Monthly Archives: February 2018

21st Feb 2018 – Winter or Spring, #2

Day 2 of a two day Private Tour. We were heading down to the Brecks today. It was meant to be a brighter day, even with some sunny intervals, but it remained rather stubbornly misty and grey. Still, it stayed mostly dry and we made the best of it.

Our first destination for the day was Santon Downham. As we walked down towards the river, a group of finches in the trees behind the cottages included a single Brambling with the Chaffinches in tree. Lots of tits were coming and going at the feeders by the road.

As we walked down along the path beside the river, three Siskins were feeding on the ground on the path. A Song Thrush was singing its complex and varied song from high in the alders and a Reed Bunting was delivering its more modest song from out in the. reeds. Lots of birds are singing now – signs that hopefully spring is not far away. A Marsh Tit was above our heads singing in the poplars and Nuthatches were piping along here too.

Siskin

Siskin – feeding on the riverbank path again

There had been no sign of any Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers that morning, but as we walked up along the bank we heard one call on the other side of the river, in the dense tangle of alder trees. We called a few other people who were further along the bank over to join us and set about trying to find it. It took a few minutes but someone managed to spot it, seeing it move in the top of one of the trees deep in.

The Lesser Spotted Woodpecker almost immediately flew left – landing in the top of another tree a little further back. It was really hard to find if you weren’t watching for the movement. We just managed to get the scope on it, but it flew again before everyone could get onto it. We could see it was the male, with a red crown.

Over the next 45 minutes or so we tried to keep track of it. The Lesser Spotted Woodpecker was calling but only very occasionally. By following the sound, we had several more fleeting views, but it was feeding some way back in the trees and very hard to see. We hoped it might work its way back towards the river bank.

It is a beautiful spot along the river here and there were other birds to see while we watched and waited. A large flock of Redwings flew up from the wet paddocks beyond the alders and perched up in a tall poplar where we could get the scope on them. There were lots of Siskins chattering away in the trees and flying back and forth. Three Great Spotted Woodpeckers chased each other through trees and gave us much better views, unlike their smaller cousins.

The Lesser Spotted Woodpecker called again, deep in the trees still. We had another glimpse of it as it flicked across left. Then it went quiet once more. We decided to head off and look for something else.

One of the group had been struggling with a pre-existing leg injury, and had opted out of the first walk this morning. So we decided to have a gentle walk down to the river at St Helens next. It was rather quiet here this morning. A pair of Mistle Thrushes were feeding in the cultivated field by the car park. A slow walk down to the footbridge produced a couple of Little Grebes on the river.

Little Grebe

Little Grebe – one of several on the river at St Helens

We had been hoping that the weather would brighten up through this morning, as had been forecast, but it was still stubbornly grey and misty. As we headed out towards the forest, we stopped to look at a field sown with seed mix. As we got out of the car, we flushed a couple of Grey Partridge from the edge of the field by road, which flew off calling noisily. The Red-legged Partridges were not quite so shy. A Yellowhammer was calling from the hedge but there were not many birds actually in the seed crop today.

The neighbouring field is bare, and the Linnets were all out in the middle today. A Mistle Thrush was feeding with them. One of the group spotted a Red Kite landing in one of the trees at the back. We got it in the scope for a closer look, and found a second Red Kite there too. On a day like today, it was not surprising to find raptors just sitting around in the mist rather than flying around.

Red Kite

Red Kite – one of two sitting in the trees in the mist

Despite the weather, we decided to have an early lunch and try our luck with Goshawks. Grey, misty and still are not ideal conditions! Still we kept watch while we ate, although there was very little activity, not even any Common Buzzards up. Hundreds of Woodpigeons erupted from the wood in the distance a couple of times, but there was no sign of anything chasing them above the trees. The Goshawks were probably very sensibly hiding in the wood.

As we were finishing eating, we could see a small break in the cloud ahead, a tiny patch of clearer sky coming towards us. As it passed over behind us, it was just enough to let a bit of sunlight through. We could feel the warmth on our backs and it just illuminated the trees in front of us. Almost immediately, a Goshawk appeared. It just broke above the tops of the trees, we could see its large size and heavy powerful wingbeats, grey above and pale below. It flew across in front of us, more visible against the sky, before it dropped down again into the wood.

The Common Buzzards were suddenly up too. One flew low across in front of the trees, then we looked across to see four more circling up together. Two drifted off, but the other two started to display, the paler one stooping in dive at the other, turning up sharply at the last moment. It was a lucky break, as the sunshine didn’t last long and after a couple of minutes the mist rolled in again. It went quiet once more.

Heading deeper into the forest, we took a short walk to look for Woodlarks. There was no sign of any at the first clearing today, but as we walked on further down along the ride, we could hear Woodlark calling and then singing quietly. As we came out into another clearing, one flew across the path in front of us and we watched as it disappeared way off into the distance, back where we had just come.

We stopped to look at Yellowhammers in trees at back. We could still hear Woodlarks calling. Then the male flew up from out in the middle of the grass and started song flighting, flying around high above our heads, short-tailed, bat like wings fluttering, singing its slightly melancholy song. The female flew up too, behind it, but dropped down again in the back corner of the clearing.

We wade our way round on the path and found one of the Woodlarks feeding quietly in the grass not far from the path. We had great views of it in the scope – we could see its pale supercilia meeting in a shallow ‘v’ at the back. Another Woodlark dropped in just behind it, as a third flew over singing again. There was lots of activity today despite the grey weather – it must be spring!

Woodlark

Woodlark – one of three in the clearing this afternoon

Lynford Arboretum was our destination for the rest of the afternoon. As we walked in, a couple of Nuthatches were feeding high in the larches. At the feeders by the gate, the fat balls had run out but the peanuts were coated in Blue Tits. A great variety of birds were coming down to feed on the ground too, occasionally being spooked by all the noise from the building work next door and flying up into the trees. A smart male Brambling dropped down under the feeders and started to feed in the leaves.

Brambling

Brambling – feeding on the ground under the feeders

We carried on down the path to the bridge. Someone had put out lots of seeds and fat balls on the pillars, and a constant stream of birds was coming in to feed. We had great close-up views of Marsh Tits from here, plus lots of Long-tailed Tits, Coal Tits, Blue and Great Tits.

Marsh Tit

Marsh Tit – great views down by the bridge

Continuing on to the paddocks, a flock of Redwings flew up into the hornbeams. We stopped to scan the trees and spotted two Hawfinches high in the firs at the back. We had a distant look through the scope, then decided to walk round for a closer view. However, we hadn’t gone more than a couple of metres, before we heard a quiet ticking call. It was hard to hear while we were walking, so we stopped to listen properly. As we looked back towards the first hornbeam in the paddocks another Hawfinch had appeared in the branches.

The Hawfinch was perched up calling. It was face on to us and we could see its huge head and bill, with a little black bib and mask. We watched it for some time, getting better views here than the ones at the back. It dropped down a little into the tree and started pecking at lichen, pulling it off branches. Then it dropped down again out of view. There were also several Chaffinches and Greenfinches in the trees and feeding on the ground below.

Hawfinch

Hawfinch – perched in one of the trees in the paddocks calling

Having enjoyed such good views of the Hawfinch here, we didn’t bother to walk round to look for the others we had seen earlier. We made our way back round to the lake. A small group of people were looking at the trees in the paddocks from this side. We stopped and managed to find the Hawfinch again in the middle of the hornbeam, so we pointed them in the right direction.

On the island in the lake, the female Mute Swan was starting to attend to their nest, while the male swam around just offshore, keeping guard. A pair of Canada Geese were on the lawn of the hall and nearby, two pairs of Gadwall were with the Moorhens. Gadwall are the most underrated of ducks, not just plain grey. We got a pair of them in the scope and admired the intricate patterning on the drake.

Gadwall

Gadwall – we stopped to look at the intricate patterns on this drake

We started to walk slowly back. There was still lots of activity at the bridge, with birds coming down to the food. We had nice views of Nuthatch here now, with one coming down several times to grab sunflower seeds from between the fatballs.

Nuthatch

Nuthatch – coming in to grab a sunflower seed

When we got back to the car, it was time to call it a day and head for home. There was no sign of any Starlings gathering over Swaffham yet this evening, but as we drove north, we could see a flock of several thousands whirling over the pigfields, gathering ready to head in to town to roost.

20th Feb 2018 – Winter or Spring, #1

Day 1 of a two day Private Tour. We were to spend the day in North Norfolk. It was forecast to rain all day today, particularly in the morning, but once again it was nowhere near as bad as predicted. We managed to successfully dodge the showers and even though the wind picked up in the afternoon we still saw some great birds.

Our first destination for the morning was Holkham. As we drove up towards the coast it was raining but by the time we got up to Lady Anne’s Drive it was already easing off. We had a look at the pools and fields by the road. There were plenty of ducks – lots of Wigeon plus Teal and a few Shoveler on the pools. A pair of Mistle Thrushes showed very well in the field next to the road and three Grey Partridge were feeding along the edge below one of the hedgerows.

Mistle Thrush

Mistle Thrush – one of a pair by Lady Anne’s Drive this morning

After we had parked at the north end, we scanned the grazing marshes again. There were more ducks here, plus a few waders, mainly Common Redshanks plus a couple of Oystercatchers. We could see a stripy Common Snipe in the grass, looking less well camouflaged against the green vegetation here.

A white shape working its way along one of the ditches out in the fields was hidden by a bramble bush at first, but immediately looked big. When it finally came out into view, we could see its long, yellow, dagger-shaped bill and our suspicions were confirmed – it was a Great White Egret. A very nice bird to start the day with here.

Great White Egret

Great White Egret – feeding in one of the ditches out from Lady Anne’s Drive

A little flock of Pink-footed Geese flew over calling but as we walked up towards the pines, we spotted another, a lone bird, out on the grass. We could see its dark head and through the scope we got a good look at its pink legs and delicate bill, mostly dark with a narrow pink band around it. A Greylag Goose was nearby for comparison, larger and paler and sporting a large orange carrot for a bill! On the other side of the Drive, four Brent Geese were feeding out on the grazing marsh too.

We had seen a flock of Fieldfares disappearing into the distance from the car as we drove up. We finally relocated them in the fields behind the construction site for the new Orientation Centre & Cafe, out in a grassy field among the molehills, mixed in with a large flock of Starlings. A pair of Stonechats were feeding on the grassy bank nearby.

With the weather now dry, we decided to head out towards the beach and take advantage, in case it should get wet again later. As we made our way through the pines, we could see more Brent Geese together with several Shelduck out on the saltmarsh. It was a bit windier on this side of the trees though and the walk east along the north edge of the pines was rather quiet. We flushed a small charm of Goldfinches from the high tide line along the dunes as we walked.

When we got to the eastern end of the saltmarsh, we stopped to scan. It didn’t take long to find our quarry, as the nine Shorelarks were feeding in their usual spot again today. We walked over and had a lovely view of them scurrying around among the sparse low vegetation. Through the scope, we could see their yellow faces and black bandit masks.

Shorelark

Shorelark – the nine were out on the saltmarsh again today

After watching the Shorelarks for a while, we decided to make our way back. The walk was only relieved by a couple of flyover Rock Pipits and a pair of Skylarks which flew up from the saltmarsh as we passed. Back on the other side of the pines, a pair of Egyptian Geese had now joined the four Brent Geese we had seen earlier.

Almost back to the car, we stopped for another look out over the grazing marsh. As we scanned, we noticed a large white bird circling over the trees out in the middle. It wasn’t another egret – it was flying with its neck stretched out in front – it was a Spoonbill! This is the first we have seen back here this year, although they breed here at Holkham and hopefully more will follow soon. It might not have felt much like it today, but spring is on its way now.

Spoonbill

Spoonbill – the first of the year, back at Holkham

The Spoonbill turned and came straight towards us, flying over Lady Anne’s Drive just a short distance from us and disappearing off east towards Wells. We could see its distinctive spoon-shaped bill as it came overhead. A rather pale Common Buzzard was busy tearing at something it had caught out on the grass but was rather ignored until the Spoonbill had gone. A couple of Marsh Harriers hung in the air over the reeds at the back.

We were planning to make our way west this morning, but we had a quick stop further along the coast road to admire six White-fronted Geese in a grassy meadow with a flock of Greylag. In direct comparison, we could see the White-fronted Geese were much smaller and more delicate, with a smaller pink bill surrounded with white at the base. The adults were also sporting their distinctive black belly bands.

White-fronted Geese

Russian White-fronted Geese – six were by the road at Holkham this morning

An even whiter Common Buzzard was perched on an old pill box just behind the geese, a striking bird and a regular at this spot. A little further along the road, a couple of hundred Pink-footed Geese were feeding in a stubble field.

Our next diversion off the coast road was at Titchwell, where we turned inland along Chalkpit Lane. There has been a Hooded Crow here, but it is often very elusive. We had a quick scan for it on our way past, but there were several people looking who had not managed to locate it. We did stop to admire a winter wheat field which held at least 20 Brown Hares. On the other side of the road, a bare beet field was chock full of Lapwings and Golden Plovers when you looked closely.

Round at Choseley Drying Barns there was quite a bit of disturbance today, with tractors coming and going and people walking past, and the hedges were quiet. We did stop to look at a Grey Partridge and a Red-legged Partridge feeding side by side, a nice opportunity for comparison.

A little further on, there was much more activity and the hedges were packed with small birds which took off as we approached. They landed again further along, so we rolled up slowly for a closer look. There were loads of Chaffinches and Bramblings in the bushes and we got a great look at some of the latter right next to the car. Then another vehicle came speeding the other way and they all took off again and flew further back.

Brambling

Brambling – we came across a large mixed flock with Chaffinches

At our next stop, we got out to look at an overgrown grassy field and were immediately greeted with several Skylarks singing out in the middle, another sign that spring is on its way. Then a flock of birds flew over from the other side of the road – another thirty Skylarks all together – and they dropped down into the grass. There are often buntings here too and we found a large flock of them in the hedge at the far corner of the field. There must have been at least 20 Yellowhammers here, including some lovely bright yellow-faced males. Stunning birds!

Yellowhammer

Yellowhammer – a nice bright male to brighten a dull grey morning

We were still not done with our farmland exploration and a little further still we stopped again by a cover strip on the edge of a field. The hedge alongside was absolutely full of birds – mainly Reed Buntings and Yellowhammers. As we set up the scope for a closer look, 15-20 Tree Sparrows flew out of the hedge by the road and across to join the other birds. We had a great look as several of the Tree Sparrows perched up nicely in the top of the hedge.

Tree Sparrows

Tree Sparrows – with Reed Buntings and Yellowhammers in the hedge

As we made our way back down to the coast, it started to rain again. We had been very fortunate that our morning to this point had been almost completely dry – not what had been forecast! We drove down to Thornham Harbour and had a quick look to see if the Twite were around the car park. There was no sign of them here and we decided not to linger in the rain.

We did pick up a nice selection of waders here. The mud below the old sluice held a couple of Common Redshank, a Curlew and a Black-tailed Godwit. Down in the harbour channel by the boats, the highlight was a single Greenshank feeding down in the water, along with a Grey Plover and a Ringed Plover too on the mud nearby.

