26th Apr 2017 – Big Spring Birding, Day 1

It was Day 1 of our big 5 day Spring Bird Tour today, but it didn’t really feel like spring! A very cold north wind meant temperatures have dropped right down again. We were forecast wintry showers today, and they came thick and fast early on this morning so there was barely a gap between them. Thankfully it calmed down a bit by the afternoon and we were able to pack in quite a lot of birding. There was even some blue sky on show! Given the wind, we decided to avoid the coast and head for the relative shelter of inland, down in the Brecks.

Heading south from our base in Wells, we stopped off on the way down in an area which is very good for Stone Curlew. These birds are breeding in farmland, rather than their traditional habitat of grass heath. Scanning across an area of fallow ground, we quickly got on to a Stone Curlew. It was huddled down against the wind, half hidden by the growing vegetation, and back onto us at first. Eventually it shifted round a little so that we could see its black-tipped yellow bill and yellow iris – before it closed its eyes again. A Brown Hare was hiding in the grass here too.

Then some dark clouds appeared over us and it started to rain, rapidly turning to hail. We sheltered in the car for several minutes while it blew through, and then came out for another go. We could still see the Stone Curlew tucked down in the grass, so we decided to see if we could get a better view from a different angle. A couple of Skylarks had started singing, hovering up high into the sky. A bright yellow-headed male Yellowhammer was feeding in a bare strip on the edge of a field. Several Lapwings were flying round. We couldn’t see the Stone Curlew at all from here, with too much tall grass now obscuring our view. Another shower was rapidly arriving, so we hurried back to the car and decided to move on.

We continued south, stopping again briefly to scan some pig fields. A Red Kite was circling distantly over the village. A pair of Grey Partridge appeared from among the pig arcs, but the tractor which had been feeding the pigs disturbed them. They scuttled away quickly out of view. The sky behind us turned black again and another squally shower came in fast, so we got back into the car and set off again.

It was still raining when we arrived at our next destination. We stopped on the roadside and listened, from the warmth and comfort of the car. The first bird we could hear singing was a Willow Warbler, a sweet descending scale. Then a Blackcap started up too, very flutey and melodic, and a Common Whitethroat began singing its own scratchy song nearby. These were all completely outclased when a Nightingale started singing. It was beautiful just to listen to, but we had a tantalising glimpse of a shape moving in the tree from which the sound was emanating.

Thankfully the rain dried up and it started to get brighter. We parked the car and went for a walk. Back along road, two Nightingales were singing now. It was a stereo Nightingale show, with one either side. What a performance! But they just wouldn’t show themselves and eventually one went quiet and the other moved further in, away from us.

We walked on over the Common, across to the other side where more Nightingales had been singing recently. On the way, a Green Woodpecker flushed from the grass, but flew off behind the bushes out of sight. When we arrived where the Nightingales should be, it was quiet at first. However, as the sun started to show itself, a Nightingale started singing. Just as we got to the other side of the bushes, and could see it perched on a bare branch, some dog walkers appeared and it flew back into cover. It felt like it wasn’t going to be our day.

There is an area in the middle of the brambles and gorse where this Nightingale sometimes feeds. We found a spot from where we could see the ground and waited. We could hear it croaking in the brambles and the next thing we knew, it flew up into an oak tree right next to us and started singing. Great views! It hopped around between the branches for a while, singing all the time. When it flicked across to a low hawthorn bush, it landed with its back to us with its tail spread, which caught the sun, a stunning orange-red. Quite a show!

6O0A8255Nightingale – eventually put on an amazing show for us

There was a Lesser Whitethroat singing in the brambles nearby. We tried to get a look at it, but it wouldn’t sit still. It kept flying off and then coming back to the same clump, perching only briefly before diving back in. At least we all got good flight views. A Willow Warbler was more obliging. It had been a lovely bright, sunny spell but once again we could see more dark cloud approaching, so we retreated back to the car.

Our next destination was Lakenheath Fen. The dark clouds followed us and there was a mercifully brief shower when we arrived at the visitor centre. We spent a few minutes watching the feeders – there were several Reed Buntings, males and females, a few Goldfinches and even a couple of Greenfinches here today.

6O0A8293Greenfinch – on the feeders, in the rain

Once the shower had passed overhead, we decided to have a look out over the Washland. It hadn’t been there when we were watching, but when we came outside we flushed a Great Spotted Woodpecker from the feeders. A Cetti’s Warbler shouted at us from the bushes on the way.

The first bird we set eyes on at the Washland was the Glossy Ibis, over in the far corner. We got a good look at it through the scope, noting its distinctive long, thick, downcurved bill. This bird has been here for almost three weeks now – a nice one to see here, though it is commoner in its normal home in southern Europe.

IMG_3428Glossy Ibis – out on Hockwold Washes again today

Otherwise, there were fewer ducks on here today – just a handful of Teal and Mallard. There were a few Black-tailed Godwits out on the water. And a Sedge Warbler was singing from the reeds just below us, where we could see it. When yet another shower blew in, we hurried back to the shelter of the visitor centre for lunch.

Over lunch, we sat and watched the feeders again. There were much the same birds as we had seen earlier, but when we had jut about finished the Great Spotted Woodpecker finally came back in, so we could get a good look at it.

6O0A8302Great Spotted Woodpecker – back on the feeders during our lunch break

After lunch the rain finally cleared and it looked to be brightening up nicely. We walked out onto the reserve to see what else we could see. A Cuckoo was singing from the trees behind New Fen Viewpoint, which we could hear as we walked up along the main track. It seemed to be deep in some leafy poplars but, when we continued on along the path towards the river bank, the Cuckoo helpfully came out into the top of a bare tree where we could see it. Through the scope, we admired its barred underparts.

IMG_3461Cuckoo – finally came out into the top of a bare tree

Otherwise on New Fen, there were several Reed Warblers singing. A pair of Tufted Ducks and a couple of Teal were out on the water from viewpoint, along with a family of Coot. A smart male Marsh Harrier was quartering over the reeds at back. By the pond dipping platform, a cracking summer plumage Great Crested Grebe swam out from the reeds not far from us.

6O0A8310Great Crested Grebe – swam out in front of us by the new pond dipping platform

There were no hirundines feeding over the reeds at New Fen in the wind today, but a trickle of Swallows and House Martins passed overhead as we were leaving. Further on, we found more of them, gathered on the south edge of West Wood, in the lee of the trees, hawking for insects. One Common Swift appeared with them briefly, zipping back and forth a couple of times, before disappearing off over the trees.

Suddenly a larger shape appeared low over the reeds and scythed up through the throng. It was a Hobby. The hirundines all scattered, alarm calling, as the Hobby disappeared, empty handed, off into trees. A brief view but an all-action moment. Another smart male Marsh Harrier then kept us company on the walk on to Joist Fen, circling over the reeds beside the path. It looked stunning in the sunlight as it banked, against the dark clouds of another shower which was mercifully passing us by in the distance.

6O0A8319Marsh Harrier – catching the sun against a dark shower cloud in the distance

Out at the Joist Fen Viewpoint, there were more hirundines hawking low over the reeds. A couple of Sand Martins zipped past. There were no more Hobbys out here today, perhaps it was just too windy. Several Marsh Harriers were circling, but there was no sign of a Bittern today. Once we had recovered our breath, we set off again. After a quick look up on the river bank, which was rather windy, we started to walk back.

As we passed New Fen again, another Hobby came over the trees and across the path, before dropping down towards the reeds. As it turned, we could got a good view of its red trousers. The Cuckoo was still singing in trees and we heard a Treecreeper in the poplars too, although it went quiet before we got up to where it had been.

Although we had seen a Stone Curlew earlier in the day, we would like to have had better views. We drove round to another site where they breed, this one a traditional heathland site. As we drove up, a male Linnet was singing on the fence, while a female fed nearby. A male Stonechat flicked between fenceposts ahead of us. It had brightened up nicely now and there was no sign of any more rain here.

6O0A8341Linnet – this male was singing from the fence

As soon as we got out of the car we immediately spotted a Stone Curlew. Perhaps because of the rain earlier, it was very active and put on quite a show. It was walking round, quite quickly at times, then standing still and looking down at the ground. Occasionally it would peck at something, before setting off again. Through the scope we got a great look at it.

IMG_3483Stone Curlew – feeding actively this afternoon, once the rain cleared

While we were watching the Stone Curlew, a quick scan of the surrounding heath produced a single male Wheatear out on a cultivated strip. It was rather distant but still nice to see here. Wheatear used to be a fairly common breeding bird in the Brecks, but the population has all but died out – this could have been a migrant, but it is nice to think it might be staying to breed. A pair of Grey Partridges were feeding out in the grass too.

