Monthly Archives: December 2016

17th Dec 2016 – Birding through the Mist

A Private Tour today with a regular client, with some particular target birds we wanted to see. Unfortunately, there was some intermittent and patchy thick mist along the coast for a time today, but by trying to dodge it and making the most of the sunnier spells, we still managed to amass a great tally of birds for the day.

We met in Wells and made our way west along the coast. There were lots of Blackbirds and a few Redwings in the hedges as drove along, feeding on the berries. Our first destination for the day was Titchwell.

As we walked out along the main path, a Water Rail ran along the bottom of the ditch beside us, a nice way to start the day. The grazing meadow pool had been flooded by the high tide, which was just receding, so there were no birds that we could see. It was still a bit misty, so we thought we would have a look on the way back. As we passed, a juvenile Peregrine flew in over the saltmarsh and headed off towards Thornham.

img_9434Sunrise – over Island Hide and the reedbed

There was a lovely hazy sunrise looking out over the reedbed as we headed out to the freshmarsh. The water level is very high still at the moment, but still there were lots of Lapwings on here. They were very nervous and kept flying round calling. Twelve Avocets, bravely hanging on through the winter, were not so fidgety and stayed mostly asleep in the shallows. There was a nice selection of wildfowl on here as usual – Wigeon, Gadwall, Teal, Mallard, Shoveler and three Pintail, a drake and two females.

6o0a2235Teal – lots on the freshmarsh, the drakes are looking very smart now

Volunteer Marsh was still under water, so we hurried past to the tidal pools beyond. There were lots of waders on here, roosting over the high tide. A line of godwits consisted of a mixture of both Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwits, a nice comparison side by side. A single much smaller Knot was in with them. Further over, a couple of Grey Plover were roosting with a little mixed group of Turnstones and Dunlin.

Over at the back, we could see a flock of sleeping Common Redshank and nearby were several noticeably paler birds.  Two Greenshank  were roosting up on the mud behind. Another paler bird was in the water just behind the line of duller grey Common Redshank, and through the scope we could confirm it was a single Spotted Redshank. When looked back again later, two more Spotted Redshanks had appeared with it.

6o0a2115Common Redshank – its legs shining in the morning sunshine

The main point of our visit here today was to have a look at the sea and our primary target was Long-tailed Duck. There have been up to 70 here for the last couple of weeks, an unprecedented number in recent years. We were not disappointed. As we climbed up into the dunes, we could see that the sea was alive with ducks, including lots of Long-tailed Ducks. Amazing!

6o0a2010Long-tailed Ducks – around 70 were on the sea here today (these from yesterday)

We managed to get onto one or two adult male Long-tailed Ducks – stunning birds with their incredibly long and narrow tail feathers. The drakes are much whiter than the females and immature birds which make up the majority of the birds here. They also have a striking pink saddle over the bill, and we could even make that out on them as it glowed in the sunshine.

Apart from the Long-tailed Ducks, there were hundreds of Common Scoter offshore. In with them, there are also an impressive number of Velvet Scoter too, many more than we usually get here at this time of year. We got some great views of them too today, with the sea flat and calm.

The rest of the gathering was made up of five Scaup, plus several Eider, Red-breasted Merganser and Goldeneye. It is amazing to watch all these ducks out on the sea at the moment. Many of them are diving for shellfish and we saw several coming up with large razorshells in their bills. The staff and volunteers on the reserve were doing a wildfowl count while we were there today and their final tallies were impressive, including 73 Long-tailed Ducks and 46 Velvet Scoter! We just enjoyed watching them all.

As well as the ducks, there were other birds on the sea too. A Slavonian Grebe was diving in with the ducks and several Great Crested Grebes were offshore too. A lone Guillemot drifted past. There were several divers too, though they were mostly a bit more distant and harder to see on the edge of the mist. There were three Great Northern Divers, and thankfully one of them appeared in front of the ducks straight out from us, giving us a great look at it.

6o0a2134Bar-tailed Godwits – gathered on the shore as the tide started to go out

The only Black-throated Diver today was quite a long way out and further to the west from where we were standing, so we decided to walk along the beach to try to get everyone onto it. There were more waders on the shore now, with the tide starting to go out, including a nice flock of Bar-tailed Godwits.

We had just positioned ourselves to start scanning the sea again, level with where we thought the Black-throated Diver should be, when the fog descended around us, blowing in over the saltmarsh behind us. We waited here a few minutes to see if it would clear. A couple of times, the sun looked like it would break through, but each time it disappeared again into the mists and our hopes were dashed. We amused ourselves watching several Turnstones and Sanderling picking along the pile of razorshells washed up along the high tide line. Finally, we came to the conclusion it wasn’t going to clear any time soon, so reluctantly we started to walk back.

6o0a2153Sanderling – feeding on the piles of shells along the high tide line

On the way back, we stopped briefly in the Parrinder Hide. From here, you couldn’t even see across the freshmarsh today. A nice Common Snipe feeding on the bank just outside the hide was some compensation.

