9th Jan 2022 – New Year, Time for Owls

Happy New Year! The first tour of 2022 today, an Owl Tour in North Norfolk. The weather was kind to us, after frost overnight it was clear, bright and sunny for most of the day, just clouding over in the afternoon, with a few spits of rain just as we were packing up.

It was an early start to try to catch a Barn Owl still out hunting, before going in to roost for the day. We drove straight over and round via some meadows where there have been one or two Barn Owls in recent days, but on our first circuit we drew a blank. Undeterred, we carried on searching and found one down in the grass in one of the fields.

Barn Owl – our first of the day, still out hunting

We stopped and got out of the minibus and could see the Barn Owl’s head sticking out above the vegetation, looking round. It took off and flew past us, but we lost sight of it behind a thick hedge. We walked up and found it again from the next gateway, hunting over another wet meadow, but it flew back and through the next hedge out of view again.

Further along again and this time we had a great view. We could see the Barn Owl clearly now, doing circuits round over the long frosty grass. It kept dropping down but always looked rather half-hearted and quickly came back up with empty talons. When it suddenly banked and dropped down into the grass again, this time it stayed on the ground for several minutes. It was behind a thick clump of rushes, but we could just see its head come up from time to time, looking round nervously. When it finally came up again, we could see it had a vole in its talons.

The Barn Owl flew across purposefully to a nearby hedge, still carrying the vole, and landed rather clumsily in the brambles at the base. With wings outspread it balanced rather unceremoniously, eventually managing to transfer the vole to its bill and turn around. We had a great view of it now through the scope.

Barn Owl – flew to the hedge with a vole

After a while, the Barn Owl flew up into the hedge and disappeared, presumably heading into roost with its meal. We moved on – we had a quick look in the fields on our drive back round, but it seemed like the morning Barn Owl session was over here.

We drove inland to look for Little Owls next, and this time we were immediately in luck. As we pulled up by some farm buildings, we could see two Little Owls sunning themselves on the roof of a barn. We parked out of sight of them and walked carefully round to where we could watch them from a distance. Now we had great views through the scope.

Little Owl – sunning itself on the roof of one of the barns

The Little Owls seemed unconcerned at first by all the activity around them, traffic passing on the road, a couple of horse riders riding past, a farm worker going in to the yard past them. But first one shot in and disappeared under the roof and eventually the second followed too. We took that as our cue to move on and walked back to the minibus. As we drove away, we could see one was already back out again – it was a perfect morning for them, with the low sunshine hitting the top of the roof.

We hadn’t gone very far when we spotted another Barn Owl still out hunting, flying round over a rough field beside the road, so we parked again and got out to watch it. It did a couple of circuits further back then flew straight towards us, coming past at close quarters, a fantastic sight in the sunshine.

Barn Owl – a late hunter in the sunshine

The Barn Owl flew away to our left and suddenly dropped sharply down into the grass in among some big clumps of brambles. Presumably it had caught something, because it stayed down for some time. Eventually we thought it had come up and flown back through the trees behind. We hopped back in the minibus and had a quick look, but there was no further sign of it so we moved on.

Our next target was Tawny Owl. For several years, we have been to look for one which regularly roosts in a tree hole. It had become more erratic in its appearances, but after seeing it successfully in recent days, we were hopeful as we walked up the edge of the field. When we got there though, the hole was bare. Very disappointing! We would have to try to see one at dusk instead. We walked back to the minibus.

It was now mid-morning and the chances for finding owls would be receding. We drove back down to the coast road and along to Cley. There had been a Waxwing for the last couple of day’s in the garden of some local birders and their neighbours had given permission for people to view from their front lawn so as not to disturb it. We parked at the end of Beach Road and walked over to where a couple of people were watching it, feeding on guelder rose berries.

Waxwing – feeding on guelder rose berries

Waxwings are always crowd pleasers, with their extravagant crests, black masks and bibs, and colourful details – yellow and white markings in the wings with waxy red tips and a bright yellow tip to the tail. They are irruptive winter visitors here from Scandinavia. It has been a poor winter for them here, probably due to an abundance of berries in their homelands this year, so it is extra nice to be able to catch up with one.

There was still an hour or so before lunch, so we drove round to the East Bank for a walk. There was a nice selection of ducks on the grazing marshes, Wigeon, Teal and Shoveler, so we got them in the scope for a closer look in the sunshine. Stunning in close up, with their intricate plumage details, as was the superficially plain looking Gadwall a little further up, on the Serpentine.

Wigeon – stunning in the sunshine this morning

A Kingfisher shot past over the grazing marsh and disappeared in by the reeds further up. We walked on to see if we could find it, but before we could get there it flew again, up over the reeds and dropped towards the main drain. When we got to the sluice, we scanned both side but there was no sign of it. We could see a few Little Grebes on the water.

There were more ducks on the brackish pools, including a smart drake Pintail, busy upending and showing off its pin-shaped central tail feathers. There were a few waders about too – Redshanks and Curlew, and a single Ringed Plover on the shingle island on Arnold’s Marsh. We couldn’t come all this way and not have a quick look at the sea – although there were just a few gulls and Cormorants out here today.

On our walk back, we stopped to admire a Lapwing on the grazing marsh in the sunshine. When everything flushed, we looked up to see a Marsh Harrier drifting in high overhead. We had a quick look at the feeders at Walsey Hills. There were just a few Blue Tits initially, but a few Goldfinches and Greenfinches drifted back in. A Coal Tit put in a very brief appearance too.

Then we headed round to the Visitor Centre for lunch and a welcome hot drink. It was great to sit and look out across the marshes in the sunshine today – it didn’t feel like early January! There were a few birds to see too – a few Avocets out on Pat’s Pool, a couple of Marsh Harriers now over the reedbed. A flock of Brent Geese came up off the marshes and headed inland to feed, coming right over our heads chattering away.

Brent Geese – flew inland overhead

There seems to be a distinct lack of Short-eared Owls in North Norfolk this winter. There had been one regularly here up until mid-December but no reports since, so with the weather perfect this afternoon, we decided to check out where it had been seen most often just in case. A quick drive east to Salthouse Beach Road and back and then down to the beach at Cley failed to produce anything. So we headed round to Blakeney Freshes to try there.

It was a lovely walk out along the bank. We could hear Bearded Tits pinging in the reeds and stopped to look at a Little Egret and a Curlew feeding in the marshes along the Glaven Channel. There were a couple of Common Buzzards, a male Marsh Harrier and a Kestrel out on the trees and fence posts. A Fieldfare dropped in to the top of one of the bushes.

Pink-footed Geese – flying inland to feed

We could hear the yelping calls of Pink-footed Geese, and a little further up we found them loafing down in the long grass. We had a look through the scope, though we couldn’t see their pink legs and feet. As we walked on up to the corner, they all took off, several hundred birds flying up calling into the low sunlight. We watch them fly inland to feed, dropping down again into the fields behind Cley village, one of the sights and sounds of a Norfolk winter.

There were some lovely Teal gathered on the far bank of the Glaven channel which looked stunning in the late sunshine, as did a Lapwing on the mud nearby. We stopped to admire them through the scope. Three small Dunlin dropped in too, before the Lapwing took off and took them with it.

Lapwing – looking stunning in the sunshine

Despite the perfect conditions, there were no owls out hunting this afternoon though, not even a Barn Owl today. Most owls will try to avoid hunting in the daytime, unless they have to – if they are hungry or have young to feed. There seems to be a distinct shortage of Barn Owls at the moment, but it is unclear whether they are just hunting at night – the weather has been relatively clement through the winter so far, with few frosts, so food may well still be relatively plentiful. However, after the snow in February 2021 followed by a very wet spring it was certainly a very poor breeding season for them last year. Hopefully the poor showing at the moment is not a sign that the population has taken a significant hit.

We had a drive round where we had seen the Barn Owl earlier this morning, but there were none out there either. Then we headed inland to try our luck for Tawny Owls. As we got out of the minibus, we could already hear one hooting and soon their was quite a lot of noise coming from further up the path – two males hooting and a female too.

As we walked up, one of the group saw a Tawny Owl move deep in the wood but unfortunately it was only perched for a few seconds and flew again before everyone could get onto it. One was still hooting a little further up and as we started to walk up to look for it, what was presumably the same Tawny Owl flew back and landed in the same tree. Again, frustratingly, it didn’t stay put though, and they moved deeper into the wood.

As we walked back towards the minibus, one of the Tawny Owls was now hooting close to where we had parked. A third male was hooting further over and they a female started calling too. Unfortunately it was getting too dark to see them now, but it was still great just to listen to them hooting in the last of the light. Then it was time to call it a day and head for home.

4th Dec 2021 – Winter Tour

A single day Winter Tour in North Norfolk today. We were lucky with the weather. It was raining as we drove down to the coast, but dry by the time we met up and we could see the clouds were about to clear from the west. We had some nice bright, sunny spells during the morning, before it clouded over again during the afternoon. It was just starting to spit with rain again as we walked back to end the day. Perfect timing!

Our destination for the morning was Holkham. We parked on Lady Anne’s Drive and got out to scan the grazing marshes. There were lots of ducks – lots of Wigeon out on the grass, Teal around the pools and a few Mallard scattered around too.

We got the scopes on a couple of Greylag Geese and admired their outsize orange ‘carrot’ bills. One or two Pink-footed Geese flew over calling, but we managed to find one on the ground too – through the scope we could see the differences from the Greylags, the Pink-footed Goose being smaller, darker and with a more delicate bill, dark with pink markings. An Egyptian Goose flew over, flashing its white upperwing coverts.

Marsh Harrier – flew in over the marshes

There were a couple of Marsh Harriers over the back, and we got the scopes on one perched on a post which had green wing tags. Unfortunately it was too far away to read the code on the tags. A Common Buzzard was perched on the top of a bush on the bank too. After a while, one of the Marsh Harriers drifted over the grazing marshes towards us, flushing all the ducks, and continued out over the other side of the Drive. A Great White Egret flew over too.

There were waders out here too. We got the scope on a close Curlew, admiring its long downcurved bill. A small flock of Ruff flew in over the grass and disappeared off behind us. We managed to spot two Common Snipe hiding in the grass just behind one the pools, and they remained there motionless while we watched them.

Common Snipe – hiding in the grass

A flock of Black-tailed Godwits flew in, whirling round over the grazing marshes before dropping down on one of the pools among the Wigeon. There were lots of Lapwings out on the grass too. Two dropped down quite close to us and one proceeded to repeatedly chase after the other until it flew off – a bit of territoriality, even in the middle of winter.

Lapwing – territorial aggression

Stopping again just before the pines, we had another scan of the grazing meadows and finally managed to locate some Grey Partridge, a small covey of four feeding down below us in the grass and doing a well-camouflaged impression of the nearby dead thistles. Through the scopes we could see their orange faces and dark kidney-shaped belly patches.

Continuing on through the trees, we walked east on the edge of the saltmarsh up towards the cordon. A couple of birders walking back the other way told us that the Shorelarks were feeding out on the beach, so we took the path out through the dunes. We had only just got to the beach when we met two locals coming back who told us that the Shorelarks had flown back over the dunes. A quick scan of the beach revealed hundreds of gulls feeding on the tideline on all the shellfish washed up after the recent storms, along with Brent Geese, Oystercatchers, Turnstones and Sanderlings.

