16th Mar 2020 – Last of the Brecks

A Private Tour today, down in the Brecks. With Government advice to limit travel and social interactions in the light of the worsening Covid-19 epidemic coming after we finished today, this will be the last of any Bird Tours for the next few weeks, though we didn’t know it at the time. Blissfully unaware, we had a great day out – it was mostly cloudy but dry, with some brighter intervals around the middle of the day, and light winds.

Having met in the car park at Lynford, where a Chiffchaff was singing in the trees, we drove off into the Forest to look for Woodlarks. As we pulled up by a clearing and got out, we could hear one singing straight away and picked it up perched high in a deciduous tree on the far side. There were a lot of dog walkers out this morning though, enjoying the better weather today, and someone walked along the path under the trees where the Woodlark was singing and it dropped down into the middle of the clearing.

Another Woodlark dropped into the trees right behind us now, calling. We got the scopes on it quickly, but it was off again before everyone could get a look at it. It flew over and landed in another tree a short distance down the ride, so we walked down for a closer look. Again, we had a good look at it through the scopes but it was quickly on the move again, flying over us and away over the trees.

The first Woodlark was back in the trees on the far side again, so we decided to set off round in that direction. A Mistle Thrush was singing away in a wood over the field and we could hear a Green Woodpecker yaffling. Before we could get to it, the Woodlark dropped down to the ground. When we got round to where it had landed, we stopped and started to scan. We couldn’t find any sign of it at first, but we did notice a flock of Redwings had flown up into the top of a large tree over by the car park now, so we got the scopes on them.

While we were watching the Redwings, the Woodlark flushed from further along the path and flew off over the clearing. This time it fluttered up into the sky and we could hear it singing high over our heads. We watched it flying round over the clearing, singing, noting its distinctive short-tailed, round-winged silhouette. When it dropped sharply back down to the ground, it landed on the top of one of the young pine trees where this time it lingered long enough to get a better look at it.

Woodlark

Woodlark – landed in the top of a young pine tree

There were lots of Yellowhammers around the clearing too today. On the way back round, a nice bright male was perched in the top of an oak tree by the path. Having enjoyed good views of the Woodlarks, we decided to move on.

As it was not too far from here, we decided to head over to Fincham next. As we drove up along Black Drove, we couldn’t see anything on the wires. A car was parked further up and someone was standing next to it with a scope set up. As we pulled up alongside, he told us the Great Grey Shrike had been around earlier but had just disappeared. We drove further up and scanned the bushes and hedges and by the time we had turned around and come back the shrike had reappeared.

We parked on the verge and got out, setting up our scopes on the Great Grey Shrike which was now perched obligingly on a bare branch on a tree the far side of the field. We watched it for a while, periodically dropping down to the ground to look for food before flying up into the top of another small tree further along the edge of the field.

Great Grey Shrike

Great Grey Shrike – hunting from the tops of the young trees across the field

There was lots of other activity here too. Several Skylarks were singing and a pair of Lapwings were displaying out in the fields. Further back, we could see several Roe Deer lying down in front of a distant hedge. A pair of Brown Hares were over to one side of the field in front of us and, when a third Hare came running over the three of them stood looking at each other for a minute for setting off on a chase.

The Hares kept stopping and looking at each other. One did a bit of shadow boxing then there were some full on fisticuffs between a couple of them, all interspersed with chasing round. When the third Hare was finally seen off, the remaining pair chased each other, the male running after the female, but she was not interested in his advances and kept kicking out at him whenever he got close.

Brown Hares

Brown Hares – of the ‘Mad March’ variety

It was brightening up now and we knew this would be our best chance of seeing a Goshawk today, so we drove back into the Forest. It was not ideal conditions, with very little wind, but at least it was warming up nicely as parked overlooking the trees. Good numbers of Common Buzzards were already circling up – we had nine together above our heads at one point, even engaging in a bit of swooping display.

The first Goshawk we picked up was quite distant, circling above the trees away to our left, but it was good to get one in the bag early on. It was clearly a different shape to the Common Buzzards, paler below and greyer above. Then another one appeared off to our right. It was thermalling up with a small group of Common Buzzards and quickly gained height until it was way up in the sky.

The third Goshawk was a little closer, but circled up rapidly too before turning and flying in across the road away to our right. They were not displaying much today, probably, due to the lack of wind, but this latest one did break into a short burst of slow flapping display as it flew across. A very distant Sparrowhawk did put on a bit of rollercoaster display, while a second one a bit closer was just circling up like the Goshawks, but clearly smaller and slighter and with a more pinched in tail.

The surprise of the morning was a Merlin which shot across in front of the trees at the back of the field, disappearing from view before reappearing as it flew over the road and out across the fields behind us. They are scarce in winter this far inland, so this was a real bonus to see one here.

Otherwise, there were lots of Skylarks singing here and Yellowhammers, Linnets and Meadow Pipits flying in and out of the fields. A mixed flock of Fieldfares and Starlings kept dropping out of the pines and into the back of the field behind us.

The Stone Curlews have just started to return to the Brecks and we planned to have a quick drive round before lunch to see if we could find one. Someone else we knew had gone on ahead to do the same, so it was very helpful when we received a message to say that he had found one. We drove straight over and were soon watching it out in a stony field.

Stone Curlew

Stone Curlew – a recent arrival back in the Brecks

By the time we got there, we were told there were actually three Stone Curlews, but the other two were down in the furrows and not visible from where we were standing. Still, we figured one was enough for us and eventually one of the others did stand up so we could see two of them together.

We went round to Brandon for lunch. It was brighter now and it felt rather spring-like eating outside on the picnic tables. A Nuthatch was piping up in the trees and one or two tits were coming and going from the feeders. After lunch, we walked down to the lake. There were five Mandarin here today, a pair on the platform on the outside of the duck house and another three, two males and a female, on the water over the far side, which swam over to join the others as we walked up.

Mandarin

Mandarin – one of five on the lake today

Our final destination for the day was Lynford Arboretum. As we walked in, a Nuthatch flew up from the ground by the entrance where some food had been put out and up into a nearby pine tree. In contrast, there was no food left on the ground further along, looking down under the trees from the gate, and there were very few birds here today. We continued on down to the paddocks.

A male Hawfinch was down on the ground under the first hornbeam when we arrived, but it was just over a small ridge and in the long grass we could only see its head up occasionally. A greyer female then appeared under the tree too, a little easier to see than the male.

We could hear the quiet ticking calls of a Hawfinch in the trees and looked across to see two males now in the middle hornbeam. Through the scope, we had a much better view of these before they dropped down through the branches and we lost sight of them.

Hawfinch

Hawfinch – there were at least four in the paddocks this afternoon

We picked up a Hawfinch in the ash trees next, but it quickly dropped down and we realised there were at least three now feeding on the ground below. Again, they seemed to know how to hide and were mostly just over a low ridge in the grass. When they flew up into the trees we couldn’t see them from where we were, so we walked up to the far end of the paddocks and found them again in the third hornbeam. They were a bit more distant from here, but they were now not moving so quickly, perched in the branches preening.

There were a couple of Mistle Thrushes in the paddocks too, and we could see them out on the grass from here. A few Redwings flew in and landed high in the trees. Two Grey Herons came up from the direction of the lake.

Back at the bridge, there were lots of birds coming and going from the food on the bridge. We stood for a while and watched and had great views of Siskins here today, with several birds on the feeders, and a selection of tits including Marsh Tits and Long-tailed Tits feeding on the fat in the coconut shells. A Great Spotted Woodpecker and a Treecreeper didn’t linger long enough for everyone to see them.

Siskin

Siskin – we had great views of them today, coming down to the feeders

The Little Grebe was laughing madly again from the reeds behind us, so we took a quick walk along the path which runs down beside the lake. It was out on the front edge of the reeds at first, but dived as soon as it saw us and then tried to hide in the vegetation. We could just see it in the reeds as it resurfaced. There were a couple of Gadwall in with the Mallards on the water and Canada Geese and Greylags on the lawn in front of the hotel.

As we made our way back up through the Arboretum, we stopped to look at the Tawny Owl perched high in its usual tree. There was only one there again today, and it had managed to tuck itself even further in amongst the branches, but with a bit of trial and error we found an angle where we could get a scope on it. A Goldcrest was flitting around high in the trees nearby.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – well hidden in its usual tree today

Back up at the gate, there was still very little activity down on the ground under the trees. Looking in the blackthorn on the other side, on the edge of the orchard, we could see at least seven Yellowhammers in the white blossom. There were several Chaffinches too, but we couldn’t find any Bramblings here today – presumably they were feeding elsewhere, given the lack of food on the ground.

Unfortunately, it was time to call it a day now. It was just a short walk back to the car park, where we had started the day and where we now bade our farewells.

14th Mar 2020 – Back to Breckland

A scheduled group Brecks Tour today. The overnight rain took slightly longer to clear through this morning than forecast, but once it did the rest of the day was mostly dry and even brightened up nicely around the middle of the day.

It was still drizzling lightly when we met down in the Brecks and as we drove round and pulled up by a clearing in the forest. There were no Woodlarks singing when we arrived, so we stopped to scan the paddocks opposite. A small group of Redwings was feeding down on the grass and a single bright male Brambling was in with some Chaffinches.

A Green Woodpecker was yaffling from somewhere in the trees – it was unusually vocal this morning and its calls followed us round continually all the time we were here. A pair of Marsh Tits called to each other but moved through the trees in the back of the parking area very quickly. A Treecreeper paused slightly longer, working its way up the trunks of a couple of the trees before flying off.

Once the drizzle had stopped, we set off to walk round the clearing. There was no shortage of Yellowhammers here this morning – singing, calling, perching very obligingly in the tops of the trees. But we couldn’t find any sign of the Woodlarks, either round the clearing or feeding in the field next door where they can usually be found. Given the weather, they had probably gone off to find somewhere sheltered. A Mistle Thrush was singing from the trees across the field.

We decided to try our luck in the next clearing a little further down the ride into the forest. At first, here too all we could find were more Yellowhammers but as we walked along the back of the clearing a pair of Woodlarks came in over the trees behind us. We watched as they fluttered across, short-tailed, and appeared to drop down on the edge of the ride.

When we got back round to the ride, we could see the male Woodlark perched on a tussock on the verge. We got it in the scopes and had a good look at it, before it walked quietly into the long grass. We then walked slowly down the ride to where it had disappeared and could now see the pair feeding quietly between the rows of young trees. It was a great opportunity to compare the two – the male with a brighter pale supercilium and rustier ear coverts. We could also see the distinctive way their supercilia met in a shallow ‘v’ on the back of the neck.

Woodlark 1

Woodlark – we watched the pair feeding quietly in the grass

While we were watching the Woodlarks, a large flock of Redwings came low over the tops of the pines nearby. They have been on the move recently, coming back across the country ahead of making the journey back to Scandinavia for the breeding season, and these were probably migrants which were stopping off here. A Sparrowhawk shot fast and low out of the trees and across the track.

Rather like buses, there were now Woodlarks everywhere! As we walked back along the ride to the first clearing, we could now hear one singing here too. We found it perched in the top of a tree right at the back, but still through the scope we could see its bill opening and closing as it sang. Then another pair of Woodlarks flew up from the clearing and landed in a tree close to us, where we could see the female was carrying nesting material.

When the female Woodlark dropped down to the ground, the male flew to another tree right by the path, where it perched preening and singing quietly. We had fill the frame views through the scope now, with a good look at its extraordinary long hind claws.

Woodlark 2

Woodlark – singing quietly in a tree while the female fed on the ground below

Having finally enjoyed such great views of the Woodlarks, we decided to head straight round to try our luck with Goshawks next. It was still very grey and cloudy, with a fresh wind blowing, but at least there was a vague hint of some paler cloud to the west.

As we parked at a spot overlooking the forest, our prospects didn’t immediately look promising. There were not even any Common Buzzards up now. There were several Skylarks singing, a pair of Lapwings displaying behind us, a Curlew feeding in a recently ploughed strip and two Brown Hares in a field. A large flock of Fieldfares flew in over our heads tchacking loudly and landed in the tops of the trees behind us, where we could get the scopes on them. There were a few more Redwings in with them too – we could hear their teeezing calls as the flew over. More winter thrushes on the move.

Gradually, one or two Common Buzzards came up although they were not gaining any great height this morning. A few crumbs of encouragement perhaps. Then the clouds changed from dark grey to light grey and that was all that was needed. A male Goshawk circled up out of the trees. Its white undertail coverts were fluffed out and it started to fly with deep, exaggerated wingbeats, displaying.

That would have been good enough on its own today, but then another Goshawk appeared over the trees closer to us. Through the scopes we could see this one was browner above and more buffy-coloured below, a young bird from last year, now in its second calendar year, and it was big too, a female. It started to display as well, presumably the reason why the male had come up to remind the youngster that this was its territory. We could get both birds in the scopes displaying at one point, and then the male turned and chased after the young female, and we lost sight of both of them behind the trees.

Goshawk

Goshawk – this 2cy female was one of 4 up this morning

Scanning over the trees again now, we realised there was another pair of Goshawks up displaying much further over. We had gone from none to four up displaying in a matter of minutes. A distant Marsh Harrier circling up was more of a surprise to see here. Then the young female Goshawk appeared above the tops of the trees in front of us again and we turned our attention back to that. It had clearly not learnt its lesson!