6o0a2228Common Snipe – feeding on the bank outside Parrinder Hide

The grazing meadow pool was now hidden in thick fog. So much for our hoped for better look on the way back! We had a quick look in the alders by the main path and visitor centre but couldn’t find any redpolls here today. We did find a single Siskin feeding in amongst the Goldfinches up in the tops of the trees.

While we waited for the fog to clear, we decided to have a quick look round in Thornham Harbour. A single Greenshank was feeding in the bottom of the harbour channel by the car park, along with a Redshank, a Curlew and a Little Egret. Several Rock Pipits were flying round, landing on the boats or the old barn. We had hoped to catch up with the Twite here,  but despite being seen earlier they had disappeared again. Two Linnets were the best we could manage.

6o0a2241Greenshank – feeding in the channel at Thornham Harbour

The fog seemed to lift a little, so we decided to have a go for the geese up at Choseley. As we drove up away from the coast however, we ran into the fog again, which seemed even thicker than before. We could see a few Pink-footed Geese out in the recently harvested sugar beet field, feeding on the discarded tops, but there were a lot fewer geese here than yesterday and we couldn’t see all of them. There was no sign of the Todd’s Canada Goose here today, amongst those Pink-footed Geese that we could see.

The Pink-footed Geese will usually return to the same field to feed for several days, so many had presumably been put off from landing by the fog. While we were there, we could hear calling constantly overhead, and saw several groups fly over in occasional breaks in the sky. Many geese were presumably loafing in other fields nearby, but we just couldn’t see them today. We decided to try something different instead.

As we drove back east along the coast road, the sun finally broke through the fog and it suddenly became bright and clear. Another target for the day was Snow Bunting, so we made a beeline for Salthouse where we knew we could find some. There were some dog walkers going through the area as we walked up, the dogs off the lead and running all over the shingle ridge. Needless to say, there was no sign of the Snow Buntings at first.

Thankfully, after just a couple of minutes, three Snow Buntings flew back in. They perched nervously on the top of the ridge at first, checking to see if the coast was clear, before coming down to a pile of seed which had been put out for them. Great stuff.

6o0a2254Snow Buntings – coming to seed on the shingle ridge

The days are short at this time of year, so we wanted to make the most of the remaining light. We headed swiftly round to Blakeney for our final stop. Walking past the duck pond, a lone large gull sitting on the top of a severed tree trunk caught our eye. It is a regularly returning bird and it does not fit any species – among other things, its mantle is too dark grey for Herring Gull and slightly too light for Lesser Black-backed Gull, and its legs an odd fleshy colour. It looks like a Herring Gull x Lesser Black-backed Gull hybrid.

6o0a2262Herring x Lesser Black-backed Gull hybrid – most likely

As we walked out along the seawall, a Water Rail appeared in one of the channels on the edge of the saltmarsh. It started to walk along in the water at the bottom, until something spooked it and it darted quickly back into cover.

It was very disturbed along the bank this afternoon, with loads of people out for a walk. We did manage to find 12 Barnacle Geese with a flock of Brent Geese out on the Freshes. We could hear Pink-footed Geese further over, towards Cley, and they started to fly off overhead, skein after skein, heading west. We managed to find a handful of Skylarks on the rough ground on the edge of the grazing marsh, but nothing else today.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have long here today. Very quickly, we started to lose the light as the sun dropped. The temperature fell and the mist started to return. We walked back to the car, led by a pair of Stonechats, flying ahead of us along the fence just below the seawall. It was a slightly frustrating day, given the weather, but looking back at what we had seen, we had amassed an impressive total for the day, including most of our main targets. All on one of the shortest days of the year!

6o0a2276Stonechat – led us back along the seawall

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4th Dec 2016 – Winter Wonders, Day 3

Day 3 of a three day long weekend of Winter Tours in North Norfolk today, our last day. After a frosty start, it was a glorious, sunny winter’s day. Great weather to be out birding.

On our way west, the excitement started already. A Peregrine swept over the road and stooped down at a flock of Woodpigeons in a field. Unfortunately it disappeared behind a hedge so we couldn’t see if it was successful. A few feathers floated past either lost in the panic or in a chase. We also passed several small flocks of Pink-footed Geese in fields where the sugar beet had recently been harvested, looking for food.

Our first destination was Snettisham. It was high tide when we arrived, but not a really big one. Although the tide was already in, there was still lots of mud left uncovered. We could see some huge flocks of Knot out on the mudflats as we arrived at the seawall, tight groups thousands strong glinting white in the morning sunshine. As we made our way along the seawall, they suddenly took flight and started whirling round. It was quite a display, flashing alternately bright white underneath and dark grey as they wheeled and banked.

6o0a13896o0a13956o0a13996o0a1404Knot – swirling over the Wash

It didn’t take long to find out the reason for the Knots’ nervousness. A Peregrine appeared, circling over the mud at the front of the melee. It turned and powered back into the swirling flocks, flying fast and low over the mud, and the next thing we knew we could see two Peregrines circling together further back. After chasing after the waders for a few minutes, seemingly unsuccessfully, they seemed to lose interest and drifted away south.