Our first priority was to find the Shorelarks this morning, so we cut back through the dunes and round on the north side of the cordon. A quick scan and we could see them down at the far end, so we continued round and got them in the scopes. There were five Shorelarks again today, creeping around in the low vegetation, we could see their bright yellow faces and black masks. Having had a good look, we continued on through the dunes again further along and back out to the beach, and set the scopes up to scan the sea out in Holkham Bay.

There were a few Great Crested Grebes on the sea and as we scanned across we picked up two Red-necked Grebes too, slightly smaller, darker with duller cheeks. One of the group picked up a Great Northern Diver and after watching that for a while, we found a second one further east and a bit further out.

Great Northern Diver – one of two in the Bay

There was a good selection of ducks offshore. First we got the scopes on some Common Eider, a mixture of females and 1st winter males, and Red-breasted Mergansers with their punk haircuts, out beyond the breakers. There were several larger rafts of Common Scoter too, mostly females and immature birds with pale cheeks and dark caps.

A small group of six Velvet Scoter were a little further out and harder to see, but with the sun now out behind us the white spots on their faces caught the sun and we could occasionally see the white in their wings when they flapped. We should strictly say ‘Velvet-type’ Scoter, as there have been claims of a possible Stejneger’s Scoter here in recent days, one of the six, the Asian cousin of our Velvet Scoter and a very similar species. This bird is meant to look a little bigger, chunkier, more angular with a heavier bill. One did seem to be a little bigger today, and seemed to be keeping slightly separate from the others, but as it woke up and preened it looked more like a 1st winter male Velvet Scoter. The birds are just too far out to see enough detail though, it will take a boat trip out to see if there is indeed something different in amongst them.

On our way back, we stopped for another look at the Shorelarks. From the south side of the cordon, the sun was behind us now and the Shorelarks looked really smart, their yellow faces glowing in the low winter light. We were just admiring them through the scopes when for no apparent reason they suddenly took off, along with a single Skylark. The Skylark dropped down again over by the dunes, but after circling round the Shorelarks flew up and over the pines behind us, possibly heading in to find some freshwater.

Shorelark – great views on the way back

When we got back to The Lookout we stopped to use the facilities. Several of the group wanted a hot drink to warm up, so we decided to stop for an early lunch. A Peregrine flew past in the distance, over towards the road, and a Red Kite was hanging in the air over Quarles Marsh. We ate out on the picnic tables today and with one eye still on the grazing marshes spotted the Great White Egret was it dropped back in out on the grass.

After lunch, we drove east. Our destination for the afternoon was to be Cley, but on the way, as the sun was shining, we took a very short diversion just off the coast road towards Wiveton. A small group of birders were standing on the verge looking across the road at the hedge the other side. We found somewhere to park and walked back to join them.

A female Blackcap was flicking around in the ivy and a flock of Long-tailed Tits came through calling. Unfortunately it started to cloud over just as we arrived and the Barred Warbler that everyone was watching for became a little more elusive. We didn’t have to wait long before it appeared on the ivy though, up near the top. But after perching briefly out on the edge, the Barred Warbler flew over the road and disappeared into one of the gardens. We would settle for a brief view and continued round to Cley.

As we walked up the East Bank, we stopped to admire some of the ducks in the sunshine. A pair of Shoveler were feeding on one of the small pools on the grazing marsh, we could see their outsize shovel-like bills when they lifted their heads out of the water. A little further up, we got the scopes on some close Teal on the near edge of the Serpentine.

Shoveler – stunning in the sunshine

A small flock of Dunlin was feeding out on the edge of Pope’s Pool, where several Cormorants were drying their wings on the islands. A Kingfisher shot past low over the reeds behind us and disappeared down into one of the ditches out of view. A huge flock of Pink-footed Geese came up off the marshes in the distance to the east of us, over towards Salthouse. Arnold’s Marsh is still very full of water, but several Little Grebes on the brackish pool the other side of the path were an addition to the day’s list.

We had seen several people out on the shingle ridge to the east as we walked out, and two people walking back now confirmed that there were still two Snow Buntings out there, our main target for the afternoon. We could see darker clouds approaching from the west, so we decided to head straight out now. As we approached their favoured spot, we saw some movement on the shingle ahead of us. A single Snow Bunting, it hunkered down in a shallow depression in the stones and we got it in the scope.

Snow Bunting – hunkered down in the shingle

The Snow Bunting was very well camouflaged and very difficult to pick up unless you knew exactly where it was, but we had a great view through the scope. A fairly dark individual, it was probably a young bird of the Icelandic race. While we were watching it, a second paler bird picked its way over the shingle towards it, from further back.

We had a quick scan of the sea from here. We picked up a couple of Red-throated Divers on the water, and got one of them in the scope, although it was diving continually and hard to keep track of. There were a few Guillemots out here too, which were a bit easier to see. A small skein of Pink-footed Geese flew over behind us calling. The wind had licked up and it was getting chilly out here with the light starting to go. We decided to head back.

It was starting to spit with rain now, but it was nearly time to call it a day anyway. We had a quick drive round between Cley and Salthouse, to see if we could find the Brent Geese anywhere while we warmed up in the minibus, but there was no sign of them either in the Eye Field or on the winter wheat east of Walsey Hills, areas which they have been favouring.

As we drove back towards Wells, it started to rain. We had been very lucky with the weather today, and it had been a great day out.

28th Nov 2021 – Early Winter Tour, Day 3

Day 3 of a three day Early Winter Tour, our last day. It was another cold and windy day but thankfully the wintry showers first thing dried up quite quickly, and after that they were much fewer and further between for the rest of the day.

When we got down to Wells beach car park it was sleeting quite steadily, so we stopped in the minibus for a couple of minutes while we waited for it to pass over. Once it had stopped, we walked up to the lifeboat station.

The tide was just coming in, and we scanned the mud on the far side, where there were lots of waders. Large areas were covered with Oystercatchers and Knot, and there were several Grey Plover and Ringed Plover scattered around too, along with groups of Sanderling and Dunlin. A few Turnstones were picking around the patches of shingle. Five or six Bar-tailed Godwits were working their way along the near edge of the sandbar opposite us.

Waders – out in Wells Harbour

We had a quick look in the outer harbour, to see if anything had been blown in but we couldn’t see anything out on the water. A Red Kite was hanging in the air over the beach opposite.

Back to the car park, we crossed over to the other side and continued on into the woods. We stopped to scan the boating lake. There were several Tufted Ducks diving in the middle and a few Little Grebes around the edges, plus three Coot and a single Moorhen. A Kingfisher was perched on a briar stem over the edge of the water by the channel opposite. It looked stunning in a brief moment of sunshine, before it shot off low over the water.

Kingfisher – perched by the boating lake

We carried on along the track towards the trees, but hadn’t got much further when we noticed a stunning pink male Bullfinch perched in a bramble-draped hawthorn ahead of us. Looking more closely, we could see a browner female feeding on the brambles, just below. A couple of dogwalkers came past us and unsurprisingly the Bullfinches flew off as they approached.

Making our way into the birches, a Jay flew up from the grass under the trees. We flushed a couple of Blackbirds, but otherwise there was no obvious sign of any new arrivals having come in from the continent, despite the favourable winds.

When we got to the corner of The Dell, we came across a tit flock. We looked up to see several Long-tailed Tits flick up into the birches. We climbed up the slope onto the top of the dune ridge on the north side, where we were on eye level with the birds. They were moving through the branches very quickly, but in among the mix of tits, we picked up a couple of Goldcrests, Treecreepers, and at least one Chiffchaff too.

We followed the tit flock round the east side of the Dell, where the same or another Chiffchaff flicked through the birches ahead of us, and out onto the main track again. We flushed a Reed Bunting from under the brambles by the path, which perched deep in cover for a few seconds flicking its tail before flying back into the trees. A little further along, we found three Chiffchaffs together now. Unfortunately they didn’t stop long enough for us to see whether any of them might have been more interesting, before they disappeared deeper into the trees.

We crossed over into the open area south of the main track, and stopped by the gap in the bushes to scan the grazing marshes. There were no geese on here today, but we did see a Red Kite over Holkham Park in the distance and a Common Buzzard circled over the edge of the caravan park.

There were a few more Blackbirds in the bushes here and we came across a single Redwing in the far corner, but it flew off ‘teezing’ as we approached. A juvenile Peregrine drifted over the pines. As we started to cut back through the birches towards the main track, a Woodcock flew up from the grass and shot off into the trees.

One of the group was interested in fungi, and we stopped to look at some growing by the path now. A large Brown Birch Bolete looked like it was easy enough to identify, but some of the others would require a bit more study. We took a few photographs as we made our way back towards the car park.

Brown Birch Bolete – growing under a birch tree

We were just heading over to the beach cafe when we got a message to say that a Little Auk was to be released at the lifeboat station at midday. Perfect – time for a coffee in the cafe first!

Coffees duly drunk, we were just getting ready to go up to the lifeboat station when we got another message to say there was a Puffin now in the harbour channel. Sure enough, there it was bobbing around on the water off the lifeboat station. It was an adult too, with a very bright bill still. Everybody had a look through the scope and we had then taken our eyes off it, when someone else announced that a Great Black-backed Gull had dropped onto the water out where the Puffin was. Horrified, we looked back to see the gull with the Puffin in its bill. Even worse, after drowning it, the gull seemed to lose interest and flew off, leaving it behind. All a bit gruesome – but nature red in tooth and claw. It also highlights why these auks generally live far out to sea, and something is normally already wrong if they are brought inshore.

Puffin – in the harbour channel

Two people arrived carrying a large plastic box, with an entourage of curious onlookers following. The Little Auk had arrived! It had been found in Reepham, about 15 miles inland, last night, presumably disoriented and blown there by the gale force winds. Mostly these birds do not survive overnight, but it was apparently livelier now than it had been when it was found, which was an encouraging sign. It wriggled and squirmed as it was picked up to be released.

Little Auk – being released

The Little Auk flapped out onto the water and looked back at the people gathered on the shore watching it. It swam slowly further out into the channel and then started diving – another encouraging sign. Fingers crossed for it.

Little Auk – swam actively out into the harbour

Back to the minibus, it was still a little early for lunch, so we drove round to Holkham and stopped to scan the grazing marshes. We could see three Great White Egrets out with the Belted Galloway cattle immediately and it was not long before the two Cattle Egrets appeared too, from where they were hidden behind the cows. They flew round and landed again out of view.

There were lots of geese out on the grazing marshes but looking through them most were Greylags, plus a pair of Egyptian Geese. Scanning round, we eventually found the White-fronted Geese we were looking for, tucked down in the corner, keeping their own company. Noticeably smaller and darker than the Greylags, through the scope, we could see the white surround to their bills from where White-fronted Geese get their name. Numbers are starting to increase slowly now, as we get into winter, and we counted twenty four here today.

White-fronted Geese – out on the grazing marshes

There were several Marsh Harriers and Common Buzzards around the grazing marshes too. A juvenile Peregrine circled overhead, before disappearing over the Park behind us. Then another Peregrine, this time an adult, appeared distantly over pines. As we watched, it accelerated and stooped towards something over by Lady Anne’s Drive.

We headed round to Lady Anne’s Drive ourselves, for a late lunch in The Lookout. There were just a few Greylags on the marshes here again today, but a small skein of Pinkfeet did come over calling while we were eating.

We didn’t have much time left now, but with a couple of requests to see if we could get better views of Glaucous Gull, we headed back to Cley where one had been reported again earlier this morning. When we got to the beach car park, we asked some of the locals seawatching but unlike yesterday, there had apparently been no further sign of it since early morning. The lingering Black Guillemot had been seen earlier too, but there was no sign of that either now. A Grey Seal pup had come up over the beach and proceeded to go straight past everyone into the car park.

