Monthly Archives: April 2021

27th April 2021 – Spring on the Coast

A Private Tour today, in North Norfolk. It was a cloudy but bright morning, with lighter easterly winds than of late, and although the cloud thickened and it started spitting for a time in the afternoon, thankfully the worst of the rain held off until after we were finished.

We started at Cley. Before we even got out of the car park, we could already hear the Grasshopper Warbler reeling and as we crossed the road we could see it perched on a curl of brambles in the reeds by the path. We stood and watched it for a while. It was amazingly obliging, perching up in full view just a couple of metres from the path. Olive-brown above, streaked with black, this Grasshopper Warbler is particularly bright lemon yellow below, its long undertail coverts with black arrowhead marks. Fantastic views at close quarters, which really allowed us to appreciate the finer details.

Grasshopper Warbler – amazingly obliging performance

Occasionally it would drop down to the ground to feed, disappearing in the tangled vegetation, but after a short while it would reappear again and start reeling once more. Reeling is the name for the some of Grasshopper Warblers, if you can call it a song. It sounds more like a cricket, a mechanical repetitive clicking. It was amazing how long it could sustain a burst of reeling, the volume rising and falling as it turned its head from side to side.

Grasshopper Warbler – reeling continually

There were other things to see as we stood transfixed by the Grasshopper Warbler. A couple of Marsh Harriers circled over the reeds. A Little Ringed Plover flew over calling and dropped down towards the car park. A couple of Sedge Warblers were singing too, one repeatedly song-flighting up from the reeds, and a Cetti’s Warbler shouted a few times from further up.

Marsh Harrier – circling over the reeds

Eventually, we had to tear ourselves away from the Grasshopper Warbler. One of the aims for today was to have a bit of scope tuition – a new purchase needed setting up and some advice in getting used to using it. So we walked back to the car park and got everything out, setting up the scopes in the picnic area and starting with a scan of Pat’s Pool. We could see lots of Avocets, a few Black-tailed Godwits and a single Ruff around the water. A couple of Great White Egrets were chasing each other around, out in the middle of the reedbed, flying up and around. One or two Bearded Tits zoomed past over the reeds.

Great White Egret – one of two chasing round in the reedbed

There seemed to be more warblers around the car park this morning. A Blackcap was singing from the hedge by the road, but a second male was flitting around the edge of the picnic area at the same time. Likewise, a Common Whitethroat was singing from the brambles and we watched another flitting around in the alexanders on the bank below the Visitor Centre. A Willow Warbler sang briefly too, somewhere around the houses further along.

The theme continued as we made our way east along The Skirts path, past the Grasshopper Warbler which was still reeling away. There were lots of warblers in the bushes beside the road, another two or three Willow Warblers, a couple of Chiffchaffs, Blackcaps and Common Whitethroats. It felt like there had been a small arrival this morning. We heard several Reed Warblers singing – more seem to have arrived here in the last few days, but they remained hidden down in the reeds. Some of the Sedge Warblers were more obliging, perching up in full view as they sang.

Sedge Warbler – there are lots in and busy singing now

There had been a couple of Swifts earlier, over the East Bank, and we had seen a big flock of hirundines hawking over the front of Walsey Hills as we walked that way, but by the time we got there, they had all disappeared. We set off up the East Bank and stopped to look out over Pope’s Pool with the scopes. There were still lots of ducks here, Shoveler, Teal and Wigeon, plus some smart Gadwall. A pair of Common Pochard flew past. As well as the breeding Redshank and Lapwing down in the grass, we found a single Bar-tailed Godwit out here too.

A Spoonbill was feeding in one of the wet channels down in the grass, mostly hidden from view until it broke off and lifted its head. Eventually it worked its way out of the channel into a pool nearer the bank, where we could get a better look at it. A smart adult, with yellow-tipped black bill, bushy nuchal crest, and mustard yellow wash across its breast.

