waders out over the mud, thousands of Knot and smaller numbers of Bar-tailed Godwits in particular. Closer to us, little groups of Dunlin were more spread out, feeding feverishly.

Many of the flocks were seeking whatever shelter from the wind they could find out on the exposed mud. We got a group of Knot in the scope which were crammed tight in a small depression. On the edge of the channel down in from of us, down at of the wind, was a little huddle of Dunlin, together with a Grey Plover and a Redshank, all trying to sleep.

We took shelter in Rotary Hide to scan the mud. Looking out to the edge of the Wash, we could see long lines of Gannets battling north. They had been blown into the Wash by the strong north wind and were now trying to work their way back out again along the eastern shore. A couple of juvenile Gannets tried flying in across the mud instead, flushing the flocks of Knot which were not sure exactly what was flying overhead.

6o0a7606Gannet – trying to make its way back north, out of the Wash

Over on the edge of the water we could see a couple of large flocks of sleeping Oystercatchers, looking like a black smear along the shore line in the distance. Three Sanderling were much closer, landing on the near edge of the channel and running along on the mud.

Looking out the other side of Rotary Hide, we found one of the two Black-necked Grebes which have been here for a few days now. It was hard viewing from here, as we were looking into the morning sun. The water was also very choppy. whipped up by the blustery wind. The Black-necked Grebe was diving continually, with a couple of Little Grebes too, a little further back.

img_8281Black-necked Grebe – one of two on the southern pit again today

Braving the elements again, we walked further down along the seawall. A lone drake Pintail was on one of the small pools on the near edge of the mud as we passed so we stopped for a closer look at it. It was a smart drake, largely out of eclipse but still without its long pin-shaped tail.

img_8289Pintail – on its own out on the mud on the edge of the Wash

Round at Shore Hide we got ourselves out of the wind again. We had a better view across the pit from here, with the sun away to our right. Almost immediately we found the Scaup, bobbing about on the water in front of the hide. It was a 1st winter drake, just starting to get some grey feathers on its back and white on the rear flanks, and with a dirty white face.

6o0a7639Scaup – the first winter drake on the pit

The second Black-necked Grebe was also diving continually, a little further out behind the Scaup. As were a smart pair of Goldeneye. At first, they were rather distant, down at the southern end of the pit, but after a while they reappeared over in front of the far bank, out from the hide. There was a nice selection of dabbling ducks too, mostly Wigeon in various stages of moult, plus a few Shoveler and a lone pair of Gadwall. We stopped to admire the drake Gadwall, a most under-appreciated bird!

There were comparatively few waders on the pits today. With the small tide, they were not going to be pushed off the Wash. However, there was a tight huddle of fifty or so Redshank on the edge of one of the islands. The vast majority of them were Common Redshank, but a closer look revealed a single Spotted Redshank in with them. They were all asleep at first, but still it was possible to pick the Spotted Redshank out at the back of the flock – it was a slightly paler shade of grey, more silvery-grey than the slaty coloured Common Redshanks, and through the scope we could see the much more marked white supercilium in front of the eye. Eventually something spooked them and they woke up, at which point it was possible to see the Spotted Redshank’s longer, needle fine bill.

It had been gloriously sunny for the most part at Snettisham, but as we drove back to the north coast we could see some rain clouds coming in off the sea and it started to rain as we turned the corner. We planned to spend the afternoon at Titchwell, but we made a quick detour down to Holme on the way there. There had been a large flock of Waxwings here for the last couple of days. As we drove down the reserve entrance track, we couldn’t see any, but on our way back with the windows open we heard them flying over and saw them land in the hedge behind us, down near Redwell Marsh.

A quick about turn and we managed to get good views of the Waxwings through the scope from the road, in the top of a hawthorn. We walked round and down the footpath to Redwell Marsh, hoping to get a little closer, but by the time we got there they had disappeared. As we made our way back to the road, we heard them calling and they flew over, 25-30 in total, and disappeared over in the direction of the village.

At least it had stopped raining, but it was still rather overcast while we were here. We did see a few other birds. There were lots of Blackbirds and a few Redwing in the hedges, and a couple of Fieldfares flew over as we walked along the road. A Kingfisher zipped over but disappeared down into the river channel out of view. With the Waxwings having disappeared, we didn’t hang around and moved quickly on to Titchwell. On the way there, we could see a huge flock of Fieldfare feeding in a winter wheat field by the main road, presumably recently arrived from the continent.

After lunch at Titchwell, we made our way out onto the reserve. It was very blustery out on the main path, but we stopped for a quick look over Thornham grazing marsh and the dried up pool. We found the Water Pipit which had been frequenting the puddles here recently, but it was right at the back and unfortunately disappeared into the vegetation before everyone could get onto it. A Marsh Harrier hung over the reedbed at the back.