The seawatchers had thinned out now and we managed to get into the front of the shelter, to scan the sea. There were still a few things moving – a steady movement of Common Guillemots past, a few Red-throated Divers and several Eider – a couple of small groups past close in, and a much larger flock of around thirty a long way out.

Eider – there were still a few moving this afternoon

There were lots of gulls offshore, feeding in the surf. Gradually they started moving back west along the coast, heading back towards the harbour to roost. We figured there had to be an outside chance we might catch a Glaucous Gull heading in with them, as the two had done yesterday. Scanning through, we did manage to pick out a 1st winter Mediterranean Gull on the sea, and another, this time an adult, flew past, but no sign of anything rarer. We had probably exhausted our luck for this weekend!

The light was starting to go now. Somewhat bizarrely, we had managed to arrange a book delivery for one of the group, which was very kindly dropped down by WildSounds to where we were seawatching! Personal service! Once it arrived, it was time to head for home.

What an amazing few days it had been!

27th Nov 2021 – Early Winter Tour, Day 2

Day 2 of a three day Early Winter Tour. With a Met Office ‘yellow warning’ in place for high winds, the original weather forecast for today was looking very rough, but by the day the worst prognostications had been revised and even then the outcome was nowhere near as bad as it could have been. Again!

It was drizzling on and off as we drove east to Cley, but once we arrived and parked at Walsey Hills, it had stopped. A dead Water Vole in the layby looked like it had unfortunately been run over. A quick scan revealed a pair of Gadwall with the Mallard on Snipes Marsh, a Canada Goose on the grazing marsh opposite and a pair of Mute Swans in the channel, all new birds for the trip list.

While it was dry, we decided to walk up East Bank first. There was not much on Don’s Pool, just a couple of Shelduck, and a Marsh Harrier was quartering the reedbed beyond. We could see dark clouds away to the west, and a rainbow over the hides.

Rainbow – looking out over the reedbed

We stopped to scan Pope’s Pool there were lots of ducks and a few Cormorants on the islands. We could make out several Dunlin with a couple of Redshank along the near edge. There were more ducks on the Serpentine, mainly Wigeon and Teal. Another flock of Dunlin flew in and dropped down on the mud.

We could see another rainbow ahead of us now, and more dark clouds coming in off the sea straight towards us. So we hurried on to the shelter overlooking Arnold’s Marsh.

Out of the squally wintry shower, we could scan the pool at our leisure. There were a few more waders on here, more Redshank and a couple of Curlews. Lots of Dunlin were trying to find shelter behind the vegetation on the shingle islands, along with a single Grey Plover and one Turnstone. Four more Turnstone dropped in, as did a couple of Ringed Plovers.

Redshank – one of several on Arnold’s

There were more Cormorants on here too, presumably taking a break from the raging sea beyond, and a few Great Black-backed Gulls. We talked about the identification of large gulls and took a closer look as we waited for the squall to pass.

Scanning the brackish pool behind, ten Little Grebes were swimming together and diving out on the water. There was a good selection of ducks – lots of Shoveler, and more Gadwall, but we couldn’t see any sign the Pintail on here today.

A dog walker had passed us on our way out, carrying a pair of binoculars, and we could now see him watching the Snow Buntings out on the shingle ridge, the birds occasionally flying up and whirling round. As he made his way back, he popped into the shelter to tell us they were there, so when the weather cleared, we headed out to see if we could see them a bit closer.

A Little Egret was huddled behind the reeds on the pool down below the path, but flew off as we approached. We had a quick look at the sea when we got to the shingle, but it looked quite quiet – bird-wise at least it was quiet, the sea was predictably very rough. A Gannet flew past just offshore. We turned east and dropped down out of the wind into the lee of shingle ridge.

The Snow Buntings were very mobile at first. They were in a large flock, about 60 of them, and we could see them whirl round as we walked out and then land on the beach side of the ridge. We looked over the ridge where we thought they had dropped but spooked them again as we stuck our heads over. They flew and landed on the shingle again a little further along. We approached carefully, but then noticed another dogwalker coming the other way and sure enough they flew off again as he approached. This time they went much further, landing some way out in the fenced off area north of Sea Pool.

We walked over to the far side of their favourite feeding area, to position ourselves for when they flew back in. As one of the group walked up, he almost trod on one Snow Bunting which hadn’t flown off with the others. It didn’t seem in the least worried and continued feeding just a couple of metres from us, totally unfazed. Amazing views!

Snow Bunting – amazingly tame

While we were admiring the lone Snow Bunting, the rest of the flock flew back in and landed very close to us too. The single bird then picked its way round past us to join them, and we watched the whole group feeding now at close range. It was interesting to see the mixture of dark and paler birds – as well as variation due to age and sex, there are two races of Snow Bunting which mix together in winter here on the coast, paler Scandinavian nivalis and darker Icelandic insulae.

Snow Buntings – the rest of the flock flew back in

We kept one eye on the sea, but there didn’t appear to be much moving offshore, a steady passage of gulls, and a few divers past. We could see very dark grey clouds and rain away to the east – we had been lucky with the window of weather out here watching the Snow Buntings, but we knew it wouldn’t last so decided to head back before weather turned again.

As we made our way back along the East Bank, there were some Black-tailed Godwits now on the Serpentine, and lots more Dunlin feeding on the muddy edges. A small flock of Linnets dropped in too. As we approached Don’s Pool, a Kingfisher shot past high over the grazing marshes and across the bank back towards the road. We thought it dropped down into the main catchwater drain, but there was no sign of it there when we got back. A Kestrel was hovering over the front of Walsey Hills.

Back to Walsey Hills, we continued on past Snipe’s Marsh and down footpath into bushes, out of the wind. There was a nice selection of tits and finches coming and going from the feeders, but the rest of the bushes were quiet. The willows at the back were still catching the wind. Out at the back, we scanned the fields beyond. A mixed flock of Lapwings and Golden Plover were feeding on the winter wheat. On the hillside behind North Foreland Woods, a Woodpigeon and a Stock Dove were both on the wires, the latter noticeably smaller. A Great Spotted Woodpecker flew over.

Back to the minibus, we drove round to the Visitors Centre at Cley for a coffee break and a chance to warm up. Afterwards, we still had some time before lunch, so we drove back east and on towards Salthouse. We had seen some Brent Geese in the distance from the shelter out at Arnold’s Marsh earlier. They were still in the field next to the road, but we couldn’t see them well from this angle and another car was already in the layby further up.

We drove on further. There was no sign of any Pinkfeet on the marshes at Salthouse today, they were probably feeding inland, so we went to see if there were any gulls loafing in the fields by Beach Road. There were, but unfortunately there were no white-winged gulls with them. We did pick out a rather dark grey-backed adult Herring Gull, a bird of the northern argentatus race.

We turned round and went back to look at the Brent Geese from a different angle. They had moved, but we found we could get a better view from the road opposite Babcock Hide now. One bird on the front edge of the flock stood out, noticeably darker-bodied, the Black Brant. We managed to park and got out very carefully, without flushing the flock.

Black Brant – with the Dark-bellied Brents

Once the geese settled again, we were able to get the scope on the Black Brant and compare it with the rest of the flock, most of which were the regular Dark-bellied Brents. Scanning through, we found a single Pale-bellied Brent too. A three Brent subspecies flock!

Back to Cley and we drove out to the beach car park now. We stopped for lunch in the lee of the beach shelter. A Grey Seal had hauled itself out on the top of the shingle ridge, and looked back occasionally at the raging surf where several large bulls were lingering in the breakers.

Grey Seal – pulled out on the beach

Speaking to the people who had been seawatching here all day, there had been a couple of Glaucous Gulls patrolling up and down the shore earlier, so we kept one eye open while we were eating. After lunch, we found some space in the east side of the shelter, out of the wind, and scanned more thoroughly.

One of the group picked up a distant skua offshore, just as a heavy squall came in over the sea, and a quick view through the scope before it was engulfed by the rain confirmed it was a juvenile Pomarine Skua. That was hard to get onto, but a group of three Great Skuas was much more obliging, as they came through west really close inshore, a great view.

Great Skua – one of a group of three

There were several Red-throated Divers and Guillemots moving, and a steady passage of ducks passing. A female Eider flew in and landed on the sea just offshore. There were several flocks of Common Scoter, one group being led by a single drake Goosander. Also quite a few Wigeon, and a female Pintail at the head of one group of those.

There was a steady trickle of waders past too – mostly Dunlin, but also a group of four Knot, several Grey Plovers, and a Ringed Plover. About thirty Snow Buntings flew west along the beach, possibly some of the birds we had been watching at close quarters earlier.

There were lots of gulls just offshore, but no sign of either Glaucous Gull at first. Quite a few Kittiwakes were moving, some nice and close, a mixture of adults and juveniles. A distant Little Gull was quickly lost in the troughs, but then a shout from someone in the car park alerted us to two juveniles coming in behind us which flew right past.

Eventually one of the Glaucous Gulls put in an appearance, coming in along the beach behind the pill box. A biscuit coloured juvenile, it immediately stood out with its very pale wingtips. It arced up into the air several times, dropping back down to the breakers again, and we thought it might carry on straight past us, but disappeared back east.

It was a really productive seawatch for an hour or so, but the light was already just starting to go when some much darker, thicker clouds started to roll in. The skies looked quite apocaplyptic away towards Salthouse and as the bad weather approached us too, we decided to get into the minibus to warm up, and start to make our way slowly back.

We called in briefly at Morston, but there was still too much water in the channel for there to be much feeding here, the tide held up by the wind today. All we could see from the warmth of the bus were a couple of Redshank and Curlew, a single Black-tailed Godwit and a Little Egret.

We thought we might try to catch some geese to end the day at Holkham, but the light had gone by the time got there, and the driving rain was sweeping across the marshes on the 50mph wind gusts. We had done very well all things considered. It was time to call it a day and try again tomorrow.

26th Nov 2021 – Early Winter Tour, Day 1

Day 1 of a three day Early Winter Tour. The weather forecast wasn’t great, but after some drizzle first thing it proved to be better than feared, cloudy and breezy but mostly dry. When we started out in the morning, it looked like it might be a difficult day, but little did we know just what excitement the birding gods had in store for us!

We met in Wells. It was drizzling pretty steadily, so we decided to have a quick look in the Harbour as there had been a Black-throated Diver reported off the Harbourmaster’s Office late yesterday afternoon. As we drove slowly past, we could see a few Brent Geese and gulls on the edge of the water. A glimpse of a bird disappearing under the water turned out to be a Cormorant when it resurfaced.

We turned round and as we headed back the other way we spotted a diver on the water fairly close in, directly opposite the quay. We found somewhere to stop and got out for a look. It was actually a moulting adult Red-throated Diver, not Black-throated. Particularly in the dull light, the remains of the throat patch looked dark and it was impossible to see any red, but the structure immediately screamed Red-throated Diver, rather slight with a markedly upturned bill. Although the head was still speckled with grey streaks, the eye stood out in the the pale face. We had a nice view of it, diving, as it came past us and headed off up the harbour channel.

Red-throated Diver – in the harbour at Wells

The forecast was for rain all morning and if it was going to continue like it had been we would have to head for somewhere with hides for the day, but the rain seemed to be easing now. As it was going to be very windy over the next couple of days, our preferred option was to go to Holkham for the Shorelarks this morning, so we decided to go for it. We drove round and parked on Lady Anne’s Drive.

