Monthly Archives: February 2017

27th Feb 2017 – Seaducks, Divers & Grebes

A Private Tour in North Norfolk today. The request was particularly to look for seaducks, divers and grebes, but there would be time for other birds too. It was cloudy but bright in the morning, but heavy showers were forecast for the afternoon. As it was the weather gods were smiling on us – we sat out one brief shower in the hide at Titchwell and didn’t see another until we were back in the car at the end of the day.

With the target to see some birds on the sea, we started the day at Thornham Harbour with a walk out towards Holme Dunes. As we parked the car, a lone Brent Goose was feeding on the saltmarsh by the road close by. It looked up briefly, but seemed disinterested in our presence.

6o0a8198Brent Goose – feeding in the harbour at Thornham

The tide was just going out and the tidal channel was still full of water. From up on the seawall, we could see a few waders on the areas of open mud – Curlew, Grey Plover and Bar-tailed Godwit, as well as several Redshank. The Twite have been rather elusive here this winter, tending to come and go, so it was no surprise that two small birds feeding down on the edge of the saltmarsh were a pair of Linnet.

6o0a8206Curlew – several were feeding on the mud in the harbour

Looking out across the harbour towards the sea, we could see a few ducks diving in the deeper part of the channel in the distance. Through the scope, we could see there were several Red-breasted Mergansers and a couple of female Goldeneye. A Great Crested Grebe was just offshore beyond.

As we walked along the seawall, there were Skylarks singing over the grazing meadows behind us. A couple of Reed Buntings flew out from one of the bushes below the bank, as did a Wren. When two more small birds flitted across the saltmarsh below us, we expected those to be Linnets again, but a quick look revealed they were Twite. Through the scope, we could see their yellow bills and orange-washed breasts. They fed for a time in the vegetation on the edge of the mud, before eventually disappearing off back into the saltmarsh.

img_0953Twite – we found a pair on the saltmarsh on our walk out

Six geese flying in from the east over the harbour were Pink-footed Geese. We heard them calling and watched as they dropped down towards the grazing marshes to the west. Looking across, we could see a large flock of geese already down on the grass. Through the scope, we could see that the vast majority were Pink-footed Geese too. But then a head came up with a distinctive white surround to the base of the bill – two White-fronted Geese were hiding in with the Pinkfeet.

A shrill call high overhead alerted us to a displaying Marsh Harrier, a male, flying up and down with exaggerated, flappy wingbeats. Two more Marsh Harriers, females, flew in over the saltmarsh and, behind us, another two circled up over the grazing marshes. The bright conditions were obviously encouraging a burst of Marsh Harrier display activity this morning.

6o0a8240Marsh Harrier – this male was displaying overhead

A quick look out across Broadwater from the edge of the dunes added Tufted Duck and Common Pochard to the day’s list. A few Mallard and a pair of Shoveler were lurking in the reeds. A few Greylag Geese and a big flock of Curlew were in the fields beyond.

From the top of the dunes, we set ourselves up to scan the sea. Almost the first bird we set eyes on was a Great Northern Diver. It was not far offshore, but diving regularly and drifting east. It was clearly big and we got it in the scope and could see the contrast between the blackish upperparts and white throat and breast, with a black half collar.

Scanning the sea, we could see several Red-breasted Mergansers out on the water. Five large, heavy ducks flying in from the east were Eider – three all dark females and two 1st winter drakes, with contrasting white breasts. They landed on the sea further out where we could see them distantly. A little later, we looked back and found two smart drake Eider in the same area. There were a couple of Common Scoter out here too today, a blackish drake and a pale-cheeked female.

The Long-tailed Ducks have become more elusive in recent days. It is possible they have already started to move back north, although they may just have moved further offshore. Fortunately a few obliged us by flying in this morning. First, we picked up a lone Long-tailed Duck flying in from way out to sea, but it turned east and eventually landed some way away, off Thornham Point. We could just make it out through the scope. Then a pair flew in and landed out beyond the Red-breasted Mergansers. They were still distant, but we could see there was a smart male and browner female. The fourth Long-tailed Duck, a female, was even more obliging, and landed with the mergansers where we could get a much better view of it. To round out the total, a fifth flew past a little later.

While we were looking through the ducks, we picked up a Slavonian Grebe on the sea. It was clearly small, next to the Red-breasted Mergansers. It had a flat crown, white cheeks and a neatly defined black cap. Red-throated Diver is the most regular diver species here and we found one or two out on the sea. Black-throated Diver is the rarest so it was a bonus to find one just as we were about to call it a day. We were alerted to it by a flash of its white flank patch as it dived. It was rather distant, but when it surfaced again we could also see its very contrasting black and white colouration, and sleeker, slimmer structure compared to the Great Northern Diver we had seen earlier.

After such a fantastically productive morning here, we decided to head back to the car. Three species of diver and an excellent selection of seaduck was a great return for our efforts. A Little Grebe on Broadwater on the way back made it three species of grebe for the site today too!

As we walked back along the seawall, we could hear Twite calling. We assumed it would just be the pair we had seen earlier, but a flock of around 25 Twite flew up from the saltmarsh and across the path in front of us. A couple of males flashed bright pink rumps as they flew past. They dropped down by a pool on the grazing marsh for a quick drink, before flying back to the saltmarsh again. We had another good look at them through the scope.

6o0a8254Twite – a flock of about 25 had appeared on the walk back

There had been a Glaucous Gull reported by some pig fields inland from here yesterday, so we decided to have a quick drive round to see if we could find it. We did find a large flock of gulls loafing in a field by an irrigation reservoir, but all we could see there were Black-headed, Common and Herring Gulls. There didn’t appear to be many gulls around the pig fields today.

The buntings were more obliging. There has been a big flock of Yellowhammers here through the winter and there must have been at least 60 here still today. Several were bathing in a puddle as we arrived, including some stunningly yellow males. They were rather flighty, constantly flying between the hedges and the field the other side. However, when they perched up in the hedge we could get a good look at them.

6o0a8275Yellowhammer – at least 60 in the flock today

As well as the Yellowhammers, there have been good numbers of Corn Bunting here and there were still at least 6 here today.We could hear one singing when we got out of the car, the song often compared to jangling keys, but we couldn’t see it through the hedge. Then one flew over as we walked along the road, we were alerted to it by its distinctive liquid ‘pit’ call. Finally we managed to get three in the scope, perched up together in the top of a small tree. They are getting so scarce now, it is always a delight to see Corn Buntings.

There were other things to see here too. There were several Reed Buntings in with the Yellowhammers and Corn Buntings. A pair of Stock Doves were feeding in a recently sown field, much more delicate birds then the similarly grey Woodpigeon. A couple of Red Kites hung in the air over a nearby wood. When a Kestrel flew over the field, all the Yellowhammers and Corn Buntings scattered.

Our destination for the afternoon was Titchwell. After lunch by the visitor centre and a welcome hot drink, we made had a look at the feeders. There were a few Greenfinches with the Chaffinches and Goldfinches, but the highlight was a couple of female Bramblings which dropped in to join them. The Water Rail was in the ditch by the main path as usual, but was lurking under a tangle of vegetation bathing today.

6o0a8282Water Rail – lurking under a tangle of vegetation bathing

The dried out grazing meadow ‘pool’ looked devoid of life at first. We repositioned ourselves further along the path, so we could see round behind the reeds at the front. At that point, one of the group spotted a bird right down at the front – the Water Pipit we had been looking for. We had a great view of it through the scope, noting its white underparts neatly streaked with black, and well-marked white supercilium.

img_1011Water Pipit – showed very well on the grazing meadow ‘pool’

A single Great Crested Grebe was at the back of the reedbed pool, asleep amongst the ducks. While we were scanning around the edges of the pool, a small wader flicked up and dropped down on a patch of cut reed at the front. We had a very restricted view, with a line of reeds in front. Looking through with the scope we managed to see there was a Common Snipe feeding there, but the bird we had just seen fly in was smaller than that. Then, just behind it, we caught sight of a Jack Snipe.

The Jack Snipe flew across the water at the front and landed on another patch of cut reed the other side, out of view. By walking a little further along the path and looking back, we were able to find it again, though we still had to look through the reeds in the front. It was very well camouflaged, with its bright golden mantle stripes in amongst the reed stems, but the Jack Snipe was feeding with its distinctive bobbing action. Great to watch!

We could see dark clouds approaching from the west, so we made our way quickly round to Parrinder Hide to scan the Freshmarsh from there. As we walked round, a huge flock of Golden Plover flew up from the fenced off island and most of them seemed to drift off inland. We got into the hide just in time, as a squally shower blew in.

There is still a good variety of ducks on the Freshmarsh at the moment – Wigeon, Gadwall, Teal and Shoveler. The birds huddled up against the rain. There were also good numbers of gulls again, but we couldn’t find anything other than Black-headed Gull, Common Gull and Herring Gull on here today.

6o0a8324Teal – a smart drake, huddled up facing into the rain

There were lots of Redshank in particular on the Freshmarsh today. Perhaps they had been flushed off the Volunteer Marsh by something? Several Knot flew in too and landed in with the gulls. A noisy little group of Oystercatcher were gathered in a circle giving a piping display. There were also lots of Avocet on here – numbers are continuing to increase as birds return after the winter. A colour-ringed Black-tailed Godwit stood pointing into the rain.

img_1018Black-tailed Godwit – a colour-ringed bird in the rain

Thankfully the rain blew through quickly. Once it stopped, we made our way round to the other side of Parrinder Hide, overlooking the Volunteer Marsh. There were several Knot, Grey Plover and Curlew on the mud in front of the hide when we walked in, but almost immediately something flushed all the birds and the waders all flew off. The Redshanks had gone over to join the others on the Freshmarsh – we could see them all busy bathing and preening from the window at the back of the hide.

As it was starting to brighten up again, we decided to make a bid for the beach. From round on the main path, we stopped to watch a couple of Knot and a couple of Dunlin which dropped back in together on the mud, a nice chance to compare the two species.

6o0a8332Shoveler – several were out on the Tidal Pools

The Pintail were all out on the Tidal Pools today, along with more Shoveler and Mallard. There were also a few waders on here, in particular several Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwits. This provided a good opportunity to compare the two species – the Bar-tailed Godwit being obviously smaller, shorter-legged and with paler, buffier upperparts streaked with dark.

