Monthly Archives: February 2016

22nd February 2016 – Lapland Buntings!

It was a day off today. I spent most of the day in the office catching up with admin, but had to pop out in the afternoon to drop in some paperwork at my friendly local optics retailer, Cley Spy (other optics retailers are available!). As I then found myself up near the coast with a couple of hours before sunset, I decided to have a quick walk out along the seawall at Blakeney.

The tide was just starting to come in, so the waders were mostly distant and there was nothing of note in the harbour channel. When I got to the bend in the seawall,the flock of seven Twite which has been coming in to drink here flew off out over the saltmarsh calling.

Before I got to the gate, I could hear the Lapland Buntings calling and looked up to see a flock of eight flying round overhead. They have a distinctive couple of calls which are often the best way of picking up a Lapland Bunting, a dry rattle ‘pt-t-t-t’ and a clipped but ringing ‘teu’, the two often interspersed. They also have a particular way of flying, often chasing each other while circling around. They have been around here on and off for several months now, but can often be hard to find, normally requiring a little time and patience to locate them.

Today it seemed like they would never land. The eight Lapland Buntings flew off way over the freshmarsh, and back again, out towards the shingle ridge, and back again, then out over the saltmarsh. They looked like they were going to land a couple of times, but each time seemed to lose their nerve and fly up and off again. I got down off the seawall and stood by the gate where I thought I would be less obvious and less likely to put them off. Finally, after 10 or more minutes in the air, they came round again and suddenly all dropped into the denser vegetation – annoying, as I had hoped they might land in the open.

I edged my way down along the fence and, scanning the ground carefully, started to see some birds in the grass. There are lots of taller dead weed stems here, which hamper visibility, but after finding a little group of Skylarks in there at first, I finally came across three Lapland Buntings. They are amazing birds to watch like this. They creep about on the ground like mice, with their heads down, so they can disappear in the shortest of grass. They can also run surprisingly quickly like this, so are hard to follow. By positioning myself carefully, I was able to see through to an area where they were feeding and get them in the scope.

IMG_8261Lapland Buntings – two feeding hidden in the vegetation

These would normally be classed as pretty good views of Lapland Bunting, given how secretive and skulking they can be. I spent some time watching them, creeping about in the low grass, occasionally scuttling in to deeper cover, but returning to the same slightly more open patch to feed.

IMG_8272Lapland Bunting – a fairly classic view, hiding in short grass

I had seem one of the local Barn Owls hunting over the fields beyond, and at one point it passed quite close to where the Lapland Buntings were feeding. The birds froze and flattened themselves to the ground at first, then started to look up and seemed like they might take off. The Barn Owl drifted off again.

P1170704Barn Owl – hunting out over the grazing marshes

The Barn Owl was doing a circuit of the fields and the next time it came even closer. This time the Lapland Buntings were not going to hang around and suddenly burst into the air calling. As I was standing the opposite side of them to the Barn Owl, they flew past me with a couple of metres, calling. There were now ten Lapland Buntings in the flock, perhaps the other two had already been on the ground with the Skylarks when the eight I had been watching flew in. They headed out towards the seawall, before circling back round, at one point flying low over the hunting Barn Owl as if to take a closer look at the apparent threat from above.

I had expected the Lapland Buntings to disappear off at this point, but they circled back round to where they had been feeding and came into land. But rather than land in the thick vegetation again, they flew straight towards me and started to land on the fence right next to me. Amazing!

IMG_8293Lapland Bunting – some of them landed on the fence

Some of the other Lapland Buntings dropped down onto the path in front of me, and the birds dropped down one by one from the fence to join them. They were still nervous of the threat and the ones on the path stayed frozen to the spot, looking round, ready to take off again. Amazingly, given how close they were to me, they were not startled again as I slowly turned my scope onto them. Point blank views out in the open of Lapland Buntings is not something you can enjoy very often!

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IMG_8350Lapland Bunting – perched out on the path or several minutes

IMG_8352Lapland Bunting – looking round nervously

IMG_8345Lapland Bunting – this male showing off its rusty nape

As they relaxed, the Lapland Buntings all shuffled into the grass. But rather than disappear back in deep, they started to feed right on the open edge by the base of the fence, right in front of me. There were at least six of them there, possibly more, although the others may have dropped in further back.

IMG_8370Lapland Buntings – started feeding in the grass in front of me

It was a real treat to be able to watch them like this. Some were preening, while others started to pull seeds from the grass and weeds. There was quite a bit of interaction between them. As in flight, they would occasionally chase each other through the grass.

IMG_8420Lapland Bunting – another male with black speckled breast

IMG_8380Lapland Bunting – settled down in the grass to feed

It was also great to be able to look closely at the differences between them. Lapland Buntings can be hard to age and sex through the winter, but there were some obvious males with bright rusty napes and more solid black markings on the underparts. Other birds were more obviously streaked below and with less obvious and more broken colour on their napes.

IMG_8397Lapland Bunting – a less well-marked bird, presumably female

After snapping away a few photos, I turned the camera to video and left it to capture some of the action, while I marvelled at the birds through my binoculars. Some video of the Lapland Buntings is linked below:

I had the Lapland Buntings to myself for around 20 minutes, feeding in the grass right in front of me. The late afternoon sunlight, shining through low beneath the clouds, lit them up beautifully. It was a magical few minutes, a real privilege. Eventually, for no apparent reason, they were off again, flying round calling, and off over the freshes.

Lapland Buntings are scarce winter visitors here most years. They breed up on the Arctic tundra, from Scandinavia eastwards through Russia, and also in North America. The majority of the European population winters on the steppes of SE Europe, but small numbers can generally be found along the east coast of the UK. Norfolk is a good place to look for them, but they can be hard to find in some years.

There is still time to come and enjoy some of the lingering delights of winter birding in Norfolk, if you are interested in seeing birds like our Lapland Buntings. Otherwise, spring is now not far away and undoubtedly more exciting moments lie in store. If you would like to join us, please get in touch.

Marcus Nash  –  The Bird ID Company

21st February 2016 – Back to the Brecks

Day 3 of another three day long weekend of tours today and we headed for the Brecks to wrap up the weekend. It had been forecast earlier in the week to be wet and windy again today, but although it was certainly the latter by the afternoon, it stayed totally dry today. Once again, the rain missed us completely.

We started with a quick walk round the arboretum at Lynford. As we set out from the car park, we could hear Nuthatch calling and Goldcrests singing. Both Mistle Thrush and Song Thrush were also in full song. A few Siskins zipped in and out of the trees. Just about the first birds we saw were a couple of Marsh Tits.

We walked up to the gate to have a look under the trees. The feeders were empty again and it didn’t look like they had been filled again since last weekend. There were still a few birds around. A Nuthatch was in and out repeatedly to the home-made ‘downpipe’ feeder. This seemed to be the last one with any food left in it. A Coal Tit had a novel approach and actually climbed into the feeder through one of the large holes, which had been opened up by the teeth of the local squirrels, presumably getting down into the bottom to get access to the few remaining seeds in there.

IMG_8233Nuthatch – only the ‘downpipe’ feeder appeared to have any food left

Once again, there was no sign of any Hawfinches here. They have only been seen here very occasionally this winter and it is not entirely clear why. It may be down to greater availability of food elsewhere in the forest after a mild winter, but it could also be that increased ringing activity and repeated attempts to catch the Hawfinches in order to colour ring them has only succeeded in disturbing them here. We could see all the ringing paraphernalia through the trees at the back, net posts and hides covered in camouflage netting, in the area the Hawfinches used to favour.

We had a quick walk round the rest of the arboretum,  but it was rather cold and quiet deeper in the trees. There was also lots of noise and disturbance, with loads of cars and people arriving to join one of the regular working parties here today. With a bit of brightness in the sky, we wanted to make sure we were in good time for the Goshawks today, so we didn’t linger here.

We made our way deeper into the Forest and walked out along one of the rides. It was typically quiet down through the dark stands of dense pines which make up the commercial forestry. As we got to the clearing, there was more life. We could hear birds singing – Woodlarks. They have a sadder, more melancholic song than the Skylark, which rings out across the forest clearings at this time of year.

We could see two Woodlarks perched up on a fence further along, so after a quick look through the scope we made our way over for a better look. Unfortunately, a cyclist came along the track before we could get there and the Woodlarks were off. Another two came up from the edge of the path and they dropped down into the grass the other side of the fence.

