Monthly Archives: February 2015

27th February 2015 – Owls & Other Fowl

Today was originally billed as a Winter Tour in North Norfolk, but by special request, we added in a smidgeon of Owls as well – we just can’t get enough of them.

We started by heading inland, looking for Little Owls. Despite the gloriously sunny morning, which would normally be heaven for sunbathing owls, it began to feel like it wasn’t going to be our day. At our first stop, often the most reliable site, a dog walker was just passing as we arrived and the owls had disappeared. We eventually located one at the very back of the barns, but there was too much haze even to see it properly today. In addition, the stubble field which we have enjoyed so much over the winter, with all its Curlews and Brown Hares, had been ploughed during the week, so was now empty. We moved swiftly on.

P1110953Pied Wagtail – we came across a little group on the edge of a field…

Meandering our way west, we came across a little group of at least 10 Pied Wagtails. They were feeding around the piles of spoil on the edge of a field where sugar beet had been loaded, the ground churned up, with lots of rainwater-filled ruts. As we pulled up to admire them, a single Grey Wagtail appeared in their midst. An uncommon bird in this part of the world at the best of times, it was a nice surprise to see one out here in the middle of nowhere. There were also a couple of Meadow Pipits and a little group of Linnets with the wagtails – clearly taking advantage of a feeding opportunity.

P1110955Grey Wagtail – …was a surprise find amongst them

Further on, we came across a nice mixed flock of Fieldfare, Redwing and Starling feeding in a field of stubble. They were very easily spooked, flying up into the trees along the hedge line at any perceived sign of trouble, before dropping back down again shortly afterwards. Nearby, on the verge, we surprised a lovely pair of Grey Partridge right by the road, which moved away from us stealthily into the vegetation. However, despite the sunshine, we were having no luck with Little Owls. We stopped at several old barns and large oak trees which on other days might have provided us with one or two, but for whatever reason they were not there today.

We were about to give up, but we had one last site to try. We pulled up in view of the barns and there stood not one, but two Little Owls basking in the morning sun! We got a really good look at them, while they were looking at us, heads bobbing up and down (theirs, not ours!) as they did so. Real characters.

P1110965Little Owl – one of the two catching the sun here this morning

From there we headed up to Titchwell. On the way, we stopped to admire a field full of Brown Hares. There were at least ten in one large block of winter wheat today, chasing each other round, but no boxing while we were there. As we climbed out of the car at Titchwell, a Red Kite flew overhead, west over the car park. It stopped to circle over the trees, before heading off along the coast.

It may only be February, but birds are on the move already. Some of our winter visitors are already leaving (or have left!), and others are gathering in sight of the coast, staging, in anticipation of making the journey further north. A lot of the Pink-footed Geese have already departed, but there were small groups flying west along the coast all day today. They are probably heading up to Scotland now, where they will stop for a while before making the journey onwards to Iceland to breed.

P1110973Pink-footed Goose – small groups were moving overhead all day today

As usual, the reserve at Titchwell provided the opportunity to observe an excellent selection of waders. The drained grazing marsh pool held a Ringed Plover and a couple of Redshank, and a small group of Dunlin flew in just as we moved on. There was a nice group of Avocet out on the freshmarsh, though they were roosting with their feet wet, given the continued high water levels.

P1110979Avocet – roosting on the still-flooded freshmarsh

The few remaining small bits of island still showing above the flood also held a few Dunlin, plus several Lapwing, a Turnstone and a Grey Plover. However, the Volunteer Marsh had more variety – more of the same, plus Oystercatcher, Curlew, Black-tailed Godwit, several Knot. A Spotted Redshank flew over calling, but unfortunately didn’t drop in. On the tidal pools, we added Bar-tailed Godwit. Out on the beach, a little group of Sanderling were chasing in and out of the waves as they broke on the sand. As we walked back later, a single Greenshank had dropped in to the Volunteer Marsh on the rising tide and fed along the edge of one of the channels.

P1110984Black-tailed Godwit – there was a great selection of waders at Titchwell today

There was also a good selection of wildfowl to be seen. Out on the freshmarsh, the ducks and geese were enjoying the raised water levels. A large flock of Brent Geese had flown in from the saltmarsh to bathe and preen. Numbers of ducks were down on recent weeks, but there were still plenty of Teal, plus a smattering of Wigeon and Shoveler and a handful of Gadwall. There were several Pintail as well, although they were hiding at the back  – we got better views of a small group a little further along, out on the tidal pools. The reedbed pool held a few Pochard and Tufted Duck.

P1110993Teal – a stunning male, feeding in the mud on the Volunteer Marsh

There were fewer ducks as well out on the sea than in recent weeks. There was still a decent raft of Common Scoter and a few Goldeneye, but we couldn’t find anything else today. A Red-throated Diver flew past and a Great Crested Grebe was diving further out.

The feeders around the Visitor Centre are always alive with tits and finches. We stopped to scan them and a burst of twittering song from the alders nearby caught our attention. After a little bit of searching, we located the source – a couple of very smart male Siskin. Then it was back to the car for lunch, to the sound of the Bullfinches calling from the sallows and with little groups of Golden Plover passing west overhead.

The rest of the afternoon was spent at Burnham Overy. As soon as we got out of the car, a Barn Owl floated silently over the road beside us and started to hunt along the grassy margin of the field opposite. Great to watch and a sign of things to come!

P1120006Little Egret – feeding in one of the saltmarsh channels on the falling tide

As usual, the grazing marshes on the walk out were alive with waders. The large flocks of Lapwing and Golden Plover were whirling round all the time, seemingly spooked by any sudden movement overhead, friend or foe. There were lots of Curlew and, in amongst them, we found a couple of much smaller Ruff. The flooded dips in the grass were ringed with little groups of diminutive Dunlin. Once we got up onto the seawall, there were even more waders out on the saltmarsh.

There were still plenty of geese out on the grazing marshes, but the numbers now are dominated by Brent Geese. Most of the Pink-footed Geese have departed already, but still some small groups remained out on the grass. As we had seen in the morning, more Pinkfeet were still heading west overhead.

Suddenly all the birds behind us took off, the large flocks of Wigeon particularly noisily. We looked round just in time to see a sleek, streamlined shape powering towards us. A small, male Peregrine shot through, down over the reeds and low across the grass towards the Golden Plover flock by the dunes, scattering everything as it went. Interestingly, on our walk back later we were to see exactly the same thing again – it has obviously identified a lucrative food source out on the marshes here.

That was not the only raptor to be seen here. As well as several Marsh Harriers and Kestrels, it didn’t take us long to locate one of the wintering Rough-legged Buzzards, out on one of its favoured posts across the other side of the grazing marshes. A pale Common Buzzard perched on a nearby post provided a useful highlight of the pitfall of Rough-legged Buzzard identification – the Common Buzzard being strikingly creamy-white on head and underparts, but clearly lacking the contrasting black belly patch of its rarer cousin. While we were scanning the marshes, the second Rough-legged Buzzard appeared over the pines and dropped down to land in the dunes, its very pale head and dark belly standing out even at a distance. We walked over into the dunes to get a better look at it through the scope.

IMG_2910Rough-legged Buzzard – one of two today, this one perched up in the dunes

However, the afternoon really belonged to the owls. Holkham and Burnham Overy are often good for Barn Owl, but we had an amazing performance from them today. After the one we had seen on arrival, we picked up a couple more distantly from the seawall, looking towards the pines. Then one appeared in front of us and proceeded to hunt over the seawall itself, where it dropped down suddenly into the grass. The local Kestrel came over for a look and landed a couple of metres away, where the two engaged in a stare-off. As the Barn Owl took off again, we could see it had caught a vole. The Kestrel wouldn’t leave it alone and set off in pursuit, swooping down at it until the Barn Owl dropped into the reeds. The Kestrel then gave up and when the Owl reappeared the vole had gone – hopefully eaten!

P1110998P1120002Barn Owl – there were at least six hunting over the grazing marsh today

There were so many Barn Owls, it was hard to count them all properly. There were at least six in view at one time, so probably more in total out hunting. Eventually the Short-eared Owl appeared – bigger, longer-winged, and better camouflaged than its smaller cousins. It was hunting a bit further over, towards the pines today, but we got great views of it through the scope, quartering back and forth on its stiff wings. From out in the dunes, we could see it hiding in the grass, looking round furtively all the time, its yellow irises flashing in the late afternoon sunlight.

As the light started to fade, we walked back, stopping to admire the view across the saltmarsh as the sun descended to the west. Another great day of winter birding, with a very respectable list of around 90 species for the day, as well as plenty of owls. Not bad!

P1120016Burnham Overy – the sun going down over the saltmarsh

22nd February 2015 – Hawfinch Highlight

Day 3 of a long weekend of tours, the last day. Today we headed down to the Brecks. If you had seen the weather forecast last week, you wouldn’t have wanted to come out at all this weekend. As it was, we had mostly great weather, at least until the last hour or so, and saw a fantastic number of birds. So much for the forecast – again!

