Day 5, the final day, of a 5 day Autumn Tour today. With the wind having gone round to the east yesterday, good conditions to bring us birds in from the continent, we headed out in search of migrants at Holkham. It was another glorious day, sunny and warm – great weather to be out birding.
It was still early when we arrived at Lady Anne’s Drive, so we had no trouble parking. We could see a flock of Pink-footed Geese out on the grazing meadows and both Common Buzzard and Marsh Harrier circling over. We walked west along the path on the inside edge of the pines.
It was quiet at first in the trees, where it was still quite cool in the shade. Several small flocks of Siskin flew over calling, perhaps as likely to be feeding in the pines now as on the move. It was beautiful looking out over the grazing marshes from the edge of Salts Hole, which was flat as a mill pond today. A couple of Little Grebes were out diving in the middle and laughing maniacally (or that’s what their calls sounded like!).
Beyond Salts Hole, the trees either side of the path open out a little and we started to pick up more birds. A Chiffchaff was calling from the trees. Half way to Washington Hide, we picked up a call ahead of us which we recognised – like a Goldcrest, but sharper. It was flitting around in a holm oak and hard to see amongst the dark leaves, but we saw its head poke out and could see a white supercilium – it was a Firecrest. We spent some time trying to see it better, getting glimpses of it, before it flicked across to the trees the other side and silently disappeared.
The sycamores by Washington Hide can be very good for birds, so we climbed up the ramp and had a good look but they were quiet at first. As we walked back round to the hide, we spotted a white head protruding above the reeds with a large yellow bill attached. The Great White Egret has been around for about four weeks now, but it can be very elusive for such a large bird. So it was great to see it today. We sat down in the hide and watched it (or its head at least) before it disappeared completely behind the reeds.
The door to the hide was still open, so we could hear the tit flock as it approached through the trees. We went back out and started scanning through the Long-tailed Tits, Blue Tits, Treecreepers, etc. Then we heard the call, like a shrill, slurred Chiffchaff, from further along the sycamores. We hurried along and eventually picked up the Yellow-browed Warbler up in the tops. It was hard to see well at first, in and out of the leaves, calling occasionally. Then it flew across to the more isolated trees by the hide where it was much easier to get everyone on – we could see the bright supercilium and two pale wing bars. It fed there for a few seconds before the tit flock headed off east and it went after them. A great start to the day, especially having missed a couple of Yellow-browed Warblers yesterday – and even better to find one of our own!
We continued on west along the path, stopping by Meals House to look at the sycamores there. As we stood behind the house, another Yellow-browed Warbler flew in from the west and dropped into the trees in front of us. It looked like it was a fresh arrival, because it promptly flew back again past us. Just round the corner, what we presumed was the same Yellow-browed Warbler called from a small birch tree on the south side of the path. We got cracking views of this one as well. And while we were watching it, yet another Yellow-browed Warbler started calling from further back in the trees on the other side of the path. Wow!
This looks like it will probably be a good year for Yellow-browed Warblers in the UK. On their way from Siberia to SE Asia, they are blown across in our direction in variable numbers each autumn. After the earliest record for Norfolk earlier in the month, and large numbers first in Scandinavia and then in the Northern Isles, we could be on for big numbers here this year if conditions are right.
Continuing westwards, we found more tits and Goldcrests and several Chiffchaffs along the path. The west end of the pines was disappointingly quiet, as were the first dunes. We were told of a Redstart in the dunes but the poor directions (‘over those dunes in a bush’!) meant we went on a bit of a wild goose chase. A Stonechat perched up on the top of the bushes. By that stage, everyone was getting a bit hot and tired so we turned to head back. As we got to the west end of the pines, yet another Yellow-browed Warbler called once from the bushes on the south side of the fence – we were up to at least four for the day!
On our way back, we checked carefully through the flocks of Long-tailed Tits, Coal Tits and Goldcrests once again. We didn’t find any more at first, but just before the cross tracks we came across a small crowd gathered watching – yes, you’ve guessed it – a Yellow-browed Warbler. It was flitting around in the tops of the sycamores in the sunshine, hovering and flycatching – giving us another great view of its white striped head and wings. As we all stood there, it gradually became clear that different parts of the crowd were actually looking at two different birds – there were two Yellow-browed Warblers at opposite sides of the same tree.
By this stage it was getting harder and harder to tell just how many Yellow-browed Warblers had arrived in Holkham Pines overnight. Were these latest two different again, or had two of the birds we had seen earlier moved along the pines? With no sign of the birds by Meals House or Washington Hide, perhaps the latter. We lost sight of the birds in the sycamore and a couple of seconds later we heard a Yellow-browed Warbler calling from the trees on the other side of the path. It was just amazing to see so many of these delightful little sprites today, flitting around in the sunshine.
We were tipped off that the Great White Egret had moved to the pool by Joe Jordan Hide, so we popped in there next. It was rather more distant than we had seen the business end of it this morning, but we could see the rest of it now!
The arrival of large numbers of Pink-footed Geese has been a real feature of the last couple of days. There was already a large number on the grazing marshes from Washington Hide as we walked out this morning. They were very noisy and rather jumpy, constantly being spook and flying between the meadows. From the Joe Jordan Hide we were scanning the sky for raptors when we spotted another huge skein of Pink-footed Geese about 1,000 strong flying in over the fields beyond. They made their way steadily in and turned into the wind to drop down towards the grazing marshes, whiffling as they did so to lose height. Presumably fresh in from the north, perhaps straight from Iceland.
We made our way back to the car from there and, after a pit stop in Wells, headed along the coast to Warham Greens. We stopped at the middle track today and ate our lunch, before wandering down to the end. There were a few tits and Goldcrests in the hedges. We could see a couple of people in the field by the pit, so we turned the other way towards the whirligig.
The wind had picked up a little and it was a bit more exposed out on the front. There were very few birds around in the hedges and bushes today. Out on the saltmarsh, we could see lots of Golden Plover and Curlew, but no sign of the hoped-for Whimbrel today. A single Bar-tailed Godwit circled round with the Golden Plover when they took to the air. We could hear Greenshank calling, and eventually found one roosting on the edge of one of the small pools, its white head and underparts really shining in the sun. A very smart male Marsh Harrier flew in from the saltmarsh and over the hedge in front of us.
Heading back the other way, the pit was very quiet – most of the sylvia warblers seem to have cleared out in the recent fine weather. We had been told of a Pied Flycatcher at Garden Drove so we continued our way west. When we got there we found it had been showing very well but had just completely disappeared. Another flock of tits and Goldcrests was making its way down along the hedge by the track, but the flycatcher was not to be found with them.
We stood in the sun and most of the group decided it was a good opportunity to sit down on the grass and enjoy the warmth. While they did, we walked quietly back down the track to the wood at the end. By now, the tits were in the trees here and as we stood and watched the Long-tailed Tits flycatching in the sycamores, a Yellow-browed Warbler appeared in the tops briefly. Perhaps the bird we had missed yesterday or perhaps a new arrival, given the number which it appears had come in overnight.
When we got back to the rest of the group, there was still no sign of the Pied Flycatcher at first. One of them had walked further up and whistled us over as it finally showed itself again. We watched it preening in the sunshine and flycatching along the edge of the field. It was a lovely way to end a very successful tour.