Spoonbill – feeding in the wet channels off the East Bank

The hirundines had obviously drifted off east, as we could see some in the distance now, over the back of Arnold’s Marsh. As they gradually came closer, we could see a mixture of Swallows and Sand Martins, the latter presumably birds from the sand cliffs along the coast to the east. Scanning higher we spotted several Common Swifts with them, with their swept back wings and slim, cigar-shaped bodies. Our first Swifts of the year. Eventually we had some of them right above our heads, with other breaking off to continue on their way west.

Common Swift – our first of the year today

As we continued up along the bank, we heard a Yellow Wagtail call and looked over to see two flying in over the grazing marsh. One continued on west, but the other appeared to drop down onto the Serpentine. We carried on to see if we could find it, but it took off again just as we walked up. It had obviously dropped in with a second Yellow Wagtail which was already on the ground, as we watched the two of them now flying off west.

We stopped again to look out over Arnold’s Marsh. There were several more Bar-tailed Godwits on here, some now fully in bright rusty breeding plumage. A little flock of Dunlin were flitting between the islands, and on the shingle spits on the edge of the water we could see several Ringed Plover and a very smart breeding-plumaged Turnstone, properly justifying its full name of ‘Ruddy Turnstone’ now, with the rich chestnut stripes in its upperparts.

We decided to have a quick look at the sea, but there didn’t appear to be much moving today – a couple of distant Sandwich Terns and we just caught the back end of two Red-breasted Mergansers disappearing off east. So we decided to head back. The Grasshopper Warbler was still reeling next to the path as we walked back to the car park, so we couldn’t resist stopping again for another listen. Bird of the day!

Grasshopper Warbler – still reeling by the path on our walk back

We drove west to Wells next. There were several Brown Hares in the fields as we parked. Scanning the pool to the west of the track first, we could see a couple of Little Ringed Plovers and a single moulting male Ruff out that side, along with all the breeding Lapwing and Redshank. A Common Sandpiper was right over the back of the pool the other side, with another Little Ringed Plover nearby.

Walking down the track, we continued to scan the pools. There had been a couple of Jack Snipe here earlier, feeding around the clumps of rushes, but we couldn’t find any sign of them now (they had presumably disappeared into the vegetation and gone to sleep, as Jack Snipe tend to do during the day!). We could still see several Common Snipe though.

Several of the pairs of Lapwing here already have young and we had a much better view of the tiny balls of fluff on long legs from the path. A flock of Whimbrel flew over and headed out towards the saltmarsh.

Lapwing – an adult with one of its tiny young

After a break for lunch in the car park, we carried on west. A couple of House Martins over the road at Holkham were our first this year. We were planning to spend the afternoon at Burnham Overy, but the weather had deteriorated now and it was rather cooler and greyer. Still, we set off down the track. There had been some Ring Ouzels first thing this morning, in the fields by the stile, but there was no sign of them here now. A Lesser Whitethroat was rattling from the hedge just beyond, another fresh (and slightly late) arrival.

Scanning the grazing marshes further up, we did find two Wheatears out on the grass, a very smart male and a browner female. A single Brent Goose in with the Greylags seemed to be having an identity crisis, and was calling loudly while the rest of the Brents flew round and settled out in the harbour. There were a few Tufted Ducks asleep by the reeds.

We had heard several Mediterranean Gulls on the walk out, and now we found one down on the grass which was quickly followed by a second, both smart adults with jet black hoods and bright red bills. Obviously a pair, we watched as they pecked at the grass and tapped each others’ bills. A pair of Little Grebes on one of the pools appeared to be building a nest platform.

Continuing on to the seawall, the tide was out in the harbour. There were a few waders on the mud, including a single Knot and a couple of Grey Plover, but they kept disappearing into the deep channels. We turned to scan the grazing marshes the other side and managed to pick out a distant pair of Barnacle Geese and a couple of Pink-footed Geese scattered in amongst all the Greylags.

Looking back towards the road, we could see a small flock of Starlings feeding down in the grass way off in the distance. As we scanned past them, another black bird dropped down from the hedge and we caught a flash of white on its breast. When it hopped out into view, we could see it was a Ring Ouzel. It was a long way over, but we could see what it was in the scope. A second Ring Ouzel dropped down onto the grass nearby and we thought there might be one or two more out of view- presumably the birds from this morning having moved further along the hedgerow where they couldn’t be seen from the track.

