Monthly Archives: January 2015

9th January 2015 – Windy Weather

Today was billed as an Owl Tour – but it was always going to be a bit of a struggle in wild and windy weather. Owls don’t really like cold and wind. Still, we decided to give it a go and make the most of the day.

Our progress wasn’t helped, at our first site, when we discovered farm workers busy working amongst the farm building where the Little Owls normally like to sit.  A large flock of Curlew was feeding in a stubble field and a couple of Brown Hares were chasing each other back and forth.

P1100844Fieldfares – small numbers have been on the move in recent weeks

We worked out way westwards in the hinterland behind the coast. A quick detour produced a couple of Tree Sparrows in amongst a flock of House Sparrows. These birds have become very scarce in recent years and only scattered sites remain in N Norfolk. A large flock of over 100 Fieldfare were feeding in a field by the road.

We stopped to look over some wet grazing meadows. A Red Kite circled up lazily from a tree, a long tail dangling from its talons suggested it had picked up a dead rat. Several Grey Partridges were calling, and a scan revealed a covey of at least 8 birds. A pair of Kestrels flew up from the side of the road as a car went past and landed in a small tree. Suddenly the male set off at speed and it was quickly apparent that it was attempting to intercept another female which had just flown in, perhaps one of last year’s brood. The first female also joined in and all three birds flew around calling loudly, chasing and grappling. A Common Buzzard also flew into the trees. However, although the weather had brightened a little, there was no sign of the local Little Owls.

We drove on to Titchwell. A Bullfinch calling in the car park flew up and perched in some brambles. There were lots of finches in the trees around the visitor centre – a large number of Goldfinches, but also Chaffinches and a few Greenfinches.

The grazing meadow pool has just been drained – gone were the ducks, but lots of Lapwing had now taken their place along with at least 20 Ruff. A Kingfisher flew over the mud all too quickly and disappeared into the reeds at the back. While we were standing there, a Water Pipit flew in calling and dropped down onto the mud at the edge of the reeds right in front of us. We got great views of it in the scope. Even better, nearby we found several Scandinavian Rock Pipits for comparison – good to see these two tricky species almost side-by-side. Also on the Thornham side of the path, a couple of Snipe were trying to hide out on the saltmarsh.

P1100849Titchwell Freshmarsh

Out on the freshmarsh, a couple of the islands have started to appear again, after the recent flooding for management purposes. 16 Avocets were gathered on one of them, and a group of Black-tailed Godwit on another, along with plenty of Lapwing. However, the wildfowl predominated – a large raft of Pochard, along with a smaller number of Tufted Duck, out on the water, as well as plenty of Brent Geese. Several Pintail included a few stunning drakes with their long pin tails – other ducks included lots of Wigeon, Gadwall, Teal and Shoveler. However, the highlight was a single Red-crested Pochard out on one of the islands – unfortunately it spent most of its time asleep!

P1100851Black-tailed Godwit – this one was on the tidal pools

The Volunteer Marsh has been good for waders in recent weeks. Today, it held lots of Grey Plover, several Knot, Dunlin, Oystercatcher, Black-tailed Godwit, Curlew, Redshank and Turnstone. More Black-tailed Godwit were out on the tidal pools, along with several more Pintail and a very smart pair of Goldeneye. A quick look at the beach added Bar-tailed Godwit and Sanderling to the list. On the walk back, a Water Rail was hiding in one of the ditches close to the visitor centre.

IMG_2192Goldeneye – a pair was out on the tidal pools

We headed back to Burnham Overy – a quick detour again failed to produce a Little Owl, but by now the weather was quickly clouding over again. A scan from the road while we ate our lunch eventually produced a Rough-legged Buzzard hovering distantly over the dunes. It landed and a short while later was joined by a second – we watched the two of them circling together. Small groups of Pink-footed Geese were flying inland overhead calling.

Out on the seawall, the rain clouds started to gather. A Peregrine was out on the grazing marsh, sat on the grass, preening. A cloud of Golden Plover swirled up and out over the saltmarsh, before settling back onto the grazing marsh. With all the raptors about – several Common Buzzards, Marsh Harriers and Kestrels as well – it was perhaps no great surprise they were so jumpy. When all the Pink-footed Geese took flight, the Golden Plovers were off again, along with hundreds of Lapwing. We watched one the Rough-legged Buzzards circling up amongst them, before heading off over to the dunes; then hovering repeatedly as it hunted back and forth, and finally flying back to the grazing marsh again and landing on the grass. However, there was no sign today of any Short-eared Owls in the cold and windy weather.

