Monthly Archives: January 2017

29th Jan 2017 – Ducking & Divering

Not a tour today, but a quick visit out of county to explore some sites in southeast Lincolnshire. It was a lovely sunny winter’s morning, but we knew to expect some rain in the afternoon, so we had to make the most of it.

For the last ten days a White-billed Diver has been delighting the crowds along the river Witham near Woodhall Spa. This is a true arctic species, breeding along the coasts of northern Russia and normally wintering along the coasts of northern Norway. Small numbers are regular off Scotland or the Northern Isles, but it is very rare this far south and particularly away from the coast. To see one up close on an inland waterway is a very rare event.

The White-billed Diver has been feeding along a 7 mile stretch of river and can move remarkably quickly up and down its length, so it can be a long walk at time. We stopped first at Kirkstead Bridge but were told it was heading north so drove round to Stixwould Station instead. This was the right thing to do – we lucked in and the White-billed Diver was diving just off the bank here.

6o0a5574White-billed Diver – a juvenile, feeding along the River Witham

White-billed Diver is a large bird, the size of a goose. However its most striking feature is its enormous bill. It is not really white (nor is it yellow – its North American name is Yellow-billed Loon), but rather a pale ivory. The neat scaled pattern of the upperparts immediately identify this bird as a juvenile, born and raised in the arctic in summer 2016.

6o0a5583White-billed Diver – allowed really close up views on the river

The River Witham is quite narrow which allows for very close-up views of the White-billed Diver. It was diving continuously and at times would surface closer to the near bank, despite the crowd gather to watch it. We followed it up and down the river for a while. A stunning bird to see.

After watching the White-billed Diver, we made our way round to the gravel pits at Kirkby-on-Bain nearby. There was a small crowd gathered here watching the Ring-necked Duck. A resident of North America, it is a regular visitor here in small numbers. This was a smart drake, similar to a male Tufted Duck but with a more patterned bill, peaked crown and two-toned grey and white flanks.

img_0285Ring-necked Duck – a smart drake

The Ring-necked Duck was loosely associating with a small group of Tufted Ducks and diving constantly. There were several Common Pochard on the same pit and a female Scaup appeared with them too. A nice selection of diving ducks! On another pit across the road, a juvenile Glaucous Gull was loafing with a small mixed raft of gulls.

It was still lovely sunny winter weather while we at Kirkby-on-Bain, but as we made our way south it clouded over and started to spit with rain. We wanted to visit a site for Long-eared Owls at Deeping Lakes. The birds roost on an island here, away from disturbance and it wasn’t long before we were watching them through the scope. They were tucked well into the vegetation today, which made them a challenge to see, but eventually we counted three in total.

img_0305Long-eared Owls – three, hidden in the trees

There were lots of ducks out on the water here and we spent some time watching the Goldeneye in front of the hide. The birds were displaying, fascinating to watch as the males throw their heads back and kick their legs out, the females responding with their heads laid flat to the water. We even watched a pair mating.

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6o0a5805Goldeneye – displaying in front of the hide

It was also nice to see several Goosander here. At one point a smart salmon-pink drake swam past close to the hide.

6O0A5857.JPGGoosander – a salmon-pink drake

As we made our way back to the car, it started to rain a bit harder. We wanted to have a look at Deeping High Bank, which thankfully meant we could do some birding from the shelter of the vehicle. We had been alerted to the presence of a Scaup along the river here and we spotted it down on the water with a group of Tufted Ducks as we drove along. It was a 1st winter drake, but still the emerging grey upperpart feathers of the Scaup stood out next to the darker back Tufted Ducks.

6o0a5918Scaup – a first winter drake

We had hoped to look for some Short-eared Owls along the bank here but the deteriorating weather put paid to those ambitions. We had to make do with an obliging Great White Egret instead.

6o0a5941Great White Egret – feeding on the far bank of the river

As the rain set in harder, we decided to call it a day and head for home. It had been a very pleasant and productive visit to Lincolnshire, perhaps a place to visit again in the future.

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28th Jan 2017 – Owls at Last

Another Owl Tour today. The weather forecast was not ideal and it was spitting with rain on the drive down to the morning’s meeting point, but after a few days of cold winds and fog and with some forecast sunny intervals we were still quietly confident of a good day for owls.

To begin with, we took a drive round looking to see if we could find a Barn Owl still out hunting, but it seemed the dull and slightly damp start to the day had encouraged them to go to roost promptly. No great surprise, as they have not been out hunting much into daylight hours this winter so far – after a mild and dry end to 2016, they have probably entered the New Year in very good condition. We decided to try our luck for Little Owls instead.

The sun was beginning to poke out from behind the clouds, so it seemed a good plan to drive round via some local barns to see if they were out sunning themselves. Some of our Little Owls are more sensitive to the weather than others, and it was perhaps still a little cold in the breeze. There was no sign of any owls around the first couple of sets of barns we stopped at. A Grey Wagtail feeding around a ford was a nice bonus on our travels. It was completely unfazed by the car and was too close to get a good look at, so we had to manoeuvre back!

6o0a5261Grey Wagtail – feeding around a ford right next to the car

There is one site where the Little Owls are normally more reliable, so we decided to head round there next. Very unusually, there was no sign of any here either today, despite the weather seemingly being not as bad as it often is when we see them here. We waited a while to see if we one might come out and enjoy the rays of sun coming through the cloud, but it was not to be today. Very frustrating!

There were other things here to look at. A couple of Stock Doves perched up on a barn roof. Two Brown Hares were hunkered down in a winter wheat field, looking just like two large clods of earth. A flock of Lapwing and Curlew was feeding in a stubble field, surprisingly tricky to see until they flew round periodically. Flocks of Brent Geese made their way backwards and forwards between the coast and the fields inland where they were feeding.

6o0a5264Brent Geese – flying inland to feed on the fields

With the clouds rolling in again, it seemed best to move on and try something different, so we headed down to the coast and along to Cley. The fields down by the Beach Road were quiet today, but a quick drive down there gave us a chance to see the impact of the recent storm surge, with the car park now much reduced in size having been filled with shingle. The old beach shelter has also been largely filled with stones again! As we drove back round, we could see the debris marking the high tide line, which appeared to have peaked just below the houses along the front.

The East Bank has been a very productive spot in recent days. The storm surge lifted a load of reed litter out of the bottom of the reedbeds and dumped large quantities of it along below the bank. Several birds have been feeding on seeds and insects in the rotting vegetation. A short distance along the bank we came across a huddle of birders staring down at the ditch below. A Siberian Chiffchaff was flitting around on all the reed debris covering the water.

6o0a5296Siberian Chiffchaff – paler than the normal Chiffchaffs, but not heard to call today

Siberian Chiffchaff is the eastern counterpart to our Common Chiffchaff. It is paler, more buff/brown and comparatively lacking in green tones to its plumage. Thankfully there were a couple of Common Chiffchaffs around for comparison, much darker and more olive-toned. There is believed to be considerable intergradation between Siberian and Common Chiffchaff in the Urals. The key identification feature for Siberian Chiffchaff is the call, but this bird was silent today. Apparently, others have heard it call and confirm that it is indeed a Siberian Chiffchaff. It is likely that Common Chiffchaffs regularly spend the winter in the reedbeds along the coast, but they are not often seen unless they are flooded out, as they have been hear recently.

The group were keen to see Bearded Tits today (even promising to forgive the lack of owls this morning, if we could find some!). A cold and windy winter’s day would not normally seem to be the best conditions for finding them, but they too have been coming out onto the reed debris along the East Bank. We could hear a few calling as we walked on down the bank, but at first all we saw were two Bearded Tits flying up out of the reeds and disappearing off away from us.

When we heard another Bearded Tit call close to the bank, we set off to find it. We were treated to cracking views of a smart male coming down to drink. It dropped down out of the reeds on the other side of the ditch and climbed down the short reed stems on the edge of the water. We had a great view of its powder blue head and black moustache.

6o0a5329Bearded Tit – coming down to drink

Pope’s Marsh and the flooded meadows around the Serpentine are also one of the best spots for birds on the reserve at the moment. There was a great selection of ducks out here today. There were several Pintail, and we got a smart drake in the scope, admiring its long pin-shaped tail as it upended in the shallow water. There were also little groups of Teal and Shoveler sleeping round the water’s edge. Further over, a flock of Wigeon were grazing on the edge of Pope’s pool – we could hear them whistling. A bright female Shelduck was feeding down at the front.

