24th-25th Jan 2023 – Two Days on the Coast

A 2-day Private Tour in North Norfolk. We had glorious crisp, clear winter weather with blue skies, sunshine and light winds on Tuesday – although it was cold, it felt warmer with some sunshine. Perfect weather to be out birding! While it was milder on Wednesday, it felt a million times colder with the grey skies, mist at times, light drizzle on and off and slightly stronger winds. Still, it didn’t stop us getting out again, and seeing lots of good birds.

Tuesday 24th January

It was a big high tide this morning, so we decided to try Titchwell first to see what might have been pushed out. A quick look round the car park produced a female Bullfinch feeding in the sallows and a flock of Long-tailed Tits in the hedge, but the highlight was a Woodcock which we disturbed from the leaves on one side and watched it run into cover. We tried round on Fen Trail to see if it had gone through that way, but couldn’t find it again.

As we walked out along the main path, we stopped to watch not one but two Water Rails in the ditch. A Siskin was calling high in the trees above us. A Marsh Harrier was out over Thornham Marsh and a Red Kite was perched in the dead trees at the back of the reedbed.

Water Rail – one of two today

With a hard frost overnight, most of the water was frozen, but there was still a good selection of ducks on the Freshmarsh – Shelduck, Teal, Shoveler, Gadwall, Wigeon and a couple of drake Pintail dozing on the edge of the one patch of open water further back. A couple of small skeins of Pink-footed Geese flew over calling but the Brent Geese were right over towards Thornham Harbour today, and with no water for them on the Freshmarsh they were not flying in and out. Several Chinese Water Deer were feeding out on the saltmarsh too. A Sparrowhawk was hunting over the back of the Freshmarsh and landed on a post on the bank so we could get it in the scope.

With the sun shining, we headed on towards the beach. The tide was going out fast now and there were lots of waders in the channel on Volunteer Marsh – we had really close views of Curlew, Common Redshank, Dunlin, Grey Plover and Ringed Plover. There were a couple of Black-tailed Godwits further back and a Bar-tailed Godwit down the far end too.

Even the Tidal Pools were frozen today. There had been a Spotted Redshank earlier, but there were no waders left on here now. There were three Pintail on the ice, including a couple of very smart drake. Out at the beach, the tide was in. We quickly got the scope on the Black-necked Grebe which was diving a short way offshore. Scanning across, we could also see several Red-breasted Mergansers and Goldeneye on the water. A Sanderling was running around on the sand in front of us and several more Bar-tailed Godwits looked stunning in the low winter sunshine out on the shoreline.

On our way back, we stopped to watch a couple of Common Snipe feeding on the saltmarsh. A pair of Stonechats flicked around the bushes just behind. As we passed the Volunteer Marsh, a pale wader caught our attention, feeding in the bottom of the channel. The Spotted Redshank – we got it in the scope and at one point had it alongside a Common Redshank for comparison.

Back at the Visitor Centre, while most of the group stopped for lunch we had a quick look in the sallows on the way back to the minibus. Our luck was in – the Woodcock was now in the leaves in the gully right by the path, so after dragging everyone away from their food we had fill-the-frame views of it in the scope. Stunning!

Woodcock – stunning views

After lunch, we made our way west. After a diversion inland due to roadworks closing the main road through Thornham, we drove down to the harbour. There were a few waders in the channel, including a Lapwing which glowed metallic green, purple and bronze in the afternoon sunshine, and a Rock Pipit landed on one of the jetty posts right in front of us. From up on the bank, we could see lots of Common Snipe on the grassy fields the other side.

We stopped by the bench on the corner to scan the harbour. Again, there was a good selection of waders and ducks here. A succession of flocks of Brent Geese flew overhead, dropping down into the harbour channel. But there was no sign of the Spoonbills from here today.

Our last destination for the afternoon was Holme. As we walked across the golf course, a Barn Owl was hovering over the far side of the grass. It flew across the path in front of us and landed on the brick shelter the other side, where it perched on the corner looking down into the rough below. It dropped down into the grass but failed to catch anything and when it came up again it it flew straight towards us, perfectly lit by the sun behind us. It crossed back over the path and landed on a post on the edge of the trees behind us.

Barn Owl – on the golf course

As we walked along the path out to the beach we noticed some movement on the shingle and there were the three Shorelarks feeding quietly. We got them in the scope and watched them for a while. The tide was out now, but we stopped to scan the sea which produced a couple of smart drake Eider and a Red-throated Diver, though all were rather distant from here. A Great Black-backed Gull was feeding on one of two dead seals along the high tide line. A couple of Bar-tailed Godwits on a small pool in front looked even smarter in the last of the afternoon’s sunlight.

The temperature was dropping quickly now as the sun dipped below the horizon. Time to head for home. What a great first day.

Wednesday 25th January

What a difference a day makes! Today dawned grey and misty, with a rather chilly breeze, a big change from yesterday. We made our way east today, to Blakeney first. A quick look out on the saltmarsh west of the quay produced a dozing Greenshank, although it refused to lift its head. A flock of Brent Geese were feeding out in the mist and three Little Grebes were hiding along the far edge of the channel. A couple of Marsh Harriers were further out.

As we walked round the harbour, a Chiffchaff flicked off the seawall ahead us and out across the channel to the saltmarsh. Passing the duckpond, we couldn’t resist having a quick look at the captive wildfowl collection, even though they don’t count! Four Moorhens flew up out of the enclosure and perched precariously on the fence. We hadn’t gone much further when something spooked all the gulls off the duckpond. As they took to the air, a larger bird came up from the field beyond – Bittern! Unfortunately it headed straight off into the mist, presumably having been looking for somewhere to feed around the reeds that wasn’t frozen, and we watched it disappear off to the north of Friary Hills.

There were some nice Brent Geese feeding on the saltmarsh by the path, which we stopped to admire. Four Red-breasted Mergansers were carried quickly out along the harbour channel behind them with the dropping tide, but we caught up with them again a bit further along where they were now busy diving, along with a drake Goldeneye. A small group of mixed waders were roosting on the mud along the edge of the channel.

We carried on up to the corner and stopped to look at the mud which was starting to emerge in the harbour as the tide fell. There were lots of busy Dunlin, several Redshanks and Grey Plover, Curlews and more Bar-tailed Godwits. A smart male Marsh Harrier flew past right in front of us. This is sometimes a nice spot to stand and watch but the damp wind was cutting right through us today so we decided to walk back.

Kingfisher – in the harbour

Back at the quay, a Kingfisher was perched on the rope tying up one of the boats and we stopped to watch as it flew backwards and forwards between various ropes and the quay. There were a couple of Redshanks on the sand just across the channel from us and a Greenshank dropped in with them. Amazing close views, but it was still hard to tear everyone’s attention away from the Kingfisher!

Greenshank – amazing views

Several members of the group could only be with us for the morning today, so we dropped them back in Wells, then went down to the beach car park for a quick look in the harbour. It was a bit more sheltered here, out of the wind. There was a great selection of waders here too – Sanderling and Turnstone, several Dunlin with one starting to get its black summer belly already, Curlews, Bar-tailed Godwits and Grey Plovers, and we eventually managed to find some Knot too, even if they were a bit distant.

A couple of Tufted Ducks were swimming in the channel with three Mallard. As we walked round the corner, we found the Red-breasted Mergansers too – a small group of five or so were further back but a pair were really close to the near edge. The redhead female quickly swam out to the middle of the channel but the drake continued diving just offshore and surfaced a couple of times right alongside us.

Red-breasted Merganser – close to the shore

We were going to break for lunch at the Beach Cafe but it was only open for coffee today, so we drove round to Holkham instead. There had been a Firecrest in the holm oak at the top of Lady Ann’s Drive but as we walked up we found a couple of people photographing a Goldcrest. While we were watching that, the Firecrest flicked out of the back of the trees so we switched out attention and were treated to some lovely close views as it fed in the leaves. The covey of Grey Partridges was in their usual place on the grass opposite.

Firecrest – an unexpected bonus

After lunch, we headed out to the beach. We were told that the Shorelarks were on the saltmarsh west of the Gap, but we were hoping to catch the Snow Buntings so we decided to try the cordon. Before we got there, we bumped into a group of people watching the Shorelarks on the edge of the saltmarsh – they had obviously moved. They were really close to the path and seemed unconcerned by us watching them. There were some Rock Pipits and a Meadow Pipit out here too.

Shorelarks – close to the path

The Snow Buntings had apparently flown out to the beach, so we went out to take a look. We couldn’t see them and it was a bit too misty offshore to see much on the sea today either, although we did get the scope on a Red-throated Diver which was close enough inshore. We walked along the beach up to the Gap and scanned the edge of the dunes further along to the west but couldn’t see any sign of any movement. We couldn’t find a way across the creek which was shallow enough for everyone to get over without getting wet feet and it was drizzling lightly and cold out here now, so we turned and walked back the way we had come.

The light was already starting to go, but we had time for one last stop. Scanning the grazing marshes from the road, we quickly located a small group of White-fronted Geese feeding out on the grass. There were a few Marsh Harriers and Red Kites hanging in the air and a Common Buzzard on a nearby bush. A Barn Owl was hunting over towards the wood to the west. A nice way to finish.

21st Jan 2023 – Broads Winter Day

A Group Day Tour down in the Broads. It was a cold night and a very frosty start, but with clear skies it was a gloriously crisp and sunny winter’s day. Great weather to be out birding.

As we met in the car park down in the Broads, a Great Tit was singing from across the frozen water opposite and a Chaffinch was singing from the other side of the road, a reminder that spring is on its way, even if it didn’t feel like it at the moment! Our first destination for the morning was the Trinity Broads and as we pulled up in the car park we could see that Ormesby Little Broad looked largely frozen. We crossed the road to the boardwalk overlooking Filby Broad and it was largely frozen too. A Mute Swan was out in the middle, trying to crack the ice ahead of it to get to the near side.

Mute Swan – ice breaker

Thankfully there was a small patch of open water remaining, although it was over towards the far end and chock full of ducks. Not easy to find the more interesting ones in the throng of Coot, Tufted Ducks and Common Pochard. We quickly located three redhead Smew which were dozing on the edge of the open water, along with a few Goldeneye, and the drake Red-crested Pochard which was on a smaller and not so congested patch of water behind. A 1st winter drake (Greater) Scaup was in the middle of the ducks and trickier to see but the Ferruginous Duck was hardest of all to locate, as it was mostly asleep and kept disappearing into the melee.

Ducks – including Smew & Goldeneye

There were lots of Shoveler out on the open water too, plus a few Gadwall. While we were scanning, a couple of Marsh Harriers patrolled the reeds around the edge of the Broad, at one point flying over the ducks in the middle which refused to budge. A Great White Egret flew over the trees at the back. As we walked back to the car park, the ivy covered trees by the road were full of Redwings and Blackbirds, which were so busy feeding they ignored us as we walked past.

Redwing – feeding in the ivy

The ditch under the trees was free of ice and several Mallards were enjoying it. We have seen Kingfisher in here before, so we walked up along the path towards Ormesby Little Broad, but quickly discovered someone else was walking ahead of us and anything on the ditch would have been disturbed. There were fewer birds then normal in the trees here too, although a Green Woodpecker laughed at us as we walked out onto the platform at the end.

The Broad here was also largely frozen, with a very small patch of open water populated by a few Tufted Ducks and a couple of Great Crested Grebes and Teal. It felt like we wouldn’t see much here. Then a Kingfisher flashed low over the ice and glowed electric blue as it turned and landed in the trees over the far side. We had just set up the scope on it when a large bird flew through our view. Bittern! We had a great view as it flew past and away across the Broad, disappearing into the reeds over the far side. What a bonus!

Bittern – flew across in front of us

The Kingfisher flew off into the trees to our left, but then came out again and landed where it had been earlier, perched in full view. With fewer distractions, we could really enjoy it now. A little while later, the Bittern flew up again and dropped in further along. A Marsh Harrier circled over it at one point but didn’t flush it again. There were a couple of Grey Herons sunning themselves in the trees, along with a Common Buzzard and three Cormorants.

It was time to move on, so we walked back to the minibus and drove off to look for Common Cranes next. We pulled up in a layby overlooking some fields which they have been favouring in recent days and quickly spotted a small group feeding in the grass on the edge of some stubble. We got out and trained the scopes on them – eventually counting 13 together here, some smart adults with the red stripe on their crowns catching the sunlight and some family groups with browner juveniles still in tow.

Common Cranes – we saw 32 today

Another five Cranes were just visible on the edge of a maize strip further back. As we stood and watched, some of the birds started bugling – what a wonderful sound! Then the thirteen started to walk out into the middle of the neighbouring field and took to the air in small groups, landing again further over. Great birds to watch here in the wonderful crisp winter sun. A big flock of Meadow Pipits came up out of the field next to us and when we could tear our attention away from the Crane spectacle we turned the scopes on a nearby hedge which was full of Yellowhammers and Reed Buntings.

Moving on, after a quick loo stop in Martham, we took the coast road up towards Horsey. We could see lots of Pink-footed Geese in one of the fields along the straight so stopped and got out for a closer look. One of the group noticed a lone Common Snipe on the front of a patch of water in the grass just beyond the reeds in front of us and when we looked we realised there were probably at least fifty of them scattered around the grass in front of the geese. There were a few Marsh Harriers over the reeds behind us, and then we noticed a slimmer harrier flying across too. A ringtail Hen Harrier, we got the scopes on it but it quickly disappeared behind the birch trees.