The Knot gradually returned to the mud and as things settled down again we had a look for other waders out on the Wash. A large flock of Oystercatchers had been relatively unperturbed by the Peregrines, and they had remained standing out on the mud all along. There were also plenty of Dunlin, Grey Plover and Bar-tailed Godwits. The flocks of Golden Plover commuted back and forth between the fields inland and the mud.

There was a nice selection of ducks too. Lots of Shelduck and Teal, plus a good number of Wigeon, mostly out along the edge of the mud. Scanning through them, we found a little group of Pintail out on the water, the drakes starting to look very smart now. Three Pink-footed Geese flew inland over our heads, calling, but in with the flocks of roosting waders we found a single Pink-footed Goose still out on the mud. For some reason, this one seemed to be strangely reluctant to leave the roost today. Perhaps it thought it was a wader!

We made our way along to Rotary Hide. It was a beautiful morning, but unfortunately from here we were looking straight into the sun. We could see several Goldeneye down on the pit below us, including a couple of very smart drakes. One of the drakes was preening, flapping its wings and showing off the extensive white flashes. There were also a few Tufted Duck and several Little Grebes. The light was better from Shore Hide, looking back up the length of the pit. There was a nice selection of dabbling ducks down this end, Wigeon, Gadwall and Shoveler.

As we were leaving, we could see a pair of Goldeneye on the northern pit. The drake started to display, throwing its head back, kicking with its back legs, and ending up with its head and bill pointing vertically. It did it several times and it was great to watch.

6o0a1495Goldeneye – a displaying drake on the pits today

Leaving Snettisham, we made our way back along the coast road, stopping briefly at Holme to use the facilities, then on to Thornham Harbour. As soon as we got out of the car, we could see some waders in the harbour channel and the first bird we saw was a Greenshank, looking strikingly pale in the winter sunshine. It was with a Redshank,which looked much duller, darker grey by comparison, as well as being a little smaller.

Even more interesting, the Greenshank was carrying a set of colour rings. The arrangement of colours is used to identify the individual bird – only one should be fitted with this combination. Checking subsequently, it would appear that this bird was ringed in NE Scotland, and has also been seen at Titchwell this winter, although we are all still awaiting the details of its movements.

6o0a1531Greenshank – this colour-ringed bird was ringed in NE Scotland

There were some other waders here as well. A little further along, a second Greenshank was feeding in the shallow water with another Redshank. There were also a couple of Black-tailed Godwit and Curlew, and a single Little Egret too.

We made our way up onto the seawall, and walked along to the first corner. There was a nice selection of waders visible in the harbour from here, including a couple of Grey Plover. We looked up to see a small falcon flying towards us. It was a Merlin, flapping hard to gain height before it flew overhead and disappeared off west towards Holme.

It was time for lunch, so we headed round to Titchwell. As we ate in the car park, a flock of Long-tailed Tits worked its way through the trees nearby. After lunch, we walked over to the visitor centre. The feeders there were very busy – as well as a selection of tits, there were lots of finches. We watched several Chaffinch, Goldfinch and Greenfinch feeding before we picked up a Brambling in the bushes behind. It dropped down to the ground below the feeders.

Walking out along the main path, the grazing marsh ‘pool’ looked rather devoid of life at first. A closer look revealed a Jack Snipe in the ditch along one side, bobbing up and down constantly as it fed. We could see its golden straw mantle stripes and shorter bill than a Common Snipe. Then we picked out a Water Pipit at the back, in the far corner. Again, in the bright morning light its white underparts really stood out.

The freshmarsh is completely flooded at the moment. The water levels have been raised to kill off the vegetation on the islands, most of which are now underwater. Consequently, there are fewer birds here now. The ducks still seem to like it, with plenty of Teal, Wigeon and Shoveler out there today. Flocks of Brent Geese kept flying in from the saltmarsh to bathe and preen.

6o0a1563Brent Geese – flying in to bathe and preen on the freshmarsh

With the water levels high on the freshmarsh, many of the waders are now on the other pools. There were plenty of Curlew, Redshank and Grey Plover as well as several Black-tailed Godwit on the Volunteer Marsh. One Black-tailed Godwit was feeding in the channel right below the path, giving us great views.

6o0a1596Black-tailed Godwit – feeding on the Volunteer Marsh

There were a couple of female Teal feeding on the mud, skimming their bills back and forth over the surface, feeding on the algae there. A stunning drake Teal was standing on the mud the other side of the channel, calling. It looked absolutely stunning in the sunshine – they really are very pretty ducks.

6o0a1601Teal – looking stunning in the sunshine

However, it was the Tidal Pools where most of the action was at today. As soon as we came over the bank from the Volunteer Marsh, we could see several Little Grebes out on the water. A couple of Little Grebes were diving just beside the path, giving us great views.

