Monthly Archives: June 2019

1st-8th June 2019 – Romania

A week-long International Tour to Romania, organised together with our friends from Oriole Birding. The Danube Delta is one of the ‘must-see’ wildlife destinations and we spent four days exploring it, sleeping each night on our floating hotel in a different location, right out in the midst of it. We also spent a couple of days exploring the Dobrogea region, down to the Black Sea coast, which is host to some species right at the western edge of their range. A fantastic experience!

SATURDAY 1ST JUNE

Our 10.35 flight from Luton Airport to Bucharest arrived on time. After realising we had come out in a different arrivals hall, we quickly found our local guide, Florin, who took us outside to where our minibus and driver were waiting. There were a few House Sparrows, House Martins and Jackdaws around the terminal building, before we set off on the long drive to Tulcea.

Out in the suburbs, we saw mostly Collared Doves and Feral Pigeons but as we got out into the countryside beyond, we could see Rooks, Hooded Crows and one or two Pheasants in the fields. More exciting, a Long-legged Buzzard circled over the road ahead of us. We broke the journey with a stop at a service station for coffee and/or ice cream, where several Greenfinches were singing outside.

Afterwards, as we continued the journey, we started to see a greater variety of birds. It had clearly rained a lot in recent weeks, given the amount of water on the fields, and some of the wetter areas held a selection of herons – a Great White Egret, a few Little Egrets, two Squacco Herons, three Black-crowned Night Herons, and a couple of the group spotted a Glossy Ibis lurking in a ditch. As we approached the Danube crossing, there were more White Storks, including several nests with chicks on the telegraph posts in some of the villages.

The wires beside the road started to get some more interesting birds too. In one area, we spotted five Rollers in quick succession. There were Bee-eaters too, particularly as we approached a steep section of road which winds down through a small grove of acacia trees. There were plenty of Rooks in the trees, but no sign of any Red-footed Falcons, which also nest here. However, just beyond the trees we spotted a smart male Red-footed Falcon hovering over the grass beside the road.

Further into the Dobrugea region, and we started to see more Red-backed Shrikes and one or two Corn Buntings on the wires. It was starting to get dark now and a Little Owl was perched on the chimney of a house in one of the villages we passed. We finally made it into Tulcea at about 9pm, and we headed straight to the port where the floating hotel, which would be our home for the next five nights, was waiting. After a delicious dinner on board, we retired to our cabins.

SUNDAY 2ND JUNE

There were a few gulls around the harbour in Tulcea when we woke up this morning. As well as plenty of Black-headed Gulls, a couple of Caspian Gulls came close enough to get a good look at. After breakfast on board – cereals with local yoghurt, bread and honey, eggs, and a selection of ham and cheese – we boarded the smaller boat which would take us around the Delta (the floating hotel would be towed out to meet us later). The main Tulcea branch of the Danube is big and open and was fairly birdless at first, apart from a few more Caspian Gulls. After a quick stop to retrieve someone’s cap, which had blown off into the river, we headed over towards the junction with the smaller Mila 36 channel. A Grey-headed Woodpecker flew in and landed in the top of some tall poplars on the bank and our first White Pelicans, a group of fourteen, circled overhead.

White Pelicans 1

White Pelicans – our first of the trip, circled overhead

Having turned off the main channel onto Mila 36, we started to come across a lot more birds. There were Kingfishers calling all around here, zooming back and forth across the water and in and out of the trees. We could hear a variety of different birds in the trees, but they were hard to see in all the leaves and undergrowth. An Icterine Warbler and several Eastern Olivaceous Warblers were singing, as well as both Common and one or two Thrush Nightingales, the more grating and clicking phrases of the latter giving them away. Three calling Collared Flycatchers gave only glimpses but a couple of Spotted Flycatchers sallied out of the trees. There were more woodpeckers too, several Great Spotted, another Grey-headed, and we heard out first Middle Spotted Woodpecker.

The Delta is all about its waterbirds, and is packed full of herons of various sizes. There were plenty of Grey Herons and Little Egrets at first and then, as we got further in, we found lots of Squacco Herons which flushed from the banks as we passed, changing instantly from buff-brown to white. Several Black-crowned Night Herons and a smaller number of Glossy Ibis flew over.

Squacco Heron

Squacco Heron – a very common heron in the Delta

We encountered our first Pygmy Cormorants too, but they are very skittish and typically flew off ahead of us. More pelicans circled overhead, mostly flocks of White Pelicans, but we also saw our first Dalmatian Pelican, typically a lone bird which flew over.

Pygmy Cormorant 1

Pygmy Cormorant – mostly very skittish and flew off before we got too close

A male Little Bittern flew across the channel ahead of us and landed in the base of the reeds, disappearing in before we could get a good look at it. When we stopped to scan, a Penduline Tit started calling over on the other side, and we saw it perched briefly in the top of the reeds. One of the group, scanning for the tit, found a female Little Bittern instead, up on top of the reeds further back. We had already heard several Great Reed Warblers singing in the reeds as we passed, and now one perched up nicely on a dead reed stem. A little further on, and a pair of Hobbys were zooming around through the tops of the trees beside the channel, before landing up in a poplar.

We stopped for coffee at the entrance to Lake Nebunu. As we motored up, a Raccoon Dog was on the bank nearby, but quickly scuttled into the vegetation. There were lots of Mute Swans and Great Crested Grebes out on the lake. A pair of Common Terns and about 15 Whiskered Terns were flying round and dip feeding over the vegetation across the entrance. We could see lots of cormorants and herons coming and going from their nesting colony in the tall trees at the back. Two White-tailed Eagles appeared over the trees, and one was mobbed by a Hooded Crow, which was just a tiny speck by comparison at that range. A Pallas’s Gull flew over the back of the lake too, like an oversized Black-headed Gull, but it was rather distant and disappeared from view behind the trees.

After coffee, we carried on along the channel and hadn’t gone much further when we came across our first Red-necked Grebes. The first one dived ahead of the boat and disappeared into the reeds, but then we found four more together, and had a great view of them, resplendent in breeding plumage with bright rusty-red necks.

Red-necked Grebe 1

Red-necked Grebe – in smart breeding plumage

Next stop was by a White-tailed Eagle nest, which was high in the trees beside the channel. One of the two juveniles was still on the nest, but the other was hiding higher up in the branches above. They were almost fully grown, not long to fledging now. There was no sign of either of the adults at first, until two White-tailed Eagles appeared through the treetops. One of the adults was chasing off an immature, which had presumably flown too close to the nest. Once the intruder had fled, the adult flew back round and landed in a tree not far away.

We cut back across Lake Furtuna, a large open lake surrounded by reeds. Several White Pelicans and a single Dalmatian Pelican were swimming out on the water. There was more floating vegetation over the far side, where we found lots of Whiskered Terns, four Garganey and a pair of Gadwall. It was full of grebes too, nesting Great Crested Grebes, several pairs of Black-necked Grebes and four Red-necked Grebes too. Our first Purple Heron flew over.

Dalmatian Pelican

Dalmatian Pelican – we saw small numbers daily in the Delta

On the smaller channels especially, there were Cuckoos and Rollers everywhere. A brief Golden Oriole flew over, but was not seen by most of the group and would remain a target for a good view for many for a while yet. There were lots of dragonflies – mainly Emperor, Lesser Emperor and Scarlet Darter, and plenty of Banded Demoiselles beside the channels. As we got out into a more agricultural area, several Western Yellow Wagtails flew up from the feet of a herd cows, though it was hard to see for sure whether these ones were pure Black-headed Wagtails or one of the array of hybrids.

We met the floating hotel for lunch at Maliuc, and while we were settled on board enjoying our three course feast we were towed slowly along to the next location. After lunch, we had a couple of hours to relax over the heat of the day, take a siesta or watch the world go by from the boat. The banks were more open here and in the wetter spots there were lots of Great White Egrets and Glossy Ibis. Three Hoopoes flew alongside as we passed and there seemed to be Rollers on just about every bush.

Hoopoe

Hoopoe – several were seen on the river bank today

With the floating hotel moored again, we set off about 5pm in the smaller boat to explore the area. A Penduline Tit was calling from the trees on the opposite bank and a Garden Warbler was singing from the trees on our side. It was still hot, and quiet to start as we checked out a couple of smaller lakes.

The first was overgrown with Water Soldier and not surprisingly there were several Norfolk Hawkers patrolling along the edge of the reeds. Marsh Frogs were everywhere on the lily pads, until a Dice Snake swam across, causing them to disappear into the water. Lots of herons were flying around again, and we saw many more Purple Herons out here. A Savi’s Warbler was reeling from the reeds, the first of many we heard this afternoon.

Purple Heron

Purple Heron – more common in the reedier parts of the Delta

The second lake was full of Whiskered Terns, looking to nest on the floating vegetation. When a Hooded Crow flew across, they all came up en masse to mob it, and we realised just how many had been hiding there. A pair of Greylag Geese lurking in the edge of the reeds at the back had distinctive pink bills, birds of the eastern race rubirostris. We could hear a Bittern booming too.

Back along the more open Crisan channel, an obliging Black-crowned Night Heron was standing on the floating vegetation below one of the trees on the bank. We saw several more Ferruginous Ducks, mostly typically flighty, but we had a nice view of a male down on the water’s edge which lingered longer than most. On an area of open sandy shore, an adult Little Ringed Plover was keeping an eye on its already well-grown juvenile. A White-tailed Eagle flew in over the back and appeared to be coming our way before it suddenly dropped down onto the ground. We could see it was feeding on something, and was quickly surrounded by 10 Hooded Crows.

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron – another very common species in the Delta

We continued on back past the floating hotel, and turned in down the small channel leading to Lake Iacob. There were more pelicans on the lake – with two White and two Dalmatian Pelicans on a log, giving us a nice comparison. A Garden Warbler was singing nearby and we could hear more Penduline Tits calling. As we motored back slowly along the wooded channel, a Grey-headed Woodpecker perched nicely in the tree above us. Another Pallas’s Gull flew over, much closer this time but we would still hold out for better views.

Grey-headed Woodpecker

Grey-headed Woodpecker – perched nicely in a tree above the boat

Back at the floating hotel, we sat out on the deck to compile the list for the day. We could still hear the Grey-headed Woodpecker calling away in the trees. Eastern Olivaceous and Great Reed Warblers were singing and the Savi’s Warbler was still reeling. A Bittern was booming off in the distance and a Golden Oriole was taunting us, hidden deep in the bushes. What an amazing place to be! After a delicious three course dinner of salad followed by local zander, it was time to turn in, to the sound of Fire-bellied Toads calling.

MONDAY 3RD JUNE

Before breakfast, the earlier risers gathered out on the deck. A Little Crake was calling, but hidden deep in the reeds beyond the trees on the bank. A pair of Eastern Olivaceous Warblers appeared briefly low in the branches, before making their way through to the sunny side of the trees as the early mist burned off. The Bittern was still booming and the Savi’s Warbler still reeling off in the distance. Three Pallas’s Gulls flew high over, one at a time, and the first White Pelicans flapped lazily up along the channel. A Middle Spotted Woodpecker flew past through trees opposite and while we ate breakfast, a pair of Garganey circled round over the water outside.

As we got ready to set off on the smaller boat again, we picked up a distant male Red-footed Falcon on some wires, and through the scope we could just about see its red feet and legs in the morning sunshine. As we motored slowly up the channel, there were the usual herons and egrets everywhere. A Great Bittern flew across and up the edge of the channel ahead of us, a difficult bird to see here.

When we heard Bearded Tits calling we looked over to see a family party right up in the top of the willows on the bank. Another bigger group of Bearded Tits were in the reeds on the junction of the Caraorman channel, lots of juveniles. As we stopped to look at them, one of the group noticed a male Penduline Tit feeding in the sedges right down at the front – nice to get our first good views of this species. We could hear a Reed Bunting singing, and then a pair appeared in one of the willows. The birds here are a different race to back home, tshusii, being noticeably heavier-billed.

Penduline Tit

Penduline Tit – feeding in the sedges

Continuing on to Caraorman village, a pair of Caspian Gulls were loafing on the bank and a Hoopoe was wrestling with a mole cricket as we made our way down to the small harbour. The vista here was dominated by the ruins of the old communist-era industrial sand mining site, long since abandoned. As we got out at the harbour, a juvenile Northern Wheatear was feeding in between the boats pulled up nearby. Walking down the track towards the village, we were surrounded by Bee-eaters calling and perching on the wires, nesting in the low sandy banks.

Bee-eater

Bee-eater – around the abandoned factory at Caraorman

A couple of Black-tailed Godwits were feeding in a grassy pool out where the cows were grazing. Three Red-footed Falcons were perched on the wires further down, two of the males chasing each other a little closer before landing again. It was already starting to get hot. Lots of Marsh Frogs were basking around the edge of a small pool in the sand, before hopping in as we passed, and the head of a Dice Snake appeared out of the water.

Several White Storks were on nests in the village, and one stood bill clapping and throwing its head back as two others circled over. It was eerie walking round past the huge abandoned accommodation blocks, long-since stripped of windows, doors and any other removable fittings, their roofs falling in but providing nest sites for the local Kestrels.

We continued on down the track out into the old sand pits. On the larger shallow pools here we found several Avocets and Black-winged Stilts along with more Black-tailed Godwits and a few Shelduck too. A Hobby flew over hunting dragonflies. Up on the bank of the next basin, there was pleasant breeze to stop us overheating. A single Caspian Tern was out in the middle, dwarfing the Common Terns and Whiskered Terns it was with. Through the scope, we could see its huge black-tipped red bill. A few Black-winged Stilts and Common Terns were nesting on the sandy islands.

Continuing round to the far corner, we could see a group of larger gulls loafing on the edge of the another pool. A single adult Pallas’s Gull was in with the Caspian Gulls – with its black hood, it really stood out. There were more Bee-eaters in the bushes and a male Red-backed Shrike appeared with them briefly. Then it was time to get out of the sun, so we took a short cut back to the boat. A male Northern Wheatear was singing around the abandoned factory buildings.

Wheatear

Northern Wheatear – singing around the abandoned factory

After a break for water and/or coffee back at the boat, we motored round to a former fish farm nearby. There were lots of Whiskered Terns flying round over the pools, but a group of people had set up for a picnic at the viewing platform, so we carried on down the channel. We went looking for a Penduline Tit nest. The reeds were too tall at the first site we tried, but we did see the pair of adult Penduline Tits in the trees calling. Further on, we found another nest hanging in the lowest branches of a willow, just above the reeds, an amazing construction. The remains of last year’s nest was still hanging in the branches further in. It was all quiet here though, so perhaps the female was incubating.

