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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!