Monthly Archives: November 2016

20th Nov 2016 – A Week in Early Winter

As the migration season comes to an end, the delights of winter birding in Norfolk take over. Even in the winter, the bird watching can be very exciting here. This week was certainly a good example of that.

Geese play a huge part in our winter here. The sight and sound of thousands of Pink-footed Geese flying in or out of their roost sites at dawn and dusk, or feeding in the fields during the day, is one of the real spectacles of the season in Norfolk. The flocks of Pink-footed Geese sometimes act as carriers, bringing other scarce geese with them, or attractants, pulling in other species to feed alongside. Looking through the massed ranks of Pink-footed Geese can often reveal other birds in with them.

Tundra Bean Geese are one of the more frequent species to be mixed in with the Pinkfeet, regular visitors here in small numbers, we are on the western edge of their regular wintering range. Superficially similar to Pink-footed Goose, they are most easily distinguished by having orange legs and bill band, replacing the pink. There have been good numbers of Tundra Bean Geese here in the last week or so.

A party of five Bean Geese at Titchwell earlier in the week attracted more attention. Initially reported as Tundra Beans, not surprisingly given the number around at the moment, questions started to be raised about their identity. In particular, they appeared to have a lot of orange on the bill. Tundra Bean typically has a narrow orange band around the bill, but they can be very variable. Still, it would be unusual to find five Tundra Beans together with so much orange on their bills.

Taiga Bean Goose is a different subspecies, Anser fabalis fabalis compared to rossicus for Tundra. A group of Taiga Bean Geese have traditionally wintered in Norfolk, in the Yare Valley, but they are very rare away from this area. This is one of only two areas in the UK where Taiga Beans regularly winter, the other being in Scotland. They differ from Tundra in generally having more orange on their bills, as well as a structurally different bill shape. They also tend to bigger and longer-necked. Could the Titchwell Five be Taigas?

They were certainly intriguing birds to see in the field. The bill structure immediately looked wrong for Tundra Bean, being rather long, with a thin lower mandible and lacking a prominent ‘grinning patch’, more consistent with Taigas. The amount of orange on the bills was also more in line with that subspecies. They looked long-necked when alert, but perhaps otherwise lacked some of the structural features of Taiga and did not look much larger than the accompanying Pink-footed Geese (though looking at measurements, there is a surprising amount of overlap with Taiga Bean Goose).

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img_8639Taiga Bean Geese – these five, most likely this subpecies, were at Titchwell

So, Taiga Bean Goose seemed like the best fit for these geese, even if not perfect. However, on the continent, where they are much more common, it is accepted that there is quite a lot of overlap between the two subspecies and some are considered best left unidentified to form. They were certainly Bean Geese and interesting birds to look at.

Also with the Pink-footed Geese this week has been a Todd’s Canada Goose. It took quite a bit of tracking down though, as it wandered about between the fields with the roving flocks.

img_8682Todd’s Canada Goose – with the Pink-footed Geese in North Norfolk this week

There is a large feral population of introduced Canada Geese in the UK, the scourge of many an urban park! However, genuine wild vagrants from North America do occur from time to time, mixed in with flocks of other wild geese, such as Pinkfeet or Barnacles. There are generally considered to be 11 different subspecies of these ‘white-cheeked geese’, which are now most commonly divided into two separate species – Canada Goose and Cackling Goose. Several of these different subspecies have been suspected in the UK in the past.

Based on size and structure of this week’s Norfolk bird, the best fit would appear to be what is known as Todd’s Canada Goose. Some video of it is included below. Hopefully it will linger now with the Pinkfeet for much of the winter.

Both Whooper and Bewick’s Swans come to East Anglia in significant numbers for the winter, and we regularly see them on our Winter Tours. There are generally large herds of both species in the Fens, particularly around Welney in west Norfolk. A smaller mixed herd typically 100-200 strong over-winters in the Broads. Small groups or family parties can often be seen arriving in from the continent at this time of year.

On Friday, a family of eight Whooper Swans appeared at Cley. Like many fresh arrivals, they seemed to be looking for a place to rest after their long journey and were first to be found loafing on the pools off the East Bank, before flying across to Pat’s Pool late morning. Interestingly, what was presumably the same family group was seen flying west along the coast later that afternoon, presumably continuing their journey to the Fens after taking a break at Cley.

6o0a9600Whooper Swans – these two adults stopped off with their 6 juvs to rest at Cley

Shore Larks are also often a feature of winter here in Norfolk. They come here in varying numbers from Scandinavia each year. After a few comparatively lean years for them, this winter is looking like an exceptional one. A flock of over 70 was being recorded regularly at Holkham – an amazing sight – but the numbers here seem to have declined somewhat in recent days. It is a very popular spot for dog walkers and it is possible they were getting rather too disturbed.

This week, a smaller group of about twenty Shore Larks has been along the shingle ridge at Salthouse. They are stunning birds, with their bright yellow faces, particularly in the winter sunshine. They should hopefully stay along the coast now for the rest of the winter.

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6o0a9440Shore Larks – it is a proving to be a good winter for this species here in Norfolk

Snow Buntings are also a regular feature of winter along the coast here. Some good sized flocks have now started to build up at favoured sites and they are now being seen regularly. Interestingly we get a mixture of two different subspecies of Snow Bunting here each winter, mixing together freely in the flocks – nominate nivalis from Scandinavia and insulae from Iceland. The two subspecies look rather different and can be separated in the field with practice.

Snow Buntings are great birds, full of character, ekeing out a living through the winter on the beaches. They can also be very confiding at times – great for photography!

6o0a9832Snow Bunting – a smart male Scandinavian nivalis

6o0a9811Snow Bunting – a duller female Icelandic insulae

It is also possible to find Lapland Buntings here during the winter. There were a few this week along the coast sometimes with the Shore Larks. However, at the moment they are tending to be mobile and more often heard and seen in flight. Hopefully as winter progresses, we will have some of them settled, as we have done for the last couple of years.

Less expected things can also still turn up from time to time. Spoonbills breed in Norfolk, but most leave here in autumn and head somewhere milder for the winter. An unseasonal juvenile Spoonbill spent the day at Cley on Saturday. It is not unknown for them to overwinter here, so perhaps this individual will remain along the coast.

6o0a9892-001Spoonbill – this juvenile spent the day at Cley on Saturday

There is still scope yet for 2016 to spring a bigger surprise or two. Saturday saw the discovery of a Forster’s Tern on the Stour Estuary, along the Essex / Suffolk border so a quick trip down to see it was necessary on Sunday. Forster’s Tern is a North American species, breeding across the USA into southern Canada and wintering along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts south to the Caribbean and northern Central America. It is a very occasional visitor here, with 20 previous records in Britain and more in Ireland. Records from the east coast are very unusual, with one previous record from Essex back in 1998.

Forster’s Tern in winter has a very distinctive black ‘bandit mask’, which could be clearly seen as the bird flew back and forth along the Stour Estuary in front of a grateful crowd. This bird is a 1st winter, so was born in North America during the summer and presumably got blown across the Atlantic on its way south for the winter. Several previous Forster’s Terns have stayed here through the winter before, so hopefully this one might do the same.

forsters-tern-mistley-2016-11-20_1Forster’s Tern – from North America, currently on the Stour Estuary

On the way back, we stopped off at Needham Market in Suffolk to see the Black-bellied Dipper which has taken up residence on the River Gipping. It took a little finding, but thanks to some excellent directions from one of the local young birders, we were able to locate it feeding along a mill stream.

Dippers breed fairly commonly in the UK, but are normally restricted to fast flowing rivers and streams in the north and west. They also occur as occasional winter visitors from the continent, when they can sometimes be found on lowland watercourses in East Anglia. The British birds have a distinctive chestnut belly, below the diagnostic white bib, but the belly of most of the continental visitors is all or largely black, hence this subspecies is know generally as Black-bellied Dipper.

6o0a0370Black-bellied Dipper – a visitor from the continent, spending the winter in Suffolk

Black-bellied Dipper is another bird full of character. We watched it as it bobbed along beside the river, wading deep into the water and dipping its head repeatedly under to look for invertebrates in the shallows. A great bird and a great way to round off an exciting week!

If you would like to come and enjoy the delights of winter birding in Norfolk or East Anglia, please get in contact.

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13th Nov 2016 – Autumn Meets Winter, Day 3

Day 3 of a 3 day long weekend of Early Winter tours today, our last day. It was a lovely day, dawning sunny and clear and remaining so through most of the day. A great day to be out on the coast.