The tide was coming in again out at the beach. Large groups of Oystercatcher and Bar-tailed Godwit were gathered along the shoreline. There was quite a lot of seaweed scattered across the sand today and we could see several silvery Sanderling feeding in amongst it.

There was a flock of Scoter further offshore and through the scope we could see they were mostly Velvet Scoter with a smaller number of Common Scoter in with them. Even better, a single Velvet Scoter was much closer in and we could see the distinctive twin smaller white spots on its face. A couple of Common Scoter were closer in too, and when it turned head on, we could see the yellow stripe down the top of the bill on the drake. Otherwise, the sea here was much quieter than it had been at Holme this morning – just a few Red-breasted Merganser and Goldeneye. Still, Velvet Scoter was a nice bird to round out the set of our seaduck for the day.

As we made our way back along the main path, we stopped for another look at the Jack Snipe. There were now two Common Snipe on the same side of the pool as the Jack Snipe, we could see their pale central crown stripes. The Common Snipe were out in the middle of the patch of cut reed, but typically the Jack Snipe was more secretive, still keeping nearer to cover at the edge of the tall reeds. However, it had worked its way out to the edge of a little puddle where we could see it better, its shorter bill and dark central crown.

img_1043Jack Snipe – feeding on the edge of the reedbed pool

On the way back, we cut round via Meadow Trail and out to Patsy’s Reedbed. The water level is being kept high on here this year – attractive for the Tufted Ducks, Common Pochard and Coot which were all diving on here. Several Marsh Harriers were starting to gather over the reedbed, ahead of going to roost. A Cetti’s Warbler sand from the bushes.

The afternoon was getting on and it was starting to get dark, but when we turned to look behind us we could see another bank of dark clouds approaching from the west, so we decided to make our way back. We had heard Bullfinches calling on the way out and seen a couple of shapes disappearing off into the bushes. On the way back, they were more helpfully feeding in the top of a small tree, picking at the buds. The three females were perched in full view, while the pink male lurked a little further back. A couple of Jays called noisily from the sallows and we flushed a Muntjac from beside the boardwalk, which scuttled off into the undergrowth.

We got back to the car just in time, as a wintry shower blew through. We had been remarkably lucky with the weather today and we didn’t mind a bit of rain now we were on our way home.

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24th Feb 2017 – Wildfowl, Waders & Larks

A Winter Tour today in North Norfolk. After Storm Doris had blown through yesterday (thankfully, with no tours arranged!), bringing gusts of up to 81mph, it was a welcome return to calmer conditions today. It was mostly cloudy, but we did enjoy some nice sunnier intervals later in the afternoon.

Our first stop was at Holkham. As we drove up Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see large flocks of Wigeon still on the grazing marshes. It won’t be too long now before they will start to depart for their Russian breeding grounds.

6o0a7998Wigeon – still large flocks on the grazing marshes at Holkham

Most of the Pink-footed Geese have already departed on their way back north, although they will stop off in northern England or Scotland before continuing on their way to Iceland. However, there are still a few around and we managed to find a small party of Pink-footed Geese further over on the grazing marshes. A quick look through the scope, and we discovered there were a couple of White-fronted Geese with them too and a single Brent Goose.

Walking through the gap in the trees towards the beach, there were lots of small branches and leaves scattered over the path, the remnants of last night’s storm. We made our way east, along the path on the edge of the saltmarsh. Out in the vegetation, we could see a small group of Brent Geese and Shelduck. Most of the geese were Dark-bellied Brents, the commonest subspecies here in winter, they breed in northern Russia. There is also a regular Black Brant hybrid here, the returning progeny of a vagrant Black Brant which had paired up with a Dark-bellied Brent Goose many years ago, this hybrid now comes back every year to the same place.

img_0920Black Brant hybrid – the regular returning bird, still with the Brent flock at Holkham

It didn’t take long to find the Black Brant hybrid in with the small flock of Brents. It has a noticeably whiter flank patch and more extensive collar, as well as being a touch darker above and on the belly than the accompanying Dark-bellied Brent Geeese. However, it is not quite dark or contrasting enough to match a pure Black Brant. It is always an interesting bird to see here.

As we walked along, several Meadow Pipits flew up from the saltmarsh, but it wasn’t until we got to the east end that we found the Shorelarks, in their regular spot. They are currently feeding mostly in the slightly taller vegetation, so can be hard to see. Thankfully we were able to find them before some other birders walked right through the area they were hiding.

img_0906Shorelark – still 29+ here, feeding in the taller vegetation on the saltmarsh

We watched the Shorelarks for a while. At first, it looked like there were only 5-6 of them again, but gradually we spotted more creeping around in the sea lavendar seed heads. With their heads down, they were particularly hard to see, but occasionally a bright yellow face with black bandit mask would pop up out of the vegetation.

When a Common Buzzard drifted out from the pines and across the saltmarsh, the Shorelarks all took off and only at that stage could we see how many there really were. They landed on a slightly more open sandy ridge and a quick count suggested there were 29, although we could easily still have missed one or two. Then they scuttled quickly back into cover.

We walked over to the dunes and had a quick look at the sea. It was still rather rough after yesterday, and there didn’t appear to be a lot visible today. We did find a couple of Red-breasted Mergansers feeding in the breakers. There were also lots of Oystercatchers and gulls on the beach, feeding on shellfish washed up after the storm, and several Sanderling were running in and out of the waves between them.

As we made our way back to Lady Anne’s Drive, a small bird came zipping low across the saltmarsh and out towards the dunes. It was a Merlin. Often that is all you see of them, as they disappear off into the distance, but this one helpfully decided to land on a small Suaeda bush, where we could get a great look at it through the scope. It perched there for several minutes, before flying off over the dunes and away west over the beach. As we got back to the boardwalk, a Sparrowhawk was circling over the pines.

img_0932Merlin – perched up for us to get a great look at it

From Lady Anne’s Drive, we walked west on the inland side of the pines. A tree was down across the path and the wardens were in the process of clearing it with chainsaws. Despite the noise, we could hear Goldcrests and Long-tailed Tits in the trees. Further along, a Treecreeper was singing. Salts Hole held a Little Grebe, a pair of Tufted Ducks, plus a few Coot and Wigeon. A Jay flew across, over the back of the water.

As we approached Washington Hide, we saw a Spoonbill fly up briefly, which appeared to drop down again, possibly onto one of the pools. We had a scan of the grazing marshes from the boardwalk by the hide, but couldn’t see it from there. A Marsh Harrier circled up out of the reedbed. Then the Spoonbill flew up again and disappeared off further west.

At Joe Jordan Hide, there didn’t seem to be as much activity as recent days at first. There was a scattering of commoner geese – Greylags, Canada Geese and Egyptian Geese – out on the grass. A small group of White-fronted Geese were feeding on the old fort, but as we sat and watched, a steady stream of small groups flew in and joined them, mostly from the other side of Decoy Wood.

6o0a8013White-fronted Geese – flying in to land on the grazing marshes

A juvenile Peregrine was standing by the edge of one of the pools further over, but took off just as we turned the scope onto it. It proceeded to have a go at most of the other birds in the vicinity, swooping down at ducks and geese, but didn’t really seem to know what it was doing. We also saw several more Marsh Harriers and Common Buzzards from here – it is often a good spot for raptors.

Finally, we managed to find the Spoonbill. It was right out across the other side of the grazing marshes and feeding in a small pool. With its head down, it was impossible to see, but just visible occasionally as it lifted its head up. Thankfully, after a while it flew out and landed on the open grass where we could get a slightly better look at it. It was a juvenile, lacking the yellow bill tip and bushy crest of the adults. There was no sign of the other three Spoonbills today, or any Great White Egrets from here.

Back at Lady Anne’s Drive, we stopped for lunch at the picnic tables over looking the grazing marshes. As well as the Wigeon still, there was a selection of waders out on the grassy pools, including Oystercatcher, Curlew and Redshank. A pair of Mistle Thrushes flew down out of the pines. After lunch, as we drove back towards the coast road, the Pink-footed Geese were now close to Lady Anne’s Drive so we stopped quickly for a better look.

6o0a8028Pink-footed Geese – nice views close to Lady Anne’s Drive after lunch

From the road, we pulled up to scan the other side of the marshes and quickly spotted a very tall white shape, a Great White Egret. We stopped and got the scope on it. Helpfully, there was a Grey Heron just next to it for comparison and we could see that the Great White Egret was as tall or even slightly taller! The long yellow-orange bill also really stood out.

img_0934Great White Egret – out on the grazing marshes at Holkham

Scanning across the marshes, we found a second Great White Egret, hiding in a reedy ditch. There were also lots more White-fronted Geese this side, which is why there were not so many visible from Joe Jordan Hide today. Amongst a flock of Lapwings and Starlings down on the wet grass, we found a little group of Ruff too.

As we made our way further west along the coast road, a shout from one of the group alerted us to a Barn Owl perched on a post right beside the road as we drove past. Never an easy place to stop, we managed to reverse back to it. It sat for a few seconds looking at us, but then flew a little further along as another car pulled up behind. Driving forwards very slowly, we were able to watch it only about 10 metres away from us. Stunning views! Eventually, the growing number of cars stopping to look seemed to spur it into action and it flew across the road and started hunting over the marshes.

6o0a8049Barn Owl – perched on a post right beside the road in the middle of the day

There has not been as much daytime Barn Owl activity this winter, which may reflect the generally mild and clement conditions we have enjoyed. It they are not hungry, then there is no need for them to hunt during the day. Presumably Storm Doris had made hunting very difficult yesterday and overnight, so this Barn Owl had come out to try to catch something during the day. We could see that it was ringed, but unfortunately couldn’t read the full number from photos. Many wild Barn Owls are ringed in the nest in North Norfolk.

After that unexpected bonus, we continued on to Titchwell, where we planned to spend the rest of the afternoon. The feeders round the visitor centre held a selection of the commoner finches and tits, but no sign of any Brambling today. The Water Rail put on a good show, feeding out in the open in the ditch by the main path, probing in the decaying leaves, seemingly unconcerned by the large lenses pointed at it.

