14th Apr 2021 – Back to Work

A Private Tour today in North Norfolk. After 6 months (to the day!) since our last tour, with everything in between cancelled due to COVID restrictions, it was very nice to be able to get back out again. The plan was to try to pick up some lingering winter visitors, as well as try to find some early spring migrants. It was mostly bright, with sunny intervals, cool in the morning particularly in the northerly breeze but warming up nicely in the afternoon, and with just a brief shower at lunchtime.

We started the day at Snettisham. Stopping by the entrance to the car park, a Barn Owl was hunting over the grass down along the inner seawall, flying across the road in front of us and disappearing off into the Coastal Park. A pair of Goldcrests were flitting around in some conifers by the pavement, the male singing and fluffing out its bright gold and flame-coloured crown feathers.

The fields either side of the road here can be good for Ring Ouzels at this time of year, but all we could find this morning were a couple of unringed Ouzels (also known as Blackbirds!). There were lots of Curlews feeding out on the grass too. We set off to walk up to the gate into the Coastal Park and a Greenfinch was singing and doing its fluttering song-flight over the garden of the nearby cottage. The sweet, descending scale of a Willow Warbler drifted out from the bushes. We could hear the distinctive call of Mediterranean Gulls too.

As we got to the gate, a couple with a rather lively dog were just ahead of us, the dog running in and out of the bushes either side of the path, significantly reducing our chances of seeing anything. We diverted up onto the outer seawall, and looked out across the Wash. We received a message to say that an Osprey had been seen over Ken Hill Marshes, just behind us, but had flown south. So we scanned across that way and picked up a large bird or prey way off in the distance, hovering slowly. Even through the scopes, it was right at the limit, too far to make out any detail, but as it broke off from hovering and turned, we could see it was very long-winged, a distinctive flight silhouette – the Osprey, but not the best views of one we have ever had!

The tide was in. Some more dogwalkers down along the beach further up flushed several Ringed Plovers as they walked along. There were lots of birds out on the water, but rather than seaduck they turned out to be several rafts of Teal and Wigeon, along with a small party of Cormorants and, further out, lots of large gulls.

Chaffinch – this very smart male perched up beside the path as we passed

As we dropped back down off the seawall and onto the path through the Coastal Park, a couple of Sedge Warblers were singing, and we eventually found one perched half way up a small bush in the reeds. There were lots of Chiffchaffs and one or two Blackcaps singing too, the early returning summer breeding warblers, although number of returning birds have probably been held up by the cold northerly winds over the last couple of weeks. A very smart male Chaffinch perched up on the top of a Hawthorn as we passed and there were lots of Linnets all the way up. We came across the Barn Owl again, hunting over the grassy area in the middle of the Coastal Park.

Linnet – a male; there were lots in the Coastal Park

There was a distinct lack of migrants moving overhead today, again a consequence of the northerly winds, but as we got up towards the crossbank, we heard a Yellow Wagtail calling and picked it up high in the sky approaching from the south. The first couple of calls sounded pretty conventional, but the next two or three had a distinctly rasping quality to them. Yellow Wagtails come in lots of different forms, and it would have been interesting to see this one on the ground, but unfortunately we watched as it flew off north into the distance.

Walking across to the inner seawall, we climbed up to the top and scanned the grass to the north of the crossbank. There were no cows out, which explained why the wagtail didn’t stop. The Barn Owl was out hunting here now. There were lots of Meadow Pipits and a couple of Skylarks, along with a pair of Grey Partridge. Two smaller, slimmer, shorter-billed birds in with a small group of Curlew were confirmed as two Whimbrel through the scope. They were a bit distant, but turning our attention across to Ken Hill Marshes the other side, we realised there was another Whimbrel on the grass just beyond the ditch. We had a really good view of the striped crown on this one.

There were lots of Avocets, Redshanks and Lapwings on the new pools. Scanning carefully, we found several Common Snipe around the vegetated islands too. There was a nice selection of wildfowl, lots of ducks including a single pair of Pintail. In with the commoner geese, we found a single Pink-footed Goose, its smaller size, dark head and more delicate and mostly dark bill distinguishing it from the nearby Greylags. Most of the Pink-footed Geese which spent the winter here have long since left, although a few are still lingering, some having been shot and winged and unable to make the journey back to Iceland. Our first Marsh Harrier of the day was hunting out over the water.

Barn Owl – out hunting all the time we were in the Coastal Park

The Barn Owl seemed to be following us! It flew back south over the crossbank as we turned to head back along the inner seawall. Most of the way, it kept flying off ahead of us, before coming back again. Great to watch, but it must have been hungry to be out mid-morning, and we didn’t see it catch anything all the time it was in view. A single Swallow and a Sand Martin flew past, surprisingly the only hirundines we saw here this morning. Back to the minibus, another Grey Partridge was out with the Curlew now and a Sparrowhawk came in low from the direction of the marshes. There was still no sign of any Ring Ouzels in the paddocks though.

One request for this morning was to try to see some waders, and there is no better place than Snettisham for that! The tide was already going out fast by the time we got down to the pits and up on the seawall by the Wash. Looking out across the mud, we could see thousands of birds out here still, loads of Knot, Dunlin, Ringed Plover, Redshank and Oystercatcher. A Grey Plover moulting into breeding plumage looked very smart with its black face and white-spangled upperparts. There were lots of Black-tailed Godwits feeding in the mouth of the channel, most already in their orange summer attire, feeding up before heading off to Iceland to breed. A similarly dressed Bar-tailed Godwit further up on the water’s edge was noticeably different, with the rusty colour extending right down under the tail.

Wash Waders – there were thousands of birds out on the mud still

Unlike many of the other waders, the Avocets don’t spend the winter here but there are already lots back. There was a liberal scattering across the mud all the way down to the hides. We just wanted to have a quick look at the southern pit today, which has been taken over by hundreds of breeding gulls. Scanning from the causeway, in amongst the more numerous Black-headed Gulls we found a few Mediterranean Gulls, with their more extensive jet black hoods and white wing tips, and a single Common Gull too.

Avocet – there are lots back already

We had lots we wanted to try to pack in today, so we moved on. A brief check of some paddocks at Hunstanton, where there had been Ring Ouzels a few days ago, failed to produce any here either. Rounding the corner of the coast, we drove into some dark clouds and a sharp shower. It had already stopped by the time we got to Holme, but it was now rather cool and cloudy and a couple of brief stops listening for Grasshopper Warblers drew a blank. We did manage to get a hot drink down at The Firs and stopped to eat our lunch. A young Peregrine flew through quickly towards Thornham before circling back more slowly a little later and five more lingering Pink-footed Geese were out on the grazing marshes.

Our next stop was at Titchwell. We wouldn’t have long here today, but we wanted to have a quick look at the Freshmarsh at least, so we headed straight out. As we got out of the trees on the main path, a Red Kite drifted out across the reedbed and another was hunting out over the dunes. A few Pied Wagtails were feeding out on the former pool on Thornham grazing marsh. The reedbed pool produced a few Tufted Ducks and Common Pochard, but a Little Grebe remained hidden in the reeds and we could only hear it laughing at us. There were still quite a few Brent Geese here, commuting between the Freshmarsh and the saltmarsh the other side of the west bank. In the next month or so, they will be off back up to Russia to breed.

Brent Geese – still here, commuting between the Freshmarsh and saltmarsh

We stopped on the bank by one of the benches to scan the Freshmarsh. Apart from several Avocets, there were no many waders on here. The water level is still quite high, and there is not much exposed mud. On the small area which has appeared in front of Parrinder Hide, we could see two Little Ringed Plovers which have returned already for the breeding season. With the hides closed, they were not particularly close but we could see their golden yellow eye-rings through the scopes.

Little Ringed Plovers – these two were out in front of the closed Parrinder Hide

The large, fenced off island has been taken over by gulls again, with several pairs of Mediterranean Gull in among the Black-headed Gulls. We were hoping to find some Sandwich Terns on the Freshmarsh, but there weren’t any now – there had been earlier, but presumably they had gone out to the sea. Some very smart Teal were feeding just below us, on the near edge of the water. A couple of the drakes were squabbling and the more aggressive displayed too, squashing itself up before throwing its head back. Sometimes, one or two may stay all summer but most will be moving on soon.

Teal – displaying just below the main path

A small falcon came in high over the Freshmarsh now, grey-brown and compact, a Merlin. It carried on across Volunteer Marsh and when it got out to the dunes it turned and disappeared off to the east. Another lingering winter visitor here. We decided to make a quick dash out to the beach to see if we could find a Sandwich Tern out there. A single Redshank was hiding in the channel at the front of Volunteer Marsh and there were a few Curlew in the wide channel at the far end. We couldn’t see anything of note on the Tidal Pool today.

The sea was quiet. After a couple of minutes scanning with the scopes, we did manage to pick up a Sandwich Tern flying past – mission accomplished! A single Great Crested Grebe still out on the sea was a nice bonus. Most of the waders were further up along the beach towards Thornham Point, and despite the shimmer we managed to pick out a few Sanderling in the haze. A couple of Turnstone flew in and landed on the mussel beds, along with a flock of Knot.

With time getting on now and a few more things to try to squeeze in to the itinerary this afternoon, we decided to head straight back. As we walked back past the reedbed, we could hear a Bittern booming out in the reeds.

Continuing on east along the coast road, we stopped past Burnham Overy at the top of Whincover. There had been four Ring Ouzels seen from the track earlier this morning, so we thought we would try our luck as we were passing. With no further reports since, it was probably no surprise we couldn’t find them where they had been and another lone Pink-footed Goose and a Little Grebe were the best we could find out on the grazing marshes.

We were just about to give up and head back when we received a message to say that three had been seen again somewhere nearby, although the location given didn’t make sense. We had an idea where they might mean and thankfully we guessed right – we were almost down the seawall towards Burnham Overy Staithe when a revised message come through with the right directions.

Scanning the field, we thought for a few minutes like our luck might be out again. We could see a couple of Blackbirds, two Mistle Thrushes and a Song Thrush, but no sign of any Ring Ouzels. They do have a habit of disappearing into cover when they are disturbed though, so we carried on down the seawall and kept looking. Thankfully it didn’t take too long until a smart male Ring Ouzel appeared on a fence post on the edge of the field. It dropped down onto the grass and started feeding, and through the scopes we had a good view of its bright white gorget and silvery-edged wings.

Ring Ouzel – we finally managed to catch up with this male

With another target in the bag, we set off back along the seawall towards Whincover. A Great White Egret was flying away from us across the grazing marshes – we could see that its bill was dark, rather than yellow, as the colour changes in the breeding season which can be a pitfall for the unwary. Back along the track across the grazing marshes, a Sedge Warbler was singing away in full view now in one of the briar clumps.

Sedge Warbler – singing from the briar patches by the track

Our last destination for the afternoon was going to be back at Wells, but on the way there we made a very brief stop. We had surprisingly failed to come across any Spoonbills on our travels so far, but now we could see several distantly in the trees and flying in and out. As it was, we needn’t have worried.

There was meant to be a Grey Phalarope on the pools at Wells, which we were hoping to see to end the day. It had apparently flown off at dawn but had thankfully reappeared after a couple of hours. We knew it was favouring the far side of the pool east of the track, right in the far corner and only visible from further down, but as we walked down the track towards there we met a couple looking through their scope the wrong way. They told us that the phalarope had apparently flown off again, across the pool west of the track, just a few minutes before we arrived. Our hearts sank – we were just too late! We stopped anyway and lifted our binoculars and the first thing we saw was the Grey Phalarope flying straight towards us! It came right over our heads, and then flew back to its favoured spot over in the far corner.

Grey Phalarope – flew right over our heads on its way back to its favoured corner

A large white shape over at the back of the pool to the east was another Spoonbill. Before we could get to the corner, it took off and flew straight towards us, passing over the track just behind us. A much better view than the ones we had seen on our brief stop on the way here.

Spoonbill – flew off over the track behind us

From the edge of the track at the far side of the pools, we set up our scopes again and looked back into the far corner. Sure enough, the Grey Phalarope was back in its favourite spot in the south-east corner of the eastern pool. It was swimming round in between several Avocets which were busily upending in the deep water, presumably stirring up the mud at the bottom and bringing food up for the phalarope to pick up.

It was a nice way to end the day, and it was now time to head for home. Despite the cool northerlies, we had succeeded in seeing a very selection of spring migrants, as well as picking up a good number of lingering winter visitors. It was great to be out again – hopefully we can now slowly get back to normal and resume a full programme of tours as planned in the coming months.

If you would like to come out birding in Norfolk, we are ready to go!

Jan/Feb 2021 – Through Winter, now into Spring

I am conscious that I haven’t written any blog posts for several months now – COVID-19 has meant no tours have run since last October, with a succession of national lockdowns interspersed with ‘tiered’ regional restrictions which have meant it has not been possible to operate.

As we head into spring, hopefully there is finally light at the end of the tunnel. Following last week’s announcement by the Government, we are planning to restart tours on a limited basis from April 12th and then look to run a full programme from May 17th. If you might be interested in joining us, please check the website to see what we have planned or contact me directly.

In the meantime, this is what I have been up to, keeping busy over the last couple of months…

2021: Happy New Year

In Norfolk, we found ourselves put into Tier 4 from Boxing Day. Normally, my son and I would have a ‘big day’ on January 1st, trying to find as many species as possible up and down the coast to see in the New Year. With the restrictions in place, that wouldn’t be possible this year, but we did manage a couple of short trips out locally.

We drove down to the beach at Weybourne for a walk on New Year’s Day. Our journey there took us over Kelling Heath, where fortuitously a Waxwing was feeding on rosehips right next to the road. We stopped briefly to watch it – they have been in very short supply this winter, so it was a real bonus to be able to catch up with one so close to home today. One of everyone’s favourites, and a great way to start the year.

Waxwing – feeding on rosehips by the road on New Year’s Day

Continuing on down to Weybourne, we had only just walked up onto the beach when the lingering juvenile Iceland Gull flew up from the shingle in front of us. A scarce bird in Norfolk in most winter’s, and another good one to get 2021 underway. A walk along the beach didn’t produce much else, but the Iceland Gull patrolled up and down the shore past us a couple of times.

Iceland Gull – this juvenile has been lingering along the North Norfolk coast

Driving back along the coast road, we stopped briefly half way down Beach Road at Cley. As we climbed up the West Bank, a Kingfisher was perched on the concrete sluice the other side. A lone Canada Goose was out on the grazing marshes, lots of Pintail were asleep on the brackish pools and the hoped for Barn Owl was picked up hunting in front of the Mill.

On Jan 2nd, we went for a walk at Holkham. Heading down through the trees in the park produced a selection of commoner woodland birds and the lake added a few ducks to the slowly growing year list. But the surprise of the day was finding six Cattle Egrets (or should that be ‘Deer Egrets’?!) in the park feeding in amongst the Fallow Deer.

Cattle Egrets – four of the six feeding in the park among the deer

It was a nice gentle start to the 2021 birding year, but little did we realise that would be the end of it. On the evening of January 4th it was announced we were all going into a new National Lockdown the following day. That was that!

Staying Local

At first, staying local meant turning my attention to the garden and the surrounding fields. We are lucky with owls here, and regularly, early morning or late afternoon, one or two of our local Barn Owls could be found out hunting.

