Monthly Archives: March 2016

12th March 2016 – Misty Brecks

A Private Tour today, down in the Brecks. It was a misty start, but it was meant to brighten up during the day, or at least that is what we had been told. We started at St Helens. It was a bit of a long shot, but with the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker having been seen a couple of times here in the last few weeks, it seemed like a good place to look first.

A Grey Wagtail was feeding down on the river, on an island of trapped vegetation around a fallen tree. We had a quick look at it in the scope. When it flew, we realised there were two of them, and then a third flew up from the bank too. We stood for a while by the footbridge and two of the Grey Wagtails kept coming back, the male landing a couple of times briefly on the handrail and even perching in the tree above our heads singing at one point.

We walked over the river into Suffolk. We could hear Siskins twittering in the trees above us, and several Redwings flew along the edge of the trees by the paddocks. We continued further on to get a better look at them, and realised there were actually quite a few down on the grass. The longer we stood there, the more came out of the trees, until there were at least 100 Redwings spread across the paddocks, feeding on the short grass. We were just trying to count them when a couple of Carrion Crows flew over calling loudly and all the Redwings fled back to the trees. We could hear them chattering away there, but they seemed reluctant to come out again. A Green Woodpecker called from the pines beyond, but there was no sign of any other woodpeckers here.

IMG_9740Redwing – a flock of at least 100 were in the paddocks

We headed back to the village and walked up towards the church. A Goldcrest was singing nearby and another was feeding in a small conifer by the path but the churchyard itself was rather quiet. It was still very misty, particularly so close to the river, and cold with no sign of the sun. A Great Spotted Woodpecker called as it flew overhead. Later, we could see three flying through the tops of the trees by the river and one perched up where we could see it.

We had been hanging on hoping to see some signs of the mist burning off before heading deeper into the forest, but in the end we decided to make our way over there anyway. The walk out along the ride was quiet, with dense commercial pine plantation either side. There was not much life around the clearing either at first. A Skylark was singing and a Common Buzzard dropped out of the trees and flew off over the tops.

We walked further along the track, but all we could see at first was a pair of Skylarks feeding quietly on the ground. We had a good look at them in the scope. Then we heard a Woodlark call and a pair flew in and landed on the fence ahead of us. One, presumably the female, quickly dropped down to the ground to feed while the male stayed on the fence where we could get a good better look at it.

IMG_9749Woodlark – one of a pair on the fence briefly

When the male Woodlark dropped down onto the ground too, we edged a little closer. We could see there were actually three Woodlarks together, feeding in and out of the furrows and in amongst the tree stumps and broken branches. A fourth flew in to join them and they split off into two pairs, eventually flying off in different directions. We could hear the male Woodlark singing as he flew, more mournful than the Skylark but still equally beautiful.

We waited a while in case a Goshawk might still appear, despite the mist which left a distinct chill in the air. However, the only bird to come up out of the trees was a female Sparrowhawk, which circled over the clearing, with bursts of rapid-fire wingbeats. It seemed unlikely that a Goshawk would be out here today, so we made our way back. As we drove back along the road, a line of Fallow Deer came running out of the trees and across the road, with two pure white ones bringing up the rear.

After an early lunch, we made our way round to Grime’s Graves. There has been a Great Grey Shrike around the area here on and off all winter, but it is very mobile and can be hard to track down at times. There had been no reports of it today, but we thought it was worth looking around its favoured clearings anyway. After we walked in through the trees, we stopped to scan the bushes and the first bird we set eyes on was the Great Grey Shrike, right on the very top of a quite tall young oak tree.

IMG_9764Great Grey Shrike – about the first bird we saw here this afternoon

It was a little distant at first. Then suddenly the Great Grey Shrike took off and started to fly towards us, before stopping and hovering high up, above treetop height, out over the grass. It hovered for several seconds before flying over and landing on the top of another tree, this one rather closer to us. We had a really good look at it in the scope – noting its hooked bill. There it remained for some time – in the end, we decided to move on and leave it where it was.

We wanted to get to Lynford Arboretum in good time – with the cool and misty weather, it seemed like the Hawfinches might go into roost quickly today. We stopped by the gate for a quick look at the feeders first. The fat balls have been restocked and there was a lot of seed on the ground again today. The tits were taking full advantage of all the food, with a steady stream of Great Tits, Blue Tits and Coal Tits. A Nuthatch kept dropping down to the ground as well. We had enough time for a quick chat with the owner of the house here, before continuing on down towards the bridge.

There was lots of food put out for the birds on the fence posts and brick pillars of the bridges as well today. Here too, a variety of birds kept flying in to feed. The photographers in the group were keen to get some photos of all the activity, but we hadn’t been standing here too long before we heard a Hawfinch calling from one of the trees in the paddocks, the closest one to us. We walked down to the path on the other side of the lake and scanned the tree, but we just couldn’t see it from where we were standing. Then it flew out towards the lake.

We thought the Hawfinch might fly off up to the arboretum, but instead we could hear it calling from the trees a little further along the path in front of us. We didn’t want to walk along, in case we flushed it, but after creeping forwards a little, we managed to find it sitting in the back of the alders. We got it in the scope – not the best view, but a Hawfinch at least. Then someone came walking along the path towards us from the other end, and it was off.

