Monthly Archives: April 2019

24th Apr 2019 – Spring has Sprung

A Day Tour in North Norfolk today. It was another lovely warm, sunny morning. It did cloud over early afternoon, and we had a brief shower, but it passed through very quickly and then brightened up again afterwards – not enough to put a dampener on another lovely spring day’s birding.

We headed out to Burnham Overy Dunes for the morning, with the warblers in and in full voice again. As we walked down the track, a Common Whitethroat was singing in the top of the hedge. Over the stile, a Lesser Whitethroat was rattling, with a Blackcap singing the other side and our first Sedge Warbler tucked down out of view in the brambles beside the ditch. A Cetti’s Warbler shouted at us and flew across the track, flashing its deep chestnut upperparts.

The grazing marshes by the track here are drying out fast. There were still a few Lapwings, with one displaying over the remaining muddy pools, and several Oystercatchers, but there are fewer waders than usual here. Five Golden Plover were walking around out on the short grass, moulting into summer plumage, with one in particular sporting a noticeable black face and belly.

Golden Plover

Golden Plover – five were out on the grazing meadow this morning

Continuing on down the track, we heard several more Sedge Warblers singing but they were hiding too and we had mostly glimpses. We heard a Grasshopper Warbler reeling ahead of us, and walked up slowly towards it. Scanning the brambles, we spotted it half hidden in the top of one clump. We got it in the scope and had a look at it. We were hoping to get a bit closer, but just at that point two Environment Agency vehicles came steaming down the track and it dived back into cover.

We carried on to the end of the track, where a more obliging Sedge Warbler was singing, climbing up to the top of a small briar, before songflighting over to the brambles by the seawall, singing from there for a bit and then songflighting back again. We stopped to watch it, getting a good look at its bold creamy white supercilium. The Grasshopper Warbler started reeling again, back along the track.

Sedge Warbler

Sedge Warbler – the last one along the track was much more obliging

When we finally got up on the seawall, we could see why the Environment Agency workers had been in such a hurry – they were still sat in the vehicles drinking tea! They had come to mow the seawall, but had only got half the job done yesterday and were clearly in no hurry to finish.

The tide was in out in the harbour and there were a few waders roosting in the vegetation on the saltmarsh. We stopped to look at the Black-tailed Godwits, increasingly rusty as they moult into breeding plumage, and a single Grey Plover still in noon-breeding plumage. A small group of Turnstones were roosting further back, on the edge of the harbour channel. A pair of Mediterranean Gulls circled high over the harbour, calling.

As we walked on along the sea wall, we could hear a Reed Warbler singing in the reeds along the ditch below. Its rhythmic song was very different to the Sedge Warblers we had heard earlier. A large flock of Brent Geese flew in across the harbour and landed on the saltmarsh, lingering winter visitors. Two Whimbrel were feeding nearby. Slim, short-billed and dark brown, through the scope we could their distinctive central crown stripe too. A Sand Martin flew over, surprisingly the only hirundine we saw on the move again today.

Stopping on the last corner of the seawall, we scanned the grazing marshes. Three Wheatears were hoping around in the short grass. There is a bit more water still in the pools here, and some of the Lapwings here had small fluffy chicks which were feeding around the edges. We could see some ducks around the muddy margins too – a few lingering Wigeon and Teal, plus Shoveler, Mallard and Gadwall. Most of the Pink-footed Geese have long since departed north, but a gaggle of about 100 was still out on the marshes beyond, with a pair of Barnacle Geese too.

While watching the geese, one of the group spotted an Otter walking across the middle of the grass. The geese put their heads up, and the whole flock of Pink-footed Geese seemed to be shepherding the Otter. It flushed a Brown Hare from the grass too, which ran up and down in front of the geese. From time to time the Otter would lie down in the grass – we couldn’t tell whether it was resting or looking for something to eat, perhaps eggs or a young nestling?

Otter

Otter – being shepherded by Pink-footed Geese and flushing a Hare

Out at the boardwalk, a Chiffchaff was  flitting around in the bushes, probably a freshly arrived migrant. Heading on into the dunes, there were lots of Linnets and Meadow Pipits feeding in the short grass. And lots more Wheatears, lingering migrants, feeding up before continuing journey north, flashing their white tails as they flew off ahead of us.

We walked up to the top of the first ridge and stopped to scan the dunes, but there was no sign of any Ring Ouzels here today. As we Continued on east, a Cuckoo flew off behind us, chased by Meadow Pipit. A pair of Stonechats were perched on the bushes and we spotted a Whinchat down on the grass just beyond the fence. While we were looking at it through the scope, it flew and we didn’t see where it went.

A Song Thrush was feeding on the top of the next ridge and when it flew back into a small holm oak just beyond, two darker birds flew in with it – Ring Ouzels. We could see a female tucked in the middle of the bush, with a brown-tinged pale gorget, though it was not a great view. They flew back down into the dunes so we walked up to the ridge to see if we could see them on the ground.

They are often very nervous and flighty here and as soon as we put our heads over the top, three Ring Ouzels flew off over dunes behind us calling. We thought that might be it, but then another one started chacking, still in the bushes. As we tried to get round to the other side, it flew out and helpfully landed in the top of some nearby brambles, where we could get a good look at it. It was a smart male, with a bright white gorget.

Ring Ouzel

Ring Ouzel – this male perched up nicely in the brambles

Looking out across the grazing meadows from the dunes, we could see a few Spoonbills distantly on the pool below the wood. Nearby, we could just make out two Cattle Egrets walking around with the cows. A Great White Egret was easier to see, standing on the edge of the reeds. Looking out the other way, towards the sea, a small flock of Common Scoter was flying past distantly offshore.

As we walked back through the dunes, there were still lots of Wheatears. One male perched on a fence post and didn’t fly off as we approached. We stopped to photograph it, then as we walked on, it stayed put. Eventually it allowed us to walk up until we were all just a few metres away from it. It seemed to like having its photo taken!

Wheatear

Wheatear – this male allowed us to get within just a few metres

Back out on the seawall, the breeze had picked up noticeably. Two Red Kites hung in the air over the seawall, before drifting away over the grazing marshes. The Environment Agency workmen had already finished the small amount of mowing with their remote-controlled mowers and were now sat in the van eating sandwiches. Tough work!

Along the track back towards the road, there were more butterflies out now in the shelter of the hedges. We had seen a few Speckled Woods on our walk out, but now there were a few Orange Tips and Holly Blues too.

Red Kite

Red Kite – two were hanging in the breeze along the seawall

It was almost time for lunch, so we climbed back into the van, but on our way we drove round via a complex of old barns. As we passed we could see a shape in one of the window openings, so we turned round and stopped to admire a Little Owl perched sunning itself. It looked at us nervously, considered its options for a bit, then flew inside.

Little Owl

Little Owl – sunning itself in the window of an old barn

We went to Holkham for lunch, where we could use the facilities in The Lookout café and get a drink. Afterwards, a quick check of the pool in front revealed a Little Ringed Plover and a Pied Wagtail feeding around the edge. Two Mistle Thrushes were feeding out on the grazing marshes in front of the van.

Our first stop of the afternoon was at Wells. As we walked down the track, we could see lots of ducks on the pools – more Teal, Gadwall, Mallard, Shoveler, and one or two Wigeon still with them. A drake Garganey was feeding over towards the far side and when it raised its head from time to time we could see its bold white supercilium.

Garganey

Garganey – a drake feeding out on the pools

There were lots of spring passage waders on here too. We could see four Greenshanks together and then heard at least one more calling out of view away to our right. There were several Ruff, males which had mostly acquired their bright breeding plumage but not yet the ornate ruffs – although one had already lost its neck feathers in preparation. We got a rather dark blackish one in the scope for a closer look. A Common Sandpiper was bobbing its way along the far bank and a Common Snipe was hiding in the rushes in the middle.

Scanning the pools the other side of the track, we could see at least five Wood Sandpipers, with bright white spangled backs and well marked pale supercilium, although they kept disappearing into the wet grass. Four Spotted Redshanks were a little further back, a couple of them already getting quite dusky as they moult into breeding plumage.

Wood Sandpiper

Wood Sandpipers – two of at least five here today

It had clouded over now and we could see some rather dark clouds gathering just inland but we thought we had enough time for a quick look at westernmost pool. A Wood Sandpiper was on here too, but as the birds had been flying around it was hard to say whether it was one of the five or a different bird. There were lots of Avocets, but no sign of any Snipe in the grass here today.

We decided to try to walk back before the rain arrived, but we hadn’t got far before it began to spit. We got caught by the shower, but thankfully it wasn’t one of the forecast thundery downpours but just very brief and very light. It had dried up before we even got back to the van. A Grey Partridge was calling, and ran out onto the track.

Moving on to Stiffkey, a Brown Hare and several Skylarks were in the meadow opposite the layby, and we could hear Lesser Whitethroat and Blackcap singing as we walked down the path. A Willow Warbler in an oak tree by the road was giving a rather half-hearted rendition of its song, but we got a good look at it as it flitted around in the half emerged leaves. Down by the river, we found a pair of Long-tailed Tits.