6o0a8104Water Rail – still in the ditch by the path

The grazing meadow was rather quiet again but the reedbed pool did at least provide Common Pochard as an addition for the day’s list. The water levels on the freshmarsh have been slowly coming down and there was a nice selection of birds on here today.

The first thing that struck us when we arrived was the gulls. There were large numbers of Black-headed Gulls and Common Gulls loafing on the edges of the islands or in the shallow water. In with them were a few Herring Gulls and Lesser Black-backed Gulls. We had a scan through from Island Hide, but it was only from further up that a Mediterranean Gull was visible. It was an adult, with white wing tips and bright red bill, just moulting in to summer plumage, with white speckling still around the front of its jet black hood.

img_0949Mediterranean Gull – an adult moulting into summer plumage

There was still the usual variety of ducks on the freshmarsh. The Teal were looking particularly smart, in the afternoon sunshine, just below the path. Further over, we could see a selection of Wigeon, Gadwall, Shoveler and a pair of Pintail. A large flock of Brent Geese flew in from the saltmarsh towards Brancaster, calling noisily, and landed on the water to bathe and preen.

6o0a8122Teal – a smart drake in the sunshine

Wader numbers on the freshmarsh are increasing now, in particular the number of Avocets, as birds return north. There were also more Black-tailed Godwits today, though mostly sleeping in amongst the gulls. A small group of Dunlin included a single Knot for comparison. Singles of Grey Plover and Turnstone had presumably flown in from the beach ahead of high tide. The fenced off Avocet Island at the back was packed with Golden Plover and Lapwing, with more small flocks of Golden Plover dropping in to join them all the time.

6o0a8190Curlew – on the Volunteer Marsh

There were more waders on the Volunteer Marsh. As well as more Knot, Dunlin and Grey Plover, there were lots of Redshank and Curlew. A single Ringed Plover was a welcome addition to the day’s list. With high tide approaching, more waders were roosting on the Tidal Pools, particularly several Bar-tailed Godwits. This gave us a great opportunity to compare them to a couple of Black-tailed Godwits feeding nearby. Even without seeing their respective tails, the buffier tones, black streaked upperparts, shorter legs and upturned bill all quickly distinguish the Bar-tailed Godwits.

6o0a8144Avocet – on the Tidal Pools

There were also more Knot and Redshank on the Tidal Pools, and several Avcoets feeding, including one close to the path.

We wanted to have a look at the sea, but there was not as much activity out here as there has been in recent weeks. There was still a big swell running, after the storm yesterday, and several of the ducks appeared to be quiet a way offshore. Fortunately, there was a nice group of about twenty Velvet Scoters close in, diving for shellfish. Several were holding their wings loosely folded, revealing the white wing flash as a stripe on their flanks. The face pattern is rather variable, particularly at this time of year, but it was possible to see the distinctive white spot at the base of the bill on some.

Helpfully, there was also a female Common Scoter with them for comparison, with a very extensive pale cheek and dark cap, and no white wing flash. There were more Common and Velvet Scoters in a larger raft much further out. A female Goldeneye drifted past in front of them, but most of the other Goldeneyes were a long way offshore today. A Fulmar flew past too.

Back at the Tidal Pools, we stopped to look again at a group of roosting waders, particularly with Bar-tailed Godwit and Black-tailed Godwit side by side. But a scan further along revealed that a Spotted Redshank had flown in while we were out at the beach. We walked back and had great views of it feeding in the shallows not far from the path. With a Common Redshank nearby for comparison, we could see that the Spotted Redshank was noticeably paler, more silvery grey above and whiter below, with a longer and finer bill and a better marked, brighter white supercilium.

6o0a8170Spotted Redshank – had flown in to the Tidal Pools while we were on the beach

As we passed the freshmarsh on our way back, the Golden Plovers and Lapwings all spooked, They took off and whirled round in flocks overhead, the Golden Plovers particularly tight packed. We couldn’t see anything which might have alarmed them, although they had been jumpy all afternoon, and they quickly settled back down again.

6o0a8192Golden Plovers – whirling around over the freshmarsh

A quick look down along one of the reedy channels in the reedbed revealed a Kingfisher, perched up on a reed along the edge. We had a quick look at it through the scope, before another bird spooked it and it flew off across the reeds. We looked back to see a second Kingfisher had appeared, presumably having chased off the first. Then it was time to call it a day and head for home.

21st Feb 2017 – From Heath to Coast

A Private Tour today in North Norfolk. The brief was to avoid the main nature reserves on the coast. The forecast was for it to be “rather cloudy with outbreaks of light rain at first” according to the Met Office. How wrong it was! Instead, when we met up in the morning it was wall to wall blue sky and crisp sunshine. With weather like that, there was only one place to start the day.

As soon was got out of the car up on the Heath, we heard a Woodlark calling as it flew away. A dog was running across the cleared area nearby and had probably just flushed it. Still, it seemed an auspicious start. A Yellowhammer flew in and landed in the top of one of the bushes by the car park. A smart male, we got it in the scope and its yellow head was positively glowing in the morning light. Stunning!

6o0a7787Yellowhammer – a smart male glowing yellow in the morning sun

A couple more Yellowhammers dropped in to join it, another male and a duller female. While we were watching them, we heard the Woodlark calling again as it flew back in. We saw where it landed in the long grass and walked a little closer to where we could see it. Thankfully, it was standing up on a slightly taller tussock and it started to sing softly as it stood there. We got it in the scope and all had a good look at it.

When the Woodlark took off again, it flew straight towards us and gained height. Then it started singing as it came right overhead, hovering above us for a minute or so. The Woodlark‘s song is not full of the joys like a Skylark but slightly more melancholy. It is still a beautiful sound, a real delight to stand and listen to it on such a sunny morning, one of the real sounds of early spring on the heaths. As it hung overhead, we could see the Woodlark‘s comparatively short tail and broad rounded wings.

6o0a7796Woodlark – hovering over our heads this morning, singing

After a while, the Woodlark flew down and landed again at the back of the clearing. We were planning to be greedy and go over for another look at it, but we were distracted by another smart male Yellowhammer hopping around on the ground in front of us. While we were watching it, the Woodlark took off again, calling. A second Woodlark got up from the ground and followed it – clearly the male had been singing while the female was feeding quietly over the back of the clearing all along.

Sunny mornings on the Heath at this time of the year are a great time to look for Adders. Having emerged from hibernation, they like to bask in the sunshine and warm themselves. We walked round to an area where we can often find them, a slope angled towards the morning sun. Very quickly we spotted one close to the path, but despite the early hour of the morning it was surprisingly lively already and quickly slithered off into the undergrowth. As we walked round this quiet corner, we heard a Bullfinch calling and looked across to see a smart pink male picking at the buds in the top of a dense blackthorn thicket.

After such a successful start to the morning, we decided to turn our attention to Dartford Warblers next. They are resident on the heaths all year round, but harder to find when it is cloudy and cold. At this time of year, on sunny days, they are starting to sing again. Walking round through the centre of one of their regular territories, all seemed rather quiet at first. Then we heard a distinctive rasping call and looked across to see a small dark long-tailed bird dart across a clearing between two gorse bushes. Our first Dartford Warbler.

Repositioning ourselves to where it had flown, we could soon see the Dartford Warbler flitting between the gorse bushes. As we followed it, it soon became clear there were actually at least three Dartford Warblers in the same area. They can be hard birds to track, as they are constantly on the move, disappearing into the dense vegetation for periods and then, just when you think you have lost them, flying out again. Occasionally one would perch out in the open for a couple of seconds – we could see there was a male, darker slate blue grey above and richer burgundy below, a duller female, and a young bird, much browner above and paler below, one of the juveniles from last year.

6o0a7835Dartford Warbler – the male singing from the top of a gorse bush

The male Dartford Warbler started singing. We could hear the bursts of scratchy song. At one point, we thought there might be two males, as we heard different bursts of song coming from different places in quick succession. After following them for a while, and having all enjoyed good views, we left them to it and continued our circuit of the Heath. As we walked round, were accompanied by the song of Woodlarks and Yellowhammers.

It was a perfect day for finding Adders today. We bumped into one of the local birders who is a regular on the Heath and he showed us three Adders basking round the base of a birch tree. A larger, darker female was stretched out on her own. Nearby, what looked like one snake turned out to be two curled up together as they moved – a large, dark female, and a smaller, slimmer, paler silvery male. A little further on, we found another two Adders, curled up in a couple of bare patches on a south facing bank. We had a great look at them.

6o0a7846Adder – we found at least six out basking this morning in a brief look

We had a quick look round another Dartford Warbler territory the other side of the Heath, but it was quieter here. There has been a pair of Stonechats here and the warblers have been following them round, but we couldn’t find any sign of either in their favourite area. Having enjoyed such a great session with the Dartford Warblers earlier, we weren’t overly concerned.

While we were walking round, another pair of Woodlarks flew over. The male landed on a post, where we could get him in the scope, while the female dropped down to the ground to feed. We were just watching them, when a third Woodlark started singing just behind us. These three were almostly certainly different to the pair we had seen earlier, which would mean potentially three pairs of Woodlark here this morning. It had been a great morning on the Heath and we could easily have stayed here all day, but we had other things we wanted to do today, so we made our way back to the car.

Our next destination was Holkham. As we drove down along Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see a large flock of geese on one of the grazing meadows nearby, so we stopped for a closer look. We could see they were mostly Brent Geese, smaller and darker, but nearby were a few grey-brown Pink-footed Geese too. A lot of the Pink-footed Geese which have spent the winter here have already departed on their way back north, so it was nice to be able to get a good look at some. We could see their delicate mostly dark bills with a pink band around and, when one stood up in the grass, its pink legs.