Continuing on, we stopped to look at a pair of Red-backed Shrikes in the bushes on the bank. An Eastern Olivaceous Warbler was singing here too, and perched up in the top of a bush for ages, being unusually obliging. Back round to Caraorman channel, a Common Cuckoo perched on the wires.

Common Cuckoo

Common Cuckoo – abundant in the Delta

As we headed back towards the floating hotel, we heard another Savi’s Warbler reeling. This one seemed to be closer, and a careful scan revealed it perched up in the reeds in full view. We stopped the boat and had a good look at this typically very elusive species. We certainly would not go hungry this week – lunch was another three courses of soup with meatballs, followed by stuffed vine leaves and a delicious traditional pudding.

Savi's Warbler

Savi’s Warbler – we had a good view of this typically elusive species

After lunch, the floating hotel was towed slowly back up to the main channel at Crisan before turning onto the course of the old Danube. Here we got back onto the smaller boat again, to head out for the afternoon. As we motored slowly along a side channel, we could hear several Golden Orioles fluting from some very tall poplars. We saw a couple flying in and out through the treetops, but you had to be quick to get on them. Both Grey-headed Woodpecker and Lesser Spotted Woodpecker were calling here too, but there was no sign of any Black Woodpeckers today.

The usual selection of herons flew out of the trees beside the channel as we passed, and a Little Bittern flew out of the reeds and alongside the boat, before crashing back in. We were still waiting for a really good view of one perched in the reeds. Turning on to Bogdaproste channel, Common Cuckoos were everywhere again. Several Hobbys zoomed in and out of the trees on the banks, and one perched up nicely.

Hobby

Hobby – perched up nicely in the trees by the boat

There were lots of Rollers here too – one pair was coming in and out of a nest hole in a tree, and another male was bringing food for the female. An Otter was floating in the channel ahead of the boat, crunching on something it had just caught. As we cut the engine, it saw us and dived.

Roller 1

Roller – we saw several pairs in the trees along the channels

The water opened out into Lake Bogdaproste, where we found a scattering of White Pelicans and Pygmy Cormorants, plus rafts of Common Pochard and Eurasian Coot. Two Black Terns flew over calling behind the boat, but disappeared away from us before we could get a good view. We could see several distant Pallas’s Gulls circling and as we motored across the lake we noticed one on the water, so we diverted over for a closer look. We got much closer before it took off – a very smart gull with its black hood and black-and-white wing tips, and multi-coloured yellow bill.

Through the channel on the far side, we found ourselves coming out into another large lake. As we were crossing, we could see some very distant Whiskered Terns hovering over an island of vegetation on the far side, and we picked up a White-winged Black Tern in with them, so we headed over for closer look. As we got nearer, we could see there were actually two White-winged Black Terns and lots of Black Terns too, at least a dozen, loafing on the floating vegetation. We had great views of one of the White-winged Black Terns dip feeding beside the boat – a real bonus, as they are not common here, with just a few pairs breeding in inaccessible areas. All the terns then took off, and flew round over the boat.

Black Tern 1

Black Tern – breeds fairly commonly in the Delta

White-winged Black Tern

White-winged Black Tern – the rarest of the three ‘marsh terns’ in the Delta

Continuing on to the next lake, a pair of rubirostris Greylag Geese swam across in front of the boat with four goslings. An amazing number of Whiskered Terns, probably at least 150 pairs, were starting to nest on carpet of floating vegetation here. We sailed along a channel through the middle, and had amazing views of them flying all round the boat, calling noisily. What an experience! A Hooded Crow flew over, and was immediately chased by a horde of Whiskered Terns. It made repeated visits, looking for eggs. Two Black-necked Grebes swam along the channel ahead of us.

Whiskered Tern 2

Whiskered Tern – nest-building on the floating vegetation on the lakes

Whiskered Tern 1

Whiskered Tern – amazing close views as we sailed across the lake

As we sailed back through the lakes, there were lots of Great Cormorants nesting in the surrounding trees. One tree on the edge of the reeds was full of cormorants of two species, Great and Pygmy Cormorants side by side, so we could really appreciate the size difference. Another Pallas’s Gull was swimming ahead of us on the water, and allowed us to approach closer still before it finally took off and flew round past us. Then we headed back to meet the floating hotel which was moored on a different channel nearby.

Pallas's Gull

Pallas’s Gull – we came across several adults out on the larger lakes

After a break to freshen up, we met up on deck to do the day’s list. A group of eight White Pelicans was loafing and preening on a log by the boat, Whiskered Terns and Marsh Harriers were flying round, another Savi’s Warbler was reeling in the distance, and several Great Reed Warblers were singing in the reeds nearby. After dinner of salad, breaded chicken and local cake, we retired to a deafening chorus of Marsh Frogs outside. Another amazing location and a privilege to be able to spend the night out here again.

TUESDAY 4TH JUNE

Up on the deck before breakfast, we spotted a White-tailed Eagle which had obviously roosted in a tree a short way back along the channel. Three Black Terns patrolled up and down the channel past us and we could hear Bearded Tits and Penduline Tit calling from the reeds, and the Savi’s Warbler was still reeling.

After breakfast, on the smaller boat we headed down to look at the White-tailed Eagle. It eventually took off, and flew back upstream, where it caught a fish and landed on the floating vegetation nearby to eat it. We turned round and motored back and had a great view of it feeding, before it eventually flew again.

White-tailed Eagle

White-tailed Eagle – caught a fish just after breakfast

Continuing on along the channel, we saw the usual selection of herons, cormorants, Red-necked Grebes and Ferruginous Ducks – amazing that these species had become so commonplace after just a couple of days here!

Ferruginous Duck

Ferruginous Duck – a common sight out in the Delta

On the next channel, there were more trees either side, with several Lesser Whitethroats and Blackcaps singing. A Middle Spotted Woodpecker called and a Grey-headed Woodpecker flew across and perched in a dead willow, the first of several we would see today. Once again, there were plenty of Cuckoos, Rollers and Kingfishers, with one of the latter perching up nicely as we passed.

We came out into a more open agricultural area. Several Western Yellow Wagtails flew up calling and one perched on the top of a dead stem. With its dark grey head and white supercilium it was a ‘dombrowskii’, a hybrid form of Black-headed and Blue-headed Wagtails, a speciality of Romania. A little further on, a Cattle Egret was standing on the grassy bank, the first we had got a good look at – they are not very common here.

Cattle Egret

Cattle Egret – uncommon in the Delta

A female Red-footed Falcon was perched in a willow right above the channel, so we stopped the boat for a look. It was perched just above our heads, staring down at us, and then a male came up off a nest in the tree nearby. The male flew round calling, so we backed off, and watched as the female returned to the nest. We saw several more Red-footed Falcons as we motored along this stretch of channel.

Red-footed Falcon 1

Red-footed Falcon – the female perched in the trees above us

Red-footed Falcon 2

Red-footed Falcon – the male came up off the nest and flew round

Everyone also finally got a look at a Golden Oriole, albeit just in flight, as one came out of the trees and headed away down the channel. Further on, a shrike in the willows was hidden from view at first, but when it finally flew up into the top, we could see it was a Lesser Grey Shrike, its black mask extending over the top of its bill and with a pink flush to the breast. It flew round the back of the trees and we noticed there were now two perched up together in a bush, a pair. Several Grass Snakes and Dice Snakes swam across the channel as we motored on.

There was a large area of reeds on the right of the channel and lots of Glossy Ibises and Purple Herons were flying round as we passed. When we came to a more open area of short wet grass, we counted at least 80 Great White Egrets in one big group, feeding. There were lots of White Storks here too, plus the usual Grey Herons and Little Egrets. We turned onto another channel at the far side of this field and headed out across the meadows where lots of horses and cattle were grazing. A pair of Hoopoes on the bank, flew off ahead of us. A pair of European Stonechat perched on some wires. A couple more Western Yellow Wagtails flew up, one another ‘dombrowskii’ and one a normal Black-headed Wagtail.

Great White Egret

Great White Egret – another common heron in the Delta

The channel disappeared into some dense trees. Another Grey-headed Woodpecker flew across and perched up nicely, but a couple of Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers were typically more elusive, just heard calling. Blackcaps and Garden Warblers were singing. A succession of Black-crowned Night Herons and Grey Herons flew out of the bushes ahead of us.

We had our coffee break as we sailed down here before, at the end, we came out into a huge open lake. We were closer to the main White Pelican breeding site here, a restricted area, but we could see several hundred circling in the distance. There were just a few on the lake here though, along with two Dalmatian Pelicans. Apart from that, all we could find here were a rather distant Pallas’s Gull, a distant White-tailed Eagle, and a distant Little Bittern which flew across. The next lake had a similar variety of birds.

Taking the sinuous Eracle channel back, one of the group spotted a Black Stork circling high over the reeds to one side, a new bird for the trip. As if that wasn’t good enough, we had just started moving again when someone else spotted an owl in the trees. We turned back and found a Long-eared Owl staring back out at us – a very good spot as we motored past! As we pulled up towards the bank, a second Long-eared Owl flew out of the trees.

Long-eared Owl

Long-eared Owl – well spotted by a member of the group in the trees

As we continued on along the channel, it clouded over, and we could hear a thunderstorm away to our left. We turned into a small lake, covered in lily pads, where at least twelve Black Terns were dipping down to the vegetation with all the Whiskered Terns. There were several Black-necked Grebes here too. It started spitting with rain now, and continued on and off as we made our way back to the floating hotel for lunch. It felt much cooler too. At least the local weather forecast promised us that the rain would end in precisely 23 minutes!

After lunch and a short break, it had indeed stopped raining as forecast, so we headed out again on the small boat, through various small channels. A smart male Marsh Harrier circled low over. A Purple Heron flew across with a Grass Snake in its bill. A Savi’s Warbler was reeling and when we got out of the small channel we were in and it opened out, we found it perched high on a dead reed stem. Along the next channel, with lots of trees either side, a Thrush Nightingale was singing from deep in cover.

We came out on the Stipoc channel, by an old fish farm which has now been converted into agricultural land (but would make a fantastic nature reserve!). A couple of Stock Doves were on the wires by the farm buildings and a liberal scattering of Rollers were then on the wires all the way down. Several Red-footed Falcons hovered out over the open grassland. A Corn Bunting sang from the top of a bush on the bank on one side and a Sedge Warbler sand from the reeds on the other. We stopped to look at a European Pond Terrapin which was basking on a log in an area of pondweed and realised there were several more lurking in the weed nearby.

European Pond Terrapin

European Pond Terrapin – several were in a weedy along the channel

There was an area of open water and wet grass on the other side of the channel. A couple of small flocks of White Pelicans were swimming in the water and lots of Great White Egrets, Little Egrets, Glossy Ibises and a single Cattle Egret were feeding in the wet grass. Two Green Sandpipers flew round calling, and landed in the vegetation. Four Black-tailed Godwits were feeding here too.

Two Western Yellow Wagtails flew up from the grass, one an obvious ‘dombrowskii’, but the other looked like it might be a Black-headed Wagtail until we got better look. Then we could see it had some grey on the nape, and a small amount of white in the supercilium. The Western Yellow Wagtails here are a real minefield of different hybrid forms!

Lesser Grey Shrike

Lesser Grey Shrike – perched in the willows above the channel

Further on, another Lesser Grey Shrike was perched up in the top of a willow overhanging the channel. Two Golden Orioles flew across over the reeds, across the channel ahead of us and up into the trees the other side. A Musk Rat swam across in front of us, but dived and must have resurfaced in the reeds. Two Hobbys and another female Red-footed Falcon were perched in the trees as we made our way over to Lake Furtuna.

As we came out into the huge open lake, a White-tailed Eagle was down in the reeds on the edge of the water on one side. We started to head over towards it, but it was chased off by a Hooded Crow before we got there. We could see lots of White Pelicans gathered over the far side so we decided to head over that way instead. They were loafing on islands of reed and logs, several immatures, but including several breeding adults with orange facial skin and bump on the forehead.

White Pelicans 2

White Pelicans – there were lots loafing around on Lake Furtuna this evening

There were several Black-necked Grebes with the Great Crested Grebes over by the reeds and Pygmy Cormorants flying back and forth. The channel the other side was absolutely covered with Mayflies low over the water, but others were also flying round, providing food for the Black-headed Gulls and Whiskered Terns which were hawking up and catching them.

Pygmy Cormorant 2

Pygmy Cormorant – with a distinctive flight silhouette

The floating hotel was moored over the other side of the lake and when we got back there we could hear a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker calling in the trees nearby and a Little Bittern was hiding in the reeds. We watched the sun set with White Pelicans swimming past outside over dinner.

WEDNESDAY 5TH JUNE

Up on the deck before breakfast this morning, it was a stunning view with the early light out on the lake. Several White Pelicans swam past and Pygmy Cormorants and Caspian Gulls were flying around.

White Pelican

White Pelican – swimming past the floating hotel early morning

After breakfast, we could see a feeding frenzy out on the other side of the lake, so we motored over on the small boat for a closer look. There were at least 2,500 Great Cormorants and 175-200 White Pelicans. They were obviously chasing a shoal of fish across the lake, and the stragglers at the back of the flock kept flying up in smaller groups, leapfrogging the massed horde and landing again at the front. Amazing to watch!

By the time we got over, they had chased the shoal of fish across the lake and into the reeds over the far side. Some of the White Pelicans were swimming in and out of the reeds trying to find them again. About a dozen Little Egrets were waiting on the floating vegetation beside the reeds to see what might be pushed their way. Then the shoal of fish reappeared out in the middle, and everything raced back over and started feeding again, the White Pelicans in groups upending in unison.

Feeding frenzy

Feeding Frenzy – thousands of Great Cormorants and hundreds of White Pelicans

We headed back out of the lake along the channel next to where we had moored for the night. As we were motoring slowly along, we noticed a Little Bittern climb up into the top of the reeds on one side. It was promptly chased off by a second Little Bittern and we watched the two of them fly round after each other. One landed again in the top of the reeds right on the edge of the channel, where we had a great look at it, a smart male with a bright red bill, indicating it was in breeding condition. The two of them then chased round over the reeds again and disappeared back.

