The second day of a long weekend of Autumn tours today. With the wind in the east, we had hopes that there might be some fresh migrants in from the continent. We drove round to Holkham and parked at Lady Anne’s Drive to explore the woods.
The walk west along the inner edge of the pines was quiet at first. There were a few tits in the trees, but it was cool in the east wind this morning. Salts Hole had several Little Grebes as usual – at least 5 today. We could hear them, like slightly maniacal laughter, as we walked along the path. The calls of the Pink-footed Geese also provided a near constant soundtrack.
At Washington Hide, we climbed up the boardwalk to look in the sycamores. The wind was catching the trees on the far side of the gap, and there was consequently little activity there today. As we turned back towards the hide, we could see a large white shape out on the water below – the Great White Egret. It has been around for about a month and a half now, but it was still nice to see it out in the open on the pool today.
We could hear Long-tailed Tits calling further along, as we watched the Great White Egret. We thought they might come our way, but the trees along the edge of the path were obviously more sheltered, so we walked back down and along to where they were feeding. We watched them for a while, hoping we might find something different with the flock – but as well as the Long-tailed Tits, it was just the usual Blue, Great and Coal Tits, Goldcrests and Treecreepers.
After the flock had passed through, we continued west, exploring all the most likely areas. In the trees behind Meals House, we came across another tit flock. The sycamores here look ideal feeding grounds for a lost visitor from the east, but it was not to be today. The main recurring theme along the trees was Goldcrest – there seemed to be a lot in here today, with the resident birds presumably joined by migrants from the continent. A few Siskin and Redpoll flew over the pines, calling.
We were past the crosstracks when we heard a Yellow-browed Warbler calling loudly from the sallows ahead of us. It was on the far side, where it was sunny, at first but eventually made its way through and we could see it flicking around amongst the leaves. Then suddenly it took off and disappeared west. We could hear it calling again, some way further along the path.
We followed it and found the Yellow-browed Warbler feeding in the top of a young oak tree by the path. It was not hard to relocate, because it was calling so often! It took off again and flew high west, dropping down again further along. It did this several times before it landed in a thicker group of sallows where a lone Chiffchaff was calling. We could see the Chiffchaff feeding around some ivy, and the Yellow-browed Warbler appeared next to it. At this point, the latter stopped calling and appeared to settle down to feed in the sallows, at which point we lost sight of it. There had been a Yellow-browed Warbler in the same area earlier in the week, but the way this bird was behaving, it was tempting to think it might be a fresh arrival.
We carried on west to the end of the pines and walked out onto the edge of the dunes. We had met a couple of other birders along the path, and the news from the dunes was that they had not seen anything of note out there. We had hoped to catch up with the Ring Ouzels which had been around the bushes here, but we learnt later that Holkham staff had been working there yesterday – presumably the birds had moved on. Even when one of the wardens drove through the area, nothing of note came out. We did see a couple of male Blackcaps feeding in the brambles.
News came through that someone had seen a Red-breasted Flycatcher back at Washington Hide, so we decided to make our way back there to try to see it. Unfortunately, it turned out that it had only been seen briefly and had disappeared across the path and out into the bushes on the National Nature Reserve. We had a look round some likely spots, in case it had made its way back to the trees, but it was not seen again. We did hear another Yellow-browed Warbler calling from the trees near Salts Hole.
It was time to head back to the car for lunch, and afterwards we made our way back east. Having spent the morning scouring the tit flocks in the woods, a bit of water with waders and wildfowl seemed like a good way to spend the afternoon. However, as we walked along the path to Stiffkey Fen, we could hear yet more Long-tailed Tits and Goldcrests calling!
Stiffkey Fen itself has been very full of water for the last couple of months, despite all the money invested in new sluices. It has proven popular with the vast horde of Greylag Geese and associated white farmyard geese though. There have been the odd few Pintail on here recently and the same was true today. The drakes are now starting to emerge from eclipse plumage and a couple had the beginnings of the chocolate brown head and white neck pattern. There were lots of Pintail on here today – we counted at least 95 hiding amongst the Greylags, a very respectable total. There were also several Wigeon and Teal, with a couple of Gadwall and a Shoveler in with them.
With the water levels so high, waders are thin on the ground (not that there is really any ground left to be thin on!). There were still a few Lapwing roosting, standing almost up to their bellies in water. A couple of Redshank dropped in. A single juvenile Ruff was on the tiny remains of one of the islands, where the vegetation was still showing above the flood.
There were more waders out on the other side of the seawall. A couple of Redshank and a Curlew were feeding in the muddy channel, with more Redshank and a couple of winter plumaged Grey Plover on the wider expanse of mud further along. We walked round to the corner to scan the harbour. There were lots of Oystercatcher as usual, but a lot more small waders out here today as well. These included a liberal scattering of dumpy grey Knot, some little groups of smaller, darker Dunlin, and further over on the edge of the water, as least 20 sparkling silvery Sanderling. A few Turnstone were grubbing around among the cockles and other shells.
There were plenty of Brent Geese out in the harbour. When the birds return from Russia, they like to feed out on the saltmarshes on Eel Grass at first, turning increasingly to grazing pasture and winter wheat fields only as the winter progresses. We could see lines of Brent Geese flying in over the sea, out beyond Blakeney Point, presumably more birds returning for the winter. As they got past the Point, several of them turned into the wind, and flew in to the harbour to join the others already out there. While we were enjoying the spectacle out in the harbour, a Kingfisher sped past, changing its mind and turning round on the edge of the mudflats, flying back in along the channel.
As we walked back along the path beside the Fen, the sun came out and it was suddenly quite warm out of the fresh east wind. We had not seen so many insects today, but there were more now. A bright orange Comma butterfly was feeding on the overripe blackberries and a couple of Common Darter dragonflies were basking on the wooden post by the stile.
We had time for one last stop so pulled in at the start of the middle track at Warham Greens and made our way down towards the front. A Common Buzzard looked slightly out of place sat on top of the barn roof on the way down. More in keeping, certainly with the day’s activity, was the flock of Long-tailed Tits which made its way down the path ahead of us and the Goldcrests calling from the hedges. It was nice walking quietly along the track until we found ourselves pursued along the path by a huge convoy of vehicles. It was a disparate birding group – some cars were left scattered in the gateways, others continued gingerly to the end of the rutted track – which them gathered en masse only just beyond the gate at the end.
We made our way past them, and down to the pit. We had hoped their might be some late migrants, but the bushes were largely quiet. There were a few Chaffinches and Goldfinches. However, the highlight was when a single Lesser Redpoll flew in and landed in the trees with them briefly.
There was more activity out on the saltmarsh – lots of Little Egrets, flocks of Golden Plover and Curlew. A couple of Marsh Harriers were tussling out towards East Hills. Then the ringtail Hen Harrier appeared again, flying in low over the saltmarsh from the direction of Wells. We watched it as it worked its way towards us, flashing the white square at the base of its uppertail. It came right across in front of us, swooping a couple of times at something unseen amongst the Suaeda bushes, before dropping down onto the saltmarsh out of view. It seemed like a great way to end the day, so with the light fading we made our way back past the now dwindling crowd and up the path passed their abandoned vehicles.