We walked over to the fence anyway and started to scan the trees beyond. A Common Buzzard flew low over the trees and landed in the tops. Then a Goshawk appeared from the trees nearby and started displaying above them, with exaggerated wingbeats. The next thing we knew, the female was up too and displaying as well. We could see the size difference between them, the male noticeably smaller when seen in the same view.

GoshawkGoshawk – a photo of one of the birds taken recently

The pair of Goshawks flew round for a while, both looking even more powerful than usual with the extra deep and slow flapping of display flight. As it passed over the trees, the male Goshawk suddenly noticed the Buzzard sitting in the top of a pine below him. He turned and dropped down vertically straight at it, pulling up at the last minute, then climbed up again above it. When he had regained some height, the Goshawk folded its wings and stooped down vertically again, this time almost knocking the Buzzard off its perch.

We watched the male Goshawk then fly off, low along the line of trees. He had stopped displaying now, but we could still appreciate the power in his wingbeats as he flew past. Needless to say, when we looked back the Buzzard had gone. Goshawks are known to kill Buzzards at times, so it had obviously decided to make itself scarce!

We turned our attention back to the Woodlarks. We had seen a pair drop back down on our side of the fence and a male was singing from the ground a bit further along from us. We got it in the scope quickly, getting a good look at the way the two supercilia, the pale stripes above the eye, meet in a shallow ‘v’ on the back of the neck. Then it circled up and flew back out across the clearing singing. It dropped down to the ground a good distance away on its own. A little while later, when it circled up again, we could hear the female Woodlark calling quietly, still near to where it had been perched earlier. We soon located her on the ground and had a good look at her through the scope before she flew off across the clearing towards him.

WoodlarkWoodlark – a photo of one of the pair taken recently

We had hoped for some more action from the Goshawks, but while we were standing there the wind had strengthened considerably and once the Woodlarks had flown off it all went a little quiet. The female Goshawk did circle up again briefly above the trees, but never gained much height and dropped down again out of view fairly quickly. The group was keen to keep moving, so we decided to walk back.

Despite the blustery wind, it was a decidedly mild day. A large queen Bumblebee flew across the clearing while we were standing there and a Common Toad crawled across the ride on our way back. Clearly spring is just around the corner, although we are still forecast at least one more cold snap yet.

P1170662Common Toad – on its way somewhere across the ride

We had hoped to catch up with the Great Grey Shrike today, but it has become decidedly erratic in its appearances in recent weeks. With a short time to spare before lunch, we thought it worth a shot and had a quick walk round the edge of one of its favoured clearings. It was a bit windy out there and perhaps unsurprisingly there was no sign of it. A pair of Stonechats were keeping low down in the bushes in the most sheltered corner.

We had lunch round at Santon Downham. While we were eating, a flock of Redpolls flew over the car park and landed in the trees beyond. We got them in the scope and confirmed they were all Lesser Redpolls. They were very mobile, and kept circling round and landing in the the tops of different trees.

IMG_8247Lesser Redpolls – a flock of nine landed in the treetops at lunchtime

After lunch, we had a quick walk down along the side of the river. A couple of Great Spotted Woodpeckers flew out of the trees by the bridge and a Green Woodpecker called from deep in the woods further along. A Treecreeper was feeding low down on the trees beside the path, flying ahead of us as we walked along. A Little Grebe was diving along the far edge. Otherwise, it was rather quiet along here this afternoon.

A dog came running down the opposite bank and leapt down to the water’s edge to bark at a family of Mute Swans on the river. The swans were decidedly unimpressed and the two adults swam in front of the juveniles and hissed at he dog, which seemed to change its mind about jumping into the water after them. A minute or so later, its owner appeared calling it and the dog ran off again.

P1170667Mute Swans – the adults saw off a dog which came after them

We didn’t go very far, but decided to head round to Lynford again to try our luck there instead. As we walked down along the path, the feeders were pretty deserted. Down at the bridge, someone had put lots of food on the posts as usual and a variety of tits were coming down to feed. As well as the Blue Tits and Great Tits, there were several Marsh Tits and Coal Tits darting in and out. A Nuthatch was calling but would not come out with us standing there, and we could hear Siskins in the alders nearby.

We carried on to the paddocks in the hope of catching up with a Hawfinch, but it was rather exposed out in the trees with the wind whistling through now and all was disappointingly quiet. We stood and scanned for a while, in the hope that a Hawfinch might be feeding on the ground below and fly up into the trees, but it was clearly not to be. However, while we were waiting we heard one call. A quick look over to our right and we saw that a Hawfinch was flying in across the back of the paddocks from the direction of the arboretum. We watched it fly across in front of the pines and then it turned and flew up towards them. We thought it was going to land in the pines, but unfortunately it dropped down vertically and disappeared into the trees.

We walked round that way in the hope that we might be able to find it perched somewhere, or that it might have another fly round. But the tops of the pines were being whipped back and forth by the gusty wind now and it had obviously decided to seek shelter lower down. We waited a few minutes in the hope that another Hawfinch might fly in, but there was just the one today. We decided to call it a day.

20th February 2016 – Cranes & Owls

Day 2 of another three day long weekend of tours today and we made our way down to the Norfolk Broads. It was meant to rain all afternoon, but once again it was not as bad as forecast. Although we had some drizzle on and off early afternoon, it cleared up again for the end of the day.

We started with a drive along the coast. There were a few Pink-footed Geese in the fields beside the road. We drove along slowly, scanning the favoured fields, and it wasn’t long before we found our first Cranes. A pair were feeding in a field, though they were hard to see behind a bank. We pulled into a convenient layby and walked back to where we could see them. We got a good view of them through the scope, especially when they put their heads up to look round.

While the rest of the group were all looking at them, we had a scan of the grazing meadows the other side of the road. The first thing we picked up was a Short-eared Owl. It was some way over, and hard to see the other side of two reed-fringed dikes until it flew up a little at the end of each hunting run. Scanning a little further over, we found another pair of Cranes, but these were even harder to see than the first pair, from here. We got them in the scope and it was just possible to make out a grey blob through the reeds.

We were back at the car and just packing up to leave when we saw that the Short-eared Owl had come out into the open, a little nearer to us. Now we could see it properly, flying up and down the edge of one of the fields, hunting on stiff wings with a distinctive rowing action, attention focused on the ground below. As we watched it, we could see it was working its way closer and closer to the road, so we leapt into the car and drove back – just in time to have it fly along the edge of the field near the road, right beside the car. Great stuff!

P1170623Short-eared Owl – hunting over the grazing meadows this morning

We watched the Short-eared Owl making its way round and round the field in  front of us. It landed at the back briefly, down on the grass. Then flew right towards us and landed on a post. Unfortunately it didn’t stay long – and by the time the group had finished looking at it through the scope it was off. It clearly didn’t want to pose for the cameras!

IMG_8067Short-eared Owl – down in the grass briefly

While we were distracted by the Short-eared Owl, one of the group noticed a Crane walk out of the dense rushes in the field behind. A quick scan with the scope confirmed that there were two Cranes out there. This was undoubtedly the same pair we had seen distantly earlier, but from this angle we had a much better view. For a bird which stands about a metre tall, they can be remarkably hard to see. While they were feeding in the thick rushes, they were all but invisible at times, but when they put their heads up or walked out into the more open grass, we had great views of them.

IMG_8084Cranes – our second pair of the day

When we looked back to the field, suddenly there were two Short-eared Owls out hunting. A couple of times they passed through the same field of view, but most of the time they kept apart, patrolling slowly round different parts of the field at different times, although often covering the same ground one after the other. It was quite a sight to be watching a pair of Cranes and have a Short-eared Owl fly through the foreground, or vice versa!

P1170635Short-eared Owl – two birds were patrolling the same meadow

IMG_8094Short-eared Owl photobombing a Crane – not a sight you see everyday!

It was a magical moment, watching the Cranes and Short-eared Owls. Eventually, we had to drag ourselves away and continue on. Further back along the road, we stopped again to look at a large flock of Pink-footed Geese. We had just got out of the car and a quick scan over the grass produced yet another two more Cranes.

IMG_8115Crane – one of our third pair of the day

They were feeding quietly out on the grass, walking about slowly and rooting around in the ground or picking at the surface, possibly looking for worms on the short turf. When the Cranes we had been watching earlier, back along the road, started calling, this pair responded, throwing their heads back, pointing skyward, and bugling in unison. Great to watch.