Again, we assumed it would fly away, but this time we could hear it calling again from behind us. A quick scan and we found it perched in the top of the trees back beyond the bridge. Finally, a Hawfinch was perched out in the open and we had a really good look at it through the scope as it sat ‘ticking’ away. Then it flew off towards the paddocks again.

IMG_9771Hawfinch – finally came out into the trees by the bridge

We walked round to the other side of the paddocks, just as a large group was leaving. They told us they had just seen six Hawfinches in the distant treetops behind the paddocks, but when we got there we could only see four of them. They dropped back out of view and it seemed like they might have gone off to roost early, until we heard one calling again in the paddocks. We were scanning the trees for it when there was a loud, deep ‘boom’, which reverberated around through the trees. The heavy artillery was starting up on the battle area! The birds all scattered and we just caught the back end of the Hawfinch as it dropped down into the pines.

After that, it seemed to go very quiet around the paddocks, bird-wise, even if we were treated to a succession of loud ‘booms’ of artillery fire, followed by the incessant rattle of machine guns. We walked back towards the bridge and resumed our attempts to photograph the birds coming down to feed there, which eventually seemed to recover from the shock and resume their normal activities. The tits were coming in from all directions – all the ones we had seen earlier, plus several Long-tailed Tits.

P1180706Long-tailed Tit – picking seeds from the top of a post

The Marsh Tits seemed a little shy here today, but one eventually could not resist the lure of the food and gave itself up for the cameras.

P1180737Marsh Tit – eventually showed very well

The stars of the show here were the Nuthatches, which kept coming in for more, before flying off into the wood to stash their food. A Treecreeper appeared in the trees by the bridge too.

P1180747Nuthatch – kept coming back for more

One of the group saw a flash of blue as a Kingfisher zipped round the island in the middle of the lake, so we decided to walk down that way along the path to investigate. There was no sign of the Kingfisher, but we were treated to great views of a Little Grebe diving out on the lake.

IMG_9801Little Grebe – diving for food on the lake

At this point, finally, the sun came out – only about 5-6 hours later than forecast! We were just thinking about making our way back to the car, when a last glance over at the trees way off  the distance beyond the paddocks revealed two plump blobs in the top of one of them. We were looking straight into the light now, but a quick look through the scope confirmed they were Hawfinches. Given they often like to perch up in the afternoon sun, and no one had anywhere they needed to be in a hurry, we made our way back round the paddocks once again.

By the time we got round to the end of the paddocks, there was no sign of them there any more at first. However, from the other side of the pines we didn’t have to wait long before one Hawfinch reappeared. With the afternoon sun behind us now, we had cracking views of it through the scope, a female. We admired its huge nutcracker of a bill.

IMG_9824Hawfinch – lovely views in the afternoon sunshine

It perched in the tops in the sunshine for some time, then we heard another Hawfinch calling and it flew over to join it. We had to reposition ourselves to see them – this time we could see a brighter coloured male too. When they flew again, we discovered there were actually three together now. They kept flying round between the treetops for a bit, but when they dropped down again out of view, we decided to call it a day and head for home. It was a great end to the day – watching the Hawfinches flying round and perching up in the sun.

 

8th March 2016 -Brecks Bonus

A Brecks Tour today. We started the morning at Lynford with a quick look round the arboretum.

The Nuthatches were piping away and the Goldcrests were singing as we walked down the path. A Green Woodpecker called from away in the trees. We stopped by the gate to have a look at the feeders. There was very little food left on the ground and the main feeders still look empty, but at least the fat balls had been restocked. The cage containing them was coated in tits – mainly Blue Tits and Great Tits. A few Coal Tits dropped down onto the ground to search for any remaining seed there and a Marsh Tit joined them briefly.

There was no sign of any Hawfinches here again, and it looks increasingly like they will not make any meaningful use of these trees this spring. The reasons as to why they have deserted this as a feeding site remain unclear. Consequently, we didn’t hang around here too long but made our way straight down towards the paddocks. This used to be the most regular feeding site for the Hawfinches in previous years, but had fallen out of favour. One or two Hawfinches have now taken to feeding in the paddocks regularly again, so we hoped to catch up with them this morning.

It was the right decision to head straight for the paddocks. As we walked down the hill towards the bridge, a Great Spotted Woodpecker flew over our heads and landed in the trees on the left of the path ahead of us. A second bird flew in behind it had landed in the top of a tree – a Hawfinch. We got it in the scope and had a good look at it, as it perched there. We could hear it calling, a soft, sharp ‘ticking’.

IMG_9472Hawfinch – our first of the day, on the way to the paddocks

One of the group had gone to make use of the ‘facilities’ behind us, but still emerged in time to see the Hawfinch through the scope, before it flew on ahead of us. It appeared to be heading for the paddocks, so we made our way swiftly along there. There was another birder there already but he had not seen any sign of it. Presumably it had dropped into the trees without him noticing.

