7th March 2016 -Snow Business

A Private Tour today, in North Norfolk. It was snowing on the way down to the rendezvous point at Titchwell Manor hotel, and that set the scene for the morning’s weather at least. We decided to make our way east and do some birding from the car while we waited for the worst of the snow and sleet to pass through.

We stopped at Brancaster Staithe first. The harbour is normally full of waders, but it was rather quiet today, not helped by the poor visibility due to the snow. We could see a few Bar-tailed Godwits over the other side. A little group of Teal were paddling round in the mud and a pair of Wigeon were doing the same further along. Presumably most of the birds had found somewhere to shelter from the weather and there was no sign of the Red-necked Grebe. We had to come back this way later, so we reasoned we would have another go when the weather had hopefully improved.

P1170925Brancaster Staithe – poor visibility in the snow

Our next stop was at Holkham. We couldn’t even see across to the freshmarsh from the road at first, so we drove down to Lady Anne’s Drive to see if there were any geese in the fields there. There weren’t, but we did see lots of Wigeon, Redshank, Dunlin and Oystercatcher around the floods out on the grass.

It seemed to be brightening up at one point, so we drove back to have another go looking out at the freshmarsh. At least this time we could see across to the pines! It stopped sleeting briefly, so we got out to scan the grazing marshes. We just managed to see a group of White-fronted Geese down on the grass and a handful of Pink-footed Geese fly past before the sleet started falling again.

Thankfully, that was probably the low point in the weather. As we drove along towards Wells, we could see that the sky was getting brighter to the north. By the time we got there, the sleet was starting to abate again. We didn’t even have to get out of the car to find the Shag, resident here for the winter but by no means always present, sleeping on the pontoons in the harbour. It helpfully woke up and had a preen as we drove up and got the camera out.

P1170996Shag – back in Wells Harbour again

There were also a few Brent Geese out in the harbour channel further out. A couple of Ringed Plover were running around on the sandbank. A Little Grebe was diving out in the water in the middle. With a window of better weather presenting itself, we decided to make our way over to Blakeney. The surprise of the day was a Kingfisher battling to fly over the main road just east of Wells. We wondered what it was from a distance – it was hanging in the air about 20 feet up over the middle of the road. When we got closer, we could see it was struggling to make any progress against the wind before it gave up and flew back over the hedge.

When we got to Blakeney, it had stopped sleeting and there was even a small patch of blue sky away to the north, heading our way. It was still a cold walk out along the seawall in the biting cold NW wind. We had not even got to the gate before we could see several small birds flying around down below us, including at least one Lapland Bunting. As we got to the corner, four Lapland Buntings flew up from the grass by the fence and landed again just beyond the gate, so we quickened our pace and made our way over there.

IMG_9349Lapland Bunting – kept returning to the grass to look for seeds

We spent the next 45 minutes or so watching the Lapland Buntings come and go. Someone has now put seed down for them in the grass and on the path, and they kept returning to a patch of grass just out from the gate. We got some stunning views of them through the scopes, at times they were too close!

IMG_9328Lapland Bunting – almost too close at times!

Once the blue sky made it overhead, it was not so bad with the sun on our faces and the wind at our backs. There were other things to see here too – Rock Pipits, Reed Buntings and Skylarks on the ground. A selection of waders out in the harbour behind us – Dunlin, Knot, Grey Plover, Curlew.

There were still dark clouds passing either side of us, but despite the fact that we were still in the clear we started to make our way back. A pair of Stonechats flew ahead of us, working their way along the fence beside the path.

P1180061Stonechat – male and…

P1180020Stonechat – female, working their way along the fence by the path

We had a drive around Cley next. There was a nice flock of Brent Geese in the fields beside the Beach Road. We stopped to look through them, but could only find Dark-bellied Brents in the group today.

Down at the beach, we tucked ourselves in the shelter as a brief squally shower came in off the sea and had a quick scan of the water. There was not a lot happening offshore today but we did manage to find a nice selection of different birds passing by – a few Gannets, a single Kittiwake, a lone Common Scoter. There were some distant Red-throated Divers on the water, though they were hard to pick up in the choppy swell, and a few others were more easily seen as they flew past. We just had a quick look at the sea and then, as the weather improved again, we moved on.

We made our way along past the reserve as far as the Iron Road, scanning the grazing marshes to see if we could see any more geese, or anything else, but it was very quiet along here today. Presumably the birds had gone somewhere more sheltered. So we headed back to the visitor centre for lunch.

Afterwards, we started to make our way back west. Our first stop was at Holkham again. This time, conditions were much improved and we got significantly better views of the White-fronted Geese this time. There were still 150-200 here today, no sign of numbers having dropped significantly yet, although they were hard to count accurately with many hidden from our view behind the hedge.