There were no reports of anything more exciting coming in from people out in the dunes, so we decided against walking out all that way with it starting to spit with rain now. As we made our way back along the track over the grazing marshes, a Yellow Wagtail flew over calling and dropped down by a pool at the back of the grass by the reeds. Through the scopes we could see it was a lovely canary-yellow male, feeding down on the grass with a Pied Wagtail.

There had been two Dotterel reported from Choseley earlier, so we decided to head over that way to see if we could see those. There were a few people already standing by the field when we arrived and they were able to quickly point us in the direction of the Dotterel. They were very hard to see at times, disappearing into dips and furrows in the rough ground, but we eventually got a good view of them in the scopes as they worked their way round the field a bit closer. We could see their bright white supercilia meeting in a ‘v’ on the back of the neck, the white breast band with orange below grading to dark brown on the belly.

Dotterel – one of two in the field today

Dotterel are migrants here, passing through on their way from the winter in North Africa to Scandinavia for the breeding season. They stop off at traditional sites in spring and Choseley is one of those places where they appear regularly in late April and May. Numbers vary from year to year and some years there can be very few, so it is always good to see them while you can!

The rain was threatening to get heavier now, so we decided to have a quick drive round the fields to see if we could find any other birds. A narrow strip of bare ground between a field of oilseed rape and a maize game cover crop along the margin had a couple of game feeders placed in it. Several Yellowhammers were flying in and out of the neighbouring hedge, dropping down to the feeders. A large flock of Chaffinches flew up into the hedge from the maize as we pulled up. But surprise find here, was a Chinese Water Deer – not the sort of place you would routinely expect to find one of these!

There was nothing in the hedge or on the wires by the drying barns. It was cool and windy now, with the rain starting. It was time to call it a day now anyway, so we turned round and headed for home.

26th April 2021 – Nightingales & More

A Private Tour today, down in Suffolk for Nightingales. It was bright and dry but mostly cloudy with some intermittent sunny intervals and a light but chilly easterly breeze.

Our first destination this morning was for Nightingales. As we walked down the road, we stopped to scan the fields and could see the orange face of a male Grey Partridge in the paddocks, the female feeding head down beside it. There were Skylarks singing and we watched one flutter up. We could hear a distant Yellowhammer singing its ‘little bit of bread and no cheese’.

Further down, it was bushier and we started to hear warblers singing. The sweet descending scale of a Willow Warbler contrasting with the repetitive chiffs and chaffs of a Chiffchaff. The beautiful fluting of a male Blackcap, flitting around in the fresh green of a spring hawthorn. The scratchy song of a Common Whitethroat in the more open bushes. There were Wrens, Dunnocks and Robins all singing too.

Chiffchaff – one of several species of warbler singing this morning

We heard the first Nightingale calling first, a strange croaking noise a bit like a frog, coming from a particularly dense tangle of brambles and bushes. As we stood and listened, it began to sing, a succession of loud, fluted, melodic, liquid phrases, pausing for breath in between. Gorgeous! It went quiet for a while, and we carried on down the road, where even more warblers were singing. Then we heard the Nightingale singing again behind us, so walked back for another listen.

The Nightingale was in a particularly dense area of scrub so there was little chance we would see it hear. We decided to tear ourselves away and have a walk round to see if we could find any more. A male Blackcap was singing by the road – a beautiful melodic song and a favourite on any other day, but unfortunately it was keeping elite company today. We found a path in through the bushes further up and weaved our way round. A smart male Yellowhammer perched in the top of a hawthorn above us, calling.