Having lost some time because of the rain this morning, it was now getting late. Still we wanted to just have a quick look in at Lynford as the weather had improved. It was quiet at first, perhaps still a bit too cold in the trees. A Mistle Thrush flew out of the tops calling, a distant Nuthatch was piping, and we could hear just a single Goldcrest singing. At the feeders by the gate, a lone Coal Tit was feeding on the fat balls. Down by the bridge, there were no seeds on the posts today and consequently just a single Chaffinch here at first.

6O0A8366Chaffinch – looking for any remaining seeds around the bridge

Then we heard a loud ‘chacking’ call and looked up to see a Fieldfare in the trees, with a second calling nearby. Fieldfares are winter visitors, so these should be thinking about heading back to Scandinavia soon. A Nuthatch appeared in the trees above the bridge, climbing up the trunk into the top before flying off towards the Arboretum. A couple of Siskins flew overhead calling.

Down at the lake, we got a good look at a Little Grebe, diving by one of the islands. There were also several Canada Geese and Mallard. A Marsh Tit started calling behind us, and we turned round to find a pair in the trees. The male was collecting food and taking it back to the bushes to feed the female.

6O0A8386Marsh Tit – collecting food in the trees by the lake

As walked back towards the bridge, as well as the Fieldfares, we could now hear Ring Ouzels calling from the edge of the paddocks. Three flew up into the nearest hornbeam, but unfortunately did not hang around for long, and flew off towards the other end of the lake. We turned round again and walked back to see if we could see them. A Treecreeper appeared in the trees in front of us.

As we walked along the path by the lake, we could hear the Ring Ouzels calling in the alders. Then we flushed one from the tops, and it flew out to the far corner of paddocks, and landed it a line of trees. We got it in the scope, but it was a rather dull female, with no white crescent, and we were looking in to the light. When she flew a short distance down along the line of trees, we realised that the other Ring Ouzels were there too. They all landed briefly together, but just as we got them in the scope, they all flew off towards the Arboretum, calling. Ring Ouzels are just migrants passing through here, most often seen on the coast, and always a good bird to find so far inland.

Then, with a big drive back to North Norfolk still, we had to tear ourselves away. Despite the rain at times, it had been a very successful day.

24th Apr 2017 – Spring in the Brecks

A Private Tour today. It was cloudy with an occasional shower in the afternoon, thankfully mostly while we were having lunch, with some brighter spells in the afternoon. With Stone Curlew the main target, we headed down to the Brecks for the day. On the drive down, a couple of Red Kites circled lazily over the fields beside the road, possibly hanging around looking for some overnight roadkill to feed on.

Stone Curlews can be found on some of the remnant heaths down in the Brecks, but many of them attempt to nest on farmland, with varying degrees of success. We stopped off on our drive down to look for a pair which nest regularly in an area of arable fields. Thankfully, this year, they appear to have chosen an area which has been left fallow, rather than attempting to breed in a crop.

The weeds here are starting to grow fast now, but it didn’t take us long to locate one of the pair of Stone Curlews, tucked down out of the wind among the spring flowers. We had a great look at it through the scope – we could see its bright yellow iris and black-tipped yellow bill. It was very well camouflaged, particularly when it nestled down tighter into the vegetation and went to sleep. There were several Skylarks singing here, always great to hear, and a Eurasian Curlew called from further over too.

IMG_3347Stone Curlew – hiding among the spring flowers

That was a great way to start so, with our first target in the bag, we made our way further south and deeper into the Brecks. We stopped off at some pig fields for a brief look round, which produced a few birds. As well as the commoner Red-legged Partridges, we found a pair of Grey Partridges which scuttled across the field from the verge. There were several Shelducks, crows, gulls including Lesser Black-backed Gulls and Oystercatchers in the fields with the pigs. With nothing else of note immediately obvious, we didn’t hang around.

Nightingale was our next target and as soon as we got out of the car at our next stop, we could hear a couple of males singing against each other. We walked across to where they were and stood for a while marvelling at the complex songs with beautiful fluid notes and phrases. We thought we might see one perched out in the open here, but they were both tucked deep in cover. At one point, one of the two Nightingales did flick across between two bushes and perched briefly on the edge, but it was too quick for everyone to get onto.

A Willow Warbler singing in the top of a bare bush was more obliging. They also have a beautiful song, but poor bird was rather overshadowed by the Nightingales. A Reed Warbler singing from deep in some bushes, miles from any reeds, was rather odd – presumably a bird on its way somewhere more suitable! A Treecreeper sang from the trees nearby.

We made our way over to the other side of the site, with a few Linnets and Goldfinches in the bushes on the way. When we got there, we could immediately hear another couple of Nightingales singing. We followed the sound and were again tantalised with brief views of the birds darting between bushes. However, our perseverance paid off when we came across one perched in a tree, singing away. We stood and watched it for about 10 minutes, getting a great view through the scope, and just enjoying the sound.

IMG_3369Nightingale – perched out singing for us for ages

The clouds were starting to build rather ominously now, so we drove on to the RSPB reserve at Lakenheath Fen, hoping to dodge the showers which we assumed were approaching. We got to the car park just as it started to rain, and made a quick dash for the visitor centre. Thankfully, it was over very quickly, so we headed out to the Washland. A Cuckoo as singing from the bushes as we passed.

There were lots of ducks out on Hockwold Washes, but the first bird we alighted on when we set up the scope was a very smart drake Garganey. We could see the bright white stripe over its eye, curving down the sides of its head, and the ornate black and grey plumes on its back.

IMG_3381Garganey – a smart drake out on the Washes

There has been a Glossy Ibis hanging around here for over two weeks now, a rare visitor from southern Europe. A careful scan and we located it feeding over in one corner. Like a dark heron, with a distinctive long and downcurved bill, we got a good look at it through the scope. Unfortunately, in the overcast conditions we could not see the detail of its glossy bronze plumage. A very nice bird to see here though.

IMG_3392Glossy Ibis – lingering on the Washland for over two weeks now

There were lots of other birds out here too, so having found the two main species we had wanted to look for, we started to scan through the others. We quickly located a Common Tern perched on some vegetation out in the middle of the water, preening. A flock of Black-tailed Godwits flew round and landed down at the front. A Grey Heron flew along the river. There were lots of Swallows and House Martins hawking for insects low over the water.

We looked over our shoulders and saw some more black cloud almost upon us, and at that moment it started to rain again. We made a quick dash back to the visitor centre for an early lunch. From the warm and dry, we watched the comings and goings at the feeders. There was a steady stream of Reed Buntings, Goldfinches and tits coming in to feed today, while we ate our sandwiches inside.

6O0A8128Reed Bunting – several were coming down to the bird table by the visitor centre

After lunch, it seemed to brighten up a bit, so we made our way out to explore the reserve. On the walk out, we could hear various warblers singing from the vegetation – Reed Warblers and Sedge Warblers from the reeds, a Common Whitethroat from the brambles, a Blackcap from the trees. A Cetti’s Warbler shouted its song at us as we passed. Another Cuckoo was singing from the poplars – Reed Warblers beware!

We stopped for a while at the New Fen Viewpoint. A Little Grebe was laughing maniacally from the reeds, but the smart summer plumage Great Crested Grebe stole the show. A pair of Coot were feeding their five young, with bright red bald heads, over at the back. A Gadwall and a pair of Tufted Ducks on here were both additions to the day’s list.

There were lots of hirundines hawking for insects over the reeds, including some brown-backed Sand Martins. We could also see several Common Swifts further back, over the edge of West Wood, the first we have seen here this year. But there was no sign of Bittern or Bearded Tit here, so we carried on across the reserve.

A brief look in at Mere Hide was very quiet. However, we did see a pair of Marsh Harriers from just outside the hide. We had enjoyed great views of a grey-winged male by the road as we drove down to Lakenheath earlier, but otherwise the Marsh Harriers seemed a little subdued here today, possibly due to the weather. A Yellow Wagtail flew over calling. As we walked on towards the Joist Fen Viewpoint, another smart Great Crested Grebe was on the pools by the path.

6O0A8141Great Crested Grebe – looking very smart now, in summer plumage

From the Joist Fen Viewpoint itself, we could see at least seven Hobbys hawking out over the reeds. They seemed to have found a spot over one of the pools where they were finding lots of flying insects, and they were a little distant, but fantastic to watch as they swooped back and forth. Recent arrivals back from Africa, they might have been regretting their decision given the weather today!