Eventually, when the last Goshawk disappeared from view, we decided to move on. Someone told us there had been a couple of Stone Curlews around earlier, so we decided to go looking to see if we could find them. They are only just returning now. As we drove up the road, several Roe Deer were flushed out of the trees by a truck driving through them and scattered out across the fields beside the road. A couple of Shelduck were on the edge of a flooded dip in a field beside the road.

Unfortunately, there was no sign of the Stone Curlews now (we were warned there had been a Land Rover driving across the field earlier) and all we could find were a couple of Oystercatchers. We tried another nearby field they often favour, but there was no sign of any there either, although we did find a pair of Grey Partridge in the gateway to the field opposite. Back round the other side of the first field, another quick scan failed too. One or two Tree Sparrows were calling in the hedge here.

It was time for lunch now, so we made our way over to Brandon. With the sun now just about shining, it was nice eating out on the picnic tables, where a Nuthatch was piping in the trees. Afterwards, a quick walk down to the lake produced a couple of pairs of Mandarin Ducks, with one of them feeding out on the grass and the other on the water in the reeds. A Goldcrest was singing in the fir trees above us.

Mandarin

Mandarin Duck – a smart drake, one of four birds still today

We didn’t want to run the risk of missing the Hawfinches, so we made our way straight round to Lynford Arboretum after lunch. As we walked in along the track, two people waved at us from the gate to say a Hawfinch was showing from there. When we got over, there was indeed a female Hawfinch down on the ground not very far from us. A great view!

Hawfinch 1

Hawfinch – this female was on the ground in front of the gate when we arrived

All the birds spooked and flew up into the trees, but after a minute or so the Hawfinch dropped down again, just a little further back. We watched it hopping around, picking at the seed put down in the leaves for a couple of minutes before everything spooked again. We waited for a while, watching all the other birds coming and going, but the Hawfinch did not come back a third time.

There were plenty of other birds here though – with several Bramblings feeding down with the Chaffinches. They have been in short supply this winter, so it is always great to see some and one or two were very close again today. There were several Yellowhammers too, a Nuthatch, and a selection of tits, all coming down to feed.

Brambling

Brambling – good views of several of these too, from the gate

Despite having enjoyed good views of the female Hawfinch from the gate, we still headed down to the paddocks to see if we could see some more. There were at least six more here, including at least four smart males, more richly chestnut coloured than the greyer-brown females. They were all up in the hornbeams when we arrived, so we got the scopes on them and admired their huge, cherry stone-cracking bills.

It was hard to tell exactly how many there were, with some hidden in amongst the tangles of branches and with other birds flying back and forth between the trees. Some of the Hawfinches then flew over to the first hornbeam and dropped down to feed on the ground. We had good views of a male and female feeding together here.

Hawfinch 2

Hawfinch – we watched some feeding under the trees in the paddocks

Eventually we had to tear ourselves away from the Hawfinches and we walked back to the bridge. There had been no food put out when we walked down, but we had sprinkled a couple of generous handfuls of sunflower seeds out earlier and there was now a steady procession of birds coming and going.

As well as the ever present Blue Tits and Great Tits, a couple of Long-tailed Tits popped in briefly and a Marsh Tit kept darting in and out. A Nuthatch would have come in too, but some people were standing too close to the pillar and it kept shooting past and not stopping, landing instead in the trees either side. There were several Siskins in the alders here too.

Nuthatch

Nuthatch – reluctant to come in to the seed, with people standing too close

A Little Grebe was laughing madly from the reeds in the lake behind us, so we had a quick walk down beside the water. We couldn’t find the Little Grebe in the reeds but we did find another one diving under the overhanging branches in the middle of the lake. We got the scope on a drake Gadwall to admire the intricacy of the patterns of its feathers.

As we made our way back through the Arboretum, we stopped to look at the Tawny Owl in its usual tree. There was only one here today, and it was well hidden in the branches high in the tree, but after some trial and error we found a good angle where we could get a half decent view of it through the scopes. A Goldcrest was flitting around high in the fir trees above us while we were watching it.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – just one today, well hidden in its usual tree

We still had enough time to fit in a quick trip up to Fincham to see if we could see the Great Grey Shrike. There was no one else there when we arrived and no sign of the shrike on the wires, but as we pulled up by a gap in the hedge we scanned across the field beside us and could see it perched in the top of a young oak tree over the far side. We all piled out and had good views of it through the scopes. A scarce winter visitor here from Scandinavia, it may not be too long now before it heads off on its journey back north.

Great Grey Shrike

Great Grey Shrike – perched in the top of a young oak tree when we arrived

After a while, the Great Grey Shrike flew across to another tree, where we could still just see it through the lower branches of a big oak closer to us. After some last admiring glances, it was time to head back. It was a suitably good bird to wrap up another good day’s birding in the Brecks.

12th Mar 2020 – More Brecks Birding

Another Private Tour in the Brecks today, with a different group. It was a very windy day again, with gusts over 40mph for much of the day. At least it was mostly bright, and the only blustery shower we came across was while we were driving. We had a good day out regardless, as we usually do, and saw a nice selection of Breckland birds.

It was rather quiet this morning, as we pulled up by a large clearing on the edge of the forest, with no birds singing. Scanning the paddocks opposite produced a small flock of Meadow Pipits still. A pair of Mistle Thrushes were out on the short grass further over, by the edge of the trees, and a lone Redwing was nearby.

We heard Woodlarks calling and turned round to see three flying up from the middle of the clearing. They appeared to land over the far side, where it was a bit more sheltered, so we walked round to see if we could find them. Several Yellowhammers flew up from the edge of the clearing and up into the pines. We could hear Woodlark singing quietly and it didn’t take long to find them feeding down in the vegetation.

Woodlark

Woodlark – one of a pair feeding quietly in the clearing

There was a pair of Woodlarks walking around together, the female feeding constantly while the male kept stopping to look around from a low perch, a small tussock or clod of earth, singing quietly. They gradually worked their way closer to the path, and we had a great look at them through the scope – we could see the way their white supercilia met in a shallow ‘v’ on the back of the neck and the black and white feather pattern on the bend of the wing.

Eventually, the Woodlarks flew up and dropped back down further back out of view. We walked back to where we had parked, stopping to look at a pair of Yellowhammers in the trees on our way.

There had been some brighter intervals early on, but it clouded over as we drove round to our next stop, where we had hoped to look for Goshawks. It was exposed here and we could feel the full force of the wind. There were just one or two Common Buzzards up this morning, much fewer than usual, and it looked like we might be out of luck. Still, we found some shelter in the lee of the bus and decided to give it a few minutes. Three Skylarks came up from the field in front and hovered low over the crop and we could see several more over the grass behind us. A single Shelduck flew past high over the trees.

Thankfully, we didn’t have to wait too long before a Goshawk appeared over the trees. It came over towards us, a young bird, one of last year’s broods, hanging in the wind. It was up for a couple of minutes, flying back and forth giving us a chance to get a good look at it, before it turned and dropped back behind the trees out of view.

Goshawk

Goshawk – this young bird came up for a couple of minutes

In other circumstances, we would normally stay here for a while watching the Goshawks but given the conditions today we decided to bank that one and head on to try something else. We drove round to Fincham to look for the Great Grey Shrike. On our way, we stopped to look at a large flock of gulls loafing in a field which had recently been cultivated – mostly Black-headed Gulls, but in with them were quite a few Common Gulls and a single Lesser Black-backed Gull.

When we got there, we found another couple of people already looking from their cars and we spoke to one of them who had been there for an hour and a half without success. We drove slowly up the road, scanning the wires and the hedges, and we did find a large group of Roe Deer out in one of the fields, several Brown Hares, a pair of Egyptian Geese and some Lapwings.

The shrike had undoubtedly found somewhere sheltered, out of the wind and out of sight of the road. We didn’t fancy sitting in the bus scanning, with no idea if or when it might reappear, so we decided to move on. As we drove slowly back down the road, a Red Kite was hanging over the trees in the distance.

We did find a pair of Grey Partridges in the edge of the field. The male ducked down as we pulled up and tried to hide behind a large pile of mud and stones, but we could still see its orange face looking out. Then both of them ran and flew out into the middle of the field where they ducked down again and were instantly camouflaged against the earth.

Grey Partridge

Grey Partridge – the male ducked down but we could see it looking out at us

We drove through a sharp shower now, but it had passed over and brightened up by the time we arrived at Santon Downham. We walked up to the churchyard, but the tall firs and bushes around the edge were getting caught by the wind.

We thought we might have more luck walking down through the trees, but it was quiet here too. We did have a pair of Marsh Tits feeding low down in the bushes as we got back towards the road. There was nothing on the river from the bridge, but a Nuthatch was calling up in the poplars and a Goldcrest was singing in the firs and showed very well feeding on one of the outer branches.

Goldcrest

Goldcrest – showed very well in the fir trees by the bridge

We went round to Brandon for lunch. It was sunny now and sheltered in the trees, so we sat out on the picnic tables and watched the comings and goings at the feeders. We had a nice comparison of Coal Tit and Marsh Tit side by side, on several occasions on the same feeder together. A pair of Nuthatches dropped in, the more richly coloured male co-ordinated against the orange trunk of a Scots Pine. The female took a peanut from one of the feeders, forced into into the bark of the tree and proceeded to hammer at it in situ to break bits off.

After lunch, we walked down to the lake. As well as all the Mallards, there were two pairs of Mandarin Ducks in residence. One pair were hiding in the shade on the platform of the duck house, but the other pair were over under the bank on the far side when we arrived and then swam over towards us, allowing us to admire them in the sunshine out in the middle of the water. Smart birds!

Mandarins

Mandarin Ducks – this pair swam out into the sunshine

While we were admiring the Mandarins, we turned round and noticed a Treecreeper feeding very low down on the trunk of an old silver birch in the lawn behind us. We watched as it picked its way around probing in the crevices and at one point it obviously found something as it stopped to have a really good root around. More typically, it then disappeared round the back of the tree, though thankfully not before we had enjoyed a really good look at it.

Treecreeper

Treecreeper – probing in the bark of an old silver birch down by the lake

Our destination for the afternoon was Lynford Arboretum. Once again, we made our way straight down to the paddocks to look for the Hawfinches. We had been told on the way down that they were feeding under the first hornbeam, but when we arrived there were no birds at all on the ground there and it looked rather quiet.

We continued on to the next gap in the hedge and looked across to the second hornbeam. Scanning the branches carefully, we found first one and then a second Hawfinch in amongst them, both females. We got the scope on them and watched them for a few minutes, admiring their huge cherry stone-cracking bills, and then a male appeared in between them, more richly chestnut coloured.

Looking across to the first Hornbeam, we spotted two more Hawfinches fly down to feed on the ground below. Two more females, the light was much better looking in this direction although they could be hard to see at times – remarkable how such a large finch could disappear into the short vegetation! One of the birds then flew over from the second hornbeam and perched half way up in the bushes above them.

The others came up too, and we could now see three Hawfinches together, two females and a male. They were perched in the sunshine and it was a really good view of them here now. The male had been feeding on the buds and hopped over to feed one of the females at one point.

Hawfinch

Hawfinch – the brighter male perched in the afternoon sunshine

Having enjoyed great views of the Hawfinches, we walked back to the bridge. There were several Siskins flitting around in the trees above and lots of birds coming and going from the seed put out on the various piers and posts. We had good views of a selection of tits, Nuthatch, Chaffinches and a pair of Reed Buntings here.

Nuthatch

Nuthatch – coming down to the food put out at the bridge

We could hear a Little Grebe laughing madly from the lake behind us, so we had a short walk down the path beside it. We could only just see the head of the Little Grebe deep in the reeds, but we did see a smart pair of Gadwall. Continuing on to the back of the hall, there were several Greylags and Canada Geese on the lawn. A Moorhen walking along the far edge of the water looked very smart, its yellowish legs shining in the afternoon sun.

Walking back up through the Arboretum, we stopped to admire the two Tawny Owls which were roosting high in their usual tree. We had a good view through the scope – fill the frame views!

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – one of the two roosting in their usual tree again

There hadn’t been very many birds feeding from the gate on our way down, there didn’t look to be much food left on the ground today, but there were more birds in the trees around the orchard. We stopped to admire all the Yellowhammers perched in amongst the white blackthorn blossom and noticed a couple of Bramblings feeding on the buds there. A brighter male kept dropping down out of view, but a female appeared right on the outside of one of the bushes and showed well for everyone.

While we were watching the birds by the orchard, someone now sprinkled a couple of handfuls of fresh seed down just beyond the gate. It didn’t take long for the birds to find it, and we stopped here to admire several smart Yellowhammers which dropped down to feed.

Yellowhammer

Yellowhammer – coming down to food in front of the gate

We still had a short time before we were due to finish, so we drove a short distance to a nearby location to try for Firecrest. We thought it might be sheltered here in the trees, but the firs on the edge were getting caught by the wind and the box bushes underneath were in the shade. It was quiet in the trees, but there were more birds on the edge. We stopped to look at a flock of tits – Marsh, Coal, Blue and Great Tits – but couldn’t find anything else feeding with them, apart from one or two Chaffinches.

It was time to call it a day now. Despite the wind, we had seen a great variety of birds and enjoyed an interesting day out exploring the Brecks.

11th Mar 2020 – Breckland Birding

A Private Tour today, down in The Brecks. It was a bright morning, clouding over a bit in the afternoon but staying dry, with the wind becoming more blustery in the afternoon.