A small covey of partridges was feeding just beyond the fence directly in front of where we parked, one Red-legged Partridge with four Grey Partridges. As we got out of the minibus, the Red-legged flew off but the Grey Partridges stayed – they looked up briefly, but quickly went back to what they were doing. We had great views of them, just beyond the fence. Another four Grey Partridges flew in to join them.

Grey Partridge – feeding right by the fence

There were lots more birds on the grazing marsh beyond, lots of Wigeon, a couple of Curlew. Further back, we could see a few Golden Plover in with the Lapwings. We could hear Pink-footed Geese calling the other side of the Drive and looked over to see them flying round out over the grazing marsh. Some kronking calls alerted us to a Raven which circled up over the Lookout Cafe, before drifting across the north end of the Drive and over the pines, where it was joined by a second Raven. Still a scarce bird here, so a nice one to see.

Raven – drifted over Lady Anne’s Drive, calling

We walked through the pines and out towards the beach. From the boardwalk, we could see a small group of Brent Geese and a few Shelduck out on the saltmarsh. Several Linnets flew up and circled round. As we walked east on the edge of the saltmarsh, it was rather quiet at first, but at least it was sheltered from the wind in the lee of the pines.

As we got to the cordon, we could see two people looking through scopes, so we headed over towards them. As we got a little closer they waved us over – as we suspected, they were watching the Shorelarks. We could only see two Shorelarks at first, as they were quite well back and hidden in the vegetation. Gradually they worked their way closer towards us and eventually we counted all five together. We had great views of them now, picking around the stunted saltmarsh vegetation for seeds.

Shorelark – one of five still

By coincidence, it turned out one of the group knew the two people on the beach from elsewhere, so while they chatted, everyone stopped to watch the Shorelarks. We could see the sea through the gap in the dunes beyond the cordon and it didn’t look too rough yet, so after a while we continued on for a look out at the Bay to see if we could pick up anything out there.

Out on the beach, it was just after high tide so there wasn’t much exposed sand at the moment. We could see one or two Oystercatchers on the shore. A Sanderling was running in and out of the waves away to our right and eventually came right past in front of us, and more small flocks of Sanderlings were flying past.

We turned our attention to the sea. Even though it wasn’t particularly rough, the combination of the high tide and a significant swell meant birds were constantly disappearing into the troughs. There were several Red-breasted Mergansers offshore, with four close in. We could see a few Eider too, and a group of Common Scoter further out. Another more distant flock of Common Scoter flew up from the sea further back, and we could see that the bird at the front had white wing flashes, a Velvet Scoter. The flock landed again and we lost it in the swell.

There were several Great Crested Grebes offshore, but we couldn’t find any other grebes. The first two or three divers we spotted were Red-throated Divers, but then we picked up a Black-throated Diver not too far out. As well as the swell, it was diving constantly which made it hard to get onto, but it was working its way towards us.

We were just trying to get all the group onto the Black-throated Diver, scanning with the scope, when an auk bobbed up from the swell in front. It was only in view for a second, but it looked just like a Brünnich’s Guillemot. But surely it couldn’t be? Brünnich’s Guillemot is a high arctic species, and very rare further south (there have been 48 accepted records in UK, but no confirmed records for Norfolk and only 4 for England!). It rode up over the next wave and it did look just like a Brünnich’s Guillemot!

It was being carried very quickly east on the running tide. So while we tried to get a quick clip of video through the scope, in the hope we might then have some documentary evidence, we tried to get everyone onto it. Thankfully, it was close in and not too hard to see when it rode up and over the breakers, even if it was only in view for a second or two at a time.

The Brünnich’s Guillemot had a noticeable dark head, with pale speckling on the throat. Most Common Guillemots in winter have very pale faces, although even at this time of year some have darker heads too, a pitfall for the unwary. But this bird had very black upperparts too, and looked hunchbacked with a rather angular head. The bill was too short for a Common Guillemot and we thought we could make out a suggestion of the distinctive pale gape line when it caught the light.

Once everyone had seen the bird, we checked the video and fortunately saw that we did have a few seconds footage of it (as well as several more seconds of empty sea!). We managed to get a videograb and, given the enormity of the call, we quickly sent it to a few locals with the question ‘are we going mad’?!

Brünnich’s Guillemot – the first confirmed record for Norfolk

The Brünnich’s Guillemot didn’t look well, it was not diving or attempting to swim against the current. We followed it as it disappeared away to the east and it looked like it would be swept into Wells Harbour. So once we received suitably reassuring comments back, we put the news out hoping it would get refound. Wow – what a moment! Job done, still slightly shell-shocked, we walked back.

A Rock Pipit flew over calling and landed on the edge of the saltmarsh. Back at Lady Anne’s Drive, while we stopped to use the facilities in The Lookout, we scanned the grazing marshes. A Merlin shot across low, scattering all the Wigeon, but was gone as quickly as it appeared. A rather pale Common Buzzard and a Kestrel were more obliging, perched where we could get the scopes on them. A Great White Egret flew up and across briefly.

We thought we might have a quick walk west through the trees before lunch, but just as we were setting off we received a message to sat that the Brünnich’s Guillemot had been refound in Wells Harbour. We decided to go round there instead for another look.

When we got there, there was already a small crowd gathered by the old lifeboat station. The Brünnich’s Guillemot was on the other side of channel, just on the edge of the sandbar. It was definitely not looking well and as we watched was gradually beached by the receding tide, but at least it was still looking round relatively actively.

One of the other locals was arranging a boat to take a few people across to see what the bird was doing, so we arranged places for the group. It was a bit of a rush to get down to the inner quay and by the time we got there, the boatman said that the tide was probably too low now to get us in close. Still we thought we would have a go anyway.

There were several Brent Geese still on the margins of the harbour channel as we motored out. The Red-throated Diver we had seen earlier by the quay was about half way up now, but from the boat allowed us to get very close for some great views. The light was a bit better too now, and we could see that the patch on its neck was indeed dark red. Two Razorbills surfaced next to it briefly too.

Red-throated Diver – great views from the boat
Red-throated Diver – sporting the remains of its throat patch

Out past the lifeboat station, the water started to get a bit choppy and the navigable channel took us further away from the sandbar the other side. We could see the Brünnich’s Guillemot still distantly on the sand, now well back from water’s edge. The boatman offered to drop us over on the other side of the channel further back, from where we could walk out to the sandbar, but we were not all really equipped for it and we still hadn’t had lunch. We had no idea when we might be able to get back. So we got ourselves dropped back at the outer harbour, while a couple of the others went over to investigate.

We stopped at the beach cafe for a late lunch and a welcome hot drink. A steady stream of people came to see the Brünnich’s Guillemot, from all over Norfolk. Then the sad news came through that the Brünnich’s Guillemot had passed away. It was perhaps inevitable, but the speed and the reality of it definitely put a damper on the celebrations.

The weather was still OK, and as we might not get another chance this weekend, we decided to have a look at the raptor roost to finish the day. As we walked up the track, we flushed a Sparrowhawk from the base of the hedge. Lots of Starlings flew over, in and out of the pig fields. We started to flush a few Blackbirds out of the hedges, and down at the far end there were more, along with several Redwings flying ahead of us too, we could hear their ‘teezing’ calls. Migrants in from the continent, stopping here to refuel.

It was a bit more breezy out on the edge of the coast path, with the wind gradually swinging round now. We could see small groups of Brent Geese and a few Curlews out on saltmarsh. There were several Little Egrets, and one of the group picked up a distant Great White Egret too.

There were a few Marsh Harriers already in and still hunting up and down, a nice close male and more further out. One Marsh Harrier feeding on something way out on the beach, and two juveniles were looking on from the sandhills beyond the saltmarsh. Out of frustration, they started playing with a stick instead.

Marsh Harrier – a male out over the saltmarsh

We picked up a ringtail Hen Harrier hunting way off, in front of East Hills, but it was very hard to see and must have dropped down as it disappeared without coming closer. We were just thinking about packing up, when another ringtail flew in from the east. As it worked its way along the back edge of the saltmarsh, a grey male appeared behind it. Presumably the male Hen Harrier had come in early and stayed down, given the wind. The two of them circled round over the spartina for a minute or so, then dropped down again.

It was getting cold now, so we decided to call it a day. What a day it had been!

31st Oct 2021 – Late Autumn, Day 3

Day 3 of a three day Late Autumn Tour in Norfolk, our last day. The weather forecast was pretty horrible – heavy rain all morning and gale-force winds all day. The kind of forecast when many are tempted to stay at home. In reality, there was rain, but it was on and off for most of the morning and only really heavy for a short period just before midday; and although it was windy, it eased a little in the afternoon and it didn’t stop us. By the end of the day, everyone would agree they were glad we had gone out and given it a go – we saw some great birds!

Given the forecast, we headed over to Titchwell this morning, where we would be able to get out of the worst of the weather in the hides. It was just starting to rain when we met up and coming down steadily by the time we arrived in the car park. Still, it was not bad enough to stop us from having a quick walk round the overflow car park, although a combination of the weather and two campervans which had obviously been there overnight meant there was nothing to see.

We then headed straight out onto the reserve. As we got out of the trees, a Marsh Harrier was hanging in the wind over the reedbed and another was up over Thornham Marsh the other side, presumably birds which had roosted here overnight and were wondering whether to head out, given the weather. A Cetti’s Warbler shouted from deep in the reeds. We stopped for a quick scan of the reedbed pool, although there were just two Little Grebes on there today.

It was not very pleasant out here in the face of the wind, so we headed straight up to the shelter of Island Hide. There were several Dunlin feeding right outside the hide, giving us the chance to get some really up-close views.

Dunlin – feeding right outside the hide

We worked our way in turn round the different waders on view from here. There were several Black-tailed Godwits quite close too, and at least 12 Avocets today, further back. A couple of Golden Plover flew in and dropped down on top of one of the new muddy islands, where we could get them in the scope and admire their gold-spangled plumage. A Grey Plover flew in, flashing its black armpits, and dropped down on the next pool over for a couple of minutes.

A Common Snipe was feeding along the muddy edge close to the hide where the reeds were cut back in the recent works, so we had a good look at that too. It was joined by another couple of Common Snipe, which flew in separately, and interesting to see the variation in colour and brightness between them. There had been a Jack Snipe here earlier in the week, but it had been very erratic in its appearances and we couldn’t see it anywhere now.

One of locals in the hide told us that the Little Stint had earlier been on the next pool over – it was probably still there but hidden from view from here behind the new muddy bund. We kept looking over in that direction and eventually he found it again out on the mud with some Dunlin. A nice view, if a little distant – we could see how small it was in comparison with the other waders, before it disappeared back into the vegetation.

There was a nice selection of ducks on here too, with numbers muxh increased now as more birds have returned for the winter – lots of Teal, Shoveler, a few Wigeon and Gadwall, and a couple of Shelduck. A small group of Pintail over in the far corner were feeding actively, upending and showing their pointed tails. A lone Brent Goose dropped in, joined shortly after by several more.

The rain had stopped, so we decided to head round to Parrinder Hide. Before we left, we looked across for one last scan to make sure there was still no sign of the Jack Snipe. Looking along the edge, our gaze alighted on a snipe which was back onto us. Its bright golden back stripes contrasted strongly with its upperparts which looked more solidly dark than the others – the Jack Snipe!