6o0a7850Pink-footed Geese – a few were still by Lady Anne’s Drive today

The vast majority of the Brent Geese here during the winter are Dark-bellied Brent Geese which breed up in arctic Russia. Occasionally, we get one of the other subspecies of Brent Goose in with the flocks, perhaps a Black Brant from NE Siberia or Alaska. In the past, some of these Black Brants have paired up and subsequently bred with one of the Dark-bellied Brents to produce hybrid young. One of these hybrids is a regular here at Holkham and a careful scan through the Brent flock revealed it. Subtly darker bodied than the others, it has a better marked white collar and more obvious whiter flank patch then the others.

img_0864Black Brant hybrid – a regular in with the Dark-bellied Brents at Holkham

While we were watching the geese, we could hear Lapwings starting to display on the fields behind us, giving their distinctive song. There were also still some big flocks of Wigeon grazing close to the road, whistling occasionally. Several Common Buzzards were enjoying the sunshine, circling up into the blue sky and even starting to display, swooping up and down. It was getting on for lunchtime already, so we decided to have an early lunch here before setting off to explore.

After lunch, we walked out onto the beach and made our way east alone the edge of the saltmarsh. At first there was no sign of the large flock of Shorelarks which has been feeding here for the last few weeks. We were told they had earlier been flushed by an errant dog running around there. We walked across for a look at the sea, in the hope that they might return. The tide was in and there was not so much activity here today – a few Great Crested Grebes and a single drake Goldeneye were all we could find riding out on the slightly choppy sea.

There were three birders eating their lunch in the dunes nearby, looking out through their scopes at the saltmarsh, so we walked back round to see if they had seen anything. Very helpfully, they got us on to six Shorelarks which were feeding half hidden in the taller vegetation out in the middle. We were looking into the sun from here, so we walked back round to the other side.

6o0a7902Shorelark – six were hiding in the taller vegetation on the saltmarsh

The Shorelarks were hard to see with their heads down while feeding, but occasionally one would look up and a bright yellow face would catch the sun. Then we could get a great look at them through the scope, admiring their black bandit masks and even occasionally get a glimpse of the black horns on the side of their heads. A Skylark was feeding nearby and a second flew in to join it, perhaps a male as it raised its crest and drew itself up erect, looking like it might be about to display to the first, before the two of them resumed feeding. As the Shorelarks gradually worked their way back deeper into the vegetation, we left them to it.

Back at :Lady Anne’s Drive, we made our way west along the path on the inland side of the pines. At this point it started to cloud over from the west. There were lots of Long-tailed Tits feeding high in the poplars as we passed. At Salts Hole, we stopped to watch a Little Grebe diving on the edge of the reeds. A couple of Mistle Thrush and a few Curlew were feeding on the grassy field beyond.

We had a quick scan from the raised boardwalk by Washington Hide. A Marsh Harrier circled up from the reeds. A Sparrowhawk flew past with something in its talons, trailing several long strands of grass with whatever prey it had grasped. Two Pintail flew in and landed on the pool, an adult drake with a long pin-shaped tail and a younger male without.

6o0a7917Spoonbills – 2 of the 4 circling round over the trees

As we approached Joe Jordan Hide, we got a glimpse through the trees of four white shapes taking off from the pool in front and through binoculars we could see they were Spoonbills. From up in the hide, we watched them circling round over the trees beyond, long white necks held outstretched in front. Eventually they landed again on the edge of the pool and started to preen before quickly going to sleep – which is what Spoonbills seem to like to do best! Two were adults and through the scope we could see their bushy nuchal crests flapping around in the breeze. When they did lift their heads we could see the yellow tips to their bills.

img_0889Spoonbills – the adults with bushy crests and yellow-tipped bills

There were lost of geese out on the grazing marshes all around, mostly White-fronted Geese. They were hard to count, as they kept flying round in small groups and landing in different places or dropping down out of view. Sitting in the hide, we could hear their yelping calls every time a party flew past, a constant backdrop to our visit. There were several hundreds here today, more than there seem to have been through much of the winter, perhaps boosted by other groups stopping off before departing back to their breeding grounds in Russia.

We got some of the White-fronted Geese in the scope, so we could see the white surround to the bill from which they get their name, and the black belly bars on the adults. At one point, a small group landed next to some Greylags and we could see the White-fronted Geese were notably smaller and darker overall, as well as having a smaller pink bill compared to the large orange carrot sported by the Greylags.

6o0a7924White-fronted Geese – their were large numbers at Holkham today

Scanning through the White-fronted Geese, we found a couple of smaller white-faced Barnacle Geese in with them. It would be nice to think that these also might be winter visitors from the arctic, but their status is complicated by feral populations, including in Holkham Park. There were also some Canada Geese here and several pairs of Egyptian Geese – a couple of more obviously feral geese species to round out the overall variety.

While we were looking through the geese, we noticed a large raptor flying low over the grassy ridge in the distance. It was clearly slimmer winged and tailed than the commoner Marsh Harriers and, as it turned, we could see a square white rump patch. It was a Hen Harrier, a ringtail. Unfortunately, it continued off away from us and it was not a great view, but a nice bird to see out hunting here nonetheless.

We had hoped we might see a Great White Egret here, but there was no sign at first. We were just thinking about leaving, when a large white shape walked out of some dense reeds on one side of the marshes. It was clearly huge, even with the naked eye, but through the scope we could see its long yellow bill. It was strutted across and went back into some deeper reeds, where it stood motionless fishing and it was surprisingly hard to see for such a large bird.

After a short while, the Great White Egret flew across and landed on the far side of one of the reedy ditches. Then a second Great White Egret flew out from nearby and chased after it, the two of them flying off together before eventually disappearing disappearing round behind the trees.

6o0a7954Great White Egret – a second flew in and chased off the first

Time was getting on now, so we decided to head back to the car. We still had time for one more stop on our journey back, so we turned off the coast road at Stiffkey Greenway on our way back east. Scanning the saltmarsh, we first picked up a Marsh Harrier working its way slowly along the grassy ridge at the back. It didn’t take us long to pick up our first Hen Harrier, a ringtail, hanging over the saltmarsh away to the west. We got it in the scope and got a good view of it, much better than the one we had seen earlier at Holkham. Even better, it then drifted back east and started hunting the saltmarsh out in front of us.

6o0a7986Hen Harrier – a ringtail hunting over the saltmarsh

At one point, as it quartered the saltmarsh, the Hen Harrier flushed a Merlin from the bushes below. Small and dark, it flew off swiftly low over the vegetation. It looked like it would disappear into the distance, but thankfully it landed on a dead branch and started preening, so we could all get a look at it through the scope.

As we looked out over the marshes, another ringtail Hen Harrier made its way in purposefully from the east and across in front of us. We were really hoping to see a male Hen Harrier, but they kept us waiting a bit this evening. We did get an early glimpse of one, but it disappeared down into the vegetation very distantly to the west and didn’t reappear. Eventually one flew in from the west towards us, at the back of the saltmarsh. It flew past a male Marsh Harrier, giving a nice comparison of size and shape, the Hen Harrier a ghostly grey apparition. When it flew up against the grey sky, it almost disappeared.

After quartering the saltmarsh for a while, the male Hen Harrier dropped down into the vegetation at the back. We saw it fly up again briefly and we could just see its pale head in the grass occasionally, but it was clearly in no rush to fly again. It was a nice way to end the day, watching the harriers, so with the light fading we decided to head for home.

19th Feb 2017 – Late Winter Birding, Day 3

Day 3 of a three day long weekend of Late Winter Birding tours today, our last day and we made our way down to the Brecks. This was forecast to be the best day of the weekend, but after better than expected weather on Friday and Saturday, it remained stubbornly cloudy through the day today. Still, we made the best of it and managed to see all the specialities we were looking for. After the drive down to the Brecks, we regrouped in Swaffham (so members of the group could make a quick getaway at the end of the day) and set off to explore the forest.

Our first stop saw us at a site from which we could overlook the forest. We were just setting the scope up and the first bird we saw as we lined it up on the trees was a Goshawk. It was just a glimpse between the tops of trees. We expected it to circle up above the canopy, but it but didn’t. A few seconds later another local standing nearby asked ‘is that a Buzzard in the tree’, but as we swung the scope onto it, we could see that it was a juvenile Goshawk, perched in the top of a fir tree. It was obviously huge, very brown-toned above and spotted with pale feathers (the adults are grey above). Unfortunately it quickly dropped down again into the trees, before the whole of group could get a look at it through the scope.

Encouraged by our early Goshawk sighting, we waited for a reappearance. With the low cloud today, and cool conditions, there was less raptor activity in terms of numbers but still we saw a great variety. The Common Buzzards were coming and going all the time, though not circling up high into the sky. A rather pale bird caught the eye on a couple of occasions – Common Buzzards are very variable and there are some very white birds around. A Kestrel perched on a post. A Sparrowhawk circled up, and was pursued by a pair of Crows. Even a Peregrine put in a brief appearance, circling over behind us before disappearing behind the trees. But there was no more sign of Goshawk.

There were other things to see while we waited. A large flock of Redwings flew up and perched in the top of the trees, before flying down to the field below. Through the scope we could see their prominent pale superciliums. A large bare tree over the other side held four thrushes – two Mistle Thrushes, a Fieldfare and another Redwing. A little later, one of the Mistle Thrushes  started singing. There were several Skylarks around and they were singing despite the cool weather. A couple of Yellowhammers flew round in front of us calling. A flock of Linnets whirled over the field periodically.

6o0a7520Brown Hare – we watched a couple of pairs chasing round the fields

There was one pair of Brown Hares each side of us in the fields. They spent a lot of time just feeding, but we did watch one pair as the male chased the female in circles for a while. She didn’t turn round and ‘box’ him though, unfortunately. He seemed to lose interest fairly quickly and they resumed feeding.

Eventually we could see some brighter weather approaching from west. The sun just poked out from behind clouds, enough to light up the trees in front of us. More Common Buzzards circled up, gaining a little more height too than they had all morning. Finally the juvenile Goshawk appeared again, flying low across over the tops of the trees. As we watched it, we could see see why – an adult Goshawk was chasing it, silvery grey above and gleaming white below in the sunshine.

The two Goshawks flew across the length of the line of trees in front of us and disappeared into the wood in the corner. All the Woodpigeons scattered from the wood as they flew in. A short while later, the adult Goshawk flew back again low over the trees, across to where it had come from. Presumably it felt it had achieved its mission, chasing off the youngster.

