Monthly Archives: July 2014

30th July 2014 – Waders, Spoonbills & Spotted (a) Crake!

A private tour today in North Norfolk, we went looking for waders and Spoonbills. There are lots of waders on the move at the moment, so it is a good time to be out looking along the coast. We also have the large post-breeding gatherings of Spoonbills to admire. And the odd rarity is around as well!

We started at Cley, looking for sandpipers. A good number had been reported the night before, so it seemed a good place to be this morning. Unfortunately, a lot of them seemed to have moved on. We did find a couple of Green Sandpipers and a Yellow-legged Gull out on the scrapes. Several Little Ringed Plovers showed well. There were still plenty of the commoner waders to look at, including Black-tailed Godwits and Ruffs of various hues. Out on North Scrape, the regular group of Spoonbills numbered 16, including lots of juveniles and a few adults.

We headed along to Titchwell for lunch. On our way out to the freshmarsh, we picked up three eclipse drake Red-crested Pochard on the reedbed pool. The freshmarsh itself was alive with waders. Stopping in Island Hide, we quickly found one of our targets for the day – a dainty spangled Wood Sandpiper.

P1080350Wood Sandpiper – gorgeous!

We also hoped to see the adult Spotted Crake which has been seen sporadically at Titchwell over the last couple of days. Thankfully, we did not have to wait too long before it slipped out of the reeds and worked its way along the muddy edge. Crakes can often be elusive and it disappeared back into the vegetation, not to be seen again while we were there, but thankfully not before we had got a good look at it.

IMG_1421Spotted Crake – on the edge of the reeds

Titchwell was also not to be left out on the Spoonbill stakes. We counted a minimum of 9 birds together on the freshmarsh (taking us to at least 25 for the day). Several were flying back and forth from Thornham saltmarsh and one even landed out on the beach and started feeding in a rock pool!

P1080356Spoonbill – we saw at least 25 in the day

The weather was glorious, a slight breeze just taking the worst out of the heat, and it was a real delight to be out on the coast. There was so much to see – a Hobby flashed across the water, several young Marsh Harriers were practicing their flying skills over the reedbed, a Turtle Dove flew overhead and the odd Yellow Wagtail lurked amongst the enormous number of adult and juvenile Pieds. However, it was the waders we had come to see and we were not to be disappointed there either. Ringed & Little Ringed Plovers, Knot still in their orange summer plumage, various shapes and sizes of Ruff, Bartailed & Blacktailed Godwits, Whimbrel & Curlew, and several Spotted Redshank with some almost in black breeding plumage still but others in silvery grey winter dress, to name but a few.

The best way to spend an afternoon.

P1080318Avocet – the juveniles can be very obliging

P1080343Ringed Plover

P1080320Ruff – an early juvenile

P1080369Black-tailed Godwit — some, such as this one, still mostly in summer plumage

P1080346Spotted Redshanks – again a mixture of plumages, this one still mostly sooty-black summer

26th July 2014 – Birds in the mist

A day tour in North Norfolk again today, looking for raptors, waders & Spoonbills. We headed inland for the farmland behind the coast again first thing, hoping to escape the thick sea mist which had descended. It was a little better away from the sea, but not much.

Our first stop was to look for Turtle Doves. Initially there was no sign, but just as we were starting to wonder whether they would grace us with their presence, one flew out. Rather than linger in the distance, it flew straight towards us and landed on some wires, giving us all great views in the scope. It almost seemed to know we would not get a very good look at it on its usual perches, and decided to come much closer! Then it even started to ‘purr’, the Turtle Dove‘s distinctive song, heard so occasionally these days, it felt like a real privilege.

P1080185Turtle Dove – in the mist!

From there, we headed on to a second site. Despite the mist, the Yellowhammers and Skylarks were still singing. One male Yellowhammer gave particularly good views, returning repeatedly to the same perch in front of us. The hedgerows were full of birds – Chaffinches and Linnets, Whitethroats and Blackcaps – gathering in mixed post-breeding flocks. The non-avian highlight was a Stoat, which appeared from a barley field right in front of us carrying a mouse. It seemed unsure initially whether to run out across the track, and kept darting back into the crop, before plucking up the courage to make a dash for the hedge. Amongst the commoner raptors, we saw Marsh Harriers, Common Buzzards, Sparrowhawk and Kestrels.

