Monthly Archives: July 2015

26th July 2015 – Inland & Outland

Day 3 of a long weekend of tours today. The plan was to spend the morning inland, looking for raptors and farmland birds, and then drop down to the coast in the afternoon. We wanted to make the most of the dry weather in the morning, and then take advantage of shelter provided by the hides at Titchwell later on as the forecast rain arrived.

We began with a drive inland from the coast. It was already a bit cool and cloudy this morning, and raptor activity was a little subdued as a consequence. The highlight of the journey today was a family party of Grey Partridge in the road in front of us. One of the adults was shepherding a large group of juveniles – at least 14! – along the tarmac. They seemed unsure which way to go as we approached, and the youngsters scattered into the verges on either side. Finally the other adult appeared from the long grass, and between the two of them the grown-ups shepherded their flock into the safety of the hedge.

Once again, we stopped by one of our favourite tracks and set off to explore. A male Yellowhammer was singing from the hedge beside the path as we set off, a real sound of farmland. The family of Whitethroats were calling, but remained mostly tucked down in the shelter of the hedge. A family of Blue Tits flew along the hedge ahead of us.

There were fewer butterflies along the overgrown verge than in recent weeks, probably due to the recent cold and wet weather. However, we still saw several Ringlets and Meadow Browns amongst the grass. The hogweed flowers were still alive with Soldier Beetles and a Bloody-nosed Beetle plodded slowly across the path. A rather large Common Toad was hiding in one of the damp wheel ruts.

P1060676Ringlet – still several out today, despite the cool conditions

As we rounded a corner of the path, into an area where the hedges are thick and tall on either side, we could hear the delicate piping contact call of Bullfinches. Generally secretive, they can be very hard to see at this time of year, but a female Bullfinch perched up briefly in the tops of some dead trees ahead of us. There were lots of other finches in this overgrown section of the path as well. Several Chaffinches flew up from the path and more scattered from the brambles as we walked along. We could Goldfinches and Linnets calling from the tops of the hedges as well.

We stopped on the higher ground where we had a good view of the surrounding countryside. At first it was rather quiet. A Brown Hare appeared in the stubble and ran across in front of us. When it stopped, a second pair of ears appeared next to it. The two Hares fed for a while, before they set off on a chase, the female in front dinking from side to side with the male following – more like Mad July Hares! There was no boxing today and eventually the female Hare stopped and allowed the male to mate with her – Brown Hares have a very long breeding season.

IMG_7462Brown Hares – feeding in the stubble before the chase

There was a good selection of raptors today, but it was a little slower than in warmer weather. Eventually a couple of Buzzards circled up in the distance but did not get very high. A mewing call behind us alerted us to one behind us, but it just skimmed the treetops and dropped back down. A Kestrel or two flew round over the stubble. Later, on the way back by the car, one of the Kestrels hovered over the path ahead of us. In the meadow nearby, a couple of recently fledged juvenile Kestrels were sitting on the wires.

While we were scanning for raptors, a large mixed flock of Rooks and Jackdaws had flown in and dropped down to feed in the stubble. Back at the paddocks, there were several more Rooks feeding close to the road. As the breeding season comes to a close, they seem to be wandering more widely again now.

P1060696Rook – several were feeding in the paddocks today

From there, we headed up towards the coast via Choseley. A little detour round the back lanes and two Corn Buntings flew out of the hedge in their usual place as we approached. However, rather than coming back out onto the hedge today, they landed out in the barley. There were a couple of Yellowhammers on the wires round by the drying barns, as well as several Chaffinches. While we were scanning the fields, we could hear another Corn Bunting singing further off.

P1060711Yellowhammer – a couple were obliging, on the wires at Choseley

Otherwise, it was fairly quiet around the barns. A Collared Dove flew in and landed on the wires. The next thing we knew, more had appeared and eventually there were six together, but no sign of any Turtle Doves. A Stock Dove perched on the top of a telegraph post, singing. Looking to the south west, we could see dark grey clouds approaching, so we headed down to Titchwell for an early lunch. Thankfully the worst of the clouds passed overhead while we were eating – it started spitting with rain, but it was not too bad.

P1060710Choseley – dark grey clouds arriving from the south west

After lunch, we walked out across the reserve. We stopped briefly by the reedbed pool to scan through the ducks. There were three Red-crested Pochard out on the water, an eclipse male with coral red bill and two darker billed females. There were also a couple of Common Pochard, plus a selection of dabbling ducks – Gadwall, Teal, Shoveler. However, with light rain still falling, we made a beeline for the shelter of Island Hide.

The water level on the freshmarsh was up considerably on recent weeks – not a great surprise after the deluge the last couple of days. However, there was still an amazing number of Avocet present. A quick count suggested about 400 birds! An impressive sight.

P1060791Avocet – still around 400 present at Titchwell

A little group of Black-tailed Godwits was feeding right in front of the hide, a mixture of bright rusty orange moulting adults and greyer 1st summer birds. Further out, a larger group of godwits roosting on the edge of the islands proved to be Bar-tailed Godwits, presumably sleeping here over the high tide. One or two Black-tailed Godwits amongst them provided the opportunity to compare the two species side by side.

P1060942Black-tailed Godwit – still several on the freshmarsh and Volunteer Marsh

There were also still a good number of Ruff around the freshmarsh. Several of the males were now well advanced in the moult to non-breeding plumage, but others were still splashed with various more extensive patches of black or chestnut, the remnants of breeding plumage.

P1060933Ruff – a male in the middle of moulting out of breeding plumage

While we were watching a couple of Ruff on the mud next to the hide, a small long-tailed shape appeared amongst the bases of the reeds behind them. A juvenile Bearded Tit, we got it in the scope and got a great view of it feeding around the mud.

There were not so many smaller waders today, with less exposed mud on which to feed. A single Dunlin flew in and landed on the mud near the hide briefly. Its streaky belly revealed it to be a juvenile, lacking the defined black belly patch of the adults at this time of year. Later, from out at the Parrinder Hide, a few more Dunlin appeared out in the open when all the waders were spooked, but only about 5-6 in total today. A single Common Sandpiper appeared briefly, working its way round the shore of one of the islands towards the back of the freshmarsh.

IMG_7562Little Gull – still two 1st summer birds on the freshmarsh

There were plenty of gulls loafing about on the islands today, lots of Black-headed Gulls, Herring Gulls and a couple of Lesser Black-backed Gulls. Hiding in amongst the vegetation on one of the islands, two Little Gulls were preening, both 1st summer birds, though now gradually moulting into their 2nd winter plumage. There were also several Common Terns as usual, flying around noisily or standing on the islands, and a single Sandwich Tern resting with the gulls.

IMG_7516Common Tern – checking the water level on the freshmarsh

Two larger white shapes amongst the waders were a couple of Spoonbills. As usual, they were hard at work on their favourite activity – sleeping. They barely woke while we were there! Round at Parrinder Hide, three more Spoonbills came in from the direction of Brancaster. They drifted over the freshmarsh but didn’t land, heading off in the direction of the saltmarsh at Thornham.

IMG_7470Spoonbills – these two remained pretty much constantly asleep

The rain was never particular hard, but for a while it pretty much stopped, so we took the opportunity to walk round to Parrinder Hide. On the way, we found a very obliging Spotted Redshank, feeding around the vegetation in the water just beside the main path. It was a moulting adult, and had already lost much of its blacker summer feathers. Up close, we could see the remaining ones amongst the silvery grey winter upperpart feathers and white underparts. We noted the long, needle-fine bill with a slight downward kink right at the tip.

P1060901Spotted Redshank – this one well advanced in its moult to winter plumage

From round at the Parrinder Hide, we added a couple more waders to the day’s list. A couple of Little Ringed Plovers were feeding along the drier edge of the freshmarsh. A Common Snipe appeared from the vegetation below the bank and we got a great view of it working its way along, probing into the mud with its long bill. While we were there, a couple of Chinese Water Deer appeared briefly from the reeds opposite, an adult with a well grown fawn.

IMG_7580Common Snipe – feeding in the vegetation by the bank next to Parrinder Hide

The Volunteer Marsh has been very quiet in recent weeks, but there was a little more activity on here today, possibly due to the high tide offshore and the higher water level on the freshmarsh. There were several Redshanks and Black-tailed Godwits, mostly clustered along the main tidal channel. A Little Egret was fishing in the shallows by the path. We watched it paddling with its feet ahead of it, trying to disturb prey from the surface of the mud. It appeared to be working as it caught what appeared to be a small fish.

P1060916Little Egret – fishing in the channel on the Volunteer Marsh

The weather still wasn’t too bad and we were feeling adventurous, so we headed out to the beach. The tide was in, but the storms of yesterday had resulted in a wreck of razor shells along the beach. This was heaving with gulls, taking advantage of the bounty. Amongst them, we could also see several Turnstone, still resplendent in mostly summer plumage, a scattering of Sanderling, Bar-tailed Godwits and quite a few Oystercatchers. The sea itself was rather quiet, apart from a couple of Sandwich Terns and a distant flock of Common Scoter flying past.