As we pulled up alongside a large forest clearing, we looked over the other side to see a Woodlark in the paddocks. As we got out, another flew over calling, circled round over the edge of the clearing and landed in a tree behind us. We got the scope on the paddocks and could now see there was a pair feeding there in the short grass. While we were watching them, another Woodlark started singing a little further over and we watched it in song-flight, fluttering into the breeze up against the patchy blue sky.

There were some other birds around the paddocks too. A flock of Meadow Pipits was feeding in the grass beyond the Woodlarks and a Mistle Thrush appeared on the track at the front. Two smart male Bramblings dropped down to feed nearby. They have been in short supply this winter, with few comparatively coming over from Scandinavia this year, and the few we have had hear will soon be heading back north.

As we walked along the path on the edge of the clearing, we heard a Woodlark singing above us and watched as it dropped down into the field the other side. It joined a female which was already on the ground and we got the scope on the pair of them as they fed in the short spring crop. They gradually worked their way towards us and we had a good view now of the distinctive head pattern and the black and white patch on the edge of the wing.

Woodlark

Woodlark – we had great views of a pair feeding in the field by the clearing

There were several Yellowhammers around the clearing too, and we could hear them calling and singing and saw one or two perched up in the trees. As we made our way back to the minibus, a Green Woodpecker was yaffling somewhere in the trees.

We had done so well for Woodlarks, and seen them so quickly this morning, that we now had a little extra time to call in at another ride briefly. We could hear lots of Redwings singing in the trees by the parking area as we set off. There were lots of Blackbirds in there too and we could see some of the Redwings flying in and out of a thick tangle of bushes. Presumably they had roosted here overnight.

As we walked in along the ride, a kronking call alerted us to two Ravens flying in, which appeared briefly low over the trees beside us before they turned and banked away out of view. Raven is still a rare bird in this part of the country, so this was a nice bonus this morning. A Chiffchaff was singing in a scrubby overgrown young plantation the other side of the track, the first we have heard this year and possibly a returning spring migrant. A flock of Long-tailed Tits and Goldcrests was flitting around in the small trees too.

We walked on into the edge of the pines and stopped by the feeding table. There were lots of tits coming and going, including lots of Coal Tits and several Marsh Tits too. We could only spend a short time here this morning, as our main priorities lay elsewhere, but there was no sight nor sound of any Willow Tits while we were there today.

Coal Tit

Coal Tit – there were lots coming and going from the feeding table

Our next target for the day was Goshawk, so we drove round and parked at a high point overlooking the forest. It was bright, but a bit more exposed and breezier here, chilly in the wind. Still, several Common Buzzards were already up and we didn’t have to wait too long before two distant Goshawks circled up above the trees. One drifted off left away from us, but the other came right, over the back of the trees in front of us, before eventually dropping down out of view behind the tops.

It was a good start, but with the bright conditions we still hoped we might get one closer or in display flight, so we continued scanning. A distant Sparrowhawk came up, much smaller than the Goshawks, and gave us a quick burst of rollercoaster display, giving us more hope, and a Kestrel was hovering out over the field behind. There were several Skylarks in the sky singing too and Yellowhammers in and out of the cover strip in the field in front.

Then another Goshawk circled up out of the trees in front of us, closer this time. It had its fluffy white undertail coverts ‘flagged’, puffed out and wrapped round its tail, which instantly stood out. It started displaying, slow flapping, with deep, powerful, exaggerated wingbeats.

Goshawk

Goshawk – came up displaying over the trees

We watched the Goshawk displaying over the tops of the trees for a couple of minutes, before it lost height and disappeared down over the trees to our left. Great stuff and we hadn’t even had to wait too long today. We decided to move on.

We drove down to Santon Downham and parked in the Forestry Commission car park. We had received a message to say that the Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers had been very elusive this morning, just heard calling very occasionally over the last couple of hours and not seen since very early first thing. Still we decided to have quick look along the river anyway, as it can be nice along there at this time of year and we thought we might see some different things.

Siskin

Siskin – singing in the gardens by the bridge

A Siskin was singing in a pine tree in one of the gardens, as we walked down to the bridge, and a couple more were on the feeders which have now been restocked. A Great Spotted Woodpecker was drumming from deep in the poplars by the road. As we set off along the river bank, a Kingfisher flew out from the bank as we passed calling, and zipped off downstream.

It was the middle of the day, but it was still rather quiet along here now. We heard a Marsh Tit singing and a Nuthatch calling in the trees. We had a quick listen where the woodpeckers have been seen at times in the last few weeks, but there was nothing happening here. Given others’ experiences this morning, we didn’t linger and walked back for lunch.

We stopped for lunch by the church. The wind had picked up a bit now and was catching the trees in the back of the churchyard, so perhaps not surprisingly there was no sign of the Firecrest. Still, it was a nice place to sit on the bench in the sunshine and eat. A Sparrowhawk zipped through the tops of the firs.

After lunch, we made our way round to Lynford. As we crossed the road, someone had put some food down under a bush by the entrance, and a Nuthatch was trying to come in but reluctant to do so with people passing close by. It perched calling in a nearby tree. We had a quick look from the gate under the trees. There was some more seed out today and more birds coming down to feed, with at least six Bramblings including a couple of bright orange-breasted males.

Brambling

Brambling – at least six were feeding from the gate as we walked down

We wanted to make sure we didn’t miss the Hawfinches, so we continued on down to the paddocks. There were a few Chaffinches under the first of the trees in the middle and after scanning for a few minutes one female Hawfinch appeared with them, quickly joined by a second. We watched them for a bit, feeding down in the grass, then everything flushed.

The Hawfinches flew into the next hornbeam over so we walked on to the next gap in the hedge. We could see at least five Hawfinches now and we got the scope on two of them in the tops, before they gradually moved across into the thicker ash trees and got harder to see. There were other birds in the trees here too, a Mistle Thrush and lots of Redwings, to have a look at. Then when we heard a Hawfinch calling back in the first tree, we turned to see a smart male perched right in the top.

Hawfinch

Hawfinch – a smart male perched in the top of one of the hornbeams, calling

The male perched calling for a minute or two, then flew across into the ash trees to join the others. Most of the Hawfinches disappeared into the tangle of branches and all seemed to have gone quiet before we picked up two flying out of the back of the trees, heading off to roost. Good timing!

We made our way back to the bridge now, where there were lots of tits coming in to the food on the pillars. We had very good views of Marsh Tits here and a Nuthatch which shot in from time to time to grab a bill full of seeds, mostly when we were looking the other way!

Nuthatch

Nuthatch – eyeing up the sunflower seeds put out at the bridge

There were Siskins in the trees above and a Reed Bunting on the ground by the lake. A Grey Wagtail flew over calling and a Treecreeper put in a very brief appearance. A pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers chased each other through the tops of the poplars high above us.

As we walked back, we stopped to look at the two Tawny Owls which were roosting in their usual tree.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – one of the two roosting together in their usual tree

Back up at the gate, there was still lots of activity, with birds coming and going from the seed on the ground among the leaves. We stopped again and watched the Bramblings and Yellowhammers, among all the tits and Chaffinches.

Yellowhammer

Yellowhammer – coming down to the seed in the leaves in front of the gate

There was one last treat in store to finish the day, the grand finale at Fincham. As we pulled into the drove, we scanned the wires ahead of us and there was the Great Grey Shrike, perched a little further up beside the road. We pulled up and got the scopes on it. It dropped down several times and back up again, hunting. Then it flew out to a couple of isolated bushes on the far edge of the field.

We walked a little further up too, and got it in the scopes again. It was still hunting very actively, dropping down to the ground repeatedly. Then on one of its sorties, it suddenly set off low over the ground and we watched as it chased after and caught a bumble bee. It took it back to its favourite bush and after subduing it, dropped down through the branches and impaled it to eat later. Great Grey Shrikes are not known as ‘butcher birds’ for nothing!

Great Grey Shrike 1

Great Grey Shrike – switched to hovering out over the field, hunting

The Great Grey Shrike seemed to shift hunting tactics now, and kept flying out from the bushes and hovering out over the field, a couple of metres up from the ground, scanning for prey. Very interesting to watch. Eventually it flew back onto the wires, just a short distance up the road from where we were standing and we had even closer views of it through the scope.

Great Grey Shrike 2

Great Grey Shrike – flew back to the wires, much closer to where we were standing

It was a great way to finish the day, watching the Great Grey Shrike here. But it was time to wrap things up now and head back, so we left the shrike to its hunting and headed for home.

8th Mar 2020 – Winter, Brecks & Goshawks, Day 3

Day 3 of our three day Winter, Brecks & Goshawks tour, our last day today. It was a rather blustery morning, with the winds dropping in the afternoon, and mostly dry and bright – we managed mostly to dodge the showers. We spent the day up on the North Norfolk coast.

Holkham was our destination for the morning. As we drove up along Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see lots of ducks out on the floods on the grazing marsh, mainly Wigeon, with a scattering of Shoveler, Teal and one or two Gadwall. We parked at the north end and as we walked up towards the pines, we stopped to admire a smart pair of Grey Partridge feeding very quietly right by the fence behind the parking attendants’ hut.

Grey Partridge

Grey Partridge – this pair was feeding by Lady Anne’s Drive

There was a blustery wind blowing, so we elected to go round to the hides first, rather than out onto the beach. As we walked west along the track on the inland side of the pines, there were a few tits calling in the trees. We stopped briefly at Salts Hole, where four Little Grebes were diving out on the water. A pair of Mistle Thrushes were out on the grass beyond.

Diverting up onto the boardwalk by Washington Hide, we spotted a Great White Egret out on the grazing marshes. Its large size was immediately apparent and through the scope we could see its long yellow bill. Way off in the distance, we could just make out a few White-fronted Geese over by the road, behind the hedge, but we hoped to see some closer from the next hide.

A Chiffchaff was calling in the bushes by the track the other side of Meals House – it would be nice to think it might be an early spring migrant, but it was just as likely an overwintering bird here.

The first thing we saw when we got into Joe Jordan Hide was the lone Spoonbill asleep down on the pool below the wood, bright white in the morning sunshine. It did wake up at one point and flash its spoon-shaped bill, revealing that it was an immature bird – it also lacked the shaggy crest of the breeding adults. It then hopped into the shelter of the rushes on the edge of the pool. It was the only one we saw here today, the others possibly hiding from the wind in the trees.

Spoonbill

Spoonbill – asleep on the pool from Joe Jordan Hide

There were two more Great White Egrets out on the grazing marshes from here, feeding together out in a particularly thick clump of rushes. It was amazing that such a large white bird could completely disappear in the vegetation at times.

There was no sign of the large flock of wintering White-fronted Geese on the old fort today. Most of the Greylags were sleeping out on the marshes and scanning carefully through we did manage to find six White-fronted Geese in with them. They didn’t hang around though, for no apparent reason waking up and flying off, presumably to find the rest of the flock.

Before everyone got too comfortable, we decided to move on. As we walked out earlier, a runner had mentioned there had been a Short-eared Owl out on the beach, so we thought we would check in case it was hunting along the north side of the pines. When we got out into the dunes, there was no sign of the owl, but we did find three Stonechats flitting around in the bushes, the single male singing quietly, and several song-flighting Meadow Pipits fluttering up and parachuting back down.

The large raft of several thousand Common Scoter which has been in the bay all winter was directly offshore from here today, so we stopped for a quick look through them. The tide was out so, despite them being not too far offshore, they were distant from the dunes and it was very choppy. We did manage to pick out a Velvet Scoter in with them, but it was impossible to get everyone onto it in the conditions. More surprisingly, a pair of Pintail and a drake Shoveler were in with the scoter flock too.

It was more sheltered on the north side of the pines, so we decided to walk back through the dunes. It was a good call as it gave us the chance to scan the beach and saltmarsh on the way. We picked up a pair of Ringed Plovers roosting on the shingle, perhaps not for long given the number of dogs running round loose on the beach. Then we picked up five small birds flying round out on the saltmarsh in the distance. As they turned we could see they were fairly pale with contrasting black tails – Shorelarks!

We had a quick look at them from where we were – there was a spaniel running around out on the saltmarsh and heading in their direction and we worried they might fly off. Then we hurried over for a closer look. The Shorelarks were feeding in the low saltmarsh vegetation, but still remarkably hard to see until they lifted their heads. Then their canary yellow faces and black masks gave them away.

Shorelark

Shorelarks – two of the five which were feeding out on the saltmarsh

When the Shorelarks are not feeding in the cordoned-off area at the other end of the beach they can be hard to find, so it was great that we had bumped into them. By the end of this month, they will probably be off to their breeding grounds in Scandinavia.

Snow Buntings were on the target list for the day too, so we walked east to the cordon to see if we could find them there. Some people we passed had said they were on the beach at the far end, so we headed over there first. There was no sign of them on the beach and it was very windy and sand-blasted here. A quick scan of the sand bars produced a few Sanderling running around on the beach.

Another person further back on the inland side of the dunes waved to us, and as we started to walk over we realised he was watching a small group of Snow Buntings which were feeding between us in a sheltered gap in the dunes. We had a good look at them as they fed. There were six of them at first, but gradually they ran up and disappeared into the dunes.

Snow Buntings

Snow Buntings – six were feeding in the shelter of the dunes

It was then heads down for the walk back, into the wind. It was a relief to get to the Gap and the shelter of the pines. It was time for lunch now, so we took advantage of the Lookout Cafe to get a welcome hot drink and some food, and use the facilities.