IMG_8131Cranes – calling in unison in response to the other pair

There were plenty of other birds here too. Lots of Lapwings out on the grass, all flying up whenever something spooked them. A huge flock of Golden Plover whirling round in the distance and a smaller number in the wet fields behind us. In with them, we also found a single Ruff and a couple of Dunlin. Several Marsh Harriers were quartering over the reeds.

Our next stop was down at Winterton. It being the Saturday of half term week, the beach was perhaps not surprisingly very busy – lots of people and even more dogs running about wildly. We walked north, hoping to get away from the worst of the commotion, stopping on our way to scan sea. There were loads of black Cormorants flying past or fishing out on the sea, and in amongst them flashes of white, a few Gannets circling offshore too. Scanning the sea with the scope, as well as the Cormorants, we found four smaller black shapes riding the waves, four Common Scoter diving offshore. There were good numbers of Red-throated Divers on the sea too, still in winter plumage with grey backs and bright white faces and underparts. We also picked up a single Guillemot on the sea briefly.

We hadn’t gone very far, when we spotted a couple of Snow Buntings dropping down into the dunes. We walked over and could see three Snow Buntings in a little clear area of sand and stones among the marram grass, but between us and them were also two Ringed Plover roosting. We decided to work our way round behind the dunes so as not to disturb them, but when we got round there was only one Snow Bunting left. Still, we had a good look at it in the scope, before it was flushed by a dog rampaging through the dunes and it flew away north calling.

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IMG_8149Snow Bunting – getting flushed repeatedly by dogs on the beach today

We walked on further up through dunes and eventually found more Snow Buntings on the beach, a nice group of about ten of them picking around on the shingle. They were not getting much peace here either, constantly getting flushed by walkers and dogs, whirling around in a flutter of white wing flashes, before landing again somewhere different. The waders were not having an easy time of it either. Four Sanderling were picking around high up the beach, on the edge of the dunes, trying to make their way down to the shore before getting flushed again. In the end, we left them to it and headed back to the car.

We meandered our way inland from here, scanning various favoured sites for more Cranes. At one particular pale we picked up three more Cranes but they were very distant, out on the grazing marshes. While we were trying to get everyone onto them, yet another two Cranes flew in over the field in front of car and dropped down away to join them.

P1170642Cranes – two flying in to join another three on the grazing marshes

Our next port of call was Strumpshaw Fen. A large flock of Siskins flew in noisily and began feeding in the alders around the car park. They were very jumpy and before long they were off again in a flurry away through the trees. A Goldcrest was feeding in the cut branches piled by the edge, and a Treecreeper was calling away in the wet woodland beyond.

After lunch, we walked out onto the reserve. A couple of Marsh Tits were hiding in the bushes around the feeders, calling noisily and showing themselves occasionally. The Reception Hide pool was busy with wildfowl. There were lots of Gadwall in particular, and we got a stunning male at the front in the scope. A much underrated duck, being shades of monochrome rather than gaudy colours, they are actually stunningly patterned when seen close up. Several more members of the Gadwall Appreciation Society were duly signed up!

IMG_8191Gadwall – a stunningly patterned drake when seen up close

There were also a good number of Pochard on here today, mostly drakes and mostly asleep, plus three Teal roosting half hidden in the cut reeds at the front, and a single pair of Shoveler. A Mute Swan swam out from behind the reeds accompanied by a Black Swan, the resident escapee. Several Marsh Harriers were quartering the reeds beyond, with a male and female engaged in a bout of talon-grappling.

As we walked out through the trees, a Song Thrush was in full song. We could hear both Nuthatch and Treecreeper calling, from the woods and a Great Spotted Woodpecker landed in the trees in front of us. Another smaller flock of Siskins were in the wet alders by the start of Sandy Wall.

IMG_8181Siskins – lots were feeding in the alders today

The view from Fen Hide was quiet again. A couple of Coot were on the pool as usual and a pair of Shoveler dropped in briefly. We scanned the cut reeds carefully and found a Snipe asleep, extremely well camouflaged in among the dead reed stems.The more we scanned, the more we found – a second nearby, then another two further over. One woke up and walked back into cover, disappearing from sight completely – we wondered how many more might be out there lurking unseen. A Cetti’s Warbler called from the reeds. But there was no sign of the hoped for Bittern or Otter today.

IMG_8202Snipe – fantastically well camouflaged, asleep among the dead reed stems

We made our way back. A Kingfisher flashed away along the ditch beside the Sandy Wall, but did not linger long enough for rest of group to get onto it. A Water Rail squealed from deep in the reedbed.

The swans at Ludham which we have been enjoying through the winter seem to have departed already, an earlier than normal return towards their breeding sites. We decided to have a quick look at an alternative location to see if we could find any birds lingering there. As we drove along, there were lots of swans in the fields, but every herd we stopped to scan through seemed to be just Mute Swans. We were about to give up when we spotted two smaller birds with shorter necks in with some distant Mute Swans. We stopped the car in a convenient field entrance for a closer scan and found at least twenty Bewick’s Swans in with them. It was a bit misty with drizzle at this point, but at least these ones had decided to stay here a little longer so we could catch up with them!

IMG_8207Bewick’s Swans – we eventually located 20+ in with some Mute Swans

We finished the day at Stubb Mill. By the time we got to the car park at Hickling, the drizzle had stopped and it had even brightened up a fraction. On the walk out, we could hear the flock of Teal calling from the flood out on the grazing marshes and a large flock of Fieldfare flew over the fields. A single Redwing flew past as well.

There were not many Marsh Harriers present at first, only three or four out in the bushes, but through the late afternoon they slowly started to drift in. Then a ringtail Hen Harrier circled in high over the marshes in front of us, dropping away towards the reeds at the back. A little later we spotted another ringtail Hen Harrier coming in low from the back – though it could conceivably have been the same one coming back in after a fly round.

There are often Merlins here, but they can appear rather late to perch in the trees, or just zip through quickly. We got lucky today. First, one was perched up in the top of a rather distant bush. Then what we possibly a second darted round through the bushes in the front of the reeds and perched up nicely where we could get a great look at it through the scope. As the light started to fade, more Marsh Harriers arrived so that there were probably around twenty in tonight.

A distant Barn Owl was hunting right out the back of the reeds, despite the weather, and an early Tawny Owl hooted from behind us. A small number of Pink-footed Geese appeared to be feeding on the grazing marshes away to our left, flying up occasionally between the fields, but as dusk fell a much larger flock came up from that direction and flew off to roost. A Stonechat perched up on the brambles and a couple of Yellowhammer flew over calling. The usual Chinese Water Deer appeared out on the grass and a Stoat ran through the rushes in front of us, returning a few seconds later back the other way with something in its jaws.

One of the group was struggling with walking, so your correspondent went back to get the car. On the way back, three Cranes dropped silently over the road towards. Thankfully the rest of the group had not missed out, and had themselves seen nine more Cranes fly past the watchpoint, heading off to roost as the light faded.

What a great way to finish. That took us to a massive combined total of 23 Cranes for the day! A classic day in the Broads.

19th February 2016 – Raven Mad!

 

Day 1 of another three day long weekend of tours today. We spent the day in North Norfolk, trying to catch up with a few of our local wintering specialities and lingering rarities. It was a glorious morning to be out – bright and crisp after a frost overnight, with big blue skies spread out above us. Even though it clouded over later in the afternoon, the forecast rain very kindly held off until after we had finished.

On our way down to the coast, a Barn Owl was out hunting over the grass beside the road, where the frost had melted. Our first stop was along the road at Holkham and the first bird we set eyes on there was another Barn Owl out hunting over the grazing marshes. There were several Marsh Harriers circling over the fields and a single one perched in the morning sun in a tree in front of us. Several Common Buzzards came out of the Park behind us and circled up into the sky.

Then a Peregrine appeared over Decoy Wood. It circled out over the pools, scattering all the masses of Wigeon, Teal and Shoveler, seemingly just for fun, then drifted back over the trees again. Next it dropped down towards the grass and had a go at an Egyptian Goose which happened to be flying past. It landed on one of the trees for a brief rest and then dropped down over the back.

IMG_7856White-fronted Geese – with a few Greylags for company

There were still a good number of White-fronted Geese out on the freshmarsh. Many of them were hidden behind the trees, which made it difficult to count them today, but several were out in the open where we could get a good look at them, admiring the white surround to the base of their bills and their black belly stripes. There were several much larger Greylag Geese with them, giving a good opportunity for comparison.