Given the forecast this morning, we had been remarkably lucky with the weather today. However, finally the rain started to pick up again, so we turned to head back. We did manage a quick detour round via Patsy’s Reedbed on our way back. It was well worth it, as we picked out a single Garganey amongst the ducks, its boldly patterned face giving it away. Then it was time to call it a day and head for shelter.

25th July 2015 – Wet & Windy, Waders & Warblers (& Nightjars)

Day 2 of a long weekend of tours today. The itinerary saw us looking for Spoonbills and Dartford Warblers, which the weather did its worst to thwart. It was wet and very windy in the morning – gusting to 45mph. It brightened up in the afternoon, though the wind didn’t really start to drop until much later on. As ever, despite the weather we had a really good day and saw lots of really good birds!

We would originally have gone up to the Heath to look for Dartford Warblers in the morning, but it was really not the weather for it today. Instead, we decided to seek the shelter of the hides at Cley first thing. After the heavy rain overnight (we had about a month’s rain in 24 hours), the water levels on the scrapes had risen considerably. However, there was still a very good selection of birds on view.

We headed to Teal Hide first and had a look at Pat’s Pool. Two small waders were feeding around the edge of the largest island. The adult Dunlin was immediately obvious, with its striking black belly patch, but the second bird was a source of potential confusion for the uninitiated (and indeed it did cause some amongst some of the other people in the hide). Similar in size to the Dunlin, but with a shorter, straight bill and bright, white underparts, it was a summer plumage Sanderling. We are more used to seeing them running in and out of the waves on the beach in the winter, by which stage they are silvery grey above and white below. An out of place Sanderling has confounded even the experts in the past. This one was presumably seeking somewhere sheltered to feed.

IMG_7350Sanderling – a summer plumage bird on the scrape

There were sandpipers too. A Green Sandpiper flew in from the east and dropped in to the vegetation at the front of the scrape. We could see its very slaty-grey upperparts and blackish underwings, with contrasting white tail as it landed. A Common Sandpiper flew in as well, and landed on the muddy edge right in front of us.

P1060479Common Sandpiper – landed briefly on the mud in front of the hide

Unfortunately, neither of the sandpipers hung around for long. Avocets are not particularly good parents, but a couple of pairs still have juveniles on Pat’s Pool at the moment. Their idea of childcare is to mostly ignore their ‘children’ but chase off any potential predators. They are good at trying to chase after Marsh Harriers, but not quite selective enough in their choice of target – they attempt to chase away anything which comes into range. So the sandpipers were seen off, and a couple of Teal, and the Dunlin and Sanderling when they dared to venture along the front of the island. All obviously grave threats to a juvenile Avocet! Needless to say, the survival rate amongst juvenile Avocets is not great.

P1060464Avocet – a well grown juvenile; its parent chased off most of the other waders

When not chasing off anything which comes into range, the adult Avocets will occasionally shelter the juveniles, but only when they are very small. The older juvenile on the scrape was the only surviving youngster of one pair, and had to fend for itself in the rain. The other Avocet pair had three much smaller youngsters and they were allowed to shelter under one of their parents in the worst of the weather.

IMG_7340Avocet – one youngster out, the other two hiding underneath

There were gulls and terns already roosting on the islands when we arrived, tucked down out of the wind and rain. Six Little Gulls were feeding together in the wet grass, picking at the vegetation for invertebrates, all of them 1st summer birds born last year. Nearby, two Common Terns and three Sandwich Terns were trying to sleep through the weather, which would make fishing difficult for them.

There were big gulls too – and more dropped in to join them while we were there. As well as the ubiquitous Herring Gulls, several Great Black-backed Gulls had retreated from the shore and in amongst them were two smaller and slatier-backed Lesser Black-backed Gulls. A single juvenile gull appeared with them as well and a close look revealed it to be a juvenile Yellow-legged Gull, presumably a post-summer dispersing bird from the continent.

We headed round to Dauke’s Hide next and had a look at Simmond’s Scrape. There were more larger waders here. A big group of Black-tailed Godwits were trying to sleep on one of the islands – we could see a mixture of rusty adult birds and grey 1st summers. There were also several Ruff, once again in a wide variety of different plumages. The males are very variable in summer plumage at the best of times, and they are also now in various stages of moult as well. The significantly smaller females can look rather different again.

IMG_7380Ruff – a male moulting into winter plumage

All the while we were there, birds were constantly dropping in. A couple of bright orange summer plumage Knot flew in with a Golden Plover. The Knot were promptly seen off by one of the Avocets! A few more Golden Plover arrived until there were five feeding on the grass together. A Ringed Plover dropped in briefly, before flying on west; a short while later, a Little Ringed Plover did much the same. A Common Snipe dropped in and started feeding in the wet grass. A Whimbrel flew over, calling.

There was no sign of the Spoonbills at first today. They were probably hiding somewhere more sheltered. However, while we were in the hides, two Spoonbills dropped in to the scrapes. The shorter-billed juvenile landed on one of the islands and tried to find somewhere to roost out of the wind, but the other bird continued on towards North Scrape. A short while later the juvenile decided it was not a great place to sleep today and flew off as well.

IMG_7375Spoonbill – this juvenile dropped in to Simmond’s Scrape briefly today

There were other birds to see was well. One of the female Marsh Harriers spent ages flying low over the reeds along the back of Simmond’s Scrape, but presumably hunting was difficult today and she seemed to achieve very little. A juvenile Yellow Wagtail landed on of the islands briefly, before flying down to the grass round the edge of the scrape and disappearing from view.

Late morning, we decided it would be a good idea to head back to the visitor centre and get a hot drink to warm up. Afterwards we drove round to the beach car park. Given the gale-force NNW wind, and the approaching high tide, the waves were crashing into the beach. It was great to watch and we stood for a while on the stones marvelling at the power of the sea. Several Gannets passed by offshore.

P1060522Cley Beach – the waves were crashing onto the shore today

It had stopped raining by this stage, but we still took advantage of the beach shelter to get out of the wind and seaspray and enjoy an early lunch. There had been a few different waders out on North Scrape in the morning, so we decided to walk and take a look ourselves.We were at least walking with the wind at our backs, but there were few birds around today. A Skylark sat in the Eye Field watching us.

As we were walking over the grass, a dragonfly flew up in front of us and landed again a bit further along. Unusual out here at the best of times, this was hardly the weather for dragonfly watching! Still, we managed to find it sheltering in the grass below the fence line and discovered it was a rarity to boot – a smart male Red-veined Darter. There has been the odd one around the reserve in recent weeks, but it was not something we were expecting to find out here, least of all today!

P1060536

Red-veined Darter – a surprise in the Eye Field, particularly given the gale!

Unfortunately, as we arrived at North Scrape, something had just spooked all the waders. There were now fewer on show than there had been. However, we still managed to find a Curlew Sandpiper hiding amongst several Dunlin. Its chestnut underparts, dappled with white as it moults into winter plumage, gave it away – very different from the black belly patch of the adult Dunlin. There were also several more Little Ringed Plovers, Ruff and another Green Sandpiper out here today. A big group of Sandwich Terns were sitting out the stormy conditions on one of the islands.

We headed round to the East Bank next. It was still very windy, but at least the clouds had cleared and it had brightened up. It was rather blustery on the walk out along the East Bank – not the weather for Bearded Tits today. However, out at Arnold’s Marsh we walked down the steps and got ourselves in the lee of the bank.

There were lots of waders out on Arnold’s Marsh. There have been groups of Knot out here for several weeks. There have been more grey 1st summer birds,  but today the majority were adults already returned from the north, sporting bright orange underparts. Amongst them were two more Curlew Sandpipers, slightly richer chestnut below and darker brown above, more dainty with a longer, finer, downcurved bill.

There were lots of smaller Dunlin and Sanderling here too. One of the Dunlin stood out – with much brighter rufous upperparts, paler face and a more contrasting black belly. There are several races of Dunlin all around the world, breeding from the Pacific coast of North America to far eastern Siberia, and they vary subtly in appearance. This was perhaps a Dunlin from further east.

IMG_7393Dunlin – an interestingly bright bird with other waders on Arnold’s Marsh

The more we looked, the more we found. There were some very smart Turnstones, still in summer plumage with white faces and bright rufous backs. Most of the godwits were asleep on the islands, tucked down in the vegetation. There were lots of Black-tailed Godwits, but two Bar-tailed Godwits came out to feed, allowing us to get a much better look at them.

There were lots of terns as well. The Sandwich Terns regularly loaf out in small numbers around Arnold’s Marsh, especially at this time of year, however many more seemed to be sheltering from the wind today. Amongst them we could see lots of Common Terns and even a couple of Arctic Terns as well.

By the time we got back to the car, it was almost time to finish but we had still not been up to the Heath. Realistically, despite the wind having dropped somewhat it still seemed a little too windy but we headed up there anyway on the off chance. It seemed rather quiet as we got out of the car. At least the sun was shining and, in a couple of sheltered spots, we finally found some butterflies as we walked out, mostly Gatekeepers and Meadow Browns.

P1060560Gatekeeper – there were lots of these out on the Heath this afternoon

We flushed a couple of Linnets from beside the path as we walked, and we could hear a Yellowhammer singing. We were not surprised to find no sign of the Dartford Warblers around one of their favoured area – they really don’t like windy conditions. We carried on across the Heath and a Turtle Dove started purring briefly behind us, in the area we had just walked through. Unfortunately it stopped again as soon as it started, and we didn’t have enough time to work out where it was hiding.

