Monthly Archives: January 2016

31st January 2016 – Raptor Quest

Day 3 of a long weekend of tours today, our last day, and a day of general birding along the coast. We were trying to catch up with a few of the good birds around Norfolk at the moment which we hadn’t seen yet this weekend. Depending which weather forecast you looked at, it was either going to rain all day or just some heavy rain around the middle of the day. As it was, it did neither and was a lot better than expected. A bonus! We met in Wells and made our way west along the coast road.

We hadn’t gone far when we made our first impromptu stop. A Barn Owl was hunting over a field beside the road, head down, focused intently on the ground below. We watched it for a minute or so, flying round, before it disappeared out of view behind a hedge.

One a short distance further along the road, we had to make another stop for another Barn Owl, this one perched on a post. Despite our best efforts, it flew off just as we got out and circled round the field hunting. It then had second thoughts and came back to perch on the post again, just so we could have a good look at it! Then it was off hunting over the grass once more. Two Barn Owls – a great way to start the day.

P1150959Barn Owl – our second of the morning

Brancaster Staithe is always a nice place to stop, with a good selection of waders in the harbour and normally a few Red-breasted Mergansers in the channel. There had been a Red-necked Grebe here for much of December, going missing for a fortnight before reappearing again for a week in mid January. It had not been seen since 15th January, so we weren’t expecting to see it, but we had a good scan of the harbour just in case. We had to content ourselves with several smart Red-breasted Mergansers this morning.

IMG_5782Red-breasted Merganser – showing off his spiky punk haircut

The tide was coming in, already quite high, and there were several Bar-tailed Godwits and Dunlin feeding along the water’s edge by the car park. A Turnstone ran in front of the car across the stones. Further over were on a sandbank were several Grey Plover and Ringed Plover. A pile of debris on the shore were the mussels had been brought in and washed was being picked over by a little posse of Oystercatchers and more Turnstones.

P1150964Bar-tailed Godwits & Dunlin – by the car park at Brancaster Staithe

Having had a good look round, we decided to press on, cutting inland towards Docking. We stopped to scan some trees in the hope of finding the Rough-legged Buzzard on one of its favourite perches. We couldn’t see it, but while we were watching a flock of Chaffinches and Yellowhammer feeding on the edge of a field, a ghostly grey shape appeared over a cover strip the other side. A stunning male Hen Harrier, it was hunting low over the ground and against the dark trees in the background we could see the black wing tips contrasting with the silvery grey upperparts. It got to the back of the field and dropped down over the ridge the other side out of view.

We hopped in the car and drove round, in the hope that we might be able to find it again, but it was gone. So we carried on along the road, scanning the trees and hedges. At only our second stop, we found the Rough-legged Buzzard. It was perched on the top of a hedge – its very white head stood out a mile off. We got it in the scope for a closer look – we could even see the feathered tarsi (bottom half of its legs) from which it gets its name.

IMG_5806Rough-legged Buzzard – around Choseley again today

The Rough-legged Buzzard dropped down to the ground and appeared to land, but shortly after we picked it up again flying low along the hedge line, before swooping up to land in one of its favourite trees. It was round the other side of the tree, out of view from here, so we drove back round to where we had been looking earlier. We were much closer, but the view wasn’t much better from here – we could see its head and shoulders above the branches. It perched for a while, before dropping down out of the tree and flying off – we were treated to great flight views as it did so, flashing its mostly white tail with just a black terminal band. Great stuff.

A little further along the road we stopped again to count the Brown Hares. There were at least ten in one field and another four in a smaller field next door. Most of them were hunkered down, but a couple were sitting up feeding. At one point they had a half-hearted chase, before resuming what they were doing. It was probably a bit too cold and damp to expect much boxing today.

We made a quick detour round by an area where we had seen Corn Buntings in the past few weeks. They had been a little erratic more recently, so we weren’t expecting much. As we drove along the road, we could see a large flock of Linnets circling over the field. Then a little group of Skylarks got up as well. The next thing we know a flock of buntings flew across the road in front of us and landed in the hedge the other side. We pulled into a convenient gateway and got out to have a closer look. We could see there were several Yellowhammers, but at least one had looked bulkier as they flew in.

Unfortunately, before we could get a good look at them, first a Sparrowhawk flew across the road carrying some poor unsuspecting victim – probably why everything had flown out of the field in the first place – and then a very helpful soul came bombing along the road in his Land Rover and hooted his horn at us. That was the end of the buntings, as they all burst into the air. We could hear Corn Bunting calling and saw at least one as they erupted and flew off. After a short while, the Yellowhammers started to return to the field but the only Corn Bunting we saw flew over calling, a liquid ‘ptt, ptt’, and disappeared over the horizon. We scanned the hedges as we went on, but all we could find was a large flock of Chaffinches and Linnets, although we did glimpse a Brambling briefly with them.

We made our way down to Thornham Harbour next. We didn’t see anything as we drove in, so we walked down to the edge of the creek. A Rock Pipit flew off from the edge as we approached. A Spotted Redshank called a couple of times as it flew over, but we couldn’t get onto it. Then one of the group spotted the Twite behind us, landing in the vegetation by the side of the road. We made our way back towards them and had just set up the scope for a closer look when another helpful soul, our second of the morning, came down along the rutted harbour road at high speed in his shiny Range Rover and the Twite were off again.

IMG_5821Twite – 25-30 were at Thornham Harbour again today

The Twite landed over on the seawall, so we set off round to try again. They were rather jumpy at first and wouldn’t settle, but eventually landed down on the saltmarsh below us and resumed feeding. This time we could get them in the scope and have a proper look at them, before they made their way back to the place from which they had been flushed earlier.

The cloud was now starting to thicken and it began to spit with rain. With heavy rain forecast, we thought we would spend the middle of the day at Titchwell, with the benefit of some hides to shelter in if need be. Unusually for mid-morning on a Sunday, there were spaces in the main car park. We set out towards the visitor centre, stopping to watch a Goldcrest in the tangled branches on the way.

The feeders in front of the visitor centre were a hive of activity – Chaffinches, Greenfinches, Goldfinches and tits. A male Brambling flew off before everyone could see it and a Marsh Tit came in and out too quickly as well. A Coal Tit was more obliging. However, we were more successful round at the feeders the other side. There were several Bramblings here – at least three males and two plainer females which we saw simultaneously, so probably a few more. The males are starting to look particularly smart, bright orange breast and shoulders and increasingly black heads as the pale tips to the feathers wear off through the winter. The Marsh Tit was also more obliging on this side, though still darting in, grabbing a seed, and flying back into the bushes to eat it.

IMG_5845Brambling – a smart male, with an increasingly black head

IMG_5856Brambling – another male, this one with a paler head still

Unusually, there was no sign of a Water Rail in the ditches on the way out onto the reserve – there was always the way back to have another look. We stopped at the drained grazing marsh ‘pool’, and once again it was covered in Rock Pipits, at least 20 out on the mud. It took a bit of scanning, but eventually we found the Water Pipit nearby – it was remarkably well camouflaged against the grey brown mud. Compared to the Rock Pipits, the Water Pipit was much cleaner white below, with the heavy streaking more restricted to the breast.

IMG_5864Water Pipit – well camouflaged against the mud

It was starting to drizzle a little harder now, so we made for the shelter of Island Hide. It was a bit of a surprise to see just how far the water levels have fallen on here in recent days. There was a lot of exposed mud, but the waders don’t seem to have read the script and there were precious few taking advantage of it. A lone Redshank was out in the middle.

P1150992Freshmarsh – a lone Redshank on acres of mud

Further over, towards the back, the Avocets were at least enjoying it. They have often been asleep in recent weeks, but today they were all wide awake and feeding, sweeping their bills side to side through the shallow water. Over towards the Parrinder Hide, a couple of Black-tailed Godwits were feeding in a deeper pool.

There were not so many ducks on here today. A pair of Teal were feeding in the muddy channel below the hide, and lots more Teal were over towards the back on the open water. With them were a few Shoveler and Gadwall. A number of Brent Geese were also swimming around at the back.

P1150987Teal – a pair were feeding in the mud below Island Hide

We decided to carry on out towards the beach. We were scanning from the main path when we noticed a Merlin in the air, beyond the back of the freshmarsh out towards Brancaster. We could see it was chasing a small bird – it looked like a pipit. The pipit was desperately trying to get away – climbing higher in the sky, constantly changing direction – and all the while the Merlin was stooping at it, then towering back up above it to stoop again. The two of them went high into the sky, before dropping back down sharply again, at which point we lost sight of them behind the bank. History does not relate what befell the pipit!

We stopped to have a look at Volunteer Marsh. There were several Grey Plover quite close to the main path on the mud. A Ringed Plover was there as well. A single Knot was standing on the edge of one of the channels. We were just getting the scope on it when all the waders took off – we couldn’t see what had spooked them.

IMG_5877Grey Plover – there were several on the Volunteer Marsh

Out at the Tidal Pools, we could see several Little Grebes and several Goldeneye, all diving in the shallow water. A Cormorant was wrestling with a large eel which it had caught. The eel wrapped itself round the Cormorant’s neck, and the Cormorant kept plunging the eel into the water. At one point it even tossed it into the air and caught it again. Eventually, it worked it round so it had hold of it by its head and it managed to swallow it with a bit of effort. We could see the Cormorant‘s distended crop afterwards. When we came back from the beach it was standing on one of the islands, probably attempting to digest its huge meal!

We couldn’t find the Spotted Redshank here today, but in its place was a single Greenshank, in with the Common Redshank. There were several Bar-tailed Godwits on here and, further out by the beach, a single Black-tailed Godwit. It was now starting to drizzle harder, so we made our way out to the beach.

IMG_5872Black-tailed Godwit – on the tidal pools behind the beach

Out on the beach, the tide was now in. As a consequence, there were not so many waders as usual – just a few Oystercatchers, Bar-tailed Godwits and Sanderling. We would normally have had a good look at the sea, but the drizzle had turned to mist and we couldn’t see very far offshore at all. A couple of Common Scoters were helpfully just offshore behind the breakers, but that was all we could see. At least it gave us a good excuse to head back.

Almost back to the visitor centre, we had another good look in the ditches either side of the path. This time we found the Water Rail, lurking underneath a mass of branches over the water, preening. It was really hard to see until eventually it finished preening and came out onto the far bank, probing in amongst the rotting leaves.

P1160103Water Rail – in the ditch by the main path again

While we were having lunch, it stopped drizzling and started to brighten up. At the same time, some news came through – the Red-necked Grebe had reappeared, just where we had been earlier this morning. This bird is nothing if not erratic! We couldn’t let it get away with that, so after we had finished eating we made a quick detour back there. Sure enough, there it was bobbing about on the water, diving occasionally. It swam towards us and it was clear the Red-necked Grebe wanted to come past us along the channel, so we stood close to the car where we would frighten it less. It kept diving and surfacing again much closer and then it bobbed up right in front of us. Cracking views.

IMG_5906Red-necked Grebe – came right past us in the harbour channel

It surfaced a couple of times right in front, then the Red-necked Grebe swam up the channel away from us.  We had planned to go to Flitcham this afternoon, but going back for the Red-necked Grebe had cost us time. At least with the weather improving, we thought the Pallid Harrier might be out hunting now. As it turned out, it had been there earlier but had flown off when the rain stopped. At least we hadn’t hurried over there and not seen the grebe as well, because we would have missed it anyway.

We had a good scan of the fields. Another Merlin was up in the sky some way away, hunting in exactly the same way as the one we had seen earlier, chasing some unlucky small bird. Once again, we did not see the outcome as they both dropped down out of view.

The hedges here are alive with finches – Chaffinches, Bramblings, Goldfinches – as a consequence of the cover strips and wild bird seed mix strips which have been sown around the edges of the fields and the over-wintered stubbles in various fields. This is how farms used to be, but modern agriculture and flocks of seed-eating birds seem to be incompatible unless food is specifically sown for them. In with the finches, we found several Tree Sparrows. This is one a the few remaining regular spots for them in Norfolk, a bird which used to be common. Again, a sad reflection of the impact of modern agriculture on our wildlife.

IMG_5925Tree Sparrow – in the hedge, with a Brambling bottom left

Although we had missed the Pallid Harrier at Flitcham, we still had one last card to play. While it has often been at Flitcham on and off during the day since mid December, it has not been known where it has been roosting. Last night it was seen going in to roost with Hen Harriers at nearby Roydon Common. So tonight, we decided to see if we could find it there. Several other people had the same idea, and left Flitcham before us.

We had just arrived at Roydon when we received a phone call from one of them to say the Pallid Harrier was there. We quickened our pace and got out to join them. It was a bit misty and drizzley again at first, although we could see the bird perched down in the grass. Then the sky cleared again and we got a better view – we could even see its collar now.