A lone Ruff was down on the grass by one of the small pools and there were lots of Lapwing there too. A small party of Black-tailed Godwits whirled round whenever one of the Marsh Harriers drifted over.

We made our way on westwards and stopped by the harbour at Burnham Overy Staithe. It was a wonderful day to be walking out along the seawall. The mud along the harbour channel was full of waders – Redshanks, Grey Plover, Dunlin. A group of Black-tailed Godwits were roosting on one of the sandbars, at least until they were flushed by a couple of dogs. Several are already starting to acquire the orange breast feathers of summer plumage. We couldn’t find a Knot with them on the way out, but remedied that later, on the way back.

IMG_7862Black-tailed Godwits – flushed from the sandbank in the harbour

All the Brent Geese which had been loafing around in the harbour were flushed by the dogs too and flew off out across the grazing meadows to feed. A couple of Red-breasted Merganser swam away, diving constantly, and later flew back to where they had been feeding, once the danger had passed.

We stopped on the seawall to have a closer look at some Pink-footed Geese. Most of them seem to have departed already, on their way further north where they will stop a while before continuing on to Iceland. However, there are still groups hanging around so we wanted to take this opportunity to have a proper look.

At this point, our attention was drawn to a black bird circling low over the edge of the dunes. It is always hard to judge the size of a lone bird, but it looked big, really big. There was also something about the way it was flying, circling effortlessly. We swung the scope round onto it quickly and could see a huge black bill, thick neck, with shaggy feathering at the throat and what seemed to be a longish wedge-shaped tail – a Raven!

P1170375Raven – one of a pair in the dunes today, a properly rare bird in Norfolk!

In some parts of the country, a Raven would not create much excitement, but they are still really rare in Norfolk. So much so, that this was the first Raven that your correspondent has ever seen in his home county! They have been spreading across the country and records here have been increasing in the last couple of years, but it is still a great bird to see here.

It was joined by a second and the two Ravens circled slowly along the dunes towards Holkham Pines. At this point, two Carrion Crows set off after them and started to mob them – the Crows were tiny by comparison. One of the Ravens started to circle out over the grazing marshes towards us, and we could now hear the deep, hoarse ‘kronk’ call. It got nearer and nearer and looked like it would come straight to us before it swung away again towards Holkham Park. Great stuff!

With a spring in our step, we carried on out towards the dunes, and turned west along the beach towards Gun Hill. We had come to look for the Shore Larks, so we looked carefully all the way along the high tide line where they like to feed. We couldn’t find them. There were a few Ringed Plovers on the beach and several Sanderlings with the Oystercatchers down by the channel.

At the end of the dunes, opposite Scolt Head island, there was no sign of the Shore Larks on the piles of seaweed and other dead vegetation where they like to feed. A small group of Goldeneye took off from the channel as we approached. We had a good look round the edge of the dunes on the inland side as well, without any joy. It seemed like we were out of luck – the Shore Larks had apparently been present earlier in the morning but had obviously been disturbed and flown off.

IMG_7865Red-breasted Merganser – in the harbour channel opposite Gun Hill

We started the long march back, stopping to admire a little party of Red-breasted Mergansers in the harbour channel, including a smart drake this time. We walked out onto the beach to check the lines of debris washed up by the tide. We had just given up and decided to move on when three small birds flew along the edge of the dunes towards us – the Shore Larks!

They carried on past us, along the beach the way we had just walked, and appeared to land. It was too much to resist, so we walked back up the beach again to try to see them. There were two walkers with a dog ahead of us, the latter scampering along the high tide line, and we had to race to catch them up. They very kindly agreed to get their dog under control, almost too late as it flushed the Shore Larks before they could call it back (apparently the dog was deaf, which didn’t help!).  Thankfully they landed again a few metres further on and the dog was duly restrained. We all had a good look at the Shore Larks in the scope – including the dog owners.

IMG_7932-001Shore Lark – the three eventually flew back in just as we were giving up

The Shore Larks were feeding very quietly around the piles of dead vegetation on the edge of the beach, working their way slowly along. We admired their bright yellow faces with black masks. Then we noticed another dog walker coming back along the beach and, despite being spoken to by someone watching the Shore Larks from opposite us, he carried straight on with his dogs and the Shore Larks flew off again back down the beach.

Having had great views of them now, we decided to call it a day and walk back. On our way, we came across the Shore Larks further down the beach, hiding in amongst the stones. They were obviously waiting for their favoured feeding area to be left undisturbed as, after a few minutes, they flew back again to where they had been feeding. We left them in peace – though for how long they might be able to enjoy that we could not say.

IMG_7875Shore Lark – constantly getting disturbed today

We stopped to admire the Golden Plovers on the open grass below the dunes again. There were loads of them – probably at least 1,000 – mostly standing still head into the breeze. Then we made our way back to the car.

We were running a bit later than planned, after we had finally caught up with the Shore Larks. We made our way on further west to Brancaster Staithe. Before we even got out of the car, we could see the Red-necked Grebe in its favoured place, further up the channel. It was diving regularly, but we got it in the scope and had a good look at it.

IMG_7981Red-necked Grebe – in Brancaster Staithe harbour channel again

There was a female Goldeneye diving nearby and a Little Grebe too for good measure. The tide was still pretty low, and surprisingly there were no Bar-tailed Godwits here today. However, there were several Black-tailed Godwits, plus lots of Dunlin, Turnstone and Oystercatcher.

After an action packed morning, we had a late lunch at Titchwell before a quick look round as much of the reserve as we could manage in the time available. The feeders by the visitor centre were busy with birds as usual – lots of Chaffinches, several Goldfinches, and a few Greenfinches – although several were already empty. A single female Brambling was struggling to find a feeder port with any food left!

IMG_7992Brambling – just one female today, while we were looking

Out from the main path, the Water Rail was hiding in the shadows under the brambles on the far bank of the ditch. Eventually it came out a little more into the open, probing round in the rotting leaves for something to eat.

P1170458Water Rail – in the ditch, as usual

The first bird we saw on the dried out grazing meadow ‘pool’ was a Water Pipit, quite close to the path down at the front. It was looking particularly clean, bright white below in the sunshine today. A couple of Rock Pipits nearby were noticeably swarthy by comparison. Further over, towards the back, a second Water Pipit appeared with yet more Rock Pipits. The raft of Pochard and Tufted Duck was still on the reedbed pool.

The water level on the freshmarsh is still low for management work. There is a reasonable number of waders on here, particularly Dunlin, plus about 40 Avocet and several Black-tailed Godwit. A hundred or so Golden Plover were on one of the drier islands, along with a scattering of Lapwing.

P1170522Black-tailed Godwit – always good to see up close at Titchwell

Most of the Teal are still over the back of the freshmarsh, around the remaining deeper water, but a few were close to the main path where we could get a better look at them. The drakes are looking particularly smart at the moment. Other than that, there were a few Gadwall and Mallard and a handful of Wigeon scattered around.

P1170508Teal – a smart drake

The Volunteer Marsh held a couple of Knot and a little group of Ringed Plover, as well as the usual Curlew, Redshank and Grey Plover. The brightest Ringed Plover, presumably a spring male, was very aggressive in chasing the others off.

IMG_8008Ringed Plover – a bright spring bird

A few Black-tailed Godwit and a single Avocet were down in the deeper channel by the path. At the back, we finally found our first Bar-tailed Godwit of the day, but we got better views of them around the Tidal Pools. Again, we had a discussion about how to separate the two similar Godwit species.

IMG_8009Bar-tailed Godwit – there were a few round the Tidal Pools today

We just had time to admire the Pintail, swimming around on the Tidal Pools. We got a cracking drake in the scope for a quick close-up. Then it was time to make our way back – we had somewhere else we needed to be!

IMG_8023Pintail – one of the drakes on the Tidal Pools

We drove across inland and managed to just about find a space this evening in the car park at Roydon Common. As we arrived, the news came through that the Pallid Harrier had already flown in to the heath ahead of going to roost. We quickened our step one last time and made our way across to the ridge.

The Pallid Harrier was down in the grass when we arrived but promptly took off for a fly round. We had it in the same scope view as a ringtail Hen Harrier, the two having a quick go at each other. The Hen Harrier was noticeably bigger and heavier, with broader wings with more obviously rounded tips. It was great to see the two species together.

