Monthly Archives: January 2015

31st January 2015 – ‘Owling Wind

The weather forecast was all over the place again today. And we were supposed to be heading out on an Owl Tour. It didn’t look particularly promising, but we pulled some Owls out of the bag and saw a few more good birds besides.

It was cold and cloudy when we met up first thing. No sign of the forecast overnight snow, and not even as icy as expected. We did a quick circuit of the marshes between Cley and Wiveton to see if a Barn Owl might still be hunting, but it was a good night and they were probably well fed and tucked up for the day.

The first stop was for Little Owls. Once again, as we approached, we could see one sat on the roof. However, like last week, and despite stopping even further away, it obviously saw us getting out of the car and flew off before we could get the scope on it. We parked up properly and scanned the surrounding fields – lots of Curlew were feeding in the stubble, and first one, then two, then four Brown Hares appeared. They chased each other around for a bit and two of them turned to face off, but only seemed inclined to a bit of shadow boxing, before running off again. A ragged flock of Brent Geese flew up from the coast and off inland. A small group of Golden Plover came up from the winter wheat with lots of Lapwing and flew overhead calling. Eventually we relocated the Little Owl, but it had tucked itself up under the edge of the roof and was now mostly hidden from view.

P1110323Brent Geese – a flock of around 1,000 were feeding inland

As we drove on inland, an enormous flock of geese appeared in the sky ahead of us. We pulled up and lowered the windows – even from a distance we could hear the distinctive cackling chatter of Brent Geese. We watched them circle and land, and set off after them, but unfortunately they had landed in a winter wheat field out of sight from the road. We couldn’t look through them for something rarer (frustrating, as there is often a Black Brant with this group!).

More owls were proving elusive at the various barns along our meandering inland route, but geese were proving more amenable. Around the back of Holkham Park we came across a mass of Pink-footed Geese feeding in a recently harvested sugar beet field, several thousand birds strong. We parked in a convenient layby, out of sight behind a hedge, and by moving very slowly and along the hedgeline, we were able to emerge in full view of the flock without flushing it. We got a good look at their pink legs and bill bands.

P1110325Pink-footed Geese – several thousand were feeding on a harvested field

When faced with a big flock of geese, it is always worth scanning through carefully for something rarer. The first oddity to reveal itself turned out to be interesting but not that different – a pair of orange legs belonged to just another Pink-footed Goose, an occasional variant which can be found in that species. However, orange legs are always worth checking up on and a short while later, a pair of brighter orange legs amongst all the pink ones turned out to be a Tundra Bean Goose. A closer look revealed a second one nearby and the size difference between them suggested a pair. We watched them for some time, studying the differences from the Pinkfeet – as well as the orange legs, the orange bill band, subtly paler flanks and darker-centred wing coverts.

IMG_2371A pair of orange legs amongst all the pink ones…

IMG_2377…became two pairs of orange legs…

IMG_2379Tundra Bean Goose – bingo! Orange-legged Beans amongst the Pinkfeet

While we were watching the geese, a Barn Owl appeared, working its way along the verge next to the road, before it flew up over a hedge and disappeared. It probably knew about the weather which was on its way and was making the most of some daytime hunting. While two of us were studying the Bean Geese, the rest of the group crossed the road and watched the Barn Owl hunting the field margins. It was hard to know which way to look!

A little further on, we stopped by some wet grazing meadows to watch a couple of Red Kites circling lazily. The meadows were alive with birds. Two pairs of Egyptian Geese chased each other around, hissing loudly. A large group of Fieldfare were feeding in the grass, along with several Mistle Thrushes. Several Grey Partridge were calling and a pair ran out – the male looked stunning in the scope, with his orange face and black kidney-shaped belly patch.

P1110328Red Kite – two birds circled lazily overhead

The sun was refusing to come out and the other Little Owls were not playing ball in the cold. So we headed on to Holkham. A scan of the wetter parts of the meadows there quickly revealed a small group of Russian White-fronted Geese amongst the more numerous Greylags and a small number of lingering Pink-footed Geese. Looking more closely, there were at least 30 White-fronted Geese out there, and probably lots more – the birds kept disappearing into the thicker vegetation.

The cloud was now darkening and it was starting to rain. We stopped for lunch, in the hope that this would turn out to be the forecast wintry showers but, while wintry at times, there was no sign of the rain easing. There were lots of Wigeon and Teal along Lady Anne’s Drive, and some more Pink-footed Geese. We watched the skies to the west hoping for a break in the weather.

Finally, it seemed to brighten a little and the rain eased off. We headed round to Burnham Overy and set off along the seawall. There were several Black-tailed Godwits on the freshmarshes and several Bar-tailed Godwits in the saltwater channel, plus Ringed Plover, Redshank, Grey Plover and Dunlin. More Golden Plover were on the grazing marshes along with, confusingly, a couple more Grey Plover seeking shelter! But it was only the briefest of respite and the worst of the weather returned with a vengeance. The wind had picked up and it was howling across the saltmarsh, and the rain started lashing down. We were exposed to the very worst of it on the seawall, so we took shelter down on the lee side and headed back to the car.

Given the weather, it was clear that more owls might be a struggle. We drove back along the coast and had a quick look at Wells Harbour. There were several Little Grebes but no sign of the resident Shag today. We decided to head for Stiffkey, in the slim hope that we might be able to pick out a Hen Harrier coming in to roost in the rain from the shelter of the car.