Golden Plover – by the coast road

Continuing on round, some Fieldfares came up from a field by the road but disappeared back into some trees. The next field on held a huge flock of Golden Plover, which we admired from the minibus before they were all spooked and took to the air. Further still, we could see some shapes in a distant field, but with cars behind us we couldn’t easily stop. We pulled into the next gateway and looking back through the trees we could see they were more Cranes – 10 together here. Our Crane total was growing rapidly!

We cut inland next, for a quick circuit of Ludham Airfield. There had been some Whooper Swans here in the last week, but there was no sign of them today, although we did pass one field with around 60 Egyptian Geese! It was getting on time for lunch, so we carried on further south to Strumpshaw, where we could make use of the picnic tables overlooking the feeders. Two male Great Spotted Woodpeckers were chasing through the trees above the road as we parked. Lots of Blue Tits and Great Tits were coming in to the feeders, a Coal Tit appeared several times and a flock of Long-tailed Tits passed through at one point, but there was no sign of any Marsh Tits today and the trees around the Reception Hide were quieter than they sometimes can be. A Song Thrush was singing behind us.

Long-tailed Tit – under the feeders

After lunch, we had a quick look at Buckenham. There were not many geese out here today – a few Canada Geese and Greylags further over, and a lone goose along the edge by the railway line turned out to be just a single Pink-footed Goose when we it came out of the ditch. There were lots of Wigeon over the far side and a couple of Common Buzzards on the gateposts in the middle. A female Stonechat kept perching obligingly on the rushes in front of us. With time getting on, we decided against walking all the way to the river, and set off back towards Ludham.

Our final destination for the day was St Benet’s. The car park was the fullest we have seen it today, but perhaps not a surprise given the weather. We managed to find somewhere to park, and walked out and up onto the site of the old Abbey. It is a wonderful spot, on slightly raised ground, with a panoramic view of the surrounding marshes. A wonderful place just to be on a crisp winter’s afternoon.

We could see a large herd of swans in the distance and quickly got the scopes on them. As well as several Mute Swans, there were at least ten Bewick’s Swans too. We admired the squared off yellow on their bills. It wasn’t long before the first Barn Owl was out, followed by more, and at least we counted at least four, the minimum number we could see all simultaneously. Fantastic to watch them hunting in the low late sunshine, and a couple of times one landed in the hedge, where we could get a great view of it through the scope. They weren’t having it all to themselves though, as a couple of times we saw one of the local Kestrels go after them – the Kestrels are notorious thieves, and would happily steal a vole if one of the Barn Owls gave them a chance.

Barn Owl – one of several

A stunning grey male Hen Harrier appeared, low over the marshes beyond. It landed on a fence post, where we could get in the scopes for a while, before it resumed quartering the marshes. A little later, we saw a ringtail Hen Harrier and kept seeing what was presumably the same bird repeatedly, although we couldn’t rule out that there weren’t actually two. We picked up a family of four Common Cranes way off on the far side of the marshes – even at that distance, we could hear them bugling at times. That took our total to a massive 32 different Cranes for the day – a significant proportion of the only 200+ total UK population!

The Short-eared Owls were curiously inactive this evening, particularly considering how active the Barn Owls were, but when a Marsh Harrier flew in low over the marshes, suddenly a Short-eared Owl appeared with it. The two of them circled up high above the hedge, before the Marsh Harrier drifted off and the Short-eared Owl dropped back down to the marshes out of view. We walked down to the gate at the far end, but couldn’t find it again. What was presumably the same ringtail Hen Harrier was distantly out over the marshes and one of the Barn Owls was hunting round and round over the grass and reeds in front of us. We had nice views of a Red Fox out on the marshes too.

Short-eared Owl – flushed by a Marsh Harrier

As we walked back up to the top of the rise, by the remains of the old Abbey, several long lines of Cormorants were flying past, heading inland to roost. One of the Barn Owls was still hunting round the margin of the Abbey grounds. The sun was going down away to the west – what a view! It was unfortunately time to head for home.

16th Jan 2023 – Winter in the Broads

A Private Tour today, down in the Broads. It was meant to be brighter with a risk of wintry showers around the middle of the day, but it wasn’t. A front was originally meant to clear through overnight, but we drove into it as we made our way down to the Broads and it ended up spitting with rain on and off for much of the day, with wintry showers arriving later afternoon. Thankfully it wasn’t bad enough to stop us getting out and having a great day.

As we arrived at Ludham, we stopped to talk to one of the locals who was going the other way and he told us that the Taiga Bean Geese at St Benet’s had just been spooked but had landed again further back, where they were harder to see. There were some Whooper Swans around the pool on the left of the track as we drove in and some distant swans behind the reeds the other side, but we couldn’t find the geese at first.

We drove down to the car park at the end, then back to the pull in where we got out to scan. We couldn’t see the other swans from here, so we walked further along the road until we found a gap in the trees and there were the Taiga Bean Geese, visible in the next meadow over, behind a thin line of reeds. We got them in the scope and we could see their mostly orange bills. From here, we could also see that the swans this side were Bewick’s Swans too.

Taiga Bean Geese – the four behind the reeds

There has been a good selection of ducks on the Trinity Broads in recent weeks, so we headed over there next. Our first stop was at Rollesby Broad and the hide at The Waterside. A Kingfisher was perched on the edge of the hide but flew off as we walked in, landing in a bush over the far side. A second Kingfisher flew past. A Marsh Harrier flying over spooked the 4 Smew from where they had been hiding around the corner of the reeds. They landed briefly, then flew again, three continuing up and off over the trees but thankfully the fourth Smew landed again and gave us some great views as it swam around in front of the hide, a young (1st winter) drake, yet to get its distinctive black and white plumage. A large flock of Common Pochard and Tufted Ducks flew over too, flushed from one of the broads.

Smew – a 1st winter drake

We couldn’t see any more ducks from here so we went into The Waterside cafe where we bought hot chocolate – and most delicious it was too! A Little Egret was on the edge of the reeds beside the jetty and one of the Kingfishers flew past again. Next stop was on the causeway between Ormesby and Rollesby Broads. There were few ducks on here now, perhaps having flown off earlier. There was no sign of the Scaup which had been here earlier, just some Tufted Ducks. A Great White Egret stalked through the reeds over the far side and a flock of Long-tailed Tits came through the trees above us.

We decided to try Filby Broad instead, and the cloud finally cleared and it brightened up a little. There had been several different ducks on here earlier, but there was now someone reed cutting along the far edge and a fishing boat out in the middle. Those ducks which hadn’t been spooked had apparently retreated into the far corner, out of view. We scanned from the boardwalk, admiring several Goldeneye while looking through the ducks along the edge to see if anything of interest might emerge. Thankfully, we didn’t have to wait too long until the reedcutter took a break and that was enough for the raft of Tufted Ducks and Common Pochard to emerge. We quickly located two Scaup, a 1st winter drake and a female, and the smart drake Red-crested Pochard with them. There was no sign of any Ferruginous Ducks now though.

A drive round some likely spots looking for Common Cranes next quickly located at least nineteen – a group of four in a field on the edge of a maize strip, plus another three and a group of twelve together.

Common Cranes – a group of four

There had been a raft of Velvet Scoter on the sea off Winterton in recent weeks, and we went to look for those next. We thought we might have a long walk through the dunes, as they had been some way off to the south in the last couple of days, but as we pulled into the car park we scanned the sea and realised we could see them from here. We got out and set the scopes on them, at which point they took off. Helpfully, they flew straight towards us, flashing the white in their wings, and landed much closer, almost straight off the car park. Thirteen Velvet Scoter in total – much better views and no need for a walk! It was windy here and there were some wintry showers threatening again now, so we retreated to the minibus for lunch. When we looked back, the Velvet Scoters had flown off again and were now even more distant off to the south. Lucky timing! As we packed up to go, a Sanderling was running around in the car park.

Velvet Scoters – off Winterton

We were quite keen to have another go and see if we could find any Ferruginous Ducks on the Trinity Broads, figuring that if disturbance had abated they might have returned. There were large numbers of Tufted Ducks and Common Pochard on Rollesby Broad now, so we stopped to look through them. One of the first birds we set eyes on was a female Ferruginous Duck. It was hard looking into the low afternoon sun, which had come back out at first, but much better when some clouds drifted over again. The drake Red-crested Pochard was out with the flock here too now. Across the road, the Great White Egret was now in the front corner of Ormesby Broad. As we walked back to the minibus, a Kingfisher flew in across the car park and towered up high above the trees before crossing the road.

The plan was to finish the day at Stubb Mill today, as we really wanted to see Hen Harrier. The weather was deteriorating again and we sat out one heavy shower in the minibus. There were lots of Marsh Harriers in already and it didn’t take us long to see a ringtail Hen Harrier over the reeds towards the old mill. A short while later it was joined by a second ringtail and then a smart grey male Hen Harrier appeared over the marshes in front of the viewpoint. We had great views of it through the scopes as it flew in. Mission accomplished, we decided to head for home.

15th Jan 2023 – Owling in the Wind

An Owl Tour today. It was very windy again this morning, gusting up to 46mph, and very grey although mercifully the worst we had was a mercifully brief period when it started to spit with rain. Not ideal weather for owls! Thankfully the wind dropped and the sun came out in the afternoon and it all came good in the end.

It was an early start today, before dawn, in an attempt to catch the Barn Owls out hunting before they went in to roost. As we drove inland a Sparrowhawk came out of the hedge and flew low down the road ahead of us. We drove round by the fields where we would normally expect to find them at this time of the morning, but scanning from the minibus, we couldn’t find the first pair of Barn Owls from minibus. Not a good sign.

Further on, we stopped and got out to scan. No owls there either, just a couple of Marsh Harriers and a Kestrel out already. It was very windy and we were glad to get back in the minibus. We drove round to another site where two Barn Owls have been out very late in the mornings in the last week or so, and where there were some more sheltered spots for them to hunt, but there was no sign of those either. It was just too windy, and they had obviously given up and gone into roost. As we drove back round, two people in the back of the bus saw a shape through one of the hedges where we had looked earlier, so we turned down a side road to look but there was nothing there now. There Bullfinches flicked through the hedge ahead of us.

It was time for a change of tack. Fingers crossed, we would have another chance for Barn Owls later, particularly if the wind might drop. We moved on inland and went to look for a Tawny Owl instead. It was very blustery and spitting with rain as we walked round the edge of the field, before we got some shelter in the lee of the hedge. As we approached the edge of the wood, we stopped to scan the tree and could see a shape in the hole. Not the best view from here, but it was a Tawny Owl, so we all had a quick look in case it disappeared in.

From further up, we were looking straight on at the tree, from a safe distance. The Tawny Owl was side on at first, probably trying to shelter from the wind, dozing. Then it stirred and turned face on – a great view through the scope.

Tawny Owl – in its usual hole

One owl under our belts, we drove on to look for Little Owls. It was likely to be a struggle today, given the weather and that the barns at the most reliable site in recent years have been netted as an avian flu prevention measure. Unfortunately, the places where the Little Owls used to sit are now inaccessible for them. There were lots of people there when we arrived too, no chance. So we carried on to try another site where we have seen them recently. There were lots of geese in the fields as we drove – a flock of Brent Geese in winter wheat one side, and hundreds of Pink-footed Geese in the harvested sugar beet a little further up on the other side. Predictably, there was no sign of the Little Owl. It was time to take a break and we could resume our owling efforts later.

We drove down to Holkham and made our way up to The Lookout cafe for a welcome hot drink. There were lots of Pinkfeet and a few Greylag Geese on the grazing marshes by Lady Anne’s Drive, plus big flocks of Wigeon, groups of Teal and one or two Shoveler. A couple of Black-tailed Godwits and Redshank were feeding on the wet grass in front of where we parked too. As we walked up to the top of the Drive, all the geese took to the air away to the west and we had a brief glimpse of the White-tailed Eagle briefly flying across, before it dropped down out of view. The little covey of six Grey Partridges were out on the grass close to the fence again.

Grey Partridge – by Lady Anne’s Drive

After we had warmed up in the cafe, we made our way out to the beach. As we walked east along the edge of the saltmarsh, there were lots of Shelduck and Brent Geese feeding on the saltmarsh, at least until they were flushed by two people walking right through the middle of the vegetation! Down at the cordon, the Shorelarks were feeding close to the fence, so we got them in the scope for a real close up. Smart birds!

There had been no sign of them when we arrived, but as we walked on to look for the Snow Buntings, they flew in and landed in the far end of cordon. We had just set off to walk up to that end when they flew again, right past us, the white in their wings flashing like snow. They landed on the path behind us, then flew out and dropped down in the cordon, where we got them in the scope.

Out at the beach, the tide was in and it was too windy to stop for any time. A Sanderling ran along the shoreline, before flying in past us. The Snow Buntings flew round behind us before landing on the shingle nearby. We were just watching them, when they were spooked by a dog and flew off towards Wells. We decided to walk back and on our way stopped for another look at the Shorelarks which were now even closer to the fence and completely unperturbed by everyone watching.

Shorelark – close to the fence

We were going to walk back through the pines, but the wind seemed to be dropping and we could see some brighter sky to the west now. Back at Lady Anne’s Drive, we stopped for lunch in The Lookout and by the time we had finished the weather was much improved. We decided to go round to the other side of the grazing marshes to look for the White-tailed Eagle. At the first layby, we could see lots of White-fronted Geese so stopped for a closer look. A pair of Egyptian Geese were on the grass further up. There were plenty of raptors – several Common Buzzards, including one very pale one, a few Red Kites and Marsh Harriers, but no sign of the eagle from here.