We quickly got it in the scope and everyone had a look. The Jack Snipe was next to a Common Snipe at one point, noticeably smaller and shorter billed. We could also see its distinctive head pattern. Typically, just as we were going to phonescope a couple of quick photos it flew off along the edge of the reeds! At least everyone had a good look at it before it flew.

As we came back out of the hide we heard a Cetti’s Warbler singing right next to the path and watched it scurry through the grass and back into the sallows. It was too windy to stop and scan from the main path, so we continued on quickly round to Parrinder Hide. Good timing as it then started to rain again.

There was no sign of the Little Stint from here at first – we were hoping for some closer views from this side. We scanned through the little groups of Dunlin scattered around the various pools. There were four Ringed Plover in with them on one side of the hide and a Turnstone dropped in briefly. More Golden Plover were visible from here, sheltering from the wind in the lee of the new bund. The Little Stint eventually appeared again with a small group of Dunlin out in the middle, on the small brick island. We got it in the scopes and watched it sheltering from the wind behind the stack of bricks, preening. Then it flew and disappeared again.

The rain had been persistent although never really heavy this morning but just as we thought we were not going to get anything substantial, the heavy rain arrived. For about half an hour it was pretty torrential, accompanied by really gusty winds. The window struts couldn’t even keep the window flaps up! We checked the rainfall radar and it appeared like it might be pretty short lived. Fingers crossed! Sure enough, we could see bright blue sky just to the west and within a very short time the rain had blown through and the skies cleared.

Little Stint – with two Dunlin as the rain cleared

The Little Stint reappeared on its own, back where we had seen it first. We watched it in the scopes, picking along the shore. A flock of Dunlin flew in and landed with it and for the first time we had some nice prolonged views of it.

We had a quick look from the other side of Parrinder Hide, overlooking the Volunteer Marsh. It is pretty overgrown at the moment, but we did see several Grey Plover, including a nice close one looking very smart in the sunshine now. There were a few Redshanks and Curlew too. Various small birds flew up out of the vegetation – several Linnets, with four perching nicely on the top of a suaeda bush, a couple of Skylarks, and a couple of Rock Pipits briefly.

Grey Plover – in the sunshine!

It had been a very productive morning in the hides, and we had successfully negotiated the worst of the weather. Now we decided to head back for lunch.

We stopped again on the main path to admire the flocks of Golden Plover now in the sunshine. A Black-tailed Godwit was feeding very close to the path in the corner by the new bund. When a second Black-tailed Godwit walked towards it, we could hear them starting to call and we watched them first posturing to each other before a fight broke out. They grasped each other by the bill, one flew up and kicked out at the other. Great to watch! Eventually one admitted defeat and flew off, leaving the other in charge of that corner of mud.

Black-tailed Godwits – arguing over this patch of mud

While we were watching the Black-tailed Godwits, we looked behind us to see a small flock of Brent Geese flying in over the saltmarsh. They came right past us, cackling, and dropped down onto the Freshmarsh to drink.

Brent Geese – flying in to the Freshmarsh

It was still rather windy but the weather was so much nicer now, Still, we head to tear ourselves away as we were getting hungry. We had lunch out on the picnic tables by the Visitor Centre, such was the improvement in the weather, although it was welcome hot drinks all round from the cafe to warm us up.

We heard Siskins calling overhead from time to time over lunch, and just as we were finishing we saw a small group fly into the top of the alders just the other side of Visitor Centre. We walked over there to see if we could find them in the trees, and were just scanning when they all erupted. At least 20 flew out and disappeared round the back of the trees. When they came back past they were swiftly followed by a large raptor and as it banked, we could see the distinctive white square at the base of its tail – a ringtail Hen Harrier! It was only in view briefly before it disappeared behind the trees again, but everyone got onto it.

As if that wasn’t bonus enough, as we walked out onto the reserve and past the reedbed again, a large brown bird came up out of the reeds alongside us. A Bittern! We watched it fly away over the reeds, thankfully going some way and remaining in view for a good long look before it eventually dropped down in again. Our luck was definitely in now!

Past Island Hide, we stopped to scan the Freshmarsh again from the bank. There were several Ruff on here now and we got the scopes on an adult feeding along bund in the middle, its orange legs inviting confusion with Redshank. Some people passing by the other way told us that there had been a Water Rail below us on the pools behind the reeds, so walked further up to where we could see where it had been. There was no sign now, not helped when a Kestrel flew over and caused all the Teal feeding down along the near edge to scatter.

More Golden Plovers had returned to the Freshmarsh now, from feeding in the fields inland. There was a big flock gathered on the bund and the mud just beyond, probably at least 800 of them. From time to time, something spooked them and they flew up and round calling. A pair of Shoveler just below us looked really stunning in the low afternoon sunshine now.

Shoveler – stunning in the sunshine

The Little Stint appeared again, back where we first saw it, picking its way along the near edge of the island over towards Parrinder Hide, on its own. It was great light now, an even better view in the scope, we could clearly see its pale mantle stripes.

It was getting on towards high tide, and we were hoping to see if we might be able find the Spotted Redshank roosting on the Tidal Pool this afternoon, so we set off to walk out towards the beach. A couple of Curlews were out in the middle of Volunteer Marsh as we passed.

Curlew – out on Volunteer Marsh

We stopped for a quick scan of the wide channel on the far side of Volunteer Marsh. It can be quiet, but with the tide coming in now and the water level rising rapidly, there were more birds than usual along the edges. One immediately stood out, its much paler white underparts catching the light. Looking through the scope, our suspicions were confirmed, it was a Spotted Redshank. It was feeding in the rising water, wading deep, almost swimming, and upending, but it was possible to see its long, bill when it put its head up. Then it flew across to the other side and was lost to view.

There were several godwits the other side too, and we got our scope on two of them together, a Bar-tailed Godwit next to Black-tailed Godwit, giving us a great side by side comparison. There were several Grey Plover and Common Redshank here too. When all the waders suddenly spooked, the Spotted Redshank flew up and over the bank, dropping down to the Tidal Pools so we walked on to see if we could find it again.

The Spotted Redshank was now showing really well – standing in the water about half way back. We got a really good view of its needle-fine bill and the bold white supercilium in front of its eyes and over its bill. Then it tucked its bill in and went to sleep.

Spotted Redshank – one of two on the Tidal Pools

There were more waders roosting on the Tidal Pools a little further up, so we walked on and got the scopes on them. There were more Grey Plover, a couple more Bar-tailed Godwits and several Oystercatcher. Six Knot, our first of the trip, were in with them, noticeably smaller and rather dumpy, with a shortish dark bill visible when one lifted its head. There was a Spotted Redshank here too and we confirmed it was a second bird when we went back to check the first was still asleep back where we had just left it. After a while, the first flew round with a Common Redshank and they dropped in with all the other waders.

Continuing on, there were quite a few waders still out on the beach, despite the rising tide having already covered the mussel beds. Several Oystercatchers were squabbling over the mussels washed up on the high tide line and one of the Sanderlings ran up from the shore and started picking about in amongst them. There were more Bar-tailed Godwits down on the edge of the water too.

We scanned the sea. Two Red-throated Divers were on the water away to the east of us, one still with a small patch of red on its now mostly white throat. There were several Great Crested Grebes, a single Guillemot, and a couple of distant Razorbill too, but no sign of anything we hadn’t seen before.

The clocks had gone back last night, and the sun was already starting to go down. We started to walk back, hoping to catch the gulls gathering to roost on the Freshmarsh on our way. The low late afternoon autumn light was perfect and there was a pink sky backdrop. The colour of the Golden Plover looked stunning now as we got back to the Freshmarsh, they were properly living up to their name.

Golden Plover – looking very golden

A lot of gulls were in already, so we stopped to scan through. There were hundreds of Black-headed Gulls, but in with them we picked out a single young Mediterranean Gull, a 1st winter/1st calendar year with heavy dark bill and dark bandit mask. There were quiet a few big gulls too and more arriving all the time, lots of Lesser Black-backed Gulls, and we got the scopes on one standing in shallow water where we could its yellow legs. We found an adult Yellow-legged Gull too, but it was swimming so we couldn’t see its legs. Its mantle was clearly a shade or two darker grey than the Black-headed Gulls around it, its head still rather white, and comparatively unstreaked, rather square, and it was a a big bird with a noticeably heavy bill and large red spot.

A movement on the edge of the reeds below us caught our attention, and we looked down to see a Water Rail scuttle back into the vegetation. Only a couple of the group got a glimpse before it disappeared, but thankfully it came straight back out again. It was very nervous, and kept running back in and back out. It was obviously trying to get to the other side of the new bund, which had broken the line of reeds into two, but it took some time to pluck up the courage. Eventually, it ran up to the top of the bund, where it stopped again wondering what to do, a moment of indecision right out in the open. Then it flew down and disappeared into the reeds the other side.

Water Rail – in its moment of indecision

It was time for us to head back, but we stopped for one last scan of the gulls to see if anything else had dropped in. One of the group was looking in the other direction and announced that there was a harrier flying very low over saltmarsh behind us. We all spun round to see a Hen Harrier quartering out over the vegetation, another ringtail we could see the white square at the base of its tail shining in the fading light. We watched it quartering back and forth, then a second ringtail Hen Harrier appeared with it.

What a great way to end the trip, watching the two Hen Harriers hunting in the last of the autumn light. As we drove back to drop everyone off, we reflected on what an amazing day it had been, particularly given our low expectations and the weather foreacast this morning. Just goes to show, you never know and it is always worth going out. You won’t see anything if you just stay in!

30th Oct 2021 – Late Autumn, Day 2

Day 2 of a three day Late Autumn Tour in Norfolk. It was meant to rain all morning, but we saw nothing more than a brief light shower and then the sun came out for the afternoon. Another top quality weather forecast!

To start the morning, we drove along the coast through Cley to Walsey Hills. As we got out of the minibus, a Cetti’s Warbler was singing from the ditch across road. A Little Grebe laughed at us from the edge of Snipes Marsh but when we looked over the reeds we couldn’t see any sign of it. We could see several Gadwall, but there was no way to get a scope on them so we could admire the complexity of the drakes patterned plumage. A scan with binoculars around the edge did however reveal a Kingfisher perched low on the reeds over the far side. A nice way to start the day.

Kingfisher – perched on the reeds

As we walked along the side of the road and up onto the East Bank, a couple of flocks of Starlings and Lapwings flew past us heading inland. More birds on the move today, coming in from the Continent for the winter.

At the start of the East Bank, we stopped to scan. There were several Teal and Mallard on the pool further back in the reedbed. A Marsh Harrier was flushing everything from the scrapes further back. A little further up, we stopped to look at a smart male Shoveler on the near edge of the grazing marsh. The drake was displaying to a female close by, and we then watched them mating.

Shoveler – the drake displaying

We stopped again by the Serpentine. A single Black-tailed Godwit was feeding down on the edge, which we got in the scope. There were more Wigeon and Teal close to the bank, on the near edge of the water. We had a close look at one of the drake Teal too, just coming out of eclipse.

There were quite a few more Black-tailed Godwits further back on Pope’s Pool, and a single Avocet in with them, until it flew off past us and out over the reeds. Three female Pintail were mostly asleep with several Shoveler in front of the islands where the Cormorants were roosting. A single adult Great Black-backed Gull was in with the Cormorants, and a much smaller and slaty-grey backed Lesser Black-backed Gull was bathing in the water nearby.