As we rounded a corner on a normally quiet corner of the Heath, we came across a large puddle across the path. A male Yellowhammer flicked across and landed in the grass in front of us, eyeing us nervously. It was obviously looking to come down to the puddle and eventually plucked up the courage to hop down to the water’s edge, and then start to bathe. The Heath is normally very dry, so this was perhaps a rare treat.

P1060608Yellowhammer – bathing in a puddle

While we were watching the Yellowhammer, we heard a harsh churring call in the gorse right next to us. The next thing we knew a Dartford Warbler flew out across the path in front of us. Just for second it seemed like it might dip down towards the Yellowhammer, but it seemed to see us standing watching it and fly up into the vegetation instead. Unfortunately, just as we were hoping it might come out again, two walkers appeared and came straight past us along the path. We decided to move on. We had really not expected to see Dartford Warbler today, and this is not one of their usually favoured places, so it was a real stroke of luck to see one today.

P1060612Grayling – basking on a concrete post, camouflaged against the stones

We had a quick walk round the rest of heath, but it was rather quiet. We did add a couple more butterflies to the day’s list – Grayling and Essex Skipper. And we did run into a large mixed tit flock working its way through the birches. But then it was time to head back and get something to eat ahead of the evening’s entertainment.

P1060624Essex Skipper – with blackish-tipped antennae

Nightjar Evening

We met again in Holt in the early evening, after a break to recover from the day’s exertions and a chance to get something to eat. We dropped down to the coast first. A quick drive round the grazing meadows and we found our first Barn Owl of the evening perched on a fence. We stopped the car and got it in the scope. A great start! It flew off and resumed hunting around the grassy fields. A couple of Whimbrel were calling overhead.

IMG_7438Barn Owl – our first of the evening, perched on a fence

A little further round, and we stopped again and set off to walk out over the marshes. Almost immediately we spotted another Barn Owl, flying across over the reeds. There is a Barn Owl box here and once we had walked out a little further we could see two more owls around the box. One of them was just in the process of devouring a vole. As we watched, it was clear there was an adult bird bringing back food, and 2-3 freshly fledged juveniles still sitting round the entrance to the box waiting to be fed.

IMG_7442Barn Owls – 2-3 juveniles were waiting to be fed at the entrance to the box

While we were scanning over the grazing marshes, another Barn Owl appeared from nowhere right in front of us, flying in from the direction of the road. It worked its way methodically round the edge of the field, looking purposefully down into the grass all the time. Then it suddenly dropped down after something. It came up again with a vole in its talons, and set off back towards the village, flying straight past us on its way. We got a fantastic view of it. A little while later, it came back again and resumed hunting, presumably having fed its young.

P1060638Barn Owl – carrying food back to its youngsters

Back at the box, one of the adult Barn Owls flew back across the marshes with some prey in its talons. However, instead of going straight into the box to feed the juveniles, it landed on a post down in the reeds in front. It didn’t seem to show any interest in eating its vole itself, so was presumably trying to tempt the young Barn Owls out to fly round. They were not showing any inclination to leave the comfort of the box!

While we were watching the Barn Owls, we could hear Bearded Tits calling from the reeds. Looking more closely, we could see some movement further over, so we walked round for a better look. It didn’t take long to pick up three juveniles – they were rather vocal and kept edging their way up to the tops of the reeds before dropping back in or flying across the tops.

IMG_7451Bearded Tit – a good performance from several juveniles this evening

Then it was time to tear ourselves away and head up to the heath for the evening’s main event. It had started to cloud over again a little while we were out on the marshes and was already getting dark by the time we got there, sooner than we had expected. We could already hear a Nightjar calling from the trees as we walked up. Perfect timing!

Shortly after we arrived, one of the Nightjars flew out and perched up on a stump on the edge of the trees in front of us. It sat there for some time, just looking around. We got it in the scope and got great views of it – it appeared to be a female, lacking the white flashes in wings and tail which the male shows. Eventually, it flew off into the tops of the trees, but reappeared only a few seconds later hawking for insects above our heads. We could also hear a Tawny Owl hooting in the distance.

IMG_7460Nightjar – one of three birds we saw this evening

Finally a male Nightjar started churring across the other side of the heath, behind us. This prompted the male in front of us to start churring in response. The next thing we knew, a Nightjar appeared on the dead tree stump again. This time it was a male – it sat there with tail spread flashing its white tail corners – and we presumed it was the resident male we had just heard.

However, then another male Nightjar appeared from the trees and started to buzz around the male sat on the stump. It gave up and disappeared into the trees again, then came out and started flying round the stump male once more. It repeated this several times, flying into the trees, before coming back out and flying round the other male. It even tried to land on top of him a couple of times, presumably in an effort to displace the interloper and regain his song perch, but the other male simply stayed put. There are two male Nightjars here with neighbouring territories, so presumably this was the next door male trying to take over the resident male’s song perch. Finally, after several attempts, the interloper flew off down to the ground and the resident male started churring. Great behaviour to watch, real all-action stuff.

Then, as the light started to fade, it was a good time to call it a night.

24th July 2015 – Summer Rain in the Brecks

Day 1 of a long weekend of tours today and we were bound for the Brecks. The weather forecast wasn’t great – and for once unfortunately it was right!! – but we made the most of a bright morning and got all the target birds before the worst of the afternoon rain.

We stopped off at Weeting Heath briefly. The pines were quiet again today, apart from a single Goldcrest singing. However, it was the Stone Curlews we were really after and there were several on show as we got into the hide, including a couple that were fairly close. With the early start and the cool cloudy conditions meaning little in the way of heat haze today, we got a good look at them through the scope. We admired the bright yellow iris and black and white striped wing panel.

IMG_7292Stone Curlew – one of several at Weeting Heath today

While the grass is kept closely cropped by the resident rabbits, the ragwort is now getting quite tall. Over on the ridge, it is also quite thick, making it difficult to count the total number of Stone Curlews present. We could see at least seven, the maximum simultaneously in view at any one time. They were also quite vocal at times – we could hear where they got one of their old names ‘wailing heath chicken’! Following the sound, we could eventually see five Stone Curlews chasing round in a group among the ragwort.

There were not so many other birds to see. A little group of Lapwing were out in the grass. A single Mistle Thrush appeared nearby and ran in and out of the ragwort clumps feeding. We could hear a Green Woodpecker yaffling and it flew up onto the trunk of a pine tree briefly before disappearing over the field beyond. We wanted to make the most of the dry weather, so we moved swiftly on.

It was cloudy and cool at Lakenheath as we arrived. Walking out along the main path, a Cetti’s Warbler called from the sallows and then flew across in front of us. A couple of Reed Warblers sang half-heartedly from the reeds and a Blackcap did the same from the trees.

New Fen Viewpoint once again seemed a little quiet at first, apart from the family of Coot and a couple of Mallard. As we stood and watched, we could see Reed Warblers coming out to feed along the edge of the reeds. We could hear Bearded Tits calling and, as they made their way in our direction we could see the reeds shaking vigorously. However, rather than coming out in front of us they suddenly took to the air and flew off in the opposite direction.

We hadn’t been there long when one of the group spotted a shape flying over the tops of the reeds – a Bittern. It made a lovely long feeding flight – all the way from the back of New Fen almost to the north-east corner, giving us a great chance to get a good look at it. A perfect start!

As we walked out across the reserve, we could see the darker clouds arriving from the west. There were still a few dragonflies and damselflies out, despite the cool weather – plenty of Ruddy Darter and Blue-tailed Damselflies. And a smattering of butterflies – a couple of Gatekeepers and a rather faded Ringlet.

P1060344Blue-tailed Damselfly – a few still out today, despite the cool weather

As we got out almost to the Joist Fen Viewpoint, it started to rain. Thankfully it was only light and not enough to stop us. However, raptor activity was decidedly limited. A Kestrel came out of West Wood as we walked past. A Common Buzzard flew low, back past us in the direction of the trees. A single juvenile Marsh Harrier sat perched in one of the bushes.

IMG_7320-001Marsh Harrier – this juvenile was hiding in the bushes at Joist Fen

The sky was a little brighter to the west, so we decided to make a bid for the open exposed height of the river bank. The Cranes seem to be spending more of their time over the other side of the river now that the young have fledged, so we wanted to at least have a chance to look for them before the weather deteriorated further. A Reed Bunting was feeding in the umbellifer heads along the edge of the path as we walked past.

P1060366Reed Bunting – feeding in the umbellifer heads in the rain

It was fairly quiet along the river today. A couple of Grey Herons stood on the bank and two Little Egrets flew up from Joist Fen and disappeared over into Norfolk. A Common Tern perched on its usual fence post just over the other side. We flushed a Common Whitethroat from the overgrown vegetation by the path and it flew up into one of the large sallows.