We met in Wells. As we got into the car, a Red Kite circled lazily over the harbour, flushing all the Brent Geese which were feeding out on the saltmarsh. On our way west along the coast road, we stopped to look at some geese in a winter wheat field. As well as a large number of Greylags, there were also several Pink-footed Geese, smaller and with a darker head and bill, plus a couple of Egyptian Geese and a family of Brent Geese.

6o0a8685Red Kite – circled over Wells Harbour this morning

Titchwell was our destination for the morning. The overflow car park was still quiet, so we decided to have a quick look to see what was in there. A couple of Bramblings were calling wheezily from the bushes, but flew off as we tried to walk round to see them. Two Greenfinch flew out of the hedge as well. Round at the visitor centre, we found one Brambling which was on the feeders briefly before dropping down to feed on the ground below. A Chaffinch nearby was suffering badly from the papilloma virus, with its legs and feet covered in growths.

As we walked out onto the reserve, we stopped to scan the Thornham grazing marsh. There was a large flock of Pink-footed Geese loafing down in the grass. Over at the back we spotted two Common Buzzards, one on a fencepost and one on the top of a large hawthorn, enjoying the morning sun. A male Stonechat was perching in the tops of the tall vegetation at the front, periodically dropping down to the ground.

As we walked up to the dried up ‘pool’ on the Thornham side, a Marsh Harrier was quartering over the reeds. A Grey Heron was standing in the sunshine in front of the reeds in the far corner. A Water Rail called from deep in the reeds down at the front, sounding a little like a squealing pig.

Scanning the mud, we picked up a Water Pipit on the edge of the vegetation right at the back. Its white underparts really stood out in the morning light. While we were watching it, two more Water Pipits flew in calling. One landed out in the open, much closer to us, and we got it in the scope briefly before it flew down to the front behind the reeds. As well as the whiter ground colour to the underparts, we could see the more obvious pale supercilium than the Rock Pipit we had been watching on Friday. A little further on, a Chinese Water Deer was feeding out on the saltmarsh.

With the high water levels on the freshmarsh at the moment, we were intending to walk straight past Island Hide but as we were alongside we heard another Water Rail down in the vegetation near the bridge. As we walked down towards the hide to look for it, it scurried out under the trees and disappeared into the reeds beyond. We could still hear it calling further back and with our best Water Rail impression, we were able to coax it back towards us and out onto the mud in amongst the sallow roots. Another two Water Rails then started duetting in the vegetation just beyond. While we were trying to see the Water Rail, we could hear Bearded Tits calling from out in the main reedbed.

We stopped on the bank just past Island Hide to scan the freshmarsh. The ducks seem to appreciate the high water levels. There were lots of Teal, mostly asleep but a few were feeding just below us. The adult drakes are now mostly out of eclipse and looking very smart again. A few Wigeon were grazing on the bits of the islands that weren’t under water. In amongst them, we could see a few Gadwall and Mallard and a little group of Shoveler were swimming around further back. Little groups of Brent Geese kept flying in and out from the saltmarsh.

6o0a8748Teal – there are lots on the freshmarsh

There are not so many waders on here now. Most of the Avocets have left for milder climes, but nine were still here today, sleeping in a little huddle. There are more Ruff, with a good number still around the remaining islands. It was hard to know how many Dunlin there were, as they were scattered around and running in and out of the taller vegetation. In with them, we found a single Ringed Plover. A small flock of Golden Plover flew in, whirled round over the water and flew off again inland.

img_8500Avocets – still nine on the freshmarsh today

There were not so many gulls on the freshmarsh on the walk out this morning. We did quickly locate a single adult Yellow-legged Gull. It was sitting on the water, so we couldn’t see its yellow legs, but we could see its darker grey mantle and relatively unstreaked white head.

img_8508Yellow-legged Gull – this adult was loafing around on the freshmarsh all day

Outside Parrinder hide, we stopped to talk to a couple of locals who were standing with their scopes pointed back along the edge of the freshmarsh. It turned out that a Jack Snipe had been seen earlier but had disappeared some time ago in towards the bank, behind the reeds. Our timing was spot on because, while we were talking to them, someone spotted it come back out onto the island.

We watched the Jack Snipe through the scope for a few minutes while it worked its way back along the edge of the island. Unusually, it wasn’t bouncing much today – the distinctive feeding Jack Snipe action. Then suddenly and for no apparent reason it flew off, over the main path, and dropped down out of view onto the saltmarsh beyond. There were also two Common Snipe asleep on the island, so we had a look at those too, noting in particular the pale central crown stripe which Jack Snipe lacks.

img_8517Jack Snipe – feeding on the island from Parrinder Hide

From inside Parrinder Hide, we could see two more Common Snipe feeding along the bank out of the right hand side. The reeds have been cut back here, giving them fewer places to hide and they were much closer than the ones we had just been looking at. They gave great views as they probed in the wet grass along the edge of the freshmarsh.

6o0a8708Common Snipe – two were feeding just outside Parrinder Hide

While we were watching the Common Snipe, we happened to look a little further back along the water’s edge and noticed a Water Pipit working its way towards us. It was picking around in the cut reeds.We hadn’t seen or heard it fly in, and apparently one had been here earlier, so it is possible this was a different bird to the three we had seen on the Thornham grazing marsh pool. It certainly seemed more heavily marked below than the two we had managed to get in the scope.

This was an even better view than the closer Water Pipit we had seen earlier, on our walk out. It looked like it might come all the way to the hide at one point, but turned and started to work its way back away from us again.

img_8545Water Pipit – possibly our fourth today, from Parrinder Hide

There didn’t look to be a lot on the Volunteer Marsh, so we started out to walk towards the beach. As we were back on the main path, we stopped to look at a single Black-tailed Godwit on the mud. Just at that moment, all the waders scattered, flying off in different directions. We looked up to see a stunning adult Peregrine which flew across the path right in front of us. The light was perfect and we could see all the plumage details,but unfortunately cameras were not at the ready! It dropped away over the saltmarsh and turned, powering low out towards the beach.

As we walked towards the tidal pools, we could hear a Kingfisher calling. When we got over the bank, a quick scan back along the bushes revealed it perched distantly in the far corner. Still we had a look at it through the scope, shining bright blue in the morning sun. There are always Little Grebes on here during the winter, and today was no exception. We counted seven, with two diving just below the main path. Two female Pintail were upending out in the middle.

6o0a8738Little Grebe – one of the seven we counted on the tidal pools

Out at the beach, the tide was out. As we arrived, all the waders on the mussel beds were flushed by people walking along the shoreline. There were lots of Oystercatchers, several Grey Plover and a good sized flock of Knot. They landed again a little further over towards Brancaster. Once we had walked down the beach a little, they started to drift back again. We picked up several godwits, both Bar-tailed Godwit and Black-tailed Godwit. A few silvery grey Sanderlings were running up and down on the edge of the sea.

There were several small parties of Common Scoter on the sea, the majority of them pale-cheeked brown females. A single adult drake was closer in, just behind the breakers, and we had a good look at it in the scope. We could even see the yellow stripe down the front of its bill. A Guillemot was diving in the surf too and a couple of Great Crested Grebes drifted past. A single Red-breasted Merganser flew across and a distant juvenile Gannet made its way slowly east.

Back at the tidal pools, the Kingfisher had come much closer. It was perched in the vegetation on the edge of the small island nearest the beach, a much better view than we had on the walk out. There were also a few more waders roosting on the spit, including a Black-tailed Godwit and a Bar-tailed Godwit side by side, giving us a great opportunity to compare the two species.

img_8610Kingfisher – gave better views on the tidal pools on the walk back

After lunch back at the car, we drove over to Holme. A quick chat with one of the wardens who happened to be driving past suggested there may still be a Waxwing present (there had been several here earlier in the week). We had a walk round behind the paddocks but there was no sign of it. Several Blackbirds and Redwings were enjoying the hawthorn berries though, and a few Greenfinches. A couple of Mistle Thrushes landed briefly before flying off over the saltmarsh.

Coming back along Broadwater Road, we took a little detour out towards Redwell Marsh. Several skeins of Pink-footed Geese appeared to come up from the grazing marshes to the east and flew off towards the Wash. We could hear a flock of Long-tailed Tits in the bushes down by the river, and looked up to see a late Chiffchaff flitting around in the trees.