We started at Lynford arboretum. With the suggestion it might be increasingly windy (if dry!!) in the afternoon, and given that seeing Hawfinch was a priority, this seemed to be the best approach today. There was lots of activity in the arboretum – a little group of Siskin buzzing in the trees flew off calling, a Goldcrest was singing from the depths of the firs, Nuthatches were piping from the heights, and a little party of Redwings called agitatedly from the tops of the pines.

There was no sign of any Hawfinches from the gate, but the sun had not yet reached the leaf litter and it was still very cold at ground level. A couple of Bullfinches were very nice, but not a perfect substitute for our main target. We walked on round the arboretum. Down by the bridge, a party of noisy Long-tailed Tits were clustered on one of the brick pillars, but no one had yet put the seed out which normally graces the top. A couple of Coal Tits were on the peanut feeder, and a Marsh Tit flew in but left as soon as it realised there was no food out yet.

We walked on round the paddock. This used to be the most reliable place to see the Hawfinches, but they have not been frequenting this area as much in recent years. We couldn’t find any warming themselves in the sun’s rays at the tops of the trees by the paddocks either, but fortunately one was perched up in a treetop in the grounds of Lynford Hall doing just that! We could see it distantly from the other side of the lake, and we just had time to get a look at it in the scope before it dropped down out of view. A good start – a female Hawfinch in the bag already – but we were left wanting more.

We had a quick walk round the wet woodland trail, finally getting better views of some Siskin and several Nuthatches, before heading back towards the arboretum. By now, there was quite a crowd gathered by the gate and according to one of the many photographers a Hawfinch had been down feeding a little earlier. We stopped to have a look ourselves.

When the crowd finally quietened down a little the birds started to fly down to feed. Initially, more Chaffinches dropped down into the leaf litter. Suddenly, from nowhere, a Hawfinch appeared as well. Initially, we could just see its head, as it fed behind the base of a tree, but we all got a look at it in the scope. Then it flew out and fed in full view – much better. We could see the large triangular bill, the white tail tip, the rich chestnut body plumage and the contrasting grey nape. There was a smart male Brambling in the leaf litter as well, but it got slightly ignored next to its much rarer cousin.

P1110928Hawfinch – surprisingly well camouflaged in the leaf litter, can you see it?

We were all pretty happy with that, and the bird eventually flicked up into the trees, but still we were not finished. Knowing one of the areas the birds favour, we moved along a couple of metres from the throng. It only took a minute or two before the Hawfinch dropped down again, but this time really close. We were ideally placed to get scope-filling views (and cracking photos!) of the bird – a really smart male Hawfinch. What a corker.

IMG_2871IMG_2867Hawfinch – cracking views of this male today, feeding right in front of us

It was time to move on, and we did so with a spring in our steps now. Next target was Goshawk. Unfortunately, the weather had already started to deteriorate slightly – the cloud had rolled in, the sun had gone and a cold wind had picked up – much earlier than forecast. It didn’t feel as promising for Goshawks as it had first thing. However, there were at least 8 Buzzards in the air when we arrived, some of them soaring high into the sky and even giving a little bit of display – a good sign. A Red Kite drifted out over the trees. Pursued by a Buzzard, it came towards us, eventually drifting almost overhead. A Kestrel circled over the wood as well, but still no sign of our target.

P1110933Red Kite – circled overhead

With the wind picking up all the time and the temperature dropping, the Buzzard activity started to tail off. It seemed like we had missed the window of opportunity. Then the woods erupted and hundreds of Woodpigeons shot into the sky. At first nothing else appeared. Finally, a male Goshawk circled up from the trees – pale silvery grey above, and strikingly pale below. It had its white undertail coverts puffed out, wrapped around the sides of its tail, looking almost white-rumped as it turned. It drifted across the tops before dropping down again out of view. Target number two ticked off, we decided to move on.

Next stop was Lakenheath Fen. After an early lunch, and the use of the facilities, we headed out onto the reserve. We didn’t have time to explore the whole reserve today, but we wanted to have a look at Hockwold Washes. Even before we got to the Washland viewpoint, we saw the Great White Egret. It was flying along the river, its large size immediately apparent. It quickly dropped out of view and we headed up onto the river bank to see where it had landed.

From the viewpoint, we could see the Great White Egret standing amongst the reeds on the edge of the river further along. We got it in the scope and had a better look at its long, dagger-like yellow bill. We set off along the bank to get a little closer, but before we had got very far it took off again. Fortunately, we got some great flight views as it flew off – noting its long, bowed wings and slow, measured wingbeats, and its long, stick-like black legs with bunched black feet at the end.

IMG_2874Great White Egret – at Lakenheath, in Suffolk, but only just!

There were plenty of other things to look at from up on the river bank. A couple of Little Egrets nearby gave us a good chance to look at the differences. Hockwold Washes itself was full of ducks – Wigeon, Teal, Gadwall and Shoveler. There were a couple of very smart spring Great Crested Grebes as well. A Kingfisher perched up on the edge of the river. And a Stonechat was flicking around down among the reeds. However, it was now getting very windy, so we decided to head somewhere more sheltered.

Some of the group still hadn’t seen Brambling, having been too distracted by the Hawfinch earlier. There had been some here recently, but the staff at the visitor centre thought they were no longer present. However, on the walk back from the Washland viewpoint, there were lots of birds in amongst the sallows – Chaffinches, Goldfinches, Reed Buntings and tits. A careful scan through the birds perched up in the trees produced a smart female Brambling which we managed to get in the scope before the group moved on again.

We drove back to Santon Downham and walked down to the river. On the way, a couple of Marsh Tits were in the trees around the gardens. From the bridge, we could see a Kingfisher perched up on a branch along the river bank. A Song Thrush was in the process of smashing a snail along the path nearby. Then the rain started. We did a quick circuit of the fields, successfully negotiating the very slippery path alongside the river. Unfortunately,we couldn’t find the Great Grey Shrike here – it has been very erratic in recent days, probably roaming round quite a large area.

We returned to the car and set off back to Lynford. Despite the rain, there was time for one more walk. The lakes at Lynford Water have held the odd Goosander in recent weeks, so we thought it was worth a look. The first lake only had a little group of Tufted Ducks and a couple of Mute Swans. From the hide overlooking the second lake, we could only see two Great Crested Grebes. A young Sparrowhawk flew across the water, clutching something small in its talons. A couple in the hide told us that a pair of Goosander had been present earlier, but they had no idea where they had gone. We sat and waited, but nothing appeared.

Eventually, we decided to explore round the edge of the lake, to try to see into some of the bays not visible from the hide, and it didn’t take long before the pair of Goosander appeared and flew out into the middle of the lake. We watched them swimming, preening, diving. Beautiful ducks. A lovely way to end the day and a really good weekend.

IMG_2889IMG_2881Goosander – this nice pair was on Lynford Water again

21st February 2015 – Back to the Broads

Day 2 of a long weekend of tours today. We headed down to the Broads for the day, to look for some of the local specialities.

We started off on a search for the Cranes. It didn’t take us long. There was no sign of any around the first of the favoured fields we visited, but a short drive further and a glance out of the side window revealed two large birds flying past in the opposite direction – unmistakeable with long necks held outstretched in front and long legs trailing behind – two Common (or Eurasian) Cranes. We turned round and followed them and they dropped towards the area we had just been searching. As most of us were watching the two, one member of the party announced “there’s four”. A quick scan showed he was right – but there were actually six. We watched them all dropping down to the fields, but unfortunately they landed out of view. Still, a great start with six Cranes already.

P1110900Cranes – these two flew past the car first thing this morning

Round at Horsey, we stopped to admire a couple of short-cropped grass fields which were positively chock full of birds. There were lots of Golden Plover, Lapwings, Fieldfares and Starlings. A couple of Common Buzzards sat around on the neighbouring bushes and fenceposts in the morning sun, occasionally flapping across the field lazily. The throng seemed to ignore them completely. Then suddenly, the whole lot took to the air, separating instantly into species flocks – the Golden Plover whirling high in the air in an amorphous group, changing shape all the time; the Lapwings flapping off more sedately below; and the Fieldfares flying away strongly calling as they went, leaving a few bemused birds in the field left wondering what the commotion was all about. Then we spotted the culprit, as a Sparrowhawk swept low over the road and away across the fields the other side.

P1110902Golden Plover – part of the flock that took fright and whirled round

Most of the Pink-footed Geese appear to have departed north already, but there were still a hundred or so out on the grass. Scanning through the flock, a couple of heads appeared from a dip in the ground behind and their white foreheads caught the sun. A small group of White-fronted Geese still lingering and taking advantage of the company of the Pinkfeet.

While we were admiring the array of birds spread out in front of us, another Crane appeared in the sky at the back of the field. As it flew past us, we could see that one of its legs was dangling below, not held out straight as it should be. We had seen this injured bird near here back in mid-January (and it had apparently been present in the area for a couple of weeks before that). Then, it appeared to be struggling on the ground, but today it landed in the distance and appeared to be a little more steady on its feet. Sad to see it still suffering, but good that it appears to be surviving and possibly even adapting to its injury.

