Monthly Archives: November 2015

26th November 2015 -Raptor Quest

A Private Tour today in North Norfolk. The main reason for the day was to go to the Harrier roost in the afternoon. That left the morning open for some other birding. When we met up first thing, the mention of Pallid Harrier was met with an enthusiastic response so we decided to start the day up at Snettisham to see if we could catch up with it.

It was a misty morning as we drove west towards the Wash. Several small groups of Pink-footed Geese were flying inland from the coast to feed. There had been a Waxwing by the main road in Snettisham earlier in the morning, but there was no sign of it by the time we got there. A quick drive round the immediate area looking for likely berry bushes produced a pair of Mistle Thrush and a Green Woodpecker, which flew over the road and disappeared into a garden. However, we didn’t spend too long looking as we wanted to get out to the edge of the Wash to look for the Harrier.

The sun was already starting to burn the mist off as we arrived on the seawall. A large cloud of Golden Plover was swirling around out over the Wash and we watched as they settled themselves back onto the mud.

P1130008Golden Plover – a vast flock swirling round over the Wash

We made our way quickly down to the southern end of the RSPB reserve, past the last of the pits, where a small crowd had gathered to scan the saltmarsh for the Harrier, although there had been no sign of it so far. Still, it was a glorious morning to be looking out over the vast mudflats of the Wash. The tide was out, but there were still a few waders to see – Bar-tailed Godwit, Grey Plover, Dunlin and Curlew.

We could hear Pink-footed Geese calling and further out, in the mist, we could make out long lines of grey birds out on the mudflats. As the mist cleared, we could see they were thousand upon thousand of Pink-footed Geese. Normally the Pink-footed Geese roost out on the Wash overnight and fly inland to feed on the fields during the day. But last night was a full moon, and when the moon is full the geese reverse their habits, feeding during the night and roosting during the day. They spent all the morning standing out on the mudflats, with small groups occasionally circling round before landing back down again.

P1130019Pink-footed Geese – after full moon, spent the day out on the Wash today

A Common Buzzard was perched out on a fence post across the saltmarsh and several Marsh Harriers flew back and forth, but it seemed there was no sign of the Pallid Harrier. It has been present here for over a week now but has been seen most reliably in the afternoon. We wanted to visit the raptor roost at Warham later today, so we had to try our luck at Snettisham this morning. As the sun burnt of the mist and seemed to warm the air a little, the raptor activity appeared to increase.

We decided to have a walk round towards the seawall, but we hadn’t got very far when we saw some signs of excitement among a few people further ahead of us. When we caught up with them, it seemed like it had all been over nothing until somebody spotted a bird of prey sitting on a post half hidden among the Suaeda bushes. We were still looking into the sun, but it appeared to have a pale collar – it was the Pallid Harrier! We made our way up onto the seawall from where the light was a bit better.

IMG_3217Pallid Harrier – appeared on a post as the sun burnt off the mist

The Pallid Harrier perched on the post for several minutes, looking around. We could see its pale collar and solid dark neck sides (the ‘boa’), and the small pale patches above and below the eye. It started preening and we could see the white patch at the base of its tail. Then it took off and flew low over the bushes – the very pointed wings were particularly noticeable, much slimmer than a Hen Harrier. Then it flew up over the seawall and disappeared over the other side. What a great bird!

While we were up on the seawall watching it, we heard a flutey call behind us – a Woodlark was flying over. As we started to make our way back, our attention was drawn to a Spoonbill out on the saltmarsh on the edge of the Wash. It had disappeared into the vegetation at first, but shortly after emerged again and even put its head up so we could see its spoon-shaped bill. Most of the Spoonbills which were here in the summer have long departed. It is not unknown for one to spend the winter here, but it is still unusual.

P1130026The Wash – it was a beautiful day to be out at Snettisham

We made our way slowly back, stopping to scan the mud from time to time. With the sun out and blue skies above, it was a stunning view. We could see the vaste hordes of Pink-footed Geese clearly now. We didn’t have a chance to count them, but there have been at least 11,000 here in recent weeks. The Wash is famous for its vast flocks of Knot, but most of the waders were miles out along the water’s edge, given that the tide was out. A single Knot was feeding along the mud along the near edge of the vegetation.

IMG_3255Knot – only one was close in, most were far out over the mud today

There were lots of ducks out on the mud as well. In the tidal channel, below a large flock of Mallard closer to us, we could see a couple of Wigeon. Further out were massed ranks of Teal and a large number of Pintail as well.

As we walked back along the path, the flock of Golden Plover would periodically shoot up into the air and wheel round calling, before dropping back down. Out on the mud, they positively shone in the sunshine, a golden streak across the flats.

P1130035Golden Plover – slowing in the sunshine, out on the mudflats

We stopped to have a look out on the pits. Amongst the Greylags and Mallards, there were several Goldeneye. A smart male surfaced nearby. Further over, looking back into the sun, a spiky-haired Red-breasted Merganser swam away from us and a couple of Little Grebes were diving. In all the excitement, the morning was slipping away so, with one eye on the clock and our plans for the afternoon, we decided to move on.

Heading back round the coast, our next stop was at Thornham. As we drove down to the harbour, the first thing we saw was a couple of Rock Pipits chasing each other around the boats and jetties.

P1130048Rock Pipit – on one of the jetties at Thornham Harbour

There has been a little flock of Twite here recently, and we had hoped to catch up with them quickly. We walked out along the seawall towards Holme, and there was no sign of them at first. A couple of Curlew were feeding out on the saltmarsh. Then a little flock of finches flew inland over the path ahead of us, and turned back towards Thornham. A short while later, we heard the distinctive call of a Twite and turned to see three flying towards us. They looked like they might land but, unfortunately turned and flew out across to the back of the saltmarsh.

We stood for a while and scanned the marshes either side. We could see a large flock of small birds, Linnet, out towards the beach. Suddenly a small falcon zoomed in low and scattered all the birds. A Merlin, it raced through and disappeared over the bank towards Holme. Lots of Skylarks and finches flew over to the grazing marshes. A promising looking flock of smaller finches landed in the top of a tree over towards Thornham and despite waiting for a while they seemed to show no sign of coming back our way. Only when we had walked all the way back did they fly off and made their way back to where we had just been waiting!

We didn’t want to waste too much time here, so we made our way back to the car. A couple of Brent Geese were feeding on the saltmarsh right next to the car park.

P1130057Brent Geese – feeding on the saltmarsh by the car park at Thornham

Heading on back east, we took a detour inland off the coast road and up to the hinterland behind Brancaster. There had been a Rough-legged Buzzard reported here earlier in the morning but, several hours later, it always felt like a slim chance it would still be there. We ate our lunch up on the high ground, scanning for raptors, but there was not a trace of it.

Back along the coast road after lunch, we made a quick stop at Holkham. There was an enormous number of Pink-footed Geese here today, out on the grazing meadows. As we had seen at Snettisham, they were presumably day-roosting today due to the full moon. We scanned the wetter fields and could see lots of Greylags and a couple of Canada Geese. It took us a while to find any White-fronted Geese today, but we did eventually.

P1130069Pink-footed Geese – out on the marshes during the day today

There were several Marsh Harriers out quartering the marshes and a Buzzard came in and landed in one of the tall trees in front of us. A juvenile Peregrine flew in towards us, carrying something it had caught in its talons. When it got to the trees, a Sparrowhawk flew up and seemed to chase after it.

Once again, we made our way on east and stopped at Warham. On the way, a Barn Owl was out quartering over a grassy field by the roadside. We parked and walked down towards the coast. The hedges either side of the track once again held quite a few Blackbirds and the odd Song Thrush. A few tits and a couple of Goldcrests working their way along ahead of us. The weedy cover strips along the edges of the fields seemed to contain a few finches and buntings – including Linnets, Reed Buntings and several Yellowhammers.

Down at the front, we stopped and scanned the saltmarshes. It didn’t take long before a Hen Harrier appeared, a ringtail (a generic term for a juvenile or adult female). It made its way west along the far edge of the saltmarsh towards East Hills. Shortly after, a second ringtail Hen Harrier appeared. There were also a few Marsh Harriers around, circling over the marshes getting ready to roost.

A small falcon appeared, then chased by a second. One of them perched up on the top of a post and we got it in the scope – a Merlin. It stayed for ages in the same place. We had seen the big flocks of waders way off in the distance, over on the beach, zooming around a couple of times – normally a sure-fire sign that a bird of prey is nearby. Eventually we found a Perergine perched out on the beach.