P1110330Blakeney Point Lifeboat House – from Stiffkey in the rain!

The rain was still lashing down, with a mixture of sleet and hail – this was all a bit too much to be called a shower now! We sat in the car and scanned the saltmarshes, but it all seemed a bit hopeless. However, gradually we started to see a few birds, despite the conditions. There are always several Little Egrets out on the marshes, whatever the weather. We also picked out our first Shelduck of the day and lots of small groups of Pintail were flying along the shoreline. A Kingfisher appeared briefly on a post, disappeared again, but then kept reappearing, hovering over one of the saltmarsh channels. The Brent Geese started to fly in from the fields to the saltmarsh to roost – probably the same birds we had seen inland earlier in the morning.

Then a ringtail Hen Harrier appeared, distantly over the saltmarsh, flying back and forth for a short while before dropping down out of sight. A couple of Marsh Harriers flew past, and a Sparrowhawk and Kestrel flashed by the car park. We thought that might be the end of it, but just as the light was fading the rain eased off again. We were about to leave when a ghostly shape appeared. A male Hen Harrier appeared in front of us and worked its way west across the saltmarsh, half way out towards the beach. Great, a perfect moment to take our leave. But just as we had got back into the car, another male Hen Harrier appeared, even closer than the last one. It circled over the near edge of the saltmarsh and drifted over campsite wood, a vision in pale grey and white, with flashing black wing tips contrasting against the sky.

With the rain now finally stopped, we felt emboldened, so we headed inland to listen for Tawny Owls. We had not long got out of the car when we could hear a Tawny Owl hooting. We walked along the road to where a second bird normally responds and positioned ourselves to wait for it to emerge from its roosting site. While we were standing there, a Barn Owl appeared behind us. It didn’t see us and came through the trees only a few feet away from us, veering away slightly only at the very last minute. A fantastic close encounter with such a stunning bird. Then the wind picked up again, the trees started to sway, the rain started to spit and the Tawny Owl fell silent, so we decided to call it a day.

That was not entirely the end of the story. We dropped some of the party off on the coast and headed inland. As we drove, the headlights picked up a shape in a tree, by the side of the road. A quick stop and gentle reverse and a Tawny Owl was perched right above the car. It sat and looked at us, and we sat and looked at it, for several minutes. It couldn’t decide whether to stay or whether to fly. Only when we finally drove on did we break the spell – it raised its wings and slipped away into the night.

30th January 2015 – Never Trust a Weatherman

All week, Friday was forecast to be the worst day – snow, sleet, high winds. It was going to be a day to be indoors. Except that it wasn’t. Miraculously, yesterday afternoon the forecast began to change and by this morning we were expected to have sunny spells. It was a bit cloudy first thing – ironically, now worse than it was ‘meant’ to be – but before midday the sun was out and the afternoon saw clear blue skies. It was a day to get out – at least once the worst of the chores were out of the way.

A quick stop confirmed the continued presence of one of the Little Owls, though once again it was feeling shy and retiring. It perched up briefly on the roof and then ducked down behind the ridge leaving just the top of its head showing. Rather than spook it, I moved swiftly on.

P1110241Brown Hares – enjoying the sunshine

I checked out a couple of barns where I know there are often Barn Owls but there was no joy today. On the way, a couple of Brown Hares sat in a field next to the road, enjoying the sun – though there was no sign of any ‘boxing’ today, they were probably still warming up. A small number of Redwing were also feeding on the verge. And a large flock of Pink-footed Geese had settled to feed in a large field of recently harvested sugar beet. A Kestrel sat by the road allowed me to get unusually close, albeit from the shelter of the car. Perhaps it was sick or had been in a collision with a car? However, it wouldn’t sit long enough for me to pick it up.

P1110254Kestrel – sat by the roadside

I stopped briefly at Wells Harbour. The resident Shag flew past the quay and out into the channel where it started fishing. There was still no sign of the Red-necked Grebe which has been reported erratically in recent weeks, but there were lots of Little Grebes, including one particularly pale one, which looked rather white-faced in the sunlight – surely not the source of confusion? A Red Kite circled over East Hills. A large flock of Brent Geese was bathing in the harbour, but flew off to the fields before I got a chance to look through it.

P1110244Shag – fishing in the harbour

A quick stop at Holkham revealed a few Pink-footed Geese along Lady Anne’s Drive, those that were not feeding in the fields inland. Round from the road, several White-fronted Geese could be picked out amongst the Greylags out on the wetter parts of the grazing marsh. Four Red Kites circled over the pines.

With the sun shining, I couldn’t resist the walk out at Burnham Overy. There were lots of Brent Geese feeding in the fields and it didn’t take long to find the resident (for winter) hybrid Black Brant x Dark-bellied Brent Goose in amongst them. At first, the way the light was striking it made it look surprisingly dark, almost blackish, and much darker than the other Brents. With its well marked white flank patch and extensive white neck collar, it almost looked like a real Black Brant for a second. But the flock was spooked by a dog walker and flew a short distance. With the angle of the light changed, it suddenly looked much less convincing, the grey tones it its body plumage now showing the Dark-bellied Brent influence.