From there, we headed inland towards Ludham. The wild swans used to winter in the fields on the coast, but these days they favour a different area. We drove straight out onto the levels and had not gone far when we spotted a line of swans – mostly Bewick’s Swans with several Mute Swans as well. A quick scan revealed four birds with the Bewick’s which were larger, with more yellow on the bill. Looking through the scope confirmed they were four Whooper Swans – nice to see them still here, and to be able to compare the two species side by side. A little further on, a small, low-slung shape ran across the road – a Weasel. We pulled up alongside it and watched it darting around in the grass right beside the car, before it realised we were there and shot off into the trees.

IMG_2812Bewick’s Swans – around 44 still on St Benet’s levels today

IMG_2808Whooper Swans – just 4 still lurking in amongst the Bewick’s

Next stop was over in the Yare valley, but the journey there takes us through more Crane country. Out of the corner of an eye, as we were driving past, an odd shape amongst the clods of ploughed earth and maize stubble caught the attention. A quick turn into a conveniently positioned gateway and we were able to scan the field. Surely it had just been another large lump of ploughed soil? No, our initial suspicions were confirmed, it was the tail of another Crane feeding head down! We positioned ourselves carefully amongst some farm buildings and had a great views of it in the scope, especially once it finally lifted its head up. It seemed fairly unconcerned by our presence, and we left it feeding by itself.

IMG_2825Crane – the bushy black tail caught our attention as we drove past…

IMG_2819Crane – … but we got much better views when it lifted its head

Down at Buckenham Marshes, we walked out to the riverbank. There were lots of ducks – mostly Wigeon, some of them proving very tame and performing for the cameras, but amongst them a smattering of Shoveler, Teal and Gadwall. A small group of Tufted Ducks was swimming in one of the flooded channels. Several Shelduck were out on the grazing marshes, but the only geese we could find today were Canada and Greylag Geese.

P1110912Wigeon – performed for the cameras

There are usually large flocks of Golden Plover and Lapwing out on the grass, but today when they spooked they seemed to do so with added urgency, swirling round in a frenzy. Everything took off at once – waders, ducks, geese. Looking through the swirling flocks, we could see why – an adult Peregrine was scything through, repeatedly turning and going back through the middle of the horde. Suddenly it slammed into something, possibly a Teal, but it couldn’t hold onto it and the victim appeared to drop like a stone straight into one of the flooded ditches. The Peregrine circled overhead, but seemed resigned to having lost its prey and dropped down onto a gatepost nearby to reflect on its misfortune.

IMG_2828Peregrine – hunting at Buckenham Marshes

While the Peregrine was busy putting everything up, we could see there were more waders over on some flooded flashes out on the grass by the old windpump. We walked along the bank and through our scopes we could see a nice group of Ruff, including a couple of very white-headed males, plus a good flock of Dunlin running around amongst the Starlings and, over at the back,  twenty or so Black-tailed Godwits.

We stopped at Strumpshaw Fen for lunch. The car park was very full again, but that didn’t put off the Marsh Tits and Long-tailed Tits around the bushes. A quick visit to Reception Hide confirmed that the reserve was very quiet again bird-wise, and with staff worries about flooding along the river on the rapidly approaching high tide, we decided to move on.

Down at Halvergate, the Rough-legged Buzzard was rather annoyingly not on its usual line of fenceposts – it had taken off and was hovering further out over the grazing marshes. It landed on a gatepost in the distance, and stood there for some time, showing no inclination to move. So we decided to leave it for a short while and explore further out across the levels. Just down the road, a stop to scan the marshes produced another flock of 43 Bewick’s Swans, a single Chinese Water Deer and a noisy flock of Fieldfares which wanted to land back in the hawthorns beside us but wouldn’t settle while we were standing there.

IMG_2834Bewick’s Swans – a tight group of 43 was still at Halvergate today

Further out on the levels, we stopped and went for a walk. As soon as we got out of the car, a Barn Owl ghosted towards us, spotting us at the last minute and wheeled away over the fields. A ringtail Hen Harrier appeared over a bank, but turned and dropped down just out of view. We had just positioned ourselves to be able to see it through the reeds, standing on the ground, when it took off again and continued quartering out across the marshes. But it was a great view as it went, and it appeared to be a young bird with yellow-tinged streaked underparts and dark under-secondaries. Then the Short-eared Owls started to appear, first one, then  a second, then a third, all out hunting over the fields, though unfortunately all rather distant. Still, it is a magical place and we eventually had to tear ourselves away.

Back where we had been earlier, the Rough-legged Buzzard had finally decided to return to its usual fenceposts so we stopped again for another look. We had a much better view of it now, noting it’s dark-streaked but very pale head and its strikingly blackish belly patch as it stood facing us. It took off and flew a couple of times, just a short distance between posts, flashing its bright white tail base as it turned to land each time. There was another Barn Owl out hunting here now, but no sign yet of the hoped for closer Short-eared. We were already running out of time to get back to the roost at Stubb Mill, so unfortunately we had to drag ourselves away again.

IMG_2845Rough-legged Buzzard – back on one of its usual fenceposts

We arrived at Stubb Mill a bit later than planned, after our distraction at Halvergate. It had looked like we might get away with our slightly tardy arrival, but the beautiful winter sunshine we had enjoyed most of the day just failed us at the last, as a patch of dark cloud on the horizon moved in front of the setting sun. The watchpoint was unbelievably busy today, and we were lucky that a few people had started to drift off for an early bath which left a space for us to stand.

P1110919Stubb Mill – the approach to the watchpoint

Several Marsh Harriers were already in, perched up in the bushes or circling over the reeds. As we scanned the marshes ahead of us, we could see more birds drifting in, in ones and twos. There were probably close to thirty at the roost again tonight. Another Barn Owl was out hunting over the grass in front of us. A Stonechat on the bushes was a new bird for the day’s list. Then a ringtail Hen Harrier appeared, coming in fast and low at the back of the grazing marsh ahead of us. The male was less accommodating today, and we just glimpsed him briefly tonight flying round amongst the bushes in the distance – he had clearly sneaked into the roost via a different route! A small falcon perched up in the bushes was most likely a Merlin, but it was getting hard to see clearly by that stage.

As the light faded we could hear Cranes constantly bugling away to the north, much more noisy than they have been in recent weeks. Each time, it seemed like they had to be on their way, but the big group didn’t appear before it was getting a bit too gloomy. Two birds did come over – coming from the other direction, they were probably the pair which regularly feeds out from the watchpoint, and they gave us a good flypast before they dropped down into the reeds across the marshes. It seemed like a good way to bookend the day – a mirror of the start, watching two Cranes flying past. We headed back to the car, with a glorious sunset fading in the sky.

P1110924Sunset – the stunning sky as we walked back this evening

20th February 2015 – Raptors 9 Owls 4

Day 1 of a long weekend of tours today – a day of winter birding in North Norfolk. We were not even looking for them specifically and we saw 4 species of owl, but that was beaten by 9 different raptors, and we were only just short of 100 species in total. Quite a day for late winter!

We were heading for Thornham first, but there are always things to see on the way. Our route took us close to one regular Little Owl site so, with a few rays of sunshine creeping through, it seemed churlish not to have a look. Sure enough, the Little Owl was perched up in one of its usual spots. It looked at us, and we looked at it, for a while. When another car drove past, it turned and dropped back into the barn.

P1110850Little Owl – in its usual spot catching the morning sun

We dropped down via Choseley. The fields were full of Brown Hares – one field alone held at least nine. There was lots of chasing going on – spring must be coming – but no boxing yet. The weedy cover strips had been cut, and there were just a few Linnets and Chaffinches around. A Sparrowhawk shot through and a Marsh Harrier lazily quartered the hillside.

Down at Thornham Harbour, the Twite decided to give us the run around. There was no sign of any around the harbour, so we set off along the sea wall. Half way towards Holme, a small flock of 10 appeared from the saltmarsh – their small size, bouncy flight and distinctive buzzy calls immediately gave them away. But they shot past us and headed off, landing by a large wet puddle on the edge of the field in the distance. We thought they might have dropped in for a drink and set off in pursuit but by the time we got there they had slipped away again. We did surprise a nice pair of Grey Partridge when we arrived.

IMG_2770Twite – we eventually managed to get good views of 10 today

We couldn’t find them so we headed back, and suddenly the Twite appeared again over the saltmarsh. They flew round, dropped briefly into the field, then set off again, and eventually seemed to settle down on the seawall back by the car park. We walked back quickly and finally managed to get them in the scope feeding on the path. A smart little group of Twite. While we were watching them, another 3 flew over calling. Then they were all flushed by a jogger on the seawall and off they shot again. At least they were finally in the bag! Back at the car, we stopped briefly to admire a Rock Pipit on one of the jetties.

P1110855Snowdrops are out – spring is really on its way!

Titchwell was our next stop. The car park was already rather busy, so we headed out onto the reserve. First stop was the drained pool on the edge of the grazing marsh on the Thornham side. A Kingfisher perched on the edge of the reeds, before flashing away. A single Ruff dropped in amongst the Redshank and Dunlin. A Snipe slept on the edge amongst the rushes. However, we couldn’t find the Water Pipit in its usual place.