There has been a female Smew around the reserve for almost three weeks now, but it is often elusive. Presumably, it spends a lot of time feeding in the ditches where it cannot be seen. Today we were lucky. As we were scanning through the ducks around the Serpentine, we found it in with some Teal. At first, it was swimming around, but then it walked up onto a strip of mud and went to sleep. We could still see its white cheeks and rusty cap. Smew is an arctic breeding species. Birds disperse south for the winter, but the numbers reaching the UK seem to have dropped considerably in recent years, possibly due to milder winters on the continent. So this is a great bird to see.

img_0262Smew – the female still hanging around the Serpentine with Teal today

It has been a good January for Glaucous Gulls here and it wouldn’t be a day out on the coast (or sometimes inland too!) without seeing one this year. A juvenile Glaucous Gull was out on one of the islands on Pope’s Marsh. Through the scope, we could see its pale wing tips and pink-based, dark-tipped bill. It wasn’t doing much and it didn’t look especially well, so perhaps it was no surprise that it was unfortunately found dead the following day.

img_0257Glaucous Gull – this sickly juvenile was out on Pope’s Marsh

Four Marsh Harriers circled up out of the reedbed and one was chased off by the resident female and flew over our heads and off towards Pope’s Marsh.

6o0a5338Marsh Harrier – one of four, this one circled over our heads

It wouldn’t be a visit to the East Bank without a look at the sea, so we carried on out in that direction. We made a quick stop in the shelter overlooking Arnold’s Marsh. There were good numbers of Dunlin and Redshank on here and, over the back, a large flock of Gadwall. Most of the remaining sections of the old shingle ridge have now been flattened, but a small portion remains just east of the East Bank, so we took shelter from the breeze behind that.

There were a few Red-throated Divers and Guillemots out on the sea, but they were hard to get everyone onto as they were diving constantly. A single Great Crested Grebe was a bit more obliging. A couple of adult Gannets flew past. Then we decided to make our way back for lunch.

More Bearded Tits were requested, and it would have been a shame not to deliver! A male was drinking briefly again, in the same spot we had seen one earlier. Another pair came down to the water’s edge a little further along, but also didn’t linger long. But a female Bearded Tit which came down to bathe was so obliging, we got good views of it through the scope, as it kept climbing down to the water and back up the reed stems to preen.

6o0a5348Bearded Tit – this rather damp female came down to bathe

As we walked back towards the car park, we spotted three geese flying towards us from the east. As they approached, we could see they were White-fronted Geese – we could see their white bill-surrounds and the black belly patches on two of them. Presumably a family party, the two adults were flanking a grey-bellied juvenile.

6o0a5357White-fronted Geese – this family of three flew west overhead

After a break for lunch back at the visitor centre, we made our way east along the coast road to Weybourne. There has been a large flock of several thousand Pink-footed Geese feeding in a harvested sugar-beet field here for a couple of weeks now. As we pulled up, we could immediately see the geese. There appeared to be slightly fewer in here today, but that was perhaps because the geese were scattered over a wider area, with several groups loafing in neighbouring fields. There were some nice close Pink-footed Geese which seemed completely unfazed by our presence, giving us a great view of their pink legs and bill bands.

There have been several Tundra Bean Geese with this group and it didn’t take us long to find one. Their day-glo orange legs can really stand out and although it was asleep, one with the closest group of Pinkfeet was easily picked out. The Tundra Bean Goose woke up and then started feeding, giving us a great view of its bill too – mostly dark like the Pink-footed Geese, but with a bright orange  rather than pink bank around it. A quick scan of the rest of the field revealed at least another six Tundra Bean Geese much further over.

img_0278Tundra Bean Goose – with day-glo orange legs & bill band

Pink-footed Goose is our commonest wintering species, with up to 100,000 coming here for the peak months of winter and the sugar beet harvest. Tundra Bean Goose is much rarer, as we are on the western edge of the wintering range for this species, which is more common in Netherlands and northern Germany. However, it has been a good winter for them this year and they are always great to see in with the flocks of Pinkfeet.

It was starting to get to owl time again, so we made our way back along the coast to Blakeney. It had brightened up nicely for a time, but typically it started to cloud over again and the wind picked up a bit. There is regularly an early Barn Owl out hunting here, but not today. It was a bit exposed out here today, so we decided to make our way back inland, to where it is more sheltered.

Our first circuit of the favoured hunting fields failed to produce any owls. It was starting to look worryingly like we might draw a blank today. We made our way back to one of the grassy fields and got out for a walk. Thankfully at that point our luck changed and a Barn Owl appeared. It did a quick circuit of the back of the field and landed low down in a willow. We just had time to get the scope on it before it was off again and disappeared back out of view. At least that was a start. A Tawny Owl hooted from the trees too.

Time was getting on, so we made our way up to the woods to look for Tawny Owls. There are some meadows next to the woods here which host a pair of Barn Owls. We had a quick scan here while we waited for the Tawny Owl action to start. It was already starting to get dark as one of the Barn Owls finally dropped out of its roost tree. They must be well fed this year, not coming out until so late! It flew round briefly and landed in another tree out of the breeze, where we could get it in the scope.

Then we made our way round to where one of the Tawny Owls likes to roost. We didn’t have to wait long until we heard the first hoot. He was not in the tree he had been using as a roost in recent weeks, but we got a bearing on where he was likely to appear. The next time he hooted, we could see him perched up in the back of the trees, silhouetted against the light. We got him in the scope, before he flew back along the line of trees.

A short while later, the Tawny Owl made his way back towards us through the trees. We couldn’t see him at first, but we could hear his hooting much closer to us. Then a large shape flew out over the trees in front of us on very broad rounded wings and across the path not far from us. It disappeared back into the trees again and seemed to go silent. We walked over in the direction it had disappeared and with a quick whistle, we got an instant response. It hooted a couple of times and then came flying back through the trees and over our heads. It landed again further back, silhouetted against the last of the light.

As it hooted again, another Tawny Owl responded. We walked back to the car surrounded by the hooting of Tawny Owls. Magical stuff!

27th Jan 2017 – Goshawk & Finch Quest

A Private Tour today, down in the Brecks. The weather forecast for today wasn’t great  – cold & cloudy, but with the possibility of some brighter intervals. At least it wasn’t meant to be as bad as the last couple of days, which have been rather foggy and bitterly cold.

The real target for the day was Goshawk. These secretive birds are best looked for early in the year on bright sunny days, when they display above the trees. Needless to say, it was not the best day to look for them weather-wise. However, we were more enthusiastic about our prospects as the sun burnt off the mist as we drove down to the Brecks. For a time, it was sunny and blue sky.

We parked at a regular spot and set off in search of raptors. As we scanned the trees, there seemed to be a good number of Common Buzzards up already, five circling together at one point. A Red Kite drifted over lazily, hanging in the air. As it circled back over the trees, it had a go at a pale Common Buzzard perched in the top of a pine, knocking it off its perch. It all felt quite promising, with the low sun just starting to warm the air a fraction after last night’s frost. But then the mist rolled back in and the temperature dropped again. That wasn’t what the forecast had promised us! There were still Common Buzzards to be seen at times, but raptor activity dropped again noticeably.

There was still the chance that a Goshawk might fly out of the trees, so we waited a while, hoping the weather might improve again. There were other birds to be seen. With the sound of gunfire on the horizon, the Pheasants were hiding around the game cover and a covey of Red-legged Partridges went running along the edge looking for cover. Just a few days more now, and they might have survived the shooting season for this year. Three Yellowhammers flew up from the maize and circled over calling. A Skylark flew past and a Fieldfare and a Mistle Thrush both flew over.

A phone call from a friendly local gave us an alternative target to pursue, so we decided to take a break from looking for raptors. A short drive and we were looking at a Glaucous Gull standing in a field. It was a juvenile, with pale biscuit coloured body, distinctive pale wing tips, and a very striking large bill, pink-based with a ‘dipped in ink’ black tip.

img_0194Glaucous Gull – a juvenile with pale wing tips and distinctive bill

There were lots of other gulls loafing around on the other side of the ploughed field – mainly Common Gulls and Black-headed Gulls, plus a handful of Herring Gulls and a single Lesser Black-backed Gull. Apparently, the Glaucous Gull had earlier been in the middle of them, but it had now flown out into the middle of the ploughed field and was picking around among the furrows on its own.

After looking at the gulls, we resumed our search for a Goshawk but decided on a change of tactic. Rather than wait for one to come out of the trees, we thought we might walk through the forest in an area where we have come across feeding birds before. It was an outside chance, but it was worth a go. We drove round to another secluded part of the forest, but when we got there, we found a car parked at the head of the ride. A couple were already walking down the track, with a couple of dogs. If there were to be a Goshawk hiding in the forest here, it was clear that they would flush it before we got to it. Time for plan C!