The pair of Cranes which are often visible from here seem to have disappeared at the moment – reserve staff are exploring various theories as to what might have happened to them. Unfortunately, we did not have enough time to go further afield looking for any others, and the weather conditions were not conducive to being too adventurous today. So we made our way back.

We had intended to pop in to explore Weeting Heath on the way past. With a particular interest in Stone Curlews, it seemed appropriate to try to have a look at them in their more natural habitat. However, a quick chat at the visitor centre and we learned that they had not been showing all day today, since very early in the morning. Breeding activity seems to be on hold for now – one of the pairs here seems to have already lost their egg and has not yet got round to another attempt. With that in mind, we decided to do something else instead. Fortunately, we had enjoyed good views of Stone Curlew earlier this morning.

We had wanted to have a quick look in at Lynford Arboretum today, and this gave us an opportunity to visit there now. Unfortunately, it clouded over a bit as we drove back there so, even though it was nice and sheltered in the trees, it was rather gloomy too. There were several Goldcrests singing from the conifers as we walked round, but we couldn’t hear any of the Firecrests – it was not really the weather for it. It started to drizzle a little, on and off, but it was only light so we carried on anyway to see what we could find.

There had been some seed put out on various of the benches in the Arboretum, so we decided to go down to the bridge for a look there. As we walked down the hill, we could see a bird high in the tops of the trees. It was a male Common Crossbill. It stayed there for some time, calling softly, presumably having come in to drink. Through the scope we got a great look at it, noting its distinctive crossed bill tips. A nice bonus!

IMG_3414Common Crossbill – a male, high in the trees above the bridge

There was a small amount of bird seed scattered around the bridge still, so we stopped to see what was coming down to feed. As well as several Blue Tits and Great Tits, we got a great look at a Marsh Tit here. There were several Reed Buntings coming down to the seed, both black and white headed males and streaky brown headed females, giving great close-up views. A pair of Siskin came down to drink briefly at the edge of the lake.

While we were standing on the bridge, we heard a distinctive reeling noise, rather like a cricket. It was a Grasshopper Warbler singing from the edge of the meadow just beyond the lake. This is not where we would normally expect to find a Grasshopper Warbler, so it was a bit of a surprise. We tried walking along the path by the lake to see if we could see it, but there is very little cover for it along here at the moment and it stopped singing and disappeared as we approached.

We had already seen a pair of Little Grebes on the lake, chasing each other round looking from the bridge. As we walked down the path, we could see a few Mallard on the far side, along with a couple of Canada Geese and a Mute Swan. Another small duck swam out from under the trees along the near bank ahead of us – a stunning male Mandarin Duck. It stopped just long enough for us to get it in the scope and admire its amazing multi-coloured plumage, before it swam off around the back of the island.

6O0A8164Mandarin Duck – a stunning drake down on the lake

As we made our way back to the bridge, a Grey Wagtail was feeding under the overhanging trees on the other side of the lake, before flying off across the water. A Jay disappeared off through the trees, flashing its white rump. Back at the bridge, a Nuthatch appeared in the trees and flew in to a branch above us, where it spent a minute or two hacking away at the bark with its dagger-like bill. A Sparrowhawk flew fast and low through the trees, scattering all the birds and causing a couple of Mistle Thrushes to call loudly in alarm.

6O0A8189Nuthatch – feeding in one of the trees above us, down at the bridge

It had been a very productive little session around the Arboretum, despite the weather – well worth the visit. Unfortunately, it was now time to start making our way back. We had enjoyed a nice introduction to the delights of the Brecks in late spring and seen some great birds today as well.

21st Apr 2017 – Spring Warblers & More

A Private Tour today in N Norfolk. It was rather cool and cloudy, with an increasingly blustery west wind in the afternoon and no sign of the promised sunny intervals, but it was dry all day.

The main target for the day was to try to find warblers and, if possible, Garganey. Snettisham seemed like the best bet, so we set off west along the coast road. A quick stop on the way at Titchwell and there was no sign of the Turtle Dove which had been in the car park early yesterday morning. The weather wasn’t particularly conducive, so we didn’t stop here long.

Arriving at Snettisham, we set off to explore the Coastal Park. As soon as we parked, we could hear warblers singing. A male Blackcap perched up obligingly in the top of a bush and a Common Whitethroat was songflighting, before landing on a tall bramble stem. We quickly heard our first Lesser Whitethroat of the day and set off along one of the smaller paths to try to see it. They can be elusive at this time of year at the best of times, often singing from deep in the bigger bushes. We did manage to see the Lesser Whitethroat a couple of times as it flew across between hawthorns, but it was perhaps too much to hope that it might come out and sing for us on a cool morning like today.

The Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers were a little more accommodating. There were good numbers of both singing in the park today. Willow Warbler in particular is not as widely distributed as it used to be so it is always nice to hear their distinctive song, a sweet descending scale, at this time of year. A pair of Bullfinches in the bushes were a nice, non-warbler, addition to the day’s list.

6O0A7900Willow Warbler – several singing in the park today, this one taken yesterday

An occasional resident Cetti’s Warbler shouted at us from the bushes as we walked past and the damper areas in the middle were alive with singing Sedge Warblers today. They are really back in force now and making their presence known. There are smaller numbers of Reed Warblers which have returned so far, but we did hear a few as we explored the area. One was singing from the reeds by one of the paths which cross through the middle of the park, but despite our best efforts we could not see it – it was keeping tucked well down in the reeds this morning.

As we walked in through the park earlier, we had seen couple of large flocks of Knot circling distantly out over the Wash beyond the sea wall. As we walked back towards the sea wall out of the reeds, we heard loud calls ahead of us and looked up to see two Peregrines chasing each other over the bank. They had presumably been spooking the waders on the Wash earlier!

One of the Peregrines quickly disappeared away beyond the bank, but the other, a juvenile, circled towards us and right over our heads, before heading off north over the park. Great stuff!

6O0A7924Peregrine – this juvenile came right over our heads, in from the Wash

This is often a good spot to see Cuckoos at this time of year, and we were not to be disappointed today. After we heard our first singing male in the middle of the Coastal Park, we were never far away from one. It really made it feel like spring, to hear Cuckoos singing, despite the not particularly spring-like conditions.

There were at least three Cuckoos here today, possibly more – it was hard to tell as they were flying around constantly, with birds regularly passing overhead whenever we looked up. They have a few regular bushes from which they like to sing and we got great views through the scope of one male in particular, from up on the inner seawall, when it returned to one of its favourite song posts.

6O0A7840Cuckoo – this photo taken yesterday, but singing from the same tree again today

Grasshopper Warbler was one species of warbler we had expected to at least hear here today, but as we passed the first couple of areas where birds have been reeling recently, all was rather quiet. Thankfully, as we walked along the path further up we heard the distinctive song of a reeling Grasshopper Warbler, sounding more like an insect than a bird. Helpfully, it was in an area of quite open bushes with a narrow path running through, so we set off in pursuit.

We could see the Grasshopper Warbler perched up in the top of some brambles, so we stopped and set up our scopes. Typically, just as we got them lined up, it dropped back into cover. We walked round to one side of the brambles and positioned ourselves, thinking it might come up again to sing further along the clump. After a few seconds it did just that – half hidden at first and then climbing up right out in full view, up onto some thin rose stems. We had a great view of it through the scope.

IMG_3277Grasshopper Warbler – reeling from a bramble clump this morning

In the end, we heard at least three reeling Grasshopper Warblers as we walked round here today. They were possibly just a bit slow to get going this morning!

While we were waiting for the Grasshopper Warbler to reappear, we watched one of the Cuckoos flying over beyond and it swooped down towards a large hawthorn bush and flushed a second Cuckoo from the top of it. The two of them proceeded to chase each other round over the bushes, coming very close to us at one point, just as the Grasshopper Warbler reappeared. We didn’t know which way to look!

6O0A7947Cuckoos – chasing each other over our heads as we watched the Grasshopper Warbler

After completing our target set of warblers for the morning, we walked up as far as the cross bank and climbed up onto the seawall to look out over the Wash. There are still good numbers of waders here at the moment. The tide was still about half way out, but through the scopes we could see them all out on the mud. There were several hundred Knot, most still in grey winter plumage but a few starting to go orange. The same was true of the Bar-tailed Godwits and Grey Plover, though a couple of the latter were already looking quite smart with black bellies and white spangled upperparts.

