Monthly Archives: February 2020

18th Feb 2020 – Return of the Owls

An Owl Tour today. After yet more windy weather over the weekend, as Storm Dennis swept across the country, it was nice that conditions had improved today and we could get out looking for owls. The wind had dropped, although it got more blustery again through the day. It was dry and we even had some bright sunny periods through the morning.

After a prompt get away, we headed straight down to the marshes and before we even got out of the minibus we could see a Barn Owl out hunting over the grass by the road. It did a circuit of the field, round over the edge of the reeds and then disappeared round behind a hedge.

Barn Owl 1

Barn Owl – our second of the morning, perched on a post

Walking up onto the bank, we could see another Barn Owl on a fence post down on the marshes the other side. We got the scope on it, and could see it was scanning the long grass below intently. Then it took off, hovered, and dropped sharply down into the vegetation. When it came up again, we could see it had a vole in its bill, which it quickly transferred to its talons. It made a beeline back over the grass towards the trees beyond. At this time of day, Barn Owls are often robbed of their catch and it took evasive action as a Rook flew towards it, before disappearing with its prey back into the wood.

Looking back the other side, there were now two different Barn Owls hunting the fields there. We watched them for a few minutes, until they both disappeared, presumably heading in to roost. A Kestrel flew across and landed in the top of the hedge briefly, the main prey-stealing culprit here!

The other raptors were coming out too now. Two Red Kites drifted out of the trees and across the marshes. A Common Buzzard circled up inland and flew in towards us, mobbed by two Jackdaws. A couple of Marsh Harriers were quartering the marshes in the distance. There were other things to see here as well. A small flock of Curlews were feeding in the grass around a small flood which had appeared after all the recent rains. The local mob of teenage Mute Swans had gathered round it too. A Brown Hare ran across the grass. A Song Thrush was in full song back in the trees.

Barn Owl 2

Barn Owl – hunting in the morning sun

The Barn Owl we had seen catch a vole earlier now appeared out of the trees again, presumably having digested its earlier prey. With the low morning sunshine behind us, it was beautiful light as we watched it working its way methodically around the grazing marsh. It dropped down into the grass a couple of times, but didn’t catch anything more. Then it flew back and landed in the trees on the edge of the wood. It perched there for a while, sunning itself, and we watched it in the scope before it dropped down onto a fence post just below. Then it set off again, purposefully, along the edge of the grass, across the road, and then turned sharply and disappeared into the trees.

Presumably, the Barn Owl was heading into roost. It was good that we had managed an early start to catch them out hunting, as there was no sign of any of the three Barn Owls we had seen this morning. We decided to move on. We headed inland, parking on the edge of some fields before setting off down a footpath.

There were a few tits and Chaffinches in the trees, and one or two Robins in the hedges this morning. As we rounded the corner, two Mistle Thrushes flew out and off across the neighbouring field. A couple of Common Buzzards were hanging in the breeze in the sunshine.

As we got to the far side of the wood, we turned to look back along the edge. The Tawny Owl was there as usual, in a big hole in one of the trees. We got the scope on it and watched as it seemed to stare back out at us. After a while, it closed its eyes and went back to dozing. Tawny Owl may be the commonest of our regular owls but is also the most nocturnal, so it is always a privilege to see one like this in the daytime.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – roosting in its regular hole again

After enjoying watching the Tawny Owl for a while, we decided to move on. We headed inland to look for Little Owls next. Although the wind had dropped from recent days, there was still a rather brisk and fresh breeze, so we weren’t sure how many would be out enjoying the morning brightness today. At the first site we checked, there was no sign of any owls, but when we pulled up in a gateway overlooking the sheltered side of some barns, we could see a small round shape on the roof.

Once we got out of the minibus and set up the scope, we could see it was indeed a Little Owl, perched in a spot out of the wind and facing into the morning sun. A second Little Owl was just a few metres further down the roof, tucked in on the frame of one of the ventilation windows.

Little Owl

Little Owl – one of two, sunning itself on the roof of one of the barns

We had a look at some more barns, a little further up the road, but there were no more Little Owls out today. We were probably lucky to find the two we had seen, given the cool breeze. So we decided to switch our attention to the next owl on our target list – Short-eared Owl.

After the long drive over to the Wash, we stopped briefly to look at some Pink-footed Geese feeding in a strip of unharvested sugar beet in a field by the road down towards the beach at Snettisham. When we got out and up onto the seawall, the tide was out and a vast expanse of grey mud stretched all the way between Norfolk and Lincolnshire, visible in the distance.

When we got down towards Rotary Hide, we set up the scopes. With the tide out, most of the waders were very distant, but there was still a good scattering of Dunlin out on the mud closer to us and several Ringed Plover too. We could see a few Grey Plover and Knot plus one or two Turnstones with them, but despite having a good scan through the birds which were nearer to the shore there was no sign of the Little Stint which we have seen here on previous days. A couple of small groups of Golden Plover flew in and out. There were lots of Shelduck spread out over the mud too.

Our main target here was Short-eared Owl, so we made our way round to check-out the area where they normally like to roost. A Cetti’s Warbler was shouting periodically from the brambles as we passed. At the first set of bushes we scanned, we found one tucked in the brambles. It was dozing, and we couldn’t see its staring yellow eyes from here, but we all had a good look through the scope.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl – tucked into the brambles today

A bit further on, we stopped to scan again. We couldn’t find any other Short-eared Owls today, but we did have a different view of the first one again. Now it woke up and started preening, and we finally got a chance to see its distinctive yellow eyes, and even its short ‘ear’ tufts at one point.

There were not so many ducks on the pits at first today, but something seemed to spook lots of wildfowl from somewhere and lots flew in and landed on the water. As well as a good number of Wigeon, there were several Shoveler, one or two Gadwall and a few Tufted Ducks. We got the scope on a smart drake Goldeneye, admiring its green head, bold white cheek patch and eponymous bright golden-yellow eye. A Little Grebe was busy diving in the lee of one of the small rocky islets. When something spooked them, a large flock of noisy Greylag Geese flew in off the fields just inland.

On our way back, we stopped again to scan the mud out on the Wash. A Bar-tailed Godwit had now appeared, just beyond the channel, and there were a couple of Grey Plover and a Knot even closer, on the small pools just below us. A careful scan with the scope of the Dunlin failed to produce any sign of the Little Stint, and we were packing up when we looked away to the north and caught sight of a very small, paler wader out on the mud.

Putting the scope up again, we confirmed it was the elusive Little Stint. It was very mobile today though, in the freshening wind, and we had to keep relocating it as it got swept away several times when it took off. It was often in the company of one or two Dunlin or a Turnstone, when it certainly looked small, but it was when it ran past a Curlew that you could really appreciate just how tiny it was! One of probably just a handful of Little Stints wintering in the UK, it seems to like it here – what is probably the same bird has returned to the same area of mud for the last two winters at least. Come the spring, it will be heading off to the arctic to breed.

Grey Plover and Knot

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

We were heading to Titchwell to have lunch, but we took a small detour inland to Sedgeford. We were hoping to catch the Eastern Yellow Wagtail here, but there was no sign of it on its currently most favoured muck heap by the road. Another birder driving back from the other muck heap down the lane opposite told us it had not been seen down there either, for several hours at least. We stopped for a minute to watch several Brown Hares chasing round in the stubble field and then continued on our way. We had lots to pack in this afternoon and unfortunately had no time to wait to see if the wagtail might reappear later.

Titchwell was surprisingly busy for midweek and mid-winter, but the picnic tables were free when we arrived so we made good use of one for lunch and a welcome hot drink. We wouldn’t have time to explore the reserve whole today, but we had planned to have a quick look to see if we could see the Woodcock. One of the volunteers coming back to the Visitor Centre told us there was no sign of it now, so we diverted instead out onto the main path, where a Barn Owl had just been seen over the grazing meadow.

The Barn Owl was down in the long grass and rushes when we arrived but after a short wait it came up again. It seemed to be struggling in the freshening wind, and again dropped down into the vegetation for a while. When it came up again, it put on a much better show for us, eventually working its way down over the grass just beyond the fence. It landed briefly on one of the fence posts but was off again almost immediately and disappeared round towards the road.

Barn Owl 3

Barn Owl – hunting over the Thornham grazing meadow

Barn Owl 4

Barn Owl – put on a good show for us early this afternoon

A Common Buzzard was feeding on something further back in the field while we were watching the Barn Owl, so we got that in the scope too. A second Buzzard was on a fence post just behind and several Red-legged Partridges were in the grass closer to us. When the Barn Owl disappeared, we walked on round via Meadow Trail. A small group of Long-tailed Tits was feeding in the cut branches placed on the ground in the trees. We couldn’t find any sign of the Woodcock either now, so we decided to head back to the minibus and move on. The very tame Reeve’s Muntjac was chomping on the grass where the feeders used to be, behind the Visitor Centre.

Back at Holkham, we stopped to scan the grazing marshes. A large flock of Black-tailed Godwits was whirling round out in the middle as we got out of the minibus. There were several Spoonbills on the pools today. First we found two together, busily feeding with their heads down in the water, sweeping their bills from side to side as they walked round. Three more were much further back, way off towards the pines, but flew in to join them, and a sixth Spoonbill flew out of the trees and disappeared off east.

Spoonbill

Spoonbills – two of six we saw today, feeding busily

For a very large and bright white bird, the Great White Egrets made themselves surprisingly harder to find today. We eventually found one, right back in front of the pines, down in a rushy ditch where it was hard to see until it put its head up. Then if flew up, with slow and heavy wingbeats and landed again behind a sparse line of reeds. All the while, there was a second Great White Egret much closer to us, but it had managed to hide itself completely in the rushes until it eventually walked into view.

There are still quite a few lingering (Russian) White-fronted Geese at Holkham, but there were none down on the grazing marshes today. They were feeding further back, on the grass in the middle of the old Iron Age fort, and we could just see a few of them over the rim of the grassy bank. We thought we might find another Barn Owl or two out hunting here, but there were none out this afternoon.

Our next stop was at Wells. There was no sign of the Rough-legged Buzzard on its usual bushes when we arrived. We got out of the minibus and set off down the track towards the bank and we hadn’t gone too far before the Rough-legged Buzzard flew back in. It looked like it would land straight away, but instead flew on, up over the fields towards the Freeman Street car park, flushing all the Brent Geese. It was strikingly pale and, as it turned, we could see its bright white tail with broad black terminal band. It even stopped to hover at one point, rather like an over-sized, slow-motion Kestrel!

Rough-legged Buzzard 1

Rough-legged Buzzard – flew in over the fields

After flying round for a few minutes, the Rough-legged Buzzard returned to its normal bushes and landed on the top of one of them. Now, we could get a better look at it through the scope – its very pale white head and neck contrasting with the dark blackish belly patch. It was hard to see its feathered legs though, through the leaves and branches.

Rough-legged Buzzard 2

Rough-legged Buzzard – eventually landed on one of its favourite bushes

We continued on to the bank and stopped to scan the marshes beyond. There were a few Pink-footed Geese out on the grass and we got them in the scope, noting their dark heads and delicate, mostly dark bills. A passing farmer in a truck seemed like he would have preferred to run us over, although unfortunately we had all stepped to the side to let him pass, and when he drove out across the fields in the distance, he flushed a lot more Pink-footed Geese from over towards the pines. This can be a good place for owls in the late afternoon, but we couldn’t see any here today. It had clouded over progressively though and was no rather grey and cool in the strengthening breeze.