The Pallid Harrier then took off and flew round for a while – we admired its slim wings and pointed ‘hand’, giving it a rather falcon-like silhouette. We lost it, probably down on the ground, then the next harrier we saw was a ringtail Hen Harrier circling round. The Hen Harriers were starting to arrive, and we saw at least another two ringtails come in over the trees and drop down onto the common. The next time we saw the Pallid Harrier, it was flying again and this time with a Hen Harrier – it was great to see the two of them alongside each other. They even tussled a little, stooping at each other as they flew across the heathland. Then the Pallid Harrier dropped down again out of view.

It was a lovely way to end the day – and the weekend – out on the heath in the wilds of NW Norfolk, watching the harriers coming in to roost.

30th January 2016 – Owls & Larks

Day 2 of a long weekend of tours today – an Owl Tour. It was windy again, but not as bad as yesterday, and with some glorious winter sunshine in the afternoon. (NB Photos from today are somewhat more limited than usual – & some here are from previous days – due to a camera malfunction, in this case an iPhone6 which went from 90% charged at 8am to 0% by 9.30am without being used. Thank you very much, Apple!)

First pick-up was in Wells, where most of the group were waiting, but two more were to join us in Blakeney. Just on the few miles along the coast road between the two this morning, we had our first two Barn Owls. Hopefully a good start to the day…

From Blakeney, we swung round the back of Wiveton. Crossing the bridge, we could see our first Barn Owl of the tour proper, hunting the meadows beyond. We stopped on the bridge, but immediately found ourselves with cars behind – it was obviously rush hour – so we pulled over further along and walked back. The Barn Owl was now hunting back and forth along the back of the meadows, dropping down from time to time into the grass, but only coming back up empty-taloned, at least while we were watching. It then worked its way along the hedge line towards us, almost up to the road, before heading off away up the hill, through the gardens towards the village.

P1150726Barn Owl – several were out hunting this morning

Working our way round, we came across another Barn Owl out hunting. After rain overnight and such strong winds yesterday, they were probably trying to make the most of the conditions to feed. It was perched in a tree at first, but took off and started hunting a quiet field corner, sheltered among the trees. When we lost sight of it, we walked back towards the car and there it was on a signpost behind. Unfortunately, it flew when it saw us and resumed hunting over a different field beyond.

P1150733Barn Owl – hunting over a grassy field, looking out for voles

We watched the Barn Owl for some time. It flew out of view over the top of the field, appeared to go across the road, then turned and came back past us. We marveled at the way it flew silently, its attention focused on the ground almost all the time. Eventually it flew off away from us and out of sight.

P1150734Barn Owl – eventually flew away across the fields and out of view

There were other birds to see here too. A Cetti’s Warbler called and flew from the undergrowth in front of us – and we actually saw it for a few seconds out in the open before it disappeared again. A smart male Bullfinch perched up on the top of the hedge, picking at some old blackberries. A Redpoll flew overhead calling. A Common Buzzard was displaying half-heartedly over the hill beyond.

We drove on and up to a favoured site for Little Owl. It was still cloudy, and cold in the wind, and it felt like any self-respecting Little Owl would be tucked down somewhere warm. We couldn’t find one in its usual spot, but a careful scan over the farm buildings and we found a small ball of feathers perched up on a low roof. It had found a place where it was out of the wind and looking towards the rising sun, with a few shafts of sunlight were just about showing through the clouds. It stayed there all the time we were there, looking round occasionally but otherwise in no hurry to go anywhere.

Our attention was gradually drawn away from the Little Owl, as there were other things to see here as well. Another Barn Owl flew through the trees on the verge, tantalising us with glimpses as it flew in and out before melting away into the vegetation. A small group of Fieldfares flew in noisily and landed in the trees. A tight group of Golden Plover flew over, heading inland. A couple of Brown Hares were doing their best impression of clods of earth, flattening themselves low into the winter wheat, trying to keep down out of the wind.

IMG_5116Brown Hares – this photo from a couple of weeks ago

We had done very well with owls this morning and with the day getting on, we decided to move on to something else. We made our way down to the coast road and along to Burnham Overy Staithe. It was windy up on the seawall, but the wind was at our backs on the way out. There was a large flock of Brent Geese feeding on the grazing marshes below us and a quick scan revealed one which looked slightly different.

Most of the Brent Geese we get here in Norfolk are Dark-bellied Brent Geese from Russia. Occasionally we get a Black Brant, a different subspecies of Brent Goose from Eastern Siberia or the NW of North America, in with our Dark-bellieds and sometimes they pair up and interbreed. The Brent Goose we were looking at today was one of these hybrids – a little darker than a Dark-bellied Brent, with a slightly paler flank patch and better marked white collar, but none of those features were as strong as they should be on a pure Black Brant. This bird has been returning here for many winters, always to the same fields, and is a regular pitfall for the unwary.

IMG_4401Black Brant hybrid – a regular at Burnham Overy, photographed a few weeks ago

The tide was in and there were no waders out in the harbour on the way out. However there were huge numbers of waders on the fields. They were all up in the air as we walked out, vast clouds of birds swirling round, before dropping back down onto the grass. There were more than 1,000 Golden Plover and slightly fewer but still a lot of Lapwings which formed the bulk of them. A tight group of smaller Dunlin twisted and turned in formation low over the grass and reeds. When we got to the corner of the seawall, we could see them all out on the grazing meadows. There were lots of Curlew too. Then they all took to the air again, taking all the Brent Geese with them – the birds were clearly very nervous in the wind.

P1150854Waders and geese – swirling over the grazing marshes

We got our heads down and made our way out to the dunes. We had hoped it might be more sheltered on the other side but with the wind having gone round further west, it was whistling along the beach as well. We turned and headed into it, scanning the tide line and the edge of the dunes ahead of us. We had come to look for the Shore Larks which have been here on and off for some time now, but we were told on our way out that they had not been seen this morning. Still, we looked hard to try to find them.

We did find lots of Sanderling, running around on the beach like silver and white clockwork toys. Further out, on a shingle ridge, more waders were roosting over high tide. Through the scope we could see lots of Ringed Plovers, blackish Turnstones contrasting with more pale Sanderlings and several Dunlin in with them.


P1150779Sanderlings – up on the beach over high tide

We were some way along towards the end of the beach before we met a photographer coming the other way, lugging a big lens. We expected another negative report but we were thrilled instead to learn that the Shore Larks were there, right at the very west end of the beach. We quickened our step and soon found ourselves there… but where were the birds? It took us a short while before we found them. They had been tucked down in all the debris on the tide line and flew out a short distance onto the stones as we approached. We backed off, but they flew again, thankfully landing only a little further back.

We approached cautiously and, having seen where they landed could get close to the Shore Larks without disturbing them. This time we got them in the scope – we could see their yellow faces and black masks, even at times the little horns on the top of their heads. Even better, the clouds then parted and the sun came out. The yellow positively glowed in the sunshine, as they fed unobtrusively picking at the dead vegetation which had been washed into piles on the shore.


P1150833Shore Larks – the best efforts from today, without digiscoping

The Shore Larks flew back along the beach to where they had been earlier and again allowed the photographers in the group to get close. There was plenty for the rest of us to look at. A Red-breasted Merganser was diving in the channel between us and Scolt Head. Further over, we could see several waders roosting on an island, Bar-tailed Godwits, Grey Plovers and Oystercatchers. Despite the wind, it was a fantastic place to be, out on the beach in the winter sunshine.

P1150797Photographing the Shore Larks – looking towards Scolt Head in the sunshine

After everyone had finished taking photos, the Shore Larks seemed to realise they had completed their photo session as they flew off down the beach and out of sight. We decided to head back – we were so enjoying the walk with the sun, and wind, at our backs that we had forgotten about the Shore Larks until they suddenly flew up from the beach right in front of us. Cue more admiring looks and clicking of shutters. Eventually we had to tear ourselves away.

IMG_4409Shore Lark – one from Burnham Overy the other day, digiscoped

IMG_4486Shore Lark – and another, check out the little ‘horns’

We stopped to admire the flock of Golden Plover on the way back, spread out across the grass. The tide had gone out now, so there were lots of waders on the mud in the harbour. We could see white-spangled Grey Plover and smaller grey, dumpy Knot out with all the Redshanks. Along the edge of the harbour channel, we could see ten Bar-tailed Godwits. We were almost back to the village when we found another three Red-breasted Mergansers in the channel, this time including a smart drake.

It was lunchtime when we got back, but we decided to make our way somewhere more sheltered to eat. We stopped briefly by the road at Holkham on the way back to scan the grazing marshes. It didn’t take long to find a few White-fronted Geese hiding in with all the Greylags. The more we looked, the more we found, scattered in small groups across the grass. Several Marsh Harriers quartered the marshes, scattering all the Wigeon as they went.

We made our way back along the coast to Blakeney after lunch. There was no sign of any of the Barn Owls along the coast road where they had been this morning, or at any of their other usual spots. When we parked by the harbour at Blakeney, another Red-breasted Merganser was preening, standing in the shallow water in the channel.

We walked out along the seawall, scanning the marshes for owls, but it was very exposed out there this afternoon. The wind had picked up and was whistling across and it was rather cold. A smart male Marsh Harrier was circling over the reeds, its pale grey wings catching the sun, before landing down on some brambles. Behind it, another harrier appeared, smaller and slimmer, paler below and with a small, square white patch at the base of the uppertail – a ringtail Hen Harrier. It worked its way slowly along the edge of the reeds, before disappearing behind them out of view.

P1150863Brent Geese – a small part of the flock at Blakeney this afternoon

In the absence of owls, we had hoped to see the Lapland Buntings which have taken up residence out here for the winter, but there was no sign of them at first. Then we saw a small bird fly up briefly and drop straight down into the long grass again. We made our way over to where we had seen it. All we could find at first were Skylarks, but the vegetation here was thick and tall with just the odd gap. The more we looked, the more Skylarks appeared – there were many more than we had realised in here. Then a different bird stuck its head up, a rounded head with rusty cheeks, a Lapland Bunting. It was just a glimpse and most of the group missed it, but at least we knew they were in here.

A frustrating few minutes followed – every bird which we could find in the grass turned out to be a Skylark. Then just as we were about to give up, everything took off. The only bird to call gave a hard, dry rattle ‘pt-t-t-t-t’, Lapland Bunting again. Twenty or thirty birds flew up high into the sky and among the larger Skylarks we could see at least 4 slightly smaller Lapland Buntings. One of them landed in the slightly shorter grass further along the path, but before we could get there it was off again with a few Skylarks, back to where it had been. We went back and couldn’t see it, but as we stood there, two more Lapland Buntings dropped back in. Not great views, but in the circumstances, with the wind, possibly the best we could hope for. On the walk back, we stopped to admire a pair of Stonechats, feeding low down in the Suaeda bushes by the path.

P1150903Stonechat – the female of the pair feeding by the path

The afternoon was getting on by this stage. We decided to have a quick drive round to see if any of the Barn Owls were out, but all was quiet again. Perhaps it was just too windy again now. Anyway we had a date in the woods to get to. We made sure we were in position in good time tonight, and still didn’t have to wait too long until a Tawny Owl hooted from high up in the trees in front of us. After a few minutes it called again. Then a large dark shape appeared from deep in the ivy, big rounded wings flapping, and glided down and away through the trees. Unfortunately, rather than perching up for us as it often does, today it carried on back and disappeared out of view. Perhaps the wind was too strong high up in the trees, or it had just seen us below.

It seemed like that might be that for a couple of minutes. None of the other Tawny Owls were hooting tonight and this one had gone quiet. Then it started hooting again, deep in the trees. Suddenly it came straight out towards us and over into the trees behind. It was out of view and when we tried to work our way round it was off again. It went up into some tall trees and started hooting again. We could see it perched high up and got it in the scope, but unfortunately it flew again before everyone could get a look at it. A Woodcock flew out of the trees and away overhead.

We could still hear the Tawny Owl, but it was getting dark now and impossible to find in all the branches. It was time to call it a day, and we walked back to the car to the sound of it hooting.

29th January 2016 – Breezy Broads

Day 1 of a long weekend of tours today, and it was down to the Norfolk Broads. We were ready for anything – Storm Gertrude was on its way and it was forecast to be rather windy!

We started with a drive along the coast south of Sea Palling, scanning the fields for Cranes as we went. A large flock of Pink-footed Geese circled over the trees inland and dropped down out of view. Otherwise it seemed rather quiet here, with many birds presumably hunkered down out of the wind. South of Horsey Mill, we pulled over and got out of the car – getting knocked sideways by the wind in the process (we later discovered it was gusting to 52+mph!). There was a small herd of Mute Swans in the fields here, but not much else – this area is normally alive with birds but there were very few today. A Kingfisher skimmed away from us along a ditch, low over the water, flashing electric blue as it went.

We turned around and headed back towards the Mill, and this time picked up two Cranes. They were tucked down in a wet meadow behind a hedge and initially obscured almost completely from view. Only by repositioning ourselves so we were looking through a gap in the hedge could we see them properly, feeding mostly with heads down but occasionally raising their necks up to look around. Surprisingly hard to see for a bird which stands around a metre tall!

IMG_5683Cranes – a record shot, it was hard to keep the tripod steady in the wind!