Yellowhammer – calling from the top of a hawthorn

As we came to a more open area, flanked by thick bushes which were providing some shelter from the breeze, we could see some movement under a pine tree. As we walked up the slope past it, another Nightingale sang briefly just beyond. We stopped and listened and heard it again, calling now back behind us. We walked back into the open area and stood in the middle looking back at the sheltered edge, which was warm in the sunshine. it looked like there might be two Nightingales here, but they weren’t going to come out – the most we saw was when one flicked down along the edge briefly, but they were keeping to the thickest bushes and the trail quickly went cold. We could still hear the first Nightingale we had heard earlier, singing on and off behind us.

Continuing round, we noticed several Starlings zooming around the tops of the bushes. They seemed to be flycatching. There were more down on ground, running around snapping at things in the short grass and we could see one close to us had a bill full of insects. We couldn’t see what exactly they were catching, but it was obviously proving very productive here.

Starling – finding lots of insects in the grass

At the top of the hill, we could hear another couple of Nightingales singing. One was in a dense fenced-off area of bushes, but the second was in more open brambles and scrub. The sound seemed to be coming from the front edge, and as we walked along to investigate, we just had a glimpse of its bright orange-red tail as it flicked up from the grass and into the brambles. We could hear it calling further back, so we tried walking in on a path through the bushes. Again, we just saw the back end of it as it disappeared into the bushes.

We left it for a while, as we listened to the other Nightingale singing, then walked in slowly again. It was on the ground once more, but it was too close, behind a bush, and there was no way we could get round without disturbing it. We waited until it had moved further back, but still it was too jumpy and flew round the back as we tried to edge forwards. It wasn’t going to play ball today. We walked over to where the other Nightingale was singing from the thicket and listened to that for a bit. It was mesmerising just to stand and hear them sing.

It was midday now and things were starting to go quiet, so we decided to move on. A Kestrel was hovering out over the open grass in the middle, as we made our way back to the vehicles.

Our destination for the afternoon was Lakenheath Fen. We stopped for lunch first, in the sunshine, then afterwards headed in to explore the reserve. Several smart male Reed Buntings were in the bushes by the feeders. As we headed up to the Washland viewpoint, a Cetti’s Warbler shouted at us from the reeds.

There were lots of ducks out on Hockwold Washes again, Mallard, Gadwall, Shoveler, and a few Teal. Scanning round carefully we managed to locate one of the Garganey, right over at the back. It was busy feeding but when it raised its head we got a good view of the striking white stripe over its eye, a stunning spring drake.

Garganey – a smart spring drake on the Washes

There was a nice selection of waders on here too, including several Avocets. Six Black-tailed Godwits were feeding in the shallow water along the western edge but right in the far corner we could see three different godwits, slightly smaller and shorted-legged, with slightly upturned bills. Bar-tailed Godwits, normally a mainly coastal species and scarce inland, these are migrants on their way back up to the arctic for the breeding season and just stopping off here to feed. Two were smart spring males, with rusty head and underparts, continuing right down under the tail.

There were a few Common Redshank along that edge and then we noticed a paler wader there as well. It was hard to make out in the heat haze, so we walked a bit further up for a slightly closer look. It was next to one of the Redshanks now and we could see it was a Greenshank, slightly bigger, slimmer, and longer billed, another migrant stopping off here on its way north.

A female Stonechat was flitting around the reeds just this side of the river, landing on a fence, so we had a look at that through the scope. Then we continued on downstream along the river bank. A couple of Sedge Warblers and a Reed Warbler were singing from the reedy ditch on the edge of the reserve, but were tricky to see. The metronomic Reed Warbler song was noticeably different from the mad jumble of phrases from the Sedge Warbler, heard alongside each other. A Willow Warbler was singing from the sallows on the edge of the poplars too.

Looking across to New Fen North, we could see lots of Greylags loafing around on the drier areas in the reeds, with several broods of goslings. A female Mallard with several ducklings was swimming around on one of the pools by the river. A hungry-looking Grey Heron was standing on the other side of the water.

On the far side of West Wood, we cut back in to the reserve. A Cuckoo was singing in the trees, always great to hear this rapidly declining species back in the spring. Round at Joist Fen Viewpoint, we stopped for a break. A Cormorant was on the usual post and several Marsh Harriers were circling beyond. We picked up a distant Hobby, hawking for insects high over the reeds, then another two further back. Thankfully, as we sat and watched, they started to drift closer.