Barn Owl – often found out hunting early morning or late afternoon

We also have a pair of Little Owls here. On sunny days, they like to perch up somewhere and warm themselves and this year one of them has sometimes used a holly tree outside the back door of the house, from where it watches us coming and going.

Little Owl – watching from a sunny spot in the holly tree

The garden has delivered some surprises this lockdown – as well as an occasional Grey Heron or a pair of Mallard, we often get one or two Teal drop in to the overgrown pond at the back of us here, but a Water Rail there on January 10th was more unexpected. However, possibilities in the immediate area are always going to be slightly limited and there are only so many times you can walk up and down the footpath here, particularly with the rest if the village using it, and the ground getting increasingly muddy.

Still within the local area, there are lots of woods and footpaths which I have never explored, so I set off on foot to see what I could find. The fields and hedgerows held small number of winter thrushes, Fieldfares and Redwings come here from Scandinavia for the winter.

Redwing – small flocks could be found in the fields

Some of the fields have game cover or wild bird seed mix strips along their edges, and one area in particular held impressive numbers of Bramblings, with a flock of at least 100 in one location. There were smaller numbers of Siskins and Lesser Redpolls around too, plus a few Common Crossbills in the conifer blocks.

The best find of early January were the Hawfinches. They used to breed in many of the local parks when I was a boy, but they have sadly declined to the point where they only seem to be regular now in the Brecks. Variable numbers also still come to the UK from the continent in winter, and I often wonder if birds could still be lingering in some of their traditional haunts, as they are surprisingly unobtrusive creatures for so big a finch. Still it was a big surprise out on one of my walks to see two Hawfinches fly in over the fields and land in some trees behind some houses on the edge of the village.

I encountered the Hawfinches regularly over the next couple of weeks, with a maximum of four on a couple of occasions, but mostly they were distant in the tops of the trees or flying over. Then on 18th Jan, I was walking along a track out of the woods and a lone Hawfinch flew up from the verge in front of me. It landed in some bare branches above my head, looking down at me, before flying back into the trees. Just a moment of luck – that was the only time I got close and I never did see one in the same spot again!

Hawfinch – flushed from the verge and landed in the tree above my head

The other highlight locally were the Goshawks. Once confined to the Brecks in Norfolk, they finally seem to be spreading more widely, and lots of people seem to have found them locally to them across the county in the last couple years. A succession of lockdowns has probably helped, with people forced to explore closer to home. There seem to be very good numbers of juveniles around at the moment, presumably birds dispersing after a good breeding season last year. The best time to look for them is on sunny days from the turn of the year, when Goshawks can be found displaying – perfect timing for Lockdown 3.0!

Goshawk – seem to be expanding rapidly now in Norfolk

The little things matter in lockdown too. It got colder around the end of January and this seemed to stimulate a bit of movement. A female Stonechat took up residence on the fence around a field full of sheep, the first I have ever seen locally. Common enough on the coast in winter, and in some of the bigger river valleys in Norfolk, but rarer than hens’ teeth in the agricultural desert that is much of inland Norfolk.

A couple of milder days at the start of February lulled some creatures into a false sense that spring was imminent. A Peacock on my walk on 4th was my first butterfly of the year and my first Hoverfly (Eristalis tenax) appeared in the garden that afternoon. A drake Goosander flying over the woods was a bit of a surprise late one afternoon, as was a Marsh Harrier flying high north towards the coast at dusk on another evening.

Then the snow arrived on 8th February and over the next couple of days, we found ourselves with up to a foot of lying snow, the most I have seen here for many years. Where the hedges have been grubbed out along the road out of the village and the verge had been helpfully mown flatter than a billiard table just the week before, the snow was drifting in the wind too. So that day was a stay at home day.

It was a surprise to find one of the local Barn Owls out hunting in the worst of the snow and wind that morning, before it then more sensibly settled onto a post on the edge of the meadow where it was more sheltered to see if it could hear something in the grass below. Obviously already hungry and with a problem with one of its eyes, it didn’t seem like it would survive a prolonged period of snow (spoiler alert: somehow it did and it is still here!).

Barn Owl – out hunting in the worst of the snow
Barn Owl – then tried to find food from the fenceposts

There was an arrival of Woodcock on the coast before and during the snow, presumably fleeing even colder weather on the continent. People close to the coast reported big numbers – on the beach, in coastal scrub and fields and even on the lawn in some lucky peoples’ gardens! This arrival didn’t seem to percolate this far inland though. We always have a few Woodcock which spend the winter in the woods here and numbers seemed to be much as usual.

Woodcock are normally very nocturnal, and seldom seen during the day unless flushed, but when they are struggling to feed and hungry in snowy or icy conditions, they can sometimes be found out in the middle of the day. Despite searching all the places where I have seen Woodcock locally in the past, the most I could find in the snow here were birds flying past or deep in the trees which flew off before I even saw them. We have had them on the lawn here before, in the snow, but no such luck this year.

There were also reports of large numbers of Common Snipe and smaller number of Jack Snipe elsewhere, displaced by the snow. We always have two or three Green Sandpipers which spend the winter in farm ditches locally, and I had regularly seen one or two on my walks prior to the snow, but otherwise we have few wet areas suitable for waders. It was not a great surprise therefore that I had failed to even see a single Common Snipe so far this year. So when a Common Snipe was reported by one of the other birders in the village from the ditch where the Green Sandpipers could often be found, I was very pleased to be able to catch up with it. The next day, I then flushed two Common Snipe from the old farm pond behind the house – just like buses!

Given the lack of snipe here, I thought a Common Snipe would be the best I could hope for. It was therefore an even bigger surprise the following day, when I stopped on my daily walk to scan the ditch where the Common Snipe was still feeding, and as I looked further back I noticed some bright golden mantle stripes bobbing up and down. A Jack Snipe! The first I have ever seen locally.

Jack Snipe – found feeding in a ditch locally, in the snow

Having scoured the woods in the local area for a daytime-feeding Woodcock, I received a message one day from one of the other birders in the village that he had seen one early that morning on the edge of the small copse directly across the lane from our garden! I had looked in there most mornings, on my way out for a walk, and had not seen anything. Surely it wouldn’t still be there now, but I had to have a quick look just in case.

There was no sign of it where it had been earlier, but after walking up and down on the edge of the copse several times, I noticed a rusty brown lump not far into the trees. The Woodcock! It was out in an open patch, on the ice which had been a large puddle, presumably trying to feed in the damp edges just above, where the lying snow was less deep. It froze when it saw me, presumably not realising that its wonderful cryptic plumage did not provide much camouflage against a background of white snow!

Woodcock – finally I got to see one out in the daytime

After a week, the weather changed and the snow melted very quickly. The waders – Woodcock, Jack Snipe, Common Snipe – all disappeared, the snipe not helped by the rapid rise in water levels in the ditches over the next few days. Finally able to get out further afield again, it became clear that other things had been forced to move by the snow too – there was no sign of the Hawfinches or Stonechat now, and numbers of Bramblings in the fields seemed to have dropped too.

For the last week or so of February, temperatures then rose so that for a while it felt like spring. The insects responded quickly, with my first Common Wasp of the year on on 20th and several Honey Bees gathering pollen around the snowdrops on 21st. Two Brimstone butterflies were out in the sunshine in the woods on 24th and over the following days the bee list expanded with Early and Buff-tailed Bumblebees, and Yellow-legged (Andrena flavipes) and Gwynne’s Mining Bees (A. bicolor) all in the garden.

Honey Bee – one of several gathering pollen around the snowdrops

There had already been several reports of Common Cranes on the move elsewhere over the previous few days, but that is another species we struggle with here. They wander from the Broads in early spring but tend to follow the coast or the major river valleys, and seldom seem to wander over the open fields in the agricultural middle of the county. I was really missing not having seen them in the Broads this year, one of the highlights of Jan and Feb for me. I was therefore delighted when I was out on my daily walk on 26th February in the sunshine and heard bugling high overhead. I turned to see a small group of five Common Cranes circling in the sun. After a few seconds they broke off and continued on their way west.

Common Cranes – these five flew over in the sunshine

I was pleased enough to see them, but when I got home later I noticed a message on the newswires that the Cranes had actually flown over my village a few minutes before I saw them. I hope they didn’t go over my house – it is still one I need for my garden list!

It remained warm right to the end of the month. A Chiffchaff singing in the garden on 27th February may be our earliest ever here, and seemed to be part of quite a widespread arrival across the county that day. With a sunny morning on 28th, it felt like a day for raptors so I stood on the lawn for a while scanning as the local Buzzards started to circle up. I probably saw upwards of 15 Common Buzzards and four Sparrowhawks, but nothing more exotic.

I left my scope on the lawn and walked out through the gap in the tall hedge at the back, onto the footpath beyond, to scan the fields to the south. As I emerged, I noticed a pale shape hovering over the rough grass field just beyond the hedge. It looked the wrong shape for one of the Barn Owls which usually like to hunt over there, before it turned and the penny dropped. It was a cracking silvery-grey male Hen Harrier! And for once I didn’t have a camera with me.

I ran back into the house and grabbed one, but by the time I got back out, the Hen Harrier was working its way down the field away from me, into the sun. I set off down along the footpath, and for a few seconds when it got to the far end of the field it looked like it was going to work its way back again. But then it disappeared round behind the trees and was gone. I have only ever seen one Hen Harrier here before, also a male, back in early 2011. It just goes to show what you can sometimes find when you are forced to stay home. As I walked back into the house, a Peacock butterfly was basking on the steps in the sun.

Peacock – basking on the steps in the sun

The weather has turned cooler again at the moment. The last three days have been dull, grey, foggy and have given me a chance to sit down in the office and write this. But it finally feels like spring is just around the corner and I cannot wait to get out again and explore the rest of Norfolk in just a few weeks time.

Scillies – October 2020

With tours on hold again due to the latest UK Covid lockdown (we hope to restart again as soon as lockdown ends), I thought I would write a blog post about my recent trip to the Isles of Scilly – something to read as the winter nights draw in! This was the 25th year I have stayed on Tresco, with only one or two missed years, and we spent 12 days on the island(s) this year after a couple of unplanned extensions, from 17th-29th October.

This year’s trip started badly. With lots of talk ahead of time about the possibility of a ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown over half term, we brought forward our departure by two days. So we drove down on Friday night and were just having coffee early on Saturday morning, before the heliport opened, when news came through that a Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin (aka Rufous Bush Chat) had just been found back in Norfolk. Even worse, it was at Stiffkey, about 15 minutes from home and a site I visit regularly, including on Friday morning!

Things didn’t get any better as we checked in for our 8.30am helicopter flight to St Mary’s. This is the first year of the new helicopter service and we thought we would try it out. As we sat in the lounge, the helicopter was towed out onto the landing pad, started up and promptly shut down again. After the engineers had stared under the bonnet for a bit, it was towed back into the hangar. We were then informed that there was a technical fault with the helicopter – although we weren’t told that it had already been out of action for most of the previous two days! With only one helicopter leased to run the service, there is no alternative when it goes wrong – a bit of a disadvantage compared to some of the other travel options available like Skybus.

With it being a Saturday, if we didn’t travel today we wouldn’t get over until Monday, losing two days of our trip. We were offered no other option but to travel on the MV Scillonian (rather than putting us on a Skybus flight instead), which would still lose us the best part of a day. Despite the boat being much cheaper than the helicopter tickets, we were refused a refund of the difference and were told we couldn’t book ourselves on the boat and take a refund on the cancelled flight. Not great customer service and not a good first impression for the new helicopter service – an experience we would certainly bear in mind before booking on it again.

When we got down to the Scillonian, we had to wait on the quay because we didn’t have any tickets. When we finally got on board, we took our seats up on deck as it started to drizzle! Thankfully things improved from there, as the skies cleared from the west as we steamed out of the harbour at 10.25. The crossing was unusually calm – good for those with sensitive stomachs, but it did mean there were not so many birds today, aside from the regular Gannets, Kittiwakes and little flocks of auks, and two Arctic Skuas as we neared the islands.

It was mid afternoon before we finally got over to Tresco and were transferred to the cottage where we were staying. After a very late lunch, there was just time for a quick walk round the island. The first impression was rather quiet bird-wise. There had been a good arrival of American birds the week before, but they had gradually dwindled, moved on in the clear weather. With a run of easterlies since, most of the best birds arriving had been on the other side of the country. Still, there were a couple of lingering rarities remaining on St Agnes, so I resolved to head over there tomorrow.

After a quick walk round early morning, which yielded a couple of Yellow-browed Warblers and a small flock of six Common Crossbills flying over as the highlights, I met fellow Tresco regular Steve Broyd on the quay at New Grimsby for the 10.15 boat to St Agnes, and we were joined by John who was staying in the New Inn.

There was no news of either of our targets by the time we arrived on St Agnes and we made our way down to Horse Point fearing the worst. Thankfully just as we were scouring the area looking for the American Buff-bellied Pipit someone called us over to say they had just refound it. We watched it for some time, feeding on the short grass between the rocks and low stunted clumps of bracken and brambles. The bird was mostly on its own but sometimes loosely associating with Meadow Pipits.

American Buff-bellied Pipit – feeding on the short grass at Horse Point

There have been 48 previous records of American Buff-bellied Pipit in Britain up to the end of 2019, so they are fairly regular here these days. This was the third I have seen on the Isles of Scilly, but the first since 2012, so always good to have a refresher, particularly as they can turn up anywhere, not just in the SW.

While we were watching the Buff-bellied Pipit, news came through that the ‘Eastern Stonechat‘ had been refound on Gugh, the neighbouring island attached to St Agnes by a bar. Thankfully the tide was low, allowing us to cross, so we made our way over there next. There were only a couple of other photographers present and the bird was now showing really well in the tall bracken, flicking round catching insects.

Eastern Stonechat‘ is the current term used for two aggregated species – Siberian Stonechat (Saxicola maurus) and Stejneger’s Stonechat (S. stejnegeri). Only recently treated as separate species, the authorities currently require a DNA test to determine which is which (and we had neglected to bring a DNA testing lab with us!). But it may transpire that they are fairly easily separable in the field, and some individuals certainly appear to be distinctive enough. This one looked like a slam dunk Siberian Stonechat (maurus) to my eyes, pale and frosty, with a pale peachy-coloured rump.

Siberian Stonechat – a lovely pale frosty individual
Siberian Stonechat – with a pale peachy-coloured rump

It was a lovely sunny day now and there seemed to be birds on the move. There were several Chiffchaffs flycatching in the nearby pittosporum and others appeared to be making their way through the bracken and brambles. There had been a report of a Red-breasted Flycatcher on Gugh earlier, so we decided to explore. We didn’t find the flycatcher – it turned out the directions given were not especially accurate and we had looked in the wrong place – but we spent an enjoyable couple of hours wandering round Gugh.

We still had over an hour before our boat back was supposed to leave, so we decided to cross back to St Agnes and circle round via The Parsonage. As we walked along the road towards the front wall, we could hear a distinctive call, a repeated ‘tsk, tsk’ rather like someone tutting, coming from the front garden. It was a Dusky Warbler! It had gone quiet when we got to the wall and looked over, and someone walked round the house and went in through the front door.

We stopped to scan the garden – a Pied Flycatcher and a Spotted Flycatcher were flitting around in the trees above. Further along, from the top of the driveway, there were several thrushes under the apple trees and one or Blackcaps. As I was looking through them, something small shot across through the foreground of my bins. Steve saw where it landed, in the far corner of the garden, and announced it was a Pallas’s Warbler! As I got onto it, I noticed some movement in the pittosporum just behind and the Dusky Warbler popped out briefly.