We cut back inland for one last stop on our way back. As we walked down the footpath across the meadow, two more Red Kites and a Common Buzzard hung in the air above the hillside behind us. There was no sign of the regular Barn Owl here this evening – it wasn’t out hunting and we couldn’t see it around the box where it likes to roost either. We were rather later than normal though, so it was hard to tell whether it had already gone off further afield, or was in no hurry to come out tonight given the weather.

We had a quick listen in the trees, but there were no Tawny Owls hooting yet. It is increasingly late before it gets properly dark now, and with the wind and threat of rain approaching, we decided to call it a night and not hang on any longer. Having enjoyed such great views of the Tawny Owl earlier this morning, and four different Barn Owls out hunting,  not to mention the Little Owls and Short-eared Owl, we did not feel like we were short of owls today

13th Feb 2020 – Lucky with the Weather

A Private Tour today, in North Norfolk. After the recent inclement weather, we were lucky (despite the date!) – the wind was light and it was mostly bright with sunny intervals, just the briefest of light drizzle as a shower passed to the south of us early afternoon, and a lovely end to the day. The forecast for today up until a couple of days ago had been for yet more wind and rain – fortunately, as is often the case, it couldn’t have been much more wrong!

After meeting up in Wells, we made our way to the edge of town. As we got out of the minibus, we could already see the Rough-legged Buzzard perched on the top of its usual bushes across the field. We got the scope straight on it, and admired its very pale head, contrasting with the dark blackish belly patch.

Rough-legged Buzzard

Rough-legged Buzzard – still perched on its usual bushes this morning

The Rough-legged Buzzard was quite active this morning, and kept taking off and flying round, flashing its white tail with black terminal bar. It never went far though, and kept returning to its perch on the bushes after a few seconds. It seemed to be mainly hunting down along the edge of the field just below where it was perched – dropping down into the grass at one point, and later stopping to hover there just a metre or so above the ground.

There were other raptors here too. We got a couple of darker Common Buzzards in the scope, very different from the Rough-legged Buzzard. Three or four different Marsh Harriers circled up, including a very dark juvenile, a pale-headed female and a grey-winged male. A Kestrel flew in and landed on the hedge.

A Barn Owl was still out, hunting along the grassy bank. It was a wet night last night, and after all the recent wind it was probably hungry and therefore out feeding during daylight hours. It would be the first of several we would see today.

There were lots of Lapwings around the flood in the ploughed field in front of us and a little group of Golden Plovers on the grass further back. A few Skylarks came up from the fields and a pair of Grey Partridge flew in and landed on the verge at the front of the nearest one.

Moving on, we stopped again at Holkham. A quick check of a field by the road revealed a Mistle Thrush feeding in amongst all the Egyptian Geese. A little further on, as we pulled up overlooking the grazing marshes, all the geese were in the air – we could see a couple of people walking around out in the middle. They gradually started to settle again, with mostly Greylags on the grass at first, although we picked out a more distant group of Barnacle Geese too. Most of the Pink-footed Geese seemed to disappear off over the park.

We could hear the distinctive yelping calls of White-fronted Geese and a couple of largish flocks of 30-60 flew back in but seemed reluctant to land again. Some came down behind the trees but eventually a small number dropped down onto the grazing marshes in view. We got three in the scope, noting their black belly bars and white surround to their pink bills.

White-fronted Geese

White-fronted Geese – eventually a few settled back down on the grazing marshes

There were lots of Lapwing and Curlew out on the grazing marshes too, and scanning one of the larger pools we found a small group of roosting Avocet, in with the Shoveler and Teal. More Avocet have been returning over the last week or so, having spent the winter further south. Spring is in the air!

A large white shape out on the grazing marshes was a Great White Egret. Through the scope, we could see its long, dagger-shaped, yellow bill. A second Great White Egret flew out from behind the trees and landed beyond the reeds at the back. A smaller white shape appeared in a field of taller grass and clumps of rushes – a Cattle Egret. Looking more carefully, we realised there were actually six Cattle Egrets there, as more flew up from further over and came in to join the first. We watched them actively running around between the clumps, catching frogs.

Great White Egret

Great White Egret – one of two on the grazing marshes this morning

News had come through now that the Eastern Yellow Wagtail had been seen again this morning over at Sedgeford, so we set off inland to try to see it. A Red Kite was hanging in the air over the road as we made our way there. As we pulled up on the verge just north of the village, we looked over to the muck heap in the edge of the field alongside to see three wagtails fly up and land on the top. In with the Pied Wagtails was the Eastern Yellow Wagtail.

We got out quietly and were watching the Eastern Yellow Wagtail as it started to feed on the side of the heap, but a lorry came thundering down the road and the wagtails all took off. We heard the Eastern Yellow Wagtail call several times, a raspy, grating call, very different from the typical call of ‘our’ Western Yellow Wagtail, as it flew over the road and out into the field the other side.

We crossed the road and could see the Eastern Yellow Wagtail out on the bare ground with the Pied Wagtails and several Meadow Pipits. Then something spooked them again, and the Eastern Yellow Wagtail flew up and disappeared. There were lots of other birds here – several Fieldfares feeding out in the field and a small covey of Red-legged Partridges walking down along the edge.

Several Yellowhammers were in the hedges and dropping down to the ground in the lane, including some very smart yellow-headed males. A large flock of Chaffinches was feeding along the edge of the field and in with them we could see 4-5 Bramblings. They have been in short supply this winter, so it was nice to catch up with some today.

We set off down the lane to see if the Eastern Yellow Wagtail was on the other muck heap further along, with all the Chaffinches, Bramblings and Yellowhammers flying down along the hedges either side, ahead of us. A large flock of Linnets was swirling round further along, but there was no sign of the wagtail, so we walked back.

When we got back to the first muck heap, by the road, the Eastern Yellow Wagtail was back. We had a great view of it now, as it fed on the sides of the heap and around the puddles at the base in the sunshine. It is a striking bird, with yellow underparts and a grey head with bold white supercilium. Having been found here originally just before Christmas, it looks like it may stay here through the winter now.

Eastern Yellow Wagtail

Eastern Yellow Wagtail – still feeding around its favoured muck heaps

We were heading for Titchwell next, but we called in at Thornham Harbour on our way. The water level in the harbour channel was still quite high and there were just a couple of Common Redshanks and a single Black-tailed Godwit here at the moment, with a flock of Brent Geese further out in the harbour. Three Rock Pipits flew in and landed in the vegetation just beyond the channel. There was no sign of the Twite, so we didn’t stop – we had plenty of other things we wanted to try to fit in this afternoon.

Round at Titchwell, there were loads of Goldfinches twittering in the tops of the trees in the car park. We decided to have a quick whisk round the reserve before a late lunch. We were told there was no sign of the Woodcock on Fen Trail, but we had a quick look on our way round anyway. We couldn’t find it now either, and there was no sign of any Water Rails in the ditches by the main path, so we set out onto the reserve. There were a few Common Pochard with the Gadwall on the reedbed pool and we heard a quick burst of Bearded Tits calling, but couldn’t see them.

There were not so many waders on the Freshmarsh today – a small group of Avocets asleep, and a Black-tailed Godwit asleep with them, and several pairs of Avocets busy feeding in the shallow water. There were lots of Teal around the edges of the water and several Shoveler busy shovelling, the drakes of both looking very smart now in their breeding plumage.

Teal

Teal – the drakes are looking very smart in full breeding plumage now

We were hoping to find a Water Pipit here, but at first all we could find were Rock Pipits. First one flew towards us from the direction of the reedbed, but carried on over our heads and dropped down on to the saltmarsh the other side of the bank. Then we looked across to see several small birds land on the pile of bricks in front of Parrinder Hide – but through the scope, we could see they were three Rock Pipits accompanied by a Reed Bunting, the former presumably having come in for a freshwater bath.

Scanning the cut reeds along the edge of the bank beyond the hide through the scope, we could see a small bird in the vegetation. At last, a Water Pipit! It was hard to see at this range, so we walked quickly round to Parrinder Hide, but by the time we got round there needless to say it had disappeared again. Thankfully, after a bit of scanning, we found it on Avocet Island, on the ground behind the fence.

The Water Pipit had obviously had a bathe, as it was now busy preening. The Rock Pipits had been bathing too, and a couple of them flew up and landed on the fence, in the same view. The Water Pipit was clearly much cleaner, white below, with finer black streaks, and less swarthy above, greyer headed with a clear white supercilium. The Water Pipit finished preening and flew up onto the fence too, before flying back over to the bank out to the east of the hide. We watched it back down in the cut reeds before it walked further back out of view.

Curlew

Curlew – feeding down at the front of Volunteer Marsh from the hide

Someone in the hide asked whether we had seen a Knot and was quite insistent there should be one on the Freshmarsh because it was on the recent sightings board! We pointed out that they only drop in here occasionally and are normally to be found on the saltmarsh or out on the beach. We popped into the other side of Parrinder Hide and just about the first bird we saw on the saltmarsh out on Volunteer Marsh was a Knot! It was with a Grey Plover nearby, and feeding down at the front was a muddy-faced Curlew. When we walked back out, we could see a small flock of Knot had now dropped into the Freshmarsh too, for a quick bathe.

Out at the Tidal Pool, one of the first birds we found was a Red-breasted Merganser. It was diving in the shallow water and seemed to be pulling at something or probing around one of the smaller islands. They are more commonly seen out on the sea than on here. A single pair of Pintail were fast asleep towards the back and a Little Grebe was dozing below the vegetation along the edge. A Water Rail swam out from the edge and we watched as it make its way straight across the deeper water in the middle. It came out and ran nervously across one of the low muddy islands before swimming across the last strip of water to the safety of the vegetated bank the other side.

There were not so many waders on here now – with the tide out, they were mostly feeding out on the beach. There were a few Common Redshanks, and it was nice to compare a single Bar-tailed Godwit on one of the small islands with a Black-tailed Godwit feeding in the water down at the front.

Black-tailed Godwit

Black-tailed Godwit – feeding down at the front of the Tidal Pool

There were a lot more Bar-tailed Godwits feeding out on the beach. A few Turnstones were feeding on the top of the mussel beds and several Dunlin were running around on the sand nearby. Scanning the sea, we could see a few Great Crested Grebes offshore. A couple of Eider and a small group of Goldeneye were rather distant today. We couldn’t immediately see much else out there today, so we walked back for lunch at the Visitor Centre. A Coal Tit coming into the feeders was an addition to the day’s list.

After lunch, we made our way back east along the coast road. On the way, we stopped to look at a small group of Pink-footed Geese in a field beside the road, the first we had seen on the ground today. We stopped again briefly at Holkham, overlooking the grazing marshes where we had stopped earlier. We were immediately rewarded with three Spoonbills on a small pool, just what we were hoping to find here. We watched them feeding, walking round quickly, sweeping their bills from side to side through the shallow water. The Spoonbills are starting to return already, ahead of the breeding season, having spent the winter down on the south coast.

A Barn Owl appeared over the grassy field next to us. We watched it flying round hunting, turning into the wind and doing a transect across over the grass, before flying back to the near edge and turning into the wind to do it again. It landed on a post for a rest, where we had a good look at it in the scope. Then when it started hunting again, we saw it drop sharply down into the tall grass. We could just see it seemed to be ‘mantling’ over something, with its wings open, and sure enough it came back up with  vole in its talons, landing on a post again briefly before flying off with it over the hedge. Looking out across the grazing marsh, we could see a second Barn Owl off in the distance.