Back in the car, and we set off again. We hadn’t gone very far when we looked across at the edge of the trees and saw a large bird circling just above the tops. Presumably just another Buzzard? No, a Goshawk! We pulled up and got out of the car, just in time to see it circle up a little higher and then drop back over the trees and disappear from view. It was a brief view but we had finally managed to find a Goshawk out in the mist.

6o0a5222Goshawk – disappearing away over the trees

Presumably the Goshawk had been flushed out of the trees by the couple walking their dogs. If we had followed them, we certainly wouldn’t have seen it at all. It looked like a young bird – rather dark brownish above.

The weather seemed to be improving a little, so we decided to try one more site to see if we could improve on the views we had just had. We parked by another ride and walked into the forest. After a while, we came to a clearing. A female Stonechat flew ahead of us, and joined up with another pair of Stonechats, the three of them feeding in the grass, perching up on the taller dead seedheads and then dropping down to the ground. We flushed a couple of flocks of Meadow Pipits out of the grass too, as we passed. A Mistle Thrush perched in the top of a holly tree, laden with berries, presumably looking to defend it against anyone else looking to try to feed on them. We scanned the trees all around – a Common Buzzard flew over the tops and several Carrion Crows too, but we couldn’t see anything else.

Around the other side of the clearing, we noticed a very small mammal dead on the path. It was a Pygmy Shrew. It looked like it had been caught and then dropped by something – it had a spot of blood on its belly but otherwise looked untouched. It wouldn’t have made much of a meal!

6o0a5232Pygmy Shrew – dead on the path

As we made our way back to the car, a flock of tits came along the line of deciduous trees by the road. They were mainly Long-tailed Tits that we could see at first, but we heard a Treecreeper calling and looked up into a nearby pine to see a Goldcrest flitting around in the needles. A Marsh Tit started calling and flew across the track and into a beech tree. Then a pair of Nuthatches flew across the road and into the top of a tree the other side, where we could see them climbing up and down.

Our next destination was the picnic area at St Helens. This is a great spot for Bramblings and we were not disappointed. As soon as we pulled into the car park, we saw loads of them flying up from the leaves under the beech trees along the edge. We got out and had a walk round. We managed to find a couple of Bramblings perched in the trees, but they were very mobile at first. Eventually, when we walked back to the car, we found they were all feeding over in that corner. Through the scope, we could see about fifteen on the ground all together, but when they were spooked by something, at least sixty Bramblings flew up into the trees. There were a smaller number of Chaffinches with them too.

6o0a5197Brambling – a male at St Helens, photographed yesterday

6o0a5187Brambling – a duller, greyer faced female

There were lots of nice smart males amongst the Bramblings, with brighter orange breast and shoulders. There was quite a bit of variation though, with some having blacker faces but many still much paler. The black head and upperparts of the male Brambling is obscured by pale feather fringes which gradually wear off during the winter, at different rates in different individuals.

Finally, the sun appeared again and we could see pockets of blue sky overhead once more. It was already lunchtime, so we stopped for a bite to eat in the sunshine. While we were there, two Common Crossbills flew over calling. They appeared to drop down towards the trees by the river but once we had walked round to where we could view them, there was no sign of the birds.

After lunch, we drove over to Lynford Arboretum. The feeders looked largely empty today and there was a tractor working noisily nearby, so we carried on down the track to the bridge. As we approached, we could hear Crossbills calling and looked down ahead of us to see a pair come out of the trees and disappear off towards the paddocks.

6o0a5250Long-tailed Tit – coming to the feeder above the bridge

When we got down to the bridge, there wasn’t any food out here either today, part from one feeder. There were plenty of birds though. There were lots of tits – Blue Tits, Great Tits, Long-tailed Tits and a Coal Tit – coming down to the feeder hanging over the bridge. Other birds were flying down to look around the pillars, where more food is usually put out for them. A Marsh Tit or two came in for a look. A Reed Bunting did the same.

6o0a5251Marsh Tit – came in to look for food at the bridge

There were lots of Siskins in the trees, we could hear their constant chattering calls. Most of them were in the tops of the poplars, but one or two came down to drink lower down.

As we started to walk towards the paddocks, we heard a Common Crossbill call and turned round just in time to see it land in the top of the poplars briefly, before dropping down into the trees. Presumably it too had come in to drink. It was no more than a glimpse though. Thankfully, we were finally rewarded with better views when another pair of Crossbills flew in calling and landed in the poplars. These two remained there for some time, allowing us to get them in the scope. We could see their distinctive crossed mandible tips, an orange/red male and a green/yellow female.

6o0a5257Common Crossbill – finally a pair landed so we could get them in the scope

It was already Hawfinch time now, so we hurried down along the paddocks. There have been some very large numbers here in recent weeks, unprecedented in recent years. High counts of 60-80 have been recorded (last night, there were at least 40). The birds fly in late in the day to gather in the trees. From the side of the paddock, we could see at least eight Hawfinches already in the tops of the pines. We got them in the scope, but they were a bit distant from here.

We made our way round to the other side. We wouldn’t be able to count them from here, but we hoped for a better view. We were not disappointed! Over the next half an hour, we had a succession of Hawfinches perched up in the tops of the trees. First a rather pale, grey-brown female. Then a very smart male Hawfinch. Then a group of five in the same tree together, which were promptly joined by two more. It was a real Hawfinch-fest! We got them in the scope, admiring their massive bills, surrounded with black bib and face mask. At one point, the birds in the trees nearest to us flew up and we could see at least twenty all in the air together. Great stuff!

img_0220Hawfinch – lots around this afternoon & great views

Eventually the Hawfinches nearest us started to drop down into the trees. We started to make our way back, round the paddocks. Looking across, we could still see at least twelve Hawfinches still in the tops of the pines, including eight together. These were in a different section of the trees to where we had been able to see earlier, so were probably different birds. Who know how many Hawfinches there were there this afternoon? Certainly a lot! It was quite a treat to see so many.

Delighted with the performance from the Hawfinches, we made our way back to the car park. We had a quick look at the gravel pits the other side of the road, but they were still mostly frozen. A few Mute Swans stood around on the ice and a melee of Gadwall and Tufted Ducks were packed into the small area of open water. Then it was time to call it a day and head for home. Despite the beat efforts of the weather, we had enjoyed a very successful day in the Brecks.

22nd Jan 2017 – Winter Birds & Owls, Day 3

Day 2 of a three day long weekend of Winter & Owl Tours, our final day. Once again, it was a frosty start and then a gloriously sunny winter’s day, great weather for being out. We headed up to north-west Norfolk today.

Our first destination was Titchwell, but on the way there we spotted a large flock of Brent Geese in a field beside the road. The winter wheat was coated with frost and they were huddled together in a tight group. We stopped for a quick look – they looked quite smart in the early sunshine.

6o0a4152Brent Geese – huddled together in a tight flock on a frosty morning

The car park at Titchwell wasn’t too full yet. A couple of Long-tailed Tits appeared on the sunny edge of the trees opposite as we parked up. Then we made our way down to the visitor centre. There were not too may birds on the feeders yet, a few tits and a Goldfinch or two, but more action below where several Moorhens, Blackbirds, Dunnocks and Chaffinches were tidying up the spillage.

There were a few birds up in the alders nearby, mostly Goldfinches. But a careful look through revealed a Redpoll. It was quickly joined by three more. We got them in the scope and confirmed they were Mealy Redpolls, quite pale around the face, grey brown above with prominent pale lines down the middle of their mantles and, when they hung upside down and parted their wings, we could see the pale ground colour to their rumps. One was a smart male, with a lovely pink wash on its breast, in addition to the darker red poll on the front of its head.

img_0081Mealy Redpoll – four were feeding in the alders by the visitor centre

img_0098Mealy Redpoll – one of the four was a very smart pink-breasted male

When the Mealy Redpolls flew back away from us through the trees, we set off onto the reserve. A careful look in the ditch by the path revealed a Water Rail. We watched it for a while, digging in the leaf litter on the side before running further along in the water in the bottom. While we were standing there, a Sparrowhawk zoomed low through the trees only a few metres in front of us.

6o0a4234Water Rail – in the ditch by the main path

As we came out of the trees, the reserve was quite a picture, with the low winter sun catching on the tops of the reeds. A quick stop by the now dry again Thornham grazing marsh pool revealed a single Water Pipit feeding out on the mud. We had a good look at it before it wandered over to one side and disappeared into the rushes.

On the other side of the path, the reedbed pool was almost completely frozen. A pair of Mute Swans had managed to crack through the ice and created a small pool for themselves right in the middle. A Marsh Harrier circled up out of the reeds at the back. We heard a Cetti’s Warbler sing half-heartedly from the brambles in the reedbed and looked across just in time to see it fly down and disappear into the reeds.