We had hoped to see a male Hen Harrier and finally one appeared, flying in over the short grass on the far side. It was a bit distant, but we got it in the scope – we could see it’s silvery grey body plumage and black wing tips. Pretty soon after that, we lost count of the number of Hen Harriers. It was hard to tell whether the next sighting was a new bird or one that we had already seen earlier. We certainly saw 1-2 grey males and 3-4 ringtails.

IMG_3263Linnet – a lively flock was in and out of the hedgerow behind us

There was a good size flock of Linnets buzzing in and our of the hedge behind us while we were there. A Fieldfare flew in over our heads, possibly a new arrival. We could see Hen Harriers flying back and forth out over the saltmarsh right to the last, but eventually the light got too poor and we decided to head back. We could hear a couple of Bullfinches calling on the way.

It had been another fantastic day – Pallid Harrier was the undoubted highlight, but it was great to see so many other birds as well.

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23rd November 2015 -Wildfowl & Waders

A Private Tour today in North Norfolk, a day of relaxed birding for beginners. Even though it wasn’t exactly tropical, the weather was kind with much lighter winds and even some sunshine at times.

We made our way along the coast to Titchwell first. Before it got too busy, we had a look around the overflow car park. Once again, there were lots of finches in the brambles – mainly Chaffinches and Greenfinches. But as we walked past the toilet block we could hear the delicate, mournful piping of Bullfinches and two flew over the road ahead of us and up into the top of the hedge, flashing their square white rumps. We could hear more in the brambles and walked quietly round to where we could see, but the Bullfinches were nervous today and flew up into the trees before we could get them in the scope. There were at least four, including two smart pink males. A Song Thrush feeding in the leaf litter down below was more obliging.

P1120793Song Thrush – feeding in the leaves in the overflow car park at Titchwell

Walking through the trees to the visitor centre, we came across a mixed flock of Long-tailed Tits and other tits going the other way. A Great Spotted Woodpecker flew away through the trees and landed briefly on a trunk. Round at the feeders, several Coal Tits kept darting in, grabbing a seed and darting back to the safety of the trees. A plainer pale brown bodied tit with a black cap and white face was doing the same thing, a Marsh Tit, though it was hard to follow it at times as in came in and out so quickly.

We spent some time looking at the finches on the feeders as well. There were plenty of Chaffinches, the colourful males with rusty-red underparts and grey caps, and the browner females. A few Greenfinches joined them. There were lots of Goldfinches in the alder trees above but three at least flew down to the feeders. We could hear Siskins calling, but couldn’t see any in the trees here. That’s because they were all in the alders along the start of the main footpath and we stopped there to admire them. A smart green, yellow and black male Siskin perched right in front of us for some time, picking at the alder cones.

P1120828Siskin – this male perched for some time in front of us

There were lots of birds on the move today. As we started out onto the reserve, a Grey Wagtail flew west over our heads calling. We had heard a couple of flocks of Redwings over the trees by the visitor centre and another flew over and out across the grazing meadow towards Thornham. Further along, their loud ‘chack-chack-chack’ calls alerted us to a long line of Fieldfares above our heads, flying west.

But the real star movers of the day were the Starlings. Flock after flock, many 100s of birds strong, came past us or over us. One estimate suggested that as many as 14,000 Starlings flew over Titchwell this morning, and we could certainly believe it. The birds are coming in for the winter from Northern Europe and, once they make it in over the sea and hit the coast, they seem to funnel westwards.

The drained grazing meadow pool looked quiet at first, but a couple of waders were over on the largest puddle at the back. Through the scope we could see they both had orangey-red legs. One was, as might be expected, a Redshank; the other was a winter adult Ruff, a common confusion species at this time of year. It was a great opportunity to study them side-by-side – noting in particular the plainer, darker grey back of the Redshank and more scalloped upperparts of the Ruff, with contrasting pale edges to its feathers.

Our next stop was Island Hide. The water levels on the freshmarsh are being raised for the winter, but there were still lots of ducks and gulls to look through, and a fair selection of waders.

IMG_3175Avocets – a small party are hanging on, despite the colder weather

Most of the Avocets have gone south for the winter, but a small number continue to cling on here, despite the colder weather. A line of about a dozen were asleep over towards the back of the freshmarsh. A flock of Black-tailed Godwits flew in to join them. Lapwings are always striking, with their green backs, black and white faces and spiky crests. As well as a few on the freshmarsh, we saw several flocks on the move, flying west today. Amongst the little parties of Dunlin was a single Ringed Plover. A Common Snipe were struggling to look camouflaged on a small island with little vegetation.

There are lots of ducks in for the winter now. The largest number out on the freshmarsh were Teal, mostly sleeping or feeding around the islands. There were plenty of Gadwall and Mallard too, the numbers of the resident birds swollen with migrants from the continent. Amongs them we found a few sleeping Shoveler. Most of the Wigeon were on the islands over towards the back, but a pair were with the other ducks much closer, giving us a better view of the drake with the creamy yellow stripe up over his forehead. The Brent Geese kept dropping in for bathe and preen and then flying back out again to feed on the saltmarsh beyond.

IMG_3179Brent Geese – come into the freshmarsh to bathe and preen

We were mostly looking the other way, but some squealing behind us alerted us to a Water Rail flying across in front of the reeds. Unfortunately, it disappeared straight in out of sight, but a second Water Rail then worked its way in and out along the front edge of the reeds.

Back up on the main footpath, we were told of some Shorelark out on Thornham Point. We had intended to have a look in at the Parrinder Hide, but with the sun shining through the hazy clouds we decided to carry straight on towards the beach first. We scanned the marshes and pools as we went.

The Volunteer Marsh was rather quiet today, apart from a few Redshank and Curlew and a lot of Shelduck. There was more activity around the tidal pools. Three Spotted Redshanks were up to their bellies in water, feeding feverishly. A Common Redshank next to them was great to compare – the Spotted Redshanks being much paler/whiter, with a longer, finer bill. The Avocet out here was awake and feeding, in and out between a couple of female Pintail. A Black-tailed Godwit right by the path was sporting a set of individually colour-coded rings which can be used to identify where it has been seen previously.

P1120911Black-tailed Godwit – sporting a set of colour rings

The tide was out when we got to the beach, so we walked out across the sand to get a better look at the waders down around the rocks. Several silvery grey and white Sanderling were running around on the beach like clockwork toys. The much darker Turnstones picking around the seaweed are much more measured in their gait. There were lots of Oystercatchers out on the sand too. Around the rocks, we could see several Bar-tailed Godwits, paler and streakier backed than their Black-tailed cousins, and small groups of dumpy grey Knot.

P1120949Turnstone – one of many down on the beach

We decided to walk west along the beach to Thornham Point. The sand was littered with shells – razor clams, cockles, mussels, whelks, clams and more. The storms of the last few days have washed huge quantities up onto the beach and there were loads of birds enjoying the bounty, mostly gulls of various shapes and sizes, but many of the waders as well. We had hoped to catch up with the Shorelarks, but they had flown off by the time we got there.A quick search of the point produced a pair of Stonechats in the bushes.

As we started to make our way back, three Snow Buntings flew overhead, attempting to land on the edge of the dunes before realising there were too many people and disappearing off towards Brancaster. A little while later, six Snow Buntings came back the other way along the shoreline.

A couple of trawlers were fishing offshore, with a huge flock of gulls following in their wake. In with them were a couple of Gannets, a mostly white adult and a slaty juvenile. Four Red-breasted Mergansers were on the sea close inshore and a couple of Goldeneye were also, a bit further along.

Scanning out to sea, we picked up several lines of Starlings coming in over the water, as well as seeing a few flocks flying west over the beach. A single Grey Heron was also seen flying in over the sea, another bird presumably escaping the approaching winter on the continent. Even when it is cold here, we should remember it is generally much colder still in northern Europe through the winter.

IMG_3192Kingfisher – feeding around the edge of the tidal pools

We were starting to make our way back from the beach when we noticed a small bird perched in the bushes overhanging the edge of the tidal pools. Even silhouetted against the sun we could tell what it was, a Kingfisher. It flew a short distance further along, perched, hovered over the water and dived in, then flew along further still. It was only when we walked down the main path past it and looked back that we could really see its colouration, especially when it flew across over the water to the other side flashing bright blue as it went.