There were a few smaller waders in amongst the Knot out towards the shoreline, mostly Dunlin but a careful scan produced a single silvery grey and white Sanderling. There were more flocks of Dunlin closer to us, scattered across the mud, and in with them we found a single Ringed Plover. We lost sight of it when the flock flew, but the next thing we knew it appeared on the beach in front of us and started displaying with a second Ringed Plover, the two of them flying round over the sand with stiff wing beats.

6O0A7975Ringed Plover – two were displaying over the beach

There were a few Curlew out on the mud, but the Whimbrel seem to prefer to feed on the short grass. Looking across on the inland side of the seawall, we found two Whimbrel walking around beyond the pools, nice spring migrants for the trip list.

The Wash coast is a good place to watch visible migration (or ‘vizmig’ for short), with flocks of birds passing overhead on their journeys, being forced south here if they want to avoid crossing the Wash on their way north along the coast. There were a few birds moving today, but it was possibly a bit slow due to the weather. We did have several small flocks of Meadow Pipits passing overhead, along with a few Linnets and Goldfinches. A single White Wagtail dipped low enough over the bushes that we could see its pale grey back before continuing south along the seawall. There was a steady trickle of hirundines moving all morning – almost entirely Swallows today, apart from one House Martin which we managed to catch as it flew through.

There had been a pair of Garganey here in the last week or so, although there was apparently no sign of them yesterday. We headed over to the inner seawall to scan the pools to see if we could find them. They were not on the pools today where they had been previously, but we did see a nice selection of other wildfowl. Two small flocks of around 30 Pink-footed Geese each were out on the grass. Most of the Pink-footed Geese have long since departed on their way north to Iceland for the breeding season, but these few were leaving it rather later. There were also the resident Greylag, Canada and Egyptian Geese here. Ducks included Teal, Gadwall, Shoveler and a few lingering Wigeon.

The wind was starting to pick up now and it was rather cold up on the inner seawall, so we opted to walk back through the shelter of the bushes. We should have continued south along the inner seawall as, little did we know at that stage, but the Garganey were on another pool back towards the road. Thankfully, we bumped into another couple of birders on our way back who told us about them and we were able to cut back across and up onto the bank to look. We found the drake Garganey tucked tight up against the bank of the pool asleep, sheltered from the wind. Through the scope we could still see its distinctive white head stripe and the elongated ornamental feathers hanging down over its flanks.

IMG_3287Garganey – asleep, tucked into the edge of one of the pools

It was getting on for lunchtime when we got back to the car, so we drove inland to a sheltered spot for lunch. Afterwards, we had a quick walk out onto Dersingham Bog. We had hoped to find a Tree Pipit singing here, but it was a bit cold and windy and a quiet time of the day now. They are summer visitors so they may not all be back in here yet. We did find a couple of pairs of Stonechat and flushed a Green Woodpecker from beside the path. It quickly became clear it was rather quiet here so we didn’t stay long.

6O0A7984Stonechat – Dersingham Bog is a good place for this species

Grey Partridge was another target species for the afternoon. They are sometimes to be found at Snettisham, but they can be disturbed by the large number of dog walkers here. We took a diversion on our way back, inland via Ringstead. This is often a good area for Grey Partridge and a stop to scan a likely looking field quickly found us a pair, with a second pair on the edge of a field as we dropped back down to the coast road at Choseley.

6O0A7994Grey Partridge – one of two pairs we found on our short diversion inland

Our destination for the remainder of the afternoon was Holkham. We made a quick stop to scan the grazing marshes from the road and were rewarded with distant views of several Spoonbills in the trees. A long, snaking white head appeared occasionally out of an overgrown ditch and eventually a Great White Egret climbed out, helpfully with a Grey Heron then walking right in front of it to give a great size comparison. It then flew off back into the trees. There were several Barnacle Geese out on the grazing marshes too, presumably feral birds from Holkham Park.

Driving round to Lady Anne’s Drive, we headed out along the path to the hides. It was rather quiet in the trees in the strengthening breeze. A few Chiffchaffs were singing, along with a couple of Sedge Warblers from the reeds in front of Washington Hide. We did manage to find a Treecreeper hiding in a holm oak by Meals House. Then as we approached Joe Jordan Hide, we finally heard a Willow Warbler singing, usually a fairly regular sound here in spring.

There was a large white bird standing on the edge of a ditch out on the grazing marsh between Meals House and Joe Jordan Hide – a Great White Egret, possibly the same one we had seen earlier. In the breeding season the bill can go black, making it look rather more similar to a Little Egret. A couple of Greylag Geese walking in front of it left us in no doubt as to its large size. Through the scope we also admired the bright blue-green facial skin at the base of its bill. A couple of drake Pintail out on one of the pools beyond were a nice surprise.

IMG_3300Great White Egret – in a weedy ditch out on the grazing marsh

From up in the Joe Jordan Hide, it didn’t take long to find a Spoonbill, perched up obligingly in the top of the sallows behind the fort. They were coming and going pretty much constantly from the trees while we were there. Several flew down to the pool below to collect nest material, before carrying it back up to the trees. Others were flying in and out from further along the coast in both directions, where they had presumably been feeding. We could see the bushy nuchal crest on the breeding adults, as well as the mustard yellow wash across the breast.

IMG_3322Spoonbill – collecting nest material

There were other birds coming and going here too. Lots of Marsh Harriers were quartering out over the marshes and a nice male came through close in front of the hide. A Red Kite circled lazily over Holkham Park and a Sparrowhawk flapped up distantly out of the trees. There are plenty of Common Buzzards here too, including a couple of rather striking pale ones which are always a source of confusion for the unwary.

6O0A8015Marsh Harrier – this male flew past in front of the hide

Three House Martins were lingering over the trees, hawking for insects. A few Swallows were still making their way west, along with a couple of Sand Martins. A single Pink-footed Goose, presumably a sick or injured bird which is destined to stay here for the summer, was down on the grass with all the Greylags.

Then it was time to start to make our way back. As we strolled back along the path, there seemed to be a little more activity in the late afternoon. We heard a couple of Willow Warblers singing now, and a single Blackcap which we had not heard on the walk out. A Goldcrest fed quietly in a holm oak above our heads.

It had been a very enjoyable day, with all our main targets achieved. Despite the cooler weather, we had seen a great variety of spring birds.

17th Apr 2017 – Bempton Cliffs

On our way south from Scotland, we broke the journey and then stopped off at the RSPB reserve at Bempton Cliffs on our way home. It was much nicer weather here today, sunshine and lighter winds. We had intended to stay just a couple of hours but ended up stopping here for much longer, marvelling at all the seabirds on the cliffs. It is always a fantastic combination of sights, sounds and smell!

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6O0A6283Bempton Cliffs – all the seabirds gathering on the cliffs for the breeding season

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Puffins stole the show. They are not as easy to see well here as some other places, as they don’t seem to nest on the cliff tops, although they do apparently sometimes come up onto the grass to collect nest material. We saw several lower down on the cliff faces or flying in and out from the cliffs. We explored all the viewpoints, hoping for a closer one, and eventually our persistence paid off with great views of several Puffins at the top of the cliffs.

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6O0A7570Puffins – we eventually found some on the top of the cliffs where we got great views

Getting photos of Puffins in flight was much trickier. They are small birds and move remarkably quickly in and out of the cliffs.

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6O0A7426Puffins – trickier to photograph in flight!

The other highlight was the Gannets. Around 20,000 nest here and they are seen everywhere along the cliffs and over the sea. However, while we were there they were coming down onto the top of the cliffs to collect grass for nest building. At one place in particular loads of Gannets were gathering very close to the fence, giving us views down to just a few metres.

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6O0A7191Gannets – coming down to collect grass on the clifftop

We stood for ages watching the Gannets here, as the birds flew in along the clifftop and hovered down to the grass. At one point we nearly had our heads taken off by a Gannet which misjudged its approach and came in very low behind us – we could hear the panicked flapping as it tried to pull up at the last minute, eventually just skimming over as we ducked!

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6O0A6347Gannets – some came very close as they flew in

The were lots of other auks on the cliffs. Razorbills are very smart birds up close, and we had great fun trying to photograph them flying in and out of the cliffs at high speed.

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6O0A6877Razorbills – looking very smart, in summer plumage

There were plenty of Guillemots too, much browner than the Razorbills and without the more dramatic bill markings, but great birds nonetheless.