IMG_2368Rough-legged Buzzard – on one of its usual posts

The Rough-legged Buzzard was sat on one of its usual fence posts. At first, it sat two posts along from a Red Kite, which was a surprising combination. A short flight across and on to another post, just enough to show off its black-banded white tail.

There was not even any wait today for the main event. As soon as I got up onto the seawall, I could see a Short-eared Owl quartering the grazing marsh. For some time, it favoured a small area of rushes and kept flying across it, head down, stopping to hover occasionally. It would periodically fly further off, but kept returning. It landed on one of the posts and sat there, alert, constantly looking around. It didn’t catch anything while I was watching it, but did drop down into the grass on a couple of occasions, as if it was about to. Still stunning, even though I have watched it many times now.

P1110265P1110266P1110297P1110318Short-eared Owl – another great show today

There appears to be only one Short-eared Owl present at the moment. Given how aggressively the territorial bird chased off any others which dared to hunt over the grazing marshes in recent weeks, it has probably succeeded in moving them on. Now it seems to have turned its attention to the local Kestrels. At one point, a Kestrel came overhead and the two chased after each other, circling higher and higher into the air. Eventually, the Kestrel peeled off and headed towards the dunes and I lost sight of which way the Short-eared Owl went. With the afternoon getting on, I walked back, stopping briefly to watch one of the Barn Owls hunting over the set-aside field by the path.

P1110319Short-eared Owl & Kestrel – chasing each other high over the marshes today

27th January 2015 – Brecks Time

As we get into February and March, that is the time of year when attention starts to turn to the Brecks. Thetford Forest is the largest area of lowland pine forest in Britain, and is surrounded by remnants of once extensive heathland. At this time of year, the forest birds are displaying and are at their most visible and the heathland birds are starting to return to their territories. This was mainly a day to catch up with a friend, but the Brecks seemed like a convenient place to meet and check on a few of the local specialities in the process.

The first stop was at Santon Downham. It was a glorious frosty morning in the river valley, with crisp sunshine quickly burning through any mist, much better than forecast. We walked round the low lying area between the river and railway but there was no sign of the Great Grey Shrike which has been here for the last few weeks and unfortunately someone was standing right next to its favoured area of trees and bushes.

However, in the early sun, the woodpeckers were drumming – we could hear a couple of Great Spotted Woodpeckers from where we were walking. We had not intended to spend time looking for Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers today, but encouraged by the activity we set off to one of their traditional favoured areas. A couple of Green Woodpeckers were yaffling and one flew across the river. A Kingfisher flashed through and headed off downstream. The trees were alive with Siskin and Redwings and Nuthatches and tits were singing. After a gentle start to the day and the time spent looking for the shrike, we didn’t really have the time to dedicate to the area and a proper search, and we didn’t get to the best area for the woodpeckers, but it was magical there anyway.

We headed back to the car and drove off to another area of the Forest. It was still a bit cold, but a Red Kite circled up from behind us. There were several Common Buzzards constantly in the air and even a bit of display from two of them as they dropped into the trees. A big female Sparrowhawk displaying with exaggerated wingbeats and undertail coverts fluffed attempted an impression of our target. It even broke into a period of diving and swooping display, suggesting that spring may not be far away.

The Woodlarks have also started to sing already. We picked up one distantly over the edge of the trees, its distinctive short-tailed structure being obvious even from a distance, and we could even just catch a little burst of its song on the breeze. Several Skylarks were also up singing for comparison. We caught further bursts of song, closer up in the sky, as we stood talking and eventually one obliged us and came right overhead singing, dropping down towards the field behind us.

Unfortunately, the weather started to turn as we stood there and cloud rolled in from the west, as forecast but we could not complain given the better than expected early morning. The raptor activity dropped appreciably and we were just about to give up when another hawk appeared from the trees. This one was larger, much larger – a Goshawk. A group of Rooks circling overhead attempted a couple of swoops at it, but kept a respectful distance – compared to the Goshawk, they were noticeably much smaller, a useful size comparison which is not always apparent on a lone bird in the sky. It was a young bird, in its second calendar year (so raised in 2014), with brown upperparts and dull streaked underparts compared to an adult. It kept low and we watched it fly away through the tops of the trees with the Rooks circling above.

We headed on to Lynford Arboretum. The car park was unusually full for a winter weekday, but it quickly became apparent why. The Hawfinches have been feeding here in recent days and a large gaggle of photographers were clustered round the feeding area. The birds weren’t coming down to the ground but two were sat up in the trees and we had a really good view of them through the scope.

IMG_2352IMG_2354Hawfinch – up to 8 showed well in the trees today

We left the crowd behind and went for a walk around the arboretum. A mass of Siskins were feeding in the alders around the lake, to the soundtrack of constant twittering. A flock of Chaffinches flushed from the ground flew up into the trees where we picked up a female Brambling on the edge. We stopped to watch a couple of Marsh Tits coming down to the seed which had been put out by the bridge, as well as a Nuthatch and lots of Blue and Great Tits.

We ran out of time and headed back to the car. The photographers were still clustered by the gate, but they seemed oblivious to the fact that there were several Hawfinches calling in the tops of the trees. We could see two, but when they took to the air and flew off we counted four. However, there were still more Hawfinches calling from further over in the trees – it was hard to count them amongst the branches but there appeared to be at least four here too. As we left, the original group flew back into the trees by the gate, calling. Not bad – probably 8 Hawfinches and possibly even more.