6o0a1638Little Grebe – diving just by the path on the tidal pools

There were more ducks on here today, the usual Teal, Wigeon and Shoveler, together with several Pintail now. One was a smart drake, which we watched in the scope for a while. It was upending constantly, but eventually we got a good look at it. They have not yet quite grown their long pin-shaped central tail feathers, but still sport a rather pointed rear end.

On the muddy spit out in the middle, we could see several waders asleep. Most of the Avocets which spent the summer here have long since departed, but a few hardy individuals try to stay over the winter. There were still ten today, although they were all asleep with their bills tucked in. One of the two Spotted Redshanks was awake and we got a good look at it through the scope, noting its silvery grey upperparts, paler than a Common Redshank, and its long, fine, needle-tipped bill.

img_9156Spotted Redshank – one of two on the tidal pools today

A single Ringed Plover was roosting with a couple of Dunlin at first, but when they all flew round it disappeared. Right at the far end of the tidal pools, we found it again, this time accompanied by a second Ringed Plover. A third tried to join them but one of the others tired to see it off. It appeared to be displaying – flying round with exaggerated wingbeats, then landing on a small island and bowing deeply at the interloper.

6o0a1681Ringed Plover – displaying on the tidal pools

A Kingfisher appeared, on the concrete bunker behind the beach, and it had a fish in its bill. It proceeded to beat it on the bunker’s edge repeatedly, presumably to kill or stun it, before eating it. It then flew round to the bushes on the edge of the water to look for more. We could hear a Water Rail squealing and looked over to see it working its way along the edge of one of the islands, probing in the vegetation.

img_9177Kingfisher – catching fish on the tidal pools

Then we made our way out onto the beach. One glance at the sea and we could see lots of sea ducks flying round. In amongst the dark-winged Common Scoter, we could see several Velvet Scoter with their obvious white wing patch. There were loads of Long-tailed Ducks too. They have been rather scarce in recent years, so it is great to see so many of them here at the moment. There were at least twenty this afternoon, and probably a lot more – they are hard to count in the swell, even though it is not that big!

One of the locals kindly came over to point out that there was a Great Northern Diver close inshore, so we walked down to the water for a closer look. It was diving constantly, but we managed to get a good view of it between dives. The ducks had now settled back onto the sea again, so we managed to get both Velvet Scoter and Long-tailed Duck in the scope. There were waders to look at on the beach too – Bar-tailed Godwits, Knot, Sanderling and lots of noisy Oystercatchers.

The sun was starting to go down and it was cold on the beach, so we started to walk back. We paid a brief visit to Parrinder Hide. There were lots of Wigeon feeding on the bank right outside the windows of the hide – amazingly close! A few more Wigeon were on the water in front, along with a single drake Pintail, again looking very smart but lacking his full length of tail.

6o0a1720Wigeon – a smart drake, feeding on the bank right outside Parrinder Hide

There was a single Common Snipe from the hide too, feeding along the water’s edge at the bottom of the bank. We got it in the scope and had a good look at it, probing its long bill into the soft ground.

6o0a1774Common Snipe – also feeding on the bank outside Parrinder Hide

Making our way back towards the visitor centre, we could see several Marsh Harriers circling over the back of the reedbed. There were at least six, or at least that was the number we had in the air together. Another couple flew in over the saltmarsh from the Thornham direction.

6o0a1800Marsh Harrier – flying in to roost at dusk

There was a glorious sunset away to the west this evening, a beautiful orange sky against which to watch the Marsh Harriers flying in. It was also a lovely way to draw an end to a great weekend.

img_9181Sunset – looking towards Thornham from Titchwell

3rd Dec 2016 – Winter Wonders, Day 2

Day 2 of a three day long weekend of Winter Tours in North Norfolk today. It was a nice dry and mild winter’s day, brighter in the morning though clouding over a little later on.

While we were loading up the car in Wells first thing this morning, we happened to scan the trees in a garden next to the road. A Coal Tit appeared in the top of an apple tree and, while we  were watching it, a Waxwing popped up next to it. There have been lots of Waxwings about so far this winter, but most of those which arrived on the coast here have moved on inland. So this was most a welcome surprise.

6o0a1185Waxwing – just one, in the centre of Wells briefly first thing

The tree was full of Blackbirds feeding on the apples still on the tree, and the Waxwing dropped down and joined in. It fed for a few seconds, then climbed up into the back of the tree. It was on its own and probably looking for other Waxwings – it called a couple of times. At that point, something spooked the Blackbirds and everything scattered. We waited a while for the Waxwing to come back down to the apples but we hadn’t seen where it had gone and there was no further sign of it. It had probably just dropped in to feed briefly, before carrying on its way.

While we were waiting, we did see a Brambling which flew down to the feeders in another tree in the same garden. Another nice surprise to start the day.

6o0a1199Brambling – coming down to the feeders in the same garden

Our first destination proper was Holkham. As we drove down Lady Anne’s Drive, there were a few flocks of Pink-footed Geese in the fields either side, so we pulled up for a closer look, admiring their pink legs and bill bands.