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6O0A6726Guillemots – there were plenty of these on the cliffs too

The Kittiwakes were particularly noisy, with many pairs squabbling on the higher bits of the cliffs, their calls sounding appropriately just like their name!

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6O0A6089Kittiwakes – very noisy, squabbling on the cliffs

The seabird interest was rounded off with a few Fulmars gliding effortlessly along the cliff face.

6O0A6182Fulmar – gliding effortlessly along the cliffs

There is not a great variety of different species here on the cliffs, but it was great to see so many of them really close up. And what a spectacle the whole thing is!

There were a few other birds here, not just the seabirds, although we didn’t spend a lot of time looking around the area. On our walk down to the cliffs in the morning, a Grasshopper Warbler was reeling away, tucked down on the other side of a hedgerow out of sight. After watching the seabirds for several hours, we came back to the visitor centre for some lunch. It was nice to see so many Tree Sparrows here – an increasingly scarce species further south. As we ate our lunch outside in the sunshine, a Short-eared Owl was hunting over a field beside the car park.

6O0A7646Tree Sparrow – great to see good numbers still here

It had been a great way to finish our trip, calling in at Bempton Cliffs. It is a fantastic reserve and well worth a visit. We could have stayed much longer and eventually had to tear ourselves away so we could get home in good time. We will certainly be going back sometime soon!

12-16th Apr 2017 – Easter in Scotland

Not a tour, but we spent three days in Scotland catching up on some of the local specialities over Easter, with another day either side journeying up and back from Norfolk. As I haven’t been up to Speyside for a few years, it seemed about time for a return visit.

Arriving early for our overnight stop on the way north, we decided to have a quick look up on the moors. We were quickly rewarded with good views of at least 10 male Black Grouse. They were not doing much this evening, but we had high hopes for more activity the following day! Heading on higher up, we found our first Red Grouse of the trip too, though they too were keeping their heads down from the blustery wind.

It was an early start the following morning, to get up onto the moor for dawn. As we drove over the ridge and looked down into the valley below, we could see a scattering of black dots in the grass – 19 displaying male Black Grouse on the lek. They are far enough away here so as not to disturb them, so we got out of the car and could immediately hear their bubbling calls. We got them in the scope and watched them running round, flapping their wings and leaping in the air, with their body feathers puffed out, tail fanned and white undertail feathers fluffed up. It was quite a sight! There were a smaller number of grey-brown females there too, looking slightly non-plussed by all the action around them.

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6O0A5073Black Grouse – great to watch them displaying on the lek

A little further along, we managed to find a single male Black Grouse closer to the road, so we could get some photos. The Red Grouse up on the tops were now calling and displaying. There were also displaying Common Snipe in the valley and several Curlew and Golden Plover on the moors. It had certainly been well worth the stop here. Then it was on with the journey up to the Highlands.

One of our main targets for our stay here was Ptarmigan. Unfortunately, the weather forecast for our stay was not ideal – windy with blustery showers. Not great for hiking up to the Cairngorm plateau. The best day appeared to be on our first full morning there, but it didn’t look good first thing with snow overnight on the tops and low cloud lingering. Thankfully, after breakfast, the cloud base lifted and we could see a short window of opportunity.

We had hoped we might find a Ptarmigan on the slopes below the fresh snow this morning, but it didn’t help that there were lots of people walking up despite the weather today, it being Easter weekend. We got up to a plateau above 1000m where it was safer to stray from the path and a bit of exploration was quickly rewarded with a Ptarmigan running away from us over the snow. We followed it slowly and were eventually able to get quite close to it. A smart bird!

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6O0A5511Ptarmigan – on the Cairngorm plateau above 1000m

The view was impressive up here too, with all the snow on the mountains. However, we could see some darker cloud approaching, so we decided to call it a day and head back down. We were glad we did, as it started to spit with rain for a time and the tops disappeared again into the cloud.

Scotland April 2017 Cairngorms ascent_4Cairngorm Plateau – still with plenty of snow

On our ascent, we had seen a few Red Grouse, but on the way back down we were able to appreciate just how many of them there were on the moors here, and watch them displaying.

6O0A5354Red Grouse – plentiful on the moors lower down

Back down near the car park, a Ring Ouzel flew up from the shorter grass below the ski lifts.

6O0A5570Ring Ouzel – this smart male was feeding around the ski lifts

Crested Tit is one of the other key target species for any visit to the Highlands and we were not disappointed. They can be harder to see in the summer months, and familiarity with their distinctive call certainly helps in locating them. We heard quite a few Crested Tits, when we were in the Caledonian Forest, and got great views of two pairs. The second pair, we watched collecting nest material and the male courtship feeding the female. They are certainly full of character!

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6O0A5922Crested Tits – great birds to watch, we found this pair collecting nest material

As well as the Ospreys at the RSPB’s Loch Garten reserve, we saw several elsewhere. The best moment was probably one flying past the window of our B&B while we were eating our breakfast one morning!

6O0A6028Osprey – a female, calling from the nest, while the male was presumably off fishing

With just a couple of days to play with in the Highlands, and the best morning reserved for the hike up into the Cairngorms, we were always likely to be at the mercy of the weather with our other targets. On our second morning, despite cloud and showers, we headed up to the Findhorn Valley to look for eagles. As we drove up, we could see dark clouds over the head of the valley and when we got there the wind was whistling in and regular sleet showers were blowing through. Not ideal!

We sat in the car for an hour, scanning the hills, but a brief brighter interval produced just a couple of Common Buzzards. Two Wheatears were feeding on the grass in front of the car park and a pair of Common Gulls were hanging around there too. It seemed unlikely there would be any eagles this morning, so we decided to move on.

As we headed down the valley, it brightened up a little lower down. We made our way up over the hills and down the other side to the RSPB reserve at Loch Ruthven. Between the showers, we walked along to the hide. We could see three Slavonian Grebes out on the water, but they were all rather distant while we were there. There are still a lot more to return here yet. A summer plumage Red-throated Diver was fishing on the loch too, along with a few ducks – Goldeneye, Wigeon, Teal and Mallard.

6O0A5850Slavonian Grebe – one of three out on the loch today

With the weather improving a little, and after lunch back at the car park, we decided to have another go at the Findhorn Valley. As we arrived, the head of the valley was still in cloud and another wintry shower blew through. But we could see some blue cloud coming in from behind us and we hadn’t been back five minutes when a 1st winter Golden Eagle appeared over the ridge at the back of the car park. Unfortunately it didn’t hang around and we just got a quick look at it as it disappeared back over the top. A short while later, the Golden Eagle reappeared much further down and we watched as it flew across the valley being mobbed by a Raven. A Peregrine was flying around the hill behind us too.

It seemed unlikely we would better that today and with the day getting on, we headed back down the valley. We took a different route back and stopped off by another loch on the way. It was very windy and  the wind was whipping up the water so it was quite choppy. Scanning with the scope in the lee of the car we were able to locate a single Black-throated Diver, a stunning bird in full summer plumage.

There were various other birds which we caught up with on our travels around Speyside. We heard lots of crossbills, but they were rather flighty and often hard to see. We had nice views of Common Crossbill in the forest and of a family which came down to the small deciduous trees alongside the river in Carrbridge, presumably to drink. There were more crossbills in Abernethy Forest, and we heard both Common and Scottish/Parrot Crossbill flight calls from birds passing overhead. Some larger billed birds resembling Scottish Crossbill were feeding in the trees around the car park at Forest Lodge on a couple of occasions but did not hang around long enough for us to get a prolonged look at them.

6O0A5621Common Crossbill – along the river at Carrbridge

Exploring along various rivers produced a few additional species too, including Goosander, Common Sandpiper and Grey Wagtail. However, the pick of the bunch was Dipper – it was great to watch them feeding in the shallows, dipping under the water.

6O0A5830Chestnut-bellied Dipper – the native British subspecies of Dipper

Mammalian interest on this trip was provided chiefly by the Red Squirrels which we saw at several sites. Two Mountain Hares were seen at the top of the Findhorn Valley. We also saw the herd of (re)introduced Reindeer in the Cairngorms and a few Bank Voles running around under the feeders at Loch Garten.

6O0A5599Red Squirrel – thankfully not uncommon around the forest here

After that, unfortunately our short visit to Scotland had to end and we started to make our way south…

29th Mar-5th Apr 2017 – Spring Birding in Cyprus

Cyprus is a great place to witness early spring migration across the Mediterranean. On almost the 30th anniversary of my last visit, I decided it was about time I returned. So, we spent a very enjoyable week on Cyprus, based in the south-west, north of Paphos. Needless to say, there were lots of good birds to see, both regional specialities and migrants heading north.

