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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.