There were a couple of cars in the next layby so we pulled up behind them. They were watching the White-tailed Eagle, which was perched on an ivy-covered stump out in the middle of the marshes. Before we could all get out of the minibus, it took off. Thankfully it just dropped down to the ground in front, where it proceeded to feed on an unidentified bit of carrion down on the grass. A Red Kite swooped low over it and then landed on the ground alongside – it looked tiny by comparison!

White-tailed Eagle – visiting from Isle of Wight

This young White-tailed Eagle is a released bird from the Isle of Wight reintroduction scheme, and fitted with a satellite tracker. We were lucky with our timing – it was not seen here the following day and by the day after had moved down to Essex! A Great White Egret was feeding out on the marshes behind some reeds and then one of the other people pointed out a Barn Owl which was perched on a tree on the edge of a distant copse. It flew out and round over the marshes hunting for a while, before eventually disappearing back into the trees.

It was a good start to break our Barn Owl duck, but we were hoping for closer views now. There were reports of a few Barn Owls out elsewhere already too – it was still early this afternoon, but they had probably struggled to feed over the last few days due to the weather and were making the most of the drop in the wind. We started to make our way back east and decided to swing round inland via some barns to see if the local Barn Owl was out.

We thought it might be perched in the low sunshine on the barns, but when we pulled up alongside it wasn’t there. Then we saw the Barn Owl fly out ahead of us from behind the farmhouse further up. We drove towards it, but it promptly flew round behind us, disappearing behind the house. A quick turn round, and there it was now, hunting along the verge the other side of the barns. It landed in a tree so we pulled up alongside. From the minibus, it was unconcerned by our presence, point black views.

Barn Owl – out early

When the Barn Owl flew, we followed in the minibus right alongside, watching it hunt. It kept landing in one of the trees, scanning the ground for anything below, then moving on to the next tree. After about twenty minutes of stunning views, it eventually flew across the road and doubled back along the other verge behind us. We turned again and followed, but it disappeared back through the barns and we lost sight of it. We decided to leave it in peace.

Barn Owl – stunning views

We hadn’t gone far when we noticed a raptor flying across a field next to the road – we pulled up and a quick look confirmed it was a ringtail Hen Harrier. A nice bonus to run into one by chance like this inland.

Working our way back the way we had come earlier, we stopped again to scan the Little Owl barn. There it was now, tucked in the gable end. As everyone got out, a Woodcock shot past. Unfortunately, just as we set up the scope, the Little Owl dropped to the ground then disappeared round the back. Back in the minibus, we stopped again a bit further up and tried looking from a different angle. It was back on its original perch, but again it disappeared by the time we had all got out – we were a long way away so we weren’t disturbing it, but presumably it was just more active now the wind had dropped. We scanned the barns and found it again perched on the far end of the roof. This time, before everyone could get a look, a Buzzard flew low right past and it disappeared round the back again. Despite looking round and trying again back where we had stopped first, we couldn’t find it again.

We carried on east, inland. Thousands of Pinkfeet flew over the road back where we had seen them earlier, an impressive sight, and dropped down into the fields further over. A flock of Fieldfares perched up in the top of a hedge by the road, before flying down into the nearby stubble. A bevy of nine Roe Deer out in the middle of another field was an unusually large number for round here.

As we drove in to the back of Cley, another Barn Owl was hunting a rough field by the road. We stopped in the layby and got out to watch it hunting from the gate. More great views, several times it passed by just a few metres in front of us. Eventually it flew over the road and further up to another field, where it circled round several times before disappearing behind a hedge.

Barn Owl – 1 of 8 this afternoon

We stopped again to scan the grazing marshes where we had tried this morning. It was very different weather now, the wind had fallen light and Cley Mill looked stunning in the late low winter sun. A very distant Barn Owl was hunting out over the marshes in the distance now – our fourth of the afternoon.

We made our way back inland again and walked down the footpath which runs along the valley. Yet another Barn Owl was out here, but flying away from us over the water meadows. We followed, stopping to admire a Grey Wagtail feeding on the edge of the river and flocks of Pied Wagtails flying in to roost in the reeds.

The Barn Owl was perched now on a post over the other side, so we got it in the scope. Another Barn Owl appeared from out of the hedge opposite, and perched on a branch, cleaning its bill. When one flew past, we assumed it was the first Barn Owl again, but we looked back and it was still on its perch. As it started to quarter over the meadows back behind us, a fourth Barn Owl appeared with it we could see them all simultaneously!

From zero Barn Owls this morning to eight this afternoon, the change in the weather had made all the difference. Amazing! As we walked back towards the minibus, we were surrounded by Barn Owls hunting. We were hoping to get a Tawny Owl hooting but they were late tonight – the sky was was still quite bright and the Pheasants were still very noisy in the trees. It had been a long day, and we had seen the Tawny Owl so well earlier this morning that we decided to call it a night.

13th Jan 2023 – North Norfolk Day

A Private Tour today in North Norfolk for some guests from India. We wanted to see a mixture of common birds and some of our wintering specialities, plus owls and raptors, and try to get some photos of as many as possible. It was grey and rather windy, but at least remained largely dry.

We were a little later getting down to the coast this morning than planned, and a quick look for Barn Owls first thing drew a blank – they had clearly gone in to roost already. So we headed inland and set off to look for a Tawny Owl instead. Skeins of Pink-footed Geese flew overhead as we walked down the track and several Redwings and Meadow Pipits came up from the neighbouring field. The Tawny Owl was in its usual tree hole and gave great views through the scope.

Tawny Owl – in its usual tree

A mixed tit flock moved quickly through the trees as we turned to head back and we stopped to watch the Long-tailed Tits. Further on, a smart male Chaffinch was sub-singing from a branch above the track – perhaps a sign that spring is on its way, despite the current weather.

There has been a Long-eared Owl in the garden at the CleySpy shop in Glandford on and off for the last couple of weeks, but its appearances are erratic and it is only there occasionally. We received a message to say that it was still present this morning, so we diverted round to see that next. A short stop on the way to look at a flock of Rooks feeding in a field revealed a pair of Grey Partridges on the near edge, a nice bonus. The Long-eared Owl was dozing on its usual perch – again, great views through the scope. We also took advantage of our visit here to try out some binoculars and admire the tits and Dunnocks around the feeders.

Long-eared Owl – in the CleySpy garden

After our shopping expedition, we made our way to Holkham. As we stopped to photographed the Wigeon by the fence they were all flushed by a couple of Red Kites drifting over the edge of the pines. There were a few Pink-footed Geese in with the Greylags not too far out too. After a break for a hot drink and snack in The Lookout cafe, we headed out towards the beach. It was rather breezier out here than we had hoped, with more west in the wind meaning little shelter from the pines today, but the Shorelarks were in the cordon when we arrived and proceeded to come closer and closer, giving a good photo opportunity.

Shorelark – showing well

We hadn’t seen the Snow Buntings as we walked out, but standing here now we spotted them flying over the dunes beyond the far end of the cordon. We walked out to the beach for a closer look – they were very jumpy today, a flock of about 30, but we positioned ourselves ahead of them and eventually they worked their way right past us along the shingle. It was very windy out here, so we headed for the pines and walked back through the trees, which were rather quiet.

Snow Bunting – on the beach

When we got back to Lady Anne’s Drive, we had another stop to warm up in The Lookout for a hot drink and another bite to eat. One of the wardens driving out over Quarles Marsh behind flushed thousands upon thousands of Pink-footed Geese which flew over the cafe calling, a very impressive sight! On our way back to the minibus, we stopped again to photograph the ducks and geese by Lady Anne’s Drive, lots of Wigeon, a few Teal and some Shoveler on the pool half way up.

The light was already starting to go, but we stopped next to admire the White-fronted Geese which were in the field by the road today. Further along, a scan of the grazing marshes produced several Red Kites and Marsh Harriers but no sign of the White-tailed Eagle today. There were three Great White Egrets out on the marshes too.

White-fronted Geese – by the road

Our final stop of the day was at Brancaster Staithe, to try to photograph some waders from the warmth of the minibus. There were several close Redshanks and a couple of Black-tailed Godwits near the car park, but no Turnstones today. We could see a few Ringed Plover on the wet sand the other side of the channel and a flock of Brent Geese came up off the saltmarsh and flew off up the channel.

As we made our way back, a Barn Owl appeared ahead of us over the road. We pulled into a gateway and watched it hunting up and down the rough verge of the field, before it cut back across the road behind us. As we headed for home, we could still see it out over the grass. A lovely way to end.

2nd Jan 2023 – New Year’s Birding Day

A Private Tour today in North Norfolk, a chance to catch up with some of the rarities which are still lingering here and some of our other winter specialities and kick off the New Year’s birding. The weather gods were in our favour – it was a mostly bright & sunny glorious winter’s day, with the wind having dropped from the last couple of days too.

We met in Wells and headed straight for Holkham, hoping to avoid the worst of the bank holiday crowds. The first thing we saw as we got out of the minibus was a White-tailed Eagle! It was rather distant, perched in the dead trees in Decoy Wood, but a good view through the scope. This is one of the released birds from the Isle of Wight and has been hanging around here for some time now. A great start to the day!

There were lots of Wigeon and Pink-footed Geese on the grazing marshes and flocks of Lapwings flying over. The Grey Partridges were back in their favoured field today and looked great in the morning sunshine.

Grey Partridge – in the sunshine

We made our way through the pines and out along the edge of the saltmarsh, stopped only to admire a small mixed group of Rock Pipits and Meadow Pipits feeding in the vegetation close to the path. There were a couple of people already out at the cordon admiring the Shorelarks and the flock of around 50 Snow Buntings on the edge of the dunes beyond. We didn’t know where to look first. The Shorelarks were close to the fence at first, giving some stunning views, the low winter sun causing their yellow faces to glow so we concentrated on those.

Shorelark – a photo from here yesterday

By the time we had finished admiring the Shorelarks, the Snow Buntings had flown further down. We found them again as we walked round towards the beach and now we picked up the orange colour-ringed bird which is in the flock at the moment. They were so close, we could read the code through the scope – ‘FD’. It turns out this individual had been ringed in France at Dunkirk just on 10th December, and it is very unusual that it should be in Norfolk just three weeks later in mid-winter. Fascinating what you can learn from colour-rings – and thanks to the ringer, Quentin Dupriez, for getting back to me with the details straight away. The Snow Buntings looked stunning too, as they whirled round in the low winter light.

Snow Buntings – whirling round

We made our way out onto the beach and looked out at the sea next. We quickly found several Slavonian Grebes, at least three, and a single Red-necked Grebe which helpfully spent some time sitting on the water next to a winter Great Crested Grebe for comparison. There were three Long-tailed Ducks diving just offshore, some gorgeous Red-breasted Mergansers, a Goldeneye and a scattering of Common Scoter too. A Red-throated Diver completed the set. Out on the beach were a few Sanderling and Oystercatchers. Someone further along the beach messaged to say he had relocated the Black Guillemot offshore, which we had found here yesterday, but as we had other things to do today we decided not to walk up to try to see it. Good call, as it had already disappeared when others did walk over to look for it.

As we walked back through the pines, a Chiffchaff was flicking around in the edge of the holm oaks the other side. With a short break to use the facilities, we stopped to scan through the flocks of Pink-footed Geese on the grazing marsh and found two Russian White-fronted Geese with them. While we were admiring them through the scope, we looked over to Decoy Wood to see the White-tailed Eagle flying round before heading off up into the pines.

White-fronted Goose – one of two with the Pinkfeet

We particularly wanted to see the Hume’s Warbler at Brancaster today, so we headed over there next. Beach Road was very busy and there were lots of people out for a walk on the seawall. The Hume’s Warbler was flicking around in the back of the trees below the seawall when we arrived, but quickly disappeared further back across the pool. We could still hear it calling on and off, and we didn’t have to wait too long before it appeared in the top of the one of the bushes. We had a good view of it flicking around in the sunshine through the scope.

It was time for lunch already now, so we made our way round to Titchwell for a quick bite to eat. We wouldn’t have long here, as we wanted to get back to look for the Pallid Harrier this afternoon, but we did have enough time for a quick look at the Freshmarsh. On our way out, we scanned the ditches and found the Water Rail again – giving fantastic views out in the open at times.

Water Rail – showing well

The Freshmarsh held a nice selection of waders – the colour of the Golden Plovers and Lapwings on the bank also accentuated by the lovely light, a few Black-tailed Godwits and Dunlin, and the small hardy band of over-wintering Avocets. The ducks were looking stunning too – Pintail, Teal, Wigeon, Mallard and Shelduck. A couple of small groups of Shoveler spinning round in the water below the bank were each closely accompanied by a Black-headed Gull picking at the surface for any food the ducks had stirred up. A female Goldeneye was diving continually at the back and three Tufted Ducks were hiding on the back of one of the islands.

Then it was back east past Wells and a walk out to the edge of the saltmarsh at Warham Greens. There were a few people already there scanning, but they hadn’t picked up the Pallid Harrier yet. They had seen a couple of Merlin and scanning we quickly found one of them chasing something out on the marsh. It disappeared behind a bush and when we walked down for a change of angle we found it again chasing and then catching a pipit. It landed out on a bush where we could get a good look at it in the scope.