We did see more Bitterns. From up on the river bank, one flew up from Joist Fen and headed back in the direction of the viewpoint. Again, it was in the air for a long time before we lost it behind the trees – another great, long flight. Then yet another Bittern, this one a slightly darker bird, flew up from the same area. This time it headed over towards the railway line before dropping down out of view. Such a privilege to see so much Bittern action and a testament to the success of the habitat creation at Lakenheath Fen.

All the time, as we walked along the river bank, we scanned the fields the other side for any sign of the Cranes. Unfortunately, we just couldn’t find them there today. Finally, with everyone getting slightly damp now, we reluctantly turned to head back. But we were not to be disappointed! We hadn’t gone too far when a quick glance over the shoulder revealed four large birds flying straight towards us from further out across the fields. Cranes!

P1060383Cranes – flying towards us over the fields across the river

As they got over their favoured fields, the four Cranes turned and headed west. We could see that they were the family of four – two adults and their two recently fledged juveniles. We watched them for some time until they finally disappeared behind the trees. Great stuff!

P1060389Cranes – two adults in front and their two juveniles following behind

It is such a pleasure to see the young Cranes flying here. After a few years with no success, both of the Lakenheath Fen pairs of Cranes have raised young this year – the twins we saw today and a single juvenile for the second pair.

Even better, it had stopped raining by now, if only for a little bit. As we walked back along the bank, there were lots of warblers feeding amongst the vegetation by the path. Presumably, the reeds were now very wet and the more open plant life here was a more attractive option. We had great views of both Reed Warblers and several Sedge Warblers.

P1060401Sedge Warbler – feeding along the river bank path in the rain

We headed back swiftly across the reserve. The rain had started again by the time we got to the New Fen Viewpoint so we paused to catch our breath in the shelter. We heard a Kingfisher calling and saw it briefly flying across the reeds before it dropped down into a channel out of view. A short while later, it was off again and flew over to the pool in front of us. It landed for a second on the reeds at the edge, but didn’t find its footing and flew once more. Unfortunately this time, it headed out to the back of the pool and disappeared into the reeds.

A single male Marsh Harrier was perched on a dead stump across New Fen. We got it in the scope and had a good look at it – it didn’t seem particularly impressed by the weather! Eventually it took off and circled over the reeds for a while, before turning and heading back across the reserve and out of sight. We took that as a cue to leave ourselves.

IMG_7330Marsh Harrier – this male perched up in the rain

Back at the visitor centre, we settled in to dry out and enjoy a late lunch. The feeders just outside provided a welcome distraction from the weather – a steady stream of Blue Tits and Great Tits, Chaffinches, Goldfinches and Greenfinches dropped in to feed, plus the odd Reed Bunting. Some of them were looking decidedly wet!

P1060409Greenfinches – looking rather wet on the feeders

However, the highlight was the juvenile Great Spotted Woodpecker which appeared and hung on the peanuts for a while.

P1060448Great Spotted Woodpecker – a red-crowned juvenile

The rain was showing no signs of easing, but we decided to have a go at getting out again. Lynford Arboretum seemed like a good option, with the trees offering the possibility of some shelter. However, as we walked round the main part of the arboretum there were very few birds to look at – we could hear a few Goldcrests but not see them in the densest fir trees. A single Siskin perched in the top of a conifer briefly.

There was a little more activity down around the lake. We found several Little Grebes on the water – two fully grown juveniles near the bridge and an adult feeding a younger juvenile below the Hall. A mixed tit flock in the alders was easy to hear but proved harder to see – we glimpsed Long-tailed Tits, Coal Tits and a Treecreeper. Time was getting on – and we were getting wet – so we decided to head back and call it a day.

Thankfully we had made the most of the morning and seen all the main target birds, despite the weather – Stone Curlews, Cranes and Bitterns.

21st July 2015 – Farmland Birds & Waders

A North Norfolk summer day tour today – the plan was to explore the farmland inland in the morning and drop down to the coast for the afternoon. It was a lovely day, bright & sunny, with a good breeze blowing which served to keep down the heat haze and keep us from overheating as well!

Once again, we meandered our way along the country lanes and parked up by one of our favourite farmland tracks. As soon as we got out of the car, we could hear Yellowhammers singing either side of us, the familiar sound of a ‘little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheeeeese’ as it was always described when we were young. We found one male perched up in the top of a hawthorn, its bright yellow head glowing in the sunshine.

P1050974Yellowhammer – there were several males singing in the hedgerows today

Many birds have fledged young now and we encountered several family parties on our way. A little group of Whitethroats were feeding in the overgrown vegetation between the track and the hedge and they flew ahead of us as we walked. When one of the adult Whitethroats flew up into the bottom of the hedge, one of the juveniles flew up with it, begging, and was duly fed. A family party of Blue Tits came along the hedge as well, calling noisily.

There were lots of butterflies along the verge too, flitting about in the vegetation. At this time of year, Meadow Browns and Ringlets tend to predominate and there was no shortage of those today. The Ringlets are a little faded now – they are much blacker when fresh – and rather brown themselves, but quite a bit smaller than the Meadow Browns and noticeably different when perched. There were also several Gatekeepers and Small Tortoiseshells. In the shorter grass along the track itself, we flushed several small orange butterflies, fast flying skippers. On close inspection of the ones we got to see perched, we could see distinctive black-tipped antennae, the key distinguishing feature of the Essex Skipper.

P1050980Essex Skipper on clover flower – note the black-tipped antennae

From up on the higher ground, we stopped at a place with a good panoramic view over the surrounding countryside. Here we stood for a while and scanned for raptors. We certainly saw a good selection. Several Buzzards circled over the trees, hanging in the breeze or drifted out over the fields.

There is lots of farming activity at the moment – the wheat and barley are ripe and ready and the combine harvesters are out. We saw several Kestrels taking advantage of the disturbance to catch small mammals forced out from the crop as it was cut. The Yellowhammers and Linnets were making hay in the sunshine too, flying in and out of the fields presumably to try to find any insects or spilt grain, though there is unfortunately precious little of the latter these days with modern machinery. The local Carrion Crows were looking to cash in on the bounty as well, but were chased off by the resident raptors when they got too close.

We stood here for a while, watching the interplay between modern industrial farming activity and the wildlife which tries to make a living here. Then, as we turned to leave, a pair of Grey Partridge burst noisily from the verge and disappeared into the uncut crop on the other side.

As we drove off, we could see an Oystercatcher sitting in a horse paddock. It appeared to be nesting, tucked down in the short grass next to a couple of dock rosettes. A little further on, its partner stood on the grassy verge, looking on warily. While often thought of as coastal birds, Oystercatchers do also attempt to nest inland and often some way from water. However, productivity can be pretty poor in the modern industrial farming landscape.

P1050998Oystercatcher – its partner attempting to nest in a nearby horse paddock

Our next destination was Choseley. On the way there, we saw several more Yellowhammers along the sides of the roads or on the wires and a couple more families of Kestrels, again around the freshly cut stubble fields. We stopped briefly to admire a Stock Dove coming down to drink at a puddle. We drove around the back lanes first, to see if we could find the pair of Corn Buntings we have seen regularly in recent weeks. There was no sign as we drove past at first, but on the way back down, one of the birds flew out across the field behind us. We reversed back and could see it had landed in the top of a single weed growing in the middle of the barley. When it flew back into the hedge, we got out and got the scopes onto it – and promptly found a second Corn Bunting perched in the hedge nearby.

Round at the drying barns, it was fairly quiet again, as it has been in recent days. A dog walker was just coming out of the footpath and there was lots of activity around the barns themselves, presumably with the harvest being brought in. There were several Linnets on the wires, hungrily eyeing up the grain spread on the concrete. A pair of  Collared Doves flew in to join them. A Marsh Harrier quartered the fields along the ridge. We decided to drop down to Titchwell for lunch.

Feeling suitably refreshed afterwards, we walked out across the reserve. At the reedbed pool, a single Red-crested Pochard was amongst the ducks out on the water – we noted its mostly dark bill with pinkish tip. There was a good selection of wildfowl on here again today – also a couple of Common Pochard diving next to the reeds, a little group of Gadwall at the front, plus a couple of Teal and a Shoveler further back. However, with the drakes all in female-like eclipse plumage now, none of them are arguably looking their finest! The juvenile Great Crested Grebe was hiding at the back by the reeds, but we couldn’t see its parents today.

The water levels on the freshmarsh are perfect for waders at the moment and there has been an amazing number and variety of birds present in the last week or so. Today was no exception – the mud was alive, covered with them. The counts of Avocets in particular have been hitting record levels – presumably post-breeding birds from elsewhere moving in to take advantage of the perfect feeding conditions. We counted at least 400 today, but lots more were asleep on the islands. The official reserve counts have been over 600 in recent days!

P1060106Avocet – amazing numbers gathering on the reserve at the moment

The variety of waders can change all the time and the surprise today was the number of Dunlin present. We counted a minimum of 375, the vast majority adults still sporting their summer plumage black bellies, but amongst them a few juveniles with black streaks below. Hiding in with the Dunlin, we could see a couple of Curlew Sandpipers as well. Slightly larger, and with a longer, more downcurved bill, they were both adults still partly in summer plumage, their chestnut underparts increasingly dappled with white.

