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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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