IMG_8044Pallid Harrier – still roosting at Roydon Common today

The Pallid Harrier circled up high into the sky this evening, and spent some time flying back and forth way up above the trees. When it came down, against the background of the birches, we could see its pale collar better, and the contrasting dark neck patch, the ‘boa’. It landed a couple of times and we could see it half hidden in the grass the first time.

A second ringtail Hen Harrier flew in as well, but dropped down pretty quickly into the grass. It was rather cloudy now and there were just a couple of spots of rain. When the Pallid Harrier dropped down to the ground again, we decided to call it a day and head for home.

A short video clip of the Pallid Harrier in action from today is below:

 

17th February 2016 – A Parliament of Owls

A half term weekday tour today, the plan was to look for owls and try to spend some time with general birding up on the coast.

We started with a drive around some likely grazing marshes, where Barn Owls like to hunt. It didn’t take long to find out first Barn Owl of the day, perched on a post on the edge of a field. We found a convenient place to park and walked back to a gate from where we could get the scopes on it.

IMG_7719Barn Owl – our first of the day

The Barn Owl remained on its post for a while, looking round, enjoying the morning sunshine.  Then it was off again to resume hunting. It made its way along the hedge and away through the trees. There were a few other birds in the hedgerows where we had stopped. A Song Thrush was singing – they are in full voice now. A Marsh Tit worked its way along the bushes, alternately singing and calling. hopping up onto the top in front of us briefly. A Treecreeper was working its way through the trees and appeared for a few seconds to work its way up one on the edge where we could see it.

We drove on a little further and parked up again. There was no sign at first of any of the local Barn Owls on their favourite posts. So we set off to walk along the footpath beside the meadows to see if we could find one of them further along. We hadn’t got very far when one of the group spotted through the trees that a Barn Owl had now appeared on one of the posts, so we made our way back there.

IMG_7727Barn Owl – hunting from the posts

This Barn Owl seemed to be hunting from the fence posts. It spent some minutes perched on a post, staring down into the grass below, looking round. Then it would fly a short distance and land on another post and resume its search of the ground. It did this repeatedly, dropping down into the grass a couple of times but only hovering briefly over it once.

There were a few other birds here too. A Grey Wagtail dropped in by the water briefly, before flying off through the trees calling. Several Siskins were whizzing around through the alders. A Great Spotted Woodpecker was drumming nearby. In the end, we had to tear ourselves away from the Barn Owl and move on.

Our next target was Little Owl. We drove up to one of their regular haunts, a series of old farm buildings. They normally like to perch up on the roofs here, but we couldn’t see one in any of the usual places today. It was a nice bright morning and they normally like to sit out in the sunshine, but there was a cold southerly wind blowing which might have taken the edge off it. They had presumably found somewhere more sheltered.

A Barn Owl was a nice distraction. It flew through the trees the other side of the road and as we were standing quietly next to the car, it didn’t see us until the last minute. It appeared out of the trees directly across the road from us, flew straight towards us at first then turned and flew right past us. Stunning!

P1170133Barn Owl – flew past us while looking for Little Owls

There were several Brown Hares running around on the grassy verges by the farm buildings. A small group of Lapwing were in the winter wheat field across the road and, later, were joined by a few Golden Plover as well. Several ragged groups of Brent Geese flew up from the coast and inland to find somewhere to feed, passing overhead. One of them looked at the winter wheat field opposite us as well, circled over it a couple of times, but seemed to be put off by us standing there and continued on inland.

P1170151Brent Geese – flocks were flying inland to feed this morning

While we were standing there, we heard a Little Owl calling through the trees beside us, a little like a plaintive cat miaowing. We decided to set off to see if we could find it. We walked a little way back along the road to another gateway from where we could get a different view over the buildings. These were a little more sheltered from the wind and, sure enough, there was a Little Owl perched on a wall in the sunshine. We got it in the scope and had great views of it.

IMG_7743Little Owl – in a sheltered spot, enjoying the morning sunshine

What was presumably the same Barn Owl was doing another circuit of the fields the other side of the road, and came straight past us again, landing in the back of the trees briefly before resuming its hunting duties.

P1170159-001Barn Owl – still flying round through the trees

Out in the long grass, a large flock of Fieldfares was feeding. We could just see their heads poking out until they moved. A Song Thrush was out there too. A Kestrel perched obligingly on the overhead wires nearby and we couldn’t resist a closer look at it.

IMG_7758Kestrel – perched on some wires close to us

We had enjoyed a very good morning’s owling, but time was now getting on. After such success, it seemed like a good moment to switch our attention to some more general birding and return to owls later on. We made our way down to the coast and headed west.

Our next stop was at Brancaster Staithe. There are usually lots of waders around the car park here and so it proved again today. With questions over how to separate Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwits, this was a good opportunity to get up close with some of the latter. There were several Bar-tailed Godwits feeding around the edge of the harbour channel and we studied them in the scopes – their well-marked, pale buffy coloured upperparts, and striking pale supercilium, complementing the slightly upturned bill and shortish legs.

IMG_7761Bar-tailed Godwits – a good opportunity to look at them close-up

There were lots of Turnstones picking around in the car park and Oystercatchers too, particularly where the local mussels had been brought ashore to be washed and sorted, leaving lots of pickings for the birds. A couple of Grey Plover were unobtrusive out on the mud. A little group of diminutive Dunlin was feeding down at the water’s edge. A much larger Curlew was on the sandbank opposite.

We had also come to look for the Red-necked Grebe which has been here on and off for several months now. It is not always around, but thankfully it didn’t take too long for us to locate it today. It was swimming around among the boats, further up the harbour channel. We got it in the scopes where we could see it, diving regularly.

Red-necked Grebe Brancaster 2016-02-13_2Red-necked Grebe – a recent photo, when it was closer in

We had a drive inland next to see if we could find one of the Rough-legged Buzzards. They seem to have been seen at Choseley less regularly in recent days, so we had a quick look round some of their other favourite sites, but we couldn’t find one today. A Barn Owl flying right across the road just in front of the car on a quiet back road was a nice compensation for our efforts, and still out hunting in the middle of the day too.

We had a quick drive round at Choseley just in case, but there was no sign there either today. A couple of Common Buzzards were enjoying the breeze, hanging in the air over one of the pine copses on the ridge. Then we dropped down to Titchwell for lunch.

The feeders by the visitor centre were full of finches, as usual – Chaffinches, Greenfinches and Goldfinches. A Marsh Tit zipped in and out briefly and the Long-tailed Tits were enjoying the peanuts. Round at the back, there were several Bramblings in with the throng as usual. The two males were subtly different – one with a much blacker head already, the other still with considerably more pale fringing to the head and back feathers, yet to wear off to reveal the black summer plumage. A single female Brambling dropped in as well, but was chased off her perch at the feeders by one of the greedy males.

IMG_7792Brambling – this male was blacker-headed already than the other

Despite lots of visitors today and lots of noise (it is half term!), the Water Rail was down in the ditch by the main path as usual. A lot of people simply walked past it, but equally it seemed to largely ignore us staring down at it, cameras clicking. It was well hidden at first in the overhanging vegetation but gradually worked its way out into the open. Eventually something spooked it and it scuttled back quickly into cover.

P1170211Water Rail – largely oblivious to the stream of visitors on the main path

Further along, we stopped to scan the still dried-out grazing meadow ‘pool’. At least the pipits have been enjoying it. It didn’t take us long to find the lone Water Pipit, quite close today. We had a really good look at it in the scope, much whiter below, more neatly streaked, a more obvious pale supercilium and a cleaner grey-brown above, compared to the two rather swarthy Rock Pipits nearby. A Barn Owl, our first of the afternoon, was circling over the marshes at the back, towards Thornham. A raft of Common Pochard was on the reedbed pool, along with 2-3 Tufted Ducks.

IMG_7809Water Pipit – on the drained grazing meadow ‘pool’ again

Having been lowered right down for management work to be undertaken, there is a little more water again on the freshmarsh at the moment. The waders were certainly making the most of it. There were 42 Avocets on there today – a winter site record, according to the warden! Several large groups of Dunlin were feeding feverishly on the exposed mud. And there were good numbers of Black-tailed Godwits on here today, with several right down in front of Island Hide. We had a good look at them, remembering the Bar-tailed Godwits we had seen earlier and noting the differences.