IMG_7265Curlew Sandpiper – two moulting adults were in with the Dunlin today

There have been several Little Stints here in recent days, but at first we could only find one with the Dunlin flock. Easy to pick out if you look really closely, the Little Stint is noticeably smaller, with a shorter bill and bright white belly. It was only later, while we were looking at a couple of Golden Plover bathing on the edge of one of the islands, that we spotted the other six Little Stints, hiding amongst the rocks on the shoreline. All the waders had apparently been flushed earlier by a raptor and the Little Stints had obviously decided to vacate the open mud for a while for the safety of some cover. A couple of bright orange summer-plumaged Knot were also nearby. Later, as we walked back, all the Little Stints were back out again with the Dunlin feeding on the open mud.

The numbers of Ruff have also been impressive in recent days, though not in the sheer quantity of some of the other waders. They are also more scattered around the freshmarsh rather than gathered in a single mass, making them harder to cound. We didn’t try today – but numbers have been over 60. However, we did spend some time admiring the amazing variation in plumage. The male Ruffs in summer come in a wide variety of colours and now with the vagaries of moult to add in as well, they can be one of the most confusing waders to identify. There were also several females, sometimes known as Reeves, amongst them – smaller and less garishly plumaged.

P1060215

P1060184Ruff – large numbers present today but in a confusing array of plumages

There were perhaps fewer Black-tailed Godwits on the freshmarsh than in recent days, but still very good numbers and some very close to Island Hide giving us great views. Again, they were in a variety of plumages, with more moulting adults now still with mostly bright chestnut bodies and black belly bars, to add to the more variable 1st summer birds, some of which have been present all summer. We spent some time looking at them and talking about the key identification features, Black-tailed Godwit versus Bar-tailed Godwit. The black tail is usually hidden by the folded wings at rest, but some of the birds were dropping their tails while feeding so we could see the solid black.

P1060076Black-tailed Godwits – in bright summer & grey winter plumage

Out towards the back of the freshmarsh, where the water was deeper, we could see several Spotted Redshanks – a closer look revealed at least seven today. Some were still mostly in black summer plumage, but with an increasing amount of white feathering appearing now in the underparts, but a couple were looking increasingly silvery-grey. Three Greenshanks were walking around feeding very actively. Several Common Redshanks completed the set and provided a good comparison.

Looking closely amongst the vast hordes of waders, we could pick out a few individuals of other species as well. A couple of Common Sandpipers were feeding unobtrusively round the edges of the freshmarsh. A juvenile Yellow Wagtail nearby was a good spot. A Whimbrel dropped in briefly to rest on the edge of one of the islands, before flying off calling, its distinctive repeated piping whistle sounding a little like it is laughing. A 1st summer Little Gull amongst the Black-headed Gulls looked obviously much smaller by comparison.

IMG_7278Whimbrel – this one dropped in briefly before flying off west calling

We could see five Spoonbills from Island Hide, asleep on one of the islands. Typical Spoonbill behaviour! From round at Parrinder Hide we got a much closer look at them, and several even woke up briefly. We could see there were three shorter-, darker-billed juveniles and two adults – when the latter finally put their heads up, we could see the bright yellow bill tip.

P1060165Spoonbills – five, including three juveniles, were mostly sleeping!

There were several Little Ringed Plovers on the exposed mud in front of Parrinder Hide, a mixture of adults and juveniles. We could see the golden eye ring on the adults and the ghost of a paler eye ring on the juveniles. Out on the open mud with the other small waders there were a couple of Ringed Plovers as well.

P1060168Little Ringed Plover – an adult sporting a golden yellow eye ring

P1060302Little Ringed Plover – a juvenile with a ghosting of the adult’s eye ring

The Volunteer Marsh and tidal pools were quiet today, as they have been in recent weeks. There were several butterflies along the verges. A smart Gatekeeper basking on the path was clearly struggling for some reason when it finally flapped off into the grass.

P1060146Gatekeeper – basking on the path

Out on the beach, the sea itself looked fairly quiet. We managed to find a little group of four Common Scoter out on the water and several Sandwich Terns were flying back and forth offshore, fishing. The tide was out and the rocks were exposed. There were several Curlew feeding around the rock pools and nearby, we picked up a single, smaller, sleeker Whimbrel. While we were standing there, we also heard several more Whimbrel flying past behind us, calling. In amongst the birds on the rocks, we also picked out a few Bar-tailed Godwits – it was good to look at the differences from the Black-tailed Godwits we had seen earlier.

We picked up three Turnstones as they flew and when they landed we could see they were still in bright summer plumage, with rusty orange backs and white faces. A closer look down on the shore revealed a couple of Dunlin and next to them a little group of Sanderling, looking rather different to the bright silvery grey and white birds we see here in the winter in their spangled summer plumage.

Then unfortunately it was time to head back. Still, what an amazing spectacle of waders here today – the sheer number and the great variety.

19th July 2015 – A Sweet Surprise

Day 3, the final day, of a long weekend of tours today. We met earlier than normal as we had to finish slightly earlier than we might do otherwise, due to a prior commitment. Still we had an excellent day’s birding – and a sweet surprise to boot.

It was originally forecast to be dry today, but in the last 24 hours that had changed to be wet early in the morning. And so it proved to be – just for once the forecast was unfortunately not wrong. Still, the rain was light and mercifully brief and it didn’t make much difference to us. Given the conditions, rather than head up to the Heath first thing, we started at Cley instead. There was some light rain as we walked out to the hides, but thankfully that was about it.

There are lots of waders on the move at the moment. To us, it is still summer, but many birds are already on their way back south at the end of the breeding season. The scrapes at Cley are always a good place to look and there was a good variety on view today.

The only problem was the Avocets. When they have young, they are fiercely protective and there was a half-grown juvenile Avocet at the front of Pat’s Pool today. The adults proceeded to chase anything away that tried to land there. While chasing off Marsh Harriers is understandable, dabbling ducks, small waders and even Pied Wagtails are hardly a threat to them. Still, the adult set off after all of them and saw them off!

P1050777Avocet – the adults were trying to chase off any birds around the scrapes today

A Common Sandpiper was trying to feed around the edge of the scrape. It tried to bob its way along the front of the nearest island, but was chased off. It then tried the near bank of the scrape instead, but that was no better. In the end it flew off slightly further over, onto the mud.

IMG_7100Common Sandpiper – note the white spur between the grey breast and wings

A Green Sandpiper had been feeding quietly on the island at the front of Simmond’s Scrape, but when a second bird flew in the two of them attempted to land together at the front of Pat’s Pool. Once again, the Avocet set off after them and saw them off too. Eventually, by stealth, one of the Green Sandpipers and the Common Sandpiper crept back in along the front edge of the near island. It was great to see them up close and get a chance to look at the differences between them.

IMG_7144Green Sandpiper – darker above and lacks the white spur behind the breast

A lone Whimbrel was out on Simmond’s Scrape. It was bathing and preening and when finished, started to jump around in a mad dance with its wings outstretched. Perhaps it was just trying to get dry? Anyway, eventually it finished what it was doing and flew off on its way west. There were also lots of Black-tailed Godwits in the scrapes as usual, with an increasing number of bright summer plumaged birds, presumably returning adults.

IMG_7172Black-tailed Godwits – a couple of the more brightly coloured individuals

There were not so many smaller waders on view today. A couple of summer plumaged Dunlin were feeding on Pat’s Pool, sporting their distinctive black bellies. Another four flew in and landed on Simmond’s Scrape. There were also still several Little Ringed Plovers on the islands. Good numbers of moulting Ruff have been present in recent days along the coast and today was no exception. With a bewildering variation of plumage, particularly amongst the now moulting males, Ruff is one of the most confusing wader species for the uninitiated. A single Greenshank also flew in and landed at the back of the scrape.

There have been small numbers of Little Gulls along the coast for some time, mostly 1st summer birds. There were still five at Cley on Pat’s Pool today. They were further over than they have been – perhaps due to the overzealous parent Avocet again – but they were easy to pick out amongst the Black-headed Gull due to their much smaller size. The difference in feeding behaviour was also noticeable, with the Black-headed Gulls mostly asleep or preening, whereas the Little Gulls were actively feeding, walking around on the mud, picking for insects on the surface.

There is lots of Marsh Harrier activity around the reserve at the moment, with young birds on the wing now as well as the adults. Needless to say, the Avocets were doing their best to see them off whenever they drifted in the direction of the scrapes.

P1050757Marsh Harrier – being seen off by one of the local Avocets

The highlight behaviour-wise on the reserve this morning had to be the Spoonbills. There were none on view when we first arrived, but before long the first four flew in. Amongst them was a single juvenile. Variously known as ‘teaspoonbills’ or ‘little beggars’, this one was definitely living up to the latter nickname. As soon as it landed, it set off after one of the adult Spoonbills. Even through it was fed almost immediately by its parent, it continued to chase the adult bird all over the scrape, bowing its head constantly as it did so. The poor parent tried feeding it again, but still got no peace. This went on for a long time, before the youngster finally lost interest and the adult stood preening.