The freshmarsh was also almost completely frozen. A Little Grebe was diving in the one area of open water around the tallest island over in the back corner. It was surrounded by ducks – Mallard, Gadwall and Teal – also trying to feed. More ducks were standing around in groups on the ice, sleeping.

A large flock of waders flew up from the fenced off island. We could hear Golden Plover calling and a couple of smaller groups broke away from the larger numbers of Lapwing and headed off inland. With the water levels still very high on here, there were not very many islands left poking out of the ice. A small muddy remnant over towards Parrinder Hide held three Ringed Plover, as well as a few Lapwing and a lone Golden Plover. Otherwise, that was about it for waders on here today, not a surprise given the ice.

6o0a4170Bar-tailed Godwit – our first of the day, on the Volunteer Marsh

There was more to see on the Volunteer Marsh, though that too was fairly icy today, despite the salinity of the water on there these days. A Bar-tailed Godwit seemed to be finding plenty of food in the mud, despite it sliding around on the ice. A couple of Knot down on the edge of the channel below the path were joined by two Dunlin, giving us a nice opportunity to compare them side by side. There were also a couple of Grey Plover and several Redshanks on here.

6o0a4184Knot – one of two along the edge of Volunteer Marsh today

More birds were hiding out on the Tidal Pools, which had not frozen. The Avocets had come on here from the freshmarsh, about 13 of them braving out the winter in Norfolk, and they were sleeping on the spit at the back. There were also more godwits on here, as well as a few more Bar-tailed Godwits there were a couple of close Black-tailed Godwits too, always good to get a chance to compare these two very similar species.

There were more duck on here than usual, lots of roosting Teal and Shoveler around the edges. Over towards the back, we could see several Pintail asleep too. The Little Grebes are always on here in the winter, but they were very close to the path today. We watched them diving, puffing out their feathers when they surfaced and then flattening them down again just before going back underwater.

6o0a4197Little Grebe – diving close to the main path on the Tidal Pools

Our main targets here today were out at the sea. We stood up in the dunes with the sun on our backs and scanned the water. There have been good numbers of sea duck here in recent weeks and counts have continued to climb in the last few days. They were a little distant today, but we were not disappointed. The first thing we saw were the Long-tailed Ducks. They were hard to count, as birds were diving constantly, but there were at least 100 all together in one enormous raft, probably more. In recent years, numbers of wintering Long-tailed Duck in Norfolk have been quite low, so to see this many together is a real treat.

Further out we could see a huge raft of scoter. They would be predominantly Common Scoter, but they were too far off to sort through properly. Thankfully, there was a long line of much closer birds. Again, they were mainly Common Scoter but looking through them carefully, we could see a good number of Velvet Scoter with them too. The female Common Scoter have extensive pale cheeks, but the female Velvet Scoter have two smaller white dots on their faces. On some, you could also see the white wing flash on the Velvet Scoter and one helpfully flew past, showing off the white patch in the wing perfectly.

In with the closer group of scoter was a single Scaup. It was a first winter drake, its upperparts now quite extensively grey as it gradually moults out of its brown juvenile plumage. We could also see a few Goldeneye scattered over the sea. Four Common Pochard flew round out over the rafts of seaduck, presumably looking for somewhere to go, with so much water inland frozen over.

There were plenty of Great Crested Grebe out on the water, but one of the reserve volunteers picked up a couple of smaller grebes with them, two Slavonian Grebes. We had hoped to see some divers too, but they were all rather distant. There were a few Red-throated Divers moving again, but eventually we located a single Black-throated Diver on the sea. Even if it was a long way off, we could see the distinctive white rear flank patch between dives.

That seemed like a great selection of birds for the sea, so we decided to make our way back. As we passed the Volunteer Marsh, a Kingfisher whizzed in from the saltmarsh and disappeared away over the mud, too fast for everyone to get onto. Thankfully, as we were almost back to the grazing marsh pool, another Kingfisher flew right past us and dropped down into one of the channels on the saltmarsh. Again, they were probably looking for places to feed with much of the fresh water frozen over.

There was a small crowd on the main path staring out at the saltmarsh, so we stopped to look. Down in the grass, we could see a Jack Snipe. They have a very distinctive feeding action – bobbing up and down all the time, as if their legs are on springs – so we knew immediately what it was. Through the scope, we had a great view of it.

img_0122Jack Snipe – feeding out on the edge of the saltmarsh

Then it was back to the car, stopping briefly to admire another Water Rail on the other side of the path to the one we had seen earlier this morning. There were also two Muntjac under the sallows and while we were looking at them, yet another Water Rail scurried past.

It was already lunchtime, but we decided to drive the short distance to Thornham Harbour and eat there. We couldn’t find any sign of the Twite around the harbour, but it was perhaps not a surprise as it was unusually busy here today, with lots of people out for a walk in the winter sunshine. We did hear a Spotted Redshank calling and turned in time to see it fly round over the saltmarsh and drop down out of view. Another Kingfisher was perched on a mud bank out along the edge of the harbour, glowing electric blue in the sun.

After lunch, we walked out along the bank towards Holme. When we got out to the dunes where we could look out over Broadwater, we were not surprised to find that it was mostly frozen. A few ducks, mostly Mallard and Gadwall, were sleeping around the edge of the reeds. There were more ducks further over, but the light was not so good from here – we were looking into the sun. Still, we could see a nice selection, including a few Tufted Ducks and Common Pochard. But there was no sign of the Ferruginous Duck from here, so we decided to walk round to the other side of Broadwater for a better look.

From round on the boardwalk by the NOA Car Park Hide, it didn’t take us long to find the Ferruginous Duck. It was asleep at first, over by the edge with all the other ducks, but we could see its distinctive rust-coloured body plumage and bright white undertail. Even with its head tucked in while sleeping, it would open its eye occasionally and we could see the white iris. Then it was disturbed by one of the Mallards and woke up, swimming out into the middle of the water to join the local Tufted Ducks. It didn’t stay there long and promptly swam back to the bank and went back to sleep.

img_0152Ferruginous Duck – woke up and swam out into the middle with the Tufted Ducks

Ferruginous Duck is a very scarce visitor to the UK, from southern Europe and further east. However, it is also a very common duck in captivity, and it is always hard to tell whether the ones which turn up here have come from the wild population or escaped from someone’s collection. Still, it is an interesting bird to see.

While we were watching the Ferruginous Duck, we could hear a Fieldfare calling. We looked round to see it perched in the top of a bush by the car park. We got it in the scope and had a look at it, but as soon as the camera came out, a Magpie hopped up through the bush and flushed it. It was a shame, as it looked very smart in the winter sunshine.

We walked back to the beach and stopped for a quick scan of the sea. One of the first birds we set eyes on was a Black-throated Diver. It was much closer than the one we had seen earlier at Titchwell. It was still hard to get everyone onto, as it was diving constantly, but we all got a really good look at it in the end. There was another first winter male Scaup off Holme too. We could also see quite a few Red-breasted Mergansers out on the water and a small group of Eider. A close-in Guillemot was nice to see too.

There were a few seals out to sea as usual. We could see a crowd gathered further along the beach to the east, on the edge of the water, but only when they moved round could we see that they had been surrounding a Grey Seal pup. We walked over and the crowd had largely dispersed as we arrived. The pup seemed to be breathing heavily and had shown no signs of moving when everyone had been so close to it, so we messaged one of the reserve wardens about it, just in case.

6o0a4240Grey Seal pup – on the beach at Holme

We left the seal pup on the beach and made our way back up through the dunes and along the seawall back to Thornham Harbour. There was still not sign of the Twite, but we did see a Greenshank in the harbour and a Stonechat perched on a bush by the seawall. Out across the grazing marshes, a Sparrowhawk was perched on a post in the distance.

The sun was already starting to sink in the sky and the temperature was dropping again. We made our way inland and started to drive round the farmland inland. We could see lots of Yellowhammers flying round in the hedges and so we pulled up in a convenient layby. In the small tree in the hedge nearby, we could see a single Corn Bunting – it was immediately obvious, given its much larger size. Then all the buntings flew and disappeared across the field behind the hedge.