We were on a wide channel now, with very big mature trees on the bank on one side. We were hoping to find a Black Woodpecker along here, but the best we could manage was a Black Woodpecker nest hole in a dead tree beside the channel. The hole looked reasonably fresh, so we waited for a minute and listened, but there was no sign of any woodpeckers. Two Common Starlings were in the tree but we didn’t see them using the hole.

Further on, a family of Great Crested Grebes were in the weeds beside the channel, and we watched as the three juveniles climbed onto the back of one of the adults as we passed. Just beyond, we could see a Red-necked Grebe and a Ferruginous Duck. Two White-tailed Eagles were perched in the trees above.

Little Bittern 1

Little Bittern – with some bright red on the bill base

Another male Little Bittern flew across the channel ahead of us, and once again perched up nicely in the reeds on the far side, allowing us to get quite close. We had a good view before it flew back across the tops of the reeds, its bill bright but not quite as red as the one earlier. It already seemed like this might be the day of the Little Bittern!

There was lots of lush vegetation along the bank here and as we carried on we heard two Thrush Nightingales singing deep in cover. We stopped and listened for Black Woodpecker, but once again there was no sign. However, we did find a female Golden Oriole mobbing a Hooded Crow in a willow bush right on the edge of the water. It possibly had a nest nearby, as the male was flying in and out of the trees behind too. We drifted over and had a good view of it, finally a perched Golden Oriole!

Golden Oriole

Golden Oriole – we finally got good views of one perched

We tried another channel for woodpeckers. A Grey-headed flew over, and we heard both Great Spotted and Lesser Spotted calling, but once again there was no sign of any Black. We joined the main channel for a bit at Mila 23 before we turned onto another side channel. A Red-backed Shrike flew up into a willow on the bank, but landed out of view.

Yet another Little Bittern flew across. Out into a lake, a single Red-necked Grebe was outnumbered by all the Great Crested Grebes. An adult Black-crowned Night Heron was feeding on the lilypads on one edge, chasing frogs, but kept sinking into the vegetation when it landed. A White-tailed Eagle was perched in the distance, in the top of a dead tree beyond the lake. As we sailed through a narrow channel and out into the next lake beyond, two more Little Bitterns chased round through the tops of the reeds.

Little Bittern 2

Little Bittern – it was definitely the best morning for them today!

The next channel had more lily pads and floating vegetation either side. We had just remarked how the Squacco Herons has been outnumbered by Little Bitterns this morning, when normal service was  resumed and five Squacco Herons flew out! There were several Red-necked Grebes in the lilypads too – the first pair had the juveniles on the back of one of the adults, but swam into the reeds as we approached. The second pair were much more obliging, and stayed lurking in amongst the lilypads as we passed.

Red-necked Grebe 2

Red-necked Grebe – in the lilypads as we sailed past

A smart male Red-footed Falcon was perched in a tree in some dead branches just above the channel, and stared down as we passed right underneath. We had a great view, slaty grey with red ‘trousers’, bright red legs and feet and red cere and eye ring. Stunning! As we made our way back round to the floating hotel, a female Red-footed Falcon was perched in another tree, rather pale buff below and with brown wings, presumably a young bird in its 2nd calendar year.

Red-footed Falcon 3

Red-footed Falcon – perched in a dead tree above the channel

Back at the floating hotel, our stay in the Delta was unfortunately coming to an end. Up on deck before we set off on the journey back, two more Little Bitterns chased each other round an island of reeds in the middle of the junction between two channels. It really had been a day for them! As we set off on board the hotel, past the reeds where they had landed, one flew out and across the channel on the other side. We scanned the reeds for the other one but all we could find was a Great Reed Warbler feeding down at the base of the reeds.

As we motored back, we would be passing the White-tailed Eagle nest we had visited on Sunday. We were just coming up towards the eerie when suddenly one of the adults flew out of the trees right beside the boat, before circling round over the trees where the nest was. We slowed down to have a look at the nest, but the two youngsters had climbed up into the tree above and were half hidden in the leaves.

We didn’t have a chance to look at them though because, just at that moment, a Black Woodpecker called in the trees right by the nest. We glimpsed it dropping down through the branches, but we were going away all the time and not everyone got onto it. Then it flew out, right past us up on the top deck, and landed in the top of a dead tree just ahead. We had a good view of it now, its red crown catching the light as it turned, before it flew on. A great way to finish our visit to the Delta!

Black Woodpecker

Black Woodpecker – just as we were sailing back out of the Delta

We retired inside for lunch – soup with meatballs, vegetable stew, followed by apple strudel. It was a slow journey back on the floating hotel, so we relaxed on deck listening to all the birds singing in the lush trees along Mila 36 –  a Thrush Nightingale and lots of Common Nightingales, Eastern Olivaceous Warblers, Common Redstarts, a couple of Collared Flycatchers. Several Great Spotted Woodpeckers were seen, but Middle Spotted and more Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers were only heard. Kingfishers zipped back and forth calling.

Back out onto the main Tulcea branch of the Danube, there were more Caspian Gulls. Several Western Yellow Wagtails on the grassy bank as we approached Tulcea looked like ‘dombrowskii’ again. We spent our last night on the boat in the harbour, with a delicious dinner of the local speciality, tochitura.

THURSDAY 6TH JUNE

We were up early, and after breakfast said our goodbyes to the floating hotel. As we drove west out of Tulcea, a Glossy Ibis was feeding in the plastic rubbish along the shore of a lake. In the villages, we saw White Storks on their nests as we passed. Out into more open country, there were Bee-eaters flying around the old terraces in the grassy fields. Our first stop was near Somova.

As we got out of the bus, a male Red-backed Shrike was perched in the top of an oak tree. A large flock of Common Swifts circled high overhead, a few Sand Martins with them. We started to walk up along the track towards the trees but hadn’t got very far when a male Levant Sparrowhawk flew over. We watched as it circled up high with the Swifts.

Levant Sparrowhawk 1

Levant Sparrowhawk – this male flew over first thing this morning

In the open woodland, a Hoopoe was calling and several Golden Orioles were fluting. We had brief views of both as they flew round. A woodpecker called, and flew across, landed on the trunk of an oak tree. We walked over to try to get a look at it and confirmed it was a Syrian Woodpecker. We watched it repeatedly dropping down to the ground, then flying back up to the trunk.

A little further on, another Levant Sparrowhawk, this time a female, flew up from the ground and landed in another tree. We had a great view of it in the scope – we could see its gular stripe and more heavily barred underparts than the male.

Levant Sparrowhawk 2

Levant Sparrowhawk – this female flew up into the trees

It was getting hot now, a good time for raptors. First, three Common Buzzards circled up over a distant ridge, and were joined by a Marsh Harrier. Then a Booted Eagle came up, followed by couple of Honey Buzzards. All were rather distant, but thankfully shortly afterwards, a Booted Eagle and a Honey Buzzard appeared much closer, over the trees, along with a Hobby.

Several Sousliks (aka European Ground Squirrels) appeared in the short grass before disappearing down into their burrows. Lots of grasshoppers and moths came up from the vegetation as we walked through, along with Silver-studded Blues and a couple of Lesser Spotted Fritillaries. A small group of Hawfinches flew over calling. We met the bus again down by the road further on, and stopped for a cold drink. A flock of White Pelicans were circling up in the distance beyond the ridge. Another male Levant Sparrowhawk flew over with a lizard in its talons.

Souslik

Souslik – there were several in the short grass

Our next stop was at the monastery at Celtic Dere. A couple of male Red-backed Shrikes were around the gardens and farmyard by the parking area. We took the track up to the old orchard, where a Turtle Dove was purring and an Icterine Warbler was singing in the trees.

Red-backed Shrike

Red-backed Shrike – a male, one of several at Celic Dere

Several Golden Orioles flew back and forth over the opening clearing, including a stunning golden male. Lots of Hawfinches zipped over in ones and twos, calling. On the edge of the wood over on the far side, a Black Redstart and a Spotted Flycatcher were feeding, dropping down from the trees to the grass below.

A Steppe Buzzard flew over – different to the Common Buzzards we had seen earlier, with a rather pale rufous tail, dark rusty body and underwing coverts, prominent clean white bases to the flight feathers with a well-marked black trailing edge.

Steppe Buzzard

Steppe Buzzard – different to the Common Buzzards we saw

Walking through the trees on one side, we came out into another clearing by the stream, where a Nuthatch was calling. We followed the track here up and into the wood. A striking longhorn beetle was in the middle of the track and when we stopped to look at it, we could hear a Red-breasted Flycatcher singing a little further on. It was very active, constantly changing perch, and hard to follow at times in all the trees. Eventually it came out closer to the track, and everyone got a better look at it. There were lots of Icterine Warblers calling and singing in the trees too, but they were very hard to see high in the branches.

Red-breasted Flycatcher

Red-breasted Flycatcher – this male was singing in the trees

As we walked back down the track, we finally got good views of a pair in the trees over the path. A Hawfinch flew in and perched briefly on a branch and a Wood Warbler was singing deep in the wood. A family of Marsh Tits worked their way through the trees beside the path. We made our way back out of the trees. A Wryneck had been seen earlier by another group up along the edge of the stream so we walked up to look for it. There was no sign of it, but we decided to stop here for lunch and the minibus drove over to join us.

Just as lunch was set out, a Middle Spotted Woodpecker called in the tree right over the picnic table. We had to take a few steps back to see it, feeding high on the trunk. While we were watching the woodpecker, the Wryneck called once from the same tree. We didn’t see it fly out, but despite looking from all round the tree there was no further sign of it.

Middle Spotted Woodpecker

Middle Spotted Woodpecker – feeding in the tree above us while we were having lunch

Over lunch, there were Greenfinches and Goldfinches coming down to drink in the streak. Another flock of White Pelicans and another Booted Eagle, this time a pale phase, circled up over the ridge beyond. A young Long-legged Buzzard was chased by two Steppe Buzzards over the clearing.

After lunch, we had a longer drive over to the Macin Mountains. There were lots of White Stork nests in the villages on the way, and several Rollers and Bee-eaters on the wires by the road. We eventually turned off the road and up along a rough track. There were a few Corn Buntings on the wires but pride of place went to a smart male Black-headed Bunting here too. They are scarce here, so always a good bird to catch up with, and this one posed nicely as we pulled up in the minibus alongside it.

Black-headed Bunting

Black-headed Bunting – this smart male was on the wires by the track

There were a few Rollers in the trees and on the wires too, and a Short-toed Lark flew up from a field of sunflowers as we passed.

Roller 2

Roller – there were one or two on the wires too

We parked opposite a quarry. As we got out of the bus, a pair of Crested Larks flew in and one of them perched up nicely nearby. We walked over through the grass towards the quarry, flushing lots of grasshoppers, moths and butterflies as we walked. A female Pied Wheatear appeared on the rocks in the grass and stayed just long enough for us to get a quick look at it, before it flew back up into the quarry. Scanning the rock faces, we found several smart black and white male Pied Wheatears and we had a look at them in the scope. An Ortolan Bunting was singing, and we picked up a couple of males distantly on the rocks. A Northern Wheatear flew in too.

We could hear a Common Rock Thrush singing, but couldn’t see it at first. As we scanned the rock faces looking for it, we did find a Long-legged Buzzard on a nest. Then the Rock Thrush flew in over the top of the quarry and landed on the rocks on the top ridge. It flew up singing a few times, gliding round with its wings and rusty tail fanned. It was very active, constantly flying around the quarry, the white patch on its back really standing out when it turned and caught the sun.

It was a hot afternoon, so we walked back to the minibus for a drink of cold water and then stopped in the next village for an ice cream. Afterwards, we headed out onto an area of steppe. It didn’t take long to find an Isabelline Wheatear perched on bush. We stopped and got out, and realised there were several more here too. We got one in the scope, perched on the top of a ridge. Others were feeding in the short grass or occasionally hovering up singing.

Isabelline Wheatear

Isabelline Wheatear – common out in the steppe grassland

We had a brief glimpse of a Tawny Pipit, but couldn’t refind it, despite walking round through grass where it had been. A Short-toed Lark fluttered singing high in the sky, and one or two Turtle Doves flew over. A Spur-thighed Tortoise appeared on top of the bank where the Isabelline Wheatear had been earlier, but disappeared surprisingly quickly into a hole. Finally the Tawny Pipits showed themselves. Two chased each other round just behind us, and one landed on the same grassy bank, where we got it in the scope. Another two then appeared on the other side of the track and then, as we got back into the bus, one was quite close by in the grass.

We had heard a thunderstorm building away in the distance, and could see the rain now lashing down over the hills. It was a long drive back to Tulcea, and we caught the edge of the rain on our way. But it was dry back in Tulcea as we checked into our guesthouse for the night.

FRIDAY 7TH JUNE

It was another early start, to try to beat the heat of the day, but it was already getting quite warm as we arrived on the edge of Babadag Forest. The minibus dropped us off and we walked down a track through the scrubby woodland.

There were lots of butterflies out in the sunshine – Cardinal and Silver-washed Fritillaries, Ilex Hairstreak, Silver-studded and Green-underside Blues – and loads of dragonflies – mostly Lesser Emperor and Norfolk Hawker.

Ilex Hairstreak

Ilex Hairstreak – one of several butterflies seen this morning

We found several Spur-thighed Tortoises in the grass, and lizards including Snake-eyed (European Copper) Skink and Balkan Wall Lizard.

Spur-thighed Tortoise

Spur-thighed Tortoise – a young one, in the Babadag Forest

There were not many birds active now – a Chiffchaff, a Lesser Whitethroat, a Blackcap and one or two Common Nightingales singing, and a few commoner tits. We had really come to try to see Sombre Tit and we thought our luck was in when we heard one call close by. We stood and listened but it didn’t call again and disappeared deeper into the scrub. Despite looking, we couldn’t find it again. We carried on along the track, where several Turtle Doves were purring and Golden Orioles were fluting, with one or two of each seen flying back and forth.

The raptors were starting to circle up now that it was getting hot, Booted Eagles and a Common Buzzard. As we got out of the trees and into a more open area, we heard a Levant Sparrowhawk call and looked back to see two displaying over the trees. We met the minibus here, down by the road. As we stopped for a drink of water, we spotted a couple of Isabelline Wheatears perched up on small dead stems sticking up out of the short grass. We could hear Tawny Pipit and Ortolan Bunting singing too. There were more butterflies out here too, in particular several striking black and white Great Banded Grayling.