We watched the Pallas’s Warbler as it fed in the ivy in the sunshine, hovering and flashing its lemon-yellow rump, before it disappeared up into the trees behind the annexe. There was a Yellow-browed Warbler in there too. Then the Dusky Warbler started calling again, from the hedge behind the apple trees and we had fleeting views as it flicked in and out several times, before making its way round behind the house.

Several people had gathered here now, and the Dusky Warbler had disappeared back into the tangles in the front garden, where we could still hear it calling on and off. It was time for us to make our way back to the quay to catch our boat back to Tresco. What an amazingly productive hour it had been at The Parsonage!

There had been several Little Buntings on Tresco over the last week, and one was refound while we were on St Agnes, behind New Grimsby along the track up to Castle Down. By the time we got back, it had disappeared – there were lots of people out walking, up and down the track. But the following morning I found it again, before it got too busy. It was initially in the gardens in front of the Coastguards Cottages, but eventually moved back to the track where it proved to be very obliging.

Little Bunting – this very obliging bird was lingered behind New Grimsby

Things then settled down over the next few days and there seemed to be little in the way of new arrivals. The excitement of yesterday’s Dusky and Pallas’s Warblers did not continue. With a strong southerly airflow from the Mediterranean building, I had high hopes for some overshoots but a lone Glossy Ibis on 21st was the only notable new bird. After touring St Agnes, Gugh and St Mary’s it made the briefest of visits to Tresco mid afternoon. Thankfully it flew in past me and landed on the grassy heliport, just in time for Steve to see it as he waited for his flight off. It only stayed three minutes before flying off towards Carn Near, and was back on St Mary’s soon after.

Glossy Ibis – flew in and landed on Tresco heliport for just three minutes!

The southerly airflow also brought with it a small arrival of Black Redstarts. I usually see them here at this time of year, in variable numbers depending on the prevailing weather conditions. Most of them are grey female/first winters, but a smart male Black Redstart took up residence in the churchyard at Old Grimsby for a couple of days.

Black Redstart – this smart male spent a couple of days in the churchyard

I had taken with me a small portable Skinner 20W actinic moth trap but the southerly airflow failed to produce much in the way of migrant moths on Tresco, despite high hopes. Two Palpita vitrealis (Olive-tree Pearl) were all I had to show for my efforts, despite there being a couple of Crimson Speckled on other islands. This year proved to be rather quiet for moths.

Palpita vitrealis – the only migrant moths I managed to find on Tresco

The next couple of days felt a little like Groundhog Day. There were 5 or 6 lingering Yellow-browed Warblers on Tresco and the variety was provided by which I could find where on different days. A couple of Ring Ouzels were in the fields between New and Old Grimsby at the start of our stay but seemed to move on after a few days in the calm, clear weather.

Ring Ouzel – there were a couple on the island at the start of our stay

There were small numbers of Fieldfares and Redwings on the island throughout and the lull in new arrivals did at least give me a chance to spend some time studying some of the Redwings more closely. Many of them were noticeably darker than the Scandinavian birds we typically get back in Norfolk, more heavily streaked and blotched below and with more noticeable dark markings in the undertail coverts. They looked like Icelandic Redwings, of the race coburni, though there was clearly a lot of variation which only added to the interest.

Presumed Icelandic Redwing – of the race coburni

I have blogged before about the changes I have seen on Tresco over the years. This year, my wanderings around the island were continually disturbed by the grinding noise of the tractor flailing the pittosporum hedges. In places they are now getting very thin, as the flailing goes ever deeper each year (it must be no fun for the tractor driver just to trim one year’s growth – it makes a much better noise if you can really dig it in to the thicker branches!) and the cattle are pushing through and making big gaps. Perhaps this is deliberate – I am sure if the hedges were to die then the larger fields would make it easier for managing the cattle.

Flailing – the hedges on Tresco were taking a bashing again

I remembered fondly my first visit to Tresco back in the 1980s. The fields along Pool Road were still used for growing bulbs and vegetables back then and by October were full of weeds. The fields were smaller and the hedges overgrown, full of brambles. There were lots of birds. Now, with a combination of improved grass and overcut hedges, they are much less attractive to wildlife.

For many years, the fields at Borough Farm were still managed the old way, but since they have been taken back under the control of the Tresco Estate for the last couple of years they are now grassed over and the hedges have been cut back here too. I have fond memories of all the birds I have seen here over the years as well but they are sadly increasingly a shadow of their former selves too. Shame. It really brought it home spending time on St Agnes this year, which is still more like the Scilly Isles of old (as are most of the other islands), with weedy fields and overgrown hedges, full of birds.

There are still some good, birdy places on Tresco though. The areas around the Great Pool and Abbey Pool are some of the most promising still, but despite my best efforts, I hadn’t yet managed to find anything unusual here this year. A Firecrest and a late Reed Warbler in the sallows, along with 2-3 of the Yellow-browed Warblers. Shelduck, Shoveler, Pintail and Tufted Duck put in appearances. The three Black Swans which have taken up residence here this year provided a welcome distraction.

Black Swan – one of three which have taken up residence this year

The wind swung round to the west on 23rd and the weather became more unsettled. It was wet and windy on 24th with the arrival of a weather system straight across the Atlantic bringing a passing weather front. Late in the day a Rose-breasted Grosbeak was found on Gugh. The change in the weather had done the trick and brought with it some new birds from North America!

There was no way to get to Gugh that day, but I resolved to head over to St Agnes on the scheduled boat tomorrow morning. Louis Cross, another Tresco regular and friend of mine, had recently arrived and I told him of my plans that evening. We bumped into each other first thing the following morning and spent an hour or so birding around the Great Pool. An early boat had gone across from St Mary’s to St Agnes and now negative news came back – there was no sign of the Grosbeak. I changed my mind – I figured there would be lots of birders on St Agnes and I had a better chance of finding something good on Tresco, brought in on the same weather system. Louis had arranged to go to St Agnes with his family, so decided he would go anyway.

Needless to day, I failed to find anything on Tresco that morning – a Reed Bunting by Abbey Pool was the only new bird. I was already kicking myself for not going to St Agnes when news came through mid morning of a Red-eyed Vireo there. Then, after heading back to the cottage for lunch, I had a call from Louis on St Agnes. Words to the effect of ‘I’m looking at a bird and I’m not sure what it is’ but with a bit more ‘colour’, I immediately knew it had to be something good!

Louis sent me a photo, taken with his phone off the back of his camera, but it came through upside down and there was a reflection across the screen so it was hard to make out. He had already mentioned the possibility of it being a North American bunting – and when he sent me another, better photo it looked good for Indigo Bunting. I quickly downloaded a photo of the Ramsey Island bird from 1996 and sent it to him, while reassuring him that a 1st winter female Indigo needn’t have any blue in the tail, which seemed to be his main reservation. Then someone he had called over to the see the bird posted a photo on the Scilly WhatsApp group and the news went out.

Cue scramble to get to St Agnes! I could see people over on the quay at New Grimsby waiting for one of the St Mary’s boats, so while I cycled over to see if I could get over via St Mary’s, my wife tried to contact Tresco Boat Services. Despite it being a Sunday, she got through and managed to arrange a jet boat special to St Agnes. The game was on! On my way back to the quay, I scooped up a fellow Norfolk birder who was over on Tresco from St Mary’s and we had a nervous wait as the jet boat failed to appear. ‘Straight away’, turned into ‘3pm’ and eventually at 3.15pm finally the boat appeared.

We were whisked across to St Agnes (despite a big swell once we got out of the lee of Samson) and Louis met us on the quay to lead us to the bird. Several birders over from St Mary’s were leaving but there was still a small group watching the Indigo Bunting which was feeding on the path by the old bonfire with a couple of Chaffinches.

Indigo Bunting – feeding with a Chaffinch

Indigo Buntings breed in eastern North America and winter from southern Florida down to northern South America. They are extremely rare visitors here with only two previously accepted records – apart from the 1996 Ramsey Island bird, one was photographed on a bird table on Anglesey in May 2013 but only identified retrospectively. The adult males are bright indigo blue in summer, but first winters, particularly young females, can lack any blue at all.

Indigo Bunting – only the third record for Britain

A fantastic find by Louis – many congratulations to him – and it was nice to be able to share the moment with him, watching it together. We even had time to nip round and see the Red-eyed Vireo nearby, another vagrant from North America, before our jet boat returned to take us back to Tresco. Not surprisingly, we had a couple of celebratory pints in the New Inn afterwards (before we both had to go back to family duties)!

We were supposed to be leaving the next day, but it felt like there had to be more to find on the islands. With all the excitement on the Scillies, my elder son, Luke, announced that he was coming down from Spurn for a few days with a couple of his friends, Jacob & Bethan. We decided to stay on too, although it required some hasty rearrangement of travel plans and we would have to move cottage in the morning.

I got up early to pack up, and figured I had enough time for a quick couple of hours birding before we had to move cottage at 9.30am. I thought the pools offered the best chance to find something in the time available, so rather than setting off on foot I cycled down to Swarovski Hide. There was no sign of anything on the Great Pool and the bushes along Pool Road were pretty quiet as I cycled down to the far end. I left the bike propped up against the bushes and had a walk round the bushes.

As I started to walk over towards Abbey Pool, I noticed I had a message from Dick Filby on St Mary’s. He had photographed a rainbow which appeared to end on the south end of Tresco and had joked ‘And today’s #ScillyBirds rarity is awarded to….Abbey Pool, Tresco!’. Little did he know how right he was! I had a quick look over the bracken on the east side of Abbey Pool, but couldn’t see anything of note, so cut across round the woodpile and out to Pentle Beach.

When I got back to the SE corner of Abbey Pool, I walked through the bracken to check along the near edge of the water. I could see a wader on the shore now, right up in the NE corner. It seemed to have yellow legs, but I just had my bins and camera with me and it was too far to be sure. I had a pretty good idea what it was, but I spent the next 10 minutes or so working my way carefully up along the shore, using the vegetation as cover so as not to disturb it. I needn’t have worried. As I got up towards it, the juvenile Lesser Yellowlegs turned and walked back along the shore towards me, before walking past about three feet from me! It was too close to focus on!

Lesser Yellowlegs – this juvenile was a nice find on Abbey Pool

So the rainbow and Dick were both right – the Scilly rarity of the day was indeed on Abbey Pool! I messaged him back with a photo. Louis came over to see it and then I headed back rather later than planned. Lesser Yellowlegs is another visitor from North America, not as rare as the others but a nice find nonetheless.

It really felt like there should be more North American vagrants to find on the Scillies, given the birds which had appeared over the last couple of days, but we couldn’t find anything else on Tresco that day and the other islands came up blank too. The Indigo Bunting had flown off before Luke and friends arrived that day, so we went back to St Agnes the following day in the hope it might reappear. It didn’t, but we did finally manage some great views of the Red-eyed Vireo just before we had to leave.

Red-eyed Vireo – finally showed well just as we were about to leave

The sun had come out by the time we got back to Tresco and we figured the light would be great at Abbey Pool. With the last of the birders over from St Mary’s departing as we arrived, we had the Lesser Yellowlegs to ourselves now. The gusty wind had whipped up foam which had piled up along the shore, and it was great to watch the Yellowlegs feeding, picking at the foam, as it made its way up and down the edge of the water, at times just a couple of metres away from us.

Lesser Yellowlegs – feeding in the foam whipped up along the shore

It was very windy the next day, as ex-hurricane Epsilon came in across the Atlantic, bringing with it some huge swells. The combination of the wind and swell produced some impressive waves which were amazing to watch from the top of Castle Down as they battered the north end of Tresco, Bryher and crashed over the lighthouse on the top of Round Island.

Waves – striking the north end of Tresco
Waves – crashing up and over Round Island!

On my way back from watching the waves in the morning, I called in at Gimble Porth to catch up with the bunting double – a Lapland Bunting and another Little Bunting were both feeding with the finches in the fields there and eventually showed very well. With no inter-island boats due to the weather, we had them to ourselves today.

Little Bunting – showed well with the finches at Gimble Porth
Lapland Bunting – also with the finches at Gimble Porth

Epsilon did bring with it some more North American vagrants across the Atlantic, but unfortunately not to the Isles of Scilly. We were almost out of time again anyway and had to content ourselves with a couple of late additions to the Scillies 2020 list – a smart male Golden Pheasant along Abbey Drive last thing that afternoon and the Hooded Crow which had been around all week but finally put in an appearance as we were getting ready to leave the following morning.

Golden Pheasant – feeding by Abbey Drive at dusk

Unfortunately our departure from Tresco was to be no less eventful than our arrival! Not the fault of the helicopter service this time, but Tresco Estate. We had waved Luke, Jacob & Bethan off on the Firethorn in the morning, as they were flying from St Mary’s, and after lunch in the New Inn we walked over to the heliport. We had left our luggage outside the cottage for delivery to the heliport, but when we arrived there was no sign of it. We were repeatedly assured it was on its way, but the longer we waited the more worried we became. Eventually just two of the six bags there should have been arrived!

We were spun a right old web of stories and excuses before eventually it all unravelled. The Estate office had clearly made a mistake and somehow thought all our luggage was Luke and his friends’ (despite them having taken their own bags), so unbeknownst to any of us they had put our bags on Firethorn and we had unknowingly waved them off with Luke earlier! Despite there being no one on St Mary’s to claim them, they had just left all our bags there on the quay. Once they realised the mistake, presumably when we arrived at the heliport, rather than confess and ask us how many bags there were, they had tried to cover it up while they sent a jet boat over to St Mary’s to try to find them. The person sent over had found two bags and assumed – wrongly – that was all of them.

Our helicopter was now due to depart, so I had to send the rest of the family on ahead while I tried to track down the rest of our bags. Another jet boat was dispatched and the rest of lost baggage was eventually found and returned. Luke had run over to the quay on St Mary’s and was able to confirm the correct bags were on their way. I would like to say that the Estate Office staff apologised for all the upset and delay it caused us but instead they pointed out how much it had inconvenienced them having to send two jet boats to collect the luggage they had lost! The best I can say is that in 25 years of staying on Tresco, this is the first time we have had problems like this, so hopefully it was a one-off and will never happen again. And I eventually managed to catch the next helicopter across to Penzance, together with the four bags, and we were only an hour late setting off on the long drive back to Norfolk.

So leaving aside the unusually chaotic travel experience this year, looking back on the trip now and scanning through the great list of birds seen it was well worth the effort again! Perhaps one to think about as a possibility for a future tour, once Covid is behind us?

14th Oct 2020 – Private Autumn Day Tour

A Private Autumn single day tour in North Norfolk today. It was mostly cloudy today but mostly dry – we managed to largely dodge the showers, particularly in the afternoon. A brisk NE wind held lots of promise for migrants coming in from the continent.

Our first destination for the morning was Wells. Walking in towards the woods from the beach car park, we could see several Little Grebes on the Boating Lake as usual and a few Coot and Mallard to get the day’s list started.

Little Grebe – there were several on the boating lake as usual this morning

As soon as we got into the birches, we found our first tit flock. There were lots of birds flitting around in the trees overhead – Long-tailed Tits, Blue and Coal Tit, Goldcrests and a Treecreeper. Small groups of Redwings flew back and forth overhead and we could hear their teezing calls.