P1100856P1100855Rough-legged Buzzard – circling over the grazing marsh with Lapwings

With the rain starting, we beat a retreat back to the car. On the way to Holkham, several thousand Pink-footed Geese had gathered in a sheltered field by the road side. As we stopped to look at them, a striking pale Common Buzzard flew over and all the geese flew out onto the marshes. At Lady Anne’s Drive, the first fields looked quiet but down by the pines it was clear there were enormous numbers of Pink-footed Geese already gathered on the grazing marshes. Despite the drizzle, we walked out along the edge of the pines, with the constant cackling and yelping of the geese as a soundtrack. There were no Barn Owls out hunting in the now wild and windy weather but we did find a lot of owl pellets at a favoured roost site nearby. The highlight at dusk was a beautiful pink-tinged male Goosander on Salts Hole, together with the usual pair of Goldeneye.

4th January 2014 – More Owls & Lots More

Another Owl Tour today, but very different weather to the previous day. After the skies cleared yesterday evening we were left with a very hard frost overnight and a very cold, clear and crisp morning. We headed off inland first thing to look for owls.

Our first stop immediately produced the goods – two Little Owls sat on the roof of some farm buildings. We managed to get the scope on one of them, attempting to catch the first warming rays of the early morning sun. A great start. We also took the time to admire the flocks of geese flying inland to feed, several Curlews calling overhead, a Common Buzzard and Kestrel both also perched up in the sunshine and a pair of Brown Hares chasing each other around a stubble field.

IMG_2152Grey Partridges – a small covey were trying to hide in a frosty field

As we meandered our way west, we came across a pair of Red Kites perched in the trees by the road, which flew ahead of us as we drove, looking magnificent as their burnt orange body plumage caught the morning light. A Sparrowhawk shot ahead of the car very low, skimming over the verge and across the road before darting into a hedge. A frosty grazing meadow was alive with life – a Grey Heron catching the sun; several Fieldfares and a pair of Mistle Thrushes in the grass; a couple of Meadow Pipits and a Pied Wagtail in amongst them; and a little covey of Grey Partridges doing their best impressions of molehills – only their slow movements gave them away.

The best of the morning’s drive was just around the corner – perched up on the roof of an old barn was another Little Owl. It stayed just long enough for us to get a good look at it from the shelter of the car, before it flew inside and out of view.

P1100770Little Owl – catching the morning sun

With a good showing of Little Owls in the bag, we headed for Titchwell. It was turning out to be a glorious winter’s day and it seemed like a great place to walk out in the sunshine – we were not disappointed. Even the car park was full of life – finches, tits, Robins – but the highlight was the Bullfinches, a male and two females feeding on sallow buds. After a quick hot drink, we headed out onto the reserve.

We stopped to watch a couple of Marsh Harriers out over the reedbed, and could hear the squealing of a Water Rail and a calling Cetti’s Warbler, neither of which felt like showing itself. A Chiffchaff flew out of the reeds into the trees by island hide – a small number stay to winter these days, though most sensibly head further south. Out on the saltmarsh, as well as a couple of Chinese Water Deer, a group of Lapwings caught the morning light and a closer look revealed at least 20 Snipe nearby around one of the pools.

The freshmarsh held a large number of ducks – a massive raft of Pochard with a good number of Tufted Duck, lots of Teal gathered around the edges, a single Pintail on one of the islands, plus assorted Shoveler, Wigeon, Mallard, Gadwall and Shelduck. Hiding on one of the few remaining islands, amongst a mass of Brent Geese, was a little huddle of Avocets. We walked on along the bank and stopped to look at a little group of Black-tailed Godwits – as we did so a Water Pipit flew out and landed on the small island they were crowded on.

At the Volunteer Marsh, we stopped to admire the waders. The Grey Plovers were looking stunning in sunshine. A small group of Knot were feeding right in front of the hide. We had the opportunity to compare Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwits both right next to the path. We had some great views of all of them – and the chance to get some pretty good photos too.

P1100798Grey Plover – spangles shining in the winter sun

P1100795Knot – feeding right in front of the hide

P1100808Black-tailed Godwit – and, nearby…

P1100820Bar-tailed Godwit – …to compare

Also out on the Volunteer Marsh we picked up a small group of Bearded Tits feedings on the edge of the reeds. Waiting patiently, we were able to see them as they climbed up into the reeds, before dropping back again. Out on the tidal pools, we stopped to admire a gorgeous pair of Goldeneye and several more stunning Pintail. With lunchtime fast approaching, we headed back to the car.

In the afternoon, we drove back to Burnham Overy and walked out across the grazing marsh. There were lots of geese out on the grass, mostly Pink-footed Geese, and when something spooked them, they all flew up and around, several thousand in the air together, calling. At the same time, the large flock of Golden Plover took to the air, probably prompted by the eruption of the geese, and wheeled round and round amongst them. Quite a sight! Further out on the grazing marsh, as well as several large groups of Brent Geese, we found a small family party of 5 White-fronted Geese with the Pinkfeet.