Then the juvenile Goshawk started to drift back too. It circled up out of the trees, giving us a chance to get it in the scope and everyone managed to get a look at it. The upperparts were brown and the black-streaked apricot toned underparts caught the sun. Then it dropped down behind the trees again and we decided to move on.

Our next stop was at St Helens picnic site. As we drove in, we could see some Bramblings on the ground among the leaves. There were a lot of cars here today, so it was obviously rather disturbed and the Bramblings were very flighty. As we got out of the car, the last of them flew up into the trees, and they gradually started to fly off calling. We drove round to the other side of the car park to see if they had landed over there, but when we came back round we found a good number of them had landed again back where they had been at first.

6o0a7541Brambling – a bright male, with only limited black visible on its head

By carefully positioning the car, we had nice views of the Bramblings feeding on the beech mast. They were very hard to see among the orange leaves, but there were at least 20 of them still. The brighter males were noticeably variable, with some already getting blacker heads.

After watching the Bramblings for a while, we drove over to Santon Downham for an early lunch. A Greenfinch was singing from the birches in the car park. A Goldcrest was flitting around in a fir tree singing and we could hear a Marsh Tit singing nearby. Spring was obviously in the air! There were more Bramblings here too, dropping down out of the taller trees into the gardens.

After lunch, we drove deeper into the Forest.We parked up and walked down a ride to a large clearing. It is normally very quiet here, but just as we arrived at the clearing we met a dog walker coming the other way. We were hoping to find a Woodlark here, but with the dogs having just gone through their favoured area, we thought we might be out of luck. However, as we turned the corner two Woodlarks flew up in front of us.

img_0771Woodlark – dropped down into the top of a fir tree

The Woodlarks started singing, a much more melancholy song than a Skylark. They fluttered up, gaining height, but then flew round, song flighting over the clearing. One then dropped down and landed in the top of a fir tree out in the middle, where we could get it in the scope. We had a great view of it, the bright rusty ear coverts, the well-marked supercilia meeting on the back of the nape in a shallow ‘v’. Eventually it dropped down onto an open patch of ground, but still managed to disappear into the low vegetation.

We were just looking for the Woodlark, when we heard the faint ‘glip, glip’ call of a Common Crossbill. They are often to be heard flying over here, but when the calls were repeated they seemed to be coming from the same place. We scanned across the tops of the trees and could see a Crossbill perched up partly obscured, in the bare branches in the top of a deciduous tree. We repositioned ourselves for a clearer line of sight and got it in the scope.

img_0782Crossbill – a male perched nicely for us in the top of a tree

The Crossbill was a male – we could see its rusty orange overall colour. Through the scope, we could also see its distinctive crossed mandibles. Its throat feathers were moving and it appeared to be singing quietly, although we couldn’t hear it from where we were standing. Then it dropped back into the trees and disappeared.

Our main target for the afternoon was Hawfinch, and it was now time for us to get back to Lynford to await their arrival. As we walked down the path beside the Arboretum, we stopped by the feeders. There were lots of Bramblings in the leaves, along with several Chaffinches, but they were very hard to see. They were very well camouflaged, but they were throwing beak-fulls of leaves up in the air to look for beech mast, which rather gave their presence away. It was funny to watch too!

6o0a7583Brambling – a female in the leaves, Chaffinch in the foreground

6o0a7590Bramblings – two males in the leaves, with different degrees of black heads

Down at the bridge, there was lots of seed which had been put out. A steady stream of tits were coming down to feed, mostly Blue Tits and Long-tailed Tits but also a few Great Tits and a Coal Tit. A single Marsh Tit kept darting in, grabbing some seed, and flying back in the bushes to eat it. Overhead, we could hear a cacophony of twittering from all the Siskins in the top of the trees.

6o0a7613Marsh Tit – kept darting in to grab some seed from the bridge

Then it was time to look for the Hawfinches. As we made our way along the side of the paddock, we could already see two distantly in the tree tops behind. We had a quick look through the scope, just to make sure everyone had seen them, and then walked round further for a better view. There were several Hawfinches now, singles or pairs in different trees, and they kept flying between the tops. We spent some time watching them, admiring their large powerful bills, big heads and short tails.

img_0799Hawfinch – several flew down to the trees in the paddocks

Suddenly, several Hawfinches all flew out of the trees together. A couple flew off, but most dropped down into the trees in the paddocks. Here we got much better views of them, low down and not against the brighter sky. After a short while, most of the Hawfinches seemed to make their way back up into the pines. When they all flew round again, it looked like there were around 15 Hawfinches here today. This was not quite as many as recent days, but having enjoyed very good views of them, we started to walk back, perhaps before they were all in.

As we made our way back around the paddocks, a few people were staring up into the pines on the other side. A pair of Common Crossbills were in a small tree by the side of the path. The male was harder to see in the branches at the back,  but we had a great view of the female as she tucked into a pine cone. After working her way round it for a while, pulling it open and taking out the seeds, she dropped the cone and had a quick stretch and preen. Then the pair of Crossbills both flew off over the path calling.

6o0a7715Common Crossbill – the female tucking into a pine cone

6o0a7742Common Crossbill – the female having a stretch afterwards

We continued up past the car park to the old gravel pits beyond. We had hoped to see a Goosander but we were informed when we arrived that they had just flown off, unfortunately. We did manage to find a single drake Goldeneye, a few Tufted Ducks and a couple of Great Crested Grebes. We were just about to give up, when a pair of Mandarin appeared out from behind the overhanging trees. They were followed by a pair of Mallard and the two drakes then had a brief altercation before the pair of Mandarin flew off.

img_0829Mandarin – this pair were on the gravel pits at Lynford

It was time to head back, but we still had one surprise in store. As we drove into Swaffham, we could see a flock of Starlings circling over the houses. By the time we got back to the car park, there were already several thousand overhead and more were coming in all the time from different directions. Several hundred tried to go down into a fir tree earlier than the rest, but they were clearly nervous and promptly took off again.

The Starling murmuration grew and grew, probably numbering over 20,000 birds at its peak. They all flew round overhead for about half hour, twisting and turning, quite an amazing sight. Then suddenly they started to drop down into the trees. They descended in several different places, but a large number went into a couple of holly trees nearby. It was fascinating to watch – when a group decided they were going in to roost, they dropped  out of the sky at speed and went hurtling into their chosen tree, disappearing completely from view. Hundreds and hundreds all went into a single small tree.

6o0a7756

6o0a7765Starlings – the murmuration at the end of the day was quite a sight

Once they had decided to go to roost, within just a few minutes all the Starlings had gone. We still could hear them though, even if we couldn’t see them, their noisy chattering coming from the trees all around. It was a stunning sight, and a great way to end three exciting days of winter birding.

18th Feb 2017 – Late Winter Birding, Day 2

Day 2 of a three day long weekend of Late Winter Birding tours today, and we spent the day in North Norfolk. It was forecast to be dull and cloudy all day, but thankfully we were treated to some long spells of sunshine, great winter weather to be out birding. There was still a bit of a chill in the brisk SW wind though – it is February after all!

As we made our way down towards the coast, a Red Kite circled lazily through the trees beside the road. We flushed a Common Buzzard out of the trees too, as we stopped, which flew away across the fields. A dead Brown Hare lay on the tarmac, which was obviously being eyed up by the local raptors. We watched as the Red Kite turned over the trees, twisting its tail like a rudder, before it too reluctantly drifted away, leaving behind its potential meal.

Our first destination was Holkham. There were lots of ducks on the pools alongside Lady Anne’s Drive – Wigeon, Shoveler and Teal. However, there were no Pink-footed Geese here today. Numbers of geese are now falling as the birds have started to make their way back north again after the winter.

Parking at the north end of the road, we made our way out through the pines and onto the saltmarsh. There were several birders making their way back along the sandy path who told us that our quarry was ahead. Shorelarks. The birds had been harried and chased around by a photographer, who was just leaving as we arrived, and they were rather skittish and unsettled initially.

They had been mostly keeping to the longer vegetation but when the Shorelarks were flushed by a loose dog and its associated walker, they flew round calling and landed on a more open area. We got them in the scope from a distance at first, and admired their canary yellow faces with black bandit masks, bright in the morning sunshine.

6o0a7241Shorelarks – their bright yellow faces catching the morning sun

6o0a7181Shorelarks – around 30 were still at Holkham this morning

The Shorelarks flew round again and settled near the path. We positioned ourselves nearby and waited patiently, rather than chasing in after them. Gradually, a small group, four of them, came out of the taller sea purslane towards us and started picking at the seedheads of the saltmarsh vegetation in front of us. We enjoyed some great close up views through the scope of them feeding. The poor Skylark singing its heart out in the sky high overhead was all but ignored until we realised that we could listen to one and watch the other, and enjoy both.

6o0a7266Shorelark – came to us as we waited patiently

The Shorelarks are winter visitors to the coast here, in very variable numbers. In recent years, only a very small number have typically made it here, but this winter has seen a resurgence. Early on in the winter, 70-80 were here at Holkham but they have now dispersed along the coast a little. Still, it was a real treat to see a flock of 30 here today.

After watching the Shorelarks for a while, we made our way over to the dunes and had a look out to sea. A drake Red-breasted Merganser we got in the scope was asleep but a drake Goldeneye was awake, its glossy green head catching the sunlight. Several Great Crested Grebes were mostly rather distant, but a winter plumage Red-throated Diver was diving just off the beach. Between dives, everyone eventually got a really good look at it through the scope.

After a great start to the morning, we made our way back to Lady Anne’s Drive. The lure of a hot drink at the coffee van proved too strong and we drank it by the picnic tables looking out over the marshes. There was a lot of action here. As well as all the Wigeon and Woodpigeons, a pair of Mistle Thrushes were feeding out on the grass, amongst the molehills. The sunshine had brought the raptors out and at least four Common Buzzards circled over us.We had failed to find any Pink-footed Geese on the grass by the drive earlier, but a flock of about 50 flew in from the west and landed on the marshes, though unfortunately behind a hedge where we couldn’t get a clear look at them.