Walking round the north side of the Dell, we flushed more Redwings and several Blackbirds from the bottom, under the trees. We cut across the middle, over the main track and out into the more open area the other side. There were loads of Redwings here too, feeding on berries in the bushes and out on the grass on the grazing marshes beyond. Looking through them, we managed to find one or two Song Thrushes as well. There had clearly been a big arrival of thrushes here in the last 24 hours, mainly Redwings, coming here from Scandinavia for the winter.

Redwing – there had been a big arrival in the last 24 hours

A couple of Marsh Harriers were flying round over the grazing marshes beyond, a juvenile with bright red wing tags (unfortunately too far away to read the identifying code), and an adult female with much more pale creamy colouring on the leading edge of the wings. Two Red Kites were hanging in the air over the trees in the Park at the back.

The Marsh Harriers kept flushing all the ducks from the grazing marshes, the flocks Wigeon and Teal flying round before settling again around the pools. There were a few Curlew and Lapwing, and several Pied Wagtails out on the wet grass too.

Small groups of Redpolls kept flying back and forth overhead calling while we were scanning the grazing marshes and as we walked on a little further a few flew in and landed in the top of a large birch tree in front of us. We had a much better view of them now, and got one or two in the scope, admiring the red ‘polls’ on their foreheads and black chin patches. These birds looked rather small and brown, Lesser Redpolls. More dropped in to join them and others flew out – there was lots of coming and going.

Lesser Redpoll – several landed in the birches

Continuing round, two Sparrowhawks were up over the pines in the distance, chased by two Carrion Crows, swooping in and out of the treetops. Two male Blackcaps popped up in the top of a large clump of Hawthorn and briar.

Back out on the main track, there were lots of Goldcrests in the birches, as we caught the tail end of another tit flock as it disappeared into the pines. There was nothing of note in the bushes round the Drinking Pool but a couple of Bramblings were calling in the pines and we had a fleeting view high in the trees and then saw one of them flying off.

Goldcrest – there were lots of exhausted migrants in today

Continuing west on the main track, we stopped to watch some more Goldcrests feeding in some sycamores right by the path. We had some great views of them, down at eye level. While they do breed here, numbers are swollen in autumn by arrivals from the continent. We marvelled at how these tiny birds weighing no more than a 20p coin, can manage to fly all the way across the North Sea. When they arrive they are not surprisingly exhausted and hungry and therefore very confiding.

We were just in the process of discussing how you might tell a Firecrest from a Goldcrest when we had a shout from a friend deeper in the trees in front of us that he had just found one! It was very active, flitting around in the oaks, and hard to see. We had a few quick glimpses and then lost track of it. While we were looking round in the trees for the Firecrest, a Yellow-browed Warbler appeared too, but again we only managed frustratingly brief views of it before we lost track of it.

The Goldcrests seemed to be working their way slowly east through the trees, so we walked back out onto the track and followed them. We could hear more wheezy calls from Bramblings a little further along and walked back where a smart male finally gave itself up nicely in some birches, turning round and showing off its bright orange breast and shoulders.

Brambling – this male gave itself up in the birches by the track

There were no Goldcrests this far down – we seemed to have overshot the flock – so we walked back a few metres until we found them again. Suddenly out popped a boldly marked head low in an oak tree right in front of us, like a rather like Goldcrest but with additional stripes, black through the eye and a striking white supercilium above. It was the Firecrest and we had great views of it now as it performed in front of our eyes.

Firecrest – reappeared low in an oak tree right in front of us

We continued to follow the Goldcrests and we were rewarded again when the Yellow-browed Warbler reappeared in a small sycamore beside the track. It fed here for a couple of minutes now, giving us the chance to get a better look at its stripes, a striking yellowish supercilium and double wing bars.

Having enjoyed great views of Firecrest and Yellow-browed Warbler, we decided to start walking back. There was a report of some other birds in the open area by the Dell now, so we cut back in and walked slowly in through the grass and round the brambles and hawthorns.

A Lesser Whitethroat flicked out ahead of us, and we watched it feeding in the brambles. At this time of year, they are mainly ‘Eastern’ Lesser Whitethroats passing through, birds of the race blythi, also known as Siberian Lesser Whitethroats and coming to us from much further east. Sure enough, this was an Eastern Lesser Whitethroat, with the brown of the mantle continuing as a shawl up over the back of the head. We could hear its quiet tacking calls as it worked its way round.

Eastern Lesser Whitethroat – of the race blythi

We found a smart male Bullfinch in the brambles too, and still lots of Redwings and Redpolls, but no sign of the Redstart now which was seen here earlier. As we made our way back to the main track, a couple of Redpolls flew in and landed briefly in the hawthorns ahead of us. A flash of a streaky but pale rump on one indicated it was a Mealy Redpoll, the flammea race of Common Redpoll which comes here from Scandinavia in the autumn.

Cutting back in round the east side of the Dell, we had another look in the birches on our way back to the car park. Several Blackcaps flitted ahead of us and a couple of Bullfinches were in the brambles. There was a tit flock in the trees here again, the light was better this time. We spent some time looking through them – lots of Goldcrests but nothing more unusual.

Back out to the car park, we picked up lunch and walked over to the harbour. Up on the seawall, we ate our lunch while we scanned the channel and the mud and sands opposite. There were a few Cormorants diving in the channel itself and a couple of closer Brent Geese on the far side. We could see lots more Brent Geese further out on the sands and they started to fly back in past us and back into the harbour, presumably to feed.

Brent Geese – flying in past us along the harbour channel

The waders were rather distant at first here today, right up on the back of the mud towards East Hills. Through the scope, we could see lots of Knot, together with several Dunlin and Turnstones. A couple of Ringed Plover were well camouflaged on one of the patches of shingle. There was a scattering of Curlew and a good number of Oystercatchers here too.

A dark shape hunched right out on the middle of the sands, as we thought it might, resolved itself into a Peregrine through the scope, loafing out on a sand bar. Presumably it had been hunting the waders and had stopped for a rest.

So when something flushed all the Knot, we thought at first the Peregrine might be the culprit, but it was still on the sand in the same place. We watched as the Knot whirled round in a tight flock, back and forth, twisting and turning, flashing grey and white. Four larger birds with them were Bar-tailed Godwits. All of them landed together on the edge of the channel, giving us a much better view, the godwits squabbling in the shallow water.

We stopped at the beach cafe for a welcome hot drink. We had a few possible options for the afternoon, but there had been a small number of Pallas’s Warblers appearing along the coast this morning and we thought we would try for the one which had been reported already several times, out at Burnham Overy Dunes. We parked in the car park at the staithe, and walked out along the seawall, hoping to pick up a few waders en route.

Curlew – feeding on the edge of the harbour channel

A close Curlew was feeding down on the near edge of the harbour channel as we set off and more were out on the grazing meadows the other side. Our attention was caught by three Moorhen just beyond the ditch. Two seemed to be fighting, one pinned down by the other, while the third looked on. When the fighting birds separated, one tried to run off but was chased all the way along the bank by the other, pecking at its heels. The third ran along too a few seconds later, not wanting to be left behind.

There were a couple of Grey Plovers down beside the harbour channel further along and two Ringed Plovers out on the sandbank in the middle, along with a few Brent Geese and Wigeon. Looking out over the saltmarsh beyond, we could see a few white shapes, which were all Little Egrets.

Grey Plover – on the edge of the harbour channel

Past the corner on the seawall, there were lots of Dunlin on the open muddy inlet, along with a couple more Ringed Plover, and lots of Redshanks too. A Stonechat perched up briefly on the brambles.

The cattle were rather distant today, out in the middle of the grazing marshes looking over towards Holkham. We did see a few white birds flying round amongst them, at least three Cattle Egrets, but they kept landing out of view behind a line of reeds. The large flock of Golden Plover out on the saltmarsh was very well camouflaged against the other burnt colours of autumn vegetation.

When we got out to the boardwalk, we turned west to walk out to Gun Hill. We had already been told that the Pallas’s Warbler had not been seen again, for at least the last couple of hours, but we thought we should try our luck anyway. We flushed yet more Redwings from the bushes on the way and there were more Goldcrests in the low privet and bramble out in the dunes. The Goldcrests were unbelievably tame – just arrived over the North Sea, exhausted, they simply have to feed and have no time to worry about people. Despite our best efforts, we couldn’t find any sign of the Pallas’s Warbler here.

We climbed up onto the higher dunes to look out over the beach. There were lots of Cormorants drying their wings on the sandbank at the entrance to the channel, and a single Sanderling running along the shoreline nearby.

After a sit down, it was time to start walking back. We had a better view of the Cattle Egrets on the return journey. We got a couple in the scope, feeding in between the legs of the cows, and managed to count at least seven out there now. They were still rather distant though, out on the grazing marshes.

As we drove back east, we stopped briefly at Holkham. There were lots of Cormorants loafing in the trees, presumably getting ready to roost. The first Great White Egret was out on a small pool on the grazing marsh. Then we found a second in with the Belted Galloway cows along with a Grey Heron (they probably had an identity crisis and thought they were Cattle Egrets too!). A third Great White Egret appeared further back, and with a bit of careful scanning we found a fourth away in the distance.

Great White Egret – in with the cows along with a Grey Heron

That would have been more than enough, but what may have been a fifth Great White Egret flew in just as we were packing up. This is another species which has colonised in a remarkably short space of time, and gone from being rare to not uncommon now. A couple of Marsh Harriers were circling over the near edge of the marshes, presumably getting ready to go to roost. Unfortunately it was time for us to call it a day too.

11th Oct 2020 – Four Autumn Days, Day 4

Day 4 of a four day Autumn Tour in Norfolk, our last day. The weather was much better than yesterday – the showers much less frequent and even some nice bright intervals and patches of blue sky. There was a rather fresh and cool NW wind though on the coast today which made it feel a little colder.

Our first destination for the morning was Kelling. There were several Chaffinches and a couple of Greenfinches around the village as we got out of the minibus, and a small group of Goldfinches feeding in the tops of the birches by the school. We could hear more Chaffinches calling in the next hedge over as we started down the lane, and several flew out of the bushes ahead of us. They had possibly arrived from the Continent overnight and roosted here.

There had been reports of a large movement of Redwings inland at dawn, and we had thought we might see some thrushes on the move here today. But they had clearly come in overnight and moved quickly through. There were none moving now on the coast, and all we could find here were several Blackbirds in the bushes down the lane. We could here Bullfinches calling and several Robins ticking in the hedges as we walked along.

We stopped at the gate north of the copse to scan the Water Meadow. A Brown Hare ran across the field beyond. A family of Mute Swans, two adults and five dusky grey cygnets, were wading through the wet mud in the middle of the meadow. We remarked how good it was looking for a Jack Snipe now, how if you could walk about in the middle you would be sure to flush one, but despite a good scan we couldn’t see anything in view from the gate. There were lots of places to hide and they are always most active at dawn and dusk too.

A Marsh Harrier was flying over the field the other side of the track, flushing lots of Red-legged Partridges from stubble. A Reed Bunting flew ahead of us along the hedge as we continued north. There were more Blackbirds and finches in the bushes as we got out into the open.

A couple of dogs came past us and ran down the track, their owner following a couple of minutes later. Lots of ducks and Curlew came up off the Water Meadow as the dogs raced round the corner. Some of them resettled, but a flock of Teal flew off west.

Curlew – flew up from the Water Meadow

With a mixture of dark shower clouds and patches of blue sky, it was a good day for rainbows. Our first of the day was a corker – a double, with the inner one double sided too. The first of many today.

Rainbow – it was a good day for them today

When we got to the gap in the hedge where we could see across to the water, several of the Curlew had landed again on the grass. There was a mixture of ducks on the pool, still a couple of Teal, several Shoveler, one or two Gadwall and a small group of Wigeon feeding in the grass. A single Little Grebe was diving continually out in the middle.

We stopped to scan the Quags from the crosstracks. Two Common Snipe came up from the beck and disappeared off west. A Stonechat flew in and landed in the dead umbellifers on the bank, then across into the reeds in the beck. A single Egyptian Goose and two Little Egrets were out in the middle.

As we carried on down to the corner, another Common Snipe came up from the edge of the Water Meadow. A couple more Reed Buntings chased each other in and out of the reeds, and another Stonechat was perched up in the top of the brambles in the corner, a smart male. We had a look in the grass in the corner of the Water Meadow where it had been trampled by the cattle, but there was no Jack Snipe here either.

Stonechat – perched in the top of the brambles

Continuing on down the track, a Linnet landed in the brambles briefly. We could already see small groups of Gannets passing just offshore, beyond the shingle ridge, so we carried on up and over to the beach to see what else we could see.

Standing on the shingle ridge, we could see small groups of auks whizzing past offshore – this continued pretty much all the time we were on the beach. There were a few auks on the sea closer in too, so we continued down to the lee of the pill box and set up the scopes. We had a nice view of a couple of Razorbills on the sea, up and down riding the waves. A Guillemot was close in too and a Red-throated Diver.

There was steady passage of Gannets past all morning too. One small group stopped and spent a few minutes shallow diving offshore. A juvenile Gannet was resting on the sea very close in, just beyond the breakers. We had a great look at it as it drifted past us with the tide. After a while, it took off and flew further out.

Gannet – resting on the sea just offshore

The wind was not really strong enough to get other seabirds close inshore, but we did pick up three or four Great Skuas passing by. The first was very distant, but later we had one closer in, chasing a Great Black-backed Gull, trying to get it to regurgitate it’s last meal. We could see the Great Skua’s white wing flashes. A single Arctic Skua flew past very distantly too, and what was presumably the same bird paused briefly to chase a distant tern.

There was a trickle of wildfowl moving west this morning – always interesting to see migration in action at this time of year. Two groups of three Brent Geese, and several small flocks of Wigeon and Teal flew past, birds arriving here for the winter from Russia and across Northern Europe. We picked up a distant flock of Common Scoter too, but then we had two lone birds much closer flying west which were much easier to see, the first a pale cheeked female or juvenile, then a black male.

Brent Geese – arriving for the winter, coming in from Russia

There were not many waders moving today, but there was quality rather than quantity. The first wader we spotted, a small dark bird flying west just behind the breakers, was a Purple Sandpiper. Not a common sight passing by here, although we do get small numbers which spend the winter along the coast. Otherwise, we singles of Knot, Curlew and Oystercatcher.

There were a few passerines moving too. Several Rock Pipits flew west along the beach just in front of us. A Skylark came in over the beach calling too.

We could have spent all day here, watching the birds moving, arriving. It is slightly addictive, you never know what will come past next. But we could see lots of gulls off Weybourne beach, so with a shower approaching in over the sea we decided to head back and drive round there for a closer look. A Brown Hare was sheltering from the north wind behind the brambles on the hillside above the track, looking towards the sun and enjoying a bit of warmth as it poked out between the clouds.

Brown Hare – enjoying some sunshine, sheltered from the wind

As we walk back up the lane, we stopped again at the gate. There were a couple of people here now with scopes and they thought they might have seen a Jack Snipe. They were not sure though, and it could have been a Common Snipe. We stopped to scan, but they showed us where it had disappeared into a very thick area of rushes. A Brambling called overhead as we waited but despite giving it a few minutes, the Jack snipe didn’t reappear, so we decided to move on.

