Monthly Archives: January 2020

18th Jan 2020 – 4-3-2-1 Owls!

An Owl Tour today. It was a beautiful, bright, sunny winter’s day, although there was a chill in the air and a rather fresh breeze blowing in the middle of the day.

We made our way down to the marshes first thing, to see if we could find a Barn Owl still out hunting. There was a lot of water on the fields after the recent rains, so much that the Environment Agency were pumping out one of the ditches to stop it from overflowing. Lots of birds were enjoying the water – a noisy mob of Black-headed Gulls were feeding round the edge of the pools and several Little Egrets were feeding on the wet edge of the field, along with a Grey Heron. The other side, the wet grass was full of Curlew, Lapwing and Starlings, busy feeding. A pair of Mute Swans flew in and landed on one of the pools.

The raptors were already circling up. A Kestrel flew across (maybe wondering where the Barn Owl was, so it could steal its catch!) and a couple of Marsh Harriers came up out of the reeds. One landed on a bare tree where we could get it in the scope. A Buzzard was on a bush behind us, before flying off to the wood beyond, and presumably the same one later circled above the trees. A Red Kite flew across in front of the wood, its red tail catching the morning light as it turned.

There was no sign of any Barn Owls – perhaps they had already gone in to roost, as the latter part of the night had probably been good for hunting, or perhaps they were avoiding the grazing marshes given all the water. We decided to move on and headed inland, parking on the edge of some fields before setting off down a footpath.

There were a few tits in the hedges as we walked down towards the wood, and a Jay flew across the track in front of us. A Pied Wagtail flew across and landed in the beet field next to us – just the one today. A little group of Chaffinches dropped down to feed on the weedy margin. Two Mistle Thrushes flew through the trees as we walked round the edge of the wood, before flying out again and dropping down in the middle of the field. There were a few Red-legged Partridges out in the field too and a Red Kite hung in the air over the hedge on the far side.

There were more tits in the trees above the path, including several Long-tailed Tits. We could hear a Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming and a Nuthatch piping loudly. When we got to the far side of the wood, we looked back along the edge. The Tawny Owl was there, in its usual spot, in a big hole in one of the trees. We got it in the scope and had a great view. It was a little bit more active today (just to scotch any rumours it might be stuffed!), looking round and even picking at its feet with its bill at one point.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – roosting in its usual hole

After watching the Tawny Owl for a while, we decided to head back. A flock of Goldfinches was feeding in the sunshine above the track now. Looking up, we could see they were feeding on buds on the branches.

We made our way further inland to look for Little Owls next. There was no sign of any at the first couple of places we looked, but at the next stop we spotted one hiding under the lip of the barn roof. We pulled up out of sight and walked back to where we could get it in the scope without disturbing it. It had chosen a sheltered spot, facing into the morning sun but out of the wind.

Little Owl

Little Owl – looking out from under the lip of the barn roof

Eventually the Little Owl was spooked by a passing farmworker and disappeared in under the roof. We walked back to the minibus. There were some more farm buildings across the field from here and we could see a small blob out on the roof in the sunshine. Through the scope, we could see that it was indeed a second Little Owl. There is a footpath which runs up the far end of the field, so we drove the short distance over there and started off up it.

There were several birds coming and going from the trees by the paddocks at the start of the footpath. As well as Starlings, we could see several Fieldfares so we got them in the scope when they landed in the top of one tree. A Redwing appeared in the top of another tree, before flying over to join the Fieldfares.

We had a quick walk up the footpath and stopped where we could see across to where the second Little Owl was perched on the roof. It was still there, out in full view, and through the scope we could see it was fluffed up, with its eyes closed, looking towards the morning sun, presumably enjoying the warmth of the rays.

Dropping back down to the coast, we made our way along to Holkham and parked at the top of Lady Anne’s Drive. There were lots of Wigeon feeding out on the grazing marshes and lots of Pink-footed Geese loafing on the second field back, just beyond the line of reeds and brambles. As we walked up towards the trees, a family party of Brent Geese flew in and landed just beyond the fence.

Brent Geese

Brent Geese – a family party landed right by Lady Anne’s Drive

We headed over to The Lookout Cafe to use the facilities quickly and some of the group, who had hurried on ahead, called back to say there was a Barn Owl. When we got there, it was perched on a post by the bank, but before we could get the scope on it, it was off again. We watched it hunting backwards and forwards over the reeds beyond the pool in front of The Lookout – although the building was in the way, so we had to dart round to the other side of it at one point! Then it stopped to hover and dropped down into the grass.

Some of the group, who had hurried inside, had not seen the Barn Owl, so when they came out we waited for it to reappear. A Stonechat kept flicking up and down from the brambles and posts on the bank. Presumably the Barn Owl had caught something, because it stayed down in the grass for some time, but finally it reappeared. Again, we had some stunning views of it flying round hunting, stopped to hover a couple of times.

Barn Owl 2

Barn Owl – out hunting behind The Lookout

Barn Owl 1

Barn Owl – stunning views in the late morning sun

Barn Owls will hunt during the day, but only tend to do so if they are hungry. Perhaps the wet and windy weather yesterday evening meant that this one needed to hunt. It was already late morning now, and it seemed to be showing no signs of wanting to head in to roost. We watched the Barn Owl for a while, until it stopped to hover and then dropped down into the grass again.

We wanted to see if we could find a Short-eared Owl here today, so we walked out through the dunes. It had been very calm all morning, but when we got out past the lee of the pines there was a very brisk west wind now. We scanned all the places we had seen the Short-eared Owl hunting in recent days, but couldn’t see it. We had gone as far as we wanted and decided to have one last scan from the top of the dunes. As we looked round, it came up from the grass just behind us.

The Short-eared Owl flew off downwind, with its distinctive stiff-winged rowing action and notably long, slim wings. It went some way, before turning and coming back towards us over the dunes, into the wind. We were hoping it would come back past us, but it got caught by the wind and gained height, before turning and disappearing over the pines. We hoped it might reappear, but it had either gone into the trees to roost or perhaps might have gone over the other side to try to find some shelter.

Short-eared Owl 1

Short-eared Owl – flushed from the dunes

We made our way back, cutting through the pines and walking down the track the other side out of the wind. There were lots of Pink-footed Geese out on the grazing marsh, along with a few carrot-billed Greylags and a pair of Egyptian Geese. At Salts Hole, there were several Little Grebes out on the water and a Weasel darted along the far bank.

We stopped for lunch back at The Lookout. There was no sign of the Barn Owl now, but the Stonechat was still just outside the window. As we made our way back to the minibus afterwards, a pair of Grey Partridges were busy preening in the grass just beyond the fence.

Grey Partridge

Grey Partridge – a pair were right next to Lady Anne’s Drive

Having only had a short time with the Short-eared Owl in the dunes before it disappeared, we decided to make a quick dash over to Snettisham to see if we could see the ones there. We didn’t have much time once we got over there, so we headed straight round to where they roost. Scanning the brambles, we quickly found one Short-eared Owl perched in a little nook among the branches. We had a good look at it in the scope.

Short-eared Owl 2

Short-eared Owl – one of two roosting in the brambles again

A little further on, we found the second Short-eared Owl under its usual sparse bramble bush. It stood out more, with its sandy colouration, but was not moving and we were looking at it from the side so we couldn’t see its eyes today. On our way back round, there were a few ducks on the pits, including a smart drake Goldeneye which was diving constantly.

Back at the Wash, the tide was out now and most of the large flocks of waders were way out in the distance, on the water’s edge. There were a few birds closer to us on the mud – a Grey Plover and a couple of Redshank. A scattering of diminutive Dunlin were feeding on the mud just beyond the channel and a quick scan across with binoculars revealed an even smaller wader in with them. Through the scope, we could confirm it was the Little Stint which is wintering here.

Little Stint

Little Stint – out on the mud with the Dunlin again

Little Stints are very scarce winter visitors in the UK, being more common on passage, particularly in autumn on their way from their Arctic breeding grounds with most heading down to Africa for the winter. As we saw a Little Stint in almost exactly the same patch of mud regularly through last winter, we wonder whether this bird has come back for the second year in a row.

Back in the minibus, we made our way back across country, passing a couple of large flocks of Pink-footed Geese in the fields on our way. We stopped again at Wells and, as we disembarked, we didn’t know which way to look. A Barn Owl was hunting up and down the banks of the ditch in front of the layby, while the long-staying Rough-legged Buzzard was perched on its usual favoured bush beyond.

We watched the Barn Owl hunting, while we got the scope on the Rough-legged Buzzard. Eventually the Barn Owl flew off back across the field, and we turned our full attention to the Rough-legged Buzzard. We could see its very pale head, contrasting with its very dark, chocolate brown belly.