IMG_2779Ruff – just one on the grazing marsh pool today

Eventually, we decided to move on. The water level on the freshmarsh is still high, but the ducks were enjoying it as usual. There was a good selection – several very smart Pintail, a few Gadwall, Shoveler and Wigeon, and lots of Teal.

P1110868Shoveler – check out that bill!

There didn’t seem to be many waders on the freshmarsh until something put everything to flight. Suddenly there were birds everywhere. A big flock of Avocet swirled round, around 60 now, numbers swollen compared to recent weeks with birds presumably already returning from the south. When they landed again, there were also several Black-tailed Godwit, Knot and Dunlin. A short while later the likely culprit flusher appeared – a male Peregrine zipped through.

On the Volunteer Marsh, we added Grey Plover to the day’s list. Two birds close by gave themselves up for closer scrutiny – the subtle differences between them showed one to be an adult and the other a 1st winter. Out on the beach we also came across Ringed Plover, Bar-tailed Godwit, Sanderling and Turnstone.

P1110878Avocet – lots more on the freshmarsh today, with birds starting to return

The sea was much more productive than it has been for most of this winter. A raft of Common Scoter was diving just off the beach, and in amongst them we picked up the first of several Goldeneye. There were also lots of Red-breasted Mergansers, a couple of Great Crested Grebes and a single Red-throated Diver. Eventually the Long-tailed Ducks reappeared, including several smart drakes. They had probably been there all along, diving unobtrusively and remarkably hard to see when they are doing so, but we only picked them up when they started splashing around, washing and preening. While we were standing there, one of the group picked up a flock of around 20 Snow Buntings on the beach, but they promptly took off and flew strongly towards Brancaster.

On the walk back, a Spotted Redshank flew over calling, but didn’t stop. The Brent Geese had been backwards and forwards between Thornham saltmarsh and the freshmarsh all morning. A big flock of 600+ dropped in at one point to bathe. On our way, we stopped to watch little groups of them flying overhead, cackling all the time as they did so.

P1110882Brent Goose – a large flock dropped into the freshmarsh

Back at the grazing marsh pool, the Water Pipit finally gave itself up. It was feeding quietly on the muddy edge, on its own, doing a very good job of blending in with the mud. We got a good look at it through the scope – the very white underparts and neat black breast streaking notably different to the swarthy Rock Pipit we had seen earlier. A bonus came in the shape of a Water Rail nipping in and out of the reeds, squealing periodically.

P1110887Long-tailed Tit – enjoying the sunflower seeds by Fen Hide

There was not much to see in Fen Hide – apart from the succession of tits dropping onto the bird table and a Moorhen looking on hungrily. A smart male Bullfinch feeding on the buds in the sallows was the highlight of the walk there. Patsy’s Reedbed added a few Pochard for the day. Amongst them, a slightly darker bird caught the eye – its funny-shaped head not as russet, a more contrastingly slate grey back, a brighter yellow eye. Aythya ducks are devils for hybridising and this was most likely a Pochard x Tufted Duck hybrid.

P1110889Pochard x Tufted Duck hybrid – on Patsy’s Reedbed today

After lunch, we made our way back along the coast to Burnham Overy. We could see one of the Rough-legged Buzzards perched on a fence post as we walked out. A very pale Common Buzzard standing just three posts along provided a great opportunity to compare the two – the latter, whilst pale headed, lacking the distinctive dark blackish belly patch of the Roughleg. There were lots of other raptors to look at was well – several Marsh Harriers and Kestrels, and a single Red Kite flew lazily over from Scolt Head and drifted towards the pines.

All the birds on the grazing marsh periodically spooked and flew round – the tight flock of about 1,000 Golden Plover whirling in the sky being a highlight, reminiscent of a Starling murmuration as it did so. A large flock of Brent Geese flew in and landed in the fields by the path. A quick scan through the flock revealed a slightly darker, blacker one, with a slightly brighter and more extensive white collar and a slightly more solid and brighter white flank patch. It was not quite black enough to be a pure Black Brant, but was instead one of the regular hybrid Black Brant x Dark-bellied Brent Goose which returns every year to this stretch of the coast. We stopped to have a good look at it.

IMG_2785Black Brant x Dark-bellied Brent hybrid – with dark-bellied Brents

Up on the seawall, we could immediately see a Short-eared Owl out quartering the grazing marsh. We hurried along to where it was, but it seemed to have disappeared. While we were looking for it again, we picked up first one, then two, then three Barn Owls also out hunting. Eventually the Short-eared Owl reappeared again, more distant now. We watched it for some time, working its way back and forth with its distinctive stiff wingbeats. It landed and stood for a while in the grass, alert and looking round constantly. Finally, it started to work its way closer and positioning ourselves further round on the seawall we had great views as it flew round in front of us several times.

P1110897Short-eared Owl – out hunting again this afternoon

The Rough-legged Buzzard also had a fly round, flashing its white tail base, before returning to one of its favourite posts yet again. But a quick scan of the fence line revealed a second buzzard, and this time not the pale Common Buzzard. It turned and we could see that the two Rough-legged Buzzards were perched just a short distance away from each other. They flew from post to post, at one point even getting in the same scope view together.

IMG_2799Rough-legged Buzzard – two were out at Burnham Overy today

On the walk back, a nice Barn Owl came over the reedbed towards us, veering away only at the last minute. Yet another was hunting over the set aside field by the path as we got back towards the car. Quite a haul of Barn Owls today!

The sun was sinking in the sky, but there was still enough light for one more stop. We pulled in at Stiffkey and got out to scan the saltmarsh. It didn’t take long to pick up the first Hen Harrier – a lovely grey male, though distant – but at the same time another grey male appeared from the other direction, much closer. We focused on the nearer one, watching it ghost past, noting the slimmer build and more buoyant flight, hugging the saltmarsh, compared to the Marsh Harriers.

That was not all we saw. Then a Short-eared Owl appeared, strangely over the oilseed rape field behind us. Almost immediately afterwards we picked up a second Short-eared Owl distantly over the saltmarsh. First one, then two ringtail Hen Harriers flew out towards East Hills, a little too far away to see really well, but a good exercise in learning the shape and jizz. A silhouette in the stunted trees out towards the beach revealed itself to be a Peregrine, perched up and preening. All the time, the male Hen Harrier kept reappearing, hunting back and forth in the last of the evening’s light. We had decided to call it a day and were on the way back to the car when a Merlin appeared, buzzing and stooping at the perched Peregrine we had just been watching. A great evening at the roost, and it seemed like the perfect way to end the day.

However, we were still not done. On the drive back, a large dark shape with rounded wings dropped through the trees ahead of us. It could only be one thing. Just round the corner we found it again – a Tawny Owl. It perched up in a tree right above the car. And we weren’t even looking for owls today!

18th February 2015 – The Broads at their Best

A Private Tour to the Norfolk Broads today. We were blessed with a glorious, bright and sunny day and we made the most of it, enjoying the sights, and sounds, that the Broads has to offer.

We started with a drive through the area where the Cranes sometimes like to feed. For such large birds, they can be remarkably difficult to pick up, they seem to blend into the landscape at times. Today, we had no such difficulty – two tall, grey shapes appeared in a marshy field close to the road, actually very close to the road! A pair of Common Cranes. We pulled up quietly and sat in the car watching them. They were clearly aware of our presence, but seemingly unconcerned, walking back and forth, mostly with heads down, looking for food, picking at the ground. The slightly larger male occasionally raised his head to look around, checking on our presence, and the small spot of red on his crown caught the light. We had absolutely stunning views.

P1110770P1110779P1110781Common Cranes – this pair were feeding next to the road this morning

Our presence attracted the attention of another car and the Cranes started to work their way further back, clearly now a little more nervous of the increased activity. As they did so, they stopped a few times, heads raised, and broke into bouts of calling, the male starting and the female joining in. The bugling of Cranes is such an amazing sound – the video below shows them feeding and calling.

There were plenty of other things to see on our drive. We pulled up by a short-cropped grassy field which was alive with birds. A huge flock of Golden Plover, some feeding, others sleeping, was interspersed with lots of Lapwing, Fieldfares and Starlings. There are fewer geese along the coast now – a large number of the wintering Pinkfeet appear to have departed already in the last couple of weeks, on their way back north. However, we managed to find a small group of Pink-footed Geese feeding along the edge of a drainage ditch. We stopped to admire them, their pink legs and small pink-banded bills. As the heads were raised occasionally from the long grass, we could see some different birds amongst them, a few of the geese flashing a very bright white blaze around the base of the bill. A small group of White-fronted Geese were mixed in with them and we could even see the distinctive black belly bars of a couple of them.

IMG_2720White-fronted Geese – a few were mixed in with a small group of Pinkfeet

Our next stop was further inland. The herd of wintering wild swans has been rather more mobile in recent weeks, and it is getting to the time when they too may start to depart. We had a quick look at the fields where they have been in recent weeks, but there was no sign, so we headed down to the levels, another favoured area. A tightly packed line of large white shapes quickly revealed itself to be a group of about 35 Bewick’s Swans, the small yellow patch at the base of their bills catching the sun and their distinctive calls carrying to us on the breeze. A little further on, we found another little group of Bewick’s Swans. One in particular was right next to a Mute Swan giving us a great side-by-side comparison, the Bewick’s looking almost goose-like in comparison, much smaller and with a much shorter neck. Whether the flock was just scattered today, or whether some have left, we couldn’t tell. However, we couldn’t find any Whoopers amongst the swans we did manage to locate today.