6o0a8750Pink-footed Geese – flying off towards the Wash

Our final stop of the day was at Thornham Harbour. We had hoped to catch up with some Twite here, but they seem to be rather elusive at the moment and there was no sign of them. As we walked out along the seawall towards Holme, we did have four Lapland Buntings which flew over calling.

As we walked up towards the boardwalk overlooking Broadwater, we could hear more Water Rails squealing. A young Sparrowhawk sent a flock of Starlings scattering, before landing on a fence post. A covey of Grey Partridge exploded from the edge of the saltmarsh as we passed. On the Broadwater itself, there were lots of Gadwall and Coot, along with three Tufted Ducks.

As we walked back, the tide was coming in fast. There were loads of gulls gathered out on the mud, being pushed in by the rising water. We could hear Greenshanks calling and eventually spotted them when they were forced out from where they were hiding on the saltmarsh and flew up and down looking for somewhere dry to land.

Tomorrow night is full moon, and it is also going to be a ‘supermoon’. More properly known as perigee-syzygy, this is when the full moon is at its closest point to the Earth, and it appears bigger and brighter than normal. Tonight was almost a full moon and only a fraction smaller (the closest approach is actually at 11.23am tomorrow morning!).

It was a fairly clear evening, so we were treated to a stunning ‘supermoon’ rise as we got back to the car. Flocks of Pink-footed Geese flying across the saltmarsh in front of us, calling, only added to the atmosphere. It was a great way to end our three days birding.

6o0a8784-001Supermoon – rising over Thornham Harbour

 

12th Nov 2016 – Autumn Meets Winter, Day 2

Day 2 of a 3 day long weekend of Early Winter tours today. After glorious sunshine yesterday, the weather forecast for today was not so good. Although it did rain at times, it wasn’t quite as bad as forecast and we did have some drier spells. Even so, it doesn’t stop us from getting out birding.

Given the forecast, we started the day in the hides at Cley. Pat’s Pool looked rather empty from Bishop Hide – perhaps a raptor had just been through and flushed a lot of the birds? There were a few Wigeon scattered round the edges and a bigger group of Teal on the island in front of the Teal Hide. A single Lapwing and a Dunlin flew back in and landed on one of the nearer islands, next to a little huddle of Black-headed Gulls.

We had arranged to meet part of the group here, off the bus, so having collected them on our way back, we made our way out towards the main complex of hides. Along the Skirts, a male Stonechat flew along the path ahead of us and sat on a fence post, watching us for a minute or so, before flying a little further back. As we continued on our way, it always stayed a discrete distance ahead of us until we got to the junction in the path.

6o0a8549Stonechat – this male was along the Skirts path this morning

As we opened the shutters on Dauke’s Hide, a small group of Wigeon were on the bank just in front. There were more duck out on Simmond’s Scrape, a nice selection. Several Shoveler were whirling round with their heads constantly down in the water. A lot more Teal were sleeping on the flooded islands. A few Gadwall were feeding over towards the back – one of the smartest but the most underrated of ducks, we had a good look at them in the scope. A single Pintail flew over and disappeared off to the east.

6o0a8552Wigeon – these three were on the bank in front of Dauke’s Hide

Probably avoiding the weather out on the sea, there were several Great Black-backed Gulls on Simmond’s Scrape this morning, a mixture of adults and various ages of immature birds. A single Lesser Black-backed Gull was conveniently standing on one tiny island, next to a lone Great Black-backed Gull, providing a great side-by-side comparison. As well its noticeably smaller size, we could see the yellow legs of the Lesser (pink on the Great) and its slightly paler slate grey mantle.

We could hear a pipit calling, but despite searching round the margins of the scrape, we couldn’t see it. We did see two pipits come up from Billy’s Wash, calling. They were Water Pipits but, despite flying towards us at one point, they circled back round and landed out of view on Billy’s Wash again. When the rain eased off, we decided to make our way back. We could hear Bearded Tits calling by the boardwalk, but they were tucked deep down in the reeds this morning, perhaps not a surprise given the weather.

6o0a8587Egyptian Goose – a pair were on the grazing marsh next to Attenborough’s Walk

Our next destination was Iron Road, where we parked to walk out to Babcock Hide. It had stopped raining completely now and even seemed to have brightened up a little. There was a large gaggle of Greylag Geese on the grazing marshes by the start of Attenborough’s Walk and, further along by the junction to the hide, a pair of Egyptian Geese too. Several small groups of Pink-footed Geese appeared to fly up from the direction of Salthouse. Some of them flew west over the fields to the south of us, while others seemed to head straight inland over the village.

Three Marsh Harriers flew up from Pope’s Marsh and started circling together over the reedbed, presumably taking advantage of the dry weather to head off hunting. Two of them drifted off east towards Salthouse.

As we walked out to the hide, we had seen a flock of about ten Dunlin whirling round over the water before disappearing off over the reeds towards Cley. When we got into the hide, there were thankfully still two Dunlin on the mud right in front. We had great close views of them feeding just in front of us. They were both first winter birds, having mostly completed their moult but still retaining a few juvenile upperpart feathers and the odd remnant of black belly spotting.

6o0a8573Dunlin – two were feeding right in front of Babcock Hide

A single Little Grebe was diving in the deeper water at the back, between the islands. Nearby, were a few Teal and a single Shoveler. When we looked back, the Little Grebe had disappeared but a single female Pintail had floated out from behind the islands. It was most likely the one we had seen flying off in this direction earlier. There were a few Wigeon on here too, but not as many as in recent weeks – presumably they were feeding somewhere more sheltered today.

There were not so many other waders on here today. A couple of Redshank were picking around the edge of one of the islands. A Common Snipe flew over and dropped down beyond the reeds. However, there was a steady progression of small groups of Lapwings flying west overhead, presumably birds arrived from the continent and making their way inland.

A report came through of three Bean Geese with Pink-footed Geese between Salthouse and Kelling, so we decided to head over to have a look. On our walk back to the car, one of the Marsh Harriers was circling over the marshes just the other side of Iron Road. Two Carrion Crows decided to have a go at it and the three birds chased each other for a while. When the crows gave up and landed a short distance away, the Marsh Harrier decided to get its own back and promptly stooped at them, before drifting off back past Babcock Hide.

6o0a8591Marsh Harrier – chased by Crows over the marshes by Iron Road

Unfortunately, by the time we got to the field where the Bean Geese had been, there was no sign of them. It transpired that they had only been seen there much earlier and had probably flown off with the Pink-footed Geese we had seen heading inland on our walk out to Babcock Hide. There were still about thirty Pink-footed Geese in the field so we had a look at them through the scope. In the short winter wheat, it was easy to see their pink legs and feet. Another small group flew in calling and landed with them, but they all had pink legs too.

As we drove back towards Cley again, it started to drizzle again, so we made our way round to the beach car park and had our lunch in the shelter there. While we were eating, a small flock of Golden Plover flew in over the Eye Field and circled over the grass in front of us, before flying back towards the reserve. Several little groups of Brent Geese flew in from the direction of Blakeney Freshes. We kept one eye on the sea, but there was very little moving offshore today. As we were packing up a flock of Teal flew west.

It was starting to rain a little harder now, so we retired to the visitor centre for a warming coffee. Afterwards, it seemed a good time to go exploring inland, so we drove up to Holt first. There had been some Waxwings in the trees here during the week, but we couldn’t find them today. There were just a few Blackbirds in the rowan where they had been a couple of days ago, despite there still being quite a few berries left. The trees where we had seen them last weekend, however, have now been stripped bare.

We drove further east to Felbrigg Park next. We had a look in the trees along the main drive first, but they were quiet. Down at the main car park, by the Hall, there were lots of Blackbirds on the grass. Presumably they were all or mostly continental migrants, having stopped to feed just in from the coast. A single Redwing was trying to bathe in a puddle, when the Blackbirds were not chasing after it.

6o0a8607Redwing – trying to take a bath in Felbrigg Hall car park

On our way back round, we turned into Lions Mouth. Just through the gates a load of finches flew up from the edge of the road and back into the trees, flashing white rumps as they went. Bramblings. We stopped the car and yet more flew up from down below the low brambles on the edge of the woods. We could see several of them perched in the holly trees beyond.