Barn Owl 1

Barn Owl – hunting the field as we looked out over the grazing marshes

We stopped next at Lady Anne’s Drive. There is a lot of water still on the marshes here after the recent rains, and they were alive with ducks, particularly big numbers of Wigeon, which were looking very smart in the late afternoon sunshine.

Walking up towards the pines, a Grey Partridge was feeding on the grass just beyond the fence. It is quite tame, so we stopped to admire it. The larger covey which spent the winter here appears to have broken up now, with birds pairing up for the breeding season already. This male seems to be on its own. Looking over beyond The Lookout cafe as we walked towards the pines, we could see another Barn Owl in the distance, perched on a post.

Grey Partridge

Grey Partridge – this lone male was on the grass by the fence

It was a big high tide this morning and the saltmarsh was under water first thing, which was why we hadn’t ventured out onto the beach here earlier today. The Shorelarks hadn’t been seen for the last few days – they always tend to get more mobile when the saltmarsh is wet – and we figured our best chance would be later in the day, to give it a chance to dry out. But there was still quite a lot of standing water on the saltmarsh when we walked out through the pines and the people we met walking back confirmed there was no sign of them again this afternoon.

There were lots of other birds feeding on the saltmarsh as we walked out towards the cordon, lots of Skylarks, several Meadow Pipits and a few Rock Pipits, and a large flock of Linnets. There were just a few more Skylarks in the cordon so with reports of some Long-tailed Ducks just offshore, we continued on out to the beach.

It didn’t take long to find the three Long-tailed Ducks, feeding in the breakers just beyond the sand bar. They were diving constantly, but in the low afternoon light we had a great look at them when they surfaced. A small group of Common Scoter were just offshore too, including several drakes and they were so close we got a good look at the yellow stripe which runs down the front of their bills. A much larger slick of Common Scoter, thousands strong, was much further out, too far for us to be able to pick anything out in with them today.

There were lots of birds on the sandbar, lots of gulls, Cormorants and Oystercatchers, and running around in and out of their legs were several small silvery-grey Sanderlings. We still hadn’t seen the Snow Buntings, and we couldn’t see any sign of them out on the beach now, so we walked a little further along and spotted them as they flew up from behind the dunes by the gap at the far end of the cordon.

The Snow Buntings landed again and we stood on the edge of the dunes and watched as they came running along the tideline towards us. We had a great look at them until they got to the end of the line of washed-up vegetation and then they were off again. They whirled round in the air and looked like they would land again a bit further back, but then turned and headed off. We counted over 50 of them as they disappeared off towards Wells.

Snow Buntings

Snow Buntings – we eventually found the flock of 50+ on the edge of the beach

The late afternoon light was stunning now, out on the beach and it was a great view across the saltmarsh and dunes as we walked back towards the Gap. When we got back to The Lookout, we could see a couple of people looking intently out at the bank beyond and when we got so we could look down the line of the ditch, we could see a Barn Owl on a post.

We got the Barn Owl in the scope and had a look at it – and let a couple of young children who were watching it excitedly with their parents have a look through the scope too. Then it took off and flew straight towards us, landing on another post much closer still. Then yet another Barn Owl appeared on the fence further back – the wet weather last night had really brought them out in force this afternoon!

Barn Owl 2

Barn Owl – on a post by The Lookout as we made our way back

The light was starting to go now, so we made our way back to Wells. It had been a great day and we had been really lucky with the weather today.

 

9th Feb 2020 – Winter, Broads & Brecks, Day 3

Day 3 of our three-day Winter, Broads & Brecks tour today. With ‘Stormageddon’ Ciara forecast for today, we knew the weather would be challenging, with winds around 40mph and gusts up to 60mph+. It was also meant to be heavy rain all day, and thankfully that part of the forecast was wrong – we had some squally light drizzle at times, most of which we were able to dodge, but the only really horrible weather was as we were driving back north late afternoon. Armed with the knowledge that it would be difficult, we set off down to the Broads to see what we could find.

Our first stop was at Ludham. We could see the herd of swans from the main road, so we made our way down a couple of minor roads on the edge of the old airfield and parked on the edge of the beet field they were in. It was certainly windy when we got out, but we got the scope set up on them, a mixture of Bewick’s Swans and Whooper Swans.

Whooper and Bewick's Swans 1

Bewick’s Swans & Whooper Swans – the mixed herd at Ludham

It is always nice to see the two species side by side, which they normally area here. We could see the smaller, shorter-necked Bewick’s Swans, with less yellow at the base of the bill and the yellow squared off. The Whooper Swans were bigger and longer-necked, with the more extensive yellow on the bill extending down towards the tip in a wedge. There were several greyer juvenile Whooper Swans towards the back of the group, with dull bases to their bills. Two Mute Swans were feeding on their own in the winter wheat further over.

Whooper and Bewick's Swans 2

Bewick’s Swans & Whooper Swans – a nice comparison, side by side

Our first mission accomplished, we were happy to get back in the minibus and out of the wind again. We decided to head down to look for some Common Cranes next. There has been a large group feeding in the fields at Billockby this winter, but when we got there it was very exposed and windy, with no sign of any Cranes.

We figured they might be out on the marshes instead today, where they could be able to find a bit more cover, so we set about scanning the surrounding area. It didn’t take us long to find the Cranes – they were rather distant here, but we got them in the scope and watched them feeding in around the wet pools and amongst the dense rushy tussocks. We counted at least 11 Cranes, hard to be sure as some were difficult to see at times in the vegetation.

Common Cranes

Common Cranes – we counted at least 11 together out on the marshes

From here, we drove round to the causeway between Rollesby and Ormesby Broads. We scanned Rollesby Broad from the shelter of the minibus first. The water was very choppy, whipped up by the wind, and most of the birds were sheltering down in the near corner, behind the reeds – with two Great Crested Grebes in amongst the Tufted Ducks, Mallards and Coots. An adult Lesser Black-backed Gull was trying to stand on one of the floating jetties beyond.

Great Crested Grebe

Great Crested Grebe – sheltering from the wind at the front with the Coots

The near edge of Ormesby Broad, the other side of the road, was a bit more sheltered from the wind by the causeway. There were more ducks on here, including several Common Pochard and a scattering of Goldeneye further back. We got one of the closer drake Goldeneye in the scope and admired its golden eye and white cheek patch. We couldn’t see any sign of the Long-tailed Duck which had been here earlier in the week though.

There was still a little bit of time before lunch, and we wanted something else to do which would not require braving the conditions, so we decided to drive down a nearby track which overlooks some pools and marshes, which we could then scan from the minibus. It was a bit muddy down the track, but perfectly passable. We could see lots more ducks on the pools, Wigeon, Shoveler, Teal and Gadwall. A Marsh Harrier was battling into the wind along the near edge, over the reeds.

The first area where we might turn around looked rather muddy, so we drove on to the end of the track, where there is a larger turning area with a hardcore base. Typically, having not seen a sign of anyone else braving the conditions here today, there were two cars parked in the turning area and in such a way there was no way we could get around. There was no option but to reverse back. All was fine until we got back to the area we would have to turn round, and as we prepared to manoeuvre, the front wheel got stuck in the muddy edge on the edge of the track. As we tried to get out, we just ended up getting more stuck.

Fortuitously, there was a cafe not far away, so we wrapped up and everyone walked back along the track to the road. With the group installed in the warm with a hot drink, we managed to find a very helpful couple of locals with a 4×4 who could help. After a bit of a wait to assemble the required gear, it was thankfully a fairly painless process to tow the minibus out of the mud and back onto the firmer ground of the track. Many thanks to the help from the locals. All that was not spared was the embarrassment of the guide! We couldn’t even really blame the weather.

Back on the road, with everyone back in the bus, we drove round to Hickling Broad and stopped for lunch by the Pleasure Boat Inn. There had been a couple of Scaup out on the broad in recent days, so we walked out to the shore to have a look after lunch. There was a Marsh Tit calling in the bushes by the car park, but when we got out to the water it was far too choppy for any ducks to be out in the middle. A Cormorant was fishing around the staithes, presumably where the water was a little less churned up.

We had a message now to say that the two Cattle Egrets were still at Potter Heigham, and some directions as to where to look. We drove back round and parked in the car park by the boat yard. As we walked down the footpath which runs alongside, a Kingfisher zipped away along the ditch ahead of us. It landed on some brambles above the water, long enough for us to get it in the scope, but was quickly on its way again.

Once we got out of the shelter of the trees, it was very windy. We could see some cows on the grazing marshes at the far end, so we put our heads down and walked on. There were lots of Black-headed Gulls out on the wet grass, but two larger white shapes were feeding around the feet of the cows. When we stopped by the gate at the end, we could confirm they were the two Cattle Egrets. Some squally drizzle started up now, just when we didn’t want it, but we got them in the scope and could see their short, yellow bills. Everything was very flighty in the wind and kept whirling round and dropping back down again.

Cattle Egrets

Cattle Egrets – feeding on the grazing marshes with the cows and gulls

With the Cattle Egrets in the bag, we turned and headed back to the shelter of the trees. Typically, the drizzle stopped as we walked back.

It felt like we had got the best we might get out of the Broads today, so we thought we would drive back round on the main roads via the North Norfolk coast. We figured we would still have time to have a look in at Sheringham on the way, where it would be more sheltered down along the prom. Having not had any heavy rain all day, we now drove into a very heavy squall at Stalham, with very gusty winds, driving rain and poor visibility. Thankfully, we were in the dry and it passed over fairly quickly, although we lost a bit of time as it was slow going. It was also good that we hadn’t had these conditions all day, as had been forecast.

Even better, as we drove up towards the coast, we could see the back edge of the front approaching and bright sky beyond. As we walked down to the prom, we were mostly out of the wind, which seemed to have dropped now, and the sun even came out. We couldn’t find much life along the prom though this afternoon – perhaps it was just a bit too late in the day now or perhaps many of the birds had gone elsewhere to find shelter in the wind and rain earlier. Despite it approaching high tide, we couldn’t find any Purple Sandpipers on the sea defences, although we did eventually find a few Turnstones feeding on the beach below the slipway. True to their name, they were busily flicking the stones over, looking for food underneath.

Turnstone

Turnstone – turning stones over on the beach

The light was starting to go now, so we decided to call it a day and head for home. It had certainly not been easy-going in the wind today, but there was general agreement in the group that we had done pretty well all things considered – it was certainly better than cancelling the day. And we had enjoyed a very successful three days in aggregate, with a total of 127 species on the list and a good selection of winter visitors and a couple of rarities thrown in for good measure.

8th Feb 2020 – Winter, Broads & Brecks, Day 2

Day 2 of our three-day Winter, Broads & Brecks tour today. It was a cloudy start, with some brighter intervals through the day, with a moderate SW wind. With one eye on the forecast for tomorrow, we decided to spend the day in North Norfolk today.

There had been no reports of the Waxwing yesterday at Salthouse, but we heard a suggestion it was possibly still there. We went to look anyway, first thing, but there was no sign of it in the churchyard, where it had been, and no berries left on its favoured hedge. We scanned the trees in the village, and found several Greenfinches and Starlings and House Sparrows in the hedge. Rather than waste any more time, not knowing if it was even still here, we decided to move on. We had a lot of other things we wanted to try to squeeze in today.

When we got to Wells, the Rough-legged Buzzard was perched more obligingly on its usual bush. We got out of the minibus an trained the scopes on it. We could see its very pale head, contrasting with its dark blackish belly patch.