We headed back to Cley for lunch, by which time the mist was starting to clear. At the visitor centre, we made a quick visit to see the Silvery Gem moth on display (having been caught at Weybourne last night), only the second ever found in Britain. Then it was out to the hides. There were fewer waders on show than the last couple of days, though we still saw Green & Common Sandpipers, Ringed & Little Ringed Plovers, lots of Ruff and Black-tailed Godwit and several Dunlin. As well as a couple of Greenshanks and the ubiquitous Redshanks, a Spotted Redshank was the best of the bunch – a moulting adult, having lost most of its jet black summer plumage, but the silvery grey winter plumage sullied with several retained old dark feathers. They are always lovely birds to see, taller and slimmer than the Common Redshank, and with a longer needle-tipped bill.

P1080192Grey Heron – a juvenile, with dull grey-capped head

We heard lots of Bearded Tits, and saw a couple perched up nicely in the reeds. Several Reed Warblers were still singing or zooming around among the reeds, and one was hopping around in the open among the willows next to the hides; the Sedge Warblers have now gone quiet, but one sat up for a while preening. Out on the scrape, at least one Yellow Wagtail was amongst the large number of Pied Wagtails. While we were in the hides, a Hobby flashed through. We walked out towards the sea, and a large gathering of very noisy terns were on the brackish Arnold’s Marsh – a mixture of juvenile and adult Sandwich & Common Terns.

P1080195Terns – large gathering/creche of Sandwich & Common Terns on Arnold’s Marsh

To end the day, we went to look at the Spoonbills. They were closer than they had been the last few days and there were 12 this afternoon, mostly juveniles. The couple of adults in amongst them gave themselves away with their yellow-tipped bills and shaggy crests. Some were sleeping, balanced precariously on one leg with head tucked in, but several were preening or casually feeding. Always a joy to watch.

P1080200Spoonbill – 7 of the 12 present at Cley today

25th July 2014 – Hot in the Brecks!

It was a scorcher of a day for a tour to the Brecks today, looking for Bitterns, Cranes and Stone Curlews. We started at Weeting Heath, getting there early to avoid the heat haze. We were rewarded with a very good number of Stone Curlews – at least 11 adults or fully fledged young birds were on the Heath. Suddenly, the ‘stones’ next to one of them moved, and a couple of recently hatched young birds appeared, large balls of fluff with very long necks – cute! A Stoat ran across the grass at one point, causing a bit of a commotion, but was chased off by a Rabbit – surely the wrong way round?

From there, we moved on to Lakenheath Fen. At the visitor centre a Red Underwing moth had decided to ‘hide’ for the day on one of the windows, which was not great camouflage. On the walk out to the Washland viewpoint, we could hear lots of Reed Warblers calling and a single Cetti’s singing. Hockwold Washes was awash with Mute Swans, Great Crested & Little Grebes and Common Terns. However, there was no sign here of the Great White Egret seen in the last few days.

P1080152Red Underwing moth – not very camouflaged on a window!

Heading out onto the reserve itself, we were treated to a fantastic display by the resident Kingfishers at New Fen. The male returned repeatedly, perching up around the reeds, hovering and catching fish. There were lots of Marsh Harriers over the reserve, including several dark chocolate juveniles, one still trying to beg for food from its parents without success. Other raptors we saw included Hobby, Sparrowhawk and a family of Kestrels. Lots of Bearded Tits were heard, but we had to content ourselves with quick flight views as they refused to perch up in the breeze.

We headed out onto the riverbank, and we quickly picked up a pair of Common Cranes on the other (Norfolk!) side of the river. Unfortunately, both breeding pairs failed this year, and since then they have been spending much of their time in the fields over the river. We thought there were only two, until we found a third standing with some Greylag Geese and then a fourth on its own. We got great scope views as they fed in the fields or stood around preening.

IMG_1405Common Crane – four birds were in the fields over the river today

While we were standing on the bank, a glance further west along the river revealed a large white shape in the distance – the Great White Egret! We managed to get a quick look through the scope before it flew up and disappeared into the fields. Just as we were leaving, having spent some time admiring the Cranes, it suddenly appeared again and flew round past us, giving us great flight views before dropping into Joist Fen. The Bitterns were not as accommodating today, though we did get a couple of birds briefly in flight, unfortunately it was not long enough to get everyone on them.

P1080182Great White Egret – very big, and the long yellow/orange bill gives it away

As usual, there was a good selection of dragonflies and butterflies at Lakenheath. Lots of Brown Hawkers were on the wing, together with a couple of Southern & Migrant Hawkers. We also saw both Ruddy & Common Darters and a selection of damselflies including lots of Banded Demoiselles. A single Painted Lady was the highlight of the butterflies.