That was a good start, but it was clear we needed to try to keep out of the wind as much as possible. We decided to drive inland to look for the wild swans next. We didn’t have to look very hard – before we had even left the main road we could see the smear of white across the field in the distance. We drove round to where they were and found they were actually too close to the road – we didn’t want to get out and disturb them. So we made our way down a track until we were far enough away and only then got out.

IMG_5689Bewick’s & Whooper Swans – at least 160 today

We could immediately see that there were both Bewick’s and Whooper Swans there, as usual here. The subtle difference in size and shape is noticeable from a distance and, through the scope particularly, we could see the differences in bill pattern too. The Whooper Swans have a longer bill with a large area of yellow extending down towards the tip in a point, whereas the yellow on the smaller bill of a Bewick’s Swan is more squared-off. It is always great to see the two species side by side like this, to really appreciate the differences.

IMG_5701Whooper & Bewick’s Swans – showing the size and bill differences well

We did a quick count of the herd – there were at least 160, possibly 170 swans in total today. It was too windy to spend too long trying to work out how many of each though, but there have been only 20-25 Whooper Swans for most of the winter and the remainder have been Bewick’s Swans.

Again, we wanted to try to keep out of the worst of the wind, so we made our way down to Great Yarmouth. There has been a juvenile Glaucous Gull hanging around close to the seafront for a week or two. It is a slightly incongruous setting for an arctic gull, in amongst the seaside hotels and tourist attractions shuttered for the winter. We couldn’t find it at first around any of its favourite haunts. We amused ourselves watching a Common Gull doing a ‘rain dance’ on the grass, stomping its feet rapidly up and down on the spot, trying to tempt the worms into thinking it’s raining.

P1150575Common Gull – doing a ‘rain dance’

We didn’t think the Glaucous Gull was around and were just getting into the car to leave when it suddenly appeared overhead with all the Black-headed Gulls. We got a good look at it as it circled over the road, before drifting over the houses towards the playing fields. However, round at the playing fields there was no sign of it. A quick visit to the corner shop was called for and a few minutes later, after the strategic deployment of half a loaf of sliced white, it reappeared with a large throng of other gulls.

P1150606Glaucous Gull – tempted in with some bread

The Glaucous Gull flew around just overhead, giving us some stunning views. Rather plain, mealy, biscuit coloured all over its body, apart from its wing tips which are plain off-white, lighter than the rest of its wings. It kept swooping down with the hordes for a bit, before landing a short distance away on the grass. Its huge size was now obvious, much bigger than the local Herring Gulls, and it was sporting a massive bill, pinkish at the base with a contrasting black tip. It stood there for a few minutes before deciding it had had enough and there wasn’t going to be any more bread, so flew off.

P1150645Glaucous Gull – big and pale, with a massive two-tone bill

We still had half a loaf left, so we made our way a little further along the seafront and walked out onto the beach opposite all the amusement arcades, between the two piers. Further along the beach, a huddle of smaller gulls were braving the wind and as soon as we walked onto the prom they realised what was about to happen and flew to the beach in front of us. We kept them waiting for a bit while we had a good look at them.

They were mainly Mediterranean Gulls, at least ten of them. This is a well-known spot for them in winter and there are often a lot more than this – the rest must have been hiding from the wind somewhere. They were mostly adults with pure white wing tips, but in amongst them were a couple of 2nd winters, with paler bills and black spots in their wings. Only once we had enjoyed a really good look at them did they get the bread.

IMG_5703Mediterranean Gull – an adult starting to get its black summer hood

IMG_5712Mediterranean Gull – a 2nd winter

While we had been feeding the gulls, news had come through of a Green-winged Teal at Ranworth Broad. It seemed like their might be some shelter from the wind there, so we decided to drive over there to try to see it. We parked in the village and had our lunch overlooking Malthouse Broad. There were lots of Tufted Duck and Coot out on the water, along with a couple of Great Crested Grebes. Several of the Coot came out to feed on the grass in front of us.

P1150679Coot – feeding on the grass at lunchtime

A flock of Long-tailed Tits had passed us a couple of times while we were eating, and once we had finished we looked up into the alders nearby to see if we could see anything else with them. Feeding on the cones, we could see several Goldfinches and with them a few Siskin. We had a good look at one of the latter in the scope. A Treecreeper came to the front of the trees as well and proceeded to climb up one in front of us.

IMG_5756Siskin – in the alders by the car park

We walked round and out to Ranworth Broad itself along the boardwalk. It was only when we got out there that we realised the scale of the task. A small crowd had gathered but they had lost sight of the Green-winged Teal in a vast flock of ducks out on the water towards the back of the Broad. There were hundreds and hundreds of birds – mainly Wigeon and Teal, with a smaller number of Shoveler and a few Gadwall and Pintail. Even worse, they were all constantly on the move, swimming around or just drifting in the wind.

Green-winged Teal is the American cousin of our (Eurasian) Teal and it looks very similar, apart mainly from a bold white vertical stripe on the sides of the drake’s breast. We eventually found it again, but it was an impossible task to get all the group onto it. As soon as somebody else took over the scope, it had drifted or swum out of view again and had to be refound. After trying in vain for some time, in the end we had to give it up.

We walked back along the boardwalk, where a Marsh Tit was calling from the trees. A Goldcrest was singing and more Siskins were in the alders over the road.

We wanted to get back in time for the raptor roost at Stubb Mill, so we started to make our way round there. We stopped off several times to look for Cranes, but we couldn’t find any more at any of their favoured sites this afternoon. A tractor was ploughing a field beside the road, pursued by a mass of gulls. Nearby, a Common Buzzard was perched on a large clod of earth, watching, mobbed by a couple of Carrion Crows.

Out at Stubb Mill, we immediately spotted the two Cranes which are regular here, in pretty much their usual spot. They spent most of the time we were there standing behind the reeds, with their necks up, looking round. Unfortunately, only when the light started to fade and it was too dull for photos did they fly round and land directly in front of the viewpoint. Still, it was a great flight view.

IMG_5771Crane – the usual two suspects at Stubb Mill

There were lots of Marsh Harriers already flying in and out among the trees in the reeds when we arrived. They didn’t seem to want to settle in the trees today, possibly due to the wind. At one point, they all circled up high into the air – we could see around 50 Marsh Harriers all up in the sky together. A stunning spectacle. Still they kept on coming, and there must have been at least 60 Marsh Harriers in the roost by the time we left.

P1150709Marsh Harriers – about 50 were in the sky together this evening

We didn’t see the Hen Harriers come in this evening, but the next thing we knew there were two ringtails flying around the ruined mill with the Marsh Harriers. We got them in the scope and you could just make out the white square at the base of their tails and they circled round.

Then the dark clouds rolled in, just as the wind seemed to ease a little and we lost the best of the light. We had already seen what we had come to see, so we decided to call it a day and head for home.

24th January 2016 -Dawn & Dusk Owls

An Owl Tour today. It was not the best of weather to go looking for owls – cold, cloudy and damp this morning. The weather forecast promised us it would brighten up during the day, so we thought we might get lucky.

It had been raining overnight, so we decided to have a drive round some likely areas to see if we could find a hungry Barn Owl still out trying to find some breakfast. Sure enough, just about the first bird we came across was a Barn Owl!

P1150370Barn Owl – just about the first bird we say this morning

It was perched on a post just the other side of the hedge, so we edged the car forwards until we got to a gate so we could see it. It was watching us coming and after a few seconds, it took off and glided silently away behind the hedge. Still, it was a great way to start the day.

No more Barn Owls were out around the regular meadows this morning, so we set off to try our luck with Little Owls next. When we got to the first site, it was cold and windy and the moisture was still dripping from the barn roof. Sensibly all the Little Owls had tucked themselves down somewhere warm. Our second Barn Owl of the day was perched in a small tree on the verge, but flew off before we could stop. It flew off through the trees, but we could see it working its way along parallel to the road, so we drove back and got ahead of it in an open gateway. It flew silently straight past us and into the trees the other side.

We got out and scanned the surrounding fields, keeping our eyes peeled in case a Little Owl should pop out. A flock of Golden Plover flew over, as did a couple of Yellowhammers. Several Stock Doves were flying around the barns and we got one in the scope. A Great Spotted Woodpecker called from the trees. A couple of Brown Hares were hunkered down and remarkably hard to see in the short winter wheat.

We drove round via a couple more barns on the off chance there might still be some owls out, but they had all gone in to roost. Given the weather, we decided to move on and return to owling later in the day. We made our way across inland to Choseley.

There was no sign of the Rough-legged Buzzard at first at any of its regular spots. We had stopped below the drying barns to scan the hedges to see if we could see it from there when we picked up a large raptor way off to the east. It was too far to make out any detail, but it looked the right shape and even better it was coming our way. Then it turned and headed north, disappearing behind the trees. It seemed to be heading in the direction of one of its favourite trees, so we leapt back in the car and hurried round to check. Sure enough, there was the Rough-legged Buzzard, perched in the tree preening.

IMG_5514Rough-legged Buzzard – flew in from the east

It was a bit distant from here, so we drove round to the other side. We were much closer, but it was slightly obscured by a branch. As we walked round to get a better angle, a Common Buzzard flew past and the Rough-legged Buzzard flew off with it. The two hung in the air together, before dropping down in the direction we had just come. Back in the car and back round and there was the Rough-legged Buzzard in another of its favourite trees, though this time well hidden in the branches. It seemed like it just wasn’t going to come out and show us its best side today.

Then it dropped out of the tree and flew along the hedge, giving us a great view of its mostly white tail and black belly patch. It headed off away from us over the trees, but at that point one of the local Carrion Crows decided to take an interest and started mobbing it. The Rough-legged Buzzard turned back towards us, with the Crow in pursuit and came straight towards us, giving us some great flight views. It’s not often you have a Carrion Crow to thank!

P1150371Rough-legged Buzzard – came almost overhead, pursued by a Crow

With that one in the bag, we dropped down to Titchwell to have a quick look round the reserve. The feeders in front of the Visitor Centre were packed with a variety of the commoner finches – Greenfinches, Goldfinches and Chaffinches – but in amongst the birds round the other side, we picked up a female Brambling straight away. Even better a brighter male appeared as well shortly after and the two of them kept dropping down to feed. The male Brambling had a noticeably black face, but much of the rest of its head and mantle was still speckled with pale buff-brown, as the pale feather fringes only wear off gradually to produce the black head and back in summer plumage.

IMG_5534Brambling – a male in winter plumage

Out on the main path, we stopped to scan the ditch and didn’t have to look very hard today – the Water Rail was right out in the open in front of us, digging around in the rotting leaves in the bottom. We got a great extended look at it today, and it really posed for the photographers.

P1150450Water Rail – in the bottom of the ditch as usual

The grazing meadow ‘pool’ is still fairly dry, although with a few more puddles after the recent rain. It is very much to the pipits liking at the moment, and there were lots of Rock Pipits on there today, at least 15. It took some careful scanning to find the single Water Pipit in with them – it was down in the ditch to one side at first, before it flew out and landed by one of the puddles. It was remarkably well camouflaged against the grey-brown mud, but when it turned it much whiter and less heavily streaked underparts than the Rock Pipits became obvious.

We headed for the shelter of Island Hide to scan the freshmarsh. There were quite a few people in there already and we could see them looking intently at the mud just below. Another Water Rail was working its way along through the cut reeds right in front – another stunning view of this often very secretive species. When something spooked it, it ran with its neck stretched out in front towards the reeds.

P1150473Water Rail – this one was right in front of Island Hide

The water level on the freshmarsh continues to drop and there is a lot more exposed mud at the moment. There were lots more waders on here today, but mostly Lapwing and a large flock of Golden Plover. The latter were spooked continually and wheeled round en masse before dropping back to the mud. The Avocets were mostly asleep in the shallow water by one of the islands, with still around 35 present, a very good number for the time of year. There were also quite a few Black-tailed Godwits, a scattering of Dunlin around the edges of the islands and a couple of Redshank.

IMG_5544Avocets – still around 35 on the freshmarsh

A flock of Brent Geese had come in to bathe when we arrived, but gradually drifted off back towards the saltmarsh. There were also plenty of ducks – particularly Teal, with some smart drakes and accompanying females feeding on the mud right below the hide. A sizeable party of Shoveler were swimming around in the deeper water further out, barely lifting their heads up out of the water as they fed. There were also a few Gadwall amongst the Mallards and a small number of Wigeon. Most of the latter are usually to be found feeding out on the saltmarsh. Further over, we got the scope on a stunning drake Pintail – there were actually several on here again today.

P1150510Teal – a very smart drake

As we came out of Island Hide and climbed back up towards the main path, we could see a few people further along looking intently out over the saltmarsh. Once we got up there, we could see why – a cracking grey male Hen Harrier was hunting up and down out towards the dunes. As it did so, it flushed a Merlin from the bushes, which flew after it for a short while, fast and low, before flicking up and away over the dunes. The Hen Harrier was a little distant, but we got it in the scope and had a good look at it, before it drifted off towards Thornham Harbour.