The wind seemed to have eased a bit after lunch. It was bright and sunny now and we commented how there was no sign of any of the forecast showers – indeed the forecast had changed and was now not predicting any until mid afternoon. We set off west, but stopped where we had seen the White-fronted Geese very distantly from the other side early this morning.

There were lots of Greylags and Egyptian Geese in the field, and in with them were still at least 50 White-fronted Geese. We parked and got out, being careful not to spook them, and got them in the scope. We could see the white surround to the base of their bills and distinctive black belly bars.

White-fronted Geese

White-fronted Geese – there were at least 50 still in the field this afternoon

Thankfully, we had all had a chance to get a really good look at the White-fronted Geese when it started to spit with rain. How ironic, given the change to the forecast! We could see some dark clouds now out to the west, so we hopped back into the minibus and drove through a sharp shower and back out into the sunshine.

As we drove through Titchwell village, we noticed a Barn Owl hunting the grassy field by the road. We had just pulled up and were about to get out to watch it, when a young Common Gull which was flying over swooped down straight at it. The Barn Owl dropped sharply, clearly as surprised as we were at this act of unprovoked aggression! It then turned and made a zig-zagging beeline for the hedge, where it dropped down under the bushes in the bottom, looking round nervously. After convincing itself that the coast was clear, it flew out of the back of the hedge and straight into the back of the wood beyond.

Barn Owl

Barn Owl – hiding under the hedge after being attacked by a Common Gull

Carrying on past Titchwell, we stopped next at Thornham Harbour. There was no sign of any Twite around the old coal barn. A Black-tailed Godwit in the harbour channel was our first of the weekend and a Curlew was feeding on the saltmarsh opposite. With the wind having dropped, we decided to have a quick walk up to the corner of the seawall to see what we could see.

There were plenty of Common Redshank out in the muddy channels and one or two more Curlews. A small group of Linnets kept flying up from the vegetation in front of us and a Little Egret was on the edge of the saltmarsh just below the bank. Scanning further out in the harbour channel, we picked up a much paler wader. Through the scope, we could confirm it was a Spotted Redshank in silvery-grey non-breeding plumage. We could see the prominent white supercilium bridging the base of the bill, which was long and needle-fine at the tip.

Spotted Redshank

Spotted Redshank – in the harbour channel at Thornham again

Spotted Redshanks winter in very small numbers here – they are mainly passage migrants, passing through in spring and autumn. There have been two commuting between Thornham and Titchwell this winter, but they disappear into the tidal creeks and can be very hard to find at time. Looking further out, we could see a few Knot and Grey Plover on the tidal flats and a pair of Red-breasted Merganser in the outer channel through the sands.

We headed round to Titchwell next, to finish the afternoon. As we got out of the minibus and stopped to use the facilities, we heard the distinctive calls of Mediterranean Gulls and looked up to see a succession of birds flying in and out overhead.

Checking in at the Visitor Centre, there had been no sign of any Woodcock today but we were told that there were three Red-crested Pochard on Patsy’s Reedbed. We went that way first and quickly found them out on the water. The two drakes were already looking resplendent in the afternoon sun, but then they started displaying to the female, with their bright orange punk haircuts raised. One of the males was more successful, and we watched the pair mating while the second drake played gooseberry!

Red-crested Pochard

Red-crested Pochard – displaying and mating on Patsy’s Reedbed

Otherwise, there were not many other ducks on here today. Two or three Marsh Harriers were hanging in the air out over the reedbed or over towards Brancaster. A Chinese Water Deer appeared on the edge of the reeds briefly.

Back round on the main path, there were a few Common Pochards on the reedbed pool. A Cetti’s Warbler shouted from the bushes in the reeds. The water level on the freshmarsh is very high again and there was no sign of the shallow islands which had started to be exposed a couple of weeks ago.

There were lots of Avocets trying to find any shallow water in which to feed and most were gathered right in front of Island Hide, so we went in for a closer look. They were right up to their bellies in the water and either swimming or could just get their feet onto the bottom to kick themselves up to try to reach the mud with their bills.

Avocet

Avocet – trying to feed up to its belly in the deep water

There was very little else on the Freshmarsh apart from the gulls, which have taken over the large ‘Avocet Island’ again this year, where the Avocets are supposed to nest. We walked round to Parrinder Hide for a closer look at some Mediterranean Gulls. Another group of Avocets flew in over the saltmarsh, presumably feeding at the moment out in the harbour channels at low tide, and more were roosting in the water where one of the islands would normally have been.

Inside the fenced-off ‘Avocet Island’ we could see lots of gulls, mostly Black-headed Gulls, claiming the ground ahead of the breeding season. In with them we counted at least 40 Mediterranean Gulls, all adults coming into breeding plumage with white-speckled jet black hoods contrasting with bright white eyelids, bright red bills and white wing tips. It was good to compare the two species side by side.

Mediterranean Gull

Mediterranean Gull – there were at least 40 this afternoon on the Freshmarsh

Otherwise, all we could find here today was a single Knot which was roosting on one of the few taller bits of island which were above the water. There was no sign of the Water Pipit again, perhaps not a surprise with so little of the water’s edge exposed. We decided to head out towards the beach.

The tide was in now and with a bigger tide today, Volunteer Marsh was under water. As we walked past, we noticed a couple of little groups of Teal next to the path. The drakes were looking stunning in the afternoon sun and they were calling and displaying.

We walked out to the Tidal Pool to see if we could find some more waders. There were several godwits on here – mostly Black-tailed Godwits, with some starting to show some brighter rusty feathering as they begin to moult into breeding plumage.

Black-tailed Godwit

Black-tailed Godwit – starting to moult into breeding plumage

We managed to find a single Bar-tailed Godwit feeding on the edge of the mud – paler and more heavily streaked above that the Black-tailed Godwits – but surprisingly there were not more roosting here given the tide was in. On the spit where they normally gather there were just two Grey Plovers today. There were still quite a few Oystercatchers on the island, together with several Turnstones.

The tide was right in and there was next to no beach left. We had a quick scan of the sea, but all was quiet here – a lone seal and a single distant Great Crested Grebe. As we started to make our way back, a Skylark was dust bathing on the path. It was very confiding and seemed reluctant to stop what it was doing to make way and let us come past.

Unfortunately, we had to get back now, so those with longer journeys back could get away. As we made our way back east along the coast road, a Barn Owl was hunting where we had seen the one earlier, but this time a different paler bird.

 

 

7th Mar 2020 – Winter, Brecks & Goshawks, Day 2

Day 2 of our three day Winter, Brecks & Goshawks tour today. It was rather cloudy and grey first thing, with some brief spits of rain which were not in the forecast. Thankfully it didn’t come to anything, and remained dry thereafter, with some sunny intervals developing from late morning. The wind was very light again first thing, but did pick up a bit through the day. We headed back down to the Brecks in the morning, but finished the day up in North Norfolk.

When we got down to the Brecks it was spitting with rain – not the weather we were hoping for to look for Woodlarks. We parked by a large clearing and as we got out of the minibus a Great Spotted Woodpecker was calling. We looked across to the other side to see it perched in the top of a tree. A Green Woodpecker yaffled too. There were several birds feeding in the paddocks across the road – a small flock of Meadow Pipits, mixed finches, a couple of Mistle Thrush and a Redwing.

As we walked round the clearing, it was fairly quiet at first, with activity perhaps curtailed by the weather. Several Yellowhammers were flying in and out of the pines at the back, down into the clearing and back up, calling and singing. Two males spiralled up out of the tops of the trees fighting.

We saw something drop down into the grass in the far corner, so made our way over to see what we could find. We could hear a Woodlark singing quietly now, but couldn’t see it at first. It was down on the ground, hidden in the long grass. Then one flew up from further over, out in the middle of the clearing, and started singing. A second, possibly the one we had been listening to, also flew up and landed in the trees at the back, where we could get it in the scope.

Woodlark 1

Woodlark – flew up and landed in the trees at the back of the clearing

There was quite a bit of Woodlark activity now, involving at least three birds. We watched the Woodlark in the tree at the back for a while, before it dropped back down into the grass. We managed to see it on the ground this time, and a second bird nearby calling was possibly a female. When another male flew in, the two of them chased each other back up into the trees. But apart from the first bit of song flight, the males were only singing from perches in the trees or down on the ground this morning.

Having enjoyed good views of the Woodlarks, we drove round to another forest track and walked up into the trees. We were looking for Willow Tit here and there were certainly lots of tits coming and going from the feeding table set up in the pines. We stood and watched for a while, but all the black capped tits we saw were dozens of Coal Tits and a good number too of Marsh Tits. A Nuthatch typically darted in, grabbed a seed, and was back off into the trees.

Coal Tit

Coal Tit – there were dozens coming down to the feeding table

Then we heard a Willow Tit calling in the pines, a distinctive nasal scolding call. It was deep in at first, but gradually came closer each time we heard it again. Eventually it made its way to the edge of the trees and we managed to pick it out, feeding high in the pines. It seemed to be feeding on the cones. A second Willow Tit was still calling, deeper in. The first bird looked like it was making its way towards the feeding table, but it never dropped down and disappeared back into the trees behind. Both the Willow Tits then went quiet again.

The Willow Tits here are a small remnant population: the species has disappeared rapidly from large swathes of southern Britain in recent years and they are still just about clinging on here. They can be difficult to see in the dense coniferous plantations, spending much of their time up in the tops of the trees, so we had done well to get such prolonged views of one today. We decided to move on.

The weather was starting to brighten up and the wind seemed like it had picked up a little, so we headed over to see if we could find a Goshawk. We parked on a high point, overlooking the forest, where several other people had already gathered. While we were getting out of the minibus, someone came over to say there was a Goshawk perched in the top of a fir tree across the field in front. We got the scope straight on it, but unfortunately it dropped down before everyone could get a look and disappeared into the trees. Still, it was a good start.

With the brighter weather, there were lots of Common Buzzards circling up now, including a striking pale one. A Red Kite came up too, off in the distance. Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait too long before another Goshawk appeared. It circled up above the trees, a male, grey above and pale whitish below. It was distant at first, drifting first one way, then back the other. Then it turned and headed straight towards us. It was not displaying today, but flying purposefully, with deep and powerful wingbeats interspersed with short glides. It headed away to our right slightly, crossing the road as we lost sight of it behind some trees.

Goshawk

Goshawk – a male, flew up out of the trees and in across the road

When all the Woodpigeons came out of the trees, this would normally mean a Goshawk was hunting, but this time a Peregrine appeared instead. It flew out low over the treetops, across the field and over the road. It followed the line of the shelter belt on the far side of the field beyond us, flushing all the pigeons from there too, before disappearing off over the trees behind us. A Sparrowhawk made a brief appearance too and a Kestrel hovering over the field behind us added to an excellent variety of raptors here this morning.

It was almost time for lunch now, but we figured we had time for one more quick stop first. We made our way deeper into the forest and parked at the head of another ride. As we walked in, we heard a Woodlark overhead and looked up to see it fluttering over the trees beside the path singing. It flew round past us and disappeared back over the road, beyond where we had parked.

We had just started to walk back to look for it when the Woodlark came back overhead singing again and dropped down into the clearing further down the track. So we turned round again and walked over to where it had seemed to go down. We were scanning the low vegetation when it walked out from behind a low bank right by the path, just a couple of metres from us. It took off but thankfully landed just a couple of metres further back, and we had a great view of it as it picked its way through the vegetation feeding, stopping on the top of a small clod of earth. Cracking views and a better photo opportunity than the ones we had seen earlier, for the photographers in the group.

Woodlark 2

Woodlark – showed very well right beside the path

The Woodlark gradually made its way back into the long grass, so we headed back to the minibus and drove round to Brandon again for lunch and a welcome hot drink.

After lunch, we made our way north to Fincham. A Red Kite was hunting out over the fields as we drove down the road and found somewhere to park. As we got out, we could already see the Great Grey Shrike on the wires a little further up. We got it in the scope and had a good look at it.

Great Grey Shrike

Great Grey Shrike – showed well on the wires at Fincham

The Great Grey Shrike was very mobile, dropping down into the field to look for food, and then back up to the wires. It flew across to some bushes along the edge of the field further up, and spent some time hunting from there, then came back up onto the wires by the road. When it flew across the road and went further out across the field the other side we decided to move on.

We had managed to catch up with most of our main targets in the Brecks (and surrounding areas) now, so we decided to head up to the North Norfolk coast for the rest of the afternoon. The wintering Rough-legged Buzzard at Wells had gone AWOL for a couple of weeks but had then reappeared back in its usual bush a couple of days ago, as if nothing had happened. As we pulled up in the layby, we could see it on top of the aforementioned bush.

We got out of the minibus and got the scopes on it, noting the Rough-legged Buzzard‘s very pale head contrasting with a dark blackish-brown belly patch. Several Marsh Harriers were circling up beyond the bank and another Red Kite further back, more to add to the day’s raptor tally. There were lots of gulls on the flooded field in front of the layby, along with a few Redshanks, and a Linnet or two on the near edge.

We walked down the track where we could get a better view of the Rough-legged Buzzard, side on and not so obscured by branches, although we still couldn’t see its rough legs. A Common Buzzard drifted over the track behind us, a much darker bird altogether.