IMG_7084Spoonbills – this juvenile pursued its parent relentlessly to be fed…

IMG_7075…and even after being fed, it still wanted more

Whilst it is always interesting to see the adults being pursued by their young, there was more action to see this morning. A little later, another three Spoonbills flew in to Simmond’s Scrape. When we looked back, we could see two of them preening each others necks. As a Spoonbill, it must obviously be hard to preen your own head and neck with a bill like that. Whether this was just a public service or part of pair bonding was not clear. Interestingly, while one of the two Spoonbills was an adult, the other was an immature (2nd calendar year bird) with retained black tips to its primaries, a thinner head and neck and a more extensive and diffuse yellow bill tip.

IMG_7191Spoonbills – these two birds were mutual neck preening

As well as the waders, there are also an increasing number of ducks returning to the scrapes, though the odd bird may have over-summered. There are many more Teal now than there were a month ago and we even found a single Wigeon out there today. A female Shoveler was in the ditch in front of the hide.

P1050767Shoveler – in the ditch right in front of the hide

It was still overcast and cool by this stage, not ideal for the Heath but perfect conditions for North Scrape (reduced heat haze and not looking into the sun). We drove round to the beach car park and walked out to the site of the former North Hide – now of just a very rudimentary viewing screen. On the way, there were lots of Meadow Pipits, Reed Buntings, Linnets and Goldfinches in amongst the thistles and weedy vegetation on the shingles.

Unfortunately there was no sign here of the Little Stints which had been around the reserve yesterday. However, we did see several more Green Sandpipers – at least four. Out on the back of the scrape was a single adult Yellow-legged Gull. As well as the obviously leg colour, its dark grey mantle gave it away – not dark enough for Lesser Black-backed and obviously darker than Herring Gull. In the reeds along the side of the scrape, we also spotted at least three juvenile Bearded Tits. They were chasing each other round and perching up nicely in the open where we could see them.

By now it was at least starting to brighten up a little, so we drove up to the Heath. It was still perhaps a little cool and breezy, but we thought we were in with a chance of finding a Dartford Warbler. Little did we know what was about to fly over! As we walked up over the Heath, we could hear Yellowhammers singing and several Linnets flew up from the gorse. We looked up just in time to see a Red Kite drifting over, heading west along the ridge where the land dropped away along the coast. At this point we had a short discussion about how the Holt-Cromer ridge is a good place to look for raptors and other soaring birds, as they often like to move along the higher ground rather than along the coast.

P1050779Red Kite – soared west along the ridge behind the coast

We did not get much further before we heard a Dartford Warbler singing. It was in a very thick block of gorse at first, but we were able to follow the song as it moved. It was keeping down in cover, probably due to the wind. Eventually, after following it for a couple of minutes, we got several quick flight views as it flew between bushes. We could also hear a second bird calling nearby.

We were standing waiting for the Dartford Warbler to sing again when we looked up and saw another raptor hanging in the air over the ridge. Expecting it to be one of the local Common Buzzards, we had a quick look at it through binoculars and got a surprise – it was a Honey Buzzard. The whole group got onto it and we watched it for several minutes, circling and drifting into the breeze. A sweet surprise indeed!

P1050790

We could see the distinctive Honey Buzzard flight action, with wings held flat or downcurved, and the tips flexing down as it turned. The shape as well stood out – quite long-tailed and with a small head protruding cuckoo-like in front of the wings. Even from a distance, it was a noticeably pale bird, as it banked and caught the light. Eventually, it drifted to the north west and disappeared over the crest of the ridge. These are rare birds indeed in Norfolk, and it was a real treat to come across one like this.

Elated by our find, we set off to walk across to the other side of Heath. A Turtle Dove flew round in front of us and disappeared over the trees. But the Heath itself was a little quiet in the wind. We thought it might be difficult to get a better view of a Dartford Warbler than we had already had today, but walking along a favoured path we heard a Dartford Warbler call ahead of us. We repositioned ourselves for a better view and first one then a second bird flew out of the gorse in front of us. One of them perched up very nicely on the top of the gorse for several seconds so we could get a good look at it, before the two of them flew off further. We walked on round to where we had seen them drop in, but by now they had gone completely quiet. Still, it was a real result to see them so well.

By now, the Heath was starting to get much busier, more disturbed, with dog walkers and cyclists in particular. We walked back round, but all we found were more Linnets and Yellowhammers. However, we did come across a Grayling basking on the path ahead of us. It was extremely well camouflaged and hard to see until it flew.

P1050825Grayling – very well camouflaged against the stony path

We decided to move on and drove down to Cley for a late lunch. Afterwards, we headed out for a walk down the East Bank. By now it was very windy, gusting to 35+ mph. Not surprisingly, there was no sign of Bearded Tits here today, though thankfully we had had good views of several already other the weekend. However, the grazing marshes and Serpentine were also surprisingly quiet, not even the usual roosting Black-tailed Godwits – either the birds had just been flushed off here, or perhaps they had flown off to seek somewhere more sheltered from the wind.

There was more activity out at Arnold’s Marsh. There were lots of Sandwich Terns gathered out on the islands and sandbanks, and in amongst them we could see a good number of juveniles. The big colony of Sandwich Terns is out on Blakeney Point, but once the young can fly they are often led down to somewhere like Arnold’s Marsh and left there while the adults go out to see to fish. There were also a small number of smaller, orange-red billed Common Terns in amongst them.

IMG_7198Terns – mostly Sandwich Terns gathering on one of the islands

Out on the water, we could also see a big flock of waders. Getting them in the scope, we could see that most of them were Knot, at least 180 in total. The majority were in grey winter plumage, but amongst them we could still see a smaller number of brighter birds with orange underparts, still in summer plumage. There were also 45+ Dunlin, all adult birds with striking square black belly patches still. A careful scan revealed a handful of Bar-tailed Godwits as well – in winter type plumage, we talked about the key differences to separate them from Black-tailed Godwit. There were also plenty of Redshank, a very smart summer plumaged Turnstone and a Curlew.

With the wind having picked up so much since this morning, we walked out to the beach to see if anything was passing by offshore. The sea was certainly more choppy than it had been earlier, but with the wind still mostly in the west (and with very little north in it), there was little out to sea. There were few terns feeding offshore, given the conditions, and we only managed to see a small number of Gannets moving past.

Unfortunately, with the day getting on, it was now time to head back. We had certainly had a good weekend, with all the main target birds seen and some other surprises along the way, not least the Honey Buzzard we had seen this morning – sweet!

18th July 2015 – Basking in the Brecks

Day 2 of a long weekend of tours today, and we headed down to the Brecks for a day of Stone Curlews, Cranes & Bitterns. It certainly lived up to billing, on a lovely sunny day with just enough of a fresh breeze to stop it getting too hot.

We met in north Norfolk and headed south. We made a quick stop off on the way down to see if we could find any Stone Curlews. As well as the heathland remnants in the Brecks, many pairs nest in farmland in the surrounding countryside. However, they can be easier to see earlier in the year here, before the crops get so high. Their favoured fields were also very disturbed this morning with farming activity – several tractors and people walking around – so we moved swiftly on. We did have two Red Kites circling low over our heads.

P1050667Red Kite – one of two which came low overhead this morning

Our first destination proper was Lakenheath Fen. It was already getting warm by the time we got there. Warbler activity is significantly lower at this time of the year compared to the spring – yet we still heard a couple of Whitethroats, a Blackcap, and several Reed and Sedge Warblers as we walked out along the path into the reserve.

New Fen appeared very quiet initially as well, with little in view except a couple of juvenile Coots. Then a shrill call alerted us to an incoming Kingfisher. It flew in and landed initially on the perch right in front of the viewpoint, but unfortunately it saw us and decided not to linger there. Still, it landed again on the reeds a little further back across the pool and we had great views of it in the scope. It dropped into the water with a splash and came up with a fish in its bill. Not stopping, it flew off into the trees behind us in a flash of electric blue – it obviously still has young in the nest to feed. Then a second Kingfisher appeared on the pool.

IMG_6984Kingfisher – several birds were fishing around New Fen today

It was while we were watching the Kingfisher, that we suddenly heard crashing in in the reeds right in front of us. The next thing we knew, a Bittern flew out! It only flew a few metres and landed again on the edge of the reeds. It stood there for a second, looking around, then tried to walk into the reeds. It was obviously not easy going because it stopped, had another look round and decided it needed to persevere, and then finally pushed its way into the vegetation and out of view. Fantastic views and a great start. A short while later, another Bittern flew over the back of New Fen and dropped down into the reeds.

P1050675Bittern – landed on the edge of the reeds in front of us…

P1050676…tried to push its way in, before having second thoughts…

P1050681…had another look round before finally working its way out of view.

There were several Reed Warblers singing around the pool. They can be very good mimics and one in particular began each burst of song with a convincing copy of a Bearded Tit pinging. Finally, as we were about to leave, a Bearded Tit proper appeared, flying across the pool, but it disappeared quickly into the reeds on the island.

P1050690Ruddy Darter – a female

We headed on across the reserve. There were lots of dragonflies in the vegetation along the edge of the path – Brown & Southern Hawkers, Black-tailed Skimmers and Ruddy Darters, plus Blue-tailed, Common Blue & Azure Damselflies. There were plenty of butterflies too – Meadow Browns, Ringlets, Gatekeepers, Red Admirals, Small Tortoiseshells, Commas and a single Small Copper.