It was getting late by this stage, so we made our way back to the car, pausing briefly to admire an Avocet feeding up to its belly in the deep channel on the Volunteer Marsh alongside the footpath. A couple of Goldcrests were feeding in the bushes in the car park while we enjoyed a late lunch.

P1120961Avocet – feeding in the deep channel on the Volunteer Marsh

After lunch, we made our way back along the coast road. It was a lovely bright afternoon, so perhaps it was not a surprise to see a few Barn Owls out feeding in the meadows, particularly after a succession of wet and windy nights. One in particular was flying back and forth right by the road and, when we stopped to admire it, we noticed a second Barn Owl further back in the same field.

We stopped by the main road at Holkham for a scan of the freshmarsh below. There were lots of small groups of Pink-footed Geese flying back and forth. Down in the wet grassy field, among the bigger flocks of Greylag Geese, we picked out several small groups of White-fronted Geese. Smaller and darker than the Greylags, the adult Whitefronts have distinctive white surrounding the base of their bills and variable black belly bars. There were also a couple of Canada Geese and a pair of Egyptian Geese to add to the variety. Nearby, the very pale, white-breasted Common Buzzard was perched in one of its usual trees.

IMG_3197Pink-footed Geese – a few were feeding along Lady Anne’s Drive

Down at Lady Anne’s Drive, we stopped again to have a good look at the Pink-footed Geese. There were several small groups feeding in the fields by the road. Over the other side, on the edge of the field near the hedge, a little covey of four Grey Partridge were feeding quietly.

We had planned to walk along to Washington Hide to watch the Pink-footed Geese arriving to roost. Whilst a few may be here all day, most of the birds fly inland to feed and return here in the evening. However, we were still standing on Lady Anne’s Drive when we heard a loud cacophony of geese approaching and several thousand geese flew in from the west and dropped down onto the fields. It was quite a sight.

P1120973Pink-footed Geese – thousands of birds coming in to roost

Still, we made our way west along the path on the edge of the pines, pausing briefly to admire the Little Grebes on Salts Hole. From Washington Hide, we could see the huge flocks of Pink-footed Geese out in the grass towards the back. Some smaller flocks were closer, and in with them we found a Barnacle Goose – unfortunately a feral bird accompanied by an odd hybrid.

As we sat in Washington Hide, a couple more huge skeins of Pink-footed Geese flew in and dropped down to join the others already there. Several Marsh Harriers were circling over the reeds in front of the hide, waiting to go to roost. It had clouded over by this stage and the light was starting to go, so we decided to make our way back to the car and call it a day.

21st November 2015 – The North Wind Blows

The second of two days of tours today, based in North Norfolk. The North Wind was blowing, and blowing hard, bringing with it some squally and at times wintry showers. Not all the group felt up to braving the weather today, after such a successful day yesterday, but those that did enjoyed some more exciting birds.

With the rain supposed to ease off early morning, we headed to Titchwell first where we could get some shelter in the hides. There were a good number of Blackbirds and a Song Thrush along the entrance track, presumably some being more birds which had arrived from the continent yesterday or overnight (like the ones we had seen coming in at Cley yesterday). It was breezy in the car park, which was quieter than usual, but there was some shelter here for the birds. A tit flock was feeding in the corner – Long-tailed Tits, Blue Tits and Coal Tits and a couple of Goldcrests with them.

Despite the conditions, we had a look in the overflow car park. There were not so many birds in here today, just a few Chaffinches and Greenfinches feeding on the brambles. However, it was worth the quick circuit we gave it as a pair of Bullfinches flew up from the brambles calling. Even better, rather than flying off, they perched for a while, the male flying down repeatedly into the brambles to feed on the remaining blackberries.

P1120737Bullfinch – a pair were in the car park feeding on blackberries

By the path through the trees to the visitor centre, we caught up with the tit flock again. They were feeding low down in the bushes, and a Coal Tit in front of us was suddenly joined by a Marsh Tit. It dropped right down into the litter below and started to feed among the leaves. The feeders by the visitor centre were rather quiet today (apart from a Grey Squirrel and a Brown Rat), so we made our way out onto the reserve.

It was properly windy out on the main path, and spitting with rain, so we got our heads down and made straight for Island Hide. The first thing we saw when we got there was two swans out on the water. A quick look through the scope confirmed they were Whooper Swans, with lots of yellow on the bill extending down to a point. There are lots of swans on the move at the moment – both Whoopers and Bewick’s – coming in for the winter as it starts to get colder in northern Europe. These two Whooper Swans had probably stopped off for a rest and some respite from the wind on their journey.

IMG_3138Whooper Swans – these two had sought refuge on the freshmarsh

The water levels on the freshmarsh are being raised at the moment for the winter, but there are still some islands left exposed. These were packed with ducks and waders. The wildfowl were well represented, with lots of Wigeon, Teal, Mallard and Gadwall and a few Shoveler.

There were several little groups of Dunlin and in with them we could see a few Turnstone and Ringed Plovers. The latter two were probably taking shelter on here from the beach. A few hardy Avocets are hanging on here too – some were huddled down against the wind, but others were trying to feed up to their bellies in the rising water. The Black-tailed Godwits were mostly trying to sleep on the islands.

A squally shower passed over, moving quickly on the strong wind, and when it brightened up afterwards we made a quick dash for Parrinder Hide. Two Common Snipe on the island in front of the hide were a nice addition to the day’s list – always smart birds to see. A single Knot dropped in briefly with the Dunlin, but was spooked by some ducks and flew off again.

IMG_3113Common Snipe – two were on the island in front of Parrinder Hide

However, the highlight from here was a Water Pipit which worked its way along the edge of the water, at the bottom of the bank beyond the hide. When we first picked it up, it was some way back, but it came steadily closer, working its way carefully all round the dead weedy growth, picking in amongst it for food. We could see its pale off white underparts with neat black streaks and pale supercilium. The Water Pipit got almost down to the hide when it decided that was close enough and flew off past us calling.

IMG_3135Water Pipit – on the edge of the freshmarsh by Parrinder Hide

Despite the wind, the Marsh Harriers made an appearance over the reedbed, two pale-headed, chocolate brown young birds enjoying the wind. Then we made our way over to the other side of Parrinder Hide to have a look at the Volunteer Marsh.

It was hard on this side – the windows were wet and it was too windy to open them! Through the glass, we did manage to see a few more waders. Several Grey Plovers were seemingly unperturbed by the weather and were walking about on the mud as usual, as were a few Redshank. The Knot had sought shelter in the islands of vegetation, where we could see them occasionally as they moved through feeding. Two  Curlews had gone to sleep in the lee of the reeds.

It was while we were in here that we spotted some dark shapes up over the beach further over and through the scope we could see they were at least six Great Skuas. It was not raining at this stage, so we thought we might brave the walk out towards the beach and try our luck with a bit of seawatching. A few Little Auks had been reported flying past and this was a bird we really wanted to see.

We got half way there and were beaten back a short way to the Volunteer Marsh by another brief shower which came through, but then carried on undaunted. We got to the dunes and tucked ourselves down on the inland side, where we were surprisingly sheltered from the worst of the wind. From here, we scanned the sea, which was getting rather rough with some impressive breakers!

P1120757Titchwell Beach – the sea was rather rough today!

There was a big movement of skuas along the coast today, mostly Great Skuas. The ones we had seen from Parrinder Hide had moved on and at first there seemed to be no more coming through. We had to content ourselves with watching the big flocks of Kittiwakes which had been forced inshore, some coming right along the beach in front of us. There were little flocks of ducks moving past offshore. A Goldeneye flew past over the sand and a couple of Scaup went through a little further out over the breakers. Several flocks of Dunlin came past along the shore, buffeted in all directions by the gusting wind. The Sanderling were still toughing it out on the beach, running in and out of the foam.

We picked up three more rather distant Great Skuas making their way towards us from the direction of Scolt Head and, while we were waiting for them, we spotted three much smaller birds come skimming over the beach. Black above, white below, they came right towards us and straight past along the edge of the waves – three Little Auks, just the bird we had really been hoping to see.

Little Auks are only about the size of Starlings and two thirds the size of a Puffin. They nest on islands in the high Arctic and spend the winter at sea. They are very vulnerable to predation and rarely come inshore. Only after northerly storms in late autumn do you stand a good chance of seeing them further south, so this was the perfect day to see them.