A ghostly grey male Hen Harrier patrolled up and down the back of the saltmarsh and while we were admiring it through the scope it flushed a slimmer harrier with rich orangey underparts from the vegetation below – the Pallid Harrier! The two circled together for a minute or so, a nice comparison, the Pallid Harrier clearly slimmer than the Hen Harrier which drifted off out of view.

Pallid Harrier – over the back of the saltmarsh

We followed the Pallid Harrier as it flew slowly up and down over the back of the saltmarsh. A juvenile female, very different from the male from which it gets its name, we could see its distinctive pale collar and dark ‘boa’. Eventually it dropped down into the vegetation out of view.

There were other things to see here too – a distant Great White Egret and flocks of Golden Plover and Lapwing out on the saltmarsh, a big flock of Knot over the beach beyond, a pair of Stonechats on the suaeda in front of us. The Pink-footed Geese started to fly in to roost, a huge flock flying out over the saltmarsh away to the east and whiffling down onto the sands. A ringtail Hen Harrier flew in from the west and out towards East Hills. Then the male Hen Harrier flew back in from the other direction not far out over the saltmarsh, lovely close views.

Hen Harrier – the ghostly grey male

Mission accomplished and with the sun starting to set, we decided to call it a day and walk back. And what a great day it had been!

29th December 2022 – Norfolk Winter’s Day

A Private Tour today in North Norfolk for some visitors from the USA. We had originally been scheduled to go out yesterday but as the forecast was for rain we switched it to today. The weather was much better – bright winter sunshine, although there was still a stiff breeze blowing.

We met in Old Hunstanton and headed first for Titchwell. As we got out of the minibus, an over-wintering Chiffchaff flicked around in the hedge by the car park. Behind the Visitor Centre we found a large flock of Goldfinches in the alders and we stopped to admire some of our commoner birds – some smart Chaffinches, Greenfinch and a brief Brambling, Dunnock and Wren at close quarters, some very tame Robins and a couple of Blue Tits on the roof.

The ditches by the main path are still rather dry so far this winter, but we did still manage to find a Water Rail feeding in the water in the bottom of one of them, giving us some great close-up views of this often very secretive species.

Water Rail – in the ditch

It was rather windy once we got out of the trees. A Marsh Harrier was chased by a Carrion Crow out over Thornham Marsh and a Red Kite was perched in the dead trees at the back of the reedbed. A steady succession of small flocks of Pink-footed Geese flew west overhead calling. Out on the saltmarsh, we stopped to look at (Eurasian) Curlew, Common Redshank and a single Grey Plover (known as Black-bellied Plover in North America) out on the saltmarsh, with one or two Little Egrets and a Chinese Water Deer further back and a (Common) Kestrel sheltering from the wind on the old concrete bunker.

We headed for the shelter of Island Hide. (Northern) Lapwings are always stunning birds so we got the scope on one of those first for a closer look. There were a few Black-tailed Godwits mostly asleep on the same island. Several (European) Golden Plover were on the bund behind and a single (Common) Ringed Plover on the next pool beyond. The group of wintering (Pied) Avocets were sheltering behind one of the islands further back, not the best view from this side. A Common Snipe played hide and seek in and out of the vegetation on the island closest to the hide.

Brent Geese – flying off

There was a nice selection of wildfowl on the Freshmarsh too. The noisy flocks of Brent Geese on the water when we arrived gradually drifted off back to the saltmarsh to feed. There were plenty of (Eurasian) Teal, (Northern) Shoveler and Mallard, three Gadwall a couple of (Common) Shelduck and a few (Northern) Pintail. A single female Goldeneye was diving at the back and three Tufted Ducks worked their way round the edge. A lone juvenile Whooper Swan dropped in with the Greylag Geese on the water but stayed when the geese flew off again.

Whooper Swan – a juvenile with the Greylags

We made our way round to Parrinder Hide now. A quick look from the north side provided some great views of Common Redshank and Grey Plover. There were lots more ducks, including several (Eurasian) Wigeon on the Freshmarsh from the southern side of the hide. A few Dunlin were picking around the edges of the far compartment and we had a better view of the Avocets from here. The Long-billed Dowitcher had not put in an appearance here this morning, but unusually and unlike most of the other people here today we were not too worried about seeing it, as they are much commoner in the USA! We did manage to pick out a Spotted Redshank on the back of one of the islands from here, and admire its needle-fine bill.

With so many distractions here for us this morning it was already time for lunch, and with high tide out on the beach now, we decided to head back to use the facilities and get a welcome hot coffee. After lunch, we made our way east along the coast road to Holkham. There were lots of Egyptian Geese and Lapwings in the fields as we passed by.

We stopped overlooking the grazing marshes first. It didn’t take too long to pick out a small group of White-fronted Geese mixed in with the Greylags. A larger flock of Barnacle Geese were feeding in the distance over by the pines. Having seen flocks overhead earlier it was nice to get the scope on a Pink-footed Goose on the ground now for a better look. A couple of Great White Egrets stalking round the marshes were possibly less of interest today than a Grey Heron on the edge of one of the ditches.

There was a good selection of raptors here – several Red Kites including one which drifted across in front of us glowing rich rusty red in the afternoon sunshine, a couple of Common Buzzards one on the ground and one on a bush, a distant Marsh Harrier quartering and a Common Kestrel which came in to hover right in front of us. A Goldcrest which flew over our heads and into the hedge the other side unfortunately did not hang around.

Red Kite – in the sunshine

It was very busy at Lady Anne’s Drive but we still managed to park at the north end. A couple of Lapwing and a Curlew were out on the marshes close to the fence, along with lots of Wigeon. From the top end, we looked down over the reeds at some dark lumps moving in the grass which were the resident small covey of Grey Partridge.

Grey Partridge – in the grass

The sun was already starting to drop in the sky and disappeared behind some low clouds on the horizon now too. We made our way out onto the saltmarsh and walked east towards the cordon. There were fewer birds out here today, possibly given the disturbance from all the people and dogs, but we did see a flock of Linnets whirling round the back of the saltmarsh. Two Red Kites hung in the air overhead.

Another birder walking back the other way told us that the Shorelarks (aka Horned Larks) had just flown off out to the beach but as we were speaking we saw them fly back in way off in the distance and when we got to the cordon we could see them feeding on the sand right down at the far end. We walked most of the way down and got them in the scope – nice enough views, we could see their yellow faces and black bandit masks. But then they took off and flew straight towards us, landing much closer, and then they proceeded to pick their way right past us. Great views, even if the light was going now.

Shorelarks – six of the eleven
Shorelark – close views

It was getting dark by the time we got back to Lady Anne’s Drive, but there was one final treat in store. As we walked back to the minibus, we heard a cacophony of Pink-footed Geese calling and looked over to see several thousand flying in against the setting sun. We stood and watched as they dropped down onto the grazing marshes, a wonderful sight and a great way to end the day.

Pink-footed Geese – and sunset

18th-25th Nov 2022 – The Gambia

Two years later than planned, but finally our first tour to The Gambia organised together with Oriole Birding was able to go ahead last month. An action-packed trip, with around 260 species in just a week on the coast. Read all about it below, and if you like what you read you would be welcome to join us in 2023.

Friday 18th November

We met at Gatwick at 6am, in good time for our Titan Airways flight down to Banjul. The plane departed on time at 8.30am and after a fairly uneventful flight we landed half an hour early at 2.30pm (another bonus when visiting The Gambia is that there is no time change at this time of year, so we didn’t even have to reset our watches). It was rather slow getting through the airport but eventually we found ourselves outside for the transfer to our hotel. As our luggage was being loaded into the waiting coach, our first Hooded Vultures circled overhead.

With construction underway on the new airport road, there was a bit of congestion on our way to the Senegambia Beach Hotel – but we were in Africa now, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Looking out of the windows of the coach, we could see kettles of Hooded Vultures, Yellow-billed Kites and Pied Crows and Laughing Doves and Speckled Pigeons on the wires, to get our trip list started.

The hotel seemed a little surprised at how many guests arrived on the coach, but eventually we got our rooms sorted. With daylight likely to fade quickly now, we had just a short break before we met up with our local guide for the first day, Modou Taal, for a short walk around the extensive hotel grounds before it got dark. It was nice to stretch our legs after a long day travelling, and a good introduction to some of the commoner birds and animals. New ones came thick and fast, it was hard to keep up – several White-crowned Robin Chats, Blackcap and Brown Babblers, Western Red-billed and African Grey Hornbills, lots of Red-eyed Doves. A flock of White-faced Whistling Ducks circled round beyond the hotel compound and couple of Striated Herons flew past. Several Broad-billed Rollers hawked back and forth overhead along with African Palm Swifts. A Nile Monitor was feeding on the lawn and several Green Monkeys were hanging around between the accommodation blocks.

Western Red-billed Hornbill – at the hotel

As dusk descended, we had a chance to change some money and buy some water before a slightly longer break to freshen up and for some of us to try to work out how to get the locks to their room doors to work (there is usually a technique to it!). We then met again for a quick drink before dinner. Most people were very tired after a long day, so didn’t stay up for the local drummers providing the entertainment tonight down by the pool.

Saturday 19th November

It is important to make the most of the morning here, before it gets too hot, so we were up for breakfast when the restaurant opened. A couple of Broad-billed Rollers were perched in the trees nearby and the family of Green Woodhoopoes were around their usual dead stump, where we would see them daily. A Cattle Egret dropped down onto the fence by the outside tables where it eyed up peoples’ breakfast.

Broad-billed Roller – at breakfast

After breakfast, we met up outside the hotel with Modou Taal again and our bus driver for the week, and set off on the short drive to Abuko. We stopped on the side of the road on the edge of the rice fields. A Hammerkop and Spur-winged Lapwing were down in a nearby wet field and a Black-headed Heron was perched in the top of a tree beyond. Two Violet Turacos flew over the road.

As we walked down the track into the ricefields, lots of Hooded Vultures were sat around waiting for the day to warm up. A distant Blue-bellied Roller and a Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird perched up nicely in the trees on the edge of the fields. Along the first smaller path we tried, we encountered lots of ants, so we turned back and found a different path out into the middle to scan the wetter fields. Here we found several African Jacanas and Black Crakes, Striated and Squacco Herons, Great White, Little and Western Reef Egrets. A Little Bittern flew past and a Black Heron circled round but wouldn’t land. A Malachite Kingfisher perched up briefly, then a more obliging Pied Kingfisher landed on a nearby post. Our first Senegal Coucal appeared behind us.

Pied Kingfisher – in the ricefields

As we carried on further through the rice fields down towards a creek, we stopped to admire a Little Bee-eater and noticed lots of Village Weavers flying in and out of the reeds. A Palm Nut Vulture drifted over and a Shikra shot in and out repeatedly from a tree, hunting. A Lizard Buzzard perched in the trees nearby and an African Harrier Hawk flew over.

The Pied Kingfisher reappeared, hovering over the flooded field right behind us, putting on quite a show. A couple of Wire-tailed Swallows shot past. On the bank of the creek, we found several Senegal Thick-knees and lots of doves were coming to drink, including our first African Mourning and Vinaceous Doves. A Violet Turaco appeared in the trees behind, a very striking bird indeed!

Violet Turaco – a stunner!

As it was starting to warm up now, the Hooded Vultures and Yellow-billed Kites were circling up overhead and three Grey Kestrels flew round amongst them. We made our way back round through the ricefields, where a Green Sandpiper was now out on the mud – a reminder that a lot of the birds here at this time of year are palearctic migrants which breed in Europe and come here for the winter. Our first Splendid Sunbird was feeding on some flowers in the trees.

Back to the bus, we had just a short drive to the nearby Abuko Forest. It was quiet at first here – not many birds but lots of butterflies and dragonflies, and several Green Monkeys and Red Colobus in the trees. We hadn’t walked far before we stopped at the Darwin Centre where a West African Crocodile was lurking half-hidden on the pool from the viewing terrace. A couple of Western Grey Plantain-eaters were in the trees just behind.

As we waited at the bottom of the steps for people to finish buying postcards inside, someone noticed a flash of blue from the base of the bushes. When it did it again, we crouched down and looked under the bush and found an African Pygmy Kingfisher hiding in the overhanging branches in the shade.

African Pygmy Kingfisher – under the overhanging branches

Carrying on through the wood, we started to find a few more forest birds. A pair of African Thrushes were feeding under the trees by the path and a Little Greenbul flitted around in the branches above. Further on, we came across several Red-bellied Paradise Flycatchers and as we stopped to watch them a Brown-throated Wattle-eye appeared right above our heads. Out into more open secondary forest, we looked up to see a couple of Fanti Sawwings hawking round the tops of the trees, a Grey Woodpecker flew in, as did several Bronze Mannikins and a pair of Yellow-breasted Apalis appeared in a nearby tangle.

Brown-throated Wattle-eye – in the forest

It had been all action this morning and we had worked up an appetite – it was already time for lunch now, so we made our way back to the bus. We were heading to a restaurant we hadn’t been to before, and after driving down some increasingly narrow and rutted side streets it turned out we couldn’t get all the way there in the bus. We had to get out and walk the last stretch through the ricefields, but of course that meant there were loads of new birds to see again. More distractions!

A Pearl-spotted Owlet appeared in the trees above us, mobbed by a mob of Common Bulbuls and other birds, including our first Grey-backed Cameropteras. An Osprey was perched on a dead palm trunk and a couple of Lizard Buzzards flew past. A smart male Northern Red Bishop perched in one of the ricefields, along with several browner females and a large family of Bronze Mannikins. As we got to the outside of the restaurant, a pair of Northern Crombecs were feeding in the trees above.