Willow Warbler

Willow Warbler – feeding in an oak tree by the road

Looking across to the Fen from the path, we could see a Green Sandpiper at the back, against the reeds, and two Common Sandpipers. The Little Gull was still here, hawking out over the water, occasionally dipping down or soaring up, alternately flashing its bright silvery grey upperparts and blackish underwings.

Little Gull

Little Gull – showing off its dark underwings

From up on the seawall, we had a better view of the whole Fen. Several Black-tailed Godwits and Common Redshanks were roosting in the shallow water. Over to one side, we found a Spotted Redshank feeding on the mud as well, another dusky bird, and we had a nice side by side comparison in the scope with one of the Common Redshanks. We could get the Green Sandpiper in the scope from here too.

There were lots of Black-headed Gulls out on the Fen, but we heard Mediterranean Gulls calling behind us and looked round to see a pair flying in low over saltmarsh behind us and in over seawall. A male Marsh Harrier flew low over the Fen and flushed everything, including a Yellow Wagtail which flew round calling.

Mediterranean Gull

Mediterranean Gull – two adults flew in low of the seawall

The tide was right out now but we had a quick walk round to look in the harbour. A Small Copper butterfly was basking on the gorse in the sun, the first we have seen this year. There were loads of Brent Geese loafing around on the mud in the harbour – it won’t be long now before they are on their way back to Siberia for the breeding season. There were some gulls out on the mud banks too, including several Great Black-backed Gulls.

We could see some very distant waders out on the mud in the middle, including several Bar-tailed Godwits, mostly now in bright rusty breeding plumage. One of them was carrying colour-rings, and we could make out a red flag on one thigh, but where it was walking most of its legs were hidden behind the mud in front.

Unfortunately it was time to start walking back now. We still managed to add a few birds to the day’s list on our way back to the van, a little group of Blue Tits and two Jays flying across the path into the wood. It had been another great day of spring migration birding out on the coast.

22nd Apr 2019 – Spring Migrants, Day 3

Day 2 of a three day Easter weekend tour today. It was another glorious, sunny day but a bit cooler than yesterday, in a fresher ENE wind. Still, it was lovely weather to be out again. We spent most of the day further east along the north Norfolk coast today.

Holkham has been very busy over Easter, with the car park filling up as lots of visitors came out enjoying the good weather, so we figured we would need to get in and out early. As we walked west on the inland side of the pines, there were lots of warblers singing in the trees and bushes – Blackcap, Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff and Sedge Warbler.

A Swallow flew over the pines heading east and we heard a Greenshank flying over too, calling. We saw our first Jays of the weekend in the poplars and lots of Speckled Wood butterflies flying over the path.

Jay

Jay – we saw several in the woods at Holkham

Salts Hole was quiet – part from the noisy Egyptian Geese flying in and out of the trees. Continuing on to Washington Hide, we could hear a Grasshopper Warbler reeling and the more rhythmic song of a Reed Warbler singing too in the reedbed, but both stayed well hidden.

Continuing on to Joe Jordan Hide, the first things we spotted as we opened the flaps were the two Cattle Egrets. They were some way off at first, not with the cows, feeding in a low-lying wet area further back. Then they flew in to join the cattle, coming a bit closer where we could get a better look at them in the scope. We watched one of them picking insects off the back of a calf which was lying down in the grass.

Cattle Egret

Cattle Egret – the two were still with the cattle at Holkham

There was lots of Spoonbill activity this morning, with regular comings and goings as birds flew down from the trees to the big pool below and back up again. One or two birds were bathing, while others were feeding in the shallow water or looking for nest material around the margins.

Spoonbill

Spoonbill – there was lots of coming and going this morning

A Grey Heron was standing motionless out on one of the smaller wet areas in the grass and several Little Egrets flew in and out of the trees too. A selection of ducks, Avocets and Redshanks were also down around the pools. A Mistle Thrush was feeding down in the grass below the hide.

We could have spent a lot longer here, but we wanted to move on before it got too busy. By the time we got back to Lady Anne’s Drive, there were lots of cars already parked most of the way down towards the main road now, and lots of people, dogs and horses, mostly heading straight out to the beach. We made a quick visit to The Lookout café, to use the facilities, and a Little Ringed Plover dropped down onto the pool in front calling. Then we made quick escape!

We drove east to Kelling next. There were a few warblers singing as we walked up the lane, including one or two Lesser Whitethroats rattling in the hedge. When we got to the copse, we found a few people looking for the Pied Flycatcher which had been seen here earlier, but there had been no sign of it for over an hour apparently. A Chiffchaff and a Blackcap were singing in the trees.

Rather than linger here, we continued straight on to the Water Meadow. A Common Sandpiper was bobbing up and down, feeding along the muddy edge, and a single Ruff was also feeding on the margin at the back. A dusky grey Spotted Redshank, still moulting into breeding plumage, was feeding out in the deeper water in the middle amongst several noisy Black-tailed Godwits. A nice selection of spring migrant waders.

Spotted Redshank

Spotted Redshank – gradually moulting into breeding plumage

With lots of people coming down to look for the flycatcher, it was busy down here now, with a steady stream of people walking past the pool. There had been a Wood Sandpiper here earlier but that had apparently flown off, and there was no sign of any Green Sandpiper or Greenshank either. In spring, birds are in a hurry to get to their breeding grounds, so they often don’t stay long. A lone Dunlin did fly in and drop down onto the shore while we were there, a migrant stopping off briefly to feed.

We walked back up the lane to where the cows were grazing at the other end of the Water Meadow. We could just see one or two Yellow Wagtails in the long grass, but there was still no sign of the Blue-headed Wagtail which had been with them earlier. Again it had presumably moved on quickly.

Yellow Wagtail

Yellow Wagtail – still two with the cows when we arrived

Two of the locals who just arrived from Cley told that two Wood Sandpipers were showing well from the East Bank there, so we decided to head straight over. As we parked at Walsey Hills, we noticed a Common Buzzard flying out of the trees with a big gap in one wing – possibly it had been shot at. It didn’t seem to be affecting its flying ability too badly though, and we watched as it decided to have a tussle with a second paler Buzzard over the trees.

Common Buzzards

Common Buzzard – fighting over the wood

A quick walk out on the East Bank was instantly rewarded with the two Wood Sandpipers, feeding on the small pools just below bank. They were very close and we had a really good look at them, dainty little birds with white-spangled upperparts and a noticeable pale supercilium. Wood Sandpipers are passage migrants here, passing through from their wintering grounds in Africa to breed in Scandinavia, and as we had found at Kelling can often move on quickly in spring, so it was great to catch up with them.

Wood Sandpiper

Wood Sandpiper – two were showing very well, close to the East Bank

There was a smart rusty male Ruff on the pools here too, just moulting into breeding plumage. It had already lots most of its pale grey/brown and white winter plumage, but was yet to get an ornate ruff and headdress. Male Ruffs have a two stage moult, getting a new set of body feathers first, before moulting the head and neck again later. There is no point carrying round that ruff for any longer than is necessary! Over the next month or so, this bird will acquire the rest of its breeding plumage before moving on to its breeding grounds in Scandinavia.

Ruff

Ruff – moulting into breeding plumage, but no ruff yet

It was rather cool up on the bank in the fresh easterly breeze. We had a quick scan of the rest of the marshes but otherwise we could only see a few ducks on Serpentine, mainly Teal and Gadwall. There were a few gulls on Pope’s Pool. It was already around 1pm so we decided to head back to the Visitor Centre for lunch.

After lunch, we drove back towards Salthouse for a quick look at the Iron Road. The pools here are drying out fast now, and looked to be quiet at first when we scanned from the road. Still, we walked down for a closer look and found a nice selection of birds still. The highlight was a smart White Wagtail which was feeding on the dried out mud on the front edge. We could see its bright silvery-grey upperparts, contrasting with the black top to its head.

White Wagtail

White Wagtail – feeding on the dry margin of the pool at Iron Road

There were a few waders too. Two Little Ringed Plovers were well camouflaged down on the dry mud, two Dunlin were picking around the edge of the water, and there were several Ruff towards the back, including a couple of females, Reeves. One of the Reeves was noticeably much smaller than the male Ruff it was with. A Marsh Harrier flew round low over the reeds beyond.

Carrying on back west, we stopped next at Stiffkey Fen. Two Grey Partridges were in the field across the road – we could see their heads when they stood up. The male was mostly keeping lookout, with the female presumably feeding, as it only put its head up once or twice. There were more warblers singing here – a Lesser Whitethroat rattling in the hedge, and one or two Blackcaps in the copse. A Yellowhammer flew over.