Great Banded Grayling

Great Banded Grayling – common in the open grass on the edge of the forest

Back in the minibus, we drove over to a track across a rough area of open ground, where we found three more Turtle Doves, plus several more Isabelline and Northern Wheatears. We stopped to look at a Corn Bunting in the top of a bush and it was joined by a male Spanish Sparrow. The track continued over to the edge of some open woodland, where we stopped and got out for a walk.

A Red-backed Shrike was in the bushes right next to where we parked, and there were several Ortolan Buntings singing as we walked up the hill. A Woodlark flew over singing, and several more came up out of the short grass, but there was no sign of any Sombre Tits here.

Ortolan Bunting

Ortolan Bunting – this one perched in the top of an oak tree singing

We walked back to the minibus, stopping on the way to look at an Ortolan Bunting which perched in the top of an oak tree. A Middle Spotted Woodpecker was calling in the trees too. We were back at the minibus and jst about to get back on when we heard a Sombre Tit calling from somewhere in the trees nearby. We walked into through trees, and played cat and mouse for several minutes, before we eventually tracked them down. A pair of Sombre Tits, feeding quietly in the trees, right within sight of the bus!

There had been thunderstorms audible off in the distance for a while, but now unfortunately it started to rain here, so we dashed back and into the minibus. It was a long drive south to Vadu, and it was raining on and off for much of the journey – not what we had been forecast. When we arrived in the village, we decided to stop for lunch first and it was a good call as it stopped raining and started to brighten up.

After lunch, it was hot and sunny again as we headed back to an area of pools we had passed on the edge of the village. As we got out of the bus again, there were  several Bee-eaters on the wires. We could hear Red-footed Falcons calling in the trees across the road, and we could just see a nest up in one of the trees.

Turning our attention to the pools, we scanned round the edge where there were lots of Little Gulls. We counted 44, mostly young, 1st summer birds. A pair of Pied Avocets, several Green Sandpipers and a pair of Little Ringed Plovers were on the shore too, along with a single smart summer plumage Little Stint. There were Shelducks on the brackish pool at the front, and several Great Crested Grebes and Ferruginous Ducks on the larger fishing pond behind.

Little Gull

Little Gulls – we counted 44 around the first pool we looked at

A Marsh Harrier quartered over the reeds on one edge and, as we walked down the hill and round the pools, three Red-footed Falcons and a Hobby flew overhead. At the back of the pools, we found two different waders in the far corner, two Marsh Sandpipers in breeding plumage, late migrants through here. We had a good view of them through the scope.

Marsh Sandpiper

Marsh Sandpiper – one of two still at Vadu

We cut back round to the road on the far side of the village, where we met the minibus again. After a quick drink, we continued on along the road past the old abandoned communist-era factory buildings. We found several pairs of Northern Wheatears in the sandy grassland, with at least two feeding streaky juveniles. Then once we got to the damper areas with reeds, there were lots of Western Yellow Wagtails in a bewildering array of different forms, a couple that looked good for pure Black-headed Wagtail, but mainly ‘dombrowskii’ types of varying hues, and even one ‘xanthophrys’ with a black head and yellow supercilium.

Two Collared Pratincoles appeared, hawking high over the reeds, with one at one point coming quite close overhead, rather like a cross between a tern and a swallow. A little further on, three were loafing down on the short grass where the cattle were grazing. Several Spoonbills and pelicans circled over too.

Collared Pratincole

Collared Pratincole – hawking for insects above the reeds

Our main target here was Paddyfield Warbler, but we weren’t sure how easy it would be to find one in the heat of the afternoon. At first, we found nothing but Eurasian Reed Warblers, singing or collecting food. There were Great Reed Warblers singing too, with one or two seen flying across over the tops of the reeds. We heard Bearded Tits pinging and saw several zooming back and forth. And there were Reed Buntings here as well.

Then, as we walked slowly along the road, we heard a Paddyfield Warbler singing further up. We hurried along, and found it perched briefly on a stem in the top of the reeds. For those who were there quickly, it was a good view, but all too quickly it disappeared down into the reeds. Several of the group had gone back in the bus to use the facilities in the village, so had missed it. It was still singing but with a bit of a breeze, it was keeping well down in the reeds most of the time. We stuck at it though, and eventually it made another appearance for those who didn’t see it first time. The Black Sea coast of Romania is the westernmost point of the breeding range of Paddyfield Warbler, so you need to see it here, unless you want to go further east!

Paddyfield Warbler

Paddyfield Warbler – we found one singing in the reeds

There were some large sandy banks surrounding some wet basins a little further on, so we walked up for a look. On the first, hundreds of pairs of Common Terns were nesting. Two Little Gulls were in with them, along with several Common Redshanks round the edge of the islands. The basin on the other side of the road was deeper and less productive. Four Spoonbills and a Grey Heron flushed from the brackish marsh on the edge of the reeds on the way, and a Purple Heron flew over.

It is a long drive own to the coast even from here, and we had one more area we wanted to visit this afternoon, so we decided to head back, with a quick stop on the way for ice cream. We made our way over to an agricultural area, passing through another band of rain on the way, and turned onto a newly tarmacked road through the fields. A Calandra Lark circled over a rough field of grass and oats, just the bird we had come to see, but dropped down out of view.

We continued on slowly up the road and stopped by a track. Several Western Yellow Wagtails were bathing down in a puddle and two Black-headed Buntings perched in the tops of some young sunflowers in the edge of a field singing. A Red Fox walked down the track towards us.

We could see another Calandra Lark standing in the middle of the road further up. It seemed to like the new tarmac, as a couple of times it flew round but came back to the road. We drove slowly up towards it, but we were looking through the windscreen and into the sun so it was not going to be the best of views. The Calandra Lark eventually flew up, but circled round and landed again on the road behind. Now we got out and had a look at it through the scope. There was a lot of heat haze from the tarmac, but it helpfully decided to fly up and land much closer to us, where we could see its big bill and black neck patches.

Calandra Lark

Calandra Lark – kept coming back to the new tarmac

Eventually it flew again, right past us, flashing the broad white trailing edge to its wings and black underwings, before dropping down in the middle of a field of wheat. There were several other Calandra Larks flying round over the fields and several Skylarks here too.

Two Long-legged Buzzards circled over while we were standing here. Then we looked up across the fields to see a Montagu’s Harrier quartering along a ridge. It had been sunny, but now it started to spit with rain again. We had been very lucky dodging the showers this afternoon – we hadn’t been caught by the rain at all while we were out – and it was time to head back anyway now, with a long drive to Tulcea ahead.

Long-legged Buzzard

Long-legged Buzzard – one of two which circled over

Back at the guesthouse, after a break to freshen up and start packing, we gathered for our final dinner, which was finished off with a celebratory cake prepared by the guesthouse to mark the end of our visit.

SATURDAY 8TH JUNE

After a more leisurely breakfast, we checked out of the guesthouse and set off on the long drive back to Bucharest. We had a quick stop on the way at an area of marshes for Ruddy Shelduck.

As soon as got out of minibus, we saw one flying across over the water down below the hillside. There was a big colony of Sand Martins by the road, and several Bee-eaters with them. Two Rollers flew past and a Cuckoo came over calling. It was great we had seen so many Common Cuckoos on this trip – mostly in the Delta, but we had seen at least one every day so it was good to keep up the record. Further down the grassy hillside, a Hoopoe was feeding out on the grass with a single Isabelline Wheatear nearby.

We walked down the path to where we could get a better view out over the marshes and found at least 9 adult Ruddy Shelducks here, including a pair with several shelducklings. There were a few waders out on the marshes too. Several Black-winged Stilts and Lapwings were out in the middle, and two Green Sandpipers were down on a muddy patch on the near edge. Four Collared Pratincoles flew high overhead calling. In the distance, we could see lots of White Storks circling over the hillside beyond, and a Spoonbill flew in.

All too quickly it was sadly time to move on again. We had another break for an early lunch at the filling station back in Slobozia, where a Lesser Whitethroat was singing in the bushes beyond the back fence today.

Then it was on to Bucharest. We got to the airport in good time, only to find our flight was delayed by 20 minutes, but we were soon on our way back to Luton. We sailed through passport control, but then had to wait almost an hour for bags. Welcome back to the UK! Then we bid our farewells and headed off home.

It had been an unforgettable experience – with lots of good birds, good food and good company. If you would be interested in joining us on our next visit to Romania, please get in touch.

22nd June 2019 – Solstice Birding, Day 2

Day 2 of two days of Summer Tours today. It was the reverse of yesterday, with a cooler and cloudy start but brightening up progressively through the day, reaching a very pleasant 21C.

Having explored the coast to the east of Wells yesterday, we headed west today. Our first destination was Holme. As we parked and got out of the minibus, a Quail was singing from the verge opposite. As is typical with this species, we couldn’t see where it was hiding but we heard the distinctive ‘wet-my-lips’ song several times, before it went quiet.

A Sedge Warbler was singing from an elder bush in the reeds a little further on down the track, and while we were watching this in the scope, we heard a Grasshopper Warbler start to reel. We looked over in the direction of the sound and found it perched in the top of some brambles. We had a look at it from where we were, and then crept up closer. The Grasshopper Warbler dropped down into the brambles as we approached, but after a minute or so it climbed back up into the top and started reeling again.

Grasshopper Warbler

Grasshopper Warbler – reeling in the top of the brambles

Over the next twenty minutes or so we were treated to some stunning views of this often secretive species. Grasshopper Warbler tends to be very skulking unless it is singing, at which point it will perch out in full view. They normally arrive here in April from their wintering grounds in Africa, then reeling regularly for a while before going quiet as they get down to the business of raising their first brood. They will then reel again more regularly once the first brood is fledged and ahead of a second brood, which is presumably why this one was so vocal today.

It was not just about the Grasshopper Warbler though, as we stood here. A Cuckoo was singing in the distance, out over the grazing marshes. Several Marsh Harriers circled up out in the middle. Two dark chocolate-brown juveniles flew round and perched for a while in the tops of the bushes, and the grey-winged adult male was hunting nearby. A few Common Swifts flew over, heading west.

From here, we walked out to the beach next. A couple of Meadow Pipits were singing in the dunes, fluttering up and parachuting back down. A pair of Stonechats were perched in the bushes with a couple of Linnets. The same or another Cuckoo called in the dunes and we turned to see it flying across just behind us over the saltmarsh.

Lots of Sandwich Terns were flying past just off the beach, with some stopping to hover and plunge dive for fish just offshore. We stood on the tideline for a while and watched them, occasionally hovering and then plunging into the water.

Sandwich Tern

Sandwich Tern – hovering just offshore

Three Little Terns flew past, dwarfed by the Sandwich Terns. Then we heard another Little Tern call behind us and we noticed a pair were feeding in a tidal channel a little further along. One landed on the edge of the beach, and we had a good look at it in the scope, with its black-tipped yellow bill and white forehead.

Three Common Eider were swimming just offshore, a smart drake, a blacker immature drake and a brown female. As seaduck, it is not such a surprise to see them here as the family of Shelduck which was swimming some way out on the sea, two adults and five tiny ducklings. At least the sea was flat calm today.

Eider

Common Eider – there were three offshore this morning

Three Sanderlings flew along the beach and landed on the shingle out on the point. Two of them were still in their darker breeding plumage, but one was silvery grey and white, more typical of how they look when we see them here through the winter. As we walked back through the dunes, a Ringed Plover was on the sandbar in the channel. Then in the dunes we flushed a couple of Cinnabar moths and found lots of yellow-and-black striped Cinnabar caterpillars on the ragwort plants.

We made our way down the coast path to the old paddocks next. It was very busy along here – we subsequently found out it was a Norfolk 100km run underway and competitors were going past non-stop. They were apparently already 36km in and some seemed to be suffering accordingly! There were just a couple of Common Whitethroats and a few Linnets in the bushes.

When we got to the golf course, we could hear a Turtle Dove purring in the trees beyond. We cut across to the back of the car park, but when we got out of the trees it had gone quiet. A Lesser Whitethroat was rattling in the bushes in the corner. The refreshment station for the runners was set up on Beach Road, so it was very busy here too. We made our way back along the entrance track, listening to the Cuckoo still calling inland. It was warming up now and there were fewer birds singing.

Round at Titchwell, we decided to stop for an early lunch. A Blackcap was singing in the trees by the Visitor Centre. After lunch, we headed out onto the reserve. Two Reed Buntings were singing on the edge of the reedbed and we got one in the scope, perched in the top of a small sallow. Several Reed Warblers were busily darting in and out of the reeds below the path.

A Bearded Tit ‘pinged’, and we looked over to see a female come up out of the reeds close to the path. It didn’t stay long though and flew off over the bank to the Thornham side. One or two more Bearded Tits were zooming back and forth over the reeds further back in the reedbed.

Several Marsh Harriers were circling over the back of the reedbed, up and down out of the reeds, including one or two dark chocolate brown juveniles with tawny heads. At one point, we saw one of the males perform a food pass, circling with prey in its talons before dropping it for one of the youngsters to catch – which it failed to do!

There were a few bits and pieces on the reedbed pool – a female Common Pochard was diving with a couple of ducklings, always good to see as this is a scarce breeding species, plus a few Tufted Duck. A Little Grebe appeared out of the reeds and a Great Crested Grebe was swimming with a stripy-headed juvenile briefly at the back.

Black-tailed Godwit

Black-tailed Godwit – in rusty breeding plumage

Looking out at the Freshmarsh from Island Hide, there were lots of waders out in the middle, mostly Black-tailed Godwits and Bar-tailed Godwits. A few smaller Knot were in with them, one or two of them in rusty breeding plumage but mostly in grey non-breeding.

Two Spotted Redshanks were roosting out with the godwits, asleep on one leg. They are still in very smart breeding plumage at the moment, sooty black speckled with silvery white spots on the wings. They are mainly passage migrants here, and these ones are on their way back south already, having been up to Scandinavia to breed. They may have failed, or they could be females, which leave the males behind to brood the eggs and look after the young. Hard to believe, with the Summer Solstice just yesterday, that it is autumn already for some of these waders!

Spotted Redshank

Spotted Redshanks – two in sooty black breeding plumage still

There were lots of Avocets on the Freshmarsh as usual, but today they seemed to be mostly sleeping, sat down on the islands. They gather to moult here later in the summer, and it felt like many of them had already slipped into post-breeding mode. Eventually one came in and started feeding in front of the hide, where we could get a closer look at it.