P1080162Ruddy Darter – lots of these and smaller numbers of Commons todayP1080156Banded Demoiselle – this female posed for the camera

After a late lunch, we headed over to Lynford Arboretum, to seek some shelter from the sun amongst the trees. Despite the heat, we saw loads of birds – Nuthatches, Treecreepers, Goldcrests and a variety of tits. A family of Spotted Flycatchers was in one of the quieter corners, the adults returning repeatedly to feed a stub-tailed juvenile which sat begging in the trees. The highlight was a pair of Firecrests. A brief snippet of song alerted us to their presence, but they were reluctant to show themselves at first, only coming out with a bit of encouragement (some ‘squeaking’) but then hopping around with vivid orange & yellow crests spread. Such cracking birds and a great way to wrap up the day.

24th July 2014 – Raptors & Cley

Another rare breeding birds tour in North Norfolk today, looking for raptors, Spoonbills & waders. We spent the morning exploring inland, at a couple of farmland sites, with Skylarks and Yellowhammers again in abundance. A family of Bullfinches flew ahead of us along the hedge, calling, and a young bird perched up for a while in some dead trees. There were butterflies in abundance in the hedgerows, including in particular good numbers of Essex Skippers. Once again there was no shortage of raptors. Amongst the commoner species that we saw were lots of Buzzard, Marsh Harriers and several Kestrels.

P1080122Yellowhammer – the males are still singing away

We drove back to Cley for lunch, and headed then headed out onto the reserve. There were lots of waders on the scrapes. We saw at least 6 Green Sandpipers, feeding furtively around the weedier edges and flying round calling loudly, and 2 Greenshank. There were lots of Ruff, mostly males still in a kaleidoscope of colours, in various stages of moult. Increasing numbers of Black-tailed Godwits are now gathering, the small number of over-summering birds boosted by others returning from Iceland, some still in bright summer plumage contrasting with others in grey winter garb. The best of the waders was a Little Stint – picked up first right at the back of the scrape, we couldn’t see any real detail, but after getting flushed by a young Marsh Harrier, it flew round and landed much closer allowing us great scope views. A still bright rusty summer adult, it was good to see it with a small group of Dunlin, allowing us to appreciate just how ‘Little’ they are.

P1080140Black-tailed Godwit – very smart in its summer plumage

There are also increasing numbers of duck already returning – with the males in their more female-like eclipse plumage at this time of year, it is a harder exercise sorting some of them out. The best of the wildfowl was a Garganey, but we also saw lots of Gadwall, Teal, Shoveler and a few Wigeon.

P1080134Wigeon – an eclipse drake, the grey feathers still showing through give it away

In the reedbeds, we came across lots of Reed and Sedge Warblers, although the Bearded Tits would not perch up in the hot and windy conditions and we had to content ourselves with flight views. A Yellow Wagtail was a nice find on one of the scrapes amongst the numerous Pied Wagtails. We had seen some large white shapes throughout the afternoon out on North Scrape and at the end of the day we walked round there for a closer look – at least 20 Spoonbills were snoozing on one of the islands, with the odd bird occasionally waking up long enough to have a quick preen or feed. Increasingly one of the sights of summer in North Norfolk, such a large group of Spoonbills seemed a fitting way to end the day.

P1080147Spoonbills – at least 16 of the 20 on North Scrape today, a mixture of adults and recently fledged juveniles

22nd July 2014 – Raptors & Titchwell

A day tour in North Norfolk today, looking for rare breeding birds, Spoonbills and waders. We spent the morning looking for raptors. Our first stop yielded the bonus of at least 3 Turtle Doves, which perched up on the wires and gave us great views all round. At the second site we visited, a juvenile Cuckoo flew ahead of us along the track and perched up just long enough for get the scopes on it. Wherever we went, we were serenaded by the sounds of Norfolk farmland – lots of singing Skylarks and Yellowhammers. Amongst the commoner species of raptor, we saw Red Kite, Common Buzzard, several Marsh Harriers and Kestrels.

We drove on up to Titchwell for lunch. As we walked out onto the reserve early in the afternoon, the grazing marsh pool held a good variety of ducks, including a family of at least 8 Red-crested Pochard. The freshmarsh looked really good for waders, with lots of exposed mud, and we were not to be disappointed – it was teeming with life.

