23rd June 2018 – Midsummer Birding, Day 2 & Nightjars

Day 2 of a three day long weekend of Summer Tours today. It was another mostly bright and sunny day, with the winds dropping but still with a freshness to the light northerly on the coast.

With the lighter winds, we decided to head up to the Heath this morning. As we got out of the car, a Willow Warbler was singing in the bushes in the car park. As we set off along the path, we could hear a couple of Common Whitethroats alarm calling in the bushes and one appeared on the outside of a large hawthorn.

As we walked round a small copse of trees, we could hear a Garden Warbler half singing. As we came around the other side, we could see movement in the dense blackthorn beyond and eventually a Garden Warbler stuck its head out. Another was still calling deeper in the vegetation, and it appeared there was a family group in there. We stood and watched for a while and saw three or four Garden Warblers, as well as a Blackcap.

It was a lovely sunny morning, and the Silver-studded Blue butterflies were out in force. This heathland specialist is sparsely distributed so it is always nice to see them when they are on the wing. We also flushed several July Belle moths from the grass, another very localised species.

SIlver-studded Blue

Silver-studded Blues – a mating pair

As we walked round the Heath, we heard several Yellowhammers singing. We eventually found a smart yellow-headed male perched up nicely in the top of a small oak tree. There were lots of Linnets too, which flew up from the heather in ones and twos as we passed.

Dartford Warbler was one of our main targets for this morning, but there was no sign of any at the first site we tried. This pair have already fledged their first brood, so the female is possibly on eggs again which is why they have gone quiet. We tried a second territory, also with no joy, and it was starting to look like we might be out of luck.

Third time lucky. As we walked into the middle of another territory, we heard a Dartford Warbler call and turned to see it fly across across between two large clumps of tall gorse with food in its bill. It flew again and disappeared down into some lower gorse. We repositioned ourselves so we could see where it had gone in from a discrete distance and over the next ten minutes or so we had some lovely views of a pair of Dartford Warblers coming in and out several times. At one point, we had both adults perched up nicely just a few feet apart in the top of the gorse for a few seconds.

Dartford Warbler

Dartford Warbler – we watched a pair coming in and out of the gorse

We decided to leave the Dartford Warblers in peace and carried on round the Heath. We walked over to a place where several Woodlarks have been feeding recently, but it was very disturbed here today with walkers and cyclists. But as we walked on across the Heath, we looked up to see a Woodlark flying over. It came over our heads, but showed no signs of landing and disappeared away off the edge of the Heath.

A little further on, we stopped to watch a pair of Stonechats. The male kept returning to the top of a small birch tree, while the female was feeding from a perch on the heather below. While we were watching the Stonechats, another bird flew up from the ground and landed on a dead branch close to them. It was another Woodlark. We got it in the scope and could see it was a juvenile, presumably from an earlier brood and now independent.

The Woodlark dropped down to the ground and we carried on along the path, which took us eventually round the other side of the bushes. As we walked past, what was presumably the same Woodlark flew up from beside the path. It was time to make our way back to the car now, but as we walked back we could hear Bullfinches calling. We found them in a birch tree, there were three or four of them, presumably a family group.

There had been a Pied Crow along the coast at Cromer for a few days. This is a species from sub-Saharan Africa, not really a candidate for vagrancy under its own steam. It had most likely travelled here by boat from somewhere, or it might have escaped from a collection. They are smart birds, so we decided to have a very quick look to see if we could see it.

We couldn’t park in Cromer anywhere near the fish & chip shop it had been frequenting, so we stopped in the Runton Road car park further along, where it had also been seen from time to time. We walked a short distance down towards the pier, but we could see several people with binoculars just standing around, not looking at anything. It had been seen first thing this morning, but had flown off and not yet reappeared.

It was getting on for lunchtime, so we decided to have a bite to eat back at the car and scan the cliffs to the west at the same time. There were several Fulmars landing on the cliffs and we had great views of them as they flew up and down along the clifftop right in front of us. A single Mediterranean Gull flew past offshore and we could see a few Sandwich Terns out over the sea too. But the only corvids we could see were Rooks and Jackdaws.

Fulmar

Fulmar – flying up and down the clifftop at Cromer

After lunch, we had a quick walk back towards the pier but it was immediately clear the Pied Crow had still not been seen, so we decided to move on and try our luck elsewhere. It was the right call, as the Pied Crow was not seen again! We made our way back along the coast to Cley.