While we had been watching the Little Auks, we lost sight of the three Great Skuas coming our way. However, more skuas then started to come through as some more squalls blew in and we ended up seeing a couple of good size flocks of Great Skuas pass through. We didn’t spend too long out at the sea today and, with our main target achieved, we beat a retreat back towards the visitor centre.

P1120790Black-tailed Godwit – feeding by the main path on the way back

Scanning from the path on the way back, we picked up a Greenshank sheltering at the back of the Tidal Pools. A very obliging Black-tailed Godwit was feeding right on the nearest edge of the Volunteer Marsh. We had planned to get back to the Visitor Centre for a hot drink to warm us up after our vigil, but when we got there we found it all closed up with the lights off. Very unusual. Then the door opened and we were told why – a power cut.

During lunch, we heard of a Little Auk which had been blown in onto some pools at Salthouse, so we started to make our way east to try to see it. Unfortunately, on our way there, we heard that it had been taken into care, so that plan was hastily aborted. We stopped at Holkham instead for a rethink. There were several groups of Pink-footed Geese still along Lady Anne’s Drive. Down at the far end, three Grey Partridge were feeding on the edge of the field.

IMG_3158Grey Partridge – 2 of the 3 by Lady Anne’s Drive, a pair

With a new member of the group having joined us today and keen to see a Firecrest, we nipped quickly along the path towards Salts Hole. In the bushes by the path just before we got there, we could hear Goldcrests calling and stopped to take a closer look. Suddenly a Firecrest dropped in as well – we could see its striking head pattern, with white supercilium and black eye stripe. It didn’t hang around long, just long enough for us to get a look at it, before darting across the path and into the trees.

We had planned all along to try to visit the harrier roost today. It was not the best weather for it, for us at least, but the harriers have to come in whatever the conditions. It seemed to have brightened up a bit and stopped raining, and it might have been wishful thinking but the wind seemed to have eased a little as well, so we decided to give it a go.

Walking along the track, there were lots of Blackbirds in the hedges either side, which flushed ahead of us as we walked. We could hear Redwing calling and one flew down the path ahead of us. A Fieldfare darted across in front of us, flashing its grey rump, and disappeared into the hedge the other side. The hawthorns here are laden with berries and presumably these birds were all trying to feed up after the long journey across the North Sea. Down at the bottom, something flushed from the bottom of the hedge by the path in a flurry of wings and crashed into the branches in a tangle, struggling to break through at first. A Woodcock, also probably fresh in from the continent, it finally escaped and flew up and back across the path.

It was very exposed on the edge of the saltmarsh, looking straight into the wind. At first it seemed bearable. A Merlin flashed across and into a flock of Starlings feeding on the ground, causing mass panic. A ringtail Hen Harrier was quartering the far edge of the saltmarsh right over towards East Hills and a second ringtail Hen Harrier flew up to join it, the two of them interacting for a few seconds before flying off. A little later, one of them flew back towards us along the edge of the saltmarsh, giving us a better view. Then the wind picked up again as some more wintry showers came in from the North Sea towards us. A straw poll voted for a hasty retreat, and we were walking back and in the shelter of the hedges again when a squally hail shower came over. We decided to call it a day.

It had been a successful day. Once again, despite the worst that the weather could throw at us, we had been out… and seen some very good birds!

20th November 2015 – The Calm Before The Storm

The first of two days of tours based in North Norfolk. The weather forecast was cloudy and breezy with the chance of wintry showers later on – it was mostly right today for once, but we were surprised to find some pleasant sunshine at times this morning.

We met in Wells and spent a brief moment looking at the harbour. There were some large groups of Brent Geese out on the saltmarsh or flying across to the main channel to bathe. One lone Brent Goose was swimming around in the water just in front of us, which gave us chance for a good look up close. It was one of our regular Dark-bellied Brent Geese, which come in from Russia to spend the winter here in good numbers.

IMG_3018Brent Goose – a regular Dark-bellied bird in the harbour this morning

There were several Marsh Harriers quartering out over the saltmarsh too. A few Little Egrets were fishing along the channel and a nice selection of waders were along the muddy edges – plenty of Redshank, a few Curlew, a Lapwing and a smart Grey Plover.

IMG_3025Grey Plover – feeding on the mud in Wells Harbour

We made our way east along the coast to Cley, which was our first proper destination for the morning. We had a quick look at the fields along Beach Road, but there was no sign of the flock of Brent Geese along there yet today. So we headed onto the reserve instead.

A Cetti’s Warbler sang half-heartedly from the bushes but wouldn’t how itself. Along the path to Bishop Hide, we could hear Bearded Tits calling. We thought it was a bit too windy to see them perched out on the tops, but we managed to find a female feeding on a seed head, though it wasn’t easy to see through the reed stems even in the scope.

As we walked out to the hide, a Merlin whisked past and powered away inland along the hedgeline. A little while later, from the hide, we saw a second Merlin chasing what was presumably a Meadow Pipit over towards the beach. They towered high into the sky, the pipit at first climbing steeply, then swerving wildly as the Merlin dived at it repeatedly, at times missing it by fractions. Finally the pipit dropped vertically towards the cover of the beach. The Merlin, presumably realising it might be about to lose its target, plunged down after it, and we lost sight of them behind the reeds.

The Marsh Harriers put on a good display too. There were at least six of them up at one point. One of the resident females perched nicely in the top of one of the bushes in the reedbed in the morning sun, so we could get her in the scope. Later, she quartered over the reeds right in front of the hide.

P1120664Marsh Harrier – this female flew right past the hide

There was a good selection of other birds out on Pat’s Pool. A small party of Dunlin were feeding feverishly on the mud round the edges of the islands. Further over, a group of Black-tailed Godwit were mostly asleep. Five hardy Avocets were easy to overlook, also asleep amongst the gulls – most of them have gone south for the winter, but a few choose to hang on here.

There are lots of ducks in now for the winter. A good number of Wigeon were grazing on the islands. There were fewer Teal out on the water here than in recent days, but a group of four smart drakes were quite close. Four Shoveler were asleep further over. But the prize for the smartest of all goes to the pair of Pintail – although the male was still not in full breeding plumage, with a few brown feathers still to be moulted and his long pin-shaped tail feathers a bit shorter than full length.

IMG_3033Pintail – this pair were on Pat’s Pool this morning

As we walked out of the hide, a male Stonechat was perched briefly on a dead stem by the reed screen but flew off as soon as it saw us. There are a few around the reserve at the moment and, when we got to the start of the East Bank, we found another pair along the edge of the path below. The male disappeared off along the reedy channel, but the female stayed put and spent some time flycatching from the bushes.

IMG_3052Stonechat – this female was one of several around Cley today

We could hear more Bearded Tits calling here but couldn’t see any at first. Again, it seemed unlikely they would come out given the wind. But then we spotted some movement along the mud at the bottom of the reeds opposite and realised there was a group of Bearded Tits feeding there. They didn’t hang around, and quickly disappeared out of view, but thankfully a few more followed along behind and we managed to get a cracking male in the scope. A Water Pipit was more elusive. It flew up calling from the mud as we first got up onto the bank and disappeared behind some reeds. It had found a sheltered spot and we only had another quick glimpse of it as it disappeared round a corner of the mud further along.

There were lots more ducks and a few Brent Geese on Pope’s Marsh. Scanning through them, the one addition to the day’s list we managed was a single Common Snipe feeding in the wet grass. Out on Arnold’s Marsh, we could see another big group of Dunlin and more Redshank, with a single Ringed Plover and Turnstone on one of the islands.

As we walked out towards the beach, a small falcon came flying towards us chasing something. As it got alongside us, we could see it was a Kestrel and it was chasing an exhausted Blackbird. The Blackbird dived into the reeds and the Kestrel hovered briefly overhead, before flying off. Out here, we assumed the Blackbird had probably just arrived in over the North Sea, coming here for the winter from Northern Europe. This was confirmed by what we saw on the beach. We were looking out to sea when we spotted another five Blackbirds battling in low over the waves into the wind – they made it safely in and over the beach.

It was windy out on the beach and the sea had quite a swell, but there was quite a lot of activity out there. A few Guillemots and Razorbills were riding out the waves offshore and more auks were whirring past over the waves left and right in ones and twos. Several Gannets were fishing offshore, folding back their wings and plunging into the water, both slate-grey juveniles and adults with black-tipped white wings. While we were watching one Gannet fly past, we spotted a Red-throated Diver riding the surf below it. Further out, a melee of gulls contained three darker shapes and a look through the scope revealed three Great Skuas harrying them.