We carried on out towards the Volunteer Marsh, stopping to scan for waders. A smart, white-spangled Grey Plover was walking about on the mud. A little group of Knot were working their way round the edge of the vegetation. Closer to us, a Ringed Plover was preening on the edge of one of the muddy channels.

IMG_5554Ringed Plover – on the Volunteer Marsh

As we walked along a little further, we could see the male Hen Harrier again, closer to us over the saltmarsh. It wheeled round a couple of times, scattering pipits from the ground below it, before turning and flying straight towards us, crossing the main path right in front of us before working its way east along the bank between the Volunteer Marsh and the Tidal Pools. What a stunning bird – ghostly grey, with black wing tips, when it came past us we could see its grey hood and white rump.

P1150554Hen Harrier – this stunning male flew across in front of us

We thought the Hen Harrier might have scattered all the birds from the Tidal Pools, as everything took flight from the edge of the Volunteer Marsh as it flew over. Thankfully, when we got out to the Tidal Pools, we could see the most important birds still in place. Three Spotted Redshanks were wading in the deeper water at the back, with a Common Redshank just behind them on the edge of the mud. The Spotted Redshanks were obviously paler, silvery grey above and white below, with a longer, finer bill. Along the edge of the water to one side, a Greenshank completed the set of our ‘shanks’, all around one tiny area of water.

There were several Little Grebes diving in the water near the bank, as well as a female Goldeneye at the back. Further along, towards the beach, another pair of Goldeneye were ‘snorkelling’ in the shallows – swimming along with their heads under water. We also stopped to admire another smart drake Pintail, upending in the deeper water.

IMG_5564Pintail – out on the Tidal Pools

We paid a quick visit to the beach. The tide was quite a way out, so there were more waders on the shore today, but several bait diggers meant they had mostly moved along further to left and right. There were good numbers of Bar-tailed Godwits down on the beach and we added Turnstone and Oystercatcher to the day’s list.

Scanning the sea, a couple of drake Red-breasted Mergansers were close inshore, so we had a good look at one of those in the scope. There were also a few Goldeneye as usual. A line of Common Scoters were bobbing about in the waves much further out, so we focused our attention initially on two females closer in. It was only a little later, when some of the more distant Scoter started flapping their wings that we caught a flash of white – there were some Velvet Scoter in there too. They were really hard to see at that distance, and with the birds bobbing around down in the waves. We could make out at least two – dark faced with a discrete pale spot. At one point they moved to the very edge of the raft of Common Scoters, which meant the rest of the group stood a chance of getting onto the Velvet Scoters.

Then it was time to head back for a late lunch. It was only a quick visit to Titchwell today, given the priority given to our owl-hunting efforts, but we had done remarkably well in the time available. While we were eating our lunch in the car park, a little group of three Bullfinches appeared in the trees in the corner, enjoying their lunch of leaf buds – they seemed to be doing a great job of pulling the new buds apart. We got them in the scope and particularly admired the two very smart pink males.

IMG_5587Bullfinch – three were in the car park at lunchtime

After lunch, we made our way back along the coast. This would normally be a great time to find Barn Owls out hunting, but strangely there were none out at any of the regular sites we have for them. It had not brightened up as the weather forecast had promised, and the wind had picked up quite a bit (as it had suggested!) – perhaps that was enough to put them off. We stopped in Blakeney and walked out along the seawall. Here at least a Barn Owl was out – although a little distant – hunting back and forth over the grass, stopping to hover occasionally. But there was just one Barn Owl here today and no sign of the hoped for Short-eared Owl.

While we were scanning out across the marshes, some other local birders stopped to talk to us. They mentioned that they had seen a Short-eared Owl at Cley, out hunting that morning. It was exposed and cold in the freshening wind out on the freshes at Blakeney, so we decided to swing round that way instead. We stood up on the East Bank at Cley for a while, watching the Marsh Harriers coming in to roost. A long line of Pink-footed Geese flew in from the east along the coast, calling loudly, before splitting into several skeins and dropping down towards Blakeney – just returning from feeding somewhere or perhaps coming back from the Broads.

The afternoon light was starting to fade, so we made our way inland again. All the regular Barn Owl fields were still empty – something was putting them off from hunting this evening. We had a date with some other owls, so we continued on and drove into the trees.

We were in good time, we should have been a few minutes early, but a Tawny Owl started to hoot already as we were walking down to get in place. We quickened our steps. Then, when we had got ourselves stationed, it all went rather quiet for about ten minutes. A Nuthatch flew in through the gathering gloom and landed on the trunk of a tree in front of us, before disappearing into a hole.

Then some movement in the ivy. The next thing we knew a large shape flew out of the trees and across behind us, a dark shape with wide, rounded wings – a Tawny Owl coming out from its roost. It went a different way to usual tonight, but still thankfully landed up in the trees where we could get it in the scope, briefly. Then it flew again. We made our way round to where it had gone and there it was in the trees. Conveniently, it had landed in a gap in the branches, where it perched in the last of the evening light. Great views of a Tawny Owl through the scope, one of our most nocturnal of owls. It perched in full view for about ten minutes, periodically puffing itself up and hooting. Another Tawny Owl answered from further over in the trees. Finally, it dropped silently away through the branches. The owls had not been their most helpful today, but what a great way to end an Owl Tour.

IMG_5588Tawny Owl – perched in the trees hooting

21st January 2016 – Winter Rarity Hunting

A Private Tour today. The mission was somewhat different to normal tours – with a concerted effort to find some of the lingering rarities which are around North Norfolk at the moment, as well as catching up with some of our scarcer wintering species. It was going to be an all action day!

It dawned very frosty and with a bit of lingering fog, although the sun was already doing its best to burn that off. We met in Wells and, after a quick look in the harbour on the way which didn’t produce anything noteworthy today, we made our way along to Holkham where we pulled in just off the road to scan the grazing marshes below.

We quickly located a good selection of geese. A long line of birds on the frozen grass beyond the hedge revealed themselves to be mostly White-fronted Geese, with an obvious white blaze around the base of their all-pink bills and orange legs. In with them, was a small group of Pink-footed Geese, very dark-headed with pink legs and a small, mostly dark bill with a pink band around it. There were also plenty of Greylag Geese too, much larger and paler with a large orange carrot of a bill, and a pair of Egyptian Geese.

IMG_5352White-fronted Geese – out on the frozen grass at Holkham

We could hear Pink-footed Geese calling and see odd groups flying back and forth in front of the pines, but it was only when we moved so that we could see round past the hedge and look out further over on the freshmarsh, that we could see just how many were out there.  Thousands of birds were huddled together out on the grass and around the frozen pools. The Pink-footed Geese roost on the marshes here and would normally fly inland to feed during the day, but perhaps the lingering fog and frost had caused them to stay this morning. They were quite a sight!

A careful scan of the marshes and a white shape was just visible half-hidden in the reeds towards the back. When it put its neck up, we could see through the scope that it was the Great White Egret that has been hanging around here for several months. It was hard to see well in the reeds, but thankfully it flew, first to a small area of marsh nearby and then across and into the trees where it perched on a branch in full view.

IMG_5353Great White Egret – flew up into the trees where it was easier to see

That was a great way to start, then we carried on west along the coast. With the remains of the fog burning off slowly, we made another stop at Brancaster Staithe to have a quick look in the harbour. A smart drake Red-breasted Merganser and a pair of Goldeneye were diving in the harbour channel. A little posse of Brent Geese were chattering noisily from the water’s edge, before flying off over the saltmarsh to feed.

P1150205Brent Geese – gathering in the harbour channel

There was a nice selection of waders on view here too. A group of Bar-tailed Godwits and Oystercatchers were roosting on the edge of the water, with a Curlew standing head and shoulders above them. Nearby, a Black-tailed Godwit gave a good opportunity to go through the key differences from the Bar-taileds. A couple of Grey Plovers were higher up on the mud. Where someone had hauled up and washed a load of Brancaster mussels, two Turnstones were picking around in the debris. Down on the sandbars in the channel, we could see several Redshanks but a Greenshank unfortunately only flew up briefly as a Marsh Harrier passed overhead, before dropping down out of sight again.

IMG_5365Bar-tailed Godwits & Oystercatchers – roosting in the harbour

The sun was now starting to come through more strongly, burning off the mist, so we decided to have a drive round via Choseley to see if we could find the Rough-legged Buzzard. Driving along the lane, we spotted a harrier working its way low along a hedge beyond, into the sun from us. It looked slim-built so we tried to catch up with it. As it dropped ahead of us along the side of the road, we got a flash of a white rump patch and it landed briefly, before continuing its journey east across the fields. We could confirm it was a Hen Harrier, a ringtail, working the hedges.

Scanning the hedges all around, we could see our first Buzzard but it was clearly too dark, a Common Buzzard. Over the other side of the road, two more Common Buzzards were perched up in the morning sun, and away in the distance beyond we could see yet another. They were all out warming up in the sunshine, but try as we might we could not find a Rough-legged Buzzard doing the same. We drove round to the corner south of the drying barns, were a couple of cars were just leaving. When we asked what they had seen, we were told they had been watching the Rough-legged Buzzard and, even better, it was still in view. Unfortunately, a quick look confirmed it was actually another Common Buzzard, looking rather pale-breasted in the morning sunshine, but not like a Rough-legged Buzzard should. We had a quick and unsuccessful drive round some of the Rough-legged Buzzard’s other favourite haunts and then decided to move on.

We had a particular request to try for the Pallid Harrier today, which has been gracing various sites around Norfolk since we first saw it back in mid-November. In recent weeks it has been seen inland, around the village of Flitcham, but it typically only makes intermittent flights over the fields here, before disappearing off to hunt elsewhere.

We arrived and stationed ourselves at one end of the fields where a small group were scanning the thick hedge and cover strip in front. There were lots of Chaffinches flying up and down from the field to the hedge and in with them we could see a few Bramblings. Three Yellowhammers flew into the hedge as well and perched up so we could get them in the scope. We could hear Tree Sparrows calling as well. The Pallid Harrier had made a pass over the stubble field here about twenty minutes before we arrived, so we waited hopefully for it to return.

Thankfully we hadn’t been waiting very long when we got a surprise. There were others looking out over the fields a short way further along the road, but they hadn’t shouted anything across to us. It was only when a minibus pulled up alongside that we were kindly informed that the Pallid Harrier was actually being watched in a tree over there! We hastened down and sure enough, there it stood. We got a great look at it in the scope.

IMG_5369Pallid Harrier – perched up in a tree at Flitcham

We were just making our way a little further along to join the crowd there for a closer view when it became clear it had taken off – apparently, someone had got a little too enthusiastic and had tried to go into the field, so scaring it off. Very helpful! It disappeared off over the fields beyond, so we had a quick look to see if it would loop round and do a circuit over the stubble again, but there was no sign of it. We had a number of other things we wanted to see today, and with our main target here achieved, we decided to move on.

As we walked along the road, we could hear Tree Sparrows calling again and when all the finches flew up into the hedge from the weedy strip beyond, we got a good view of a Tree Sparrow right in front of us. Historically a common farmland bird here, they are now getting very scarce and it is always nice to catch up with them. There were also lots of Bramblings in the hedge here too.

P1150210Brambling – lots were in the hedges at Flitcham

We made our way back towards the coast, and dropped down towards Titchwell via Choseley. We pulled up to talk to another birder in the layby where we had been earlier and were told the Rough-legged Buzzard had been reported again about half an hour earlier. A quick scan and there it was, perched in a tree in the distance. It really stood out with its striking pale head and contrasting black belly patch, very unlike the Common Buzzards we had seen earlier.

IMG_5375Rough-legged Buzzard – flashing its black-banded white tail in flight

We had a quick look through the scope, then drove round to get a better look. The Rough-legged Buzzard was still perched in the tree across the field in front of us, watching us. Then suddenly it dropped down and flew a short distance across the field, flashing its distinctive mostly white tail as it did so, before flying up into another tree. When it landed we could see why – it had joined another Rough-legged Buzzard which was already sitting there. Two Rough-legged Buzzards for the price of one! We had a fantastic view of them in the scope. In the end we had to tear ourselves away.

IMG_5389Rough-legged Buzzards – two sat in a tree together!

We had originally thought we might have a look at Titchwell, but a discussion about some of the other good birds along the coast led to a change of plan. With our luck running, we had seen most of the birds we had hoped to catch up with quite quickly, so we had time to play with. We hopped in the car and headed back east, all the way to Cley.

There has been a Grey Phalarope in the area for several days now and it had been showing this morning from the new Babcock Hide on what used to be Pope’s Marsh. We made our way out to the hide and as soon as we got in there, we could see everyone looking at the mud below. There was the Grey Phalarope, right in front of the hide. Stunning views!

P1150282Grey Phalarope – right in front of Babcock Hide

Grey Phalaropes are more often to be seen swimming, twirling in circles to stir up the water and picking for food brought to the surface, or even out on the sea. They are mostly pelagic in the winter, surviving out in the Atlantic, generally only forced in by adverse weather. This one had presumably been blown inshore by the storms we had last week, and had come in to feed up on the marshes.