We waited a short while to see if it might fly back up into the trees again, but there was no further sign while we were there. There is no way to see the Hawfinches when they are feeding on the ground here, so it was probably down there already. Still, there were lots of other things to see here. A couple of Song Thrushes were singing from the trees. A Mistle Thrush and a couple of Redwings perched in the tops as well, before dropping down into the grass to feed.

Several Jays flew out of the trees, calling noisily. The Kestrel was on the wires again, showing off for the cameras. It kept dropping down into the grass, but we didn’t see it catch anything while we were there.

IMG_9478Kestrel – perched on the wires over the paddocks as usual

We had an appointment deeper in the Forest and with the sun starting to poke through the early morning cloud and a bit of warmth in the air, we decided to move on. A Siskin was singing from the trees by the entrance to the arboretum and we couldn’t resist stopping to listen to it for a few seconds. It appeared on the edge of one of the bare deciduous trees where we could get it in the scope, and watch it singing away, a rapid jumble of trills and twittering. It is the time of year when birds in the Forest are getting down to the business of the breeding season already.

IMG_9503Siskin – singing away at the entrance to the arboretum

We drove on deeper into the Forest and parked up at the start of one of the forestry rides. The walk in through the trees was fairly quiet, the dense blocks of commercial pine plantation can be fairly lifeless places at times. A Muntjac walked out onto the track ahead, and looked at us nervously before slipping back into the dense, dark block of trees from which it had just emerged. A few Coal Tits called from the trees along the edge and we heard a Treecreeper as well but couldn’t see it.

We emerged into a large clearing and were immediately greeted by the sound of Woodlarks singing. We could see one perched on a post on the deer fence ahead of us. As we went to get the scope onto it, a second Woodlark appeared on the wire next to it. The two of them perched with crests raised and tails fanned, showing off their white tail tips nicely. The reason soon became clear, when a third Woodlark flew up from the ground below and one of the birds from the fence had a quick tussle with it before it could land on the fence.

IMG_9543Woodlark – one of several which perched up on the deer fence

It soon became clear there were several Woodlarks along the fenceline. Another pair flew in from across the clearing. At one point there seemed to be about six birds in a small area. We decided to walk over for a closer look.

Unfortunately, as we walked round the clearing to the fence, a band of darker cloud came over and any trace of the earlier sunshine was lost. The Woodlarks went quiet and there was no sign of them along the fenceline by the time we got round there. A pair of Stonechats appeared on the fence instead, before disappearing out over the clearing.

We had come here particularly to look for Goshawks, though an early shout of ‘raptor’ over the trees at the back of the clearing produced our first Common Buzzard of the day instead. It was when we looked over that way in response to that call, that we spotted a small pale bird sitting right on the top of a small pine tree. It could only be one thing, the way it was perched there, and a quick look through the scope confirmed we had just found a Great Grey Shrike.

IMG_9529Great Grey Shrike – a ‘new’ bird, deep in the Forest

Regular readers will know that there has been a very mobile Great Grey Shrike in the area around Grime’s Graves for most of the winter. However, we were a long way from there today, and it seemed highly unlikely that bird would have come all this distance, despite its wandering habits. The question was answered unequivocally when a report came through that the Great Grey Shrike was still present at Grime’s Graves at the same time that we were watching ‘our’ bird. So, we had found another Great Grey Shrike – a real bonus for the day.

Great Grey Shrikes are regular winter visitors to the UK from Scandinavia and further east in rather small numbers. The wintering population in the UK is estimated at just 60 birds, although the number varies from year to year. It is likely that many go undetected and our bird may have been hunting around the deserted clearings deep in the Forest for much of the winter, without being found before.It was a great bird to stumble across like this, and we watched it for some time, mostly perched motionless on the top of the small fir trees, scanning the ground below for suitable prey. Then, as quickly as it had appeared, our Great Grey Shrike slipped away unseen.

With the darker clouds above us, it turned noticeably colder again and there were even some spits of light rain, so the activity of the Common Buzzards tailed off. One of them perched in the top of a tall pine where we could get it in the scope, but the others disappeared into the trees. We waited a while in the hope that a Goshawk might still put in an appearance, but it seemed unlikely that they would be dislpaying now. It seemed like our luck had run dry after the shrike, so we decided to make our way back towards the car.

In typical fashion, the sky had started to brighten up a little just after we had set off. We were half way back when we stopped by a small clearing to wait for a couple of the group to catch up. There is normally a pair of Woodlarks here, so we had just started to scan the area when we noticed a large raptor appear above the trees behind. Silvery grey above and strikingly white below as it turned, it was a big female Goshawk.

GoshawkGoshawk – here’s one taken in the same area recently

We shouted to the others and watched as the Goshawk circled up slowly, before turning and starting a bit of half-hearted display, flying across with exaggerated, deep wingbeats and white undertail coverts puffed out. It disappeared behind the trees again, but we could still see it from time to time between the tops as it headed off in the direction we had just come.

While we were watching the Goshawk disappear, we heard a Yellowhammer singing in the distance and following the sound could see a bright yellow bird perched right in the top of one of the fir trees left standing in the middle of the clearing. The pair of Woodlarks flew across as well and dropped down into the grass.