6o0a7274Common Buzzard – several circled over Lady Anne’s Drive in the sunshine

Three large white shapes circled up out of the trees in the middle of the marshes. With their long necks held outstretched in front and long legs trailing behind, we could see they were Spoonbills. They dropped down into the trees, but a few minutes later were up and circling again. They repeated this a couple of times more. The UK’s only colony of Spoonbill breed here so these were early returning birds presumably checking out the colony. Spring is definitely in the air!

We made our way round to the other end of the freshmarsh, closer to the trees, and it wasn’t long before the Spoonbills were up and circling again. We had a much improved view of them from here. Even better, when they landed back in the trees at one point, one was in view so we managed to get it distantly in the scope. We could see the yellow tip to its black spoon-shaped bill, confirming that it was an adult Spoonbill.

6o0a7322Spoonbills – early returning birds checking out the colony

Another large white bird out in the middle of the freshmarsh was a Great White Egret. Even without binoculars, we could see it was huge, with a long neck. Through the scope we could see its long, dagger-shaped yellow bill. There were also three Ruff feeding out on the grass around one of the pools. Several Marsh Harriers and Common Buzzards circled in the sunshine or perched around in the trees.

6o0a7339Marsh Harrier – a female, circling above the marshes

The other highlight here was the geese. Scattered across the grass, mixed in with the Greylags, we could see lots of White-fronted Geese. Smaller and darker than the Greylags, through the scope we could see their more delicate pink bills with distinctive white surrounds to the bases. We could also see the distinctive black belly bars on the adult White-fronted Geese. They should be on their way back north soon, back to northern Russia where they breed.

img_0760White-fronted Geese – there were still a good number at Holkham today

From here, we also finally managed to find some Pink-footed Geese on the ground and in view. There were just two of them, but they were handily with a couple of Greylags for comparison. Again, the Pink-footed Geese were smaller and darker, particularly dark on the head and neck, with a more delicate dark bill. Through the scope we could see the pink legs and pink bank around the bill. There were also a couple of Egyptian Geese out on the grass, just to round off the goose selection nicely.

Leaving Holkham, we made our way west. Our next stop was at Brancaster Staithe, where the tide was on its way out. There was a nice selection of waders feeding around the harbour. We had a good look at some Bar-tailed Godwits, noting the dark streaks on their pale buff-coloured upperparts an the long but slightly uptilted bill.

6o0a7360Bar-tailed Godwit – showed well at Brancaster Staithe

Lots of Turnstones and several Oystercatchers were picking around the piles of discarded mussels on the shoreline. A couple of Grey Plovers were picking around on the mud, and a group of smaller Dunlin were feeding feverishly in the shallow water.

It was lunchtime when we arrived at Titchwell, so we made our way to the picnic area. We had been intending to sit at the picnic tables, but we didn’t get a chance! First of all, we heard a Goldcrest singing and walked over to see it flitting around in the bare sallows right by the path. There were lots of Goldfinches twittering high in the alders and then a pair of Siskin appeared with them. The male fed in the top of one of the trees in the sunshine for a minute or so, where we could get a good look at it.

Then one of the group spotted another bird in the top of the same alder. It was hanging on one of the outer branches, picking at the cones. It was much paler and browner, and when it turned to face us we could see that it had a small red patch on its forehead and a bright pinkish red wash across its breast. A Mealy Redpoll and a smart male too. When it climbed around reaching for the cones, we could see it had a distinctive pale whitish rump streaked with black.

6o0a7398Mealy Redpoll – feeding in one of the alders opposite the picnic area

After lunch, we headed out onto the reserve. We had a quick look at the feeders the other side of the visitor centre, but at first there were no birds. Gradually, they started to reappear – Chaffinches, Greenfinches, Goldfinches and tits. Finally a Brambling flew in and joined them. It was a female, with greyish head and a pale orange wash across the breast and shoulders contrasting with the white belly.

6o0a7430Brambling – a female on the feeders by the visitor centre

On the walk out along the main path, we had a quick look in the ditches either side but could not see a Water Rail – we resolved to have another look on the way back. The grazing meadow dry ‘pool’ was rather quiet again, but the reedbed pool the other side held a small group of Common Pochard, along with the regular Mallards and Coot. We stopped to have a look around the reeds. There had been a Bittern feeding in one of the channels yesterday, but there was no sign of it this afternoon. However, we did find a Kingfisher perched in the edge of the reeds.

The water level on the freshmarsh is still rather high, although a few small islands have started to reappear. This is continuing to prove popular with the wildfowl, and there were good numbers of Teal on here still today, as well as a selection of Shoveler, Gadwall and Wigeon. A large flock of Brent Geese flew in from over towards Brancaster and dropped in for a wash and a drink.

The number of Avocets is now starting to increase again. They were mostly sleeping by one of the smaller islands, until everything was spooked and they flew round flashing black and white as they twisted and turned. A small group of Knot and Dunlin were bathing on one of the other small islands. The larger fenced-off island was absolutely packed with Golden Plover and Lapwing.

6o0a7468Avocets – numbers are increasing again as birds return after the winter

The mud on the Volunteer Marsh is proving a more attractive feeding ground for waders and there was a nice selection on here again today. A lone Ringed Plover looked very smart in the scope, with the black and white rings around its head and neck. A Grey Plover was looking very pale in the sunshine. There were lots more Knot and Dunlin on here, plus a few Curlew and Black-tailed Godwit.

As we made our way over to the bank at the far side of the Volunteer Marsh, one of the group spotted a Water Rail scuttling into the vegetation right below the bank. We waited and eventually it showed itself again briefly. We thought it might work its way all the way along beneath us, but when it came to a more open area it stood lurking in the vegetation for a couple of minutes before thinking better of it and heading back in the better hidden direction from whence it came.

6o0a7478Water Rail – lurking in the bushes on the edge of the Volunteer Marsh

Out at the Tidal Pools, there were a couple of nice close Black-tailed Godwits. Conveniently, a Bar-tailed Godwit was also nearby, giving us a chance to compare the two. We could see the buffier upperparts of the latter, extensively streaked with black, compared to the plainer, duller grey Black-tailed Godwit. The Bar-tailed Godwit was also noticeably smaller and shorter legged, with a distinct upturn to its bill compared to the straighter billed Black-tailed Godwit.

6o0a7489Black-tailed Godwit – showing very well on the Tidal Pools

Next stop was the beach. As soon as we came through the dunes, we could see a huge raft of scoter out on the sea, several thousands strong. It looked like a massive black oil slick across the water. Periodically, parts of the raft would take off and fly a short distance and in flight we could see that the vast majority of these birds had all black wings, making them Common Scoter.

Closer in, we could see some smaller rafts of scoter and through the scope we could see they were made up of a nice mixture of Common Scoter and Velvet Scoter, including at least 30 of the latter. Several of the Velvet Scoter were conveniently holding their wings loosely folded, which meant that we could see the white wing patch as a white stripe across their sides. Others had more distinctive twin white spots on their faces, very different from the pale cheeks of the female Common Scoter.

Two Long-tailed Duck flew across and landed on the sea next to one of the closer scoter rafts. We managed to get them in the scope, but they were hard to see against the water, which was also a bit choppier now than it had been this morning. While we were trying to get everyone to get a look at them, they flew again and disappeared.

It is very mild at the moment for February, but out of the sun in the lee of the dunes, and with the chill in the wind, several of the group were getting cold. With the sun already starting to sink in the sky, we decided to call it a day and make our way back.

There were still some more things to see. Scanning along the channel on the north edge of the Volunteer Marsh, a much paler wader caught our eye. It was a Spotted Redshank in silvery grey and white winter plumage. It walked across the mud and dropped down into the deep channel in the middle. Thankfully we picked it up again walking towards us in the channel and then it climbed out again onto the mud.

As we walked past the freshmarsh, all the waders took flight. They seemed to be especially jumpy this afternoon. We stood and watched the Golden Plover and Lapwing wheeling in the sky over the water, and then a large group of Golden Plover flew towards us and right overhead – we could hear the beating of their wings.

We had failed to find the Water Rail in the ditch by the path on the way out, but on our way back it was feeding down in the bottom, under an overhanging tree. We got a good look at it through the branches, probing around in the rotting leaves. A nice way to end the day, then it was back to the car and time to head for home.

17th Feb 2017 – Late Winter Birding, Day 1

Day 1 of a three day long weekend of Late Winter Birding tours today, and we made our way down to the Norfolk Broads. It was forecast to be mostly cloudy with some brighter intervals, but it turned out to be bright and sunny for most of the day, an unexpected bonus.

Our first stop was at Hickling Broad. The walk down the track was rather quiet at first. Out on the marshes, we could see a Little Egret on a pool. A line of Eurasian Teal were asleep round the edge, while some noisy Mallard came out of the rushes nearby. We had a quick look in on Bittern Hide, but there was not much to see from here today so we didn’t linger.

Back on the track, we could hear a Marsh Harrier calling high overhead. Scanning the sky, we eventually spotted one, and then another. The more we looked, the more we managed to find, there were soon Marsh Harriers everywhere. A young bird, still overall dark brown apart from a paler head, flew past lower down. Even better, a smart pale male was displaying to a nearby female way up in the sky, ‘skydancing’ – tumbling and rolling, gradually losing height. It was great to watch.

6o0a7018Marsh Harrier – some were displaying, ‘skydancing’, today

We made our way round on the bank beside the Broad, with the sound of Marsh Harriers calling overhead accompanying us all the way. By the observation tower, we heard a deep sound like a foghorn from the reeds and stopped for a listen. A Bittern was booming nearby, but from deep in the reedbed. Unfortunately it didn’t fly up for us to see, but it was great to hear, the first we have heard this year. With Marsh Harriers displaying and Bittern booming, spring was most definitely in the air at Hickling this morning!

Hickling Broad itself looked rather empty. We did stop for a quick look, which revealed a Great Crested Grebe and a distant raft of Tufted Duck, plus a few Mute Swans and Cormorants. As we walked through the trees, we could hear a Green Woodpecker yaffling and several Jays scolding calls in the wood. A Water Rail squealed from the rushes.

We were almost back to the car park when we stopped to listen to a Reed Bunting singing in a small sapling in the reeds. Back a short distance along the path, the way we had come, several Bearded Tits started calling. We walked back and could hear them either side of the path. A male hopped up briefly into the base of a small birch tree, but dropped down again quickly before zooming across the path in front of us and disappearing into the reeds the other side.