Several Marsh Harriers flew in and out of the reedbed beyond – there are over 20 roosting here at Cley at the moment, and presumably some were just stirring. Scanning across we noticed a small bird hovering over the edge of reeds in the distance, in front of Babcock Hide. It landed in the tops and a quick look through the scope confirmed our suspicion – it was a male Stonechat.

Looking further up the East Bank, a Reed Bunting appeared briefly feeding on the edge of the path. While we were watching it, we were distracted by a Kestrel hovering over the bank beyond, which dropped down and caught something. We got it in the scope, perched on the ground, feeding on its prey.

Continuing on up to the north end of Serpentine, a juvenile Ruff was down on the near edge of the water, so we had a quick look at that. It was starting to spit with rain now, so we made for the shelter overlooking Arnold’s. As we arrived, another Ruff dropped in to join a Redshank on the saltmarsh right in front, giving us a very good side-by-side comparison.

Ruff – on the edge of the Serpentine

There was a nice selection of waders further back on Arnold’s Marsh, so we worked out way through them in turn – several Dunlin and a couple of Ringed Plovers, three or four Grey Plovers, Curlew, and four Avocets. One of the Avocets at the back was busy feeding, sweeping its bill from side to side in the shallow water. A single drake Pintail was over in the far corner too.

The rain never really got going and quickly stopped, so we headed back out to scan the brackish pool behind. There were more drake Pintail on here, busy upending in the deeper water, showing off their pointed tails, although they have yet to fully regrow their long pin-shaped central tail feathers. There were lots of Shoveler asleep on here too and several Little Grebes along the edge.

Carrying on towards the beach, a very close Curlew down in the pools just below the path looked up at us as we stopped, then decided we didn’t pose any threat and continued feeding. A Grey Heron walked out from the vegetation behind us.

Curlew – feeding close to the path

The sea was quite flat today. Several Red-throated Divers were just off the beach, so we got one or two of those in the scopes for a closer look. A Guillemot and Great Crested Grebe were on the sea and and one or two Gannets passed by further offshore.

There were still a few flocks of Starlings coming in over the sea, but the visible migration highlight of the morning was rather different. We picked up two very distant, dark birds, flying east and slowly bearing in towards the shore. Through the scopes, we could see they were two Marsh Harriers – migrants, most likely coming in for the winter. It used to be that Marsh Harriers were just summer visitors here, heading down to southern Europe or West Africa for the winter, but increasingly birds now remain here for the winter and are joined by others coming here from the continent. Great to witness!

After walking back down the East Bank, we had a quick look at the feeders in along the footpath at Walsey Hills. A nice selection of finches and tits popped in and out – Goldfinch, Greenfinch, Chaffinch, Blue Tits, Great Tit and a bonus Coal Tit. After a quick stop to use the facilities at the Visitor Centre, we then then drove east to West Runton.

When we drove down along Beach Road, we could already see the small crowd gathered on the clifftop looking out across a ploughed field, looking at a (Greater) Short-toed Lark. It had been found here yesterday and we had earlier seen the news that it was still present today and ‘showing well’. We parked and walked the small distance along the coast path to join them.

Just as we walked up, all the birds took off from the field and flew round. There was a large flock of Skylarks here and we managed to pick up the single Short-toed Lark in with them as they flew past, noticeably smaller and paler. It landed again out in the middle of the field, but as we got it in the scope we realised that the wind had picked up considerably and it was proving very hard to keep it steady and prevent it from blowing over (looking at the weather data later confirmed that just for a couple of hours around the middle of the day there were gusts of 38-39mph!).

Everything flew again before anyone could get a look through the scope and we lost sight of the Short-toed Lark. As we scanned to try to relocate it, the sun came out too. Normally that would be a thing to celebrate, but it meant we were looking straight into the sunlight, hampering matters further – just when we would have wanted cloud!

A rather frustrating period followed, when we kept getting tantalising glimpses of the Short-toed Lark, but the flock wouldn’t settle for any time in the wind. At one point, it landed very close to us, but we only just had time to get it in the scope before it flew again. Eventually the wind seemed to ease a little and the birds started to settle down a little more. Finally we got some good views of the Short-toed Lark, and some good comparisons with the accompanying Skylarks, larger, darker, more obviously streaked across the breast.

Short-toed Lark – finally showed well

Short-toed Lark is a scarce visitor here from southern Europe, where it spends the summer, regularly overshooting on its way from its wintering grounds in Africa south of the Sahara or wandering here in the autumn. It is more completely titled these days as Greater Short-toed Lark (to distinguish it from Lesser and other short-toed larks), but is still better known by its traditional, shorter name here. This is the first ‘twitchable’ Short-toed Lark to appear in Norfolk for several years, which is why it attracted a steady stream of admirers, us included.

After finally getting good views all round, we walked back to the benches by the beach shelter for a late lunch, looking out over the sea in the sunshine, admiring the House Sparrows on the feeders behind the cafe below and the pair of Dunnocks chasing around the flower beds. It was bright and sunny now but although the wind had dropped a little it was still quite breezy on the coast. With the forecast looking not so good for tomorrow, we decided to head inland to look for Stone Curlews for the remainder of the afternoon today.

After a long drive down to the Brecks, we stopped by the field where we have seen the Stone Curlews regularly in the last few months. A quick scan round the places they have been confirmed that there were none here today, just several Egyptian Geese and Red-legged Partridges here. Thankfully it was not too much of a surprise, as we knew they had been seen somewhere else in the last few days, so we moved quickly on to try there instead.

We took a very short detour back up the road first. As we had driven round here, one of the group had seen a bird of prey attack a Pheasant from the moving minibus right by the road and we thought there was an outside chance it might still be there. Unfortunately, all we found were a few feathers blowing in the breeze!

Then it was back to searching for Stone Curlews. We looked over the hedge where they had been in recent days and there they were. We gradually worked our way along to a gap in the hedge, so as not to disturb them, and set up the scopes to get a closer look. Frame-filling views of a large yellow eye looking back at us!

Stone Curlew – one of at least 26 today

As they grew accustomed to our presence, we could move more out into the open. From here, we could have a better scan and gradually spotted more and more Stone Curlews. We had a maximum count of 26 which we had in view at the same time, but there were probably still quite a few out of view, as birds were moving in and out of the vegetation. There were some great views in the scopes, and it was nice to watch them as they started to move around a little more. A large flock of Linnets was feeding in the weeds nearby.

The Stone Curlews are always one of the highlights of tours at this time of the year, but after we had all had a really good look we still had about half an hour before had to head back. It was still sunny with a fresh breeze and looking around we could see several Buzzards up, so we thought we would have a quick look to see if there were any Goshawks about. We drove to the edge of the forest and stopped overlooking the trees.

When we arrived there were promising signs – three Common Buzzards circled up above the trees and we picked up a Kestrel high overhead. Unfortunately, we were probably just a little late as the sun was starting to drop and the initial activity quickly subsided. A Mistle Thrush flew over and flocks of finches flew in and out of the weedy strip in the field opposite, Chaffinches and Linnets.

It was time to head back now and our main reason for coming down here, to look for Stone Curlews, had been a huge success.

29th Oct 2021 – Late Autumn, Day 1

Day 1 of a three day Late Autumn Tour in Norfolk. It was a rather blustery day, bright and even sunny at times, but with some squally showers which we thankfully largely managed to avoid.

We started the day at Holkham. As we drove up along Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see a Great White Egret out on the grazing marsh among the cows. It’s large size was clearly evident, next to the cattle, and when we got out we could see its long yellow dagger-like bill through the scopes.

There was lots of other life out on the grazing marshes. Lots of Wigeon and a Curlew in with them; a distant Common Buzzard perched on a bush at the back; a Red Kite drifted over in front of us.

Small groups of Pink-footed Geese were constantly flying over calling, very much the sound of the winter here in Norfolk. We could see some on the other side of the drive feeding on the grass behind the reeds, so we walked up to the far end where we could get a clear view. Through the scopes, we got a great look at their delicate pink-banded dark bills and pink legs. A pair of Egyptian Geese flew in and landed behind them and a Red-legged Partridge ran across the grass just behind.

Pink-footed Goose – great views by Lady Anne’s Drive

There were a few Blackbirds feeding on the grass below the hedge, but no other thrushes with them today. We did have a small flock of Redwings fly over though, and their were obviously other birds moving this morning – small flocks of Starlings heading on west, Siskins and Chaffinches over calling, and three Skylarks overhead. The Jays flying in and out of the trees too, though it is always hard to tell here whether they are just local birds or travellers from further afield.

One of the regular very pale Common Buzzards circled out of the trees, always a pitfall for the unwary here and regularly misidentified as something rarer. We could see the rather diffuse pale base to its tail as it circled. A more distant Marsh Harrier out towards Decoy Wood was our first of the trip, a young bird, very dark with just a paler head.

As we made our way over the boardwalk and out to the beach, a Goldcrest was flitting around in the bushes in the dunes. We often get migrant Goldcrests here at this time of year, though they have been in short supply this autumn so far and again it is hard to tell whether this one could just as easily have been a local bird dropping out of the pines to feed. Either way, it is amazing to think something so small could make it all the way across the North Sea.

Goldcrest – in the bushes in the dunes

There were more finches moving along the edge of the pines, mainly Chaffinches and Siskins flying over calling as we walked west along the edge of the saltmarsh. A Great Spotted Woodpecker and a lone Redwing flew over too.

The saltmarsh itself here was quiet today. A Little Egret flew up from the channels out towards the dunes and in towards us. A dead Guillemot had washed up along the tideline – there has been a rather worrying wreck of them this autumn, and at this stage it is still not entirely clear why.

At the corner of the cordon, we stopped to scan and immediately spotted the Shorelarks down at the far end. So we walked on a bit further, and got them in the scopes. There were four Shorelarks here today – visitors from Scandinavia and just arrived in the last couple of days, hopefully they will now stay with us for the winter and maybe be joined here by a few more. We had a great view as they picked around the sparse saltmarsh vegetation looking for seeds, working their way slowly towards us and eventually close past us.

Shorelark – one of four here today

With our main target here achieved, we continued on out to the beach. There were three dark juvenile Gannets plunge diving just offshore and a scattering of Guillemots and Razorbills out on the water. A brief shower blew in behind us, but we were sheltered in the lee of the dunes and it passed through quickly before the sky cleared and the sun came out.

Turning our attention back to the sea, we picked up a couple of small groups of Common Scoter bobbing out on the waves, although they were a little distant and not easy to see. A couple of silvery grey and white winter Sanderlings were running up and down on the shore in front of us.

Here too there were birds on the move. Several small groups of Brent Geese flew past out over the sea, and two Shelduck flew past – possibly freshly arrived back in from their moult migration to the continent. Some very distant flocks of Dunlin flashed grey and white in the sunshine as they passed. There was also a constant arrival of small flocks of Starlings coming in from the continent for the winter.

We walked back along the beach, hoping to find some Snow Buntings. We hadn’t gone too far when we stopped to admire a Common Gull on the shore. The auks were much closer here, in the surf just behind. While we were watching those, one of the group spotted a flock of small birds land on the beach further up towards the Gap. Snow Buntings! We turned the scopes on them and watched them scurrying about on the sand, with crowds of people and dogs passing by just beyond them.

Snow Buntings – 12 on the beach

The Snow Buntings flew up into the edge of the dunes, twelve of them, up into the edge of the marram. They didn’t seem to mind the people sitting around here, so we walked up for a closer look. We had great views of them here. One or two Meadow Pipits and a Reed Bunting appeared with them here too.