The water levels have gone down on Watling Water, the new pool in front of Babacock Hide, for the first time. There was a great selection of other waders out on the exposed mud. There were lots of Dunlin, with three larger Knot in with them, down by the water’s edge – a good chance to see the two alongside. A good number of Ruff were feeding higher up the mud, along with a few Redshank. Around the edges of the islands, we could see a few Snipe, well camouflaged against the reeds.

There were several Pied Wagtails around the drier margins of the mud, along with a number of Meadow Pipits. Then, from behind one of the islands, a Water Pipit appeared with them. Larger than the Meadow Pipits, greyer brown and less streaked above and plainer, whiter below.

IMG_5399Water Pipit – feeding around the edge of Watling Water

Having seen what we wanted to see so quickly, and so well, we had time to try something else. We drove further along the coast to Weybourne to look for the flock of Redpolls which has been feeding in the fields here for some weeks now. However, the field was harvested a week or so back and when we arrived the few remaining weeds were quiet. We walked up and down the road briefly, but all we could find was a Grey Wagtail which flew up and landed on the wires above briefly. It seemed like our luck had finally run out.

We were just packing up to leave when a flock of about 20 small finches flew in and circled overhead, before dropping down and landing in the hedge nearby. They were Redpolls and we could just see around half of them perched in the top. They were mostly face on to us and several were clearly rather brown around the cheeks and even washed onto the upper breast, Lesser Redpolls. One was clearly different, very frosty around the cheeks and breast, contrasting strongly with the black chin and red ‘poll’, with no brown tones on the underparts and bolder black streaks on the flanks – this was a Mealy Redpoll. Another bird hopped up from lower down in the hedge, and perched back on. It was less distinctive than the first from this angle, but still had a grey (rather than brown) face and looked a rather cold grey brown above with a distinctive pale rump streaked through with black – another Mealy Redpoll.

Unfortunately, they didn’t stop long and flew off strongly west over the field. Still, we couldn’t believe our luck that they should just drop in for us like that. We wanted to end the day at the raptor roost, but we still had a little time to play with, so we drove back to Cley and stopped at the Visitor Centre.

A Red-necked Grebe has been around the reserve for the last few days and was reported from Pat’s Pool today – supposedly visible from the Visitor Centre. We had a quick scan from the car park, but couldn’t see it anywhere around the open water. With the water levels very high, four Avocets were huddled together on the edge of one of the few remaining islands. We decided to pop into the Visitor Centre and get a hot drink to go and use the facilities quickly. While we were waiting, the Red-necked Grebe suddenly appeared close to the bank, wrestling with a small fish. It was distant, but we could see it clearly through the scope.

IMG_5402Red-necked Grebe – a record shot, on Pat’s Pool today

It disappeared again, then as we returned to the car we could see it further out on the water, diving. We got a better look at it from the car park and it quickly became clear why it was hiding close to the edge. It caught another fish and immediately a Black-headed Gull flew over and started to harass it. The Red-necked Grebe dived, but when it resurfaced half way to the bank, the gull was after it again. This happened three times, before the Red-necked Grebe got over to the bank and finally swallowed its catch.

We finished the day at Warham Greens. There was a nice flock of Linnets and Yellowhammers in the hedge of the walk down to the front, with the odd Reed Bunting in with them. When we arrived, one of the first birds we saw was a Barn Owl which was hunting up and down over the rough grass on the edge of the saltmarsh.

P1150355Barn Owl – hunting along the front at Warham Greens

We had really come for the raptors. A couple of Marsh Harriers were circling over the back of the saltmarsh and a single ringtail Hen Harrier drifted in from the east, further back. In the end we saw 2-3 ringtail Hen Harriers, one flying closer across the saltmarsh and away inland, presumably for some last hunting, and another perched preening out in front of us. Then we picked up a Peregrine standing on a sandbar out on the beach. We just needed a Merlin to complete the set here and a careful scan of the saltmarsh eventually produced its reward, with one perched on the top of a bush. Then we decided to head back.

What a day! Pallid Harrier, two Rough-legged Buzzards, Grey Phalarope, Great White Egret, Red-necked Grebe, Water Pipit, Mealy Redpoll, plus a host of other good raptors, waders, geese, ducks and farmland birds. There aren’t many places you could see all of those – welcome to Norfolk in winter.

19th January 2016 – Winter on the Coast

A Winter Tour today, on the North Norfolk coast. It was cold and generally rather overcast, a little misty at times later on, but mostly dry and with only light winds which meant we could make a good day of it. We met in Wells and worked our way west.

P1150017Wells Quay – at dawn

We had a quick stop down at the quay in Wells first. There was some lovely hazy sunshine out to the east first thing, before the cloud built. We had hoped to find the Shag which seems to have taken up residence in the harbour for the winter, but it was not in its usual place on the jetty when we arrived. We contented ourselves with admiring the Brent Geese bathing out in the harbour channel and loafing around on the sand bars, before drifting off over to the fields the other side of the harbour wall to feed.

IMG_5242Brent Geese – bathing and loafing in the harbour at Wells

Scanning across to the other side of the harbour, we finally picked up the Shag, which was swimming further down along the quay, diving repeatedly in among the boats. It showed no sign of returning to its favoured resting place, so we drove further along to where we could get a better look at it. The Shag was diving just off the quay and surfaced with a large fish. After a couple of attempts to get it turned round the right way, it managed to swallow it. Two Cormorants were also fishing in the harbour, giving us a good comparison.

P1150046Shag – fishing in the harbour at Wells

Our next stop was at Holkham. Just by the road opposite the church we pulled over to admire a little group of Pink-footed Geese on the grazing meadows. Most of the thousands which normally roost here overnight had flown off inland to feed already, but it was good to get a chance to study these few lingering geese more closely. One was sporting a small amount of white around the base of the bill, a not uncommon variant of Pink-footed Goose.

IMG_5248Pink-footed Geese – one had a small amount of white around the bill

We couldn’t see any other geese with the Pinkfeet, but a little further along the road we stopped again and a scan of the grazing marshes revealed yet more geese. Many of them were Greylags – larger and paler with a big orange carrot of a bill. In amongst them were some White-fronted Geese, smaller and darker, with a noticeable white blaze around the base of the all pink bill. This white was much more extensive than on the single Pink-footed Goose we had just seen. The adult White-fronted Geese were also sporting distinctive black belly bars.

IMG_5253White-fronted Geese – out on the grazing marshes at Holkham

There were other birds to see here too. A Barn Owl was still out, flying back and forth over the marshes. It landed on a post for several minutes for a rest. Several Marsh Harriers circled overhead and two of them had a brief go at a Grey Heron which flew out of the trees and landed in the grass. A couple of Bullfinches flew along the hedge in front of us calling and landed briefly in the top of a tree.

We carried on our way west, stopping again briefly on the way to watch another Barn Owl which was hunting around some paddocks by the road. We diverted inland at Titchwell, around the back to Choseley, hoping to find the Rough-legged Buzzard which has made the area its home this winter, but there was no sign of it on our way past. We didn’t stop for any length of time. There were lots of Brown Hares in the fields and they are starting to chase each other round already – we even saw a very brief bout of boxing!

The hedges south of the barns have been full of Yellowhammers in recent weeks, but they were empty today. A tractor was working its way up and down the road flailing them back to the proportions of a rather small rectangular box, so the birds had flown. We decided to make our way back down to the coast and on to Thornham.

As soon as we arrived at Thornham Harbour we could see the flock of about 30 Twite, even before we got out of the car. They were buzzing around the saltmarsh right by the road. We pulled up and got out, just as they landed in the vegetation just behind us. We got them in the scope and had a quick look at them, but just at that moment some people tried to walk right up to them and they were off again, out onto the saltmarsh. The Twite came back shortly after, but were quickly flushed again and flew out towards the seawall. We gathered our stuff and set off in their direction.


IMG_5276Twite – around 30 were still around Thornham Harbour

We could see the Twite again from up on the seawall, feeding on the edge of the saltmarsh just below us. Several of them were colour-ringed with individual combinations of coloured plastic rings which identify exactly where they have come from, mostly from the Pennines, with a couple from Derbyshire. We could see their peachy-orange breasts and small yellow bills. One – a male – was even showing off his pink rump! Two Reed Buntings were feeding around the low Suaeda bushes nearby.

We carried on out along the seawall towards the dunes at the east end of Holme beach. We had hoped to catch up with the three Shore Larks which are spending the winter out here, but there was no sign of them at first when we arrived. However, we hadn’t been there too long, when we spotted them flying in along the edge of the dunes from the direction of Holme and over our heads. There were quite a few people milling around on the edge of the beach which perhaps put them off, although that doesn’t generally seem to affect them, but the Shore Larks didn’t drop down onto the beach today and kept on flying inland until we lost them in the sun. Unfortunately, we would have to make do with a flypast as they didn’t reappear while we were there.

We had a look round while we waited. There were a few Goldeneye swimming around in the harbour channel. Out on the sea, we could see a good number of Great Crested Grebes and a single Red-breasted Merganser. A Red-throated Diver was diving constantly, which made it very hard to get everyone onto it. Down on the beach, the selection of waders included several Bar-tailed Godwits and a couple of Sanderling scuttling around on the sand. We decided to move on.

On the way back, some of the Twite were still feeding further out on the saltmarsh, a little less skittish now. A Red-breasted Merganser in the harbour channel gave us better views than we had had of the one out on the sea earlier. A Bar-tailed Godwit flew in and landed close to the seawall on the mud. A Knot was bathing further out in the channel.

IMG_5302Bar-tailed Godwit – in Thornham Harbour

We planned to head on to Titchwell next, but on the way there we took a quick diversion inland. From an unflailed hedgerow by the road, we flushed a large flock of buntings which disappeared across the field to the other side. We pulled in and got the scope onto them – we could see there were lots of Corn Buntings and a smaller number of Yellowhammers. It was a real treat to see so many of these increasingly scarce farmland birds. The Corn Buntings were larger, and buffy-brown – we could even hear some of them singing already, a distinctive sound like jangling keys. Several of the Yellowhammers were very smart males with bright canary-yellow heads.

IMG_5311Corn Buntings – we came across a large flock by the road

From there, we made our way back round towards Titchwell. While checking for oncoming traffic at a road junction, we glimpsed a raptor crossing the road in the distance and disappearing behind a hedge. A quick turn round and drive out beyond the hedge and we could see it was the Rough-legged Buzzard, flashing its white tail with black terminal tail band as it flew away from us. Just when we had least expected it.

We watched the Rough-legged Buzzard heading out across the field, before it turned and made its way along a hedge at the back, showing us its black belly patch contrasting with its pale head as it did so. It then landed in a small tree and we got it in the scope. It was a way off by this stage, but still we got a good look at it. It was a nice bonus to find it along here, having not seen it around Choseley earlier.

IMG_5316Rough-legged Buzzard – just when we least expected it

Then it was time for Titchwell. After a quick break for lunch, we set off to walk out onto the reserve. There were lots of finches on the feeders by the Visitor Centre, but the most notable was a single Brambling which was hiding in the bushes behind with a small group of Chaffinches. While we were watching it, the Barn Owl appeared over the grazing marsh beyond, but by the time we had torn ourselves away from the feeders it had disappeared again. The Water Rail in the ditch nearby disappeared into the reeds as we approached, unfortunately before everyone got a chance to see it.

IMG_5325Brambling – by the feeders at Titchwell

We stopped at the still dry grazing meadow ‘pool’. At first it looked fairly quiet, apart from a small selection of plovers – a Lapwing, a Grey Plover and a couple of Ringed Plovers. Looking from a different angle, we could see that there were actually several pipits out on the mud behind the reeds. We started to have a closer look through them but all we could find today was Rock Pipits. Then it started to drizzle a little, so we made for the shelter of Island Hide.

The water level on the freshmarsh continues to drop nicely, exposing more mud, although the birds don’t seem to be appreciating it yet. There is still a good number of Avocets on here for this time of year, and they were feeding more actively today rather than just sleeping, as were the Black-tailed Godwits. All around the edges of the exposed mud we could see a good smattering of Dunlin.

There are still plenty of ducks on the freshmarsh, particularly good numbers of Teal. Several smart drakes and their accompanying females were feeding in the mud below the hide. There were also still quite a few Shoveler and Mallard, but not so many Wigeon at the moment. The Wigeon prefer somewhere where there is more grass to graze on, so are often out on the saltmarsh.

P1150087Teal – still lots on the freshmarsh

The weather had closed in a bit and it was starting to get rather grey and misty, even if the earlier drizzle had now eased off. We decided to head out towards the beach. The Volunteer Marsh produced a good selection of waders, as it has done in recent weeks. There are always lots of Redshank on here and normally a good number of Curlew too. A single Black-tailed Godwit was feeding along the edge of the deep channel by the path, very well camouflaged against the grey-brown mud, but giving us great up-close views.