After an early lunch at Santon Downham, we had a walk up to the churchyard. This is often a good place for Firecrest, though it is still perhaps a little early for them to start singing in earnest. Our attempts to hear them were also thwarted by a steady succession of F-15 aircraft heading in to land at nearby USAF Lakenheath, flying in low over our heads and firing up their engines as they did so – not particularly conducive to hearing the quiet notes of crests in the trees! We did manage to find a couple of Goldcrests flycatching in the tree tops and just about hear a Marsh Tit singing.

Back down at the river bridge, another Marsh Tit perched in a low alder nearby, giving us a great view. We walked downstream along the side of the river in the hope of possibly catching a woodpecker or two, but early afternoon is not the best time to look for them and the best we could manage was a Green Woodpecker which flew across the river. The trees were pretty quiet, apart from several Siskins. A couple of Redpoll flew over calling. A Treecreeper worked its way ahead of us between the trees beside the path.

There was not much activity on the river either today – a couple of Mute Swans and several pairs of Mallard – plus a few noisy Canada and Greylag Geese on the bank the other side. However, the highlight was a Kingfisher which flew ahead of us on the walk out, giving us brief glimpses through the trees as it perched or flew along. On the way back, we did even better and had good views of it through the scope as it perched in the low branches overhanging the edge of the water.

KingfisherKingfisher – along the river at Santon Downham

We finished the afternoon off back at Lynford Arboretum. Again, we headed straight down towards the paddocks, stopping only briefly by the feeders where a family of Long-tailed Tits and a Nuthatch now seemed to have found the refilled fat balls. We didn’t stop long at the bridge either, although with lots of food spread on the wooden posts and brick pillars there were now lots more birds coming down here.

We just had time for a quick look through the trees in the paddocks, where there were still several Song Thrushes. About a dozen Redwings flew in and landed in the tops before dropping down into the grass. Then a scan of the trees beyond revealed a Hawfinch perched right in the tops. It was a bit distant from here, so we walked further along, to where we could get a better view.

IMG_9603Hawfinch – in the tops of the trees

Although we were a lot closer from here, the Hawfinch seemed to be interested in something the other side of it and spent most of its time looking the other way. When it finally turned round, we could see it appeared to be a female. While we were looking at it through the scope, a quick scan of the tops revealed another Hawfinch, further back in a gap through the trees. This one was perched side on, a much better view if more distant, and another female.

IMG_9630Hawfinch – a brighter male, the female hiding below him in the tree

We were just lining up to try to get a photo when two more birds flew in and ousted this Hawfinch from its perch. They settled down in the top of the same tree and we could see a male Hawfinch up towards the top and a female lower down in among the branches – presumably a new pair had flown in to join the first two. We had a good look at the male Hawfinch in the scope – noting his brighter colouration, more contrasting black mask and bib and particularly the club-shaped inner primaries.

On the walk back, we stopped by the bridge to look at the birds coming down to the food put out there. We got great views of Marsh Tits coming down to the brick pillars right in front of us, and had a chance to look at the differences from the Coal Tits close up. A Treecreeper flew into the tree beside us and worked its way up several of the trunks in turn before flying off into the wood. A male Reed Bunting appeared on the edge of the trees as well – obviously hoping to take advantage of all the seed put out here.

We walked back to the car park to find we had managed to acquire a puncture, probably just as we drove in – a shard of flint sticking out of the edge of the tyre. The person parked next to us returned a little later and told how they had driven into the car park after us to hear all the air hissing out. Not a perfect way to end, but it had been a really good day in the Brecks with a great selection of the local speciality birds and the added bonus of finding a Great Grey Shrike!

 

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.

5th March 2016 – Early Rain Didn’t Stop Play

A Brecks Tour today. Unfortunately, the weather forecast had deteriorated through the latter part of the week and the Met Office predictions took another turn for the worse late yesterday evening. There were warnings for ice overnight, rain, sleet and snow all day, plague, pestilence, the end of the world was nigh, etc. Some of the tour participants were understandably getting concerned. However, as we have seen particularly in recent weeks, the Met Office is frequently very wrong.

A closer look at the fine details revealed a lot of uncertainty in the forecast concerning the timing and pace of progression of the weather front heading our way. The forecast had it moving steadily east and then stopping over East Anglia, which always looked rather unlikely – but who are we to argue with a multi-million pound forecasting supercomputer! With our reassurances that it was worth going out anyway, as we can see birds in any weather, and a chink of improvement in the forecast again overnight, we met up in the morning at Lynford arboretum.

It was damp and spitting with rain on arrival (although no sign of the overnight ice we were promised). As we walked down the path into the arboretum, we could hear a Nuthatch piping from the trees. A Goldcrest was singing and a pair of Siskins was zooming around the treetops. Both Song Thrush and Mistle Thrush were singing too, great to hear both.

We made our way to the gate to have a look at the feeders. There was still no sign that they have been refilled since our last visit, but there was quite a lot of seed spread on the ground today. Lots of birds were taking advantage of it, particularly the tits. A steady stream of Coal Tits flew down in front of us. A Marsh Tit kept darting in further back, grabbing a seed before making a quick getaway for the safety of the trees. It was nice to see the two species together and look at the key differences between them. A Nuthatch also made frequent forays down to the seed and nuts.

