A private tour today in North Norfolk. We were hoping to catch up with a few of the winter specialities and see some Pink-footed Geese. We certainly did see some geese! And we had a really good day besides, with a lot of other good birds.
We started the day at Salthouse. A small flock of Brent Geese was feeding right by the Beach Road, so we sat in the car for a while to watch them at close quarters. There were lots of stripy-backed juveniles and lots of squabbles between the different families. Lurking amongst the regular Russian Dark-bellieds was a single Pale-bellied Brent Goose, possibly from Franz Josef Land or Svalbard. However, there was no sign with this group of the Black Brant which has been here regularly for the last few weeks.
We walked out along the beach. A good selection of ducks was out on the pools – Wigeon, Teal, Shoveler and a single Shelduck. Suddenly, a flock of small birds flew up from the shingle ahead of us and their distinctive twittering immediately confirmed that they were Snow Buntings. They flew off to the east, flashing their white wing patches of various sizes, returning overhead shortly afterwards and disappearing from view. In the distance, we could also see another flock of small birds which flew round and landed on the edge of the shingle. They looked like Twite, so we decided to walk west and try to find them.
However, when we got to where they had landed, we couldn’t find them. Walking a little further on, we came across the Snow Buntings again, about 20 in all, and this time got great views through the scope as they fed in the sparse vegetation behind the beach. We turned to head back, and hadn’t gone very far when the flock of about 30 Twite flew round once more. We managed to position ourselves and they flew in and landed on the fence in front of us, allowing us to get a good look at them, before dropping down to feed in the long grass, at which point they completely disappeared again! Knowing where they were, we stood and watched for a while and one or two birds would regularly fly back up onto the fence.
As we walked back to the car, we could see more Brent Geese further along the coast at Kelling, so we decided to see if the Black Brant was with them. We had a short walk along the lane there, which yielded Redwing, Song Thrush, Yellowhammer and a stunning male Bullfinch. However, there was no sign of the target goose, so we didn’t linger.
We had driven via Cley looking for geese on our way to Salthouse earlier on. There had been none there first thing, but news came through that the Black Brant had been seen there later in the morning, so we drove round to the Eye Field. We quickly found the Brent Geese and it didn’t take long to locate the Black Brant in amongst them – its much darker, blackish body plumage and striking white flank patch and collar meaning it really stood out.
From there, we headed on to Wells. Some of the Pink-footed Geese had been feeding on the harvested sugar beet fields just inland in previous days, but they had obviously moved on. We did have a Red Kite circling lazily over the road. From there, we dropped back down to Holkham and there were plenty of Pink-footed Geese on the grazing marshes – thousands of them! We stopped a while to watch the throngs, with lots of small groups flying round overhead and a constant backdrop of high-pitched honking. A few were feeding closer to Lady Anne’s Drive and allowed us to get a really good look at them. Unfortunately, there was no sign of the Snow Goose which had been here with them for the last couple of days.
Our next stop was Burnham Overy. We walked out along the track across the grazing marshes. Another nice flock of Brent Geese was feeding close to the path, little groups of Pink-footed Geese were out on the fields and lots of Curlew and Lapwing. A commotion over the other side of the hedge revealed a covey of cantankerous Grey Partridges, at least 8 birds arguing amongst themselves, calling and chasing. We saw several more coveys as we walked out along the seawall. However, the highlight was the big flock of over a thousand Golden Plover – they were very hard to see in the grass but when spooked they flew round and overhead in a swirling flock.
Over towards the dunes, we picked up the unmistakeable flight of a Short-eared Owl. We watched it for a while in the scope as it tussled with a Marsh Harrier, circling back and forth. As we walked along the seawall, a stunning male Hen Harrier flew in and west across the grazing marshes, before circling up and over the dunes. There were numerous Common Buzzards sat on bushes or gates or flying round, but as we got nearer the dunes, we finally located the regular wintering Rough-legged Buzzard, sitting on a fence post out over the marshes. Its pale head and deep black belly patch really standing out in the late afternoon light
As we walked back, a Barn Owl suddenly appeared over the fields. It circled round and flew past us, intent on hunting and oblivious to our presence. We saw it several times as we walked back, working its way back and forth. Just to round off the raptor (& owl) haul, a young Peregrine shot past over the trees just inland on the return walk.
The sun was starting to go down by this stage. Several large skeins of Pink-footed Geese, each of over a thousand birds, had flown overhead as we walked, coming from the fields inland where they had been feeding to roost out on the marshes. However, the best was to come as we got back to the car. We could hear the noise well before we could see them – a cacophony of yelping and honking in the distance. Then the sky was lined with birds which came in low overhead, the sky almost black with them, the sound of them strangely bewitching. For several seconds they passed above us, an enormous number of geese. We stood in awe as they went. What a great way to finish the day.