Rough-legged Buzzard

Rough-legged Buzzard – perched on its usual favoured bush

We decided to walk out along the track to the bank. The Rough-legged Buzzard had flown back and landed down in a ploughed field beyond, by the time we got out there, but shortly afterwards flew back in again. We had an even better view of it from here.

The first Barn Owl was now working its way up the edge of the paddocks across the road, but a second Barn Owl now appeared at the back of the field close to the buzzard and flew round the edge to hunt around the entrance to the car park. It was a paler bird, with whiter, unmarked flight feathers, presumably a male.

The Rough-legged Buzzard had another fly round, flashing its white tail with black terminal band, chasing a Common Buzzard off from the top of a bush by the old pitch & putt, taking over its perch. We had taken our eyes off them, but what was possibly the first Barn Owl again then started flying down along the bank towards us. It was getting closer when it stopped, turned, hovered, and dropped into the grass. It took some time to come up again, and when it did unfortunately flew back away from us – we were hoping it might come right past us.

Barn Owl 3

Barn Owl – one of at least two at Wells this afternoon

The sun was going down now and we had one last port of call. As we walked back to the minibus, the Rough-legged Buzzard flew back in to its favoured bush again. We drove inland and parked in some trees at the top of a footpath.

The Barn Owl which we often come to see emerging from its box in the evening had not been around the last few times we had looked for it. The good news today was that it was back. We had missed it coming out, but it was busy hunting the grassy bank beyond the gate. We had got out into the open along the footpath just in time to see it disappearing into the trees, but after a while it came out again. It weaved in and out of the edge of the trees several times, before disappearing deeper in through the wood.

It was time for the Tawny Owls to start hooting now, and as we walked back into the trees we could hear one hooting distantly. We heard it a couple more times, before it went quiet. It was a clear, bright evening and the light took some time to fade. The other Tawny Owls were slow to get going tonight and time was getting on, but after a smorgasbord of owls today, we didn’t worry too much about calling time. 4 Barn Owls, 3 Short-eared Owls, 2 Little Owls & 1 Tawny Owl (plus another hooting!).

16th Jan 2020 – An Early Wash

A Private Tour today. The plan was to head up to the Wash before dawn, to watch the Pink-footed Geese flying inland to feed at first light and then the gathering of waders ahead of the rising tide, before finished the day with a walk around Titchwell. While there was a chill to the brisk southerly wind, it was a lovely day with hazy cloud and sunny intervals, before clouding over later.

We got out to the coast at Snettisham before dawn, the sky just beginning to take on a dull orange glow away to the east by the time we arrived. We were then treated to a beautiful sunrise in shades of red, orange, pink and purple.

Sunrise

Sunrise – over the pits at Snettisham

As the light improved, we could hear the yelping calls of the Pink-footed Geese out on the Wash growing restless and gradually we could make out clusters of dark shapes standing out on the mud. Then the first small groups started to take off, flying in over the bank, over our heads, and heading off inland, into the pink-tinged sky of the sunrise. As they gained height over the bank, they formed into skeins, different shapes, ‘v’s, ‘w’s and various other unimagined letters. A larger flock, about a thousand strong, came up from the edge of the saltmarsh further round to the left, and headed off south east.

Gradually, as the sun started to rise, we could see more clearly out across the Wash. Scanning the mud, there seemed to be slightly fewer geese than normal roosting directly off the southern pit this morning. We could just make out several thousand Pink-footed Geese roosting on the mud a bit further to the north of us. When they finally took to the air, they headed off north east, presumably to a feeding ground they had been in previously.

There were still more Pink-footed Geese out in front of us, and they came off in a series of waves, a few hundred at a time, and over our heads calling. We watched them disappearing off into the sunrise.

Pink-footed Geese 1

Pink-footed Geese – flying inland from the Wash at dawn

Gradually, the number of geese remaining out on the mud declined. It was not high tide yet, but the waders were already gathering. It would not be a big enough tide to get all the waders off the Wash, but it should still push them all closer in today. A large black mob of Oystercatchers had already gathered further up, on the spit opposite the sailing club, and hundreds of Bar-tailed Godwits were shuffling nervously along the water’s edge in front. We could see some huge flocks of Knot further out in front of us, along the edge of the mud.

A flock of Dunlin flew in and landed on the mud closer to us, with two Ringed Plovers in with them. The Curlews were already lined up on the drier ground, over by the saltmarsh, as if they knew what was coming. The mud was liberally scattered with Shelducks and as we looked out, several small flocks of Brent Geese came in over the mud and landed down on the edge of the channel.

It was still cool out on the edge of the Wash, with the sun not yet high enough to warm things up. With some time before high tide, we decided to have a look in the hides and warm up. Scanning the pit from Rotary Hide, we could see several Goldeneye down on the water, the smart drakes black and white. There were plenty of Wigeon and several groups of Gadwall on the water too, and lots of Greylags all round the pit, accompanied by a single Canada Goose. The Lapwings were hunkered down on the various islands.

Several large flocks of ducks flew in from out left, along with a couple more little groups of Goldeneye, and splashed down onto the water. It looked like they had been spooked from the other pits. Shortly after, we found out why when a young Peregrine shot in along the near edge of the pit and past us right in front of the hide windows!

Down at Shore Hide, we could see more ducks and several more Little Grebes, along with a single Great Crested Grebe. The Lapwings were very nervous now, not surprisingly with a Peregrine around, and kept flying up from the islands. Two Turnstones flew up with them. There were not many birds down at the south end of the pits at the moment, possibly due to ongoing disturbance from the new hide construction, which finally appears to be making progress again.

The sun was up properly now, shining through hazy clouds, and the light was much better. We decided to head out again to look for Short-eared Owls. The tide had come up a lot since we had been in the hides, and the waders flocks were growing. Most of the Oystercatchers had now left the point in front of the sailing club, and were spread in a big black slick across the middle of the mud.

Oystercatchers

Oystercatchers – gathering on the mud ahead of the rising tide

Most of the other waders – Knot, Bar-tailed Godwits, Dunlin and Grey Plovers – were all getting pushed up by the rising tide, occasionally flying up in huge flocks, twisting and turning low over the mud, flashing grey and white, before landing back down higher up ahead of the ever encroaching water.

Waders

Waders – pushed in by the rising tide

As we walked round, we flushed a couple of pairs of Grey Partridges (or the same pair several times), which flew off calling noisily. Scanning the bushes, it didn’t take long to find the first Short-eared Owl, tucked in the bare branches of the brambles, hunched up, dozing. We had a look at it in the scope. A little further on, we found the second one, under the same sparse bramble bush which it seems to favour again at the moment.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl – roosting under its usual bramble bush

Looking back out actross the Wash, the tide was just about at its highest point now, the waders all concentrated on the last arc of mud extending out around the edges of the saltmarsh. They were still shifting a little, small groups occasionally flying up and dropping down again further up away from the water, but the movement of the birds gradually subsided as the rising waters reached their peak.

We decided to move on. As we drove back up Beach Road, we noticed thousands of Pink-footed Geese in a recently harvested beet field right alongside. We found a convenient layby to stop in, and got out carefully to scan through them, being careful not to spook them. So this is where all the Pink-footed Geese we had seen flying off north-east from the Wash earlier were heading!

Pink-footed Geese 2

Pink-footed Geese – several thousands in a recently harvested beet field

We had a good look at the Pink-footed Geese in the scope. Having watched thousands flying overhead this morning, it was great to see some now on the ground and admire the detail, the delicate dark bills with variable pink markings. There were quite a few Greylags in with them, presumably local feral birds, bigger, paler, with large orange carrots for bills. There were several Canada Geese too, and at least three odd-looking Greylag x Canada Goose hybrids with them.

Looking through carefully, we found several White-fronted Geese too. The white surrounds to the base of their bills and black belly bars stood out when they lifted their heads. We counted at least eight, scattered widely through the flock in singles of small groups.

White-fronted Goose

White-fronted Goose – at least eight were in with the Pink-footed Geese

A little further up, at the end of the flock, two Mistle Thrushes were out in a bulb field, standing tall, with their black-spotted pale breasts catching the low morning sun. A little flock of Linnets dropped down into the weedy strip at the edge. Several Red-legged Partridges were hiding behind tufts of vegetation out in the middle. A Red Kite hung in the air over the edge of the marshes beyond. Two Marsh Harriers came in and over the stubble field the other side.

We made our way round to Titchwell next. After our early start, it would not be long before we would be needing lunch, so we decided on a quick walk round to Patsy’s Reedbed first. The roosting Woodcock round the back here has been one of the highlights of the last couple of weeks, so we went straight there.