IMG_2364Great Grey Shrike – this bird has been over-wintering in the Brecks

We parted company, but I couldn’t resist another look for the Great Grey Shrike at Santon Downham. It was back where it should have been in the trees. I watched it for some time, perched up on a high vantage point, repeatedly dropping down to the grass, although unsuccessfully as it returned to a high branch again empty-handed each time. With the weather now cold and cloudy, I decided to call it a day too.

Brecks Tours will run through February, March and early April. More details can be found on the website here. If you would like to come to the Brecks to look for Goshawks, Hawfinches and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, as well as Woodlarks, Stone Curlews and Firecrests, and even perhaps the Great Grey Shrike if it stays long enough, please get in touch.

Marcus Nash – http://www.birdtour.co.uk

25th January 2015 – Owls Revisited

Another Owl Tour today. The weather conditions looked encouraging, with the promise of some sunny intervals during the day, though it was a little cloudy still first thing as we set off.

First stop was one of the regular Little Owl sites. Even before we stopped we could see a Little Owl perched up on the roof in some early rays of morning sunshine. Unfortunately, despite parking out of the way, the commotion of everyone getting out of the car spooked it and it disappeared inside before we could get the scope up and onto it. We eventually found another one perched up, though unfortunately not as close as the first and hunched up on the edge of the roof. Still, not a bad start to the day with two Little Owls.

At some more barns further west, a Red Kite flew lazily over the car and along the road, before perching up in a large oak tree nearby. We managed to get the scope onto it, though it positioned itself carefully and tried to hide amongst the branches, and its orange-red underparts glowed in the morning light. Eventually it took off again, towards us initially before, with one twist of its forked tail, it turned sharply and headed off across the fields.

P1110201Red Kite – perched up in an oak tree…

P1110203…before flying off lazily

A little further on still, we stopped to admire a large flock of Pink-footed Geese in a field. They had flown inland to feed on a recently harvested sugar beet field, but instead of feeding they eyed us warily, heads up and ready to take flight in an instant. We watched them for a while, noting the pink legs, feet and band round the bill, before leaving them to feed.

P1110204Pink-footed Geese – on a recently harvested sugar beet field

It was still a bit too cold and cloudy – the early sun had not lived up to its promise and the bluest skies had stayed to the south of us – and the other Little Owls were not playing ball. We did come across a nice covey of Grey Partridge right next to the road as we explored. However, with the opportunity for morning owls now largely past, we headed up to the coast.

The car park at Titchwell was already very full – even on a midwinter Sunday morning! So we headed out onto the reserve, stopping to admire the assorted finches and tits on the feeders by the visitor centre. The ditch by the path produced a brief Water Rail, but it was hard to see in amongst the sallows. Thankfully, another was at the front of the now drained Thornham grazing meadow pool and gave great scope views as it fed along the edge of the reeds.

The exposed mud was alive with birds. With the water levels on the freshmarsh still high, the waders had flocked to feed here. The highlight was a Spotted Redshank which flew in calling, dropping down but stopping all too briefly before flying off again out onto the saltmarsh. However, there were also lots of Ruff, Snipe, Dunlin, Black-tailed Godwit, Redshank and Lapwing which gave us more chance to study them closely. A couple of Rock Pipits were out on the mud, looking very dingy with dirty-coloured underparts. Another bird which dropped in nearby was subtly different, with a much paler whitish ground colour to its underparts – a Water Pipit. This was a great chance to see these two closely related species side-by-side.

P1110208Avocets – struggling to find anywhere to feed on the flooded freshmarsh

Out on the freshmarsh were lots of ducks. A little group of Pintail looked particularly stunning, the drakes showing off their long pin-sharp tail feathers. But all the drakes were looking smart at this time of year – lots of Shoveler, Teal, Wigeon. Only a single Gadwall was lurking in amongst them. Large flocks of both Greylag and Brent Geese dropped into the water. A small group of hardy Avocets must have been regretting their decision to stay for the winter. They were huddled on one of the few remaining islands, flying round and round at one point as if looking for the shallow water and muddy islands which are normally their favoured feeding areas but currently underwater.

Walking on along the bank, the biggest surprise of the morning was a group of three streamlined ducks which flew high over the freshmarsh – a drake and two redhead Goosander. Unfortunately, they didn’t stop and carried on high west.

P1110209Black-tailed Godwit – feeding close to the path on Volunteer Marsh

We added to our tally of waders with a look at the volunteer marsh. Out on the mud were several Curlew, a little group of grey Knot, a couple Turnstone running around, a bright spangled Grey Plover and a single Oystercatcher. We were just heading to the beach when a single Bar-tailed Godwit appeared – a good chance to compare with several Black-tailed Godwits nearby. Out on the beach, there were lots of walkers, but we managed to find several more Bar-tailed Godwits as well as a single Sanderling among the Dunlin.

The sea has been very quiet in recent weeks, but we still picked up a small group of Common Scoter and a few Red-breasted Merganser. A young Peregrine circled over towards Brancaster. The day was getting on, so we headed back , stopping to look at a Merlin which flashed across the saltmarsh towards Thornham – it landed and we could see it perched up but very distantly. Then it was back to the car for a late lunch and a warming drink.