There is a magical spot just a short drive away and on such a beautiful day, and with the time our own to do with as we pleased today, we decided to divert for a bit of local history. All that remains of St Benet’s Abbey are a few ruins, but it was once one of the richest abbeys in England and was unique in that it was the only abbey not closed down by Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The view from the high ground, amongst the ruins of the great church, looking to the levels all around, is particularly spectacular.

P1110810St Benet’s Abbey – the remains of the gatehouse and the levels beyond

From there, we headed over to the Yare Valley and a break for lunch. We had not even got out of the car at Strumpshaw Fen when we were greeted by a pair of Marsh Tits calling in the hedge in front of us. We stopped to admire one of them, feeding on something, possibly a seed grabbed from the feeders by the Reception Hide. It looked very smart, in buff and pale brown, with black cap and bright white cheeks. After lunch, we headed out onto the reserve for a quick look at Fen Hide. There were lots of visitors today, presumably with it being half term, and it was rather noisy. Consequently, there was not so much non-human activity on the reserve. A single Marsh Harrier quartered the reedbed, pursued by a crow. We didn’t linger too long.

P1110816Robin – enjoying the sunshine at Strumpshaw Fen

It is only a short hop from there to Buckenham Marshes. As usual this winter, there were few geese here, other than several large groups of Canada Geese and a few Greylags. A helicopter flying up the valley even managed to flush those. We saw it coming from some distance, as it put up all the geese from Cantley first – seemingly a nice little flock of Pink-footed Geese still there, though they circled round and appeared to drop down again the other side of the river. As a small group of the Canada Geese flew back later they held a much smaller goose amongst them. A single White-fronted Goose dropped down onto the grass with them, presumably it had been separated from the rest of its kind.

There were still plenty of ducks at Buckenham – still lots of Wigeon feeding on the grass, at least until they were spooked and made for the water in a scramble. Amongst them, we could pick out a pair of Shoveler and several Teal. There were flocks of Golden Plover and Lapwing out on the marshes, but another couple of waders flying in were a couple of Ruff, one a classic winter male and the other a strikingly white-headed bird. Unfortunately, the only Water Pipit we could find flew over our heads calling, and disappeared straight over the river, dropping down over the other side out of view before we could properly get everyone onto it. Otherwise, there were several Meadow Pipits out in the grass. A lone Great Crested Grebe on the river was looking particularly smart in its spring finery.

P1110822Wigeon – still good numbers at Buckenham today

Halvergate has been a favourite destination this winter, and we headed over there next for an afternoon coffee break. A quick scan as we got out of the car immediately revealed the resident (for the winter) Rough-legged Buzzard perched on one of its favourite posts. We had a good look at it through the scope, – we could see its blackish belly patch and just about even the feathered legs from which it gets its name – but it wasn’t doing much, only lazily flying from one post to the next. We really wanted to see it fly properly. Thankfully, after a short wait, just enough to whet the appetite, it obliged. It flew straight towards us and proceeded to hover several times, holding its position long enough to allow us to get great views of it through the scope, flashing its white tail base as it went. After showing off for a few minutes, it obviously figured it had given us what we were waiting for and went straight back to its post again!

IMG_2732Rough-legged Buzzard – on one of its usual posts

A little further along was another small group of 44 Bewick’s Swans. Several of these were really close to the road, so we stopped and got out to admire them. They were totally unconcerned with our presence and we were able to study them closely through the scope.

IMG_2762IMG_2749Bewick’s Swans – our second group of the day

A couple of Marsh Harriers were quartering the marshes and one smart male came alongside us as we stopped by the road. A pair of Kestrels perched in the hawthorns as we turned round in a gateway. A Chinese Water Deer was trying to hide in a ditch. However, it was possibly still too bright for the Short-eared Owls to come out and we faced a difficult choice – whether to hang on here for them or head back for the harrier roost. In the end, reluctantly, we chose the latter.

The sky was just starting to turn a delicate pink hue as we arrived at Stubb Mill. There were only a couple of Marsh Harriers already out over the reeds, with the others presumably taking advantage of the weather to stay out hunting for as long as possible. They started to drift in, in ones and twos, as we watched. Then a ringtail Hen Harrier appeared low over the marsh in front of us, flashing its white uppertail patch, as it swept past towards the roost. It was followed shortly after by a second ringtail Hen Harrier, this one quite a pale bird, possibly a young (2cy) male. As the light started to fade, the ghostly grey shape of a male Hen Harrier appeared, but unfortunately he was much more distant, trying to slip in through the trees unnoticed. A small shape perched up in one of the trees was surely a Merlin, but it was getting late by that stage.

P1110844The view from the Stubb Mill watchpoint

There were other things to see here as well, as well as the raptors. A pale shape out in the bushes turned out to be a Barn Owl on closer inspection. It sat for some time preening, before eventually setting off for an evening’s hunting. A Tawny Owl hooted from the trees behind us. As the dark descended, the Woodcock started to emerge. Flying fast, they swept out of the trees in ones and twos, swerving low round the bushes before dropping out towards the marshes.

Earlier, a couple of long necks had appeared above the reeds, their black and white faces revealing another pair of Cranes feeding out across the marshes. However, it was almost dark before the other Cranes flew in to roost, some distant bugling alerting us to their setting off – perhaps they were also taking advantage of the lovely bright evening to feed as long as possible. A line of about 20 shapes appeared through the gloom, but most of them appeared to drop down before they got to us, only 5 of them flew on and across past the trees in front. We had been rather spoilt by our views of the Cranes this morning, but as we walked back to the car with the last of the sun’s orange glow on the horizon, we were serenaded by the sound of bugling from across the landscape. An unforgettable end to a glorious day in the Broads.

14th February 2015 – A Parliament of Owls

The last of the regular Owl Tours today. We have enjoyed some great views of Short-eared, Barn, Little and even Tawny Owls in recent weeks. (There is one more date in the diary if anyone still wants to join us – we have had a request for a tour on Monday 9th March to see if we can still see some owls. Please contact us with any interest.)

The morning started cold and damp, with some rather nasty misty drizzle in places. Not the best start for owls, but we were hoping it would brighten up (and it did just enough!). We started off on our usual meander inland behind the coast looking for Little Owls.

P1110699Brent Geese – flying inland to feed early in the morning

At our first stop, it didn’t look promising, as there was no sign as we pulled up of any of the usual Little Owls – they were obviously not enjoying in the cold either. We spent some time admiring the group of feeding Curlew in the nearby stubble field and several Brown Hares running around (but not boxing today). A big flock of about 600 Brent Geese came up from the direction of the coast and flew overhead cackling noisily, heading to the winter wheat fields inland to feed. Just when it appeared as if the Little Owls would not appear today, a little ball of fluff appeared tucked down in the lee of the roof. Unfortunately, it was quite close to us and nervous and dropped down again too quickly to get everyone onto it. Still, at least it was a start.

We moved on, stopping to admire a group of House Sparrows in a hedge. In amongst them were a couple of slightly smaller birds, with uniform chestnut caps and paler white cheeks, with a black spot in the middle – two Tree Sparrows. This species has been declining at an alarming rate, so it is always good to see some clinging on here. Amongst the group there was also a rather House Sparrow-like bird with a distinct but poorly marked black spot on its cheek, presumably a House x Tree Sparrow hybrid. As this little group of Tree Sparrows has declined, perhaps the lack of available partners has increased the risk of hybridisation?

As we continued westwards, a large flock of thrushes flew up from a stubble field into the hedge. We stopped and watched them as they flew back out to feed – mostly Fieldfares but amongst them also a few Redwings. These winter visitors presumably waiting for milder weather to begin the journey back to Scandinavia. Also in the field, a flock of smaller Linnets whirled round several times but disappeared every time they landed.

One of our favourite morning stops in recent weeks has been to scan some inland wet grazing meadows. A Red Kite was perched in one of its regular trees and circled off lazily as we got out of the car. Lots of Fieldfares were out on the grass and we got great views of these ones through the scope – amongst them was a single Mistle Thrush. We also got a better look at a flock of Linnets, but there was no sound of the Little Owls here today.

P1110701Little Owl – perched up in one of its favourite places again

It was still not especially warm, though at least the drizzle had stopped. We checked out another couple of Little Owl sites and, just as we were about to give up hope, we found one. It was perched up in one of its favourite places, sheltered but facing the sun (or where the sun should be!). We had a good look at it from the car, with it looking round furtively all the time,  then parked behind the hedge a little further up and got out quietly. This is normally a very quiet spot, but just at that moment the local postman arrived to empty the postbox – what were the chances of coinciding with that today! The Little Owl took one look at all the activity and dropped quietly into the barn. Still, we had all fortunately got a good look at it before it did so.