P1100826Pink-footed Geese – several thousand were spooked into flight

We had already picked out the Rough-legged Buzzard sitting on a post, whilt looking distantly from the road as we got out of the car. From up on the seawall, we could see it much better. It dropped down and proceeded to walk around in the grass, occasionally flying a short distance before landing on the ground again. There were also several Common Buzzards (both pale and dark birds), Marsh Harriers and Kestrels.

Then the first Short-eared Owl appeared. It circled over the grazing marsh, hunting back and forth for a short while before heading off over the dunes and out beyond Gun Hill. Suddenly a second flew up from the saltmarsh and made straight for the first, with deep and purposeful wingbeats – they proceeded to chase each other for a couple of minutes, then circled up into the sky and as the first flew off over the dunes, the second returned back to where it had been sitting. We watched it for some time, sat in the grass, and hunting over the saltmarsh.  Turning our attention back to the grazing marsh, a third Short-eared Owl appeared and shortly afterwards possibly even a fourth over towards the dunes (though we couldn’t completely rule out that it might have been the first returning). We watched one of them quartering over the grass and as it landed we got great views of it in the scope – the stunning yellow eyes and even the (short!) ear tufts. Another cracking performance.

IMG_2176Short-eared Owl – 3 or 4 birds performed very well again this afternoon

A Barn Owl appeared next, distantly over the grazing marsh, and we watched it hunting and hovering. With the temperature starting to drop again, we decided to walk back. With the full moon approaching and a clear night, the Pink-footed Geese headed out to feed for the night, the reverse of their normal flight in to roost. We watched skein after skein fly overhead and inland, as the moon started to rise behind the trees. The regular Barn Owls were not hunting in their usual place as we walked back, but no sooner had we got back to the car than they appeared behind us. Typical! A quick stop back round at Holkham did not produce another owl, but we stopped to admire the most stunning sunset. Another great winter day out in North Norfolk.

P1100840Pink-footed Geese at sunset

P1100836Moon rising over Holkham pines

3rd January 2015 – Inaugural Owl Tour

The first tour of the New Year and the first Owl Tour of the winter today. It did not feel like a promising start with rain from the off – never ideal weather for owls. However, the forecast suggested the rain might pass through by late afternoon and, not to be put off, we set off to have a go.

Little Owls tend to like sunny days or warmth in the air, and will often sit out in the sun even in the depths of winter. Cold and rain did not seem like a likely combination to tempt one out. Arriving at the first Little Owl site and a quick scan revealed no sign. Still, we set up the scope and set about looking for other birds. Several flocks of geese were flighting from the coast, heading inland to feed; a large flock of Curlew was feeding in a stubble field; a Fieldfare flew up into the trees and a Great Spotted Woodpecker passed overhead.

P1100721Brent Geese – flying inland to feed this morning

Keeping one eye on the farm buildings in front of us, suddenly a shape appeared within the roof – a Little Owl! Unfortunately it was very brief and only one member of the group managed to see it before it disappeared back inside. However, we now felt a lot more confident and after a short wait (spent watching a Stoat running around among the buildings!), the Little Owl appeared again and this time sat still long enough for everyone to see it. A great start, with one species of owl under our belt already.

From there we meandered through the countryside inland from the coast, trying a number of different sites for owls, with no more success – it was just a bit too cold and wet. However, we did come across a beautiful pair of Red Kites, which flew out from a tree by the road as we passed. We stopped to watch them as they circled over the field and landed in another tree a safe distance away, from where we could get great views of them through the ‘scope. While we were standing there, several lines of Golden Plover flew overhead and inland and a Mistle Thrush perched up the hedge. We also came across a very good number of Kestrels on our travels – a good sign, possibly reflecting a productive breeding season last year.

IMG_2117Red Kite – we got great views of a pair of these majestic birds today

With the rain now redoubling its efforts to put us off, we headed down to Titchwell to seek shelter in the hides (and a hot drink in the cafe!), during the quieter owl time in the middle of the day.The water levels on the freshmarsh have been raised for management purposes, which means that most of the islands are now under water. The Brent Geese were enjoying it, as well as a large number of Pochard and a few Tufted Duck. A few ducks and small group of Avocets were clustered onto the few remaining small islands. A Water Rail and several Bearded Tits called from the reedbed, but did not feel like showing themselves.