6o0a8625Bramblings – several perched in the holly trees

We parked in the car park and walked back to the road, standing on the verge and looking back towards the gates. Gradually, the Bramblings started to drop down again and we got them in the scope. They were dropping down to feed on beech mast and they were surprisingly well camouflaged against the fallen beech leaves, despite their bright orange breast and shoulders, particularly on the males.

It was still raining a little, so we made our way back to the car and drove down to Sheringham. By the time we got there, the rain had eased again, so we set off for a walk along the prom. There was mist offshore which meant the visibility wasn’t great, but once again there seemed to be nothing moving past. There were plenty of Herring Gulls on the sea and Great Black-backed Gulls and Cormorants adorning the end of each of the groynes.

As we walked along, we came across several Turnstones. One of them in particular was very tame and came running towards us and almost between our feet. Further along, we could see why, as people were throwing out chips for the Black -headed Gulls and the Turnstones were grabbing a share of the fallen ones too. The Turnstones had to be quick, because the Black-headed Gulls proceeded to chase a couple of them – they were fairly relentless too, pursuing them up and down along the beach and out over the sea until the Turnstones dropped their chips.

6o0a8633Turnstone – waiting for chips on the prom

The rocks below the prom are a regularly wintering site for Purple Sandpipers but there didn’t seem to be at any of their regular haunts this afternoon. We walked right along to the eastern end and, as we walked past, one Purple Sandpiper appeared below us. We watched as it climbed up and down, picking around at the seaweed growing on the rock’s surface. When a wave came in and crashed in through the bottom of the rocks, a second Purple Sandpiper appeared from below and climbed up to the top of one nearby.

6o0a8680Purple Sandpiper – two were on the rocks below the prom at Sheringham

When the first Purple Sandpiper appeared, we had just seen a distant diver on the sea and when we had had a good look at both of them, we turned our attention back to looking for it. It was obviously diving as it took a while before we picked it up again. Through the scope we confirmed our suspicions – it was a Great Northern Diver. Then it disappeared again, and despite scanning back and forth for a few minutes it was nowhere to be seen. It had probably drifted back out into the mist and the light was now starting to fade so we decided to call it a day and head for home.

11th Nov 2016 – Autumn Meets Winter, Day 1

Day 1 of a 3 day long weekend of tours today. The middle of November traditionally marks the time when autumn starts to merge into winter, at least as far as the migration season is concerned. However, there are sill birds on the move, arriving here for the winter, and there is still the odd lingering migrant yet to move on. It was a gloriously sunny day today, even warm at times, a perfect day to get out and see some of those birds.

We started at Burnham Overy Staithe. As we climbed up onto the seawall,a small bird flew past us and into the bushes below. It was a Chiffchaff. Presumably a late migrant, it seemed to be in a hurry to be on its way and disappeared off down the line of bushes in a series of long flights. A Common Buzzard perched in a large bush out on the grazing meadows, enjoying the morning sunshine.

img_8390Fieldfare – in the bushes by the seawall at Burnham Overy Staithe

There were lots of Blackbirds in the hawthorns below the seawall, presumably winter migrants arrived from the continent and stopped to refuel on berries. As we walked along, we heard first the tchacking of a Fieldfare, which we found perched in the top in the sunshine, and then the teezing of several Redwings, most of which were less obliging. A Song Thrush completed the set.

6o0a8480Redwing – several were also feeding in the bushes below the seawall

Looking out over the other side, in the harbour, we stopped to look through the waders. The tide was out, so there was lots of exposed mud. First we picked up a Grey Plover with a lone Ringed Plover over on the far bank. Then several more Ringed Plovers appeared, and started to bathe in the shallow water, with a Redshank conveniently close by for size comparison. A little further along, at the bend in the seawall, we could see a good sized flock of Dunlin out on the larger mudflats, feeding feverishly.

As we walked past, we flushed a Little Egret from the near edge of the harbour channel, and it flew out to the mud, flashing its yellow feet as it went. In the channel, we found four Little Grebes together. They proceeded to haul themselves out onto the far bank – always off to see Little Grebes on dry land, they look so ungainly.

6o0a8448Little Egret – with bright yellow feet

Several Rock Pipits had flown around calling, but typically dropped down out of view. Finally one dropped down in front of us and perched nicely on a pile of rocks, appropriately enough! Through the scope, we could see its plain, oily brown upperparts and the dirty ground colour to its black-streaked underparts. We get a lot of Scandinavian Rock Pipits, of the subspecies littoralis, coming to Norfolk for the winter, but we don’t have any British petrosus breeding here.

img_8392Rock Pipit – eventually one perched up nicely for us on a pile of rocks

There were lots of Wigeon out on the grazing marshes. As we stopped to have a look at them in the scope, we could hear them whistling – a real sound of winter on the marshes here. There were plenty of geese too. We were looking straight into the sun on the walk about but we could still see lots of Brent Geese, Pink-footed Geese and Greylags. In with them were 12 Barnacle Geese, presumably feral birds from Holkham Park.

As we passed the reedbed, we could hear Bearded Tits calling but, despite the lack of wind, they were not to be seen. A Cetti’s Warbler shouted at us, but was similarly elusive. At least the Reed Buntings were slightly easier to see. A Marsh Harrier perched in one of the bushes at the back of the reeds and another one or two flew backwards and forwards across the channel to and from the saltmarsh beyond.

There were lots of Starlings on the move today, little flocks passing west overhead constantly on the walk out. Some were not flying so directly as they sometimes do, instead taking advantage of the warm conditions to try to catch flies on the way. A small flock of Golden Plover flew over calling and dropped down on the grass by the dunes. When we got there, we got them in the scope and found a little covey of six Grey Partridges with them!

When we got to the dunes, we turned left and walked out towards Gun Hill. The Isabelline Wheatear was still present earlier in the morning – it has been here for three weeks now – but had not been seen for over an hour when we arrived. Could it have taken advantage of the sunny weather finally to continue its journey? We decided to have a walk round the dunes to see if we could find it.

There was no sign of it where it had been feeding for the past couple of weeks. From the northern edge of the dunes, we stopped to look out towards the sea. We could see lines of wildfowl flying in, migrants arriving for the winter. There were several groups of Brent Geese and a larger flock of Wigeon coming in. A line of around twenty Eider flying west over the sea was a nice bonus, particularly as it included a couple of smart drakes.

There were lots of waders down on the beach. There were plenty of Oystercatcher and a few Sanderling out on the sand. Down around the tidal channel, we found a little mixed flock of Knot and Dunlin – a nice opportunity to compare their relative sizes. Several Turnstones had gathered for a bath.

Out at the point, looking out towards Scolt Head, we picked up two Red Kites circling out over the saltmarsh. They seemed too concerned with swooping at each other to worry about the Marsh Harrier which was trying to have a go at them. There were a few people standing on the top of Gun Hill looking for the Isabelline Wheatear, and as we turned to walk back one of the locals started waving to us. It had reappeared!

img_8405Isabelline Wheatear – looking very sandy in the sun

We stopped to scan in the direction they were all looking and there was the Isabelline Wheatear on the edge of the saltmarsh. It looked particularly pale and sandy in the sunshine. It flitted around the bushes for a few seconds and then disappeared off behind the Suaeda. It was proving very mobile because, by the time we got over to the others, it had flown again to the other side of Gun Hill. We had some nice views of it on the grass and back down to the edge of the saltmarsh again before suddenly it was off again. It flew  off up over Gun Hill and disappeared.

It was around this time that we heard trilling and looked up to see a Waxwing heading towards us.  It flew over our heads and carried on west, unfortunately without stopping.

Having had good views of the Isabelline Wheatear, we decided to walk round onto the beach and head back along the tideline to see what we could find. We didn’t find any Snow Buntings today, but we did come across the Isabelline Wheatear again. The reason we couldn’t find it earlier in the dunes was because it was now out on the beach! There were lots of flies buzzing around the high tide line, and it was busy catching them. Chasing up and down the beach, occasionally flying up after a fly.

img_8451Isabelline Wheatear – catching flies out on the beach today

We watched it for a while, but in the end had to tear ourselves away and head back, taking a detour via the base of the dunes to avoid disturbing it. We walked quickly back along the seawall, stopping briefly to watch a large flock of Linnets and Goldfinches whirling around over the saltmarsh. When they landed, we could see several Golden Plover out there too, surprisingly well camouflaged, despite the bright golden-spangled upperparts we could see through the scope.