After our walk out here, it was nice now to have a break for lunch in the shade in the garden on the edge of the mangroves, with Little Bee-eaters hawking from the trees as we ate. A couple of Western Reef Egrets perched in the trees behind us, along with several Long-tailed Glossy Starlings and a single Bronze-tailed Starling. There were lots of Fiddler Crabs waving their claws on the muddy creeks beyond.

It was mid-afternoon by the time we walked back to the bus and although it was the heat of the day, we didn’t notice as we were surrounded by even more birds now. An Orange-cheeked Waxbill perched up in the reeds just outside the restaurant and a Senegal Coucal allowed us to walk right past it in the ricefields. We stopped to admire a Woodland Kingfisher and a Fine-spotted Woodpecker appeared in the same tree. A Bearded Barbet flew past.

Senegal Coucal – common

We found the Pearl-spotted Owlet again, in roughly the same place we had seen it on the way out, and some very nice views in the scope now being mobbed by bulbuls and Plantain-Eaters. We were almost back to the bus, when Modou heard a Klaas’s Cuckoo calling and after he tried whistling back for a while eventually it appeared in a distant tree. While we were watching it, a pair of Village Indigobirds chased through the bushes in front of us.

Pearl-spotted Owlet – while being mobbed

With all the birding on our walk to and from lunch, we were later getting to Kotu than planned. The bus stopped along the road to the bridge, and we walked down. An Oriole Warbler was singing on the edge of the mangroves, so we stopped to see if we could locate it. A Malachite Kingfisher was perched in the bushes but shot off as we approached.

We couldn’t find the Oriole Warbler, but the clear area by the road was full of doves and finches. We had better views of Vinaceous Dove here in particular, along with several Red-billed Firefinches and three Red-cheeked Cordon-bleu feeding in the short grass.

Red-cheeked Cordon-bleu – a smart male

We tried a short way down a track through the mangroves, which produced Blue-breasted Kingfisher, then turned back and walked on down to the famous Kotu bridge. A Western Reef Egret and a Long-tailed Cormorant were both perched obligingly on a nearby stump, the latter drying its wings. A Black-winged Stilt was stalking around the shallows and both Whimbrel and Greenshank flew round calling.

Long-tailed Cormorant – drying its wings

We walked back up the road to the nearby sewage ponds next. When we stopped to admire a pair of Woodland Kingfishers in the trees by the verge, a Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird appeared in a tree right next to us. When it disappeared we realised it had gone into a hole in the branch, so we waited and after a minute or so its head popped out! A Palm Nut Vulture was chased through the trees by Pied Crows which were probably after the fish it was carrying.

Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird – in its hole

Up at the sewage ponds, there were lots of Spur-winged Lapwings and scanning round we found a Common Sandpiper on a small pool. Lots of Cattle Egrets were standing around on bund beyond. A Pearl-spotted Owlet was being mobbed in the trees just behind us, but disappeared in as went to look. We walked down to the trees along one edge, where three Yellow-billed Shrikes were perched, then cut down along paths through the fields and back through mangroves to the bridge.

A Pied Kingfisher was perched on the stump now, where the egret and cormorant had been earlier, with a large fish in its bill which it was beating repeatedly on the post. Unfortunately the light was starting to go already and it was time to head back and freshen up before dinner. It had been a great first day, an excellent introduction to some of the commoner birds of The Gambia in particular.

Sunday 20th November

After breakfast, we headed straight out again for the day. We met the bus and driver outside the hotel and had a change of guide today – Modou Jarju would now be with us for rest of our stay, along with his assistant Fanta. It was not too far to Brufut, where we disembarked and were met by one of the local forest guides, Madi. We set off down a track between the trees and a large walled garden where lots of people were working. Modou heard Yellow-throated Leaflove calling on the edge of the trees and we quickly located it in the branches.

As well as the Leaflove, birds were coming thick and fast here: our first Black-billed Wood Doves, then a smart Sulphur-breasted Bush-shrike, Northern Puffback and Northern Black Flycatchers. A Singing Cisticola perched up at the back of some abandoned building works and a Guinea (Green) Turaco flew over. Continuing down the path, an African Grey Hornbill was perched high in the trees, a pair of Shikra chased round overhead and a Yellow-breasted Apalis showed really well in a tangle of branches over the path. An African Golden Oriole flew over and a Glossy-backed Drongo landed on the wires nearby.

Yellow-breasted Apalis – above the path

We turned back and took another in path the other side of the track, in through some more cultivations. A Grey Kestrel was perched on a large water tank way off in the distance. While Madi went off to look for owls, we stopped to scan. A variety of different sunbirds were coming and going from a nearby flowering tree, including two Western Violet-backed Sunbirds and our first Copper Sunbirds too. A Pearl-spotted Owlet flew out from a nearby tree, chased by a crowd of bulbuls and other small birds, including several Lavender Waxbills.

Madi had not found the hoped for owls here, so we walked back through some more overgrown gardens, where a male Variable Sunbird was singing and a Village Indigobird perched up ahead of us.

Variable Sunbird – a male

We stopped in one area to try for Black-winged Bishop. There were lots of weavers in the reeds, mostly Village Weavers but with a couple of Vitelline Masked Weavers too. First a female Black-winged Bishop appeared briefly then we found a couple of smart red and black males a bit further down.

Black-winged Bishop – a smart male

Walking on, we cut back into the wood. A Melodious Warbler was singing and eventually appeared in an acacia by the path. Our first Yellow-crowned Gonolek came in too, one of the most striking birds here with its bright red underparts, jet black wings, back and mask and contrasting canary yellow crown.

We sat down now on the shady benches overlooking some bowls of water where a succession of birds were coming and going for a drink – and we had a chance to get a cool drink while we watched too! There were more Black-billed Wood-doves, Bronze Mannikins, Cordon-bleus and Firefinches. A Gambian Sun Squirrel came in for a drink too. Several Little Bee-eaters hawked around and a Swallow-tailed Bee-eater landed briefly. Four Pink-backed Pelicans drifted high overhead.

We were then led deeper into the woods, to where Madi knew a Long-tailed Nightjar was roosting on the forest floor and we were led in two at a time to view the bird. Always amazing that they are located here, deep in the woods and given how well camouflaged it was against the leaf litter.

Long-tailed Nightjar – roosting

While we were here, Modou heard a Northern White-faced Owl calling nearby so once we had all seen the Nightjar, we went to look for it. We stopped to see if it would call again, and it did, from deep in some trees. Madi went in to try to locate it, and soon came the reply that he had. It was very well hidden, and we realised there was actually a pair of Northern White-faced Owls now, hiding in the leaves. An amazing find!

We went back to the drinking bowls, for another quick look and this time an African Pygmy Kingfisher had come in. Then we made our way back out to where the bus was parked. A quick look in the open woodland beyond provided better views of Swallow-tailed Bee-eater, perched in the top of a tree, and a distant Lizard Buzzard.

It was just a short drive from here to Tanji for lunch, where we found a large table and various chairs set up in the shade overlooking a small pool. Lots of Common Bulbuls and weavers were coming in and out to drink and bathe. We had heard several Oriole Warblers already but not actually seen one yet – now here one was hiding in the trees above the pool. It wouldn’t come down to water at first, but eventually we got good views when it stopped being quite so shy. Our main target here was Western Bluebill and we didn’t have to wait long before one appeared. A female came in through the branches above and eventually dropped down to the pool and nearby bowls for a drink and bathe.

Western Bluebill – a female

After a delicious local lunch, it was nice to sit here and relax a little while through the heat of the middle of the day and just watch the activity. Various birds came and went from the water: a Green-headed Sunbird dropped in, Blue-spotted Wood Dove, several African Thrushes, Red-bellied Paradise Flycatchers and a brief Snowy-crowned Robin Chat.

After lunch and a break watching all the birds coming and going, we got back in the bus and drove down to Tanji beach. There was rubbish everywhere and a strong smell of fish as we made our way down a narrow alley and out onto the beach, but we were soon distracted by the birds. Lots of Caspian Terns were flying up and down just offshore and Grey-hooded Gulls and Lesser Black-backed Gulls were gathered out on the water.

Caspian Tern – just offshore

We scanned the boats moored offshore, where Sandwich Terns were resting on the gunwales and found a single Lesser Crested Tern and a Common Tern in with them. Several Ruddy Turnstones were perched on another boat and two Bar-tailed Godwits flew past along the beach, as several White-breasted and Long-tailed Cormorants flew back and forth overhead. A cloud of gulls and terns flew up from the distant sandbar offshore where they were roosting and scanning with the scope we picked up a small group of Pink-backed Pelicans out there too.

A couple of Pied Kingfishers were hovering just offshore fishing, Yellow-billed Kites kept swooping down to collect dead fish from the water and several Pied Crows were looking for scraps along the beach. A group of Little Swifts hawked back and forth over the village behind the beach.

Pied Crow – looking for scraps

Our final destination for the afternoon was Tujerang. It had already started to cool down a little as we walked down along a track through the scrub towards the beach. There were more Palearctic migrants in the bushes here – several Western Olivaceous and Melodious Warblers, and a Tree Pipit perched up briefly. A couple of Senegal Eremomela flitted in and out, along with both Whistling and Zitting Cisticolas (the cisticola formerly known as Fan-tailed Warbler!) and a smart Black-crowned Tchagra perched up singing.

Black-crowned Tchagra – singing

A succession of weavers flew in and out and among the commoner Village Weavers we picked out our first Black-headed Weavers and got better views of Little Weaver. But the big surprise of the day was a pair of Sudan Golden Sparrows which flew in and landed briefly in the bushes in front of us – they are nomadic wanderers, commoner further north in Senegal and normally scarce here.

Little Weaver – better views

We were particularly looking for some Chestnut-bellied Starlings here and eventually found them in the more open cultivated areas just behind the beach. We had some great views as they flew up and down from the fence – another scarce bird here, and another good one to see.

Chestnut-bellied Starling – with a mantis

A White-billed Buffalo Weaver was feeding with them. Modou heard a Levaillant’s Cuckoo calling and eventually managed to whistle it in. A Common Whitethroat perched up briefly in one of the thorny bushes nearby.

Levaillant’s Cuckoo – whistled in

There were some small pools behind the beach further up, so we stopped to scan. The first held Black-winged Stilt, Green Sandpiper, Western Reef Egret and several Senegal Thick-knee. A pair of Double-spurred Francolin ran in and out of the vegetation at the back. A couple of Crested Larks flew up nearby calling and an Osprey drifted over. Several African Jacana were on the larger pool beyond and an African Darter was drying its wings in the top of a low tree on the edge.

As we made our way back along the track, Modou heard Chestnut-crowned Sparrow Weaver calling, so we stopped to see if it would show itself. It didn’t, but we did get to see a pair of Red-winged Warbler instead and a Red-necked Falcon shot through low over the bushes, hunting. Little Bee-eaters and Yellow-fronted Canaries showed well in the late afternoon sunshine.

Little Bee-eater – in the late sunshine

Back to the bus, we made one last stop of the day a little further down. A flock of Piapacs came up from the ground as we got out and landed in a nearby tree. A Striped Kingfisher was calling in the top of another and a Lesser Honeyguide appeared above our heads, along with a Willow Warbler. Unfortunately, we were out of time – the sun was already setting as we set off to drive back to the hotel, and we still had to battle with the congestion due to the new airport road construction again.

Monday 21st November

We had a longer drive this morning down to Farasutu. As we turned off the main road through the village, our first Purple Starling landed on the wall ahead of us and as we got out to the fields beyond there were lots of Cattle Egrets. We got out and set off down a narrow path through the fields, stopping under a large acacia tree where a small plot of chillis was being grown below.

A succession of birds came and went, starting with a selection of sunbirds – Pygmy and Scarlet-chested Sunbird were both new for the trip. A pair of Grey Woodpeckers flew in, a male Northern Puffback appeared briefly, along with Red-bellied Paradise Flycatcher, Western Olivaceous, Melodious and Willow Warblers and our first Common Chiffchaff of the trip. A Nightingale was calling in the bushes behind but didn’t show itself, but then back out on the main track, as we walked down towards the forest, another Nightingale flicked across the path ahead of us.

We stopped to look at the drinking pots by the entrance to the forest, but there wasn’t much activity here yet. A few Firefinches came to drink along with a Blue-spotted Wood Dove, and a Grey-backed Cameroptera picked around in the trees above us. We were met by one of the forest guides, ‘Bob’, who led us down along the tracks through the trees and out to the edge of the mangroves beyond. A Hammerkop was out on one of the pools along with several Senegal Thick-knees. Our first Giant Kingfisher perched up on the mangroves beyond, then flew round calling. The White-backed Night Herons we had come here to find were eventually located – two young birds flew out first, and then we managed to find an adult roosting deep in the palms.

White-backed Night Heron – hiding in the palms

As it was warming up now, raptors were starting to circle up. An African Harrier-hawk drifted over and then a Shikra circled right above us. Scanning in the distance, we picked up a Tawny Eagle being mobbed by a Pied Crow out over the mangroves. They were then joined by a Beaudouin’s Snake Eagle which circled with them, the Pied Crow alternating between mobbing one then the other. They were a long way off, but still impressive to see.

Shikra – circled overhead

Back into the forest, Modou spotted a firefinch on the track, so we stopped to see if it might come out again. There was no further sign, but several other good birds did show themselves in the trees while we looked: African Paradise Flycatcher high in branches, Buff-spotted Woodpecker, Collared Sunbird and better views of Snowy-crowned Robin Chat. We walked back round to the drinking pots where we could get stop for a drink too. Several Red-billed Firefinches, Black-rumped Waxbills and Cordonbleus came in to drink and a Gambian Sun Squirrel was in the trees here now too.

