Monthly Archives: December 2015

23rd December 2015 – Winter in North Norfolk

Not a tour today, but with the day dawning bright and sunny, and rain forecast for the next couple of days (something to look forward to over Christmas!), it seemed like a good day to get out again.

We made our way cross-country up towards the coast. In the fields around Burnham Market, we came across several large flocks of Pink-footed Geese. It is sugar beet harvesting time at the moment and the geese take advantage of this to feed on the tops left behind after the beet has been cut. The skies were full of lines and skeins of geese all morning.

P1130767Pink-footed Geese – feeding on fields after the sugar beet was harvested

There has been at least one (and up to three) Rough-legged Buzzard around Choseley in recent weeks. We were on our way over there to see if we could see it, when a glance out of the car revealed a pale buzzard flying alongside us, over the field beside the road. We pulled over into a convenient layby and the dark belly patch and contrasting white tail base comfirmed it was one of the Rough-legged Buzzards.

P1130769Rough-legged Buzzard – flashing its white tail base

We followed it for a couple of miles, as it made its way across the fields. It stopped a couple of times to hang in the wind. Eventually, we turned north towards Choseley drying barns and it continued on its way west towards the back of Thornham.

P1130774Rough-legged Buzzard – flashing its contrasting black belly patch

Our first stop proper was at Thornham Harbour. As we walked out along the seawall, a flock of small finches flew in over the saltmarsh and landed on the path in front of us, around a puddle. Just as we suspected, we could see they were Twite, part of the small flock that has been spending the winter here.

P1130784Twite – the flock came down to one of the puddles on the path

Several of the Twite had a quick drink, but they were nervous out in the open and before we knew it the flock took off and flew back to the saltmarsh. Thankfully, they didn’t go far but landed on the edge nearest the seawall. We got a couple of them in the scope as they perched on the tops of the dead seedheads, admiring their yellow bills and orangey breasts. Even here, they don’t sit still and before we knew it the flock were off again.

P1130796Twite – feeding on the edge of the saltmarsh

We continued out onto the beach. We had hoped to catch up with the Shore Larks again here but when we got out to where they should have been, we were told they had just flown off. We had a look out on the beach in the direction they had flown, but there was no sign. When they have been disturbed, they often seem to fly off for a while but typically return to their favoured area. We waited for a short while, but with other things to do today we decided we should move on.

We were already back on the seawall when news came out that the Shore Larks had returned to the beach. Across the other side of the saltmarsh, we could see several people looking intently. A quick look through our scope in the direction their scopes were pointing, and we picked up a Shore Lark feeding on the beach in front of them. Not the best view, but nice to see anyway for the day. The Stonechats along the seawall were far more obliging.

P1130805Stonechat – one of four along the seawall at Thornham today

We popped into Titchwell briefly. We didn’t have time to explore the reserve today, but felt we deserved a hot drink after our windy walk out at Thornham. While we enjoyed a piping hot chocolate a smart green and yellow male Siskin was feeding in the alder above our heads.

P1130918Siskin – feeding in the alder above the picnic tables by the visitor centre

Our next stop was a little further back along the coast at Brancaster Staithe. There has been a Red-necked Grebe in the harbour here for a couple of weeks now and there were several cars pulled up by the harbour channel when we arrived, with long camera lenses poking out of the windows. The Red-necked Grebe was a little further out in the harbour when we arrived,  but we could see it coming towards us, diving constantly. We positioned ourselves and the grebe eventually surfaced right in front of us as it passed by along the channel. Stunning views!

P1130948Red-necked Grebe – feeding in the harbour channel at Brancaster Staithe

There was also a smart pair of Red-breasted Mergansers in the harbour and a good selection of waders – Bar-tailed Godwits, Grey Plovers, Dunlin, Ringed Plovers and Turnstones.

Our next stop was at Holkham. A Red-rumped Swallow was seen at Cley on 17th December and we had been lucky enough to see it flying around over our heads at Blakeney the following day. After going as far along the coast as Titchwell, for the past couple of days it has taken up residence between Wells and Holkham.

It was a little distant while we were there today. It had found a sheltered spot out of the wind, along the front of the trees north of the coast road, where there was unfortunately not a great vantage point. We could see it in and out from the behind the trees, hawking for insects out across the edge of the grazing marshes. Still, we could see its square pale rump and tail streamers.

P1130719P1130685Red-rumped Swallow – photos taken on 18th at Blakeney

Red-rumped Swallow is a southern European species and this bird should be spending the winter in Africa. We do get odd birds annually in Norfolk, normally in spring or autumn. This is the latest ever record for the county by some margin – the previous latest sighting was on 17th November – and possibly for the whole of the UK. As such, it is very unusual – but perhaps not such a surprise given the abnormally mild weather we have been enjoying recently. However warm it is though, in this instance, one swallow definitely does not make a summer!