We carried on our drive and eventually came to another place where lots of birds have been feeding in a plot planted with wild bird seed cover. The hedge beside the field was full of birds, masses of Reed Buntings and a good number of Yellowhammers too. We could hear Tree Sparrows calling and looked along the hedge to see several perched up with all the buntings, we counted at least eight there and at least another two calling in the hedge behind us. Tree Sparrows are an increasingly rare bird in southern Britain, so it was great to see them still clinging on here.

img_0160Buntings – the hedge was full of Reed Buntings and Yellowhammers

The birds in the hedge would gradually thin out, as they flew down into the field to feed. Then, periodically something would spook them and the field would erupt and everything would fly back to the hedge. When it did, we could see there were lots of Chaffinches here too, but they would fly up into the tops of the trees rather than into the hedge with the buntings.

It was great to watch all these birds – bringing back memories of how winter flocks in farmland used to be everywhere. But the light was starting to fade now as the sun began to set, so it was time to head for home, after a fantastic three days of winter birding.

21st Jan 2017 – Winter Birds & Owls, Day 2

Day 2 of a three day long weekend of Winter & Owl Tours, and we headed down to the Norfolk Broads today. It was frosty overnight and cloudy today, although it did brighten up a bit later on and there was no sign of any of the forecast patchy fog.

Our first stop was at Ludham. The field which had held all the swans last time we were down was looking comparatively empty today. There were six Bewick’s Swans here – we got them in the scope and could see the squared off yellow on the adults’ bills – but no sign of the rest of the big herd. The large flock of Egyptian Geese were still here though – about 30 today.

6o0a4076Egyptian Goose – part of the large flock still at Ludham

This is a good vantage point from which to scan the rest of the old airfield and we could see some more white shapes distantly away to the north. So we set off round to the other side for a closer look. Sure enough, we found the rest of the swans, though they were separated into two groups. We stopped by the first group which were feeding in a winter wheat field. There were 73 swans in total in this field – 13 Whooper Swans and 60 Bewick’s Swans. Another two pairs of Bewick’s Swans flew in calling and dropped down to join them.

6o0a4089Whooper & Bewick’s Swans – part of the herd between Ludham & Catfield

It is always nice to see the two species side by side. Next to the Bewick’s Swans, the Whooper Swans are much larger and longer necked. Their bills are also proportionately longer, and the yellow on the bill extends down towards the tip in a pointed wedge. In contrast, the Bewick’s Swans’ yellow is more restricted and squared off. There was also a lone Pink-footed Goose in the field with them.

6o0a4086Bewick’s & Whooper Swans – nicely showing the size & bill differences

Having had a good look at this group of swans, we drove a little further up the road and found a much larger herd. There was no easy place to stop here, but we managed a quick count – there were at least 108 birds in total, again a mixture of Whooper Swans and Bewick’s Swans, and predominantly the latter.

Our next target was to find some Cranes. We drove further into the Broads and stopped at a convenient vantage point from where we can see across an area where we know they like to feed. A quick scan of the marshes and we could see a single Crane some distance away, so we got out of the car and set up the scopes. Now there was no sign of it! For a bird which stands over a metre tall, they can be very hard to see and it had walked some distance along behind some reeds. As it walked back out, we could see there were two Cranes and then they took to the air and we could see there were actually four of them.

6o0a4099Cranes – a family party, two adults and two juveniles

The Cranes flew off behind some trees but a minute or so later they reappeared again. At the same time, another pair of Cranes appeared and flew over past them and disappeared from view. When the part of four landed back down on the marshes, we looked across to see yet another pair still down in the field beyond, making eight birds in total. Not a bad start to our Crane viewing!

We got the scopes on the party of four Cranes and could see there were two brighter adults and two duller grey juveniles, with less well-marked head patterns. We watched them walking around on the grass feeding.

img_0001Cranes – the family of four were feeding out on the marshes

After a helpful tip off from some locals that the Taiga Bean Geese were showing at Buckenham, we made our way straight over there next. After walking over the railway line, we stopped on the track and scanned the grazing marshes. Sure enough, we could see the six Taiga Bean Geese out in the grass towards their favoured corner. We had a look at them from here, through the scope, then quickly scanned the rest of the marshes.

There were a couple of Chinese Water Deer feeding out on the grass in front, so we stopped to have a good look at those. While we did so, we heard a Redpoll calling and watched it drop into a large bush overhanging one of the ditches. It had presumably come in to bathe or drink, because it quickly dropped down out of view. We walked round to the other side of the bush but couldn’t see it, then as we made our way back, three Redpolls flew off calling. Next, a single Siskin dropped in to the same bush but, more helpfully, it perched in the top for a few seconds so we could get a look at it. There were also two Redwings which flew in and landed in the tops of the trees the other side of the railway line.

We decided to walk down along the platform to try to get a closer look at the Taiga Bean Geese. Unfortunately, by this stage they had walked back further across the marshes, so were still not especially close. Still, when they put their heads up we could see the more extensive orange on their bills, compared to the Tundra Beans we had seen yesterday.

img_0009Taiga Bean Goose – 1 of the 6 still at Buckenham, helpfully with its head up

Back to the track, and we walked on down towards the river. There were not many Wigeon beside the track today – they were all much further out, across the back of the marshes. A smart adult Peregrine was perched out on a tussock, so had possibly flushed all the wildfowl from this side. The Common Snipe were also very nervous – at least thirty of them flew up from the marshes and circled round before dropping back down onto the edge of one of the channels in a tight flock.

There were lots more geese further over, towards the river, the majority being Pink-footed Geese. As we walked along, we periodically stopped to scan through them. In the first group nearest to us we found two White-fronted Geese. When they put their heads up we could see the white surround to their bills and their black belly bars. There were lots more White-fronted Geese scattered through the flocks of Pinkfeet further back too.

img_0046White-fronted Geese – two were with the nearest group of Pinkfeet

Out by the river, the pools were partly frozen and devoid of ducks. We had a quick look at the river itself from up on the bank, but all we could see were a few ducks, Mallard, Teal and Wigeon. In the field by the hide, a pair of Stonechats were feeding, perching on the taller dead seedheads. It was cold out on the marshes, exposed to the chill of the light wind, so we decided to head back. The Stonechats lead the way, and we met them again half way back.

6o0a4115Stonechat – a pair were feeding on the marshes at Buckenham

Strumpshaw Fen provided a sheltered picnic table for lunch, and the option of a hot drink from the visitor centre. The pool by Reception Hide was still largely frozen and most of the ducks were feeding in the small patch of open water by the reeds, or standing around on the ice. There were quite a few Gadwall, plus a handful of Teal and Shoveler, and the ubiquitous Mallards. The Black Swan had found somewhere quieter, a little further back.

6o0a4140Gadwall, Teal, Shoveler & Mallard – around the small area of open water

While we were eating lunch, we kept one eye on the feeders nearby. There was a steady stream of Blue Tits and Great Tits coming and going. Periodically a Marsh Tit would dart in, grab a sunflower heart, and dart back out to the bushes behind. A single Coal Tit popped in briefly too. Nearby, in the trees, a Lesser Redpoll appeared in the tops briefly. Some mournful piping calls alerted us to a smart male Bullfinch, which flew in and landed in a tree briefly, before flying off over towards the railway.

After lunch, we drove round via Halvergate. The four Cattle Egrets which were here at the start of January have now been reduced to one and even that only seems to visit here very occasionally. We had a quick look but couldn’t see it. Just a single Little Egret flew up from the grass and dropped down behind some reeds further over.

Haddiscoe Island is a great place for raptors and owls, so we wanted to have a look there next. There has been a Rough-legged Buzzard here this winter, but at first all we could find were a few Common Buzzards, including a stunningly pale one with very white underparts.

We could hear Bearded Tits calling so we stopped by the reeds and managed to find four feeding in the tops. Two males with powder blue heads and black moustaches and two browner females, we had a great view of them.

img_0054Bearded Tit – one of the males feeding in the reeds

There were lots of other raptors too. A Merlin had a dogfight with a pipit, climbing high into the air, the two birds jinking and swooping in unison, before the Merlin eventually lost interest. A little later, we found another, a smart male Merlin perched on a gatepost, with a Sparrowhawk on another gate nearby. A ghostly grey male Hen Harrier worked its way backwards and forwards over the grass. A Barn Owl flew up and down along the river banks.Time was running out, and we were about to leave when we finally found the Rough-legged Buzzard perched on a post out on Haddiscoe Island.

Our final destination for the day was Stubb Mill. Given the time we spent at Haddiscoe, we were later than we had hoped for getting back round there. On the way, we passed the area where we had seen the Cranes earlier just as the family of four took off to fly to roost. We could see them from the car as they flew over the trees parallel with us. We left them behind, but were stopped by some roadworks further along. Once we eventually got through the lights, we found the four Cranes had overtaken us and nearly flew over the car. On the walk out to the watchpoint, we were treated to the evocative sound of Cranes bugling beyond the trees. We were a bit late this evening, but thankfully, when we got there, it didn’t sound like we had missed anything yet.

