8th May 2016 – Migrants in the Dunes

Day 3 of a long weekend of tours today. It was yet another scorcher, with temperatures inland reaching almost 25C, but a little cooler on the coast in a welcome light easterly breeze.

Our first stop was at Holkham. As soon as we stopped the car we could see Spoonbills in the trees. We got out and set up the scope to look at them. They were mostly standing around in the branches, preening, or flying round in front of the trees. There were lots of Little Egrets and Cormorants there too, and a Grey Heron. A few Marsh Harrier were flying round over the grazing marshes, one pursued by an irate Lapwing and an angry  Oystercatcher, taking turns to dive bomb it. We didn’t stay too long here today though, as we wanted to get out into the dunes, before it got too hot.

The hedges on the way out were a little quieter than of late. Some of the warblers seem to have tempered their singing already. We did have a Chiffchaff and several Common Whitethroat. Further out, along the banks of the reedy ditches, the Sedge Warblers at least were still going full out. A Reed Warbler was clambering around in the brambles at first, before flying across to the reeds and starting to sing.

6O0A2179Sedge Warbler – still plenty singing on the walk out

There were plenty of other birds too. A Song Thrush was still in full voice, but we couldn’t see it. Skylarks and Meadow Pipits were singing. A Goldfinch perched in the brambles by the path looking resplendent in the morning sun.

6O0A2224Goldfinch – one of our most beautiful birds

Out on the grazing marshes, we could see lots of Greylag Geese and Egyptian Geese, and a few Gadwall and a pair of Shoveler. There were Lapwings, Oystercatchers and Redshank out in the grass or around the pools. A lone Curlew flew past.

From up on the seawall, we could see that the tide was still well in. A couple of Common Terns and three or four Little Terns were fishing in the harbour channel. The Alexanders along the sides of the seawall was alive with St Mark’s Flies and as we walked along, a Willow Warbler which had been feeding in there flew off along the path in front of us, presumably a migrant on its way further north.

Out at the boardwalk, we turned east into the dunes. We hadn’t gone much further when a Ring Ouzel and a Wheatear flushed from a dune slack ahead of us. The Ring Ouzel disappeared behind the bushes, but the female Wheatear stayed out in full view. We moved round the dunes and eventually got ourselves in a position where we could watch the Ring Ouzel feeding on the short grass. It was a rather dull female too, with a poorly marked pale gorget, but an interesting bird to see nonetheless. Then someone appeared over the dune behind and it flew off.

6O0A2197Ring Ouzel – a rather poorly marked female

A little further on and we dropped down into a large open area in the dunes. There were more Wheatears here and we stopped to get a better look at them. Again, they seemed to be mostly females at first.

IMG_4090Wheatear – there were quite a few females in the dunes today

While we were trying to get a better view of one of the female Wheatears, we heard an unusual song from the dunes behind us. We turned to see a strikingly pale male Wheatear singing. There are two subspecies of Wheatear which we get here. The paler birds of the nominate race, the more southerly breeders, tend to pass through here much earlier. By this time of year, we mostly see Greenland Wheatears (of the subspecies leucorhoa), the males of which have more richly coloured underparts.

IMG_4099Wheatear – this strikingly pale male was singing in the dunes

It seemed that this pale male was a rather late nominate Wheatear. He was singing to one of the females in particular and seemed to be trying to entice her into a nearby rabbit hole at one point! Even better, a very richly coloured male Greenland Wheatear then appeared nearby as well. It had a very deep orangey breast, slightly paler on the belly but still well coloured, and darker, dirtier upperparts. It was a real treat to see the two subspecies of Wheatear nearby like this.

We carried on through the dunes and eventually found the Whinchat which we had been told about on a bramble bush by the fence. There were quite a few walkers in the dunes today and it was flushed before we could get to it. But thankfully it then perched up nicely on a bush in the comparative safety of the other side of the fence. A male Stonechat appeared in the bushes too briefly on our way over there.