We just had time for one last stop before we had to get back. As we pulled into the car park at Wells Quay, we could see the Shag immediately, perched on one of the pontoons where the boats moor. It was very close, very obliging – it stood preening and watching the boats going past. There are often Shags here in the winter – they nest on rocks coasts to in the north or west of the country, so this is the only time we see them here with any regularity.

P1140008Shag – taken up residence in Wells Harbour again

It was a great day to be out – with a real variety of birds to be seen. It just goes to show that even in mid-Winter, there is a lot to see here in Norfolk.

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14th December 2015 – Winter in the Broads

Winter is a very good time of year to visit the Norfolk Broads. In preparation for the regular Winter Tours planned to explore the area in early 2016, we have made several visits in recent weeks. We had a very good day in the Broads last Monday.

We started with a stop near Sea Palling to catch up with a Cattle Egret which had been hanging around appropriately with the local cattle. It looked slightly incongruous here on a damp, misty December morning. More at home in southern Europe, Cattle Egret has been rather slower to expand its range northwards than its cousin, the Little Egret. There is a shortage of cattle outside at this time of year, which presumably does not help encourage them to hang around.

IMG_4172Cattle Egret – feeding in the mud amongst the cattle

IMG_4199Cattle Egret – muddy yellow bill and just a smudge of an orange crown

Some video of the Cattle Egret feeding in with the cattle can be seen below.

One of the highlights of a visit to the Broads at this time of the year is a chance to catch up with the regular wintering herd of wild swans. Numbers always tend to increase through the winter, but the mild weather has perhaps meant this has been a little slow this year as birds have probably remained on the continent longer than normal. They do seem to be on the increase now, with at least 45 on Monday, a mixture of Bewick’s Swans and Whooper Swans.

It is always good to be able to see the two species side by side. Bewick’s Swans are noticeably smaller with less extensive yellow on the bill; the yellow on the bill of Whooper Swan also extends further down the bill forming a sharper point, compared to the blunter, more squared off yellow on Bewick’s Swans.

IMG_4208Whooper & Bewick’s Swans – part of the regular mixed herd in the Broads

IMG_4214Bewick’s Swan – flanked by two Whooper Swans

The Broads are also a great place to catch up with a variety of different species of geese. There are lots of Pink-footed Geese here for the winter, perhaps not surprisingly given the variety of food available – extensive grazing marshes and also lots of sugar beet tops after the harvest. There is still a lot of sugar beet grown here, with Cantley Beet Factory being one of the main sites for processing it once it has been harvested. Cantley and Buckenham Marshes are also good sites for White-fronted Geese, with peak counts of over 120 already in recent weeks.

However, the real speciality here are the Taiga Bean Geese. There are only two regular wintering sites for this (sub)species in the UK, the Yare Valley in Norfolk and the Slamannan plateau in southern Scotland, and they are remarkably site faithful returning to the same area year after year from their breeding grounds in Sweden. It didn’t take us long to find them today – just as we arrived at Cantley a flock of around 20 Taiga Bean Geese flew in to feed on the grazing marshes. Very helpful timing!

A couple of weeks ago, a more thorough exploration of the area was required to find them and had located two Taiga Bean Geese on their own at Buckenham and a flock of 20+ at neighbouring Cantley, which was when the following photos were taken. Tundra Bean Geese, the other form of Bean Goose we get here, winter mainly on the continent and are occasional visitors, often among the vast flocks of Pink-footed Geese. The Taiga Bean Geese are slightly larger, longer-necked and have on average more extensive orange colouration on their longer bills. It is interesting to look at the variation in bill pattern between individuals.

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IMG_3380Taiga Bean Geese – part of the regular wintering flock

Cranes are also one of the iconic species we look for in the Broads, also known as Common or Eurasian Cranes. Our birds are not to be confused with those being reintroduced into Somerset. While Cranes were wiped out as a breeding species in the UK in the 17th Century, a pair first returned to the Norfolk Broads of their own accord in 1979 and breeding was first recorded in 1982. The population of Cranes here has grown steadily from there.

We had no problem finding Cranes today – we came across at least 14 on our travels. First we found two family parties feeding distantly out on the fields – one pair of adults were accompanied by two juveniles and the other pair were with a single youngster. Next, we stopped at a favourite feeding area and as we pulled off the road we realised that a pair of Cranes were right next to the car. They immediately started to walk away,  and as they did so we realised that a third Crane was nearby. We stayed in the car and once they got out into the middle of the field they seemed to relax and resume feeding.

The larger of the pair was carrying an old corn cob, possibly a male and following what appeared to be a smaller female. At one point, he raised his wings and leapt into the air in what was presumably a little piece of dance display. Great to watch.