One of the highlights of the whole trip was on our first full morning on Cyprus. We decided to have an early look round the archaeological site on Paphos Headland, which is a magnet for migrants. One of the first birds we came across was a male Cinereous Bunting, a very scarce visitor to Cyprus, on its way between back to breed in W Turkey or Lesbos, from its wintering grounds around the Red Sea. Quite a way to start!

6O0A1454Cinereous Bunting – a very scarce visitor to Cyprus

There are three endemic species found on Cyprus, which are ‘must sees’ on any visit. Thankfully, two of them are not hard to see. We saw Cyprus Wheatear every day. A small number were on the coast, possibly fresh arrivals, but slightly inland birds were singing and holding territory. Formerly considered a race of Pied Wheatear, Cyprus Wheatear has for some time been treated as a full species in its own right.

6O0A1320Cyprus Wheatear – a singing male, near to where we were staying

Cyprus Warbler was a little harder to find, but still we came across birds at three different sites. Like many Mediterraean Sylvia warblers, they are rather skulking birds, but the song of the male at this time of year alerted us to their presence. With a bit of perseverance, we were able to enjoy great views of them.

6O0A1775Cyprus Warbler – we came across singing males at three different sites

The third endemic species is another which has been elevated from a mere subspecies, in this instance rather more recently, just last year (and still not recognised as such by all authorities). Cyprus Scops Owl was previously treated as a race of European Scops Owl, but has a noticeably different ‘song’ and also tends to be rather darker. We had heard one singing at night on a couple of occasions, but were then told about a site where there was a day roosting bird which might be visible. Thankfully, after we heard it singing briefly in the middle of the day, we managed to find it roosting in a tree. A stunning bird! We also heard another day singing Cyprus Scops Owl the same day at another site.

6O0A3518Cyprus Scops Owl – now generally treated as a full endemic species

Aside from these three, there are also several endemic or near-endemic subspecies on Cyprus, several of which are found up a higher elevation in the Troodos Mountains. We spent a very successful morning in the Troodos, where were able to locate the four main target birds – Dorothy’s Treecreeper, Cyprus Coal Tit, Cyprus Jay and guillemardi Crossbill (the latter is also found in Turkey & the Caucasus). The first two are particularly distinctive.

Dorothy’s Treecreeper is quite a striking bird, much greyer above than Short-toed Treecreeper (of which it is currently considered a subspecies) and with a very different vocal repertoire. Both of these suggest that it could be a candidate for revised treatment as a full species in the future.

6O0A3361Dorothy’s (Short-toed) Treecreeper – much greyer & with very different vocalisations

Cyprus Coal Tit also looks very different from other subspecies of Coal Tit, with a very extensive black bib and reduced white cheeks and white nape stripe.

6O0A3243Cyprus Coal Tit – differing in appearance to other Coal Tits

Cyprus is also a great place to see several eastern Mediterranean species, like Cretzschmar’s Bunting and Ruppell’s Warbler. Ruppell’s Warbler is just a migrant, passing through at this time of year – we saw them quite regularly during our stay. As well as Ruppell’s Warbler, there were smaller numbers of Eastern Bonelli’s Warbler and Eastern Subalpine Warbler plus a single Eastern Orphean Warbler on our first full morning at Paphos. As elsewhere in the Mediterranean, Sardinian Warblers are common and large numbers of Lesser Whitethroat and Chiffchaffs were seen daily, stopping off on their journey north.

6O0A2358Ruppell’s Warbler – a male

Cretzschmar’s Bunting breeds on Cyprus, but is much commoner at this time of year, as birds are also passing through on migration. We ran into them regularly during our stay, both at sites around the coast such as Paphos, and also inland. We also found a small number of Ortolan Buntings, often associating with the commoner Cretzschmar’s Buntings.

6O0A3533Cretzschmar’s Bunting – a summer visitor and passage migrant through Cyprus

As well as the Cypriot specialities, the main reason for visiting Cyprus at this time of year is to see all the migrants which are passing through the island. Wagtails and Pipits were particularly in evidence. It was great to watch large flocks of yellow wagtails, with one numbering a conservative 150 birds, feeding in the fields. The largest proportion of the flocks were Black-headed Wagtails, their buzzy calls very different from the Yellow Wagtails we get here. It was a particularly great experience to watch them feeding at close quarters in a carpet of spring flowers at Paphos headland. Stunning!

6O0A1556-001Black-headed Wagtail – feeding in the spring flowers at Paphos headland

Black-headed Wagtail intergrades with several other subspecies of yellow wagtail and some of these forms are distinctive enough to have specific names. However, the range of variation is considerable. ‘superciliaris’ typically has a black head with a clear white supercilium, but some birds have much reduced white on the head.

6O0A3845Black-headed Wagtail ‘superciliaris’ intergrade – with a white supercilium

The ‘dombrowskii’ intergrade form has a greyer head, blacker ear coverts and a bright supercilium, but again we found several birds which had a reduced supercilium, or had differing proportions of grey and black around the head. It was fascinating to see the range of variation.

6O0A3950Black-headed Wagtail ‘dombrowskii’ intergrade type – grey nape, but reduced supercilium

The Pipits were slightly less confusing, but no less exciting that the Wagtails. Another of the highlights was watching groups of Red-throated Pipits feeding just a few metres away in the spring flowers at Paphos. On one morning, we had at least 30 Red-throated Pipits here. Many were in full summer plumage now, with throats in various shades of red. We encountered smaller groups of Tree Pipits and Meadow Pipits too. Tawny Pipits were passing through as well, and a flock of about 20 Tawny Pipits in the hills was particularly noteworthy.

6O0A4231Red-throated Pipit – feeding in the spring flowers at Paphos

As well as the endemic Cyprus Wheatears, several other wheatear species were passing through the island while we were there. There were good numbers of Northern Wheatears, which we encountered regularly around the coast. However, it was particularly nice to have the chance to watch plenty of Isabelline Wheatears, a rather rare visitor to the UK.

6O0A2601Isabelline Wheatear – we saw good numbers of this species, mostly around the coast

On one morning, we encountered a particularly good arrival of wheatears on Paphos headland and in with the Northern and Isabelline Wheatears, we found a cracking male Desert Wheatear too. Desert Wheatear is a regular migrant through Cyprus, but in small numbers, so this was certainly a good bird to see.

6O0A1634Desert Wheatear – a smart male

We also encountered good numbers of Eastern Black-eared Wheatears on our travels, with males of both the pale-throated and dark-throated forms and a few females.

6O0A1717Eastern Black-eared Wheatear – of the pale-throated form

From around the middle of our week on Cyprus, there was a noticeable arrival of flycatchers. They came in particularly with some rain overnight Friday into Saturday. After that, we found Collared Flycatchers to be fairly common, mostly ones or twos but we ran into them at many different sites, and often just in bushes along the roadside. Smigies picnic site was one of the most productive sites – we had at least four different male Collared Flycatchers here one morning.

6O0A2756Collared Flycatcher – a noticeable arrival and then seen daily

As well as the Collared Flycatchers we found a couple of Semi-collared Flycatchers and Pied Flycatchers. It provided a great opportunity to compare the three different species. Most of the flycatchers passing through at this time were smart males, which always makes the process of identification easier.

6O0A2451Semi-collared Flycatcher – we found a couple of males of this species

As well as all the wheatears and flycatchers, there were smaller numbers of Common Redstart, Stonechat and Whinchat on their way north. While Nightingales breed on Cyprus, there were many around the coast especially that appeared to be migrants. We also came across three different Wrynecks at widely spaced locations.

There were smaller numbers of migrant larks passing through Cyprus at this time of year. However, we did encounter several small flocks of Short-toed Larks around the coast, which are always nice to see.

6O0A2235Short-toed Lark – we encountered several small flocks around the coast

The resident Crested Larks were very obliging, with their punk haircuts. Very photogenic!

6O0A1451Crested Lark – very obliging

Some other noticeable migrants we saw regularly were herons. Small flocks of Grey Herons and Night Herons were seen coming in around the coast or making their way inland.

6O0A2500Night Heron – several small groups seen on the move around the coast

On one morning, we flushed a Purple Heron from the archaeological site at Paphos, which flew round and landed in the trees nearby, and then watched a second Purple Heron come in off the sea. As well as the more obvious migrants, we saw several herons and egrets around some of the wetland sites, including also a few Squacco Herons, Cattle Egrets and Little Egrets.

