Day 2 of five days of Spring Migration tours today. It was mostly another lovely sunny day and warm too – up to 24C. There were forecast to be thunderstorms from about 3pm this afternoon, but thankfully they didn’t arrive until 4.30pm, when we were all but finished for the day.
Cley was our first destination for the morning. We wanted to see whether any migrants were moving along the coast, so we headed up to the beach car park first. A couple of Ruff were feeding around the pool in the Eye Field when we drove up. As we got out of the car and scanned the grass, we could already see several Wheatears – it was going to be a good day for them today!
Walking east along the shingle, a pair of Common Redshank flew up from the grass just beyond the fence and perched on the posts as we approached. They dropped down to the small pool just beyond and started to display, walking round each other calling with tails fanned. The female then bowed and the male started to flutter his wings, calling all the time. He did this for a couple of minutes and finally it looked like they were about to mate, but just as he flew up, the female walked off!
From the grassy ridge, we stopped to scan the field and Billy’s Wash beyond. We could see several more Wheatears out in the grass from here – we reckoned there must be at least 10 out there this morning, a big increase on recent days. There were plenty of Skylarks and Meadow Pipits too.
There was a nice selection of ducks out on Billy’s Wash, including a pair of Wigeon and a male Pintail asleep in the grass. A pair of Lesser Black-backed Gulls were next to a couple of young Great Black-backs, giving a nice size comparison.
There were quite a few Ruff around the muddy edges and one or two Black-tailed Godwits in the water too. But it was only as we were packing up to move on that one of the group spotted a Green Sandpiper on a small bare island. It was only there for a minute or so, but enough for us to get a good look at it. It was quite distant, but even at that range we could see that it lacked the white notch between the breast and wing of Common Sandpiper.
Migrants were just starting to move along the coast. We had our first Yellow Wagtail fly past with a sharp ‘tshreep’ call and one or two Swallows go west over the Eye Field. There are some birds which are less obviously migrants, but you can still spot some of them which appear to be on the move. A small group of five Carrion Crows flew past determinedly east, followed a short while later by another six. Then ten or so more dropped down into the grass for a second before continuing on their way.
North Scrape looked pretty quiet at first, but a careful scan revealed a single Common Snipe lurking on the edge of the reeds right down at the front. The number of Ruff has been steadily increasing as birds start to make their way back north again, stopping off here before heading back to the continent. There was a nice flock of twenty or so out here this morning, accompanied by a single Dunlin. A Whimbrel or two flew past behind us, calling.
While we were admiring the waders, we heard a Yellow Wagtail call behind us and turned round to see a flock of eight flying past over the shingle. They dropped down onto the ridge of the Eye Field and we had a good view of them in the scope, feeding in the grass. There were several stunningly bright yellow males, which positively shone in the morning sun. Another four Yellow Wagtails then flew past over the edge of North Scrape and dropped down to join them. It is always a real sign of spring migration when the Yellow Wagtails are moving and a delight to witness.
The Yellow Wagtails flew up and appeared to drop back into the grass on the other side of the ridge, so we decided to start to make our way back to try to get a closer look at them. As we walked back, three Sandwich Terns flew past just offshore. Four Wheatears flew up from the near corner of the Eye Field and two of them perched up on the fence posts ahead of us, a male and a female. It was hard to tell whether they were part of the group we had seen on our walk out or new additions.
As we got up onto the ridge, we saw a group of Yellow Wagtails fly past. They were possibly the same ones we had seen earlier, but this time they were accompanied by a couple of White Wagtails. We saw the latter drop down onto the small pool by the fence where we had seen the Redshanks earlier. When we got back there, we had great views of the two White Wagtails and two smart male Yellow Wagtails too. We could see the pale silvery grey backs of the White Wagtails, very different from the darker black or slate grey of our Pied Wagtails.
Back at the car, we made our way further east along the coast road to Kelling. As we walked up along the lane, it was rather quiet at first. A Chiffchaff was singing in the grounds of the school. As we got to the copse, we could hear another Chiffchaff and a Blackcap singing. Two male Blackcaps then appeared in the trees on the other side of the path, before chasing each other back into the copse.
In the dense bramble hedge bordering the Water Meadow, we could hear a Common Whitethroat subsinging at first. We stood and listened for a second and waited for it to appear, and eventually it flew up from the vegetation and hovered above singing, before dropping back into the brambles further along. It proceeded to sing from various points as it moved down the hedge ahead of us. They are only just starting to return from their wintering grounds in Africa now, so it is always a pleasure to head a Common Whitethroat.