The light was better on the walk back, so we stopped at the corner to look at the geese again. This time, we found four White-fronted Geese in with the Pinkfeet. One had its head up for a while, so we could see its pink bill surrounded at the base with white, but then they all went to sleep. Then it was back for lunch, led along the seawall by a pair of Stonechats which flew ahead of us. We ate our lunch sat on the benches looking out over the saltmarsh back towards Gun Hill – a stunning view!

6o0a8464Stonechat – a pair led us back along the seawall

After lunch, we drove back round to Holkham. There were lots of Pink-footed Geese out on the grazing marshes east of Lady Anne’s Drive. While most were distant, a little group of about a dozen were right next to the road, so we stopped for a close look. We could see their pink legs and delicate dark bills with encircled with a pink band.

6o0a8494Pink-footed Goose – showing very well close to Lady Anne’s Drive

As we walked through the pines, we could hear Goldcrests calling high up in the pines. A Jay flew across and started scolding from the trees the other side. Out on the saltmarsh, a large flock of Linnets was whirling round, reluctant to settle.

A little further along, we came across a small group of Brent Geese. Looking through them,  we quickly found the Black Brant x Dark-bellied Brent hybrid which is regular here. It is not as dark or contrasting as a pure Black Brant but is still subtly darker bodied, with a slightly bolder flank patch and more obvious though not complete collar. In with them too was a single Pale-bellied Brent Goose. When it turned, we could see the bold wing stripes which meant it was a juvenile. Along with several or our regular Russian Dark-bellied Brents, that meant we had 2 1/2 subspecies of Brent Goose in one very small flock!

img_8457Black Brant hybrid – out on the saltmarsh at Holkham

At the eastern end of the saltmarsh, we found the Shore Larks in their usual place. We could see several of them flying around before we got there, but when we got closer we noticed there were lots more still down on the ground. There was a mass of bright yellow faces, shining beautifully in the late afternoon sunshine. Shore Larks are always stunning birds, but it was fantastic to watch so many of them in such great light, a real treat.

6o0a8521

They were feeding in the slightly taller vegetation today, picking seeds from the dried seedheads of the saltmarsh flowers. Several of the Shore Larks were hidden from view, which made it harder to get an accurate count, but there were at least 65 today and very probably a few more that we missed. After years of declining numbers it is great to see so many back again this year. While we were watching the Shore Larks, a Tawny Owl started hooting from the pines beyond, a reminder that days are short now.

Out at the beach, the tide was in. There was a surprising amount of swell, given how little wind there was today, which meant we had to climb up into the dunes to get a higher vantage point. Even from there, the ducks kept disappearing in the waves. We did manage to find a couple of Long-tailed Ducks which were not too far out. The large flocks of Common Scoter were more distant but little groups kept flying around and a flash of white in the wing alerted us to two Velvet Scoters in with one of them. They landed on the sea and we could see them in the scope before they started diving and disappeared into the larger flock.

We could see several Great Crested Grebes on the sea too. A little flock of Cormorants flew overhead, heading in to roost. Then it started to get a little misty and, with the light fading, became increasingly difficult to pick out anything different. We decided to head back to the other side of the pines.

Lots of Pink-footed Geese could be heard calling as we walked back through the pines. There was a lovely view across the marshes, with low-lying mist enveloping the bases of the hedges and trees. We watched and waited for a while, with several smaller groups of geese flying in and whiffling down. Then we picked up some bigger skeins in the distance and several thousand flew in together, in a cacophony of yelping calls. Perhaps put off by the mist, several groups flew straight over, perhaps heading out to roost on the flats instead. Many of the others did drop down and disappear into the mist.

6o0a8536Pink-footed Geese – dropping down in the mist to roost

It is quite a sight and sound to watch the Pink-footed Geese coming in to roost on a winter’s evening. Then, with the light fading, we headed for home.

6th Nov 2016 – Late Autumn Birding, Day 3

Day 3 of a 3 day long weekend of tours today, our last day and the last Autumn Migration Tour for this season. The weather forecast for today was dreadful but thankfully, as usual, the Met Office had got it wrong. It was windy all day and we did have to dodge some squally showers in the afternoon, but in the morning we were presented with most unexpected blue skies and bright sunshine.

Our first stop for the day was at Snettisham.As we made our way down to the reserve, we saw a group of swans on the northern pit and a quick look confirmed they were Whooper Swans, presumably stopped off on there way down to the Fens. There appeared to be two families – a pair with six juveniles and another pair with three young and an extra adult tagging along. There was a bit of squabbling going on between the two groups – wing flapping and adults chasing after each other with necks outstretched.

6o0a7585Whooper Swans – one of two families on the northern pit at Snettisham

It was getting on for high tide already, but it was not a particularly big tide today which meant that the waders would not be pushed very high up the mud. Scanning from the seawall, we could see huge flocks of waders out over the mud, thousands of Knot and smaller numbers of Bar-tailed Godwits in particular. Closer to us, little groups of Dunlin were more spread out, feeding feverishly.

Many of the flocks were seeking whatever shelter from the wind they could find out on the exposed mud. We got a group of Knot in the scope which were crammed tight in a small depression. On the edge of the channel down in from of us, down at of the wind, was a little huddle of Dunlin, together with a Grey Plover and a Redshank, all trying to sleep.

We took shelter in Rotary Hide to scan the mud. Looking out to the edge of the Wash, we could see long lines of Gannets battling north. They had been blown into the Wash by the strong north wind and were now trying to work their way back out again along the eastern shore. A couple of juvenile Gannets tried flying in across the mud instead, flushing the flocks of Knot which were not sure exactly what was flying overhead.

6o0a7606Gannet – trying to make its way back north, out of the Wash

Over on the edge of the water we could see a couple of large flocks of sleeping Oystercatchers, looking like a black smear along the shore line in the distance. Three Sanderling were much closer, landing on the near edge of the channel and running along on the mud.

Looking out the other side of Rotary Hide, we found one of the two Black-necked Grebes which have been here for a few days now. It was hard viewing from here, as we were looking into the morning sun. The water was also very choppy. whipped up by the blustery wind. The Black-necked Grebe was diving continually, with a couple of Little Grebes too, a little further back.

img_8281Black-necked Grebe – one of two on the southern pit again today

Braving the elements again, we walked further down along the seawall. A lone drake Pintail was on one of the small pools on the near edge of the mud as we passed so we stopped for a closer look at it. It was a smart drake, largely out of eclipse but still without its long pin-shaped tail.

img_8289Pintail – on its own out on the mud on the edge of the Wash

Round at Shore Hide we got ourselves out of the wind again. We had a better view across the pit from here, with the sun away to our right. Almost immediately we found the Scaup, bobbing about on the water in front of the hide. It was a 1st winter drake, just starting to get some grey feathers on its back and white on the rear flanks, and with a dirty white face.

6o0a7639Scaup – the first winter drake on the pit

The second Black-necked Grebe was also diving continually, a little further out behind the Scaup. As were a smart pair of Goldeneye. At first, they were rather distant, down at the southern end of the pit, but after a while they reappeared over in front of the far bank, out from the hide. There was a nice selection of dabbling ducks too, mostly Wigeon in various stages of moult, plus a few Shoveler and a lone pair of Gadwall. We stopped to admire the drake Gadwall, a most under-appreciated bird!

There were comparatively few waders on the pits today. With the small tide, they were not going to be pushed off the Wash. However, there was a tight huddle of fifty or so Redshank on the edge of one of the islands. The vast majority of them were Common Redshank, but a closer look revealed a single Spotted Redshank in with them. They were all asleep at first, but still it was possible to pick the Spotted Redshank out at the back of the flock – it was a slightly paler shade of grey, more silvery-grey than the slaty coloured Common Redshanks, and through the scope we could see the much more marked white supercilium in front of the eye. Eventually something spooked them and they woke up, at which point it was possible to see the Spotted Redshank’s longer, needle fine bill.

It had been gloriously sunny for the most part at Snettisham, but as we drove back to the north coast we could see some rain clouds coming in off the sea and it started to rain as we turned the corner. We planned to spend the afternoon at Titchwell, but we made a quick detour down to Holme on the way there. There had been a large flock of Waxwings here for the last couple of days. As we drove down the reserve entrance track, we couldn’t see any, but on our way back with the windows open we heard them flying over and saw them land in the hedge behind us, down near Redwell Marsh.

A quick about turn and we managed to get good views of the Waxwings through the scope from the road, in the top of a hawthorn. We walked round and down the footpath to Redwell Marsh, hoping to get a little closer, but by the time we got there they had disappeared. As we made our way back to the road, we heard them calling and they flew over, 25-30 in total, and disappeared over in the direction of the village.