There were a few ducks and geese battling in over the sea, presumably fresh in from the continent – a little party of four Teal, a pair of Gadwall, a couple of Brent Geese. However, the highlight was a single young Velvet Scoter which flew past, flashing white trailing edges to its wings and two bright white face spots as it went.

We were on our way back along the East Bank when we saw a large flock of Brent Geese come overhead and disappear off east, before circling back round and dropping down behind Walsey  Hills. We took a short detour along the road and down the footpath up to the fields behind there. We couldn’t see the Brent Geese at first, although a very noisy group of Pink-footed Geese were in the field further over behind the wood.

We climbed up to the top of the hill to get a better look and could see a few Brent Geese feeding on the winter wheat, but nothing like the number we had seen fly in. The ground here undulates and it was quickly clear that the flock had managed to hide themselves in a dip in the ground! We walked back down and then further along the footpath and the rest of the flock magically appeared. Even better, there on the front edge was our target – a Black Brant. Its brighter white flank patch positively glowed in the sunshine and we could see its better marked white collar when it raised its head.

IMG_3060Black Brant – the whiter collar and flanks give it away

We were edging our way along the path trying not to flush the flock. The birds had seen us, but seemed to start to settle. Then suddenly they panicked and all took to the air. The Black Brant came right over our heads, but also in the flock we saw another Brent Goose with a much paler belly than any of the others – a Pale-bellied Brent Goose. We thought at first we might actually have disturbed the geese, but then a man appeared over the hill, a walker coming along another footpath which ran right through the field where the geese were feeding. Typical timing! It would have been great to get a better view of all the subspecies of Brent Goose together.

We made our way back to the Visitor Centre for lunch. No sooner had we arrived than the Brent Goose flock flew in overhead from the fields behind and dropped down onto the reserve. We could see the Black Brant and the Pale-bellied Brent Goose in with them. While we were eating our sandwiches a Peregrine flew off the reserve and inland, carrying its own lunch! It had clearly just caught some unsuspecting bird out over the reserve.

After lunch, we had thought we might go out onto the new part of the reserve, ‘Salthouse Marshes’. We drove along to Iron Road, but the wind had picked up and was whistling across and there were people pounding in new fenceposts out along the track past Babcock Hide. We could see there were very few birds in front of the hide today. There were a few Ruff in with the Lapwing on the marshes by Iron Road though.

We drove back to Cley and down Beach Road again, as we had first thing this morning. While we were having lunch, it had looked like some of the Brent Geese had headed this way. Sure enough, about half way down Beach Road, we spotted a small flock of about 30 Brent Geese out on the grazing marshes. We pulled into the side and scanned with binoculars and once again the Black Brant immediately stood out from the throng, so we parked up and got the scope out. There was the Black Brant but, even better, there was the Pale-bellied Brent as well – the three (main?) subspecies of Brent Goose together in one small flock. What a treat!

IMG_3066Brent Geese – 3 subspecies togther: Black Brant, Pale- & Dark-bellied

Brent Geese of the various forms are found breeding all around the arctic, with Dark-bellied Brents breeding in central and west Siberia, Pale-bellied Brents breeding in Franz Josef Land, Svalbard, Greenland and the Canadian high arctic and Black Brants breeding in NE Canada, Alaska and far eastern Siberia. Dark-bellied Brent Geese winter commonly here – an estimated half the population winters in southern England. Black Brants are rare stragglers which should winter along the coasts of the Pacific.

A few Golden Plover were in the same field as the geese, but were very nervous and after circling around a couple of times and landing again, they flew off. After enjoying the geese, we drove on to the beach car park to turn around. An even larger flock of Golden Plover had now gathered in the Eye Field, hunched down in the grass face on into the wind. Their gold-spangled backs shone in the sunshine.

Next, we drove back west past Wells to Holkham. As we did so, we could see some very dark clouds being pushed past on the gusty wind. It was clearly raining hard out over the sea. When we got to Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see we were just about to catch the back edge of it. Rather than walk out to Washington Hide immediately , we decided to drive a little further west and scan the marshes.

We were pleased we did. Our first stop only yielded a few Greylags and a couple more Pink-footed Geese. However, on our next scan a tall white shape was apparent on the edge of one of the ditches – a Great White Egret. This bird has been present here since the end of August, but can be very elusive, particularly in the last few weeks, so it was great to catch up with it again today.

IMG_3077Great White Egret – in one of the ditches out on the grazing marsh

The Great White Egret flew across and landed on the grass next to a Grey Heron, a great side-by-side comparison. If anything, it was actually a little larger than the heron! The Grey Herons seemed to object to its presence and actually chased it off a couple of times, but it seemed to like the area and kept returning to the ditches here.

We had hoped to see some White-fronted Geese from here – that was the main reason for coming this way, and the egret was a surprise bonus. We were not disappointed as there were at least 30 scattered across the grass in front of the Great White Egret, once we had taken our eyes off it. Most of the White-fronted Geese were adults, with white blaze around the base of the bill and black belly bars, but there were also several plainer juveniles which lacked these diagnostic features. Nearby, a lone Barnacle Goose was accompanied by a rather odd looking hybrid – local feral geese.

IMG_3084White-fronted Geese – we could see at least 30 here today

The clouds moved through quickly and the skies cleared again while we were scanning the marshes, so we drove back down to Lady Anne’s Drive, stopping on the way to admire a little group of Pink-footed Geese in the field nearby. It was great to be able to look at them up close, and see the differences from all the other geese we had seen through the day.

IMG_3100Pink-footed Geese – nice close-up views along Lady Anne’s Drive

We set off to walk west along the edge of the pines to Washington Hide. However, we hadn’t gone very far before we heard the yelping of Pink-footed Geese behind us and turned to see several hundred flying in from the fields. They turned and dropped down onto the grazing marshes where we had been watching the others earlier. Just before we got to the pines, we heard a Chiffchaff calling and could just see it flicking around in the low brambles. Most of the Chiffchaffs have departed south for the winter, but in mild years there is often one or two which lingers in the pines.

We were just past Salts Hole when we heard Long-tailed Tits calling from the trees. We stopped to look at them and realised there were a few Goldcrests with them. Then a sharper call alerted us to the presence of a Firecrest as well, in fact two Firecrests. They were in the trees south of the track, looking towards the evening sky and the sun had already set, which meant it was harder to make them out clearly. Then they flew across and landed in a Holm Oak the other side of the track. They only stopped in there briefly, but this time we could see one of them more clearly. The male Firecrest flashed his orange crown stripe before disappearing back towards the pines.

We continued on to Washington Hide and could already see quite a few Pink-footed Geese already out on the grass. Unfortunately, the clouds were building once more and the light was starting to fade fast now. We decided to call it a day and make our way home. And a very nice day it had been, too!

P1120702Sunset – over Salts Hole at Holkham

15th November 2015 – Three Harrier Day

Day 3 of a long weekend of tours today, the last day. It was forecast to be windy, and that was certainly the case, gusting up to 48mph at times. It was also forecast to be mostly dry, but once again the Met Office let us down! At least it was just showers, and most of them were light. Still, it is worth going birding in almost any weather, because you never know what might turn up – and today was a very good case in point, with a surprise in store at the end of the day…

We started at Holkham. There were a few Pink-footed Geese along Lady Anne’s Drive as is usual at this time of year, loafing around on the grazing marshes, so we stopped to get a good look at them in the scope. Conveniently, there were some Greylag Geese nearby for comparison. We could see the smaller size, darker head and smaller darker bill of the Pink-footed Geese. We could also see their pink legs, if not their feet. A little further over were some feral Egyptian Geese as well.

IMG_2921Pink-footed Goose – we stopped to look at them along Lady Anne’s Drive

There was a big flock of Wigeon out by the pools along the road as well, along with a few Teal and Mallard. A few raptors were even braving the wind – a couple of Marsh Harriers circling distantly and a Common Buzzard hanging on the wind over towards Wells. A second Common Buzzard was more sensibly perched in a tree nearby.

IMG_2886Common Buzzard – perched in the trees by Lady Anne’s Drive this morning

We parked down at the north end – there were not so many cars there this morning – and walked out through the pines towards the beach. It was more sheltered on the north side of the trees and we could hear Coal Tits calling as we walked. There were several tiny Goldcrests feeding down low in the brambles by the path and we paused to watch one just in front of us – the UK’s smallest native bird, it was probably a struggle for them to find food in the conditions this morning.