From there, we headed up to the coast for the middle hours of the day. There were surprisingly few Pink-footed Geese at Holkham today, none on the fields at Lady Anne’s Drive and just a small group heading high west on the beach side of the pines. It is that time of the year when the geese are starting to head north again, and perhaps spring is on its way. Still, there was a nice selection of waders, including Snipe, Redshank, Black-tailed Godwit and Curlew, on the wet grazing meadows. There were also plenty of ducks – lots of Wigeon, Teal, the odd Shoveler, and amongst them a smart group of Pintail by one of the pools.

P1110707Eurasian Teal – a particularly smart drake at Holkham

As usual, there were also several raptors over the marshes. Plenty of Marsh Harriers, a few Common Buzzards and a Red Kite drifting towards the park. Salts Hole held its usual Little Grebes and two female Goldeneye, all diving constantly. A quick look at the sea produced a large raft of Common Scoter, though we didn’t have time to go out for a closer look through them today.

P1110710Goldeneye – two females were on Salts Hole today

One of the highlights of the walk at Holkham at this time of year is always spending time looking at the tit flocks. Today was no exception, and we found several groups of tits – Long-tailed, Coal, Great and Blue Tits – together with their regular hangers-on, Goldcrests and Treecreepers. The latter in particular are always a delight. Some of the birds were coming down to bathe in the puddles along the track again. While we were watching one of these groups, a slightly shriller call alerted us to the presence of something different amongst the flock. Careful scanning of the trees eventually revealed its owner – a stunning, stripy-headed Firecrest. It flicked around in front of us in an ivy-clad pine for a while, before chasing off through the trees with the rest of the flock.

Early afternoon is the time we head over to Burnham Overy. On the way, a quick stop produced an early Barn Owl out quartering the grass. We left behind the crowds standing by the road, and headed out across the marshes. We finally managed to get some better views of geese here – there were several Pink-footed Geese still present, though again not in the bigger numbers we have seen recently, and some lovely gaggles of Brent Geese. The tide was out and the saltmarsh mud held a good variety of waders – lots of Dunlin, several smart Grey Plover, Oystercatchers, Black-tailed Godwits, Redshank and Curlew.

P1110713Brent Geese – a noisy gaggle on the grazing marshes

One or two Rough-legged Buzzards have been resident here for the winter, and we saw both today. In the afternoons, they frequently sit around on the fence posts or on the ground, but today they were more active. We picked up the first, flying away from us distantly and perched on a tall mound. As we walked out along the seawall, the second was out in the grass, but showing much better, closer to the bank. We watched it hopping around and flashing its white tail base. The first Rough-legged Buzzard then flew over the grazing marshes and up into the dunes, pausing for a distinctive bought of hovering for a while on its way there. Over the next hour or so, we had great views of the two birds flying round and sitting on the favoured fence posts!

IMG_2679IMG_2681Rough-legged Buzzard – out on the grass and flashing its white tail base

There has been some flashes of sunshine on the way out – it had been forecast to brighten up in the afternoon – but as we got out onto the seawall we could see some thick mist blowing in off the sea and round the end of the pines. Cold and damp, it felt like it might be curtains for any chance of seeing more owls. However, a brief brighter interlude stimulated a Short-eared Owl to start hunting. It was a bit more distant than we have become used to seeing them (we have been rather spoilt in recent weeks), but we could watch its distinctive stiff wingbeats, and flashing white underwings, as it quartered back and forth. Then another wave of mist rolled in and it disappeared into the grass again.

IMG_2688Kestrel – hunting from a post, and attracting some (un)wanted attention!

There were plenty of raptors to see here as usual. The highlight during a sunnier period was a little kettle of five Marsh Harriers and a single Common Buzzard circling overhead. Two of the Marsh Harriers peeled off, calling and even gave us a brief bout of display. A Sparrowhawk perched up on a fence and a Kestrel hunted from a post by the path.

We had almost given up on the owls, and were biding some time taking photographs of the Kestrel, when suddenly a second Short-eared Owl appeared from nowhere right by us and swooped down and started to mob the very Kestrel we were watching. That was much more like it! We watched this one hunting over the grazing marshes, much closer than the first. It was not as active as the Short-eared Owls usually are, perhaps given the cold and damp, and it dropped down into the grass back behind us. We walked back along the seawall and found it still there and had stunning scope views of it, looking round all the time, vivid yellow irises staring at us, and its short ‘ear’ tufts fluttering up at times. Such a smart bird.

IMG_2710IMG_2704Short-eared Owl – more stunning views eventually today

In the end we had to tear ourselves away from it. The mist had probably put off the Barn Owls as well – most of us did not see any of the usual birds hunting here, though one member of the party who had struggled with the cold and damp and had walked back earlier did have great views of one from the path, while it was a bit brighter. Still, it felt a worthwhile trade off, given the views of Short-eared Owls we had enjoyed out on the seawall.

With the light fading, we drove inland to one of our favoured spots for Tawny Owls. It was dusk by the time we got there, and they were already hooting even as we got out of the car. We positioned ourselves at one of the best viewing spots and waited. There was lots of vocal activity around us, and not just the cacophony of the local Pheasants heading in to roost! We could hear at least four Tawny Owls either side of us, a mixture of hooting and the sharper ‘kewick’ contact calls (the combination of which is thought to have given rise to the familiar twit-twoo refrain). A real owl experience!

While we were enjoying the noise, yet another Tawny Owl started hooting just behind us and  a large shape suddenly appeared through the tops of the trees and came right overhead. It landed directly in front of us, perched up in the bare branches against the sky, and we even got it in the scope! It then dropped back into the trees, resuming its hooting as it flew, before reappearing a few moments later and flying back right overhead and back whence it came. What a cracking way to end.

13th February 2015 – Beardies

It is always great to see Bearded Tits. All too often they are only heard calling or glimpsed briefly flying across the tops of the reeds before diving into cover. This little group has been feeding out in the open at times recently, attracting lots of admirers.

Bearded Tits are very patchily distributed in the UK, with only about 700 breeding pairs, and their stronghold is in East Anglia. We are fortunate to see them on many of our tours – though not always quite as well as this!

P1110688P1110689Bearded Tit – a male, with its distinctive moustache (not really a beard!)

P1110674P1110673Bearded Tit – another male, these birds have been feeding on the ground

P1110660Bearded Tit – a female this time, paler with brown head & no moustache

P1110629Bearded Tit – a different female, with black streaks on crown & mantle

You can see a video clip below of the birds feeding on the ground:

8th February 2015 – A Great Day for Owls

Day 3 of a long weekend of tours today, the last day, and the Owl Tour. For once, the weather was, as Goldilocks might have said it, just right. Hazy cloud to start, long periods of winter sunshine, crisp but cold, and just the right amount of wind. Perfect.

We headed for one of our favoured Little Owl haunts first. There is often a rather nervous bird perched up close to the road here, but there was no sign initially today, despite our very cautious approach. What we did have was a Barn Owl.  It flew across the road as we drove up and seemed to drop down in the long grass. We pulled up where it had appeared to land and there it was, wings outspread, down on the ground, just a few metres away. Stunning. It tried to take off, but was clearly clinging onto something, and the grass with it! Eventually, it worked its way free and flew off into the trees carrying a vole.

P1110531Barn Owl – hunting for voles in the early morning sunlight

As we stood looking for the Little Owls, the Barn Owl appeared again, hunting in and out of the trees. At one point, it perched up on the edge of the plantation and we got great views of it through the scope. There were other things to look at as well – a flock of Fieldfares, a couple of Brown Hares running around in the stubble (and even mating!), and a rather nice number of Skylarks singing. Eventually, we found the Little Owls as well, but they were tucked up under the lip of the roof, and rather distant. A good start to the day, with three owls already, but it felt like we might be able to do better.

IMG_2617Barn Owl – perched in the trees

We continued to meander our way westwards. We pulled up by some farm buildings and on the roof was another a Little Owl – close this time, rather too close. It looked at us, bobbing its head nervously, before turning and dropping inside. We just had enough time to get a look at it before it did so. Still, it was much better than our views of the first two.

Further west again, and we stopped by some grazing meadows. A big oak tree in the middle was full of shapes – lots of slightly smaller, black ones were Jackdaws, but there were also a couple of much larger ones. A closer look showed that they were two Red Kites sat up in the sunshine. We had a good look at them in the binoculars, but as we parked up and got out of the car they took off and circled away.

P1110534Red Kites – stunning birds in the morning sun

The more we looked, the more we saw. There were lots of Fieldfares out on the grass  – really smart birds viewed up close – but when a small group flew up into the trees, we picked up a single Redwing as well, showing off its pale eyebrow. A Mistle Thrush appeared in the top of the oak tree where the kites had been earlier. A pair of Grey Partridge fed along the edge by the overgrown hedgerow. A Little Egret flew past along the stream. A male Kestrel was on one side and two other birds were fighting on the other – presumably the female of the pair, possibly trying to see off one of last year’s youngsters. It was starting to warm up and several Common Buzzards started to circle over the woods nearby. And we could hear Little Owls calling, though unfortunately, try as we might, we couldn’t find where they were hiding.