At least it had stopped raining, but it was still rather overcast while we were here. We did see a few other birds. There were lots of Blackbirds and a few Redwing in the hedges, and a couple of Fieldfares flew over as we walked along the road. A Kingfisher zipped over but disappeared down into the river channel out of view. With the Waxwings having disappeared, we didn’t hang around and moved quickly on to Titchwell. On the way there, we could see a huge flock of Fieldfare feeding in a winter wheat field by the main road, presumably recently arrived from the continent.

After lunch at Titchwell, we made our way out onto the reserve. It was very blustery out on the main path, but we stopped for a quick look over Thornham grazing marsh and the dried up pool. We found the Water Pipit which had been frequenting the puddles here recently, but it was right at the back and unfortunately disappeared into the vegetation before everyone could get onto it. A Marsh Harrier hung over the reedbed at the back.

Island Hide offered us some welcome shelter from the wind. The water level on the freshmarsh is going up fast now, as the warden tried to get the vegetation under control. Consequently, there are fewer waders on here at the moment. A single Ruff was picking around in the vegetation on the edge of the cut reeds beside the hide, and a few more Ruff were further out on the islands. While we were scanning, at least 30 more Ruff flew in, one of them with a noticeably very white head. Even in winter, they can be very variable, underlining why Ruff is probably the most often confused wader.

6o0a7676Ruff – in winter plumage, feeding in the vegetation close to Island Hide

There were lots of ducks on the freshmarsh. Large numbers of Wigeon and Teal in particular, with some of the drakes looking increasingly smart as they have now mostly emerged from their duller eclipse plumage. In with them, were smaller numbers of Gadwall and Shoveler.

Good numbers of gulls were seeking shelter from the wind and loafing around on the water or on the islands. The Great Black-backed Gulls had probably sought refuge from the brunt of the wind out on the beach, where they would normally be. A single Yellow-legged Gull was asleep on one of the islands at first, but eventually woke up and showed us its bright yellow legs. It was also noticeably darker mantled than the nearby Herring Gulls.

img_8311Yellow-legged Gull – one was amongst all the gulls on the freshmarsh today

Round to Parrinder Hide and we called in on the north side first. A Curlew feeding in front of the hide was the highlight. Otherwise, there were several Redshank and a distant Grey Plover out on Volunteer Marsh. The islands of vegetation can sometimes conceal a lot of birds on here and down below us we could see a mob of Wigeon and Teal attacking the plants.

6o0a7694Curlew – feeding in front of Parrinder Hide on the Volunteer Marsh

On the other side of Parrinder Hide, overlooking the freshmarsh, there were two Common Snipe feeding just below the hide, although they quickly scurried away further along the bank. There are not so many places for them to hide here now, since the reeds on the bank have been cut down

img_8318Common Snipe – feeding on the bank outside Parrinder Hide

The piles of cut vegetation proved to be a perfect perch for a couple of Stonechat. They had been feeding from the fence around the island further over, dropping down from the posts to the ground. They gradually worked their way along, closer to us, and switched to using the mounds of cut reed as vantage points instead.

A smart drake Shoveler was feeding out on the water in front of the hide. When they are feeding, Shoveler swim around with their enormous bills under the water, stirring up food and then filtering it out with their bills. They can do this for long periods without lifting their heads out – making them very tricky to photograph!

6o0a7734Shoveler – a smart drake feeding in front of Parrinder Hide

There have been some White-fronted Geese at Titchwell for a week or so now. They seem to move between the maize field along the entrance road and the freshmarsh. Today, they were feeding on the fenced off island with all the Greylags. It was hard to tell exactly how many there were. There was the usual family party, two adults and two juveniles, and at least one further adult today.

When the adult White-fronted Geese raised their heads, you could see the distinctive white band around the base of their bills. At one point, as they came out of the vegetation, you could also see the black bands on their bellies. The two juvenile White-fronted Geese lacked the white face and black belly bars, but were still smaller and darker than the Greylags, with a pink bill.

img_8323White-fronted Goose – one of the adults, raising its head

There didn’t seem to be any Avocets left here are first. Most of the birds which breed here or gather post-breeding, have long since left for warmer climes further south. Most years, a small number linger on through into the winter. Eventually we found them, six Avocets lurking right in the back corner of the freshmarsh.

It seems rude to visit Titchwell without at least seeing the sea. We did make a quick sortie out to the beach today, to finish the day. As we passed the Volunteer Marsh, a little group of Dunlin were feeding along the channel right by the main path. Out on the tidal pools, there were a couple of Black-tailed Godwit and a Grey Plover. However, we didn’t linger on the walk out today, given the wind, but headed straight on to the sea.

As we got to the beach, we could see a squally shower blowing in and the first spots of rain were blowing in to our faces. The sea was rough, which would make it tricky to see any birds out here anyway. Still, it is always amazing to see the fury of the sea on a stormy day. With the rain starting to come in, we beat a hasty retreat.

Walking back past the freshmarsh, there were lots of birds coming in to roost. Lines of Black-headed Gulls flew in from the fields and another flock of Ruff came in over the reedbed and grazing marshes. A Marsh Harrier drifted in from the Thornham direction and headed off over the reedbed. With the light fading, it was time for us to call it a day too. The weather hadn’t been anyway near as bad as forecast and we had still managed to see a great selection of birds, despite the windy conditions.

5th Nov 2016 – Late Autumn Birding, Day 2

Day 2 of a 3 day long weekend of tours today. It was cloudy and increasingly blustery today, with winds gusting to 47mph this afternoon, so we spent the day dodging the showers. Still, it was surprising how much we saw despite the weather.

As we drove east along the coast road this morning, we flushed lots of Blackbirds and Chaffinches from the sides of the road. Our first destination was Blakeney, for a quick walk out around the Freshes before the wind picked up later. A couple of Brent Geese were feeding on the edge of the harbour channel just across from the car park but we could immediately see that one was much paler than the other. A closer look confirmed, one was a Pale-bellied Brent and the other a Dark-bellied Brent Goose.

6o0a7350Pale-bellied and Dark-bellied Brent Geese – a nice comparison

Dark-bellied is the regular form of Brent Goose which winters in large numbers here. This subspecies breeds in arctic Russia. Pale-bellied Brent Geese breed from Svalbard west across arctic Canada and winter mainly on the west coast of Scotland and in Ireland. We normally get a handful of Pale-bellied in with the flocks of Dark-bellied Brents here each winter and they occasionally form mixed pairs. Today was a great opportunity to see them side by side.

While we were watching the Brent Geese, we heard a Kingfisher call and looked across the channel to see two Kingfishers chasing each other low over the water. They flew over to our side of the channel and disappeared over the bank towards the Freshes. A little later we saw one of the zip back low across the reeds towards the wildfowl collection. A Marsh Harrier was quartering over the reeds a little further along.

Further along the seawall, as we got almost to the corner, we turned to look at the Freshes just in time to glimpse a dumpy bird dropping down into the grass on the edge of a flooded depression. We had a pretty good idea what it was, but we couldn’t see it from the seawall or from the path the other side. As we approached for a closer look, a Jack Snipe flew up and shot off towards the harbour – just what we had suspected. In flight, we could really see the small size and the shorter bill compared to a Common Snipe.

We continued on along the north side of the Freshes bank. There were lots of Skylarks down in the short weedy vegetation beyond the fence. A flock of Linnets flew in and dropped down there too briefly. A Rock Pipit flew over calling and landed on the fence, where we could get a good look at it through the scope. Reed Buntings occasionally flew up from the bushes but quickly disappeared back down again. A female Stonechat worked its way along the fence, dropping down onto the side of the bank periodically to look for food.

6o0a7371Stonechat – this lone female was working its way along the fence line

It is very exposed to the elements out on the seawall here. The wind was now starting to pick up and we could see dark clouds coming in towards us over the sea, so we decided to head back to the car. We had a quick look at the wildfowl in the Blakeney collection – none of which were allowed on the bird list for the day of course! We were just settled back in the warmth of the car when we saw two Peregrines over the edge of Friary Hills. A larger adult Peregrine, presumably a female, was chasing a smaller male juvenile – they swooped low over the grass before disappearing behind a hedge, coming out the other side and zooming off over the houses.