Rough-legged Buzzard

Rough-legged Buzzard – perched on its usual bush this morning

There were lots of Lapwings and gulls in the ploughed field in front of the layby, including several different ages of Herring Gull which we took a closer look at (by popular request!). A Sparrowhawk flew past, flushing everything, and disappeared behind the hedge.

After having a good look at the Rough-legged Buzzard, we carried on round to Holkham, and parked at the top of Lady Anne’s Drive. There were lots of ducks around the pools out on the grazing marsh – lots of Wigeon, a few Shoveler and one or two Teal. As well as several Redshanks, there were two Ruff feeding out on the grass quite close to the fence, giving a good comparison. We could see the distinctive scaly appearance caused by the pale fringes to the upperparts feathers on the Ruff.

Ruff

Ruff – feeding out on the grazing marsh, with the Redshank

As we walked up towards The Lookout cafe, we could see several Grey Partridges feeding on the grass. A nice orange-faced male was very close to the fence, and as we walked up it stopped feeding and lifted its head up, showing off its dark, kidney-shaped belly patch. A second male was feeding with a duller, browner female a little further back.

Grey Partridge

Grey Partridge – showing off its dark belly patch

Scanning from the Lookout, while some of the group went inside to use the facilities, someone standing there mentioned that he had found what he thought was a Peregrine way out, down in the grass. Looking through his scope, it was indeed a Peregrine, an adult. We trained our scopes on it too – we could just see its head and shoulders, its dark cap extending down in a broad, rounded moustache. Two Rock Pipits flew in for a quick bathe on the pools before flying back out over the pines. We could see small numbers of Brent Geese dropping in further back too.

Heading out towards the beach, we met someone who had been out with us yesterday who told us that the Shorelarks were not in the cordon this morning. Armed with that knowledge, we thought we would check the saltmarsh west of the Gap first instead. As we walked out, several small flocks of Linnets flew over along with one or two Skylarks. But there were two dogs having a high old time, running backwards and forwards around over the whole saltmarsh that side, their owners miles away and oblivious, and needless to say there were no birds left there.

As we turned to walk across the Gap, we saw a large flock of Snow Buntings in the distance. They flew up from the saltmarsh off towards the cordon, over the dunes and dropped down towards the beach. A small group of Skylarks flew in and landed on the shingle, where we might have hoped the Shorelarks would drop in instead!

We walked through the back of the dunes the other side and cut through a gap to the beach. The first thing we saw was a large flock of scoter gathered like a black oil slick just offshore. There were hundreds of Common Scoter, lots of pale-cheeked browner females accompanied by a good number of plainer, blacker drakes. Looking with the scopes, we could see several Velvet Scoters in with them, but they were very hard to pick out, not helped by the fact that the flock was constantly on the move and diving.

Most of the Velvet Scoters were females or young males, but we did find one adult male with bright yellow edges to the bill and white tick mark surrounding the eye. Eventually everyone got onto at least one of the Velvet Scoters, though it took some time to get your eye in, despite the fact that this group was not far offshore. A larger group of Common Scoter was much further out – we didn’t even attempt to try to find the Velvet Scoters in that group! There were a few Red-breasted Mergansers mixed in with the scoters too.

When we finally took our attention off the rafts of seaduck, we noticed a large flock of Snow Buntings had appeared out on the sand. We got them in the scope, and counted 48 of them. They were flushed by two people walking along the beach and flew round, over the dunes behind us and then almost overhead, before landed again on the beach, much closer to us. We had a great view of them now.

Snow Buntings

Snow Buntings – we counted 48 out on the beach today

Further over, along the beach to the east of us, we could see lots of birds on the sandbank beyond the channel, presumably where there was less disturbance. Through the scopes, we could see several silvery-grey Sanderlings running in and out of the Oystercatchers and gulls. A few Cormorants were drying their wings further back.

When we walked along the beach and cut back in towards the cordon, we found that the Shorelarks had now reappeared. We scanned from up in the dunes first, and could see them feeding down on the saltmarsh inside the fence. They were much closer from round the other side, and we had a much better view of them. Their canary yellow faces caught the sunshine when they lifted their heads.

Shorelark

Shorelark – the five reappeared in the cordon this morning

We walked back, and stopped for lunch in The Lookout. As we made our way back to the minibus afterwards, a flock of Pink-footed Geese flew over and dropped down towards the grazing marshes out in the middle, the only ones we saw here today.

A little further on, we stopped to scan the grazing marshes again. The first thing we found was a group of White-fronted Geese out on the grass. As we scanned across, we counted at least fifty of them, the white surrounds to the base of their bills (the white ‘front’) showing clearly as they lifted their heads.

White-fronted Geese

White-fronted Geese – we counted at least 50 on the grazing marshes today

A Great White Egret feeding in one of the rushy pools stood out a mile off, being very large and very white. A second flew across over the back and landed beyond the reeds. When another white bird flew out from behind the trees, it immediately looked different, its head and neck held extended out in front as it flew. It was a Spoonbill – the first two birds have returned already for the summer just in the last couple of days, so it was great to see one today. Spring must be on its way! It landed on the largest of the pools, and we got it in the scope, watching it feeding, sweeping its bill from side to side as it walked round through the shallow water.

Spoonbill

Spoonbill – one of the first two birds to return here for the summer

Several Marsh Harriers were flying round over the grazing marshes and we picked out a Red Kite distantly over the trees too. Then a Hen Harrier appeared, a ringtail, smaller and lighter built and flashing the white square at the base of its tail. It flew low west over the grazing marsh, quartering and disappeared round behind the trees.

Back in the minibus, we drove west inland next, over to Sedgeford. As we pulled up, we could see three people looking intently at the muck heap right by the main road. We quickly got out and sure enough, the Eastern Yellow Wagtail was right there. If only it was always so easy! We watched it feeding on the mud around the base of the heap. It has been a bit more erratic in its appearances in the last few days, so it was great to find it so obliging.

Eastern Yellow Wagtail

Eastern Yellow Wagtail – still lingering by its favoured muck heaps

There were lots of gulls loafing in the ploughed field opposite. When a large group circled up and overhead, we looked up to see a Mediterranean Gull in with them, its white wingtips translucent against the blue sky. It was rather hard to pick out though, and despite looking through the flock out in the field, we couldn’t find another one with all the Black-headed, Common and Herring Gulls there. Thankfully, numbers are already starting to increase now and we would see some more later.

We made our way down to the coast at Thornham next. As we drove down the road to the harbour, we could see ten small birds circling over the narrow strip of saltmarsh right beside it – the Twite. They clearly wanted to come in to land, but there were too many people walking down the road and they wouldn’t settle. They circled round several times, then flew back to the old coal barn and landed on the roof. We piled out, and had a great view of them, the sunshine catching their yellow bills and burnt orange breasts.

Twite 2

Twite – flew round and landed on the roof of the old coal barn

When the Twite flew again, they dropped down and landed on the saltmarsh, to feed on the seed heads. Something spooked them again, and seven flew straight back up to the barn roof, but three Twite remained down on the saltmarsh. One perched up nicely and we could see it was sporting a set of coloured rings – this bird wintered at Thornham last winter too, and was originally ringed in Derbyshire in May 2018.

Twite 1

Twite – a colour-ringed bird, regular in winter here, originally ringed in Derbys in May’18

There were no different waders in the harbour channel, so we got back in the minibus and drove over to Titchwell next. A quick check in at the Visitor Centre confirmed that one of the Woodcock was in situ again, so we made our way straight round to look for it. A large crowd was gathered on the narrow boardwalk, and we had to wait a few minutes until we eventually got to a place where we could see it. It was then fill the frame views in the scope, albeit of just its head and the top of its body where it was hiding down amongst the moss covered branches.

Woodcock

Woodcock – hiding in the sallows close to the boardwalk

Continuing round, back to the main path, we had a quick look for Water Rails in the ditch. There was no sign of any, but we did see a Chiffchaff flitting around in the bushes just below the pass. As we walked on, a couple of Marsh Harriers were hanging in the air, up over the back of the reedbed. Several Common Pochard and Tufted Duck were in amongst the Greylags and Canada Geese on the reedbed pool.

Hundreds of Golden Plovers and Lapwings were whirling round over Freshmarsh, as we walked out, gradually landing back again. The water level has finally gone down now, and there are more islands exposed, much to the appreciation of the waders. the nearest ones were now covered in the Golden Plover. There were lots of Avocets too, with numbers steadily climbing again now with one eye on spring already, up to seventy today. A single Black-tailed Godwit was asleep in the middle of them.

Golden Plover

Golden Plover – gathered on the islands on the Freshmarsh

There were lots of gulls on here too – they seem to appreciate the shallower water. They were mostly Black-headed Gulls, but looking through them, we found several Mediterranean Gulls too. We got two adults in scope, one already getting some of its black hood. There were lots of Teal gathered round the edges of the Freshmarsh, with the drakes looking stunning now, particularly in the late afternoon sun.

We had a quick look in Parrinder Hide, but there was no sign of any Water Pipit around the islands or along the reedy edges below the bank, so we carried on out towards the beach. As we passed the Volunteer Marsh, we could see the tide was now comng in quickly. The small channel below the bank was filling fast, and the Redshanks had climbed up the bank beyond. Looking down the wider channel at the far side, we could see several Curlew, more Redshanks, a single Grey Plover and a couple of Knot.

The Tidal Pool has been really good for waders, since it has returned to being tidal again. We scanned the SE corner first, but there was no sign of any different shanks down there now. A little further along, there were two Black tailed Godwits feeding close to the path. The spit further back was full of roosting waders, mostly Bar-tailed Godwits mixed with a smaller number of Grey Plover, Knot and Dunlin. More were flying in all the time, coming in off beach to roost here over high tide. There were lots of Oystercatchers too, roosting higher up on the island, and a scattering of Turnstones along the far edge.

Bar-tailed Godwits

Bar-tailed Godwits – roosting on the Tidal Pool over high tide

Beyond waders, there were several Pintail, including several smart drakes, busy upending with the Mallards out on the water. We could see their long, pin-shaped central tail fathers. Four Little Grebes were hiding along the bank.

We had a quick look out at the sea. The tide was in now and the beach was covered. There were a few Goldeneye out on the water, closer in, and one or two Great Crested Grebes, but most of the birds were much further out. A drake Eider flew in and landed on the sea, and another group of eight flew past much further out, along the horizon. We picked out a distant Red-throated Diver too, but it dived before anyone could get onto it and we couldn’t relocate it.

As we started to walk back, we stopped to scan the far corner of the Tidal Pool again. This time we found a Spotted Redshank, tucked in on the edge of one of the small islands at the back, roosting.

We stopped again in Parrinder Hide. We could see the Marsh Harriers gathering out over the reedbed. A distant Barn Owl appeared, flying through the back of the reedbed and disappearing round towards the church. A few Pied Wagtails started to drop in to the islands ahead of going to roost in the reedbed. A Water Pipit appeared too, perched on the fence. We got it in the scope, before it flew further along to a post, but it didn’t linger and then flew off shortly after.

The light was starting to go now, so we walked back. There was a stunning moon, rsiing over the bank at the back, and we stopped for a quick look at it in the scope. It is not just the birds which are worth stopping to look at! The Marsh Harriers were still coming in, and we counted at least 15 in the air together as we passed the reedbed. Lots of Little Egrets were coming in to roost too. A Barn Owl was perched on a post at the back, before taking off and flying over the bank.

It was time to head for home. We had enjoyed a really productive day and made the most of the good weather ahead of tomorrow.