6o0a1203Pink-footed Geese – in the fields along Lady Anne’s Drive

At the north end, a little group of Redshank were feeding on the pools in the grazing marsh on one side of the road and a large flock of Wigeon was out on the grass on the other side. Nearby, we found a single Curlew and a lone Common Snipe in the grass too. There was a bit of a commotion further over and we turned to see a male Marsh Harrier chasing a Carrion Crow. The Crow had something in its bill and obviously didn’t want to give it up. The two birds went round and round in tight circles for a minute or so, until the Marsh Harrier eventually gave up.

Walking out towards the beach, we could see a small group of Brent Geese out on the saltmarsh as we made our way down the boardwalk. One of the geese was subtly different from the others – darker bodied and with a more contrasting flank patch and a larger white collar. It was not dark enough for a pure Black Brant though. It was a Black Brant hybrid (the offspring of a Black Brant and a Dark-bellied Brent mixed pair), and it has been returning here for several years, presumably with the same group of Dark-bellied Brent Geese.

img_9082Black Brant hybrid – a returning bird with the Dark-bellied Brent Geese

Right in the far corner of the saltmarsh, we found the Shore Larks. We could see them from some distance away, flying round, flashing white underneath as they turned. They landed again and we were able to approach carefully, stopping ahead of them and waiting as they worked their way towards us.

6o0a1225Shore Larks – some of the 28 at Holkham first thing this morning

There were 28 Shore Larks in the flock today, while we were there at least. As they came closer, we had a great view of them in the scope. Their bright yellow faces shone in the morning sunshine, contrasting with the black masks. Very smart little birds!

6o0a1266Shore Larks – the flock gradually came closer to us

In the end, we had to tear ourselves away from the Shore Larks and walked out towards the dunes to look at the sea. Just about the first bird we found out on the water was a Red-necked Grebe. It was a little distant at first – thankfully it would come much closer inshore later. While we were trying to get everyone in the group onto it through the scope, a different bird surfaced in front. It was a Great Northern Diver. We all had a quick look at it before it dived.

The more we scanned the sea, the more we found. Not everyone had seen the Red-necked Grebe yet, and while scanning to find it one of the group found two grebes together. They didn’t sound like the Red-necked and taking a look through the scope they turned out to be two Slavonian Grebes. Then we found another Slavonian Grebe and another two, further out. Then a careful scan revealed at least 6 Slavonian Grebes scattered across the sea in ones and twos. A great number to find together in one place here at this time of year! There were lots of Great Crested Grebes out on the sea too.

The sea duck were further out today, and it took us a while to find a raft of Common Scoter. Looking carefully through the flock, we started to find a few Velvet Scoters in with them. The Common Scoter were almost all females, with large pale cheeks. Next to them, the Velvet Scoters looked much darker headed, with two smaller pale spots visible on a good view. It was not easy to pick them out at first, given the distance and the swell, but they drifted a bit closer inshore and the sea flattened off to make it a bit easier. In the end, we could see there were at least 10 Velvet Scoters out there today. A single Eider was similarly distant.

While we were watching the sea, we heard Shore Larks calling and a small group of nine flew along the beach and landed down on the sand in front of us. We presumed they were part of the group we had seen earlier, back on the saltmarsh, which had probably been disturbed by the increasing number of dogs out for a Saturday morning walk.

Four Snow Buntings had earlier flown east along the edge of the dunes. After the Shore Larks had moved on, another group of five Snow Buntings dropped down onto the tide line, where we could get a great look at them. One of them appeared to be an adult male Scandinavian bird, with lots of white in the wing.

6o0a1309Snow Buntings – 3 of the 5 which landed on the tide line

By this stage, the Red-necked Grebe had come closer inshore, giving us much better views. We could even see the yellow base to its bill, glinting in the sunshine! It gave us a better chance to compare it to the Slavonian Grebes, and the Great Crested Grebes as well. The Great Northern Diver had reappeared, at least we assumed it was the same one we had seen earlier, and for a few minutes it stopped diving and allowed us to get a great look at it too.

On our way back over the saltmarsh, we had a quick scan and there was no sign of any Shore Larks where they had been first thing this morning. We eventually stumbled across a small group, closer to the dunes, as we walked back. There were nine of them, so they were possibly the same birds we had seen out on the beach earlier. It seemed likely that the large flock had been disturbed and had disbursed. There were a lot of people out today, walkers and dog-walkers.

When we got back through the pines, we turned and walked west along the track on the south side of the trees. There were lots of Jays calling and flying back and forth across the path. At Salts Hole, we found a couple of Little Grebes on the water among the ducks. A Mistle Thrush flew out of the trees and dropped down onto the grass beyond. We could hear Long-tailed Tits calling and a tit flock duly appeared on the edge of trees. As well as a variety of tits, we could see lots of tiny Goldcrests flitting around. We heard a Treecreeper calling, and shortly after it appeared, working its way up the trunk of a pine tree. A Green Woodpecker flew off through the tree tops.