From the path down along the river, we could see a Green Sandpiper on the Fen beyond, but by the time we had got the scopes up it had disappeared behind the reeds. Continuing on up onto the seawall, we found two Green Sandpipers now feeding along the back edge. Four Little Ringed Plovers were flying round, chasing each other. There were also lots of Avocets, a few Redshanks and Black-tailed Godwits, and a single Grey Plover on the mud at the back.

There are always lots of gulls on the Fen through the summer, with a good number of breeding pairs of Black-headed Gulls. As we looked through, we could see two or three Common Gulls in amongst them. Then we noticed the Little Gull standing on the edge of one of the islands. It was much smaller than the Black-headeds, with white wing-tips and brighter orange legs. It is still moulting into breeding plumage, lacking a complete black hood yet. It took off, and we watched it hawking over the water, dip feeding, very agile, more like a tern, its pale silvery-grey upperwings contrasting with its blackish underwings.

Little Gull

Little Gull – dip feeding out over the water

After making our way back to the van, we continued on our way west to Wells. As we walked down the track, we scanned the pools. There were lots of ducks here on the flooded fields – Teal, Gadwall, Shoveler, and a few lingering Wigeon. Scanning through carefully, we found the pair of Garganey in with them, what we had come to see. Through the scopes we could see the bold white head stripe on the drake, when it lifted its head from feeding, and the ornate plumes on the grey back.

Garganey

Garganey – a pair, on the pools at Wells

There were lots of waders on the pool on the other side of the track. Two Spotted Redshanks were feeding in the shallow water, one was noticeably more dusky grey than the other, further advanced in its moult into its black breeding plumage. There was a Greenshank and another Wood Sandpiper with them too. There were certainly plenty of spring passage waders dropping in along the coast today.

A few Ruff were out on the pools too and scanning the clumps of rushes and wet grass carefully, we found two Common Snipe feeding. A Golden Plover flew overhead calling, and dropped down onto the grass at the back of the pool, presumably another migrant heading north.

There had apparently been a Jack Snipe seen earlier on another pool by the seawall, so we went over to look for it. We found several more Common Snipe here, but no sign of the Jack Snipe. Presumably it had gone into the thick grass and gone to sleep, as they typically do. Another Common Sandpiper was feeding along the bottom of the bank at the back. A male Marsh Harrier was displaying, twisting and tumbling high overhead.

It was time to wrap up now and head back. We had enjoyed a great three days out, with lots of spring migrants, in lovely weather and great company. Classic Norfolk April birding.

21st Apr 2019 – Spring Migrants, Day 2

Day 2 of a three day Easter weekend tour today. It was another glorious, sunny day with more blue skies. It was warmer today, with easterly winds now, but still very pleasant weather to be out birding. We spent most of the day exploring the coast of north-west Norfolk.

We were heading over to the Wash coast first thing this morning, but as we drove along the road we noticed a shape in the window of an old barn by the road. We pulled up and could see it was a Little Owl, looking over the old rotten window ledge, sunning itself in the morning light.

Little Owl

Little Owl – looking out of a barn window as we drove west

Our first destination for the day was Snettisham Coastal Park. As we walked in through the bushes, we could hear lots of warblers singing – Blackcap, Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff, Lesser Whitethroat and Common Whitethroat. We stood for a while and watched and gradually got views of each of them, to a greater or lesser extent. A female Bullfinch appeared in the willow tree along with a Willow Warbler and a Blackcap.

Chiffchaff

Chiffchaff – the bushes were alive with warbler singing

There were lots of Sedge Warblers singing too, over in the reeds beyond the bushes, and we could hear a Cetti’s Warbler shouting from away in that direction too. There seemed to be a steady procession of Mediterranean Gulls flying over calling too, which became a regular soundtrack for the morning from then on.

Continuing on north, we got out into a clear area. Several Wheatears were feeding on the short grass. At first, we found a couple of females but then a smart male appeared. As with the ones we saw yesterday, it had a rich burnt orange breast, a male Greenland Wheatear. A Greenfinch was feeding on the ground nearby with some Linnets.

Wheatear

Wheatear – a male of the Greenland subspecies

Going back into the bushes on the other side, there were yet more warblers singing. This is a great place to hear them, and they have clearly arrived in force in the last week, back from Africa and here for the breeding season. A Common Whitethroat was really going for it, singing and song-flighting between the bushes ahead of us. Presumably a recent arrival, staking out its territory and hoping to attract a mate. We could see its bright rusty wings, grey head and white throat.

Common Whitethroat

Common Whitethroat – singing and song-flighting from the tops of the bushes

Unfortunately there was a fire last year here, and afterwards a couple of big areas had been cleared. As we got out into the first of them, we found several more Wheatears feeding on the open ground. These used to be particularly good areas for Grasshopper Warbler, but after the fire and subsequent clearance of remaining scrub, the habitat is no longer suitable. Thankfully a few good areas of scrub still remain elsewhere on the site.

Up at the cross bank, we walked up onto the seawall. The tide was in on and the Wash was completely covered in water. Three Ringed Plovers were chasing each other on the stony beach below us.

We particularly wanted to look for some Yellow Wagtails here, as there had apparently been a Blue-headed Wagtail or hybrid with them earlier. But when we got to the cross bank, the cows were mostly sitting down, not what the wagtails like! We could see them flying round, and at least two of them flew off north, but at least two landed back down in amongst the cows.

As the cows started to stand up again and walk around, we could see there were more Yellow Wagtails than we had initially thought, five in total. But there had been twelve earlier and there was no sign of the Blue-headed Wagtail now, it must have flown off earlier. As the cows walked over to the inner seawall, the remaining five Yellow Wagtails flew off too, disappearing away to the north.

As we walked round to the inner seawall, three Whimbrels flew in and landed in the short grass between the banks. There must have been one here already as once we set up the scopes round on the other side, we could see four Whimbrels out in the grass. One walked down to the edge of a small pool to drink, where there were four sleeping godwits.

Whimbrel

Whimbrel – one of four feeding on the short grass

As we looked more closely, we could see there were three Black-tailed Godwits and a single Bar-tailed Godwit with them, presumably pushed off the Wash by the high tide and roosting here. The Bar-tailed Godwit was still in non-breeding plumage and very worn, but we could see its shorter legs, more obvious supercilium, and more heavily marked upperparts.

We walked back south along the inner seawall. Scanning the marshes the other side, we spotted a small group of Pink-footed Geese. Like we had seen yesterday, a very small number are still lingering here, whereas most have already gone north some time ago to stage on their way back to Iceland.

There were more warblers along here, including a particularly showy Sedge Warbler, which we stopped to watch. A Reed Warbler was singing in the reeds by the ditch on the edge of the marshes below us, its song more metronomic than the Sedge’s. There were still some good areas of scrub not touched by the fire on this side, but it was the middle of the day now and the Grasshopper Warblers seemed to have gone quiet.

Sedge Warbler

Sedge Warbler – there were lots singing all over Snettisham now

Back towards the road, we dropped down off  the seawall and followed one of the paths into the bushes to cross back over to the other side. Finally, a Grasshopper Warbler started reeling. We had a fleeting glimpse of it as it dropped down into the brambles, then it went quiet. Thankfully, we had seen one yesterday but they are always great birds to hear and good to know that one or two continue to survive at this site.

Cutting back across to the minibus, we drove a short distance back along the road just as far as the entrance to the RSPB car park. The male Ring Ouzel was still in the field here, hopping around in the short grass amongst the molehills. We could see its striking white gorget. We walked round to the gate as the light would be better from there, but just as we got there something spooked it and it flew across to the far side.

Ring Ouzel

Ring Ouzel – in the field on the other side of the road

We made our way round to Titchwell next, although we had to take a detour inland to avoid the long queue of traffic backed up from the traffic lights, due to the number of people coming up for the Easter weekend to enjoy the good weather. Despite the number of people on the coast this weekend, Titchwell car park was surprisingly quiet and we had no trouble finding a space!

It was time for lunch, so we made good use of the tables in the picnic area. While we were eating, the warden emerged from the trees to say that there was a Spotted Flycatcher there. We could see it as it flew between the branches up in the tops.

Spotted Flycatcher

Spotted Flycatcher – in the trees by the picnic area at Titchwell

After lunch, we headed out onto the reserve. There was no sign of the Whinchat which had been seen earlier around the grazing meadow. As we got out of the trees, a Reed Warbler was singing in reeds.

At the reedbed pool, we could see a male Red-crested Pochard towards the back, sporting its bright orange punk haircut. There were a few Common Pochard on here too, as well as a single Great Crested Grebe and a couple of Little Grebes. A male Marsh Harrier put on a good display, quartering over the reeds in front of us.

We could hear Bearded Tits calling and looked across to see them zipping back and forth over the reeds. Then three flew out over the water chasing each other, and shot up higher into the air above the reeds where they proceeded to whirl round after each other, presumably in some sort of territorial dispute.

A steady procession of Mediterranean Gulls flew past, in amongst the Black-headed Gulls, their distinctive calls alerting us each time to their imminent approach. The wing tips of the Mediterranean Gulls were translucent white against the sky, very different from the dusky underwings of the others.