Round at Weybourne, there was only a small group of gulls on the beach to the west, beyond the fishermen – Herring, Great Black-backed and Black-headed Gulls, we couldn’t see anything of more interest. There was a black bird on the beach further west, preening. It was hard to see clearly through the spray coming off the sea, but it looked like a Shag through the scope. We walked over the shingle and up onto the low cliffs beyond for a closer look., but by the time we got there the Shag had gone, presumably flown back out to sea. A small group of Turnstones were busy feeding on the top of the cliff, flicking over the small stones.

Turnstones – turning stones on the top of the beach

Looking to the east, we could see many more gulls scattered all along the base of the cliffs towards Sheringham. Again it was hard to see far, with the combination of the misty spray off the waves and the shade from the cliffs. We scanned through the closer ones, but couldn’t see anything unusual.

We needed to use the facilities, so we drove back to Cley now. It was time for lunch too, and we wouldn’t say no to a welcome hot drink from the cafe. Thankfully it was dry now so we could sit outside on the picnic tables to eat. From up by the Visitor Centre, we scanned Pat’s Pool. There were lots of ducks, particularly Gadwall, and several Shelduck. Two lingering Avocets were feeding in the shallower water. A Marsh Harrier flew past over the reeds beyond.

A message came through that there was indeed a Jack Snipe at Kelling, from the gate where we had looked earlier, though it was hard to see. So after lunch, we went back for another look. The Bullfinches were still calling in the lane as we walked along, and this time flew across in front of us, the male flashing pink underneath in the sunshine. A Chiffchaff was in a hawthorn overhanging the lane now too.

There was no sign of the Jack Snipe from the gate when we arrived. They can be very elusive at the best of times, so we scanned carefully around the tussocks and wet mud. A Common Snipe came up out of rushes and flew off, and a little later what may have been the same or another dropped back in to the same area. Several Curlew flew in too. A Grey Heron was walking about between a couple of cows further back. Three Pied Wagtails were flitting around in the mud.

It was starting to look like we might be out of luck again. Then the two cows started to come a bit closer, and they had still not made it to the wet mud when they flushed a small bird from the thick grass at the back – a Jack Snipe. It towered straight up, and broke the skyline above the hillside beyond. As well as its small size, we could see its shorter bill compared to Common Snipe. It turned and dropped straight down again, down into the thickest rushes and brambles at the back.

We figured the Jack Snipe might not come out from there for a while, so we set off back. We were told that a Purple Sandpiper had been on a small pool back along the coast at Salthouse, maybe the one we saw past Kelling earlier. It can be very disturbed here, but we thought it worth a look as we were passing.

When we got to Beach Road, we had a quick look through the gulls in the field opposite, but there was nothing different with them here either. We could see lots of people walking out along the shingle towards Gramborough Hill now, right past the pool, and several dogs, so we didn’t fancy our chances. We had a quick look anyway, and not surprisingly there was nothing there now.

It was exposed out by the beach and very blustery here in the wind. Another shower blew in as we walked back to the minibus, so we decided to head inland for the rest of the afternoon. We drove down to the Brecks to look for Stone Curlews.

We stopped by an empty rutted field and scanned over the hedge. There was no sign of any Stone Curlews initially, but a little further along the field we found some. A small group were very close, and flew up when they saw us peering over the hedge, but thankfully they circled round and landed straight back down again. Some others were still standing in the field, and as we scanned across we counted at least eleven here, although some were hard to see in the ruts.

We had a great view of a couple of the Stone Curlew now through the scopes, their bright yellow legs, irises and bill bases catching the afternoon sun. Well worth the journey down to see them.

Stone Curlew – good views in the bare field this afternoon

The Stone Curlews gather together in large groups at the end of the breeding season. Numbers are dropping now, as they head off to Iberia or North Africa for the winter, but we knew there had been more than this here in the last few days.

We drove further down the road and stopped in a gateway to scan across to a distant bare stoney field. There were more Stone Curlews, further away than the ones we had just seen, but we counted at least twelve. There were lots more places for them to hide here though, so there were probably quite a few more. Always a nice way to wrap up a trip this time of year, with the autumn gathering of Stone Curlews.

There were a few other birds here too. A large flock of Linnets out in the middle, kept flying up, whirling round and dropping back to feed in a weedy strip on the far side of the field in front. We had seen a big flock of sparrows here a few weeks ago too, but there was no sign of them now. Carefully scanning the nearby brambles we did find a small group of sparrows though, three Tree Sparrows with single House Sparrow. They perched up nicely on top, giving us a good view in the scopes.

There had been several Red-legged Partridges out in the closer field, and we were just about to leave when one of the group spotted a covey of seven Grey Partridges off to the right. They came out into the open and ran out across the middle of the field to the far side. A nice view and a nice late bonus.

Grey Partridges – part of a covey of seven

It was time to head back now. As we drove back north, we admired the last rainbows of the day as we drove towards and then into a brief heavy shower.

10th Oct 2020 – Four Autumn Days, Day 3

Day 3 of a four day Autumn Tour in Norfolk. It was meant to be dry this morning, at least at first, but it had already started raining by the time we met up. It remained very grey with drizzle on and off for most of the morning, but brightened up a bit more in the afternoon, with the showers becoming more intermittent and even some sunny intervals.

The forecast for a dry and bright start to the morning had evaporated overnight, but as there seemed to be a window of drier weather coming, we headed straight down to Wells first to try for the Red-backed Shrike again.

The Little Grebes were present as ever, but there was no sign of the Tufted Ducks as we walked in past the boating lake this morning. We made our way quickly along the main track and as we got round and out of the shelter of the trees, we were caught by the wind and realised it was rather breezy already.

It was a bit better along the track down beside the caravan park, with the shelter from the reeds. We had a quick look at the marshes and scanned the fences as we passed. There were several Curlews, Lapwings and Pied Wagtails on the first field again. A Kestrel flew over and was chased away by one of the Pied Wagtails.

There were lots of ducks on the large flood in the second field, mainly Teal, plus a couple of Mallard and a few Wigeon on the grass nearby. Further over, we could see a small group of Pink-footed Geese with a pair of Egyptian Geese.

Pink-footed Geese – out on Quarles Marsh with a pair of Egyptian Geese

It was very windy again as we got out into the open past the caravan site, and already starting to spit with rain. We stopped to scan and found a couple of Stonechats working their way along the fence line where the shrike had often been recently. We walked down the track opposite again, but it was starting to rain properly now, and there was still no sign of the shrike. We figured it would be unlikely to come out in this weather, so we turned back. We could always try again later, but as it turned out it was not seen again.

It was raining more heavily when we got back on the main track, but we cut in round on the east side of the Dell. A Redwing was sheltering from the rain deep in a hawthorn. We did find a tit flock in the birches, but it was hard to see much with the rain dripping from the leaves and we couldn’t see anything obviously different with it.

Redwing – sheltering from the rain in a hawthorn

Back in the car park, we checked the weather forecast and the rainfall radar. It looked like there was likely to be rain on and off all morning here, so we decided to drive over to the Broads in the hope that it would be starting to ease off by the time we arrived.

It was already late morning by the time we got to Martham Ferry, but it had indeed thankfully stopped raining. We walked down to the riverside path and when we found a place where we could see over the reeds, stopped to scan the grazing marshes over the other side of the river. Almost immediately we spotted two large grey birds walking around near the cows, a pair of Common Cranes. They were rather distant but we managed to get them in the scope – a good start.

Common Cranes – we could see a pair distantly across the river

Continuing on down the path, a Cetti’s Warbler called from the brambles in the reeds on the edge of the fishing lakes. A dark shape in the first field was just a Carrion Crow, but in the second field we found our main target here, the Glossy Ibis.

Glossy Ibis – in the fields by the river at Martham Ferry

It was quite close, and we had a great view of the Glossy Ibis through the scope. It was feeding busily, walking and probing in the wet grass, then it stopped to preen. Glossy Ibis mostly breeds around the Mediterranean, heading to Africa for the winter.

The breeding population has increased dramatically in Iberia since the 1990s and the number reaching the UK has similarly grown, with influxes typically occurring after drought in Spain has caused more birds to disperse. Glossy Ibis is now a regular visitor to the UK, but still a great bird to see – even if it does look slightly out of place here on a grey and drizzly October morning!

There was a single Black-tailed Godwit in the field too, which came over to feed alongside the Glossy Ibis at one point. A Common Snipe flew over calling. A small gaggle of Greylags and Canada Geese was in the wet grass further back and two Grey Herons flew in. A rather dark looking Common Buzzard was perched in a bare tree at the back and a male Marsh Harrier flew over.

A large flock of Redwings came up from behind the trees at the back and flew across, disappeared round the back of the fishing pits, followed quickly by a second smaller group. There were well over 100 Redwing in total, presumably freshly arrived from Scandinavia here for the winter and now dispersing inland.

There were rather grey clouds approaching from the west now, so we decided to head back to the minibus. A lone Pink-footed Goose flew over calling.

It was good to get the two distant ones earlier, but we decided to have a quick drive round next to see if we could find some closer Cranes. There were none at the first site we tried. On our way back, we turned down a side road and stopped to scan the fields. It was rather misty, but we could see a large group of tall grey birds in the distance, Cranes.

Common Cranes – 15 of the 21 we found this morning

We realised we could see the Cranes better from a high point on the main road, so we drove back round. We were worried they might be too close to the path, but they were settled in the back of the field and allowed us to view them from the verge at a discrete distance. It was a great view of them here, feeding in a weedy field with a small flock of Greylags. We counted 21 in total, including three families, each pair of adults with a single browner juvenile, raised this summer.

Common Cranes – feeding in a weedy field
Common Cranes – one of three families, with a browner juvenile

Having enjoyed great views of the Cranes, we set off to find somewhere for lunch, and a hot drink. The weather was much improved now, brighter, and even with some patches of blue sky, so we sat outside on a convenient picnic table.

After lunch, we headed round on the coast road to Waxham. On the way, we stopped to look through a mass of gulls feeding in a field that was just being cultivated. Amongst the mostly Black-headed Gulls we found a couple of Mediterranean Gulls, and got everyone onto a nice winter adult with pure white wing tips and black bandit mask.

We had been told about a Black Redstart at Waxham earlier, on the scaffolding on the house on the corner, but there was no sign of it now. There were people in the house and lots of people coming and going from the beach, lots of cars on the narrow road. We walked up to the churchyard to see if it might be there, but drew a blank there too.

We decided to have a look at the beach. As we got up to the dunes, a Grey Seal was just offshore and a juvenile Red-throated Diver was diving nearby, very close in. We walked down to the shore and had great views of it as it resurfaced repeatedly in the breakers just in front of us.

Red-throated Diver – this juvenile was diving just off the beach

There was a steady stream of Gannets flying past further out over the sea. An Oystercatcher landed briefly on the rocks. As another shower blew in over the beach, we sought shelter in the gap in the seawall. Another adult Mediterranean Gull flew past just offshore.

There was still no sign of the Black Redstart around the house on the corner. With a long drive back, we decided to set off back to North Norfolk now. The journey was better than expected today, and the weather had now improved, bright and sunny by the time we got back to the north coast. We decided to stop off at Stiffkey for a quick scan out over the saltmarsh.

There a a liberal scattering of Curlew, Redshank and Little Egrets over the saltmarsh. A couple of Marsh Harriers were hunting out at the far edge, towards the beach. We managed to find a small group of Brent Geese feeding in the vegetation out towards Blakeney Pit. A Greenshank flew across calling and dropped down again into a large creek out of view.

A Spoonbill appeared out on the saltmarsh away to the west, presumably coming up out of one of the small pools where it had been feeding. It was joined by a Little Egret, noticeably smaller and slimmer. While we were watching it, a second Spoonbill appeared nearby. Most of the Spoonbills which spent the summer here have gone south already – many normally spend the winter in Poole Harbour – but there are still a small number clinging on here, for now at least.

Spoonbill – joined by a Little Egret out on the saltmarsh

It was a productive quick stop for half an hour, but it was now time to head back. We had managed to see a lot today, despite the weather.

9th Oct 2020 – Four Autumn Days, Day 2

Day 2 of a four day Autumn Tour in Norfolk. In contrast to yesterday, it was a bright sunny start, although it did cloud over again late morning and there were then one or two sharp showers in the afternoon. There was a rather brisk SW wind too.

Our destination for the morning was Holkham. As we parked at Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see hundreds of Pink-footed Geese coming up over the pines to the east, presumably coming in from the mudflats beyond Wells. They came over calling as we were getting ready, we could hear their distinctive yelping calls.

A couple of Grey Herons on the edge of the reeds out on the grazing marsh to the west were new birds for the trip list. As we walked up towards the pines, a Song Thrush was catching the sunshine in one of the hawthorns on the edge of the grass, possibly a migrant from the continent warming up.

Song Thrush – enjoying the morning sunshine

As we walked west along the track on the south side of the pines, we could hear a Chiffchaff calling. One or two Jays flew back and forth across the track between the pines and the poplars.

We stopped to watch several Goldcrests feeding low down in the bushes beside the path. We would see quite a few of them along here this morning. Although they breed here, numbers are swelled in autumn by migrants arriving from the continent. Amazing to think that such tiny birds, which weigh about as much as a 20p coin, can make it all the way here across the North Sea.

Goldcrest – we saw good numbers here today

Just before we got to Salts Hole, we noticed some movement in the leaves in a small oak tree by the track. It was a Redwing, another fresh arrival from the continent, coming here from Scandinavia for the winter. Unfortunately it disappeared deeper into the trees before we could all get a look at it – but we would see several more over the coming days.

At Salts Hole, there were at least six Little Grebes around the pool, along with plenty of Mallards. Out of the shelter of the trees, it was now much breezier than we had expected – it had seemed much calmer when we had got out of the minibus at Lady Anne’s Drive earlier, so perhaps the wind had picked up since.

As we walked up onto the boardwalk by Washington Hide, we could hear Long-tailed Tits in the sycamores beyond. We carried on past the hide to see if we could find anything with them. There were Blue Tits and Great Tits, a Coal Tit calling, and several more Goldcrests, but there was nothing rarer with them today.

We carried on to the end of the boardwalk and had a quick look out at the beach. It was a great view, looking out over the dunes in the sunshine. It was more sheltered this side of the pines, but quiet.

Back to the hide, it is still nailed shut, so we stood on the boardwalk to look out over the marshes. There was a small flock of geese on the grass, mainly Pink-footed Geese but we could see a couple of Greylags in with them. We got them in the scopes, a nice comparison of the two species side by side.

At Meals House, we had a quick look in the garden but it was all quiet, apart from a Pied Wagtail calling from the house. A Common Buzzard was hanging in the air above our heads over the pines just beyond. It was a good morning for raptors, sunny with a fresh breeze, and the Buzzard was enjoying the updraft of the wind hitting the trees.

We thought there might some more activity in the trees either side of the crosstracks, particularly given some shelter from the wind here, but it was quiet here too as we walked past. A Chiffchaff was calling from the bushes before the crosstracks. We could hear tits as we walked through the pines but they were deep in the trees where there is currently no access due to forestry work.

Contintuing west, a small group of Siskins flew over calling and another Chiffchaff flicked out of the sallows and across the path. When we got to the gate at the west end of the pines, we stopped to scan the grazing marshes. A Blackcap was calling in the brambles.