Rough-legged Buzzard

Rough-legged Buzzard – back on its usual bush

Continuing on over the bank, we stopped to scan the marshes. There was a nice selection of waders out on the flooded grazing marsh beyond, several Ruff flying round with a flock of Dunlin, a single Curlew, lots of Lapwings and a few more Redshanks.

A large flock of Brent Geese kept flying in and out of the old pitch and putt over towards the harbour wall, coming over our heads chattering noisily. Looking through the Greylags out on the grass, we found a single Pink-footed Goose hunkered down behind a line of reeds. Another little group of Pinkfeet flew up calling further back. There was a nice selection of ducks here too, including Wigeon, Teal and Shoveler.

A pre-roost gathering of Pied Wagtails was down in the wet grass in front of the water, along with a single Meadow Pipit. A bigger flock of Meadow Pipits flew in along the bank. Four Brown Hares in the ploughed field the other side of the track chased each other round at one point and even engaged in a brief bout of boxing (it is March, after all!).

It was a nice place to finish the day, scanning the marshes here, but it was time to head back now. We would be spending the day tomorrow along the coast here too, with lots more to see yet.

6th Mar 2020 – Winter, Brecks & Goshawks, Day 1

Day 1 of our three day Winter, Brecks & Goshawks tour today. We were lucky with the weather, mostly bright with sunny intervals and a light N wind, although there was a chill in the air. We spent the day down in The Brecks.

It was a slow journey down this morning, stuck first behind a tractor and then behind a very slow-moving lorry and with a road closure to contend with first thing too. So we were a little later than planned when we arrived at the car park in Santon Downham. A Greenfinch was wheezing in the trees as we got out of the minibus. A Coal Tit was singing down by the road as we walked towards the bridge, but there was no food in the feeders by the road so few birds in the gardens.

As we set off along the path by the river, a Grey Wagtail flew over calling. We could hear a Woodlark singing further back too, and several Siskins overhead. A Reed Bunting flew up and landed in the sallows by the path. We were hoping to find a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker this morning, but the small crowd gathered on the bank told us that there had been no sign for at least the last 1 1/2 hours. We stood with them for a while, but with nothing doing here, we decided to walk on a little further.

Our efforts were instantly rewarded with the distinctive ‘kee,kee,kee’ call of a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker from deeper in the trees. We stopped and scanned but couldn’t see anything and while we were listening to try to hear it again we received a message to say what was presumably the same bird had flown in back where we had been standing earlier. We hurried back, but the first people we got to had lost sight of it, and then next thing we knew it flew out of the tree tops and over our heads, disappearing into the sun across the river.

There was lots of action in the alders across the river, loads of Siskins and Redwings singing. We could see quite a few Redwings flying around lower down in the trees and got one in the scope. A female Mandarin was hiding in amongst the bottom of the trees, where the river had flooded over. But we couldn’t see any sign of the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker now.

We waited a while to see if it might come back. We could hear a Marsh Tit singing and the piping calls of several Nuthatches which we saw flying in and out of the trees, above our heads. A Kingfisher shot past upstream. We were just about to leave when we heard the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker again, drumming from deeper in the trees further along and back on our side of the river. But it went quiet again and despite waiting another 15 minutes, it didn’t show itself again.

As we walked back, a Muntjac was grazing on the bank beyond the bridge. We took the path up through the trees towards the churchyard, where a Great Spotted Woodpecker was calling in the trees and we could see it against the sky.

There had been a Firecrest in the churchyard earlier, but we met some other locals there who hadn’t seen it. We had just stopped to talk to them when we saw a small bird fly in to the sunny edge of trees. The Firecrest! It was low down in a box bush, at about eye level, and gave some great views as it flitted in and out of the branches. The light was perfect too and its bright golden yellow crown stripe was shining in the sun.

Firecrest

Firecrest – showed very well in the churchyard

The Firecrest flew across and landed in a conifer in the corner of the churchyard closest to us. We could see the striking black and white striped face pattern which distinguishes Firecrest from its close cousin, the Goldcrest.

With that target secured so easily, we decided to make our way back to the car park and head off for lunch. When we got out to the road, we noticed a bat flying round, in and out of the trees on the green opposite. Not what we expect to see in the middle of the day in early March! It appeared as if it might have prominent ‘ears’ as it zipped around overhead, but looking at the blurry photos afterwards they were not as obvious, and it was most like a Pipistrelle sp.

We made our way round to Brandon for lunch. There were lots of tits coming and going from the feeders as we ate out in the picnic tables in the sunshine, and a Nuthatch calling in the trees. Afterwards, we made our way down to the lake. A pair of Mandarin Ducks were loafing on the ledge of the duck house but it was hard to get a clear angle on them through the reeds. Thankfully, there was another pair over the far side, out of the reeds along the edge. We walked round and, predictably, they swam straight over to where we had just been, but then more helpfully came out into the open for us as we got back round.

Mandarin

Mandarin – a very smart drake on the lake

Our destination for the afternoon was Lynford Arboretum. We met someone in the car park who told us the Hawfinches were showing very well in the paddocks, so we headed straight down there to make sure we caught up with them, in case they flew off. Thankfully, several of the Hawfinches were still feeding in the grass below one of the hornbeams out in the middle and we quickly got the scopes on them and admired their enormous, cherry-stone-cracking bills.

Hawfinch

Hawfinch – feeding in the grass below the trees in the paddocks

It was hard to tell how many Hawfinches there were down on the ground here, but we counted at least four, including a couple of very smart, bright, richly coloured males. We could see several Chaffinches feeding with them. There were also a couple of Mistle Thrushes and several Redwings feeding out on the grass beyond, so we got the scopes on those too.

When something spooked all the birds from under the trees, they flew up and across to the next tree over. We walked up to the next gap in the hedge and got the scope on a couple of Hawfinches perched up in the branches in the sunshine. We could see at least three there when another five flew into the back of the same tree, making at least eight Hawfinches in total.

Having enjoyed some great views of the Hawfinches, we made our way back to the bridge. There was some seed spread out on the tops of the pillars, which we had topped up on our way past earlier. There was a steady stream of tits coming and going, and we had some great views of Marsh Tits here, as usual.

Marsh Tit

Marsh Tit – coming in to the seed put out on the bridge

There were lots of Siskins flying in and out of the trees above the bridge here too. We watched a Treecreeper climbing up the trunks of the alders opposite, before flying down to the base of the next one and starting again. A Nuthatch in the trees wouldn’t come in to the food today – probably put off by a combination of all of us standing on the bridge and a couple of photographers stood very close to the pillars.

We could hear Little Grebes cackling at us from the lake behind us, so after watching the comings and goings at the bridge for a bit, we had a short walk round on the path. We found one of the Little Grebes, hiding in the edge of the reeds. There were several pairs of Gadwall out on the water too, and a mixture of Canada Geese and Greylags squabbling with each other on the lawns behind the Hall. A Great Spotted Woodpecker posed nicely in the top of a tree on the far side of the lake and we had some much better views of several Siskins in the alders along the path.

Siskin

Siskin – showing well in the alders by the lake

Back over the bridge to the Arboretum, the Tawny Owls were in their usual tree, the two of them roosting side by side high in the spruce tree today. We had a look at them from the path, where they were very difficult to see until you knew where you were looking, and then got some better views from the other side.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – the two were roosting side by side in the usual tree today

Walking back up along the path through the arboretum, we stopped again at the gate. The feeders are still empty but there was not much seed on the ground either today. Consequently, there were fewer birds than normal coming and going. One or two Yellowhammers dropped down briefly, but we found more of them in the bushes on the edge of the orchard the other side, perched in the white blossom and dropping down into the long grass between the fruit trees.

Yellowhammer

Yellowhammer – mostly in the trees on the edge of the orchard today

A Brambling dropped down to the pool in front of the gate for a drink and then perched briefly on a branch above. But it flew off before everyone could get onto it. We thought that was it before more appeared higher up in the beech trees and we all got a good look at one or two. There have been very few here this winter – probably they have stayed on the continent this year.

We still had just enough time for a quick look at the gravel pits.  There were several Tufted Ducks, a pair of Great Crested Grebes, and more geese on the first one we checked. A drake Wigeon asleep in the grass at the back was more of a surprise here and a welcome bonus on today’s list. On the pit the other side, a Coot was in with the Tufted Ducks, another Great Crested Grebe was closer in on the edge of the reeds, and a distant Cormorant was busy diving over at the back.

It had been a good start to the tour today, but it was now time to head for home, with a bonus couple of Barn Owls out hunting on the way. We would be back down for more in the Brecks tomorrow!

26th Feb-2nd Mar 2020 – NE Spain, Pyrenees & Steppe

A six day International Tour to NE Spain, up into the Pyrenees and out onto the Steppe, organised together our friends from Oriole Birding. This is a new destination for us, and we plan to run the tour again at the same time next year, so if you like what you see, you would be welcome to join us for our next visit, in 2021!

WEDNESDAY 26TH FEBRUARY

A long day awaited us today as we had a 5am meet in Gatwick Airport for the early flight to Barcelona, which arrived ahead of schedule around 0945 local time. We enjoyed an incredibly swift transit of the airport (Brexit? What Brexit!) and we soon united with our minibus for the week and onto the motorway network.

Our first planned stop was actually only five minutes away, in an area of cultivation and scattered poplars at the edge of the city. Here we had a good reliable spot for Iberian Green Woodpecker, a species which has been propelled up people’s wants list by its full specific status. It was quite windy at the location, but we were soon enjoying our first sightings of Black Redstart, Serin, Ring-necked Parakeet (which are breeding all around the city), Cattle Egret, and other common birds. Soon an Iberian Green Woodpecker flew across, and perched beautifully in the open for us – the first of 5-6 views of 3 different birds we enjoyed here. We had some superb scope views, and got to hear them calling too.

Iberian Green Woodpecker

Iberian Grey Woodpecker – one of three different birds to start the trip

Other birds in the trees and scrub included an obliging Short-toed Treecreeper, male Sardinian Warbler and a surprise Zitting Cisticola which we flushed up from the vegetation as we walked along. Overhead, a lovely mixed flock of Crag Martins with a few House Martins thrown in, migrated north over us. The light was excellent and we could easily see the white windows in the Crag Martin tail feathers. A Little Owl also obliged here, flying up and perching angrily in a dead Poplar tree and glaring back at us over its shoulder. We had made a good start, but now it was time to crack on – to the mountains!

We had a drive north of around two hours to reach the high Pyrenees, and this was punctuated by a break for coffee and lunch near Berga. Pressing on, we began to wind our way towards Coll de Pal where we would be trying for Snowfinch in particular, a notoriously difficult species at this time of year when the snow is receding. Before we left the treeline, a large raptor circled into view ahead of us – it was a stunning adult Lammergeier! Thankfully the road was quiet and we could easily stop, and thankfully the bird did us a favour and circled back right over us.

Lammergeier

Lammergeier – circled over the road on our way up

While watching the Lammergeier, we heard the ‘toy trumpet’ toot of a Citril Finch – wow! We didn’t see the bird, however, and suspect it was flying off when we heard it. There was one more call from it among the pines, where it was clearly associating with a roving flock of Chaffinch, but we werenit lucky with a sighting. A Crested Tit showed really well though, and was a nice addition. In the meantime, the Lammergeier had reappeared and actually landed on the hillside where we could see it mantling something on the ground – great views of this iconic Pyrenean speciality so early in the trip!

Reaching the high ground, the view was stunning – wall to wall blue sky and sunshine, though with a cold wind. Sadly though, this coupled with the general lack of snow this year meant that the chances of Snowfinch were slim. They would be up in the highest peaks already, especially on such a nice day. We explored the area as best we could, but noted only Mistle Thrush and Griffon Vulture for our troubles – it was a beautiful place though! We did do marginally better on mammals too, with a Fox hunting way up on the hillside, and fantastic views of several close groups of Chamois.

Chamois

Chamois – we had great views of several large groups

We wound our way back down to Baga, and then continued north up the main road to our overnight stop in the village of Olopte. Farran our host met us and showed us to our rooms, and we had a swift turnaround before heading back out. A Tengmalm’s Owl was holding territory about 20 minutes drive away, and we knew it had been heard on two of the previous three evenings. We simply had to give it a go, even though we knew the chance was small. The wind dropped and under a starlit sky we listened at several spots along the road but only heard a distant Tawny Owl. So it was back to the restaurant for a pleasant dinner, and then to bed – it had been a long one!

THURSDAY 27TH FEBRUARY

An early morning bonus for two of the group today was a Beech Marten on the feeding table in the semi-darkness – a speciality of the hotel but we had failed to see it last night under the floodlights. Our day kicked off proper after breakfast as we packed up and left Olopte under blue skies and the temperature gauge flashing 0C on the van.

We wound our way back up into the hillside where we had searched last night for the Tengmalm’s, but this morning we had a different target here – Citril Finch. This species is notoriously difficult at this time of year, as it is in transition between wintering and breeding locations and so highly mobile and weather dependent in their habits. Add to that their elusive nature and we knew we would have a task on our hands to get everyone a view of one! Nevertheless it was a stunning morning, and as we parked by a clearing just below a small ski station it was clear that there were lots of small birds out and about in the sunshine.

Chaffinches were moving through the pines in large numbers, and a few Greenfinch and Goldfinch were with them. Crested Tits were calling all around and showed really well, and Common Crossbills were also very numerous and perching up beautifully in the treetops for us. We remarked at how different their calls sounded to our own race, being higher pitched and less ‘chippy’! A real bonus here were a couple of Rock Buntings – we had a fine male perched up in a dead tree and a couple more calling around the clearing. Their high-pitched contact note is very hard to pinpoint, always seeming closer than it is in reality. There were no Citril Finches here though, so we decided to try a bit higher up.