Mediterranean Gull

Mediterranean Gull – flew overhead, calling, as we walked out

Out on the Freshmarsh, there were lots and lots of gulls. It seems to have been taken over by them again as a breeding colony! Scanning through them, we found a couple of small groups of Sandwich Terns and through the scope we could see their spiky black crests and yellow-tipped black bills.

There are still lots of Teal here, and quite a few Shoveler. Small groups of Brent Geese flew in and out from the saltmarsh on the Thornham side of the bank. It will not be long now before they are on their way back to Russia for the breeding season.

There were not many waders on here today. A few Avocets were feeding in the water or standing around on the islands. Further back, we could see one Ruff and a couple of Black-tailed Godwits. Two Little Ringed Plover were on the shore just beyond Parrinder Hide, so we went round there for a closer look. From the hide, we could see their golden yellow eye rings.

Little Ringed Plover

Little Ringed Plover – a pair were just outside Parrinder Hide on the walk out

There was a closer view of the gulls from here too. We got a smart adult Mediterranean Gull in the scope,  noting its jet black hood with white eyelids, bright red bill and white wing tips. Looking into the melee of gulls out on the fenced off ‘Avocet Island’, we could make out a lot of pairs of Mediterranean Gulls in the colony just on the basis of their darker black heads compared to the more numerous Black-headed Gulls (which actually have a chocolate brown hood!).

We made a bid for the sea next. As we passed Volunteer Marsh, we could see four Grey Plover and a single Bar-tailed Godwit down in the muddy channel at the far side. Out at the beach, the tide was right out. Perhaps not surprisingly, there were lots of people, dogs and even a couple of horses out on the and or clambering over the mussel beds. As a consequence, there was a dearth of waders today. There were a few Oystercatchers away to the left, and a little group of Dunlin and one or two Grey Plover with some Bar-tailed Godwits on the shore, at least until they were flushed by the horseriders.

Looking out to sea, a single Common Tern flew past just offshore. Out on the water, there were still quite a number of Great Crested Grebes. Further out, we found a couple of Red-breasted Mergansers, although given the distance and heat haze, it was not the best of views!

We had a brisk walk back, but when we got back to the van one of the group had disappeared. A search party was dispatched and eventually he was relocated. It turned out he had lost the rubber cap from the end of his binoculars and we had lost him when he had gone back to look for it!

A Purple Heron had been found this morning at Burnham Norton, where we had been yesterday afternoon, and we wanted to try to see it on our way back this afternoon. Thankfully there were spaces in the parking area when we arrived, and we set off along the path to the seawall. The male Marsh Harrier circled up right in front of us, carrying a stick in its talons, as the female circled above. He was probably showing off the nest material he had gathered to her!

Marsh Harrier

Marsh Harrier – a male, carrying nest material

Up on the seawall, we found out why there were spaces in the car park as most people had gone already. Thankfully one person appeared and pointed us in the right direction and it didn’t take too long to find the Purple Heron hiding in a ditch. At first we could just see its head and long dagger-shaped bill when it looked up, then it walked up onto the edge of the field and we had a really good view of it.

Purple Heron

Purple Heron – feeding in the ditches at Burnham Norton

Then the Purple Heron flew over the fence, and landed in the next field, before walking down into the ditch that side. We could just see its head again. But that ditch was obviously not to its liking, as it walked back out and stood in the field for a couple of minutes, trying to work out what to do, before flying back over. It landed at the back of the field this time and looked around, before walking down into another areas of reeds to feed. Purple Heron is a very scarce visitor here, and this was a young bird in its 1st summer, which had probably overshot on its way up from Africa to its breeding grounds on the continent.

It was time to call it a day now, so we walked slowly back to the van. As we were driving back to the main road, we looked across to see four Fieldfares in the paddocks. These are winter visitors here, presumably stopping off to feed before heading out over the North Sea back to Scandinavia. It seemed an odd combination, to see Purple Heron one minute, then Fieldfares the next. It is not often you will find that combination so close together!

20th Apr 2019 – Spring Migrants, Day 1

Day 1 of a three day Easter weekend tour today. It was a glorious, bright, sunny day with wall to wall blue skies. It was hot out of the wind, but a very light NE breeze kept temperatures more comfortable on the coast. Great birding weather! We spent the day exploring the centre of the North Norfolk coast.

Burnham Overy Dunes was our destination for the morning. As we walked down the track across the fields we could hear the rattling song of a Lesser Whitethroat in the blackthorn. It was typically skulking, but we saw it as it flew out and landed in the bushes the other side. A pair of Bullfinches flew along ahead of us, perching low down on the edge of the path, the bright pink male glowing in the sunshine. A Willow Warbler sang briefly, but then flew past us and seemed to move quickly inland.

Looking up, we noticed two Barnacle Geese flying in across the track. They landed out on the grazing meadows with a large flock of grey geese. The Barnacles were most likely feral birds, which breed in Holkham Park, but the grey geese were Pink-footed Geese, about 100 of them. Most of the wintering birds left back in February to stage further north, but these had stayed on and would soon need to be leaving on the journey back to Iceland for the breeding season. There were a couple of Greylags with them, giving us a nice comparison between the two species, and two Egyptian Geese as well.

Geese

Barnacle Geese – two flew in to join the lingering Pink-footed Geese

There were surprisingly few hirundines moving today, probably due to the NE wind. But a Swallow did fly over as we were walking out, closely followed by a Sand Martin.

Out over the grazing marshes, a Sedge Warbler was singing from the briars beside the track. We stopped to watch it and heard a Grasshopper Warbler reeling a bit further up. It was skulking in some brambles but we positioned ourselves to see it and after a minute or so it appeared in the top, typically just as two people were walking past. It promptly dropped straight back in! After a while, the Grasshopper Warbler appeared again and this time we could get it in the scope.

Sedge Warbler

Sedge Warbler – several were singing from the bushes by the path

Our first Spoonbill of the morning had already flown past distantly, heading out towards the harbour. Then, while we were listening to the Grasshopper Warbler, another Spoonbill appeared right next to us, feeding in a small pool. We watched it with its head down, sweeping its bill from side to side through the water, occasionally throwing its head back to swallow something. It seemed to be catching a lot! It was an adult – we could see its yellow-tipped black bill – and in breeding condition, with a bushy nuchal crest, bright red fringed yellow skin under the bill and a mustard wash across its breast.

Spoonbill

Spoonbill – feeding on a small pool right by the path

There were more Sedge Warblers singing further down the track, they had clearly arrived in good numbers now. At the junction with the seawall, another Willow Warbler was singing. This one we could see, flitting around in the top of some low brambles. This is not a likely territory for a Willow Warbler, so the two we had seen on the walk out were probably migrants, fresh in, just stopping here to feed on their way to their breeding sites.

Up on the seawall, the tide was in and the harbour channel was full of water. Several waders were roosting out on the islands of saltmarsh, Avocets, Redshanks and Black-tailed Godwits. Some of the godwits are getting very rusty now on their heads and breasts as they moult into breeding plumage, and we stopped to look at one dark chestnut bird which was clearly of the Icelandic race.

Looking out over the grazing marshes from here, there were still a few pools out in the grass, although they are starting to dry out steadily now. There were a few ducks dozing around the margins, mainly Teal and a few Wigeon, still lingering winter visitors. A large flock of Brent Geese flew over from the harbour and landed on the saltmarsh – it won’t be long now before they are leaving on their way back to Siberia for the breeding season.

There were two Wheatears out on the saltmarsh too, but they were very distant and disappeared into the vegetation. They were a little like buses today, and once we got out into the dunes, there were a lot more Wheatears feeding on the short grass. There were two more just past the boardwalk bushes and as we started to walk east, we counted at least eight together on the first slope. The males were rather deep burnt orange on the breast, suggesting they were birds of the Greenland race.

Wheatear 1

Wheatear – there were at least 20 in the dunes today

Over the ridge, there were yet more Wheatears. But as we stopped to scan the dunes ahead, we noticed two Ring Ouzels on the opposite slope. We got them in the scope and could see their bright white gorgets, two males. They flew lower down, out of view, so we walked round for a closer look.

We positioned ourselves where we could watch the Ring Ouzels feeding quietly and thankfully we had already enjoyed a good long look before two cyclists appeared at the top of the dunes. The Ring Ouzels were nervous and one flew up into the top of a nearby bush. The cyclists presumably saw us, because they stopped, but then came over the top and flushed the Ring Ouzels, which flew away east over the dunes. We watched the cyclists riding their bikes off in that direction too.

Ring Ouzel

Ring Ouzel – we had great views of two males on the walk out

Carrying on through the dunes ourselves, in the same direction, we could see the Ring Ouzels flying off again ahead of us. We also flushed several Song Thrushes from the bushes as we passed, migrants stopping off to feed in the dunes before heading back over the sea to the continent. There were yet more Wheatears along here too.

