Monthly Archives: May 2018

16th May 2018 – The North Wind Blows

A single day Spring Tour today in North Norfolk. It was cloudy all day but thankfully stayed dry. A blustery and cold north wind would make like slightly difficult for us, keeping some birds down, but adverse weather can also lead to new birds dropping in, as we would find out.

Our first destination for the morning was Holkham. As we drove up along Lady Anne’s Drive, we noticed two pairs of Grey Partridge feeding quietly on the edge of the grazing meadows by the side of the road. A nice start to the day.

Grey Partridge

Grey Partridge – one of two pairs by the Drive at Holkham this morning

A little further on, we pulled up and got out to scan the rushy pools on the grazing marsh. A pair of Avocet were feeding down at the front, but a pale wader half hidden out at the back caught our eye. Through the rushes we could see it was a Greenshank, a spring migrant stopping off here on its way north. Perhaps a sign of things to come today? There was also no shortage of Greylag Geese and a few Shelduck out on the marshes.

Parking at the north end, we took the track west on the inland side of the pines, which gave us a bit of shelter from the cold wind this morning. Still, it was rather subdued in the trees today, although we did hear a few warblers singing – a few Blackcap, one or two Chiffchaff, and the sweet descending scale of a Willow Warbler.

There were no birds on Salts Hole this morning – it seems to be more popular as a swimming pool for dogs at this time of year! In the reeds just beyond we heard a Sedge Warbler singing and a little further on there were several Reed Warblers too, but they were all keeping well tucked down out of the wind today.

A male Marsh Harrier was patrolling the marshes and flew off carrying a small rodent which it had caught. There were lots of Common Swifts zooming back and forth low over the marshes today too, trying to find insects in the wind. We headed for Joe Jordan Hide.

When we got to the hide, one of the wardens was driving around out on the marshes, surveying, so there was not much to see at first. Thankfully, after a short while, he flushed a Great White Egret and after flying around various pools and ditches for a while it landed out in the grassy pools in front of the hide.

Great White Egret 2

Great White Egret – one of two we saw at Holkham today

This Great White Egret was sporting an all dark bill, which they can do in the breeding season. A second Great White Egret which flew out of the trees still had an all yellow bill. It landed out of view in a ditch behind some bushes. There were a few Little Egrets flying in and out of the trees too, but numbers still appear to be down on previous years, after the cold March weather took its toll.

The Spoonbills are the chief draw here, but they were rather elusive at first. We saw a couple circle up out of the trees and drop back in again, and the warden helpfully flushed one from behind the trees along with a great gaggle of Greylags and mass of Woodpigeons, which did a nice fly round. We could just see the heads of a pair of Spoonbills in the vegetation behind the fort.

Eventually one Spoonbill did the decent thing and flew down to the pool. It did land behind the reeds at first, but then walked out and started to bathe and preen, so that we could get a good look at its yellow-tipped spoon-shaped bill. Its shaggy nuchal crest was blowing around in the wind.

Spoonbill 1

Spoonbill – eventually one dropped down onto the pool

There were a few Cormorants coming and going to and from the trees too. We watched a Marsh Harrier drop into a small clump of reeds, clearly after something it had seen. It wrestled its way into the thick vegetation and eventually emerged with what looked like a young Moorhen.

There are plenty of Greylag Geese out on the marshes here, many with small goslings now. One goose in the corner of the pool stood out – smaller, with a dark head and smaller mostly dark bill, the latter very different from the big orange carrots sported by the Greylags. It was a lone Pink-footed Goose, and we had a good look at it through the scope side by side with one of its larger cousins. Almost all the Pink-footed Geese which spent the winter here have gone north to Iceland to breed, but just a handful of sick or injured birds will remain through the summer.

Back to the car, we headed east along the coast road to Cley, with the prospect of some shelter in the hides and hoping for some waders out on the reserve. Our first stop was down at the beach. There were no terns fishing offshore today in the wind – a single Sandwich Tern took the alternative route back to the Point today , inland across the Eye Field. We decided on a bracing walk along the beach towards North Scrape.

Our braveness quickly paid off, with a smart male Wheatear sheltering amongst the concrete blocks out on the shingle. We had a great look at it, just a few metres in front of us, before it flew off, flashing the white rump from which it gets its name.

Wheatear

Wheatear – sheltering on the beach behind some concrete blocks

From the ridge on the edge of the Eye Field, we stopped to scan Billy’s Wash and North Scrape, but both looked to be pretty quiet today. Given the wind, we decided not to continue on further and headed back to the car park where we made good use of the beach shelter to have our lunch. Afterwards, we drove round to the visitor centre to get our permits for the reserve and as we came out, a Yellow Wagtail flew over our heads calling and dropped down towards the scrapes.

There were lots more Common Swifts hanging in the air low over the Visitor Centre and they zoomed round low over our heads as we walked out to the hides, before drifting off and gathering over the trees behind the village. A couple of Reed Warblers were singing from the reeds along the ditch, but kept their heads down out of the wind.

Common Swift

Common Swift – there were lots at Cley today, feeding low in the wind

We popped into Avocet Hide first, to see if there was anything on Whitwell Scrape. A pair of Gadwall were feeding just below the hide as we opened the flaps and a lone drake Teal was swimming on the edge of the reeds right at the back. A couple of Sandwich Terns were hiding in with the Black-headed Gulls before flying off calling.

We could see a couple of Avocets hunkered down on the nest on the first island. A third Avocet flew in and stopped to preen in the water briefly before walking up to one of the nests and replacing its partner, taking its turn at incubating the eggs.

Avocet

Avocets – we watched this changeover at one of the nests

There was clearly much more to be seen on Simmond’s Scrape, so we made our way round to Dauke’s Hide for a closer look. There were lots of Black-tailed Godwits on here, busy feeding, probing their long bills down into the mud in the deeper water. About twenty Dunlin were scattered around the edges of the muddy islands, most sporting summer black belly patches to a greater or lesser extent, along with a single Ringed Plover.

Then a small wader on a spit over in the far corner caught our eye. Obviously smaller than the Dunlin the other side, through the scope we could see it was mostly brown with scattered black-centred feathers in its upperparts, clean white below and with yellowish legs. It was a Temminck’s Stint, a scarce migrant wader which passed through in small numbers each spring. A nice bird to find here.

Thankfully just after everyone had a chance to look at it through the scope, everything on the scrape erupted, flushed by a passing Marsh Harrier over the reeds beyond. The Black-tailed Godwits settled back on Pat’s Pool but the Temminck’s Stint and the Dunlin all seemed to disappear off over the reserve.

Turning our attention to Pat’s Pool, a couple of Ruff were hiding in with the godwits now, including a smart black male which was starting to get its distinctive summer ruff. Out on the mud, we spotted a Greenshank, which then helpfully walked up beside a Common Redshank to give us a nice side by side comparison.

Greenshank

Greenshank – feeding on the mud on Pat’s Pool

More waders were clearly dropping in, probably encouraged to stop off on their journey north by the cold and windy weather. When we next looked back where the Greenshank was feeding, it had been replaced by a Wood Sandpiper. Much smaller than the accompanying Redshanks, through the scope we could see its white-spangled upperparts and prominent pale supercilium. Another scarce spring migrant wader, and another nice one to add to the day’s list.

Wood Sandpiper

Wood Sandpiper – appeared on Pat’s Pool with the Redshank

The Dunlin returned to Simmond’s Scrape after a while and then someone found the Temminck’s Stint back again, asleep on one of the islands. There were two Little Terns out here now too – through the scope, we could see their black-tipped yellow bills and white foreheads.

When the Temminck’s Stint woke up, it had a quick preen, and then helpfully flew round and landed on the island in front of the hide where we could get a really good look at it. We had seen a Temminck’s Stint here on Saturday, but this was clearly now a new bird, not quite as extensively marked with dark-centred feathering as the bird the other day.

Temminck's Stint

Temminck’s Stint – eventually showed very well on Simmond’s Scrape

Very pleased with what we had seen here today, we made our way back to the Visitor Centre and drove round to Iron Road next. There was very little to be seen on the pool by the track, so we walked out to Babcock Hide to have a look at Watling Water. We had not even got to the hide when we spotted the five Spoonbills which had been wandering round the reserve today. Unfortunately, where they were standing was completely hidden from view from the hide, behind the reeds!

There were a few other birds to look at one here. A Common Sandpiper was feeding up and down along the edge of one of the islands, before it flew over back over the reeds. Two Little Ringed Plovers were sheltering on the other side of the island, in the lee of the wind. Through the scope, we could see their distinctive golden yellow eye rings.

The Spoonbills eventually emerged from where they were hiding and flew over to the back of the pool, where they started to feed, their heads down in the water, sweeping their bills quickly from side to side.

Spoonbill 2

Spoonbills – there were five at Cley today, feeding on Watling Water

There was still a little bit of time left, so we decided to brave the wind and walk up along the East Bank. Thankfully, it had dropped a bit but it was still rather chilly and blustery. A Reed Warbler was singing in the reeds just the other side of the channel below the bank and we had a quick look at it through the scope before it dropped down out of view.

There did not appear to be much out on the Serpentine or Pope’s Pool today, but we did find a single lingering drake Wigeon, a useful addition to the day’s list. Almost all the Wigeon which spent the winter here have long since departed, back to Russia for the breeding season. Arnold’s Marsh was also fairly quiet today, with a few Redshank and Ringed Plover, and a single Turnstone hiding in the vegetation along the edge.