Common Crossbill

Common Crossbill – numerous in the pines around the ski station

The ski stations were busy and there was lots of traffic about, but we managed to find a quiet corner of the next car park area, overlooking an open snowy area flanked by pines. A surprise here was an unfamiliar wheezy call overhead which turned out to be a Rock Sparrow, and we were fortunate that it pitched down and landed in a pine for scope views.

There were lots more finches moving in the trees here, and we remained on high alert for our main quarry. Sure enough, the distinctive ‘toot-toot’ flight call was heard and a Citril Finch flew in low from behind us. Luckily, it landed in the top of a conifer really close to us and gave two or three of the group a good view before it flew again and disappeared over the treetops – a typical view! We persevered, and saw another 2-3 birds flying distantly with the Chaffinches but couldn’t pin them down. We drove back down a little, enjoying more close perched views of Crossbills, Crested Tits and a lovely Short-toed Treecreeper.

Short-toed Treecreeper

Short-toed Treecreeper – a very showy bird in one of the car parks

Our final stop here was again higher up the hillside at another large clearing, and here we finally nailed our main target properly. Citril Finch was calling frequently and we had several frustratingly brief glimpses and flight views. We had almost given up as time was running out, when one began singing in the trees just by our parking spot – it flew into view and perched in the open in a dead tree, giving everyone the scope view they were after. Brilliant!

Citril Finch

Citril Finch – finally we managed to get better views of one perched in a tree

We now had a long drive of around two hours, to descend back down to Manresa and then along the main road towards Lleida. We paused for lunch and coffee at the same spot as yesterday, breaking up the journey to our first afternoon birding spot at Estany D’Ivars. This reed-fringed lagoon added a number of new species to our list, as large numbers of gulls were loafing, and wildfowl on the lake included small numbers of Teal, Shoveler and Red Crested Pochard.

Chiffchaffs were flitting among the reeds and our main target here was easy to find – a lovely pair of Penduline Tits feeding close to the track. Common Snipe, Little and Great Crested Grebe and Grey Heron were seen, while several Crag Martins hawking over the far side of the pool harboured Swallow and House Martin too. Other species we saw nearby included many White Storks, a brace of Hoopoe and a couple of small flocks of Common Cranes.

Penduline Tit

Penduline Tit – nice views of a pair in the reeds by the lake

Ten minutes up the road, we wanted to check a spot where there is regularly a wintering flock of Little Bustards. We checked the alfalfa fields carefully, noting a small flock of Golden Plovers but no sign of our quarry. We made a u-turn and just as we were making our way back along the road, a party of birds exploded from cover and flew high up over the highway – a dozen Little Bustards!

They flew around for a couple of minutes, before dropping in another roadside field where we could see a row of alert heads and necks poking out of a cereal crop! We parked up and put a scope on them, before they flew again. This time though, they decided to come our way, landing in the bare field right next to our parking spot. Amazingly though, they blended straight in and disappeared despite the field not appearing to have anywhere much for them to hide! We did manage some decent scope views though, and we had been very lucky indeed to connect with them.

Little Bustards 1

Little Bustards – flew in and landed in the field next to us

Our final stop of the day was a small gorge and dam at the head of a reservoir, on our route west towards our base for the night near Huesca. We hoped to see Bonelli’s Eagle here, but we didn’t have too much time to look. It was a lovely spot, and quite sheltered too from the strengthening winds. A Griffon Vulture was perched on a prospective nesting ledge, and Crag Martins were wheeling around calling. Near the dam, we looked up to see a large raptor gliding over – an adult Bonelli’s Eagle! A fairly brief view, but a good one and again a bit fortunate given our fairly whistle-stop visit.

We were about to get even luckier though, as a flicking motion on the rock face across the river heralded the presence of one of our main trip targets – the much sought-after Wallcreeper! It was a superb spot by Reg, to pick it out with bins so far away, and we were all able to enjoy it through the scopes for several minutes as it flitted around in the open.

Wallcreeper

Wallcreeper – we watched it for several minutes feeding in the open on a rock face

We even squeezed in a Dipper and Common Sandpiper on the river – a superb afternoon! Now we had a final one hour drive west to our accommodation in the village of Arbanies, nestled beneath the foothills of the Sierra de Guarra.

FRIDAY 28TH FEBRUARY

Another beautiful fine day awaited us as we had a more relaxed time after two long days, and explored the key areas fairly close to our base. Vadiello would be our first stop, and the plan here was to try and get some better views of Wallcreeper. This did not materialise, and for the first time ever we drew a blank for the species here.

We spent a couple of hours checking the quarries, tunnels, cliff faces and dam itself, to no avail. Of course, we saw a number of other nice birds in the process though, particularly Griffon Vultures which were abundant, and giving some excellent views throughout the morning. We had point blank views of a singing Firecrest, brief views of a couple of Rock Sparrows, several Black Redstarts, two more Rock Buntings, Peregrine and large numbers of Crag Martins too.

Late morning we headed back towards the main road and after stops for fuel and coffee, and adding our first migrating flock of Black Kites, we headed for Castillo de Montearagon just north-east of Huesca. This location is a great place to see Black Wheatear, and was our main reason for visiting. Griffon Vultures were again pouring overhead, probably on migration, and a scattering of Black Kites were with them. Best of all though was a fantastic migration of Common Cranes, and we saw several large flocks totalling up to one thousand birds – it was a really brilliant sight and sound and a highlight of the day.

Up at the castle, we then located a nice male Black Wheatear and had some lovely prolonged scope views of it sallying around on the ledges below us. A male Blue Rock Thrush was also present, and several Black Redstarts were around too. We decided this was a very pleasant spot to sit and have lunch, in the company of several singing Thekla Larks – all in all, not a bad morning.

Thekla Lark

Thekla Lark – showed very well while we were eating our lunch

For the afternoon, we headed to a new site for us, about forty minutes to the east. The medieval town of Alquezar is a stunning place, with immaculate cobbled streets and an impressive Castillo, overlooking a rocky gorge and with spectacular views back to the south. We had been told of wintering Alpine Accentors here, though unfortunately we couldn’t find any today – most likely they had already left for the high tops given the incredibly mild weather.

It was really birdy around the village though, and in particular the ivy-clad rocks around the Castillo were absolutely thronged with Song Thrushes and Blackcaps. The latter were all sub-singing creating a constant backdrop of sound – there must have been hundreds of them around the village as a whole. Blue Rock Thrush was also easily seen, and Griffon Vultures were just spectacular – the eye level views of them passing by were quite something.

Griffon Vulture

Griffon Vulture – eye level views around the castillo

Two Lammergeiers were seen, including an adult low overhead, and a male Hawfinch was hopping around in the open below the viewpoint. We also saw a Wallcreeper here – initially in flight coming across the gorge, we then had several glimpses of it through the scope over the next hour or so, but it kept disappearing frustratingly into a cleft which we couldn’t see into. Nevertheless, everyone saw it quite well despite the distance, and it was good to see another one! That rounded off our day, as we aimed to get back to the accommodation a bit earlier after the exertions of the last two days.

SATURDAY 29TH FEBRUARY

A challenging day today as a combination of dreary weather and some challenging birds meant we were not in for an easy ride! We journeyed north towards the High Pyrenees above Jaca, but first we turned south from the town towards the mountain of Oroel, and wound our way uphill towards the turning up to the parador. A short roadside stop produced good views of our first Cirl Buntings of the trip, keeping company with a single Rock Bunting.

Continuing up higher, we reached the forest on the northern slopes of Oroel where we hoped to find Black Woodpecker among the pines. It was quite busy here with walkers, with it being a Saturday, and also completely snow-free. We wandered through the pines to the east of the parking area, and were soon hearing Crested Tit, Firecrest and Short-toed Treecreeper among the trees.

Our tactic was to walk quietly along and listen for the calls of Black Woodpecker, and we didn’t have to wait too long before we heard a fairly distant flight call of one further down the track ahead. We headed there and listened for more calls, hearing the full call then from a bit further up the slope. This game of cat and mouse continued for a while, until we gave up and started heading back towards the parking area.

However, we were stopped in our tracks by another Black Woodpecker calling really close to the path, and the bird then flew out and low over the treetops below us giving a really nice view. We then listened to the bird drumming and calling from an area of dense trees up a gulley, and managed a few more glimpses of it in flight.

With this target in the bag, we descended again to Jaca, and then took the road north to the ski stations on the French border at Astun and Candanchu. The snow levels were incredibly low, the least amount we have ever seen here, but because the upper slopes were open for skiing, the area was extremely busy. It was also now raining – not a great combination! We sheltered in the car for lunch and then as the rain eased, we had a wander round.

About eleven Alpine Choughs were seen in total, including some close views of a pair perched on a low roof. Wanting to escape the crowds, we jumped back in the van and drove down to Candanchu, which was much quieter. There were around 50 Alpine Choughs here too, so we were very happy with the views we had of this species. Unfortunately though, the lack of snow and mild weather meant there were no Alpine Accentors to be found at either site today.

Alpine Chough

Alpine Chough – good views around the ski station at Candanchu

From here we had another ninety minute drive, south to Los Mallos de Riglos to end the afternoon. Here we walked up through the narrow streets to scan the impressive sandstone cliffs and check the slopes below for another slim chance of Accentors. We didn’t find any, and had to make do with a fine male Blue Rock Thrush, male Sardinian Warbler and a flock of 35 Red-billed Choughs.

Blue Rock Thrush

Blue Rock Thrush – this male showed well at Los Mallos de Riglos

There were lots of Griffon Vultures, a few Black Kites and a small flight of Cranes in the distance too. Not a total failure, and despite the drizzle, another really nice location to visit. From here we had about fifty minutes drive back to base, which was mainly through now fairly heavy rain.

SUNDAY 1ST MARCH

A superb days birding today as we left Casa Oliban and made the ninety minute drive south via Zaragoza to the SEO reserve at El Planeron. The weather is key to success here with the ‘ghost bird’ for which the site is famous, and we were really lucky with light winds at the start of the day and plenty of sunshine meaning the air was bursting with lark song as we arrived in the steppes.

Calandra and Lesser Short-toed Larks would be everywhere for the rest of the morning, and we had superb views of both species. But it was Dupont’s Lark that we were really after here, and we didn’t have to wait long before we heard our first one signing – such a wonderful, musical tune but ventriloquial and often delivered from the ground, in cover and seldom in the open.

Our first vigil was tense and despite hearing at least three different birds in one area, we hadn’t managed a sighting. Soon though, we picked up a Dupont’s Lark scurrying furtively among the low shrubs, and then it ran across the track in front of us. We noticed that it seemed to be carrying food, and we soon worked out what was going on – the bird had a nest nearby. We stood quietly and waited, and it repeated the same route two or three times more, and we were all able to get some superb scope views as it stopped frequently to grub around in the base of the small bushes.

Dupont's Lark 1

Dupont’s Lark – great views, collecting food at El Planeron

We also had another bird in full song flight high above the steppe, before plummeting down vertically back into cover. We had done really well! El Planeron is not just about Dupont’s though, it is also an excellent birding site in general – we saw Iberian Grey Shrikes, a gorgeous adult male Hen Harrier, a Golden Eagle adult right overhead and a couple of passage Cranes. Not a bad morning!

After a coffee stop in Quinto, we continued on into Los Monegros steppes to have a search for the Great Bustard flock that is in the area. Lunch was at Laguna la Playa, a big salt lagoon, where we added seventeen Little Stints, five Dunlin and eight Kentish Plovers. Forty Shelduck were also present here and we noted a sprinkling of Red-billed Choughs in the steppe around.

Back onto the bustard trail after lunch and we were really, really lucky today – a flock of ten Great Bustards found us as they flew in and landed in the field alongside our van! Finding a good spot a few hundred metres back, we parked and carefully got out to scope them – brilliant views of this batchelor group of young males.

Great Bustards

Great Bustards – great views of a bachelor group at Los Monegros

Exploring a little further along some farm tracks, we also found a few Black-bellied Sandgrouse, though they were all extremely nervous and flighty and our best views were from inside the vehicle. Another Hen Harrier, a ringtail this time, was quartering low over the steppe and the whole area was full of larks of various species.

With the bustards in the bag, we decided to head back towards our accommodation and check the steppe near Belchite on the way to see if we could find more sandgrouse. En route, we had simply fabulous views of a young Golden Eagle, hunting some low hills right beside the road.

Golden Eagle

Golden Eagle – hunting the low hills beside the road

Onto the agricultural steppe, and despite the strengthening winds, we first found some more flighty Black-bellied Sandgrouse and then an obliging pair of Stone Curlews crouching at a field edge. Our day was rounded off spectacularly though by at least sixty Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, which were more settled and allowed us to enjoy both scope views from afar, and some lovely close views from the van. It was wonderful to watch them wheeling around like bejewled Golden Plovers, and to hear their fantastic calls. It was the perfect end to a really productive day.

Pin-tailed Sandgrouse

Pin-tailed Sandgrouse – great views of a flock of around 60 to finish the day

MONDAY 2ND MARCH

It was a very stormy night in Lecera as gale force winds and heavy rain swept through in the early hours, meaning it was very grim when we met up at 0730 for breakfast. By the time we were ready to load up and head off though, it had cleared quite a bit and despite the continuing strong winds and showers, it had brightened up.

