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

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