It was time to head back now, but it had been a very productive day despite the wind, with a great selection of spring waders in particular.

13th May 2018 – Norfolk in May, Day 3

Day 3 of a three day long weekend of tours today, back in Norfolk. It was cloudy most of the day, although we didn’t see any of the forecast rain (as so often happens!!). It then brightened up later on and was a lovely warm, sunny finish to the day.

Our first destination for the day was Titchwell – if it was going to rain at all, we thought we could make use of the shelter of the hides here. As it was still fairly quiet when we arrived, we had a look around the overflow car park.  There were a couple of Blackcaps singing and two Stock Doves in a dead tree beyond the paddocks from the gate but no sign of any Turtle Doves which had been here earlier. It seems very early morning is best and they are probably still flying off site to feed during the day. A Common Swift west overhead was the first of many we would see today.

Round at the Visitor Centre, the feeders produced several Goldfinches and a Greenfinch. While we were standing here, we heard a Cuckoo singing just beyond, somewhere along the start of the main path, so we walked round to try to see it. By the time we got  there though it had moved on.

When we got round to Patsy’s reedbed, we could hear the Cuckoo singing again. It had gone round the other side to Willow Wood now, and was obviously hidden somewhere in the trees. There was not much on the pool here today, just a few Tufted Ducks, a pair of Common Pochard and a pair of Shoveler. Two Little Grebes were chased out of the reeds just below the screen by an aggressive Coot.

Little Grebe

Little Grebe – one of two on Patsy’s Reedbed this morning

There were a couple of Marsh Harriers circling over the reeds beyond and several Common Swifts hawking low for insects. As we stood here and scanned, small numbers of hirundines were moving west – Swallows and a few House Martins.

As we walked back round via Meadow Trail, we could hear the Cuckoo again. It sounded like it was round by the back of the Visitor Centre and then beat us back to the main path – it was very mobile! When we got out of the trees, we could hear it singing out over the saltmarsh and we had a quick glimpse of it in the top of a bush in the distance before it headed off towards Thornham Point.

There were lots of Reed Warblers and Sedge Warblers singing in the reeds below the main path, and we had nice views of both feeding up in one of the small sallows. We stopped by the reedbed pool to watch several Bearded Tits flying back and forth low across the water. A couple of pairs chased each other up higher into the air, before dropping back down into the reeds. There were more Swifts now hawking over the reeds, and moving slowly off west.

Sedge Warbler

Sedge Warbler – in the sallows on the edge of the reedbed

Out on the Freshmarsh, there were not as many waders as we had hoped there might be, given the small groups we had seen dropping in at Cley yesterday afternoon. There were four Ruff, smart males of various colours, asleep on one of the islands. When they woke up they quickly flew off west.

Ruff

Ruff – four males resting on the Freshmarsh before flying off west

Other than those, we could only see one Turnstone, one Black-tailed Godwit and one Common Redshank. There are not that many Avocets on here at the moment either, although we could see a few pairs out in the fenced-off island, and several more feeding out in the water. Four Avocets were busy having an argument just below the path.

There are not many ducks left on here now, with most of the winter visitors having departed. The Red-crested Pochard were probably the most obvious, with a pair on the edge of the reeds shepherding eight ducklings, and another pair over just beyond Parrinder Hide. There were also a few Shelduck and Shoveler and one lone drake Teal, a useful addition to the list! Two Pink-footed Geese feeding on the bank looked to be injured birds, and one had an obviously broken wing.

The Freshmarsh has been largely taken over by gulls and terns and a careful look through them revealed our main target here, a single Little Gull. It was on one of the islands in front of Parrinder Hide, so we made our way round for a closer look. It was a 1st summer, a dainty little gull with a rounded head and thin black bill. Thankfully, we had all had a good look at it through the scope before it flew off.

Little Gull

Little Gull – this 1st summer showed well from Parrinder Hide

The fenced off ‘Avocet Island is now dominated by gulls, mainly Black-headed Gulls which had decided this is a nice safe place to nest. We could see quite a few pairs of Mediterranean Gulls in amongst them, their jet black heads and brighter red bills particularly standing out. One or two Mediterranean Gulls came in to collect nest material from the bank just outside the hide with the Black-headed Gulls.

Mediterranean Gull

Mediterranean Gull – collecting nest material from the bank by the hide

Several Common Gulls were loafing on the smaller islands in front of the hide, mostly 1st summers but including one adult which we had a good look at through the scope. There were quite a few Sandwich Terns on here too still and we watched a pair displaying and then mating. It will be interesting to see if they stay to breed here. A pair of Common Terns were keeping to themselves on another island out in the middle.

Sandwich Terns

Moving on. there was very little on Volunteer Marsh today, with the mud baked quite dry now after the recent hot weather. One Curlew was feeding in the channel at far end. The (no longer tidal) Tidal Pools are still flooded with seawater and pretty much devoid of life, apart from a handful of ducks. Three more Red-crested Pochard flew in and landed on here briefly.

Red-crested Pochard

Red-crested Pochard – two of three which landed on the Tidal Pools

At the beach, the tide was out now. We could see a selection of waders down on the mussel beds so we walked out for a closer look. There were several very smart Grey Plover, black below and white spangled above. Quite a few Sanderling, looking very different now in breeding plumage, blended in very well against the browns and greys of the mussel beds. There were Turnstone too, several also now looking very smart, and a few Bar-tailed Godwits.

There were a few terns moving back and forth just offshore and we watched one or two Common Terns and Little Terns hunting just beyond the edge of the sand. A careful scan of the sea revealed a single Common Scoter on the water and another flying off west. A couple of Fulmar flew west too, hugging the surface of the sea.

As we walked back, we could hear the Cuckoo again, now singing out towards Thornham, across the other side of the grazing marsh. We managed to find it up perched on the top of a hawthorn bush in the distance and got it in the scope. Finally, we had seen it! Three Little Gulls, all 1st summer, were now hawking over the reedbed pool, catching insects with lots of other gulls.

Almost back to the Visitor Centre, we heard a Siskin singing in the willows above the path. As we walked past, it dropped down onto the feeders. It was time for lunch now so we stopped to eat on one of the picnic tables by the Visitor Centre.

Siskin

Siskin – dropped in to the feeders briefly

After lunch, we headed inland to Choseley. There were a couple of Yellowhammers by the road on the way up but otherwise it was fairly quiet around the drying barns. We dropped down again to the coast at Holme, where we thought we would have a quick look in the paddocks. The sun was out now, and it was quickly warming up.

As we walked back along the bank, a Common Whitethroat was subsinging in the brambles, and appeared to be chasing a female, but remained unusually mostly hidden in the vegetation. A Willow Warbler was singing in a small sallow, and we could see the lovely light lemon yellow wash on its breast in the sunshine. A pair of Lesser Whitethroats were flicking around in the top of a large hawthorn bush briefly before they flew off.

We could hear another Cuckoo singing, but it sounded to be some way off at first. Helpfully, it then flew in and landed in the top of one of the poplars in the paddocks briefly. Everyone had a good look at it through binoculars and one or two through the scope before it quickly moved off west. We could still hear it singing away in the distance.

Stiffkey Fen was to be our final destination. After driving back east, we parked and walked down the permissive path the other side of the road. The meadow here was looking beautiful, peppered with blue flowers, and we watched a couple of Marsh Harriers flying back and forth.

As we got to the copse at the end of the meadow, we  looked back to see a male Marsh Harrier drop down and catch something. We couldn’t see what it was, but we had seen a couple of Brown Hares running back to the spot where it dropped, as it approached. The Hares were still there, looking agitated. The Marsh Harrier flew off out into the middle and dropped down into the reeds.

A minute or so later, a different male Marsh Harrier appeared over the meadow and headed over to where the Hares were, running around and rearing up on their back legs. The Marsh Harrier dropped several times, before it came up with a leveret in its talons. It flew off, chased by one of the Hares on the ground below, disappearing round behind the wood towards the Fen. Nature red in tooth and claw!

There was a small wet flash down in the valley below, a flooded area of grass, and we noticed a small wader on the far side of it. Through the scope, we could see that it was a Wood Sandpiper, one of the scarcer waders which we would hope to come across at this time of year, right at our last stop! We could see its spangled upperparts and pale supercilium.

On the walk out to the Fen, there were lots of insects out in the sunshine. We saw a couple of Four-spotted Chasers, our first dragonflies of the year. Butterflies included Orange Tip and Green-veined White, plus a surprise Painted Lady later up on the seawall, which was also the first of the year. A bee mimic Hoverfly (Volucella bombylans) was also of interest.

Four-spotted Chaser

Four-spotted Chaser – our first dragonfly of the year

We could hear a Greenshank calling as we walked out and just see it over the top of the reeds, on the edge of one of the islands out on the Fen. From up on seawall, we could actually see two Greenshanks, both roosting here over high tide. Otherwise, there were two Little Ringed Plovers, a couple of Redshank and several nesting Avocets.

As we walked along the seawall, a Common Sandpiper flew out from the edge of the channel below us and across to the other side, where we could see it bobbing up and down on the bank. A pair of Common Terns were fishing, diving in the channel, and flew right past us.