P1110215Woodpigeon – very tame and rather too interested in our sandwiches!

From Titchwell, we drove back along the coast to Burnham Overy. The walk out was fairly uneventful, but from up on the seawall we could immediately pick out a Short-eared Owl quartering the grazing marshes. We walked further along to where it was hunting and watched in awe as it flew back and forth in front of us. It disappeared out across the marshes and then shortly afterwards what may have been a second Short-eared Owl appeared over by the dunes. We walked a little further still and it dropped down onto the grass and perched up on a molehill giving us great views through the scope, its yellow irises shining in the afternoon sun, before resuming hunting. We stood and watched it for some time. Stunning.

P1110224P1110222Short-eared Owl – gave stunning views again this afternoon

The Rough-legged Buzzard was also out on the grass, initially sat over towards the dunes. Through the scope, we could see its pale head and contrasting blackish belly patch. Several nearby Common Buzzards gave us the chance to compare it against both normal dark birds and a striking pale individual which has been here for some time now. A Red Kite, several Marsh Harriers and a couple of Kestrels added to the variety of raptors in view – it has been very good for birds of prey here recently.

IMG_2330Rough-legged Buzzard – one of the wintering birds at Burnham Overy

As we turned to head back, the first Barn Owl appeared, flying silently over the marshes. It was a bit distant, but we saw it drop down into the grass and could see it in the scope when it lifted its head. Then a second appeared, even further over towards Holkham.

As we walked back, we stopped to admire a flock of Dark-bellied Brent Geese feeding by the path and in amongst them found the regular hybrid Black Brant x Dark-bellied Brent Goose. As we stood there, a third Barn Owl appeared ahead of us along the track. We thought it might continue to hunt over the fields, but it suddenly flew up high and set off across in front of us and purposefully over the reeds and away to the other side of the marshes. Almost back to the car, a fourth Barn Owl was hunting around the set aside field by the path, and kept moving just ahead of us all the way back to the road. Not a bad tally of owls for the afternoon!

We finished the day with a quick stop at some woodland inland. We were a bit later than planned, but could hear several Tawny Owls hooting as soon as we got out of the car. Unfortunately, they were impossible to see with the light now all but gone, but we spent some time listening to them as darkness fell, such an evocative sound

19th January 2015 – A Grand Day Out

After a busy weekend of tours, today was meant to be a day off. But the weather looked too good to stay inside – a hard frost overnight and the patchy freezing fog from first thing slowly burning off. I couldn’t resist the temptation, got the admin done quickly and headed off mid morning.

First stop was to check up on the Little Owls. I could see one perched up in the sun even as I approached and found a second when I pulled up. A great start.

Meandering west, I had been looking for the Brown Hares we had seen the other day, to see if I could get some better photos in the crisp conditions. The Hares weren’t where I wanted them to be by the road, but three big brown blobs in a winter wheat field nearby attracted attention. It was quite a surprise to see three Tundra Bean Geese sat there, their orange legs positively glowing in the light!

IMG_2320IMG_2307Tundra Bean Geese – unexpected in the middle of nowhere this morning

It has been a very good winter for Tundra Bean Geese, but they are normally to be found in amongst the vast throngs of Pink-footed Geese or hanging around on the grazing marshes on the coast.

A brief stop at another deserted complex of barns and a Barn Owl sat up warming itself in the morning sun. Such a stunning sight. It lingered just long enough for me to rattle off a few photos from the safety of the car before gliding off silently into the buildings.

P1110102Barn Owl – trying to warm itself after a cold night

Heading up onto the coast road, I made for Holme-next-the-Sea. I had wanted to spend some more time trying to photograph the Snow Buntings again, after their very accommodating performance over the weekend. They were in much the same place, but the mixed flock of 50+ Snow Buntings and around 30 Linnets was very jumpy today, so I left them to it. Up on the beach, I stopped to chat to another local birder, and we stood and scanned the flat calm sea. We picked out first one Long-tailed Duck, further out, then a second, just off the beach. It was a real stunner, a cracking winter male, and looked amazing in the winter sunshine. It was feeding, diving regularly, but for a minute or so it sat up, long tail cocked in the air, before drifting off west. While we were watching it, we also picked up a drake Eider sat on the sea and a Fulmar slowly working its way west towards the cliffs.

IMG_2327Long-tailed Duck – a stunning drake, with long tail raised

Heading back east along the coast road, I couldn’t resist a quick stop at Thornham to check up on the Twite flock which has been resident here this winter. Conveniently, at least 30 were feeding on the saltings right next to the road as I drove up. They were rather jumpy, and kept flying away over the seawall, but waiting patiently they returned repeatedly to the same area. Positioning the car carefully, I got myself next to the area they were frequenting and had some great close views. As the Twite flew round, it was clear there were several smaller groups in the same area and at one point they all perched up in a tree in the distance – at least 60 birds, a very good size flock these days.

P1110132Twite – it has been a very good winter for this species

It was getting on time to head over to Burnham Overy for the afternoon Short-eared Owl performance. Despite the number of times I have seen them over the last few weeks, I can’t resist going back again, and there are normally so many other things to see there as well. As I pulled up, I could see some large birds circling out over the dunes – a couple of Red Kites twisting and turning lazily. By the time I got out of the car, there were more and in total at least 8 Red Kites were in the air together, presumably attracted there by some carrion.