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P1130576Cranes – this pair were in a field right next to the road

We also had time today to explore some different parts of the Broads, which we don’t visit so often. As well as more Cranes, there were several Marsh Harriers enjoying the afternoon sunshine. We came across several little groups of winter thrushes feeding on berries, Fieldfares and Redwings. A Water Pipit flew up from the edge of a flooded field.

A visit to Stubb Mill is a great way to end the day in the Broads. There is a very large harrier roost here and it is always an impressive sight to see so many Marsh Harriers. There were already quite a few out in the bushes in the reeds when we arrived, so it was hard to say how many were in the roost today. We counted at least 30 at one point, with more still arriving. A ringtail Hen Harrier was using the last of the afternoon to hunt and came in low across the grazing marsh in front of us.

An early Barn Owl was out hunting as well and lots of Fieldfares and Redwings were in the hedgerows. This is also a good place to find Cranes and there is generally a pair hanging around the fields here. Unfortunately, we had to leave slightly early this afternoon but it was still suitably evocative to walk back listening to the bugling of the pair of Cranes, and a lovely way to finish the day.

Stubb Mill 2015-02-07Stubb Mill viewpoint – the view across the marshes earlier in the year

Tours to the Broads will run regularly through January and February 2016. If you would like to join us to look for the Cranes, geese, swans and raptors and enjoy the unique scenery, please get in touch.

9th December 2015 – Winter in NW Norfolk

Not a tour today, but after several days of office work and with bright, sunny weather forecast, it was a great opportunity to get out birding for the day.

I started at Choseley. There have been up to three Rough-legged Buzzards here, although they appear to be wandering over quite a large area. One of the three seems to have settled into a pattern of sitting around in the fields here in the morning. When I arrived, some other people were looking at a Common Buzzard perched in the top of a hedge, but a quick scan of the fields revealed the Rough-legged Buzzard stood in the field beyond.

IMG_3943Rough-legged Buzzard – regular at the moment at Choseley

Rough-legged Buzzards are the northern cousins of our Common Buzzards, breeding in northern Scandinavia and Russia and normally wintering in central Europe. The birds we get here are normally juveniles, dispersing south after a good breeding season they can wander further west and reach the British Isles. On the ground, the Rough-legged Buzzard is distinguished by its very pale head and breast, contrasting with a dark blackish belly patch. In flight, the Rough-legged Buzzard shows a very obvious white tail with a dark blackish band across the tip.

IMG_3968Rough-legged Buzzard – showing the distinctive white tail base

This particular Rough-legged Buzzard has taken to playing with its ‘food’. At times it does appear to be feeding, but on other occasions it is clear that what it has actually ‘caught’ is a clod of earth. Presumably, it is just practising!

IMG_3978Rough-legged Buzzard – playing with its ‘food’

I managed to get some video of it doing this, which is linked below:

It flew round a couple of times, but kept returning to the same field. While we were watching it, a second Rough-legged Buzzard appeared briefly over the trees beyond. There were also at least four Common Buzzards in the area, and one of them was feeding on a kill on the hillside beyond. Eventually the first bird we had been watching flew round and drifted over towards the kill, stooping at the feeding Common Buzzard but failing to displace it, before drifting off.

It was time to move on, so I dropped down to the coast at Thornham and parked at the harbour. I wrote about the Shore Larks last week, but as I was in the area and they are one of my favourite winter visitors, I could not resist a return visit. The birds had been flushed when I arrived, but thankfully the three of them quickly returned to their favoured area and resumed feeding.

IMG_4009Shore Lark – one of the three still at Thornham Harbour

The Shore Larks were distant at first, out on the beach, but as we were watching them they suddenly flew in and landed on the shingle much closer to us on the edge of the dunes. After digging around in the stones for a couple of minutes, they then flew down into a dune slack just behind us and started to feed in the dead vegetation there, looking for seeds.

IMG_4020Shore Larks – the two duller, more streaked birds

IMG_4061Shore Lark – one of the duller bids again, in the dune slack

IMG_4045Shore Lark – the brighter bird, presumably a male

There was no sign of the Twite in Thornham Harbour on my way past today, though they have been feeding further out on the saltmarsh in recent days apparently. I had a couple of things I wanted to do in the afternoon, and time was pressing, so I headed off.

I had just enough time to call in at King’s Lynn docks. There has been a juvenile Iceland Gull here for a week or so now. A large group of gulls generally hangs around by the outflow from the seafood processing works, but when I arrived in the middle of the day there were no gulls at all there today. Instead, they were all loafing on a sand bank on the other side of the river. Thankfully, another birder had just seen the Iceland Gull fly in to join them and it was easy enough to pick out, looking rather pale overall with distinctive long, whitish wing tips.