We made the ninety minute drive east to Candasnos, and then on towards Fraga, where we made a stop for coffee and toilets and to check a spot where Lesser Kestrels breed and could already be arriving. We didn’t see any, but instead we were treated to fantastic views of 7 Egyptian Vultures grounded by the weather and sitting in a field right beside the track. Careful positioning of the van meant we could all get some great views and photos of these newly arrived migrants.

Egyptian Vultures

Egyptian Vulture – great views of several grounded migrants this morning

Kicking on east, our next stop was in Lleida steppes at a site for Eagle Owl. The wind was absolutely howling but we managed to find a little shelter and soon we were scoping an adult Eagle Owl roosting inside a bush up on the cliffs opposite. At first we could only see the birds streaked chest, but by taking a track a bit closer, we were eventually able to see its ear tufts and deep orange eyes as it squinted down at us from its lofty hiding place. A bonus was also seen in the form of a young Goshawk, which flew over us mobbed by a Raven.

Eagle Owl

Eagle Owl – staring at us from its hiding place

For lunch, we continued on into an area of agricultural steppe dotted with peach and olive groves and checked some fields there for another wintering flock of Little Bustards. 110 birds had been seen in recent days, but initially we couldn’t see any at all as we sheltered in van for lunch.

A quick check a bit further down the track though and all of a sudden a row of 70 heads popped up in a thickly vegetated field – Little Bustards! We managed to negotiate another track and get fairly close to them by using the van as a mobile hide. Nice to see a larger flock and get slightly closer views than previously.

Little Bustards 2

Little Bustards – some of a flock of 70+ hiding from the wind in the fields

From here we had a further eighty minutes to run through to Barcelona, where after a quick stop to top up the fuel, we had about fifteen minutes left to check the beach near Llobregat. Due to the strong winds, the beach was deserted – this certainly did us a big favour as immediately on arrival we saw three gorgeous Audouin’s Gulls which flew in over us and landed on the shore. Several Mediterranean Gulls were also seen and our last trip bird was a Gannet battling through the waves into the strong winds.

Audouin's Gull

Audouin’s Gull – three flew in and landed on the beach

We arrived at the airport around 4pm, only to discover our flight back to London was almost three hours delayed. Not the end to the trip we wanted, as many of us had to arrange an extra night in London due to the late arrival. Still, it had been a successful trip and despite the weather on our last day, we had managed to finish off with some really good sightings.

22nd Feb 2020 – Rescheduled Owls

An Owl Tour today, the last one of winter 2020. After having to cancel last weekend’s Owl Tour, as Storm Dennis lashed the UK with high winds, the day was rescheduled to today. Unfortunately, the forecast deteriorated in the day or two beforehand and now winds were forecast to be very gusty again today. And, as it turned out, they were actually much stronger than expected (the forecast is never to be relied upon!), with gusts up to 56mph in the morning. But having agreed to meet up, we decided to carry on regardless and have a go. By the end, we were all very glad we did, as we had a very good day and managed to see a great selection of owls, despite the wind.

After a very windy night, it was perhaps not surprising that there were no Barn Owls out hunting on our drive down to the meeting point this morning. Undaunted, we drove down to the marshes to see if we could find one hiding in a sheltered spot. But it was still very blustery here and there was no sign of any owls.

One of the first birds we did see was a Spoonbill, flying west out across the marshes. They have already been returning ahead of the breeding season in the last couple of weeks and number are slowly starting to build along the coast here. This one was probably just on its way back.

There were a few raptors up now. A Red Kite appeared briefly above the trees, and two Marsh Harriers circled up over the reeds. A Sparrowhawk zipped fast and low over the grass, too quick for most of the group to get onto it. The mob of immature Mute Swans was out in the wet grass again, along with a pair of Egyptian Geese. A flock of Meadow Pipits flew over, and a Reed Bunting came up from the reeds on the edge of the ditch.

We drove inland to check out some more sheltered meadows, but there were no Barn Owls here either. We would have another chance later in the afternoon, so hoping the wind would drop, we decided to turn our attention to Tawny Owls instead. As we parked by a field, three Oystercatchers were feeding in the winter wheat next door. We walked down the footpath to the edge of the wood. It was sheltered from the wind on this side, and there were a few rays of early brightness hitting the trees. Several Goldfinches and Chaffinches flew out of the branches above our heads.

We stopped to check out some tits in the trees and a Nuthatch flew across between the branches. When it landed on a bough, a second Nuthatch flew in to join it. A larger bird which flew out briefly to a lower bough was a Great Spotted Woodpecker and then a Treecreeper appeared too, working its way along the underside of one of the larger limbs of the tree. To round it off, a Goldcrest appeared with the tits in the bottom of a pine tree, right in front of us.

When the birds gradually disappeared back into the trees, we continued on down the footpath. As we rounded the corner, we walked out into the full face of the wind again. We wondered whether the Tawny Owl would be in its usual tree hole today, given the wind, but thankfully it was a little more sheltered on the far side. And there was the Tawny Owl, dozing in its hole. We got the scope on it and had a good look.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – in its usual tree hole again today, despite the wind

It was nice to see our first owl of the day, and as one of the most nocturnal of our regular owls, it is always a real treat to see a Tawny Owl during the daylight hours. Having admired it for a while, we set off back along the path. Two Mistle Thrushes had flown over the trees earlier, and as we walked back, they came up from the field the other side. A Song Thrush was singing in the trees, despite the wind.

We headed further inland to look for Little Owls next. It was always going to be an outside chance we could find one today, given the weather, and there was no sign of any at the first three sites we checked. Then it started to rain, which was the final nail in the coffin. We drove on west, out of the worst of the squally shower, but it was still spitting as we checked out a couple more sets of barns, to no avail. Another Sparrowhawk took off from the hedge ahead of us, skimming low over the road before flicking up over the hedge the other side. There were lots of Brown Hares in the fields, mostly hunkered down today, rather than boxing.

As we drove down towards the Wash, we stopped briefly to look at a sugar beet field which had been harvested earlier in the winter. A couple of Pink-footed Geese were feeding in a patch of beet which had been left in a damp corner and another one was in the long grass on the edge of the field. There were a couple of pairs of Egyptian Geese here too.

Pink-footed Goose

Pink-footed Goose – one of three in the old beet field on our way to the Wash

Making our way out to the edge of the Wash at Snettisham, a female Goldeneye was busy diving on the sailing club pit. When we got up onto the seawall, the tide was out, and we were presented with a vast expanse of mud. There were a few waders still closer in – Curlew, Redshank, Grey Plover and Knot, but most of the Dunlin were further out. We stopped to admire some of the closer birds in the scope, although it was not a place to linger today, given the wind. There was a liberal scattering of Shelduck over the mud too.

Our main target here was the owls, so we continued on round to see if we could find any. It didn’t take long to find one of the Short-eared Owls, tucked well in to a bramble bush, looking out. It was mostly dozing, its eyes closed. We got it in the scope, but it was very windy and hard to keep the scope steady. It was a little more sheltered a bit further down the path, so we stopped for a second look.

Short-eared Owl 1

Short-eared Owl – roosting in the brambles again

Continuing on round, we found a second Short-eared Owl roosting in the sparser brambles, back in its usual spot. A slightly paler individual, it stood out more against the vegetation. Again, it was mostly dozing but did wake up briefly at one point, flashing its yellow eyes.

Short-eared Owl 2

Short-eared Owl – the second one of the morning, roosting in the brambles

It was good to be back on track with some owls now. After admiring the Short-eared Owls for a while, we decided to head back. A Cetti’s Warbler was singing half-heartedly in the dense brambles on the seawall, sensibly keeping tucked well in.

Making our way back along the seawall, we found a lot of the Dunlin were closer in now, a bit further north towards the start of the chalets. There has been a single Little Stint wintering here, one of probably only a handful wintering in the country, although with all the thousands of waders looking for it can be a bit reminiscent of needles in haystacks. We have mostly seen the Little Stint off Rotary Hide, but surprisingly we found it again, further up here today. It seemed to be mostly keeping to itself, running around on the mud, although it was getting blown around quite a bit in the wind.

Little Stint

Little Stint – out on the mud again, but a bit further up today

As we passed the sailing club pits, there were several Goldeneye now including a nice close male. We stopped to admire its glossy green head, bold white cheek patch, and bright golden yellow eye – whenever it resurfaced from its regular dives. More of a surprise, a darker duck on the pit further up was an immature drake Common Scoter. They are mostly sea ducks and not often seen on the pools here, and had presumably been blown in on the wind.

Goldeneye

Goldeneye – a smart drake, diving on the pits

We made our way over to Titchwell next, for a break for lunch and a welcome hot drink. The ever helpful staff in the Visitor Centre told us that the Woodcock had been showing again this morning, so after lunch we made our way round to Meadow Trail. There were a few people already there who pointed out where it was. The Woodcock was very well hidden today, roosting down among the moss-covered branches, but from the right angle it was possible to get it in the scope for some frame-filling views.

Woodcock

Woodcock – roosting down among the moss-covered branches

Continuing on round to Patsys Reedbed, there were a few ducks out on the water here, mainly a small group of Gadwall and several Common Pochard, but we couldn’t see the drake Red-crested Pochard which was seen here earlier. We got the scope on a drake Gadwall so we could admire the intricacy of its feather patterning. Not just a dull grey bird – the connoisseur’s duck!

There were several Marsh Harriers up over the reedbed, with at least four together at one point, hanging in the wind. One landed on a small bush, where we could get a good look at it in the scope. More Marsh Harriers were further back, over Brancaster Marsh. A Kestrel landed on a tree just in front of the viewpoint too. A Common Buzzard was up along the ridge inland, where four Roe Deer were lying down in one of the fields.

Marsh Harrier

Marsh Harrier – one of four up together over the reedbed

One of the volunteers told us that the Red-crested Pochard was tucked into the reeds, only visible from the far end of the pool. So we walked down and looked back to see it sleeping with some more Common Pochard. We could see its brighter orange head.

It was quite sheltered round at Patsy’s Reedbed and it seemed like the wind might have dropped. We cut back round onto the main path and when we got out of the shelter of the trees we found it was still very windy, though perhaps not quite as strong as this morning.

We made our way straight up to Island Hide, where we could get out of the wind. There were lots of Teal feeding right in front of the hide, the drakes looking very smart now in their breeding plumage. The numbers of Avocets have been steadily growing, as birds are already returning ahead of the breeding season. Two Black-tailed Godwits were asleep in with the feeding Avocets.

Avocet

Avocet – numbers have been increasing steadily in the last few weeks

There were lots of gulls out on the Freshmarsh, and looking carefully through all the Black-headed Gulls, we found several Mediterranean Gulls in with them. Through the scope, we could see most were starting to get their dark, black hoods, contrasting with their white eyelids, and their bright red bills stood out too. There were several Common Gulls and Herring Gulls with them, and a single yellow-legged Lesser Black-backed Gull too. A Muntjac was working its way along the edge of the reeds.

We didn’t have time to explore the rest of the reserve today. As we walked back past the grazing meadow, there was no sign of the Barn Owl this afternoon, despite it being prime time now for it to be out. Perhaps it was just going to be too windy for them today.

Heading slowly back west, we kept scanning the likely fields, where we know Barn Owls like to hunt. Our luck was in, and as we passed a more sheltered meadow, we spotted a Barn Owl on a post at the back. It took off and flew towards us, but typically a car appeared behind us now and we were pulled up in the middle of the road on a corner.

There was somewhere to pull in further up and we walked back. The Barn Owl was on a post, under the trees, right by the gate now, so we edged our way down, trying not to disturb it. We needn’t have worried too much, as it eventually stayed where it was and didn’t mind us even when we got much closer, to find an angle from where we could get a clear look at it.

Barn Owl 1

Barn Owl – our first of the day, dozing on a post

The Barn Owl was dozing. It looked round at us a couple of times, only half opening its eyes, but then tucked its head back in. It looked like it might be unwell, and it would be no surprise if it was struggling to find food at the moment, given the ongoing windy weather. Eventually it did take off again and flew further back to another post, looking round a little more actively. In windy weather, Barn Owls will often hunt from posts, scanning the ground below.

It was great to get our first Barn Owl of the day, and see it so close. Our luck was really in now, as we turned to see another owl hunting over the grass in the middle of the field. It was much browner than a Barn Owl, longer winged, and flying with stiff wing beats and a rowing-like action. It was a Short-eared Owl!

Short-eared Owl 3

Short-eared Owl – a surprise find, out hunting this afternoon

We watched as the Short-eared Owl worked its way round the far end of the meadow, before disappearing back through the trees. This is not a place we normally see them, so we wondered whether it might have come in from the grazing marshes to try to find somewhere more sheltered to hunt. A very nice bonus! While we were watching the Short-eared Owl, we noticed a second Barn Owl perched low down in the trees at the back of the meadow.

Continuing on to Holkham, we stopped again overlooking the grazing marshes. Five Spoonbills flew up as we arrived and disappeared round behind the trees, but as we stood and scanned, more Spoonbills flew in and out in ones and twos. This is another sheltered spot and we found our third Barn Owl of the afternoon, perched on a post on the edge of the marshes. Again it was not flying round hunting, but made its way between a couple of different perches, scanning the ground below.