There were already a few Marsh Harriers in to roost, perched out in the bushes in the reeds. A steady stream of more Marsh Harriers flew in to join them, coming in from all different directions. It didn’t take long for the first Hen Harrier to appear, another grey male, flying in through the bushes at the back, over the reeds. A short while later, a ringtail Hen Harrier flew in too, a little closer, along the front edge of the reeds. It was hotting up!

There were other birds here too. A flock of Fieldfares were hiding down in the grass behind the reeds until they flew up and all landed in a low hawthorn bush, where we could get them in the scope. A Tawny Owl hooted from the trees behind us. A Barn Owl flew in across the marshes and round behind the mill.

The two resident Cranes were hiding behind the reeds – we could just see the occasional head pop up for a second. Then we spotted another pair coming in to roost, flying in distantly to the east, over beyond Horsey Mill, before dropping down behind the bushes. It seemed like that might be it, until just when most people had started to leave, we heard Cranes calling away to the north. We scanned over in that direction and picked up a large flock flying in, twenty Cranes, all in the air together. It was quite a spectacle!

The Cranes were in two groups. Eleven of them appeared to drop down into the reeds, and three more peeled off from the other nine, which had been slightly ahead of them. These three turned back and seemed to go down towards where the eleven had gone. The final six Cranes carried on, flying steadily south and right past in front of the watchpoint. A great sight! As they flew over calling, the resident pair bugled back to them and finally emerged from where they had been hiding. That was a perfect way to end the day – 24 Cranes in total this evening, taking our total for the day to a whopping 32.

We walked back with flocks of White-fronted Geese and Pink-footed Geese heading off to roost and with the sound of more Cranes bugling still across the marshes.

20th Jan 2017 – Winter Birds & Owls, Day 1

Day 1 of a three day long weekend of Winter & Owl Tours today. It was a very frosty start but it turned into a beautiful winter’s day, with clear skies and sunshine. A great day for winter birding.

Leaving Wells, we headed inland. We were looking for owls first thing this morning, but with the combination of a frost on the ground and some warming early sunshine, we thought it might be worth a quick look around New Holkham. There has been a Great Grey Shrike here for the last couple of weeks, but it is obviously wandering over a huge area as it has only been seen on two days in all that time! As we drove along, the first birds we saw were two Red Kites perched in a tree in the sunshine. A little further along, we found a Common Buzzard standing on the top of a hedge. The raptors were out warming themselves in the sun, at least. But the shrike had not read the script and there was no sign of it in a very quick look round.

Continuing on, we came across a nice selection of farmland wildlife. There were several Brown Hares in the fields and two chasing after each other suggested that a mad March may not be far off. A couple of round lumps in a winter wheat field turned out to be a pair of Grey Partridge fluffed up against the cold – we could see the male’s black belly patch and orange face, as he watched the female feeding. A Pheasant‘s bright plumage glowed in the sunshine.

We checked out a couple of owl sites on the way, but there was no sign of any Barn Owls or Little Owls at first. However, at the third place we stopped  we immediately found ourselves watching a rather distant Little Owl. Scanning the other farm buildings periodically, a second appeared and eventually a third Little Owl, the latter much closer. It was also more active, presumably having just come out of its roost to enjoy the warming rays. It stood preening for a while, before flying up and down the roof.

img_9937Little Owl – we eventually found three enjoying the morning sun

There were lots of other birds to see here too. A smart male Yellowhammer flew up and landed on a tree in front of us. A large flock of Lapwing flew up from a stubble field, along with several Curlews. A small flock of Golden Plover flew overhead calling plaintively. Three Stock Doves took off from one of the barns and circled round. A small skein of Pink-footed Geese flew past and several flocks of Brent Geese came up from the direction of the coast and disappeared off inland, looking for a field of winter wheat to feed on. Another Red Kite flapped lazily across in front of the trees in the distance. It was a typical Norfolk winter farm scene, even including the banging gunfire in the distance from the local Pheasant shoot!

6o0a3933Brent Geese – heading inland from the coast to feed on the fields

Our next stop of the day was Sheringham. Even as we made our way down to the prom, we could see a large pale gull on the sea in front of us. A quick look through binoculars confirmed it was a cracking adult Glaucous Gull. There has been a small invasion of these arctic ‘white-winged’ gulls in the last few weeks, and several of them have been feeding along the beach here. We watched it swim across and climb out onto one of the wooden groynes, where we had a great view of it through the scope.

6o0a3958Glaucous Gull – a very smart adult with white wing tips

Looking across to the next groyne along, we could see another large and rather pallid gull, but this one was a juvenile Glaucous Gull. The adult dropped down to the sea and swam across, before chasing the juvenile off its perch. As the juvenile flew past us, we could see its pale wingtips, not white like the adult’s but still about the palest part of it’s plumage. The Glaucous Gulls have been feeding on the remains of a dead seal, washed up onto the beach after last week’s storms, but there was no sign of it today. Either the sea washed it away overnight or it has been ‘tidied’ up.

The juvenile Glaucous Gull landed again on another groyne, a short way back along the prom. We walked back for a closer look. Through the scope we could see its distinctive bill – large, with a bright pink base and squared off black tip looking like it had been dipped in ink. Helpfully, there was a nice selection of gulls on the posts here. The Glaucous Gull was about as big as the Great Black-backed Gull next door, and they both dwarfed a Herring Gull on the next post.

6o0a3972Glaucous Gull – a juvenile with a ‘dipped in ink’ bill tip

Having enjoyed fantastic views of the two Glaucous Gulls, we set off along the prom towards the east end. There were lots of Turnstones, and a little group were feeding on the grassy bank right beside the path as we passed. Scanning the rocky sea defenses further along, we found the Purple Sandpiper which is spending the winter here. Its upperparts looked sort of purple-toned through the scope, and we could see its orange bill base and legs. It was picking around on the seaweed and algae covered rocks on the edge of the sea.

6o0a3980Purple Sandpiper – on the rocky sea defenses at Sheringham

Looking out to sea, we could see a steady passage of Red-throated Divers, all heading east in little groups of two or three. A few Guillemots flew past too, and we also managed to find a couple on the sea. One was a regular pale-faced winter plumage individual but one of the Guillemots was already in summer plumage, with a blackish-brown head.

Making our way back west along the coast road, we could see a huge throng of geese in a recently harvested sugar beet field, so we stopped for a closer look. They were mostly Pink-footed Geese, which have been coming in here over the last few days to feed on the beet tops left behind after the beet itself has been harvested. Thankfully, another local birder was there and quickly got us on to two of the Tundra Bean Geese which have been with them. Through the scope, they were easiest to pick out from the Pink-footed Geese by their bright orange legs but we could also see the heavier bill with orange band on the Tundra Bean Geese.

At that point, the geese in one corner of the field started to fly up. Most of them landed again further over, and we were just getting everyone on to a couple of White-fronted Geese when the whole field erupted. There were thousands of geese circling nervously overhead calling. It was quite a sight to watch and listen to all the geese flying round. We looked across to see a farm worker in a tractor driving round the edge of the field. After he had driven round two sides and back again, and then round in front of us and down the fourth side for good measure, we started to think he had probably just flushed the geese for the sake of it!

6o0a3990Pink-footed Geese – around 5,000 were in fields at Weybourne today

Eventually all the geese started to fly off west and we decided to join them. It was fortunate there was someone to show us where the Tundra Bean Geese were, as there were apparently only 8-9 in with 5,000 Pinkfeet and we would not have had time to search through the flock on our own before they were flushed.

Our next stop was at Kelling. The floods along the coast after last weekend’s storm surge have largely receded now, but they have left behind large amounts of debris, particularly reed litter washed out from the bottom of the reedbeds at Cley and Salthouse. With large quantities of seed mixed in with it, this debris has been a bonus for seed eating birds. The flock of Snow Buntings which had been feeding on the shingle ridge before the storm surge have now taken to feeding on the tide line where all this debris has been deposited.

We were warned as we walked down along the track past the Water Meadow that the Snow Buntings had earlier been pushed further and further along the lane by people watching them, and it was perhaps no surprise that we couldn’t find them at first. We did find a pair of Stonechats feeding along the tideline, accompanied by a Chiffchaff which had probably been forced out of the reedbed by the floods. There were also a couple of Reed Buntings and a few Meadow Pipits.

6o0a3999Reed Bunting – a couple were feeding on the reed debris left behind by the flood

Looking over towards the shingle ridge, we could see a small group of birders gathered and then a small group of Snow Buntings flew up from the ground near to them. The birds had obviously gone over to that side when they had been flushed. There was no sign of them coming back, so we set off to walk round there. Needless to say, we got half way round to be told that they had just flown back again! Thankfully, when we returned there the Snow Buntings were now feeding happily on the debris again and we had a great look at them. They may have given us the runaround, but we got there in the end!