We had heard a Cuckoo calling on and off as we walked out. Now we spotted it flying past, over the bushes just beyond the fence to the south of us. It was being pursued relentlessly by a Meadow Pipit. The Cuckoo tried to land, but realised it wouldn’t get any peace, so headed off west, the pipit following it all the way. Meadow Pipit is a favoured host for the Cuckoos here!

A Siberian Chiffchaff had been reported in the bushes just before the pines, so we made our way over to see if we could see it. But the only chiffchaffs we could find were Common Chiffchaffs. There were a couple of Blackcaps singing here and, as we looped round through the pines to the start of the track, we could hear a Goldcrest singing. As we stopped by the gate and had a quick look out over the grazing marshes, we could see a couple of Coal Tits, two Long-tailed Tits and the Goldcrests on the sunny edge of the pines.

Walking back through the dunes, we looked across the grazing marshes and spotted a Bittern distantly in flight. We watched as it flew across and dropped down into the reeds over by the seawall. Presumably the same Ring Ouzels were back again where we had seen them earlier, but there were at least three now. We could see a pair, the female with a duller brown-tinged gorget and a separate male. Back at the boardwalk bushes, a Blackcap was flycatching from the apple tree but there was no sign of the Firecrest reported earlier.

Back along the seawall, we could hear a Bittern booming out in the reedbed, presumably the bird we had seen fly in earlier. It was well hidden down in the reeds now though. We could hear Bearded Tits calling on and off, but despite scanning the edges of the pools, we couldn’t see them. They were keeping well tucked down in the reeds too.

Along the track, the butterflies were more active now it had warmed up. We saw several Holly Blue and Speckled Wood fluttering around the Alexanders in the verges. A Common Whitethroat was singing from the hedge by the road back at the van and with a bit of patience it eventually appeared in the top.

We headed down to Holkham briefly to use the facilities. It was very busy here and there were so many cars parked on Lady Anne’s Drive it was full, despite the fact that they had a field open as an overflow car park. They were turning people away! A few House Martins and Swallows whirled around the houses in the village.

We made our way back to Burnham Norton for lunch, passing a small group of Red Deer out in one of the fields by the Park on the way. We sat on the grass in the sunshine and enjoyed the view, looking out over the marshes. A Grey Heron flew in and landed in the ditch in front of us, where it stood motionless, fishing. A Mistle Thrush was feeding out on the grass beyond.

Grey Heron

Grey Heron – flew in to feed in the ditch while we ate our lunch

After lunch, as we put our bags back in the van, a Sparrowhawk circled over the car park. We could see a Red Kite circling over the marshes to the east and as we walked out along the bank a second Red Kite flew past and joined it. There were several Common Buzzards up too now, circling in the warm air. A smart grey male Marsh Harrier drifted over the path in front of us.

Red Kite

Red Kite – two drifted over the grazing marshes after lunch

There were a few Pied Wagtails feeding around the dried up pools out on the grazing marsh, and we noticed a much paler one in with them, a White Wagtail, the continental cousin of our Pieds and a migrant passing through here. While we were watching the White Wagtail, one of the group spotted a Whimbrel feeding on the grass further back. It was noticeably small and dark, slim and short-billed, particularly compared with the bigger, greyer Curlew nearby.

From out on the seawall, we spotted a group of Yellow Wagtails which flew up from around the cows out in the middle. They circled round and landed by some more cows but, typically they were half hidden now behind a bramble hedge and the ground sloped away just beyond where the cows were standing. We could just see one or two of the Yellow Wagtails around the cows’ feet from time to time. Two more Whimbrels were also out in the short grass here, along with three Wheatears.

A Cuckoo flew in and landed in the bushes just below the seawall ahead of us. We could see it picking at a web on a stem in front of it, eating caterpillars, most likely of the Brown-tail moth. We were watching it in the scope but could see a woman walking towards us along the seawall. The Cuckoo took off, but then flew right past giving us a great view and landed on a bush behind us.

Cuckoo

Cuckoo – flushed and flew right past us along the seawall

We stopped to look out across the harbour channel, and could see lots of gulls on the sandbanks down among the boats over towards Burnham Overy Staithe. A pair of Lesser Black-backed Gulls were in with the Black-headed Gulls. The pools on the corner of the seawall are looking really good for waders at the moment. We had a quick look hoping for perhaps a migrant sandpiper, but all we could find today were Black-tailed Godwits and Redshanks.

We took the path which cuts back across the middle of the grazing marsh. It was still a bit wet in places, but just about passable. The Yellow Wagtails were flying round and one landed briefly in the top of a bare bush. Some of the cows were lying down, so the Yellow Wagtails flew over and settled again around the feet of some other that were feeding in the middle, unfortunately they chose the cows which were just behind a line of low reeds from us.

A Reed Warbler was singing quietly, but stopped before we could get closer to it. So we walked over to where it had been and stopped to listen while we watched to see if the wagtails would show themselves. A Chinese Water Deer was feeding on the back of the field the other side of the path.

There was a nice selectin of ducks in the channel which crossed the marshes in front of us. A pair of Shoveler, a few Tufted Ducks and a pair of Common Pochard. A female Wheatear flew in and landed on the top of a bush right in front of us. A Cetti’s Warbler shouted from the ditch just behind us but we still couldn’t see it.

Wheatear 2

Wheatear – this female landed in a bush right next to us

Some of the cows walked over to graze just across the ditch from where we were standing, and the ones which had been behind the reeds came back round into the field our side. We had hoped the Yellow Wagtails might fly over to the closer cows but even though more and more cows came over to our side of the field, the wagtails remained stubbornly out in the middle, even when there were just two cows left there. At least we could see the Yellow Wagtails now – at least eight of them. We had hoped there might be one of the continental subspecies with them, but we could not see they were all of the British race, flavissima.

It was lovely to stand and look out over the marshes in the afternoon sunshine, but it was time to call it a day now. Still, we had another day to look forward to tomorrow.

31st Mar-6th Apr 2019 – Extremadura, Land of the Conquistadors

A week-long International Tour to Extremadura in Spain, organised together with our friends from Oriole Birding. We had a couple of showery mornings, but the weather was generally very good, with some sunshine for most of the week, and nice temperatures, warm but not too hot. Perfect for birding!

SUNDAY 31ST MARCH

Our flight from Gatwick arrived early into Madrid, but the car hire company was typically chaotic – our minibus had to be brought in from off-site and a Spanish ’10 minutes’ turned into quite a bit longer, particularly when they forgot they had to give us the keys! Eventually we got away and set off for the long drive down to Trujillo.

Our first birds in the outskirts of the city were Spotless Starlings, which were then a regular feature of the journey. As expected in this part of Spain, there were plenty of raptors to be seen from the road – several Black Kites, a couple of Marsh Harriers, Eurasian Kestrels and a Common Buzzard on post. As we got out into the open countryside, we started to see White Storks with many perched on large stick nests on buildings or pylons and one or two flying rather too low for comfort over the road. A couple of large flocks of Cattle Egrets were seen in the fields too. Unlike back home, there were lots of hirundines already in here – mainly Barn Swallows, plus a small group of House Martins. There were a few Common Swifts too and two Alpine Swifts flew over as the road crossed a deep river valley on a high bridge.

We only had time for a quick stop today at one of the services on the motorway, where three Crested Larks were running around in the car park. Continuing on our journey, a couple of Eurasian Hoopoes crossing the road confirmed we were now very much in southern Europe.

It was already late by the time we arrived at our hotel just outside Trujillo. After checking in, it was straight down for a welcome drink followed by a delicious dinner of local dishes. Most of the group had already retired to bed when those heading across the courtyard to their rooms heard a Eurasian Scops Owl singing in one of the trees in the front garden and managed to find it using a torch, perched up in the branches.

MONDAY 1ST APRIL

With the clocks having gone forward yesterday, it was still dark as we went down to breakfast this morning. The Scops Owl was singing in the garden again, and when we went out to listen we could hear a Woodlark singing in the pitch black too. After breakfast, as we were loading up the minibus, our first Iberian Magpies of the trip flew in across the road in a big mob.

We headed out onto the plains near Santa Marta de Magasca for the morning and at our first stop we were soon enjoying lots of singing Corn Buntings and Crested Larks. Two or three Northern Wheatears ran around on the short grass behind us and a flock of Spanish Sparrows whirled round. Our first Great Bustard was walking about in the grass among some bushes, a male, and a quick scan revealed a female nearby too. Another Great Bustard flew past, low overhead.

Great Bustard 1

Great Bustard – flew past us as we were watching two more out on the steppe

Then a Black Kite flew over too, and landed on a road sign nearby, while a couple more Black Kites circled over the hillside beyond together with a single Red Kite, and both Iberian Grey Shrike and Woodchat Shrike perched up on isolated bushes out in the short grass.