There were a few bits and pieces on the pool itself, but nothing out of the ordinary – a few Avocets and a Redshank, plus a variety of ducks including Teal and Shoveler. As we continued on down towards the Quags, a Sedge Warbler was singing in the reeds and a Lesser Whitethroat rattled at us from deep in the flowering blackthorn. A pair of Stock Doves flew over and dropped down on the edge of the shingle ridge.
We kept scanning the bushes and brambles as we walked down towards the beach. There were loads of Linnets and another Common Whitethroat flew out ahead of us and down to the corner. Before we got there, we happened to look back and noticed a small bird on the brambles half way up the slope. A quick look through the scope confirmed it was a cracking male Whinchat, a regular but rather scarce migrant through here in spring. We all had a good look at it through the scope, but then it dropped down and completely disappeared.
Stopping to scan the Quags, we could see yet more Wheatears out in the grass. They really were coming through in numbers today. Someone walking past mentioned that there had been a sandpiper out here earlier and thankfully, just a short while afterwards, a helicopter flew past and a Common Sandpiper flicked up from the far side of the island out in the middle of the small pool briefly.
We had to wait a short while longer until the Common Sandpiper eventually walked round onto the near side of the island and we could get a better look at it. Unlike the Green Sandpiper we had seen earlier, we could see the obvious notch of white extending up between the breast and the wing on this one.
There were more migrants moving here too. A few Sand Martins were possibly local birds, but a handful of House Martins flew through west too, along with one or two Swallows. More small groups of Yellow Wagtails flew overhead, their shrill calls alerting us each time to their passing, along with several parties of Linnets.
News came through that two Common Cranes had been seen flying west past Cromer, so we walked up onto the ridge to see whether we could see them. We flushed a few Meadow Pipits and a Reed Bunting from the grass. A male Stonechat up in the bushes appeared to be carrying food, or possibly nest material. There was no sign of the Cranes – it turned out they had headed inland and dropped back to the coast later, at Cley. But we did pick up a couple of Red Kites flying east and several Common Buzzards circling up over the ridge inland.
A couple of Ring Ouzels had been seen earlier, on the edge of Weybourne Camp, so we walked back down and along the front to see if we could find them again. We couldn’t, but we did see yet more Yellow Wagtails flying past. Three drake Common Scoter were diving offshore and we could see the yellow stripe up the front of the bill in the sunshine.
After a quick walk back to the car, we made our way round to the Visitor Centre at Cley for lunch. A Marsh Harrier was circling up out over the reserve and House Sparrows were chirping from the bushes as we ate.
After lunch, we made our way out onto the reserve. As we walked out along the boardwalk to the hides, we could hear Bearded Tits calling. A male perched up briefly in the reeds before flying off over the tops, then several more flitted back and forth across the path ahead of us. A pair of Lapwing were displaying over the edge of Cricket Marsh, tumbling and twisting in unison, and singing – such an amazing song for a wader.
We headed straight into Dauke’s Hide first. We could immediately see lots of waders out on both Simmond’s Scrape and Pat’s Pool. In particular, there were good numbers of both Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwit. The former are quite common here, but Bar-tailed Godwits are more normally found out in the harbour or on Arnold’s Marsh. They were quite possibly migrants, stopping off here to rest on their way north.
It was nice to see the two species of godwit alongside each other for comparison. The Bar-tailed Godwits were noticeably smaller and shorter legged with a more obviously up-turned bill, and in non-breeding plumage with paler sandy upperparts strongly streaked with dark, very different from the rather plain grey upperparts of the Black-tailed Godwits. Several of the Black-tailed Godwits were already starting to moult extensively into their rusty breeding plumage, as was one of the Bar-tailed Godwits.
In with the godwits, there were fifteen or more Knot too, much smaller and greyer, with a shorter straight bill. A couple of Dunlin were already starting to moult into breeding plumage, already showing a black belly patch.
There were lots more Ruff out here too. They are already starting to moult into breeding plumage too, the males getting variegated with brighter summer feathering in various colours, although none are yet starting to get their breeding ruffs. There were much bigger numbers of females now, which are noticeably and substantially smaller than the males. They really are one of the most confusing of waders, with the variety of sizes and colours!