Common Tern

Common Tern – a pair were diving in the channel

There were lots of Brent Geese out on the saltmarsh and scattered around the edge of the harbour and we could see a pair of Little Terns flying past over the water. The tide was still coming in, but not far off high now – we could see all the boats going out to look at the seals hauled out on the tip of Blakeney Point in the distance. There were a couple of groups of Oystercatchers roosting around the edges of the harbour and a little party of three Dunlin and three Ringed Plover down on the shore nearest us.

There were a few people walking around the edge of the harbour, out across the saltmarsh, and a dog running around too. They flushed a larger flock of waders from somewhere out of sight, which then whirled round over the water. As it landed, there seemed to be a smaller bird in with them. The birds all dropped down again in the distance, and disappeared amongst the stones on a shingle spit.

As they started to move around, we could see mostly Ringed Plover and Dunlin, plus a couple of Turnstone at first. Then the smaller one reappeared on the near edge of the flock, a Little Stint. We could see its rusty fringed upperparts, short bill and clean white underparts. It was very hard to pick out at first, given the heat haze, but eventually it stopped to preen and everyone managed to get a look at it through the scope.

The great wader selection here was completed with a Whimbrel which unfortunately flushed from the edge of the harbour and flew off before everyone got a chance to see it. Just as we were preparing to leave it flew in again past us and landed on the saltmarsh where we could get it in the scope. Very helpful! A male Marsh Harrier flew in right over our heads too.

Marsh Harrier

Marsh Harrier – this male flew in from the harbour over our heads

It was beautiful out here on the edge of the harbour in the sunshine this afternoon, and with a great selection of birds to look at too. Eventually we had to tear ourselves away and make our way back. As we walked back along the path by the Fen, a Barn Owl flew round the bushes in front of us. It saw us and turned sharply, flying back the way it had come. But when we got back to the car, we could see it hunting over the meadow the other side of the hedge.

That was a great way to end the tour, three enjoyable days with an excellent selection of birds along the coast. However, on our way back we noticed the Peregrine was back on the church tower where we had seen it yesterday, to wave us off.

Peregrine

Peregrine – back on the church tower at the end of the day

12th May 2018 – Norfolk in May, Day 2

Day 2 of a three day long weekend of tours today, back in Norfolk. It was a lovely bright, sunny and pleasantly warm morning, but it clouded over early afternoon and then started to spit with rain on and off later on. Nothing to stop us getting out and about though!

Driving down to pick everyone up for the day, we spotted a Peregrine out of the corner of an eye, flying up to land on a church tower. We couldn’t stop, but when we had collected the rest of the group, we headed back and thankfully it was still there. It stared down at us at first, as we got out of the car and we stared back up at it. It quickly settled down and seemed completely unconcerned by our presence below.

Peregrine

Peregrine – great views perched and then preening on the church tower this morning

We watched the Peregrine for some time. It perched looking round at first, then started to preen. When it had finished, it began to doze, closing one eye but still looking round with the other. Several Common Swifts were screaming round over the rooftops as we stood there, always a great sight and sound, although they rather played second fiddle to the Peregrine.

Eventually we managed to tear ourselves away and headed over to Burnham Overy Dunes for the morning. As we walked down across the path over the grazing marshes we could hear Common Whitethroat and Lesser Whitethroat singing in the hedges. The former perched up nicely and we saw the latter flitting around in the foliage.

Several Sedge Warblers were singing from the bushes all the way out and there are lots of Reed Warblers in too now. We could hear them singing from the reeds along the edge of the ditches by the path and eventually got good views of one or two at the far end.

Reed Warbler

Reed Warbler – one or two showed themselves on the walk out this morning

There were Lapwings, Avocets, Oystercatchers and Redshanks all out on the grazing marshes by the path. A Lapwing put on a nice tumbling display for us and some of the others appeared to be on nests.

There was no shortage of Greylags here and a pair of Egyptian Geese out on the grass too. We added a few ducks to the day’s list, with Shoveler and Gadwall around the small pools. In the channel at the far end of the path, we stopped to admire a smart Little Grebe on the edge of the reeds. A couple of Common Pochard were on the water further back.

Up on the seawall, the tide was out and there were lots of waders down on the mud. There was a large group of Black-tailed Godwits, with one or two in full summer plumage, deep orange on head and neck. A small group of Knot were with them and they too were mostly in bright rusty breeding plumage. Further over, we could see several Grey Plover looking very smart in breeding plumage too, with black faces and bellies.

A lone Wigeon was out on the reedbed pool, a nice addition to the weekend’s list, as the vast majority have already headed off back to Russia for the breeding season. Further along, out on the saltmarsh, we could see a sizeable gaggle of Brent Geese still. Some of these are always later to head back to the Arctic, although the majority will have departed by the end of this month.

A small group of waders whirled round over the grazing marsh and landed out on an island in one of the smalls. Through the scope, we could see there was a nice mixture of Ringed Plovers and Dunlin, and several of the latter were in breeding plumage, sporting contrasting black belly patches.

Out into the dunes, we turned east. We walked out to one of the favourite places for Wheatears, and quickly found one, a female, down on the short grass. Two more were Wheatears high in the dunes above – what looked like a male and another female. We walked round for better look, trying to get the sun behind us, but could only see the two females now. Big and deep orange underneath, they appeared to be Greenland Wheatears, of the subpecies leucorhoa.

Wheatear

Wheatear – a female, presumably of the Greenland race

Heading back to the boardwalk, we continued on out towards Gun Hill. A trickle of hirundines were moving west now, mostly Swallows, but with a few House Martins and a single Sand Martin as well. A sharp call alerted us to a Yellow Wagtail which flew over our heads and continued on west too.

There is no shortage of Meadow Pipits and Linnets out here in the dunes, good to see as both species have declined so markedly in farmland. A male Kestrel perched high in one of the taller dunes. We also found several male Stonechats singing, 2 or 3 on our walk west.

Heading out onto the beach, we stopped to admire a Ringed Plover tucked down in the stones, on its nest out in the middle of the fenced off area. Another Ringed Plover ran in over the stones and we watched as they changed over sitting duty.

We could hear Little Terns but there were none at the top of the beach in the fenced off area. They were all out towards the shore – we could see them flying round, diving into the surf out at the mouth of the channel. One was asleep closer to us, on the sand just across the channel, which we got in the scope and three more flew round over our heads calling, one carrying a fish. There were a couple of Common Terns too, further round, plunge diving in the harbour channel.

Ringed Plover

Ringed Plover – we saw several on the beach and around the dunes today

As we walked along beach towards the point, we found more waders. A couple of very smart Turnstones in breeding plumage were feeding in and out of the seaweed covered rocks below us. Two Common Sandpipers flew up from the edge of the water and across the channel calling. There were several more Ringed Plovers too and round in the harbour we found three Bar-tailed Godwits with another Grey Plover out on the mud. A Greenshank flew up calling from the saltmarsh briefly but dropped straight back down into one of the muddy creeks, out of view.

Back at the boardwalk, we made our way back along the seawall. At the reedbed, a Bittern boomed three times in quick succession before going quiet again. A Red Kite was hanging lazily in the air over the fields as we got back to the car.

We had our lunch at Holkham and afterwards, we headed back east. We had been to Cley yesterday and were not intending to go back today, but news of a Temminck’s Stint was too good to resist.

The Temminck’s Stint had been mobile earlier, but then seemed to have settled down on Watling Water. However, when we arrived at Iron Road, we were told it had flown off about half an hour earlier. It had apparently appeared to drop down again towards the pools along the track. We had a good look there, but there was no sign of it, although there were two Ringed Plovers and a Little Ringed Plover.

Other waders were clearly on the move today, as another small mixed flock of Dunlin and Ringed Plovers dropped in briefly before continuing west. Another Wheatear was on the bank on the far side of the pool and a Hobby flew over, heading off east. It had started to drizzle now, on and off, we so headed round to Babcock Hide on the off chance that the Temminck’s Stint was back.

When we got into the hide, we were delighted to find that the Temminck’s Stint was indeed back out on the mud, having apparently flown back in earlier. We got it in the scope and had great views of it creeping around on the mud around the edge of the pool. It was clearly very small, and we could see its yellow legs and the distinctive scattering of black-centred feathers in its upperparts.

Temminck's Stint

Temminck’s Stint – a well-marked individual on Watling Water

The two Little Ringed Plovers we had seen yesterday were still on the scrape too – and as we had seen with the Common Sandpiper they kept trying to chase the Temminck’s Stint off. Eventually it found a spot where they seemed to lose interest, and stopped to bathe. The Common Sandpiper was still on here too, but had evaded the attention of the plovers as they seemed to focus more on chasing off the stint today!

The rain had now eased off again, and there was still time for a walk out on the East Bank before the end of the day. It didn’t take us long to spot the Spoonbill, a large white shape in the distance, so we headed up along the bank for a closer look. On the way, a scan of Pope’s Pool produced another Common Sandpiper and a Little Ringed Plover, as well as another lone drake Wigeon, our second of the day. A Marsh Harrier was perched up in one of the bushes out in the reedbed, drying out after the rain.

We had good views of the Spoonbill from here. It was busy feeding in the north end of the Serpentine, head down, sweeping its bill quickly left to right through the water. Occasionally it would flick its head up when it caught something.