Greenshank

Greenshank – feeding in the harbour channel at Thornham

As we started to drive back up the road, a quick scan of the channel behind the old coal barn revealed another wader feeding up to its belly in the water. It was clearly very pale, but was almost swimming and upending at first. When it finally raised its head, we could see its long-needle fine bill, a Spotted Redshank. A Common Redshank walked along behind it on the mud, picking at the surface, providing a nice comparison, particularly of the two closely related species very different feeding techniques.

It had been an action packed morning, so we made our way round to Titchwell for a late lunch while the rain passed over. Over a welcome hot drink at the visitor centre, we scanned the feeders which produced another Brambling and several Greenfinches. Afterwards we headed out onto the reserve.

The wind had picked up as the rain had passed through, so we hurried straight out to Parrinder Hide. Thornham grazing marsh looked very quiet. There were a few ducks on the reedbed pool – mainly Mallard, plus a few Tufted Ducks and three Common Pochard. A Marsh Harrier was hanging in the breeze over the back of the reeds.

Out on the freshmarsh as we walked out to Parrinder Hide, we could see a gathering of Avocets on the edge of one of the islands. We counted thirty today, another increase here in recent days as birds return now ahead of the breeding season.

Avocet

Avocets – numbers are up to 30+ now as birds are returning

There were a few more waders as we got to Parrinder Hide. A Ringed Plover flew off over the bank towards Volunteer Marsh, but three Dunlin dropped in and started to feed around the edge of one of the islands. Then two Black-tailed Godwits flew in to bathe in front of the hide, flashing their black tails.

Scanning carefully along the edge, where the reeds have been freshly cut, revealed two Common Snipe feeding in the shallow water. They worked their way closer to the hide, until we had scope-filling views of them. They were incredibly well camouflaged against the dead reed stems with their golden-striped plumage, much more appropriately dressed than the Common Snipe we had seen out on the green grass at Holkham earlier.

Snipe

Common Snipe – very well camouflaged in the recently cut reeds

We had also started to scan the cut reeds along the edge for Water Pipits, which like to feed along here. Then one handily flew in and landed out on the edge of one of the bare muddy islands and walked into the water to bathe, which made it much easier to spot! When it flew over to the bank to preen, we then found another Water Pipit creeping around in the cut reeds nearby.

There were a few duck out on the freshmarsh too today, but not as many as recent weeks. There were plenty of Shoveler and Teal, but a careful scan revealed a smart drake Pintail and a pair of Gadwall too. A flock of Brent Geese dropped in for a drink and a bathe briefly before heading back out to the saltmarsh. Gulls were starting to gather on the freshmarsh already, ahead of going to roost. They were mainly Black-headed Gulls but several Common Gulls dropped in to bathe too.

The other side of Parrinder Hide was also very productive for waders. First we spotted a smart Grey Plover just below us, then a Knot appeared out on the vegetation on the mud nearby. There were a couple of Dunlin right in front of the hide too, but then a flock of about twenty more Knot flew in with a couple of Dunlin with them, allowing a nice comparison of the two.

Grey Plover

Grey Plover – showed well on the Volunteer Marsh from Parrinder Hide

It was cold and windy, and we had somewhere else we wanted to finish the day, so we decided against walking out to the beach and made our way back to the car. As we made our way back east, we turned off inland again. We were quickly rewarded with a Barn Owl which flew along the verge just in front of the car, hunting for several minutes, before turning out across the field as we tried to get ahead of it.

Barn Owl

Barn Owl – flew along the verge ahead of the car

It was rather grey and windy this afternoon, not really Barn Owl weather, but they are probably hungry after several nights of rain in recent days.

There has been a very showy Bittern in some flooded meadows along one of the river valleys near here in recent weeks. It was a bit grey and gloomy when we arrived and we weren’t sure at first whether it would still be here. We almost walked past it, even though it was right out in the open close to the path.

Bittern

Bittern – trying to pretend it wasn’t there, looking like a clump of reeds

When we realised where the Bittern was trying to hide, we got it in the scope and had a great close-up look at it. It was hunched up and frozen still, pretending it wasn’t there, with its bill pointing up and turned to face us, with its striped neck making it look just like a clump of reeds. Even when you knew where it was, it was still hard to spot, despite being out in an open area with only very sparse vegetation. What a stunning bird!

Eventually we had to tear ourselves away and let the Bittern resume whatever it was up to before we arrived. It was a great bird to end the day, with a Tawny Owl then hooting from the trees as we walked back to the car.

 

19th Feb 2018 – Rain Doesn’t Dampen Enthusiasm!

A Private Tour in the Brecks today – with some specific target species to look for, rather than a general day’s birding. The weather forecast was poor – heavy rain on and off all day – to the extent that there were even questions as to whether we should go at all. However, as we have seen so many times, all is not as bad as it seems, particularly where Met Office forecasts are concerned! It was still damp, with mist or very light drizzle for most of the day, but nowhere near as bad as forecast. We went out anyway and saw lots of good birds regardless. It is amazing what you can find when you get out…

Our first destination was Santon Downham, where we would be spending the first part of the morning looking for Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. A Stock Dove was whooping from the trees as we got out of the car, another sign that spring is on its way. The feeders in the garden down by the bridge held a few finches and tits, and a Nuthatch flew off, up into the alders by the river as we passed.

It was drizzling with rain as we walked along the river bank. A pair of Siskins were feeding on the alder cones and catkins that had fallen onto the path and flew off ahead of us as we approached. A flock of Long-tailed Tits flitted through the trees over our heads. A Redwing flew up into the alders on the other side of the river. A Reed Bunting was singing from the reeds and a Marsh Tit was signing from the poplars a little further on.

Siskin 1

Siskin – feeding on the path along the river bank

As we rounded the corner, we heard a woodpecker call from the trees. It called again – yes, it was a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker! It was high in the back of the poplars and we had to adjust our position to try to see it, but just caught sight of it as it flew. It landed in some birches further back, out of view, calling again. It was on the move all the time, not staying still for even a second. Then it flew up into the bare branches in the top of another poplar behind where we just managed to get the scope onto it as it dropped back out of view. But it was all too quick to get everyone onto it.

The Lesser Spotted Woodpecker called again a couple of times and then, after just a minute or so, we picked it up flying out towards us. It looked like it might go high over our heads, but fortunately it turned and dropped into the very top of one of the poplars. We had a good view of it through binoculars this time, and even got everyone onto it in the scope, at least briefly, before it flew again and dropped down into the alders on the other side of the river.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker

At least we had seen it, but it felt like that might be it. We stopped to watch some of the other birds. There were lots of Redwings in the trees today and a flock of about twenty Siskins flew back and forth across the river.

Then we caught sight of some movement and watched as the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker flew across and landed low down on one of the trunks on the near side of the bank of trees. This time we had a great view of it as it pecked and probed in the bark. It was the female, with a dark rather than red crown, and we could now appreciate just how small it was – only around the size of a sparrow.

We watched the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker for several minutes, gradually working its way up the tree, before it flew off up high into the alders and out of view. A Great Spotted Woodpecker then appeared in the trees nearby and we got that in the scope too. We could see it was much bigger, with an obvious red patch under the tail.

Very pleased with getting such good views of our first target, we headed back along the path. At the garden by the bridge, a couple of Bramblings had appeared at the feeders but flew off as a car passed. We made our way up to the churchyard to look for our next target – Firecrest. But it was still drizzling at this stage and all was quiet. There were not even any tits or Goldcrests in the trees, just a noisy Nuthatch.

The Parrot Crossbills have been very elusive at times in recent weeks and with the weather today too, we didn’t hold out much hope of seeing them. We drove along to the car park north of the level crossing to have a look anyway. They haven’t been drinking in the car park recently, but have been coming down at times to the ditches in the cattle fields, so we had a walk round that way.

This is usually a good area for Woodlark but there was not even any sign of those this morning. We did find a pair of Treecreepers climbing the trees in the edge of the paddock and a couple of Jays which flew off ahead of us.

There was no sign of the Parrot Crossbills at St Helens either, nor could we find any Woodlark here today. A pair of Mistle Thrushes were feeding out in the cultivated strip and we could hear a Grey Wagtail singing and looked across to see it perched on the handrail of the footbridge. A quick look down at the river failed to produce anything of note either.

We decided to have an early lunch back at the level crossing car park then afterwards walked back along the road to the bridge. A Kestrel flew through the trees, our first of the day. A Green Woodpecker laughed at us in the distance. But there was no sign of much else of note here, so we decided to move on and try something different.

When we got to the car park at Lynford Arboretum, we walked across to look in the fir trees. We had only just started to say that this is sometimes a good place for Firecrest, when a tiny green bird flitted into the bare branches of a small deciduous tree in front of us. A Firecrest – right on cue!

Firecrest

Firecrest – singing today, at Lynford Arboretum

The Firecrest flew up into a fir tree nearby and we watched as it flitted around among the branches for several minutes, giving us a great view of its head pattern, the prominent white supercilium and black eye stripe lacking in Goldcrest. It dropped back into some low fir trees and disappeared but a couple of seconds later we heard it singing. We walked over to find it above our heads in a beech tree by the road. Having missed it at Santon Downham earlier, it was all the better to catch up with Firecrest here now.

Walking down through the Arboretum, we stopped at the gate to look at the feeders. The fat balls were coated in Blue Tits feeding feverishly. The ground was coated with birds too, coming down to the seed sprinkled liberally among the leaves. A Marsh Tit dropped in among all the Great Tits. There were several Chaffinches feeding in the beech leaves too and a couple of Bramblings appeared with them, a brighter orange male and a duller female.

Brambling

Brambling – feeding with the Chaffinches in the leaf litter

Down at the bottom of the hill, there was no seed put out for the birds at the bridge today, so it was rather quiet. A Goldcrest was singing high in a fir tree. We decided to have a look round by the lake first instead. There were lots of Siskins along the path and here too they were feeding mostly on the ground today. We stopped to watch two bathing in a wet marshy area under the trees. Three Nuthatches were chasing each other through the branches.

Siskin 2

Siskin – a male bathing in a puddle under the trees

We had already had a quick scan of the hornbeams out in the paddocks from the start of the path, but now we heard a distinctive metallic ‘ticking’ call coming from the trees. We found a convenient viewing gap and looked across to see at least three Hawfinches chasing each other through one of the hornbeams. There appeared to be two brighter males and a female. As the males flew through the branches, they spread their tails, showing off the white tip. This is the start of their spring display, a precursor to pairing up, something great to watch.

As the chasing subsided, one of the Hawfinches then stopped in the top of the tree and started to preen. Here we could get a really good look at it, through the scope. We could see the massive bill and head, powerful enough to crack a cherry stone!

Hawfinch

Hawfinch – taking a break to preen after a bout of chasing display

After watching the Hawfinches for several minutes, they moved further back into one of the other trees. We continued on round the lake. There were a few wildfowl on here as usual – a couple of Mute Swans, a single Greylag with several Canada Geese, and a couple of pairs of Gadwall. We were in agreement today, that Gadwall really are an underrated duck compared to some of their gaudier cousins!

Gadwall

Gadwall – always deserving of a promotional photo!

Firecrest and Hawfinch were our main target species at Lynford this afternoon, so having caught up with them so quickly, we had a bit more time to play with. We decided to head off into the forest again and have another go to see if we could find any Woodlark.

On our way, we stopped to admire a large flock of thrushes in a field, a mixture of Fieldfares and Redwings. The Redwings were easily spooked and kept flying up into the trees nearby, while the Fieldfares largely continued to feed unconcerned. A single larger Mistle Thrush was lurking at the back too.

Fieldfare

Fieldfare – we came along a large mixed flock with Redwings in a field

We parked at the start of a forest ride, by a large clearing, and as soon as we got out of the car we could hear a Woodlark calling, a distinctive ringing, double ‘tu-lee’. We looked over to see it perched high in a tall bare tree, left behind when the plantation was clearfelled. Through the scope, we could see its short crest and bold pale supercilium. It even gave a short burst of its mournful song. The weather had improved a little through the afternoon, but it was not what we were expecting on such a dull and damp day!

As we walked round, there were more birds in the other trees in the clearing. There were several Yellowhammers including some smart yellow-headed males. A little flock of 6-7 Lesser Redpoll flew up to join them. A Green Woodpecker flew across and landed in the trees on the far side of the clearing.

A little further on, we could hear another Woodlark singing and looked across to see it song-flighting, fluttering over the clearing with rounded bat-like wings and short tail. It landed in a tree at the back with more Yellowhammers, where we got a distant look at it through the scope, before one of the Yellowhammers chased the Woodlark off. We watched the two of them fly round and the Woodlark dropped down to the ground on the edge of the path, a little further on.

Woodlark

Woodlark – great views feeding on the ground by the path

We made our way over quietly and had great views of the Woodlark through the scopes, feeding on the ground. We could see the way the pale supercilia met at the back of the neck in a shallow ‘v’.

It was great to catch up with Woodlark finally, having missed them earlier in the day.  That was a great way to wrap things up and we decided to head for home. With all the concerns earlier about the weather forecast, it was remarkable how well we had done today. Well worth coming out after all!

15th & 16th Feb 2018 – Double Brecks

A two-day Private Tour in the Brecks. We were forecast a couple of days of good weather and so it proved. It almost didn’t seem like mid February at times! It was a great time to be out and about birdwatching in the Brecks.

Thursday 15th February

There was still a bit of cloud lingering when we met down in the Brecks this morning. Thankfully, it quickly blew through and we were left with almost wall to wall blue sky and sunshine. It was still cool though, particularly as the breeze picked up mid morning.

It seemed like a good morning to go looking for Goshawks. On our way, we made a quick stop along a quiet lane. One of the fields here has been sown with a seed mix and was alive with birds. As we got out of the car, we could hear a Yellowhammer calling from the hedge.

A large flock of Linnets swirled round and landed up in the trees on the edge of the field, chattering away. In among the Chaffinches perched in the bushes, enjoying the morning sun, we found several Bramblings, duller females and bright orange-breasted males. There were Goldfinches too, and a couple of Reed Buntings which flew out of the crop and landed in the hedge by the road.

Brambling

Brambling – several were on the edge of a field of seed mix this morning

Suddenly all the birds erupted from the crop and flew round calling. We looked across to see a Sparrowhawk, a small adult male, flying low over the field. It didn’t catch anything, but having flushed everything then circled up and drifted off, with bursts of fast flapping interspersed with characteristic glides.

There were a few pools behind the hedge on the other side of road, so we had a quick look to see if anything was on those. There was a surprisingly good selection of wildfowl – as well as Mallards and four Greylag Geese, there were several Teal, a couple of pairs of Gadwall and a single drake Shoveler. A Grey Heron was standing in the sunshine at the back of the water, but flew off as we walked up.

It was starting to warm up, so we headed over to see what the Goshawks were up to. We had not even got the scopes set up when a young male appeared, flying across low over the trees. We had a good look at it through binoculars, before it dropped back down out of view. Then Goshawks were on view pretty much constantly, with at least five different individuals this morning.

Next an adult male Goshawk flew low along the front edge of the wood, before disappearing into the trees and sending all the pigeons out! A few seconds later, it appeared again, circling low over the shelter belt to one side. It disappeared once more behind the trees and the next time we picked it up it came in high from behind us, dropping back towards the wood, stooping sharply at the end and disappearing into the pines.