6O0A2212Purple Heron – a fresh arrival, at Paphos archaeological site

Harriers are also passing through Cyprus at this time of year. We saw several Pallid Harriers, including a number of stunning pale grey males. A smaller number of Marsh Harriers were obviously on the move, seen coming in off the sea or migrating through the hills, with one or two lingering around the wetland sites near Akrotiri. We also came across a single female Hen Harrier near Phassouri reedbeds.

6O0A2125Pallid Harrier – a stunning grey male

A Black Kite passing over the hills above Polis was a bit of a surprise. It is rather early for this species on Cyprus and this was possibly the first seen on the island this year.

6O0A3670Black Kite – an early migrant above Polis

Resident raptors include Bonelli’s Eagle, which we ran into at three sites, two pairs and a single bird. The only Long-legged Buzzard we found was at Theletra, but we had great views of it as it circled overhead. A single Common Buzzard early in the morning near the Baths of Aphrodite was possibly waiting for the day to warm up before flying off north.

6O0A3591Long-legged Buzzard – circled overhead at Theletra

The commonest raptor on Cyprus is Common Kestrel. However, there are also Lesser Kestrels to be found at certain sites. These are summer visitors, but fortunately several were already in. We found seven at Anarita Park on our visit. As well as the smart males, it was good to get a chance to study the more subtle females too.

6O0A2725Lesser Kestrel – a male at Anarita Park

Crakes are passing through Cyprus at the moment. There are no good wetland sites in the SW of the island these days (most of the pools have dried up), so to see them we had to venture further east. Unfortunately, we were unable to engineer our visits to be there for early morning or late afternoon, when the crakes are most active. But we did get lucky with a female Little Crake which came out to bathe in the middle of the afternoon after a rain shower. We watched it for over 15 minutes right below the hide at Zakaki, preening and then creeping around in the vegetation feeding. Stunning views!

6O0A3058Little Crake – this female spent over 15 mins preening & feeding in front of the hide

Waders were similarly thinly distributed in the west, the only exception being the striking Spur-winged Lapwing, which we found feeding in fields at a couple of sites and even on the rocks around the headland at Paphos. Stone Curlews were heard calling every night from our villa and we found at least four out in the open in an olive grove at Lower Esouzas one morning. We did also find three Green Sandpipers on the river around the ford at Nata. On two mornings we came across flocks of Black-winged Stilts flying west past Paphos early on.

6O0A2642Spur-winged Lapwing – found at several sites, often away from wetlands

However, particularly near Larnaca we found a much better selection of waders. The most productive site we found was Meneou pools. The highlight here was a Red-necked Phalarope which we found, a scarce migrant through Cyprus and the first this year. However, at the same site we counted 22 Marsh Sandpipers, plus 5 Kentish Plover, good numbers of Little Stint, Dunlin, Black-tailed Godwit, Ruff, Black-winged Stilts and 7 Stone Curlew. There were also five Slender-billed Gulls here too, the only place we saw this species. Oroklini held several Wood Sandpipers and two more Little Stints, as well as lots of Black-winged Stilt and a few Spur-winged Lapwing. We added Common Sandpiper to the trip list with three at Larnaca Sewage Works.

The area around Akrotiri was a little disappointing in comparison. Phassouri Reedbeds produced several Wood Sandpiper, lots of Ruff and a few Common Snipe. A group of six Little Ringed Plover which dropped down by a puddle next to the road at Zakaki were probably migrants and moved on quickly. We managed to find 2 Marsh Sandpipers and a Little Stint at Lady’s Mile eventually, but otherwise¬† it was mainly Ruff and Black-winged Stilt here.

The Greater Flamingoes around Akrotiri were a nice addition to the trip list. There were still lots out on the salt lake – with 1,000+ counted in recent days – but we got closer views at Lady’s Mile and Meneou.

6O0A2916Greater Flamingo – still 1,000+ around Akrotiri during our stay

With relatively few hirundines in UK at this time of year, it was nice to see good numbers on migration through Cyprus. Swallows and House Martins were both common and we also saw a small number of Sand Martins. Red-rumped Swallows were both migrating through – we saw several obvious migrants around the coast – and inland they were getting ready to breed. On our way up into the Troodos Mountains, we stopped by a roadside puddle to watch a little group of House Martins and a pair of Red-rumped Swallows coming down to collect mud for their nests.

6O0A3162Red-rumped Swallow – coming down to collect mud for nest building

Lots of Common Swifts were seen, particularly around the coast, but there were comparatively few Pallid Swifts to be found. One over Oroklini with Common Swifts was presumably a migrant, but a pair of Pallid Swifts over Troodos were possibly breeding birds back on territory.

The shrikes we encountered were similarly made up of both migrants and breeding birds. Masked Shrike is the key species we wanted to see here, and we found both birds passing through on the coast and singing birds, holding territory inland. We also saw a smaller number of Woodchat Shrikes on our travels.

6O0A1696Masked Shrike – both migrants passing through and birds holding territory inland

While those were some of the notable birds we came across, we also saw many more species and there were several non-avian highlights too. As well as many lizards, we came across one snake when my son, Luke, nearly trod on a Blunt-nosed Viper which was playing dead on a patch of waste ground. This is the most venomous snake on Cyprus, so it was lucky he spotted it in time! Thankfully, bites are rare and it appeared to be just a small one.

6O0A1284Blunt-nosed Viper – Cyprus’ most venomous snake

We encountered a nice selection of butterflies – including amongst others Swallowtail, Eastern Festoon, Clouded Yellow, Cyprus Meadow Brown and Mallow Skipper. As well as a few Common Blue, we also found several of the endemic Paphos Blue.

Paphos Blue Cyprus Peyia 2017-03-29_1Paphos Blue – showing the distinctive underwing pattern

The spring flowers are amazing at this time of year, and we came across three different orchids on our travels. Several Bug Orchids were in flower down at Akrotiri, but on our way up into the Troodos we found a small group of Naked Man Orchid and Giant Orchids by the side of the road. Very smart flowers!

Naked Man Orchid Orchis italica Cyrpus Troodos 2017-04-03_1Naked Man Orchid – by the roadside on the way up to Troodos

It was certainly a very exciting week we spent in Cyprus – from the large flocks of commoner migrants, to the rarer visitors and the local specialities. It is a lovely place to go birding at this time of year and we will certainly go back in the future. Hopefully it will not be another 30 years! We can definitely recommend it.

7th Apr 2017 – Signs of Spring

A Private Tour in North Norfolk today. It was nice and dry all day, but a bit cloudy and cool in the W/NW breeze. That seemed to keep a cap on migration, although we still managed to see a nice selection of birds on the move and some early returning summer visitors.

Starting from Wells, we headed west along the coast. Our first stop was at Holkham where we were immediately watching Spoonbills in the tops of the trees. There were two in view at first, one looked to be trying to gather sticks, pulling at thin branches, presumably busy nestbuilding. Periodically they would fly round and drop back into the trees out of view, with the same or another then coming back up into the tops. When perched high in the trees, through the scope we could see their spoon-shaped bills. There were lots of Cormorants in the trees too.

Another large white shape appeared out of one of the ditches further over, a Great White Egret. It quickly took off and flew across in front of us, landing down out of view again. In flight, we could see its large size, and heavy flight on long broad bowed wings. A short while later, it flew again and disappeared down behind some reeds further west.

Despite the cool temperature, there was plenty of raptor activity. A shrill call above alerted us to the presence of a displaying Marsh Harrier. We watched as it tumbled down out of the sky and dropped into the reeds. A female Marsh Harrier appeared out of the reeds away to our left and flew up into a tree. When we got it in the scope, we could see a Common Buzzard in the tree behind, perched waiting for the air to warm up a bit. The female Marsh Harrier then dropped down to the ground in front of the reeds and flushed a second male Marsh Harrier out of the grass, presumably a pair.

IMG_3089Marsh Harrier – the female perched in a tree

Most of the geese down on the grazing marshes are Greylags now, with the majority of the winter geese having departed north already, en route to their breeding grounds. Scattered among them, we found a few Egyptian Geese, a Canada Goose and a single Pink-footed Goose. The latter appeared to have an injured wing – a few sick or injured Pink-footed Geese remain year round at Holkham, normally birds which have been shot and wounded and are unable to complete the journey back to Iceland.