Spoonbill

Spoonbill – feeding out on the Serpentine

Arnold’s Marsh appears to be drying out rapidly at the moment, and there was not much water left. Still, we found a few waders – a couple of Bar-tailed Godwits, a Curlew, a Grey Plover and a Ringed Plover. A Wheatear on one of the posts out in front of the shingle ridge was a male Greenland Wheatear, deep orange breasted and with brown tones in its grey back. At the far end of Arnold’s, a Hobby was perched preening on a post.

It was time to head back now. A Marsh Harrier dropped down towards the grazing marsh below the bank, mobbed by Avocets, and then flew off, carrying what appeared to be a small mammal rather than one of the young Greylags we had seen there on our walk out. A Hobby flew past and off over the reedbed, possibly the one we had seen on the post earlier, now dried out. Several more Marsh Harriers were up circling over the reeds as we headed for home.

11th May 2018 – Norfolk in May, Day 1

lDay 1 of a three day long weekend of tours today, back in Norfolk. We would be spending the days looking for spring migrants and summer visitors along the coast. It was a dry and bright day today, sunny at times, but with a strong and blustery wind.

We started the day with a drive round via a couple of sites for Nightingales first thing, as we made our way east. Numbers seem to be down again this year, but they are still just about clinging on in North Norfolk. They have been rather quiet this year too, not singing as much as in previous years, and it was perhaps not a surprise that we didn’t hear one today. They are always best at dawn or dusk and the cold wind didn’t help today either.

Still, we had a nice walk at the second location and there were plenty of other birds singing. We heard several Blackcaps and a nice male perched up in the brambles in front of us. There were a couple of Chiffchaffs duetting too, and a Song Thrush deep in the bushes. A Green Woodpecker laughed at us from the trees.

Blackcap

Blackcap – there were several singing this morning

We didn’t linger here long today. There was a report of a couple of Garganey down at Kelling, so we headed straight down there, figuring we could explore in the shelter of the lane on our walk out. When we arrived in the village, there were several Swallows and a couple of House Martins over the village, the latter prospecting the eaves of the tea rooms again.

A Hobby appeared over the fields just beyond the tea rooms and we watched as it hung in the air and gradually drifted towards us. We could see its orange ‘trousers’ as it turned in the sun. It was joined by a second Hobby, we could see they were a pair, and they dropped down behind the houses out of view. Smart birds and a good start!

The lane was quiet at first as we walked down, apart from all the Rooks in the wood behind the school, which were decidedly noisy! A Kestrel was hovering at the base of Muckleburgh Hill. As we got down to the copse, there was a bit more activity. A Chiffchaff was singing from a dead branch at the top of a tree beside the lane. Two Blackcaps were singing off against each other in the copse itself.

As we approached the Water Meadow, we could just see two Grey Partridge which had been spooked and flew across the water towards us. They landed out on the grass briefly before scurrying off into the rushes. In the cultivated field the other side, a single Stock Dove was feeding with the Woodpigeons and a Brown Hare was just behind.  There were several Sand Martins hawking for insects over the water and we had nice views of one of the Common Whitethroats singing in the top of the hedge.

Whitethroat

Whitethroat – singing in the hedge along the lane

From this side of the pool, we could see a few ducks out on the water – three Shoveler and a pair of Gadwall – but there was no sign of any Garganey at first. Thankfully they were just asleep in the grass on the bank at the top end, and we couldn’t see them until got down to the crosstrack.

There were two smart drake Garganey here. We got them in the scope and could see the bold white supercilium on the one which was out in the open. We walked down to the far corner for a better view, and when we got there they were both awake and feeding, swimming in and out of the flooded grass around the edge of the pool, snapping at insects. Great to watch!

Garganey

Garganey – two drakes were on the Water Meadow this morning

There were a few other birds around the Water Meadow today. An Avocet flew in calling. A Reed Warbler was singing away from the reeds by the path, though it kept down out of view, and a Sedge Warbler was singing too, a little further along.

We had nice views of Reed Buntings – a male singing, and a female in the top of the blackthorn. While we were watching the female, a Lesser Whitethroat appeared in the branches just behind. Typically more skulking than the Common Whitethroats, we got a couple of good looks at it. As usual, there were lots of Linnets here, always good to see.

Linnet

Linnet – there were lots in the brambles around the Water Meadow

As we walked up the path over the hillside beyond, we could hear a Stonechat. We looked over to see the male on a bramble stem. He flew across and we noticed the female dart into a bush, presumably going in to the nest. A few moments later, she reappeared nearby. There were plenty of Meadow Pipits here too, flying up from the grass as we passed.

From the top of the hill, we had a quick look out to sea. Several terns were flying back and forth just offshore – at least six Little Terns, and a couple of Sandwich Terns too. Further out, we spotted a line of twelve adult Gannets flying east – it would be interesting to know where they were off to at this time of year. A lone Kittiwake flew past too.

On our way back down towards the Quags, a Kestrel hovered above us. It then turned to chase off a passing Marsh Harrier, a young male. As we walked back past the Water Meadow, another Marsh Harrier appeared, a different bird, a female, hunting the fields to the west. It was promptly chased by a couple of Carrion Crows, and circled up right over our heads.

Marsh Harrier

Marsh Harrier – two were hunting the fields by the Water Meadow today

It was nice and sheltered in the lane and had warmed up now in the sunshine. On the walk back, we saw a nice selection of butterflies – Orange Tip, Green-veined and Small White, and Speckled Wood.

Speckled Wood

Speckled Wood – we saw a couple on our walk back up the lane

We headed round towards Cley next. We wanted to stop at Iron Road, but there were too many cars there already, so we drove back and parked at Salthouse green. It was not too far to walk back to Iron Road, and there were lots of geese out on the grazing marshes – Greylags, Canadas and a pair of Egyptian Geese.

There was not much of note on the Iron Road pool, despite it looking great for waders at the moment. We could just see a Redshank, a Lapwing, and a few Gadwall hiding in the grass at the back.  So we walked round to Babcock Hide to try our luck there. Two small young Lapwings were down in the grass around the pools by Attenborough Walk.

From the hide, we could see two Little Ringed Plovers on the mud towards the back. A Common Sandpiper was over to one side. When the Common Sandpiper walked over towards the plovers, they chased it off. Thankfully, it landed down on the mud in front of the hide, where we had much better views of it.

Common Sandpiper

Common Sandpiper – showed well in front of Babcock Hide

It is that time of year, when birds are getting down to breeding. It was all happening in front of Babcock Hide today! We were watching a pair of Avocets out in the water, standing around preening. The female then bent forward and held her head with the bill straight, just above the water. The male walked round for a few seconds before eventually flying up and landing on her back.

Avocets

Avocets – this pair were mating out on Watling Water

A pair of Pied Wagtails were feeding on the mud right in front of the hide. When the female stopped and stood still, the male started an elaborate display, shuffling round her with wings and tail spread, turned towards her with one wing in the air. Eventually the female bowed and lifted her tail and we watched them mating.

Pied Wagtails

Pied Wagtails – mating in front of Babcock Hide

Time was getting on now, so we headed round to the Visitor Centre at Cley for a late lunch, and made good use of the picnic tables outside. We got the scope out and scanned Pat’s Pool, where we could see lots of godwits out in the water. There were both Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwits here, although they seemed to have segregated themselves into two separate groups.

Several of the godwits were coming into breeding plumage, and we had a closer look at one very smart Bar-tailed Godwit, which was already deep rusty below, continuing all the way down under the tail. We could also see two Knot and two Dunlin with the Bar-tailed Godwits. Several Marsh Harriers were coming and going too, and we picked up three Common Swifts feeding out over North Scrape, our first of the day.

After lunch, we headed up to the Heath. It was exposed and a bit windy up here this afternoon, not ideal conditions. We checked out a couple of spots for Dartford Warblers, but they were keeping well tucked down today. We did see a nice Hobby which flew in along the ridge, right past us and out across the Heath.

Hobby

Hobby – our third of the day, over the Heath

There were lots of Linnets around the gorse and we eventually found a smart male Stonechat perched in the top of one clump. We tried a couple of places for Woodlark but couldn’t find any where we thought they might be. However, we were just walking away from the second spot when we heard singing in the distance and watched as a Woodlark flew in and circled over right where we had been standing just a couple of minutes earlier!

There were a few warblers up on the Heath this afternoon. On our walk back, we heard a Garden Warbler singing deep in the trees. A Willow Warbler was singing too and we watched it in a small oak tree by the path, flitting around the among emerging leaves.

Willow Warbler

Willow Warbler – singing in a small oak tree on our walk back

Unfortunately, it was time to call a close to day one and head back. More tomorrow!

29th Apr-5th May 2018 – Northern Greece: Lake Kerkini in Spring

A 7 day International Tour together with our friends from Oriole Birding, we headed off to Northern Greece to visit Lake Kerkini and explore the surrounding area. It was lovely sunny weather, blue skies and light winds, although starting to get a little hot in the middle of the day towards the end of our visit.