A small crowd of long lenses had gathered again, but after a couple of minutes we took our turn and got the Woodcock in the scope. It was amazingly well camouflaged down against the leaves, and knowing that was probably why it felt so relaxed roosting in full view from the path – if you find the right angle. It woke up briefly at one point and looked round, flashing its long bill.

Woodcock

Woodcock – roosting in its usual spot again today

Continuing on to Patsy’s, a Cetti’s Warbler was singing out in the reedbed. From the screed, we looked across to see several Marsh Harriers hanging in the air over the reeds. There were not so many ducks on here today – a scattering of Gadwall, Mallard, Teal and a few Coot. A careful scan revealed two Snipe asleep down along the edge of the cut reeds, remarkably well camouflaged in the browns and yellows of the vegetation.

Then it was back to the Visitor Centre for lunch and a welcome hot drink. Afterwards, we headed out along the main path. Scanning the ditches either side, as we walked through the trees, we spotted the Water Rail down in the water. We watched as it probed in the mud along the bank as it worked its way along the edge of the ditch.

Water Rail

Water Rail – feeding down in the ditch below the main path

The disaster has been averted and the water level on the Freshmarsh has dropped a fraction, but there is till a lot of water on there. Good for ducks! We could see lots of Tufted Ducks and a few Common Pochard with all the dabbling ducks on the edge of the reeds on the southern side.

Most of the Teal were roosting along the other shore, either side of Parrinder Hide. When we got up there, we had a close look at them through the scope, the drakes looking stunning at the moment, intricately patterned when you can see the feather detail.

Teal

Teal – sleeping around the edge of the Freshmarsh

As we walked on past Volunteer Marsh, a Rock Pipit flew in calling and dropped down on the mud below the path briefly, before flying again and disappearing round behind the concrete bunker on Parrinder bank. There were a couple of Redshanks in the channel down below the bank and a Curlew came out of the saltmarsh to pull a worm out of the mud there too.

There were more birds at the far end of Volunteer Marsh, along the wider channel which extends back away from the path. A Little Egret was down in the water in the bottom. Two Grey Plover were feeding on the mud. A single Knot walked up out of the channel to the reeds along the edge.

Grey Plover

Grey Plover – two were on the mud by the channel

Over to the Tidal Pool, we couldn’t see any sign of the Spotted Redshanks which had been here earlier. There were several more Common Redshanks though, plus a scattering of both Bar-tailed Godwits and Black-tailed Godwits. We got one of each of the latter which were feeding together on the edge of one of the islands in the scope. A good comparison opportunity. A single Ringed Plover was on the sand at the back.

A little further up, there were more waders roosting on the long spit. More Bar-tailed Godwits and Knot, and a couple of Turnstone in with them. On the end of the spit, eight Avocets were sleeping, a few hardy individuals which have opted to stay here rather than head further south for the winter.

Avocets

Avocets – there were eight on the Tidal Pool today

A pair of Pintail were busy upending out in the deeper water. Through the scope, we could see the long, pin-shaped tail feathers of the smart drake.

Out at the beach, the tide was still just going out, and had not yet exposed the mussel beds. We scanned the sea, finding a few Red-breasted Mergansers, and a single Goldeneye offshore. Two Eider were very distant and too hard for anyone to get onto. A couple of Great Crested Grebes were easier to see.

A good number of Bar-tailed Godwits were down feeding down on the beach, where the waves were breaking on the sand. A Sanderling flew along the shoreline, possibly looking for others. It eventually landed away towards Brancaster, but only very briefly and it was off again before we could even get the scope on it. A small group of Knot had landed on the beach too, but didn’t stay long and flew back towards the Tidal Pool, possibly having realised it was still a bit early to come out.

It was time for us to head back, into the freshening breese. As we got to the Tidal Pool, a Great Black-backed Gull flew over and spooked all the waders from behind the suaeda. They all flew round and we spotted a Spotted Redshank in with them. It landed out in the shallow water in front of the spit and we had a good look at it in the scope, paler than the Common Redshanks, with a longer, finer bill. Then it started feeding, sweeping its bill vigorously from side to side in the water as it walked round.

We had a quick stop at the Freshmarsh to admire the Teal again, now with the low winter sunshine showing them off even better. A small group of Brent Geese had dropped in too, but flew off as we arrived.

Back to the trees, there were lots of Chaffinches on the path. A flock of tits was working its way through, with several Long-tailed Tits down in the bushes just above the ditch. A Chiffchaff was with them, and it flew out into the edge of one of the bare bushes right in front of us, pumping its tail as it flitted around in the branches. Another bird which has stayed put rather than head off further south. Then it was back to the car park.

It had been another lovely day out. As we drove back, it started to spit with rain. Perfect timing!

15th Jan 2020 – More than just a Lark

A Private Tour today in North Norfolk. We had a particular list of things we wanted to see, so we would be very focused about what we did and where we went. The weather gods looked favourably on us again – after very heavy rain and high winds overnight, it was much calmer by morning, dry but cloudy initially, and then the skies cleared and we had some gorgeous winter sunshine in the afternoon. Lovely!

As we drove west along the coast road, we noticed a large flock of geese feeding in a grassy field and pulled up in a layby next to it. White-fronted Goose was on the target list for the day, and this is a field they sometimes like to feed in. Sure enough, that is just what they were. We got out quietly and set up the scope behind the minibus so as not to risk disturbing them.

White-fronted Geese

White-fronted Geese – 150 were feeding in a field by the coast road

We could see the adult White-fronted Geese with the white surrounds to their bills and black belly bars like fingerprints. There were several plainer juveniles with them too. We counted 120 when we arrived, and several more small groups flew in to join them as we watched. By the time we left, there were at least 150 feeding on the grass. There were a few Egyptian Geese in the field too, plus a pair of Mistle Thrushes and a couple of Brown Hares.

Our next destination was Sedgeford, to look for the Eastern Yellow Wagtail. As we arrived, there were only a few cars today – the crowds have started to dissipate now it has been around for several weeks. We could see a couple of people further down the track, by its favoured muck heap, but they were looking round and it seemed pretty clear they were not looking at the bird. It often starts the day out in the field, so we stopped on the corner to scan.

A large flock of Fieldfares was feeding out in the middle of the field, accompanied by a mob of Starlings. A small covey of Red-legged Partridges was in the far corner and a mixed group of Linnets and Chaffinches landed on the edge of the cover strip along the edge. A Pied Wagtail flew in and landed down in front of us, but unfortunately had not brought its rarer cousin with it.

When a big flock of Meadow Pipits landed out in the field, we scanned across through them and there was the Eastern Yellow Wagtail with a couple more Pied Wagtails. We quickly got the scope on it and had a good look as it walked across between the furrows, before the flock took off and the wagtail disappeared.

The Pied Wagtails had flown off down the field, in the general direction of the muck heap, so we thought we would walk down the lane and see if the Eastern Yellow Wagtail had gone that way too. We hadn’t gone very far, and were just talking about its distinctive rasping call, when we heard it just behind the hedge. We called to some people who had just arrived and were still standing on the corner by the road, and by the time we got back to them they had found the Eastern Yellow Wagtail feeding along the edge of the field.

Eastern Yellow Wagtail

Eastern Yellow Wagtail – feeding on the edge of the field this morning

The Eastern Yellow Wagtail was a bit closer now, and more settled, feeding on its own. We had a much longer look at it through the scope, with its grey head, bright white supercilium and yellow underparts. It gradually worked its way further away from us before flying off down the field.

A steady stream of Pink-footed Geese had been landing in a field away to the south, in the distance, while we were looking for the wagtail. Now we turned our attention to those. They were a long way off, but through the scope we found a single White-fronted Goose with them. Then someone else found two Barnacle Geese too.

We were just working our way steadily through the rest of the flock when something spooked them. The Pink-footed Geese all took to the air. It was quite a sight – a flock of several thousand geese taking off. Half of them flew off, while the other half landed back down in the field, although some were out of sight now beyond a ridge. We couldn’t see anything else of interest with those that were still visible, so we decided to move on. As we were walking back to the minibus, something spook them again and all the geese took off once more.

The Woodcock at Titchwell has been performing outstandingly for a steady stream of admirers in recent days. While it was not specifically on the target list for the day, we couldn’t not call in as we were within easy reach. We walked straight round to Meadow Trail and found a small group already gathered, and eventually as people moved on we were able to get the scope on it. It wasn’t where we had seen it recently, but thankfully had only moved about three feet to the left! Stunning!