6o0a1339Long-tailed Tit – we found a mixed tit flock on the edge of the pines

We stopped briefly on the boardwalk by Washington Hide to scan the grazing marshes. A rather dark Common Buzzard was perched in a bush behind the reeds. A distant Red Kite circled over the trees in Holkham Park beyond. Four Gadwall were upending on the pool in front of the hide.

Making our way quickly further west, we climbed up to Joe Jordan Hide. Our first target was achieved as soon as we looked out of the flaps. A large flock of White-fronted Geese were out on the grass just to the left of the hide. We could see the white band around the base of the pink bill and the black belly bars of the adults. There were quite a few duller juveniles  too. In all, we counted at least 96 White-fronted Geese here today.

6o0a1343White-fronted Geese – there were at least 96 at Holkham today

Before we had even had a chance to sit down, someone else in the hide pointed out a Great White Egret which had appeared on the edge of a reedy ditch. We got that in the scope next and had a great view of it, an enormous white bird, the size of a Grey Heron, with a long, pointed, yellow bill and black feet, distinguishing it from a Little Egret. The Great White Egret flew across and landed on an old bridge, where it stood preening for a while. Eventually it flew again and disappeared back behind the reeds.

img_9110Great White Egret – out on the grazing marshes from Joe Jordan Hide

There were lots of Marsh Harriers out here too. At first, we could see a couple perched in the bushes, but then more appeared and the next thing we knew there were six Marsh Harriers circling together. One of them was carrying bright green coloured wing tags and when it landed we were able to read the code on them. It turned out the bird had been ringed several miles inland from here in the summer of 2015 and this was the first time it had been seen again!

It was time for lunch, so we made our way back to Lady Anne’s Drive and made good use of the picnic tables outside. After lunch, we drove west to Burnham Overy Staithe and made our way out along the seawall towards the dunes.

There were lots of Wigeon and Curlew out on the grazing marshes by the start of the seawall. Several Redshank and Grey Plover were feeding on the mud along the edges of the harbour channel and we counted at least 10 Little Grebes in the channel itself. As we turned the corner on the seawall, the larger area of open mud was covered in waders, predominantly Dunlin. On the grass the other side, lots of Brent Geese were busy feeding. A little further along, we stopped to look at a striking pale Common Buzzard perched on a post.

6o0a1362Brent Geese – lots were feeding on the grazing marshes by the seawall

Once we reached the dunes, we made our way straight over to the beach. It had clouded over more now and, with the shortness of the days at this time of year, we were already starting to lose the light. There was no sign of the Isabelline Wheatear in the dunes around the end of the boardwalk as we walked past. It has seemingly been hiding out on the beach for the last couple of weeks, so we thought we would look for it out there, although we knew we were probably a little late in the day.

We walked quickly west along the tideline. There were lots of gulls out on the beach, a huge number of Common Gulls in particular, with more large groups constantly flying in to join them. There were a few waders too – a Bar-tailed Godwit, a handful of Ringed Plovers and Oystercatchers and a couple of Turnstones. What looked at first like a raft of scoter in the distance out on the sea turned out to be a large flock of Wigeon when we got them in the scope. Presumably they had been frightened off the saltmarsh, perhaps by a raptor, and had sought safety out here.

When we saw movement ahead of us on the beach, we looked to see six Shore Larks picking along the high tide line. We lost sight of them behind a ridge and walking on the next thing we knew they appeared right in front of us. They scurried ahead of us for a while, before flying up and doubling back, landing behind us back down on the tide line again.

6o0a1381Shore Lark – six more were feeding along the tide line out at Gun Hill

The bushes round Gun Hill were very quiet now and there was no sign of the wheatear in the dunes on the walk back to the boardwalk. From the seawall, we scanned either side on the way back to Burnham Overy Staithe. We picked up a distant grey male Hen Harrier over the saltmarsh, quartering low over the bushes. It seemed to drop down into the bushes, but the next thing we knew we picked up a grey male even further back, towards Scolt Head. Perhaps it was a different bird? The next thing we knew, a ringtail Hen Harrier was flying round with it.

With lots of yelping, we watched as a large flock of Pink-footed Geese dropped down off the fields and onto the grazing marshes. Even in the growing gloom, we could see there were several Barnacle Geese with them, although as usual there is no way of telling whether they might be wild birds or just part of the feral flock from Holkham.

It was the time when the Pink-footed Geese come in to roost at Holkham, and we looked up into the sky in the distance beyond and saw thousands and thousands of geese in a vast skein smearing the horizon. They were flying across from us, heading towards the back of Holkham Park. When we got back to the car park, we heard more geese yelping and looked up to see several more skeins of Pink-footed Geese coming in from the west. We loaded up the car as several more skeins passed overhead and then it was time to head for home ourselves.