Somebody in the hide spotted a Bearded Tit low down in the edge of the reeds, so we all gathered for a look. It disappeared in out of view, but reappeared again shortly afterwards, a tawny brown juvenile. It then spent some time out in the open on a reed stem preening, where we could get a good look at it through the scope. A couple of juvenile Moorhens were running around on the mud in front of it.

Bearded Tit

Bearded Tit – a juvenile in the edge of the reeds from Island Hide

The number of ducks on the freshmarsh is steadily increasing, as birds start to return, particularly Teal, of which there were many more now. The resident drakes are already moulting into eclipse – it is getting harder to find a smart drake Mallard, Gadwall and Shoveler now. There are still good numbers of adult Shelduck, although they will be leaving us to head off to moult in the coming weeks.

The Freshmarsh has been dominated by the gulls all summer, mainly Black-headed Gulls. They are now spending more time loafing on the islands, and looking through we found a single Common Tern in with them. There are still plenty of Mediterranean Gulls too, but we went round to Parrinder Hide for a closer look. Some of the Mediterranean Gulls now rest on the islands in front of the hide, so we could get a great look at them through the scope.

Mediterranean Gull

Mediterranean Gulls – loafing on the islands with the Black-headed Gulls

A Little Ringed Plover was bathing in the water on the edge of one of the islands, and we got it in the scope so we could see its golden yellow eye ring. When it had finished it went running along the edge at high speed and we noticed there was a second Little Ringed Plover a little further along. They spent some time chasing each other up and down the shore. A third was on the edge of the island opposite.

From there, we made our way back round to Patsy’s Reedbed. On the way, we stopped to admire a Common Lizard which was basking in the sunshine on the handrail by the path to Island Hide. A second Common Lizard, slightly larger and darker, was doing the same just a little further along.

Common Lizard

Common Lizard – basking on the handrail by Island Hide

Several Red-crested Pochards were out on the pool, three males all just starting to moult out of their breeding finery, and a female. A Great Crested Grebe swam past with its head under the water, looking for something to chase after.

Red-crested Pochard

Red-crested Pochard – one of three drakes on Patsy’s this afternoon

The Marsh Harriers were still coming and going over the reedbed and a smart grey-winged male circled over the back of Patsy’s. We had a quick scan of the reeds for the Purple Heron, but despite the fact it had apparently been seen again earlier, there was no sign of it now. A Grey Heron out in the reedbed had been causing some confusion, and flew across while we were scanning. We had no inclination to stay here or hour trying to see it.

It was lovely sitting in the sunshine watching the comings and goings out here, but it was now time to head back anyway. As we walked along the tank road, a Cetti’s Warbler shouted at us from the sallows.

21st June 2019 – Solstice Birding, Day 1

Day 1 of two days of Summer Tours today. It was a sunny start with clear blue skies and although it clouded over a bit in the afternoon, it remained bright and warm. A lovely day to be out on the North Norfolk coast.

To start the day, we set off east along the coast. It was coming up to high tide, so we called in first at Stiffkey Fen to see if any waders had come in to roost from the harbour. As we got out of the minibus, a Barn Owl disappeared round behind the barns. Probably with young to feed somewhere, it was still out hunting into the morning. A Yellowhammer was singing from the tops of the pines and we could hear the rattling song of a Lesser Whitethroat in the brambles. Having gone quiet while they raised their first broods, the Lesser Whitethroats have started singing again now ahead of a second breeding attempt.

Down along the permissive path, a Blackcap and a Chiffchaff were singing in the copse. We could hear a Bullfinch calling somewhere in the trees ahead of us too. There was a mixed tit flock feeding down by the road, a large group of Long-tailed Tits plus Blue Tits, Great Tits and a family of Coal Tits. We watched the latter feeding in the pines above the road, the juveniles with light yellow cheeks.

Down along the path by the river, there were rather few House Martins around the house on the hill, which seems to be a worrying theme this year. A Cetti’s Warbler was shouting intermittently from deep in the sallows. Half way down, we could just about see over the brambles to the Fen, where four Spoonbills were roosting. We had a better view of them from up on the seawall, where we could see there were three adults and one short-billed juvenile, a ‘teaspoonbill’. The first juveniles have started to disperse from the breeding colony at Holkham, and are then creched at favoured sites along the coast.

Spoonbills

Spoonbills – the juvenile was chasing after one of the adults

The juvenile Spoonbill started begging, trying to persuade one of the adults to feed it. Initially it bobbed its head up and down and started to flap its wings. When the adult tried to walk away, the juvenile set off after it. We watched the two of them walking round for at least 10 minutes, the juvenile Spoonbill relentless. At one point the adult tried to run away but the juvenile simply ran too.

A single Sandwich Tern was loafing in with the Black-headed Gulls. Three Mediterranean Gulls flew in from the harbour calling, two adults and a 1st summer, but they didn’t land and flew on west. A Common Tern was fishing in the harbour channel and kept coming past us while we stood on the bank, occasionally plunging down into the water.

Common Tern

Common Tern – fishing in the harbour channel

There were three Greenshanks on the Fen, roosting over high tide, asleep in the taller vegetation on the island. There were lots of Avocets, with one or two juveniles still. But no other waders on here this morning. Someone came to open up some equipment down by the sluice, and when we asked what it was for, they explained that they were monitoring the movements of the local sea trout population in the River Stiffkey and harbour.

After walking back, we made our way on to Kelling Heath. A Chiffchaff and a Willow Warbler were singing in the car park and the first of many Painted Lady butterflies was basking on a bush. There has been a large invasion in recent weeks from the continent and there are still lots around.

Painted Lady

Painted Lady – the first of many, basking on a bush in the car park

We had a quick walk round to see if we could find any Adders. They are warm now though and the only one we came across slithered away as we approached, possibly alerted to our approach by all the footsteps. A Garden Warbler was singing in the blackthorn nearby.

Walking on up the hill, a Woodlark flew overhead calling. Unfortunately it didn’t look like coming down and we watched it disappear away into the distance over the car park. There are lots of Silver-studded Blue butterflies out now and we stopped by a good area for them. There were good numbers of blue males fluttering round over the low heather and we found a mating pair, which gave us a good chance to have a closer look at the diagnostic underwing markings. There were a couple of July Belle moths out here too.

Silver-studded Blue

Silver-studded Blues – a mating pair showing the distinctive underwings

Carrying on round the Heath, we stopped to look at a Willow Warbler perched in a birch tree. A Common Whitethroat was flitting about in the gorse and another Woodlark flushed from the path ahead of us. A smart male Yellowhammer was singing in a small birch tree. We came across one Stonechat, a male, down by the railway cutting, and another pair the other side of the crossing feeding young in the gorse. There were lots of Linnets here but no sign of any Dartford Warblers again – they seem to be struggling this year.

Linnet

Linnet – a red-breasted male

The surprise of the morning came as we were crossing the railway. We looked up at the gorse bushes the other side, to see a Nightjar flying over them. A couple walking a dog had just gone across ahead of us, so had possibly flushed it. It flew along the top of the bushes, then turned and came across the railway a short distance away. It looped round and landed beneath a birch tree by the path back where we had just come. We walked back to see if we could find it but it flew again, and this time disappeared off through the trees.

It was already after midday, so we headed back to the minibus and dropped down to Cley for lunch at the Visitor Centre. While we were eating, we could see the 1st summer Little Gull dip feeding out on Pat’s Pool distantly. Afterwards, we walked out to the hides in the middle. Several Sand Martins were hawking over the reeds.

Out first stop was in Teal Hide –  where, appropriately enough, the first bird we saw was the Green-winged Teal. It was swimming out in the middle of the water with several Eurasian Teal, the vertical white foreflank stripe on the Green-winged Teal setting it apart from the horizontal white-lined Eurasians. It was feeding constantly, swimming round with its head mostly under water, only coming up for air occasionally.

Green-winged Teal

Green-winged Teal – on the left, with a Eurasian Teal on the right

There was a nice selection of other ducks on here too, including Gadwall and Shoveler, the drakes mostly moulting into their drab eclipse plumage already. There were several Shoveler too, with one pair at the back shepherding a large creche of 27 shelducklings.

We spent some time looking closely at the waders here too. There were lots of Black-tailed Godwits of two types – mostly Icelandic birds (subspecies islandica), but two Continental Black-tailed Godwits (nominate limosa) were sporting coloured plastic rings which gave their identity away.  The particular combinations identified them as birds from the very small breeding population on the Nene Washes in Cambridgeshire, having wandered here post-breeding.

Waders 1

Waders – Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwits, Knot and a couple of Avocets

In with the Black-tailed Godwits were a few Bar-tailed Godwits. Most of them were in non-breeding plumage, paler and more heavily streaked above than the equivalent plumage of Black-tailed Godwit, with a more obvious pale supercilium and slightly upturned bill. They were noticeable shorter-legged too, wading with their longer-legged cousins. The Knot with them barely came up to their knees. Again, most were in grey non-breeding plumage but one or two were in their smarter rusty-orange breeding plumage. Several Avocets were feeding in front of the hide, as was a still not fully grown juvenile Redshank.

The waders were all very jumpy and kept flying up. We soon found out why when there was another commotion and we looked up to see a Peregrine flying over with something in its talons. It turned out it had just caught a Redshank flying over behind the hide (hopefully not the youngster we had just seen!). We watched it disappear off east – possibly one of the birds from Cromer church.

Waders 2

Waders – spooked by a Peregrine hunting over the scrapes

Back at the Visitor Centre, we headed off back west, stopping again on our way at Wells. As we parked and got out, we could hear the raspy call of a Grey Partridge in the field next door, but couldn’t see it in all the growing crop. Scanning the islands, we found three more Spoonbills, one of them another juvenile, lurking in the vegetation. When a fourth Spoonbill flew in, it dropped down in the near corner of the pool, down close the track, so we walked down for a closer look.

Spoonbill

Spoonbill – feeding in the corner of the pool by the track

The Spoonbill was busy feeding, with its head down, sweeping its bill from side to side in the water as it walked. When it lifted its head, we could see its yellow-tipped black bill, an adult, and the bushy nuchal crest and brownish wash on the breast marked it out as a bird in breeding condition. We had a nice view of it before it flew again and went right to the back of the pool.

The pools here have been very good for waders recently and, although there was nothing today which we hadn’t already seen at Cley, there was still a nice selection. A large flock of Black-tailed Godwits were out in the middle, occasionally getting spooked and whirling round overhead. A lone bird, smart in rusty breeding plumage, was feeding on its own in the corner. Several Redshanks flew back and forth, and there were lots of Avocets and Lapwing in the grass.

Black-tailed Godwit

Black-tailed Godwit – in rusty breeding plumage

A small group of Egyptian Geese were loafing in the grass close to the track, and there was a good selection of other wildfowl. As we were about to walk back, a Sedge Warbler started singing and flew up to the front edge of one of the hawthorn bushes to pose. We had a good look at it through the scope, with its bold white supercilium. Then it was time to call it a day and head for home.

 

19th June 2019 – Exploring the NE Coast

A Private Tour today with a difference – having recently moved to Norfolk, the request from our guests was to visit some different sites slightly off the beaten track along the NE coast. We were not going to worry particularly about when we would be seeing in the way of birds today. It was a largely bright but cloudy day, but it stayed dry and we didn’t see any signs of the forecast showers until after we had finished up.

As we met in Wells, we started with a visit to the pools east of town. The Spoonbills were doing what Spoonbills like to do best – sleeping! They were right at the back of the water, by the far bank, but we could count at least 14 here this morning, a mixture of off-white adults and brighter white juveniles.

Spoonbills 1

Spoonbills – sleeping over by the far bank

We walked down the track, where a Sedge Warbler was singing from the bushes. A family of Reed Buntings was in the long grass beyond the ditch, one of the juveniles flying to the fence in front of us calling.

The Egyptian Geese were still in the grass by the pool on the other side of the track and at least one pair of Shelducks had a large brood of growing shelducklings. There was a good number of (Eurasian) Teal here today, with birds already returning now from their breeding grounds further north. Otherwise, there were a few Gadwall, Mallard and Shoveler, the drakes now moulting into their drabber eclipse plumage.

There were several juvenile Avocets of various ages around the pools. They appear to be doing well, despite the limited attention paid to them by the adults. A couple of young Redshank were out in the middle too and there were still a few Lapwings visible in the long grass round the edge. We heard what sounded like a Spotted Redshank call towards the back at one point, but it was possibly flying over as we couldn’t see any sign of it.

The Grey Herons which have been doing their best to reduce the number of young birds on here were still around, being chased back and forth by the Avocets. One of the Grey Herons landed in the corner of the pools by the track, and immediately attracted the attention of one of an adult Lapwing which mobbed it relentlessly until it flew off again.

Grey Heron

Grey Heron – mobbed by one of the Lapwings

We continued on past the first pools, but as the seawall is closed for works at the moment, we turned left and walked through the grass towards the westernmost pool. There were more warblers in the reeds and bushes here. A couple of Reed Warblers flicking around in the hawthorns and a family of Sedge Warblers down in the vegetation beyond the sedges. We watched a recently fledged juvenile, still with a short tail, begging and eventually being fed by one of the adults. There were a few Common Whitethroats and a Lesser Whitethroat singing.

Sedge Warbler

Sedge Warblers – feeding time for one of the recently fledged young

The pool at the end held a few more Avocets, Lapwings and a Redshank, but no sign of any Spotted Redshank here either. We made our way slowly back to the minibus, a Song Thrush was singing and flew up into the top of the hawthorns briefly.

Making our way east, we stopped again at Stiffkey Fen. A Yellowhammer was singing from the top of the pines by the layby and a Marsh Harrier quartered the field next door. As we crossed the road, another Marsh Harrier was down in the valley the other side. A bright pink Cinnabar Moth fluttered up from the vegetation by the path and a Chiffchaff flicked ahead of us along the hedge.

Into the copse, and a pair of Bullfinches flew out of the trees, the female landing briefly on a branch across the path. Out of the trees the other side of the road, and a few House Martins were flying in and out of the eaves of the house at the top of the hill, but there seen to be fewer here than usual, which appears to be a recurring theme everywhere this year. A family of Sedge Warblers were in the long grass below the willows along the path, and the juveniles scrambled away through the vegetation as the adults alarm called.