P1050698Small Copper – one of many butterflies around the reserve today

As we walked along the main path past the West Wood, a glance to the north and we caught sight of four Cranes circling up from the fields the other side of river. There are two pairs of Cranes at Lakenheath Fen and both have fledged young this year – one pair raised two, and the other one chick. This is great news as they had struggled to raise any in the last couple of years. We presumed that this was one of the two families flying but they quickly disappeared from view behind the trees.

From the Joist Fen Viewpoint we could see several Marsh Harriers circling out over the reeds, and it was also good to see several juveniles amongst them. It was while we were watching these that one of the group spotted a Bittern flying behind us, from the reeds over towards the West Wood. We all got onto it and had great views as it set off on a very long flight, all the way along the river bank and out across Joist Fen almost to the far west end. As it got near to its destination, we could see a second Bittern flying round in the same area. The two landed in much the same place – the first bird dropping in shortly after, where we had seen the first disappear.

P1050713Marsh Harrier – this smart male flew past us on the river bank

After a brief sit down at the Joist Fen Viewpoint, we climbed up onto the river bank to see if we could see the Cranes again. We walked along slowly, scanning the fields across on the other side of the river which the Cranes favour, but at first there was no sign – it looked like the four Cranes we had seen earlier might have continued flying. We were just about to give up when one of the group spotted a head amongst the tall vegetation. We got the scopes onto it, and gradually saw more heads come up. We could see that at least one juvenile was amongst them, but it was only when we eventually saw two juvenile heads up at the same time that we could confirm this was the family of four Cranes. They were a little distant, but we still got good views of them through the scopes.

With that target achieved, we set off on the walk back. We were just about to drop down from the river bank back onto the reserve when we noticed three more Cranes flying away from us, over the fields on the other side of the river. They landed several fields over, rather a long way off but we could still see that there were two adults and a single juvenile – the second Crane family. It was great to be able to see all seven of Lakenheath’s Cranes today!

We had a quick look in at New Fen on the way back, but there was no sign of the Bittern in the reeds around the pool. A Kingfisher was still fishing around the reed edge. We were almost back to the Visitor Centre, when we caught a very brief snatch of Grasshopper Warbler song. We stopped and heard it again a couple of times, but it was rather quiet, possibly distant, and unfortunately we couldn’t see any sign of it in the bushes. A little further along, a Weasel ran ahead of us along the path.

After lunch, we headed over to Weeting Heath. We could hear Stone Curlews calling as soon as we got out of the car. Round at the hide, we could immediately see several Stone Curlews out in the grass. A single adult was  together with two well-grown juveniles a little further over towards the ridge, but then we noticed two adults on the cultivated area not far from the front of the hide. Even better, it clouded over just a little, just enough to relieve the heat haze which is an ever present at this site. We got the scopes on them and had great views, admiring their somewhat prehistoric appearance and staring pale iris.

IMG_7016Stone Curlew – great views at Weeting Heath today

Having admired the closest Stone Curlews preening and walking slowly through the grass, they sat down and merged into the vegetation. We then had time to scan the rest of the grass and could see several more birds scattered across the ridge further over. We counted at least nine Stone Curlews here today, including the juveniles – there are three pairs on site and some young have already fledged. It was great to see the Stone Curlews so well, but unfortunately the Firecrests and Spotted Flycatchers here both appear to have fledged their young in the last couple of weeks and the pines were rather quiet, so we didn’t spend long here.

Next we headed into the Forest and walked out along one of our favourite rides. It was a bit hotter in the afternoon, and there was less benefit from the breeze in the shelter of the trees. Perfect conditions for butterflies and there were lots on the flowers along the sides of the track. It was nice to see both Small & Essex Skippers, a few Small Heath and several more Small Copper.

P1050731Small Skipper – head on, showing the diagnostic pale antenna tips

In a large clearing, we immediately saw lots of activity around the overgrown, rowed up tree stumps. Perched on the very top of the stumps, we could see a male and female Stonechat. In amongst them, we could see a couple of Yellowhammers, Whitethroats and two Tree Pipits.

We walked round to the other side to get a closer look. As well as the male & female Stonechats, we could also see at least two juveniles. They were trying to hide more in the vegetation, less inclined to perch on the tops than the adults. However, on closer inspection we could see that the juvenile Stonechats were colour ringed, part of an ongoing ringing programme in the Brecks.

IMG_7028Stonechat – one of two colour-ringed juveniles in the clearing

The Tree Pipits had been chasing each other around and had appeared to fly off. As we walked around the edge of the clearing, we flushed one from beside the path. It flew off calling with a loud ‘speezz’, into the pine trees where it sat for a few seconds before dropping back into the grass and out of view. While we were watching the Stonechats, one of the Tree Pipits suddenly appeared back with them, perched on a stump below them and half hidden from view. When the Stonechats moved off, it flew up to the top and started to preen, giving us a great look. We could see a pale spot on the face, the yellowing wash behind the bolder streaking across the breast and the very fine streaking on the flanks.

IMG_7053Tree Pipit – perched up on a stump once the Stonechats had moved on

We just had time for one last and very brief stop on our way back, so we popped into Lynford Arboretum. A Treecreeper was calling in the car park but it was rather quiet in the trees,in the heat of a sunny summer afternoon. A couple of Siskin flew overhead calling. Down by the bridge, there was a bit more activity. We came across a big mixed tit flock, and watched it for a while in the alders. There were lots of Long-tailed Tits, plus Blue, Great and Coal Tits, several Treecreepers and a Nuthatch as the flock moved through. We could also hear a Goldcrest singing. We didn’t really have time to do the site justice today and all too soon it was time to call it a day and head for home.

17th July 2015 – Farmland & Coast

Day 1 of a long weekend of tours today. After dramatic thunderstorms overnight, it was a bit damp underfoot first thing, but it soon brightened up and we only encoutered one very light (and not forecast!) shower in the afternoon.

The aim for the morning was to explore the farmland inland from the coast and, in particular, to look for raptors. We set off and meandered our way along the country lanes. A Red Kite appeared in the sky beside the road, so we stopped to watch it as it circled overhead. Red Kites were not reintroduced locally but have spread very successfully across the country and are now breeding here. Always a delight to see.

P1050437Red Kite – circled over our heads this morning

We drove on a little further and stopped to explore. As soon as we got out of the car, a Yellow Wagtail flew over calling. This species has almost disappeared as a breeding bird in Norfolk but a few pairs still cling on in farmland. It is always a nice surprise to encounter one.

We walked up along farm track with tall hedges either side. We could hear Yellowhammers singing and we flushed a couple of birds from the bushes as we walked. A pair of Linnets flew up from the edge of the field. A Whitethroat appeared briefly on top of the hedge singing. In the densest part of the bushes we could hear the delicate piping of a pair of Bullfinches. Generally rather secretive at this time of year, they flew ahead of us as we walked before eventually doubling back overhead and behind us. When the path opened out a little, a pair of Grey Partridge burst out of the tall vegetation along the verge and disappeared across the field, calling.

P1050464Ringlet – a common hedgerow butterfly at this time of year

There were lots of butterflies in the hedgerows as well. Ringlets are much in evidence at this time of year, although some of them are now rather worn and bleached browner rather than the blackish appearance when they are fresh. There were also plenty of Meadow Browns. We saw a number of the smaller Skippers, but we only stopped to look closely at a couple of them, which turned out to be Essex Skippers.

P1050449Meadow Brown – also out in profusion at the moment

We stopped on some high ground from where we could get a good view over the surrounding countryside. Here we stood for a while scanning for raptors. The weather started to brighten up a little while we were there, and we could feel a bit more warmth as it did so. Much better conditions for raptors and a good selection duly appeared, just as we had hoped. That was the cue for the Common Buzzards to start to circle up over the trees. A Kestrel hovered over the hedgerow behind us.

We walked back to the car and drove over towards Titchwell, stopping to explore the area around Choseley on the way there. A Green Woodpecker flew up from the verge beside the road and made a beeline for a telegraph post. It seemed about to land when it realised it was not a tree and veered off across the field. We flushed three or four Kestrels from the hedges either side along a short stretch – presumably a recently fledged family group.

There were several Yellowhammers along the wires and hedges as we drove – this is always a good area for this species. Then two larger birds flew out from the hedge, across the road in front of us and over the edge of the field the other side. Larger, bulkier than the Yellowhammers and a plainer sandier brown, these were Corn Buntings. They flew round and dropped back into the hedge in front of us. Unfortunately, despite pulling forward slowly, we couldn’t see them perched in all the green fresh growth of the hawthorns and eventually they flew again and disappeared across the field.

Around at the drying barns, there was a lot of disturbance today, with vehicles and farm workers busy in the buildings. A Stock Dove perched on the wires was eyeing the small pile of spilled grain. Several Chaffinches and Yellowhammers appeared further along the road. Another Yellow Wagtail flew over calling – it was obviously our lucky day for them today.

P1050562Essex Skipper – we saw several of these today

From there, we headed down to Titchwell for lunch. While we were eating, we watched a young Robin trying to sneak up on Speckled Wood which was basking in the sunshine on a bench. It snapped at it and caught onto it, but the Speckled Wood flapped vigorously and escaped. It landed nearby and we could see that its wings were already very tatty. Then it flew back to the bench again – perhaps this was a recurring incident?!