6o0a4020Snow Buntings – feeding on the reed debris left behind by the floods

There were at least 40 Snow Buntings here, though they were hard to count as they rooted in and out of the piles of dead reeds. Periodically, they would fly round in a little whirl, white wings flashing, before landing back down to feed.

With our mission finally accomplished, we set off back to the car and made our way along the coast towards Cley for a later than planned lunch. We had to make one more unscheduled stop on the way though, as a Barn Owl appeared over the field behind Walsey Hills. It flew towards us and then crossed the road, going right past us over the verge the other side. A stunning view!

6o0a4029Barn Owl – flew past us along the coast road at Cley

The reserve at Cley is closed after the floods, but after lunch we had a quick scan of the scrapes from the Visitor Centre. There was no sign of the Smew which had been seen here this morning but we did see a couple of pairs of Pintail, the drakes looking very smart now with their long pin-shaped tails. A couple of Marsh Harriers quartered over the reedbed.

We headed out along the East Bank next. There were lots of Golden Plover out on the grass, now the flood waters have receded. In amongst them, were good numbers of diminutive grey and white Dunlin. A couple of Common Snipe flew down along the grassy edge just beyond the channel and landed next to a Lapwing right in front of us, giving us great views of them through the scope. Further over, we found a couple of Black-tailed Godwit and a lone Ruff. A Grey Plover feeding on the grass had possibly been forced over from Arnolds Marsh, which is still flooded.

6o0a4035Lapwing – on the grazing marsh below the East Bank at Cley

There was a nice selection of ducks out here too. There were several more Pintail and again we stopped to admire a couple of very smart drakes. We also found a couple of Gadwall and a few Shoveler which were new for the day. Some Brent Geese were feeding nervously out on the grass but got spooked by something and flew off calling. A lone Little Grebe was diving out on the water at the back. A Little Egret looked stunning in the late afternoon sun down in front of us, trying to stir up the mud below the water with its feet, hoping to disturb something tasty to eat.

6o0a4045Little Egret – feeding on the pools off the East Bank

Scanning the edges of the marshes carefully, we came across a large pale gull sitting down on a muddy bank. On closer inspection, it was another juvenile Glaucous Gull, our third Glaucous Gull of the day. As we walked further along the bank, it finally woke up and had a fly round over the water.

We had a quick look out to sea from the end of the East Bank. As at Sheringham earlier, there were several Red-throated Divers still moving past, but this time we also managed to find a couple of them on the sea. There were also a few more Guillemots. A distant Gannet flew past offshore. Then it was time to head back.

Turning off the coast road and heading inland, we hadn’t gone very far when we found another Barn Owl. It was hunting out over a grassy field, flying round and round. It dropped down into the grass and when it came up again it flew over onto a fence post nearby. It appeared to have caught something but by the time we got the scope onto the Barn Owl, whatever had been caught had already been eaten.

6o0a4071Barn Owl – our second of the day, taking a break from hunting

Then the Barn Owl was off again, doing a quick circuit of the back of the field, before flying over the hedge at the back. We caught up with it briefly as it flew across the field next door and then it was off again back and out of view. As we turned to walk back to the car, a small flock of about 40 geese flew overhead. We could just see the distinctive black belly bars of White-fronted Geese before the flew off away from us.

It was almost time to look for Tawny Owls, so we made our way over to where we hoped to see them. It was such a bright evening that we had enough time for a quick look at some wet meadows nearby and were rewarded with another two Barn Owls out hunting. We could hear a Song Thrush singing in the trees behind us, the first we have heard this year. Perhaps it knows something we don’t, that spring is not far away? Then it was time to get into position.

It was a slow start this evening. The Tawny Owls were not hooting much again and were rather late to emerge from the roost tonight. A muffled hoot did alert us to the fact that the nearest male had moved roost tree tonight, but then he went silent. It looked like we might be out of luck, but then a large dark shape flew towards us through the trees on big, rounded wings. Even better, it perched up in a tree in front of us. We all had a great view of it through binoculars as it perched looking at us for a few seconds. Then it was off again through the trees.

We followed after the Tawny Owl, but without him hooting he would be hard to locate. A quick whistle from us and we were rewarded with a hoot in reply. Another whistle, and we thought we might be able to work out where he was perched, but instead a dark shape whistled past us only a few metres away and low over the ground – he had flown past to check us out! Unfortunately, it was getting dark now and with him so low through the trees he was all but impossible to see, but then he started hooting again behind us. It was time to leave him in peace, but what a great way to end a day of winter birds and owls!

 

14th Jan 2017 – Owling Wind

The first Owl Tour of the year today. After gales, snow and a storm surge along the coast yesterday, the weather was much, much better today. But it was still cold in the wind which remained a rather blustery NW, and we were thankfully close to the car when a couple of wintry showers hit us during the morning. The afternoon was better, with the wind easing a bit and blue skies. Not a bad day to be out and we did very well.

After meeting in Blakeney, we had a quick drive round the back roads to see if any Barn Owls were still out hunting – or had come out to find food after a difficult night – but it was still rather too windy. A stop down by the river produced a few nice birds. A Kingfisher went zooming off over the reeds as we approached. A Cetti’s Warbler called from the dense vegetation by the water, but then showed nicely. A Siskin flew over without stopping, but a Yellowhammer dropped into the top of a tree nearby briefly.

Several small groups of Pink-footed Geese flew overhead calling, heading inland along the river valley. A short while later, we looked away to the south and saw a huge cloud of Pink-footed Geese come up from behind the trees. They had obviously been flushed from the fields, possibly from a recently harvested sugar beet field on which they had been feeding.

After the storms yesterday, coinciding with a very high spring tide, the coastal marshes between Cley and Kelling had been flooded overnight. We drove over the back roads and walked down to the coast road at Salthouse. It was a sorry sight. The road itself, the main A149, was completely underwater. All the grazing marshes between the coast road and the beach were flooded – to all intents and purposes, they looked like the sea. We could see the top of the shingle ridge and some big waves still beyond.

img_4132Salthouse – the coast road underwater and the flooded grazing marshes

img_9854Salthouse – looking E along the flooded coast road from the village green

The houses in the village seemed to have escaped any damage but most of the avian residents of the marshes had been rendered homeless. We could hear Bearded Tits calling from a flooded patch of brambles the other side of the ‘road’ and looked over to see seven of them climb up to the top. They should be out in the middle of the reedbed, but the reedbed was underwater and they were desperately searching for anywhere to hide. They flew up calling, over the water, but quickly dropped back again into the garden of the pub.

A Common Snipe flew in across the water and tried to land in the strip of vegetation which would have been the far verge of the road. But it struggled to find any dry land there and it quickly flew on west. Presumably it had been spending the winter out on the grazing marshes before the flood.

Looking up, a drake Goosander flew low over the village towards us and then disappeared off west towards Cley. There have been a few on the move in the last day or so, presumably birds moving off the continent in response to colder weather, to spend the rest of the winter here. At that point, a squally shower blew in from the sea and we beat a quick retreat, back to the car.

Heading back west, we drove out of the clouds and started looking for owls again. The weather didn’t seem particularly conducive – even though it wasn’t raining, it was still windy and cold. However, at one of our regular sites we struck gold. We very quickly found a rather distant Little Owl, sheltering under the roof on a distant farm building. Nearby, a second Little Owl was doing the same. We had a look at them through the scope, and thought that might be the best of it.

We drove a little further along, and found a third Little Owl. It had found a sheltered spot out of the wind and facing into the morning sun, and was presumably trying to warm itself up. It was facing us and we could see its head pattern this time. Turning behind us, a fourth Little Owl appeared. This was was much closer and, though tucked in tight under the roof of one of the sheds, we got a good look at it through the scope. Amazing – four Little Owls out on such an unpromising day!

img_9865Little Owl – sheltered under the roof, facing into the morning sun

There were other birds around the farmland while we were watching the various Little Owls. A stubble field held a large flock of Curlew, which flew round periodically. A Redpoll flew out of the trees when we pulled up, and disappeared back away from us calling. A Common Buzzard came out of the wood and started to fly across the fields before thinking better of it and returning whence it came. At that point, another wintry shower blew in from the coast, and again we sought shelter in the car.

The skies looked clear further west along the coast, so we decided to head that way and try to escape the squalls. It was the right decision – that was the last shower we saw today. Drove along the coast to Titchwell, where we would also have the benefit of hides.