With the deterioration in the weather, we decided to head inland to get some respite. There have been some Waxwings in Holt for the last couple of days and as we turned into the road where they have most often been seen we could immediately see several photographers with long lenses pointed up into the trees. Even before we stopped, we could see Waxwings, and we could hear them calling as we got out of the car.

6o0a7387Waxwing – there were at least 20 in Holt today

There were at least 20 Waxwings, but they were hard to count as they were feeding in several different trees, and frequently flying round in small groups or singles. The bulk of the group seemed to keep returning to the top of a large chestnut tree, where they were hard to see among the leaves. From there, they would drop down into several smaller rowans, where they would proceed to wolf down the red berries, much to the annoyance of the local Blackbirds! There was also an apple tree in one of the front gardens by the road, and several of the Waxwings kept coming down to attack the apples, clinging on to them and biting away at the flesh where they had been half eaten already.

6o0a7454Waxwing – feeding on apples, as well as rowan berries

Having feasted ourselves, on such excellent views of such gorgeous looking birds, when the Waxwings flew off and disappeared round behind the buildings, we decided to move on. Our next stop was at Sheringham, where we went for a walk along the sea front.We thought we might pick up some seabirds on our way, but at first it seemed a little quiet, apart from hordes of Turnstones around the fishing boats which had been hauled up the slipway.

6o0a7525Turnstone – lots along the prom at Sheringham

There was no sign of any Purple Sandpipers on their usual favourite rocks below the pub, but when we got to the shelter at the east end of the prom, we could see first one and then two Purple Sandpipers distantly out on the sea defences.

We stopped to talk to another couple of local birders who told us that the movement of seabirds was just picking up, after the wind had strengthened. A line of Common Scoter flew past with a single Tufted Duck in amongst them. A steady stream of Gannets tacked across the wind, heading east offshore, both white adults and dark grey-brown juveniles. There were little groups of Guillemots zooming across and a couple of Red-throated Divers went past too.Then a few Great Skuas started to pass by – in the half hour we stood there sheltering from the wind, we saw about ten – but they were all rather distant and hard to get everyone onto. A single juvenile Pomarine Skua was even further offshore.

As a particularly fierce squall blew in off the sea, we took shelter until it passed. Perhaps prompted by a Sanderling which came in with them, the two Purple Sandpipers took off and flew towards us, passing by and heading back to the rocks below the pub. We waited until the rain had stopped and decided to walk back to look for them. Unfortunately, by that stage they had disappeared again. We did find a couple of Ringed Plovers which had probably stopped off with the Turnstones to sit out the wind.

6o0a7527Ringed Plover – stopped off with the Turnstones on the slipway

After lunch and a welcome hot drink back along the coast road at Cley, we drove round to Iron Road and headed down along Attenborough’s Way. There was a nice flock of Brent Geese out on the grazing meadows (all Dark-bellieds), and as well as the plain backed adults we could see quite a few stripe-backed juveniles. Hopefully, as the Brent Goose numbers increase over the coming weeks, it will prove to have been a good breeding season for them this year.

6o0a7537Brent Geese – adults & juveniles on the grazing marshes

Round at Babcock Hide, the wind was now whistling across the marshes. A little flock of Dunlin were feeding down at the front of the scrape below the hide, but they were very skittish and kept whirling round before dropping back down again. A pair of Redshank were defending their feeding territory in front of the hide, chasing off any others which tried to land there.

First one Black-tailed Godwit dropped in, then another five, stopping to feed for a few minutes before flying off again, flashing their boldly marked black and white wings. A couple of little groups of Lapwing flew in from the east and stopped to rest for a minute or two on the islands.

None of the waders would settle, in part because there were a couple of Marsh Harriers about. First, a dark juvenile flew across the reeds at the back of the pool, and drifted off towards Salthouse. Then a young male Marsh Harrier, with paler underwings and small patches of paler grey emerging on its upperwings, did the same. As they came over the grazing marshes, all the Wigeon shot out into the middle of the water from the banks. There were a few Teal and Mallard with them and three Shoveler appeared from behind the reeds too.

When a particularly dark cloud had passed over, we returned to the car and drove back round to the main part of the reserve. Just as we set out to walk to the hides, it started to rain so we hurried out along the boardwalk – thankfully it was only light rain and we got out there without getting wet.

There were several Shelduck out on Pat’s Pool and  huddle of gulls out beyond the first island. A few Teal were out on one of the further islands, but there were not many waders – three Dunlin at the back and a couple of Black-tailed Godwits roosting in with the gulls. Simmond’s Scrape held more wildfowl – a larger flock of Wigeon, a good number of Teal and a huddle of around 20 Pintail asleep behind one of the islands. Presumably the waders had gone elsewhere in search of food and shelter. A Common Snipe was feeding on the bank outside Dauke’s Hide but flew across and landed down behind the grass in front of Teal Hide where we couldn’t see it.

A couple more Marsh Harriers quartered the reedbed beyond the scrapes this side. The light was starting to fade already and they were presumably gathering before going to roost. Several Pied Wagtails flew past while we watched, some of them dropping in to the islands briefly, before continuing on their way heading off to roost.

6o0a7562Marsh Harrier – gathering over the reeds before going to roost

Turning our attention to the gulls, we could immediately see a good selection of different species – Lesser and Great Black-backed Gulls, Herring Gulls and Black-headed Gulls. One of the herring gull-types looked different – it was very white-headed, whereas Herring Gulls typically have lots of grey blotches around the head at this time of year. Against the white head, the beady black eye really stood out – the nearby Herring Gulls instead showing a very pale iris. It was  an adult Caspian Gull.

img_8262Caspian Gull – this adult was hunkered down against the wind on Pat’s Pool

The Caspian Gull was hunkered down against the wind and didn’t initially look as long-billed and long-faced as they usually do. It kept returning to a little patch of cut rushes, behind which it tried to crouch down and shelter. However, the mantle was noticeably half a shade darker than the nearby Herring Gulls. Eventually, the Caspian Gull walked up onto the island and started preening, and now finally we could see the distinctive long head and bill.

Cley in the late evening is normally a good place to see different gulls gathering before they go to roost, but the Caspian Gulls often come in very late, just as it is getting dark, so we were lucky this one had arrived nice and early today. When some of the gulls flew across to Simmond’s Scrape, we turned to look there and found an adult Yellow-legged Gull to add to the day’s gull list. It was with a Lesser and a Great Black-backed Gull, giving a good comparison in mantle tone – it was noticeably much darker grey than the Herring Gulls but paler and less slatey than the Lesser Black-backeds.

At first, the Yellow-legged Gull was up to its belly in the water but eventually it climbed out onto the mud and we could finally see its deep yellow legs. The light was starting to fade now, and consequently they might not have appeared as bright to the unitiated as they otherwise would have done. It was time to call it a day, but it had been a nice way to end with such a good selection of gulls gathering.

4th Nov 2016 – Late Autumn Birding, Day 1

Day 1 of a 3 day long weekend of tours today. The last of our scheduled Autumn Migration Tours, we were looking to catch up with some lingering migrants and also see the arrival of many of our winter visitors. It was mostly cloudy all day, but not too windy today, good birding conditions for the time of year.

Our first destination of the day was Burnham Overy Staithe. We climbed up onto the seawall and set off to walk towards the dunes. As we did so, we heard Waxwings calling and looked over to the hawthorns further along just in time to see six of them flying off across the path in front of us and heading off west. A nice way to start the day.

The Waxwings had moved on but the bushes were still alive with birds as we walked past. Lots of thrushes were feasting on the berries, probably fresh in from the continent and hungry after their long journey over the sea. There were plenty of Blackbirds and with them a few Redwings and Song Thrushes. Several Robins chasing around in the bushes were also probably winter migrants. Out on the grazing marsh, a flock of Starlings were down in the brambles and a steady stream of small groups of Starlings were passing west overhead.

It was high tide and small parties of Brent Geese were flying around over the harbour or heading out across the grazing marshes. We could see three grey geese half hidden behind a line of reeds out on the grass and looking more closely we could see that they were White-fronted Geese, the white around the base of their bills showing when they lifted their heads.

img_8064White-fronted Geese – three were on the grazing marshes this morning

Further along, at the corner of the seawall, we could see loads more geese out on the marshes. They were mostly Greylags, larger and paler with a large orange carrot of a bill, and Pink-footed Geese, smaller and darker grey with a more delicate and mostly dark bill. In with them we found four Barnacle Geese. Unfortunately it is hard to know whether they were wild birds which had arrived with the Pink-footed Geese for the winter, or perhaps more likely feral birds from the flock in Holkham Park!