Scanning the pools just beyond the viewpoint, we found a Common Snipe lurking down in the cut reeds on one of the islands. We were just trying to get a look at that, when we noticed a Kingfisher further down towards Mere Hide. It was hovering over one of the pools, but quickly landed out of view before we could all get a look at it. Thankfully, a short while later it flew and came towards us, landing again in the reeds where we could get it in the scope and see its electric blue back.

Cuckoo – flew in past us and landed in a willow nearby

Suddenly it was all action. A Cuckoo flew in over the reeds in front of us, past where we were standing and landed in the willow behind us, just beyond the Viewpoint. We had a great view of it the scope, we could see its golden yellow eyering. It stayed there for some time, singing on and off, and fluttering around in the branches looking for food.

Then a Bittern boomed from the reeds too. Always a great sound to hear. All the time the three Hobbys were now hawking over the reeds just behind us – a much better view now, we could even see their rusty red ‘trousers’ as they twisted and turned in the sunshine. From time to time they would catch something in their talons, then lifting it up to their bills to eat on the wing. For a while, we didn’t know which way to look!

Hobby – one of three over the reedbed today

After recovering from the long walk out, we set off to head back through the reserve. There were more Reed Warblers serenading us on the way – they seem to finally have arrived back in better numbers now. As we walked down the track past New Fen North, we could hear another Bittern booming from the reeds. We stopped to break the journey back at New Fen Viewpoint and we heard it booming again, but it was deep in the reeds and there was no way we would see it today. Still, at this time of year it is all about the amazing sound of Bitterns booming.

Back on the track, a Common Whitethroat was flitting around in the poplars singing. Back at the Visitor Centre, the Reed Buntings had been joined by several Goldfinches on the feeders.

Unfortunately it was now time to call it a day. But what a day, filled with the sounds of spring, wonderful to hear singing Nightingale, lots of warblers, booming Bittern and cuckoo-ing Cuckoo too.

17th April 2021 – A Socially Distanced Group Walk

A small group day tour with a socially distanced difference today. Rather than using the minibus, we met on site in the morning and walked out to explore the dunes. As there were only a few of us, we then travelled on in convoy in the afternoon to visit a couple of different places. The weather was good – sunshine and blue skies for most of the day, although the light NE breeze had a slight chill to it, coming in off the North Sea.

We met in a small car park looking out over the grazing marshes. A couple of Red-legged Partridges were out in the middle of the field behind us and Skylarks were singing in the blue sky. A Red Kite circled lazily over the field on the other side of the road. We could see a Great White Egret on the grazing marshes way off in the distance.

Heading down the track, a Chiffchaff was singing and a male Blackcap flicked up onto the top of the hedge ahead of us. At the bottom, looking through the gap in the hedge we could see a pair of Grey Partridges in the next field, the male standing upright, its orange face visible above the long grass. A distant Spoonbill flew high west, presumably heading out onto the saltmarsh to feed. We could hear Bullfinches calling in the hedge and a Song Thrush was feeding out on the grass.

Continuing on down the track, the blackthorn is in full flower now, but the Lesser Whitethroats are not in yet. They are late this year, a lot of migrants seem to be delayed by the persistent cool northerly airflow we have had for the last couple of weeks. Out on the grazing marsh opposite, we could see lots of Greylags and Linnets, several each of Avocets and Lapwings. At least the Sedge Warblers are in already and singing – one was belting out its song from a patch of briar next to the path.

Sedge Warbler – singing by the track

Cettiā€™s Warblers are resident here all year round, but they are always one of the most elusive of species, normally skulking deep in thick cover and heard more often than seen. So it was a surprise to see one perched up in the top of the brambles by the track today and even more of a surprise that it stayed there, out in full view, for several minutes.