2nd Dec 2016 – Winter Wonders, Day 1

Day 1 of a three day long weekend of Winter Tours in North Norfolk today. It was a nice morning, cloudy with some brighter intervals, but the cloud thickened in the afternoon and brought some misty drizzle with it at times.

Our first stop was at Blakeney. As we set out towards the seawall, a small group of Brent Geese were feeding on the edge of the saltmarsh the other side of the harbour channel. The first half dozen were our regular Dark-bellied Brent Geese but a pair a few metres further on were more interesting. One of the pair was much paler on the flanks and belly. It was a Pale-bellied Brent Goose and it appeared to be paired with a male Dark-bellied Brent. It really stood out next to the Dark-bellieds.

6o0a0923Pale-bellied Brent Goose – this one is paired with a Dark-bellied Brent

Dark-bellied Brent Geese breed in arctic Russia and come here for the winter in large numbers. Pale-bellied Brent Geese breed from Svalbard across Greenland into the Canadian High Arctic. We regularly get a small number of Pale-bellied Brents in with our regular wintering flocks of Dark-bellied Brents.

While we were looking out over the saltmarsh beyond, suddenly lots of birds took to the air. A flock of Golden Plover whirled overhead. Low over the vegetation we picked up a Hen Harrier further back, quartering the marshes. A ringtail, it flashed its white rump patch as it flew away from us.

As we walked out past the harbour, a Rock Pipit flew across and landed on one of the small boats tied up on the water, where we could get it in the scope. We flushed several Meadow Pipits from the grassy banks of the seawall and a few Reed Buntings too. We heard the distinctive calls of a Lapland Bunting flying over, a dry rattle ‘t-t-t-t’ and a ringing ‘teu’, but it was long way out over the grazing marshes and we didn’t manage to find it.

There were various waders which flushed from the saltmarsh as we walked past, Curlews and Redshanks. A Little Egret was busy feeding in one of the channels. A group of Turnstone ran along a path ahead of a couple of dogs until they got too close and the Turnstone flew off towards the channel.

At the corner of the seawall, we stopped to look at a small flock of Dunlin on the edge of the harbour. A smart drake Goldeneye surfaced on the water just behind and then a raft of duck appeared in the channel. As well as a few more Goldeneye, there were several Red-breasted Mergansers with their spiky haircuts. While we were admiring them a rather nondescript brown duck bobbed up in their midst. It was a 1st winter female Scaup, normally difficult to find here in the winter but this appears to be a good year for them.

There were a few more waders here now too. A Ringed Plover and a Grey Plover, both picking at the surface with their short bills. An Oystercatcher too. The tide was starting to go out and more mud was beginning to appear. A little further along the seawall, where the harbour starts to open out, there were some bigger numbers of waders and sifting through them we found a small group of dumpy Knot and a couple of Black-tailed Godwits closer to us. The Bar-tailed Godwits were much further over.

We had seen a female Marsh Harrier earlier, on our walk out, flying over the reeds out in the middle of the Freshes. When all the Wigeon erupted from the grazing marshes, we turned to see a male Marsh Harrier flying towards us. It turned slightly and cut out across the saltmarsh, flying past us and flushing all the Brent Geese as it went.

6o0a0942Marsh Harrier – a smart, grey-winged male

There were a few Skylarks feeding on the short vegetation on the inland side of the seawall, which flushed as we approached. They circled round and landed again on the edge of an open area. A slightly smaller bird was with them now and through the scope we could confirm it was a Lapland Bunting. It was creeping around in the short grass at first and hard to see, but then it flew a short distance towards us and landed out in the open where we could get a great view of it through the scope.

img_9054Lapland Bunting – feeding with Skylarks below the seawall

The Skylarks were nervous and kept flying round. The Lapland Bunting also flew around a couple of times and landed back on the short grass. Then suddenly it was off, calling as it went.

Lapland Buntings can be very hard to find out in the open, so this was a great way to cap off our walk here. As we started to walk back, we could see five or six small birds perched on the fence and a closer look confirmed there were five Twite.They had obviously been bathing in the puddles by the path and were now busy preening. We got them in the scope and could see their yellow bills and burnt orange faces.

img_9074Twite – five were preening on the fence after having a bathe

The sixth bird was a single Linnet which perched on the fence near the Twite for comparison for a few seconds. We could see it had a grey bill and was not as brightly coloured on the face as the Twite.

Back to the car, and we made our way further east to Salthouse. We parked at the end of Beach Road and walked east along the edge of the shingle towards Gramborough Hill. Local photographers have been putting seed out for the Snow Buntings here, so when a small group of buntings appeared from around the back of the Hill, we initially thought they would be the Snow Buntings. They headed south, inland across the grazing marshes, which would be an odd direction for Snow Buntings to go and when they turned and dropped down, with the fields behind them, we could see they were actually more Lapland Buntings.

There were at least 15 Lapland Buntings in the flock, a very good number, but they kept on going and we lost sight of them as they flew off west. We weren’t finished though, and yet another lone Lapland Bunting circled over the grazing marshes calling a few minutes later before dropping down into the grass out in the middle.