The Rough-legged Buzzard was sat out in its usual place on the marshes. It flew round a couple of times, landing back either on the ground or yet another post, flashing its black-banded white tail. There were also lots of Common Buzzards, Marsh Harriers, Kestrels and a Sparrowhawk to watch, as well as the continued performance from the Red Kites, a real raptor-fest.

Most of the Pink-footed Geese were south of the coast road in a stubble field today, but amongst the few out on the grass were 6 Russian White-fronted Geese. Lots of Dark-bellied Brent Geese were also gathered on the marshes either side of the track. A careful scan revealed a subtly darker bird with more prominent white flank patch and collar – a Black Brant x Dark-bellied Brent hybrid, not dark enough or quite contrasting enough for the real thing. Watching the group it was in closely, it became clear that it was paired with a Dark-bellied Brent Goose and accompanied by 3 juveniles. The latter looked remarkably similar to the nearby pure Dark-bellied juveniles and presumably the influence of Black Brant in these second generation hybrids is sufficiently diluted to be hard to detect amongst the natural variation in the Dark-bellieds.

Out on the seawall, the main event started pretty much on cue. First one Short-eared Owl appeared and started to quarter the marshes. Then a second flew past. As on previous days, the first Short-eared Owl was very aggressive and set off after the second bird. The two shot up into the air and grappled talons. The second bird clearly got the message and circled up and drifted away towards the dunes.

P1110141P1110138Short-eared Owl – put on another good display today

While watching them, a Barn Owl appeared, flying silently across the grass. It didn’t seem to attract the attention of the Short-eared Owls, despite the two of the being in close proximity at one point. It was great to see them together in the same view. The walk back was accompanied by a second Barn Owl, a much paler bird, hunting the fields next to the track. A lovely way to end my day off!

18th January 2015 – The Varied Sights of NW Norfolk

Day 3 of the three day long weekend of tours today. There were several birds we wanted to catch up with and NW Norfolk seemed a good option for a selection of local specialities.

We stopped first at one of the Little Owl sites to see if we could catch up on something we had missed yesterday. Unfortunately, it was a foggy start to the day and the weather still wasn’t up to scratch for tempting the owls out (yet!). We didn’t linger long.

Our first stop proper was at Roydon Common. We had driven through patches of clear sunshine on our way, but the sun was struggling to burn off the fog completely here and it was cloudy and cold, with a crisp frost on the ground. We had come to look for the Great Grey Shrike which has taken up residence here for the winter, but at first we struggled to find it – perhaps it wasn’t enjoying the patchy fog either! Still, it was beautiful to be out – a flock of Redwings was feeding in the trees, several Stonechats were out on the Common, and a few Yellowhammers, Meadow Pipits and a small group of Siskin flew overhead calling. We stopped to watch a group of Roe Deer feeding out in the morning light and a Sparrowhawk sat up in the trees trying to warm itself in the few rays of sunshine.

Just when it seemed like the Great Grey Shrike was going to give us the runaround, it hopped up on a small birch tree in front of us. We had just got onto it when it took flight, and flew straight towards us, giving us a really close fly past. It landed up on the very top of a young oak tree, surveying the open expanse of the Common, then dropped down onto the fence line. We got great prolonged scope views of it. What a stunner – the black bandit mask, stout hooked bill, and striking monochrome plumage.

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IMG_2290Great Grey Shrike – finally gave itself up for us at Roydon Common

It dropped to the ground and disappeared for a couple of minutes. When it flew up it was clearly carrying some prey that it had just caught. It swept across the Common and dropped into thicket. It was only gone a minute before it flew up and perched right in the top of a dead birch nearby. Not enough time to eat whatever it was carrying, it had probably impaled it on a thorn it its larder – they are not called ‘butcher birds’ for nothing! It then flew straight back towards us and continued hunting further along the fence line. We left it to its work and headed back to the car.

Next stop was at Flitcham. The sun was now doing its job and burning off the fog and cloud, and blue sky was starting to show itself. We stopped to admire the mass of finches and buntings feeding in a cover strip on the edge of a field. A big female Sparrowhawk swept through and a vast number of Chaffinches, Linnet, Yellowhammers and Reed Buntings erupted from the field and made for the safety of the nearby hedge. As we watched for a while, we started to pick out a few Bramblings amongst the finches, their white rumps giving them away as they flew between the crop and the hedge . Perched up, the orange breasts of the males positively glowed in the morning sun. Some buzzy chirping gave away the presence of a few Tree Sparrows also amongst the throng.

P1110032Brambling – a few were in amongst the finch flock at Flitcham

We headed for the hide. The reported Merlin which tempted us there turned out to be a young Sparrowhawk perched up in a tree. But the field at the back was full of Fieldfares and a few Redwings, as well as several Curlew. Lots of Teal were on the pond, along with a couple of Gadwall. Some careful scanning of the trees eventually produced a bird which we had hoped, but not expected, to see here. A Little Owl was (finally) basking in the sunshine!