NuthatchNuthatch – a recent photo taken on the feeders

There were a few Chaffinches on the ground too, but no sign of any Hawfinches here again. They have not been seen under the trees here with any frequency this year – perhaps they are finding more food elsewhere or they have been put off by increased netting and ringing activity here. We decided to have a walk round the rest of the arboretum to see if we could find any of them there. A Treecreeper worked its way up one of the trees right in front before flying on ahead of us. We watched it scaling a couple of trees, before flying back down to the base of the next one along.

Then it started to rain. We made our way quickly back to the entrance and found a shelter to stand under, hoping that it would pass. While we stood there, we talked a little about the history of the Breckland and Thetford Forest, and the origins of Lynford Arboretum. It was at this point that the two of the participants who had been concerned by the weather forecast last night decided that it wasn’t for them – an understandable decision, under the circumstances. The rest of the group decided to carry on and try to make the best of it.

It wasn’t long before the rain seemed to ease, so we had another go at walking round the arboretum, but almost immediately it started raining harder again. We decided that a change of plan was in order. We made our way quickly back to the car and headed over to Lakenheath Fen. We were only half way there when we drove out from under the darker clouds and the rain stopped. Having warmed up and dried out in the car, we thought we should  make the most of the improvement to walk straight out to the Washland viewpoint to see what we could see.

The river level was very high and had flooded over onto the washes either side. Lots of ducks had spilled out across the river and took off as we walked up onto the bank – Wigeon, Gadwall, Teal, Mallard, Shoveler and Tufted Duck. We had a look at them through the scope as they landed over on Hockwold Washes, the drakes looking very smart at this time of the year. A pair of Great Crested Grebes resplendent in summer plumage were sailing along the river.

Three or four pipits also flew up from the flooded vegetation in front of us calling and when they landed we could see they were Water Pipits. Unfortunately, they just wouldn’t stay still long enough for everyone to get a look at them through the scope, and kept scuttling out of view into the edge of the wet reeds.

There are a couple of Great White Egrets around the reserve at the moment, but they are not always along the river. The first egret we saw was much smaller – hunched up in on the bank on the edge of the river channel, a Little Egret. However, when we turned to look back along the river towards the road, a much larger white bird flew up briefly. When it landed again, we got it in the scope and could see its long, dagger-like yellow bill – one of the Great White Egrets. A stroke of luck to find it here today.

We started to make our way along the bank for a closer view, but before we had gone very far the Great White Egret took off again. This time it flew right across in front of us, over Hockwold Washes and landed behind the reeds on the other side. We had great flight views as it passed us by.

P1170875Great White Egret – along the river from the Washland Viewpoint

Looking back from where it had come, we could see why it had flown. A narrowboat was making its way along the river towards us, flushing everything as it went. The Great White Egret flew again, away over towards the reserve this time. The Water Pipits all scattered and the remaining ducks fled over to the back of the Washes too. The bonus was four Snipe which it flushed too as it came past.

With most of the birds having flown off, we decided to make our way back to the visitor centre for the hot drinks which we had promised ourselves on the drive over. While we were enjoying those, we spent some time watching the feeders outside the windows. There were lots of Reed Buntings as usual and we had a closer look at the differences between males and females.

P1170871Reed Bunting – there were lots around the feeders

There were plenty of Goldfinches, Chaffinches and a Greenfinch or two as well. A pair of Siskin dropped in to feed on the bird table, allowing us great close-up views from the warmth of the visitor centre through the window. An interesting looking tit darted in quickly – probably just a Marsh Tit, though appearing rather richly coloured and thick-necked – but unfortunately we just got a glimpse of it and it didn’t return while we were there.

P1170923Siskins & Goldfinch – on the bird table from the visitor centre

With the weather still dry, and having warmed up nicely now, we decided to head back out to the forest and resume our plan for the day. There has been a Great Grey Shrike around the area for the winter, but it is very mobile and can be hard to find. We decided to chance our luck at one of its favoured sites on our way back. We walked down along the path to the edge of the clearing and found a spot from where we could scan the bushes. Half obscured from where we were standing, through the vegetation, we could see a grey shape on the top of a small hawthorn. We repositioned ourselves so we could get a clear view across and there was the Great Grey Shrike.

We had a great look at the Great Grey Shrike through the scope, looking strikingly pale from a distance, with silvery grey upperparts and bright white below, but with contrasting black wings and a black bandit mask. It flew across between bushes a couple of times, generally landing on the top or another good vantage point from which it could scan the ground below for prey – often beetles here, but also small mammals or even small birds if they are available.

IMG_9251Great Grey Shrike – back in its favoured clearing today

While we were standing there, we could hear a Woodlark singing. It flew towards us over the trees, fluttering its broad wings and came straight over our heads. We could see the very short tail. The Woodlark’s song has a sad and mournful quality to it, though every bit as beautiful as the more joyful Skylark which started singing a few moments later. The Woodlark flew back away over the trees. So, having enjoyed good views of the Great Grey Shrike, we decided to try another site to find a Woodlark on the ground.