Woodcock

Woodcock – still delighting the crowds

There were lots of other things we hoped to do today, so we elected not to go further out onto the reserve today – unfortunately, with days short at this time of year, we would not have enough time. We made our way back to the minibus, and turned back east along the coast road to Holkham.

As we drove up along Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see the grazing marshes were full of water after last night’s rain. There were loads of birds. Lots of ducks, mainly Wigeon and a few Teal. And lots of Black-headed Gulls and Common Gulls, presumably attracted by the prospect of worms forced up by the water. It is looking really good for wildlife here at the moment. We parked at the top and walked up towards the pines. A covey of Grey Partridges was very well camouflaged on the edge of the ditch, looking across the grass.

When we got out onto the edge of the saltmarsh, we could see that it was very wet today too, after a big high tide this morning. The Shorelarks have been very mobile and elusive at times this week, with their favoured cordon being wet at times. Shorelark was a particular target for the day, so we figured we may have to search them out. Rather than head towards the cordon first, we decided to try the opposite direction.

We walked round on the dry path along the edge of the dunes, and as we started to pick our way round the puddles and flooded channels on the path out across the saltmarsh we met two other birders coming back the other way. They confirmed what we had hoped – the Shorelarks were just ahead of us. When we got out to the middle, we could see them, feeding with about twenty Skylarks on the other side.

We followed the Shorelarks for a while, keeping a discrete distance so as not to disturb them. The Skylarks flew off, but the Shorelarks continued to pick their way round the edge of the saltmarsh. With patience, we had some great views of them, feeding on the small seedheads, chasing each other, stopping to stretch and preen.

Shorelark

Shorelark – we found the five of them out on the edge of the saltmash

After enjoying our fill of the Shorelarks, we left them in peace. They could have been one of the hardest of today’s target species to find, so it was great to get them in the bag. Snow Bunting was the next one we wanted to find, and they have remained more faithful to the cordon area, despite the high tides, so we headed round there next.

A Rock Pipit flew across calling, a sharper call than a Meadow Pipit, and landed briefly on the saltmarsh, before flying off again. We flushed a small flock of Linnets ahead of us too. A small flock of Brent Geese was feeding out in the middle as we made our way east from the Gap, but they were up to their bellies in the vegetation and it was hard to see anything different in with them. Looking up to the sky, we could now see the trailing edge of the weather front approaching and blue sky beyond.

When we got to the cordon, we could see a large flock of Snow Buntings down at the far end, on the edge of the dunes. We couldn’t get out to the beach on the west side of the cordon, as there was still too much water in the channel, so we walked down to the east end and out that way. By the time we got down there, the Snow Buntings were now out in the middle of the cordon, so we had a quick look at them in the scope, before carrying on to the beach.

We could see several thousand Common Scoter in a couple of rafts out on the sea. Most of them were quite a long way out again today, too far to make out if there were any Velvet Scoters in with them. Another smaller group of Common Scoter closer in had just a single Great Crested Grebe with them. There were a few Red-breasted Mergansers on the sea too, including one drake quite close inshore. After a bit of scanning, we finally found a single Long-tailed Duck as well, another one we were hoping to find today. A couple of Red-throated Divers flew past, very distantly offshore. Five Pintail flying past out to sea were more of a surprise.

The sun came out now, and the Snow Buntings flew round behind us calling. We turned to see them land on the beach very close to us. They were rather skittish, and quickly took off again, flying round past us, before settling once more. We watched as they picked their way over the shells on the sand. They stopped in little groups and seemed to be arguing with each other. We hadn’t realised what they were doing until we got back and looked at the photos – they were drinking rainwater from small upturned cockle shells on the beach!

Snow Buntings

Snow Buntings – drinking rainwater from shells on the beach

It was great watching the Snow Buntings in the sunshine, so when they flew off again and over our heads before disappearing off down the beach, we decided to head back. The flock of Brent Geese on the saltmarsh had now come a bit closer and we could pick out the Black Brant hybrid which is almost always with them – with a more obvious white flank patch and white collar than the others. A Short-eared Owl was hunting the dunes too, off in the distance.

After a quick stop to use the facilities in the Lookout, we walked back towards Lady Anne’s Drive. The Grey Partridges were now right on the corner of the grazing marsh, just below the path, so we stopped to admire them.

Grey Partridge

Grey Partridge – the covey was close to the path on our way back

We stopped for lunch in the sunshine in the car park up at Holkham Park and afterwards walked in through the gates. There were a few Jays flying back and forth as we headed down towards the lake and a couple of groups of Fallow Deer in the trees.

When we got to the lake, we found plenty of Tufted Ducks and several Common Pochard. We walked down along the edge and quickly came across the Black-necked Grebe, which is what we had come primarily to see. We followed it for a while, as it dived continually, surfacing each time in a completely different place.

Black-necked Grebe

Black-necked Grebe – still on the lake in the Park today

After watching the Black-necked Grebe for a while, we walked on down towards the hall, before turning and heading back towards the monument out across the open grass. There were lots of Fallow Deer feeding out on the grass, including quite a few grazing the outfield of the cricket pitch. They looked very smart in the low afternoon sun.

Fallow Deer

Fallow Deer – feeding out on the grass in the Park

A couple of Common Buzzards were hanging in the air above the trees as we got back to the monument. A Great Spotted Woodpecker was hanging on the bag of peanuts as we got back to the houses by the gate. We still had a bit of spare time to play with, so we decided to see if we could catch up with some egrets. As we made our way west, a Red Kite was hanging in the air over the fields.

There were a few people looking out across the grazing marshes from the layby at Burnham Overy. They had seen a couple of Cattle Egrets and a Great White Egret, but none of them were visible now. Two White-fronted Geese were out in the field in front with a small group of Pinkfeet. We walked down along the verge and looked out towards the seawall. A Cattle Egret flew up but immediately dropped down again behind some thick reeds and brambles. It seemed for a minute like we might be frustrated.

Then we looked back towards the dunes to see a Great White Egret fly round. When it landed on the back edge of the furthest pool, we got it in the scope. It was a long way off and behind the reeds at first, but when it came out we could see its long yellow bill and long neck. When we turned our attention back to the grazing marsh below the seawall, the Cattle Egrets had reappeared – we could see seven of them out on the grass now.

We still had one thing we wanted to do, so we made our way back east and walked down the track to the edge of the saltmarsh. There were several Brown Hares in the fields, with three chasing each other round.

We had the roost to ourselves this evening. We didn’t have to wait long before the first Hen Harrier appeared, a ringtail. We watched it hunting, as it made its way further west until we lost sight of it. Then a smart grey male Hen Harrier flew in from the other direction. We watched as it flew low over the middle of the saltmarsh, before flying back to the far edge and then coming back in the opposite direction.

There were quite a few small groups of Brent Geese scattered around the saltmarsh. One of the groups contained a noticeably paler bird, a Pale-bellied Brent Goose with a creamy white belly. There were several groups of Golden Plover too, and one of them whirled round at one point, alternating white and gold as they turned in the low sunshine.

A Merlin came in high from the fields, away to our left. It dropped down and shot low over the ground before landing on a bush out in the middle of the saltmarsh. There was still some low sunlight and it was perfectly illuminated in the scope. While we were watching it, what was presumably the same male Hen Harrier ghosted across in front of it. And then we looked away to the west to see a second male hunting further back.

We could see the flocks of Knot swirling round over the beach beyond – perhaps the Peregrines were still out there hunting? A couple of hundred Pink-footed Geese were already sleeping out on the flats. A scan with the scope picked up a very distant Barn Owl hunting over in front of East Hills.

We were about to call it a day, when a Merlin suddenly shot up into the sky right in front of us. It was chasing a Meadow Pipit and we watched the two of them climb higher and higher, the pipit desperately trying to stay above the falcon. There followed an amazing dogfight for several minutes, the pipit twisting and turning, the Merlin very nearly catching it on a couple of occasions, but the pipit just managing to take evasive action at the last second, dropping suddenly, then turning up as the Merlin stooped and overshot. Eventually the two of them chased down into the bushes off to our right – we didn’t get to learn the ending, but it was exciting to watch.

If that wasn’t enough, two Hen Harriers then circled back in high over the middle of the saltmarsh, a male accompanied by a ringtail, the latter noticeably bigger, a female. We followed the male as he lost height and returned to hunting, disappearing off east.

The light was starting to go now and we couldn’t have hoped for a better end to the day. What a great day it had been too. It was time to head for home.

12th Jan 2020 – Winter in Norfolk, Day 3

Day 3 of a three day Winter Tour in Norfolk today. The heavy rain cleared through overnight and it was dry again all day. After a cloudy start, the sun started to break through the clouds before we enjoyed a lovely bright afternoon, even if it was rather breezy again.