IMG_2299Little Owl – hiding amongst the branches

From there, we headed up to the coast. We made a brief stop to admire a vast flock of over a thousand Pink-footed Geese in a field next to the road, but made it up to Holme just in time for lunch in the now glorious sunshine. We didn’t have to go far, across the golf course and just onto the beach, to find the Snow Buntings. A flock of around 40 were feeding on the edge of a small dune, but having been pushed to the end by a crowd of photographers, they flew out onto the saltmarsh with the Linnets. We watched them for a while and, after waiting patiently and at a discrete distance, they returned to where they had been, once the crowd had moved on, whirling round in a flurry of variably white-marked wings. Moving slowly, edging forward, we were able to get quite close without disturbing them. Cracking views!

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P1110075Snow Buntings – a lovely flock of 40 was on the beach at Holme

Having admired the Snow Buntings, we stopped to look at the waders on the pools on the beach. Three Knot were feeding amongst a larger group of Redshanks, a single Bar-tailed Godwit was nearby and several Grey Plover were on the sand.

From Holme, we made the short journey along the coast road to Thornham Harbour. We didn’t even need to get out of the car before we could see the flock of Twite which has been spending the winter here. They have become much scarcer in Norfolk in recent years, so it has been good this winter to spend more time watching them again. Superficially a ‘little brown job’, they are actually very pretty little finches up close. In the afternoon sun, their orange-toned breasts and yellow bills shone, and their constant chattering allowed us to enjoy their distinctive ‘tveeet’ calls from which they get their name. We also added Rock Pipit and Lesser Black-backed Gull to the weekend’s list here.

P1110082Twite – a flock of around 50 was in Thornham Harbour

The original plan had been to finish the day at Titchwell, which is always a great site to visit. However, given the fantastic late afternoon sunshine a quick straw poll amongst the group found everyone agreed on an alternative plan. It turned out to be a really good decision. A drive back along the coast and a short walk found us on the coast overlooking the saltmarsh and ready for action.

We had not been there long before a Short-eared Owl appeared, quartering the marsh. We have seen several over the long weekend (1-2 every afternoon!), and perhaps been rather spoiled for them, but this one was absolutely stunning in the low late afternoon sun. We couldn’t fail to appreciate it, and it flew back and forth in front of us for ages.

P1110086Short-eared Owl – we have seen a few, but stunning views this evening

There was so much to see. A group of Golden Plover wheeled overhead, the haunting calls of the Curlews out on the grass echoed around, flocks of chattering Brent Geese flew past, Little Egrets and Brown Hares ran around the saltmarsh. We didn’t know where to look – just standing there and enjoying the whole experience.

P1110089Brent Geese – over the saltmarsh in the evening sun

Next a male Hen Harrier drifted across the saltmarsh, a ghostly vision in pale grey, its black wingtips contrasting strongly in the sun. It dropped down out of view a couple of times, but kept coming up again, patrolling back and forth, further out along the edge of the beach now. Then a second male Hen Harrier appeared out to the west, it flew towards us and we got even better views of this one. Such stunning birds, one of them was rarely out of view. A shape on the top of a post turned out to be a Merlin sitting out on the marsh. Then the ringtail Hen Harriers appeared – while watching a first one flying in from a great distance, a second appeared much closer in front of us, the fourth Hen Harrier of the evening.

And in amongst them all, a Barn Owl appeared, hunting silently along the hedgerow to the east at first, then back and forth along the edge of the saltmarsh in front of us. At one point we had both Barn and Short-eared Owls quartering in front of us. What a fitting way to end the recent tours.

P1110084Evening on the saltmarsh – a great way to end the day

17th January 2015 – Come Snow, Come Shine, Come Owls

Day 2 of the three day long weekend today, and this was billed as the Owl Tour. The day could not have got off to a worse start, as the snow rolled in this morning, but it all came good as the wind dropped and the sun came out this afternoon. And we scored a fair few extra birds in between.

The morning looked promising, with a glorious sunrise, but already the clouds were starting to build to the west and a weather front rolled in as we got to the meeting point for the morning. By the time we were packed up and ready to go, the snow was starting to fall.

P1100990Brent Geese – flying inland to feed this morning

We gamely headed to our first stop, to look for Little Owls. They like to sit up and bask in the morning sunshine, but probably don’t appreciate biting wind and snow any more than we do! We watched the Brent Geese flying over from the coast to feed on winter wheat fields inland and a large flock of Curlew feeding in the stubble. But it was clear that the Little Owls would probably not be coming out. We moved swiftly on.

P1100992Brown Hare – we stopped to watch three in a field by the road

Working out way west inland, we stopped to watch three Brown Hares in a field next to the road. They were trying to work up the energy to start ‘boxing’, and one swung a punch, but their hearts were clearly not in it. By the time we reached the Tree Sparrow site, the snow was falling heavily and the sparrows were keeping their heads down. It was time for a quick rethink. The best idea was to head down to the coast, seek some shelter from the wind and do some general birding until conditions improved. We headed straight for Holkham.

There were a few Pink-footed Geese in the fields by Lady Anne’s Drive and really nearby, giving us a great chance to look at them up close. There were also lots of Wigeon, Golden Plover and Lapwing, and a few Fieldfare together with a pair of Mistle Thrushes. We made for the shelter of the pines to get out of the wind and walked west. A couple of Little Grebes were diving out on Salts Hole on the way past. From the comfort of Washington Hide we could see several Marsh Harriers out over the marshes and we got a chance to warm up.