Out into fields, a Blue-cheeked Bee-eater flew over briefly and we stopped to look at a Striped Kingfisher in one tree and a Dark Chanting Goshawk in another beyond. The latter flew across and dropped down to catch a lizard in the grass, then landed again in another tree further down the path. It flew off as we walked on, but then a Cardinal Woodpecker appeared instead and we watched it excavating a hole in a small dead branch in the same tree.

Cardinal Woodpecker – excavating

We cut across a now overgrown field which had apparently earlier been used to grow watermelons – they were in season and we saw watermelons for sale everywhere by the side of the road and had delicious watermelon most days for lunch! A couple of Northern Black Flycatchers flitted around in some trees as we passed. We picked up a Lanner away in the distance, which helpfully flew in and past us.

Lanner – flew in

Then a Grasshopper Buzzard circled up over the forest beyond and again, helpfully came towards us and eventually right overhead. They are commoner upriver, more unusual here closer to the coast, so this was a really nice bonus to see.

Grasshopper Buzzard – circled right overhead

Cutting across the field and into the forest again, ‘Bob’ took us to where two Greyish Eagle Owls were roosting in the trees. They stared down at us as they had their photos taken and then we left them in peace to go back to sleep. The bus was waiting for us nearby and we had a short drive to another site in the forest with a hide and some drinking pools.

Greyish Eagle Owl – 1 of 2 here

We were hoping for Spotted Honeyguide here, and one had apparently just been in, but despite waiting a while we didn’t manage to see one now. A Snowy-crowned Robin Chat was under the tree at the back and both Black-billed and Blue-spotted Wood Doves came in. We had to make do with a smart male Greater Honeyguide which came in to one of the pots for a drink. It was time for lunch, so we would come back and have another go here afterwards.

Greater Honeyguide – in for a drink

We were going over to Boabab Island for lunch, but we arrived to find that the jetty we were supposed to be using to board the boat had collapsed yesterday. Several men were now hastily attempting to finish cobbling together a new one. They appeared to have run out of planks and were now using some bamboo, which one of them was sawing to random sizes against his leg (no health and safety assessment here!).

It looked like we wouldn’t be getting lunch anytime soon at first, but remarkably quickly all things considered they made a structure which was just about passable, if a bit rickety (it would have taken years to get a new jetty erected back in the UK). While we were waiting, six Yellow-billed Storks flew past and we whiled away the minutes watching all the Mudskippers flipping around on the mud below.

Unfortunately, it was low tide now, so the boatmen couldn’t use the larger boat with an outboard and instead, they had to use a flotilla of small boats to get us across. The first two volunteers went over on a pedalo with one of the boatmen, although they possibly didn’t realise what they had volunteered for and their attempts to help with the transit resulted in the pedalo circling round and round several times at first!

Pedalo – a novel way to get to lunch!

Another two went over by dugout, before the boatmen realised they could use one of the slightly larger boats and push it up the channel if one of them waded in. Finally we all managed to get over for lunch. Several Mauritian Tomb Bats were roosting in the roof of the main lodge.

Mauritian Tomb Bat – in the roof

After another delicious buffet of local food was prepared, well worth the effort required to get over here, and afterwards we had enough time for a quick walk round the island. A Bearded Barbet flew across and landed briefly, but was off again before everyone could get to see it through the scope. Two Lesser Honeyguides were chasing round a tall tree.

Time was getting on and we still needed to get back across the channel to the mainland. From the jetty this side, we could see a group of Wattled Lapwings on the mud opposite, the first we had seen properly on the ground, along with several Senegal Thick-knees. The tide was slowly rising, so thankfully we could all get back on the slightly bigger boat now. On the way back, we saw Striated Heron and a Common Redshank on the edge of the mangroves. Five Yellow-billed Storks flew back the other way.

It was just a short bus ride back to the hide and drinking pots. There was a lot more activity here now, lots of weavers, doves and Common Bulbuls coming in to drink, along with Lavender Waxbills and a pair of Yellow-fronted Canaries. A couple of African Pygmy Kingfishers flew in repeatedly and splashed into one of the pools to bathe. Several Red-bellied Paradise Flycatchers were in the trees together with one hybrid African x Red-bellied with black spotting on its breast. A male Common Redstart was feeding under the trees at the back now, along with a pair of Brown-throated Wattle-eyes.

Red-bellied Paradise Flycatcher – a male

Eventually, the owner saw a Spotted Honeyguide fly in to the trees above the hide and we went out in turns to look at it through the scope. It was rather nervous, and reluctant to come down – eventually it did drop down onto the branch by its favoured pot briefly, but after a minute flew back up into the trees.

Spotted Honeyguide – dropped down briefly

Unfortunately we were out of time, as we had a long drive back to the hotel. On the way back towards the main road, an Abyssinian Roller was perched on a half built building on the edge of the village. A nice end to another action-packed day.

Tuesday 22nd November

It was a longer drive again this morning, down to Pirang. As we set off along the track into the old shrimp farm, an African Crake started calling from the overgrown pool alongside but unfortunately remained well hidden.

We hadn’t seen many up to now, but here there were lots of swallows overhead. Most were West African Swallows (formerly the local race of Red-rumped, now a separate species) but a pair of Mosque Swallows were circling with them and a Rufous-chested Swallow and a House Martin flew through. Turning onto a smaller, overgrown path, we flushed our first Namaqua Dove from the bushes.

Mosque Swallow – overhead

There was a nice selection of waders on the first pool – Avocets, Black-winged Stilts, Ruff, Ringed Plover, Grey Plover, Greenshank and a single Wood Sandpiper. A pair of Crested Larks were feeding on the bund ahead of us and several Western Yellow Wagtails flew back and forth calling. More wintering Palearctic migrants. When first a nice male Yellow Wagtail landed on the track ahead of us, we could see it was Iberian (subspecies iberiae), and it gave a slightly raspier call as it flew off too, later a British male (subspecies flavissima) landed on the mud.

A Subalpine Warbler flitted in and out of the bushes ahead of us and we found another two and a Chiffchaff further along. We flushed a Double-spurred Francolin from the bund as we walked along and lots of Crimson Speckled moths flew up from the grass, a rare migrant back home.

Gull-billed Tern – several flew past

A couple of Little Terns were fishing over the pools close to the path and several Gull-billed Terns flew in and right past us. A Pied Kingfisher seemed to be following us, and hovered next to us several times. When a large flock of birds flushed in the distance by someone walking round the pools, we looked up to see a mixture of spoonbills, Yellow-billed Storks and Pink-backed Pelicans.

The next shallow pools were full of small waders mostly Little Stints and Curlew Sandpipers and significantly outnumbering the Dunlin, the reverse of what we usually see back home in the UK. We would see really impressive numbers of small waders as we made our way round. A Marsh Sandpiper dropped in, and we found a few Black-tailed Godwits and lots of Whimbrel here too. A small group of Greater Flamingoes were standing around in the middle, dwarfing the tiny waders around them.

Greater Flamingos – on the pools

Further up, on an island in the wide channel the other side of the bund we could see a few White-faced Whistling Ducks and a West African Crocodile which had hauled itself out onto the mud. By the time we got up there, the croc had retreated to the water, but from here we could see a Kittlitz’s Plover on the mud just beyond.

On the next pool, there were good numbers of Northern Shoveler and a large mixed flock of roosting gulls and terns – mostly Caspian and African Royal Terns, with one or two Sandwich and a single Lesser Crested Tern with them. The gulls were mostly Slender-billed Gulls with a smaller number of Grey-headed Gulls. There were some larger birds standing in with them – a spoonbill sandwich, with a single Eurasian Spoonbill in the middle flanked by two African Spoonbills giving us a nice comparison, and a lone Pink-backed Pelican.

Terns – roosting on the pools

Further up, we could hear Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters calling and looked over to see several flying across the back of the pool. Modou picked up a single White-throated Bee-eater too, perched in a tree right over the other side, which everyone eventually managed to make out in the scopes. Small groups of swifts hawked overhead, a mixture of Little Swift and Pallid Swift, and an Osprey flew over.

There were more huge flocks of waders as made way back across. In with the stints and Curlew Sandpipers, we picked out one or two Knot and Ruddy Turnstone. As well as Ringed Plover there were several Kentish Plovers on the mud this side too but scanning through we were more surprised to find a single White-fronted Plover with them. They are normally only seen on the coast and it seems that this was perhaps the first one ever to be found here. We were just watching the plover when a Collared Pratincole flew over behind us and we didn’t quite know which way to look!

Continuing on, a young Palm Nut Vulture drifted right across in front of us. A Northern Wheatear was hiding around the small bushes on the edge of the mud. We could easily spend all day here, but it was already the middle of the day and we had more to do. We were met by the bus and drove back out of the shrimp farm.

Palm Nut Vulture – a young one

Unfortunately, we were unable to go to the usual venue for lunch today as they had cancelled on us and the alternative restaurant was quite a drive away. We still needed to visit the nearby Bonto Forest and this meant it would be a quick stop here and then a late lunch.

We were met at the entrance by one of the forest guides, who took us straight in to look for White-spotted Flufftail. A very secretive species, they can be hit and miss here but he eventually managed to whistle one in for us and we watched it creeping around deep under the trees. A Green Hylia appeared briefly right overhead just as we were watching the Flufftail and had unfortunately disappeared when we turned our attention back to looking for it.

White-spotted Flufftail – a record shot!

On the walk back out to the main track, we stopped to look at a Green Turaco high in the canopy above. Then we turned down another narrow path and after what was possibly a little over the advertised 200m (Gambian metres!), we were pointed to a Verreaux’s Eagle Owl roosting high in the trees. We had great views of it through the scopes and the chance to admire its distinctive pink eyelids.

Verreaux’s Eagle Owl – high in the trees

Unfortunately there just wasn’t time now to explore the forest further, and after the best part of an hour’s drive to Marakissa River Camp it was then a very late lunch – more like high tea! It was nice to sit down with a cold drink overlooking the river, where a Pied Kingfisher appeared on a post with a fish and a West African Crocodile surfaced briefly.

After another delicious lunch of fish, chicken and fried vegetables with rice and peanut sauce, we walked out to the road. A Violet Turaco was feeding in the tree opposite and several African Green Pigeons were in the top of a fruit tree a little further along, even if they were at times difficult to see, very well camouflaged in all the green leaves.

African Green Pigeon – well camouflaged

Continuing on down towards the bridge, we scanned the pools – a Black Heron was doing its umbrella fishing and there were several Black Crakes and African Jacanas. We saw our first Intermediate Egret, along with a couple of Squacco Heron, and a colony of Cattle Egrets in the trees behind. An African Darter flew over, and a Common Snipe flew past.

A couple of African Grey Hornbills flew in and landed in the afternoon sunlight right behind to us and a Blue-breasted Kingfisher landed in a dead tree the other side.

African Grey Hornbill – in the sunshine

Unfortunately, we were out of time again. As we walked back along the road an Ovambo Sparrowhawk flew across the fields and landed in the top of a tree where we could get it in the scopes. A couple of Blue-bellied Rollers were in the small trees opposite the entrance to the camp now.

Blue-bellied Roller – smart

There was one last surprise waiting for us back at the camp. The crocodile was waiting in the water just behind where we had eaten lunch earlier and when the owner started calling, ‘crockie, crockie’, it came straight out of the water and up onto the bank right in front of us. Thankfully it was more interested in the chicken it was being fed than us, but it was quite a thing to stand right there and watch.

West African Crocodile – very close!

It was a long drive back and the traffic was even worse than normal tonight. Our driver tried everything he could to get round the congestion, turning down small dirt roads through houses and shops, but there were a couple of vehicles broken down, and others blocking the small roads. At one point we hit complete gridlock and it meant we were late back tonight. The new airport road cannot be finished soon enough!

Wednesday 23rd November

It was an extra early start this morning, leaving before breakfast, as we were driving down to Kartong, close to the Senegal border. On the upside, it did mean we beat the traffic and had a smooth run down. It was getting light as we got to Kartong and several Hooded Vultures were still sitting around in the middle of the road, although they were nearly mown down by a speeding taxi.

It was still quite cool as we got out of the bus, with a fresh breeze blowing this morning. There were lots of Squacco Herons and Cattle Egrets around the pools and a pair of African Silverbills flew off from beside the path as we walked through the houses to Kartong Bird Observatory. Here we were met by Colin Cross and his wife and ushered out onto the terrace where we were served tea and coffee and ate the packed breakfasts we had brought from the hotel while Colin talked to us about the history of the Bird Observatory. Several Marsh Harriers and Ospreys circled over the marsh in front and those who had not stayed to listen to the talk saw a Rufous-crowned Roller.

Osprey – lots at Kartong

After breakfast, we walked back out to the track and down through the old sandpits. There were lots of White-faced Ducks on the pools, along with several African Jacanas and a remarkable number of Pied Kingfishers perched on just about every bush. A single Little Grebe was out on the water and a young Lesser Moorhen flew across. A few Pink-backed Pelicans and African Spoonbills flew over, along with a lone Spur-winged Goose. Two Red-necked Falcons flew past in front of us and a female Namaqua Dove was feeding on the track.

We turned off the track and cut across into the acacia scrub beyond. We had seen several flying round on previous days but a Citrus Swallowtail finally posed for us in the vegetation now, probably still warming up.