Moving on, we turned onto a rough drovers track and stopped again. A single male Great Bustard was partly puffed up on top of the ridge on one side, while another male was in full ‘foam bath’ display among some cattle on the other side. We eventually spotted a female Great Bustard nearby, when the cows moved, which was the target of his advances. When we heard Pin-tailed Sandgrouse calling, we looked up to see six flying high over the fields and we watched them drop down and land in the field by the bustards, where we got a good view of them in the scope, as another two flew in to join them.

Two Great Spotted Cuckoos were chased by a Eurasian Magpie, and landed in a bare bush up on the ridge, while we could hear a Common Cuckoo singing further over. Lots of Calandra Larks were flying round over the plains, singing – we could see their black underwings with a broad white trailing edge. There were more raptors here. A Black Vulture was standing in one of the fields, and several more Red Kites were on the ground too, including one with coloured wing tags. A couple of Common Buzzards flew across and a distant Little Owl was perched on the roof of an old barn.

While standing here, we heard a Little Bustard singing, an odd sound like a cross between someone blowing a raspberry and a frog! It was close by but we couldn’t see it, as it was just over a low ridge in the grass. After changing position several times to try to get an angle from which we could see it, finally it walked out into view and we could see its puffed out black and white neck, and we watched as it threw its head back as it sang.

It started to spit with rain now, so we drove down to the Rio Magasca river crossing for a coffee break. A quick walk down to the bridge afterwards added a couple of White Wagtails and a Grey Wagtail down by the river, singing European Serin and Cetti’s Warbler, with Crag Martins and Red-rumped Swallows whirling overhead. A European Bee-eater flew high over the gorge calling but a Rock Sparrow unfortunately flew off before anyone could see it.

As the rain started to fall more heavily, we hurried back to the minibus and moved on. A quick stop at a high point in the road produced a few more vultures standing around in the fields, mostly Griffon Vultures, and another Little Bustard displaying on a ridge behind us. A slow drive along the road across the steppes produced lots of larks, Meadow Pipits and Corn Buntings on the tarmac, presumably trying to get away from the wet grass.

Then as the rain finally started to ease again we made our way down to the Rio Almonte crossing for lunch. Lots of Barn Swallows and House Martins hawking low over the water were possibly migrants pushed down by the weather, because when the eventually stopped they circled up and moved on. Down along the river bank three Little Ringed Plovers, a Common Sandpiper and a European Robin were all welcome additions to the trip list.

Continuing on through Monroy, we stopped by a group of stone pines where several White Storks were perched high up on their nests. Finally the weather started to brighten up, and as we walked down the track, we found a couple of Thekla Larks, several Northern Wheatears and a pair of European Stonechats in the fields. A small group of Rock Sparrows flew up from the grass, flashing their white tail tips, and landed on the fence where we could all admire their head stripes. A singing Common Quail was well hidden in a thick wheat crop but a Hoopoe eventually gave itself up when one of the group found it in a small olive orchard. Several Iberian Magpies flew back and forth across the track.

Montagu's Harrier 1

Montagu’s Harrier – this male flew past as the weather warmed up

More raptors started to circle up now. Mostly Griffon Vultures at first, followed by a couple of distant Booted Eagles, then one much closer with a Marsh Harrier. A cracking male Montagu’s Harrier drifted low overhead. A kettle of White Storks circled up from the fields over the ridge, and a Black Vulture joined them. As the storks flew low back our way towards the pines, the Black Vulture came right over our heads too giving us a really close view.

Black Vulture

Black Vulture – came right over our heads

As we drove back towards Trujillo, a Great White Egret was standing by a pool beside the road, another new bird for the trip. We still had time for a stop at the bullring, where we stopped first to get a good look at the Spotless Starlings on the roof in the sunshine. Several Lesser Kestrels were zooming around in the sky above, with at least eight all together at one point.

Lesser Kestrel

Lesser Kestrel – at least 8 were circling together low over the bullring

A White Stork flying over was carrying a piece of plastic sack as nest material – it seems like plastic gets everywhere these days. Then it was time to head back to the hotel. As we drove up the track through the fields, we stopped to watch a female Sardinian Warbler wrestling with a large hairy caterpillar in the middle of the road.

White Stork

White Stork – flew in carrying plastic sacking for nest material

TUESDAY 2ND APRIL

The sun was just rising as we got out to Belen and it was a great view from the edge of the village looking out across the plains. A Hoopoe was calling as we got out of the minibus and a Red Fox was out in one of the fields. Scanning the rocks on the neighbouring slopes revealed a single Stone Curlew preening, which we had a good look at in the scope. There were also a few Northern Wheatears, a Thekla Lark and a Little Owl perched on a rock. Rather unexpectedly, a Green Sandpiper flew past. Three Great Bustards were very distant dots out on the plains.

As we drove slowly down the road, we heard a Little Bustard singing. We stopped and got out and managed to find it on a small patch of short grass on some slightly higher ground. It was displaying, its black and white neck puffed out. From time to time, it would stomp its feet several times and then leap into the air flapping its wings. Great to watch! Several Calandra Larks were singing too. Further on, two more Great Bustards were on a distant hillside.

Little Bustard

Little Bustard – displaying out on the plains this morning

We were heading for Monfrague this morning, so we cut across back towards the El Torrejon road. There were lots of small pools along here and we found a small party of Eurasian Spoonbills feeding on one as we passed by, a single Little Grebe on another and a Great White Egret too.

As we got up into the hills, we had a very brief stop at Arroyo de la Vid. It was rather quiet here apart from several European Serins singing, although one of the group had a brief Subalpine Warbler which was identified retrospectively. Then we continued quickly on to the Castillo before it got too busy there.

As we got out of the minibus, the first Griffon Vulture sailed low overhead, just over the tops of the trees, a taste of things to come. From up at the top by the Castillo, more vultures were passing at eye level or below, very close – quite a spectacle. Mostly Griffons at first, then joined by one or two Black Vultures, at least two Egyptian Vultures, a Booted Eagle and one or two Black Kites. It was a proper raptor-fest!

Griffon Vulture

Griffon Vulture – amazing to watch them passing at eye level!

Egpytian Vulture

Egyptian Vulture – at least two were flying around below the Castillo

We also saw our first Black Stork circle up in front of the crag beyond and two male Blue Rock Thrushes perched on the rocks, although they were rather distant from here.

Tearing ourselves away from all the activity at the Castillo, we headed back down and stopped for coffee at the Salto del Gitano mirador. There were lots more vultures here, including several close Griffon Vultures perched on the rocks which filled the frame in the scope. A Peregrine high above tussled with some of the vultures, and looked positively tiny by comparison as it swooped at them, and an Osprey flew past following the river valley.

Black Stork

Black Stork – coming in to land on the cliffs

We had closer views of Black Storks here, coming in to land on the cliffs opposite where they were nesting, and better views of Blue Rock Thrushes feeding around the rocks just below us, together with Black Redstarts and a Rock Bunting. As well as numerous Sardinian Warblers, a Subalpine Warbler perched up briefly, which allowed everyone to add it to their lists.

Blue Rock Thrush

Blue Rock Thrush – great views at the Salto del Gitano mirador

After stopping for lunch at Villareal, we continued on through the park. It was hot now, but the raptors at least were still active. At Mirador La Bascula, our first Short-toed Eagle drifted over and then while we stopped to scan the surrounding hills at La Higuerilla there were yet more vultures, Black Kites and a couple more Short-toed Eagles. Two Red Deer were bathing down in the river below and we got some really good views of a male Subalpine Warbler in the trees by the car park. We were hoping we might find Spanish Imperial Eagle from here, but there was no sign.

Subalpine Warbler 1

Subalpine Warbler – feeding in the trees in the car park

Stopping next at the mirador at Portilla del Tietar, another Black Stork circled over the gorge and we could see lots more Griffon Vultures nesting on the rocks opposite. A small flock of Rock Doves flew across the cliff, presumably close to genuine pure birds here, and two Crag Martins and several Red-rumped Swallows zipped round just overhead.

Red-rumped Swallow

Red-rumped Swallow – flying round above our heads

Then a Spanish Imperial Eagle appeared, very high in the sky behind us, just a small dot but we could see the distinctive shape of its wings and the white leading edge to its wings as it turned. It drifted slowly over and then started to display high over the rocks opposite. It twisted and tumbled a couple of times, and then we noticed something come up from behind the trees across the river. It was a second Spanish Imperial Eagle and we were treated to fantastic views as it circled up right in front of us, calling.

Spanish Imperial Eagle

Spanish Imperial Eagle – circled up in front of us calling

We still had time for a quick stop at Saucedilla on our way back. A Marsh Harrier was quartering the fields by the road on our way to the reserve, the first of several here, and lots of Sand Martins and Barn Swallows were gathered on the wires by the visitor centre. We walked out along the path, but somebody was fishing by the first small pool and there were no birds here today.

Thankfully there was a bit more activity in front of the first hide, with several Purple Herons flying in and out of the reeds, and two Common Kingfishers flying back and forth. Further on, we finally got to see a Zitting Cisticola properly! We could hear Purple Swamphens calling out in the reeds, but just got a brief glimpse of one flying over.