We parked at Walsey Hills. A pair of Kestrels was alarm calling over North Foreland Wood as we got out of the car. Something had got them really agitated, because they hovered over the tops of the trees and kept swooping down into the canopy. Unfortunately, we couldn’t see what they were mobbing and nothing moved, despite all their attentions. Eventually they landed in the treetops, still calling agitatedly.

As we made our way up along the East Bank, a female Common Pochard with a couple of juveniles was on Don’s Pool. They are a scarce breeder here, so it is always good to see young. We heard a couple of Reed Warblers and Sedge Warblers singing in the reeds below the bank, but they were very hard to see. A male Reed Bunting was much more obliging, as was a Marsh Harrier which perched up in the top of a bush out in the reedbed.

Marsh Harrier

Marsh Harrier – perched in a bush out in the reedbed

We heard a Bearded Tit pinging and looked across to see one perched up in the top of the reeds. It didn’t stay long though, and flew off away from us before dropping in out of view. There were a few more Bearded Tits in the reeds further up along the Bank though, so everyone got to see at least one.

A scan of Pope’s Marsh and the Serpentine did not produce anything out of the ordinary – Lapwing, Redshank and some of the commoner ducks. We did spot a Mediterranean Gull flying in from the east, which turned and dropped down onto Arnold’s Marsh.

There were lots of Sandwich Terns on Arnold’s Marsh when we got there, and two Common Terns dropped in to join them briefly. A careful scan through the Black-headed Gulls and Common Gulls produced four Mediterranean Gulls on here this afternoon, which was a bit of a surprise. There were three very different 1st summers and a 2nd summer too, the latter with a rather adult-like head but still with black in the wingtips.

Sandwich Terns

Sandwich Terns – gathered on Arnold’s Marsh

The waders on Arnold’s Marsh were mostly Common Redshanks, but a careful scan did produce two Ringed Plovers and a single Dunlin as well. The sea looked fairly quiet, as we got out to the beach, apart from a couple of Little Terns fishing just offshore, patrolling back and forth. A distant Fulmar flew east.

As we walked back along the bank, three Curlews flew in from the east and continued on over the reedbed, possibly birds freshly returned from their breeding grounds further north. Someone walking the other way stopped us to ask if we had seen any Bearded Tits. We were just explaining where we had seen them, when we looked over and saw a pair perched up in the tops of the reeds just ahead of us!

Back at the car, the Kestrels were still alarm calling and we still could not see why. We happened to glance back out across the grazing marshes and saw a large white shape in the distance, at the far end of the Serpentine. A Spoonbill had just flown in, having waited until we had left. Thankfully we had seen plenty yesterday.

Popping into the Cley Visitor Centre briefly, it sounded like there were a few waders out on the reserve, so we decided to head out to the hides for the last hour or so. As we walked out along the boardwalk, four more Spoonbills flew up from out on Billy’s Wash and circled round over the north end of the reserve. Three headed off west, but one circled back onto the reserve.

We went into Dauke’s Hide and a quick scan of the scrapes revealed a small wader on Pat’s – Pool with rusty underparts and a long, downcurved bill. It was a Curlew Sandpiper, a smart adult just starting to moult out of breeding plumage. We had a great look at it through the scope. Presumably it had just dropped in on its way south from its central Siberian breeding grounds.

Curlew Sandpiper

Curlew Sandpiper – a smart adult still in breeding plumage

There were a couple of Spotted Redshanks too, one each on Pat’s Pool and Simmond’s Scrape. We had much better views of these than the ones we had seen at Titchwell yesterday, looking resplendent in their silver-spotted black breeding plumage. There was a single Ruff here too, another tatty looking individual, rapidly moulting out first its ornate ruff.

Numbers of Black-tailed Godwits here have been building nicely and as we looked through the flock, we spotted one which was decorated with a load of coloured plastic lings on each leg. It was a bit distant at first, but then something flushed all the waders and it eventually landed back down near the front. Now we could confirm one of the rings was lime green with a black ‘E’, which meant it was a nominate limosa or Continental Black-tailed Godwit from the Nene Washes. We could also see it was carrying a geolocator on one of its rings.

Continental Black-tailed Godwit

Continental Black-tailed Godwit – a nominate limosa from the Nene Washes

There are two races of Black-tailed Godwit which turn up here regularly. Most of the birds we normally see are birds from Iceland, islandica. There are only about 40 pairs of Continental Black-tailed Godwit which breed in this country, on the Ouse and Nene Washes, so it is always an interesting bird to see.