SUNDAY 29TH APRIL

It was a very early start at London Gatwick this morning, for the 0555 departure to Thessaloniki in Northern Greece. After a slightly delayed start due to the airline boarding some people onto the plane who were meant to be going to Corfu [!] we eventually set off and enjoyed a swift three hour run down, landing only about fifteen minutes behind schedule. The transit through the airport was typically painless, given its small size, and soon we had collected our hire vans and were making our way north towards the south end of Kerkini Lake where we would meet Stergios our hotel proprietor for an al fresco picnic lunch.

While we ate our way through the spread, we were able to scope our first Dalmatian Pelicans, and watch Common Terns, a flock of Mediterranean Gulls and a flyby Night Heron. A second calendar year Caspian Gull was also noted, a nice ‘snouty’ white-headed example, and we could hear our first Golden Orioles and Eastern Olivaceous Warblers signing thereabouts.

From here, we made our way slowly up the western shore of the lake to Korofoudi, and made our first proper birding spot on the flat coastal plain where normally there is a fair bit of exposed mud on the shallow shelving shoreline. However, the heavy late winter snow had clearly now made its way down from the Belles Mountains, and the water levels were actually very high. Nevertheless, a flock of 26 Wood Sandpipers came up from the shore as we parked, and proceeded to pick their way through the flooded grass at the lake edge – fantastic!

Wood Sandpiper

Wood Sandpiper – one of at least 26 by the lake this afternoon

A tiny patch of reeds held no less than three Great Reed Warblers, croaking away from the very tops of the reed heads in full view. We also enjoyed the many Spanish Sparrows here, with the dapper males collecting the heads of the phragmites and carrying them to a nearby White Stork nest. The storks themselves were down in the roadside meadow foraging, and here we also found a fine male Red-backed Shrike, Corn Bunting and two flyby European Bee-eaters.

Great Reed Warbler

Great Reed Warbler – one of three singing in a tiny patch of reeds

This whole area was just hooching with great birds and it was difficult to know where to look first! Our first Pygmy Cormorant of the trip showed really well, and a cracking adult Eurasian Spoonbill flew in and began feeding right next to the road in a small pool.

Perhaps the best birds seen in this area though, despite them being rather distant, were a pair of Levant Sparrowhawks displaying above the wooded ridge behind us. The incredible mechanical, super-slow wingbeats of the male were quite unlike any other accipiter display, even if the more familiar switch-back routine followed it. We could just about make out the dark wingtips too, but the distinctive shape with a narrow, pointed ‘hand’ were clear to see. Heading north, we had a few more good roadside birds, in particular our first Black-headed Bunting of the trip perched on some roadside wires, but also Woodchat Shrike, Red-rumped Swallow and Black Kite, before reaching our hotel in the foothills just north of the lake.

After a quick check in, we were keen to head straight back into the field to make the most of the fantastic light and warm evening temperatures, and so we made straight for the small harbour at Mandraki. This site really comes into its own late in the day, and we enjoyed another veritable feast of wetland birds here. Squacco Herons stood among the lily pads, part of a list of seven heron species that included many Great White Egrets, single Cattle Egret, a few Night Herons and three smart Purple Herons. The light was so great, and the birds were mainly fairly close – the Squacco Herons especially looked stunning as they flew past us, perfectly reflected in the still water.

We could see the artificial pelican nesting islands in the distance and as well as the many Dalmatian Pelicans, we could easily pick out the salmon pink White Pelicans too! Over the water, among the many Common Terns, two Whiskered Terns were dip feeding and we were greeted with the quite remarkable sight of at least two hundred Great Crested Grebes nesting colonially in the shallows to the west of the harbour – unreal!

Other species noted here included a scoped Common Cuckoo, two Red-rumped Swallows, and a young Goshawk which drifted through mobbed by Hooded Crows. Two drake Garganey and a Black-winged Stilt were also seen distantly out towards the drowned forest, an area we would explore more thoroughly in the coming days from a specially arranged boat trip. Only day one, and already we were getting the feel for why Kerkini is such an awesome birding destination.

MONDAY 30TH APRIL

Our first full day was spent largely around the north-east side of the lake, birding around Vironia and Megalachori and enjoying the feast of waterbirds on offer. But before breakfast, we took a short drive up the hill behind the village to check out a Semi-collared Flycatcher which had been found by Paul and the previous group out here last week.

The bird was still singing in exactly the same spot, and presumably this was in fact a potential breeding location, as the mature plane trees along a stream looked ideal habitat for sure. We soon found the Semi-collared Flycatcher, a fine male [though perhaps a first summer due to its slightly brown flight feathers and restricted white in primary bases], and over the next half hour we played cat and mouse with it in the canopy above. The bird was singing and calling virtually non-stop, but was very mobile and didn’t remain on the same perch for long. Eventually though, everyone had a great view through the scope. Just as we were about to head back for breakfast, we realised there were in fact two males present! A great result and perhaps one for future trips too.

Semi-collared Flycatcher 1

Semi-collared Flycatcher – one of two males we saw here this morning

After breakfast, we set off down the hill towards the main road, stopping at one of our favourite spots for migrants by a water trough just outside the village. This proved to be a brilliant area this morning, with a great variety of migrants and summer breeders noted. Golden Orioles were calling from the Plane trees all around, and eventually we had great scope views of a male. There were Corn Buntings jangling, Turtle Doves purring, and Red-rumped Swallows perched on the wires above.

In the meadows around the drinking trough we found Woodchat Shrike, Common Nightingale, Common Whitethroat and Eastern Olivaceous Warbler [seen well!] and overhead we had a fairly distant Goshawk being seen off by a Hooded Crow. Our second Black-headed Bunting of the trip, another singing male, was perched up on a roadside bush and a couple of European Bee-eaters flew north – we had seen a flock of twenty or so going high north towards the mountains earlier on. Perhaps the best bird here was a cracking Eastern Orphean Warbler which was singing quietly and seemed to be nest building in the bushes in the meadow – it never quite sat fully out in the open, but we managed to piece together some decent views of it.

Black-headed Bunting

Black-headed Bunting – perched up on a roadside bush

Just as we were about to get back into the vehicles, a Tree Pipit dropped in and began walking around in a muddy puddle next to the trough, and a male Cirl Bunting popped up in a roadside bush – just brilliant. As we drove away, a stunning male Red-backed Shrike landed on the fence by the side of the vehicles with a large beetle, so close we could almost reach out and touch it. We hadn’t even got to our first proper birding spot for the morning yet!

Red-backed Shrike 1

Red-backed Shrike – just finishing off its beetle

Vironia tracks was next on the agenda, and we enjoyed walking slowly along beneath the cool shade of the trees. There were lots of insects on the wing, and we had great views of Green-eyed Hawker and Scarce Chaser dragonflies, and as things warmed up a little more, we had a great selection of butterflies including Eastern Festoon, Green Hairstreak and Grizzled Skipper.

Eastern Festoon

Eastern Festoon – one of many butterflies at Vironia

Not to be outdone, the birds performed too, with particularly excellent views of Levant Sparrowhawks, which seemed to be setting up territory close by. After several close but obscured glimpses of them among the trees, we had the male perched in the open feeding on prey, and later had him flying above the fields – very distinctive looking birds.

Other notable sightings here included Syrian Woodpecker, and a fleeting Grey-headed Woodpecker which refused to perch for us. More obliging was a fine Lesser Spotted Eagle sitting on a dead tree, and our first Black Stork drifting in low over the bushes. Common Nightingales were belting out their song all along this stretch, and we even saw one or two of them! Back at the vehicles, Common Cuckoo and Red-backed Shrike were seen – not a bad morning so far.

Coffee and lunch became combined into one stop today, at the gazebo by the River Strimon bridge. This was an excellent location for getting views of the many European Bee-eaters present, with the birds landing on the ground all around us, and sitting on the trees and wires. A Hoopoe tried its best to out-do them, calling in beautiful light from an exposed perch. Sand Martins were also buzzing all around us, and we had some nice fly-bys from Dalmatian Pelican and Pygmy Cormorant.

The afternoon would be spent winding our way slowly along the eastern embankment of Lake Kerkini, birding as we went, and so we started at the pool just beyond Megalachori where we soon found our first Little Bitterns of the trip – a male and female skulking deep in the edge of the reeds. We scanned hard for crakes, but found two families of Coypu instead! As the day began to really warm up, so the raptor activity increased as well – at least three Lesser Spotted Eagles displaying above the mountain ridge, and a group of three Levant Sparrowhawks migrating high and distant.

Back down at ground level, an absolutely superb male Golden Oriole perched in the open for us, signing from the open canopy of a poplar, before chasing the female off down the wooded gulley next to the embankment. We went on to get several more views of them during the afternoon, and of course we could hear them [and the Nightingales!] as an almost constant soundtrack.

Golden Oriole

Golden Oriole – this superb male perched up nicely in the poplars

Moving further south along the bank, we had perhaps our best birding of the day looking out across the north-east corner of the lake – the light was superb, the weather beautiful and the place was stuffed with great birds! We passed a flock of Spoonbills busy feeding in a shallow pool, accompanied by several Little Egrets which lurked around the edge of the group, presumably watching for any escaping prey.

Spoonbills

Spoonbills – a feeding flock accompanied by several Little Egrets

Dalmatian Pelicans were resting on the small exposed islands, where groups of Ruff, Wood Sandpipers, Common Greenshank, Black-winged Stilt and Little Stints were feeding. We found a lovely pair of Gull-billed Terns, a party of Glossy Ibis, and the shallow water was littered with herons, grebes and cormorants. On one exposed patch of flotsam, were two Night Herons, a Squacco Heron and Purple Heron together! In fact there were scores of Squacco Herons here, and everytime we scanned across the marsh we would pick out something else of interest.