IMG_4072Iceland Gull – a juvenile, with whitish wingtips

It was not the best view, as we were looking into the sun, but nice to catch up with given I was in the area. The gulls seemed in no rush to return to feeding and as I had a pressing engagement elsewhere I didn’t stop long.

The juvenile Pallid Harrier has been hanging around at Snettisham for over three weeks – hopefully it might now stay here for the whole winter. It seems to have settled into a routine, sometimes being seen in the morning but generally disappearing for much of the day before returning in the afternoon. When I arrived at Snettisham, it had not been seen all day and many people were leaving as I walked along the path, despite my advice to some I passed that it might be worth hanging on a little longer!

By the time I reached the southern end of the pits, the Pallid Harrier was already back – five minutes earlier than it should have been! Still, I managed to get set up quickly and had fantastic views of it hunting along the edge of the saltmarsh in front of the remaining crowd. It is a great bird to watch in action – slim, pointed wings very different from the local Marsh Harriers and buoyant wingbeats give a very falcon-like impression in flight.

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IMG_4094Pallid Harrier – the juvenile still delighting the crowds at Snettisham

I managed to capture some video of it hunting today which really captures the distinctive flight:

There has been a lot of debate about how many Pallid Harriers have been present in Norfolk and elsewhere this autumn. The Snettisham bird has lost a central tail feather – the replacement grey and black barred feather is now growing  in its place and can be seen in the photo of its upperparts below. This allows us to identify it as the same bird as one which was present in Lincolnshire, just across on the other side of the Wash, in late October / early November. Analysing recent photos, there is also some evidence to suggest it is the same as the Pallid Harrier which we saw on a tour in mid November, along the North Norfolk coast at Warham.

IMG_4091Pallid Harrier – one new central tail feather is now growing back

After performing for the crowds for a while, the Pallid Harrier dropped down out of view. While we were waiting for it to reappear, there were lots of other birds to look at. A Great White Egret flew up from the saltmarsh on the edge of the Wash briefly, dwarfing the nearby Little Egrets. Another large white bird circling round later was a juvenile Spoonbill. A Barn Owl appeared, hunting over the short grass behind us. And all the time, we could see the vast flocks of waders out across the mudflats of the Wash, occasionally whirling round.

Over the space of the next hour or so, the Pallid Harrier only put in a brief appearance until suddenly it flew up from the saltmarsh, did a quick fly round and landed on a post not far from where I was standing. The light was starting to fade by this stage and we were looking towards the setting sun, but it was a great view through the scope as it perched on the post preening. When it flew off again to resume hunting, that was my cue to call it a day and head for home.

IMG_4143Pallid Harrier – perched on a post preening late afternoon

All of which just goes to show how exciting the birding can be here in Norfolk in winter! If you would like to join one of our Winter Tours and share in the excitement, please get in touch.

 

2nd December 2015 – Shore Larks

Shore Larks are one of our most charismatic winter visitors, with their bright yellow faces and small black ‘horns’. They come to the UK from their breeding grounds in the Fennoscandian mountains. Through the winter here they are almost exclusively coastal, feeding on saltmarsh edge or along the tideline. Norfolk is one of the best places in the UK to see them.

Unfortunately, the wintering population in the UK has declined dramatically since the 1980s, mirroring a fall in the Fennoscandian breeding population. Flocks of up to 50-100 Shore Larks were not unusual here in years gone by, but seem to be a thing of the past. They also appear to have abandoned some of their traditional wintering sites here, which may be partly due to disturbance. However, small numbers do continue to overwinter in Norfolk, for the time being at least.

At the time of writing, a small party of three Shore Larks has taken up residence at Thornham Harbour. They are well worth seeing!

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IMG_3874Shore Lark – one of the three birds at Thornham Harbour

The small black ‘horns’ are formed by elongated feathers on the side of the crown. They are longest on the male, but can be hard to see when they are not raised.

IMG_3869Shore Lark – the small ‘horn’ on the back of the crown is just visible

Of the three birds at Thornham, the one photographed above, was noticeably paler below than the other two and comparatively unmarked on the lower breast. It also appeared to have a subtly brighter face pattern and more solidly dark cheeks and upper breast. Its horns were more obvious and it also appeared to be more dominant. Shore Larks are difficult to age/sex, but this would appear to be a male.

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IMG_3853Shore Larks – the other two birds were more marked below

Today the Shore Larks were on the edge of the beach, on an open stony area which has started to be colonised by saltmarsh vegetation. They fed by looking for seeds, running between the tufts of vegetation before stopping to pick around them.

IMG_3830Shore Lark – looking for seeds around the tufts of vegetation

It was rather too windy out on the exposed beach today, but some rather shaky video below gives a good impression of how they feed.

If the birds stay around, this is one of the species we will look for on our Winter Tours. If you would like to come looking for them, please contact us for more details or have a look at the website.