7th Feb 2020 – Winter, Broads & Brecks, Day 1

Day 1 of our three-day Winter, Broads & Brecks tour today. After a frosty start, it was a lovely bright and sunny winter’s day, with a fresh SE wind. With the best weather forecast of the long weekend, we decided to head down to the Brecks today.

After the drive down to the Brecks, we parked by the entrance to a ride which heads off into the forest. As we got out of the minibus, two Woodlarks flew over calling and we watched them drop down into the clearing opposite. Two Yellowhammers flew over too and landed in a nearby tree. A Green Woodpecker flew away across the clearing and landed on the side of a pine tree on the near edge of the block over the far side. All before we had walked a step!

As we set off to walk round the edge of the clearing, two Mistle Thrushes were down on the ground in the entrance to  the paddocks opposite, and flew up as we walked past. We took a path along the edge of the clearing, where it skirted the margin of a neighbouring field. There were lots of finches and more Yellowhammers in the trees on the edge of the field and we got the scope on a smart yellow-headed male Yellowhammer.

Several Goldfinches dropped down to feed on the seed heads of some fat hen on the edge of the field. A male Lesser Redpoll dropped down with them. They flew up and landed in the trees, then dropped down again and we watched the Lesser Redpoll feeding with the Goldfinches.

Lesser Redpoll

Lesser Redpoll – this male was feeding with Goldfinches

As we walked round the far side, we could hear a couple of Coal Tits singing in the pines. A male Woodlark started singing quietly out in the clearing, presumably one of the birds we had seen drop down earlier. They were somewhere on the ground, but the vegetation was too thick to see them. Continuing out into the sunshine, out beyond the pines, we tried scanning up between the rows of newly-planted trees. We couldn’t see the Woodlarks from here either, but then the pair flew up from the back of the clearing calling and we watched them fly off over where we had parked.

We heard the deep ‘kronk’ call of a Raven, which disappeared over pines, but only one or two of the group got onto it. A Great Spotted Woodpecker flew over, landing in a tree at the back briefly. Then one Woodlark flew back in, circling high out over the clearing on the other side of the track. A second Woodlark came up from the ground to join it, and the two of them flew over our heads together and dropped back down in the clearing where the pair had been earlier. Again, we couldn’t see them in long grass.

Back to where we had parked, there were lots of birds in the ground in the paddocks now. Several Redwings, a couple of Mistle Thrushes, and small groups of Chaffinches and Goldfinches. There were more finches up in a couple of large beech trees on the edge of the paddocks, several Greenfinches and we picked out a couple of Bramblings in with them. They have been scarce this winter, with fewer than normal coming here from Scandinavia. A Nuthatch was feeding in the top of one of the beech trees too.

We were just getting back into the minibus when one of the Woodlarks flew over our heads calling, out over the paddocks. It started to sing, it’s rather mournful song. They had been so to get going this morning, possibly due to the cold and frosty start to the day, so it was good to hear one singing properly.

We moved on, and parked again by another ride. It was quiet walking in through the dense pines, until we came out towards the sunny edge on the far side. There were several Coal Tits singing and lots of birds coming and going from the feeding table set up in the trees. We added some more seed and stood back to watch. Lots of tits came in, including a steady succession of Marsh Tits. We heard a Treecreeper singing and then it appeared on a pine trunk by the feeder. A Goshawk called from somewhere deep in the forest.

Then we heard the distinctive nasal calls of a Willow Tit. It called three times, then went quiet. We hoped it might pay a visit to the feeding table, but despite checking all the birds more carefully, there was no sign of it coming in for food. Then it called again – it seemed to be coming from the sunny outer edge of the trees, so we walked round to look there. We did see a Goldcrest, low in a holly bush in the edge of the pines. But the Willow Tit had now gone quiet again.

It was warming up a little now, and after a rather still start, the wind had picked up a touch too. It felt like good conditions for Goshawks. We drove round to a lay-by overlooking the forest, where quite a few people had already gathered. A Goshawk had just flown across before we arrived apparently, but was not yet displaying. A few Common Buzzards were circling up above the trees, normally a good sign. But the Goshawks were rather slow to get going.

There were other raptors to see while we waited. A Red Kite away to right, was chasing after a young Lesser Black-backed Gull for some reason. Then two Red Kites circled up together and drifted west past us. A Kestrel had been hovering over the cover strip in the middle of the field in front, on and off while we were there. So when a small falcon flew in high from the left, we assumed it would be the Kestrel until we looked more closely. It was a Merlin. It dropped down and flushed a Meadow Pipit from the low oil seed rape crop, chasing it up and into the trees. The Merlin quickly lost interest though and we watched it disappear off east. Merlin is a rare bird here in the Brecks, much rarer than Goshawk!

There was other wildlife too. A pair of Roe Deer ran across the field and disappeared into the trees at the back. There were several Skylarks singing.

Finally a Goshawk circled up out of the trees, a big female. It looked very different from the Common Buzzards, pale silvery grey above, and almost white below, and a very different shape. It had puffed out its white undertail coverts, and they were wrapped round the base of its tail, so it almost looked like it had a white rump. It started to display, flying across with deep, exaggerated wing beats.

Goshawk 1

Goshawk – came up and started displaying, with its white undertail coverts puffed out

The Goshawk was up for some time, displaying across to the left of us, then stopping to circle for a bit. Then it flew back right displaying again, circling again a couple of times in front of us, before it continued off behind the trees. It was a great show, well worth the wait!

It was time for lunch now, so we drove down to Brandon Country Park to use the facilities. We enjoyed lunch outside on the picnic tables, in the sunshine. A Nuthatch was calling in the trees and we could hear both Coal Tits and Great Tits singing, two different variations on the squeaky bicycle pump theme.

After lunch, we had a quick walk down to the lake. There were lots of Mallard out on the grass, and as we got got closer we could see some Mandarin Ducks in with them, including several smart drakes. They looked rather out of place, here on the lawns. There were a few more Mandarins on the water – we counted fourteen in total.

Mandarin

Mandarin Ducks – we counted fourteen on the lake and lawn

The trees down by the lake were rather quiet today, and we knew we needed to get back to Lynford promptly – the Hawfinches have been disappearing early recently. The car park at Lynford was almost full. We met some people we knew, who said most of the Hawfinches had flown off, and the remaining birds had been very flighty, so we walked quickly down to the paddocks to look for them. We tried not to get distracted on the way, but we did take a quick look at a Brambling under the trees from the gate.

As we got to the paddocks, we could see several people looking intently through their scopes. The Hawfinches were back, feeding in the grass under one of the trees in the middle. We got them in our scopes, and could see several there, but they were hard to count in the long vegetation. There were some in the hornbeam above too. Then something spooked them and they flew, we counted at least 25 in total, as they came up from ground and lots flew out of the middle of the tree.

Hawfinch 1

Hawfinch – there were several feeding under one of the trees

Some of the Hawfinches appeared to land in the top of the next hornbeam over, so we walked down to where we could see it through a gap in the hedge. We got a nice male in the scope now, perched in the top, and counted at least four together there. One by one they flew, landing in the ash trees next, where they were much harder to see in the tangle of branches. Then they all disappeared too.

One female Hawfinch flew back in, and landed back in the very top of the first hornbeam. We had a great view of it now, in the low afternoon light. We admired its enormous cherry stone cracker of a bill!

Hawfinch 2

Hawfinch – this female flew back in and posed in the top of one of the hornbeams

We were glad we had hurried straight down to the paddocks, and now we had seen the Hawfinches we walked back to the bridge. There were several Siskins feeding up in the alders above – having heard several flying over earlier, it was nice now to get a proper look at some. There were lots of tits coming to the food put out on the bridge, including several Marsh Tits and Long-tailed Tits. One or two Nuthatches darted in and out. A male Reed Bunting flew in and landed in a tree by the lake.

Marsh Tit

Marsh Tit – coming down to food put out on the bridge

Along the path on the way back, we stopped to look at the Tawny Owl which was roosting in its usual tree. It was hard to see unless you got in just the right place. We managed to find a spot to get the scopes on it, perched up high, tucked in right next to the trunk.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – roosting in its usual tree

We stopped again back at the gate. There were loads of birds coming down to feed in the leaves. We could see several Bramblings now, including a couple of smart looking males with bright orange shoulders. We counted at least sixteen Yellowhammers too, in amongst the throng of tits and Chaffinches.

Brambling

Brambling – coming to feed on the food put down in front of the gate

Continuing on past the car park, we walked out to the gravel pits the other side. There were lots of Tufted Ducks on the back of the first pit, along with several Coots, a pair of Great Crested Grebes and a Cormorant. A Little Egret was in the reeds on the back edge.

Making our way round the second pit, three Goosanders appeared under the trees on the far side, two males and a redhead female. There were more Tufted Ducks here, a small flock of Teal flew up, two Canada Geese were honking noisily on the platform, and a couple of Grey Herons flew over.

Goosander

Goosander – one of three on the pits this afternoon

It was time to head back now, after a very successful visit to the Brecks. But we were all looking forward to another day out tomorrow.

31st Jan-4th Feb 2020 – Extremadura in Winter

A five day International Tour to Extremadura, organised together our friends from Oriole Birding. An annual destination for us, this year we did the winter version of the tour again. If you like what you see, you are welcome to join us for our next visit, in Spring 2021!

FRIDAY 31ST JANUARY

Our 06.45 flight from London Stansted arrived into Madrid a few minutes early, and with typical Spanish efficiency, our bags were there waiting for us when we cleared passport control. It didn’t take too long before we picked up our rental minibus and got underway, on the long drive down to Extremadura.

The sun was out now in the capital and as we made our way out through the suburbs a small kettle of White Storks was circling over the motorway, possibly early migrants on their way north. We also encountered several groups of Common Magpies, up to ten at a time, flying over. A common bird here, but there were so many we wondered whether they might be on their way somewhere rather than just local birds. Out into the countryside, and we started to see numerous Red Kites and more White Storks, with several on their untidy nests on buildings and pylons by the road, as well as our first Iberian Grey Shrikes on the wires.

We could see the edge of the cloud ahead of us and we didn’t get far into our journey before we drove into it. From then on, it was rather grey, misty, with patches of drizzle. When we stopped for lunch at the services beyond Talavera, it had stopped raining and the weather looked to be brightening up a bit. A Crested Lark was running around on the tarmac in the car park and a Common Buzzard perched on a nearby pylon.

After lunch, we drove back into the cloud and rain for a while, but then as it started to clear again we spotted our first Common Cranes. A couple of the group saw three one side of the road first, in the open dehesa woodland, and then we drove past a larger flock of about twenty or so on the other side, in between the trees, which everyone was able to get onto.

We turned off the motorway to Saucedilla and parked by the Visitor Centre for the Embalse de Almaraz-Arrocampo nature reserve, which was closed. Three Barn Swallows flew over – we would see a lot this trip, with birds seeming returning early in numbers this year, this far south. A White Wagtail was walking round on the short grass.

As we walked down to the first hide, a large mixed flock of finches flew up from the rough ground. There were well over 100 birds, including a good number of Linnets but up to half were European Serins. We got some in the scope, feeding on the ground, then flying up onto the fence and perching in the trees over by the Visitor Centre, the males with their bright yellow breasts. A couple of Western Marsh Harriers came up, patrolling over the reeds, and beyond we spotted a smaller raptor hovering in the distance. It was a Black-winged Kite, so we got it in the scope for a closer look. The weather seemed to warm up a little, and three Griffon Vultures circled up and drifted over.