Unfortunately, we didn’t really have enough time to do the reserve here justice today. We decided to have a quick look for Black-winged Kite at a couple of regular spots, but perhaps we were still too early in the day for this typically crepuscular species and we drew a blank. A Eurasian Sparrowhawk flushed from the trees and we passed loads of Cattle Egrets in the fields before we had to turn round and head for home. A Great Peacock Moth was on view back at the hotel, before it was time for dinner.

WEDNESDAY 3RD APRIL

Our first destination for the morning was planned to be the steppes at Campo Lugar but as we drove south from Zorita, we found ourselves heading into increasingly thick fog. We turned back and stopped at the top of the hill to see if it might burn off as the sun rose. There were lots of Northern Wheatears on the short grass among the oaks, migrants stopping off to feed on their way north, along with several White Storks. Crested and Calandra Larks were singing all around and a distant Little Bustard could just be heard calling from somewhere over the hill.

There was no sign of the fog lifting, so we thought we would try Emblase de Alcollarin first instead, as it looked to be clear over in that direction. We drove into the fog again in the village of Alcollarin, but thankfully once we got up to the dam the visibility was much better. There was not much water in the reservoir, after a very dry winter here, but there were still plenty of birds to see. Lots of Great Crested Grebes significantly outnumbered the handful of Little Grebes, and there were a few Eurasian Coot, several Gadwall and three Northern Shoveler scattered around the water.

A Green Sandpiper and two Common Sandpipers were feeding with the Little Ringed Plovers along the shore below us. Right over on the far side, we could see two Wood Sandpipers with a little group of Black-winged Stilts and a very distant Gull-billed Tern resting on a small island. A Common Nightingale was singing from below the dam, presumably an early returnee as this was the only one we would hear all week.

As we drove round to the far end, the more distant arms of the reservoir were bone dry so we didn’t stop, although there were a few Greenfinches and a Woodchat Shrike in the trees as we passed. Thankfully there was still a lot of water in the smaller pool at the furthest end. Several White Storks and Little Egrets were standing on the small dam as we parked in the picnic area and an Egyptian Goose was feeding on the grass below. A Common Kingfisher zipped past and we could hear the White Storks on their nests in the trees bill clapping. Both Willow Warbler and Sedge Warbler were singing by the pool.

The fog appeared still to be getting worse back across the reservoir, so we went for a walk up along the track. A Woodlark was singing, several European Bee-eaters called from somewhere high overhead as they moved through and we could hear a couple of Common Cuckoos too before one flew across in front of us. A Short-toed Eagle hovered over the hillside and we found a couple of Eurasian Spoonbills typically asleep at the back of the pool.

On our way back to the picnic area, we stopped for a moment to watch two male Sardinian Warblers singing in the bushes, before we had a break for coffee. A small warbler with silvery white underparts appeared in the edge of one of the small trees, preening – a Western Bonelli’s Warbler, presumably stopping off on its way up into the hills, and a real bonus to find here.

The fog finally seemed to have lifted, so we decided to try our luck at Campo Lugar. It was the middle of the day now and hot with the sun out. It also didn’t help that the road was unusually busy, with a gang of workmen fixing the badly potholed surface. A Booted Eagle circled up as we passed. There were lots of Meadow Pipits in the fields and a small pale lark flew up from the verge and landed with them, a Greater Short-toed Lark.

Cutting across to the Santa Brava reservoir, we drove down to the dam first. There was a lot more water here, but fewer birds – more Great Crested Grebes and a few Black-headed Gulls. A bizarrely dyed, bright red Feral Pigeon on the building below drew lots of attention and looked very out of place! Eight more European Bee-eaters flew over calling, this time low enough to see as they passed quickly through.

Then we drove back to the picnic area for lunch, stopping briefly to look at two Hoopoes by the road. While we ate, a single Yellow-legged Gull flew across the water and there was time to look more closely at a selection of invertebrates in the short grass, including a basking Western Clubtail and several small Red-underwing Skippers.

Western Clubtail

Western Clubtail – basking on the rocks next to the picnic area

After lunch, we drove down through the ricefields. Again with the lack of rain, the channels here were mostly very dry, but we did flush a small group of wagtails from one wet ditch by the road. Two smart male Western Yellow Wagtails of the iberiae race landed out in the field with a few White Wagtails.

The pools just before Madrigalejo did have water in them. When we stopped to photograph some Black-winged Stilts close to the road and found a smart drake Garganey, a couple of Wood Sandpipers and a pair of Little Ringed Plovers too. A Common Snipe darted across but too quick for everyone to get onto. A Willow Warbler was feeding in some sallows, two Zitting Cisticola were collecting nest material and a Eurasian Reed Warbler was singing nearby.

Black-winged Stilt

Black-winged Stilt – on some pools out in the ricefields

Our next stop was at Moheda Alta. The wind had picked up now, and it was quite breezy up on the bank of the reservoir. Two Shelducks and three Northern Pintail were lingering winter visitors, in with the flock of Mallards. Ten Eurasian Spoonbills included two colour-ringed birds and a flock of Black-winged Stilts flew round. A careful scan of the low muddy islands revealed at least five Little Stints, three Dunlin, several Little Ringed Plovers and four Collared Pratincoles, which we eventually got a good look at in the scope.

To finish the day, we drove up into the edge of the Sierra de Villuercas and stopped at a high pass. Lots of Griffon Vultures were gliding along the ridge, using the updraft from the wind, and a single Egyptian Vulture flew past with them too. As we stood and scanned the surrounding hills, we heard a Crested Tit calling from the trees in front of us. Then it appeared in the branches and we followed it as it worked its way past us.

Crested Tit

Crested Tit – in the trees at the pass up in the Sierra

Driving back down a short distance into the trees, we stopped again and found several Eurasian Blackcaps, a Common Chiffchaff, Long-tailed Tits and a European Robin, all feeding quietly in the afternoon sun. A male Cirl Bunting appeared briefly in the treetops too but was very hard to see before it flew further in. Then just as we were leaving, a pair of Cirl Buntings dropped down to feed on the verge beside the road. Then it was time to drive back to the hotel for a refreshing beer before dinner.

THURSDAY 4TH APRIL

Heading south, we made our way out to explore the plains of La Serena. Driving first through a more rocky area, we stopped to admire a Little Owl sunning itself on some rocks by the road, the first of many we would see this morning.

Little Owl

Little Owl – sunning itself by the road early this morning

Shortly after, two Great Spotted Cuckoos were perched on the fence by road and also remained obligingly for the cameras, before flying down into the bushes just below us on the other side of the road. A little further on ,a Woodchat Shrike was on the fence too but was too quick for the photographers. We flushed several Red-legged Partridge from the verges as we passed.

Great Spotted Cuckoo

Great Spotted Cuckoo – a pair posed for us on the roadside

As we got out into a more open cultivated area, we came across our first bustards, starting with a female Little Bustard in a low cereal crop, which flew up as we stopped to look at it, and then a displaying male out in the short grass the other side. Three Great Bustards took off from a field by the road as we passed, flying round behind a low hillside slightly further on.

Great Bustard 2

Great Bustard – flew up from the fields beside the road

When we drove on and stopped again we could just see them out in the growing wheat, only the heads of two of them showing above the crop. Two more Little Bustards took off from the field the other side and were joined by four more as they flew overhead. A Hoopoe was calling from the top of a road sign and a little further on a group of Lesser Kestrels were flying around an old barn and perching on the low rocks beside the road.

Out on the open plains proper, a smart male Montagu’s Harrier floated past. We could hear Pin-tailed Sandgrouse calling and when we flushed a group of Mallard from a small pool by the road, they were joined by two Pin-tailed Sandgrouse as they flew round.

Montagu's Harrier 2

Montagu’s Harrier – floated past us on the plains

We spotted a couple of Collared Pratincoles hawking for insects and watched as they landed in a sheep field further up the road. We drove on for a closer look and found there were actually twelve of them standing on the close-cropped grass, along with several Little Ringed Plovers.

Collared Pratincole

Collared Pratincole – we found twelve in a sheep field

Several Great Bustards were displaying over on a hillside a little further on, so we stopped again to watch. The more we looked, the more we found and by the end we had counted at least thirteen, including several males puffed up in full ‘foam bath’ display, puffed up with their heads pulled in. A flock of European Bee-eaters flew in low over the fields as we drove on, swooping in around the minibus with one attempting to catch an insect right outside the window!

We turned onto a drovers’ track and drove up to a high point to stop for coffee. It was a fantastic view from here, surrounded on all sides by open rolling plains. There were Calandra Larks singing all around us, fluttering up in display flight. We heard more Pin-tailed Sandgrouse calling and turned to see a flock of ten fly up and away. Then we heard the bubbling call of Black-bellied Sandgrouse, and looked over to see two flying across the track, dropping down a couple of fields over. Shortly after, eight Black-bellied Sandgrouse flew up from the same area calling. A small flock of Eurasian Golden Plover flew over too, a winter visitor here with these lingering longer than most.