We stopped here to scan the sea again. There were several Red-throated Divers and Great Crested Grebes close in this end, but we couldn’t find anything else. So we decided to make our way back. As we rounded the corner of the dunes, we realised how much the wind had picked up now. Heads down, we made our way back in over the saltmarsh, where a large flock of Linnets flew up and whirled round before dropping down into the vegetation.

It had been a very successful morning, so when we got back through the pines we decided to break for lunch in The Lookout. It was still nice and sunny here when we finished, but we could see a dark shower cloud away to the west which thankfully missed us.

We scanned the grazing marshes, hoping to find the covey of Grey Partridge which is often here. We couldn’t see any sign today, but we did pick up a Kestrel which seemed to be feeding on something down in the grass. A flock of Greylags flew in honking noisily and landed away to our left. Looking over, we could see they had joined a small group of Pink-footed Geese down in grass, giving us a nice side-by-side comparison. A few Canada Geese further back were an addition to the trip list.

As we walked back to the minibus along Lady Anne’s Drive, two Great White Egrets were now chasing each other around the grazing marshes. The Wigeon and Pink-footed Geese were now very close to the fence, so we stopped for another quick look, admiring the variation in the drake Wigeon at different stages as they emerge from their drab eclipse plumage. Some of them are already looking very smart.

Wigeon – a smart drake emerged from eclipse

We drove back through Wells next, and stopped at the pools just east of town. As we got out of the minibus, we heard a Water Pipit call overhead and looked across to see two or three pipits drop down into the long grass west of the track. We scanned around the pools and found a few Meadow Pipits and a couple of Pied Wagtails here too before eventually two Water Pipits appeared. We managed to get a look at them in the scopes but they were rather flighty in the wind and eventually flew off high over the track and away to the east.

Otherwise, there were lots of Egyptian Geese and Wigeon out on the grass here and a single Redshank on the pools which are still haven’t refilled much. We turned our attention to the larger pool to the east of the track next. There were more Wigeon on here and as we started to scan through a Ruff flew across in front and landed out of view behind the rushes. We were going to walk down the track to look for it, but we could see very dark clouds to the west and it was already raining hard over the fields towards Wells, so we decided to wait. It was a good call, as it soon started to rain here and we took shelter back in the minibus.

Thankfully the rain passed over very quickly with the blustery wind, and it soon brightened up again. A male Marsh Harrier now flew in over the grass to the west and landed briefly for a drink at the pool at the back. Scanning the pool to the east again, a Black-tailed Godwit dropped in briefly before flying off west over the track. A flock of Golden Plover circled over in the sunshine, flashing alternately gold and white, before disappearing off back over the fields towards the saltmarsh. A Brown Hare ran across the grass in front of us.

We could see a line of gulls standing out in the shallow water and scanning through at first we could see mostly Black-headed Gulls and one Great Black-backed Gull. When we got to the end of the line we found a single adult Mediterranean Gull – it stood out noticeably with its pure white wing tips and heavier red bill.

There was a small flock of Brent Geese in the distance in a winter wheat field beyond the pools. In the sunshine, one shone noticeably paler than the others as it turned, so we quickly got it in the scopes. It was a single Pale-bellied Brent Goose, a much scarcer subspecies here, in with the much commoner Dark-bellied Brent Geese which always winter here from their breeding grounds in Siberia.

Pale-bellied Brent Goose – one, in with the Dark-bellied Brents

With the improvement in the weather, we finally set off for the planned walk down the track. A Common Snipe flew past. There were several Meadow Pipits picking around out on the mud, but nothing with them now. A couple of Common Buzzards were perched on the tops of the bushes at the back and a male Marsh Harrier flew in over the fields beyond.

From the far end of the track, we looked back into the far corner of the eastern pool. We could see several Black-tailed Godwits feeding in the deeper water here now, but no sign of the Ruff we had seen earlier. A couple of distant Shoveler were right over at the back.

Continuing on through the bushes and up onto the seawall, we scanned the saltmarsh. There were a few Little Egrets out here, several Curlews on the mud, a group of Redshanks roosting on mud on edge of channel and we picked up a single Grey Plover out on the vegetation. A distant Marsh Harrier quartered out towards East Hills. As we walked down to scan the westernmost pool, an adult Peregrine flew in past us, before disappearing off over Wells.

Peregrine – flew past us

There was nothing of note on the pool, so we walked back along the seawall and continued on along the coast path through the small copse. There were still birds moving at this late stage of the afternoon – a small flock of Siskin flew past us along the hedge line and carried on west, followed by three Chaffinches.

We walked a short distance further before stopping to scan out over the saltmarsh. Several Marsh Harriers were still out hunting, flying back and forth. A Merlin zipped low across at the back, before we lost sight of it in front of the dunes of East Hills. Then we picked up a distant Short-eared Owl circling in very high over the dunes. Not a great view perhaps, but interesting nonetheless – possibly a new arrival, fresh in from the continent.

We were hoping for a Hen Harrier, but we had managed to see everything but instead! Perhaps it was still a little too early in the evening – after the earlier showers, it was bright and sunny but cool now, and the wind had dropped noticeably. They were probably taking advantage of the improvement in the weather to stay out hunting until the last. We would have other opportunities, and it was unfortunately time to head back now.

Back at the minibus, as we were packing up, we heard Grey Partridges calling in the stubble field behind. We walked over and scanned and picked out some heads coming up from time to time out of the cut stubble towards the top of the brow. We got the scopes on them and eventually they came out into view, running across the field, a small covey of them.

It was a nice way to wrap up our first day. We had been very successful today – hopefully more to come tomorrow.

10th Oct 2021 – Autumn 4-day Tour, Day 4

Day 4 of a four day Autumn Tour in Norfolk today, our last day. It was a grey and misty start again, which turned into drizzly rain for about half an hour mid-morning. But after that, it brightened up and there were some sunny intervals in the afternoon.

With big high tides at the moment, we decided to drive over to Snettisham for the Wader Spectacular. It meant an early start, and it was only just starting to get light when we met in Wells. We were a bit later than planned by the time we got out onto the seawall and the tide was already in as far as the crossbank. There was a big RSPB event on to, with loads of people and cars parked on the seawall. We decided to head straight on down to Rotary hide.

We had just stopped to scan from the bank in front of the hide, when the waders started swirling. It was a bit misty out over the Wash and we couldn’t see what had spooked them, but we were treated to some great action as the flocks of Knot flew back and forth over the mud, pulling an ever changing variety of shapes.

Waders – flocks of Knot pulling shapes

A Spoonbill circled low over the channel in front of us, before landing down on the mud. It started to feed in some of the shallow pools just across the channel, sweeping its bill back and forth as it walked. Pretty quickly, the tide filled the pools and the Spoonbill found itself mid-channel. It flew off up over the Pit.

We could hear Pink-footed Geese out in the mist and saw a small flock fly round and land again on the mud. More flew in from inland, flying over our heads calling and joined them out on the Wash.

Once they landed again, a lot of the Knot were gathered on the shore just across the channel from us. They were very well camouflaged against the grey of the mud, but with the naked eye you could make out a vast slick slightly darker then the background. The Oystercatchers had already gathered higher up on the mud, away to our left, and the black being more contrasting had formed another, more obvious slick over there.

Knot – gathered on the mud across the channel

There were lots of other waders scattered more widely over the mud in front of the Knot. We scanned through them, lots of Dunlin, Ringed Plover, one or two silvery-white Sanderling, Grey Plovers and Bar-tailed Godwits. A Spotted Redshank dropped in briefly in the channel, giving us just enough time to get the scopes on it quickly before it flew past us up the channel calling.

At first, many of the Knot were flying away from the rising tide, as they usually do. We saw the ones on the water’s edge several times flying up and over those still on drier ground, landing again on the other side of them. The Oystercatchers normally walk away from the tide, but today the Knot closer to us were doing the same, the whole flock seeming to flow across the mud.

With so many people here today, we decided to walk straight on down to the south end to secure a spot from where we could look out over the mud and watch the unfolding spectacle. The Knot on the front edge left early today, didn’t wait to be squashed in to the corner, peeling off in waves and flying in past us. The Oystercatchers also started to fly in, in a succession of small groups and lines, piping noisily.

Knot – some came in early

The remainder of the Knot were getting increasingly packed into the last remaining corner of mud. It had already started to drizzle, but just ahead of the climax it got harder, just at the wrong moment. Many people left and headed into the hides. We stayed out to watch and started to get rather wet!

Finally the Knot came in, taking off in a series of waves and coming in over us. We listened to thousands of pairs of wings beating overhead, and turned away from the rain to watch them swirling down onto the Pit behind.

Knot – dropping down onto the Pit

With so many people here today, the hides were full and we could see people outside on the banks. Some had even climbed over the fences to be able to find somewhere they could view the Pit. Once most of the Knot were in and there were only a few waders left out on the Wash, we decided we needed to seek shelter, so we walked back up to Rotary Hide, the unfashionable hide, just to get out of rain. We could see the Knot gathered on some of the islands to the south. There were a few ducks out on the water this end, mainly Wigeon, plus a couple of Shoveler.

Grey Plover – on the island in front

We watched lots of people leaving early, trooping past the front of the hide, heads down in the rain. So when it stopped raining, we decided to walk back down and try our luck in the other hides. We managed to get straight in to Shore Hide now. The island in front of the hide was typically mostly empty, but a smart Grey Plover was on there today, along with a couple of Dunlin and Ringed Plover.

Three Spotted Redshanks were roosting on the rocks in the middle of the Pit with the Cormorants, in their usual spot. A little group of Common Redshanks flew in to join them and the Spotted Redshanks woke up, showing their longer, needle fine bills.

Spotted Redshanks – three, with Common Redshanks

As more people left, we managed to get up to the end of the hide to scan the island just to the north. There were not many Knot on there today so the island was mostly empty, but there were still a good number of Dunlin. Scanning through carefully, we found a single Little Stint in with them. Then all the waders spooked and took off, and although a lot of the Dunlin landed again the Little Stint didn’t come back in.

Most of Knot were roosting down at the south end today, on the shingle bank on the side of the Pit. As we walked on round to South Hide, a line of Knot came out of the Pit and flew out over the Wash, but they were too early still and before we had even got round to the hide they came back and dropped back in to the roost.

We managed to get straight in to South Hide too now. It was well worth it – an amazing sight, a grey carpet of Knot packed in tight on the shingle bank in front, shoulder to shoulder, so you could almost struggle to tell they were even birds. There were Oystercatchers above them, higher up the slope, one or two Dunlin around the edges and a Turnstone feeding on the vegetation in front. But it was mostly an amazing mass of Knot.

Knot – roosting on the bank
Knot – packed in shoulder to shoulder

The sun had come out now, and caught the Knot as they turned, alternately flashing grey and white. They were constantly shuffling, birds at one end of the flock getting pushed, setting off waves which ran through the flock. Birds at the bottom edge getting pushed into the water and swimming across to join other know on the island. A single Oystercatcher flew in and landed in the middle of the Knot, but quickly realised its mistake.

Knot – the flock kept shuffling

About half an hour after high tide, we decided to head back out to the edge of the Wash. We were still walking out as the first wave of Knot came out in a long line. A whole succession of small groups came out, and we positioned ourselves underneath the flight line, although this kept shifting, as the birds were always moving just away from the people standing on the bank.