P1170364Black-tailed Godwit – enjoying the wet mud on the freshmarsh

It had been a lovely bright morning, but high cloud was now starting to encroach from the west. We made our way out towards the beach, just in case the forecast of rain this afternoon proved to be correct (it didn’t!). We stopped again at the Volunteer Marsh to look through the waders. As well as lots of Redshank and a few Curlew, we found a couple of rather unobtrusive Knot, picking around one of the island of vegetation on the edge of the mud. Closer to the path, we got a smart Grey Plover, resplendent even in its winter plumage, in the scopes.

IMG_7814Grey Plover – in white-spangled grey winter plumage

A lone Ringed Plover on the edge of the mud was soon joined by a load more, presumably flying in from the beach. One of them, a brighter bird, was noticeably aggressive to some of the others, chasing after them and calling.

IMG_7826Ringed Plover – a small group flew in to the Volunteer Marsh

We heard a Spotted Redshank call further over and made our way along to look for it, but there was no sign along the channel at the far end. There were lots of Black-tailed Godwits there and a single Bar-tailed Godwit – an opportunity to see both species close to each other. An Avocet was feeding in the deep channel by the path, sweeping its bill from side to side. There was no sign of the Spotted Redshank on the other side of the bank either, on the Tidal Pools. In fact, there were rather few waders on there today, just a few more Bar-tailed Godwits.

IMG_7844Pintail – you can see where it got its name when the drakes are feeding!

There were a few more ducks on here today. We spent some time admiring all the Pintail, many of them now organised into pairs. The drakes are looking very smart at the moment. We got one of them in the scope and had a good look at it. They were upending in the shallow water to feed, giving us a great view of their pin-shaped central tail feathers as they did so.

IMG_7837Pintail – a more conventional view of a smart drake

While we were scanning through the ducks, our attention was drawn to a dark duck on the mud at the back. It looked distinctly out of place – it appeared to be limping, as it walked across to the water and started to swim. It was a Common Scoter, a young male, rather blotchy in appearance as it starts to gain some more of its black adult feathers. There are lots of them on the sea through the winter here, but you rarely see one come in onto the pools. A female Goldeneye was also diving out here.

IMG_7833Common Scoter – a young drake was on the tidal pools briefly

Out on the beach, the tide was high. There were still lots of waders along the tideline – Oystercatchers and Bar-tailed Godwits, and a few Sanderling in with the larger flocks of Dunlin.

We had a look out to sea, which was fairly calm today, now that the wind had dropped. A pair of Red-breasted Merganser were fairly close inshore, and we managed to get a good look at them when they stopped diving long enough. There were more Goldeneye out on the water. The small raft of Common Scoter were quiet a long way out today and we couldn’t see anything else in with them. While we were standing there, the Common Scoter we had seen earlier flew back out from the Tidal Pools over the beach to the sea – normal service resumed!

We made our way back along the main path, and stopped to scan the waders along the channel on the Volunteer Marsh again. This time we found the Spotted Redshank. It was towards the back, but we got it in the scope so everyone could see it. There was a Redshank next to it at one point and you could see the paler, silvery grey colour of the Spotted Redshank and its longer, finer bill.

While we were watching the Spotted Redshank, we had a call from the warden (thanks!) who was standing a little further along – a young Peregrine was making a pass over the freshmarsh and had scattered all the waders. We could see it circling up over the roof of the Parrinder Hide, with flocks of Lapwing and Dunlin whirling round nervously. It climbed up and then made another pass over the mud, powering down and disappearing behind the bank, before climbing up again. It wasn’t having any luck, but was creating pandemonium among all the birds which had been on the freshmarsh!

We stopped to talk to him on our way back, and he told us that rather annoyingly a Short-eared Owl had flown across the reserve while we had been out at the beach and dropped down over the bank at the back, towards Brancaster. We had been scanning the dunes and saltmarsh on the way hoping for just such an event. We had to content ourselves with yet another Barn Owl hunting in the distance over that side.

Back at the car and we started to make our way back west. We had a drive out to the beach at Brancaster and a quick stop again at Brancaster Staithe to see if we could find the Short-eared Owl hunting out around the golf course, but all was quiet. We did find more Barn Owls on our way back – we stopped to watch three hunting over the grazing marshes by the road at Holkham. They were working their way methodically round the edges of the fields – one of them dropped sharply down into the long grass, presumably having heard something. As we drove further along, another flew over the road in front of us and one was hunting along some rough grass beside the road, taking us to a grand total of 11 Barn Owls for the day!

We couldn’t hang around now, as we had an important appointment with some Tawny Owls. They were hooting already when we arrived, before we got into position, which made it hard to judge exactly where they were roosting today. By the time we had walked down into the trees, our regular bird had either come out of the roost already or had been sleeping in a different place today.

We listened to Tawny Owls hooting on both sides of us for a while, then a large shape flew silently through the trees in front of us. It landed above the path briefly, but only one of the group got onto it before it flew again further along. We made our way quickly back and could hear it hooting. This time, we could see where the Tawny Owl had landed and got the scope onto it, where everyone could see it. We could see it perched on a branch, in the last of the evening’s light, hooting. Then it disappeared silently back into the wood. It was a great way to end the day, and we walked back to the car with several Tawny Owls hooting all around us.

Tawny Owl Bayfield 2016-01-24Tawny Owl – this one taken in the same trees a few days ago

It had been a great day’s birding – we had been lucky with the weather, as the forecast rain had still not arrived. Only as we drove back to the meeting point, did it start to spit and on the way home the rain finally arrived. Perfect timing!

14th February 2016 – Windy Brecks

Day 2 of a three-day long weekend of tours today, and we headed down to the Brecks for our last day. The weather started to brighten up nicely as we drove down, with some breaks in the cloud, but there was a cold NE wind all day.

We started at Lynford. A Nuthatch was piping from the top of the larch trees as we walked into the arboretum and we had a good look at it in the scope. A Song Thrush was in full song. We could hear several Siskins and see them zooming around through the trees. Several Marsh Tits were calling and one appeared in the bare branches above us.

P1170089Nuthatch – this one piping later in the afternoon

The feeders were looking sadly empty today – even the cage of fat balls had all but run out – and there was no seed left on the ground. Consequently, there were not many birds here this morning. A couple of Chaffinches were down in the leaves at the back and a few tits came in to try their luck. The Hawfinches have not been seen here with any regularity this season – perhaps there is more food available elsewhere in the forest this year or perhaps they have been put off by an increase in trapping and ringing activity. We decided to make our way round the arboretum.

We could hear and see all the usual birds going about their business in the arboretum – Goldcrests and Treecreepers singing. But it was a little subdued around in the trees in the cold, despite the fact that we were mostly sheltered from the wind. Down at the bridge there was a little bit of food left out and a steady stream of Nuthatches and tits were flying in to feed. It gave us a nice chance to look at Marsh Tit and Coal Tit and get to grips with them. The peanut feeder was still half full and proving particularly popular today with an absence of food elsewhere – at times it was besieged with tits queueing up to get in.

P1170106Great, Blue & Coal Tits – queueing to get to the peanuts

There was no sign of any Hawfinches around the paddocks, although this is not generally a good time to look for them there so we didn’t waste much time looking. We had a walk down around the lake. A Little Grebe was calling and we saw it diving in front of the reeds. It was starting to get into breeding plumage, with the creamy yellow spot at the base of the bill now showing up nicely, but still lacking a little brightness to the rusty face and black cap.

There were lots of Gadwall and Mallard on the lake as well, plus a pair of Canada Geese and a lone Greylag. The resident pair of Mute Swans are starting to get aggressive with the other wildfowl and the cob attempted to chase off the Canada Geese, before shepherding the pen away down the lake. A Kingfisher called and flashed through where the trees are thickest, just where we couldn’t get a good look at it. We thought it might have landed but there was no further sign.

P1170074Mute Swan – aggressively defending its patch now

We decided to move on and made our way deeper into the Forest. We walked down a ride to one of our favourite clearings. We could hear a Woodlark singing as we walked, but couldn’t see it through the trees. It was sheltered in the forest but when we emerged into the open, we realised just how strong – and cold – the wind was. This is the time of the year when Goshawks display, and that was the main reason why we were here, but they tend to like a bit of warmth in the air – something they would be lucky to get today!

When we arrived there were a couple of friendly faces there and we were told the Goshawks had already been up, a positive sign. We didn’t have to wait very long. We just got a glimpse of a very ragged young female as she disappeared behind some trees, but fortunately she then circled back to the edge of the clearing where everyone could see her. She circled over the edge of the trees towards us – we just managed to get her in the scope. Browner above than the grey of an adult, and black-streaked buffy underparts rather than barred on a white background, she had several wing feathers missing creating big gaps in the wing tips – a bit early to be moulting. A second calendar year female, born last year.