We walked out across the saltmarsh and flushed a Rock Pipit from beside the path, which flew off calling. Several Skylarks also took off as we passed. There was a small party of about 20 Brent Geese feeding nearby, so we stopped to have a quick look at them. One was subtly different – a fraction darker on the back and belly, with a slightly whiter flank patch and collar – but it was not as striking as a Black Brant, like the one we had seen the other day. This was a Black Brant hybrid or intergrade – the offspring of a Black Brant which had paired with one of our more typical Dark-bellied Brent Geese several years ago. Brent Geese are remarkably site faithful, often returning to exactly the same place every winter. This Black Brant hybrid is a regular in these parts, so it was nice to see it back here again.

IMG_2899Black Brant hybrid – among the Dark-bellied Brent Geese

We watched them for a while, and the Black Brant hybrid reacted aggressively when any of the other geese got too close. It gradually became clear it was part of small family group, paired to a regular Dark-bellied Brent Goose and with a couple of juveniles in tow. It would be interesting to see what these birds look like when they are grown up, but it seems likely that they are largely indistinguishable from normal Dark-bellied Brents, which can be rather variable in appearance themselves anyway.

Out on the beach, we found some shelter in the lee of the dunes and scanned the sea. It was much rougher than yesterday, but similarly quiet bird-wise at first. After a while we picked up several Great Crested Grebes – and a couple of them were very close inshore, only just off the beach. A Red-throated Diver was a bit further out and diving constantly, which meant it was nearly impossible to see among the waves. We walked further west and stopped to scan again. This time, a smaller grebe further along caught our attention – looking through the scope we could see it was a winter plumage Slavonian Grebe, a scarce winter visitor here and a nice bird to see.

We made our way even further west, to try to get a better look at the Slavonian Grebe. We got another brief glimpse of it and decided to brave the top of the dunes to get a bit of height. This should make it easier to see things in the waves, but this time it didn’t help us and there was no further sign. At that point a squally shower rolled in, so we beat a hasty retreat to the shelter of the pines. Just into the trees, a tit flock was moving through – we could see Long-tailed Tits, Great Tits, Blue Tits, Coal Tits and Goldcrests as they moved quickly through. We only heard a Treecreeeper calling as the flock disappeared further in.

On the other side of the trees, we made for Joe Jordan Hide – just in time, as the rain picked up again for a while. It was a good opportunity to sit and scan the grazing marshes, and there was a nice selection of commoner birds to see here. The highlight was a small party of White-fronted Geese, though they were hard to see at times feeding down in the wet boggy bits. When they stuck their heads up, we could see the distinctive white surrounding the base of the bill, from which they get their name.

When the rain stopped, we started to make our way back. A tit flock was calling from the trees on the south side of the path and we watched as they flew one by one back towards the pines across in front of us. As well as all the species we had seen previously, a Treecreeper flew out and landed on a pine tree briefly.

We stopped again at Washington Hide. There were several Marsh Harriers circling over the marshes and we picked up a female on a kill out in the grass. We could see her bending down to rip at whatever she had caught, then looking round nervously. A very pale, white-breasted Common Buzzard was perched in the trees over the other side. A striking bird, again in its regular spot here, but a pitfall for the unwary. We had hoped the Great White Egret might put in an appearance, but it was very exposed on the pool in front of the hide and the wind was whistling around the edges of the reeds.

On our way back to the car, we had a quick look at Salts Hole. As well as a few Wigeon and Mallard, there were several Little Grebes as usual. Only one was braving the middle of the pool today, the others lurking around the edge of the reeds where it was more sheltered.

IMG_2907Little Grebe – only this one braved the choppy waters out on Salts Hole today

We drove to Wells beach for lunch. The car park is still in the process of being dug up and resurfaced and the acres of tarmac feel a little too metropolitan – it would now not be out of place in the city centre. Certainly, there is no chance of any puddles any more for the birds to come down and drink. Still it was a little more sheltered here than at Holkham.

We had a look out in the harbour afterwards. With the choppy conditions out at sea, we thought there might be some ducks or grebes taking shelter, but there were perhaps too many dog walkers out on the shore today. However, there was an excellent variety of waders feeding on the exposed mud or roosting on the sand. The first thing that struck us was the large flocks of Oystercatchers. Scanning through, we found one Bar-tailed Godwit and a single Knot in with them.

IMG_2925Oystercatchers and Knot – roosting on the beach at Wells Harbour

Further over were more Knot and lots of Dunlin. In among the latter were several similarly sized Ringed Plovers. Out on the sand were a few silvery white Sanderling, running around like clockwork toys. Down along the edge of the harbour channel were several much darker Turnstone. There were also a few Grey Plover, and lots of Curlew and Redshank. Not a bad selection of waders – a fairly typical variety for intertidal mud flats. Further out across the harbour, a large flock of Brent Geese were lining the channel.

We scanned across to the saltmarsh the other side of the harbour, beyond East Hills, where a Marsh Harrier was quartering. As we panned over, a smaller, slimmer harrier appeared. As it banked we could see it was paler below than the Marsh Harrier and then we caught sight of a white square at the base of the tail above – it was a ringtail Hen Harrier. Further over through the scope, we saw a Merlin towering up into the sky chasing after a small bird, probably a pipit. They were a little distant, but we hoped to see them close later.

On our way back to the car, we stopped to look at a Common Seal on the sandbank of the outer harbour. It had presumably hauled itself out when the tide was high and was now looking a little stranded at the top of the bank. A large mechanical digger was edging its way towards it – pulling up the sand from along the edge to try to keep the access channel open. Hopefully the seal would be able to get away before it reached it.

IMG_2935Common Seal – pulled out on the bank of Wells Outer Harbour

We had planned to go along to see the harrier roost at Warham Harbour this afternoon. It seemed like a good way to round off the tour. So with the afternoon getting on we went back to the car and made our way east along the coast road from Wells. As we walked down towards the sea, a flock of tits made its way ahead of us along the hedgerow, making the most of the last hour or so of daylight. We flushed a little party of Redwings, which flew off overhead calling. Perhaps fresh arrivals from Scandinavia, coming here for the winter.

When we arrived at the edge of the saltmarsh, one person we know well, Graeme, was already there. Fortuitously, as it would turn out, we stood next to him. Immediately, he drew our attention to a Peregrine perched on a tangle of dead branches out on the beach. As we got our scopes onto it, a second Peregrine appeared and started mobbing it. Then a ringtail Hen Harrier appeared, much closer than the one we had seen from the other side at Wells Harbour. We got a really good view of this one through the scopes.

IMG_2946Hen Harrier – a ringtail, out over the saltmarsh

A male Hen Harrier had been showing before we arrived and after a while it got up from the ground and flew past us – a striking, ghostly, pale grey bird with contrasting black wing tips. They are really stunning birds and such a shame they are so badly persecuted in this country. There were now a few hardy souls gathered to watch the roost, and a shout from further long the line drew our attention to two Merlins chasing each other across the saltmarsh away to the east. The first surprise of the evening was a Bewick’s Swan which flew west along the edge of the saltmarsh, presumably a fresh arrival from the continent coming in for the winter.

Apart from the swan, it was all much as we had hoped, until Graeme mentioned that he had a smaller, slimmer winged harrier out with one of the ringtail Hen Harriers. He knew what it was going to be, but we got onto it and when it turned we could see the distinctive pale collar and solid dark patch on the side of the neck behind, the so called ‘boa’ – we shouted ‘PALLID HARRIER‘ but at that moment it dropped down into the vegetation and disappeared before the rest of the group could get onto it.

There followed a very frustrating 20 or so minutes when neither the Hen Harriers nor the Pallid Harrier were flying. The tension rose as it seemed like the Pallid Harrier might not fly again before dark, until finally all the harriers decided to have a fly round. It was fantastic to see the Pallid Harrier with the Hen Harriers, and at one point it even had a tussle with a ringtail Hen – it was slightly smaller and noticeably slimmer winged, with a more pointed ‘hand’. We could see its plain, pale orangey underparts, as well as the head/neck pattern. Wow! What a great bird to see and such a surprise.

Pallid Harriers breed from Eastern Europe across into Central Asia, wintering in India and Africa. They appear to have spread west in recent years and have been turning up more often in UK, though it is still a rare bird here – it is only the ninth to have been seen in Norfolk! The first of those spent the winter of 2002-03 at the same site, Warham Greens, the only one to have over-wintered in the UK. Lets hope this one sticks around for a while as well.