Shoveler, Gadwall, Wigeon, a flock of thirty Whiskered Terns, a feeding frenzy of White Pelicans and two perched adult White-tailed Eagles! The very interesting eastern race of Greylag Goose [rubirostris] was not championed by everyone, however!

Bee-eater

Bee-eater – we had stunning views along the eastern embankment

Tearing ourselves away from this amazing spot, we drove very slowly south along the bank birding as we went. The views of Bee-eaters along here were just amazing, and some of the group saw a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and Spotted Flycatcher briefly. More obliging, and a perfect way to end the day, was a nest building pair of Penduline Tits which entertained us for quite some time. We had heard dozens of them during the day, but they had all remained frustratingly elusive until now – fantastic views of the pair hard at work!

From here we wound our way back through the villages off the east embankment, picking up lovely roadside views of Black-headed Wagtail, and a White Storks nest busting with three species of sparrow. It was amazing how quickly the day had passed – time certainly flies when you’re having fun!

TUESDAY 1ST MAY

It was certainly a lot warmer out today, with the hazy cloud from previous days burning away to reveal clear blue skies and subsequent rising temperatures. We started our day again at our adopted local patch, by the water trough at the edge of Ano Poroia village. We were greeted again by Woodchat and Red-backed Shrikes, though there had been an obvious increase in the latter species overnight with at least four present. Golden Orioles could be heard calling around and we saw a stunning male flying around a couple of times, while we also had more views of Eastern Olivaceous Warbler and Cirl Bunting.

While watching one of the shrikes, a bulky bird popped up next to it in the same bush – a spring plumaged Barred Warbler! This was a new plumage for many of the group, and an exciting sighting for the leaders too! We could see its orange eye, as it began singing right out in the open next to the male Red-backed Shrike – stunning! Despite seeing many juveniles in autumn back in the UK, we never get to see them in this plumage in spring so this was a real treat.

Just when we though we had experienced the highlight of the morning, a pair of Levant Sparrowhawks flew low along the road and right past us, before both began to circle above the road. The male started to display literally over our heads, encouraging a second male to fly in and tussle with him! The two males chased each other into the trees, calling as they went, leaving the female circling above.

Levant Sparrowhawk 1

Levant Sparrowhawk – displaying right over our heads

This cycle was repeated several times, and in the crisp morning light the cameras among the group were rattling away as the birds passed only a few metres above us at times. It was even possible to see the diagnostic dark gular stripe on the throat! One of the males retired victorious to the nearby plane trees, where we were able to watch it perched in the open through the scopes. What a fantastic experience!

Levant Sparrowhawk 2

Levant Sparrowhawk – then perched in the trees, preening

Next we headed for Sidirokastro, to the east of Lake Kerkini, to try for one or two specialities of rocky hillside habitats. It was already very hot here, and many butterflies were on the wing – Scarce Swallowtail, Small Blue and many fritillaries. Bird wise it was a little quiet, though we noted our first Short-toed Eagle soaring, and there were some lovely Eastern Black-eared Wheatears flitting around the Byzantine castle ruins. Our quest for Western Rock Nuthatch sadly proved fruitless, and we had to make do with a Blue Rock Thrush instead. Coffee and cake in the shade of the pines by the parking area, was most welcome afterwards.

Having failed with the nuthatch here, we opted to try another site just a couple of miles away – a large quarry set up in the hillside north of Sidirokastro. This proved to be an outstanding site. First up was a Long-legged Buzzard over the parking spot, and despite being rather against the light the bird could be identified by its long wings, plain underwing coverts with contrasting black carpal patches, uniform underparts and very pale head.

Long-legged Buzzard

Long-legged Buzzard – circling high over the hills near Sidirokastro

The buzzard gained height, and soon we could see why – a large, all dark eagle was drifting low straight towards us! The bird passed directly over our heads, and we thought it was probably a Golden Eagle at first. We had niggling doubts though, mainly due to its fairly short tailed silhouette, and broad hand. We thought we could see a pale window in the primaries, too. The views themselves were inconclusive, but the photos were very instructive and also showed a pale cream shawl to the nape isolating a dark eye, broad based wings due to long secondaries, paler tail base and long sixth primary – it was an Eastern Imperial Eagle!! This was quite a discovery, being the first ever record of the species on our tours here.

Eastern Imperial Eagle

Eastern Imperial Eagle – a real bonus, a hard bird to see in Greece now

The quarry itself was equally brilliant – a Western Rock Nuthatch was singing, its loud call resonating around the quarry. We also found its mud nest being constructed in a crevice in the rock face, and so we had some superb prolonged views. Also in the quarry were two singing Ortolan Buntings, a pair of Black Redstarts, Blue Rock Thrush and both male and female Eastern Black-eared Wheatears. Absolutely fantastic birding!

Next we had a long drive down to Serres, and after negotiating our way through the town, we took the winding mountain road up to Vrontou and the Laillas ski centre. Our lunch stop was about 4 miles before the summit, in beautiful open hillside with scattered juniper and rocky scree. We didn’t see too many birds here, though some of the group noted a Woodlark and two more Short-toed Eagles were seen.

Reaching the ski centre, we explored the beautiful beech woodland near the summit, adding Mistle Thrush, Spotted Flycatcher, Blackcap, Common Chiffchaff, Coal Tit and Marsh Tit. We couldn’t find any Black Woodpeckers today though, despite a good search.

Time was ticking away from us, so we headed a short way back down the mountain and tried another track through mature pines to a viewpoint. Two Tree Pipits flushed from the path into the trees, and we had Common Ravens displaying overhead. Crested Tit showed particularly well, even allowing everyone a view in the scope, while a Rock Bunting was more furtive and made us work hard to even get half the group a view. An Eastern Subalpine Warbler singing from the pines was our first of the trip, and another new sylvia was seen in the form of a pair of Lesser Whitethroats.

Back at the vans we had a coffee, to perk us up for the final push of the day! This would be a short stop on the way back to base, to check a site for European Roller. Thankfully the birds had read the script – at least one of them had anyway – and we enjoyed lovely views of a single bird perched on wires above the track in the evening light. It flew down to the field edge a couple of times, flashing its brilliant blue and purple wings and tail as it looped back up to its perch. A perfect way to end a long but rewarding day.

Roller

Roller – perched up on the wires on our way back

WEDNESDAY 2ND MAY

The warmest day of the tour so far saw us head up to the Bulgarian border this morning at Promachonas. On the way, we picked up another European Roller perched on roadside wires, looking dazzling in the morning light as it flew down to the ground. Once at the so called ‘woodpecker wood’ we made our way down to the river and slowly along listening for any calls or activity of woodpeckers generally. This was met with mixed success – we heard a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker calling as soon as we arrived, but otherwise the only activity noted was from Great-spotted Woodpeckers which were pretty common.

Feeling a little frustrated and being nibbled by mosquitoes, we headed back and tried going east along the trail a little bit. Here in a small clearing, a black and white woodpecker flew low past us and perched on the side of a big poplar trunk – it was a Middle Spotted Woodpecker. This was our main target species here, and we managed to get about half the group a scope view before it quickly made off into the trees.

Middle Spotted Woodpecker

Middle Spotted Woodpecker – perched briefly in the trees

We tried walking along the road a bit to relocate it, but without any joy. We did see a Green Woodpecker though, and then two shrikes flew over calling showing lot of white in the wings. One perched in the canopy above us briefly – a female Masked Shrike. The male seemed to fly across the road to a small quarry, so we wandered in for a look. Sure enough we found the male Masked Shrike, and had some decent perched views though he was rather skittish.

As we walked back down to the vans, two large raptors circled into view above the Bulgarian border – two European Honey Buzzards, one dark phase and one very pale bird. It was great to see their distinctive flat-winged silhouette and see them lazily flexing the hand of the wing as they circled around a few times before continuing their migration northwards. It had been a productive stop, even if the woodpecker activity had been a bit less than hoped for. After coffee and homemade pizza in the sunshine, it was time to return to the lake area.

Vironia Quarry would be our next stop, a really nice area of streamside plane trees and open scrubby hillside with lovely views south over the lake. It was really hot here, and we failed in our attempt to find any Sombre Tits. We did, however, get fantastic views of a singing Eastern Orphean Warbler, several Eastern Black-eared Wheatears and Crag Martins nesting in the quarry.

Eastern Orphean Warbler

Eastern Orphean Warbler – singing in the bushes in the quarry

An old Rock Nuthatch nest seemed to have been taken over by sparrows, and there was no sign of the nuthatch, so it was a good job we had secured good views yesterday. Also around the quarry, a male Eastern Subalpine Warbler showed well, and as we began to make our way back out, a Golden Eagle appeared above the ridge and circled round a few times before disappearing over the top. A great comparison with yesterdays Eastern Imperial! Lunch was had in the shade of the trees by the chapel, and in the company of a pair of Syrian Woodpeckers – a very pleasant morning indeed.