A Spoonbill appeared from the reeds in the back corner of Simmond’s Scrape – presumably the one we had seen earlier, doubling back in this direction. There were lots of Teal out on the scrapes too. When we heard Bearded Tit calling close by, we looked out of the flaps on one side of the hide, to see one of this year’s juveniles in the reeds nearby.

Bearded Tit

Bearded Tit – a juvenile, perched up in the reeds

It was time to head back now. We still had a busy evening ahead and needed to get something to eat beforehand.

Nightjar Evening

After a couple of hours rest, we met up again early in the evening. Our first target was Little Owl, so we headed up to a regular site for them.

As we got out of the car and started scanning the roofs of the farm buildings, one of the group noticed a bird perched on a wooden crate just across from where we had parked. A Little Owl! We had a good look at it through binoculars, as it stood there looking at us, before it eventually flew back over the field behind and we lost site of it.

Little Owl

Little Owl – perched on a wooden crate near where we parked

We couldn’t have asked for a much better start to the evening. We carried on our scan of the farm buildings, and promptly found another Little Owl sunning itself on one of the roofs. This one we got in the scope. There was also a Red-legged Partridge on the roof of one of the sheds and a smart male Yellowhammer in perched in the top of the oilseed rape in the field next door.

Having scored so quickly with the Little Owls, we moved on to look for Barn Owls next. We had just started to drive round a site where we see them regularly, when we noticed what looked like a piece of white plastic tucked in among the branches of a tree. We reversed back for a closer look and our suspicions were confirmed – it was the almost pure white Barn Owl again.

Barn Owl 1

Barn Owl – the almost pure white bird was out again this evening

We were busy watching the white Barn Owl when one of the group noticed a second, normal coloured Barn Owl flying across the meadows further back. While we were looking at that one, disappearing off over the road on the far side, the white bird took off and flew past us. It quartered the meadow, then flew round and disappeared back behind a line of trees.

Barn Owl 3

Barn Owl – this normal one flew right past us, hunting

We walked back up the road for another look, but there was no further sign of the white Barn Owl. We did find a normal one out hunting. We had great views of it flying round over the meadows, then it came in and flew right past in front of us. It landed on an old pump on the edge of a drainage ditch and stood there for a few minutes looking round.

Barn Owl 2

Barn Owl – landed on an old pump out on the marshes

After a while, the Barn Owl flew back over the marshes and landed in the dead branches right in the top of a line of bushes over the far side. We drove on and when we stopped again, we could see the white Barn Owl again, hunting round a different field this time. We had a quick walk out along the bank which runs round the edge of the marshes here, but there were no more Barn Owls. We did find a nice pair of Grey Partridge in the grass beside the track.

The owls had done us proud tonight, and it was now time to head up to the heath for the evening’s main event. We were still walking out to the middle of the heath and not even in position when the first Nightjar called, a touch early tonight. We turned to see it flying across to the edge of the trees.

We walked a short distance further up to where we could see across, and found the Nightjar perched on one of its favourite branches, churring. We got it in the scope and everyone managed to have a quick look at it before it took off again, unfortunately not stopping to pose for photos tonight. We watched as it disappeared off over the heath.

After an early start from the first Nightjar, the others were very slow to get going tonight. It was a clear night, with a very bright half moon and the temperature was dropping too. We walked on to another territory and stood listening. Eventually a Nightjar started churring in the distance, quickly followed by another further over.

The Woodcock were very slow to get going tonight too. Finally we heard a squeaky call and looked across to see two roding, flying in close formation high across the heath with slow flappy wingbeats. They disappeared behind some trees.

Finally, the Nightjar whose territory we had come over to started churring, in a large oak tree out in the middle. We stood and listened and after a while it flew in straight towards us. It flew right round us, flashing the white patches in its wings and the corners of its tail which was held spread out. Great close flight views! It didn’t go over to its favourite churring perch though, but landed down in the gorse just behind us, out of view. A few seconds later it flew out again, right past us, and back out to the oak tree in the middle.

It felt like the Nightjar had come in to check us out. We stood and listened to it churring out in the middle, but it never did come in to favourite its churring perch tonight – perhaps it was put off by us standing there? We could hear two other Nightjars churring either side.

The light was finally starting to fade so it was time to head back. On our way to the car, another different male Nightjar started churring in a tree just above us as we walked past. Unfortunately it didn’t stay for us to find it, but took off, wing clapping, as we walked round to try to look for it. It did serenade us as we walked off the heath though, a good way to end the day.

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