Goshawk

Goshawk – one of the adults circled in front of us

A pair of Goshawks was displaying for some time off in the distance. They were easy to see with the scope, slow flapping with exaggerated wingbeats high above the forest. Then a big adult female Goshawk appeared much closer, off to our right, circling low over the tops of the trees. It kept disappearing behind the tops, then reappearing again, never gaining any great height. Presumably it was hunting, as it never seemed to break into any display activity. Eventually it dropped down again out of view.

There were lots of other raptors on view here, even when we weren’t distracted by the Goshawks. Two Red Kites hung in the air over the strip of trees behind us. As the air warmed a little, several Common Buzzards came up and started circling. We counted at least eight today, and some of them even started displaying, swooping up and down like a rollercoaster. A Kestrel hovered out over the grass too. As well as the raptors, there were Skylarks singing and a small group of Fieldfares tchacking in the tops of trees behind us.

You could spend the whole day here, watching the comings and goings, but eventually we decided to move on. We went to look for Woodlarks next. As we pulled up by a ride into the forest, a flock of Bullfinches flew out of the brambles next to the road and disappeared behind the trees. As soon as we got out of the car, we could hear a Woodlark singing. We walked up the track a short way and looked across to see it perched high in the top of a tree out in the middle of the clearing. The Woodlark took off, but just flew across and landed again in another tree, still singing, where we could get it in the scope and have a good look at it.

Woodlark

Woodlark – singing from the top of one of the trees in the clearing

As we walked further up the track, another Woodlark appeared, perched in the top of a different tree singing. It took off as we approached and flew round singing – showing off its short tail and rounded wings, and its fluttering display flight. Eventually it dropped down into the middle of the clearing and promptly disappeared into the vegetation.

A little further along, we came across a tit flock feeding on the sunny edge of a block of pines. There were lots of restless Long-tailed Tits, accompanied by several Blue and Great Tits. A pair of Marsh Tits were feeding low down in the dry grass at the base of the trees, given away by their sneezing calls. A Goldcrest appeared, flitting around in one of the trees by the path. A smart male Bullfinch flew across in front of us and landed in the bare branches of a bush the other side.

There were a few more raptors here too, but perhaps not as much activity as we might have expected, given all the birds we had seen earlier. One more Goshawk showed itself very briefly and distantly. The Common Buzzard was much more obliging, flying across the clearing and even hovering briefly out in the middle. A pair of Kestrels showed it how it should really be done!

Common Buzzard

Common Buzzard – one of several up in the sunshine this morning

We walked on further round and into the forest. Several Redwings flew up from the grass by the path and disappeared into the trees. We could see several more feeding in the ivy covering a tree in the sun on the edge further in.

There were lots of tits on the sunny edge of the pines – Coal Tits, Blue Tits, Great Tits and a couple more Marsh Tits too. A flock of Long-tailed Tits flew out of the plantation into the deciduous trees the other side of the path, accompanied by a Goldcrest and a Treecreeper. We heard both Great Spotted Woodpecker and Green Woodpecker calling.

It was time for lunch now, so we headed back round to the car. Our destination for most of the afternoon was to be Lynford, but on our way we drove round via some pig fields. There were lots of gulls out on the mud among the pigs – mostly Black-headed and Common Gulls. A couple of adult Lesser Black-backed Gulls were hiding in with them and a single 1st winter Great Black-backed Gull perched on one of the pig arcs.

There were lots of Jackdaws and Rooks in the pig fields too, and a huge flock of Starlings – presumably some we would be seeing later in the day! A Red-legged Partridge was hiding in the winter wheat in the next field and a pair of Egyptian Geese flew over.

As we walked out along the path beside the Arboretum at Lynford, we stopped to have a look from the gate. There were lots of tits on the feeders, and more coming down to drink at the stone trough. Several Chaffinches were picking around down in the leaves, and a single Brambling was in with them.

Down at the bridge, there was not much seed out today. Still there were lots of tits coming to feed on the leftovers. We had particularly good views of Marsh Tit here, always a good spot for this localised species. Several Siskins were twittering in the alders above.

Marsh Tit

Marsh Tit – showed well down at the bridge

When we got to the paddocks, there was no sign of any Hawfinches feeding here today. There were several Greenfinches in the trees. A flock of twenty or so Redwings flew across and landed in the hawthorns, where we got one of them in the scope. A Mistle Thrush perched in one of the hornbeams, enjoying the afternoon sun, where it was joined by a second which flew across from the pines behind us. We could hear a Song Thrush singing.

As we walked on round the paddocks, we spotted a Hawfinch high in the fir trees, sunning itself in among the cones. It dropped down, but shortly what was presumably the same bird flew back in again and landed in the very top of the same tree. Here, we had a great view of it through the scope, noting its huge bill and head, the white tip to its tail and, when it spread its wings to stretch, the white wing bar.

Hawfinch

Hawfinch – showed well in fir trees by paddocks

Eventually the Hawfinch flew off. There was nothing else of note in the trees here today, so we walked back and round by the lake. A Reed Bunting flew up into the bushes by the path as we passed. We heard another Song Thrush singing and eventually managed to track it down, in the alders at the back of the lake, just to complete the set of thrushes for the day!

Standing looking across to the back of Lynford Hall, we heard another Hawfinch calling from the other side of the lake. We had just started scanning the trees to see if we could find it when it flew out, across the lake and over our heads before disappearing off in the direction of the paddocks.

A Little Grebe seemed to be laughing at us, until we spotted it, wrestling with a small fish behind the island. There were several Gadwall on the lake too – the most underrated of ducks, and always worthy of a closer look. There were a couple of Greylag and a few Canada Geese too.

Gadwall

Gadwall – a very smart, intricately patterned drake

The light was starting to go now, so we set off back to the car. As we drove up towards Swaffham, we could see thousands of Starlings swirling in the skies above the town. They were fairly spread out tonight, in several different groups, and hard to count – but there must have been 20,000 birds at least!

The Starlings spent ages whirling round in the sky, flying backwards and forwards, working up the courage to come in to roost. Quite a lot went down over towards the town centre tonight, before some of the others finally started to come down into the bushes in front of us. It was mesmerising watching the flocks, like watching fireworks, bursting. in the sky as they swirled. Amazing to watch!

Starling murmuration

Starling – thousands coming in to roost tonight

It was almost dark and most of the Starlings seemed to have gone in already when the ones from the town centre started to fly up again and came over to join the others in the trees in front of us, wave upon wave of them appeared out of the gloom, it seemed like it would never end. As it finally settled down again, there was an amazing amount of excited chattering from the trees. What a great way to end our first day.

Friday 16th February

After a light frost overnight, it was crisp and fresh this morning but with sunshine and blue skies, a cracking winter’s day. The winds were lighter too, compared to yesterday, so it didn’t feel so cold.

We started the day with a walk along the river. We could hear a male Grey Wagtail singing under the bridge as we approached and we then watched the pair flying back and forth over the river, perching on the brick walls and some drainage pipes.

Grey Wagtail

Grey Wagtail – singing underneath the bridge this morning

There were several Mute Swans and Little Grebes swimming and diving on the river as we walked along. We could hear a Redwing calling and looked up to see it perched high in the treetops in the sunshine. There were lots of Siskins twittering from deep in the alders, and we managed to see a couple flying back and forth across the river. A couple of Great Spotted Woodpeckers were drumming and a Green Woodpecker yaffled from the trees, always a good sign along here.

They were not the woodpeckers we were really hoping for, but as we rounded the bend in the river we could hear two Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers calling. We found a couple of people with scopes and cameras already there, and we were told one had just been showing in the tops of the trees but had dropped back down out of sight.

Thankfully, the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker continued to call occasionally and we could follow the sound. After a nail-biting few minutes when we weren’t sure whether it would show itself again, the female Lesser Spotted Woodpecker flew out and landed high in a bare poplar in front of us. We got it the scope and had a good look at it, the black and white barred back and the black crown of the female. It showed very well for us in the poplars for several minutes, flying between the trees, before it flew back into denser birches behind. We heard it call again much further in.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker – this female showed very well in the poplars

The Lesser Spotted Woodpecker then went quiet for a time. There were several other birds to look at in the interim – a Goshawk appeared through the tops of the trees before heading off over the river. There were lots of tits singing – spring must be just around the corner now – including a coupe of Marsh Tits.

Then we heard the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker call again further along the river. It was still well back in the trees, but we hurried along to see if it would come out again. We were just in time, as the female flew out over our heads, over the river, and dropped down further back in the trees the other side.

Having had such great views of the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, we decided to walk back and try our luck with something else. On the way, we heard a Water Rail squealing from the wet reedy vegetation under the trees. A Woodlark was singing too, in the distance from a clearing in the forest beside the river.

Back at the bridge, we made our way up a small path through the trees to the churchyard. It was quiet here at first, even in the churchyard despite the sunshine on the firs here. We did head a Goldcrest singing and saw it flitting around in the tops. It was busier on the open side by the road. We found more tits and a noisy pair of Nuthatches which piped loudly at us from the trees.

What we had hoped to find here was a Firecrest and it did eventually appear. Unfortunately it was only very brief, moving through the vegetation very quickly, before it disappeared high up into the trees and we lost sight of it. Despite searching, we couldn’t find it again.

The Parrot Crossbills at Santon Downham have become very elusive again in recent days. We drove round to the car park where they sometimes come down to drink, but there had been no sign of them all morning again. There were lots of people waiting here, so we decided to try somewhere else.

The Parrot Crossbills have also been seen in the car park at St Helen’s before, so we decided to look round there. We have seen them come down to drink at the river here, so we had a walk along the bank but it was all very quiet. Given the complete absence of any sightings of Parrot Crossbills at either site this morning, we decided we would give up on them and try something else. We were just walking back towards the car, discussing what to do next, when we heard chipping calls and looked up to see 15-20 Parrot Crossbills flying past.

They seemed to be heading down towards the river, right where we had just been looking. We rushed back, and found the flock of Parrot Crossbills in the poplars. We could hear them calling and subsinging as we approached and looked up to see several perched in the branches above our heads, in the sunshine. We got the scope on them and had a great look, two red-orange males and a grey-green female. We could see their huge crossed bills and thickset bull necks.

Parrot Crossbill

Parrot Crossbill – perched subsinging in the branches above us

Several of the Parrot Crossbills dropped down into the alders the other side of the river. They were clearly working up the courage to come down to drink, perching in the trees around us calling for ten or more minutes. Slowly more followed the others into the tops of the alders and eventually they started to drop lower through the branches. Finally they flew down onto the river bank on the far side, two or three at a time, to drink.

Parrot Crossbills

Parrot Crossbills – came down to drink on the far side of the river

We got the Parrot Crossbills in the scope as they landed down on the far bank and watched as they each gulped down a few beak-fulls, then quickly flying up to be replaced by a couple more. What a magic moment! Eventually, when it appeared that most had drunk their fill, as quickly as they had arrived the whole flock flew off north-west. We had counted at least 15 in the trees, but there seemed to be as many as 18 as they flew off.

Well satisfied with the encounter, we headed round to Lakenheath Fen next, for lunch. After a bite to eat, we headed out to the reserve. At the feeders by the visitor centre, there were lots of tits and Reed Buntings. We decided to head out to the Washland viewpoint first.

When we got up onto the bank, the first thing we saw were two Whooper Swans out on Hockwold Washes. Through the scope, we could see the wedge shaped patch of yellow on their bills. There were lots of ducks too – Shelduck, Wigeon, Gadwall, Teal and Shoveler. A few Tufted Ducks were diving down on the river in front of us. A Curlew flew up fro the fields beyond and circled round calling.

Whooper Swans 1

Whooper Swans – these two were out on Hockwold Washes

Another big white shape at the back of the Washland revealed itself to be a Great White Egret. Through the scope, we could see its long yellow dagger-like bill. As a fisherman approached along the far bank, the Great White Egret flew off east, but shortly after what we assumed was the same bird flew back west, high over the river. We watched it dropping away round the back of the poplars towards New Fen, but then when we looked back at the far corner of the Washes, there was a Great White Egret, exactly where the first had been. Could there have been two?

Great White Egret 1

Great White Egret – feeding at the back of Hockwold Washes

There was a family at the Washland viewpoint too and they spotted a small bird creeping around among the wet grass on the near bank of the river. It was a Water Pipit – through the scope, we could see its pale supercilium and black-streaked white underparts. Another Water Pipit flew across and disappeared into the vegetation on the other side and we heard a third calling away to our right.

We walked on west along the riverbank. We had been warned it was muddy – and they weren’t wrong(!) – but we picked our way carefully along. There were lots of birds along here, particularly a surprising number of Stonechats. We must have seen at least six, perching up on the dead thistles and seedheads in the grass. There were lots of Cetti’s Warblers too, though they were much less obliging, calling from deep in the bushes. A flock of Fieldfares flew towards us across the river and over our heads.

Stonechat

Stonechat – we saw a surprising number along the river today

There were lots of Canada Geese and Greylag Geese feeding on the grass either side along the river. They were mostly sorted into separate flocks, but an odd looking bird with one of the groups of Greylags was a Canada x Greylag Goose hybrid.

A Little Egret was feeding on the edge of the river, much smaller, with an all dark bill. Then we looked up to see two Great White Egrets flying together, heading back east the way we had just come, towards the Washland. We had certainly seen two Great White Egrets now!

Great White Egret 2

Great White Egret – two flew along the river together

The Whooper Swans roost in the winter on the Washes but feed during the day in the fields. Once we got beyond the West Wood, we heard more Whooper Swans calling and looked across to see a family party flying in from the south. They flew across behind us, over the river, before dropping down towards the fields beyond.

As we walked on west, more Whooper Swans flew across, looking stunning in the afternoon light. It is a great sound, the honking of winter swans on a sunny February afternoon in the Fens. When we got round the bend in the river and could see across to the fields the other side, we could see a huge long line of white shapes gathered in the distance. Through the scope, we could see they were all Whooper Swans, at least 100 of them and probably much more as many were hidden behind the trees.

Whooper Swans 2

Whooper Swans – flying across to gather on the north side of the river

There was no sign of the Cranes on the far side of the river today, but it was possibly just too disturbed over there now. A couple of vehicles were driving up and down the track and we could see a man pigeon shooting, tending to his decoys on the edge of the area where the Cranes often like to feed. A distant Grey Heron was not the right shape or shade of grey!

Another Great White Egret flew up from the marshes across the river – presumably a third bird, as we had watched the other two flying off the other way. There were lots of Lapwings in the fields and three distant Roe Deer too. A Chiffchaff called from somewhere in the reeds nearby.

On the walk back, we cut in across the reserve. We had a sit down at the Joist Fen Viewpoint, a quick rest before the long return journey. It was a glorious winter’s afternoon, still and delightfully tranquil just sitting and looking out across the vast expanse of reeds (at least the F16s from Lakenheath were not flying overhead at that stage!). Several Marsh Harriers quartered low over the reeds and three Common Buzzards circled up over the trees.

It would have been very easy just to sit and watch the reeds and contemplate for hours, but it was getting on now so we reluctantly tore ourselves away. As we walked back along the path, flocks of gulls were flying overhead, heading off to roost. A female Kestrel perched up in the poplars in the late sunshine, but almost every time we got within range and lifted the cameras, she flew off a short distance, refusing to be photographed!