Looking over the brambles towards the Fen, we could see a small group of four Spoonbills asleep on the island. Three Greenshanks were roosting in the grass nearby and a Green Sandpiper was feeding along the far edge, a nice selection of waders already making their way back south and our first of the ‘autumn’ of each species.

Spoonbills 2

Spoonbills – there were four roosting on the Fen this morning

We had a better view over the Fen from up on the seawall. We got the Spoonbills and the various waders in the scope. But there was no much more visible from up here that we hadn’t seen on the walk out, a few Common Redshanks and a single Black-tailed Godwit which flew off soon after we arrived.

The tide was just going out in the harbour and we made our way on, past the end of the seawall and out to the corner of the coast path to have a scan. Two pairs of Shelduck were displaying down at the bottom of the grassy bank as we passed and looked like they might be still prospecting for nest sites.

A frenzy of Common Terns was gathered out over the middle of the harbour, presumably having found a shoal of fish. A Sandwich Tern was on one of the sandbars nearby, its partner returning periodically with a fish to present to it. There were not many waders out here yet, apart from the Oystercatchers which have spent the summer here. A single Curlew was out on the mud and two more flew over, more early returning birds. We could see a few seals pulled out on the shingle on Blakeney Point in the distance.

Greenshanks

Greenshanks – two of the three from the Fen, flying out to the harbour

As we walked back to the seawall, a male Marsh Harrier flew in across the reedbed out out towards the edge of the saltmarsh. The Greenshanks started calling and took off, flying past us and out towards the harbour, presumably looking to feed again on the falling tide. On the way back along the path to the road, a Cetti’s Warbler flicked up out of the bushes by the river and disappeared into the willows, the sight of a chestnut tail disappearing into the vegetation being a typical view of a Cetti’s Warbler!

A Green-winged Teal had been reported this morning from the hides at Cley, so we thought we would call in there next, on our way past. As we walked out along the boardwalk, we heard a Bearded Tit calling and turned to see a male flying straight towards us over the reeds. It dropped across the path just ahead of us and disappeared straight into the reeds the other side.

We stood on the boardwalk where it had gone in and could see the reed moving as it worked its way through. It came back towards us, passed by just a few feet away but tucked down mostly out of view, before flying up and out again back across the boardwalk. A little further on, another Bearded Tit was more obliging, perched in the reeds with a large caterpillar in its bill. It didn’t seem to know quite what to do with it!

Bearded Tit

Bearded Tit – wondering what to do with a caterpillar

We went in to Teal Hide first, as the drake Green-winged Teal had been reported from Pat’s Pool earlier. There were quite a few Eurasian Teal swimming round on the water or asleep on the islands. After a short while, the Green-winged Teal swam out with the other Teal. It was busy feeding, with its head mostly down in the water, but we could see the distinctive thick white vertical stripe on the foreflank. Several drake Eurasian Teal were swimming with it, giving us a good comparison of the two species, the Eurasian Teal showing instead a horizontal white stripe.

Green-winged Teal

Green-winged Teal – showing the distinctive vertical white foreflank stripe

Green-winged Teal is the North American cousin of our regular Eurasian Teal, and is a scarce but regular visitor across this side of the Atlantic. Given the number of Eurasian Teal returning here at the moment, it seems most likely that the Green-winged Teal had come here with them, rather than arriving fresh across ‘the Pond’.

There was a nice selection of waders on the scrapes here too, split between Pat’s and Simmond’s. There were at least 120 Knot, hard to count exactly as they were mobile between the hides and kept splitting into different groups. Most of them were in grey non-breeding plumage, though there were two or three rusty birds in with them. They are probably 1st summer birds which have not bred this year.

Knot

Knot – mostly in grey non-breeding plumage

There were lots of Black-tailed Godwits too and looking through them we found a single Bar-tailed Godwit in amongst them, sleeping on the back of one of the islands. The Black-tailed Godwits are mostly Icelandic birds (of the race islandica), but there was a colour-ringed bird of the Continental race, limosa, in with them, a moulting adult. At one point, we had the Continental Black-tailed Godwit, the Bar-tailed Godwit and one of the Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits all in the scope together, giving us a great 3-way comparison.

Continental Black-tailed Godwit

Continental Black-tailed Godwit – a colour-ringed bird from the Nene Washes

While the population of Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits has been increasing, the Continental Black-tailed Godwit has been struggling. There are only about 40 pairs which breed in the UK, in the Fens on the Nene and Ouse Washes, where they are very vulnerable to summer flooding. They are the subject of urgent conservation action, through ‘Project Godwit’ and the headstarting programme.

It was time for lunch, so we made our way back to the Visitor Centre and made use of the picnic tables outside. A Green Sandpiper circled over calling while we were sitting there, possibly a fresh returning migrant. After lunch, we continued on our way east.

Our next stop was at Iron Road, where we had a quick look at the pool. It has filled up with water again after the recent rains, although there were no waders on here today, but it is always a good place to check when birds are on the move. As we turned to walk back to the minibus, a Barn Owl was out hunting over the marshes. It was a wet night last night and it probably has young to feed somewhere.

Barn Owl

Barn Owl – out hunting in the middle of the afternoon

Our final destination for the afternoon was Kelling. A Greenfinch was singing from the top of the fir tree by the school as we set off along the lane, and there were a few Goldfinches and Chaffinches in the bushes, but otherwise the hedges were rather quiet here. When we got to the copse, we stopped to scan from the gate. There were lots of Brown Hares out on the hillside beyond, a couple of them sprawled out across the grass fast asleep. We had to get the scope on them to double check they were actually still alive!

The pool on the Water Meadow was very full of water, with no muddy edge suitable for waders now. The pair of Egyptian Geese still have two goslings which are getting very big now, not far off fully grown. A Common Whitethroat flew across to the brambles on one edge carrying food. Continuing on down towards the beach, there were a few Linnets and Meadow Pipits.

We took the permissive path up the hill towards the gun emplacements. Looking out to sea, a few Sandwich Terns flew past and a couple of Little Terns were fishing just offshore. Given the walk out had been rather quiet, we decided to continue on round on a circular walk back towards the village. A Marsh Harrier was hunting over the grassy field above the Water Meadow.

Meadow Brown

Meadow Brown – feeding on the brambles

We had just remarked how few butterflies we had seen out today, when we started to find them. First we found a couple of Meadow Browns in the grass and nectaring on the brambles by the path. Then we started to come across Painted Ladys. There has been a noticeable invasion from the continent in the last week or so and we have been seeing large numbers most days. There were a few basking on the path but when we stopped to admire all the poppies growing in the strip left fallow at the top of the field we realised it was full of Painted Ladys.

By the time we got back down to the village it was time to call it a day and make our way back. We had seen a few of the different sites along the coast today, and we had even managed to squeeze in a few good birds on the way!

18th June 2019 – East to West & back

A Private Tour today in North Norfolk. It was a mostly bright and sunny day with patchy high cloud, until later in the day when a band of rain spread in, thankfully just as we were finishing up. We had a particular target list of species for the day, which saw us working the coast from end to end.

We met in Salthouse and headed inland, up to the heath to start. We really wanted to see Dartford Warbler, but with the population here seemingly struggling this year, we knew it would be difficult. As we arrived in the car park, we could hear Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler singing. Walking up along the path, several Linnets flew round over the gorse and we heard a Yellowhammer singing. There has been a Woodlark feeding in the area here, but there was no sign of it as we passed.

There were lots of butterflies out this morning. There are still plenty of Painted Ladys around, following the invasion in recent days, although some of them are starting to look a bit battered now. The Silver-studded Blues have been slow to emerge this year, but are now out in increasing numbers. We also flushed several July Belle moths from the vegetation by the paths too, today.

Painted Lady

Painted Lady – some are now starting to look a little battered

We thought we would try our luck again and see if the Nightjar we had found the other day was roosting back on the same perch today, but unsurprisingly there was no sign of it. However, as we walked back round to the main path, we accidentally flushed another Nightjar from its roosting site hidden down in the bracken. It was a male, we could see its white wing flashes and corners to its tail as it flew up and disappeared into the trees.

Continuing on round the heath, we found several Stonechats, but no Dartford Warblers. An alarm calling family of Common Whitethroats was the closest we got. An Adder, basking on the path, slithered off into the heather as we approached. We flushed a pair of Yellowhammers collecting food in the gorse and bracken.

Yellowhammer

Yellowhammer – a female, collecting food in the gorse and bracken

A Woodlark was reported singing earlier from back up where we had looked by the car park on our way out, so we decided to have a look for that instead. A Garden Warbler was singing from the birches on our way back, but despite walking all round the area where the Woodlark had been, there was no sign of it now. We decided to cut our losses and try something else.

Firecrest was the nest species on the list, so we headed over to Holt Country Park. We were not sure whether the Firecrests would be singing now, but as we were trying to pay for a parking ticket at the faulty pay & display ticket machine, we heard one singing from the trees behind us. Once we had gathered in the car park to listen, it had gone quiet, but thankfully then started up again closer to the road after a few minutes. We followed the sound and had some good views of it flitting around in the ivy-covered trees. We could see its bold white supercilium. A Goldcrest was singing nearby too.

Firecrest

Firecrest – singing in the ivy-covered trees

We were back on track now, and with our target here achieved so quickly, we had time to sit down and get a coffee at the cafe. A Siskin flew over calling while we were enjoying the morning sunshine.

From Holt, we had a long drive all the way over to the opposite end of the coast to look for Turtle Doves. We parked on the beach road at Holme and walked along the track towards the Firs. Two Stock Doves, three Collared Doves and a couple of Woodpigeons were all perched together in a small group of sallows in one of the gardens, but there was no sign of their rarer cousin. We could hear a Cuckoo calling, and turned to see it fly across the meadows the other side of the road. A Sparrowhawk circled up in the distance, along with a couple of Marsh Harriers.

A Cetti’s Warbler was singing further along. This was also on the target list for today, but it is a species which is rarely seen, and generally just heard. We walked down a narrow path along by the river, heading towards where we had heard the Cetti’s Warbler singing. A Sedge Warbler and a Chiffchaff were feeding in the vegetation down in the water.

The Cetti’s Warbler sang again, further up along the path, so we walked on. As we came out from under some trees, it suddenly appeared out of a bed of nettles right by the path, flying up into the low branches of an overhanging willow. We had just a brief view, before it dropped back down into the bushes by the river, and then flew round behind us, but it was more than we had hoped for. As we walked back along the path, the Cetti’s Warbler shouted at us from some bushes ahead, but it had returned to being more typically elusive and we didn’t see it again.

Past the last house, we walked round and up onto the coast path. A flock of Starlings whirled round out over the saltmarsh. We took the coast path back west to the old paddocks, where a Common Whitethroat was singing from the hawthorns. We had just stopped to listen to a Lesser Whitethroat further along when two Turtle Doves flew out of the trees and over the path ahead of us. We followed them out over the saltmarsh, and watched as they dropped down over the dunes towards the beach.

We decided to walk round to the beach to see if we could get another look. We had to take a bit of a long diversion round the cordon on the beach erected for nesting birds. An Oystercatcher walked off over the stones as we passed and a Ringed Plover was feeding down in the bottom of a sandy creek. A Little Tern flew up calling and circled round overhead.

Little Tern

Little Tern – circled round overhead calling

As we rounded the far end of the cordon, the two Turtle Doves flew up from the dunes ahead of us. They circled round and dropped down again further over, in the middle of the fenced off area. The path through the dunes on the inland side of the cordon took us past that area, but the grass in the middle was very long and we couldn’t see any sign of them, so we climbed up onto the dune ridge to scan distantly from a higher vantage point.

One of the Turtle Doves flew up again, circled round, and dropped back down into the long grass. Then two Turtle Doves came up and circled round together. When they dropped down again, three came up the next time. This time they flew over towards the saltmarsh, the pair coming straight past us before heading back over to the paddocks. We had much better flight views this time – we could see the rusty scaling on their backs – worth the walk out here.

Turtle Doves

Turtle Doves – two of the three feeding out in the dunes

We walked back along the path towards the golf course. A Common Blue butterfly fluttered up from the dunes as we passed. Several Stock Doves came out of the grass, suggesting there must be lots of food out here for them at the moment. Then we crossed back to where we had left the minibus and had lunch on one of the picnic benches by the entrance to the car park.

Our next destination was Titchwell. Calling in at the Visitor Centre, we were told that a Hobby was hunting from the dead trees at the back of the reedbed, another species on our list. We walked straight round to Patsy’s Reedbed and had good views of the Hobby through the scope from there, perched in the trees. It kept flying off, making sorties to hunt, but returned each time to a different perch.

Several Red-crested Pochards were feeding out on the water in front of the screen, one of the easier target birds to tick off the list. Three drakes were just starting to moult, variously starting to get some browner feathers in their upperparts, but the fourth male was already in eclipse, looking rather like a female but with a bright coral-red bill. There were also a few Common Pochard and Tufted Ducks, and a Little Grebe on the water here this afternoon.

6O0A0589

Red-crested Pochard – the smartest of the four drakes on Patsy’s this afternoon

There were several Mediterranean Gulls in with the Black-headed Gulls bathing out in the water. Once you got your eye in, they were easy to pick out with their black hoods and white wing tips. We knew we could get better views out on the Freshmarsh though. There were several Bearded Tits in the reeds here, but they kept dropping down out of view. There was no sign of the Purple Heron in the short time we were there, but we didn’t want to waste hours waiting for it to reappear.

Out along Meadow Trail, a couple of Reed Warblers were flitting round the edge of the dragonfly pool, and one flew up to sing in the trees by the path. Along the main path by the reedbed, there were several Reed Buntings singing and Sedge Warblers flying in and out of the reeds by the small pools in front. We could hear more Bearded Tits calling and they were a bit easier to get onto here, flying back and forth across the channel through the reeds and across the front of the main reedbed pool, if a little more distant.

We stopped it at Island Hide. Several Avocets were feeding on the mud and shallow water in front of the hide, along with a few Black-tailed Godwits. There were quite a few Common Redshanks on here today, but we couldn’t see any Spotted Redshanks from where we were. A distant Little Ringed Plover was on one of the islands over by Parrinder Hide.

There are noticeably more Teal on the Freshmarsh now, with birds starting to return already from their breeding grounds further north. The local Mallard, Gadwall and Shoveler are looking a bit tatty, moulting into eclipse plumage now.