Hickling Broad can be a good place to see Cranes and we had hoped we might at least see some flying over or hear them calling today, but it was not to be. So we decided to drive round via some other good Crane sites to see if we could find any there. The first couple of places we tried drew a blank but at the next stop, we spotted a pair of Cranes distantly out on the marshes. We got out and got them in the scope.

img_0638Common Crane – a pair out on the marshes

For such enormous birds, Cranes can be remarkably hard to find. But while we were watching the first pair, we noticed two more Cranes walk out from behind a strawstack. They were quite a bit closer, but we didn’t have a good angle on them from here, so we drove a little further down the road and stopped again.

The second pair of Cranes had now stopped and were preening out in a rough field. As if that wasn’t enough, we looked back towards the first pair and from here we could see a third pair of Cranes walking straight towards them. They had their bustles fluffed up and looked like they might be calling. The first pair quickly got the message and flew off out of sight, but the third pair then set off after them, calling as they flew.

img_0646Common Crane – we found 3 pairs out on the marshes

A short while later, one of the Crane pairs flew back in and landed again and the next thing we knew the other pair was walking towards them. They were separated by a reed lined ditch and the two males seemed to face off to each other across the ditch, they seemed to be calling but we couldn’t hear them. It is that time of the year when the pairs of Cranes are starting to re-establish their territorial boundaries ahead of the breeding season.

After watching the Cranes for a while, we made our way round to Strumpshaw Fen. We didn’t have time to explore the reserve today, but we did stop for a quick look at the pool in front of Reception Hide. The Black Swan is still in residence, and was asleep at first. When it woke up it started calling, although it was giving a strange note which confused several members of the group into thinking it was a Bittern booming at first!

6o0a7039Black Swan – the feral bird still resident on the Reception Hide pool

There were lots of Gadwall out on the pool, along with good numbers of Mallard and Coot. A single drake Shoveler was asleep on the edge of the water. Suddenly the horde of Greylags loafing around on the area of cut reed took fright and most of the ducks took off. We raced back to the viewing screen, as a shout of ‘otter’ came from inside the centre, but unfortunately it was nowhere to be seen.

6o0a7045Gadwall – there were lots on the pool, until all the ducks were flushed

It was nice and sunny, so we had our lunch outside on the picnic tables. While we ate, we kept our eyes on the feeders nearby. A steady stream of Blue Tits and Great Tits came in to eat the seeds and eventually a Marsh Tit sneaked in too, darting in and grabbing a sunflower heart, before disappearing back into the bushes. It did this a second time but then didn’t come back again. A Coal Tit was singing from the trees nearby and a male Siskin was too. We managed to get a quick look at him, before he flew off closely followed by a female Siskin too.

After lunch, we made our way east. Most of the wild swans which have spent the winter in the Broads seem to depart in early February, but there are still some large herds of Mute Swans around. We stopped to look at one on the way and after a careful scan through we managed to find the two lingering Bewick’s Swans with them. They were noticeably much smaller and shorter necked compared to the Mute Swans. We could also see the triangular bills of the Bewick’s Swans with the squared off yellow patch at the base.

img_0672Bewick’s Swans – these two have been lingering with a herd of Mute Swans

From here it was just a short drive round via Great Yarmouth to Burgh Castle. The impressive roman fort here provides a great location from which to scan the marshes of Haddiscoe Island. It didn’t take too long to find the Rough-legged Buzzard on one of its usual posts, aided by the fact it was being mobbed by two Short-eared Owls at the time! It was very distant at first, but after a while it took off and flew round, coming a little closer. It landed on another gatepost for a few seconds before flying back round to where it had started again. At least it flashed its distinctive mostly white tail as it flew.

Scanning the island, we found another Short-eared Owl much closer to us. We watched it quartering the grass below us, flying round on distinctive stiff wings. A fourth Short-eared Owl appeared a little further back. While we were watching the Short-eared Owls, a Barn Owl made several passes back and forth over the reeds in front of us. When one of the group spotted an owl just behind the bushes on the near side of the river, it was assumed it would be a Barn Owl, but when we all got onto it it turned out to be a Short-eared Owl. Unfortunately, it flew quickly over the hedge and disappeared inland behind the fort.

There were a few ducks and waders gathered down on the muddy edge of the river channel in front of the fort. We could see three Shelduck along with a few Wigeon and Teal. There were quite a few Redshanks roosting but two of them looked rather paler. Through the scope, we could see that they were actually Spotted Redshanks, much whiter below and more silvery grey above than the nearby darker Common Redshanks.

One of the group had asked earlier in the car about how to identify Common Gull from Black-headed Gull and, conveniently, when two gulls landed close to us on the grass of the fort we could see that there was one of each. It was a good opportunity to see them side by side, the Black-headed Gull having reddish bill and legs and the Common Gull‘s being yellowish. The Common Gull also lacked the black spot on the head of the winter Black-headed Gull and had a darker grey back and more extensive black wingtips.

6o0a7086Common Gull – landed next to us with a Black-headed Gull for comparison

The Common Gull flew off a bit further across the grass but the Black-headed Gull remained just behind us. When we turned around to look at it again, we could see it was treading feverishly up and down on the spot. The sound of the fast footsteps is meant to resemble rain falling and bring worms and other invertebrates to the surface. It seemed to be working as the Black-headed Gull picked up several worms in the short time we were watching it doing its rain dance.

On our way back round, we stopped off on the south side of Breydon Water. There had been a large flock of Tundra Bean Geese on the grazing fields here for the last couple of days. They had not been seen this morning, but had apparently reappeared this afternoon, so we thought it was worth looking in. Unfortunately, they had already flown off again by the time we got there.

Breydon Water is a large tidal estuary and generally holds a wide selection of ducks and waders. Today was no exception, and we could see a huge throng from up on the South Wall. Scanning through the waders, there were good numbers of Avocet, Curlew, Black-tailed Godwit and Dunlin, as well as masses of Lapwing and Golden Plover. The duck included some smart looking Pintail, along with good numbers of Wigeon and Teal.

6o0a7092Breydon Water – huge numbers of waders, ducks and gulls gathered on the mud

We were just working our way through the birds to see what was there when suddenly all the waders erupted. We couldn’t see what had flushed them, possibly one of the local Peregrines, but the air was filled with vast swarms of whirling waders. Most of them were Golden Plover and Lapwing – recent counts here have numbered about 7,000 and 8,000 of each, respectively! It was quite a sight to watch them all in the sky.

6o0a7094

6o0a7107

6o0a7115

6o0a7113Waders – the whirling flocks over Breydon Water

As is the spectacle of the whirling wader flocks was not enough, we looked through beyond them and could see a large flock of Starlings in the sky, over the grazing marshes the other side of Breydon. The flock started to disperse, then suddenly coalesced again, swirling down towards the ground to be met by another flock of Starlings coming up from the ground below. As well as the mini Wader Spectacular, we had a mini murmuration too!

The sun was already going down fast now and we were running out of time. We still wanted to have a quick look in at Stubb Mill on the way home, so we made our way quickly round there. As we were walking up to the watchpoint, we heard someone call out ‘Cranes‘ and we looked across to see two Cranes flying in over the reeds. They flew across in front of us and disappeared round behind the bushes beyond. Not long after, a second pair of Cranes did exactly the same.

6o0a7126Common Crane – a pair flying in to roost in the mist at dusk

Unfortunately, some mist was starting to build over the ground when we arrived and it rapidly thickened which made it hard to see over to the raptor roost. We could see a few Marsh Harriers flying around and a few more made their way in high as we watched. However, with visibility deteriorating and the light fading, we decided to call it a day. As we drove back from the reserve towards the village, a Chinese Water Deer bounded across the road in front of us and a Barn Owl flew alongside the car, leading the way home.

11th Feb 2017 – More Owls & More

Another Owl Tour today. The weather forecast was not ideal for owls – cold, cloudy and windy with the risk of snow showers! Thankfully, once again it was not as bad as forecast and we had a great day. We managed to find some owls and some other good birds besides.

We started with a drive round to see if we could find some Barn Owls still out hunting, but with the conditions it was perhaps no surprise to find that they had already gone in to roost. At one brief stop two Stock Dove flew past, we flushed a Little Egret from a wet meadow and listened to Greylag Geese flying inland honking. A little further along and we could see a large skein of several hundred geese flying towards us over the fields. Pink-footed Geese presumably looking for a recently harvested sugar beet field on which to feed. We pulled over and listened to them as they flew overhead, their distinctive higher pitched yelping calls very different from the Greylags we had heard earlier.

6o0a6356Pink-footed Geese – a large skein flew over the road calling

Making our way further inland, we headed for one of our regular Little Owl spots. It didn’t take long to find our first Little Owl, perched up in a sheltered spot on the roof of one of the farm buildings. It was a long way off, so we drove along the road for a slightly closer look. We could see it better from here but it was still some way away, a little ball of feathers fluffed up against the cold.

A short distance down a footpath, we made our way round to the back of some other farm buildings which are more sheltered. Sure enough, here we found another two Little Owls, a little closer still. They too were hunched up under the roof of a barn. One of them did fly out onto the roof at one point, but clearly thought better of it and headed back quickly to where it had been tucked up out of the wind.

On our way back to the car, we disturbed a Brown Hare, which ran across the path in front of us at high speed and disappeared into the trees. A stubble field nearby held a nice flock of Curlew, all but invisible until they flew round. A group of Lapwing flew inland from the direction of the coast.

Carrying on our drive westwards, we stopped briefly at another couple of sets of barns, which we know are occupied by both Little Owls and Barn Owls. Given the weather, it was perhaps not a great surprise that no owls were perched out here today. We did see some nice farmland birds on our drive. A covey of Red-legged Partridges next to the road were accompanied by a pair of Grey Partridges – always nice to see. Several Kestrels were perched on posts or wires, looking down from there for food rather than hovering this morning. And we saw several more Brown Hares, although they were mostly hunkered down in the fields.