Kestrel

Kestrel – was refusing to be photographed on the walk back

Back at the Visitor Centre, a Bank Vole was scuttling around under the feeders. It hid in a hole in the vegetation and darted out repeatedly. Then it found a discarded crisp on the ground and hauled it back into the hole. That was the last we saw of it – presumably it was enjoying the crisp!

It was time to head for home now. It had been a great couple of days in the Brecks, with some fantastic weather and some exciting birds, all the best the area has to offer at this time of year.

11th Feb 2018 – Winter, Broads & Brecks #3

Day 3 of a three day long weekend of tours, our last day, and it was time to head down to the Brecks today. The weather forecast was the best of the three days, and even though it was perhaps a little cloudier than we were expecting, it was largely dry and there were some nice bright spells particularly in the morning.

As we stopped briefly in Swaffham on the way down, the sun was out and the sky was blue. With a good breeze blowing, that meant it looked like perfect conditions for Goshawks, so we headed straight over to a favourite spot. We weren’t even out of the car before we saw our first Goshawk – a young female, big and bulky, brown above and orange-tinged below, was circling just above the trees. We all jumped out and had a good look at it, before it disappeared back over the tops.

Over the next hour or so, we were rarely without a Goshawk up in the air. An adult, silvery grey above and white below, was displaying away in the distance, with heavy exaggerated wingbeats. Then another adult appeared much closer, low over the trees, flying around behind us where it caused pandemonium amongst the pigeons and corvids in the field.

An adult male Goshawk appeared high overhead, dropping towards the trees in a long flat glide. As it got closer, it started to descend quickly and we looked over to see why – another juvenile Goshawk, this time a young male, was starting to display over the tops of the firs. The adult swooped at the youngster, but the latter wasn’t giving up easily and twisted, talons up to defend itself. The two of them chased through the treetops for a couple of seconds before disappearing into the trees.

Goshawk

Goshawk – great views of at least 5 different birds this morning

But the best moment of all was when an adult female Goshawk came slowly across over the edge of the trees in front of us. It was a nice flyby and gave us a great look at it, but halfway across it suddenly turned towards us and dropped down in front of the trees. It was flapping powerfully now, with purpose. Ahead of it, a male Pheasant was strutting in the field with its back to the trees, oblivious. The Pheasant realised just in time, panicked and ran towards a cover strip in the middle of the field. It dived in, the Goshawk turning sharply and looking to follow it, but decided against it at the last minute. Wow!

There were a few other raptors up too this morning. A Red Kite drifted lazily over the trees. Several Buzzards circled up, as did a couple of distant Kestrels. A Sparrowhawk flew across, much smaller than the Goshawks and with bursts of much faster flapping flight.

It had clouded over, so we decided to move on to look for Woodlarks. There were none singing when we arrived at a favourite clearing – it was rather cold in the breeze now, with the sun in – so we decided to have a walk round to see if we could find one. We didn’t have to go too far, before we heard a Woodlark calling, the distinctive ringing double ‘tlu-lee’, and looked up to see it flying high towards us. A second Woodlark called from the ground in the middle of the clearing and the first circled round and dropped down nearby.

Before we could get the scope on it, the two Woodlarks were off again, flying across the path and landing in another clearing a bit further over. They were quickly followed by a second pair, which flew over in the same direction but landed in the top of a young oak tree. We got a look at them distantly through the scope before they too dropped down into the grass.

We walked over to see if we could get a closer look. The grass in this clearing is much longer and the Woodlarks were very hard to see at first on the ground, out in the middle. We scanned carefully from along the edge, looking down the line of each row of newly planted trees, before we heard one calling softly. By positioning ourselves carefully, we could see one of the Woodlarks creeping around in the grass.

Woodlark

Woodlark – creeping around in a grassy clearing

When we lost sight of the first, we spotted a second Woodlark nearby. It perched on a small mound of bare earth for a couple of seconds, sub-singing quietly. Then something spooked them, and all four Woodlarks came up out of the grass and flew round calling, before landing back down again.

Otherwise, the clearings here were rather quiet today. A Common Buzzard appeared briefly above the trees, but raptor activity seemed to have tailed off a bit now. With our mission here accomplished, we decided to move on.

There has been a flock of Parrot Crossbills around the Santon Downham area since November last year, but they can be very elusive. As specialised pine cone feeders, they have lots of trees to choose from here – Thetford Forest is the largest lowland pine forest in the UK! However, they need to drink regularly and will sometimes come in to the same puddles for water. After disappearing for a few days, they had been seen coming to drink yesterday at one of the car parks, so we thought we would have a go at catching up with them.

When we arrived at the rough forestry car park, there were a few people standing around looking down at the muddy puddles. They told us the Parrot Crossbills had been seen coming to drink earlier, which was definitely a good start. We drove round to one of their other favoured areas nearby, but there was no sign of them there. However, we did bump into someone we knew who told us he had seen the Parrot Crossbills coming to drink over an hour before. That meant they were just about due to come back for more, so we headed straight back to the first car park to await them.

It seemed an opportune moment for an early lunch, while we waited for them to appear. We hadn’t even finished unpacking the sandwiches before we heard the Parrot Crossbills calling and turned to see them landing in the top of the oak trees just across the road. We got them in the scope, as they perched there calling quietly, working up the courage to come down to drink. There were at least 15 of them.

Parrot Crossbills 1

Parrot Crossbills – perched in the trees before coming down to drink

Eventually, the Parrot Crossbills flew across and landed in a smaller tree right on the edge of the car park, just beyond the puddles. Then one or two at a time, they dropped down to the water’s edge and started drinking. From where we were parked, they were only a few metres away from us and we enjoyed stunning views as they came down to the ground.

Parrot Crossbills 2

Parrot Crossbills 3

Parrot Crossbills 4

Parrot Crossbills – great views as they came down to drink in the car park

Close up, we could see the Parrots Crossbills’ huge bills and heavy, bull-necked heads, packed with the muscles for pulling open tightly closed pine cones. They were a mixture of red or orange males and grey-green females. Most of them look like they are probably young birds, presumably the class of 2017, though they are not always easy to age.

Parrot Crossbills are very scarce visitors here. Breeding mainly from Scandinavia across into Russia (with smaller numbers in Scotland too), like other crossbills they are an irruptive species, moving south and west in response to any shortage of cones in their home range, but rarely making it as far as southern England. So it is a real treat to see them here, and to see them so well.

Lunch had been forgotten with all the excitement, but after the Parrot Crossbills had finished drinking and flown off back to wherever they were feeding, we turned our attention to our food. Having not had to wait long to see them, we now had a bit of time to play with, so we decided to walk down along the river bank after lunch.

Brambling

Brambling – at the feeders by the bridge

At the feeders by the bridge, a Brambling flew up from the grass and perched briefly in the trees. In the poplars by the river, a Great Spotted Woodpecker was drumming. We had hoped we might get lucky and run into a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker here, but it was rather cold and cloudy now and the trees were rather quiet as we walked down along the river bank.

A Treecreeper called from the poplars and we could just see it high in the trees, though it was hard to get onto and then disappeared back out of view. A few Siskins flew back and forth overhead, calling. There were couple of Little Grebes diving in the river. We stood and listened in the trees for a couple of minutes, but all was quiet. We decided we were better off spending the rest of the afternoon elsewhere.

On the walk back, a couple of Water Rails squealed from the back of the reeds below the poplars. We saw some movement the other side of the river, and picked up a Mistle Thrush, a Song Thrush and a Redwing, all feeding in the same area in the rough paddocks below the alders.

We headed round to Lynford Arboretum for the rest of the afternoon. Hawfinch was our main target here and as it was cool and cloudy now, we decided to head straight down to the paddocks. We were quickly rewarded with a distant Hawfinch in the fir trees at the back, so we made our round for a closer look. It was perched on the edge of the trees, so we could get a good view of it from this side, its huge head and massive bill, strong enough to crack cherry stones, and its ornamental shaped inner primaries.

Hawfinch

Hawfinch – good views perched in the edge of the firs

A second Hawfinch flew in and landed in the tree next to it, the two of them staying there together for several minutes before dropping back into the trees. Rather than wait to see if any more Hawfinches would come in this afternoon, we decided to go and explore the arboretum.

A quick walk round the lake produced a few waterbirds for the day’s list – a few Canada Geese and a single Greylag, several Mallard and a pair of Gadwall, and another Little Grebe. A flock of Redwings were flushed out of the alders and flew out to the hornbeams in the middle of the paddocks, where we could get a good look at them through the scope.

There was some seed put out for the birds on the pillars and posts around the bridge, so we stopped a while to see what would come in. There was a steady stream of tits – Blue, Great, Coal and Long-tailed Tits, plus several Marsh Tits giving us nice close views. A Nuthatch chased everything else off the peanut feeder hanging in the tree above and spent several minutes jabbing ferociously at the peanuts. A Treecreeper worked its way up one of the trees right next to the bridge, so we could get a good look at it. There were several Siskins in the trees here too.

Marsh Tit

Marsh Tit – coming to seed put out on the bridge

It was time to start thinking about heading back now. There has been a Firecrest around the car park here on occasion, but when we got to the car there was no sign of it. We stood for a while and listened, but there were just a few Blue Tits, a Robin and a couple of Nuthatches piping noisily from high in the trees.

It was only as we were getting in to the car that we heard the Firecrest call from the trees nearby. It flew across and disappeared into some dense young firs, still calling. We walked over and could just see it flitting around on the edge of the trees, before it disappeared in deeper, out of view.

As we made our way back north, driving into Swaffham, we could see thousands and thousands of Starlings whirling over the town. It was quite a spectacle. There has been a murmuration here for the last couple of winters, and numbers really start to grow at thsi time of year, presumably as birds start to make their way back towards the continent. We stopped in the market place and watched them for a while, whirling round overhead. They were quite spread out this evening, but it was still amazing to watch them all, there must have been at least 30,000 birds!

Starling murmuration

Starlings – part of a huge murmuration over Swaffham this evening

The Starlings were a nice way to round off our three days. It had been very exciting stuff, the best of late winter in the North Norfolk, the Broads and the Brecks. We had seen some great birds, lots of great moments and good company too.

10th Feb 2018 – Winter, Broads & Brecks #2

Day 2 of a three day long weekend of tours, and it was down to the Norfolk Broads today. It was a lovely sunny start to the day, although it clouded over late morning and then tried to rain on and off in the afternoon. Thankfully the rain was only light, just spitting with drizzle at times, so it didn’t stop us getting out.

Our first destination saw us driving along the coast road past Horsey. We had hoped we might find some Cranes along here, particularly on a lovely bright morning, but there was no sign of any today. We found a convenient layby to park and stretch our legs. There were lots of Pink-footed Geese out on the grazing meadows but they were very jumpy, constantly flying up and landing again. A light aircraft flew round over the fields, possibly the source of some of the nervousness.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese – flying round, very nervous today

There were also lots of Lapwings and a few Fieldfares out on the grass. We could see several Marsh Harriers circling over the reeds behind us. A couple of large herds of Mute Swans were out in the fields. With all the disturbance, there were not as many birds out here as there often are, so we moved quickly on.

Our next stop was round at Ludham. As we climbed up onto the river bank, we could see a small group of swans out on the grazing marshes. A closer look with the scope confirmed there were six Whooper Swans with a similar number of Mute Swans. We could see the prominent yellow wedge running down the bills to a sharp point on the Whooper Swans, and they were not much smaller than the accompanying Mutes.

Whooper Swans

Whooper Swans – 4 of the 6 out on the grazing marshes again today

Three Stock Doves were out in the field next to the cow barn and a couple of Pied Wagtails were picking around the muddy farm yard. Scanning the grass, we could see lots of Lapwing and Golden Plover and several Chinese Water Deer too. Looking along the river, a pair of Gadwall were swimming with a few Coot. But there were no Cranes here today either. It was a lovely morning and the footpath along the river bank was very busy with dog walkers, which meant there was presumably too much disturbance. Were we destined to miss out on the Cranes everywhere today?

We moved on again and headed south. Looking out of the window as we were driving along the road, we finally found our first Cranes of the day, standing in the field where we had seen a big group the other day. At first we could only see five together, on the edge of the maize strip. Then we looked round behind us, just in time to see another 14 Cranes circling in the sky. They disappeared off towards the river, dropping down behind some trees. We didn’t see where they had come from but someone was shooting pigeons a couple of fields over, so may have flushed them.

Common Cranes 1

Common Cranes – this flock of 14 flew round and headed off towards the river

Looking back at the original group, more Cranes started to emerge from the maize strip. Scanning the surrounding fields, we also found another pair nearby. The more we looked, the more we found and by the end we had 15 Cranes together in the field, and there could easily have still been some hiding in the crop. It was quite a sight!

Common Cranes 2

Common Cranes – several of the 15 which were still left down in the fields

There was even some more action. At one point, six of the Cranes flew up and circled round. There was lots of bugling, the calls echoing across the fields. Two flew off, but four of the Cranes dropped back down with the others again. Great stuff!

Common Cranes 3

Common Cranes – six of the group flew round bugling

Having finally found some Cranes – and enjoyed cracking views of a really good number to boot (it is not often we see large flocks such as this here, a significant proportion of the total Broadland population!), we headed on, down to the Yare valley. As we walked down to the gate and scanned the marshes at Cantley, it was rather disappointing. There were almost no geese here today – just a single Egyptian Goose which doesn’t really count! Otherwise, all we could see were Rooks, Lapwings and a few Mute Swans.

Darker clouds were gathering to the south, so we didn’t hang around here too long and made our way back to the car. As we were loading up, we looked across to the nearby sugar beet processing factory and noticed a small shape on the side of the tall steaming chimney. It was a Peregrine. Presumably it had found somewhere to keep warm?

Peregrine

Peregrine – finding a warm spot on the chimney of Cantley Beet Factory

At this point it started to spit with rain. We decided it would be a good moment for an early lunch, so we made our way round to Strumpshaw Fen. As we walked out to the Reception Hide, we stopped to look at all the tits coming down to the feeders A Marsh Tit made several visits as we watched, mostly dropping down to the ground where some seed had been sprinkled. A Jay came up from the path too as we arrived, and a Siskin flew over calling.

Marsh Tit

Marsh Tit – making regular visits down to the ground below the feeders

Looking out across the Reception Hide pool, there were lots of Gadwall and Coot on the water today. A little group of Shoveler didn’t linger and a couple of flocks of Teal flew over without landing. The Black Swan was in hiding today. A couple of Marsh Harriers circled over the reeds. As well as providing a very welcome hot drink, the Reception Hide also gave us great views of a very well camouflaged Common Snipe feeding in the cut reeds in front.

After lunch, the rain had stopped, so we headed back out towards the coast. A quick detour off the Acle Straight towards Halvergate produced four Bewick’s Swans out on the grazing marshes. This is a traditional stop off point for swans heading back towards the continent in late winter, so can often be a good place to look late in the season, when the wintering birds have departed. We could see immediately that they were small and short-necked compared to the Mute and Whooper Swans we had seen earlier and through the scope we could see the more restricted, squared off yellow patch on their bills.