From round at Parrinder Hide, we found the Spotted Redshanks, right over at the back against the reeds today. There were six in total, all still largely in their very smart sooty black breeding plumage, very different from the grey-brown Common Redshanks. As expected, there were plenty of Mediterranean Gulls here too, with a good number of them now loafing on the islands in front of the hide. There were lots of 2nd summers in with them today, looking like summer adults with their black hoods but still with black in their wingtips. The fenced off ‘Avocet Island’ is still chock full of noisy nesting gulls.

Mediterranean Gulls

Mediterranean Gulls – loafing on the islands in front of the hide

A couple of Little Ringed Plovers flew round calling, right below the front of the hide. We watched one land on one of the islands and run quickly over to a shallow depression in the ground. It seemed to be scrape building, as it looked to work at the ground with its legs and then pick round the edge as if tidying up. When another Little Ringed Plover approached, the two of them walked in parallel across the island, stopping and bobbing they heads, or picking at the ground.

Little Ringed Plover

Little Ringed Plover – appeared to be scrape building on the island

It was time to head back, as we had one last stop we wanted to make as we returned east along the coast. We could see darker cloud building from the west and it started to spit with rain as we walked along the bank towards the Visitor Centre.

Our final destination for the afternoon was at Wells. We could see several Spoonbills on the pools without even getting out of the minibus. We did get out and walked down along the track for a closer look. There were several adults busy feeding in the water, and two juveniles still with only partly grown bills over on the far bank. Two of the adults were feeding together, almost synchronised, walking side by side and sweeping their bills through the water in unison. We could see the mustard wash on their breasts and their shaggy nuchal crests and, when they caught something and lifted their heads, we could see the yellow tips to their black bills.

Spoonbills

Spoonbills – these two adults were sychronised feeding

Egyptian Geese was another one on the list and another nice easy one here. There were seven together, loafing in the grass close to the track. It had been spitting lightly with rain but at this point it started to fall more heavily. We decided it was time to call it a day and head for home. We still had a couple more birds to add to the list on the way – a Grey Heron out on the marshes at Cley, and a Barn Owl hunting the grazing marshes by the road as we drove back in to Salthouse to round things off nicely.

16th June 2019 – Birds & Butterflies, Day 2

Day 2 of a weekend of Summer Tours looking for birds, butterflies and other wildlife. It was mostly bright and sunny this morning, if a little breezy, with more cloud in the afternoon when we had to dodge some showers. Thankfully we managed to stay – mostly – dry.

Our first destination for this morning was up on the heath. As we got out of the minibus, we could hear a Garden Warbler singing in the tall birch trees on one side of the car park. It came a bit closer, into a smaller tree, but all we managed to get were brief glimpses as it moved through the branches before it dropped out of view. Thankfully, a couple of minutes later, it flew round to the blackthorn on the other side of the car park at perched right out in some dead branches in the top, singing.

Garden Warbler

Garden Warbler – singing in the trees in the car park

As we walked up the path out onto the heath, we could hear a Yellowhammer singing. A small bird flew up from one of the cut areas ahead of us. It was a Woodlark. It flew up in front of us, then circled round behind – we could see its short tail and broad rounded wings – and we lost sight of it behind the trees.

A little further on, we stopped to look at a male Silver-studded Blue butterfly, a very localised heathland species. They have been slow to emerge this year, probably due to the cold, wet weather over the last week or so, but we would see several out today, in the warmer conditions, including one which appeared to be so newly emerged it was still to be filling out its wings. While we were looking at the Silver-studded Blue, a male Yellowhammer flew up into the top of a small tree nearby.

Silver-studded Blue

Silver-studded Blue – we saw several, some freshly emerged, today

We had a look round a couple of traditional territories where there are usually Dartford Warblers, but we drew a blank. They have been very hard to find in recent weeks – hopefully that just means they have been busy breeding, rather than anything else, although it does look like numbers on the Heath are down again this year, a worrying trend. We did find a family of Willow Warblers calling from some scrubby bushes and saw one of the adults out looking for food in a low birch tree. There were several families of Linnets in the gorse too.

On our travels, we also came across an Adder basking on the edge of the gorse which slithered quickly in when we stopped to look at it. A Common Lizard ran through the heather too. There were several Painted Lady butterflies out again today, and we found one or two July Belle moths which flushed from the heather beside the path.

We decided to try our luck on another part of the Heath and as we made our way round, we happened to notice a shape on top of a dead stump not far from the path. It was a roosting Nightjar! It opened one eye and looked at us as we set up the scope on it, but was obviously relying on its fantastic camouflage to assume we couldn’t see it. We took it in turns, one at a time so as not to create too much disturbance, to look at it. Fantastic!

Nightjar

Nightjar – roosting on a dead stump

After enjoying the sound of Nightjars churring last night, and watching them flying round above our heads in the twilight, it was great to see one in daylight today and admire its cryptic plumage. A real bonus as we rarely find them perched out in the daytime.

There were one or two more Silver-studded Blue butterflies out on the other side of the Heath. We found a pair of Stonechats here too, the male and female both alarm calling and collecting food, suggesting they may have a nest somewhere close with young in it. A Common Whitethroat flew up in a song flight and a Coal Tit worked its way through the gorse. Several Common Buzzards started to circle up and we watched two chasing each other above the trees. But we couldn’t find any Dartford Warblers over here either, so we decided to head back.

On the way, we stopped to look at a flowering bush that was covered in butterflies – at least 12 Painted Ladys and several Red Admirals. As we walked through a group of pine trees, we could hear a Goldcrest singing and we looked up to see it flitting around in the branches. Back at the car park, the Garden Warbler was still singing.

Moving on, we dropped down to the coast at Cley, stopping at the Visitor Centre briefly to use the facilities before driving round to Walsey Hills. There were several Common Pochard on the pool at Snipe’s Marsh, including a female with seven small ducklings. Common Pochard is a scarce breeding bird in the UK, so it is always good to see successful breeding.

Common Pochard

Common Pochard – a female with one of seven ducklings

We could see a Spoonbill feeding in the Serpentine further out along the East Bank, so we walked out to have a look at it. There were several Reed Warblers singing in the reeds and a Reed Bunting perched up in a small elder in the reedbed. We heard a Bearded Tit calling and caught a glimpse of it zooming off over the reeds, but it was a little breezy for them out here today.

There were lots of Greylag Geese out on the grazing marshes, along with four Curlew, early returning birds, possibly failed breeders or non-breeders. There were several Shelduck on Pope’s Pool. A pair of Avocet had nested on the bare mud here and had two small juveniles – balls of grey fluff with long legs and a short, slightly uptilted bill. A Lapwing was still on the nest. A Little Ringed Plover appeared briefly on an area of short muddy grass.

The Spoonbill was busy feeding further back in the water, where it was hard to see, but now flew over to the far northernmost corner. We could see it better here and we watched it walking round with its head down, sweeping its bill from side to side through the shallow water. Occasionally it would flick its head up when it caught something. It worked its way back towards us along the grassy edge and came right past along the edge of the Serpentine. We could see the yellow tip to its black bill and its shaggy crest, a breeding adult.

Spoonbill

Spoonbill – an adult, feeding on the Serpentine

A second Spoonbill was hidden down in a smaller low pool behind the bank at the back, but obviously encountered the ire of a pair of Avocets, which chased it out. It joined the first Spoonbill on the Serpentine for a bit, before deciding the coast was clear and heading back to the pool where it had been feeding before.

Continuing on to Arnold’s Marsh, past the main drain where a Little Grebe was diving, we went into the shelter to get out of the wind. There were lots of Sandwich Terns packed in on one of the small islands and others bathing and preening further over. Through the scope we could see their yellow-tipped black bills and shaggy crests. A single Common Tern was loafing nearby – noticeably different, with its black-tipped red bill and red legs, and its smooth black crown.

Sandwich Terns

Sandwich Terns – loafing on Arnold’s Marsh

Scanning around the edges of Arnold’s Marsh, we found a Little Gull right over at the back. It was a young one, in its first summer, with a non-breeding black spot behind its eye and small black cap. We had a look at it through the scope, before it walked back into the vegetation and went to sleep. Otherwise, there were a few Redshanks on here today but no other waders.

We couldn’t come this far and not at least have a quick look at the sea. There were several Sandwich Terns feeding just offshore, plunge diving into the surf after fish, and we found at least six Little Terns in with them too. They were tiny by comparison, with black-tipped yellow bills and white foreheads.

It was time for lunch now, so we walked back along the East Bank to Walsey Hills. It was spitting with rain when we got back to the minibus, as a dark cloud passed over, but we could see bright blue sky approaching from the south-west. We sat down at the picnic tables by the visitor centre, in the light rain, but our faith was vindicated as the sun promptly came out again. A few Sand Martins skimmed back and forth low over the reeds.

We set the scope up here and scanned Pat’s Pool over lunch. There were some Black-tailed Godwits feeding in the shallow water, and we found another Little Gull swimming over by the reeds, picking insects from the surface of the water. Next time we looked back there were a load more waders which had just flown in. Through the scope, we could see they were mainly Bar-tailed Godwits, about 80 of them, along with 20 Knot. They were mostly in non-breeding plumage, but we did get a smart rusty breeding adult Bar-tailed Godwit in the scope, next to a breeding plumage Black-tailed Godwit for comparison.

After lunch, we headed west along the coast to Wells. We could see dark clouds ahead of us, but the worst of them seemed to be heading out to sea. When we got to Wells however, we could see there were more dark clouds heading our way. We got out and had a quick look at the pools. We could see a couple of Spoonbills over towards the far side, so we set off down the track. A couple of Sedge Warblers were singing along the edges of the ditches either side and two Yellowhammers flew in landed in a bush right next to the path.

From somewhere in the vegetation beside the path ahead of us, a House Sparrow flew out and caught a dragonfly (a Four-spotted Chaser) in mid air. It landed on the track with it and we watched it shaking it to dismember it, detaching the wings first and then breaking the abdomen into bite-sized chunks.

House Sparrow

House Sparrow – eating a Four-spotted Chaser it just caught

It was becoming increasingly clear we would not escape the rain and as it started spitting we beat a hasty retreat to the minibus, just in time before the heaven’s opened. A quick check revealed there was a narrow bank of rain coming in from the west, so we decided on a quick change of plan. We drove west to Titchwell instead, coming out of the rain on our way there.

As we walked down the path to the Visitor Centre, it was clear it had just rained very heavily here based on the big puddles. A Blackcap was singing in the trees above the path and a flock of Long-tailed Tits was working its way through the sallows.

As we walked out along the main path beside the reedbed, we could hear Reed Buntings and Reed Warblers singing. Bearded Tits were zooming back and forth over the tops of the reeds but not perching up today. Several Marsh Harriers were circling over towards the back. A Great Crested Grebe was swimming in and out of the reeds in one of the channels. Several Swifts and House Martins were hawking for insects over the reeds.

Avocet

Avocet – feeding in front of Island Hide

Out at Island Hide, there were several Avocets feeding in the shallow water in front of the hide. A flock of twenty four Bar-tailed Godwits, together with two Knot and two Black-tailed Godwits were roosting out in the middle. We really wanted to see the Spotted Redshanks which had been on the Freshmarsh earlier, but we couldn’t find any sign of them from here.

The number of Teal on the Freshmarsh is already increasing again, as birds return early from their breeding grounds on the continent. Otherwise, there was the regular selection of Shelduck, Shoveler, Gadwall and Mallard on here. The Freshmarsh is still dominated by gulls, which have taken over ‘Avocet Island’ to nest. We managed to pick out our first Mediterranean Gulls amongst the massed ranks of Black-headed Gulls. Ironically, the Mediterranean Gulls’ blacker hoods set them apart! There were one or two Common Terns in with the gulls too.

As we made our way round to Parrinder Hide, there was a great commotion in the gull colony, as everything flew up calling. A Marsh Harrier had flown in over the island and we watched it drop down and grab a juvenile Black-headed Gull. It took off again and flew off over the bank at the back, pursued by a mob of angry gulls. Nature in the raw!

From round at Parrinder Hide, everything had settled down again. We had an even better view of the Mediterranean Gulls from here, with several loafing in with all the Black-headed Gulls on the islands in front of the hide. As well as their blacker hoods, we could see their contrasting white eyelids, brighter red bill and white wing-tips.

Mediterranean Gulls

Mediterranean Gulls – in with the Black-headed Gulls from Parrinder Hide

We could see the Spotted Redshanks from here, two of them right over in the far corner of the Freshmarsh by the reeds. Through the scope, we got a better look at them, still in their jet black breeding plumage peppered with silvery white spots on their wings. These are either failed breeders or the first returning females, which leave the males behind to take on childcare duties! Smart birds when they first return, they will now quickly moult into grey non-breeding plumage. Two Little Ringed Plovers flew across in front of the hide and landed on the island out to the right.

The gulls in the breeding colony were nervous, and there was one false alarm when part of the island started to erupt before settling back down again. Then the Marsh Harrier came in again and everything went up. We watched it drop down into the vegetation on the island through the mass of white gulls. It came up with a juvenile Black-headed Gull in its talons again and flew off towards the bank, despite a frenzied attack from several of the adult gulls diving at it. The Marsh Harrier had obviously realised it was worth undergoing the attacks for the reward of Black-headed Gull chicks.

Marsh Harrier

Marsh Harrier – carrying off a Black-headed Gull chick

We wanted to have a quick look in at Patsy’s Reedbed before the end of the day, so we set off on our way back. Up on the main path, we noticed a Spotted Redshank had just dropped in down just below the bank. We had a great view of it here, but it was not happy with all the people walking on the bank and quickly flew off again as some people approached from the other direction. As our summer is (hopefully!) just beginning, it is amazing to think that their summer is over already. Autumn wader migration is here!

Spotted Redshank

Spotted Redshank – a smart returning adult still in black breeding plumage

Round at Patsy’s Reedbed we could see a small crowd gathered by barrier at the end of East Trail. There has been a Purple Heron in the area for some time. It had disappeared for a week, but reappeared again earlier today. It hadn’t been seen for several hours though, but we kept one eye on the reeds over there just in case, while we scanned the pool.

There were several Red-crested Pochard on the pool – two drakes starting to moult out of their bright breeding plumage, and one already in female-like eclipse plumage with its coral-red bill giving it away, plus a single female. A Little Grebe was lurking in the edge of the reeds down at the front and several Mediterranean Gulls were bathing out in the middle with a larger flock of Black-headed Gulls.