After lunch, we walked out onto the reserve. We stopped to scan the reedbed pool. A pair of Great Crested Grebes had a well grown stripy-headed chick with them, and a lone Little Grebe was diving at the back. As well as a little selection if dabbling ducks – Teal, Shoveler, Mallard, Gadwall – a pair of Common Pochard was diving near the reeds. Out in the reedbed, there were still a couple of Reed Warblers singing loudly. A Sedge Warbler flushed in front of us and flew along beside path, landing in the bulrushes briefly before dropping down into the vegetation on the bank.

P1050558Avocet – over 600 at Titchwell at the moment, this one a juvenile

As soon as we walked into Island Hide we could see that people were watching the reed edge intently. Sure enough, we also immediately got onto a little group Bearded Tits feeding one the edge of the mud. They were three orangey-coloured juveniles – we got great views of them in the scopes, chasing round at the base of the reeds and hoping out on the mud. With lots of fledged juveniles about, now is a great time to see this often rather secretive species.

P1050474Black-tailed Godwit – there were several hundred of these out on the mud too

However, the waders were the real highlight today. The whole of the freshmarsh was thronging with them. The biggest number were Avocets and Black-tailed Godwits. We could see 200+ of both, but particularly the Avocets were lurking amongst the vegetation, so there were probably many more. Interestingly, the Titchwell warden and staff did a full wader count the following day and counted 624, a reserve record! There are a lot more bright rusty-orange birds amongst the Black-tailed Godwits now, as returning adults add to the greyer 1st summer birds that were here first.

P1050502Flock of Dunlin – spot the Curlew Sandpiper amongst them

There were lots of Dunlin too, well over 100, mostly adults still sporting the smart black belly patches of summer plumage. Lurking amongst them was a single Curlew Sandpiper. Slightly larger, with a slightly longer and more downcurved bill, it too was still mostly in summer plumage. Looking closely through the mass of small waders it was not so hard to pick out, with bright chestnut orange underparts, speckled with white now as it starts to moult.

IMG_6943Curlew Sandpiper – a moulting adult, still with mostly chestnut underparts

There were plenty of other waders there as well. A Green Sandpiper and a Common Sandpiper were feeding together on the mud at the edge of the reeds giving a great opportunity to compare these two rather similar species side by side. Towards the back, in the deeper water, at least 6 Spotted Redshanks were in amongst the Black-tailed Godwits. All moulting adults, the Spotted Redshanks ranged from still mostly black summer-plumaged birds, though well-speckled with whiter winter plumage feathers now, to one in particular already much greyer individual.

There are also a lot of Ruff around on the coast at the moment, at least 20 at Titchwell today, and in a confusing mix of colours. The male Ruffs are always amazingly variable, with different combinations of white, black, brown and rusty feathering in breeding plumage. Add in the effects of moult as well, and no two birds look alike!

IMG_6906Ruff – a moulting male in a typical mix of colours

The Spoonbills were hiding at the back of the freshmarsh, mostly hidden behind the vegetation of the island. They were undoubtedly enjoying their usual favourite occupation and sleeping! One did fly up and disappear over the bank at the back, presumably to feed over towards Brancaster. Another Spoonbill just edged out and stood for a while preening so that we could get a proper look at it in the scope.

Amongst all the seething mass of waders, it was hard to see anything else. Lurking amongst them were still one or two Little Gulls. There have been several 1st summers lingering along the coast for some time, although they are now moulting to 2nd winter plumage with plainer grey upperwings.

P1050524Little Gull – still 1 or 2 on the freshmarsh today

The Volunteer Marsh and tidal pools were quiet again, as they have been in recent weeks. As we walked further along the path, we could hear a Whimbrel calling and we picked it up distantly flying west. Out on the beach, the tide was out and the rocks exposed. A scan through the scope revealed several Bar-tailed Godwits feeding amongst them, including a rather bright orange bird still mostly in summer plumage.There were also several Curlews picking about the rocks and on closer inspection a single Whimbrel was in amongst them. We could see its smaller size, slimmer build and when it turned towards us its rather contrasting dark crown with pale central stripe.

Out on the sea, just beyond the rocks, a single black drake Common Scoter was diving. We could just make out the bright yellow stripe on the front of its bill. A little further east, we picked up four Eider close inshore as well. They drifted past us and we could see they included three 1st summer drakes and a single female.

There were some dark clouds gathering from behind us as we stood on the beach, but the forecast has said there was less than a 5% chance of rain in the afternoon. Needless to say, it did start to rain anyway! Thankfully it didn’t rain very hard and passed over very quickly with the brisk wind, just a very quick shower, so we barely got damp and were quickly dry again. As the cloud passed over, there were lots of Sandwich Terns feeding offshore. A last scan revealed two smart summer plumage Turnstones on the beach. Then it was time to head back.

IMG_6961Red-crested Pochard – a red-billed drake moulting into eclipse plumage

The pool at Patsy’s Reedbed was mostly quiet apart from six Red-crested Pochards. It was easy to pick out the drakes by their bright, coral red bills but they are already advanced in the moult to drab eclipse plumage. They still retained remnants of summer plumage, with a variable tuft of golden yellow on the front of the crown the only remaining trace of their previously rather smart punk haircuts.

P1050568Marsh Harrier – flew inland to hunt, over Patsy’s Reedbed

While we were there, a Marsh Harrier flew over past us and headed off inland, presumably to hunt. Something, possibly another harrier, flushed a huge flock of waders off the marshes towards Brancaster. In particular, we could see that there were lots of Curlew out there. From the resulting melee, several Spoonbills flew over – the first one carried straight over the freshmarsh and off towards the saltmarsh at Thornham, and then another two, an adult and a juvenile flew west over the Parrinder Hide. Unfortunately it was then time to head back to give everyone a chance to get something to eat and prepare for the evening’s activity.

Nightjar Evening

We met again later on and headed down towards the coast first. Almost immediately, we found our first Barn Owl out hunting. It quartered over the same field repeatedly, working its way round and round methodically, hovering, occasionally dropping down but repeatedly coming up empty-talonned. We watched it doing this for several minutes, before it then moved off to hunt elsewhere.

P1050606Barn Owl – the first of several this evening

We drove on and parked and then walked out across the marshes. Another Barn Owl was up almost immediately, but disappeared away from us behind some trees. Then a second appeared, again rather distant, and flew out along bank further ahead of us, hunting.

P1050660Barn Owl – fantastic views of hunting birds this evening

Suddenly we could hear all the House Martins alarm calling and we turned round to see a Sparrowhawk flying over. A Marsh Harrier appeared as well and flew away inland pursued by a noisy Oystercatcher. We could hear Bearded Tits calling from the reeds , so we climbed up onto bank from where we could get a good look over them. We could still hear pinging on and off, and after a short while we picked up first one juvenile, then a second, then a third climbing up the reed stems. They perched up for a while in the lovely evening sunlight and we watched them on and off for several minutes, climbing up and dropping back into cover. Then a male Bearded Tit appeared. It too climbed up to the top of reeds, but unfortunately rather than perching out it flew quickly, followed close behind by first a female and then a single juvenile, away over the bank.

P1050649Barn Owl – one bird in particular kept flying back past us with prey

We walked out a little further, and suddenly we picked up the Barn Owl we had seen distantly along the bank earlier coming back towards us carrying prey. It flew straight past us, oblivious to our presence giving us cracking close views. It was obviously taking food back for its young. A short while later, the same Barn Owl came past us again, this time heading back out to what was clearly its favoured hunting ground. We stood and watched it do this three times, flying past us with prey and then back out to resume hunting again shortly after. The evening light was stunning and it was awesome to watch.

P1050619Barn Owl – heading back to the nest with a vole this time

Eventually we had to tear ourselves away and head off inland for the evening’s main billing. It was a nice bright evening, but perhaps a bit cool. The heath was a little quiet at first. Then, bang on cue, a Nightjar began calling. All we had was calling at first, and it was rather slow to start churring this evening. It called several times, paused, and called several times more.

Then suddenly the Nightjar flew out and landed on a tree stump in front of us. It sat there in full view for about ten minutes, looking around, stretching. We got great scope views of it. Even better, while it was sitting there, a female Nightjar flew out and fluttered round him. When she appeared, he spread his wings and tail, flashing his bright white wing and tail patches. We could see her much plainer wings and tail in contrast. Stunning stuff.

IMG_6965Nightjar – perched up on a stump for about 10 minutes this evening

He only churred briefly from this post, but eventually dropped down into the gorse and started churring more consistently. We could hear another male Nightjar churring in the distance and somehow the first managed to get round behind us and started churring on that side of his territory in response. A Woodcock flew right overhead, roding – its squeaky call alerted us to its incipient arrival. We could also hear a Tawny Owl calling from the trees away in the distance.

Then another Nightjar flashed past us in the gathering gloom, only about ten feet away. We turned to follow it, and it flew low overhead hunting, jinking from side to side after flying insects. With the light fading, and after such great views, we decided to call it a night.