A larger group of geese were feeding on the grass on the fort. Through the scope we could see that they were mostly Pink-footed Geese too, about 30-40 of them. These are just the laggards, with no excuse for not heading off, they are just awaiting suitable conditions to make the journey.

Our next stop was at Titchwell. A couple of Chiffchaffs and a Blackcap were singing from the trees around the car park, our earliest returning summer warblers. The tame local Robins came straight over to the car as we got out, hoping for a very early lunch! Round at the visitor centre, the winter finches appear to have departed now, but we still managed to add Chaffinch, Goldfinch and Greenfinch to the day’s list, at the feeders.

6O0A4431Common Pochard – a pair in the pools by the main path

As we walked out along the main path, the dried up grazing meadow ‘pool’ appeared deserted. On the other side, a pair of Common Pochard were feeding around one of the small pools by the path, the male closely shepherding the female. Looking around the larger reedbed pool, we could see three Red-crested Pochard lurking on the edge of the reeds. Through the scope, we could see the coral red bills of the two drake, and their orange punk hairstyles.

We could hear Bearded Tits calling from the reeds nearby, but they were hard to see today. Given the chill in the breeze, they were keeping low. Occasionally, one would climb up a reed stem briefly, before dropping back into cover, and eventually we all managed to get a look at one. We decided to have another look on the way back, hoping it might have warmed up a little.

As we waited for the Bearded Tits to show themselves, we were aware of several little groups of finches flying west. They were Linnets and Goldfinches, on their way north, following the coast round. A couple of little groups of Meadow Pipit flew over too. Great to see migration in action, despite the cooler weather.

The water levels of the Freshmarsh are still quite high at the moment, which means that not much mud is exposed. Consequently, there were few waders on here today, and rather more ducks. Several Teal were feeding along the edge by the path, the drakes looking very fine at the moment. There were also good numbers of Shoveler and a few Shelduck out on the water.

6O0A4496Teal – the drakes are looking very smart now

The waders were mainly represented by Avocets. A few were sleeping out in the shallow water around one of the submerged islands in the middle, but others were feeding, either up to their bellies in the deeper water or around the edge. It was clear that many were already paired up, the birds out feeding mostly in twos.

6O0A4459Avocets – many are paired up already

There were a few Black-tailed Godwits out on the Freshmarsh, but by the time we got to Parrinder Hide they had flown off. A quick scan of the lower islands which were not underwater revealed a single Little Ringed Plover, but unfortunately that flew off over the bank before we could all get a look at it through the scope. Little Ringed Plovers are summer visitors, so this was another early returning bird. The Ruff were more amenable, with several feeding in the grass on the fenced off island, among the Black-headed Gulls.

From the hide, we could see a few lingering Wigeon around the islands. Most appear to have departed already, on their way back to Russia to breed. A pair of Gadwall were feeding just outside the hide and another pair of Red-crested Pochard were sleeping further out. A couple of Meadow Pipits dropped in along the edge for a quick feed and drink, possibly more migrants stopping off briefly on their way.

6O0A4466Gadwall – a pair feeding out from Parrinder Hide

The Volunteer Marsh was mostly quiet – with small tides at the moment, the surface was mainly dry. Only around the lower lying channel around the far edge did we find a few Redshanks, a couple of Curlew and a single Grey Plover which was very well camouflaged against the mud.

There were more waders out on the Tidal Pools. The Black-tailed Godwits were on here feeding in the shallower water, several now getting into their brighter orange summer plumage. More Avocets were sleeping on the spit towards the back and in with them we found two smaller, pale grey Knot, also asleep.

IMG_3099Black-tailed Godwit – now moulting into orange summer plumage

A pair of Shoveler were asleep right by the path, and the drake helpfully awoke briefly as we walked past and flashed its enormous bill, having a quick yawn, before going back to sleep. Yet another two Red-crested Pochard were asleep on the island here – there seem to be a lot of them back here now.

6O0A4478Shoveler – a pair, the drake showing off its enormous bill

Out on the beach, we could see a long oil slick of black ducks out the sea, Common Scoters. Through the scope we could see the black drakes and the browner females. There were still several hundred offshore here today, some closer in but a larger raft a bit further out. In with the closer ones, we could see several Long-tailed Ducks, including one or two handsome drakes. It was nice to see several of these winter visitors still lingering, it has been a good winter for them here, though presumably they should also soon be departing north. Scanning through the Common Scoter we counted at least 35 Long-tailed Ducks still here today.

IMG_3125Long-tailed Ducks – at least 35 were still on the sea today

Also out on the sea, we found a few Great Crested Grebes still. There were quite a few gulls offshore, particularly hassling the larger raft of Common Scoter. Three paler, slimmer winged birds which flew past closer inshore were Sandwich Terns, early returning birds back for the breeding season.

Down on the mussel beds, there were lots of Oystercatchers. A closer look also revealed a small party of Knot and a good number of Turnstone hidden in the seaweed. Further along the beach towards Brancaster, there were still a few Bar-tailed Godwits in with the other waders, but numbers of there have declined now as we get into spring.

It was a bit fresh out on the beach, so we decided to make our way back. As we turned to leave the beach, a large group of Brent Geese flew in over the beach and headed towards the reserve. When we got back to the Freshmarsh, they were all out on the water, chattering to each other. Yet more lingering winter visitors, they should soon be on their way back to Russia to breed.

6O0A4487Brent Geese – flew in to the Freshmarsh from the beach

A stop to scan the Freshmarsh, revealed not one but three Little Ringed Plovers now out on the islands. We got one in the scope and had a look at it. As we were scanning through the gulls, we picked up two paler birds flying in over the bank from the direction of Brancaster. A pair of Mediterranean Gulls, they dropped down into the fenced off island amongst the Black-headed Gulls and started displaying. Through the scope, we could see the Mediterranean Gulls’ more extensive, jet black hoods and white wing tips.

We stopped for a rest on the bench back by the reedbed, but at first their was no sound of any Bearded Tits. Then we spotted one flying across one of the reedy channels, and then back again. A closer look revealed a pair of them feeding in the reeds along the edge. We even managed to get the male in the scope briefly.

A quick scan of the grazing meadow ‘pool’ on the way back revealed a single wagtail out on the dry mud. It was noticeably paler than the Pied Wagtails we had seen earlier, with a silvery grey back contrasting with its black cap, a White Wagtail. White Wagtails are passage migrants through here, on their way north to Iceland or Scandinavia, a nice bird to see.

After a late lunch back at the visitor centre, with a welcome hot drink to warm us up, we started to make our way back east. We called in briefly at Brancaster Staithe, but there was a lot of disturbance here today. That didn’t seem to deter the Turnstones which were still running around in and out of the cars.

6O0A4512Turnstone – running around the car park, despite the disutrbance today

Our next stop was at Burnham Norton. There has been a Green-winged Teal here for several days now and another couple of local birders quickly located it for us half hidden in a small pool out on the grazing meadow, while we were admiring a Mistle Thrush out on the short grass. From round on the bank the other side, with a bit mroe elevation, we had a great view of the Green-winged Teal.

The North American cousin of our (Eurasian) Teal, Green-winged Teal differs principally in having a bold white vertical stripe on the foreflank and lacking the white horizontal stripe above the flanks which our Teal shows. Helpfully, there was even a drake Teal nearby for comparison!

IMG_3179Green-winged Teal – a drake, showing off its bold white vertical flank stripe

There was lots of other avian action here while we were watching the Green-winged Teal. Two Swallows flew west, the first we have seen in Norfolk this year. A Sedge Warbler was singing away from the reeds behind us, another early returning summer visitor. A drake Garganey flew up from one of the ditches, but unfortunately dropped down again out of view before anyone could get onto it. We had a look along the ditch where it landed, but we couldn’t see it in there in the open water and it had probably disappeared into the reeds.

The Marsh Harriers provided another highlight. We could hear one calling and looked up to see a male displaying high overhead, swooping and tumbling. It gradually lost height and dropped down steeply into the reeds. The next thing we knew a second male Marsh Harrier appeared and the two of them proceeded to chase each other round over the reedbed, while a female circled nearby.

6O0A4582Marsh Harriers – two grey-winged males, chasing each other round the reedbed

We made our way inland, through farmland, back to Wells. A couple of Red Kites circled over the fields and we also saw a few Kestrels on the way, our first of the day. A brief stop produced a couple of Brown Hares in a field and several Red-legged Partridges to add to the day’s list. Then it was time to head for home. Despite the cool weather, we had seen several reassuring signs today that spring is here, with several warblers back and singing, and birds on the move.