Citrus Swallowtail – finally one settled

We first flushed a Tree Pipit which flew up from the ground and landed in a tree briefly, and then a couple of British Yellow Wagtails and several Plain-backed Pipits too, one or two of which perched nicely for us to get in the scopes.

There were lots of birds in the acacia trees – Splendid Sunbird, Northern Crombec, Senegal Eremomela, a smart pair of Yellow-crowned Gonoleks. We could hear Vieillot’s Barbet calling, but it was distant and didn’t come in to Modou’s whistled imitation of its call. A couple of Abyssinian Rollers were in the bushes nearby and were more obliging for the photographers.

Yellow-crowned Gonolek – a stunner

Continuing on, we skirted round some shallow pools in the grass. There were lots of Spur-winged Lapwings and a couple of Wattled Lapwings with them on the first and the second looked fairly empty as we approached until a Dwarf Bittern came up in front of us from the near edge. It flew away and round behind some bushes ahead of us where it appeared to be dropping down, so we walked over to see if we could find it, but unfortunately there was no further sign.

Modou had been whistling Vieillot’s Barbet on and off all the way round and when we stopped to admire a Black-crowned Tchagra in the top of a nearby bush, a Vieillot’s Barbet started calling again. It was closer this time and flew in and landed in the top of the trees neat to us. Persistence pays off! A Senegal Batis was in a nearby acacia, along with a Woodchat Shrike, and Olivaceous and Melodious Warblers all in same tree. A Nightingale called from the undergrowth behind.

Vieillot’s Barbet – finally!

As we made our way back out onto the main track, a European Turtle Dove flushed ahead of us and landed and briefly in a tree. Walking on down towards the beach, a small flock of Red-billed Quelea appeared in the bushes along with a Western Orphean Warbler briefly. After the walk, it was nice to take a break in the shade in the shack on the beach and get a cold drink. The grapefruit juice which was freshly squeezed as we watched was truly delicious!

There were a few birds moving offshore as we sat and scanned, mostly terns today. Venturing out onto the beach, some waders were feeding on the rocks on the corner – two Sanderling with the Ruddy Turnstones, one or two Grey Plover and Whimbrel. A couple of the group had seen a Eurasian Oystercatcher earlier but there was no sign of it here now. Another Woodchat Shrike was hunting in the scrub behind the beach.

We walked on further down the beach, along the tide line. Lots of Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters were perched in the mangroves, and hawking above, nice views in the scope. White-fronted Plover is one of the main targets here – we found a female standing higher up on the beach, and through the scopes we could see it was on a nest scrape, standing above its eggs and shading them from the sun. We didn’t disturb it and after a good look we left it in peace.

We all managed to catch up with a couple of Oystercatchers now, further down the beach, together with a larger flock of Sanderling feeding along the water’s edge. We could see a large gathering of gulls and terns more distantly down the beach – but despite scanning through carefully we couldn’t find anything new in with them. Then we walked back up the beach and found the bus waiting for us now by the shack.

West African Mud Turtle – crossing the track

As we drove back up the track, we stopped for a West African Mud Turtle which was crossing the road. We had another quick look at some pools further up, where there was no sign of the hoped for Painted Snipe but a Common Snipe came out of the vegetation and a juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron flew across. Our first Yellow-billed Oxpeckers were actually on a donkey here (not an ox!) and a Purple Heron flew through the trees beyond.

Yellow-billed Oxpeckers – or donkeypeckers?

We were heading to Stala for lunch and there were lots of Fiddler Crabs on the mud as we drove out through the mangroves to the lodge. Again, it was a nice place to sit, in the shade, overlooking the river beyond, and another delicious local lunch was laid out for us. Afterwards, we had arranged a boat trip on the river.

Heading downstream first, we came across several more Ospreys first – we saw amazing numbers of them today. There were lots of terns loafing on the bank, including Caspian, a few Royal and Sandwich and one or two Gull-billed Terns. Two pairs of Wattled Lapwings on the water’s edge were our best views yet, and there were lots of Whimbrel, plus Greenshank, Redshank, Common Sandpipers and a couple of Ringed Plover on the muddier stretches.

We got down almost to the mouth of the river, before we had to turn back. We could see a raptor circling now, way off in the distance, and the boatman accelerated back up the river to get us a little closer, at which point we could confirm it was an African Fish Eagle. Unfortunately, it remained rather distant, over on the Senegal side of the river, but a Beaudouin’s Snake Eagle circled up too. We continued on past Stala, upstream a short way where there were more Senegal Thick-knees and a nice Blue-breasted Kingfisher, but no sign of the Goliath Heron we had been hoping to find.

Blue-breasted Kingfisher – from the boat

It was a long drive back, and after the early start this morning we decided to call it a day. A Lanner Falcon flew over as we got back on to the road. The traffic was not so bad today, and we got back to the hotel in good time tonight. We even had time for a little bit of birding in the grounds to round off the day, watching the Green Wood-hoopoes going in and out of their nest hole in the stump just behind the restaurant and nice views of several Long-tailed Glossy Starlings in the trees.

Green Wood-hoopoe – back at the hotel

Thursday 24th November

After breakfast at the hotel again today, we drove down to Sohm, close to the border with Senegal. We turned on to a dusty track, through the village and then out through overgrown cultivations. A male Black-winged Bishop was perched up in the vegetation by the track as we passed and several Mottled Spinetails zoomed in and out of trees.

We got off the bus and walked in on a small track through the vegetation, and despite this being our last day’s birding the birds were still coming thick and fast. There were lots of sunbirds here, including a couple of Copper, a Pygmy and a smart male Scarlet-chested Sunbird.

Scarlet-chested Sunbird – a male
Pygmy Sunbird – a young male

It didn’t take long to locate one of our first targets here, with a couple of African Yellow White-eyes, and we also had great views of a pair of Senegal Batis, several Senegal Eremomela and one or two Melodious Warblers in the bushes. A Dideric Cuckoo came in too, but kept low down and was hard to see.

Senegal Batis – a female

An amazing number of African Golden Orioles appeared, hard to tell how many but five flew over together at one point and a smart male dropped in briefly. There were several species of weaver too, and Modou had a brief glimpse of a Heuglin’s Masked Weaver. But the highlight here was the smart pair of Black-faced Firefinch which flew in, a scarce species here and a pretty one too.

Black-faced Firefinch – the male

We decided to try a bit further in to try to get better views of the weaver. As we walked through the vegetation a large bird flew up just ahead of us, flashing lots of white in the wing – a male Black-bellied Bustard! We had good views of it as it flew off, another great bird.

Black-bellied Bustard – flew up ahead of us

We positioned ourselves overlooking some small trees now and waited. The Dideric Cuckoo flew back in and this time perched in full view for a long period, allowing us to get it in the scopes and have a really good look, and a Levaillant’s Cuckoo flew over. A Brown-backed Woodpecker appeared in the trees too and we eventually got better views of a Heuglin’s Masked Weaver. Both Whistling and Singing Cisticolas perched up nicely in quick succession.

Dideric Cuckoo – eventually showed well

We had already seen a fantastic selection of birds here, then as we were making our way back out, a Yellow-bellied Hyliota started calling in a tree by the track and dropped down into the bushes right ahead of us.

Yellow-bellied Hyliota – flew down

Back on the bus, we drove on to a nearby area of forest. A pair of Western Violet-backed Sunbirds, a Klaas’s Cuckoo, another Hyliota and a couple of Pearl-spotted Owlets came in to investigate and a Dark Chanting Goshawk flew over and landed in the trees nearby but there didn’t seem to be anything different here today so we moved on again.

We drove deeper in to an area of more open savannah woodland and again it seemed to be alive with birds here. Lots of European Bee-eaters were hawking from the overhead electricity wires and nearby trees and several Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters perched up on the bushes in front of us.

Swallow-tailed Bee-eater – perched up nicely

A Yellow-billed Shrike, male Northern Puffback and Northern Black Flycatcher all appeared in the same tree. There were lots of sunbirds, another couple of White-eyes, Melodious Warbler, Red-winged Warblers, Tawny-flanked Prinia and a pair of Grey-backed Cameroptera. A Yellow Penduline Tit flashed through but unfortunately didn’t stop.

Yellow-billed Shrike – showed well

That was a good enough supporting cast but there were lots of new birds for us here too. A White-shouldered Black Tit came in to investigate, although kept its distance and then a Black Scimitarbill flew in to the top of the trees above us. A Pied-winged Swallow appeared briefly over the trees and a male Blackcap was new for the list but probably less exciting for us.

Black Scimitarbill – flew in

A Brubru started calling and eventually one appeared in the trees. The Yellow Penduline Tit was calling too now, but still wouldn’t show itself properly. As we turned to walk back, a Greyish Eagle Owl flew up in and landed in the trees ahead of us. We were hoping we might find some different larger raptors here, but it was rather cloudy today and still and just a few Hooded Vultures were trying to circle up now.

Greyish Eagle Owl – a surprise here

We walked on and out into a more open area where cattle were grazing. Several Yellow-billed Oxpeckers were on the backs of the cows – nice to see them on an ‘ox’ this time – and a couple of Wattled Lapwing flew up from the grass. A Mottled Spintail seemed to come in to investigate us, making a single low pass right over our heads then gone. Two Western Bonelli’s Warblers and one or two Willow Warblers flitted around in the acacia scrub and two moulting male Pin-tailed Whydah appeared with the weavers in a nearby tree.

Yellow-billed Oxpecker – on an ox

Something spooked all the European Bee-eaters out of the trees beyond and it was an impressive sight as a hundred or so of them took to the sky. There were some small pools here, and as we walked round we flushed lots of Bronze Mannikins and several Namaqua Doves. A couple more Black Scimitarbills were probing around a dead tree, another pair of Brubru were in the bushes, a Greater Honeyguide flew into the top of the tree above and the White-shouldered Black Tit appeared again.

As we were making our way back to the bus, there were still more distractions. We found the Yellow Penduline Tits now in an acacia right in front of us and they stayed to allow us a good look in the scopes.

Yellow Penduline Tit – finally showed well

A family of Yellow-billed Shrikes dropped into the top of a tree nearby where a Fanti Sawwing was also perched – nice to see one that wasn’t just zooming round.

Fanti Sawwing – perched

We had maximised the morning hours and been rewarded with so many new birds, but the time had flown and we walked back now to the bus and drove to a nearby lodge for a late but very welcome lunch break and a chance to rest for a while. Afterwards, we had a look around the grounds and the surrounding cultivations. There were lots of glossy starlings feeding in a fruit tree in the garden, including several Purple, a couple of Bronze-tailed, and a single Greater Blue-eared Starling.

Purple Starling – in the fruit tree

An African Harrier Hawk flew over and when all the weavers scattered from the nearby palms, we looked up to see an Ovambo Sparrowhawk fly across and land in a nearby tree. Several Speckled Pigeons and doves were coming down to feed on a small patch of grain put out between the huts and as we walked out through the gates there were lots of doves in the trees around the ricefields – very different from modern agriculture back home. A Mottled Spinetail lingered overhead now, giving us better views and a Grey Woodpecker appeared briefly in the trees behind us.

African Grey Woodpecker – a female

Then it was unfortunately time to head back. We got back to the hotel in good time again today, and sadly said our last farewells to Modou, Fanta and our bus driver.

Friday 25th November

We had to be checked out of the hotel by midday today, so it was a morning of leisure. Given that, it was perhaps a surprise to see so many of the group up and about for the start of breakfast again. There are plenty of birding opportunities just around the hotel grounds though and we wanted to make the most of the last few hours. A Grey Kestrel showed very well in the trees behind the beach, where a mixed but rather mobile flock of glossy starlings were also to be found early on.

Grey Kestrel – by the beach

It was a chance to try to get some last photos of the Blackcap and Brown Babblers, White-crowned Robin Chat, Western Red-billed Hornbills, Green Woodhoopoes, Hooded Vultures and more, though the local monkeys failed to put in an appearance today for their photo opportunity.

White-crowned Robin Chat – in the hotel grounds

For those who wanted it, we met again for an early lunch down at the beach bar, although the ordering process was a bit chaotic and the food ended up taking longer to arrive than we had expected. Then time for a quick check out and the coach was already waiting outside to take us to the airport. Our flight left on time at 4pm and again arrived about half an hour early into Gatwick just after 10pm. The airport was fairly quiet at this time of night and we got out to baggage reclaim quickly, so it was even more of a surprise to find our bags already arriving on the carousel. Once everyone had got their bags, we said our final goodbyes.

What a visit to The Gambia – a great list of birds, well in excess of any of our expectations. Roll on the return in 2023!

4th Dec 2022 – Early Winter, Day 3

Day 3 of a 3-day Early Winter Tour today. It was a mostly rather grey and overcast day with a chilly east wind, but it stayed dry until we were on our way home at the end of another very successful day’s birding.

It was a very grey start and with a gusty east wind still we decided to start with a quick look out at the sea at Cley. There were not as many birds moving as yesterday – fewer auks, some distant lines and several closer Guillemots; a few small groups of Common Scoter flew past; one or two Gannets and a few Red-throated Divers. Were just about to move on when someone called a Great Northern Diver and we managed to pick it up heading east offshore. A nice return for our 40 minutes work.

Wigeon – by Lady Anne’s Drive

As it started to brighten up a little, we made our way along the coast to Holkham. The car park was quite busy (for a weekday in early December at least!), and it turned out there was a 5 mile fun run here this morning. Thankfully, it didn’t seem to be disturbing the birds. There were lots of Wigeon on the grazing marsh right beside Lady Anne’s Drive.