As we walked out along the forest track, all seemed quiet at first, but then a Woodlark starting singing. It flew across the path in front of us and then appeared to land further along. As we walked further, it suddenly flew up again and over our heads singing, before landing on the short grass just behind us. We got it in the scope and had a goo look at it, noting the pale supercilia joining in a shallow ‘v’ on the back of the neck, before a walker coming towards us along the path flushed it again. Having enjoyed the Woodlark’s songflight earlier, it was great to see one on the ground too.

WoodlarkWoodlark – a recent photo taken in the forest

After a break for a late lunch, we decided to return to Lynford Arboretum to have a good go at catching up with a Hawfinch. We didn’t linger long by the feeders this time, but headed straight down towards the paddocks. Someone had sprinkled lots of food – crumbs, nuts and seeds – on the posts and pillars of the bridge and lots of birds were coming in to feed, including several Siskins and several Marsh Tits. Again, we didn’t hang around too long, just in case.

It was a good think we didn’t. We had just arrived at the paddocks and started to scan the trees in the middle for any signs of activity when we noticed a shape in the very top of one of the pine trees behind. We got it in the scope and confirmed our suspicions – a Hawfinch. We all got a good look at it before it dropped down out of view.

HawfinchHawfinch – here’s one from the other day in the same place

As it was still relatively early, we thought a Hawfinch might drop back down into the paddocks, so we waited a while there. There was lots more activity around the trees in front of us. A couple of Jays perched up enjoying the afternoon sun – for there were even some breaks in the cloud this afternoon, despite the Met Office’s direst predictions.

IMG_9257Jay – enjoying the afternoon sun!

There were also lots of thrushes on offer. A Song Thrush was singing from the top of one of the ash trees, so we had a good look at that in the scope. Then a Mistle Thrush appeared in the top of one of the other trees for a convenient comparison. A sharp-eyed member of the group spotted a little group of thrushes over the other side of the paddocks and in with the Blackbirds and Song Thrushes a single Redwing perched preening in the sunshine.

IMG_9295Mistle Thrush – in the top of one of the trees in the paddocks

There is often a Kestrel around the paddocks too, and today she spent the time hunting from the telegraph wires which cross the paddocks, dropping down periodically to the grass below.

IMG_9292Kestrel – hunting from the wires across the paddocks

There was still no more sign of any more Hawfinches, so we had a walk round to check the tops of the trees on the sunny side, which was more sheltered from the wind. Nothing there, so we decided to head back. We scanned the tops of the trees as we walked, but it was only when we got almost back to the bridge that we noticed a large bird in the tops of the pines. A quick look through the scope confirmed it was another Hawfinch before it too dropped down out of view.

We made a quick tour of the arboretum, getting a good look at a singing Goldcrest in the process. We then finished off with a quick visit to the old gravel pits the other side of the car park. No sign of the Goosander there today, but we did see a little group of five Goldeneye, two pairs of Great Crested Grebe and a single Oystercatcher on the tern platform. A Kingfisher flashed across the water, unfortunately too quickly for most of the group to get onto it. Then it was time to call it a day.

Despite the early inclement weather and the best efforts of the Met Office to put us off, we had actually enjoyed a very successful day’s birding – with good views of Great Grey Shrike, Hawfinch, Woodlark and Great White Egret, to name but a few highlights, as well as an excellent supporting cast of woodland and wetland birds.

It just goes to show two things:

  1. It is always worth coming out birding, whatever the weather forecast; and
  2. Never trust the Met Office’s best predictions!

3rd March 2016 -Back to North Norfolk

A Private Tour today, in North Norfolk. As a journey east along the coast had already been made earlier in the week, we decided to head west. It was a lovely bright, clear, sunny morning – a perfect day to be out birding.

A request was made to look for Shore Larks. None of the regular wintering birds had been seen for a week, but they have gone missing and then reappeared before, so it was worth a look at least. And Burnham Overy is a great place to walk, with lots of other things to see on the way. We parked at Overy Staithe and could hear the plaintive calls of Grey Plovers as we got out of the car. Two were on the mud in the harbour, looking resplendent in the sunshine, along with several Ringed Plovers. Nearby, in the harbour channel, were a pair of Red-breasted Mergansers.

IMG_8963Red-breasted Merganser – a pair were in the harbour channel

There were lots more waders along the edges of the channel as we walked out along the seawall. As well as more Ringed Plovers and Grey Plovers, there were lots of Redshanks, chasing each other round now and calling, plus a handful of Dunlin. A flock of dark, blackish-brown Turnstones wheeled round landed on the sandbank and in amongst them a very pale silvery grey wader was a single Sanderling.

IMG_9134Grey Plover – there were plenty along the edges of the harbour channel

There are normally a few godwits here too, but there was no sign of any out on the mud this morning. Predictably, the Black-tailed Godwits were out on the wet grass the other side of the seawall, feeding in amongst the flocks of Wigeon and Brent Geese. Several of them are now just starting to get their first brighter orange feathers of summer plumage. More surprisingly, the Bar-tailed Godwits were out on the grass as well today – they normally prefer the salty mud. It had rained hard overnight and there were actually lots of waders around the pools and puddles – lots of Curlew, a big flock of Dunlin and a single Ruff – which were all spooked repeatedly and whirled round in the sky before landing back down.