Cetti’s Warbler – unusually showy today

We could hear a couple of Mediterranean Gulls calling, and picked up a young bird (in its 2nd calendar year) circling high over the grazing marshes. Around the pools, we could see a nice selection of lingering winter ducks – Teal, Shoveler, a few Wigeon still – plus a drake Common Pochard. A Little Grebe was swimming in the water. A Little Ringed Plover appeared on the mud with a couple of Avocets and we could see its golden yellow eye ring. When it flew round, we realised there were another two Little Ringed Plovers further back and there was a bit of territorial aggression.

Up on the seawall, the tide was in. A small group of waders was visible roosting on a small spit on the saltmarsh, amongst the vegetation. In with a couple of Oystercatchers, Black-tailed Godwit and Redshank, we picked out one paler grey Knot. A Grey Plover further out in the harbour flew across.

Most of the Pink-footed Geese which spent the winter here have long since left, back to Iceland for the breeding season. Most of the geese here in the summer are Greylags, but distantly beyond the reedbed pool and half hidden behind a line of reeds we could just see two smaller geese, with darker heads, two lingering Pinkfeet. One clearly had a very mangled wing, and probably both birds had been shot and winged and are now unable to make the long journey back to Iceland. The Brent Geese always linger longer and there were still quite a few out on the saltmarsh, although it won’t be long now before they too are off, back to Russia for them.

A Reed Bunting perched on top of a bush on the edge of the reedbed calling. A small group of five Golden Plover circled in the distance, dropping down in front of dunes. We walked on to the last corner of the seawall for a closer look. A couple of Lapwings were displaying overhead, always a great sight and sound at this time of year. A big female Sparrowhawk was feeding on a kill out on the grass.

When we got to the boardwalk, we turned east through the dunes. This is usually a good place for migrants and to see migration in progress, but it was disappointingly quiet. There were lots of Linnets and Meadow Pipits but not much else today, not even any Wheatears in their favourite place or any hirundines on the move. The NE wind was obviously holding things back still. We continued on to the end of the pines and scanned out to sea. Two very distant Sandwich Terns were offshore. The view wasn’t bad too!

Dunes – a great view, looking out towards Holkham Beach

There were no obvious migrants in the bushes at the end of the dunes, so we stopped to scan the grazing marshes the other side. A small group of Curlews were feeding out in the grass and a slimmer, darker bird was nearby but obviously separate from them, doing its own thing. It was a lone Whimbrel, a passage migrant which passes through here in spring.

It would be more sheltered on the southern edge of the pines, so we carried on east along the path to see if there was anything fresh in along there. We heard another Sedge Warbler and a couple of Chiffchaffs singing. Then as we got almost to the crosstracks, we heard a Reed Warbler. It seemed to be close to a path in through the reeds, so we headed in to see if we could see it. It was keeping well down at first, but just as we were turning to leave it appeared in a low sallow bush. The first one we have seen or heard this year, a fresh arrival back from Africa just in the last day or two.

As we got back to the main path, we heard a Willow Warbler singing in the sallows ahead of us, and we could see it silhouetted against the sky. Having sung a perfectly normal Willow Warbler song several times, it then sang again and added some Chiffchaff song at the end. It is not unusual to find ‘mixed singers’ sometimes. A bona fide Chiffchaff was singing nearby and the Willow Warbler then set off after it, chasing it round and round, in and out of the bushes and all the way up into the pines beyond, which we haven’t seen them do before. Perhaps its mixed song was also leading to some species confusion!

Willow Warbler – an interesting ‘mixed singer’

All hides are still closed at the moment, but we walked on to Joe Jordan Hide and looked over the wall below. A Great White Egret flew in from the west, low over the pools out in the middle. It had a noticeably dark bill, not the usually bright yellow dagger, which they develop just in the breeding season, a pitfall for the unwary!

Two Spoonbills were already on the further pool when we arrived, busy bathing and preening. After a while, another Spoonbill dropped out of the trees onto the nearer pool and started feeding, sweeping its bill from side to side in the shallow water. We had a good view of it now, we could see its shaggy nuchal crest and, when it lifted its head, its yellow-tipped bill, both indicating it was an adult in breeding condition.