IMG_4104Whinchat – a female on the less disturbed side of the fence

We stood for a while up in the dunes just before the west end of the pines. It is a lovely view from here on a sunny day like today, and that would normally be reason enough to stand here, but we could also hear a Cuckoo calling. At first it remained hidden in the bushes, but eventually it hopped up briefly into the tops before flying off towards the pines.

A quick walk round the bushes at the end of the pines didn’t produce anything of note today, although we did hear both Siskin and Redpoll flying out from the trees over the dunes, presumably migrants still on their way. A Mistle Thrush flew up from the grass and landed in the top of a pine.

We were aiming to get back in good time for lunch, but there were a few distractions on the way. First we stopped to get a better look at the Ring Ouzel, which was out on the grass again. Then, from out on the seawall, we stood for a while and watched a couple of pairs of Lapwing displaying over the grazing marshes. They are such stunning birds, particularly when displaying on those big rounded wings, that we couldn’t just walk past.

6O0A2202Lapwings – displaying over the grazing marsh

A little further along, we could see several Brent Geese out on the saltmarsh, now that the tide had gone out. Almost immediately, we picked out one which was half a shade darker in the body and with a much more obvious white flank patch and white collar. This was the regular Black Brant hybrid which spends the winter here. Nearby, the colour-ringed Dark-bellied Brent Goose was also still present. Many have already gone and there seemed to be fewer again today, but presumably all the Brent Geese should soon be departing, on their way to Russia for the breeding season.

IMG_4126Black Brant hybrid – still lingering out on the saltmarsh

One of the group picked up a Whimbrel, out on the saltmarsh. We just got it in the scope before it dropped down into a muddy channel out of view. Another Whimbrel was feeding out on the mud a little further along. A smart male Linnet was singing from the Suaeda bushes just below the seawall and drew some admiring glances.. and camera lenses! Then back at the reedbed we could hear the Bittern booming again now.

6O0A2214Linnet – a smart male on the edge of the saltmarsh

We eventually got back in time for a lateish lunch round at Holkham. With participants keen to make a swift getaway at the end of the day, we didn’t have a lot of time left once we had finished eating. It was decided to have a quick look at Stiffkey Fen, rather than go back to one of the reserves we had already visited.

A male Marsh Harrier was circling distantly over the fields and a female appeared briefly over the reeds. A couple of Common Buzzards circled up too, over the woods beyond. As we walked down through the trees, we could hear Chiffchaff and Blackcap singing.

The Fen itself looked rather quiet today. A careful scan of the margins from up on the seawall did pick up at least two Common Sandpipers. A pair of Shelduck were shepherding their brood of ten shelducklings around the edge of the water. A Whimbrel appeared briefly in the harbour for a bathe, but flew off as some people walked by from the other direction.

We stopped to listen to the warblers singing from the reedy channel below the seawall. A Sedge Warbler definitely won the noisy stakes, and was also more showy, perching up in the nettles at the top of the bank. We eventually got a Reed Warbler in the scope and got a great view of that too.

We walked round to the harbour and had a quick scan, but the tide was at its lowest now. There were still lots of Brent Geese out on the mud, and lots of gulls of various shapes and sizes. We could see a few waders in the distance, and a handful of terns too, but there was a bit too much haze in the heat of the afternoon. Time was getting on, so we started to make our way back.

6O0A2243Speckled Wood – several were seen on the way to/from the Fen

There were a few butterflies out in the sunshine. We saw several Speckled Woods on the walk to and from the Fen. A couple of Orange Tips were flying round on the bank of the seawall. Out towards the harbour a Wall, being chased round by a Small Tortoiseshell, was the first we have seen this year. We had also seen Small Copper and a few Holly Blues at Burnham Overy this morning, plus a couple of dayflying moths there – our first Cinnabar of the year, and a couple of Yellow Belles.

We were almost back to the car when we noticed the male Marsh Harrier again, circling up beyond the trees. He is a particularly smart bird, quite pale underneath and with lovely silvery grey wings with black tips. This time he drifted towards us, giving us a fantastic look, before flying right over our heads and away across the field beyond. It was a great way to end the three days, so we packed up and headed for home.

6O0A2263Marsh Harrier – came right over our heads just as we were leaving

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