The Brent Geese were commuting between the harbour channel, the reedbed pool and the grazing marshes. A large group of them settled quite close to the seawall, so we stopped for a quick scan through them. It didn’t take long to find the Black Brant x Dark-bellied Brent hybrid in with them. Even looking into the sun, we could see that it was sporting a much more obvious, more solid white flank patch and bolder white collar than the regular Dark-bellied Brent Geese. Up close, through the scope, we could see that its back and belly were subtly darker than the others, but not black enough to be a pure Black Brant. This bird has been returning to the same fields here every winter for several years now and can normally be found in with the Brent flocks here, a pitfall for the unwary.

IMG_8974Black Brant hybrid – in with the regular wintering Dark-bellied Brents

Further out towards the dunes, we could see a Red Kite circling lazily. It flushed the large flock of Golden Plovers lurking out in the grass and they whirled round, catching the sun and flashing alternately dark and white as they turned. The Red Kite landed and we could see there was a second bird already down on the ground. A third Red Kite was flying along the dunes to the west, out towards Gun Hill. The sunny weather was presumably getting the raptors out.

As we got out through the dunes to the beach, we stopped for a quick scan of the sea. A couple of Great Crested Grebes were already coming into summer plumage, but the Red-throated Diver was not, still very white-faced in its winter garb. A couple more Red-throated Divers flew past distantly. The beach was looking stunning in the early spring sunshine and, even better, as we turned to make our way west we had it all to ourselves at first – a magical place to be.

P1170726Burnham Overy – we had the beach to ourselves at first

As we walked along the beach, we could hear Pink-footed Geese calling from out towards the saltmarsh and a skein of about 150 birds appeared in the sky from behind the dunes. The numbers of Pink-footed Geese have already dropped substantially, with the peak here for the winter normally between November and early February. Many have already departed on their way further north, where they will stop off to feed up before continuing on to Iceland for the summer. These birds seemed to be on their way, taking advantage of the weather, as they flew out over Scolt Head Island towards the sea.

P1170730Pink-footed Geese – on their way back towards Iceland after the winter

There were quite a few waders up on the top of the beach, roosting around the high tide line. Several Ringed Plovers and Sanderlings flew off down towards the shore as we walked along. Then we noticed a couple of smaller birds picking around the piles of dead seaweed and saltmarsh vegetation ahead of us and a quick look confirmed they were Snow Buntings.

We edged our way towards them so we could get a better look. Snow Buntings can be remarkably tame if approached with care and not startled and these were no exception. We eventually found six of them today, four together here and another two further along. As we stood quietly, they made their way quietly right towards us. Great birds!

IMG_9051

IMG_9096

IMG_9129Snow Buntings – six were on the beach today

We watched the Snow Buntings feeding along the edge of the dunes for some time. Eeventually we had to tear ourselves away, as some dog walkers were approaching behind us and we wanted to explore the rest of the beach before it got disturbed. Despite being first out along the beach, there was no sign of the Shore Larks here again today. They were getting moved about constantly by dogs and people last time we saw them, so perhaps it is no surprise they have chosen somewhere quieter to feed or moved on already. Out in the harbour channel from beyond Gun Hill we could see several more Red-breasted Mergansers and a single Goldeneye. A flock of waders roosting on the mud beyond was mostly Grey Plovers and Dunlins but with a couple of Knot in there too.

On the walk back, there were even more raptors up than there had been on the way out. As well as several Red Kites still, there were numerous Marsh Harriers and Common Buzzards circling in the clear blue sky. In the harbour channel, normal service was resumed as the Bar-tailed Godwits flew back out onto the mud. A Mediterranean Gull flew over calling, and we managed to pick it out high in the sky, flashing its pure white wing tips as it circled.

We made a brief stop at Brancaster Staithe on our way past, as we continued on our way west. As usual, there was a good selection of waders around the harbour. Several Bar-tailed Godwits were feeding along the waters edge and a single Black-tailed Godwit was on the mud nearby. Turnstones were running around the car park between the cars. More surprising was a single Common Snipe in one of the muddy channels. Further over, towards Scolt Head, three more Red Kites were spiralling up on the edge of the water. We often get a movement of Red Kites along the coast on warm days in the spring, and it seemed like this was happening today.

IMG_9143Siskin – managed to find a place on the busy feeders

After lunch at Titchwell, we walked out onto the reserve. The feeders around the visitor centre were packed with finches, as usual. A couple of Siskin managed to find a space on the feeders in front, amongst all the Chaffinches, Greenfinches and Goldfinches. Round on the other side of the visitor centre, a female Brambling was hiding in the tree above the feeders there, before dropping down briefly grabbing a seed and disappearing back into the bushes to eat it.

The Water Rail was in its usual place in the ditch beside the main path. It was slightly hidden from view at first, lurking under the overhanging vegetation at the back, but gradually worked up the courage to come out into view, digging around in the damp rotting leaves. A Song Thrush flew down and started feeding nearby too.

P1170760Water Rail – in its usual ditch

There were lots of pipits and quite a few Pied Wagtails around the still dried-up grazing meadow ‘pool’ today. Most of the pipits were Rock Pipits, oily green above and dirty below, so we had a good look at a couple of those first. Then we found a single cleaner, whiter Water Pipit towards the back. We got it in the scope and had three different pipits together at one point, as well as Water and Rock, a single Meadow Pipit walked into the same view as well!