IMG_5333Curlew – the Volunteer Marsh is usually a good place to see them

However, the stars of the show on the Volunteer Marsh were the plovers. There were several Grey Plovers out on the mud and through the scope we could admire their delightfully white spangled upperparts. One in particular had a long battle with a worm – the latter was understandably reluctant to leave its hole and the Grey Plover stood pulling at it, with the worm stretched out like an extension to its beak, for some time. A couple of much smaller Ringed Plovers were nearby and some similarly sized Dunlin flew in to join them, giving a good comparison.

IMG_5328Grey Plover – very smart birds, even in winter plumage

The Spotted Redshank was right at the back of the Tidal Pools as usual, but we got a clear view of it through the scope before it disappeared out of view. Noticeably paler silvery grey and white compared to all the Common Redshanks, with a longer and finer bill. Closer to the main path were a couple of Bar-tailed Godwits and two more Ringed Plovers.

The Pintail were back on the Tidal Pools today. A drake flew over as we were admiring the waders and disappeared towards the freshmarsh, but a pair and another couple of females were still busy upending out on the main pool further along towards the beach. We stopped to admire them in the scope.

IMG_5340Pintail – this pair was on the Tidal Pools

Out on the beach, the tide was well in. There were still quite a few Bar-tailed Godwits along the shoreline and plenty of Oystercatchers on the sand picking around the remains of the shells. It was a bit misty now, looking out to sea, but we found a line of Common Scoter out on the water on the edge of the cloud. Closer in, a few Red-breasted Merganser were swimming around just offshore. There didn’t immediately appear to be anything else of note, so we didn’t stay too long out there and started to make our way back.

As we walked back along the main path past the Volunteer Marsh, a particularly streamlined wader whipped in low across the mud, flashing a white tail and plain grey wings, a Greenshank. It dropped down out of view in the tidal channel at the back. Out on the freshmarsh, lots of Black-headed Gulls were starting to gather to roost.

We stopped for a short while to admire the Marsh Harriers out over the reedbed. The closer we looked the more we saw. There were several circling around and a few more perched in the dead trees over the back, in among all the Cormorants. A couple more flew in while we stood there – one high overhead from the direction of Thornham and a second low in from the back. At one point we counted ten Marsh Harriers all in view together.

We were losing the light quickly now, so made our way back towards the Visitor Centre. As we walked along, we scanned the ditches either side of the path. A Water Rail down in the bottom of the ditch on one side scuttled quickly into cover, but a second Water Rail on the other side was more obliging and spent a couple of minutes rooting around in the rotting leaves on the far bank. When a large – and rather noisy – group arrived behind us and stopped to ask us what we were watching, it hurried back into cover. We decided to do the same and headed for home.

16th January 2016 – Owling Again

Another Owl Tour today, and the weather forecast was a little better than last time out – a cold NW wind and the chance of some wintry showers forecast, but it dawned bright, clear and cold. If it stayed like that, we should be in with some luck.

We started with a drive round some favoured fields to see if the local Barn Owls were still out hunting. However, it had been clear since dawn and it looked like they had gone back to bed already. So we decided to try for Little Owls instead, and see what else we could pick up on the way.

IMG_5113Grey Partridge – 3 were feeding on the edge of the field

While the sun was out, there was a cold wind and at our first stop there was no sign of the Little Owl in its usual sunbathing spot when we arrived. We contented ourselves instead with admiring the farmland wildlife. A covey of Red-legged Partridges were grubbing around on the edge of the track on one side of the road and three Grey Partridges were tucked down in the verge on the edge of the field the other side. It was nice to be able to compare the two.

Out in the field beyond, several earth-covered lumps revealed themselves on closer inspection to be Brown Hares. They were huddled down in the winter wheat, perhaps a bit cold for them to be boxing yet. A small flock of Golden Plover flew over in tight formation. A Kestrel was hovering over a patch of rough grass further along the road.

IMG_5116Brown Hares – we saw lots in the fields today

We turned back to the farm buildings and another scan finally revealed a small fluffy ball, a Little Owl, not in its usual spot but tucked down on the edge of a broken window. It was catching the sun, but presumably more sheltered from the wind here. We got it in the scope and had a good look at it, before it disappeared inside the building. We turned to scan the fields again and picked up another Little Owl on the farm buildings on the other side of the road. It was a bit more distant, but enjoying the winter sunshine in the lee of the wind. That was a great start – two Little Owls.

We worked our way on west, checking out some more Little Owl sites as we went, but none of the others were out today. A Red Kite flew lazily over the road. We decided to head over to Titchwell for some general birding through the middle of the day, and return to the owls in the afternoon. We drove round via Choseley, but there was no sign of the Rough-legged Buzzard when we stopped briefly – just several Common Buzzards and a Marsh Harrier over the fields. The hedgerow by the barns was alive with Yellowhammers.

IMG_5122Siskin – several were in the trees by the picnic area

The car park at Titchwell was very busy today, so we made our way straight towards the Visitor Centre. We could hear lots of finches in the trees around the picnic area, so we stopped for a closer look. In amongst the Goldfinches feeding in the alders were several Siskins. When they caught the sunlight, they shone golden yellow and green. The feeders around the Visitor Centre were also full of finches, but the standout bird here was the single Marsh Tit which kept darting in, quickly snatching a sunflower seed, and disappearing back into the bushes to deal with it.

A careful scan of the ditches alongside the main path revealed the Water Rail again, in its usual place hidden beneath the overgrown vegetation. We watched it poking around on the edge of the water – its long red bill and camouflaged black-streaked brown upperparts. When it made a bolt further along the ditch, it came out in the open for a while so we could get a better look at it. It was always nervous and didn’t stay out in the open for long.

P1140979Water Rail – in the ditch along the main path

There were lots of Rock Pipits on the drained grazing meadow pool today, at least a dozen. At first we couldn’t find the Water Pipit, but then it appeared from behind the reeds right down at the front. It was great to see both species alongside each other – the much whiter underparts of the Water Pipit really standing out compared to the much dirtier and more heavily streaked Rock Pipits. A Marsh Harrier was hanging in the air over the reeds behind.

After the stormy weather in the week, and despite the colder weather, the number of ducks on the freshmarsh was well down on recent visits. Still, there was a good selection to admire – Wigeon, Teal, Shoveler and Gadwall. Several groups of chattering Brent Geese dropped in from the saltmarsh for a bathe before flying back out to resume feeding.

P1150001Teal – the drakes are looking particularly smart currently

The huddle of around 30 Avocets was still clustered on the edge of one of the islands, a good number here for this time of winter. A group of Black-tailed Godwits was roosting with them. There is more mud on the freshmarsh now, as the water level has started to recede, and several Dunlin were scurrying around making the most of it. A single Knot was in with them, giving a great side-by-side comparison.

IMG_5126Avocets & Black-tailed Godwits – roosting on the freshmarsh

There were lots of gulls loafing around on the water out here today – when we got out to the beach later, we would see why. They were mainly Herring Gulls, Common Gulls and Black-headed Gulls. A careful scan through produced a single winter-plumaged adult Mediterranean Gull. It was bathing, splashing around in the water and flapping its wings, flashing its plain white wing tips. Then it flew over to one of the islands to preen. We noted its bright red bill, heavier than a Black-headed Gull‘s, and its black bandit mask (rather than the black hood of summer plumage).

IMG_5131Mediterranean Gull – this adult was bathing on the freshmarsh

With all the bright weather, we decided to make the most of it and head straight out towards the beach. The tide was just going out and there was a great selection of waders on the Volunteer Marsh. From the corner by the path to the Parrinder Hide, we stopped to admire them. There were several more Knot on here, feeding on the mud, and lots of Redshanks as usual. A Grey Plover was wrestling with a worm, attempting to prise it out of the mud. When it finally pulled it out, the Curlew which had been eyeing it jealously made a bid to snatch it.

IMG_5161Grey Plover – trying to pull a worm out of the mud

A Ringed Plover flew in and joined them. We watched it feeding – with a very similar action to the Grey Plover, walking a few steps and stopping to scan the mud, bending down to pick things from the surface. The Ringed Plover managed to pull out a particularly large worm and hurried down to one of the small creeks to wash it before gulping it down before it could be stolen.

At the other end of the Volunteer Marsh, a Bar-tailed Godwit flew in and landed on the mud close to the path. This bird has an injured foot and seems to have taken to feeding around here in recent weeks. It gave us a great opportunity to have a close look at it – noting some of the key differences from the Black-tailed Godwits we had seen earlier. When it flapped its wings, we even got a great view of its barred tail.

IMG_5143Bar-tailed Godwit – flashing its barred tail

Out at the back of the Tidal Pools, a much paler wader stood out from the rather dark grey-brown Redshanks. We got it in the scope – a Spotted Redshank, in pale silvery grey and bright white winter plumage. We also noted its longer and finer bill compared to the Common Redshanks nearby. Several Little Grebes were out on the water, diving constantly, along with a female Goldeneye. We got the latter in the scope and admired its bright golden-yellow iris.

Out on the beach, the tide was still mostly in. Along the high tide line was a huge throng of gulls scattered along the beach all the way across towards Brancaster. The storm we had seen earlier in the week, with strong north winds and high tides, had thrown up loads of shellfish and other sealife onto the shore. The gulls had moved in to take advantage of it.

IMG_5158Gulls – a huge throng was feeding on the beach

We had a good look through the gulls, in case we could find something interesting among them. We did find several bright silvery grey Sanderling running in and out of the throng. Lots of Oystercatchers and Turnstones were also making the most of the bounty on the beach. There didn’t appear to be much on the sea today, which was still rather rough. A nice drake Red-breasted Merganser flew past. We had a busy afternoon planned and it was rather cold out on the beach, so we didn’t linger long and headed back to the Visitor Centre.

After lunch, we had a quick swing round via Choseley again. Although the Rough-legged Buzzard had just been reported dropping down behind a hedge, when we drove round to the other side to check it out all we could find were a couple of Common Buzzards, including one rather pale one. We also stopped briefly at Brancaster Staithe, but there was no sign of the Red-necked Grebe here today. We did admire the little group of Red-breasted Mergansers diving in the harbour and the nice selection of waders on the mud.

We had seen barely a hint of the forecast wintry showers and it was a lovely bright and sunny afternoon – perfect for owls. We made our way back along the coast road, scanning the favoured for any sign of a ghostly white shape. It didn’t take long to find our first Barn Owl, perched in a tree by a horse paddock near the road. It was hard to find somewhere to stop, but it took off and we watched it for a while as it circled over the grass before disappearing over the hedge at the back. A little further along, we found another more distant Barn Owl, out hunting over the freshmarsh at Holkham.

Owl time was upon us already, but we managed a quick stop at Wells. Out on the boating lake, beyond all the resident Mallards, we quickly picked out the two Scaup. Both appeared to be first winter drakes, with mostly grey backs still marked with brown along the top of the white flanks. They were asleep at first, but one woke up and started diving. We could see its green-tinted head and yellow iris.

IMG_5168Scaup – one of two at Wells today

Then it was back to Blakeney for a walk out on the seawall. It seemed rather quiet at first and we remembered how cold it was out in the wind with no shelter. Then a Barn Owl appeared quartering the marshes in front of us. We had hoped to get a good look at it through the scope, but it kept disappearing behind the reeds. When it did land on a post briefly, it was half hidden and as we tried to reposition ourselves it was off again. It then worked its way further over.

IMG_5169Barn Owl – kept frustratingly hidden when it landed

Another two Barn Owls appeared, but further over towards the back of the Freshes. The first Barn Owl then worked its way out into the middle. There was no sign of the hoped for Short-eared Owl this afternoon, so we decided to head inland to see if we could find a more amenable Barn Owl in a more sheltered spot. We hadn’t gone far when we found one unexpectedly on the gatepost of a house, right by the road. Unfortunately, it saw us coming and was off through the trees.

We drove round to another suitable spot and got out for a walk round. A couple of skeins of Pink-footed Geese came low overhead calling loudly, a lovely sight and sound in the evening light. Scanning the edge of the marshes, we found the Barn Owl and this one was perched on a post for us. It took off but landed on another post nearby and started to scan the grass below. This time we got it in the scope and had a really good look at it, our seventh Barn Owl of the afternoon and the best performer!


IMG_5173Barn Owl – our seventh of the afternoon

The afternoon was getting on, and we needed to be in position for the Tawny Owls, so we drove on and walked out to the edge of some woodland. It wasn’t long before the first one began hooting, some distance off in the trees. Then a second started up. Suddenly a large dark shape appeared through the trees, a Tawny Owl coming out of its roost site, flying silently on its broad rounded wings. Even better, it landed up in a tree in front of us. We got it in the scope – great views – looking straight at us.

It remained there, perched for a minute or so in the last light of the afternoon, before dropping away silently through the trees beyond. What a way to end the day!

IMG_5106Tawny Owl – in the trees at dusk (this taken the previous evening)


12th January 2016 – Owling in the Wind

Today was meant to be the first Owl Tour of the year – but the weather forecast couldn’t have been much less helpful! It was meant to be cloudy with showers in the morning, becoming heavy at times in the afternoon, and windy with it. Still, we are always up for a challenge and we set off to have a go.