Part of the plan for this weekend was to look for some owls. Having seen Short-eared Owls and Barn Owls on Friday, we headed out to add to our owl list this morning. We drove inland and set off down a footpath. Two Mistle Thrushes flew up out of the neighbouring field and into wood.

When we got to the edge of the wood, we could hear Long-tailed Tits calling in the trees. A Goldcrest appeared above us, feeding in the outer branches of a pine tree, hovering to pick food from the needles. A Coal Tit flew out into the bare tree next to it. A little flock of finches was feeding in the edge of a harvested beet field alongside and flew up into the trees as we came out from behind the hedge. There were several Chaffinches and Goldfinches and at least one Greenfinch in with them too.

We walked on, round to the far side of the wood and looked back at the edge of the trees. The Tawny Owl was asleep in its hole. We got it in the scope and from time to time it moved its head or opened its eyes, enough to prove it wasn’t a cardboard cutout we had put there earlier!

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – roosting in its usual tree hole

We stood and watched the Tawny Owl for a while. A Stock Dove flew out from over the wood and across the field next to us. Then we had to tear ourselves away and walk back. There were lots of Pied Wagtails in the beet field now – we counted at least 40 together at one point, an impressive flock.

Moving on, we made our way further inland, looking for Little Owls. There were none on the first barns we checked, but at the second we could see a shape tucked under the lip of the roof, a Little Owl. We parked out of sight and walked back to where we could view it from a distance. It was in a spot sheltered from the wind, and it was looking out towards the morning sun, which just poked out from behind the clouds at times.

Little Owl

Little Owl – out of the wind, looking out towards the morning sun

Having all had a good look at the Little Owl, we moved on again and dropped back down to the coast. We made our way along to Holkham and parked at the top of Lady Anne’s Drive. There were lots of Wigeon feeding on the grazing marshes, some very close to the road, and looked stunning as the sun came out again. A few Teal were in amongst them, as well as a scattering of Lapwing, Curlew and Redshank. A single Fieldfare was out on the grass too.

Wigeon

Wigeon – feeding on the grazing marsh by Lady Anne’s Drive

We heard Pink-footed Geese calling and looked over to see a large flock come up from Quarles Marsh, over towards Wells. They flew towards us in several skeins, and we noticed there were some smaller geese in with them, Barnacle Geese. They came right overhead, at least a dozen.

Barnacle Geese

Barnacle Geese – flew over Lady Anne’s Drive with the Pinkfeet

The geese all whiffled down and landed on the grazing marshes the other side of the Drive. Most landed behind the first ditch, out of view behind the reeds and brambles, but a few of the Pink-footed Geese landed closer, on our side of all the vegetation. We had a good look at some of them in the scope, we could see their delicate dark bills with a narrow band of pink and their pink legs.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese – good views on the grazing marsh by Lady Anne’s Drive

As we walked up towards the pines, we could see a covey of Grey Partridges on the bank before the ditch on the far edge of the grass. We counted twelve together, looking rather like clods of earth.

After a quick stop in the Lookout Cafe, we made our way out to the beach. As we got to the bottom of the boardwalk, we could see some larks very distantly feeding on the edge of the dunes out to the west, but through the scope we could see they were Skylarks. A big flock of Linnets flew up from the saltmarsh over in that direction too, swirling round before dropping down again.

There was a lot of water on the saltmarsh, after a big tide overnight and lots of rain. We decided to walk east first. A flock of Brent Geese was feeding out in the middle and a quick scan through them revealed a slightly darker bird with a more noticeable white flank patch and collar than the others. It was the regular Black Brant x Dark-bellied Brent hybrid which returns here with the Brent flock each winter.

Black Brant hybrid

Black Brant hybrid – with the Brent Goose flock on the saltmarsh again

Two Rock Pipits flew in and landed on the edge of the saltmarsh in front of us, feeding for a minute or so before flying off again calling. There were a few people walking back from the cordon and they all said there was no sign of any Shorelarks there. We couldn’t see the Snow Buntings either when we got there. We walked all the way down to the far end and out onto the beach.

It was very windy out here. We tried to find some shelter in the edge of the dunes, although it was hard to find anywhere out of the wind, and stopped to scan the sea. A lone Sanderling flew down along the shoreline. When we turned round, the Snow Buntings flew in and landed in the cordon just behind us. They were very flighty today, and when they flew up again they landed next on the edge of the sand just behind us, a great view.

Snow Buntings 1

Snow Buntings – landed on the edge of the sand just behind us

Thousands of Common Scoter were out on the sea again, but they were a bit further out today and the sea was quite choppy, which with the wind made it impossible to pick out anything else in with them. We managed to find three Long-tailed Ducks, but they were thankfully much closer in. Even so, they were diving constantly and hard to see in swell, but eventually everyone got a look at them. There were several Red-breasted Mergansers too, plus a single Red-throated Diver on the sea and another flying past.

We were hoping the Common Scoter would fly, to give us a chance to find a Velvet Scoter in with them, but they were just riding out the waves, and not taking off today. We decided to start walking back, and have another look for the Shorelarks. The Snow Buntings were in the cordon still, probably about 90 of them, catching the low winter sun which had come out now. There was still no sign of the Shorelarks there though.

Snow Buntings 2

Snow Buntings – feeding in the cordon as we walked back

We thought we would check out the saltmarsh west of the Gap, to see if the Shorelarks were there. On our way back, we bumped into one of the wardens who told us they had also been seen just east of the Gap this week. We out round to the dunes for a quick look there first, but there was no sign. We could see lots of water still in the Gap channel, and there was no way across without wellies. So while the group walked back round via the cordon again, the intrepid guide set off for a quick check of the saltmarsh the other side to save time. We arranged to meet back by the boardwalk.

When the group got back to the cordon, they found a couple of people watching the Shorelarks, which had flown back in. They had a good look at them through the scopes, but by the time their guide got over, the Shorelarks had flown off again. At least the most important people had seen them!

We walked back to the Lookout Cafe for lunch. Afterwards, we drove across to Holkham Park and walked in through the trees. There were lots of tits coming to the feeders by the houses, and we found a Marsh Tit and a Coal Tit in with them. We made our way down to the lake, starting at the northern end. There were lots of ducks on the water – Mallard, Gadwall and Shoveler, plus Tufted Duck and Pochard.

As we walked slowly down along the bank, we scanned the water, looking for the Black-necked Grebe. We could see a Great Crested Grebe and a Little Grebe, busy diving. A flock of Long-tailed Tits was feeding in the trees by the path. A Great White Egret flew across the lake further down.

We found the Black-necked Grebe in the middle of the lake. At first, we were looking into the sun, but we managed to get round to the other side of it, where the light was much better. It was diving constantly too, and we had to be quick to get it in the scopes. Eventually everyone got a good view of it, a small grebe with the dark on the head curling down onto the sides of the face behind the red eye. A Great Crested Grebe appeared in the same view at one point, much larger, with a much longer dagger-shaped bill.

Black-necked Grebe

Black-necked Grebe – photo taken a few days ago, when it was very close!

After watching the Black-necked Grebe for a while, we walked back through the middle of the Park. There were lots of Fallow Deer by the path which looked stunning in the afternoon sunshine. A Red Kite drifted over the edge of the trees. A Green Woodpecker was feeding out on the open grass with four Mistle Thrushes. When we got back to the gates, we found a Great Spotted Woodpecker now on the peanuts by the houses.

As we were getting everything back in the minibus, a Barn Owl flew across the road just beyond the car park and in through the trees behind. Out hunting already. As we drove east, another Barn Owl was hunting over the verge by the side of the road.

We parked at the top of Stiffkey Greenway and set up the scopes on the edge of the saltmarsh to scan. It was a lovely bright evening and the wind had even dropped now. There were several groups of Brent Geese, lots of Little Egrets, and a scattering of Curlews and Redshanks out there. A Marsh Harrier was hanging in the air away to the east. A Merlin appeared away to the west, perched on a low bush, preening out on the saltmarsh.

A distant ringtail Hen Harrier came up in front of East Hills. We watched it hunting, making the use of the last of the light, disappearing off towards Wells. A little later what was presumably the same bird came back the other way, a little bit closer to us this time. We had a couple more Merlin sightings, perched on different bushes – but it was hard to tell how many different birds were involved. A very distant Barn Owl was hunting out at East Hills and another flew across the road behind us.

Finally a grey male Hen Harrier appeared, also way out at East Hills. It flew up and down in front of the trees a few times before dropping into the vegetation. The light was starting to go now so we decided to call it a night. It had been another great day, to wrap up three very successful days out, great Norfolk winter birding.