Looking towards the dunes, we noticed a Red Kite coming straight towards us along the end of the pines. It hung in the air overhead circling, then drifted back behind the trees. When it came back out again, it was joined by three more Red Kites. We watched the four of them circling together, in the updraft on the edge of the trees, before they drifted back and we lost sight of them again.

Red Kite – one of four which circled together over the end of the pines

A minute or so later, the Red Kites flew out over the west end of the pines further back and we watched as they headed off over the dunes. As they disappeared off west, it seemed like some of them might be on the move today.

Continuing round through the trees, we made our way out into the edge of the dunes, into one of the bramble-lined hollows. There had been a Barred Warbler here a couple of days ago, but there was no report of it yesterday. We thought there had to be a good chance it might still be here, but the bushes in the first hollow were quiet, not even any sign of any Blackcaps.

Back out onto the path, we walked up onto the higher dunes to scan the grazing marshes. A couple of Stonechats appeared on the brambles down by the fence below us and a Blackcap popped up in the top of the bushes further back.

Red Kite – circled over the highest point in the dunes

One of the Red Kites drifted back over the dunes towards us, and started circling over the highest point. It kept swooping down at something on the ground. It was a smart adult and its red tail shone in the morning sun as it twisted and turned. A Magpie appeared and started harrying it, swooping down at it.

Red Kite – harried by a Magpie for a while

It was warming up now, and three Common Buzzards circled up over the middle of the grazing marshes. We could see a large herd of cows in the top corner of the fields and several white shapes in the grass in amongst them. Through the scopes, we could see they were the Cattle Egrets. We could only see two at first, but gradually more appeared from behind the cows and we got up to at least seven by the end. Looking the other way, towards Decoy Wood, we found at least three Great White Egrets too.

There were more Blackcaps calling from the bushes behind us now, so we walked round the back to look in the dune slacks. As we walked round through the bushes, we heard Bullfinches calling quietly, and three flew out and disappeared into the brambles the other side.

As we climbed over the top of the dunes, we flushed two Blackcaps out from the brambles below the ridge. They were immediately followed by a larger, greyer warbler – the Barred Warbler! All three birds flew across the hollow and into the bushes on the far side. We stopped on the top and looked across and after a minute the Barred Warbler reappeared.

Barred Warbler – showed well in the dune hollow at the west end of the pines

We watched the Barred Warbler for some time. It kept disappearing into the brambles, before re-emerging again a little further round. We got it in the scope and had a great view, as it fed on blackberries. It was a juvenile – lacking the heavy barring underneath shown by adult males (and to a lesser extent by females), but still with a ghosting of crescents on its flanks and undertail.

Barred Warblers are scarce autumn visitors here, on their way from their breeding grounds in Eastern Europe to Africa for the winter, so a great bird to see. When it disappeared, we walked round to the path on the other side of the hollow, and as we came out from behind some trees, the Barred Warbler flicked out ahead of us again. We had seen another group emerge from the end of the pines, so we called them over and pointed out the bushes where it had gone in.

With our main target achieved, we set off to walk back. We were almost back to the crosstracks, when a tit flock came out of the sallows and across the track ahead of us. The Long-tailed Tits were followed by loads of Goldcrests, but they didn’t linger and disappeared quickly back up into the pines.

We heard a Yellow-browed Warbler call from somewhere a little further along the track. It didn’t seem to be with the tits, so we walked round on the path behind the sallows, hoping to relocate. Unfortunately, it had gone quiet now and the trees are very thick here, lots of places to hide. Another Redwing came in high over the pines.

On the other side of the crosstracks, we had to pick our way through the mud where the path had been churned up by the forestry work. Just as we arrived where they were working, we thought we heard another Yellow-browed Warbler call, but their was lots of noise coming from a huge vehicle driving through the edge of the trees. We had to wait for the vehicle to come out of the trees, and the driver to turn it off to go for lunch.

We heard the Yellow-browed Warbler call again a couple of times, but it was now further back the way we had just come, towards the crosstracks. We had to pick our way back through all the mud. We got out into the open area beyond just in time to catch the back end of a tit flock coming out of the trees. They were moving fast now, but we tried to follow them along one of the paths through the reeds.

The trail seemed to have gone cold, but as just as the flock disappeared back towards Bones Drift, the Yellow-browed Warbler started calling again. It was calling much more persistently this time, but we couldn’t follow it as there was a forestry work barrier across the path and we couldn’t see it in the trees in the distance.

It was quiet on the rest of the walk back, and when we got back to the top of Lady Anne’s Drive, we headed into the Lookout to get a hot drink and stop for lunch. After lunch, we drove round to Wells beach car park, to spend the afternoon there in the woods.

As we walked in past the boating lake, there were lots of Little Grebes and several Coot out on the water, along with four Tufted Ducks, a new bird for the trip list. We made our way in through the birches and it seemed rather quiet in the trees until we got round to the north side of the Dell and found a tit flock. Unfortunately, it was on the move already and everything came quickly straight out of the Dell and disappeared high into the pines before we could get a chance to look through.

We headed back out and cross the main track, into the open area to the south. Over on the far side, we stopped to scan the grazing marshes as the sun came out. There were several Pied Wagtails flitting around out in the wet grass, and a scattering of Curlews and Lapwing around the pools.

Four Red Kites came up together in the sunshine, joined by a Marsh Harrier which drifted off west. Some people told us there had been a large falcon around earlier too and something still seemed to be spooking all the ducks, Lapwings and Black-tailed Godwits over on the marshes further back beyond the reeds. We couldn’t see anything now, so perhaps it was just that they were still nervous after its earlier visit.

Continuing on round through the bushes, we found several Redwings in the hawthorns in the reeds over in the far corner, and finally got better views of one or two here. We flushed two or three Blackcaps from the brambles along with a grey continental Robin. A small flock of Goldfinches flew over with a couple of Lesser Redpoll, calling.

Redwing – we finally got better views of one or two in the bushes

Back out on the main track, we continued on west. We cut in round via the Drinking Pool but despite having refilled with water after the recent rains it was very quiet here now. We hadn’t got much further along the track when it started to rain. We made our way in to the trees where it was more sheltered, and thankfully it eased quickly and then stopped.

We made our way back and decided to go to look for the Red-backed Shrike which was apparently still feeding around the fields to the south. As we started down the track beside the caravan site, we found another tit flock in the trees on the corner. We followed it down the line of the shelter belt, beside the track, but we couldn’t find anything different with the tits here either, despite getting a better look through the flock this time. There were lots of ducks out on Quarles Marsh opposite, Wigeon, Teal and a few Mallard.

We could see more dark clouds approaching and it started to rain again now, more heavily. We got to where the shrike had been, but were told it had disappeared earlier when the rain started. We scanned along the line of bushes on the edge of the ditch where it was last seen, but there was nothing moving in there now. We could see lots of Pied Wagtails in the field in front of us and a big flock of Skylarks and Linnets came up from the next field over.

It was very exposed out here, in the rain. We could see brighter skies approaching and figured the sun would be back out in about half an hour, so we decided to head back to the Dell, and the shelter of trees, and have another look here afterwards.

When we got back up to the main track, we turned right to head to the east side of the Dell and were just walking along beside the back of the boating lake when we heard Long-tailed Tits. We stopped and turned to see a tit flock coming out of the caravan park into the trees by the track.

The Long-tailed Tits started to fly across the track one by one and then a small bird flew across behind them. It flew up into a nearby sallow and a quick look confirmed it was a Yellow-browed Warbler. Finally we had a good prolonged view of it, as it flicked around in the bush.

Yellow-browed Warbler – this one taken in Wells a few days earlier

Then the Long-tailed Tits set off through the trees around the east side of the Dell, and everything else followed. We set off after them too, and managed to keep up with them for a while. There were a few Goldcrests with them as well and a Chiffchaff. We had a couple more brief views of the Yellow-browed Warbler before we lost the flock in the trees.

It had stopped raining now, and with our other main target here now in the bag, we made our way back round the edge of the Dell through the trees. We heard Brambling and Lesser Redpoll calling overhead as we made our way back to the main track, before heading back down to have another look for shrike. Several people were now leaving, but despite one claim, there didn’t really appear to have been any further sign of it.

The weather was now much improved, so we walked down the track beside the ditch where it had been earlier to look in the bushes at the far end. There were lots of Linnets and Reed Buntings along the sides of the ditches but at the far end all we found was a Sparrowhawk which flew fast and low over the fields and disappeared towards Wells.

Back at the junction, we stopped to look at some Grey Partridges out on one of the cut grass fields. There were still a couple of people here looking for the shrike, but there was still no further sign of it. Perhaps it had gone in to roost early when the rain came? The forecast for the morning looked good, so we decided to have another go early tomorrow. Time to call it a day today.

8th Oct 2020 – Four Autumn Days, Day 1

Day 1 of a four day Autumn Tour in Norfolk. It was mostly a rather grey, damp and breezy day, but the showers were well spaced and no more than very light drizzle and we managed to avoid the worst of them. And it didn’t stop us kicking the four days off in style with some good birds.

It was raining first thing, but it was expected to clear from the west. We decided to head over to Snettisham. It was not a big tide today, but perhaps it would be enough to push some waders in. As we made our way west, we saw several skeins of Pink-footed Geese flying inland from the grazing marshes where they had spent the night to feed. Flocks of Rooks and Jackdaws came up from the fields as we passed.

As we made our way out at Snettisham, we stopped for a quick scan of the sailing club pit. Two Little Grebes and two Great Crested Grebes were out on the water.

When we got up onto the seawall, the tide was still coming in. We could see a large roost of Oystercatchers gathered on the mud up by the sailing club. Several small groups of Golden Plover flew past us, out to the mud in the middle.

Knot – a Peregrine was stirring up the huge flocks

While we stood and scanned the Wash, the huge flocks of thousands of Knot came up from the mud further out and started swirling round over the water, twisting and turning, making different shapes. There had to be something spooking them and there was a young Peregrine chasing after them.

We watched as the Peregrine flew round through the flocks and it quickly managed to get one Knot separate from the rest. It chased after it, up and down, back and forth, for some time. The Peregrine looked like a juvenile, inexperienced, and did not seem to know how to catch its quarry at first. Eventually the Knot started to tire, flew down closer to the water and stopped changing direction so quickly. The Peregrine took its chance and grabbed it, then started to fly in towards the shore with the Knot in its talons.

The Peregrine had just got to the shore when we noticed a second one appeared, flying very low over the mud. It headed straight for the first and when it got close it swooped up. A Peregrine dogfight ensued, the new bird chased after the first for a minute, diving at it repeatedly.

Finally the first Peregrine dropped the dead Knot, which seemed to fall into the grass at the top of the beach, but strangely neither of them went down after it. Both seemed to lose interest and drifted off. One flew towards us along the shore, flushing all the Oystercatchers.

Oystercatchers – flushed by one of the Peregrines

We turned our attention back to the mud in front of us. The Golden Plover had flown off, presumably spooked by all the excitement, but the others slowly started to drift back in. Some of the Dunlin returned to the edge of the channel. We looked through but couldn’t find anything with them today, apart from one or two Sanderling. There were several Grey Plover scattered on the mud, and we got a Bar-tailed Godwit in the scopes.

The bulk of the Knot, the large flocks, settled back down again off in the distance, but a couple flew in and landed on the mud at the bottom of the bank just below us, giving us a closer view. A small group of Ringed Plovers were roosting among the rocks at the bottom of the bank.

There were quite a few Shelduck on the water, presumably lingering birds which had gathered here to moult. Groups of Teal and a few Mallard were scattered around on the mud. A small group of ducks in the shallows on the edge included several Pintail, much larger than the Teal they were with, the drakes still in their drab eclipse plumage.

Despite the weather, there were a few birds on the move today. Several small flocks of Starlings flew over the pits, heading south. A few Meadow Pipits flew past over the beach, one stopping briefly to feed around the rocks. A Rock Pipit flew past calling too.

It was high tide now and there didn’t seem to be much more movement of waders. The rain seemed to have cleared through, so we decided to move on. We headed round to Titchwell next today – given the weather, we had no problem parking today!

Through the new ‘Welcome Hub’, we headed straight out onto the main path. A quick scan through the trees out over the Thornham grazing marshes produced a couple of distant Common Buzzards on the bushes at the back.

Almost up to the junction with Meadow Trail, we heard a Yellow-browed Warbler call ahead of us. We hurried up after it, just as a tit flock came out of the sallows and across the path. We followed it up through the trees by the path, looking to see what was with. We found several Goldcrests and one or two Chiffchaff, but there was no further sign of the Yellow-browed Warbler, before the flock came back over the track and disappeared out into the bushes in the middle of the reedbed.

As we came out of the trees, a wisp of about a dozen Common Snipe flew overhead and out over the saltmarsh. We could see lines of Black-tailed Godwits flying up from the Freshmarsh and over the reedbed, heading inland to feed in the fields.

There was nothing on the Reedbed Pool today, but the channel just beyond did provide a Coot, a pair of Gadwall and a pair of Mute Swans. It started to drizzle now, so we hurried on to Island Hide and donned our face masks to find some welcome shelter.

There was still a sizeable flock of godwits out in the middle of the Freshmarsh, and through the scopes we could see they were a mixture of Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwits. Even though they were asleep, we could see the Bar-tailed Godwits were smaller, shorter, with paler upperparts contrastingly streaked with dark.

Four Avocets were sheltering behind the small brick island, the hardiest individuals who will try to stay here for the winter rather than heading off south like most of the others have already done. A large group of Ruff were in the shallow water over towards the reeds. Several Golden Plover were on the grassy island in front of Parrinder Hide, along with a single Dunlin.

Avocets – just four on the Freshmarsh today

There were lots of Teal, the drakes still mostly in drab eclipse plumage though one or two are starting to smarten up again new. One of the drake Shoveler was also more advanced in its moult back to breeding plumage, but the drake Gadwall and Mallard are already mostly moulted back out again. We couldn’t see any Wigeon on here today.

It had stopped raining now, so we headed back out to the main path and continued on towards the beach. The tide was in and the Volunteer Marsh was still covered with water. There were several Curlew and Redshank on the wet mud in the middle and we found a few Wigeon swimming on the channel at the far side.

Over the bank, we stopped to scan the Tidal Pool. It was rather grey and gloomy, but we managed to find two Spotted Redshanks today, asleep at the back, noticeably paler white below than the Common Redshanks. There were several Black-tailed Godwits and one or two Dunlin too. With more Grey Plover, Bar-tailed Godwits and Turnstones roosting on the spit.

Spotted Redshanks – two were asleep on the back of the Tidal Pool

Out on the beach, the Wheatear was still feeding along the tideline. It worked its way off away to the east as we arrived, but a couple of minutes later then reappeared right in front of us. A great view – still very tame and obliging, it fed completely unconcerned at all the people here. A couple of Skylarks flew in and landed on the tideline further down too.

Wheatear – the very tame bird, still feeding on the high tide line

The tide was just starting to go out here, and there were not many waders on the shore. Looking out to sea, we could see a few Great Crested Grebe on the water. Several Gannets were flying past, white adults and dark juveniles, mostly distant but a couple came through a little closer. We ould see small groups of Common Scoter flying around right out on the horizon, in front of the wind turbines.

As we passed the Thornham grazing marsh reedbed, we heard Bearded Tits pinging. We looked across to see two fly up, skimming over the tops of the reeds before dropping straight back in. That would probably be the best we could hope for today, in the wind.