IMG_9363White-fronted Geese – still 150-200 at Holkham today

In contrast, numbers of Pink-footed Geese have declined substantially from their mid-winter peak. Eventually, we found four out on the grass. There were also lots of raptors out enjoying the improvement in the weather – several Marsh Harriers hanging in the air and a Red Kite flew leisurely down from the Park towards the pines, where another was already circling. A Barn Owl disappeared behind the hedge before everyone could get onto it.

Back at Brancaster Staithe, we picked up the Red-necked Grebe immediately this time and got a really good look at it in the scope. It is still in dull winter plumage, with no sign of its eponymous red neck appearing yet, but a very smart bird nonetheless.

IMG_9442Red-necked Grebe – no red neck yet!

The tide was coming in fast now and the Red-necked Grebe was swimming hard to try to stop itself being swept in along the harbour channel. It was joined in its endeavours by a Goldeneye – we had the two of them in the scope together at one point, before the latter gave up and swam upstream. A drake Red-breasted Merganser just swam straight in past us.

IMG_9389Red-necked Grebe & Goldeneye – swimming against the tide together

There were more waders here now, too. The Bar-tailed Godwits were back feeding in the mud along the edge of the car park. Some Turnstones had rejoined the Oystercatchers on the pile of discarded mussles, while others were cadging crumbs from the cars. A couple of Dunlin were following the tide in as well.

IMG_9399Bar-tailed Godwits – back around the car park this afternoon

It had been fairly bright up until now, but another dark cloud swept in off the sea towards us, so we packed up and moved on. We had hoped to find the Rough-legged Buzzard this afternoon, but it felt like we might have missed the best weather window now. We drove inland from Brancaster, scanning some of its favoured hedges and trees, but it wasn’t here so we headed round to try Chalkpit Lane instead.

There were loads of Brown Hares in the fields here, over 20 together in one spot, although they were all hunkered down against the weather rather than chasing each other round and boxing today. There is no shortage of Red-legged Partridge here – lots of them have obviously evaded the guns – but a pair of Grey Partridge which ran out from the verge right beside the car was a nice bonus. There are good numbers of them still here, but they can be elusive at times.

P1180063Grey Partridge – a pair ran out into the field from the verge

There were a few of the local Common Buzzards out now. Having probably been confined to quarters this morning in the snow, they were making the most of the improved conditions. Our hopes were up that the Rough-legged Buzzard might be doing the same. As we drove along Chalkpit Lane, we picked up a shape disappearing over the ridge towards the coast. From up on the top, we could see the Rough-legged Buzzard hanging in the wind halfway down the slope towards the sea between us and Brancaster.

It spent some time hovering, circling round  and hovering again. As it caught the sun, we got a great view of its bright white tail with sharply defined black terminal band. Then it turned headed back inland, carried quickly along by the wind. We could see it land in one of its favoured trees over towards the Brancaster road, so we made our way back round there. It gave us the run around for the next few minutes – it wasn’t in the tree when we got round there, but was back hovering over the fields to the north. Back at Chalkpit Lane, it was not hovering there any more, but had flown back to the tree again. When we got up onto the ridge to look for it there, it had flown off once more.

Then we spotted the Rough-legged Buzzard again, hanging in the air away to the south of us, catching the sun. It hovered and circled a couple of times, before flying towards us, landing in a tree although half obscured. Then it flew towards us again and did a lovely flypast – we could see the very pale, whitish head contrasting with the large blackish-brown belly patch. Great stuff!

IMG_9458Rough-legged Buzzard – over the fields at Choseley

We had a last drive round the fields via the drying barns at Choseley. There were lots more Brown Hares and Red-legged Partridges. The hedges below the barns were full of Chaffinches and the cover strip the other side of the hedge held a large flock of Goldfinches, but we couldn’t find anything else here.

Our last target for the day was a Barn Owl. No sooner had we reached the main road again than we found one hunting over the field the other side. We found a convenient gateway and stood watching it as it made its way back and forth over the grass. It dropped down a couple of times and the second time took a while to come up again – when it did, it was pursued by a Kestrel, the two birds talon grappling at one point. Kestrels will happily steal food from a Barn Owl, but we couldn’t see if it succeeded in getting something this time. The Barn Owl promptly ducked back through the hedge and moved off to hunt further over.

P1180146Barn Owl – hunting by the coast road

That was a great way to finish, and it was just a short journey back to Titchwell Manor to end the day. Once again, the weather hadn’t ruined a great day out on the coast.

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