Bewick's Swans

Bewick’s Swans – these four were on the grazing marshes near Halvergate

Continuing on to Great Yarmouth, we quickly located the Glossy Ibis in its usual field at Bure Park. It was very busy feeding down in the wet grass, finding a few worms while we watched. A wet grassy park in Great Yarmouth in winter must be a far cry from the marshes of southern Spain, but it seemed to be doing OK with a few Moorhens and Black-headed Gulls for company.

Glossy Ibis

Glossy Ibis – feeding in the wet grassy fields in front of the car park

After a quick stop to catch up with the Glossy Ibis, we made our way on further south again, down to Waveney Forest. It was spitting with rain now but it was relatively sheltered from the wind in the trees. Looking out across Haddiscoe Island from ‘the mound’, it appeared rather desolate at first. The gates and posts where the Buzzards like to perch were conspicuously empty but scanning more carefully, we quickly found our target. The Rough-legged Buzzard was standing down in the grass today, out in the middle.

It was rather distant, and a bit misty now, but we could see the Rough-legged Buzzard’s pale crown and white spotting in the upperparts, contrasting with its black throat and upper breast and black patches either side of its belly. This is a returning adult, which comes back to these grazing marshes each winter, from its breeding grounds in the arctic.

Rough-legged Buzzard

Rough-legged Buzzard – out in the mist on Haddiscoe Island

The cherry on the cake was duly provided when the Rough-legged Buzzard took off and flew low across the grass, flashing its distinctive white tail with a contrasting black terminal band. It turned into the wind and started hovering, like a giant Kestrel in slow motion. It repeated this several times – Rough-legged Buzzards are habitual hoverers when they hunt, unlike the more familiar Common Buzzard which will hover only occasionally. After hunting for a few minutes, the Rough-legged Buzzard flew back across and landed again down on the grass close to where it had been earlier.

We took that as our cue to leave. We weren’t sure whether we would make it out to Stubb Mill tonight, given the weather, but by the time we got to the car park at Hickling the rain had eased off again. We decided to give it a go. We took the direct route out today, along the road. Two Egyptian Geese were in one of the fields and four Cormorants flew over.

When we got to Stubb Mill, we immediately spotted two Cranes out on the grass. We had a good look at them through the scope, walking round, before they eventually flew round and dropped down in the reeds at the back. Shortly afterwards, someone spotted another pair, out in one of the meadows further over. And we could hear more Cranes bugling over towards the reserve – based on the noise, another two pairs at least.

Common Cranes 4

Common Crane – one of two pairs out at Stubb Mill this evening

We had already amassed quite a total of Cranes on our travels today. Then another five flew in, low over the grass in front of the watchpoint, and disappeared over towards the reserve. That took us to a massive 38 seen and several more Cranes heard today!

Common Cranes 5

Common Crane – another five flew in to roost at dusk

There were at least 5-6 Marsh Harriers in already, perched out in the bushes in the middle of the reeds or circling round overhead, but others were probably keeping down given the weather. Several more flew in while we were watching. A male Merlin shot across very low, only briefly breaking above the reeds, unfortunately too quickly for everyone to get onto it. A ghostly grey male Hen Harrier appeared in the distance, flying round above the bushes in the reeds where the Marsh Harriers were gathered for a couple of minutes, visible in the scope despite the gathering gloom.

Given the weather, the light was fading fast tonight. We had fared far better than we thought we might at Stubb Mill this evening, it was well worth coming out here. We decided to call it a night and head for home.

9th Feb 2018 – Winter, Broads & Brecks #1

Day 1 of a three day long weekend of tours, which will see us visit various parts of Norfolk. Today was the turn of the North Norfolk coast. It was a cold and cloudy day, with a couple of wintry showers particularly in the afternoon, although we managed to dodge the worst of them.

Our first destination was Holkham. As we parked on Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see lots of birds out on the wet grazing meadows either side of the road. A large flock of Wigeon was feeding on the grass near the fence, the birds giving their distinctive ‘wheeoo’ whistle. There were also a few Teal and Shoveler out in the field with them, as well as lots of Common Redshank feeding around the pools. On the other side of the road, a single Pink-footed Goose was all alone out in the middle, presumably a sick or injured bird.

Wigeon

Wigeon – a large flock was feeding by Lady Anne’s Drive

We were heading out towards the beach, but a shower blew in at that point and we sought shelter under a large holm oak by the start of the boardwalk for a couple of minutes while it passed over, watching the Brent Geese flying in to feed on the grazing meadows. A flock of Golden Plover whirled round and dropped down again out of view.

The rain stopped quickly and we made our way through the pines. A Sparrowhawk flew over the Gap ahead of us, before disappearing over the tops of the trees. We heard a Goldcrest singing and managed to locate it, feeding busily in a holm oak. There were lots of Shelduck out on the saltmarsh, but otherwise it seemed fairly quiet out here today. We flushed a small group of Goldfinch from the edge of the dunes as we made our way east.

There was no sign of the Shorelarks in their usual favoured spot out on the saltmarsh, but it was quite wet out here after heavy rain overnight. So we continued on a little further east and, scanning the ground ahead of us as we went, we quickly located them out on the drier sand. We had a quick look through the scope in case they flew, then made our way over a little closer.

Shorelarks

Shorelarks – the usual 9 were still out on the saltmarsh today

We watched the Shorelarks for a while from a discrete distance. They were feeding busily, running round, picking at the dead stems of vegetation, occasionally flying up and landing again. Through the scope, we got a good look at their yellow faces and black masks.

As we made our way back, we stopped briefly to scan the sea. It was fairly choppy and looked rather quiet – just a few Cormorants out on the water and a couple of distant Red-throated Divers flying past.

There was more action back at Lady Anne’s Drive. As we came through the pines, we spotted a Red Kite flapping lazily across the grazing marshes. Back at the car, we could see a large flock of Brent Geese now out on the grass and a quick scan through revealed a slightly darker bird with a more obvious pale flank patch, one of the usual Black Brant hybrids which can often be seen with the Dark-bellied Brents here.

Driving back towards the main road, we noticed a few thrushes out on the short grass in one of the fields. A quick stop and check confirmed they were mainly Fieldfares, but with a single Song Thrush and a pair of Mistle Thrushes alongside. A Great Spotted Woodpecker flew across and disappeared into the bushes.

A little further west, another stop to scan the grazing marshes quickly revealed a few Russian White-fronted Geese feeding down in the wetter grass. The first pair were rather distant, but then a family of four appeared from behind the trees down at the front. We could see the white surround to the base of the bill and the black belly bars on the adults. There were lots of Egyptian Geese and Greylags here too, plus a few Canada Geese and a single Barnacle Goose which had presumably hopped over the wall from the feral group in the Park.

White-fronted Geese

Russian White-fronted Geese – there were several out on the grazing marshes today

There were a few waders out on the wet grass too. A large flock of Black-tailed Godwits was busy feeding, probing for worms with their long bills. Careful scanning also revealed a couple of Ruff, though they were very flighty and kept disappearing behind the trees. A female Marsh Harrier appeared in the top of a bush in front of us. A Green Woodpecker flew in across the marshes and disappeared over the road into the park.

Then one of the group spotted a Great White Egret, the other bird we were hoping to catch up with here. It was right over the back, against the reeds below the pines, but it was immediately obvious that it was big even at that distance and through the scope we could see its long, dagger-shaped yellow bill.

Great White Egret

Great White Egret – feeding in the reeds at the back of the grazing marshes

After a very productive short stop here, we continued on our way west. One of the group had asked about Bean Geese earlier. They have been very thin on the ground this winter, but fortuitously we received a message at this point that one or two had been reported along the coast at Ringstead again this morning, having first been mentioned yesterday. We made our way straight over.

It wasn’t immediately clear where the geese were (‘in field viewed from beet pile’ perhaps not being the most helpful of directions!!), so we had a drive round the area. A quick stop by a cover strip sown along the edge of a field revealed a hedge full of birds. On one side, we could see loads of Reed Buntings and Yellowhammers, but the other side revealed our target here – several Tree Sparrows. It is a sad sign of the times that we have to go some way these days to find this once very common species.

While we were here, we worked out where the geese were most likely to be found and when we got round there we found a couple of cars pulled up on the verge. A large flock of a thousand or two Pink-footed Geese were feeding out on a recently harvested sugar beet field. One of the Tundra Bean Geese had been seen earlier, close to the front of the flock, but had disappeared. At least that narrowed the search area a little, and we quickly managed to locate it, fast asleep, sitting down, hiding its best features – the orange legs and bill band!

Tundra Bean Goose 1

Tundra Bean Goose – asleep in the middle of the Pink-footed Geese

Through the scope we all had a good look at it. Even though we couldn’t see its legs or bill, the Tundra Bean Goose was subtly different from the surrounding Pinkfeet, with noticeably darker feathers on the back and wings with more contrasting pale edges. Thankfully, after a while it woke up and started to walk round, feeding on the bits of beet left behind in the field. At that point, its day-glo orange legs were particularly striking!

Tundra Bean Goose 2

Tundra Bean Goose – showing off its bright orange legs

After enjoying great views of the Tundra Bean Goose, we dropped back down to the coast at Thornham and headed out to the harbour. As we drove down past the old coal barn, we could see four people with binoculars staring down at the saltmarsh by the road and as we pulled alongside we could see Twite flitting around in the vegetation. We pulled in just past them, by the barn, but at that moment they took off and flew away up the harbour.

Parking down at the end, we had a look in the Twite‘s other favourite spots. We walked up to the corner of the seawall and scanned the saltmarsh, but we couldn’t see them anywhere. There were lots of waders in the harbour – several Curlew and Grey Plover, Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwits, and Redshank. A couple of Little Grebes were diving in the channel and further out we could see a pair of Red-breasted Mergansers.

Then a little flock of about thirty small finches flew in with bouncing flight, straight past us. The Twite had returned. They circled round over the car park, where they usually like to drink in the puddles, but were possibly put off by the number of cars and people. Instead, they flew back towards us and landed down on the seawall just a few metres away to drink on the puddles there. We had a great view of them.

Twite

Twite – flew in to drink at the puddles on the seawall

The Twite didn’t stay long at the puddles, but quickly took off again, flying round a couple of times before landing a short distance out on the edge of the saltmarsh. Here, we had a good look at them in the scope, before they were off again, this time heading out over the harbour, out of view.

It was time for lunch now, so we made our way round to Titchwell. While we ate, we scanned the feeders by the Visitor Centre. A few Greenfinches arrived to join the numerous Chaffinches and a couple of Long-tailed Tits appeared on the peanuts. Then a couple of Bramblings appeared too, a brighter orange male and a slightly duller female.

Brambling

Brambling – one of two by the feeders at lunchtime

After lunch, it started to spit with rain. We had a quick look round via Meadow Trail for the Woodcock, but it was keeping well hidden today. Three Bullfinch flew over our heads calling. We set out onto the reserve. It was cold and windy out of the trees, so we put our heads down and walked quickly out to seek shelter in Parrinder Hide. A Marsh Harrier was circling over the reedbed on our way past.

The staff have been cutting the reeds around the edge of the freshmarsh this week, and it has been very disturbed. Coupled with the still very high water level, this means there are not many birds on here at the moment. Still, recently cut vegetation had attracted a Common Snipe, which was feeding along the edge one side of Parrinder Hide, and a Water Pipit which was picking its way along the edge the other side.

Snipe

Common Snipe – well camouflaged against the recently-cut reeds

We were glad of the shelter, as a heavy sleet shower then blew in off the sea. We waited for it to pass through in the north side of Parrinder Hide, overlooking the Volunteer Marsh. A particularly forlorn looking Grey Plover was huddled on the edge of one of the vegetated islands, trying to get out of the weather, as were a couple of Avocets. We managed to find a single Knot and a couple of Dunlin, but most of the waders seemed to be hiding.

Avocet

Avocet – there were several out on Volunteer Marsh, when the sleet stopped

Once the sleet stopped, more waders arrived. A Ringed Plover appeared from nowhere in front of the hide and several small flocks of Knot and Dunlin flew in and landed on the mud. We decided to brave the cold wind and make a bid for the beach.

There were more waders along the edges of the muddy tidal channel. We had a good close look at a couple of Black-tailed Godwits just below the main path. There were also more Curlew, Grey Plover and Dunlin. Scanning carefully where the channel heads back away from the path, we managed to pick out a single Spotted Redshank on the edge of the water towards the back.

There was not much out on the Tidal Pools now, but it was very windy and exposed out here. Apart from several Little Grebes diving in the water just below the path, there was a large roost of Oystercatcher on the saltmarsh at the back. A pair of Gadwall were lurking in the vegetation nearby.

Little Grebe

Little Grebe – one of several on the Tidal Pools

We did make it out onto the beach today and found a bit of shelter in the edge of the dunes. More Bar-tailed Godwits were scattered along the shoreline and we got a single Sanderling in the scope. Another flock of Sanderling flew past, led by a lone Turnstone. The sea was very choppy and it was hard to find anything out on the water. We did get a Goldeneye in the scope, but it proved very difficult to see. The other ducks were even further out. We decided to head back.

As we walked back along the main path, the Marsh Harriers were already gathering to roost. We counted at least 12 in the air together over the back of the main reedbed. By the time we got back to the car, the light was already starting to fade, so we headed for home.

7th Feb 2018 – Wintry Broads

A Private Tour down in the Norfolk Broads today. After snow overnight, the wintry showers were supposed to die out through the morning and it was meant to brighten up. It never really happened that way, remaining mostly cloudy all day. but at least we were able to largely dodge the showers until late in the day. And it didn’t stop us seeing some good birds.

After meeting in Hickling, we headed round towards the coast. A slow drive stopping to scan some of the fields which the Cranes favour failed to yield the hoped for reward, but it was still cold and cloudy so they were probably hiding somewhere sheltered. We stopped in a convenient layby and got out to scan the fields.

There were a couple of large herds of Mute Swans here, on either side of the road, but nothing else with them. Further over, we could see a hundred or so Pink-footed Geese at the back of the grazing marshes, which were covered in Lapwing and Golden Plover. A Green Sandpiper called over towards the reeds, but we couldn’t see it. A Common Snipe flew up from the grass. We had a good look through the scope at one of the Fieldfares feeding among the molehills.

There were a few raptors too, starting to wake up. Three Marsh Harriers circled up out of the reeds and a Common Buzzard perched on the bank, trying to warm itself. A couple of Kestrels were perched on the wires.

Continuing on our way, we headed inland in search of more swans. As we parked at our next stop and got out of the car, we could see a little group of no more than half a dozen out on the grazing marshes. A quick look through the scope confirmed they were a mixture of Mute Swans together with a couple of Whooper Swans. There were a few more down out of view in a ditch, so we decided to walk round on the river bank to try to get a better look.

From up on the bank, we scanned the grazing marshes the other side of the river and immediately spotted a Common Crane out on the grass. A second Crane was nearby, but they were half hidden behind the reeds. We had to find a gap we could see over, but we eventually got a good look at one of the Cranes through the scope.

Common Crane 1

Common Crane – one of a pair, our first of the day

We could hear Bearded Tits calling from the reeds, but couldn’t see them. It was cold and there was a fresh breeze, so they were keeping well tucked down this morning. A Reed Bunting called and showed itself briefly. A Cetti’s Warbler was more typically elusive. However, we had great views of a Grey Wagtail which flew in and landed in a nearby farmyard, picking around the edge of a muddy puddle.