Barn Owl 2

Barn Owl – perched on a gate on the edge of the grazing marsh

Scanning the ditches and pools, we found a very distant Great White Egret out on the marshes. Then a second appeared from where it was hiding in a rush-lined ditch much closer and we had a good look at its long, snake-like neck and long, dagger-shaped yellow bill.

We could see a very distant group of White-fronted Geese and another small flock flew round calling, mixed in with some Greylags. Then we found some a little closer, out on the grazing marsh, so we could see their black belly bars and white surround to their bills. A flock of tits flew along the hedge behind us, and we picked out a single Goldcrest in with the Long-tailed Tits, Blue Tits and Great Tits as they worked their way past.

White-fronted Geese

White-fronted Geese – out on the grazing marsh

Time was getting on now and the light was starting to go. We hadn’t managed to see a Little Owl this morning, so we decided to have another throw of the dice and have a quick look at one site on our way back, in case one might be out hunting. It was still very windy though, and there was no sign. One to come back for another day! A Chinese Water Deer ran across the field as we drove round, adding to the day’s deer list.

We had done remarkably well for owls today, considering the weather, and everyone agreed we had enjoyed a great day out, with lots of other birds and wildlife too. We were so pleased we hadn’t had to cancel again. The moral of the story – it is always worth going out regardless!

18th Feb 2020 – Return of the Owls

An Owl Tour today. After yet more windy weather over the weekend, as Storm Dennis swept across the country, it was nice that conditions had improved today and we could get out looking for owls. The wind had dropped, although it got more blustery again through the day. It was dry and we even had some bright sunny periods through the morning.

After a prompt get away, we headed straight down to the marshes and before we even got out of the minibus we could see a Barn Owl out hunting over the grass by the road. It did a circuit of the field, round over the edge of the reeds and then disappeared round behind a hedge.

Barn Owl 1

Barn Owl – our second of the morning, perched on a post

Walking up onto the bank, we could see another Barn Owl on a fence post down on the marshes the other side. We got the scope on it, and could see it was scanning the long grass below intently. Then it took off, hovered, and dropped sharply down into the vegetation. When it came up again, we could see it had a vole in its bill, which it quickly transferred to its talons. It made a beeline back over the grass towards the trees beyond. At this time of day, Barn Owls are often robbed of their catch and it took evasive action as a Rook flew towards it, before disappearing with its prey back into the wood.

Looking back the other side, there were now two different Barn Owls hunting the fields there. We watched them for a few minutes, until they both disappeared, presumably heading in to roost. A Kestrel flew across and landed in the top of the hedge briefly, the main prey-stealing culprit here!

The other raptors were coming out too now. Two Red Kites drifted out of the trees and across the marshes. A Common Buzzard circled up inland and flew in towards us, mobbed by two Jackdaws. A couple of Marsh Harriers were quartering the marshes in the distance. There were other things to see here as well. A small flock of Curlews were feeding in the grass around a small flood which had appeared after all the recent rains. The local mob of teenage Mute Swans had gathered round it too. A Brown Hare ran across the grass. A Song Thrush was in full song back in the trees.

Barn Owl 2

Barn Owl – hunting in the morning sun

The Barn Owl we had seen catch a vole earlier now appeared out of the trees again, presumably having digested its earlier prey. With the low morning sunshine behind us, it was beautiful light as we watched it working its way methodically around the grazing marsh. It dropped down into the grass a couple of times, but didn’t catch anything more. Then it flew back and landed in the trees on the edge of the wood. It perched there for a while, sunning itself, and we watched it in the scope before it dropped down onto a fence post just below. Then it set off again, purposefully, along the edge of the grass, across the road, and then turned sharply and disappeared into the trees.

Presumably, the Barn Owl was heading into roost. It was good that we had managed an early start to catch them out hunting, as there was no sign of any of the three Barn Owls we had seen this morning. We decided to move on. We headed inland, parking on the edge of some fields before setting off down a footpath.

There were a few tits and Chaffinches in the trees, and one or two Robins in the hedges this morning. As we rounded the corner, two Mistle Thrushes flew out and off across the neighbouring field. A couple of Common Buzzards were hanging in the breeze in the sunshine.

As we got to the far side of the wood, we turned to look back along the edge. The Tawny Owl was there as usual, in a big hole in one of the trees. We got the scope on it and watched as it seemed to stare back out at us. After a while, it closed its eyes and went back to dozing. Tawny Owl may be the commonest of our regular owls but is also the most nocturnal, so it is always a privilege to see one like this in the daytime.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – roosting in its regular hole again

After enjoying watching the Tawny Owl for a while, we decided to move on. We headed inland to look for Little Owls next. Although the wind had dropped from recent days, there was still a rather brisk and fresh breeze, so we weren’t sure how many would be out enjoying the morning brightness today. At the first site we checked, there was no sign of any owls, but when we pulled up in a gateway overlooking the sheltered side of some barns, we could see a small round shape on the roof.

Once we got out of the minibus and set up the scope, we could see it was indeed a Little Owl, perched in a spot out of the wind and facing into the morning sun. A second Little Owl was just a few metres further down the roof, tucked in on the frame of one of the ventilation windows.

Little Owl

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

We had a look at some more barns, a little further up the road, but there were no more Little Owls out today. We were probably lucky to find the two we had seen, given the cool breeze. So we decided to switch our attention to the next owl on our target list – Short-eared Owl.

After the long drive over to the Wash, we stopped briefly to look at some Pink-footed Geese feeding in a strip of unharvested sugar beet in a field by the road down towards the beach at Snettisham. When we got out and up onto the seawall, the tide was out and a vast expanse of grey mud stretched all the way between Norfolk and Lincolnshire, visible in the distance.

When we got down towards Rotary Hide, we set up the scopes. With the tide out, most of the waders were very distant, but there was still a good scattering of Dunlin out on the mud closer to us and several Ringed Plover too. We could see a few Grey Plover and Knot plus one or two Turnstones with them, but despite having a good scan through the birds which were nearer to the shore there was no sign of the Little Stint which we have seen here on previous days. A couple of small groups of Golden Plover flew in and out. There were lots of Shelduck spread out over the mud too.

Our main target here was Short-eared Owl, so we made our way round to check-out the area where they normally like to roost. A Cetti’s Warbler was shouting periodically from the brambles as we passed. At the first set of bushes we scanned, we found one tucked in the brambles. It was dozing, and we couldn’t see its staring yellow eyes from here, but we all had a good look through the scope.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl – tucked into the brambles today

A bit further on, we stopped to scan again. We couldn’t find any other Short-eared Owls today, but we did have a different view of the first one again. Now it woke up and started preening, and we finally got a chance to see its distinctive yellow eyes, and even its short ‘ear’ tufts at one point.

There were not so many ducks on the pits at first today, but something seemed to spook lots of wildfowl from somewhere and lots flew in and landed on the water. As well as a good number of Wigeon, there were several Shoveler, one or two Gadwall and a few Tufted Ducks. We got the scope on a smart drake Goldeneye, admiring its green head, bold white cheek patch and eponymous bright golden-yellow eye. A Little Grebe was busy diving in the lee of one of the small rocky islets. When something spooked them, a large flock of noisy Greylag Geese flew in off the fields just inland.

On our way back, we stopped again to scan the mud out on the Wash. A Bar-tailed Godwit had now appeared, just beyond the channel, and there were a couple of Grey Plover and a Knot even closer, on the small pools just below us. A careful scan with the scope of the Dunlin failed to produce any sign of the Little Stint, and we were packing up when we looked away to the north and caught sight of a very small, paler wader out on the mud.

Putting the scope up again, we confirmed it was the elusive Little Stint. It was very mobile today though, in the freshening wind, and we had to keep relocating it as it got swept away several times when it took off. It was often in the company of one or two Dunlin or a Turnstone, when it certainly looked small, but it was when it ran past a Curlew that you could really appreciate just how tiny it was! One of probably just a handful of Little Stints wintering in the UK, it seems to like it here – what is probably the same bird has returned to the same area of mud for the last two winters at least. Come the spring, it will be heading off to the arctic to breed.

Grey Plover and Knot

Grey Plover & Knot – feeding on the mud on the edge of the Wash

We were heading to Titchwell to have lunch, but we took a small detour inland to Sedgeford. We were hoping to catch the Eastern Yellow Wagtail here, but there was no sign of it on its currently most favoured muck heap by the road. Another birder driving back from the other muck heap down the lane opposite told us it had not been seen down there either, for several hours at least. We stopped for a minute to watch several Brown Hares chasing round in the stubble field and then continued on our way. We had lots to pack in this afternoon and unfortunately had no time to wait to see if the wagtail might reappear later.

Titchwell was surprisingly busy for midweek and mid-winter, but the picnic tables were free when we arrived so we made good use of one for lunch and a welcome hot drink. We wouldn’t have time to explore the reserve whole today, but we had planned to have a quick look to see if we could see the Woodcock. One of the volunteers coming back to the Visitor Centre told us there was no sign of it now, so we diverted instead out onto the main path, where a Barn Owl had just been seen over the grazing meadow.

The Barn Owl was down in the long grass and rushes when we arrived but after a short wait it came up again. It seemed to be struggling in the freshening wind, and again dropped down into the vegetation for a while. When it came up again, it put on a much better show for us, eventually working its way down over the grass just beyond the fence. It landed briefly on one of the fence posts but was off again almost immediately and disappeared round towards the road.

Barn Owl 3

Barn Owl – hunting over the Thornham grazing meadow

Barn Owl 4

Barn Owl – put on a good show for us early this afternoon

A Common Buzzard was feeding on something further back in the field while we were watching the Barn Owl, so we got that in the scope too. A second Buzzard was on a fence post just behind and several Red-legged Partridges were in the grass closer to us. When the Barn Owl disappeared, we walked on round via Meadow Trail. A small group of Long-tailed Tits was feeding in the cut branches placed on the ground in the trees. We couldn’t find any sign of the Woodcock either now, so we decided to head back to the minibus and move on. The very tame Reeve’s Muntjac was chomping on the grass where the feeders used to be, behind the Visitor Centre.

Back at Holkham, we stopped to scan the grazing marshes. A large flock of Black-tailed Godwits was whirling round out in the middle as we got out of the minibus. There were several Spoonbills on the pools today. First we found two together, busily feeding with their heads down in the water, sweeping their bills from side to side as they walked round. Three more were much further back, way off towards the pines, but flew in to join them, and a sixth Spoonbill flew out of the trees and disappeared off east.

Spoonbill

Spoonbills – two of six we saw today, feeding busily

For a very large and bright white bird, the Great White Egrets made themselves surprisingly harder to find today. We eventually found one, right back in front of the pines, down in a rushy ditch where it was hard to see until it put its head up. Then if flew up, with slow and heavy wingbeats and landed again behind a sparse line of reeds. All the while, there was a second Great White Egret much closer to us, but it had managed to hide itself completely in the rushes until it eventually walked into view.

There are still quite a few lingering (Russian) White-fronted Geese at Holkham, but there were none down on the grazing marshes today. They were feeding further back, on the grass in the middle of the old Iron Age fort, and we could just see a few of them over the rim of the grassy bank. We thought we might find another Barn Owl or two out hunting here, but there were none out this afternoon.

Our next stop was at Wells. There was no sign of the Rough-legged Buzzard on its usual bushes when we arrived. We got out of the minibus and set off down the track towards the bank and we hadn’t gone too far before the Rough-legged Buzzard flew back in. It looked like it would land straight away, but instead flew on, up over the fields towards the Freeman Street car park, flushing all the Brent Geese. It was strikingly pale and, as it turned, we could see its bright white tail with broad black terminal band. It even stopped to hover at one point, rather like an over-sized, slow-motion Kestrel!

Rough-legged Buzzard 1

Rough-legged Buzzard – flew in over the fields

After flying round for a few minutes, the Rough-legged Buzzard returned to its normal bushes and landed on the top of one of them. Now, we could get a better look at it through the scope – its very pale white head and neck contrasting with the dark blackish belly patch. It was hard to see its feathered legs though, through the leaves and branches.

Rough-legged Buzzard 2

Rough-legged Buzzard – eventually landed on one of its favourite bushes

We continued on to the bank and stopped to scan the marshes beyond. There were a few Pink-footed Geese out on the grass and we got them in the scope, noting their dark heads and delicate, mostly dark bills. A passing farmer in a truck seemed like he would have preferred to run us over, although unfortunately we had all stepped to the side to let him pass, and when he drove out across the fields in the distance, he flushed a lot more Pink-footed Geese from over towards the pines. This can be a good place for owls in the late afternoon, but we couldn’t see any here today. It had clouded over progressively though and was no rather grey and cool in the strengthening breeze.

We cut back inland for one last stop on our way back. As we walked down the footpath across the meadow, two more Red Kites and a Common Buzzard hung in the air above the hillside behind us. There was no sign of the regular Barn Owl here this evening – it wasn’t out hunting and we couldn’t see it around the box where it likes to roost either. We were rather later than normal though, so it was hard to tell whether it had already gone off further afield, or was in no hurry to come out tonight given the weather.

We had a quick listen in the trees, but there were no Tawny Owls hooting yet. It is increasingly late before it gets properly dark now, and with the wind and threat of rain approaching, we decided to call it a night and not hang on any longer. Having enjoyed such great views of the Tawny Owl earlier this morning, and four different Barn Owls out hunting,  not to mention the Little Owls and Short-eared Owl, we did not feel like we were short of owls today