6o0a6364Grey Partridge – a pair were by the road with a covey of Red-legged Partridges

A little further on, we had hoped to catch up with a flock of geese in a recently harvested sugar beet field, where they have been feeding for the last few days. However, when we got there, we couldn’t find any sign of them. We thought they might be loafing in another field further back, so we drove round there to have a look, only to find a long line of twenty or more men with shotguns strung out across the landscape. Perhaps it was no surprise that we couldn’t find any geese today! With the shooting season for most game having closed at the beginning of this month, they were shooting Brown Hares. We could see that many of them had dead Hares hanging from their waists. Sad to see such beautiful animals like this.

With the morning getting on, we decided to head for Titchwell to do some more general birding and resume our search for owls later. As we set off from the car to head for the visitor centre, one of the group asked about the Woodcock which has been seen recently by the path here. Often it is further back in the trees out of view, but today we were lucky. Just as we were talking about it, we glanced into the bushes and there was the Woodcock less than 10 metres from the path!

6o0a6419Woodcock – great views, feeding by the path at Titchwell

The Woodcock was feeding actively, walking about among the branches and probing its long bill into the wet leaves looking for earthworms and other invertebrates. They are surprisingly large, chunky birds, with very intricate patterning which provides great camouflage. Against the rather dark brown rotting leaves here, this Woodcock’s rusty colouration meant it rather stood out! We watched it for a while as it worked its way further back into the trees and disappeared from view. Given Woodcock are mainly nocturnal, it was great to see one so well, a rare treat.

The feeders by the Visitor Centre held a nice selection of finches, mainly Chaffinch, Goldfinch and Greenfinch. But in amongst them we managed to find a single female Brambling, which kept flying out of the bushes behind and hovering by one of the feeders, but it seemed reluctant to land. We scanned the alders for redpolls, but all we could find in the trees today were more Goldfinches and Greenfinches.

The Water Rails were more obliging. As we got out onto the main path, one was feeding in the ditch straight ahead of us. We had a great look at it as it walked around nervously out in the open, probing in the dead leaves. A little further along, a second Water Rail was in the ditch on the other side of the path briefly.

6o0a6441Water Rail – feeding in the ditch by the path again

Out of the shelter of the trees, there was a keen cold breeze, so we made our way quickly along the path. A couple of Marsh Harriers were circling over the reedbed at the back of the still dry Thornham grazing marsh ‘pool’. The Water Pipit appeared briefly out of the ditch along one side, but flew off behind the reeds before everyone could get onto it. Otherwise, it was very quiet on here again today. The reedbed pool held a single Tufted Duck and a few Mallard.

The water level on the freshmarsh is still rather high, but has now dropped a fraction. We made our way straight round to Parrinder Hide to scan from the comparative warmth inside! There was a nice selection of winter ducks on here today, including several Pintail sleeping in front of the hide. Through the scope, we could see the drakes’ long, pin-shaped tails.

6o0a6460Pintail & Wigeon – sleeping on the freshmarsh

A single Bar-tailed Godwit was bathing on the edge of the mud, and then flew across to join the ducks in the shallower water and preen. A single Black-tailed Godwit dropped in nearby too, and we were able to get a good comparison looking between them  and see the key differences between these rather similar species in winter plumage. A few Knot flew in too and in with them we found a single Ruff (a female, or Reeve), similar sized but longer legged and with distinctive scaly-patterned upperparts.

The thirteen over-wintering Avocet have returned to the freshmarsh, now that the water level has dropped a little. The fenced off island was covered with roosting Lapwing and in one corner were several Golden Plover which had obviously just been bathing and were now preening and flapping. While we watched, another large flock of Golden Plover flew in from the fields and dropped in to join them.

From the other side of Parrinder Hide, we had a look out across the Volunteer Marsh. There was a nice selection of waders in front of the hide here. Several dumpy grey Knot were feeding on the mud just below the windows with a few smaller and browner Dunlin nearby for comparison. A Grey Plover was hard to pick out against the mud until it moved. There were also several Curlew and Redshank.

6o0a6483Knot – in grey winter plumage

Having warmed up in the hide, we decided to make a quick dash out to the beach. On the way, we stopped briefly to admire a Black-tailed Godwit on the mud just below the path on the Volunteer Marsh and a couple of close Little Grebes on the near edge of the tidal pools.

6o0a6507Little Grebe – on the tidal pools

There was a chill in the north-easterly wind out on the beach, so we didn’t want to stay out there long. The tide was out but we had a quick look at the sea from the edge of the dunes. About 30 Velvet Scoter were diving just offshore, hunting for shellfish. We could see the twin white spots of the females, although the young males with them are now looking mostly dark headed. We could see the white in the wings, visible on the flanks of several which were holding their wings loosely and on others as they flapped. The Common Scoter were much further out, probably about 2,000 today, visible as a long black slick spread out across the water.

While we were watching the Velvet Scoter, a couple of Long-tailed Ducks appeared with them briefly. We just had time for a quick look at them through the scope, before they flew off. There were also a few Goldeneye and a pair of Red-breasted Merganser out on the sea today. Then, with the group starting to get cold, we made a quick turnaround and walked back.

After finishing lunch back at the car (the first sitting had been held in Parrinder Hide), we set off again. It was still a bit early for owls, so we had a quick look in the harbour at Thornham first. There was no sign of the Twite here today, but we did find a few waders in the channel – including Black- and Bar-tailed Godwit and Curlew. A very obliging pair of Brent Geese fed on the tiny strip of saltmarsh between the road and the boats.

6o0a6535Brent Goose – one of a very obliging pair at Thornham today

A quick look in at Brancaster Staithe produced a few more waders. The highlights were a few Turnstone and Oystercatcher feeding around the piles of discarded mussels. Several Goldeneye were diving down in the harbour channel. Then, with the afternoon progressing, we made our way back west to look for owls again. We stopped off at several regular Barn Owl sites on the way, but with the weather as it was it always seemed unlikely we would encounter too many out hunting before dark. We would need a bit of luck!

There were no Barn Owls out yet at Holkham either. We scanned the freshmarsh for geese too, but all was quiet here apart from a Grey Heron. There are still good numbers of White-fronted Geese here normally, but there was no sign here today. A few hundred metres further down the road we found out why – they were all in a field beside the road! We pulled up with our hazard lights on and had a look at them from the car so as not to flush them. There were more than a hundred White-fronted Geese here, we could see the white around their bills and black belly-barring on the adults, along with a few Greylags.

6o0a6554White-fronted Geese – over a hundred were next to the road at Holkham

A little further along, we found a single Egyptian Goose  in the same field and at Lady Anne’s Drive we stopped to look at a small group of Pink-footed Geese out on the grass. The wind had picked up and it was quite blustery on the coast, so we decided to continue our search inland. We stopped at a set of barns where a pair of Barn Owls roost, but there was no sign of them out hunting yet today, despite it being around the time they usually emerge.

We drove on, round via several more sites where Barn Owls like to hunt. We had just checked out one grassy field, without success, and were driving away when we happened to glance over and caught a glimpse of a white shape through the trees. Reversing carefully, we pulled up in a gateway and could see it was indeed a Barn Owl on a post.

6o0a6573Barn Owl – on a post

There was a convenient path we could walk along to overlook a rather overgrown field which was sheltered on all sides by a belt of trees. From here, we had a great view of the Barn Owl perched on a fence post. Given the wind, it was probably trying to hunt by sight, and it worked its way down along the fence line in short hops, stopping each time to scan the ground below.

Then a second Barn Owl appeared, flying over the field at the back. It landed in a tree further over. While we were watching it, the first Barn Owl then started to hunt more actively, circling round over the field, dropping down into the tall grass from time to time. It came much closer, hunting round into the corner of the field closest to us, great to watch. Eventually, it retreated to the trees where it perched and the second Barn Owl started to hunt over the grass. We watched them both for some time, leaving them only when both had disappeared into the trees to rest.

6o0a6596Barn Owl – eventually started hunting over the field in front of us

These two Barn Owls had obviously found a sheltered field to hunt, which was why they were out here today and showed no inclination to go anywhere else. Great for us. It was already getting on towards Tawny Owl time, but we had a quick swing round via some other meadows where there are often Barn Owls, without further success.

We arrived at the woods just in time. As we got out of the car, we could already hear a Tawny Owl hooting, earlier than normal tonight, possibly due to the grey and overcast skies meaning the light was fading fast. We made our way quickly down to the area where we know one of the Tawny Owls likes to roost, just in time to hear it hooting from the roost trees. At least this meant we knew roughly where it was going to emerge tonight.

After a couple more hoots, the Tawny Owl flew out of the trees and straight towards us. It normally likes to perch up further back first, but perhaps because of the wind, it came further through the trees. It landed on a perch not far from us, but was hard to see against the dark background of ivy-covered trunks. Before we could get it in the scope it took off again, possibly surprised by our presence, and disappeared back into the trees. Then it went silent.

The other Tawny Owls had stopped hooting too, and it seemed for a few minutes like that might be it for tonight. We tried a quick whistled hoot, but got no response. The trees were quiet, but for the raucous coughing of the many Pheasants going to roost in the trees. We were about to give up, but tried one more whistle. Without a sound, a large dark shape came out of the trees behind us and flew over our heads. The Tawny Owl was back!

I had disappeared back into the trees again, but after a few seconds it flew back out and landed in a tree right above us. Once again, the Tawny Owl was frustratingly hard for the group to get onto here, against the ivy in the gloom, despite the fact that it was only a few metres above us. We tried to get it in the scope, but before we could it was off again. Thankfully, this time it flew across the path and landed in a bare tree, silhouetted against the sky. Now everyone could see it. It perched there for some time hooting, before flying back through the trees towards us and landing above us again. Fantastic stuff!

6o0a6632Tawny Owl – perched above our heads, hooting at dusk

The Tawny Owl remained above us hooting for a couple of minutes. At one point it flew across the path, right over our heads, to a tree the other side. It was great to see it overhead, to get a real sense of its large size and broad, rounded wings. Eventually, it dropped back into the trees and was lost to view. It was getting dark as we made our way back to the car, but we still had the evocative hooting of the Tawny Owls from the trees to listen too, a great way to end another very successful Owl Tour.