A couple of what resembled clods of earth out in the grass were actually Grey Partridges. We found an angle where we could get a clearer view and counted six together. They were busy feeding, mostly heads down, but one looked up occasionally and showed its orange face.

Grey Partridge – two of the six

Scanning the trees in the distance, out towards Decoy Wood, there were a few Marsh Harriers up, and several Common Buzzards mostly perched on the bushes. A Red Kite drifted over and a Sparrowhawk flew across. A Raven flew in towards us kronking, over Lady Anne’s Drive and disappeared off east.

Raven – flew in kronking

From the top of the Drive, we scanned down along the hedgeline to the west. There were several Blackbirds and a Jay out on the grass. Three Bullfinches were feeding on the remains of the blackberries in the hedge – two browner females and a smart pink male. They stayed out in view feeding for a while, giving us plenty of time to admire them through the scopes.

Bullfinch – in the hedge

Out onto the saltmarsh, we turned east and walked down towards the cordon. Not far along, there was a flock of Linnets, pipits and Skylarks feeding out in the vegetation not far in from the path. But we could see some rather ominous dark clouds approaching ahead so we decided to head for the Shorelarks first, just in case the weather deteriorated, and come back to the other birds later.

We were glad we did. When we arrived, the Shorelarks were in the cordon but very close to the fence. We watched as they picked around at the dead flower heads, feeding – great views, some of the best we have had of them this winter. Some were in and out of the vegetation but we eventually saw all twelve of the Shorelarks together that are currently enjoying the hospitality here. Smart birds, with their yellow faces and black masks.

Shorelark – showing well!

After a while, something spooked the Shorelarks and they took off. They flew round for a minute or so and then came back in past us, landing again in the cordon, but a bit further out now. We took that as a cue to move on.

The dark clouds had passed over so we continued on out to the beach to look at the sea. There were lots of Common Scoter offshore but the first bird we got a scope on was a Velvet Scoter. It was quite close in, but a bit further up the beach from where we were standing. Then scanning back along the shore we found more Velvet Scoters closer to us – eventually we saw eight together, but there could have been more as they were diving and kept breaking into smaller groups. Several Red-breasted Mergansers were close in, diving in the breakers too.

We found a Slavonian Grebe close in too, and then a second one a bit nearer. There were several Great Crested Grebes feeding offshore as well, but we couldn’t see anything different out here today. Turning our attention to the beach, there were a few Sanderling running about on the shore, along with one or two Oystercatchers and Bar-tailed Godwits. A large group of Cormorants were lined up on the sand bar further out, drying their wings.

As we made our way back, we stopped to look at the pipits on the saltmarsh now. There was a nice mix of Rock Pipits and Meadow Pipits, giving good side by side comparisons through the scopes, the Rock Pipits larger and swarthier. A group of Black-tailed Godwits were feeding on the saltmarsh nearby.

Black-tailed Godwits – on the saltmarsh

It was just after midday already, so we decided to stop for an early lunch. News had come through that a dowitcher had appeared at Titchwell, which would be a new bird for most of the group, and everyone was keen to try to see it. If it hung around, we could head back that way this afternoon. We stopped at the Lookout for lunch and while we were eating confirmation came through that it was a Long-billed Dowitcher, possibly the bird that was hanging around at Cley for much of last month.

So after lunch, we set off west. On the way, we made a quick stop overlooking the grazing marshes. As we got out of the minibus, we could immediately see at least 40 Russian White-fronted Geese feeding out on the grass in the near corner.

White-fronted Geese – some of the 40

A Great White Egret immediately stood out, out in the middle, but with most of the cattle taken in for the winter now we weren’t sure whether the Cattle Egrets would still be here. We could see a small group of Belted Galloways right at the back, in front of the pines, but they were behind some brambles and in some very tall vegetation. Luckily, we saw a Cattle Egret fly up and land on the back of one of the cows, just like they do with herd animals on the African savannah! It dropped down again quite quickly, but knowing they were there we continued to scan and when some of the cows moved into a clearer space, we could see at least three Cattle Egrets walking around with them now.

A Kestrel was hovering just in front as we pulled up, there were several Marsh Harriers out on the grazing marsh and several Common Buzzards on various fence posts. A Red Kite drifted over. There were hundreds of Lapwings roosting out on the grass, and when something spooked them they all took to the air together and swirled round, an impressive sight.

We didn’t linger long, as we wanted to get to Titchwell. Arriving in the car park, we headed straight out towards the Freshmarsh. Some locals were just leaving, and mentioned to us that a Long-eared Owl had just been found at Brancaster. First things first – we would go out and try to see the Long-billed Dowitcher first, then maybe try for that afterwards.

The Long-billed Dowitcher had been asleep on one of the islands earlier, but had woken up and was feeding actively when we arrived. We had some good views of it through the scopes as it fed along the muddy edge of the island. Like a slightly bulky snipe, with a long straight bill slightly tweaked at the tip, although greyer and plainer with just a well-marked supercilium.

Long-billed Dowitcher – awake on the Freshmarsh

After a while the Long-billed Dowitcher flew over to the next island, where it preened for a couple of minutes on the front edge. Then it walked up onto the muddy bank and went back to sleep. We had seen it well, and we had already had a good look around Titchwell on Friday, so we decided we would move on.

Our thoughts turned back to the Long-eared Owl and we managed to get confirmation that it was still on view round at Brancaster. We parked on Beach Road this time and walked along the bank. We could see a small group on the seawall, close to where we had seen the Hume’s Warbler on Friday. They let us have a look through their scopes first and there was the Long-eared Owl lurking down in one of the sallows.

We managed to find an angle where it wasn’t too obscured and then had good views through our scopes too. It was a bit breezy out here, and it’s ‘ear’ tufts were being blown around. The Long-eared Owl had been found by someone looking for the Hume’s Warbler. Presumably fresh in from the Continent, it was roosting here before heading on inland. As with so many Long-eared Owls which arrive off the sea here, it would not be seen the following day, so we were lucky it happened to turn up when we were at Titchwell anyway this afternoon.

Long-eared Owl – a great way to end

What a great way to end a December long weekend with two excellent birds. And both completely unexpected! The light was starting to go now, a little earlier tonight – it was rather grey and we could see darker clouds approaching. It just started to spit as we got back to minibus and started to rain on and off on the drive back. Perfect timing!

3rd Dec 2022 – Early Winter, Day 2

Day 2 of a 3-day Early Winter Tour today. It was a grey, wet and windy start, but thankfully it dried out quickly and then even brightened up from the middle of the day. The forecast suggested it would be much worse (again!).

As we met at the B&B in Hindolveston this morning, a Fieldfare flew over tchacking. Possibly another fresh arrival from the continent overnight.

Our first destination for the day was Sheringham. As we pulled up on the edge of Beeston Common, it was very grey, low cloud, windy and spitting with drizzle. It didn’t look too promising. But we looked up into the trees opposite and the first bird we saw perched right up in the top of one of them was a Waxwing! We got it in the scope, a super smart bird to start the day. After a few minutes it flew a short distance out onto the Common and disappeared out of view.

Waxwing – first, one

There had been 10 Waxwings here yesterday, so we walked up the road and round onto the Common to see if we could find any more. There were lots of rowan trees here and lots of berries – always promising! A Bullfinch flew across. And there were nine Waxwings lined up in the top of one of the trees. Enough to brighten any morning!

Waxwings – then all nine

We watched the Waxwings for a while. They were rather jumpy, and kept flying round and landing again back in the same couple of rowans. We could see a mixture of adults with brightly marked wings and duller 1st winters.

After a while, it started to rain more heavily and the Waxwings flew back towards where we had first seen the lone one. Having enjoyed such good views, we decided to move on.

We made our way down to the promenade next. Several Turnstones scooted off ahead of us as we walked along to the Tank. We stopped in the lee to scan, out of the wind, and immediately spotted a Purple Sandpiper on the next groyne up. It seemed to be mostly down out of sight on the far side of the rocks, so we walked further along for a clearer view. Several Turnstones flew in to the same groyne and when we got to where we could see the rocks we found that there were actually two Purple Sandpipers together.

Purple Sandpipers – and Turnstone

It was windy out on the prom, so we made our way back to the lee of the Tank to scan the sea. There were lots of auks moving offshore this morning – the closer ones were mostly Razorbills, with a smaller number of Guillemots. There was a steady stream of Kittiwakes passing too, and we managed to pick out one young Little Gull further back. A few Gannets flew through along with a small number of Red-throated Divers and a single Great Crested Grebe – always odd birds to see flying past offshore. A Shag was on the sea but diving and hard to see behind the breakers.

We were about to pack up when a message came through that a couple of skuas had flown east past Cley, so we stayed on to see if we could see them from here. Two Eider flew west and a couple of small groups of Common Scoter came past. Eventually we picked up a Great Skua flying towards us and we could see the big white flashes in its wings as it came past.

Pink-footed Geese – at Weybourne

Back in the warmth of the minibus, we made our way back west. We stopped briefly to look at a field full of Pink-footed Geese at Weybourne. We pulled into a gateway and scanned from the bus, as they were looking nervous, heads up. We could only see a tiny part of the flock from here, unfortunately, and there was nothing obviously different with the closer ones. Still, always an impressive to see a field full of wild geese.

We made our way down to Cley. It was still rather grey and threatening to rain again, as we made our way out to Bishop Hide first. A Marsh Harrier flew past over the reeds, the first of several we saw hanging around the reserve this morning.

Marsh Harrier – one of several

There were lots of ducks on Pat’s Pool – Teal, Shoveler and Wigeon. There were a few Avocet hanging on here too, despite the increasingly wintry weather, and lots of Lapwings on the islands. Scanning through more carefully, we found one Black-tailed Godwit, a few Dunlin and a Turnstone. Eventually, one of the Little Stints appeared from behind one of the islands further back. There have been two hanging around with the Dunlin here still recently, Little Stints are scarce birds here in winter.

This can be a good place for gulls, but there were only Black-headed Gulls here now. We could hear a Chiffchaff calling just outside the hide in the reeds and a Sparrowhawk shot past, probably too quickly to spook anything on the scrapes!

We made our way round to the middle hides next. After the recent rain, there is a lot of water on some of the other scrapes now. There were lots more ducks on Simmond’s, including several Gadwall, and we could see some small groups of Canada Geese out beyond Billy’s Wash.

Little Stint – 1 of 2

Looking out at Pat’s Pool from this side, we managed to find both the two Little Stints now and a couple of Curlew appeared.

More gulls dropped in, including several larger ones now. A young gull with a striking white head was a first winter Caspian Gull. We had a good look at it through the scopes and discussed the finer points of its identification as it preened and showed various features off to us.

Caspian Gull – 1st winter

We walked back to the Visitor Centre for lunch and helpfully it even brightened up a bit so we could still make use of the picnic tables. Afterwards, we drove along to Salthouse. The Iron Road pool has more water too, so there are not so many waders on here now – just one Black-tailed Godwit on our walk out.

As we continued on over the bridge towards the beach. we saw the small flock of Twite fly round and land on the shingle in the distance. Unfortunately, before we could get there they flew off again. We scanned from the shingle ridge and saw them flying round over the grazing marshes with a few Linnets and several Skylarks too. They dropped down out of sight, then flew up and round again. This time they disappeared off east towards Salthouse.

We hoped the Twite might come back to the shingle, so while we waited we scanned the sea. They were still a few auks, Kittiwakes and Gannets moving, but they were further out than they had been this morning.

Stonechat – on Iron Road

We were in danger of getting cold out here, and we had one last place we wanted to visit this afternoon, so we decided to walk back. As we set off, the Twite flew back in and round in front of us again with a few Linnets. They looked like they might land on the saltmarsh, but eventually disappeared off east again. A Stonechat flicked along Iron Road ahead of us.

As we got back to the minibus, we heard Pink-footed Geese calling and looked up to see wave upon wave of them flying in from the east, thousands of them. Possibly, the birds we had seen feeding at Weybourne earlier, we watched as they carried on west. Another impressive goose spectacle!

Pink-footed Geese – flew over in skeins

Our final destination for the afternoon was Garden Drove. As walked down the track, we stopped to admire the small flock of Brent Geese in the winter wheat.

Several Blackbirds flew out of the hedges in front and a Redwing dropped down to feed on the ground ahead of us. A Mistle Thrush flew up into the top of one of the bare trees. Down at the far end, more Blackbirds and a couple of Fieldfares flushed out of the bushes.

There were a few people already gathered on the edge of the coastal path here, so we joined them to scan. We could see several Curlews and Little Egrets and a single Great White Egret out on the saltmarsh. We were all hoping that the Pallid Harrier might put in another of its erratic appearances here, but the omens were not so good as it had not come in last night.

A rather dark juvenile Peregrine flew in over East Hills and disappeared off east. A ringtail Hen Harrier appeared briefly and distantly, going away from us, but helpfully then flew back and round over the saltmarsh in front of us, giving us good views. A grey male Hen Harrier remained more distant, over the spartina bed further back. A Common Buzzard flew past too. An excellent selection of raptors and a great return for the hour we spent here, but unsurprisingly there was no sign of the Pallid Harrier again tonight.

The light was starting to go, so we decided it was time to head back. There was a nice sunset over the fields away to the west, and then several skeins of Pink-footed Geese flew through heading out to the mudflats to roost. A great sight to end the day.