From down by Hide 1, we could hear Penduline Tits calling and looked across to see a pair perched in the tops and picking at the seedheads of the bulrushes. We got them in the scope, but unfortunately they dropped down again before everyone could see them. A couple of Kingfishers were calling, and zipping back and forth low over the water, but wouldn’t perch out in the open. A lone Glossy Ibis flew up from the back of the sedge beds and dropped down to the fields beyond, out of view. A flock of Cattle Egrets flew across further back, off around the other side of the reserve.

White Stork

White Stork – a pair on their untidy nest platform

As we walked on down the track beyond the hide, we could see several pairs of White Storks on nests, one of which was quite close. The birds flew off as we walked past, dropping down to the fields nearby, but a little later, the pair flew back in behind us, and we could hear their bill clapping display as they greeted each other.

There were several Chiffchaffs in the sedges, flitting around flycatching, and a couple of Sardinian Warblers which were typically more skulking. A Hoopoe landed briefly in a tree, before flying off over the fields, and a Starling perched in the brambles nearby was of the common, spotted variety which occurs here in winter. A Green Sandpiper flew overhead calling. We heard the grating calls of one or two Western Purple Swamphens, and a couple of times one flew up out of the reeds, but quickly dropped back down again. There was no further sign of the Penduline Tits, unfortunately. Walking back round past Hide 1, we checked out the sedges in front of the hide again. A smart male Spanish Sparrow was perched in the brambles in a group of females, so we had a look at it in the scope.

Driving through the village, two Spotless Starlings were on the wires, our first confirmed ones of the trip. We made our way round to the hides on the other side of the reservoir, and stopped by Hide 5. There was not much on the pool here today, just a few Mallard. Several more Barn Swallows were hawking for insects low over the water. A Common Sandpiper came up from the smaller pool on the other side of the road, and landed on the muddy edge at the back where it fed along the shore with a Grey Wagtail. A Black-winged Kite flew out of the trees and away over the road, but a little later, one of the group spotted the same or another Black-winged Kite perched in the trees at the back beyond the water. Another Hoopoe flew over our heads and several White Wagtails and a small flock of Skylarks was feeding out in the grassy field.

Carrying on down the road, we couldn’t find the flock of Cattle Egrets we had seen earlier from round on this side now. We still had a bit of travelling to get to the hotel, so we decided it was time to be heading back. Before we got back to the village, we stopped to scan another large area of sedges and noticed yet another Black-winged Kite hovering over the fields beyond. It landed on a tree down along a side track, so we set off after it, but we got distracted on the way by an Iberian Grey Shrike on the fence alongside us. We stopped to watch it, dropping down to the ground and back up to another fence post further along each time.

Black-winged Kite

Black-winged Kite – one of several we saw at Saucedilla

The Black-winged Kite was now off again, and we drove down to where it was hovering, but it flew off over the fields when we pulled up. We had a quick look at the southern arm of the reservoir on our way back to the motorway. There were lots of Cormorants out on the concrete wall in the middle of the water, but not much else.

All things considered, we had been very lucky with the weather – we quickly drove into patches of misty low cloud and drizzle again on the journey south on the motorway. Three more Common Cranes flew over the road ahead of us, heading off to roost. We got to our hotel and checked in. Then after a short break to get settled in, we enjoyed a welcome drink with a selection of local cheeses, salami and chorizo, followed by a delicious traditional meal.

SATURDAY 1ST FEBRUARY

It looked foggy and damp outside when we met for breakfast, but the fog had lifted by the time we met at the minibus and although it was still very cloudy the light was beginning to improve as the sun started to come up. One or two Corn Buntings were singing as we set off and a Hoopoe perched on the wires by the access road. We drove through Trujillo and out along the Santa Marta road. Parking by a small reservoir, as we got out of the minibus, an Iberian Grey Shrike was perched on the bushes in front of us. We were surrounded with bird song – larks and Corn Buntings. A pair of Thekla Larks was feeding around the rocks down in the grass below us.

Thekla Lark

Thekla Lark – one of a pair first thing this morning

Huge flocks of Spanish Sparrows, several hundred strong kept flying round and landing in the trees on the slope behind us. A Rock Sparrow landed briefly on the fence in front of us but flew off before everyone could get onto it. A large group of Iberian Magpies came out of the trees on the other side of the road, and landed down on the short grass where we could get a look at them through the scope.

Spanish Sparrows

Spanish Sparrows – we found some huge flocks out on the plains

Moving on a little further along the road, we drove down a drovers track which heads out across the plains. When we stopped again and got out, Calandra Larks were singing all around us and we could see their black underwings with broad white trailing edges as they flew round past us. Several Golden Plover were feeding out on the short grass, with the numerous Lapwings. Two pairs of Black-bellied Sandgrouse flew up separately, crossing the track further up, but both landed out of view behind a ridge.

A small group of Great Bustards flying across in the distance only broke the skyline briefly and disappeared behind a ridge too before anyone could get onto them. We drove a bit further up the track to see if we could find where they might have landed, but there was no further sign. We did find a Merlin perched very distantly on a rock across the plains. And as we turned to come back and stopped again, we found a pair of Black-bellied Sandgrouse on the ground up on a ridge which this time lingered so we could get them in the scope.

Black-bellied Sandgrouse

Black-bellied Sandgrouse – we had a good look at a pair, up on the ridge

We hoped the bustards might have gone over the hill to where we had stopped earlier, so we drove back round there for our morning coffee stop. There was no sign of them here either, but there were several Rock Sparrows now, feeding with the Spanish Sparrows down in the grass. A Black Redstart perched on the fence.

After coffee, we drove on through Santa Marta and stopped just beyond the bridge over the Rio Magasca. Several Crag Martins were flying round over the hillside and we managed to see a Woodlark which was singing over the trees on the ridge, before it dropped down out of view. One or two Serins were singing too. Walking down across the bridge, a Black Redstart flicked up on the rocks the other side. Several Long-tailed Tits were calling in the trees and a couple flew across right past us, very dusky birds of the distinctive local race irbii.

We followed the path down to the river, where loads of Chiffchaffs were flitting around, flycatching in the bushes along the bank, along with a single Blackcap. A Kingfisher called as it flew off up the river and a Grey Wagtail was feeding on the rocks out in the middle, where a Spanish Terrapin was resting too before it dropped into the water. A Small Heath which flew up from the grass was our first butterfly of the trip.

Back to the minibus, we drove on to the junction with the Monroy road and stopped again to scan the plains. It was starting to warm up now and lots of white butterflies were fluttering round the grass but wouldn’t land. A large kettle of vultures was circling up away to the west and out across the plains, a single Black Vulture was out on the ground in the distance, stretching its wings.

Calandra Lark

Calandra Lark – flew up singing as it warmed up

Further along, we stopped again. The Calandra Larks were out in force now and singing all around us, with two males chasing each other round overhead. Scanning the fields the other side, we found a small group of six Pin-tailed Sandgrouse down in the short grass, then as we looked further across we saw loads more. In the end we counted at least sixty! We walked over to the other side of the road for a closer look through the scope.

Pin-tailed Sandgrouse

Pin-tailed Sandgrouse – part of a flock of 60 we found in a field

Walking back to where we had parked the minibus, we had to pick our way round all the caterpillars in webs in the grass. One of the group had gone ahead, and shouted as he got to the bus. Four Great Bustards flew across out over the fields beyond and landed on the short grass. We had a good view of them in the scope – great for everyone finally to catch up with some bustards, iconic birds of the Extremaduran plains.

Great Bustards

Great Bustards – three of the four we found at our lunch stop

After lunch, we carried on further down the road, and stopped for a quick look at a Little Owl on a wall out in the middle of a field. Another two Little Owls were on the top of a ruined barn in the distance the other side.

There had been a Sociable Lapwing not far away seen several times in recent weeks, but we were not sure whether it had been seen in the last week. We had managed to get hold of the co-ordinates for where it had been seen, so we drove over to see if we could find it. As we drove down a rather rough track, it suddenly seemed to get very busy (rush hour on the plains!). We were overtaken twice, and when we stopped at the right spot several more trucks came bouncing past. All the regular Northern Lapwings which had been out on the grass near to the track flushed and several groups flew off, although we couldn’t see the Sociable Lapwing with them.

Some fodder had been spread across the grass, and a few Corn Buntings and two Rock Sparrows were feeding in the straw. Some of the Lapwings started to drop back in and scanning carefully across the grass further back, we found the Sociable Lapwing, smaller and browner than the regular Lapwings and with a striking pale supercilium. Sociable Lapwings breed across the Central Asian steppes and winter mainly in East Africa, the Middle East and into Pakistan and NW India. It is principally a rare vagrant to Western Europe but one or two appear most winters in Iberia and it is thought that this may be a regular wintering location for very limited numbers. The species is listed as Critically Endangered as its population has undergone a very rapid decline in recent years, so it is a great bird to be able to see.

Sociable Lapwing

Sociable Lapwing – we managed to catch up with this wintering bird

Making our way back west, towards Monroy we stopped abruptly as a raptor drifted high over the road, a Spanish Imperial Eagle. We all piled out and got it in the scope as it circled up, eventually drifted away to south. A welcome bonus, as this is not a site where we often see them. Further on, three Griffon Vultures were loafing on the pylons by the road, so we stopped again for a closer look.

Spanish Imperial Eagle 1

Spanish Imperial Eagle – circled over the road this afternoon

Beyond Monroy, there were lots of Common Cranes in the dehesa by the road. We got out very carefully and had a good look at a large group before something eventually spooked them. Several hundred took off from where we couldn’t see them and landed further back out of view in the trees, and more were still bugling further on. We stopped again a couple of hundred metres down the road, were two very obliging Cranes were standing in a field of yellow flowers.

Crane 1

Common Crane – we found hundreds in the dehesa this afternoon

Driving down towards Caceres, we were taken aback at the enormous scale of the new solar farms being built out in the middle of the countryside. What will the ecological impact of all this construction be?

Dropping down towards the Rio Almonte, we stopped just beyond the bridge. Lots of Crag Martins and House Martins were circling overhead and flying down to prospect their nest sites under the bridge. As we walked down the track towards the river, a female Blue Rock Thrush was on the rocks below us, but flew low across the water and disappeared on the bank the other side. We were just scanning to see if we could find it again, when one of the group found a Black Wheatear along the far bank, low down on the rocks. We had a good view of it in the scope, jet black with a striking white base to the tail. A second Black Wheatear on the near bank, further up, was a sooty brown female. A smart male Black Redstart appeared briefly on the rocks closer to the road bridge.

Time was getting on now, and we still wanted to make one last stop. As we drove out along the minor road onto the plains, there were lots of Lesser Black-backed Gulls in the fields. A small pool beside the road held a surprising selection of ducks – two Shoveler and six Gadwall, along with several expected Mallards. A Raven was perched on the top of a pylon and as we stopped and got out, we realised there were Red Kites everywhere, flying round, and perched on pylons and fence posts all around us.

A Great Bustard came up from the crop field, away on one side of the road, quickly followed by two more. They flew across the road and dropped down onto the plain in the distance. More and more followed, in ones and twos, until we eventually counted 24 Great Bustards which all flew across the road. We drove further up to see if we could see where they had landed, flushing loads of Corn Buntings and Meadow Pipits from the fences as we passed. We could see two Great Bustards distantly out on the grass, but the light was fading fast now. Another delicious dinner awaited us back at the hotel.

SUNDAY 2ND FEBRUARY

The regular flock of Iberian Magpies was by the parking area first thing, as we packed up the minibus, before flying down to the paddocks across the road. A Blackcap was in the bushes nearby. As we drove down to the main road, an Iberian Grey Shrike was on the top of a telegraph post and a Hoopoe flew in and landed on the wires next to it.