What a great way to end the weekend. It just goes to show that, however unfavourable the weather may seem, it is still worth going out because anything can, and sometimes does, show up.

14th November 2014 – Go West for Waders

Day 2 of a long weekend of tours today and we made our way west along the North Norfolk coast this time. Yesterday’s forecast had suggested it would rain all day today, so we counted ourselves lucky that the morning was dry, if rather cold and windy.

A Barn Owl hunting beside the road was a nice surprise as we drove along the coast road first thing this morning. Before we got to Titchwell, we turned inland to explore the area around Choseley. A winter wheat field was full of Lapwings, Curlews and a sizeable flock of over 15 Stock Doves, which was nice to see. The hedges were full of Chaffinches and in amongst them we could see a few Yellowhammers.

There has been a Rough-legged Buzzard in the area on and off for over three weeks now, and yesterday it had been seen around Choseley, but we couldn’t find it there today. We also had a look in a couple of its other favoured spots, but it seemed to have chosen today to have gone hunting elsewhere. So we headed further west to Holme.

While it was dry, we headed out onto the beach. We could see lots of waders roosting on the sand, and more flew in to feed as the tide started to go out. There were several groups of Bar-tailed Godwits, asleep at first, and a couple of Grey Plover. In amongst them, we found a single Dunlin and Knot, before the godwits woke up and flew down along the beach. More waders flew in to join them, plus a couple of silvery white Sanderling and several Turnstones.

IMG_2818Bar-tailed Godwit – flashing a black-and-white barred tail feather

We flushed several small flocks of finches from the dunes – little groups of Linnets and a larger flock of Goldfinches, accompanied by a couple of Greenfinches. There were a few Skylarks feeding on the edge of the saltmarshes as well.

We walked further along the beach towards Gore Point. We had hoped to find some birds out on the sea. There were certainly lots of Common Scoter, but they were a long way offshore today, and impossible to see on the choppy waters until they flew. A single Red-breasted Merganser flew past. It was bracing in the fresh wind out on the beach, and noticeably colder than of late. We decided to make our way back to the car.

P1120541Holme – the view along the beach towards Gore Point

We stopped on the boardwalk to scan the grazing marshes. A couple of Marsh Harriers were quartering the fields. On the other side, we could see a small flock of Wigeon and Shoveler on the saltmarsh and three Little Egrets on the edge of one of the pools.

We made our way back east and had a quick look in at Thornham Harbour next. We climbed up onto the seawall from where we could have a good scan of the surrounding area. A large falcon circled up over the fields towards Holme, before powering off inland – a young Peregrine. A small bird hiding on the far side of the old Coal Barn turned out to be a Rock Pipit playing hide and seek beyond the ridge. Eventually it flew down onto one of the boats and was joined by a second bird – we got good views of them through binoculars, but they quickly flew down onto the other side of the harbour channel. They were rather skittish and wouldn’t linger long in any one place.

From Thornham, we swung back inland again. A large flock of Linnets came out of a weedy field beside the road. A couple of Mistle Thrushes flew overhead and landed on the wires by the road briefly, before dropping down into a freshly cut field to feed. We paused to scan the hedges regularly, in case we could find a raptor. On our way back down towards Titchwell, we finally sighted a large bird tucked into the far side of the hedge about a mile further east. Through the scope it looked palish headed, although probably not pale enough for our target, but we drove round for a closer look anyway, just in case. Sure enough it was just a palish Common Buzzard.

We made our way down to Titchwell next. A flock of Long-tailed Tits were working their way through the sallows as we approached the visitor centre. We stopped to have a look at the feeders, where a Coal Tit kept darting in, grabbing a sunflower seed, and darting back to the bushes. There were lots of finches squabbling around the feeders – Chaffinches, Greenfinches and Goldfinches – but a different finch was lurking in behind the foliage in the bushes behind. We got it in the scope – a Brambling. Whiter bellied than a Chaffinch, with an orange wash across the breast and orange shoulders, we could even see its distinctive white rump when it turned away from us. It sat looking at the other finches on the feeders for some time before eventually it decided to fly and get something to eat itself.

IMG_2832Brambling – hiding in the bushes behind the feeders

As we set off to walk out onto the reserve along the main path, one of the group asked whether there were any Water Rails in the ditches at the moment. Almost at the same time, another sharp-eyed member of the group spotted one scurrying along through the water below the trees. Perfect timing! We stopped to scan the grazing meadow pool but it was cold and windy out there and completely devoid of birdlife today. The skies had become progressively greyer through the morning, and now it started to drizzle with rain, so we made a quick beeline for the shelter of Island Hide.

There were lots of birds out on the freshmarsh. A good number of Teal have already arrived for the winter and carpeted the water over towards the reeds. There were also good numbers of Gadwall and Shoveler and a few Wigeon out on the islands. However the prize for the smartest of all has to go to the Pintail – there were several stunning drakes and a similar number of elegant ducks out with them today.

P1120563P1120553Teal – male and female, feeding on the mud in front of Island Hide

There was a good sized flock of Black-tailed Godwits roosting out on the water, but not so many other waders at first on the freshmarsh today. A small number of hardy Avocet continue to stick it out here – although they might have been questioning that strategy given the weather today, when most of their brethren have departed for milder climes! A couple of little groups of Dunlin were feeding around the islands.

Suddenly, two more Water Rails came racing out of the reeds in front of the hide chasing each other. They disappeared back in almost immediately but shortly afterwards came out again for another brief appearance. That was obviously enough chasing round for now, and thankfully one of the Water Rails then worked its way slowly along the edge of the reeds, letting us get good views of it in the scope.

It was still drizzling but it was only light, so we decided to try our luck further on before it got any worse and head out towards the beach. The Volunteer Marsh looked rather empty today, apart from a few Redshank and a couple of Curlew. However, a Black-tailed Godwit was feeding right by the path at the far corner, and gave us great close-up views when we got up to it.

P1120609Black-tailed Godwit – feeding right by the main path

The Tidal Pools also looked less busy than they have been recently. A few groups of Wigeon were feeding out in amongst the saltmarsh vegetation and five Little Grebes were sheltering round the edge of the tall island. There have been several Spotted Redshanks on here in recent weeks, but there was no sign of any at first today. Then a rather pale wader appeared from behind one of the islands – silvery grey above, white below, with a bold white supercilium and a longer, finer bill than its close cousin, it was a winter plumage Spotted Redshank. It waded out into the deep water and started feeding, jabbing its bill feverishly into the water.

IMG_2857Spotted Redshank – one finally gave itself up for us on the Tidal Pools

We were feeling bold, so we continued on out to the beach. The tide had gone out now and there were lots of waders out on the rocks. Mostly they were the same species we had seen earlier on the beach at Holme – Bar-tailed Godwits, Grey Plovers, Knot and Turnstone. However, in with them were two Ringed Plovers, a nice addition to the day’s list.

The wind had dropped and the sea was surprisingly calm, but there was still surprisingly little activity offshore – just as we had seen at Holme. There was not even a Gannet feeding offshore, and no sign of any ducks today. Eventually we found just two Great Crested Grebes way off in the channel towards Scolt Head. It was rather cold out on the beach so we didn’t linger too long and made our way back to the shelter of Parrinder Hide. It was a wise decision as the drizzle increased in intensity for a while after we got there.

The highlight from here was the Common Snipe. As soon as we got into the hide, we could see one feeding on the edge of the vegetation below the bank further along. It fed for a while before disappearing into cover. A little later, we picked up another Snipe feeding out on one of the recently mown islands, a bit closer than the first. Then another appeared on the waters edge just along from the hide and gave us great views. They are such smart birds, so well camouflaged when they are not out feeding.

IMG_2873Common Snipe – showing very well from Parrinder Hide

Having not seen a Water Pipit today on the drained grazing meadow pool, which is where they have been regularly in recent weeks, we thought we might find one on the freshmarsh. A Meadow Pipit was feeding out on one of the recently mown islands with a couple of Pied Wagtails. We heard a sharp call which sounded promising, but unfortunately it was a Rock Pipit which had dropped in instead – having obviously not read the script! It was not to be today.

With the low grey cloud and drizzle, the light faded early today. Lots of gulls came in to bathe and preen before roosting. The largest number were Black-headed Gulls, with a few Common Gulls in with them. Lesser Black-backed Gulls were the most numerous of the larger species, with slightly fewer Herring Gulls. A slightly bigger gull, with a grey back in between Herring and Lesser Black-backed in shade, was an adult Yellow-legged Gull.