We had a quick look at the feeders by the visitor centre. The normal finches, Chaffinch, Greenfinch and Goldfinch, plus a selection of tits, were coming in to feed. We had limited time here today, so we pressed on. Scanning the ditches either side of the main path, a Water Rail showed briefly in the water at the bottom on one side before disappearing back into deeper cover. Rather than wait for it to reappear, we decided to have another look on the way back.

The Thornham grazing marsh ‘pool’, which has been dry for the last year or so, was flooded again, but this time with seawater which had come in through the open sluice. Consequently, there was no sign of any Water Pipits and no other birds of note. A lone Tufted Duck was diving out on the reedbed pool. Three Marsh Harriers were circling out over the main reedbed.

Island Hide provided some welcome shelter from the cold wind. The Freshmarsh is flooded at the moment, but not with seawater. Reserve staff have raised the levels of fresh water on here to kill the vegetation on the islands, and consequently there was very little dry land to be seen. It is to the liking of the ducks – there were plenty of Teal, Shoveler and Mallard, plus a few Wigeon and Shelduck. The flocks of Brent Geese frequently fly in from wherever they are feeding for a wash and preen.

6o0a3673Teal – a smart drake, enjoying all the water on the Freshmarsh

With all the water on here, there are rather few waders on the Freshmarsh at the moment. We did find a few around one of the only remaining small patches of island. About half a dozen Avocets were asleep, along with various ducks which were also trying to find somewhere to roost. In amongst the duck’s feet, we found a couple of Knot and a small group Dunlin too. There were lots of gulls, mostly Black-headed and Common Gulls, bobbing about on the water, taking shelter from the wind.

Round at Parrinder Hide, we had a different view of the Freshmarsh. From here, we picked up a few Pintail. A drake was preening on one of the islands, but promptly went to sleep. A pair of Pintail out on the water were more obliging and through the scope we could see the drake’s  long pin-shaped central tail. The largest, fenced off island was packed with roosting Teal but around the flooded vegetation on the near side we managed to find a single Ruff.

6o0a3608Wigeon – quite a few on the Freshmarsh, this one in front of Parrinder Hide

One of the group spotted a small bird making its way towards us along the edge of the bank. It was a Water Pipit – we could see its clean whitish underparts, neatly streaked with black on the breast. We were just hoping it would come right down towards the hide when it flew off.

6o0a3613Redshank – feeding on the Volunteer Marsh from Parrinder Hide

From the other side of the hide, overlooking the Volunteer Marsh, we could see quite a few waders. A Redshank was feeding just below the hide, its orange-red legs shining in the winter sunshine. There was also a Lapwing out just in front, and it too was looking particularly resplendent in the light, its green upperparts iridescent. Further over, we could see a little group of Knot, a couple of Ringed Plover, a Grey Plover and a single Black-tailed Godwit.

6o0a3621Lapwing – showing off its glossy green upperparts to perfection

Having warmed up in the hides, we decided to brave the conditions again and make a bid for the beach. On the way, we stopped to look at the tidal pools. A pair of Goldeneye were diving in the deeper water, catching small crabs. We got the male in the scope, looking particularly smart. There were several Little Grebes as well, also diving constantly. A pair of Gadwall were easier to see. But with the water level on here still high after the big tide, and with low tide out on the beach, there were fewer waders than normal.

img_9897Goldeneye – a smart drake, showing off his bright yellow eye

Out at the sea, the storms of yesterday had left large quatities of shellfish wrecked on the beach. A huge number of gulls had flown in to take advantage. There were quite a few waders on the beach too, particularly Sanderling and Oysterdatchers. Scanning the sea, we could see a large raft of Common Scoter out on the water but they were a long way offshore today. Still with a brisk north-west wind bringing cold air straight in from the arctic, we didn’t stay long out here, but headed back for lunch.

On the way back past the Volunteer Marsh, there were a few waders now close to the main path. A nice Bar-tailed Godwit was feeding out on the mud. We could see its shortish legs, slightly upturned bill and black-streaked upperparts. Two dumpy grey Knot were picking their way along the muddy slope just beyond the channel, and a single Ringed Plover was running around on the open mud nearby. Further over, a Grey Plover was feeding with another Knot.

6o0a3645Bar-tailed Godwit – showing well on the Volunteer Marsh on the walk back

Almost back to the visitor centre, we found the Water Rail showing much better, now feeding out on the open mud in the ditch. We stopped to watch it for a while and got fill the frame views of it in the scope as it dug around in the mud with its long red bill. It was then back to the car for a late lunch.

6o0a3695Water Rail – showed very well out in the open on the walk back

After lunch, we left Titchwell and started to make our way back along the coast road. We stopped at Brancaster Staithe briefly, to see if there was anything of note in the harbour. There were a few waders. Several Turnstones were picking around the stones in the car park, between the cars. Further over, a little group of Oystercatchers and Bar-tailed Godwits was roosting on the edge of the water. Another Bar-tailed Godwit and two Black-tailed Godwits were feeding in a muddy channel as we turned to leave.

It was still perhaps a little bit early for Barn Owls as we drove back, but we kept our eyes peeled nonetheless. Two white shapes out on the grazing marsh at Holkham were way too big to be owls but, with a good idea what they were we stopped for a look. Sure enough, they were two Great White Egrets. We had a good look at them through the scope, one standing next to a Grey Heron providing a great size comparison – the Great White Egret was slightly bigger!

img_9902Great White Egret – one of two out at Holkham this afternoon

There were also lots of geese out on the grazing marshes. Scanning across, we could see a good smattering of White-fronted Geese. Three were feeding closer to us, so we got them in the scope, noting the white surround to the bill base and the black belly bars. There were loads of Pink-footed Geese further over out on the grass too, thousands and thousands of them. The Pink-footed Geese normally roost on the marshes at night and spend the days feeding in the fields inland, but around the time of the full moon that reverses and they roost by day and feed inland by night. As we stood scanning the marshes, a steady succession of flocks of Pink-footed Geese took off and flew up and over our heads.

6o0a3719Pink-footed Geese – flying inland to feed after day-roosting on the grazing marshes

As we carried on our way east, it was getting into prime time for Barn Owls now. However, we found nothing along the coast road as we drove beyond Holkham. Perhaps it was still rather exposed here, cold and windy, so we turned inland. We were heading for an old barn where which we know Barn Owls inhabit. We hadn’t even reached it, when a Barn Owl flew up from the grass on the verge beside the car. We slowed and the Barn Owl caught us up and flew along beside the car, before crossing over the road in front of us.

It was a great view from the car, but we really wanted to get a Barn Owl in the scope. We tried to follow it, but it then gave us the runaround for a while, disappearing off across a field, cutting back, then flying back behind us as we stopped. Finally it landed in a tree beside the road. We stopped a suitable distance back and all managed to get a good look at it in the scope before it was off again, resuming its hunting.

6o0a3724Barn Owl – our first of the day gave us a bit of a runaround for a while!

We drove on the other way and after only a short distance one of the group spotted another Barn Owl in a tree by the road. We reversed back and it sat looking at us for a just a couple of seconds before it flew off. We passed by another Little Owl site, but there were no sign of any here, there favoured perch visible from the road now not in the afternoon sun. Worryingly, there are now planning notices here, yet another barn nesting site for Little Owls scheduled for conversion into holiday cottages. Soon there will be none left! A covey of Grey Partridges in the field nearby were nice though.

As we were making our way back, another Barn Owl appeared, perched on a post by the road, our third of the afternoon. With another car behind us and nowhere to stop, we had to drive on and turn round. Thankfully, when we got back it was still on its post. We parked in a gateway some distance away and watched it for a while through the scope. It had probably found a sheltered spot, out of the wind, and was staring at the ground below looking for voles. Then, with no cars coming, we drove down along the road and pulled up alongside for some close ups. Great views!

6o0a3738Barn Owl – our third of the afternoon gave cracking views on a post by the road

It was getting late now. We had a quick drive round via one of the meadows where we know a Barn Owl likes to hunt, but there was no sign. It was time to head round to look for Tawny Owls. We walked down and got into position, but strangely there was no hooting to be heard as we did so. The Tawny Owl came out of its roost site on cue, but annoyingly rather than fly out into the trees, it dropped straight out of the roost and disappeared back into the wood. Eventually, we could hear one Tawny Owl distantly hooting behind us. The male we had seen gave a quick burst of half-hearted hooting in front of us and then went quiet again.

The Tawny Owls were oddly subdued this evening. The wind was catching the tops of the trees, or perhaps they had been disturbed by last nights storm. It was getting dark now so we decided to call it a day. Still, it had been a remarkably successful one considering the weather.