Iberian Grey Shrike

Iberian Grey Shrike – perched on a post by the road

Hoopoe

Hoopoe – flew in and landed on the wires by the shrike

Again, there were quite a few Barn Swallows on our drive south, on wires in the villages and flying round. A pair of House Martins were already prospecting nests in Zorita village. A little further on, we pulled up alongside a pool by the road, where a Great White Egret was fishing. Two Black-winged Stilts were on the far edge of the water too.

Our first destination for the day was the reservoir at Alcollarin, and we pulled up by the dam to scan from here first. There was huge numbers of  ducks out on the water, the thousands of Northern Shoveler being particularly impressive, along with hundreds of Wigeon and Teal. Looking more closely through the vast throngs, we found a few Gadwall, a couple of pairs of Pintail and a single lone Tufted Duck too. Two pairs of Egyptian Geese were on the far shore.

There were lots of grebes as well, particularly Great Crested Grebes and Little Grebes, but also quite a few Black-necked Grebes out in the middle. Mostly the latter were in black and white winter plumage, but a couple were already coming into breeding dress, with black necks and golden ear-tufts. A very distant Spoonbill and Black Stork could be made out at the far end, and the size difference between a Great White Egret and a Little Egret could be appreciated even at that distance. A Kingfisher landed on a dead stump on the water’s edge at the back, where it shone in the morning sunshine. A Sardinian Warbler flew across into the olive trees by the parking area. When a large group of noisy cyclists came over the dam towards us, we decided to move on.

As we drove down the track on the hillside east side of the reservoir, we stopped again to scan. We could see there were more Spoonbills than we had been able to make out earlier, at least five together now, busy sifting in the shallow water. Lots of White Storks were standing out on the short grass and the Black Stork was nearby, to compare. A Woodlark was singing over the hillside behind. As the mob of cyclists came down the track, everything took off and flew back towards the main reservoir out of view.

The first Red Kite of the day circled up over the hills beyond, and we looked over to see two Ravens mobbing a pale raptor on a rock, just as it dropped off and disappeared behind, out of view. Our first impression was Booted Eagle, but they are mainly summer visitors here. We continued on to the picnic area by the smaller pool further down and walked out onto the platform by the small dam. Scanning the hillside, it wasn’t too long before the pale adult Booted Eagle reappeared, a very scarce bird here in the winter. It circled up with the Red Kite, which was bigger than it in size – Booted is a rather small eagle.

A small group of Common Pochard were swimming around at the back of the pool. Several White Storks were on nest platforms in the trees, and when one flew in, we could hear the pair bill clapping. A Kingfisher perched up in the reeds by the channel downstream of the dam, then came and landed much closer, where we could finally get a good view of it in the scope, a Zitting Cisticola was flitting around down in the rushes and a Crested Lark was singing from a small rock nearby. Two Common Waxbills flew in and landed briefly in the reeds close to where we were standing and a Great White Egret flew up and landed on the dam.

As we walked further up the track, up the valley beyond the picnic area, we found a couple of Dunnocks in the trees, plus a Robin, a few tits and several Chaffinches singing. With the air starting to warm in the sunshine, more raptors were starting to circle up. Three Marsh Harriers appeared over the pool and a young male started displaying, twisting and swooping like a roller coaster. The female lower down didn’t seem particularly impressed. Two very distant Black Vultures were over the higher hills beyond.

Then two Bonelli’s Eagles circled up over the trees beyond the pool. One of the Marsh Harriers circled up with them, and started to mob them, swooping down at them from above – we could see how much smaller it was than the eagles. As the Bonelli’s Eagles circled, we could see the white patch on their backs. Eventually they gained height and drifted back over the hillside. We headed back to the minibus for coffee.

Bonelli's Eagles

Bonelli’s Eagles – these two were mobbed by a Marsh Harrier

After coffee, we decided to move on. As we drove down the minor road towards Campo Lugar, we ran into a traffic jam – a flock of sheep being herded along the road towards us! We had to wait while they were chivvied all round and past us.

Traffic jam

Traffic Jam – Extremaduran style!

The other side of village, seven Black-bellied Sandgrouse flew over as we turned onto the road over the plain. A Hoopoe flew along ahead of us, and kept landing on the wall by the road. We stopped at the top of the hill to scan the plains. There were lots of larks, Meadow Pipits and Corn Buntings all around us, but no sign of any bustards.

Our next stop was at the Sierra Brava reservoir. Lots of fishermen were stationed around the shore, despite the ‘no fishing’ signs. There were quite a few ducks way out in the middle – more Shoveler, Wigeon, a pair of Pintail – but less here than at Alcollarin. There were lots of Great Crested Grebes too. We could hear Common Cranes bugling and could see dozens out in the rice fields in the distance below. There were more standing on the grassy hillside beyond the reservoir, with occasional pairs of small groups of birds commuting from one to the other.

It was a beautiful warm day now, with clear air and a great view, so we decided to stop here for lunch. A pair of Sardinian Warblers was flitting around in the bushes below the dam. Several more white butterflies were more obliging here – a couple landed long enough to identify them, Western Dappled Whites.

Sardinian Warbler

Sardinian Warbler – a pair were in the bushes below the dam

After lunch, we carried on towards the rice fields. As we drove through a rocky area, we flushed a Marsh Harrier from the ditch beside the road, presumably off a kill. Six Ravens were waiting patiently nearby for any leftovers. There were lots of Cranes on the grassy hillside next to the road here, so we stopped and got out carefully. They were remarkably obliging, and posed nicely for photographs. Then when we got down into the rice fields, there were hundreds and hundreds of more Cranes all around us, feeding in the wet paddies, with some even more accommodating.

Crane 3

Common Cranes – there were hundreds out in the ricefields

Crane 2

Common Crane – stunning views today

As we stopped and got out, a few small groups of wild Greylag Geese flew up out of the fields. A flock of small finches flew past, disappearing round behind a bank where they appeared to land. We walked down the road and looked back to see them bathing in the reeds on the edge of one of the paddies, a group of Red Avadavats. Originally from India, there is now a well-established feral population in Spain. A single Green Sandpiper was feeding further along the edge, in the water amongst the clods of earth.

We were just getting back into the minibus when a ringtail Hen Harrier appeared. Everyone got out again remarkably quickly (and without anyone getting trampled in the rush!) and we watched it working its way low over the weedy banks around the edge of the fields.

Hen Harrier

Hen Harrier – hunting the margins of the ricefields

At our second attempt, we drove on, stopping again briefly as a Cattle Egret flew past and landed down in the wet paddy close by.

Cattle Egret

Cattle Egret – the first of many in the rice fields

A few hundred metres further we had another unscheduled stop as one of the group spotted something large and brown move in the tall dead cut rice right next to the road. We couldn’t see it and it was obviously hiding in the vegetation, so we started to get out and that was enough to put it up. A Great Bittern! It flew up and crashed down again a few metres further back, back down into the dead rice stems. After a minute or so, a bill appeared, pointing upwards and through the scope we could see its head and eye, presumably watching us. It turned, and we could see the black stripes down the front of its neck.

Bittern

Bittern – hiding in the dead cut rice

While we were watching the Bittern, we heard a churring call behind us, from the weeds along the ditch by the road. As we walked down the road towards it, a Dartford Warbler flicked out. We have seen them here before in the winter, presumably coming down out of the hills at this time of year. What a great place to stop!

Further along, we parked again by a track between the rice fields. As we got out, we caught a flash of a red tail as a bird flew from the muddy field margin into the inner edge of the roadside ditch further down, a Bluethroat. We got it in the scope briefly as it came out onto the edge again, a male with a flash of blue, but it immediately disappeared back into the ditch. Despite scanning for a couple of minutes, it didn’t appear again so we tried walking down beside the ditch, but drew a blank.

We thought we would try from the road side,  but as we walked round we flushed another Bluethroat from the ditch on the other side of the road, this time a female. Again, it was elusive, and we followed it down along the bank between two fields and eventually got it in the scope briefly, when it flew across to the far edge. But again, it dropped down into the cut rice before everyone could get a look. Several Common Snipe flew up out of the wet field.

Back at the minibus, what looked like the original Bluethroat was back out on the muddy edge, but when we got it in the scope, it was a female there now. It kept flitting back into the ditch vegetation, but with a bit of patience, everyone eventually got a look as came out onto the open grassy mud. We had already seen several Bluethroats, which was our main target here, but we had a quick walk down the track now anyway. Two more Bluethroats flicked along the ditch ahead of us, along with lots of Chiffchaffs, a couple of Zitting Cisticolas, a Cetti’s Warbler, and another little group of Red Avadavats. Another very productive spot!

With all the diversions, we stayed here later than planned. We wouldn’t have much time there, but we decided to have a quick run round to the south end of the Sierra de Villuercas. On the way, another Black Stork flew across the road and we passed a small group of Red Deer out on an area of open grass between the trees. It was a beautiful view from the pass at the top, but the light had gone from the trees the other side, and all was quiet here.

As we drove back down a bit, several Crag Martins were hawking over the hillside and an Iberian Green Woodpecker dropped down over the road ahead of us and disappeared into the trees on the other side. Previously considered a race of Green Woodpecker, this is now considered to be a full species in its own right. We parked in a small lay-by in the trees, where a Large Tortoiseshell butterfly was fluttering around the information board. A flock of Long-tailed Tits flew over the road. We heard a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker call in the trees, but it wouldn’t show itself, then we heard a Great Spotted Woodpecker a little further along, and could still hear it tapping on a tree somewhere but hidden from view. A Nuthatch was more obliging, perched in the top of a tree. Unfortunately we ran out of time here, and had to head back now to be in time for dinner.

MONDAY 3RD FEBRUARY

It was a lovely bright start up in the foothills, but we could see mist lingering in the valleys in the distance this morning. We still had not managed to catch up with Little Bustard so we headed over to Santa Marta again, thinking we would be high enough there to be out of the mist. Just as we got out of the trees onto the edge of plains, we drove into thick fog. We waited a few minutes, but it was obviously not going to clear any time soon, so we decided to try something else and when we got over to Belen, the plains were surprisingly clear, with beautiful blue sky and sunshine!

We stopped at the start of the plains to scan, with a couple of Crested Larks, one Thekla Lark and four Woodlarks all visible from our viewpoint. Scanning across we first found a very distant Merlin on a low rock and then a drove of eleven Great Bustards some way off feeding in amongst the cows. As we set off again, we spotted the bustards flying, across the road, before they disappeared away behind us.

As we drove across the plains, we kept stopping and scanning. There was not much of note at first, but when we came over a crest we noticed several vultures out in a field so we stopped for a closer look. As we got out of the minibus, we realised there were three Great Bustards out on the plain the other side. We watched them for a while, as they walked along feeding, before they disappeared over the ridge beyond.

Great Bustard

Great Bustard – we had great views of three out on the plains

Turning our attention back to the vultures, we could see three Black Vultures in with about ten Griffons, waiting to warm up before taking to the air, spreading their wings. Scanning back over the other side, we then found a single adult Egyptian Vulture distantly on the grass to complete the set. Being largely white, it stood out in the morning sun, and we could see its bare yellow face in the scope. There were Calandra Larks and Corn Buntings singing all around too.