As she circled towards us, another Goshawk appeared above her, higher up in the sky. This time an adult, much paler below and light grey above. It looked noticeably smaller than the young female – an adult male. The two circled over the forest for a short while, drifting away from us, then the male suddenly closed his wings and dropped like a stone towards her, pulling up at the last minute. This was the resident male, seeing a roaming youngster off his territory. She got the message and started to fly away more strongly, but he continued to chase after her. It was great to see the two together – to see the appreciable size difference between the two sexes.

Goshawk Thetford Warren 2016-01-28_4Goshawk – too slow with the camera today! Here’s one from recently

After some great views of the Goshawks, we decided to turn our attention to Woodlarks. It was rather quiet out in the clearing today – perhaps not surprising with the wind whistling across. A Skylark fluttered up singing, flashing its white outer tail feathers, but didn’t get too high off the ground before dropping down again. We heard a Woodlark singing but we looked up to see it flying over high, before dropping down away behind the trees. There are normally a couple of pairs of Woodlark here, but they seemed to be feeding deeper in the trees today, presumably along the edge of the more sheltered rides. A pair of Stonechats were more adventurous – perched up on the fence.

As we walked back across the clearing, we heard Woodlarks calling and one of the resident pairs dropped down into the clearing. One of them perched up in the open for a minute or so, looking round, while the other, presumably the female, fed down in one of the furrows. We all got a good look at it through the scope, but they took off again just as the cameras came out and flew off over the forest, again dropping down out of view somewhere more sheltered.

Woodlark Thetford Warren 2016-01-28_5Woodlark – a recent photo from the pair in the clearing

We retreated to the more sheltered side of the clearing, in the hope that we might get some more views of the Goshawks. The weather brightened up a little and the activity of the local Common Buzzards increased. A pair circled up low over the trees ahead of us and we could hear a third Buzzard calling away to our left. As it just broke above the tree line, a Sparrowhawk appeared with it. The Sparrowhawk flew across with bursts of rapid-fire wingbeats interspersed with glides, very different from the more powerful Goshawks we had been watching earlier. Size can be very difficult to judge on a lone bird in the sky, but next to the Buzzard, we could see just how small the Sparrowhawk was.

Despite being partly sheltered by the trees, it was still cold and exposed, so we decided to walk back. On the way, we came across another pair of Woodlarks in a more sheltered corner. One perched up nicely for us on a fence for a few seconds, before dropping down to feed. We could see the two birds down on the ground, but they were hard to follow down in the thick vegetation and in and out of the furrows. Eventually they flew back out across the clearing as we approached.

Banks of cloud were coming and going and as the sky brightened a little again, another Goshawk appeared briefly low over the trees, another adult, before powering away from us.

We stopped for lunch and, while we were eating, news came through that the Great Grey Shrike had reappeared at Grime’s Graves. So, once we had finished, we headed round there to look for it. Unfortunately, by the time we got there, it had disappeared again. Very frustrating! We thought it might be keeping low in the wind, but despite searching all around the area, there was no sign. We wanted to make sure we had enough time to catch up with the Hawfinches, so we needed to cut short our search. A couple of friends were also looking for it and kindly promised to let us know if it reappeared – we could always come back if need be.

We drove back to Lynford and walked out along the path. The area around the feeders was still quiet and nobody seemed to have seen any Hawfinches there or down at the paddocks this afternoon. There were still lots of tits and Nuthatches feeding around the bridge as we walked past. We carried on down to the paddocks and had a quick scan of the trees. All seemed to be very quiet out in the open. A Jay perched up in the afternoon sun – it seems to like this particularly tree at this time of the day!

IMG_7658Jay – perched in the afternoon sun again

We walked a little further along, and scanned the trees again, and this time we picked up a Hawfinch in the tops. After we lined up the various scopes onto it, we realised there were actually two Hawfinches on two different trees we were looking at! They were sitting up enjoying the late afternoon sun, rear onto us so we could see the white tip to their tails and bold grey shawl round the nape. We worked our way further round so we could get them side on.

IMG_7671Hawfinch – we found two enjoying the late afternoon sunshine

From the other side, we could still get an angle on one of them through the trees, a smart rich chestnut male Hawfinch. He was positively glowing in the late afternoon sunshine! We could see his huge nutcracker of a bill, neatly outlined with black continuing down to a smart black bib. We could even see the odd-shaped inner wing feathers. Then, once we had all had a really good look at him, he dropped down into the trees out of sight. We turned and a Kestrel was perched in the hawthorns nearby, also enjoying the afternoon sun.

IMG_7690Kestrel – also perched in the sunshine

We walked back to the car park and continued on to the gravel pits beyond. Out on one of them, we could see a scattering of Gadwall and Tufted Duck, plus a few Coot, Canada and Greylag Geese. A couple of other ducks were swimming more unobtrusively round near the more overgrown far edge, the male shining pale in the low sun. A pair of Goosander. We got them in the scope and could see the drake was actually off white with a pale salmon pink glow, the female greyer, with a sharply contrasting rusty red head and white chin. They swam quietly in towards the edge and disappeared into a secluded bay out of view.

IMG_7694Goosander – a smart drake

It was time for us to call it a day too. Despite the nagging cold wind, it turned out we had actually been lucky with the weather. As we drove home, the dark clouds gathered and it started to snow!

13th February 2016 – Winter Birding

Day 2 of a three-day long weekend of tours today. We spent the day in North Norfolk, trying to catch up with a few of our speciality wintering birds and several long-staying rarities. It was cold and rather windy today, with an east wind off the continent, but it stayed dry all day (earlier in the week, it was forecast to rain all day today!).

We started down at Blakeney. It was rather windy and exposed up on the seawall. We scanned the harbour as we walked out. The tide was almost in and a little roost of waders was lined up on one of the spits. There was a large group of Oystercatchers which were mostly asleep. In front of them, the Dunlin were still busy feeding on the small area of remaining mud. We got them in the scope and found a single Knot in with them. A Grey Plover emerged from the muddy channel nearby. A smart drake Goldeneye was out on the water in front of Halfway House, but diving constantly.

As we came round the corner and up to the gate, a couple of Skylarks flew up from the grass and landed again immediately on the edge of the mud, just a little further along from where we were and close to the path. The Lapland Buntings here often associate with the Skylarks, so we made straight for them. We were in luck – a Lapland Bunting was creeping through the grass beside them. We got it in the scope and had a good look at it, before it disappeared further back into the vegetation.

We walked on a little further and could see a Lapland Bunting in the grass. But as we looked at it, we could see that this was a different bird, more strongly marked with black on the underparts.It gradually worked its way towards us and came out onto the mud. It was still sticking to the few tufts of vegetation or running quickly between them – it did not like to be out in the open. We watched it creeping up and through the dried weed stems, looking for seeds. Stunning views of what can be such a secretive species!

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IMG_7255Lapland Bunting – creeping about in the vegetation

While we were watching the Lapland Buntings, a little group of seven Twite were out among the tufts of vegetation a little further over. We got them in the scope and had a quick look at them, before they flew off. Three Rock Pipits were feeding round the edge of one of the small pools.

A second Lapland Bunting flew over calling, a dry rattle and a sharp ‘teu’, and the one we had been watching flew up to join it. The two of them raced over towards the gate and dropped down into the grass. We decided that would be a good moment to walk back, and when we got to the gate, some people were watching a Lapland Bunting down in the grass with three Skylarks there.

That was a great start to the day. As we walked back, the tide was now very high and various birds forced out of the saltmarsh were feeding around the Suaeda bushes by the path – a pair of Stonechats, Reed Buntings and Rock Pipits.

P1160880Fallow Deer – a large herd live in Holkham Park

Our next destination was Holkham Park. We parked outside the gate and walked in through the trees. The large herd of Fallow Deer which live in the Park were feeding in the trees close to the path. We got quite close to them before they finally started to run back away from us. We made our way down to the lake.

Several people were watching the female Ferruginous Duck when we arrived, but it was standing preening, half hidden in all the vegetation along the far bank. We managed to get an OK look at it. The stunning male Ferruginous x Pochard hybrid was close by, asleep on one of the branches of a fallen tree lying in the water. It woke up briefly, but swam in deeper underneath the tree and promptly went back to sleep.