The geese were mostly distant, but two Pink-footed Geese swam in from the harbour and started feeding on the grass at the bottom of the seawall, giving us a closer look at their pink legs and feet and the pink bank around the dark bill.

6o0a7088Pink-footed Goose – two were feeding at the base of the seawall

While we were watching the geese, we received a phone call to let us know that a Great White Egret was flying across the harbour behind us. We turned to see it drop down onto the saltmarsh the other side, over towards Scolt Head. Through the scope we could see its long neck and long yellow-orange dagger of a bill. Even at that range, it was clearly much bigger than the Little Egrets, several of which we could see dotted around the harbour.

We made our way swiftly out to the dunes and turned west towards Gun Hill. There were a few photographers with massive lenses lying prone on the grass ahead of us and we could immediately see their target. The Isabelline Wheatear has been here for almost two weeks now. They are a very rare visitor here – breeding from Turkey across through southern Russia, they winter mostly in Africa, so this one was well off course. It seems to be finding plenty of food in the short grass though.

img_8139Isabelline Wheatear – has been in the dunes for almost two weeks

The more typical Northern Wheatear is a regular passage migrant here, but Isabelline Wheatear is paler and sandier-coloured. In flight, it has a similar black and white tail pattern, but the black terminal band is much broader. A great bird to catch up with here.

After admiring the Isabelline Wheatear for a while, we set off past Gun Hill and out to the beach. The tide was starting to go out and we could see more waders on the emerging mud. A couple of Grey Plover were feeding in a muddy creek. Several Bar-tailed Godwits were in the water by a sandbank along with two Curlew. Further over, we could see a Ringed Plover and several Dunlin. Small groups of Wigeon had gathered on the banks of the harbour channel.

Walking round onto the other side of the point, we started to scan the sea beyond the spit at the eastern end of Scolt Head. A surprise find here was a late adult Arctic Tern, fishing just offshore. It kept flying up and down just beyond the sand and diving periodically into the water. A Red-throated Diver moulting out of summer plumage drifted east and a juvenile Gannet flew past further offshore.

We had been told that there were some Snow Buntings on the beach, so we walked round along the tide line and eventually spotted nine of them flying towards us. They landed out on the beach at first, but then returned to the high water mark where they proceeded to feed on the piles of saltmarsh vegetation which had been washed up, looking for seeds. We edged closer to them and were watching them through the scope when they flew again – and promptly landed right in front of us. Stunning views!

6o0a7206Snow Bunting – there were nine on the beach by Gun Hill today

We made our way back along the beach, stopping to scan through a nice selection of waders which had gathered around the channels out on the sand north of the boardwalk. The silvery grey and white Sanderling contrasting with the much darker and longer billed Dunlin. More Ringed Plover were walking around on the sandbanks. A Bar-tailed Godwit was wading deeper in the water.

Crossing back over the dunes towards the grazing marshes we could hear birds calling plaintively and looked up to see a small flock of Golden Plover whirling over the grass. They settled down again and we had a look at them through the scope. While we were standing there, a flock of about a dozen Blackbirds came in from the direction of the sea and headed inland. Then three Mistle Thrushes flew in calling too and made their way in over the seawall.

It was time lunch, so we made our way quickly back towards the car. Scanning the grazing marshes on the way, we spotted some birds flycatching from the bushes in the distance. They were Waxwings, possibly the ones we had seen earlier having returned or more likely another group. There are large numbers of Waxwings arriving along the coast at the moment. They are irruptive, coming here in very variable numbers each winter, moving out of Scandinavia in response to cold weather or a lack of berries. After a couple of fairly lean winters for them, this looks like being a good Waxwing year!

We hurried back along the seawall and positioned ourselves where we could see them. The Waxwings were perching in the tops of the bushes and making little sallies up into the air after insects. Others were perched in the hawthorns, preening or eating berries. We counted six out on the grazing marshes at first – then as we walked back along the seawall, four were perched in the bushes just below, and we could still see at least four further over. Waxwings are such stunning birds and full of character with their spiky hairstyles! Suddenly they started calling and flew off towards Burnham Overy Staithe.

6o0a7251Waxwings – at least 8 were in the bushes on our way back

After a late lunch at Holkham, delayed due to our time spent admiring the Waxwings, we drove down to the end of Lady Anne’s Drive and walked out through the pines towards the beach. The saltmarshes here used to be a regular site for wintering Shorelarks, but they haven’t been here for nearly five years now. The numbers along the whole Norfolk coast have dropped in recent years and it seemed that seeing large flocks of Shorelarks could be a thing of the past. However, just like with Waxwings it looks like this winter could be a year for Shorelarks. A large flock of Shorelarks has gathered at Holkham in the last couple of weeks.

As we walked down along the edge of the saltmarsh, we could see several people ahead of us. They were not here to see the larks but were walking their dogs – they were off the lead and one of them, a spaniel, was haring about over the whole of the saltmarsh, back and forth. Disturbance from dogs may be one reason why Holkham doesn’t get Shorelarks every year like it used to do. When we got to the place the birds have been favouring, we were pleased to see that some were still left. There were only ten of them though, as we proceeded to stop and admire them.

As we watched them, another flock of about 25 Shorelarks flew back in and joined them. Then another similar sized group returned to. It was hard to count them all, as they were moving all the time and some were hidden in the saltmarsh vegetation but there were at least 62 in total, an amazing number and the most we have seen for many years.

img_8217Shorelark – the Holkham flock numbered at least 62 today, an amazing number

While we were watching them, a covey of nine Grey Partridge strolled out of the dunes and across the path and proceeded to feed on the edge of the saltmarsh, next to the Shorelarks. A very odd combination!

Having enjoyed great views of the Shorelarks, we made our way out to the beach. The tide was out but we stopped by the dunes to look at the sea. We could see lots of Common Scoter scattered across the bay, numbering several hundred in total. Closer inshore, we picked up a group of five Long-tailed Duck just off the beach. Before we made our way down to the shore for a closer look, we had a quick scan of the sea.

We got a glimpse of a diver as it disappeared beneath the water and it looked very contrasting, black and white, and we felt sure we had seen a white flank patch. When it finally resurfaced, our suspicions were confirmed – it was a smart winter plumage Black-throated Diver, a nice find as it is the rarest of the three regular UK divers in Norfolk. It was diving all the time, but each time it reappeared we got it in the scope and eventually everyone got a look at it.

By this stage, the Long-tailed Ducks had unfortunately flown further out into the bay, but we still made our way down to the shore. We got a flock of Common Scoter in the scope for a closer look – they appeared to be almost entirely pale-cheeked females/1st winters. Then a more careful look through the various flocks revealed a couple of Velvet Scoters too, larger and darker faced, with two smaller white spots. They were loosely associating with one of the groups of Common Scoter but still keeping to themselves. Conveniently the Velvet Scoter were at the front of the flock which made them easier to pick out.

The sun was already setting and we were starting to lose the light already, so we made our way back across the saltmarsh, the Shorelarks flying in again and landing right beside us as we did so. There was a little group of Brent Geese in the taller vegetation and we stopped briefly for a look through them. One stood out – it had a slightly white flank patch than the others and a somewhat better marked collar.

It was a Black Brant hybrid – not contrasting enough for a pure Black Brant. This bird is regular here every winter, the progeny many years ago of a wandering Black Brant which got in with the Russian Dark-bellied Brent Geese which winter here and ended up pairing up with one of them. The parents are long gone, but the hybrid young still returns.

As we walked back towards the car park we could already hear the high-pitched yelping of Pink-footed Geese. We stopped on the south side of the pines to admire the stunning sunset away to the west, across the grazing marshes. At first, there were only a few small lines of geese which flew over and landed with some Pink-footed Geese which were still feeding on the grass the other side of Lady Anne’s Drive.

Then away in the distance, over Holkham Park, we saw them coming – skein after skein of geese, several thousand strong in total. As they got closer, they were accompanied by a  cacophony of yelping. The Pink-footed Geese circled round against the bright pinks and firey oranges of the sky, before whiffling down onto the grass to roost. It was a truly stunning spectacle – and a great way to end the day. One of the greatest sights and sounds of a North Norfolk winter.

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6o0a7306Pink-footed Geese – coming in to roost at Holkham at sunset