We drove on again, to another block of old, decaying red-brick barns. One side of them was perfectly oriented to catch the warming rays of the sun. It was very easy to miss the small, pale shape tucked up under the tiled roof, it looked so much like the ends of the rafters jutting out further along, but it was not. A lovely Little Owl was basking in the sun. It, too, was rather nervous. It looked at us for a while, as we looked at it, then it turned and dropped down inside the barns.

P1110536Little Owl – the perfect spot to catch the warmth of the sun!

With the morning drawing on, we headed down to the coast. As we parked at Holkham, the Wigeon were already in the air, hundreds and hundreds of them whirling round. The Lapwings also took to the air, and even the Pink-footed Geese. There were several Marsh Harriers quartering the marshes, but surely those wouldn’t cause quite that commotion? As we scanned, the culprit appeared amongst them – a Peregrine. It made several passes, circling up before zooming through the throng each time, but it seemed disinterested in having a go at any of the ducks and eventually seemed to get bored and drift off west.

P1110550Pink-footed Geese – a Peregrine put everything up as it scythed through

We decided to walk west by the pines. It didn’t take long before we came across a tit flock – lots of Long-tailed Tits, Coal Tits, Blue Tits and Great Tits, plus Goldcrests and some lovely Treecreepers, hanging upside down as they fed out along the branches or walking up the trunks. They were moving fast through the trees, feeding as they went, but several stopped long enough to drop down into the puddles to bathe before chasing off to catch up again.

P1110539Blue Tit – stopped off from feeding with the tit flock to bathe

Salts Hole held lots of Wigeon, most asleep on the edge of the reeds, and the usual little scattering of Little Grebes diving out on the water. Amongst them, two single Goldeneye were also diving, barely staying up long enough for us to get focused on them. Out at Washington Hide, we stopped to look at several thousand Pink-footed Geese sleeping out on the grazing meadows and a couple of Marsh Harriers drifting lazily over the fields.

P1110541Pink-footed Geese – several thousand sleeping out on the grazing marshes

We headed back to the car for lunch. Pausing to admire the Redshanks on the wet pools by Lady Anne’s Drive, their reddy-orange legs glowing in the sun. A large flock of Fieldfares dropped down amongst them briefly.

P1110545Redshank – check out those legs!

From there, we headed west again and stopped to scan the grazing marshes from the edge of the road. It was not hard to pick out the White-fronted Geese, their white blazes catching the light. Several were bathing on one of the pools, but more were feeding out amongst the tussocky grass, at least 70 in total. There were lots of geese and ducks out on the pools. A couple of Red Kites were loafing around in the trees in front of us and an almost-white Common Buzzard was perched on a nearby bush.

IMG_2623White-fronted Goose – at least 70 still present today

Next stop was Burnham Overy. We walked out across the grazing marshes towards the seawall, stopping to watch a smart Barn Owl out early, our second of the day. From up on the seawall, we could already see two Short-eared Owls hunting over the grass. They quartered back and forth for some time. Suddenly one of them seemed to take offense to one of the local Kestrels, and took a swoop at it. The Kestrel circled up higher into the air, with the Short-eared Owl climbing after it. The second Short-eared Owl even joined in for a second, before losing interest and dropping back down to the marshes. Higher and higher they went, the Short-eared Owl taking the occasional swipe at the Kestrel. Eventually, they seemed to get fed up and soared off in opposite directions.

The owls disappeared for a few minutes after that, before eventually turning up again, as they were previously, quartering over the grass, as if nothing had happened. One landed out on the marsh and we got great views of it through the scope, its yellow irises glowing in the afternoon sun and its short ‘ears’ fluttering. You can never tire of watching Short-eared Owls!

IMG_2628IMG_2639Short-eared Owl – two birds were out on the marshes in the sun today

Having enjoyed the spectacle of the owls – and even picked up yet another Barn Owl hunting distantly – there was still one target we were missing. The Rough-legged Buzzard at Burnham Overy has been almost ever-present for the last few months, but there was no immediate sign of it either on one of its favoured posts or out on the open grass this afternoon. Just when we were thinking that we might be out of luck, someone picked it up briefly just taking to the air, before landing back in the dense grass and rushes out below the dunes. We could just see a pale head, contrasting with a grey-brown back. Then it took flight again and landed on a post – normal service resumed! We saw its black-banded white tail as it flew and the big black belly patch contrasting with the pale head when it landed again.

IMG_2656Rough-legged Buzzard – eventually reappeared on one of its favoured posts

With the key target birds in the bag, and more besides, we headed back to the car well satisfied. However, there was still time for one more stop. Heading back east and inland, we stopped at a patch of woodland as the sun dropped down and the light started to fade. It wasn’t long before a Tawny Owl started hooting. Then a Barn Owl appeared through the trees and turned to hunt along the verge next to the road, our fourth for the day but a more typical experience as it ghosted along in the dusk. Then more Tawny Owls started up, at least three males hooting. One of them seemed to be close by, so we walked back towards the car. It flew across through the trees and landed amongst the bare branches, though it was hard to see in the gathering gloom. As we walked back, it flew off and disappeared into the woods.

Not a bad owl day in the end – two Short-eared, 4 Barn, 4+ Little and several Tawny Owls the final tally.

7th February 2015 – Chasing Cranes & More

Day 2 of a long weekend of tours today and it was off down to the Broads.

We started out looking for the herd of wild swans which has been wintering in the Ludham area. The swans have not been out on the old airfield so much recently, so we made for the levels first. On the way, we could see a small group of what from a distance looked like Whooper Swans out on the fields, but decided we would look for the large mixed group. However, they were not where they should have been! We headed back and had a good look at the 20 Whooper Swans. They were in a ploughed former beet field, where the larger herd had been feeding a few weeks ago, but looked nervous and there was obviously little food left there for them. While we were watching, they flew off towards the levels, calling loudly.

P1110504Whooper Swans – 20 looking lost in a ploughed field

P1110507Whooper Swans – then flew off towards the levels

What we really wanted to see was Whooper and Bewick’s Swans together. The fact that the Whoopers had flown off towards the river, and not to another field, suggested that the big herd was not out on the old airfield. So we headed out through the village to the west to an area which the swans sometimes use. Not far beyond Ludham, we came across a ploughed field with a very large white mass in the middle, visible from some distance. We found a convenient place to stop the car and got the scopes out. The vast majority of the herd, some 200+, were Bewick’s Swans and amongst them were just a handful of Whoopers. It was great to see them alongside each other.

IMG_2587Bewick’s Swans – 200+ were in the fields west of Ludham

IMG_2588Whooper Swans – a few were amongst the Bewick’s

P1110508Bewick’s Swans – in flight, check out the shorter necks than the Whoopers

With great views of the swans in the bag, we headed over to the coast. There was an enormous flock of Pink-footed Geese, which we could see in the air as we drove, but the birds were feeding out of view from the road. The fields held large numbers of Golden Plover and Lapwing. Several Fieldfare were feeding out on the grass. A couple of Common Buzzards were standing on the telegraph poles and a number of Marsh Harriers were hunting either side of the road.

The fields in the Horsey area often hold small numbers of Common Cranes during the day, but we struggled to find them today. We picked up one Crane, but it was distant and no sooner had we turned the scopes onto it than it took off, flew a few yards and dropped down into a cover strip of tall maize. We decided on a change of plan and headed to another favoured area. We stopped the car by the road and a quick scan immediately produced two Cranes out across the fields. Finally – success. We watched them walking back and forth, feeding.

IMG_2593Common Cranes – two were feeding in the fields today

Our next stop was at Strumpshaw Fen. The feeders by the visitor centre held lots of birds – Long-tailed Tits, Coal Tits and Marsh Tits. The pool in front of Reception Hide held no more than Coot, Mallard and Gadwall. We walked out to Fen Hide – a Cetti’s Warbler was calling from deep in the scrub and a pair of Marsh Harriers was flying over the reeds. The highlight was a Chinese Water Deer, the first of many today, which emerged into one of the cut areas. However, we couldn’t find anything more interesting. The river bank was very muddy, so we headed back to the car for lunch.

P1110512Chinese Water Deer – in the cut reeds at Strumpshaw Fen

The Taiga Bean Geese which winter in the Yare Valley have been very hard to see this winter – they seem to have spent most of their stay somewhere else. However, two were reported again yesterday from Buckenham, so we though it was worth a quick look. Unfortunately, once again, they were nowhere to be found – in fact, Buckenham was all but devoid of geese (except for a few feral Greylag and a white ‘farmyard’ goose). However, there were more Wigeon out on the grazing marshes today, though still not as many as in previous years.

P1110516Wigeon – there were more on the marshes today

We didn’t stay and drove over to Halvergate. As we pulled off the road, before we had even stopped, we picked up a large bird with a big dark belly patch on a post nearby – the Rough-legged Buzzard. Unfortunately it took to the air just as we pulled up, but we had a fantastic view of it as it flew past close by. It spent a few minutes hovering over the grazing marshes, flashing its dark-banded white tail, before crossing the road and flying to one of its favourite posts. We got great another good look at it through the scope as it sat there.