The afternoon would be taken up by our boat trip onto Lake Kerkini, always one of the tour highlights. We met Nikos, our ‘captain’, at Kerkini harbour, and set off towards the northern shore of the lake where the best of the action would be. As we approached the mouth of the Strimon, two stunning adult White-winged Black Terns were seen perched quite close to the boat, before they took flight over the mirror flat water in which they were perfectly reflected.

Several Black-necked Grebes dotted the water in full breeding plumage, and now we began to approach the river mouth, we could see a LOT of pelicans ahead! The numbers of White Pelicans were most impressive, and my goodness what plumage they were in! To be so close to such large numbers of these spectacular birds was quite something.

White Pelicans

White Pelicans – large flocks were loafing around the lake

White Pelican

White Pelican – good flight views too!

We saw plenty of Dalmatian Pelicans too of course, though they loom somewhat less striking now their breeding season is reaching its finale. Other birds noted here included Eurasian Spoonbills, Black-winged Stilts and a first-summer Caspian Gull.

Dalmatian Pelican

Dalmatian Pelican – we saw lots of these too

Nikos then took us through the shallow water towards the drowned forest, and here we caught up with the White-winged Black Terns again, but now there were four or five of them, mixed with a party of Black Terns. Nikos cut the engine and we floated among them, as they danced over the water incredibly close. One of the White-winged Black Terns actually swooped in and grabbed a morsel from the water surface, right beside the boat – amazing! As the flock became more distant, we noticed that they had now been joined by three Collared Pratincoles, as the whole group moved out towards the main body of the lake. A first-summer Little Gull also passed by at close range – we did not know where to look next!

White-winged Black Tern

White-winged Black Tern – dip feeding right by our boat!

As we entered the drowned forest, so the sound and smell of breeding cormorants and herons became ever more apparent. What unfolded was quite a spectacle, as we floated among the thousands of nesting pairs of Great Cormorant. There were a few pairs of Pygmy Cormorant too, although they seemed to be a lot more wary of the boat.

Cormorant

Great Cormorant – one of thousands of nests in the drowned forest

Pygmy Cormorant

Pygmy Cormorant – seem to be a little more wary

Little Egrets, Night Herons, Squacco Herons and Spoonbills were all nesting too and seen at point blank range. The views of these birds really were very special indeed.

Spoonbill

Spoonbill – perched up in the drowned forest

Every now and then we would drift right underneath a stonking pair of Spoonbills, or see a Squacco Heron with bright blue bill base and red legs, standing motionless at touching distance.

Squacco Heron

Squacco Heron – with bright blue bill base

The Night Herons were a favourite though, especially when we got to see their crown feathers raised into a crest and their long white nape plumes erect – totally stunning birds.

Night Heron

Night Heron – stunning close views from the boat

More pelicans next as we glided across to the artificial nesting islands occupied by both species. The White Pelicans are now nesting in good numbers, having colonised in 2016, and the Dalmatian Pelicans [nesting earlier and having large chicks now] were sticking to their favoured wooden platforms. After enjoying these birds close up, we motored back across the lake to Kerkini harbour. A thunderstorm was just breaking over the hills west of the village as we arrived back, and we drove back to the hotel in the rain – we had been very lucky.

Dalmatian Pelicans

Dalmatian Pelicans – on one of the nesting platforms

After an early dinner, we returned to an area near Kerkini village to try for Eagle Owl, a species always high on everyone’s wants lists. We had plenty of time on the way for a bit of birding, and after a rooftop Little Owl the next highlight was a party of European Bee-eaters, perched on roadside wires in beautiful soft evening light. We pulled up alongside them, and then noticed that several were dropping onto the road in front of us. They were picking delicately at the surface of the tarmac, and we couldn’t quite work out what they were doing – perhaps feeding on ants or other small insects? None of us had seen this behaviour before. Meanwhile up on the wires, there were now a dozen or more Bee-eaters gathered and we could hear them calling and see them displaying with fanned tails quivering and wings arched upwards. Just stunning birds!

With another ten minutes to spare before we needed to start looking for the owls, we decided to stop briefly at Korofoudi marshes. A Black Stork was feeding with a Spoonbill by the roadside, and flew to the edge of the lake, and there were some Dalmatian Pelicans fishing close inshore. One of the Great Reed Warblers was in the small reedbed again, and a superb male Golden Oriole flew down and landed in the roadside bushes where it eventually dropped down out of view.

Back at the owl spot, we had Common Nightingale, Woodchat Shrike, Cirl Bunting and Eastern Olivaceous Warbler before dusk fell, and two or three hoots from the Eagle Owl up on the cliff. We saw it in flight briefly, but unfortunately most people weren’t able to get onto it. Brief glimpses of European Nightjar and Tawny Owl on the way back, and a Eurasian Scop’s Owl calling, were the last action of a long day.

THURSDAY 3RD MAY

What. A. Day! Our trip down to the Axios Delta area west of Thessaloniki is always something of a trip highlight, offering saline lagoons and coastal marshes and of course, lots of migrant wading birds, gulls and terns. We opted to start at the Kalachori lagoon end, which was about one hour twenty minutes drive south from our base, and we arrived at our first stop at the edge of the saltmarsh, to be greeted by three Stone Curlews standing sentinel among the samphire. In the same area, looking east towards the main lagoon, we found our first Lesser Grey Shrike of the trip in the coastal tamarisks, a bird we were beginning to wonder whether or not we would see on the trip at all.

Moving around onto the coastal track, we reached the main lagoon complete with its flock of two hundred or so Greater Flamingoes, still lingering into the breeding season. Despite being mainly young birds, there were still a few gorgeous adults present too, normally having left for the Mediterranean breeding colonies by now.

Also on these pools were a great deal of small waders, and in the excellent morning light we enjoyed some superb and educational views of flocks of gorgeous Curlew Sandpipers and Little Stints and a few Dunlin, Ruff and Turnstone admixed. There were Common and Wood Sandpipers too, and several Little Terns resting on the islands close to the cycle path which bisects the two main pools.

We were able to get really close to the waders here, and this enabled us to pick out two Temminck’s Stints, feeding furtively at the edge in typical fashion. One was a striking rusty toned individual, but both showed the typical yellow legs and randomly dark centred scapular feathers on the back. We were close enough to hear their delicate trilling call too, and see the wholly white outer tail in flight.

Further down, we could see a very impressive flock of about two hundred Spotted Redshanks, with a few Common Greenshanks mixed in, and we found both Common Ringed and Kentish Plovers on the open sandy areas. Once again a highlight, a group of seven stunning White-winged Black Terns were hawking over the water right alongside the path – it was very hard not to be totally distracted by these dazzling birds, but there were a lot of small waders to look through!

After a coffee break, we continued to the far end of the main lagoon, as we had been able to pick out a couple of very distant Marsh Sandpipers and wanted to get some better views if possible. We found a spot where the birds were a bit closer, and we also had them feeding alongside Common Greenshank for comparison. Six birds at least altogether, but perhaps not as stunning as the huge flock of Spotted Redshanks which we could now see at much closer range.

A first-summer Little Gull was floating on the water just below us, and we also saw some nice Black-winged Stilts, Avocets and a couple of drake Garganey from this vantage point before it was time to move on. Taking the track west, we crossed the causeway and over the sluice, heading south and following the coast towards the fishing huts. A Northern Wheatear was feeding on a sandy area next to the track, a late migrant on its way north.

Wheatear

Northern Wheatear – a late migrant on the coast

We paused by a small area of enclosed saline pools at the edge of the bay, to look at some close Pygmy Cormorants and our first Common Redshanks of the trip, when we noticed a medium sized plover feeding on the mud close by. First impressions were of perhaps a Grey Plover, but this was quickly dismissed by the birds small size and lightweight bill, and the presence of some yellow in the scapulars and tertials.

It was clearly a Golden Plover of some sort, but right away the alarm bells were ringing as this did not look like a European! Its grey appearance was of course the first anomalous feature, but it showed a small head, very long legs but a short primary projection. Its head pattern was also interesting, as it showed a fairly distinct supercilium, pale spot on the ear coverts and dark cap – though these features were not as contrasting as one would expect on an American. The penny was dropping, this looked every inch like a Pacific Golden Plover in first summer plumage!

Pacific Golden Plover

Pacific Golden Plover – a great find, possibly only the 7th record for Greece

Having chatted though the ID, we knew that a flash of the underwing would confirm our suspicions, and with that the bird flew a short way with a group of Turnstones – now we had something to compare it directly to, we could see how small it was! But not only that, the underwing coverts were ash grey! At this point we opted to disembark and go for scope views, which we enjoyed for the next half hour or so. We saw it again in flight too, noting the projection of the toes beyond the tail tip and those underwings! It was a subtle and beautiful wader, and at the time of writing we think only the 7th record of Pacific Golden Plover for Greece.

It took a further twenty minutes to reach our lunch spot, overlook a series of islands occupied by a thriving colony of Mediterranean Gulls. The sound was quite impressive, with a hundred or more birds ‘kyowing!’ throughout our stop here – in fact it was hard to hear anything else! We manged to pull out a Red-throated Pipit going over though, and a singing Calandra Lark which posed distantly on the ground too.

Our main target bird here was Slender-billed Gull, and we had to accept fairly distant but acceptable views of two adults on the water. A Caspian Tern was a nice surprise though, flying past before joining a second bird and dropping into another group of Mediterranean Gulls and Sandwich Terns on one of the distant islets.