There was a better view across to the swans from up here and now we could see there were actually five Whooper Swans here. Through the scope, we could see the wedge-shaped yellow patch on their bills.

Whooper Swans

Whooper Swans – a small mixed group with Mute Swans

We could see a number of Chinese Water Deer out on the grass too, which once again was liberally sprinkled with Lapwings and Golden Plover. Suddenly all the birds erupted, taking to the air and whirling round. There are often Marsh Harriers here, but we couldn’t see any likely culprits until one of the group spotted a couple of raptors circling high over the marshes.

It was immediately clear there was a small bird of prey and a much larger one. The smaller bird was a Sparrowhawk, which was mobbing the bigger one, but it was only as the latter turned that we could see it was not one of the usual harriers or buzzards. It was another hawk, but a really huge one, a Goshawk.

Goshawk

Goshawk – a rare bird indeed in the Broads, a real surprise

Once all the group were on it, we had a closer look at the Goshawk. As it circled, we could see it was a young bird, born last year, rather brownish. As well as the huge size, we could see the distinctive long wings with bulging secondaries, broad-based and rounded tail and protruding head.

The Sparrohawk lost interest and flew off, while the Goshawk continued to circle and drift further away. At one point, it straightened up and flew a short distance, with deep, heavy wingbeats, very different from the fast bursts of flapping of the Sparrowhawk. While we do have Goshawks in Norfolk, they are very rare in the Broads, so this was a complete surprise.Young birds are very prone to wandering though and it was apparently a good breeding season for them in 2017. A real bonus for the day!

It was cold up on the river bank, so once the Goshawk had drifted away, we headed back to the car and a chance to warm up as we drove to our next stop. The stockman was just going in to feed the cattle in the barn next to where we had parked and as he did so he flushed out a Barn Owl, which flew across in front of us, over the bank, and disappeared down on the other side of the river.

We pulled up next on the edge of some overgrown fields, sown with a seed cover crop. Here we spotted a small group of finches fly up into an oak in the hedge and quickly got the scope on one, a smart male Brambling. Unfortunately, the birds flew again before everyone got onto it.

We spent a few minutes trying to get a better look at the finches. We walked up the footpath on the edge of the field and back again, but a lot of the birds were either in the trees above our heads or had flown off over the back of the field. We could hear the nasal call of more Bramblings and the hard calls of Linnets flying over, as well as plenty of Chaffinches and a few Goldfinches. Finally, they all flew across and landed in a tree on the edge of the field, where we could all get a good look at them.

Back in the car, we had another opportunity to warm up as we drove south. A quick glance out of the window though and we spotted some dark shapes in a field in the distance. We turned round and found a convenient place to stop. Once out of the car, we could see they were Cranes, and plenty of them!

Common Crane 2

Common Cranes – feeding in a cover strip on the edge of a field

The Cranes were hard to count. A few were standing around on the edge of the field, but more were feeding in the vegetation in a tall cover strip. Through the scope, we could see some of them ripping at the tall stems, but there were several more deep in the crop – we could just see bits of grey shapes moving around inside.

As we scanned across, we could see several more Cranes around the edge of the next field. An attempt to count them all got to 26 in total, but it is very possible there were more than that, given we struggled to see how many were deep in the cover strip. This is a very impressive flock by UK standards, a significant proportion of the Broadland total in one group, great to see.

Common Crane 3

Common Cranes – we counted at least 26 in the flock, a great sight

Unfortunately, it had started to spit with wintry rain now, so we didn’t linger as long as we might have done with the Cranes, but got back in the car and moved on.

Having not found any Bewick’s Swans earlier, we headed round to Halvergate next to see if we could find any here, another regular site for them. At first, we saw several groups of Mute Swans before we spotted four smaller birds on their own on the grazing marsh. Stopping in a convenient gateway, we got out to confirm they were four Bewick’s Swans.

Bewick's Swan

Bewick’s Swan – one of four at Halvergate today

Through the scope, we could see the smaller, squared off yellow patch on the bill of the Bewick’s Swans, very different from the more extensive, wedge shaped yellow on the Whooper Swans we had seen earlier. The Bewick’s Swans were also noticeably smaller and shorter-necked.

There was now a request to find somewhere warm to have lunch or a hot drink, so after an abortive attempt to visit the pub in Halvergate, which was closed, we headed back to Acle. The hot chocolate was especially welcome today!

After a break, we resumed our quest for more birds. There has been a Glossy Ibis on the outskirts of Great Yarmouth for the last week so, as it was just about on our way, we headed over to see if we could see it. There was no sign if it in its favourite wet field, just a few Moorhens. A Kingfisher zipped low across the grass and disappeared into a ditch, unfortunately too quickly for most of the group to get onto it.

Another birder was just leaving, and helpfully pointed us a little further along the road as he passed. There was the Glossy Ibis out on the back of the grass, with a few more Moorhens for company. It promptly went to sleep, but thankfully only for a couple of minutes before waking up, preening and resuming feeding in a flooded patch in the grass. Through the scope, we could see its long, downcurved bill.

Glossy Ibis

Glossy Ibis – showing off its long, curlew-like bill when it woke up

Glossy Ibises are still quite rare but increasingly regular visitors to the UK, with ringed birds seen here in recent years known to have originated from the expanding Spanish population.

Having enjoyed nice views of the Glossy Ibis, we set off on our way again. Our next destination was Waveney Forest. As we walked in through the trees, there were several Great Tits and a single Coal Tit coming to the feeders at the cottage. A Siskin flew over calling. Deeper in the trees, a Green Woodpecker called and flew across the path in front of us, up into the trees.

We made our way over to ‘the mound’ which overlooks Haddiscoe Island. The regular returning Rough-legged Buzzard has been here for a while now, and this is generally the best place to see it from. Scanning the posts and gates out on the Island, we could see several Common Buzzards and Kestrels. What looked like the Rough-legged Buzzard was unfortunately right over the far side of the island with its back to us, and even through the scope it was hard to make out much detail. We could see a pale off white crown and pale whitish spots in the mantle and scapulars. We waited a while to see if it would turn round, or even better fly, but it didn’t.

While we waited we did spot a group of about 15 Bearded Tits swinging in the tops of the reeds, feeding on the seedheads. The sun had come out and they had found a sheltered spot which was catching some warmth in the afternoon light. We had a great look at them through the scope, and could see the grey heads and black moustaches on the males.

It was time to move on again, before we got too cold. On our way back north, we stopped on the south shore of Breydon Water. It was about an hour and a half after high tide and the water was now starting to go out. There were thousands of birds gathered on the mud on the far side – ducks, waders and gulls.

Breydon Water

Breydon Water – thousands of ducks, waders and gulls were gathered on the mud

Through the scope, we could see the birds were neatly sorted into groups. Over to the right were mostly Lapwing and Golden Plover. In the middle, shining bright white in the afternoon sun, were loads of gulls, mainly Black-headed and Common Gulls. To the left, was more of a mixture, thousands of Wigeon with waders scattered through them including Black-tailed Godwits, Dunlin and on the end a number of Avocets. A Great Crested Grebe swam past.

It was already getting late by the time we left Breydon Water. Given the weather, we were not planning to spend too long at Stubb Mill this evening, but we thought we would try to call in for the last half hour. Unfortunately, as we drove back north we could see dark clouds gathering and by the time we got back to Hickling, it was starting to rain. We sat in the car for a couple of minutes trying to work out whether it would clear, before deciding to call it a day.

It was a wise call, as the rain turned to sleet on the short drive back to where we had started. But despite the weather at the end, we had enjoyed a very successful if rather chilly day today. Well worth going out for!

4th Feb 2018 – Owls & More

An Owl Tour today, back in North Norfolk. The weather forecast was far from ideal – we were warned to expect cold and blustery NE winds bringing wintry showers in off the North Sea. Still, it didn’t turn out as bad as forecast and it is amazing what you can find when you go out looking, despite the weather!

After meeting up, we headed straight down to the coastal marshes to see if any Barn Owls might be out hunting still. It was cold and windy and, after passing through a sleet shower on our way down to the coast this morning, it was perhaps no surprise they had already gone in to roost. Not to worry. We hoped we might get another opportunity to look for Barn Owls later in the day, weather permitting.

There were other birds to see here. Several Marsh Harriers hung in the air over the reeds, coming out of their roost. A flock of Curlew flew up from feeding down in the damp grass in the grazing meadows below us. Little groups of Brent Geese flew back and forth. A Water Pipit came up from the recently cut reeds and flew off calling, and a Grey Wagtail flew high over us the other way.

We decided to try our luck inland and look for some Little Owls instead. At the first site we stopped at, we got out of the car and looked across to the roof of some farm buildings across the other side of a field. There, tucked in below the ridge out of the wind, facing into the few rays of morning sun coming through the clouds, were two Little Owls. We had a good look at them through the scope, spotted with white above and streaked below. It was nice to get the first owls of the day under our belts. Three Stock Doves were on the roof too, a little further along.

Little Owls

Little Owls – these two were standing on a barn roof out of the wind

From here, we meandered our way west. We were heading up to the Wash, but had a quick look at some other owl sites on the way, just in case any others might still be out. There weren’t any more owls, but we did have a nice variety of other things on the way. A pair of Grey Partridges were hiding in a stubble field. A Green Sandpiper was bathing in a stream but flew up and away as we pulled up. A Bullfinch zipped across the road in front of us and disappeared into the brambles, flashing its white rump. There were a few raptors too – a Red Kite flapped lazily across a field beside the road, a Sparrowhawk circled up, plus several Common Buzzards and Kestrels.

Eventually, we arrived at the Wash. As we got up to the seawall, we could see the tide was just going out. There were still lots of waders on the mud, chasing the rapidly receding waters down, so we stopped to take a closer look. The sky had cleared now and the first thing that struck us was a large flock of Golden Plover positively shining in the sunshine out on the mud.

Golden Plovers 1

Golden Plover – catching the sun, out on the Wash

Through the scope, we could see more waders. Large tight flocks of Knot and Oystercatcher, lines of Bar-tailed Godwits, plus Dunlin and Grey Plover more liberally scattered over the mud. In amongst them, we found two Avocets, hardy individuals which have probably decided to linger here through the winter (although others are already starting to move back). A few Redshank were picking around on the mud just below us and a Ringed Plover flew in and landed briefly nearby.

The waders were constantly on the move, following the tide. Periodically, a flock would fly up, whirl round and land again further down. It was great to watch the Knot in particularly, swirling out over the water, flashing alternately white and dark grey. The Golden Plover put on a show too, whooshing across in front of us, before circling up and then dropping back down to the mud. There was no sign of any raptors though, they were probably just nervous in the wind.

Golden Plovers 2

Golden Plover – the flock swirled around in front of us

There were ducks here too. The mud was covered with a sprinkling of white Shelduck, whereas the dark mass gathered on the edge of the water was a large flock of Teal. More Shelduck were swimming in the mouth of the channel and in with them we could see several Pintail too. A drake Goldeneye flew past behind us, flashing black of white, the first of several we saw here today.

However, we had not come here to look out at the delights of the Wash, so we tore ourselves away and headed round to the pits.

Goldeneye

Goldeneye – this drake flew past us over the pits

There have been a couple of Short-eared Owls roosting here this winter and, carefully scanning the bushes on our way round, we quickly found one of them hunched up under a mass of brambles. We got it in the scope and could see its ear tufts and staring yellow eyes.

Short-eared Owls

Short-eared Owl – roosting under the brambles again

Once we had all had a good look at the Short-eared Owl, we decided to head back to the car. The weather was much improved, but it was still cold in the wind and exposed out by the vast expanse of the Wash. We headed round to Titchwell for a couple of hours ahead of the afternoon owl shift.

It was time for lunch but, as we made our way from the car park to the Visitor Centre, we noticed a little patch of rusty colour, subtly contrasting with the browner leaves, half hidden underneath the sallows. A quick look confirmed it was a Woodcock! Gathering the group together, we had frame-filling views of it through the scope. Not an owl, but a real highlight to see one of these often so elusive birds so well.

Woodcock

Woodcock – feeding beneath the sallows between the car park & Visitor Centre

The Woodcock was tucked up asleep at first. After lunch (and a very welcome hot drink!), as we made our way back to the car to put away our bags, it was feeding more actively. We watched it walking round slowly, probing in the leaves, before it turned and disappeared beneath the branches.

There were a few birds around the feeders – Chaffinches, Greenfinches and Goldfinches, plus Blue, Great and Long-tailed Tits. As we started to make our way out onto the reserve, a quick look in the ditch by the main path revealed a Water Rail feeding on the far bank. It tried to hide under the overhanging brambles at first, before coming right out into the open for us, probing in the rotting leaves.

Water Rail

Water Rail – showing well in the ditch below the main path

The old pool out on Thornham grazing marsh looked particularly devoid of life at first. Scanning more carefully, we found a Reed Bunting feeding in some dead seedheads down near the front and, while we were watching it, a head popped up nearby. The Water Pipit was hard to see at first, lurking in a line of taller vegetation, picking around unobtrusively. Occasionally it would appear in an opening, and eventually we all got a good look at it through the scope.

A Marsh Harrier was circling over the reeds at the back and another was out over the reedbed the other side. Continuing on our way, the reedbed pool held a few Tufted Ducks and a scan of the Lavender Marsh as we passed revealed a single Grey Plover on the pool and a lone Black-tailed Godwit on the saltmarsh with a couple of Wigeon and Teal.

The freshmarsh is still flooded with water at the moment, meaning that there is not so much to see on here currently. The ducks like it though, with a number of Common Pochard in particular in a big raft towards the back. On the small piece of island remaining exposed above the flood by the junction to Parrinder Hide, we could see several Red-crested Pochards too, the males standing out with their bright orange heads (despite the fact they were all fast asleep), very different from their commoner cousins.

Red-crested Pochard

Red-crested Pochards – the drakes sporting bright orange heads

With some dark clouds out towards the beach, we opted for safety and headed for Parrinder Hide. It was a wise call, as shortly after we arrived the skies opened and it started to hail heavily. Thankfully, it was just a shower and passed through quickly, but we were certainly pleased to be inside as it did.

There was not so much else to see on the freshmarsh today. There were lots of Lapwing on the fenced off ‘Avocet Island’ and a few Golden Plover in with them too. A flock of 14 Avocet flew in after the shower, but ended up landing out in the water, given the lack of islands to stand on. We watched them swimming for a while, bobbing up and down, looking decidedly out of place, before they finally plucked up the courage to fly over and join all the Lapwing.

Avocets

Avocets – swimming on the freshmarsh, given the high water levels

As the rain stopped, we made our way round to the other side of Parrinder Hide, overlooking the Volunteer Marsh. There were a few waders out on the mud in front of the hide at first, Grey Plover, Dunlin, Redshank and Avocet, but they all flushed as a Marsh Harrier flew over and landed further back.

With the break in the weather, we made a quick dash out further along the main path. The sun even came out for a time! We had great views of several more waders close in along the near edge of the Volunteer Marsh, Black-tailed Godwit, Dunlin, Ringed Plover and Redshank. A Lapwing looked particularly stunning, its upperparts gleaming metallic green, bronze and even purple in the sunshine!