A male Little Bustard was walking around in the short grass nearby and when we walked over to the top of the ridge try to get it in the scope, one of the group found a striking Red-striped Oil Beetle in the grass. After coffee, we tried another track, but this one was quieter, although a pair of Thekla Larks was feeding by the road.

Red-striped Oil Beetle

Red-striped Oil Beetle – found in the grass at our coffee stop

After a very productive morning out on the plains, we headed up to the neighbouring sierras. Over lunch in Benquerencia, Crag Martins and Red-rumped Swallows hawked round over the village and two Alpine Swifts flew past. We had planned to walk up to the Castillo but discovered it was closed for repairs, so we stopped briefly to scan the rocky ridge from below. There were lots of Blue Rock Thrushes on the crags and vultures using the updraft – with two Egyptian Vultures among the commoner Griffons.

Crag Martin

Crag Martin – flying around the village in Benquerencia

We decided to drive over to Alange next. Down at the reservoir, a couple of Gull-billed Terns were patrolling back and forth along the edge and several Thekla Larks were feeding on the rocks. The higher crags were disturbed by several noisy climbers, but we did manage to find a male Rock Bunting right on the very top of one of the points, singing. Even though we couldn’t hear it down below, we could see its bill moving through the scope. We stood for a while on the dam, watching the Alpine Swifts which gave amazing close up views as they came in just below us carrying nest material.

Alpine Swift

Alpine Swift – coming in to the dam carrying nest material

We still had time for a quick final stop in the city of Mérida on the way back, although we had to battle through considerably more traffic than we had seen for a few days before we eventually found somewhere to park! As we walked out on the old Roman bridge, several Cattle Egrets flew over and from out in the middle of the bridge we could see their nesting colony in the tamarisks growing on one of the islands in the river. A careful scan with the scope, revealed a Black-crowned Night Heron and several Glossy Ibis in with them too. A few Spanish Terrapins were on the rocks below the bridge too. Then it was time to head back to base again.

FRIDAY 5TH APRIL

After rain overnight, we woke to low cloud. We thought we might go for a walk from the hotel first thing, while we waited for it to get properly light but it started spitting with rain again, so we drove into Trujillo instead. The rain stopped as we walked up to the Plaza Mayor, and several Lesser Kestrels circled over the rooftops. From the square, we could see several distant swifts and eventually two flew in and circled in front of the buildings where we could see their paler brown body plumage and large white throat patch to confirm their identity as Pallid Swifts.

From there, we headed out onto the plains towards Santa Marta again. A Stone Curlew flew across in front of us and landed briefly by the track, then ten Black-bellied Sandgrouse flew over, but dropped down and disappeared behind the ridge. We stopped for a scan and found at least nine Great Bustards scattered around the fields, including one male in a small group of four which was giving an impressive full ‘foam bath’ display, shaking its tail feathers at the others. The Little Bustard was still in the same place we had seen it the other day.

Great Bustard 3

Great Bustard – puffed up, in full ‘foam bath’ display

Back in the minibus, it started to spit with rain again. Crossing the Rio Tamuja on the other side of Santa Marta, we spotted a Green Sandpiper below the bridge as we passed. There were several Jackdaws at the Roller nestboxes on the pylons by the road, but we were still a bit too early for the Rollers to be back in residence. Taking a side road, we stopped to watch a pair of Montagu’s Harriers flying past over the steppe, grey the male following after the female, with Calandra Larks singing all around.

Montagu's Harrier 3

Montagu’s Harrier – the female, crossing the road in front of the minibus

The cloud was breaking up now and slowly clearing from west, so we drove round past Caceres, and up to the Rio Almonte crossing for coffee. Two Alpine Swifts flew over, lots of hirundines were hawking low over the water and two Common Sandpipers flew off calling as we walked down towards the water’s edge. There was no sign of any Black Wheatears here now, although they had been here over the winter, but we did find a male Rock Bunting singing in a tree next to the track.

A quick look at the Embalse de Talavan was not very productive – several Spanish Sparrows were nesting in the bottom of the large White Stork nest by the entrance, and a Great White Egret and Common Sandpiper were down on the shore. So we headed round past Monroy and stopped for lunch at the stone pines with the White Storks on their nests bill clapping above our heads. The photographers headed off to try to get some shots of the local Iberian Magpies but they were typically flighty.

After lunch, we drove on to Serradilla and it was nice and sunny now as we wound our way up the track onto the ridge. Two Eurasian Jays flew across the road as we stopped to scan the crags, a Blue Rock Thrush perched high on the rocks, and as we watched several Sardinian Warblers flying back and forth, two Dartford Warblers appeared too. A Black Vulture and a steady stream of Griffon Vultures flew past along the ridge just above our heads.

We were heading up to the mirador, but a brief wrong turn at least produced a Black Redstart before we found the right track. Then up at the mirador, another Rock Bunting was singing in full view in a small dead tree just below us, giving us our best views yet of this often elusive species. As we stood and admired the stunning view from the top of the ridge, looking out across the dehesa below, a Short-toed Eagle and two Booted Eagles flew past in between the procession of vultures.

Our final destination for the day was Jaraicejo. It was rather windy as we walked along the track but this didn’t seem to put off the male Spectacled Warbler which put on a great display for us, singing and song flighting from the bushes.

Spectacled Warbler

Spectacled Warbler – singing from the top of the bushes

While we were watching it, a male Dartford Warbler appeared too. At first it seemed to be following the Spectacled Warbler, then when it eventually flew away across the track, we realised there was a pair and we watched them feeding together low in the bushes on the other side. It was a nice way to end the day, and it was now time to head back to the hotel for dinner.

SATURDAY 6TH APRIL

Our last morning, we woke to ominous low clouds after more rain overnight. After breakfast and having packed up the minibus, we drove north on the motorway as far as Almaraz. Typically just as we arrived, it started to spit with rain. We stopped at the causeway and, as soon as we got out, we could hear a Savi’s Warbler reeling. We walked back along the road and realised it was quite close, and eventually managed to get good views of it through the scope perched in the top of the rushes. There were also Reed Warblers and Sedge Warblers singing here and the first of many Purple Herons flew over the back of the pool and landed in the reeds.

Savi's Warbler

Savi’s Warbler – reeling from the sedges by the road

Just as everyone had got back into the minibus, we heard a Penduline Tit calling from somewhere across the road. It seemed like it was coming closer, so everyone got out again and we went over to look for it. We did flush a Little Bittern from the reeds by the path, a Gull-billed Tern was hawking over the water and two Eurasian Spoonbills flew past. But there was no further sign of the Penduline Tit and it started to rain more heavily so we made a quick retreat back to the minibus again.

We drove on, up to the edge of Saucedilla village and called in at the visitor centre to get the keys to the hides. Then while we waited for the rain to stop, we drove round to the other side of the reserve. As we approached one of the hides, we noticed a small, pale raptor over the trees beyond, pale grey and white with black shoulders, a Black-winged Kite. Everyone piled quickly out and we eventually got good views, perched in the top of a dead tree and flying round acrobatically, before it disappeared off. A great bird to see and perhaps we had been helped by the rain, which meant it was still out hunting. A female Eurasian Teal on the pool opposite was another late addition to the list and we flushed an Egyptian Vulture from a nearby tree.

Continuing on, there was nothing by the last hide, so we turned round. We still wanted to get a better look at a Purple Swamphen, so we decided to head back to the pools behind the visitor centre. However, while we were driving there, we noticed one standing on the edge of a pool right by the road as we passed, so we stopped quickly and reversed back. It walked back into the reeds as we got out, but then climbed out into the open again where we could all get a good look at it, before flying back over the pool.

Purple Swamphen

Purple Swamphen – on a pool by the road as we drove back

We still had time for a quick look out around the hide behind the visitor centre. Another Savi’s Warbler was reeling here and we had good views of a Sedge Warbler low down on the edge of the reeds. We could hear more Purple Swamphens calling and found one out on the edge of the water in front of the hide, before it walked into the reeds. A Little Bittern flew across the channel and landed on the other side, where it stood in full view for several minutes before eventually flying off again, giving us much better views than the one we had seen only briefly in flight earlier.

Little Bittern

Little Bittern – flew across the channel and landed on the edge of the reeds

While we were admiring all the waterbirds, we noticed some movement in the bushes down below the hide and looked down to see a Subalpine Warbler. This is not where you would normally expect to find one, so presumably it was a migrant which had just stopped off here. It was typically quite skulking at first, but eventually came out where we could all see it.

Subalpine Warbler 2

Subalpine Warbler – presumably a migrant, in the bushes at Saucedilla

Then unfortunately we were out of time, and we made our way back to the motorway for the long drive up to Madrid and the flight home.

It had been a wonderful week – great birds, great food, great scenery and great company. We didn’t want to leave! The only thing to do is to plan a return trip next year. If you would be interested in joining us on our next visit to Extremadura in 2020, please get in touch.