Red-crested Pochard

Red-crested Pochard – one of the drakes still largely in breeding plumage

One or two Marsh Harriers circled over the reedbed beyond. A Lesser Whitethroat was singing in the hedge behind us. They typically go quiet when they are breeding and then start singing again before they have a second brood, so this one has probably just finished raising its first.

Then unfortunately it was time for us to head back. A male Sparrowhawk was a late addition to the list as we drove home, skimming the top of the tarmac ahead of us before diverting into a garden beside the road and landing on a fence. It had been a great weekend, with a nice selection of birds and other summer wildlife, with some memorable moments.

15th June 2019 – Birds & Butterflies, Day 1

Day 1 of a weekend of Summer Tours looking for birds, butterflies and other wildlife. It was bright and sunny, with patchy high cloud for most of the morning, but cloudier and cooler as the breeze picked up a little in the afternoon. We made our way down to The Broads for the day.

As we set off, we hadn’t gone far when we spotted a Little Owl in the window opening of an old barn. We pulled up a discrete distance away but before we could get out it had disappeared inside. The rest of the journey down to the Broads was fairly quiet, the only bird of real note being a Grey Wagtail which flew up from the side of the road at one point.

Early reports suggested that the Lesser Grey Shrike which has spent the last week along the Nelson Head track at Horsey was still present this morning, so we headed straight round there first. A Swallow was singing from under the eaves of the Nelson Head pub.

Swallow

Swallow – singing under the eaves of the pub

As we walked down the road, a Common Whitethroat was singing from an oak tree in the hedge on the edge of one of the fields. There were small flocks of Linnets flying in and out of another oilseed rape field, feeding on the seeds. We took the track out towards the dunes and several Skylarks towered up into the blue sky, probably making the most of it after the last week’s rain. A Reed Warbler sang from a reedy ditch by the path, but remained mostly out of view, even though we could see the reeds moving. A male Reed Bunting perched on some brambles was singing too, as best it could!

There were a few people gathered already this morning, looking at the Lesser Grey Shrike, so we joined them. The bird was out at the back of a grassy meadow with scattered bushes. It was perched on a branch low on the edge of a clump of sallows at first, so we got it in the scope. We could see its black mask extending up over its forehead and the pink flush to its breast. It was very active, flying between bushes and sallying out over the grass for insects.

Lesser Grey Shrike

Lesser Grey Shrike – feeding from the bushes out in the meadow

Lesser Grey Shrike is a scarce visitor to the UK from south-eastern Europe, with on average only 1-2 seen each year. We stood and watched it for a few minutes, before it flew round behind a large area of bushes and we lost sight of it. A Hobby shot through low over the grass, hunting dragonflies. We decided to walk on to the dunes.

There has been an invasion of Painted Lady butterflies from the continent in the last few days and there were lots here this morning. Everywhere we looked over the grassy meadows, we could see them flying round. Along the edge of the path, there were small groups feeding on any nectar-bearing flowers that were open. An impressive sight to see so many here.

Painted Lady

Painted Lady – there has been an invasion from the continent

Further along the path, the verges were lined with several clumps of purple Southern Marsh Orchids coming into flower. A Curlew flew high overhead calling, heading south. Amazing to think, but the first waders are already coming back after the breeding season further north and there have been a few Curlews on the move in recent days. Their summer is over already, just as ours is hopefully beginning!

We carried on out to the dunes and climbed up to the top to look at the sea. There were a few gulls offshore and a Grey Seal diving just off the groynes. We had a quick scan from up here but there were lots of small beetles buzzing around in clouds which started to get in people’s hair, so we decided to make our way back.

We were just about to descend when we noticed a Hobby, possibly the one we had seen earlier, hawing for insects low over the top of the dunes just to our right. It came along the line of the dunes towards us, then shot fast and low down over the grassy slope right below us, catching something low over the grass and then coming back up to eat it as it passed.

Hobby

Hobby – flew past us catching insects low over the dunes

As we made our way back to the track, a pair of Stonechats were on the fence. They flicked off ahead of us, landing each time a bit further along. The male flashed a bright white rump as it flew – a characteristic more typical of continental Stonechats rather than the darker British race hibernans. The taxonomic status of the Stonechats on the coast here is uncertain and it is possible that continental rubicola Stonechats intergrade with hibernans here.

Stonechat

Stonechat – this male flashed a bold white rump as it flew

The Lesser Grey Shrike had come out again and was now feeding along a fence line across the fields, repeatedly sallying out from a dead stem and returning to the same perch. It attracted the attentions of the Stonechat and a Reed Bunting here, which perched close by, the Stonechat chasing after it at one point. The Lesser Grey Shrike seemed to take little notice.

On the way back to the minibus, we stopped to help a Garden Tiger moth caterpillar off the path and rescue a Four-spotted Chaser dragonfly from a puddle. A pair of Common Whitethroats was carrying food in and out of the hedge and a Greenfinch was wheezing from the top of an ash tree.

We headed round to Potter Heigham next. As we made our way in along the track, there were lots of dragonflies zooming around between the reeds, Norfolk Hawkers and Black-tailed Skimmers. A pair of Egyptian Geese were out on the grazing meadows. We could see a Spoonbill on the back of one of the pools, busy feeding with its head down and moving its bill quickly from side to side through the shallow water. The next pool had a large area of exposed mud in the middle. Several Lapwing were on here, including a good number of well-grown juveniles. A Little Ringed Plover was lurking in between two sleeping Shelducks.

At the end of the track, we climbed up onto the bank. Our main target for the day was Swallowtail butterfly and as we came through the trees one shot past us over the tops of the reeds. We saw several as we walked along here, but they were all flying fast and none were showing any signs of settling. The brambles and thistles are not in flower yet this year, so there are not so many sources of nectar here for them to feed on. Still, it was a good start.

We stopped to scan the pools on the corner from up on the bank. Two Spoonbills and two Little Egrets were standing on the grassy bank at the back. We had a good look at the Spoonbills in the scope, two immatures. After a while, they took off and flew round, landing back out of view on one of the other pools, presumably to feed. A Chinese Water Deer ran round the bank on the edge of the water.

Spoonbills

Spoonbills – there were two immature birds on the pool on the corner

There was a good selection of ducks, most of the drakes already starting to moult into their duller eclipse plumage. As well as the regular Mallard, Shoveler and Gadwall, a single drake Wigeon was standing on the bank among the Greylag Geese. We could see a couple of Great Crested Grebes in the edge of the reeds at the back and a pair of Little Grebes diving in the floating vegetation in the middle.

Scanning carefully, we found a drake Garganey too. It was asleep at first, but we could still see the bold pale stripes on the sides of its head. A second drake Garganey flew in and landed on the water nearby. It was further advanced in its moult, and a lot duller than the first. It swam over to the bank and walked over to the other one, waking it up. The two Garganey then walked higher up the bank and went to sleep together.

Garganey

Garganey – the two drakes sleeping on the bank

We walked a short distance further along the bank. A Sedge Warbler was singing in the reeds ahead of us and we could see its bold pale supercilium. A Willow Warbler and a Blackcap were both singing in the scattered trees along the bank. A Water Rail squealed from deep in the reeds. Several Avocets and Common Terns flew in and out of the pools and a male Marsh Harrier quartered over the reeds.

It was getting on for lunchtime now, so we decided to turn back. There were a few small blue damselflies in the vegetation along the edge of the path, and we picked out one Variable Damselfly amongst them. There were a few more butterflies along the lower track – as well as the ever-present Painted Ladys, there were several Red Admirals but no sign of any more Swallowtails. A Drinker moth caterpillar was on a dead reed stem overhanging the track. A pair of Stock Doves were flying round the old tin shed.

It clouded over as we drove round to Strumpshaw Fen, but thankfully the darkest of the clouds passed away to the west. As we walked across the road from the overflow car park, we could hear a Cuckoo calling in the trees nearby. We sat out on the picnic tables by Reception to eat our lunch. It was showing signs of trying to brighten up, but the wind had picked up a bit too. We decided to walk round to the ‘Doctor’s garden’, where it would be more sheltered, to see if there were any butterflies out there.

A couple of Bullfinches called from the trees as we walked along the track and as we got to the garden there were several dragonflies flying round bushes opposite. As well as a couple of Norfolk Hawkers, a couple of Scarce Chasers were perched on the brambles. The flowers in the garden were covered in Painted Ladys – we counted at least 20 in the two small patches by the track – but there were no Swallowtails at first. We decided to wait, as the sun came out at that point, and it wasn’t too long before a Swallowtail flew in and joined the Painted Ladys nectaring on the Dianthus.

Swallowtail

Swallowtail – nectaring on Dianthus

The Swallowtail was not the smartest individual, having sustained some damage and lots its ‘swallow tails’, but it was still good to get a close look at one. There were several Brimstones around the garden too, including a pair which were engaged in courtship flight. When the Swallowtail eventually flew off, we headed back round by the Reception and out onto the reserve.

It had clouded over again now, so there were not as many insects out as earlier now. We had a quick look at the Common Twayblades on the edge of the trees and stopped to watch a Bank Vole which climbed up into an elder and was feeding on the flowers. A flock of Long-tailed Tits flew through the bushes. There were a few damselflies in the vegetation around the pool at the start of Meadow Trail, including Large Red and another Variable alongside the commoner Azure Damselflies. A Marsh Click Beetle was perched on the top of a broken dead reed stem.

The wind was catching the bushes out along Sandy Wall and there was not so much to see out here. We did find a single Large Skipper in a sheltered spot and someone brought over a Buff-tip moth they had just found, to show us. A Willow Warbler was singing, appropriately, in the willows and a Reed Warbler from down in the reeds.

Large Skipper

Large Skipper – sheltering from the wind in the brambles

Fen Hide can often be quiet, but we decided to have a quick look just in case. It was nice just sitting there listening to the wind in the reeds. A Marsh Harrier was perched in the top of one of the trees out in the middle of the reedbed, and several Common Swifts were zooming back and forth low over the reeds, but there were few other birds here.

We had just got up to leave when someone else in the hide announced ‘I think I’ve got a Bittern‘. A quick scan confirmed there was indeed a Bittern, which had just climbed into the top of the reeds in front of the hide. It was tucked down in amongst the reeds at first and harder to see. It ruffled its feathers and had a shake, then stretched its neck up out of the reeds to look around, at which point it was much easier to get onto.

Bittern 1

Bittern – climbed up into the top of the reeds in front of Fen Hide

The Bittern stayed in the top of the reeds, looking around for a few minutes. It seemed like it was getting ready to fly, checking that the coast was clear first. Then suddenly it was off, labouring up heavily clear of the reeds and then disappearing off back away from us over the reedbed.

Bittern 2

Bittern – eventually took off and flew back away over the reedbed

That was a great way to finish off our day in the Broads, so we made our way back to the minibus, for the long drive back. We were almost home when we spotted the Little Owl in the window of the same old barn where we had seen it perched earlier. This time, it stayed put when we stopped, but disappeared inside again before we could all get out.

Nightjar Evening

After a break to relax and get something to eat, we set off again in the evening. We drove back round to where we had seen the Little Owl and third time lucky, got a better look at it. It was more active now, out hunting around the barns. It flew and landed on one edge, right next to the road, as we drove up, but flew back and landed on the edge of the roof. We stopped a discrete distance away and got out, getting a good look at it before it flew again and disappeared round the far side. We got back in the minibus and drove slowly past. The Little Owl was perched on a low wall just beyond the barns and we had a really good look at it from the bus.

Little Owl

Little Owl – we finally got a better look at it this evening

Our next target was Barn Owl, so we drove down towards the coast and round by an area that they usually like to hunt. There was no sign of any here, so we parked and set off down along a track through the marshes. It was cloudier here than it had been inland, and there was a fresh breeze blowing. A Red Kite was perched on a post. We flushed a Grey Partridge from the track, which flew out and landed on the grazing meadows. We got it in the scope and could see its orange face as it stood in the grass calling.

We heard Bearded Tits ‘pinging’ from the reeds behind us, and turned to see two juveniles climbing up into the tops. We had some great views of them as we stood and watched over the next few minutes, as the looked for food in the top of the reeds. Two more juveniles flew in and joined them, but the when the adult male flew in it dropped straight down into the reeds out of view.

Bearded Tit

Bearded Tit – one of the juveniles in the reeds this evening

There was no sign of any owls out here, so we turned to go. As we walked back to the minibus, we spotted a Barn Owl flying through the bushes the other side of the road. It was carrying prey and disappeared into the trees. A few seconds later it was back out again – it clearly had young to feed in a nest somewhere in there. It did well to catch something else almost immediately, and went back up into the trees again. When it flew back out, we drove round to the area where it appeared to be hunting. There was no sign of the male Barn Owl but a female flew back past us heading for the nest.

We needed to get a move on now, or we would late for the evening’s main event. We headed inland to one of the heaths to look for Nightjars. With the cloud tonight, it was getting dark quickly as we walked out to the middle. The first Nightjar of the evening started churring in the trees.

A squeaky call alerted to a Woodcock overhead. We turned to see it flying past, with rhythmic beats of its wings, roding. We would see it or another Woodcock several times this evening, flying over in this distinctive display flight.

We were had just arrived at the territory of one of the Nightjars when it started churring in the top of an oak tree right ahead of us, beside the path. Unfortunately it was on the far side from us, and when we started to walk round it flew, dropping off the branch with its wings raised, before flying out into the middle of the heath. We could still hear it churring in the distance.

We stood hear and listened for a while – then the Nightjar flew back in right past us. We thought it might be heading for another of its favourite churring posts, but instead a second Nightjar appeared, the female. The two of them flew round just above our heads calling. They did this several times, drifting away before coming back in for another look. The female disappeared but the male came in again, right over our heads, hanging in the air at times with its wings raised and tail fanned, flashing its white wing and tail patches. Amazing to watch!

The male Nightjar then flew up into a nearby oak tree and started churring again. Through a gap in the leaves we could see it perched on a branch, silhouetted against the last of the light, and we got it in the scope. Then it dropped out of the tree and flew out across the heath again. It started to spit with some very light rain now – which was not in the forecast! We stood and listened to it churring from some trees in the distance, then the male came in and flew round past us once more. The light was going fast, so we decided to call it a night.

As we walked back to the minibus, two more Nightjars had started churring further over. We had a brief glimpse of one silhouetted against the sky as it flew past. Back at the car park, yet another Nightjar was churring across the road and a Tawny Owl was hooting away in the distance.