Our first stop was a regular site for Little Owl. The owls like a bit of warmth in the morning air to bring them out, which we didn’t have today, but there was also lots of activity around the farm buildings where the owls like to perch, with a steady stream of tractors back and forth. With the cold and disturbance, we were always likely to be out of luck. We had a drive round the area which produced a nice group of three Grey Partridges in a field by the road. A couple of Brown Hares were hunkered down in a winter wheat field.

P1140744Grey Partridge – three were by the road this morning

We meandered our way west inland behind the coast. A Red Kite hung over the field beside the road, eyeing up some roadkill on the tarmac. We stopped off at several sites where we know Barn Owls and Little Owls are around, but the weather was against us. The cloud increased and it started to drizzle. We decided to look for some other birds instead.

We made our way along to Choseley. There have been Rough-legged Buzzards in this area on and off for a couple of months now, but they roam around a large area and can be hard to find. A couple of people were standing by the road looking forlornly out across the fields. We stopped for a scan and caught a brief glimpse of a shape gliding low behind a hedge and landing in the grass. Through the scope, we could just see the head of a Rough-legged Buzzard through the vegetation – it took a while for everyone to be able to see it where it was hiding.

IMG_5072Rough-legged Buzzard – hiding behind the hedge at Choseley, not a great photo!

Thankfully it had a fly round and showed us all its best features, hanging in the air above the hedge, before dropping down again. In the air, we could see its white tail with a black terminal band and its very pale underparts with a large black belly patch. That was a much better look!

We dropped down over the ridge to Titchwell next – with the possibility of rain on the way, we thought it would be good to be in the vicinity of some hides just in case. Thankfully the rain never came, but we had a good session out on the reserve anyway.

The feeders by the visitor centre were rather quiet today but a careful scan of the ditch by the main path just beyond quickly produced a Water Rail. It was down in the water in the bottom, below a mesh of loose vegetation, and busy preening. The movement made it easier to get everyone onto it and we had good views through the branches.

P1140750Water Rail – preening in the ditch by the main path

We stopped by the still-drained grazing meadow pool. Three Ringed Plovers, a Dunlin and a Redshank were out on the mud. We really wanted to look through the pipits, but they were flying round all the time and wouldn’t settle in the wind. It started to drizzle again, so we made for the shelter of Island Hide with a view to having another look here later.

The water levels on the freshmarsh have receded a little, but are still very high. We spent some time looking through the ducks and noting their respective ID features. As usual, there were, lots of Wigeon, Teal, Shoveler and Mallard. We paused to admire a pair of Gadwall, noting the delightful intricate plumage detail of the otherwise rather grey drake. Further over, a group of Pintail were mostly asleep on the edge of one of the islands. The flocks of Brent Geese were coming and going as usual, dropping in for a quick bathe before flying back out to the saltmarsh to feed.

P1140811Teal – there are lots of these on the freshmarsh at the moment, busy feeding

There is a good number of Avocets on the freshmarsh at the moment. We counted 36 today, an unusually high total for this time of year, possibly reflecting the mild winter weather we have been enjoying up until now. There was also a similarly sized flock of Black-tailed Godwits roosting out in the shallow water. A smattering of Dunlin around the islands were joined by a couple of larger flocks which came in from the direction of the beach.

Suddenly all the waders took to the air and the ducks scattered from the back of the water. Looking through the mass of birds, we could see a Peregrine over the back of the freshmarsh. It turned and stooped down towards the water, sending a small group of Teal flying in all directions, before climbing up again. This time it found itself in the air with a Marsh Harrier and had a quick tussle with it, talons out. Then it turned again and, with wings beating fast, set off after the Teal again. It appeared to be an young bird and presumably an inexperienced hunter because its efforts were wasted and it climbed up again into the sky and drifted over the back towards Brancaster. The Avocets and Black-tailed Godwits were clearly spooked and spent some time swirling round over the water even after it had gone.

P1140794Avocets – swirling round after being spooked by the Peregrine

We decided to make our way out towards the beach while it wasn’t raining. The Volunteer Marsh held a good selection of waders – the longer we looked, the more we found. We stopped first to look at a Curlew, probing deep into the mud. A couple of Redshank were nearby and a little group of Dunlin dropped in with them. Then a smart spangled Grey Plover appeared in the scope just behind the Curlew. A Ringed Plover and a couple of Knot then ran out into view as well.

IMG_5075Knot – a few were on the Volunteer Marsh this morning

The Tidal Pools have been very productive in recent weeks, but when we climbed over the bank along the path today they looked rather empty at first. There were a few Little Grebes diving in the channel and, further back, a couple of female Goldeneye. There were not so many waders on here today, at least partly because the tide was going out and many were on the beach, but the Black-tailed Godwits and Avocets normally on here were obviously part of the respective flocks on the freshmarsh today. However, a careful scan did yield a few rewards. First of all a couple of Ringed Plover were chasing each other around one of the islands close to the path.

IMG_5078Ringed Plover – one of two on the tidal pools today

Then, nearby, we spotted a larger wader – a Bar-tailed Godwit. It was obviously paler than the Black-tailed Godwits we had seen earlier and through the scope we could see it had much more strongly marked upperparts. It was also a little shorter legged and its bill appeared to curve up slightly. It appeared to be injured – it was limping badly – which might have been why it was feeding on here rather than on the beach. Still, it meant we got a very good look at it.

IMG_5085Bar-tailed Godwit – apparently injured, this one was on the tidal pools alone

Only a little further on, just behind the beach, we came across another Black-tailed Godwit. It was a good opportunity to look again at the differences between these two rather similar species.

P1140826Black-tailed Godwit – just one on the tidal pools today, just behind the beach

It was rather exposed on the beach, cold and windy. The shellfish beds were exposed and there were quite a few waders on them – Oystercatchers and Turnstones were both welcome additions to the day’s tally of waders. Running around on the edge of the sand, right over by the sea, was a Sanderling. We had just got it in the scope to admire it when we noticed another Sanderling right at the top of the beach, running around and picking at the line of seaweed which marked the high tide mark – we got a much better look at that one.

There were a few ducks out on the sea. A line of black blobs bobbing about on the waves were Common Scoter, generally the commonest sea duck off here. A few more Goldeneye were scattered in with them. A bit closer in, we spotted a pair of Red-breasted Mergansers, sporting their rather sharp hairdos! We had a quick scan to see if there might be anything else of note out on the water but we couldn’t immediately see anything so we decided to beat a hasty retreat.

On the way back, we stopped again by the grazing meadow ‘pool’.  There were lots of Rock Pipits running around on the mud and a careful look through them finally yielded our target – a single Water Pipit. The Rock Pipits were rather swarthy, dull and heavily streaked below, but the Water Pipits much whiter underparts really stood out even at a distance. Then it was back to the car for lunch.

After lunch, the weather had brightened up considerably and the sun even appeared briefly as we started to make our way back east along the coast road. We pulled in quickly at Brancaster Staithe. It was low tide now and there was not much water in parts of the harbour. We had hoped to see the Red-necked Grebe, but it had disappeared further up the channel when we were there. We had to content ourselves with a Greenshank in among the Redshanks. As we looked out west, we could see more dark clouds gathering, so we figured our best chance to find some owls would be to try to stay ahead of them, so we set off again.

We kept our eyes peeled for Barn Owls along the roadside, though it was probably still a bit early at this stage. We pulled in at the west end of Holkham for a scan of the marshes – Barn Owl is always a possibility here, but we ended up alighting upon the Great White Egret instead. It was perched up in the trees at first, though looking a bit unsteady in the wind. After a while it flew down into a patch of wet rushes in front. When it stood up straight, we could see its long neck and long, yellow dagger-shaped bill.

IMG_5091Great White Egret – on the marshes at the west end of Holkham again today

A little further along the coast road, we made another stop to look at some geese in a wet meadow. There was a small group of White-fronted Geese, mostly sitting down in the grass. The odd one was standing up, giving us a good view of its black belly bars. Nearby was a handful of Pink-footed Geese, so we got those in the scope too for a closer look. Most of the Pink-footed Geese were obviously still out feeding in the sugar beet fields inland, so the majority of the marshes were still rather quiet.

IMG_5093White-fronted Geese – one of a small gaggle by the road at Holkham

By now, we were well in the window for a Barn Owl out hunting. We had not seen any around Holkham, so we decided to try to stay ahead of the clouds and continue east. There are several good spots for them along the coast road, and eventually we spotted a white shape in some trees by the road. A strategic reverse into a conveniently placed gateway and we found ourselves finally admiring a Barn Owl.

P1140873Barn Owl – along the coast road this afternoon

It perched for some time looking round, listening to the whirring of the cameras, while we watched it. Eventually it flew down and landed on a fence post a little further away. From there, it stared intently down into the long grass beyond – given the weather, hunting from a sheltered fence post was probably a sensible option. However, it didn’t find anything and eventually we decided to tear ourselves away. As we started the engine again, it dropped down into the grass.

P1140877Barn Owl – hoping to find something in the long grass

We carried on to Blakeney and set off to walk out around the freshmarsh. Unfortunately, the cloud caught up with us again and it started to drizzle lightly once more. It was not very bad, but coupled with the cold and the wind out on the exposed marshes, was presumably enough to put the owls off. We did see another Barn Owl out hunting, distantly over the back, but it just did a quick circuit of one of the fields, perching on a fence post for a few seconds, before heading off inland presumably to find somewhere more sheltered.

We made our way back to the car. We had a short drive around between Wiveton and Cley on our way to our next stop, but the fields here were quiet. Then we stopped by a suitable patch of woodland and waited. The Tawny Owls were a bit slow to get started this evening. About 10 minutes later than usual, one finally started hooting. It gave quite a vocal performance, a mixture of bubbling hoots on and off. Then a second Tawny Owl started up as well, a little further over. We listened to both of them for a while. Unfortunately, it was getting too dark by this stage, just as we reached the time when they start to fly around, and we simply couldn’t make out much through the trees. There are quite a few Tawny Owls in this area, but it was only when we got back to the car that the third began hooting as well. Then it was time to head for home.

10th January 2016 – Bunting Bonanza

Day 3 of a long weekend of tours today, and we headed the other way up to the eastern side of the North Norfolk coast. It was a slightly cloudy start to the day, but quickly brightened up to glorious winter sunshine.

We headed along the coast to Blakeney first and walked out along the seawall, with the Freshes on one side and the harbour on the other. There were lots of Brent Geese feeding along the edge of the harbour channel. A large flock of Linnets was whirling round, before dropping down onto the edge of the saltmarsh. A pair of Stonchats perched up on the top of the vegetation on the edge of the Freshes.

We stopped overlooking the harbour. The tide had gone out quickly, but we could still see a pair of Red-breasted Mergansers in the channel. Out on the mudflats were lots of waders – lots of Oystercatchers, Bar-tailed Godwits, Dunlins, Grey Plovers and Redshanks, plus a couple of Turnstones.

We had really come to look for the Lapland Buntings. There have been a handful here on and off since mid December, but they seem to roam over quite an area. There were a few people standing forlornly by the fence, but we walked on a little further to an area where we have seen them before. It was rather windy up on the seawall this morning, which made viewing difficult at times.

There were several Rock Pipits feeding around the wheel ruts through the mud. Then a group of Skylarks flew up from nearby, and in amongst them was at least one Lapland Bunting – unfortunately, they all promptly dropped down into the long grass. Then another group of Skylarks flew towards us from further along the path and we could see at least two more Lapland Buntings. They dropped down briefly in the open, but before we could get them in the scope, they took off again and disappeared into the long grass as well.

Lapland Bunting Blakeney 2015-12-21Lapland Bunting – taken at Blakeney a couple of weeks ago

The same thing happened a couple more times – we got some good views of the Lapland Buntings in flight, but they would not settle in view. Then finally, a small group of Skylarks made their way out onto the edge of the mud, taking a single Lapland Bunting with them. We got a good look at it as it hopped about in and out of the wheel ruts. That seemed like a good moment to move on and try our luck elsewhere.

We made our way along to Cley and headed out along the East Bank. A Little Egret was feeding along a reedy channel by the new pools, having found somewhere out of the wind. A couple of Marsh Harriers were quartering over the reedbed. Several Reed Buntings were perched up in the bushes in the reeds. A single Black-tailed Godwit was hiding in the grass by the Serpentine, and on close examination it appeared to be sporting the first signs of summer plumage – some orange feathers on the breast and the start of the black belly bars.

IMG_4995Black-tailed Godwit – starting to show a bit of orange on the breast

There were not as many ducks (or waders) as usual out on the grazing marshes beyond the Serpentine today – a couple of smallish groups of Wigeon and a pair of Gadwall. They had either moved elsewhere or something had possibly just flushed them all. As we walked further along the East Bank, more ducks started to fly back in. At first just a couple of Shoveler, but then a couple of waves of them.

Then the Pintail appeared as well, circling over the flooded Serpentine. We could see the long pin-shaped tail feathers of the drakes as they flew in. None of the ducks seemed to want to land, and most of the Pintail in the end dropped down over the back towards Arnold’s Marsh. Presumably something had spooked them.