11th Jan 2020 – Winter in Norfolk, Day 2

Day 2 of a three day Winter Tour in Norfolk, and we would be heading down to the Broads today. We were blessed with another dry day, but it was very windy at times.

As we got down into the Broads, we started to see more Rooks in the fields. They are much commoner here than in North Norfolk. We passed a couple of Marsh Harriers hunting too. As we came into Ludham village, we decided to have a quick look down on St Benet’s Levels, just in case the swans were down there today. We found several Mute Swans but nothing else.

We were just leaving when one of the locals, who was counting them for the International Swan Census, very helpfully stopped to tell us that the swans were on Ludham Airfield this morning, just where we were heading next. He directed us to the south-eastern corner.

We drove straight over and could see the swans feeding in a recently harvested sugar beet field. We found somewhere to park off the road and got out. It was a nice mixed herd, with both Whooper Swans and Bewick’s Swans together. It was good to see the two species side by side, the Whooper Swans noticeably bigger, with more extensive yellow on the bill extending down towards the tip in a wedge.

Bewicks and Whooper Swans

Whooper & Bewick’s Swans – a nice mixed herd on the old airfield

We counted 50 birds, of which 15 were Whoopers and the rest Bewick’s Swans. There were several Egyptian Geese in the field too, further back. It was open and exposed out on the old airfield, and the rather biting wind was cutting across, so after all having a good look at the swans, we moved on.

Our next stop was near Acle. As we drove up, we could already see several Common Cranes in the maize stubble. When we parked and got out, we could see a total of seven together in the nearest field, a group of four and a family of three still with their juvenile from last year. We got them in the scope and had a great view of them.

Cranes

Common Cranes – we counted 16 in the maize stubble today

There were at least three more Cranes further back, in the next field, beyond the reeds lining the ditch. Then another six flew up from further over. They only flew a short distance, before dropping back down out of view, but it was nice to see some in the air too. That meant at least sixteen Cranes in total.

There had been some geese down towards Great Yarmouth yesterday, on the grazing marshes along the Acle Straight. It was not far so we drove down to look, but there was no sign of any geese there today. Two temporary shooting butts, made of camo netting, had been erected in the middle of the field. Presumably someone had been shooting at the geese and they had moved on.

We called in at Halvergate on our way back. There was no sign of any geese down along the Branch Road, but we did find the lone Cattle Egret still with the cattle just before the village. We had a quick look at it, as it walked around between the cows.

Cattle Egret

Cattle Egret – on its own, with the cows just outside Halvergate

Our next stop was at Buckenham. The Taiga Bean Geese had not been reported for a few days, and we assumed they had gone already, but then there was a report of three again yesterday. Unfortunately, when we got there, we found lots of activity down along the railway line, lots of engineers in high viz coats doing works to the line. Unsurprisingly, there was no sign of any geese down along the edge of the grazing meadow closest to the railway line, which the Taigas generally favour.

There were lots of Pink-footed Geese out in the middle of the marshes, but they were keeping tucked down out of the wind, many sleeping. We could see more geese further up but we were looking into the sun from here, so we walked on up to the riverbank. There were plenty of Wigeon around the pools on the right of the track, but not the numbers there were in past years.

Wigeon

Wigeon – there were good numbers around the pools

It was very breezy out in the middle of the marshes, so we hurried on to the end. We managed to get out of the wind a little by the hide. There were lots of Lapwing out on the grass, and a few Ruff in with them. They were very jumpy in the wind, and kept flying up, whirling round, and dropping back down again. We couldn’t see any raptors over the grazing marsh itself, but we could see a Peregrine further back, hanging in the air around Cantley Beet Factory before landing on the ladder up one of the silos.

There were lots of Canada Geese out in the middle from here, feeding in and around the taller areas of rushes. A small number of White-fronted Geese was in with them. They are much smaller and were hard to see until they raised their heads. There were possibly more asleep we couldn’t quite see. A small group of Barnacle Geese were further back, mixed in with the Canadas.

We braved the wind and walked back, before driving round to Strumpshaw for lunch. There were a few Mallard and Gadwall on the pool in front of Reception Hide. While we ate, a succession of tits were coming and going at the feeders – Blue Tits and Great Tits, and a Coal Tit popped in a couple of times briefly. But there was no sign of any Marsh Tits today.

After lunch, we drove over to Ranworth. A female Ferruginous Duck had been there a few days ago and reported again earlier, so we thought we would take a look. As we walked out onto the staithe at Malthouse Broad, a single tame Pink-footed Goose was in with the Greylags on the green. It looked like it might have been injured in the past. The Ferruginous Duck was swimming around on Malthouse Broad when we got there, amazingly close, just off the Staithe, around the boats. A bit too close really! Ferruginous Ducks are very common in captivity and escapes are regular.

Ferruginous Duck

Ferruginous Duck – appears to be a returning bird from 2017

More interestingly, we noticed that this bird bore a striking similarity to one seen here in exactly the same place in January 2017. It had a rather chunky and dark head, with a noticeably paler area around the bill base, in some respects resembling a female Baer’s Pochard. Looking at photos later, the bill pattern was a perfect match for the 2017 bird too. Where has it been since then? The bird from 2017 was accepted as a wild Ferruginous Duck by the British Birds Rarities Committee, so presumably this one will be too!

Otherwise, a Great Crested Grebe asleep with Tufted Ducks out in the middle of the Broad was an addition to the trip list. We walked round to Ranworth Broad, and out along the boardwalk. We hoping to maybe catch up with some redpoll or tits. A Siskin flew over calling, but otherwise the trees were very quiet, despite being more sheltered in here. We wondered whether the birds might be in the gardens, where there might be more food.

We walked on down to the end and scanned the Broad from the platform by the Visitor Centre. There were lots of Wigeon out on the water, and a good number of Shoveler in with them too. The Marsh Harriers were starting to gather over the back of the Broad – it was time for us to be making tracks, so we could get back over to Stubb Mill in time for the roost there.

As we got back to the road, we could hear a Marsh Tit calling from the garden of the house opposite. We scanned the hedge, but could only see a couple of Blue Tits and a Coal Tit. We walked on a few metres and heard it again. From here, we could see down the drive into the garden where lots of birds were coming to some feeders. The Marsh Tit flew in and dropped to the ground under the bird table, grabbing a seed before flying to the bare tree by the garden wall. It made several repeat visits, so we could all get to see it.

We were later than originally planned getting to Hickling Broad tonight, although given the wind we didn’t want to stop too long there, and the light was already going as we walked out to Stubb Mill. A flock of Redwings was in the paddock as we walked out, and although most flew back into the trees, a couple stayed put down on the grass where we could get a look at them.

Redwing

Redwing – we passed a flock in the paddock as we walked out

A couple of Marsh Harriers flew in past us as we walked out, heading in for the roost. When we arrived at the Watchpoint, we discovered we had just missed a couple of Cranes flying off. Looking out towards the ruined mill (windpump!), we could see several more Marsh Harriers up over the reeds, flying in and out of the bushes. We couldn’t see how many were already in, but we had a maximum of 10 or so in the air at any one time.

While we were watching the Marsh Harriers, a male Hen Harrier appeared in with them. We could see a ghostly grey shape with black wing tips, slimmer and smaller than the Marsh Harriers. The Hen Harrier flew back and forth several times, in and out of the trees and in front of the old mill, giving everyone a chance to get onto it.

A Great White Egret flew across over the back of the grazing marshes, heading towards the reserve, presumably going in to roost. We heard Cranes bugling behind us, presumably heading in to roost too over the trees, but we couldn’t see them where we were standing. Then two Cranes flew up from the grazing marshes and circled round, before dropping down into the reeds beyond.

The light was going now. The wind was picking up and with the cloud having thickened it felt like it might rain later. With a long drive back, we decided to call it a night. Still time for more tomorrow!

10th Jan 2020 – Winter in Norfolk, Day 1

Day 1 of a three day Winter Tour in Norfolk today. It was very wet overnight, but the rain passed through by morning and the cloud gradually broke to leave a day of blue skies and winter sunshine. Great weather for winter birding!

As we drove west this morning, we could see lots of White-fronted Geese in a field by the road at Holkham but unfortunately there was nowhere to stop and we had several cars behind us. A little further on, a Barn Owl was hunting over a grassy meadow next to the road, and it turned to cross right in front of us. Thankfully we were already going slowly, as we only narrowly avoided it and it saw us at the last minute.

A large flock of Pink-footed Geese was flushed from a potato field by the farmer just before Burnham Overy as we approached and flew over the road ahead of us. We turned inland in the village, and just beyond we found a small mixed flock of Greylags and Pink-footed Geese in a muddy field by the road. It was quieter here, and we could pull up to have a quick look from the minibus. It was a good chance to see the two species side by side.