P1110004Pink-footed Goose – very close-up views today

There hasn’t been much of note out in Holkham Bay in recent weeks, but we decided to have a quick look at the sea from the sheltered north side of the pines. A quick scan produced a small flock of Common Scoter out on the sea and a closer look revealed a single Velvet Scoter amongst them. An unexpected bonus, as they have been in short supply in recent weeks. We decided to walk out across the sand to try to get a closer look. Between the bands of cloud, patches of blue sky appeared – a harbinger of things to come. It was glorious out on the sand with only a couple of other people out there. On the shoreline, several Sanderling were running along the edge of the waves, together with a single Turnstone and Oystercatcher.

P1100999Holkham Beach – gloriously almost empty today

We walked along the beach and round the end of the pines. It was still quite windy up in the dunes, but we picked up a Rough-legged Buzzard hovering out on the marshes, together with a couple of Common Buzzards, including the regular extra-pale Rough-legged lookalike. Looking back towards Holkham, we could see four White-fronted Geese in amongst a large gaggle of Greylags. We figured we could see them better from the Joe Jordan hide, so walked out of the dunes and along the edge of the pines. From the height – and shelter – of the hide, we could see that there were actually lots of White-fronted Geese amongst the tussocks of rush and grass and through the scope we got really good views of them, their white fronts surrounding the base of their bills and even the black belly bars of the adults.

We set off on a brisk walk back to the car for lunch, stopping briefly to admire some Barn Owl pellets. We saw a couple of large tit flocks on the way, with a mixture of Long-tailed, Coal, Blue and Great Tits, and Goldcrests. We had also heard the odd Treecreeper, but many of the birds were hiding in the pines. We were almost back to Lady Anne’s Drive when we stopped to look at a couple of Treecreepers which flew across the path in front of us and landed in an oak tree. There were several Goldcrests calling all around us as well, but a sharper call stood out amongst them. A careful look revealed a Firecrest flicking around in the bushes. One of my favourite birds. Bonus #2 – excellent!

P1110017Rough-legged Buzzard – we saw two today, this one overhead at lunchtime

We were almost back to the car when one of the group picked up another Rough-legged Buzzard hovering over the fields east of Lady Anne’s Drive. Another surprise and great to see, we watched it for a while before it drifted off towards Wells. We thought nothing more of it until it appeared back again as we had finished our sandwiches and were just tucking in to tea and cake. It hovered briefly just to the east of us, then flew more strongly right overhead and away to the west. Stunning.

P1110022Stonechat – a pair fed along the fence at Lady Anne’s Drive at lunchtime

P1110014Redshank – their legs were positively glowing when the sun finally came out

There were other things to admire while we ate. A pair of Stonechats fed along the fenceline. A group of Redshank flew in and landed on the pools. And while we were there, the skies finally cleared, the wind dropped and the sun came out. Game on.

We drove back to Wells for a quick ‘comfort break’, and on the way a Barn Owl was quartering the fields by the road on the edge of the town. A good start. Heading west, another Barn Owl appeared by the road inland just beyond Holkham Park. We did make a quick detour on the off chance that we might pick up a Little Owl, but it was not to be. However, given the weather and the Barn Owls, we were now full of encouragement again and made for Burnham Overy.

Even on the walk out, we could see that the first of the Short-eared Owls was already flying. We made for the seawall, stopping briefly to admire the regular Black Brant hybrid which was in amongst a small group of Dark-bellied Brent Geese by the path. There were also lots of Golden Plover, Lapwing and Dunlin out on the grass. And the Rough-legged Buzzard we had seen this morning from the dunes was now sitting out on its regular fence posts across the marshes.

From up on the seawall, we could now see there were two Short-eared Owls out. One was more aggressive – it would break off from hunting and set off with deep and powerful wingbeats when it caught a glimpse of the other bird. The two would sweep up into the air, perhaps grappling talons as they did so. Where prey is plentiful, Short-eared Owls will defend winter hunting territory, particularly males, which is clearly what this bird was doing here. We spent some time watching them quartering the marshes and dropping down to sit in the grass or on one of the fenceposts, their yellow irises glowing in the winter sunshine.

IMG_2283IMG_2280Short-eared Owl – two were out on the marshes today

Then the Barn Owls started to appear. First a couple were seen hunting out distantly, then a third appeared much closer. We watched it flying back and forth and hunting. At one point, one of the Short-eared Owls flew past it – two species of owl in the same view! On the walk back, another ghostly shape drifted past – the fourth Barn Owl for Burnham Overy today and #6 for the afternoon. It landed on a fence post and sat looking round for a few seconds before flying silently off. It kept appearing and disappearing between the hedges all the way back to the car. Such great birds.

While we were out on the seawall, we had watched several huge skeins of Pink-footed Geese flying in from the fields and dropping down towards Holkham. We headed round to Lady Anne’s Drive at dusk to see if we could catch some more flying in to roost. One large flock of Pinkfeet came in from the direction of Wells, low overhead, calling all the time. We watched the geese whiffling down into the fields against the stunning backdrop of a burnt orange sunset broken with lines of grey cloud. Such a stunning way to end the day… but we were still not done. While we stood there, with the light failing, the Woodcock started to emerge from the trees. They shot out at speed, making for the wet fields from the safety of the woods. We counted at least 8 Woodcock before the light faded and we headed for home.