P1140704Pintail – circled over the Serpentine, but didn’t want to land again

We got almost to the beach and turned right on the inside of the shingle ridge. We had really come to look for the Snow Buntings, which had been reported a couple of days ago here. However, they can wander quite widely up and down the beach, so it was by no means certain we would find them here. It seemed quite quiet as we walked along. There was only one other person in sight, and as we passed them they very helpfully told us exactly where the Snow Buntings were ahead of us. When we got there, sure enough there they were.

The Snow Buntings whirled round as we approached and dropped down out of view on the shingle. We carefully worked our way round and could see them shuffling around on the stones. We had a look at them through the scope, but then they took off again and whirled round once more. Rather than flying off, they landed even closer to us and we had a great view of them.



IMG_5002Snow Bunting – around 30 today were along the beach at Cley

There were around 30 Snow Buntings today. They were rather nervous and kept flying round, particularly when the Redshanks on Arnold’s Marsh started alarming. Each time, they landed again, sometimes closer, sometimes further over. It was great to watch them – and listen to their twittering calls. Then suddenly they took off again for no apparent reason and flew off back towards the East Bank.

We climbed up and dropped down onto the beach, into the lee of the remains of the shingle ridge. The sea looked quiet at first, but we spent a bit of time scanning and it yielded its rewards. We picked up several Red-throated Divers, their white faces in winter plumage really catching the sun. Then a Guillemot appeared, drifting west on the tide. Then we found a small group of Common Scoter diving just offshore – mostly females, but in amongst them was a single young drake.

The walk back was not without birds either – as well as all the things we had seen on the way out, just as we got back towards the car park we could hear a Bearded Tit calling. Unfortunately, it was rather too windy out here to look for Bearded Tits today, and we had to content ourselves with hearing one.

We could see a large flock of Brent Geese distantly in the Eye Field from the East Bank, as well as a line of Golden Plover shining in the sunlight. So we drove round there next for a closer look. We had just pulled up on Beach Road and started to scan through them when all the Golden Plover took off and made for the reserve. It took a few seconds for the Brent Geese to respond similarly, but the next thing we knew they were in the air too. Then we realised why – a Peregrine came shooting low over Beach Road and out across the Eye Field, before towering up and away beyond.

IMG_5024Brent Goose – there were plenty in the Eye Field, before the Peregrine!

We decided to break for lunch and sat in the sun in the beach shelter down at the car park. While we ate, a few of the Brent Geese started to drift back to the Eye Field and we could hear the growing throng over the traffic. Once we had finished, we walked up onto the West Bank for a closer look, but there were not the number of Brent Geese there had been and nothing of interest among the ones which had returned.

After lunch, we made our way further east still. On the way, our attention was drawn by a small group of dark looking geese in a grassy field at Salthouse. We pulled up briefly and could see they were nine White-fronted Geese. They looked quite smart in the sun and we could clearly see the black belly bars on the adults.

P1140711White-fronted Geese – nine were by the road at Salthouse this afternoon

Our next destination was Weybourne. There has been a large flock of Redpolls in the weedy corner of a sugar beet field here in recent weeks – of two different species, at least as far as current Redpoll taxonomics defines them. We found them pretty quickly, but they were very flighty, constantly dropping down into the tall weedy growth to feed, before flying up again to land on the overhead wires or into the trees. While we were waiting to get better views of them, we had to content ourselves with a couple of Bramblings amongst the Chaffinches.

IMG_5030Lesser Redpoll – feeding in the weedy field at Weybourne

Most of them appeared to be Lesser Redpolls, but the more we looked the more we started to see the odd one or two which looked different – paler faced, more frosty looking. One or two of these at least looked good for Mealy Redpolls, but it was very hard to nail most of them for sure, as they just wouldn’t sit still for more than a second. Finally, one remained behind in the trees, preening, so we could get the scope onto it. It had quite a paler face than the rather brown-fronted Lesser Redpolls, but what really set it apart was the rump – heavy black streaking against a very white background.

IMG_5037Mealy Redpoll – this one eventually perched up in the trees preening

By the time we had secured good views of the Redpolls, it was time to be making our way back west. We wanted to finish the day at the harrier roost at Warham Greens – it was such a beautiful evening for it, especially now the wind had dropped. We parked up at the start of the track and walked down. There was a large flock of Linnets in a weedy field alongside and in amongst them we could see a few Yellowhammers when they all flew round.

It was all action from the second we arrived at the end of the track. A Merlin had just flown in and landed on one of the posts on the saltmarsh. We got it in the scope and had a good look at it – it then remained on its post for the rest of the evening! A ringtail Hen Harrier had just gone through and we picked it up over the marshes away to the east. Moments later, a second ringtail Hen Harrier appeared out to the west. Then a smart grey male Hen Harrier flew past and disappeared off towards Wells.

It was hard to tell exactly how many Hen Harriers there were this evening – at least two ringtails and one grey male, but possibly more. There were also at least three Merlins as well in the end – in addition to the one on its post, another was flying around the male Hen Harrier out to the west and a third flew in from behind us late on and landed on a bush.

There were also a few Barn Owls out hunting over the saltmarsh – at least two and possibly three. A closer one at first, not far out from the landward side but out to the west, then later two at the same time over the grass in front of East Hills. The Barn Owls were out hunting in good time, but unfortunately the same could not be said for the Short-eared Owl. It left it to the very last minute to appear and unfortunately was nigh on impossible for everyone to get onto it against the vegetation in the failing light, flying around low at the back of the saltmarsh.

We walked back up the track listening to Grey Partridges calling all around us. We even managed to get a few in the scope in the gathering gloom! It was a great way to end the weekend down at the roost. It had been another action packed few days with a great list of birds to show for it.

P1140736Brent Geese – over the saltmarsh at Warham at dusk

9th January 2016 -Back to the Broads

Day 2 of a long weekend of tours, and it was down to the Broads today. We headed out east of Norwich to Strumpshaw Fen to start the day.

As we walked out of the car park, a little group of Long-tailed Tits were making their way through the trees in front of us. There were lots of Blue Tits and Great Tits availing themselves of the feeders by the Visitor Centre, but no sign of any Marsh Tits here today. We had a quick look out on the open water by the Visitor Centre – there were plenty of ducks, mainly Mallard, Teal and Gadwall, with a few Shoveler and plenty of Coot. A lone Black Swan looked slightly out of place!

Setting off onto the reserve, the first bird we came across was a Nuthatch. It kept flying down out of the trees and feeding on the hurdle fencing around the warden’s house – presumably someone must have tucked some food in there for it. A little further down the path, a smart pink male Bullfinch was feeding on the brambles amongst the trees. A Jay flew across in front of us. Then a scan of the trees produced a Treecreeper working its way up a large oak tree.

P1140629Fen Hide – the pools and reeds were rather quiet here this morning

We walked out as far as Fen Hide. The hide was very quiet, but unfortunately so were the pools here today. We sat and waited for a short while in the hope that something might appear, but it was not to be. Several Marsh Harriers were out quartering the reedbed, a little wisp of seven Snipe flew up and circled round overhead and a Cetti’s Warbler sang from the bushes. We had quite a lot we wanted to do today, so we decided to move on.

There was more action in the woodland again. As we walked back, we could hear Marsh Tits calling. At first, all we could see was a pair of Blue Tits, apparently already engaged in courtship display. Then higher up in the same oak we finally tracked down the Marsh Tit.

By the old sand pit, we could see movement in the trees so we stopped to look. We spotted a single Lesser Redpoll first, feeding on the cones up in an alder tree, then realised there was another with it, and then a third. A Siskin, appeared higher up and was quickly joined by a second. We had a good look at them through the scope, then something spooked them and about 15 finches flew out – amazing how they were all in there!

IMG_4949Lesser Redpoll – there was a small party in the alders by the path

We made our way round to Buckenham next. As we walked over the railway crossing and out across the marshes, it was clear there were quite a few geese on here today. As well as the resident Canada Geese, there were good numbers of Pink-footed Geese scattered all over the grass.

We could hear Wigeon calling as we walked along the track, and the closer we got to the river, the more of them we could see. There were little groups lining the ditches and a mass of them on the pools. Not the number there can be in some years, possibly due to the mild winter, but there were still plenty of them here. Amongst them, we could see a few Teal and Shoveler and a pair of Shelduck.

P1140674Wigeon – Buckenham is an important site for this species

As we walked along towards the river, we could hear a pipit calling. It was not the classic ‘seep, seep’ of a Meadow Pipit and not as strident as a Rock Pipit. We saw it fly across, initially landing over by the river bank, before flying up again and coming down onto the edge of one of the pools. We got it in the scope – a Water Pipit.

We followed the track along, round below the river bank towards the old windpump, stopping at intervals to scan the marshes. Over on this side, we started to see White-fronted Geese in with the Pinkfeet. At first, a little group here or there, the more we looked we realised there were actually lots of them scattered across the marshes. The feral Barnacle Geese were also here as usual, accompanied by the odd-looking Ross’s x Barnacle hybrid. But we couldn’t find any sign of the Taiga Bean Geese here today unfortunately.

IMG_4960White-fronted Geese – there were plenty of these at Buckenham today

As we turned to walk back, all the Lapwings and Golden Plovers suddenly took flight. We had seen quite a few from the path, but once in the air we realised just how many there actually were. We thought this might have signified the arrival of one of the local Peregrines, but we couldn’t see it. The plovers kept spooking, and it may just have been that they were very skittish. A Buzzard did fly over.

We decided to have a look at Cantley Marshes next, just in case the Bean Geese were round on that side. However, as we got there we encountered someone walking back along the path across the middle of the marshes who recounted how the geese had all flown off just as he made his way back. It was now particularly quiet, so we didn’t linger here.

After lunch, we meandered our way back north, stopping at a few likely sites to look for Cranes. It didn’t take us long to find some – five in total, a group of three together and nearby another two. They all appeared to be adults, rather than the three being a family group. They were a little distant today, but we got them in the scope and had a good look at them, feeding out on the grazing marshes.

IMG_4967Crane – three of the five out on the marshes on our journey today

Our next stop was at Ludham. Even from the main road, we could see the mass of white blobs out on the fields. We turned onto one of the minor roads which criss-cross the old airfield and soon found us pulled up alongside looking at a large herd of wild swans. We had a look from the car first, confirming that a mixture of Bewick’s and Whooper Swans were indeed present, before retreating to a safe spot where we could pull off the road and get out to scope them without disturbing them.

There seemed to be more swans here than in recent weeks – at least 125 today. There seemed to be the same number of Whooper Swans, around 20-25, but an increase in the number of Bewick’s Swans to at least 100. Given that we had seen several arriving from the continent along the coast yesterday, it is likely that cold weather in Europe is finally encouraging more of them to fly over to the UK now.

IMG_4979Bewick’s & Whooper Swans – its is always good to see the two together

IMG_4974Whooper Swans – in the foreground

IMG_4989Bewick’s Swans – smaller, with less yellow in the bill

We spent a bit of time watching them. It is always a good opportunity here to see the two species side by side. In direct comparison, Bewick’s Swans are noticeably smaller with shorter necks and bills. The best way to tell them apart is the pattern of yellow on the bill – extending a long way down the bill into a point, like a wedge of cheese, on a Whooper Swan, but more restricted and squared off on a Bewick’s.

Our final stop of the day was at Hickling. We walked out across the marshes towards Stubb Mill, stopping to watch a large family group of Long-tailed Tits in the hedge on the way, loosely accompanied by a single Goldcrest.

Out at the watchpoint, the two Cranes were in their usual place out on the grass when we arrived, though half hidden behind a line of reeds so that they were difficult to pick out at first. They were rather quiet today – not as vocal as last week, when they had been bugling constantly. Perhaps the weather was not too their liking – it had clouded over and started to spit with rain a little by this stage.

There were quite a few Marsh Harriers already out in the bushes in the reeds when we arrived. A steady trickle of more birds arrived. We thought there might have been around 30 in the roost before they all took flight. Immediately we could see there were a lot more than that – eventually we managed to count 60 Marsh Harriers all in the air at the same time! Quite a sight. And still they kept coming, at least another 2-3 before we called it a night.

The first Hen Harrier came in reasonably early tonight. A ringtail, it circled and hung in the air over the fields for a minute or so initially, before turning and flying more directly towards the reeds. We didn’t see the second ringtail Hen Harrier come in, but picked up two together flying around between the bushes in front of the ruined mill later on.

The light was fading but the harriers were still coming when we decided to call it a night, given the weather and a desire to get back. As we walked back along the road – rather wet in places after all the recent rain – we heard more Cranes bugling and turned to see another three dropping down towards the reserve. That made it 10 Cranes for the day, a very respectable total!

Back at the car, while we were packing up, a dumpy shape darting across over the car park in the gloom was a Woodcock – unfortunately too quickly for everyone to get onto it. Another two flew across the road as we headed out, but they were even harder to see. Still, it had been another successful day in the Broads with most of the target species seen.