From the far end of the plains, we drove across to the Torrejon road. On the way, we passed a couple of Great White Egrets on the small pools. Stopping at one pond, the bank at the back was covered in Spanish Terrapins and a Green Sandpiper was on another pool the other side. We were heading for the national park at Monfrague, but we could see cloud hugging the ridge as we drove up past Torrejon. It didn’t look promising and when we got to the turn for the Castillo, we couldn’t even see the castle itself up on the ridge. We decided to go on to the viewpoint at Salto del Gitano for coffee.

Griffon Vulture 2

Griffon Vulture – showed very well low down at Salto del Gitano

There were several Crag Martins swooping round the rocks as we got out. Loads of Griffon Vultures were circling up over the rock face opposite, up into the clouds. Lots were standing on the rocks too, with several hunkered down on nests already, which we got in the scope. Some were flying round much lower, and one or two came past at eye level or below, giving us a great view. One landed on the rocks just below us, coming in to collect nest material from the bushes. We watched it breaking off branches before launching itself off again with a bill filled with vegetation.

Griffon Vulture 3

Griffon Vulture – several were on the rocks

Griffon Vulture 4

Griffon Vulture – some were collecting nest material

When we could take our attention off the great show from the vultures, we noticed a smart male Black Redstart feeding below the trees just below the viewpoint boardwalk.

Black Redstart

Black Redstart – a smart male just below the viewpoint

A little further along, another male Black Redstart was singing from the top of a large rocky outcrop, and then a Blue Rock Thrush appeared nearby. A smart blue male, we had a great view in the scope.

Blue Rock Thrush

Blue Rock Thrush – showed very well on the top of a rocky crag

There were several Blackcaps, Song Thrushes and tits in the trees and we could hear Hawfinches calling here too. They were very hard to see at first, feeding on the wild olives, but eventually they became a little more obliging – a female perched up for ages in the top of a tree close to us, and then we watched two males and another female feeding lower down.

Hawfinch

Hawfinch – we had great views of several in the olive trees

The weather looked rather ominously grey the other side of the pass, very different from the sunshine to the south, but we decided to drive on through the national park to the far end. It was actually not too bad, and although it was cloudy and a bit misty, the visibility at ground level was OK. We parked in the lay-by at Portilla del Tietar and took our packed lunches down to the viewpoint.

At first it was rather quiet here. There were a few Long-tailed Tits calling in the trees as we walked down, and we could hear more birds in the trees further along from the viewpoint, including a Short-toed Treecreeper singing but we couldn’t see it. There were lots more Griffon Vultures circling here, up into the cloud, along with two or three Black Vultures, possibly trying unsuccessfully to find thermals. Occasionally a vulture would pass in front of the rocks lower down, and we had a better view of one Black Vulture as it did so.

With all the cloud, we thought we might struggle to see the Spanish Imperial Eagles here today, but we didn’t have to wait too long before one came in high over the rock face. It started to circle with a large group of Griffon Vultures which were gathered slightly further downstream, and we managed to get it in the scope, as it slowly drifted further away with them. It was better than nothing given the weather.

Then someone spotted an Otter in the water below the hide, so everyone gathered to watch that. It would dive for long periods but kept resurfacing, when the ripples gave away its new location.

Otter

Otter – in the river at Portilla del Tietar

We were still distracted when we heard an eagle calling over the hillside behind us. We couldn’t see it through the trees as it came in fast, but as it dropped over the water towards the rock face we could see it was a Spanish Imperial Eagle again. It folded its wings back and swooped down, skimming low over the top of the rocks opposite, before swooping up sharply, calling, a great view. It looked almost like it might land, but then a second eagle appeared over the trees beyond, and the two of them circled up together for several minutes, before first one then the other flew off over the hillside.

Spanish Imperial Eagle 2

Spanish Imperial Eagle – the pair put on a great display

We had one last look at the Otter, then had to tear ourselves away. The weather finally looked to be brightening up, and we were starting to see the tops of the ridges back into the park. A Hummingbird Hawkmoth was feeding round the flowers back by the lay-by. As we drove back through the park, we had a quick stop to look at a Red Deer feeding on the short grass by the road.

When we got back to the village, now bathed in sunshine, we had a quick stop to use facilities. We could see the Castillo now, up on the ridge, so we drove up the road and parked at the top. There were one or two Hawfinches calling in the trees and as we walked slowly up the path, a pair of Short-toed Treecreepers appeared in the trees.

Up at the Castillo, there was a fantastic view now that the cloud had cleared. A couple of large kettles of vultures were circling to the north of the ridge, mostly Griffons but with a small number of Black Vultures mixed in with them. Occasionally a Griffon Vulture would come along the ridge, straight past us, at eye level, just overhead, or even below us. Great views.

Griffon Vulture 6

Griffon Vulture – more great views up at the Castillo, when the sun came out

One of the group up in the top of the tower spotted a group of Cranes coming in, thirteen of them, and we watched as they circled up south of the ridge, calling. A Peregrine appeared in with the vultures over the pass, then folded its wings and swept down behind the rocks. Again, we had to tear ourselves away. It was great that the weather had cleared so we could make it up here, as it would have been a terrible shame to miss out on the experience.

As we still hadn’t seen a Little Bustard, we decided to make our way back and have one last go. As we drove out across the plains, we kept stopping and scanning. We found a small group of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse feeding out on the grass, but no sign of any bustards at first.

Then as we came over a rise, a large flock of Spotless Starlings came up from the short grass by the road ahead of us. Something white took off too – a Little Bustard! We watched from the minibus as it flew across the road and out over the grass the other side, eventually landing on a ridge in the distance. Typically, having not seen another vehicle for ages, a truck came along at that very moment, and we had to pull off the narrow road. By the time we had got out and managed to get the Little Bustard in the scope it was disappearing over the ridge. We walked back up the road, to the top of the rise, but couldn’t see it again.

Fortunately, as we turned to walk back to the bus a flock of thirty Little Bustards flew up and circled round out over the grass, flashing their white wings. They dropped down again, out of view, but from further on along the road, we could see them. We got them in the scope, feeding busily in the grass.

Little Bustards

Little Bustards – part of a flock of thirty we found this afternoon

Once we had enjoyed the Little Bustards, we could take in the beauty of our surroundings. It was bright out on the plains in the late afternoon sun. In the clear air, we could see all the way to the snow-capped mountains in the distance. We were surrounded by birdsong, Calandra Larks overhead, and Corn Buntings on the wires. A huge flock of Spotless Starlings was feeding in the grass, constantly whirling up, chattering. Lots of Lapwings were scattered over the fields, and a couple of flocks of Golden Plover were flying round further back. We reflected on how this is what the farmed countryside should be like, full of life. It was a great way to end our last full day.

TUESDAY 4TH FEBRUARY

After our last breakfast, we checked out of the hotel, said our goodbyes and loaded up the minibus. A Hoopoe was in a tree at the back of the paddock opposite, and we got it in the scope. A couple of Serins were chasing each other round through the trees. We hadn’t had a real chance to look round here in daylight hours before, so we had a short walk down the access road before we left.

There were Blackcaps, Chaffinches, and a Robin or two in trees. There were Sardinian Warblers calling in the bushes, and one flew across the road ahead of us. Several Spotless Starlings and House Sparrows were on the roofs of the houses. A flock of Iberian Magpies was feeding down on the short grass a couple of fields over, so we got those in the scope too. Then when they flew up and over the road past us, we decided to walk back. We could hear Hawfinches calling from the trees.

Iberian Magpie

Iberian Magpie – a flock flew past us as we walked down the road

We could see mist again in the lower lying areas from where we were and as we made our way up the motorway, we went in and out of the fog, which was rather thick at times. We turned off and took the old road up over the hills at Casas de Miravete. We stopped at the top of the pass, above the clouds, where the sun was out. A Woodlark was singing overhead and we stopped to listen to its mournful song.

As we walked up the track on the sunny side of the ridge, a pair of Cirl Buntings flew up and landed on the fence ahead of us. There were quite a few Serins here too and we watched a male song flighting over the path, with fast fluttering wingbeats. A lot of the trees have been cleared up here and the peace was now shattered with the song of chainsaws up in the hillside. We figured we wouldn’t see anything else up here (or be able to hear it!) so we walked back down.

Cirl Bunting

Cirl Bunting – we found a pair at the top of Casas de Miravete

The track on the other side looked quieter, so we decided to try our luck down there. This used to be a good place for Crested Tits, but most of the pines have been taken out (although ironically the non-native eucalyptus the other side of the track have been left in place!). A Black Redstart was flicking around at the start of the track and a Jay called and disappeared off ahead of us through the remaining trees. A couple of Mistle Thrushes flew off up the slope to the rocks above. We thought we heard a snatch of Crested Tit, but when we stopped to listen, we couldn’t hear anything.

We reached a patch which had been completely clear-felled and decided to turn back. This time we definitely heard a Crested Tit call and got a couple of glimpses of it in the pines, along with a pair of Long-tailed Tits. We followed them and eventually the Crested Tit flew up and landed in the top of a pine tree. We could hear a second one calling further back. A Great Spotted Woodpecker was drumming too, higher up.

Back in the minibus, we came out under the cloud on the other side of the ridge. It was rather grey and misty now, as we made our way up to Saucedilla. As we parked at the Visitor Centre again, a couple of Swallows were on the wires above us. As we walked up the track, two Kingfishers chased down over the channel and away through the trees. Two Little Grebes were in the water on the corner. We could hear Western Purple Swamphen calling, but it was hidden deep in the sedge bed. We scanned the channel in front of Hide 1, but couldn’t see anything along the edges of the vegetation either side, and then as we walked back the Purple Swamphen was now standing in the top of a sedge clump. Unfortunately it saw us coming and started to walk back into cover, but we still had a better look at it before it disappeared in completely.

Continuing down along the track, we stopped again to scan the tops of the bulrushes. A bird was perched in some dead branches which protruded from the reeds – a Wryneck. It was presumably trying to avoid the damp vegetation below, as it stayed where it was for several minutes while we had a good look at it in the scope. A nice bonus as they are not common here in winter!

Wryneck

Wryneck – perched up in the dry

A Water Rail called from deep in the vegetation and we could hear the pair of White Storks bill clapping again, on their nest platform behind us. A Green Sandpiper flew round calling and we stopped to look at an Iberian Grey Shrike perched on some wires. Continuing on past Hide 2, there were several Chiffchaffs flycatching in the bushes and a Zitting Cisticola feeding around the base of the low vegetation beside the path, again presumably trying to avoid the thicker, wetter stuff. A small flock of Common Waxbills shot past calling. First a Little Egret and then a Great White Egret appeared up briefly beyond the reeds.

Zitting Cisticola

Zitting Cisticola – showed well, feeding in the vegetation by the path

We didn’t have time to go much further, so we turned back. A flock of Spanish Sparrows flew in and landed on a fence by the path. Then a Water Pipit flew up calling from an area of damp grass, circled overhead, and then dropped down towards the fields. When we got back to the channel behind the visitor centre, we looked over to the sedges at the back and could see a Purple Swamphen standing on the water’s edge, out in full view now. It stayed there for several minutes, allowing us all to get a good look at its bright purple plumage, huge red bill and outsize pink feet. Then it walked back into the vegetation. It was a smart bird to end the trip with, and we walked back to the Visitor Centre and ate our packed lunches on the picnic tables.

Western Purple Swamphen

Western Purple Swamphen – finally showed well as we walked back

The journey back to Madrid was uneventful, although we did see a couple of pairs of Cranes in the dehesa on the way. Our flight back to London Stansted was on time and, even better, our bags were already waiting for us on the carousel when we got through passport control (perhaps they had been taking lessons from the Spanish!), before we said our goodbyes and went our separate ways.