23rd-24th December – Out & About

No tours over Christmas, but after a few days catching up on admin and getting ready for the festive season, I managed to get out on a couple of days to do some birding, explore some different sites and make the most of some great winter weather.

Tuesday 23rd was clear and bright, so I headed up to the North Norfolk coast. First stop was at Wells. There were several hundred Brent Geese in the harbour, bathing and loafing, and a quick scan through them revealed one which was slightly different – a bit darker, with a more obvious white flank patch and quite well defined white collar. However, it was not striking enough to be a true Black Brant, and after a longer period of observation it was possible to see slate grey tones to the body plumage – it was one of the regular Black Brant x Dark-bellied Brent hybrids. There have been up to three hybrids in the Wells area for many years now and in some lights they can look very convincing – a pitfall for the unwary. It is always a useful exercise to spend time watching them.

P1100504Black Brant hybrid – one of the regular Wells birds

A quick look in the woods at Wells revealed little but the regular tit flock. There were clearly lots of visitors up for the festive season taking their dogs for a walk on the beach or through the pines, so it was rather too disturbed.

At Holkham, there were several groups of Pink-footed Geese in the fields along Lady Anne’s Drive and a good number of Brent Geese as well. A short walk along the edge of the pines produced a pair of Goldeneye on Salts Hole and a Barn Owl enjoying an afternoon hunting session over the grazing marsh.

P1100515Goldeneye – this pair was on Salts Hole at Holkham

On the other side of the grazing marsh, opposite the church, a large group of geese was feeding on one of the grassy fields by the road. There were lots of Greylag and Pink-footed Geese, but in amongst them were also a small number of Eurasian White-fronted Geese. There were about 13 in total, scattered amongst the other geese – what appeared to be two family groups and a separate pair.

There were also lots of geese on the walk out at Burnham Overy. As well as the ever-present Pinkfeet, there were a couple of Barnacle Geese in amongst them. A group of Brent Geese was feeding on the grazing marsh beside the path and a quick scan through them revealed yet another Black Brant x Dark-bellied Brent hybrid. This is also a regular returning bird, which can usually be seen here and has been coming back to exactly the same area for many years. It is possibly one of the most convincing Black Brant look-alikes from a distance, with a very bold white neck collar and flank patch, but spending some time up close to it always becomes clear that the body plumage is not dark enough and has grey tones to it and the collar is not quite right for a pure Brant. It was also fascinating to watch how its appearance changed with the light, with the grey tones becoming much more obvious in the late afternoon sun.

P1100545Black Brant hybrid – two in one day! This is the regular Burnham Overy bird

The large flock of Golden Plover put on their usual spectacular display, regularly flushing from the field for little apparent reason, swirling round for a minute or so before landing back in the grass where they blend in surprisingly well. Up on the seawall, a couple of Short-eared Owls were out hunting over the grazing marsh. It was great to spend some time watching them, the distinctive stiff-winged seesaw action of their wings rendering them instantly identifiable even at a distance. While watching one over towards the dunes, a Rough-legged Buzzard appeared in the air above it, hanging in the wind and hovering before drifting off towards the pines. A short while later, and with the light starting to fade, two Rough-legged Buzzards appeared in the sky together and swept round each other for a few seconds before heading off in different directions.

The walk back was accompanied by a spectacular sunset over the saltmarsh towards Burnham Overy Staithe. As I got back towards the car, the Pink-footed Geese started to fly back in from where they had been feeding on the fields inland. A couple of enormous flocks came in low overhead, each several thousand birds strong, in long lines and v-shaped skeins, accompanied a cacophony of high-pitched yelping. This is one of the sights of a Norfolk winter’s day – truly spectacular to see.

P1100576Sunset over Burnham Overy Staithe

With clear skies forecast for Christmas Eve, a quick trip to the Broads seemed a good option, to check out a few different sites. It was a beautiful morning. Walking down towards the marshes at Cantley, the hedgerow was alive with birds and a few Rooks sat around preening in the sunshine. There were lots of geese on the grazing marshes – mostly Pinkfeet but also a good count of at least 70 White-fronted Geese.

P1100583Rook – in wonderful morning light

The Rough-legged Buzzard at Halvergate has been showing very well recently, and as I was driving past, I could not resist a quick stop to watch it again. As usual, it was out hovering over the marshes, flashing its white tail base.

P1100593P1100592Rough-legged Buzzard – hovering over the marshes at Halvergate

A quick walk out along the north wall at Breydon Water added a few more birds to the day’s list in spectacular scenery. A ringtail Hen Harrier was out, quartering over the fields. A twittering call revealed a Snow Bunting flying past – it always seems slightly strange to see one away from the beach, over the fields. Several Rock Pipits flew up from the saltmarsh calling and also a flock of about 30 small finches. From their calls, it was clear that the latter consisted of a mixture of Linnets and Twite. About half of the group flew round overhead, out over the fields before coming back and landing in a hawthorn bush by the path – a quick count revealed at least 15 Twite and a single Linnet, before they flew off again.

P1100606Twite – this small flock perched up briefly by the seawall

A quick drive round via Horsey produced a couple of Common Cranes again feeding in one of the fields by the road. I couldn’t resist spending some time watching them.

P1100615Common Cranes – this pair was at Horsey again

I finished the day exploring the area around Martham. The Pink-footed Geese were coming off Heigham Holmes, a constant stream of small and larger groups and big skeins. A male Stonechat flicked across the path and landed in the reeds on the edge of the ditch. I spent the last of the light watching a pair of Barn Owls hunting silently over the marshes.

P1100626Barn Owl – a pair were hunting at dusk

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