While we were admiring the pipits, we could hear a Kingfisher calling from the reeds right in front of us. It was a devil of a job to see at first, although it perched up in a tangle where we could just get onto it through the swaying reeds in front. Eventually, it flew out of the reeds, across the path and perched up in full view in a bush on the edge of the main reedbed briefly, before flying away down one of the channels.

P1170802Kingfisher – hiding in the reeds

There was a bit more activity on the reedbed pool today. As well as the regular Greylag Geese and Coot, there was a small group of Tufted Ducks at the back and a single female Common Pochard diving in front of them. Three Red-crested Pochards swam out from behind the reeds, the two drakes now looking particularly replendent with their bright orange punk haircuts and coral red bills. A single Great Crested Grebe in smart summer plumage swam out from the reeds as well.

Out on the freshmarsh, the water level is still very low and the management work is now underway. One of the islands is being fenced in to protect the breeding Avocets from mammalian predators, having not raised a successful brood here for the last two years. With all the disturbance, there was still a remarkable number of birds on here, although much quieter than normal. As well as a smattering of ducks, mainly Teal and Gadwall, there were big flocks of Golden Plover and Dunlin out on the exposed mud.

Given all the disturbance, we moved swiftly on to look at the Volunteer Marsh. As well as lots of Redshank, Curlew and Shelduck plus several Grey Plover and a couple of Ringed Plovers, much as usual, a couple of Black-tailed Godwit were feeding in the channel right by the path. It was great to see them up close. A little further along, three Avocets were doing the same.

P1170836Black-tailed Godwit – starting to show a few orange summer feathers

Out on the Tidal Pools, there were several Bar-tailed Godwits and we spent a little time looking at the differences between the two species. At one point, we even managed to get Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwit in the same view together, providing a really  good opportunity to compare them. There was also a nice close Knot, dumpy and grey, a much better view than the ones we had seen distantly earlier. Further along, there were not as many ducks on the pools today, just a couple of female Pintail and a single Goldeneye.

IMG_9172Bar-tailed Godwit – several were on the Tidal Pools

The tide was still quite high out on the beach. A quick scan of the sea revealed four Common Scoters fairly close inshore so we got those in the scope first to have a good look at them. Further out, a long slick of black on the sea revealed itself to be several hundred more Common Scoters diving offshore for shellfish. There were lots of Great Crested Grebes still out on the water, but mostly a long way out given the fairly calm conditions today, but no sign of any other grebes off here today.

On the walk back, we spotted a Barn Owl hunting distantly over the back of the reedbed by the east bank. It perched on the top of a post for a few seconds so we could get it in the scope. Further along, another distant Barn Owl appeared, way over towards Thornham village. It was only when we were almost back to the visitor centre that we found a closer Barn Owl – there is usually one hunting over the grazing meadow here late in the day. It did a quick circuit of the grass, dropping down to the ground at one point, before landing on one of the fence posts.

IMG_9181Barn Owl – hunting over the grazing meadow as usual

It had clouded over by this stage, late in the afternoon, but we had enjoyed such fabulous weather for most of the day, so we couldn’t complain. We wanted to make a quick circuit round the back of Titchwell to look for Rough-legged Buzzards, hoping that they might be out hunting here. The birds which have spent much of the winter around Choseley had not been reported for almost a week now, but one had been seen over the reserve earlier in the morning. When something has not been reported for a day or two, people often stop looking, so we reasoned they may still be in the area.

As we drove up past the drying barns,we stopped to scan the fields. There are always lots of Brown Hares here, but at this time of day they were all busy feeding rather than boxing. While we were looking at one, the head of a Grey Partridge appeared out of the winter wheat behind it – we could see its orange face. There was no shortage of black and white-faced Red-legged Partridges up here too, the lucky ones which have managed to survive the shooting season.

We swung round onto Chalkpit Lane and stopped to scan the trees where the Rough-legged Buzzards had liked to perch through the winter. Bingo! There was a Rough-legged Buzzard! We hopped out of the car and got it in the scope quickly, noting its very pale whitish head and contrasting blackish belly patch. Then it dropped out of the hedge and flew low across the field and over the road in front of us. We could see its very white tail with a clear black terminal band as it swooped down at something in the field. It flew along the hedge for some way, before disappearing over the other side and out of view. Fantastic stuff, a great way to end the day.

Rough-legged Buzzard Choseley 2016-01-06_1Rough-legged Buzzard – here’s one from earlier in the winter

There was still one surprise in store for us. As we drove up along Chalkpit Lane towards the main road, we could see a funny shape in the middle of the road in front of us. It was not dissimilar in size to a partridge, but was clearly the wrong shape. As we got closer we could see it was a Woodcock! We slowed down and it walked up into the verge as we pulled up right alongside. It was clearly rather surprised, because it stood in the grass for several seconds only a metre or so from the car. Stunning. Then it came to its senses and flew up and over the hedge.

We headed for home, with another Barn Owl on the way back rounding things off nicely.