Island Hide offered us some welcome shelter from the wind. The water level on the freshmarsh is going up fast now, as the warden tried to get the vegetation under control. Consequently, there are fewer waders on here at the moment. A single Ruff was picking around in the vegetation on the edge of the cut reeds beside the hide, and a few more Ruff were further out on the islands. While we were scanning, at least 30 more Ruff flew in, one of them with a noticeably very white head. Even in winter, they can be very variable, underlining why Ruff is probably the most often confused wader.

6o0a7676Ruff – in winter plumage, feeding in the vegetation close to Island Hide

There were lots of ducks on the freshmarsh. Large numbers of Wigeon and Teal in particular, with some of the drakes looking increasingly smart as they have now mostly emerged from their duller eclipse plumage. In with them, were smaller numbers of Gadwall and Shoveler.

Good numbers of gulls were seeking shelter from the wind and loafing around on the water or on the islands. The Great Black-backed Gulls had probably sought refuge from the brunt of the wind out on the beach, where they would normally be. A single Yellow-legged Gull was asleep on one of the islands at first, but eventually woke up and showed us its bright yellow legs. It was also noticeably darker mantled than the nearby Herring Gulls.

img_8311Yellow-legged Gull – one was amongst all the gulls on the freshmarsh today

Round to Parrinder Hide and we called in on the north side first. A Curlew feeding in front of the hide was the highlight. Otherwise, there were several Redshank and a distant Grey Plover out on Volunteer Marsh. The islands of vegetation can sometimes conceal a lot of birds on here and down below us we could see a mob of Wigeon and Teal attacking the plants.

6o0a7694Curlew – feeding in front of Parrinder Hide on the Volunteer Marsh

On the other side of Parrinder Hide, overlooking the freshmarsh, there were two Common Snipe feeding just below the hide, although they quickly scurried away further along the bank. There are not so many places for them to hide here now, since the reeds on the bank have been cut down

img_8318Common Snipe – feeding on the bank outside Parrinder Hide

The piles of cut vegetation proved to be a perfect perch for a couple of Stonechat. They had been feeding from the fence around the island further over, dropping down from the posts to the ground. They gradually worked their way along, closer to us, and switched to using the mounds of cut reed as vantage points instead.

A smart drake Shoveler was feeding out on the water in front of the hide. When they are feeding, Shoveler swim around with their enormous bills under the water, stirring up food and then filtering it out with their bills. They can do this for long periods without lifting their heads out – making them very tricky to photograph!

6o0a7734Shoveler – a smart drake feeding in front of Parrinder Hide

There have been some White-fronted Geese at Titchwell for a week or so now. They seem to move between the maize field along the entrance road and the freshmarsh. Today, they were feeding on the fenced off island with all the Greylags. It was hard to tell exactly how many there were. There was the usual family party, two adults and two juveniles, and at least one further adult today.

When the adult White-fronted Geese raised their heads, you could see the distinctive white band around the base of their bills. At one point, as they came out of the vegetation, you could also see the black bands on their bellies. The two juvenile White-fronted Geese lacked the white face and black belly bars, but were still smaller and darker than the Greylags, with a pink bill.

img_8323White-fronted Goose – one of the adults, raising its head

There didn’t seem to be any Avocets left here are first. Most of the birds which breed here or gather post-breeding, have long since left for warmer climes further south. Most years, a small number linger on through into the winter. Eventually we found them, six Avocets lurking right in the back corner of the freshmarsh.

It seems rude to visit Titchwell without at least seeing the sea. We did make a quick sortie out to the beach today, to finish the day. As we passed the Volunteer Marsh, a little group of Dunlin were feeding along the channel right by the main path. Out on the tidal pools, there were a couple of Black-tailed Godwit and a Grey Plover. However, we didn’t linger on the walk out today, given the wind, but headed straight on to the sea.

As we got to the beach, we could see a squally shower blowing in and the first spots of rain were blowing in to our faces. The sea was rough, which would make it tricky to see any birds out here anyway. Still, it is always amazing to see the fury of the sea on a stormy day. With the rain starting to come in, we beat a hasty retreat.

Walking back past the freshmarsh, there were lots of birds coming in to roost. Lines of Black-headed Gulls flew in from the fields and another flock of Ruff came in over the reedbed and grazing marshes. A Marsh Harrier drifted in from the Thornham direction and headed off over the reedbed. With the light fading, it was time for us to call it a day too. The weather hadn’t been anyway near as bad as forecast and we had still managed to see a great selection of birds, despite the windy conditions.