Pink-footed Goose

Pink-footed Goose – we found a small mixed flock with Greylags by the road

Our first stop of the morning was at Sedgeford. There were a few cars already parked along the verge and as we got out of the minibus we were told the Eastern Yellow Wagtail had been seen earlier by its favoured muck heap down along the track opposite. But when we got to the small group of birders gathered there, they seemed to be unsure whether it had been seen or where it had gone.

It normally flies in here eventually, so we stopped to wait. There were several Brown Hares in the field opposite and a large gathering of Common Gulls feeding up on the ridge. A Yellowhammer came over calling. A Sparrowhawk flew along the hedge line at the far end. We could see lots of Fieldfares in the field back towards the road, but they flew back and disappeared behind the ridge back towards where we were parked.

We had a lot to try to do today and we figured we could always call in to try for the wagtail again on our way back later, so we walked back towards the road to have a look for the Fieldfares. When we got back there, we discovered that the Eastern Yellow Wagtail had earlier flown in with a couple of Pied Wagtails and landed in the field right next to where everyone was parked. A couple of people had been watching it while everyone else was standing down the track by the muck heap. But the birds had flown off again and although the two Pied Wagtails had returned, their rarer cousin had disappeared again.

We could see the Fieldfares out in the field, so got those in the scopes, feeding with a rather jumpy flock of Starlings. There were several Red-legged Partridges behind and a flock of Linnets and Goldfinches in the set aside strip along the field margin. A Bullfinch flew over calling and landed in the hedge, where we got it in the scope, a very smart pink male.

Knowing that the Eastern Yellow Wagtail was around now, we decided to walk back to the muck heap, hoping that it would now fly back in there. We were just walking up when we heard it call and it landed in the edge of the field right next to where everyone was standing. We had great views of it now, as it picked around on the bare mud – well worth the wait!

Eastern Yellow Wagtail

Eastern Yellow Wagtail – eventually flew in to its favoured muck heap

Eventually the Eastern Yellow Wagtail flew up calling – the diagnostic rasping call, very unlike our regular Western Yellow Wagtails and more like a Citrine Wagtail – and dropped down onto the muck heap. We took this as a cue to move on.

Our next stop was at Snettisham. There were a few Goldeneye and Little Grebes on the pits on the way in. When we got up onto the seawall, the tide was out – high tide was in the early hours this morning. We were not here mainly for the waders today though, our target was Short-eared Owl. As we made our way round, we scanned the brambles and quickly found one hidden in some long grass – it was hard to see, but eventually everyone managed to get onto it.

We decided to push our luck again, and walked on a little further. There was a second Short-eared Owl, hiding in the same place we had seen it last week, under a rather sparse bramble bush. Even better, we looked back at the first Short-eared Owl and with the change of angle we now found we were looking straight at it out in the open. We had a great view of it through the scope.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl – one of two again this morning

Scanning the main pit, we could see a good selection of wildfowl – more Goldeneye, Tufted Ducks, several Wigeon and a few Gadwall and Shoveler. The Swan Goose hybrid was in with the Greylag Geese again. A flock of a few hundred Pink-footed Geese came up from the Wash and flew over calling noisily.

Turning our attention to the Wash, most of the Knot and Bar-tailed Godwits were way off in the distance, but we could see quite a few Dunlin out on the mud quite close in despite the fact that the tide was out. We decided to have a quick look through the Dunlin, pointing out that we had seen a Little Stint here with them several times last winter, when the very next bird we saw was… a Little Stint! What a coincidence!

The Little Stint was feeding with the Dunlin, and was much smaller when they were seen side by side, with a shorter, finer bill. They are mainly passage migrants here, and rare in winter. It was in exactly the same area we had seen the Little Stint last year, so perhaps it it is the same bird come back here for a second winter.

Little Stint

Little Stint – feeding on the edge of the Wash with Dunlin

There were one or two Grey Plover quite close in too. With the sun now coming out, we could see a large flock of Golden Plover out on the mud, packed tightly together in a long line, shining in the low winter’s light. There were lots of Lapwing too, darker, and scattered more liberally over the mud.

We had lots we wanted to do today, so we moved on. We called in for a quick stop at Thornham Harbour, but we were told the Twite which had been there earlier had disappeared. There were quite a few people there and there were not many waders in the harbour channel either – a couple of Redshank and Curlew, and a single Oystercatcher. A couple of Brent Geese were out across the saltmarsh towards the beach.

We walked up to the old sluice and had just stopped to scan the saltmarsh when we heard the distinctive nasal twang of a Twite calling back behind us, somewhere beyond the car park. We turned to see a small group of birds perched on the vegetation on the far side of the harbour channel but before we could get back they had taken off. They landed back down on the saltmarsh a bit further back, disappearing out of view.

We stood and scanned for a bit. A couple of Rock Pipits flew over. A few Linnets flew in and out and when a larger flock flew over, we heard Twite calling again. Two birds landed on the cross bar of one of the wooden jetties on the edge of the harbour and conveniently they were a Twite and a Linnet next to each other – another great comparison.

Twite

Twite – one showed well with Linnets around the Harbour

We had a good look at them through the scope before the Twite flew down and landed on the other side of the channel directly opposite us. We could see its yellow bill and its burnt orange breast caught the sun. It seemed to be on its own and when the Linnets flew up again, the Twite flew back over to join them. One was enough – we decided to head round to Titchwell for lunch.

After lunch, we headed straight round to Meadow Trail. We were told the Woodcock was in its usual spot and when we got there we didn’t have to look for it – a crowd was gathered there and lots of long lenses were pointed in its direction. Thankfully the throng quickly dwindled so we could find a spot where we could all admire it. It was not far from the boardwalk and clearly relying on its cryptically patterned plumage for camouflage, probably convinced that we couldn’t see it.

Woodcock

Woodcock – showing very well by the boardwalk, despite the crowds

We moved on, to create space for the next Woodcock admirers, and headed round to the main path. We could see a Marsh Harrier out beyond the reedbed and lots of Greylags and a couple of Mute Swans on the reedbed pool. The Freshmarsh is still full of water, although with the sluice apparently now repaired, the water level has started to drop. There were lots of ducks on there, including a single drake Goldeneye.

Time was running short, so we continued straight out to the Tidal Pool. A single Spotted Redshank was feeding up to its belly in the far corner – through the scope, we could see its long bill and bright supercilium as it lifted its head. A Bar-tailed Godwit walked across in front of it. A Turnstone was picking around on one of the islands next to a couple of Black-tailed Godwits.

A little further up, we stopped to look at all the Bar-tailed Godwits roosting on the spit. There were several Grey Plovers in with them and scanning with the scope we found a couple of Knot too. There were a few ducks out on the water and, in with all the Mallard, we could see five Pintail. We got a pair in the scope and the drake looked especially stunning in the low afternoon sunlight. As it upended, we could see its long, pin-shaped tail.

We had one more thing we wanted to do today, so we needed to head back. We had to make a brief stop as we passed the Freshmarsh to train the scope on one of the drake Teal on the bank. Again the light was perfect and the plumage detail through the scope was exquisite.

Teal

Teal – looking stunning in the low afternoon light

Titchwell had one more gift to give us today. As we got back into the trees, we looked down into the ditch beside the path to see a Water Rail picking along the far bank of the water in the bottom. A Chiffchaff was calling in the bushes in the car park as we made our way round to the minibus.

Our last stop of the day was back at Wells. As we got out of the minibus, a Short-eared Owl was down in the grass on the edge of the ditch a short way down the track. We got it in the scope and could see its yellow eyes as it looked round. We didn’t know which was to look, as the Rough-legged Buzzard was on its usual bush off towards the bank in the other direction. We got the scopes set up, some on each, and everyone moved between them admiring the two birds.

Rough-legged Buzzard

Rough-legged Buzzard – still perched on its usual favoured bush

The Short-eared Owl took off and flew a bit further back, landing back down in the grass again. Then we looked over to the bank by the Rough-legged Buzzard to see a Barn Owl appear. It dropped down to the ground on the bank and came up again with a vole in its talons, disappearing with it into the bushes where the Rough-legged Buzzard was still perched.

A Common Buzzard had now landed in the grass where the Short-eared Owl had been and the latter had taken offence. We watched as it flew up repeatedly, before swooping down at the Buzzard, pulling up at the last minute. The Buzzard eventually decided it had had enough, flying off with the Short-eared Owl in pursuit, before the owl turned back and circled up and over the bank.