P1080081Red-crested Pochard – female on the grazing marsh poolP1080090Waders galore!

The best of the waders were two Wood Sandpipers which showed really well alongside the main footpath. At least 10 Spotted Redshanks included two still mostly in their smart black summer plumage, with the others in various stages of moult, and a single Greenshank lurked in amongst them and the large number of Redshank. Similarly a good smattering of Ruff included a bewildering variety of males in different colours and states. Several Whimbrel dropped in while we were there and flew off ‘laughing’. Large numbers of Black-tailed and a smaller group of Bar-tailed Godwits gave us a good opportunity to compare and contrast, as did both Little Ringed and Ringed Plovers.

P1080088Avocet – several juveniles were present

Waders and ducks were not the only birds we saw. A Yellow Wagtail was also out amongst the large number of Pied Wagtails. Surprisingly, we only saw a single Spoonbill (6 were present earlier in the day, but had probably dispersed to feed), which flew off from the freshmarsh, over the footpath and landed out in one of the creeks on Thornham marsh.The biggest surprise was seeing 4 Arctic Skuas fly over the freshmarsh, probably blown in from the sea by the keen N wind.

All-in-all, a very successful and enjoyable day out.

P1080116Little Egret – nice yellow feet!

July – Canary Islands endemics

In early July, I travelled to Tenerife in the Canary Islands to look for some of the endemic birds on the island and to spend some time seawatching. The Atlantic islands are interesting because years of isolation have resulted in a number of species which are found nowhere else in the world. Even some of the birds more familiar to us have local subspecies, some of which are more distinct than others. Several of these could even arguably be candidates for full species in their own right – where the dividing line lies is somewhat arbitrary. A chance to look at speciation in action!

A few of the highlights are below:

Atlantic Canary Tenerife 2014-07_1

Atlantic Canary – the name says it all, endemic to Canary Islands and Madeira

Blue Chaffinch Tenerife 2014-07_1

Blue Chaffinch – another endemic, breeding in pine forests at higher altitude. Stunning birds!

Canary Islands Chaffinch tintillon male Tenerife 2014-07_2

Chaffinch – at lower altitudes in the laurel forest, the Blue Chaffinch is replaced by the local subspecies tintillon of Common Chaffinch. It looks and sounds rather different to our birds so perhaps a future candidate for full species rank?

Laurel Pigeons Tenerife 2014-07_1

Laurel Pigeons – the other key endemics to see are the two species of pigeon, Bolle’s and Laurel, both residents of the native laurel forest. Easy enough to find, but hard to see well in the dense trees

Canary Islands Chiffchaff Tenerife 2014-07_1

Canary Islands Chiffchaff – this one has recently been given full species status by many authorities. Rather short-winged compared to our Chiffchaff, and vocally very different

Tenerife Goldcrest 2014-07_1

Tenerife Goldcrest – the black band across the fore-crown distinguishes it from ours. Another subspecies which could be upgraded in the future, and already has by some

Canary Islands Great Spotted Woodpecker Tenerife 2014-07_1

Great Spotted Woodpecker – the local race canariensis, only found on Tenerife, looks and sounds similar to ours

The real highlight of the trip for me was the seawatching. I had particularly wanted to see Barolo (Little) Shearwaters but the population has crashed over the last 10-15 years and they are now very hard to see (some commentators have even suggested they may be on course for extinction in the not too distant future). Historically best seen from the short ferry crossing over to the island of La Gomera, they are not seen with any regularity there any more (we tried without success). However, we were staying on the coast on the north of the island, overlooking the sea, and while seawatching from the balcony on our first afternoon, I was amazed to pick up a Barolo Shearwater feeding offshore. On subsequent afternoons, I saw at least 3 birds feeding and more moving west with the Cory’s Shearwaters in the late evening. It was a real privilege to be able to watch them at length, and the series of sightings is significant enough to be of interest to researchers studying the species.

Cory's Shearwater Tenerife 2014-07_10

Cory’s Shearwater

As well as the Barolo Shearwaters, there were hundreds of Cory’s Shearwaters and smaller numbers of Bulwer’s Petrels (my maximum count was 13 on one evening). The latter is also surprisingly seldom recorded from land-based seawatching on Tenerife, but I found them relatively easy to see in the evening, presumably as they returned towards their breeding colonies.

All in all, it was a very rewarding trip and I would heartily recommend it as a fascinating birdwatching destination.