IMG_2605P1110520Rough-legged Buzzard – on a post and hovering over the marshes

There are always lots of raptors at Halvergate – we picked up a female Sparrowhawk sitting low on a gate, a couple of Marsh Harriers over the reeds, including an interesting very dark juvenile with just a small white spot on the back of its nape, and a Peregrine (a lovely petite adult male!) on a gatepost. A small flock of Dunlin and lots of Lapwings were feeding around the pools in front of us. Two other waders appeared out of the wet grass behind us, calling. One was a grunting Snipe, the other was more of a surprise – the distinctive high-pitched call of a Green Sandpiper. Small numbers do spend the winter in Norfolk, often inland in farm ditches, though more head further south.  This one circled overhead calling, before flying off towards the main road.

A little further along the road, a lot of white shapes out on the marshes were a mixture of Mute Swans and another group of about 40 Bewick’s Swans – interesting to see the size difference between those two. A little group of thrushes on a hawthorn bush consisted of a mixture of Fieldfare and several Redwing. With the cloud thickening and a little drizzle starting to fall, we decided to move on. We headed for our last destination of the day. On the way, another 3 Common Cranes flew up from the fields and across the road just behind us.

P1110527Stubb Mill – the view over the marshes from the watchpoint

We arrived at Stubb Mill just after 3.30pm. It was cold and slightly damp initially, but gradually the weather improved a little. The Marsh Harriers started to drift in to the reedbed from all angles, sitting around low down in the bushes. At one point we had almost 20 circling in the air together, and still more arrived thereafter. By the end, there were at least 30 in total went into the roost, and probably many more. Then a ringtail Hen Harrier appeared, flying low across in front of us, through the bushes out over the reeds at the back, a smaller and slimmer beast altogether, flashing its white uppertail coverts. Then a second ringtail Hen Harrier flew in, closer than the first. Finally a ghostly grey male drifted in, low above the reeds, appearing and disappearing between the bushes. We watched it for some time as it circled its way through the trees. Always a majestic sight.

There are normally a couple of Common Cranes feeding out on the grass but they were nowhere to be seen at first today. Suddenly, they appeared and flew across in front of the watchpoint – a great sight. They landed on the grass out amongst the bushes and walked in to feed. As some cars drove down the road, they stretched their necks in alarm and then took off, flying off towards the reserve. A short while later, they appeared again, walking back to where they had previously been. There were other things to see here as well. A Sparrowhawk flashed across in front of us. A Kingfisher called from the depths of the ditch and flew over towards the mill. A Tawny Owl started hooting. A couple of Woodcock flew past in the gathering gloom.

That might have been the end of it, but the Cranes often leave the best ’til last. We had heard some bugling, which sounded like it was coming from birds already on the reserve. Then we heard some more bugling from somewhere to the north. Finally, as it was just getting dark, the calling picked up in intensity as they took flight. They were hard to see at first, then a long line, several small groups of these giant birds flew out of the dark. Twenty Cranes flew across in front of us, and another five flew into the glorious sunset behind us and out onto the reserve. What a great way to end the day.

6th February 2015 – Brrrr Brecks

Day 1 of a long weekend of tours today, and down to the Brecks. Thankfully, the weather forecast was right for once and there was no snow – just a bright and mostly clear day, though a little on the cold side.

We started at Santon Downham. A Greenfinch was singing in the car park and a couple of Chaffinches were doing the same over by the river. There were also several Bramblings in the trees around the houses, including a couple of males starting to get their black heads, though still with plenty of brown fringes to the feathers showing. A Song Thrush was singing in the bushes by the bridge. Hopefully, all this vocal activity is a sign that spring is on its way!

Along the river bank, the ground and the ditches were still frozen. A Water Rail scuttled across the path ahead of us and another flew across to the near bank – presumably encouraged out by the icy conditions. We saw several more as we walked further along by the river this morning – about five in total.

P1110467Water Rail – we saw several along the river bank this morning

A Kingfisher flashed along the river and perched up ahead of us briefly. It stayed one step ahead of us all the way along – and back – and we eventually got good views of it perched up in the trees by the bank. There were lots of other things to see as well – Nuthatches calling, a pair of Marsh Tits feeding in the alders, loads of Siskin zooming about overhead. Four small ducks flew up from the river bank and circled round – Teal. Then another two ducks flew overhead and turned to drop down into the damp scrub – but these were Mandarins!

The sun was doing its best to try to warm up the air, but with a cold north-easterly straight from Russia it was fighting a losing battle. Despite the birds singing, the woodpeckers were slow to get started. We had heard a couple of Great Spotted Woodpeckers calling as we walked out, but it was not until mid-morning that we heard any drumming. Even then it was a bit half-hearted. A Green Woodpecker was calling from across the river as well. But that was it and unfortunately we had an appointment elsewhere.

We drove to another part of Thetford Forest and positioned ourselves for the vigil. No sooner had we got ourselves ready than a hawk flew up from the trees ahead of us and started to circle up. Unfortunately, it was too small, and flew with rapid wingbeats, despite its best efforts to look more interesting in the sunlight. A Sparrowhawk. There were several Common Buzzards around, but they were not up too much – perhaps it was just a bit too cold. They would circle up for a short while, before dropping back into the trees. A couple landed in the pines in front of us and sat there looking like they had had enough already. A Kestrel circled overhead, several Skylarks were singing and a flock of Fieldfare flew over heading north.

IMG_2509Common Buzzard – spent some time sitting around in the pines

Just as we started to think we might be out of luck, all the pigeons erupted from the trees, scattering in all directions. One of the Common Buzzards was flying round with them, but surely that wouldn’t spook them in such a fashion? Then another bird appeared. It was big – almost the same size as the Buzzard; it was powerful, with deep wingbeats; it was steely grey above and very white below; it was the prize we were waiting for – a Goshawk. It circled for a while, in the same view as the Common Buzzard – a great opportunity to see them side-by-side, as it is always hard to judge the size of a lone bird in the sky. We watched in awe. Then it turned and with a couple of deep downbeats of its wings it powered down into the trees. Wow!

P1110473Hockwold Washes

With that one in the bag, we decided to head for Lakenheath Fen for lunch. We didn’t have enough time to explore the whole reserve today, but we had really come to have a look at Hockwold Washes (and use the facilities!). Lots of Reed Buntings were around the feeders at the visitor centre. A couple of Stonechats were in the reeds by the river. From the river bank, we could see lots of Mute Swans and gulls on the water (Black-headed, Common and Lesser Black-backed Gulls), a few ducks including Shoveler, Gadwall, Teal and a couple of Wigeon; a Marsh Harrier flew over; and a Redshank and a Little Egret fed on the margins.

Then, along the other riverbank to the east, we picked up an altogether bigger egret. A Great White Egret or two have been here for the last few weeks and this was just what we had come to see. At one point a Little Egret flew down and landed just along from it – and was completely dwarfed by it. The Great White Egret stood and preened for a while and stretched its neck up – such a long neck! We could see its long yellow bill as well. Then, while we were scanning the other way, it flew past us (having been flushed by a dog walker on the other bank), and landed just along to the west. We could see its long legs and dark feet as it flew.

IMG_2522Great White Egret – check out the very long neck and long yellow bill

We headed round to Lynford Arboretum next. There was a large posse of photographers clustered round the gate talking loudly. It appeared that a couple of Hawfinches had been feeding there earlier but they were there no longer. Not to worry – we set off for a walk round. Unfortunately, the birds are not seen in the paddocks as often as they used to be these days. It was quite windy in the open, but as we were walking back towards the arboretum, we picked up a shape sitting in the top of a fir tree, being blown around. A quick look through the bins confirmed our suspicions – a Hawfinch. We got it in the scopes, but rather than drop down out of the wind, it sat there for ages, turning round to show us its better side. A cracking bird.

IMG_2580IMG_2578Hawfinch – a female, sat in the top of a tall fir tree in the wind

Having watched that for a while, we left it where it was and walked on to explore the arboretum. A Grey Wagtail was by the lake in the trees. There were also lots of Siskin in the alders, singing and calling, a constant chatter, and we finally got a better look at one.

IMG_2581Siskin – lots were feeding in the alders at Lynford again

The bridges are often adorned with birdseed and other treats, and today the restaurant was open and the diners were flocking in – a couple of Marsh Tits, plus Coal Tits, Blue Tits, Great Tits, Nuthatches, Chaffinches and more! A couple of Treecreepers fed in the trees overhead – at one point right above our heads.

P1110477Marsh Tit – taking advantage of the food put out

P1110481Treecreeper – feeding in the tree right above us

We were about to leave when someone spotted a flash of blue across the lake and a Kingfisher perched up in the trees close by. We were just admiring it in the scope, when it took off and flew straight towards us. It almost landed in the tree right next to us, veering away, but still landing close by. It looked absolutely stunning in the late afternoon sun.

P1110483P1110490Kingfisher – fishing in the lake

With the sun sinking in the sky and the temperature starting to drop, we still had enough time for one more treat. We walked over to have a look at the lakes. The first was fairly quiet, just a little flock of Tufted Duck out on the water and a few Gadwall in the reeds. The other one looked empty as well, at first, but a white shape over by the trees caught out eye. A beautiful drake Goosander, with a redhead female swimming nearby. A great way to end the day.