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!

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