There was a stunning moonrise this evening – it is a full moon tonight, a ‘wolf moon’, the first full moon of the New Year. We decided to walk down the track to the bank to admire it. A Grey Heron was motionless at the back of the first flood, looking rather like a wooden post in the gloom. As we passed one of the grassy fields, two small birds circled over and dropped in – two Water Pipits. Unfortunately they immediately disappeared into the long grass.

From up on the bank, we got the scope on the Rough-legged Buzzard. With the change in angle, we were now looking at it back on, and could see the white base to its tail. We looked away and it took off – we watched it fly off towards the pines, presumably heading off to roost, longer, slimmer-winged and longer-tailed than a Common Buzzard.

Wolf Moon

Wolf Moon – the first full moon of the New Year tonight

We took that as our cue to head for home too. As we walked back, with the full moon away to our left and the last yellow light of the sunset illuminating the sky away to our right, the Short-eared Owl was still hunting over the grassy field beside the track and a Grey Partridge was calling in the stubble the other side. A great way to wrap up our first day.

5th Jan 2020 – Return of the Owls

An Owl Tour today, our first one of the New Year. It had originally been forecast to be bright but by the time we got to the day, it was dull and overcast. There were some spots of very light drizzle on and off, which were not even in the latest forecasts, but at least they were just while we were driving and it thankfully remained dry while we were out and about.

We were a bit later than planned getting away this morning. With mild weather recently, the Barn Owls are not especially hungry at the moment and are not out hunting much during daylight hours, so we would need to be lucky to catch one. We drove down to the grazing marshes and stopped to scan from the bank. One of the group shouted as they spotted a Barn Owl ghost across a gap in the hedge, but only a couple of people were looking the right way. We hoped it would swing back round, hunting, but it didn’t reappear. It looked to be heading off to roost.

We walked out along the seawall. A Brown Hare ran across the grass. A flock of Curlews flew over, coming in from the coast and heading inland to feed on the flooded meadows. Two Grey Herons chased each other out of a ditch. The Marsh Harriers were starting to circle up now, coming out of the reeds where they had roosted. A Red Kite drifted in over the reeds, and landed in a dead tree where we got it in the scope. A rather pale Common Buzzard was perched in the trees behind.

Red Kite

Red Kite – flew in and landed on a dead tree as it got light

As we walked back, we could see a pair of Egyptian Geese in the trees at the back of the grazing meadows. They look like they are getting ready to nest. Egyptian Geese often attempt to breed in the middle of winter – perhaps their body clocks have never adapted to the fact they are not in Africa any more!

We drove inland and parked on the edge of a field, before walking down along a footpath to a small wood. As we got to the trees, a Great Spotted Woodpecker was drumming and we could hear a Coal Tit singing. Despite the grey weather, it could almost have been early spring already.

Round on the other side, we looked along the edge to see a large hole in one of the trees. There, in the hole, a Tawny Owl was dozing. We got it in the scope and it almost looked like a cardboard cutout, until it blinked and then turned its head.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – roosting in a hole in a tree

Tawny Owl is the commonest owl in the UK, but is not often seen as they are strictly nocturnal. Most roost well hidden in ivy or evergreen trees, or hidden in holes, so it is always a special treat to see one in the daytime.

After admiring the Tawny Owl for a while, we walked back along the footpath. A Great Tit was singing now. A pair of Mistle Thrushes flew up from the field and disappeared back into the trees. A flock of Long-tailed Tits was making its way down the hedge.

It was time to look for Little Owls now, but the weather was not ideal. There was no sign of any on the first two groups of barns we stopped at, and it seemed like it might be a bit cold and grey. Then at our third stop, we spotted a small shape tucked under the edge of the roof, looking out. We parked out of sight, and walked round to where we could get it in the scope without disturbing it.

Little Owl

Little Owl – tucked in under the roof out of the weather

Eventually the Little Owl was disturbed by a passing tractor and disappeared in under the roof. As we drove back down to the coast, an untidy flock of Brent Geese was flying inland to feed. After a quick pit-stop in Wells, we drove west, over to the Wash coast at Snettisham. On our way, we passed several a couple of flocks of Pink-footed Geese feeding in the recently cut sugar beet fields.

From up on the seawall, there was still a huge expanse of exposed mud. The tide was coming in fast but it was not a big tide today, so the water would not push everything up towards the bank. As we made our way down, an enormous flock of Golden Plover several thousand strong flew up from out in the middle of the mud. The birds circled round before quickly dropping down again. As soon as they landed, they disappeared, remarkably well camouflaged against the mud.

Golden Plover

Golden Plover – the vast flock occasionally spooked and flew round

Carefully scanning the bushes as we walked along, we spotted a shape in the brambles. A Short-eared Owl roosting. It was very well camouflaged too, but once you knew where it was it was relatively easy to pick out. It was mostly asleep, but occasionally opened its eyes so you could see its yellow irises through the scope.

Short-eared Owl 1

Short-eared Owl – roosting in the brambles

We decided to push our luck, and tried scanning again a bit further up. There was a second Short-eared Owl, hiding under a rather sparse bramble bush, but it blended in well against the sandy, stony ground. A large flock of noisy Greylags flew over, honking and dropped down towards the pits.

Short-eared Owl 2

Short-eared Owl – a second bird, hiding under some brambles

We walked round to the causeway to scan the pits. There were several Goldeneye diving out on the water, including several smart drakes. Scattered round the edges and islands was a selection of Wigeon, Shoveler and a variety of conventional Mallard and domesticated Mallard intergrades. The pits here seem to attract different feral or escaped wildfowl, and in with the Greylags we found the rather odd looking Swan Goose hybrid. Several Little Grebes were on the water too.

Back on the seawall, a small flock of Pink-footed Geese flew over, coming in off the Wash. We stopped to scan the mud. A Grey Plover was on the edge of a small pool right down at the front, with a Bar-tailed Godwit and a Dunlin on the pools a little further back, just beyond the channel. Further back, the huge flock of Golden Plover looked like a darker smear on the mud until we got it in the scope and could see it was actually a mass of small golden lumps. There were lots of Lapwing too. The Knot were much further out, right over towards the waters edge. A huge black slick back towards the sailing club was a big roost of Oystercatchers.

Grey Plover

Grey Plover – feeding on the mud on the edge of the Wash

There were lots of Shelduck scattered out over the mud and some flocks of Mallard and Teal sleeping along the edge of the muddy channels. Further out, we found a small group of Pintail on the edge of the water. It was lunchtime now and, as it wasn’t cold, we stopped for lunch on the benches.

After lunch, with the days short at this time of year, time was getting on. We drove back east and stopped again on the outskirts of Wells. A quick scan and we picked up the Rough-legged Buzzard on a bush in the distance. It took off just after we got out of the minibus and flew across in front of the pines, stopping to hover a couple of times. Then it dropped down out of sight towards marshes beyond bank.

We decided to walk out along the track to the bank. A small flock of Skylarks flew up from the stubble and a little further on a group of Pied Wagtails was feeding in there too, close to the path. They were presumably starting to gather already, before heading off to roost somewhere.

We could see the Rough-legged Buzzard again, perched on a bush in the distance. We got it in the scope now and everyone had a chance to have a good look at it, its pale head contrasting with its dark, blackish-brown belly. There had been a Short-eared Owl hunting here the last couple of afternoons, but there was no sign of it today. Perhaps it was a bit cold and grey, and after good hunting conditions on the previous days perhaps it was not hungry too.

Rough-legged Buzzard

Rough-legged Buzzard – perched on a bush

There were lots of Lapwing and Curlew out on Quarles Marsh. Two pairs of Gadwall swimming on the pool were an addition to the day’s list. A Kestrel was hovering over the bank just behind us.

The last stop of the day was back inland. We were hoping to catch a Barn Owl coming out of the box in which it usually roosts. We were a little later than planned by the time we got there, but we got ourselves into position, overlooking the box.

Three Red Kites circled up over the trees behind us, calling noisily and chasing each other round in the breeze. A large flock of Pied Wagtails flew in and circled over the reeds. They kept flying up and dropping down again, obviously looking to go to roost together but still nervous. More were arriving and we counted at least 65 in the air together at one point.

It was getting dark now and there was still no sign of the Barn Owl tonight. Had we missed it and it had gone off to hunt elsewhere already? Had something happened and it had roosted elsewhere? Or was it just not hungry enough to come out before dark tonight? Time may tell.

We walked up the footpath into the trees. We hadn’t gone far when we heard a Tawny Owl hooting. We stood and listened to it, such an evocative song. It was deep in the trees, so we couldn’t see it from the path. It hooted several times, but the neighbouring male didn’t answer tonight so after a while it fell silent. It was a nice way to end, so we decided it was time to call it a night.