Back to the Visitor Centre, we turned out along Fen Trail. Along the boardwalk out towards Fen Hide, we stopped to watch a Goldcrest in the sallows. It was busy feeding right by the path, within a few feet of us and totally unconcerned by our presence, too close to focus optics on!

We had a quick look at the pool at Patsy’s Reedbed. There were just a few commoner ducks on here today, plus a few Coot and a Little Grebe, nothing else of any note. As we turned to walk back, several thousand Pink-footed Geese came up from the fields inland, before dropping back down again.

We made our way back round via Meadow Trail, but there was no sign of the tit flock or any warblers now. So we carried on back to the Visitor Centre for a hot drink and a break for lunch. A Brambling called from somewhere back in the trees while we ate.

After lunch, we headed back east. We drove into the drizzle again, and it was very misty looking out over the marshes as we passed Holkham. We turned inland at Wells and then down a minor road through the fields towards Wighton. Despite the weather, there were still a few cars already parked here.

We joined the small group of people on the edge of the field watching the Hoopoe down on the track just beyond the hedge. It was very close today, and we had great views as it fed, periodically pulling a tasty morsel out of the wet ground and throwing its head back to swallow it.

Hoopoe – still lingering in fields at Wighton

Widely distributed across the warmer parts of the continent in the summer, Hoopoes are migrants which mostly spend the winter in Africa, so this bird looked particularly out of place in a cold and damp October day in North Norfolk! They turn up fairly regularly in the UK, mostly as overshooting migrants in spring. There has been some debate about how long this Hoopoe has been here – there were a few records along the coast in spring and one was reported from Wighton back at the start of August.

We carried on east inland, along some narrow country lanes – the only sighting of note being a speeding white van coming the other way, which smashed into the wing mirror of the bus as it raced past. Very annoying! It didn’t stop, so we continued on our way.

We cut back down to the coast road at Salthouse and parked by the duckpond. It had stopped raining now, so we got out and looked across to a small pool in the middle of the grazing marshes. There had been a Red-necked Phalarope here for several days but there was no sign of it now at first. It can be hard to see if it gets tucked in around the edges, so we stood and watched. A Stock Dove flew over.

Four Shoveler swam back out into the middle and started to feed, heads down. The Red-necked Phalarope has often been feeding in amongst them, but it didn’t reappear straight away. We decided to walk out along the footpath across the marshes to try a different angle, but we hadn’t got far along the side of the main road when we looked back and saw a small white bird swimming along in front of the reeds, tucked in the corner.

We stopped and set up the scopes and there was the Red-necked Phalarope. It swam round in circles in front of the reeds, picking at the surface of the water for small invertebrates it stirred up. It gradually worked its way along the back edge of the pool and then swam out to join the Shoveler in the middles. The ducks are obviously doing a good job of stirring up the water themselves, and the Red-necked Phalarope is taking advantage to help it find food.

Red-necked Phalarope – feeding with the ducks at Salthouse

A juvenile, the Red-necked Phalarope has possibly come from Scandinavia. They normally spend the winter out at sea, the birds from there flying all the way down to the Arabian Sea, so it has a long journey ahead of it.

There was nothing of note with the gulls on the duckpond, nor with those loafing on the fields off Beach Road. A large group of Canada Geese were on the grass towards Gramborough Hill. So we headed back west and stopped again just before Wells.

As we got out of the minibus, a couple of Brown Hares were in the far corner of the field in front of the parking area. A Marsh Harrier flew over the field west of the track. We turned our attention to the pool the other side, where a large white bird by the bank at the back was a Great White Egret. Through the scopes, we could see its long, dagger-like yellow bill.

Great White Egret – at the back of one of the pools at Wells

There were lots of gulls flying back and forth over the recently harvested potato field beyond. Most were Black-headed Gulls but two noticeably smaller gulls were in with them. We could see their more rounded pale upperwings and contrasting blackish underwings, two Little Gulls.

There were lots of ducks but not many waders on the pool today and we couldn’t see the Little Stint at first. After a while scanning it appeared from behind the Wigeon, Teal, Lapwings and Black-headed Gulls on one of the grassy islands. It was so small it was easily hidden. It was rather distant, but we had a good view of it through the scope, short-billed with rather clean white underparts, we could see its ‘braces’, the distinctive pale mantle stripes shown by juvenile Little Stints.

It started to drizzle again now, so as time was already getting on we decided to call it a day. We had enjoyed a good start today, and there would be more to see tomorrow.

6th Oct 2020 – A Relaxed Autumn Day

A Private Tour in North Norfolk today, a relaxed-paced tour with some gentle walking. It was mostly cloudy, with a few light showers which were thankfully all very brief, and the sun did even make a couple of appearances in the afternoon, although the breeze picked up too.

We started the day at Titchwell – you need to get here early these days to be sure of a place in the Covid-reduced car park, which is still filling up by mid-morning. We had no problem today, and there was still just one car in the overflow area, so we had a quick walk round to see if we could find anything in the bushes. It was rather quiet here today, although a small group of Greenfinches came out of the bushes.

A large flock of Pink-footed Geese came up from the fields inland of the village – we could hear their yelping calls, although they never gained enough height to enable us to get a clear view above the hedge. A small gaggle of Greylags came in from the same direction, flying overhead and heading for the reserve. Their honking was much deeper, but a couple of higher pitched yelps in their midst alerted us to a single Pink-footed Goose which had obviously hooked onto the wrong flock and was coming in with them.

There were some tits in the sallows along the path to the Visitor Centre. A Goldcrest disappeared in deeper before anyone could get onto it, and all we could see were Blue Tits. We could hear Siskins calling overhead, but couldn’t see them through the trees. Once we had negotiated the new ‘Welcome Hub’ (although the ‘welcome’ could perhaps have been a little warmer after we were asked for the third time if we were members!), we were finally able to get onto the reserve.

We stopped to scan the grazing marsh, looking over towards Thornham, a couple of times. Once we were out of the trees, we spotted a pair of Stonechats sitting on the leeward side of one of the bramble clumps preening. A third Stonechat appeared, hovering over the reeds nearby. A small group of Linnets flew over and a party of Meadow Pipits dropped down into the long grass in the meadow back towards the road.

We heard more Siskins calling and turned to see one fly out of the alders by the path back behind us. It circled out over the trees beyond the Visitor Centre and picked up another two Siskins, with all three of them then settling back down in the alder from where the first had appeared. We could see a smart green and yellow male in the top of the tree. A small group of Chaffinches flew over the trees too, and continued on west out over the grazing marsh, presumably migrants just arrived from the Continent for the winter.

The Thornham grazing marsh ‘pool’ is mostly dry and very overgrown now. A single Little Egret was feeding in the channel on the far side. We could hear Bearded Tits calling but it was rather windy today, and the most we got were a couple of glimpses of birds as they flew up briefly.

We were just about to walk away when a Bearded Tit called again, and we looked over the top of the bank to see a male on the top of a reed stem just below. Unfortunately the long grass on the top of the bank meant it was impossible to see unless you were tall enough and it flew down again almost immediately, before everyone could see it.

Bearded Tit – unfortunately only perched up briefly

Another small group of Pink-footed Geese came in over the reedbed behind us, calling, and we watched as they headed on west towards Thornham. There would be quite a bit of wildfowl on the move today – migration in action.

As we walked away, we heard lots of Bearded Tits calling behind us now, and turned round to see a flock of eight fly over the reeds and drop down below the bank. We decided not to have another go at seeing one in the tops, and carried on out along the path.

We stopped by the Reedbed Pool and looked out over the reedbed. There were several House Martins over the back of the reeds and in with them we found a single Common Swift. Most of the latter have already long since left us to head to Africa for the winter, but one or two often linger later. We watched as they made their way west, pausing briefly to hawk for insects over the trees by the Visitor Centre.

Red Kite – flew west over the reedbed and on towards Thornham

A Red Kite was hanging in the air too, in the distance over Willow Wood, and made its way slowly west over the back of the reedbed and then across the main path and out towards Thornham. Hard to tell if it was on the move today too, but a little later we picked up a second Red Kite way off to the east, being mobbed by two Jackdaws out over Brancaster Marsh.

As we walked up towards Island Hide, a moth flew up out of the grass below the bank and landed again up by the path to the hide. When we got there, someone was already photographing it. We stopped to look – it was a Mallow moth, a not uncommon species to find at this time of year. A Common Frog on the path this morning added to the general wildlife list.

Mallow moth – landed in the grass by the path to Island Hide

As it was nice and bright, we stopped on the main path to look out across the Freshmarsh. There was a large group of godwits out in the middle, and through the scope we could see they were a mixture of Black-tailed Godwits and a smaller number of Bar-tailed Godwits. The latter were clearly smaller, and despite the fact that they were asleep we could see their dark-streaked paler upperparts.

Most of the Avocets have gone south for the winter now, but we counted eleven still out on one of the small islands today. There were a couple of Ruff and a single Dunlin on the mud on the edge of the next island over, in with the gulls, and a small group of Golden Plover higher up on the grass. We got the plovers in the scope and admired their gold-spangled upperparts.

There were quite a few ducks on the Freshmarsh again, though perhaps not as many Wigeon as recently. The drake Teal are still mostly in drab eclipse plumage, though we got the scope on one which had started to moult out and showing patches of grey-looking finely vermiculated flank feathers. One of the drake Shovelers was already more advanced, with just some dark scalloped feathers left in its white breast and flanks. In contrast, the resident drake Mallard and Gadwall are already mostly back in their smart breeding plumage. A couple of Brent Geese dropped in briefly, before heading back out towards the beach.

Another group of Bearded Tits were in the reeds just below the bank here too, but were similarly elusive in the breezy conditions. We had more glimpses of them as they flew up from time to time, but dropped straight back in out of view.

The tide was just going out and the channel on the Volunteer Marsh was still largely full of water, but we stopped to admire a Common Redshank feeding on the recently exposed mud, its orange legs shining in the sunlight, which had poked out from behind the clouds. There were a few Common Redshanks further back and several Curlews, but nothing else on here today.

Common Redshank – its day-glo legs catching the sun

There was just one wader in the corner of the Tidal Pool, right at the back just over the bank. It immediately looked promising – white below and rather pale silvery grey above. Through the scope, we could see it was indeed a Spotted Redshank in non-breeding plumage. We could see its long, needle-fine bill, noticeably longer than the Common Redshank we had just been watching, and the well-marked white supercilium over the bill.

Spotted Redshank – the only bird in the corner of the Tidal Pool

There were a few more waders on the spit a little further up, a tight group of grey Knot, and several Grey Plovers tucked in the samphire higher up along with a single Oystercatcher. One of the Grey Plovers took off and flew past us, flashing its black armpits. About twenty Turnstones were roosting on one of the small muddy islands further up towards the dunes.

Looking out over the saltmarsh behind, we could see a young Marsh Harrier circling, dark chocolate brown with a contrasting pale head which caught the light as it turned. There were a couple of Kestrels too. A little Wren appeared on the concrete bunker just before the dunes.

Wheatear – this very tame bird was feeding on the high tide line

As we got out onto the beach, a Wheatear was feeding on the debris on the high tide line, running about after insects. It was very tame, and came across to within just a few metres of us, standing pumping its tail totally unconcerned by everyone standing there. When it flew a little bit further along, we could see the distinctive white base to its tail.

Our target bird here was Sanderling, but there were not many waders along the shore here at the moment, possibly with too much disturbance from walkers and dog walkers. We could see more birds on the beach up towards Thornham Point – a long line of Cormorants standing with their wings out to dry, lots of gulls, and a scattering of waders in with them. We found a single silvery grey Sanderling, but it was very distant. A large flock of Oystercatchers was still roosting on the sand towards Brancaster. We decided to stop here a while, to see if more waders would come back in as the tide dropped further.

Looking out to sea, there were several Great Crested Grebes on the water. But the highlight here today was the number of birds coming in over the sea. We picked up a large flock of Pink-footed Geese, way out to sea at first. They gradually made their way in towards and past us, until we watched them flying in over Scolt Head island away to the east. Several groups of Wigeon flew in, possibly fresh in from their Russian breeding grounds for the winter. Then we spotted four Skylarks coming in over the sea and watched as they came in, up the beach and over the dunes past us.

As the tide receded, more waders started to fly back in to the shore. First a small group of Knot appeared with several Bar-tailed Godwits just to the left of us. Then more birds arrived down on the edge of the water right in front of us, several Grey Plover and finally a much closer view of several Sanderling, running up and down the shoreline like clockwork toys.

Sanderling – several were on the beach, this one taken the other day

As we started to make our way back, we stopped to admire a couple of Turnstones on the shore of the Tidal Pool just by the concrete bunker now. All the waders were getting restless, seemingly knowing it was time now to head back out to the beach to feed. First the Turnstones flew out over the dunes, followed closely by the Knot which had still been roosting on the spit.

At the far side of the Tidal Pool, we stopped to watch a close Little Egret feeding just below the bank. We could see its yellow feet when it lifted them high of the water, and we watched it shaking one in the mud to try to disturb something to eat. It seemed to find several things around the edge, chasing repeatedly after them.

Little Egret – fishing on the Tidal Pool

A Bloody-nosed Beetle was crossing the path and as we picked it up to move it to safety we had a closer look. It didn’t perform though today, and wouldn’t exude the red liquid from its mouthparts from which its gets its name.

There was a brief shower as we walked back, but it was only light and had thankfully stopped by the time we got back to the Visitor Centre. It remained dry while we had lunch in the picnic area before another quick shower just after we had packed up.

Our destination for the rest of the afternoon was Holkham, and we had no problem parking on Lady Anne’s Drive today. There were a few geese and a family of Mute Swans out on the grazing marsh to the east. The geese were mostly Greylags but a small group of Pink-footed Geese had dropped in for a wash and brush up – we could see them bathing on a small pool. When they came out onto the grass to preen, we got them in the scope for a closer look.

There were lots more Pink-footed Geese on the marshes to the west, mostly hidden beyond the first hedge line. There was a lot of military jet aircraft today – a Eurofighter Typhoon was pulling sharp turns overhead, making a lot of noise and repeatedly flushing the birds. Large flocks of Pink-footed Geese flew around calling noisily and we watched a Great White Egret flying away over the reeds in the distance.

As we set off west along the track on the inland side of the pines, it was quiet at first. We stopped to watch a Jay which kept flying back into an oak tree overhanging the track, harvesting acorns.

We were most of the way to Salts Hole when we came across a tit flock, but they were mostly in the pines and wouldn’t come out into the open. We had a nice view of a couple of Long-tailed Tits but just had glimpses of Goldcrests and heard a Treecreeper calling in the pines. They were moving fast too, and disappeared back the way we had just come, so we decided to try again on our way back.

Long-tailed Tit – we found our first flock on the walk to Salts Hole

There were several Little Grebes on Salts Hole, along with lots of Mallard. One of the grebes laughed maniacally at us as we stood and scanned the edges of the pool. A Treecreeper flew across and disappeared into the holm oaks the other side. A little further on, a Great Spotted Woodpecker was calling from the dead branches at the top of an old pine.

Just before Washington Hide, a small bird was bathing in a puddle in the track ahead of us. We stopped and could see it was a Redstart, but unfortunately just at that moment a particularly noisy group of walkers with trekking poles walked up behind us, talking, and the Redstart flew up into the trees and then disappeared further back out of view.