The remainder of the track from here to the Axios river was quiet, though we saw Hoopoe, Red-backed Shrike, Little Owl and a dombrowskii Yellow Wagtail. The next leg of the track north up the Axios embankment was the most heavily pot-holed of the lot, so progress was slow. This gave us plenty of time to spot more birds though! Many Wood Sandpipers, lovely close Spoonbills, a Purple Heron, rufous phase female Cuckoo and Garganey were all overshadowed by three stunning Spur-winged Plovers in perfect light just west of the bank. This was our main target for this area, and we found them in literally the last bit of suitable habitat along this stretch – very fortunate! Bumping our way out eventually to the main road, we then had about forty-five minutes driving north to our final site of the day.

Spur-winged Plover

Spur-winged Plover – kept us waiting until the last stretch

Its always nice to visit a new site on the tours, and our colleague Paul Roberts had recommended a small reservoir to us for the way back, near Polykastro. A singing Black-headed Bunting and male Red-backed Shrike as we approached the site were a good omen, and we loved the lush green habitat all around the reservoir which looked like a veritable haven to migrants.

It was a lovely temperature now, and the evening light was superb, and soon we were watching Collared Pratincoles hawking over the fields, and Great Reed Warblers croaking from the top of the reeds. In the distance, we could see a flock of about seven Lesser Kestrels hunting, and as we walked up the bank a flock of Whiskered Terns flew by.

Peering over carefully onto the water, the first bird that greeted us was a drake Ferruginous Duck! There were a dozen or more others on the reservoir, along with Tufted Duck, Common Pochard, Gadwall, Shoveler, Little and Black-necked Grebes and Garganey. Over the water were Common, Little, Black and White-winged Black Terns, and a Long-legged Buzzard flew by in the distance mobbed by a Hooded Crow. Another Lesser Grey Shrike was signing from the wires alongside the reservoir embankment here too.

It certainly was a delightful spot, and we ended the day scoping up to twenty five Collared Pratincoles, first on the ground and then sweeping back and forth over the cornfields. A breathless day with so many highlights, and the trip list now approaching 180 species!

FRIDAY 4TH MAY

Our quietest day of the trip so far, mainly due to the heat, but it is all relative – we still saw an awful lot of very good birds! We knew it was going to be a warm one, so opted for an early pre-breakfast excursion at 0630 up the hillside behind the village. After negotiating the network of very narrow streets, we found our way out to the eastern edge of the village where we parked up and set off on foot up the mountain track.

Winding our way up round the first couple of bends, the air was full of the song of Common Nightingale, Cirl Bunting and Woodchat Shrike – the latter being particularly common in this scrubby hillside habitat. Eastern Subalpine Warbler was also easy to see here, and we had some really great scope views of singing males – though we had still not seen a female on the trip!

Our main target bird for this site was Sombre Tit, one which is very easy to miss particularly at this time of year. We had some pretty decent views of a single bird, being pretty furtive and never perching in the open for long. In the end we were pretty satisfied with what we had seen, knowing this was likely our only chance on the trip to connect. Hoopoe, Levant Sparrowhawk and a superb female Eastern Orphean Warbler were also noted, the latter alarm calling to a Woodchat and grubbing around in the shrubs by the side of the track.

After breakfast, we called in briefly at the water trough, though things were definitely quieter here than in recent days – the local Red-backed Shrikes, Eastern Olivaceous Warblers and singing Black-headed Bunting supplemented by another good view of the male Levant Sparrowhawk, and a migrant Spotted Flycatcher.

Eastern Olivaceous Warbler

Eastern Olivaceous Warbler – seen or heard singing daily

Our plan for the rest of the morning was to travel down the western shore of the lake to Lithotopos, and on to Himarros where a track winds along the stream and up into the low forested hills. We saw two spectacular feeding frenzies on the lake as we drove along, of Dalmatian Pelicans and cormorants, but with a mission in mind we resisted the temptation to stop.

Reaching Himarros, a young Goshawk flew low over the track mobbed by Hooded Crows as we drove down, and we could also see two Short-toed Eagles and a Lesser Spotted Eagle soaring above the surrounding hillsides. It was already really hot here, and we knew we were going to struggle a bit – we certainly didn’t hear our main hoped for target, which was Olive Tree Warbler. It was right on the cusp for them arriving, and unfortunately we drew a blank on this occasion.

Red-backed Shrike 2

Red-backed Shrike – singing & carrying nest material

Eastern Subalpine Warbler and Red-backed Shrike were really common in the scrub here, the latter seen nest building and the males singing and calling all around. We glimpsed a Masked Shrike too, but the bird was really furtive and keeping to the deep shade inside thickets of bushes, and not wanting to come out.

Black Stork

Black Stork – circled over our heads at Himarros

Overhead we did really well, with a Black Stork and another Goshawk seen circling above, later joined by two Lesser Spotted Eagles and a cracking Honey Buzzard which appeared low above us. Back in the shade of the riverside trees, we saw two Spotted Flycatchers, and then plenty of Bee-eaters as we made our way back out of the valley. A kettle of pelicans in a thermal above the valley contained both White and Dalmatian Pelicans, making for a nice comparison.

Pelicans

White & Dalmatian Pelicans – circling together on a thermal

There were lots of other things to look at here – not just birds. We had good views of both Hermann’s and Spur-thighed Tortoise. A Stripe-necked Terrapin was crossing the track as we drove in and a Common Green Lizard was very obliging on the path. There were tons of butterflies too, including a good variety of fritillaries and lots of Little Tiger Blues. A Spoonwing (or Thread-winged Antlion) which flew across the path was particularly impressive.

Hermann's Tortoise

Hermann’s Tortoise – one of the two species we saw around Lake Kerkini

Deciding how to manage the hot part of the day was a tricky one, but we opted to head for higher ground in the hope of a cool breeze, and so decided to wind our way up the track above Neo Petritsi village to the Bulgarian border. About 7km up, we stopped for lunch looking back over the forest – a Short-toed Eagle was hanging on the wind above us and gave superb views, while we also had more opportunities to study Honey Buzzard with one circling up right in front of us. As it folded its wings and made a stoop, we realised there was an interloper in its territory – a moulting female Goshawk which circled round once before dropping out of view.

Short-toed Eagle

Short-toed Eagle – hung in the air above us at lunchtime

As we climbed higher, a further 6km to the border post, the road passed through delightful beech woodland resounding to the songs of Blackcap and Robin! What we were not expecting though, was a Wildcat running up the road in front of us. The animal dived off into the undergrowth down a steep bank, and by quickly bailing out of the van we saw it again running off through the undergrowth, but that was it – a sighting based purely on chance.

Nearing the border, we parked and took a walk along the ridge for about 1km, passing through more nice forest of the way – we kept an ear open for White-backed Woodpecker, but no such luck! There were very few birds around at this elevation, but two Short-toed Eagles showed really well, and a pair of Hawfinch flew low over calling.

Back down at ground level, and we popped into the Strimon marshes for a quick look. The pools were holding a fair bit of water, and we found several Wood Sandpipers, Black-headed Wagtail, Little Ringed Plover and two Temminck’s Stints here. More impressive though, was a feeding frenzy of over thirty Grey Herons, 26 Spoonbills and 9 Black Storks, catching small fish in the dwindling puddles. Red-backed Shrike and Black-headed Bunting were also around – every stop seemed capable of producing a haul of decent birds!

Our last hour or so of the day would be spent on the eastern embankment of Lake Kerkini, and despite the tricky light at this time of day we saw a load of birds. Bee-eaters and Hoopoe were looking stunning on the east side of the bank, illuminated by the evening light, and we had a lovely Lesser Grey Shrike perched up too. The water level had risen considerably since our first visit here, and many of the same species were present – Spoonbills, Glossy Ibises, Great White and Cattle Egrets, flocks of Wood Sandpipers and distant Whiskered Terns. Temminck’s Stint, six Curlew Sandpipers and a fine Marsh Sandpiper were new in though, replacing the scores of Squacco Herons present previously which were now conspicuous by their absence.

Heading back towards Megalachori, a stunning adult Purple Heron was fishing in the open, with a second bird among the reeds where we searched in vain for Little Bittern and Little Crake, without success. Unbelievably, it was now almost 7pm – we had to tear ourselves away! As had been typical for the trip as a whole, there was time for one more good bird – a gorgeous female Red-footed Falcon circling over the road by the drinking trough on the way back to base. After initially only being seen drifting away, the bird thankfully turned and circled right back over us, putting the tin lid on our last day in the field.

Red-footed Falcon

Red-footed Falcon – turned and circled back over us

SATURDAY 5TH MAY

A seamless transition was enjoyed back to Thessaloniki this morning, with a few birds seen from the motorway en route such as Roller, Masked Shrike, a couple of Black-headed Buntings and two Ring-necked Parakeets! We dropped the vans off at the hire car depot at 0930 as planned, and despite leaving a little late from Thessaloniki, were back in London pretty much on schedule at 1330.

It had been a great seven days in Greece – the weather was warm and sunny, there were lots of fantastic birds and a great selection of other wildlife too. We didn’t want to leave! The good news is that we will be going back again in 2019 – provisionally on 28th April to 4th May. If you like the sound of this year’s trip and might be tempted to join us, please let us know…