White Wagtails were liberally scattered over the scrapes – we managed to count at least six on view at the same time. They are passing through in good numbers at the moment, heading back north, across to the continent for the summer.
There have been a couple of Great White Egrets along this section of the coast in the last few days, migrants or wandering birds different from the residents at Holkham. One Great White Egret chose that moment to stick its neck up out of the ditch which leads away to one side of the hide – we could see its long, yellow, dagger-like bill.
It was working its way slowly towards us along the ditch, but when the door to the hide was slammed shut it flew up and out and landed on the bank further back, which at least meant we got a good look at it in all its glory. It then walked back into the ditch beyond.
A good number of Black-headed Gulls were gathered on one of the islands on Pat’s Pool, sleeping or preening. A couple of young Common Gulls were in with them. At the far end of the island, a couple of Sandwich Terns were lurking amongst them and through the scope we could see their yellow-tipped black bills and shaggy crests.
We had a quick look in at Avocet Hide, but there was no sign of the pair of Garganey which were around the area yesterday. There are lots of Avocets on here and they look to be getting down to nesting – the new scrape seems to be very much to their liking. One Avocet was tidying up the island in front of the hide and another pair were mating further back.
When all the Avocets started alarm calling and flew up from the scrapes, we looked up to scan for raptors. It is normally just one of the local Marsh Harriers, but this time a small adult male Peregrine came zipping over high from behind the hide and out towards the Eye Field, scattering everything, before turning back towards the village.
A group of bigger gulls were half hidden in the long grass out on Billy’s Wash and someone in the hide then spotted a juvenile Glaucous Gull which had walked out to the end of the group. We could see its striking black-tipped, pink-based bill and it looked generally washed out and pale. When it flapped its wings, we could see its distinctive pale primaries too. This bird has been hanging around here, on and off, for some time now, joining the other loafing gulls here in the afternoon.
After walking back to the Visitor Centre, we drove the short distance round to the Iron Road and made our way out to Babcock Hide. Three Little Ringed Plovers were on the grassy spit out to one side of the hide and it quickly became apparent that they were a pair and a third bird. The male of the pair was clearly trying to see off the other bird and proceeded to chase it right across in front of the hide. It was pretty relentless and wouldn’t let it settle, but it meant we got stunning close views of them – it was very easy to see the striking golden yellow eye ring at this close range!
There were more Ruff on the scrape here, including a rusty-coloured male which was feeding with a Redshank right at the front. Up close, we could see it had lost all its neck feathers and the new ones were just starting to grow, in pin. Presumably it won’t be too long before this one is sporting its smart breeding ruff.
A pair of Pied Wagtails were also feeding on the mud right in front of the hide and it was a good opportunity to look closely at them and compare them to the White Wagtails we had seen earlier. The male Pied Wagtail was pretty obvious, with a glossy black mantle, but the female had a rather plain but slate grey back, much darker than the White Wagtails.
The Black-necked Grebe finally appeared from behind the reeds at the back – the bird we had come here hoping to see. It has been around for several days now and it was well worth the effort – it really is stunning in full breeding plumage, mostly black with chestnut flanks, and then a tuft of bright golden feathers flaring out behind its bright red eye.
The Spoonbill was less obliging, doing what Spoonbills like to do best, fast asleep in the reeds at the back. We could just see its shaggy nuchal crest blowing in the wind, but it kept its bill tucked in.
Heading back to the car, we walked on up the Iron Road to the pool. There were several more Wheatears here – at least 3 – feeding in the short grass around the edge of the scrape. Another couple of White Wagtails were out on the mud in the middle. It really was the day for migrant Wheatears and wagtails today – great to see!
There were more Ruff and a couple of Redshanks on here too – this pool is looking just right for waders at the moment, although it is now starting to dry out so they had better hurry up. We could see dark clouds gathering to west, and flashes of lightning offshore, so we walked back to the car. We were just in time – it started to rain as we drove back towards Cley.
We stopped at the Visitor Centre for a break and to scan the scrapes to see if the rain bright down any migrants and when we got inside, the heavens opened. All the birds were standing out on the pools, rowed up, facing up, looking into the rain, trying to let it wash off them. We were fortunate – the thunder storms had been forecast for much earlier in afternoon. We had pretty much finished anyway for the day now. As it started to ease off, we made a quick dash for car the and headed for home.
Here’s looking forward to another day out tomorrow!