Despite the high water levels, we still managed to see a very healthy selection of wildfowl and waders. Ducks included Wigeon, Teal, Mallard, Shoveler and Shelduck. The Volunteer Marsh was alive with waders, including more Avocets, Grey PloverLapwing, Knot, Dunlin, Black-tailed Godwit, Redshank and Turnstone. Out on the beach we added Bar-tailed Godwit, Ringed Plover and Oystercatcher to that list. The sea was fairly quiet, though a nice raft of Red-breasted Mergansers was out on the water. However the highlight came on the way out, when a commotion at the tidal pools saw ducks and waders scatter in all directions as a young Peregrine appeared and proceeded to stoop repeatedly and distinctly ineffectually into the melee! It also flushed the mixed flock of Twite, Linnet and Goldfinch which had been on the beach and which flew overhead.

P1100731Black-tailed Godwit – there was a good selection of waders at Titchwell today

After lunch, a hot drink and an attempt at drying ourselves out, it appeared that the rain might be easing – as had been forecast earlier on. The aim of the day was to find owls, so we set off in search of them again, in the hope that an end to the wet weather might tempt them out. A short drive back to Burnham Overy and we set off across the grazing marshes.

On the way out, we stopped to look at a couple of male Bullfinches which flew ahead of us along the hedgerow – such stunning birds, and well worthy of a proper look as they eventually perched up and allowed us to get the scope on them. We also disturbed a little covey of four Grey Partridges which stayed long enough for us to get great views, as they moved quietly away from us through the grass.

P1100741White-fronted Goose – three were by the track at Burnham Overy

The fields either side of the track held an excellent selection of geese. As well as the large flocks of Pink-footed Geese out on the grazing marsh, a small flock of Greylag right by the path contained an additional small number of Pinkfeet which gave us a chance to see their pink legs and bill detail up close. In the same field, slightly further out, were three European White-fronted Geese, the white forehead blaze of the two adults being much more obvious than that on their accompanying youngster. A small group of Brent Geese and a few Canada Geese made up the numbers. There were also lots of waders – several hundred Golden Plover, plus a good selection of Lapwing, Curlew, Dunlin and Snipe.

With the rain stopping and the sky brightening to the west, we hurried on to the seawall. No sooner had we got there than the Short-eared Owls were up. Out across the grazing marshes, first two birds circled up into the sky, chasing each other round and round. Then a third bird appeared below them – it seemed to be swooping down repeatedly and a closer look revealed it was actually mobbing a Common Buzzard sat on a gate. The first two Short-eared Owls circled up ever higher, until one eventually peeled off and  flew over the seawall ahead of us and out onto the saltmarsh. It turned and flew back towards us and landed in the grass giving us stunning views in the scope, even of its striking yellow eyes (irides!). It sat for some time, preening, looking round, flying a short distance before landing back again.

IMG_2125Short-eared Owl – we saw three today but this one sat out for some time

We also stopped to look at the Rough-legged Buzzard, sat on one of its usual posts, and a very pale Common Buzzard which does a good impression of a Rough-legged for the unwary. However, they were slightly overshadowed by the performance from the owls.

Next it was time for the Barn Owls to start appearing. First a glimpse of one in the distance by the pines, then a second way off over the marshes, until finally one appeared closer to us. We watched it for some time, hunting over the grass and perched up on a post. With the afternoon getting on and the light starting to go we walked back towards the car. The Barn Owl was still hunting over one of its favoured fields and we stopped to watch it flying back and forth and pausing to hover, much closer now. It eventually flew off over the hedge at the back just as yet another Barn Owl appeared over the track right in front of us, almost overhead, and headed out around the field which the other bird had only just vacated, flying along the field margin close to where we were standing. Such amazing birds. We thought that was probably the best of it – four Barn Owls at Burnham Overy alone!

P1100748Pink-footed Goose – several thousand came in overhead to roost at dusk

As we walked back to the car,we could hear them first, yelping and cackling, before the skeins of Pinkfeet started to appear from the west. Several thousand came in overhead, circling down to land on the grazing marshes or flying on further to Holkham. This is truly one of the great sights of an evening on the marshes and of a winter’s day in Norfolk.

However, the day was still not done and we drove on round to Holkham to have a last look over the marshes there. A short walk down the track and yet another Barn Owl appeared, quartering the field in front of us. It flew round and round before turning and heading straight towards us, landing on a post just into the edge of the field. It sat there for several minutes with the moon up in the sky behind it, as if it was showing off just for us. Wow!

P1100755Barn Owl – this one gave us stunning views at dusk

We walked round to Salts Hole, with the sound of the Pinkfeet out on the grazing marshes, and watched the last of the sunset to end the day. Despite the rain and cold – what a great first Owl Tour of the season.

P1100765Sunset at Salts Hole