More waders flew in from the beach – a Knot, lots of Turnstone, and a couple of Ringed Plover. We could see several Marsh Harriers circling over the reedbed, getting ready to go into roost. Then with what little light there had been failing, we made our way back.

P1120617Shoveler – a smart drake preening

13th November 2015 – Glossy Surprise

Day 1 of a long weekend of tours today. We met at Cley and the plan was to spend the day at the eastern end of the North Norfolk coast. It was beautifully sunny out across the reserve when we arrived, and we could hear the evocative sound of Pink-footed Geese calling as they landed in the fields behind the car park, but we could already see grey clouds building to the west.

P1120504Cley Marshes – in the early morning sunshine

A Black Brant, the NW North American or far Eastern Siberian form of Brent Goose, has been in with our regular flock of Russian Dark-bellied Brent Geese at Cley for a couple of weeks now. There had been no sign of it in the Eye Field before we met up but, from the car park at the Visitor Centre, we saw a huge flock of wildfowl and waders flush from North Scrape. There were lots of Brent Geese in amongst them and most of them seemed to land in the Eye Field, so we drove round for a look.

P1120519Black Brant – standing out among the regular Dark-bellied Brents

The geese were quite close to the road and we picked the Black Brant up immediately without getting out of the car. It was much darker than the other Brent Geese, brownish black on the back and belly, with a larger and whiter patch on the flanks. We wound down the windows and had a good look at it, then drove on to the car park and set up the scopes. We could see its more extensive white collar as it fed with the flock, occasionally lifting its head up and stretching its neck to give us a better look. A smart bird to start the day.

IMG_2732Black Brant – a striking bird up close

As the grey clouds rolled in it started to spit with rain. We were forecast a band of rain to pass through this morning, so we made a dash for the beach shelter and had a look out to sea. Almost immediately we picked up two drake Goldeneye flying west just offshore. There were several Gannets circling out over the sea, both black-tipped white adults and dark slaty juveniles. A Red-throated Diver was preening just off the beach and gave us great views in the scope. We waited a short while but as the rain seemed to be holding off and there were not many birds moving past, we decided to make a dash round and onto the reserve.

We got into Bishop Hide just before the rain really started. There were plenty of birds to look through, with lots of ducks in now for the winter. A little group of Teal were feeding just in front of the hide. There were lots of Wigeon and we could hear them whistling constantly. Smaller numbers of Shoveler were feeding over towards the back and three Pintail were hiding amongst the sleeping hordes. There were fewer waders on here today – a fair number of Black-tailed Godwit, a few Lapwing, but only one Dunlin. Our first Marsh Harrier of the day circled over the reeds.

P1120526Teal – a small group was feeding in front of Bishop Hide

Thankfully the rain stopped as quickly as it started and the clouds lightened, so we moved on. We headed round to the new Babcock Hide, which only finally opened last month, on the new part of the reserve now sometimes referred to as ‘Salthouse Marshes’. There were more Brent Geese feeding on the grazing meadows by the new path (‘Attenborough Walk’) – the first small group were too nervous to stay as we walked past and took flight, but the rest of the flock reassuringly stayed put. A couple of Egyptian Geese were typically unconcerned!

P1120531Babcock Hide – the new hide on what was known as Pope’s Marsh

The pool in front of Babcock Hide (now known as ‘Watling Water’ – too many new names to keep up with!) looked rather lifeless initially, apart from a couple of Little Grebes. A careful scan revealed a single Common Snipe asleep on one of the islands. A smart male Marsh Harrier quartered the reeds in front of us, but a Merlin over towards Salthouse was too brief for everyone to get onto. A Little Egret was fishing in the shallow water in front of the hide.

P1120538Little Egret – feeding in front of Babcock Hide

We had really hoped to see a Water Pipit. There had been up to four of them here in recent weeks, but with a very blustery wind blowing around the exposed margins of the water, it was deserted apart from a single brave Pied Wagtail. Frustratingly we heard a Water Pipit call, which prompted us to give it a little longer. Just when we were about to give up, not one but two Water Pipits flew in. One of them gave us great views as it fed along the edge of one of the islands. Well worth the wait!

IMG_2744Water Pipit – one of two which eventually gave themselves up for us

While we were waiting for the Water Pipit to appear, we had seen news of a Glossy Ibis a short distance east at Felbrigg Park, but it appeared to have flown off. Having admired the Water Pipits, we saw that it had returned so we decided to make our way over there to try to see it. It was only a short drive and after a quick break for lunch in the car park, we made our way down to the lake.

Unfortunately, by the time we got to where it had been showing, it had flown off again, apparently spooked by a Pied Wagtail! Worse, it was reported to have flown way off over the trees in the distance and away. Two people had set off across the grazing marshes to look for it and were already disappearing in the distance without success, so we walked back to have a look at the lake. As we did so, a Barn Owl came out of the trees in front of us and flew across to the other side of the grazing marshes.

There was a single female Goldeneye in amongst the Tufted Ducks out on the lake, but nothing else of note. We knew the Glossy Ibis had already flown off and returned once to where it had been feeding, so it still felt like not all hope was necessarily lost. We continued to scan over the grazing marshes just in case. We saw the two intrepid explorers returning in the distance, their expedition to try to relocate it obviously having been unsuccessful. As they made there way back they suddenly stopped and started to look intently at something. We knew what it must be, so headed out across the grazing marshes to join them.

There was the Glossy Ibis, feeding quietly in the stream, hidden from view by the banks and the thick rushes. It was only when you looked back along the line of the stream that you could see it – it obviously hadn’t flown off into the distance after all! We got stunning views of it in the scopes, feeding in the thick vegetation in the water. Mostly brownish from a distance, we could see it had a greenish gloss to the wings up close.

IMG_2780Glossy Ibis – a striking bird more at home by the Mediterranean

Then it flew again, looking oddly prehistoric in flight with long neck and legs, and landed back where it had been feeding before we arrived. A rare visitor more normally found in southern Europe, in the marshes of the Mediterranean basin, Glossy Ibis sometimes turn up further north in the UK at this time of year. A great bird to see and a nice surprise today.

On our way back towards Cley, we stopped off briefly at Kelling. There have been a few Bramblings along the lane here recently, in with a big flock of Chaffinches. But the hedges seemed rather quiet today as we walked down – just a handful of Chaffinches – perhaps most of the finches were feeding somewhere more sheltered today?

We walked down as far as the Water Meadow. The water level is normally very high here through the winter and there were just a few ducks on the pool – Wigeon, Shoveler and Gadwall. A single Redshank and a lone Black-tailed Godwit were feeding around the edge, but several Curlew were out on the damp grass. Further along, towards the Quags, a female Stonechat appeared on top of the brambles.

We made our way back – we wanted to be at Cley in good time – stopping to look at a couple of Chaffinches in the dead trees along the lane as we did so. A few more flew into the hedge from the field and right at the top was a single Brambling!

IMG_2792Brambling – just one today, along the lane at Kelling

Back at Cley, we parked in the new East Bank car park. Before we had even had a chance to get out of the car, a falcon appeared over the bank flying straight towards us. Through the windscreen, we could see it was a Merlin – more obliging than the one we had seen briefly earlier. It disappeared west over the reeds. A pair of Stonechat were in the reeds by the path – the male hovering repeatedly in the air above the female, before dropping down to perch.

We climbed up onto the East Bank from where we could get a good view over the reeds on Pope’s Marsh. It was lovely evening light – an increasingly orange sky with scattered cloud at first. There were lots of ducks out on the grazing marsh in front, including a couple of smart drake Pintail, unfortunately mostly asleep! A flock of small birds took off from the reeds and flew over towards the East Bank – a party of 14 Reed Buntings flying in to roost. Scanning along the shingle ridge, a dark shape on the top of one of the fence posts revealed itself to be another Merlin – it had been a good day for them today.

There were a couple of Marsh Harriers already out over the reedbed when we arrived but more started to arrive in ones and twos. At least 12 came into roost this evening – at times, we could see 6-7 circling over the reeds together. We had hoped to see a Hen Harrier here, but we had obviously used up our luck today. The light faded quickly as the cloud rolled in again, so we decided to call it a day. As we turned to head back to the car, we could hear Pink-footed Geese calling again – just as we had heard them flying in to the fields this morning. A flock appeared in the sky from behind the trees and we watched them drop down over towards North Scrape to roost.