IMG_7425Ferruginous Duck x Pochard hybrid – mostly asleep under the fallen tree

Ferruginous Duck is very common in captivity. Birds routinely escape from wildfowl collections and it is always very difficult to say for certain where odd ducks in an apparently wild state have come from. However, turning up with a hybrid in tow arguably does not aid the credentials of this Ferruginous Duck!

While we were watching the ducks, a shout went up and we turned round to see a Barn Owl flying through the trees not far behind us. Even better it landed on an old tree stump where we could get fantastic close-up views of it. Always a delight to see, it perched for some time, looking round, before flying a short distance and landing again in a tree. It seemed to be performing for the crowd and for a while all the big lenses were trained on it, rather than the ducks.

IMG_7416-001Barn Owl – simply stunning!

When the Barn Owl eventually flew off, we made our way down to the north end of the lake, where more Tufted Ducks were out on the water in the more sheltered corner. In with them were the two 1st winter drake Scaup, their grey backs immediately distinguishing them from their commoner cousins. They were preening when we found them, but as soon as they finished they promptly went to sleep. It was obviously bedtime for all the ducks on the lake!

IMG_7435Scaup – one of the 1st winter drakes, preening before bedtime

We walked back along the side of the lake the way we had come and when we got back to where the Ferruginous Duck was we could see it was now awake and swimming out on the water. This was a much better view.

IMG_7451Ferruginous Duck – the female of uncertain origin still on the lake

Then we made our way back through the trees towards the gate. It was mostly rather quiet in here today, but we did hear a Goldcrest and see a Nuthatch in the top of an oak tree. We made a quick stop down on the coast road at Holkham, to scan the grazing marshes. There were a lot of White-fronted Geese out there today, at least 200, the most we have seen here for a while. Then we carried on our way west.

IMG_7479White-fronted Geese – at least 200 on the freshmarsh today

Our next stop was  at Brancaster Staithe. The tide was quiet high still and the water very choppy in the wind, but a quick scan located the Red-necked Grebe diving out in the channel. We got it in the scope and watched as it came a little closer, diving all the time.

IMG_7528Red-necked Grebe – still in the harbour at Brancaster Staithe

That was all nice and easy today, so we quickly turned our attention to the waders. There were several close Bar-tailed Godwits along the shoreline in front of us and a couple of Turnstones running around in the car park. Further over, more Turnstones and several Oystercatchers were picking over the piles of mussels left behind when the catch was brought in and sorted. Eventually, we retreated to the car out of the wind and as we drove out of the car park, we turned to see a group of Black-tailed Godwits feeding in one of the channels.

IMG_7504Bar-tailed Godwit – in the harbour at Brancaster Staithe

The day was getting on, but we had a quick swing round via Choseley before lunch. It was very windy and exposed now up on the ridge, and it was no real surprise that we couldn’t find a sign of any of the Rough-legged Buzzards in any of their favourite trees. In contrast, a couple of the local Common Buzzards were hanging in the air, enjoying the breeze.

After a quick late lunch at Titchwell, we walked out onto the reserve. We did not have time to explore the whole reserve today, so it was only going to be a swift visit, but we had a few particular things we wanted to try to see. In front of the visitor centre, there were lots of finches – Chaffinches, Greenfinches and Goldfinches – squabbling over the feeders. A single Lesser Redpoll did well to find a spare port on a feeder and fend off the others for a while. A Coal Tit zipped in, grabbed a seed, and disappeared back into the trees.

IMG_7537Lesser Redpoll – on the feeders in front of the visitor centre

Round at the feeders the other side, there was even more variety. A female Brambling was in the bushes behind and kept dropping down onto the feeders briefly, before flying back up. Further up above it, a male Brambling perched in the same bush briefly but promptly flew off. Then a second, even duller female Brambling appeared instead.

IMG_7569Brambling – a female, coming in to the feeders

A smart male Siskin flew in as well and took up position on one of the feeders. It was joined by one of the Bramblings on the other side, until a large Woodpigeon flew in and scared them off.

IMG_7577Siskin – with Brambling on the other side

Out on the main path, a quick scan revealed the Water Rail in its usual place in the ditch. It was out in full view today, rooting about in the rotting leaves on the far bank. Giving great views.

P1160957Water Rail – in the ditch by the main path

It was very windy out on the main path, once we got out of the trees. It was therefore perhaps no surprise to find the dried-up grazing marsh ‘pool’ was devoid of life, save for a single Lapwing. Even though the water level on the freshmarsh has risen a little, there are still not many birds on there at the moment. There were plenty of Teal and a few Gadwall over by the reeds and more Teal over in the deeper water at the back. In amongst them, we could see several Pintail.

P1170029Avocet – around 40 on the reserve at the moment

Around 40 Avocets were also over the back, a good number for this stage of the winter, along with several small ‘flings’ of Dunlin. There were more waders out on the Volunteer Marsh. A couple of Ringed Plovers were chased off relentlessly by the Grey Plovers. There were also lots of Redshank, plus a few Curlew and Black-tailed Godwits.

IMG_7596Ringed Plover – chased off by the Grey Plovers

The Tidal Pools have been very productive recently, but were rather quiet today, perhaps because of the blustery wind. The Pintail were all on the freshmarsh and there were few other duck. A single female Goldeneye was diving out in the far corner and only one Little Grebe came out of hiding today.

The tide was out on the beach and there were plenty of waders out around the shellfish beds. We really wanted to catch up with some seaduck today, but it was not really the weather for it, as the wind had whipped up a bit of swell. We found the flock of Common Scoter, but it was just too windy to see for sure if there was anything else in with them and they singularly refused to flap their wings or fly. Most of the Red-breasted Mergansers were over towards Brancaster, but a pair flew over us and down across the beach, landing just offshore, where we could get a better look at them. We decided to beat a retreat.

Back at the grazing meadow ‘pool’, all again seemed deserted at first, there were not even any Rock Pipits out there today. As we got to the gap in the reeds at the front, a shape moved on the edge of the small pool just beyond and a quick look confirmed it was a Water Pipit. We got it in the scope and had a good look at it, before it walked back out of view behind the reeds. It had found the one sheltered spot out of the wind – we were lucky that it happened to come out into the open as we were passing.

Beyond the rushes, out over the grazing meadow itself, the Barn Owl was already out hunting, despite the wind, flying back and forth over the grass. As we got back almost to the junction for the visitor centre, we could see it perched on a fence post. We had a quick look at it through the scope, but we had perhaps been a bit spoiled by the performance earlier as the level of interest was not as high this afternoon!

IMG_7611Barn Owl – our second of the day, at Titchwell

Time was really pressing now, as we had somewhere else we needed to be, but we had a quick swing round via Choseley just in case, which not surprisingly proved fruitless. Then we cut across country to Roydon Common. It was almost 4pm when we got there and there was nowhere to park – there were an unbelievable number of cars there this evening. We found somewhere we could get off the road and walked back to the car park. Several people were scanning from beside the cars and kindly confirmed the Pallid Harrier was already in and perched on a post. A quick look through a kind person’s scope there, and then we decided to make our way quickly out along the path to where we could get a closer look.

IMG_7630Pallid Harrier – perched on a post when we arrived

It was the right decision. We got a much better look at the Pallid Harrier from here, just in time before it took off and flew round, before turning and heading straight for us. It turned away and came round behind us, working along the fenceline on the ridge, dropping down to the ground before climbing back up with something in its talons. Whatever it was, it was not to its liking as it was promptly dropped again. It worked its way over towards the entrance track, hanging in the air for a while, before swinging away and dropping down out of view.

We waited a while and then noticed that the Pallid Harrier was back up again, flying around the trees. Finally it turned and came straight towards us, flying along the ridge just behind us. Great stuff! It dropped back down across the heather and landed again on the same perch it had been on earlier.

P1170071Pallid Harrier – fantastic flight views this evening

Over the next half an hour, we watched it flying round. The Hen Harriers were starting to gather now too, and we had 3-4 ringtails also circling out over the grass. It was fantastic to see the two species side by side, noting the small size and slim falcon-like wings of the Pallid Harrier. At one point we had a Hen Harrier on one post and the Pallid Harrier on another, only a short distance away. Then the Pallid Harrier did another circuit of the heath, coming towards us again, giving us a great flypast low over the grass just at the bottom of the heather bank in front of us. Cracking stuff! And with the light starting to fade, that seemed like the perfect point to call it a day. What a day it had been!