The day’s delivery of seed had just been put out for the Snow Buntings and we didn’t have to wait long before they flew back in to enjoy it. They landed on the top of the shingle ridge first, where they had a good vantage point to check for any danger, before running down the slope to where the food was waiting for them. There were at least forty of them here today, although not all of them came down to feed.

6o0a1033Snow Buntings – coming down to feed on feed put out on the shingle ridge

The Snow Buntings can be quite tame and we had great close views of them when they came down to the food. Looking at the flock, we could see a variety of different looking birds, some much paler ones amongst a mass of darker, browner ones. We get two different races here in the winter from different breeding areas. The duller ones are predominantly female Snow Buntings of the Icelandic race, insulae, whereas the paler ones are from Scandinavia, of the race nivalis.

6o0a1017Snow Bunting – of the Scandinavian race, nivalis

Regardless of where they come from, the Snow Buntings are always great to watch. Along with Lapland Buntings, they are our two sought after winter buntings, so we had enjoyed a very successful morning getting such great views of both species.

We walked back over Gramborough and along the remains of the now flattened shingle ridge. The sea looked fairly quiet but we did see a loose groups of six Red-throated Divers flying past distantly. Another Red-throated Diver was on the sea, along with a single Guillemot, but both were hard to see out in the swell and diving constantly. A couple of Grey Seals surfaced just offshore and were much more obliging – they seemed to come in to investigate a couple of fishermen down on the beach. Back to the car and a very obliging group of Turnstones had flown in to feed on some food put out for them. We watched them feverishly turning the stones over – they had a lot to choose from here!

6o0a1092Turnstone – very tame, feeding by the Beach Road at Salthouse

It was already time for lunch, but we still wanted to make one last stop at the Iron Road before heading back to the visitor centre at Cley. Rather than have lunch here, the group decided on a late lunch back at the visitor centre, so we set off straight away to see what we could find. The water level on the pool by Iron Road has gone down nicely and there was a good flock of Dunlin on here today. However, apart from a Redshank, we couldn’t immediately see anything else. With time pressing, we headed out along Attenborough’s Walk.

There were four Pink-footed Geese on the grazing marshes close to the path, which flew off as we passed. A little further along, we could see a large flock of Brent Geese. The vast majority were Dark-bellied Brents, as we would expect here, but a quick look at them and we found our second Pale-bellied Brent Goose of the day, right at the front of the flock.

6o0a1163Pale-bellied Brent Goose – with Dark-bellied Brent behind for comparison

There were lots of Dunlin right in front of Babcock Hide but they were very nervous and kept flying round. A single Common Snipe, feeding on one of the islands nearby, took fright when they did so and landed much further back, out of sight in some taller vegetation. A single Ruff (or, more accurately, a female Reeve) was picking around on one of the islands further back, in amongst a large flock of sleeping Teal. Two Black-tailed Godwits were feeding up to their bellies in the deeper water.

6o0a1145Dunlin – one of several feeding right in front of Babcock Hide

At first all we could see were dabbling ducks out on the water, but then one of group picked up a Long-tailed Duck which emerged from behind one of the reed islands in the deep water right at the back. It was diving constantly, but when it surfaced we could get a good look at it through the scope. We could see its white face with large dark brown cheek patch. Long-tailed Ducks are mostly found out on the sea in winter, where they dive for shellfish. Occasionally one may wander to an inland water for a short time, especially after gales. This one is unusual in that it has been on this small pool for over a month now. It must be finding something good to eat here!

We didn’t linger too long in Babcock Hide, and stopped only briefly on the walk back to the car to admire a pair of Stonechats on the fence. We made our way quickly back to the visitor centre for a late lunch. As it was so mild, we decided we would eat outside on the picnic tables, but we were only half way through when the weather turned. Some low cloud blew in and brought with it some misty drizzle, so we retreated to the car.

After lunch, we drove back west along the coast road to Stiffkey. We wanted to finish the day at the harrier roost, but with the weather having deteriorated we thought it best to watch from here today. When we arrived, we were told we had already missed a ringtail Hen Harrier and a Merlin – it seemed bird may have come in early tonight given the conditions.

As we stood and scanned the saltmarsh, a Brambling flew over calling and headed inland over the campsite. Looking away to the west, we picked up a distant grey male Hen Harrier flying low over the vegetation. Unfortunately, it dropped quickly down out of view, before everyone could get onto it. Then a second grey male appeared over in the same area, but it was even less obliging. The Hen Harriers were flying straight into the roost this evening, without flying round, probably due to the mist. Even when it temporarily brightened up a little, there was no sign of a pick-up in Hen Harrier activity.

The light was starting to go and we were just thinking our luck had run out when a large bird flew in from the fields behind us, just a short distance to our left. It was a ringtail Hen Harrier and we could see its white rump patch as it flew out across the saltmarsh, before disappearing out into the mist. That was a great way to end, so we called it a day and headed for home.