Lapwing

Lapwing – looking stunning in the bright sunshine

The Tidal Pools looked quite quiet as we stuck our heads up over the bank, apart from a couple of Little Grebes diving just below us. A more careful scan revealed a pale silvery grey and white wader asleep, tucked down on the edge of the saltmarsh, a lone Spotted Redshank in winter plumage. A nice bonus!

There was no time to head out to the beach today, as our focus needed to be back on owls for the afternoon. We made our way quickly back to the car, and set off back east. With the cold winds along the coast, we decided to head inland to see if we could find any sheltered spots where Barn Owls might be hunting.

Almost immediately, on our way down to the first meadows we wanted to check, a Barn Owl flew across the road in front of us. It disappeared round behind some houses, before reappearing again, back across the road and down to the meadows where we had hoped to find it. It worked its way quickly down a hedge through the middle of the meadow, flicking over either side, before landing on a post on the bottom of the field. We had a good look at it here, but by the time we got the scope up, it was on the move again and disappeared out the back.

That was a positive start, but we hoped to have more prolonged views of Barn Owls out hunting this afternoon. Spurred on, we drove round to another area where they like to hunt, and once again we spotted a Barn Owl before we even arrived! We followed it down to the main meadow and found somewhere to park. As we got out of the car to watch it, a second Barn Owl appeared.

Barn Owl 1

Barn Owl – out hunting over the meadows this afternoon

The two Barn Owls quartered the meadow for a while, each seemingly oblivious to the other, focused solely on its search for prey. The second bird disappeared over the hedge at the back – we could still see it hunting over another meadow further down – before a third Barn Owl appeared over the grass in front of us.

Barn Owl 2

Barn Owl – one of three out hunting these meadows this afternoon

For over half an hour, we watched transfixed as the Barn Owls hunted. They worked their way back and forth, round and round the meadows, seemingly in a random pattern, searching the grass. Occasionally, one would drop down into the grass, but we didn’t see them successfully catch anything while we were there. We did get a good look at them through the scope down on the ground though. In particular, as a light snow shower passed over briefly, they settled for a minute.

Barn Owl 3

Barn Owl – they would drop down in the grass occasionally

Eventually, the remaining two Barn Owls started to move off, heading away in different directions, hunting different patches. We decided to move on too. We made our way back down to the coast road and headed back east. There were no more Barn Owls out hunting along here this afternoon, but we didn’t stop to look too hard, after enjoying such fantastic views of them earlier.

We had an appointment down in the woods at dusk. We were a little early arriving this evening, so we walked through to look out over the meadows beyond as dusk fell. We had to retreat to the shelter of the trees on our first attempt, as another wintry shower passed through. As it cleared, we walked back to find a Barn Owl perched on a post on the edge of the meadows. We watched it for a while as it resumed hunting, flying round over the grass, occasionally dropping down into the taller vegetation.

A Tawny Owl hooted and we made our way back into the trees and down to an area where one of the males is known to favour. The Tawny Owls were a bit subdued this evening, possibly due to the weather, and it got dark rather quickly given the cloud. We did hear another pair hooting back behind us, deeper in the woods. Eventually, the male Tawny Owl we were listening for hooted again a couple of times. We set off along the path to see if we could see it, but it went quiet again before we got there. The next time we heard it, it had moved further off.

We stood and listened to the male Tawny Owl hooting for a while, a really evocative sound and always great to hear, before it started to get too dark and we called it a night.

 

29th Jan-2nd Feb 2018 – Extremadura: Winter in the Spanish Steppes

A 5 day International Tour together with our friends from Oriole Birding, with great birds and fantastic scenery. We were very lucky with the weather – lots of blue sky and sunshine, though it was cold in the early mornings with a frost on the ground or when the wind picked up on one of the days.

Monday 29th January

Our group met up this morning early doors at London Gatwick airport for our 0725 flight down to Madrid, which departed roughly on time. The run down over the Pyrenees was spectacular in the clear skies, and we touched down in the Spanish capital a little ahead of schedule, enjoying a super quick transit through the airport.

Even as we sorted out the hire van, we could enjoy White Storks migrating overhead and these were the first of several large flocks seen as we drove south. After negotiating our way around the outskirts of the city, we picked up the E90 motorway and headed on down towards Extremadura.

This first part of the drive was frequently punctuated by roadside Red Kites and Common Buzzards, one or two Iberian Grey Shrikes [not seen by everyone from the fast moving vehicle!] and two superb Black Vultures. We stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant just beyond Talavera, noting our first Crested Larks in the car park, and then pushed on a further 30 minutes to our first proper birding stop at Saucedilla.

Just after we left the motorway, we encountered a raptor hovering by the roadside – it was a Black-winged Kite! Pulling up alongside the bird, we had the most amazing close up views of it from our vehicle. The bird was clearly very intent on watching its prey in the grass among some scattered tamarisks, and seemed totally unperturbed by us.

Black-winged Kite 1

Black-winged Kite 2

Black-winged Kite 3

Black-winged Kite – hunting by the roadside

We decided to disembark, knowing it would drift away a little but that we would be able to enjoy some scope views. In fact the bird soon returned, and we watched it on and off for half an hour, often passing quite close to us. Soon it was joined by a second bird, and after an aerial tussle, one of the pair landed on a wooden telegraph pole a short distance away and proceeded to give us remarkable scope views.

Black-winged Kite 5

Black-winged Kite – great views, perched on a telegraph post

We were very pleased to have enjoyed such a great performance from one of Extremadura’s most iconic birds at our very first stop! A really nice surprise here was a wintering Wryneck, which we flushed up from the roadside ditch as we got out of the van. It showed briefly in the depths of a tamarisk, before perching in the open on the fence and then retiring to the depths of a pine tree. We saw it twice more in flight, but never really out in the open – a scarce wintering bird here. Other species noted at this impromptu stop were Black Redstart, Corn Bunting and our first Common Chiffchaffs.

Just a couple of kilometres along the road we reached the ornithological centre at Saucedilla. This small wetland area is a great place to kick start the trip with many of the fairly common local birds, and we duly enjoyed flocks of Spanish Sparrows, Zitting Cisticola, Crested Larks, Black Redstart and a few common wetland birds here such as Gadwall and Common Snipe.

Another Black-winged Kite was also seen, hunting over the open fields to the north-west, and the small reedbed and surrounding trees were literally jumping with wintering Common Chiffchaffs. Almost every movement we saw was another of these spritely phylloscs flycatching in the warm afternoon sunshine. A young Western Purple Swamphen was observed among the dense reeds, and then its parent appeared, climbing up to the top of the vegetation and looking absolutely stunning in the perfect light conditions.

Purple Swamphen

Western Purple Swamphen – perched up nicely for us in the reeds

In the distance, we saw two more Black Vultures soaring low over the dehesa on flat wings, and in the reeds we heard both Penduline Tit and Cetti’s Warbler, though both remained hidden from view. A Bluethroat flicked across briefly, but despite our best efforts we were unable to relocate it – one for another day!

It was now gone 1700, and we needed to be mindful that we still had around a forty minute journey to reach the accommodation. Our walk back along the track though was punctuated by a high pitched squeaking call. Another Wryneck perhaps? We peered into the small clump of trees where the sound was coming from, and found a female Lesser Spotted Woodpecker!

The bird was busy excavating for food low down on one of the trunks, and obliged with excellent scope views for several minutes before moving off through the bushes. A Spotless Starling was signing close by, imitating the calls of several other species in typical fashion!

The final part of the journey added our first Griffon Vultures, and a couple of fly-by Hoopoes before we reached our delightful accommodation. The sun was just beginning to dip down over the skyline and the temperature was really dropping as Song Thrushes were piling overhead going to their roost nearby. We were certainly all ready for a beer and a truly excellent meal of local dishes served by our welcoming hosts – we couldn’t wait for our first full day tomorrow!

Tuesday 30th January

We headed out at first light this morning, which being one hour ahead of GMT meant leaving the hotel after breakfast at around 0815. We made straight for the productive area of steppe between Trujillo and Caceres, on the well known Santa Marta road, which has now been resurfaced into a veritable motorway compared to its former self! It was magical driving out onto the plains as the sun rose, and from our first stop we found ourselves immersed in many of the great birds typical of the dehesa fringe and steppe.

Santa Marta steppes

Santa Marta steppes – looking toward the Sierra de Gredos

Huge flocks of Spanish Sparrows were congregating in the fields alongside squabbling Iberian Magpies [formerly Azure-winged], and careful scanning through the fields picked out the odd Chaffinch, Greenfinch and Mistle Thrush among them, plus a lovely Hoopoe perched on the bottom of a fence.

Iberian Grey Shrike was common here, and we enjoyed views of two or three different birds including a singing male, ringing out his peculiar almost electronic three note ditty from the tops of the surrounding bushes. We were able to well compare the darker upperparts, vinous tinged underparts and neat, distinct white supercilium with the Great Grey Shrikes we were used to seeing back home.

Also around this first stop were several singing Thekla Larks, a tricky species which can look extremely similar to Crested but with careful study of the plumage, bill structure and taking into account the habitat, can be reliably separated.

Thekla Lark

Thekla Lark – we had a good opportunity to study several up close this morning

Moving on from this vantage point, we drove slowly up the road, getting more superb views of the Iberian Magpies, before discovering a flock of 23 Little Bustards by the roadside at the top of the hill. The light was on our side, and we opted to stay in the vehicle as we felt they might flush if we tried to disembark. The views were really nice anyway, and we were really pleased to connect with a flock of this declining species so soon in the trip.

Little Bustards

Little Bustards – part of a flock of 23 on the steppe by the road

Next we took an old drovers track out across the open steppe. The views across this vast landscape were simply superb and there were both Thekla and now Calandra Larks criss crossing in front of us as we went. The Calandra Larks really stole the show here, with their trilling calls, elaborate songs and fantastic close range squabbling fly pasts. The species is an excellent mimic, and those birds in full song above the steppe could be heard doing some great impersonations of a variety of species, from Kestrel to Green Sandpiper!

Calandra Lark

Calandra Lark – singing over the steppe

We then spotted a small group of Great Bustards on the ridge in the distance, so decided to drive further on in order to find a vantage point that might afford us closer views. We thought we had lost them behind a ridge, but thankfully relocated the five birds and enjoyed our first views of this magnificent bird through the scopes.

In the crisp, clear morning air, the calls of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse began to ring out but boy were they high up in the sky! We located seven, way up high above our heads, and watched a pair indulging in an impressive synchronised flying display flight. Several of their passes were a bit closer in beautiful light, showing their gleaming white bellies and bright chestnut breast band on the males.

Two Black-bellied Sandgrouse were also seen, crouched unobtrusively behind a group of cattle. Once the beasts moved out of the view, the sandgrouse showed nicely – a much stockier bird than the Pin-tailed, the male showing a greyer neck and brighter orange head patch than the drabber female.

A small flock of Skylarks and a couple of Golden Plover were in the same field, and several Red Kites were beginning to appear over the ridge as the temperature slowly increased. In order to try and find some more sandgrouse on the ground, we opted to take a walk along one of the side tracks. A couple of Black Redstarts and some superb views of Calandra Larks were had here, but we couldn’t find the sandgrouse which again appeared to have landed just out of view behind the ridge.

We began walking back, when a loud chatter could be heard and a long-tailed bird appeared, flying straight towards us – it was a Great Spotted Cuckoo! The bird duly landed obligingly on a sunny rock, where it sat calling for a few minutes and allowed everyone a good view the scope. These very early migrants are known to begin their return passage in January, but this was the first time we had ever seen one here at this time of year. We went on to have several more excellent views of it, as it first flew past us and then began moving along the fenceline ahead of us before eventually heading out into the fields.

Great Spotted Cuckoo

Great Spotted Cuckoo – an early returning bird

Returning to the vehicle, we began to make our way back out towards the road, stopping though to check the last big stony field for more sandgrouse views. The two Black-bellied Sandgrouse from earlier had returned, and two Pin-tailed Sandgrouse flew in and gave some acceptable but distant views along the to of the ridge. A further eight Black-bellied flew in too, but as soon as they landed among the stones in the field, they completely disappeared! Such well camouflaged birds and very hard to spot when they are not moving!

The raptors were really starting to thermal up in numbers now, and we began to see numerous Griffon and Black Vultures joining the many Red Kites above the ridge looking north towards Santa Marta de Magasca. A distant large raptor joined them, showing flat wings but a longer tail. It banked in the sun to reveal pale tawny upperwing coverts, white tipped greater covert bar and a white horseshoe on the uppertail coverts – it was an immature Spanish Imperial Eagle. Everyone managed to scope the bird, though it was a long way off – perhaps we would get some better views later on!

Behind us, 13 Little Bustards were seen flying away from us distantly, and we saw them drop into a field about a mile back along the track. We really fancied seeing another flock on the deck, and so retreated back along the track to see if we could find them – we managed some nice scope views, albeit somewhat against the light, and had a cracking male Hen Harrier thrown in for good measure! A distant Merlin, and some more useful comparative views of Griffon and Black Vultures rounded off a very productive session here, before it was finally time to move on to another spot for lunch.

Winding our way through to the village of Santa Marta, we took the minor road west down across the river and up onto the cultivated steppe heading out towards Caceres. Two Griffon Vultures gave stunning views right beside the road, and we found a flock of 34 Great Bustards parading along the skyline and were able to pull up alongside the birds and enjoy some stunning views with the light behind us. We saw these birds again from our chosen vantage point for lunch, and added a further five birds further over in the distance.

Great Bustards

Great Bustards – part of a drove of 34 birds at our lunch stop

Lunch, however, was dominated by raptors! As we pulled up, we spotted two immature Spanish Imperial Eagles soaring around together above the track. In the still air, we could hear them calling to each other and the birds were in view for around half an hour solid, even coming down and perching on the adjacent pylons, and in the top of a big eucalyptus tree. We could see the nest hidden among the branches of the tree, and these were clearly last years offspring from the territory. There was no sign of mum and dad though, and instead the presumed siblings carried on displaying above the road!

Right over our heads, two Black Vultures appeared and we could see them looking down at us as they passed over! These were then joined by a Griffon Vulture for direct comparison, and then the two adult Spanish Imperial Eagles did loom into view and we were able to scope them soaring round together complete with white upperwing flashes. A male Hen Harrier then came into view, flying up the roadside verge towards us before spotting our group and veering off across the fields. What an incredible lunch stop!

Black Vulture

Black Vulture – two came right over our heads at our lunch stop!

The remainder of our day would involve something a bit different, as we made the one hour drive roughly south to the small town of Montanchez, with its Castillo sat high on the hilltop. After winding our way through the narrow streets to the top, we could drink in the quite spectacular views right back across the plains to the north, with the snow-capped Gredos looming large in the background.

Our quarry here was Alpine Accentor, an altitudinal migrant which often appears on the rocky slopes below the castle here in winter, having fled its icy home in the high tops to the north. From the viewpoint by the parking area, we enjoyed great views of two Hoopoes, and watched a Short-toed Treecreeper climbing around uncharacteristically on the mossy boulders below. A Crag Martin also wheeled into view, before we climbed up the road to the far side of the castle to start exploring the sunny slopes there.

Two Blue Rock Thrushes were seen, perching on the chimney pots of the houses below us, and a pair of Rock Buntings were also seen distantly through the scope, feeding way down in one of the small fields behind the village – fortunately the good light meant we could see quite a long way today!