Knot – started to fly back out in a series of waves

There were already quite a lot of Knot out on the Wash and they started to spread out as more and more mud became exposed by the falling tide, the birds flying up and settling again further down. Then something spooked them and they started to twist and turn, flashing in the sunshine.

Knot – twisting & turning in the sunshine

We were just watching the unfolding spectacle out in front of us, when we heard a loud ‘whoosh’ behind us and turned to see a huge mass of Knot erupt from the bank of the Pit. We didn’t know which way to look – some continued to watch the birds twisting and turning in the sunshine over the Wash, other turned and marvelled as the huge wave of birds came out right over our heads from the Pit. Stunning either way!

Knot – a huge wave erupted from the Pit

The weather was much nicer now, and it was very pleasant standing and watching the birds on the Wash. As the tide receded, the birds gradually spread out across the mud. A juvenile Common Tern flew past along the shore, and a Sandwich Tern flew out over Wash. We picked up a couple of Gannets distantly out over the water too.

There were lots of Shelduck on the water and a large flock of Pintail flew in and landed in with them. Some of the drake Pintail are just starting to get a little ghosting of their breeding plumage again now. A Guillemot was bobbing on the water behind.

There were a few raptors out over the saltmarsh beyond this morning – a couple of Marsh Harriers, a Common Buzzard and a Kestrel – but we couldn’t find any of the Peregrines today. The Knot occasionally took off, turning in the sun, before landing further out on the mud each time. The tide was well out now.

We walked back to the minibus and headed round to Titchwell for an early lunch. We only had a couple of hours, as we planned to finish a little early today after the very early start, so we headed out onto the reserve.

The reedbed was quiet and there was nothing on the pool again today. We stopped by Island Hide, and there were couple of Bearded Tits in the reeds again, coming up to the tops occasionally just below us.

Scanning the freshmarsh from the bank by the new bund, we admired the huge flock of Golden Plover and some nice Lapwings which looked stunning in the sunshine. There were more Avocet here today – a group of nine roosting together on one of the island and several more scattered round feeding, at least 14 in total. Otherwise, there was a scattering of Dunlin and a few Ruff. There were Curlews out on the saltmarsh behind and a Common Snipe flew round.

According to the volunteers we met, there had been a couple of Spotted Redshank from Parrinder Hide, so we popped in for a quick look. We couldn’t find any sign of them now. Scanning the back of the Freshmarsh from the terrace higher up, there were lots of Black-tailed Godwits. A Rock Pipit was feeding along the edge of the new bank.

Lapwing – stunning in the sunshine

We wanted to have a quick look out at the sea. There had been some of the scarcer grebes here in the last couple of days, but according to the volunteers there had been no sign so far today. Scanning from the top of the beach, we could just see Great Crested Grebes too. There were quite a few auks again, Razorbills and Guillemots, though they were further out today. A Red-throated Diver flew west along the shore, then turned in and flew round over the mussel beds, before heading off down the beach towards Brancaster.

There was a report of a Cattle Egret on Patsy’s Reedbed this afternoon, so we thought we could swing by on the way back. It turned out we didn’t need to, and it had saved us the walk. As we got to the Freshmarsh, we noticed it standing on the new bank across the middle in with the Black-headed Gulls. We got it in the scopes and had a good look. A nice bird to add to the list and a good way to end the trip.

Cattle Egret – on the bank with the gulls

Unfortunately it was time to head back now. As we walked back into the trees, a couple of Siskins flew over calling, and landed in the alders on the edge of Thornham Grazing Marsh. Then we headed back to the car park. It had been a very enjoyable four days of Autumn birding in Norfolk – not awash with migrants this year, the weather had not been right, had been a little too good most of the time – but we had still managed to dig out some very good birds anyway.

9th Oct 2021 – Autumn 4-day Tour, Day 3

Day 3 of a four day Autumn Tour in Norfolk today. It was a misty start again, and although it brightened up and there were some nice sunny intervals, it remained rather hazy. It was warm in the sunshine though, a lovely day to be out if a little too good for producing migrants.

Our destination for the morning was Holkham. Parking at Lady Anne’s Drive, it was misty looking out across the grazing marshes. There were lots of Greylag Geese close to the road, and a few distant Pinkfeet down in the grass, with more flying over calling. A Grey Heron flew in and landed in the middle, looking very evocative in the mist, amongst the spiders’ webs covered in dew.

Grey Heron – in the morning mist

We managed to find a small group of Grey Partridges out in the grass too, which we got in the scopes. They disappeared into one of the channels, so we walked further up to see if they would come out again closer to The Lookout, but we couldn’t find them again.

Walking west, on the south side of the pines, we could hear a few tits in the trees, particularly the squeaky song of Coal Tits, but none close enough to the path to see. We did see a couple of Goldcrests flicking around in the pines.

Out at Salts Hole, there were several Little Grebes out on the water, diving, chasing each other, and laughing maniacally. A few Gadwall were on here today with the Mallards. We heard a Kingfisher call and looked over to see it on one of the posts at the back, but it didn’t stop long and quickly flew off behind the trees.

Little Grebe – one of several on Salts Hole

Continuing west, we heard Long-tailed Tit calling and thought we had found a tit flock, but it turned out to be just one Long-tailed Tit on its own which came out of the trees and moved quickly on past us. We stopped to scan from the gate – a couple of Linnets and a Reed Bunting flew up into the top of the large hawthorn on the edge of the ditch. A male Pheasant was shining in the morning sunshine. A Marsh Harrier flew across behind the reedbed. Two Great White Egrets came up at the back, one seemingly chasing the other off.

At the boardwalk by Washington Hide, the sycamores were very quiet, so we walked on to the end to look out at the beach. It was a big high tide again this morning, only just starting to go back out now. We could see a line of birds roosting on the sandbar, which had been the high point of the beach just beyond the dunes. Six Sandwich Terns were standing on the edge of a small group of Black-headed Gulls. There was a large huddle of Sanderling nearby, with a couple of Ringed Plover and a few Dunlin with them. Scanning further along, we found more Grey Plover, along with two or three Bar-tailed Godwits.

Looking out at the sea beyond, we could see lots of Red-throated Divers on the water, several Great Crested Grebes, and a scattering of Razorbills and Guillemots. As we had seen yesterday at Cley, there appear to be lots of seabirds feeding unusually close inshore at the moment.

Back to the boardwalk, we had a quick scan of the grazing marshes. There were lots of Pink-footed Geese out on the grass in the distance but no sign of any Great White Egrets now. A Marsh Harrier circled up with two Common Buzzards. One of the Buzzards chased after the Harrier, and as they flew towards us, we could see the latter had something in talons. The Buzzard swooped at the Harrier until it dropped it, the Buzzard then catching it in midair. The two then landed down on the grass, the Buzzard eating, while the Marsh Harrier looked on hungrily.

There were lots of Common Darters basking on the boardwalk handrail as we dropped back down to the track. Three paragliders came west over the grazing marshes, making lots of noise and flushing all the Pink-footed Geese and Greylags, which flew round calling.

Pink-footed Geese – flushed by paragliders

Further on, we could hear Goldcrests and tits in the trees as we rounded the corner by Meals House. As we stopped to look, a Yellow-browed Warbler started calling in the sycamores. It appeared briefly out of the ivy, but promptly flew across the path and disappeared into the garden. Thankfully it quickly came back into the sycamores and we had a better view now, as it flicked around in the leaves, before it disappeared into the trees behind. Our third Yellow-browed Warbler in three days – a pretty good return, given how scarce they have been this year.

Moving on, just before the crosstracks we heard a Mistle Thrush call and looked up to see five flying east overhead. A smaller thrush on the end of the line was a single Redwing. There were Siskins calling over the pines too – we heard them all the way down – but be only had a quick glimpse of one or two as they flew over. There were Jays moving again too today, but fewer Starlings than the previous couple of days. We would have hoped to see more thrushes and finches coming in from the continent at this time of year, but perhaps the weather is just too good at the moment.

Jay – one of three moving high east

We saw some people going into Joe Jordan Hide ahead of us, so we decided to continue straight on past the crosstracks. Another tit flock was in the edge of the pines just beyond, and flew across to the small grove of trees in the reeds just beyond. We could see several Long-tailed Tits preening in the hawthorns and two Treecreepers chasing each other round the trunk of one.

Looking out towards Decoy Wood out on the grazing marsh beyond, we could see a Great White Egret standing on the edge of the reeds. We got it in the scope, so we could see its long, yellow dagger of a bill.

We walked on to the west end of the pines. It was warming up nicely now in the sunshine and there were more dragonflies out, mostly Common and Ruddy Darters, and one or two Migrant Hawkers too. We stopped to scan from the gate, and could see several Stonechats along the new fence line, but nothing else of note.

As we walked in through the trees to the start of the dunes, we could hear several Chiffchaffs calling. There had apparently been a Siberian Chiffchaff earlier, but despite listening carefully and looking in all the most likely trees, we couldn’t find any sign now. We sat down by one of the dells in the edge of the dunes for a rest – they are usually full of sylvia warblers at this time of year, but despite lots of berries on the bushes it was disappointingly quiet today.

Once everyone had recovered, we headed back for lunch. We planned to have lunch in The Lookout. As a few of the group went to get the food from the minibus, a Grey Wagtail flew in calling and dropped down by a puddle under the holm oaks at the top of Lady Anne’s Drive briefly.

Grey Wagtail – dropped in by Lady Anne’s Drive briefly

After lunch, we had a quick walk out to the beach. There were lots of Black-headed Gulls feeding on the wet saltmarsh as we passed, presumably with food washed in by this morning’s big tide. A Rock Pipit flew over the saltmarsh calling and there were several Meadow Pipits feeding on the edge of the dunes.

With a few reported along the coast in the last few days, we were hoping for one of the scarcer divers or grebes here – Holkham Bay is often a good place for them in autumn. There were lots of birds on the sea here. A small raft of seven Common Scoter was just offshore, with a single redhead Red-breasted Merganser close by. There were lots of Red-throated Divers and Great Crested Grebes again, but despite trying hard we couldn’t find anything else. There were lots of auks this end of the beach too.

We were just about to leave, but a last scan through the gulls along the shoreline revealed another young Caspian Gull, once again a first calendar year bird. It was lovely out on the beach, but we had one more thing we wanted to do this afternoon, so we walked back to the minibus.

We drove inland this time, down to the edge of the Brecks. We were looking for Stone Curlews, so we pulled up by a field where they are regularly to be found. Scanning from the first gate, we immediately located our first three, even if they were a little distant. They were just beyond a dip in the ground, and eventually we managed to see six Stone Curlews from here, as more moved into view. There were lots of Starlings and Lapwings in the fields here too, plus Linnets and several Pied Wagtails.

Driving further down the road, we stopped to scan from another gateway. As we looked back, we could see more Stone Curlews now we were looking from a different angle, and while we watched, still more stood up or appeared from behind vegetation. Scanning with the scopes, we could count at least seventeen now. They were closer from here too, a much better view, and we could see their bright yellow eyes.

Stone Curlew – one of at least 21 today

We watched the Stone Curlew for a while. The Brecks is one of their two strongholds in the UK, and they are mainly summer visitors here. Most will soon be on their way down to Iberia or North Africa for the winter. Just as we were about to leave, we had a last scan round all the fields and found another four distantly looking the other way. The ground slopes away here, so there were probably still more out of view. Still, we were happy to settle for at least 21! It was a nice way to end the day, and a new bird for several of the group.