From the gate overlooking the grazing marsh, we stopped to see if there was anything with the cows – just a Grey Heron feeding in amongst them today. It started to spit with rain again, so we decided to head for Washington Hide, only to find it has been nailed shut! Once again, thankfully the rain stopped quickly and we stood and scanned the grazing marshes from the boardwalk.

A Great White Egret flew up from the pool and dropped down again behind the reeds out of view. A little later, when we saw one flying further back, we assumed at first that it was the same bird, and this time we could see it in the open when it landed on the edge of a small pool in the distance. But then the first Great White Egret flew up again and landed in a ditch just beyond the reeds, where we could get a good view of its snake like neck and long yellow dagger-like bill as it stood looking for food in the water below.

A Redwing dropped out of the pines and disappeared into one of the hawthorns on the edge of the reeds. A Greenshank called but we couldn’t see it behind the trees. A Common Buzzard flew across the gap behind us, over towards the beach. There were lots of small groups of Pink-footed Geese flying past, calling. As the shower clouds cleared north the sun came out again and the view across the marshes looked amazing, striking colours and the light reflecting off the wet reeds and the wings of the Pink-footed Geese.

Pink-footed Geese – catching the afternoon sunshine

We continued on slowly west, but the trees were rather quiet with the increasing breeze now catching them. We wouldn’t be able to go too far today, but we got past Meals House and almost to the crosstracks, before we decided to turn back. We could hear more tits in the pines and holm oaks, but despite it being more sheltered here they wouldn’t come out into the more open deciduous trees by the track today.

We found another tit flock in the holm oaks just before Salts Hole. A Treecreeper appeared briefly a couple of times on the trunks of a couple of trees but typically disappeared round the back. A Goldcrest appeared in a holm oak above the path briefly. But apart from a couple of Long-tailed Tits the birds were hard to see in the dense foliage and quickly disappeared deeper in.

Almost back to Lady Anne’s Drive, we found another tit flock, probably the one we had seen along here earlier. Suddenly we were surrounded by birds, and didn’t know which way to look. There were lots of Goldcrests feeding in an oak tree right above us, one or two Chiffchaffs and a selection of tits. When they started to move again, we realised there were lots more birds deeper in the pines.

The flock started to cross the path, but they were moving fast now. A small warbler flicked across and landed in an oak briefly – a Yellow-browed Warbler. Unfortunately it didn’t stop. We managed to follow the flock for a bit, and found the Yellow-browed Warbler again, but it was immediately chased by a second one and disappeared. A little further along, we heard it call and saw it fly across, but this time everything disappeared further back into the trees.

Everyone was tired after the walk, so after a quick sit down, we continued back to Lady Anne’s Drive. It was time to call it a day now and we headed for home and a chance to put our feet up properly and remember a very enjoyable day out.

23rd Sept 2020 – Private Tour & Wader Spectacular, Day 2

Day 2 of a two day Private Tour in North Norfolk. It was a very different day to yesterday. Heavy rain overnight thankfully cleared through early, but it was much cooler, grey and cloudy, with some showers through the morning. After the Wader Spectacular yesterday, we would spend the day today looking for Autumn migrants and other interesting birds along the coast.

After our failure to even get in the (still partly closed) car park yesterday, we headed over to Titchwell first. There was no problem with parking today – it helped being early, but the weather had an effect too, with many fewer beachgoers clogging it up all day. It was nice that people could actually get in and do some birdwatching today!

The rain had stopped by the time we arrived, so we had a quick look round the overflow car park before it got busy. There was very little at first, until we got right round to the far corner, where we found several Blackcaps feeding in the elders, along with Blackbirds and a Song Thrush.

We headed straight out onto the reserve. We had just got onto the main path, beyond the Visitor Centre, and turned to scan the grazing meadow through the gap in the trees. A very distant Common Buzzard was perched on top of a bush over towards Thornham, but a white dot on the brambles below caught our eye. We were not even sure it was a bird at that range, but we set up the scope to look just in case. A shrike!

Red-backed Shrike – very distant, right over the back of Thornham GM

The shrike looked rather pale-headed at first, perched face on to us, but after a while it dropped down to the ground and came back up to the same bush with its back to us. We could see a bit more of it now and it looked good for a young (1st winter) Red-backed Shrike. Another good find, our second in four days. We let everyone at the Visitor Centre know, and a few of the staff came out for a look.

As we continued on along path, we came across a flock of Long-tailed Tits in the tall willows. We stopped to look through them, just in case, but all we could find today were a couple of Chiffchaffs with them. As we came out of the trees, a Greenshank came up off the dried up pool on Thornham grazing marsh and flew past us, disappeared round the back of the trees behind us.

A quick look out at Reedbed Pool produced a few Common Pochard out on the water, an addition to the trip wildfowl list. A young Hobby was hunting distantly over the back of the reedbed and up over Willow Wood beyond.

It was a still morning and we had just said it might be good for Bearded Tits when we heard their pinging calls ahead of us. A flock of about eight of them flew up and landed again in the reeds quite close to the main path. We walked up and stood opposite where they had landed. After a few seconds they started to climbed up into the tops of the reeds to feed on the seedheads. We had fantastic views, several males with powder grey heads and black moustaches accompanied by a few grey-brown females.

Bearded Tit – great views in the reeds by the main path

A Great White Egret flew out of the reedbed and landed briefly on the Freshmarsh while we were watching the Bearded Tits. Then it flew again and came straight towards us, before turning and flying across the path just in front of us. It was another great view – we could see its long, dagger-like yellow bill, long trailing black legs, and deep slow wingbeats. We watched as it headed out over the saltmarsh the other side.

Great White Egret – flew over the bank & out across the saltmarsh

There were more Bearded Tits in the reeds up by Island Hide – it was certainly a great morning for them. We had a quick look at the Freshmarsh, where we could see a couple of Spoonbills out in the middle, and a large gathering of godwits, including a good number of Bar-tailed Godwits come in to roost over high tide.

Our key target for the morning was to see if we could find any Lapland Buntings out on the beach. More people were arriving on the reserve now, and we were worried that they might get flushed again, so we decided to head straight out to Thornham Point, before it got too busy. We could come back to look at the Freshmarsh at our leisure later.

It was high tide, and the Volunteer Marsh was pretty much completely covered in water. A small group of Common Redshank had gathered on one of the sandy islands at the back of the Tidal Pool. One bird was standing separate from them, in the water, and instantly looked paler. A Spotted Redshank, we could see its long, needle-fine bill and prominent white supercilium.

Spotted Redshank – on the back of the Tidal Pool

A line of birds roosting on the spit a little further up included several Grey Plovers, a couple of them still with their summer black bellies, plus a few Knot, Turnstones, Bar-tailed Godwits and Oystercatchers. They had all come in here from the beach to roost over high tide.

Out onto the beach, we turned left and headed out towards Thornham Point. A Snow Bunting flew in with a small group of Sanderling and landed on the edge of the water ahead of us. It ran up the sand and we watched it picking around on the high tide line. We walked past slowly, so as not to spook it, but we needn’t have worried. It was very tame, as they often are, and allowed us past just a few metres away, unconcerned by our presence.

Snow Bunting – feeding on the high tide line along the beach

There were several small groups of waders on the shore all the way up. Groups of silvery-grey Sanderling running in and out of the waves like clockwork toys. We stood still and one ran straight past us. One or two Ringed Plovers were mixed in with them and several Turnstones were feeding higher up on the high tide line.

Sanderling – the clockwork toys of the beach

A couple of people coming back along the beach told us that a Lapland Bunting was still out on the beach Thornham Point, so we quickened our step. We wanted to get out there before it got disturbed. One person had already overtaken us, and more were coming out onto the beach behind. We bumped into the Snow Bunting again out at the Point – the same one we saw earlier, it must have flown past us with the Sanderlings.

As we walked round the Point, we thought we would find the person who had gone ahead of us watching the Lapland Bunting, but they had disappeared. We would only find out a couple of days later that they had flushed the Lapland Bunting and made a quick getaway before we arrived!

We walked slowly past the piles of debris on the high tide line, unaware that the bird had flown off, when suddenly something flicked up from behind a large pile of dead vegetation just in front of us. Thankfully it landed again a few feet ahead – the Lapland Bunting! It had obviously flown back after the other person had left.

We stood still and got the Lapland Bunting in the scope. It was almost too close, fill the frame views at minimum magnification! Like the Snow Bunting earlier, but even more so, it was totally unconcerned by our presence, busy feeding. It worked its way down to the end of the piles of debris and then came back right past us within only a couple of metres. We had it all to ourselves – we could see the hint of a rusty chestnut collar and its black bib. Stunning!

Lapland Bunting – stunning close views feeding out on the Point

We had seen dark clouds away to the west earlier, and now it started to rain. We were rather exposed out on the beach, so we went to seek shelter round the other side of the Point. We thought we might get round to the tower, but the saltmarsh had flooded over the high tide and was impassable without boots. Thankfully the rain quickly stopped. A Great White Egret was out on the flooded saltmarsh in the middle of Thornham Harbour.

Back out on the beach, the Lapland Bunting was still feeding along the high tide line as we passed by. A couple of Sandwich Terns were fishing offshore. We had seen them flying up and down as we walked out and they were now diving into the water. Several Gannets were plunge diving off the Point too, including a couple of dark juveniles and white adults with black-tipped wings. As we started to walk back, we kept one eye on the sea and picked up an Arctic Skua flying past low over the water offshore. A nice bonus.

We had more great views of Sanderlings again on the walk back. When we got back to the main path, we stopped again for another quick look at the sea. Several Great Crested Grebes were out on the water and a single Red-throated Diver flew in and landed further out. We could see more shower clouds approaching, so we waited on the beach in the lee of the dunes. The worst of the rain passed to the east of us, and just the edge of the rain caught us and was thankfully over very quickly.

As we set off back along the main path, the waders were still roosting on the Tidal Pool. The Spotted Redshank was now in with the Common Redshanks, preening, giving us a good side by side comparison. Two Great White Egrets were now flying round together out over the saltmarsh.

Back at the Freshmarsh, the Bar-tailed Godwits were starting to fly out to the beach in groups, calling, ready to feed on the falling tide. A canteen of Spoonbills was roosting out in the middle now – we counted fourteen. They mostly asleep, as Spoonbills often do, but one was awake and feeding and a couple were preening. While we were standing here, one Spoonbill took off and flew right over our heads, heading out to the saltmarsh to feed.

Spoonbill – one flew out over our heads

There were Bearded Tits calling from the reeds below the bank now, and a female climbed up into the top to feed on a seedhead. A Reed Warbler was flitting around in the reeds too. A careful scan round the reeds on the far side revealed a Water Rail feeding quietly on the edge of the mud.

We had a more careful look through the waders now. There were about ten Avocets still, and a few Ruff. Another Spotted Redshank called and we watched it fly across the bank close to us before heading out over the saltmarsh – a different bird to the one we had seen earlier, this time a dusky grey juvenile.

There was a group of smaller waders on the mud over by the reeds. A look through them reveled two slightly larger and longer-billed juvenile Curlew Sandpipers in with several streaky-bellied Dunlin. We had a good view of them through the scope. They were gradually working their way over close to Island Hide, so we thought we would go in for a closer view. But just at that moment a Kestrel flew in from the saltmarsh, dipped down low between Island Hide and the reeds and spooked them. They landed again but back further out.

Curlew Sandpipers – two juveniles with one of the Dunlin

Looking across the reedbed, we could see two Hobbys now, hawking back and forth over the trees around Fen Hide. We walked back to the Visitors Centre, and decided to have a quick look at Patsy’s Reedbed and along the Autumn Trail before lunch, so turned out along Fen Trail.

A Coot was the highlight on Patsy’s, along with a couple more Common Pochard. Round on East Trail, we came across a flock of Long-tailed Tits on the edge of Willow Wood but again couldn’t find anything with them.

Continuing on down to the far end of Autumn Trail, we stopped to scan the back of the Freshmarsh. There didn’t appear to be much different here at first, but scanning across we noticed a 1st winter Mediterranean Gull in the middle of a long line of gulls on the water. Three nice juvenile Ruff were feeding on the edge of the reeds in front and there were more Bearded Tits here, calling and flying across over the reeds.

It was time to head back – we would already be having a late lunch now. One of the Hobbys was now hawking over the front of Willow Wood, but disappeared round the back and appeared to land out of view. We could see more dark clouds approaching and hoped we might get back before they arrived, but we had only made it as far as Fen Hide when it started to rain. We ducked in, and were very glad of the shelter and our timing because the heavens opened and there was a torrential downpour for about twenty minutes.

By the time it stopped and we could make our way back to the bus now it was definitely a late lunch! Afterwards we drove back east along the coast road to Wells and parked in the beach car park. As we walked in towards the Woods, at least ten Little Grebes were out on the boating lake.

In through birches and round under the trees on the north side of the Dell, it all seemed very quiet, and we couldn’t find any sign of a tit flock. Round at the Dell meadow, we met someone just leaving who told us that the Red-breasted Flycatcher was still around, but he hadn’t seen it. We cut in through trees where we had seen it the other day.

There were a few more people in here, under the trees, waiting for it to reappear and as we walked round the Red-breasted Flycatcher flicked across in front of us, up in the trees. We had a quick view of it from beneath, before it moved back further through the trees along the path. We knew it would be following its usual circuit, but someone there objected to us following it down the path, insisting we should wait for it to come back here. No problem. We walked out and round the long way to the other side.

There were a couple of more friendly locals here and we joined them on the bank. After a minute, the Red-breasted Flycatcher reappeared low down in the back of the trees, where we had watched it the other day. It was hard to see until it moved, but we could follow it as it flicked across to the next tree and everyone got onto it.

Red-breasted Flycatcher – still doing its usual circuit round under the trees

When it got to the trees above a small pool, the Red-breasted Flycatcher froze and stayed still. It was not feeding as actively and we soon realised why when it dropped down to the water to bathe. Afterwards it flew up into a nearby tangle to preen and dry itself. Great to watch.

It flicked up again and we lost sight of it in the back of the trees. Then we picked it up again, seemingly going back on its circuit, so we walked back round the long way to where we had first seen it today. The person who had told us we should wait here had given up and gone. We stood in the trees and the Red-breasted Flycatcher flew in and landed right in front of us, just a couple of metres away. Great views! We stood quietly and watched it, perching still in the trees before making little sallies after insects.

The Red-backed Shrike here was reported as still present too, but had moved a couple of fields from where we had found it the other day. As we walked down the track past the caravan site, a flock of Pink-footed Geese flew up off the grazing marshes and disappeared off inland.

When we got to the bales by the cattle field, we found a couple of people watching the Red-backed Shrike on the fence. We got it in the scope and had a good look at it, much better views than the one at Titchwell this morning. A two Red-backed Shrike day!

Red-backed Shrike – our second of the day, still at Wells

We could see some Pink-footed Geese down in the grass in the next field over. Several flocks flew up calling, their distinctive yelping calls the sound of the winter here, and we watched as they headed off inland. There were still some down in the grass, so we got them in the scope, admiring their dark head and delicate dark bills with a variable pink band around.

Pink-footed Geese – flying up from out on the grazing marsh

Unfortunately it was now time to head for home. It had been a great couple of days, with some really good birds, and not to forget the wonderful Wader Spectacular yesterday. Lots to live long in the memory.