Alpine Accentor

Alpine Accentor – up on the castle at Montanchez

Initially, despite careful searching, there was no sign of any accentors other than a pair of Dunnocks! We stuck to the task though, and eventually two of the group found a single Alpine Accentor on the shady side of the castle and we were all able to catch up with it and enjoy some excellent views through the scope. It had been an extremely successful day, connecting with all our target birds in amazing scenery and beautiful weather – Spain at its very best!

Wednesday 31st January

Another beautiful sunny day in Extremadura saw us head south beyond Zorita towards Sierra Brava reservoir. The sun was rising as we reached the dam, and we could hear Common Cranes bugling in the distance as we got out of the van. Away down below us on some stubble fields bordering the dehesa, we could see large flocks of Cranes feeding, with small parties flying across the skyline in the distance. A really evocative sight and sound!

Behind us, on the reservoir itself, were great rafts of dabbling ducks. Predominantly Mallard, there were also at least 150 Pintails, a few Common Teal, Shoveler and Gadwall, scores of Great Crested Grebes and the odd Eurasian Wigeon. We also saw a couple of Egyptian Geese, Lesser Black-backed Gull, a Grey Wagtail and enjoyed excellent views of three Thekla Larks foraging on the stony shore below us. These were classic individuals, with short deep based bills, short crest, grey washed mantle and contrasting blackish streaked breasts – a really nice opportunity to study them in detail.

Driving on, we followed the service road for a couple of miles, noting several Iberian Grey Shrikes along the way, until we dropped down into the network of ricefields in the direction of the new solar plant.

Spanish Sparrows

Spanish Sparrows – we saw some vast flocks, with a few Tree Sparrows in with them

Stopping overlooking an area of wet paddies, we had a fabulous session where at times we didn’t know where to look. The harvested rice stubble in the foreground was full of vast flocks of Spanish Sparrows numbering many hundreds – there were a few Tree Sparrows among them, hordes of Corn Buntings, and a few other finches thrown in for good measure.

High pitched thin calls alerted us to the presence of a flock of Red Avadavats, an introduced species thriving here in these wetland habitats. Normally they are quite skittish and difficult to view, but we had excellent views of flocks of them here today! Among them were also one or two Common Waxbills, another alien species with a naturalised population here.

Less exotic but just as exciting, we had cracking views of a Dartford Warbler which showed on and off the whole time we were here, and at the opposite end of the spectrum, a family group of four Common Cranes drifted in and landed right in front of us. The light was excellent, and the views simply superb.

Common Cranes 1

Common Cranes 2

Common Cranes 3

Common Cranes – this family of four flew in and landed in front of us

Further back in the distance, a flock of Cattle Egrets were following a tractor working in the field, and a single Great White Egret was also with them. A small party of Greylag Geese in the stubble beyond were interesting, since these birds are part of a small wintering population of Scandinavian birds, not the feral types we are used to seeing back home. We remarked at how dark headed they were, and how deep orange the bills appeared to be, but we never really saw them close up.

A real surprise on the open water at the back was a group of seven Wood Sandpipers – a species which does winter in Spain in small numbers in the right habitat, but which where nonetheless extremely nice to connect with.  Slightly more fortuitous was the scope view we had of a male Bluethroat which happened to pop up in the reeds while scanning for waders – amazingly everyone got a decent view of it despite the distance!

After a break for coffee and snacks, we opted to walk one of the reedy ditches at the edge of the rice paddies, to look specifically for Bluethroat. There were several Sardinian Warblers, a Blackcap, Cetti’s Warbler, more groups of Red Avadavat and Common Waxbills along the channel, but no sign of any luscinia.

Just as we were about to give up and move on, a female Bluethroat flushed from the edge of the adjacent rice paddy and flew along a narrow channel. The bird popped up twice more onto the top of the rice stubble, allowing everyone to connect with it, before disappearing for good into the middle of the field.

It was now noon, and time to move on to a different area. We retraced our route back out to the Sierra Brava dam, enjoying some more excellent close up views of Common Cranes along the way, before returning to the main road and heading off through the steppe towards Campo Lugar. This high road passes through open cultivated land and stony steppe, and can sometimes be a good place to find bustards and sandgrouse.

Little Owl

Little Owl – trying to hide from us between two rocks

We didn’t find either today, but instead found a nice vantage point to stop for lunch, enjoying excellent views of three different Little Owls. One of them, seen from the vehicle, had slid down to hide in a crack in the rocks on which it had been perched. It looked for all the world as if it was being squashed between the two slabs of rocks, and that its bulging yellow eyes were about to pop out of its head! Two Black Vultures, several Crested and Calandra Larks and a Hoopoe were also seen during a very tranquil lunch break.

The relatively new reservoir at Alcollarin was our next stop, and this excellent birding location certainly did not disappoint us today. Finding a good vantage point along the track for viewing the eastern arm of the reservoir, we could see a good selection of common wildfowl species, such as Wigeon, Shoveler, Gadwall and Common Pochard, flocks of Lapwings and great rafts of Common Coots.

Iberian Grey Shrike

Iberian Grey Shrike – perched on a bush right beside us

On the slopes just below, a nice flock of Serins were seen really well – the first ones we had managed a proper look at, rather than just birds bouncing by calling. A cracking Iberian Grey Shrike was on top of a bush right beside us and noisy groups of Iberian Magpies were moving through the bushes on the hillside.

Azure-winged Magpies

Iberian (Azure-winged) Magpies – a typically noisy, squabbling group

One of the days highlights came from the blue sky above though, as a large raptor drifted into view over the trees. Head on, it sported flat and rather paddle shaped wings, but its silhouette certainly did not fit with the main ‘flat-winged’ options of Red Kite or Spanish Imperial Eagle. Soon it banked, revealing a gleaming white body and black underwing covert bar – it was an adult Bonelli’s Eagle!

The bird gave stunning views, circling up behind us, before it was joined by a second adult bird which appeared to be the female. High in the distance, a second calendar year bird appeared and drifted right across, and this provoked a reaction from the female which battled to gain height quickly in order to get above the young interloper and escort it off the premises. This whole episode gave us a great opportunity to study the flight silhouette and jizz of this scarce raptor, the most desirable and difficult to find of the five species of eagle recorded in Extremadura. A real treat indeed!

Down at the second dam, we added Common and Green Sandpipers, a Swallow, Black-winged Stilt and some nice views of Common Snipe, Hoopoe and hordes of White Wagtails. Over the distant hillside, an adult Golden Eagle appeared twice above the ridge, but was rather brief and always distant.

We had decided to end the day by driving just under an hour to the north-east, into the Sierra las Villuercas, where a spectacular viewpoint offered a vista across the surrounding mountains to the north and open plains to the south. It was initially very quiet at the top here, and in fact you could hear a pin drop as there was no wind despite the high elevation. We did see lots of Griffon Vultures soaring over their breeding cliffs in the distance, and two Black Vultures which circled in to join them.

On the small bird front though, there was nothing moving so we decided to drive back down the hill a bit into the oak forest below. Here we had a mad five minutes, picking up the local race of Long-tailed Tit, a Great Spotted Woodpecker, Nuthatch, Short-toed Treecreeper and a Large Tortoiseshell butterfly!

The best though was a superb view of a foraging female Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, which we watched for several minutes including a couple of bouts of drumming from the top of a dead branch – if only they were so easy to see back home! The 45 minute drive back to base gave us an hour of downtime before our evening wine tasting session, followed by another superb meal.

Thursday 1st February

Today was our coldest day of the trip, with fresh winds throughout the day and a cloudy start making things feel decidedly nippy! We left as usual just as dawn was breaking and made the short journey onto the nearby Belen plain, a large area of agricultural steppe north-east of Trujillo.

It was actually pretty quiet out here – we found flocks of Calandra Larks, a few Red Kites and Common Buzzards, Iberian Grey Shrike, Hoopoe and the usual droves of Spanish Sparrow and Corn Bunting. Our tactic was to drive slowly along, stopping when necessary to scan for bustards, but we could not find any despite searching a large area.

The highlight was provided by several Griffon Vultures – first a small group on the ground in a field next to the road, and secondly three sitting on an electricity pylon! We had some superb views of them, and were able to compare the different plumages of adult and first-year individuals.

Returning to Belen, we made our way back through Trujillo making a quick stop for toilets and fuel. Before heading north of the town and picking up the road towards Torrejon. Branching west towards Monroy, we stopped at a convenient vantage point where we found a Little Owl, and our presence encouraged about 500 of the local sheep herd to come noisily across the plain towards us, thinking they were going to be fed! This was our queue to exit, and we continued a short way along the road to another vantage point, where we would stop for coffee.

The views across the plains in all directions were superb, and we had some good birds too – a small group of Rock Sparrows were feeding along the edge of an adjacent field with some Corn Buntings. This species is very easy to miss at this time of the year, leaving its breeding sites in the hills and joining mixed flocks of buntings and sparrows in farmland areas. We had excellent views of their super-stripy head pattern, before they disappeared over a ridge. Behind us, a ringtail Hen Harrier was quartering the fields favoured by Montagu’s Harriers in spring and summer.

The Rio Almonte crossing, just before the village of Monroy, would be our final stop of the morning. Crag Martins were wheeling round above us as we arrived here and out of the wind in this sheltered valley, we felt the warmest temperatures of the day. White and Grey Wagtails were along the river, and the surrounding bushes on the rocky slopes held many Song Thrush and Blackcap among other common birds.

Careful scrutiny of movement among the bushes also revealed a couple of Hawfinches, though they never showed well and always preferred to remain hidden. A pair of Cirl Buntings were also found on the walk back, with the male singing briefly before both flew off upstream. A lovely spot, and all the time with Griffon Vultures passing overhead.

Heading up through Monroy, we stopped at a favourite spot north of the village on the road to Torrejon el Rubio. By a stand of Stone Pines, we had our lunch looking north across the dehesa towards Monfrague – but it was very cold and windy here! Nevertheless a Woodlark was up singing, and overhead among the steady stream of Griffon Vultures, three superb Black Vultures soared by.

This whole area was full of Song Thrushes and Blackcaps too – we wondered how far some of these migrants may have travelled to spend the winter here in Spain. Continuing on through Torrejon, we then headed up into Monfrague National Park and in particular to the Castillo on the top of the low mountain ridge which forms the spine of the area.

On the southern side of the ridge, it was beautifully sheltered and warm and we found a small number of Hawfinches feeding by the steps on the way up to the Castillo. They were coming to drink up by the picnic area, and we enjoyed excellent scope views of a male and female together for comparison. There were several Black Redstarts around, and Crag Martins buzzing overhead, as we made our way up the steep steps to the viewpoint.

Griffon Vulture 1

Griffon Vulture 2

Griffon Vulture 3

Griffon Vultures – amazing views at the Castillo in Monfrague

Here we filled our boots with the Griffon Vultures – such amazing views today, with the strong breeze encouraging large numbers onto the wing, gliding past us at eye level. The resident population of these birds were now well into their breeding cycle, and we watched them collecting sticks and grasses from a small derelict garden just below the viewpoint before carrying them across to the breeding ledges on the Pena Falcon cliff.

Griffon Vulture 4

Griffon Vulture 5

Griffon Vultures – collecting nest material

Presumably these early nesters get to choose the best ledges, and gain a head start on the migrant population which will ne arriving from Africa to bolster the numbers in a few weeks time. High overhead we also saw Peregrine and a couple of Black Vultures, plus of course the spectacular views back south across the sweeping dehesa towards Trujillo.

Descending back down to the road, we called next at the Pena Falcon crag below where we had more fantastic views of the vultures, whooshing past so close that we could hear the rush of air through their wings! A young male Blue Rock Thrush also gave some nice views, and a Golden Eagle was displaying high above in the clouds.

Blue Rock Thrush

Blue Rock Thrush – nice views of this male at the Pena Falcon viewpoint

It was now after 4pm, and we still wanted to squeeze in a visit to the Portillar del Tietar on the other side of the park. This excellent location of course came with more Griffon Vultures!

Griffon Vulture 6

Griffon Vulture – many were on the nest already

In addition, Little and Great White Egrets were seen along the river, and a House Martin whizzed through overhead. Eurasian Jay, Iberian Magpies, another Blue Rock Thrush and an unseen Common Kingfisher were also noted, though the absolute highlight here was an unseasonal Black Stork which drifted in and landed low down on the crag. The beautiful glossy green sheen to its plumage and bright red bare parts were quite stunning in the evening light – a real bonus to pick one of these up to end the day!

Black Stork

Black Stork – an unexpected bonus at Portilla del Tietar

Our journey back took just over an hour, making use of the new motorway to Navalmoral, and then down to Trujillo.

Friday 2nd February

Today we would return to Madrid, with a little birding en route as we did not have to reach the airport until about 1430.

Trujillo

Trujillo – looking towards the town at dawn as we were leaving

Having done so well with the main target birds, particularly in the steppe, we opted to stick fairly close to the E90 motorway route on our way north, stopping first at 700m elevation at the Casas de Miravete. From this escarpment, the views down across Arrocampo-Almaraz were quite spectacular, the Gredos Mountains showing fresh snow fall in the background.

A Woodlark flew over calling as we disembarked the vehicle, but other wise it was rather quiet here. We noted Sardinian Warbler, and heard a Rock Bunting a couple of times though we only saw it in flight. Our main target, Crested Tit, did not materialise at all, though a Dartford Warbler called from the low scrub and whizzed across the track. We felt our remaining time would be better spent a little further on at the wetlands around Saucedilla, where we had started our trip on day one.

At the causeway, a Glossy Ibis flew over and dropped out of sight behind the reeds. We could hear several Western Purple Swamp-hens calling from dense cover, and of course the usual barrage of Corn Buntings and Spanish Sparrows to which we had now come accustomed, were in the surrounding tamarisk scrub.

Glossy Ibis

Glossy Ibis – flew in over the reeds

Moving along the the small reserve centre, we retraced our route from the first day. Getting excellent views of an adult Western Purple Swamp-hen, and picking up the Glossy Ibis again as it flew in from the causeway and circled us before dropping back into the reeds.

The bird we really wanted to see to finish the trip in style was Penduline Tit, since we had missed out on seeing one at the first attempt. Frustratingly we could hear one calling, but despite scanning the reedmace carefully we could not locate the bird. A Common Kingfisher popped into view as we searched, and a Water Rail squealed unseen from the reeds, but the tit would not co-operate.

Eventually, we heard it call again, and this time it sounded much closer to the path! Sure enough, a male Penduline Tit flew up from the trackside bushes and landed in full view in a big willow at the edge of the reedbed – scope views for everyone! The bird then flew down into some low reedmace closer to us and began feeding, and we finally had the really good views we were after.

Penduline Tit

Penduline Tit – finally showed well for us, a great bird to end the trip

But now it was time to make the two hour run up to Madrid, the two Black-winged Kites being seen in exactly the same location as they had been on Monday as we drove past! What a great way to end the trip! One or two Black Vultures, and several groups of Common Cranes, bid us farewell as we motored up the E90, arriving at the airport bang on schedule for our flight back to London.

It had been a wonderful five days – great birds, great food, great scenery and great company. We didn’t want to leave! The only thing to do is to plan a return trip next year. If you would be interested in joining us on our next visit to Extremadura in 2019, please get in touch.