Spoonbill – a smart breeding adult

After a snack and a short rest, we set off to walk back. The Willow Warbler was singing again in the same place we had seen it earlier. We stopped to listen to it, hoping to hear more mixed singing, but at first all we got was the beautiful descending scale of pure Willow Warbler song. Eventually, it switched and we got several variations, of mixed chiffs and chaffs.

Back on the seawall, the two Pink-footed Geese were a little easier to see now. Another Great White Egret flew past, heading out across the grazing marshes, it too sporting an all dark bill with bright facial skin.

Great White Egret – flew past on our walk back

Back at the cars, it was time for a late lunch in the edge of the field, looking out across the grazing marshes, in the sunshine. Afterwards, we headed east along the coast road to Wells.

Scanning from the car park, we quickly picked out a Ruff on the closest pool, disappointingly grey and still not really showing any sign of acquiring breeding plumage. There were a couple of Common Snipe on here too.

At the back of the pool the other side of the track, a large white shape was another Spoonbill, standing preening. There were lots of gulls on here too and in among all the Black-headed Gulls, we picked out an immature Common Gull and two Lesser Black-backed Gulls, their yellow legs catching the sun as they swam past. A male Marsh Harrier drifted over, flushing quite a few birds from the water and attracting the ire of the local Lapwings, which chased it over in our direction.

Marsh Harrier – chased towards the car park by the local Lapwings

Two wagtails dropped in by the cattle pens. They both had grey backs and sharply demarcated black crowns, although one was slightly patchy in the middle. One stopped to bask in the sun and we could see the grey of its back extending down between its wings. Two White Wagtails, the continental equivalent of our Pied Wagtail, stopping off on their way north.

We walked on down the track to the far corner and looked back across the pool to the east. It didn’t take long for the Grey Phalarope to appear in its favoured corner, swimming out from behind the rushes. Still in grey non-breeding plumage, it looked like a diminutive gull from a distance, grey and white and swimming around on the water. Through the scopes, we could see its black mask. These arctic-breeding waders normally spend the non-breeding season out at sea off W Africa, and are rare here in spring. After northerly gales a couple of weeks, several were blown in and have lingered along the coast.

Grey Phalarope – swimming around right in the far corner

We walked on through the bushes, which were rather quiet, a distinct lack of migrants and freshly arrived warblers here too, a recurring theme it seems today. We climbed up onto the small bank overlooking the western pool and scanned the margins. Another male Ruff was over the back, this one starting to moult into breeding plumage with extensively black patterned head and neck.

A Swallow zipped over and was joined by a second over the field beyond. Then two Sand Martins appeared with them. Had they just arrived or have they been lingering here, finding insects around the pools? Our first hirundines of the day, and a very welcome sign that spring migration is still happening, birds are getting through despite the cold airflow.

A small wader flew up from the middle of the densely vegetated island – a snipe, but rather small and with a shortish bill, a Jack Snipe! It landed before anyone could really get onto it and disappeared into the vegetation on the far edge. We scanned the place it had landed and after a few seconds a Common Snipe walked out. Surely we didn’t get that one wrong – the first bird definitely looked too small?

We climbed up onto the seawall, a little further away but we had a better view of the island from up here. We could see the Common Snipe again, and then we saw some movement in front of it and the Jack Snipe showed itself. A bit smaller, and significantly more secretive, the Jack Snipe could completely disappear in the low vegetation but at times we had a great view of the two snipe species side by side. As well as being smaller with a shorter bill, we could see the Jack Snipe‘s more contrasting golden mantle stripes and the different head pattern, lacking the Common Snipe‘s central crown stripe.

We still had a little bit of time to play with so we headed back to the cars and decided to move on for one last stop. Further east still, we parked by the quay at Morston. There had been a Ring Ouzel in the field by the car park, but it had been spooked by a flyover Red Kite before we arrived and flown into the hedge. There were still several Blackbirds and Song Thrushes out on the grass.

While we waited for it to arrive, we walked on to the harbour, where a Whimbrel had been feeding on the mud right down at the front. We arrived just in time to see it spooked by a photographer, but thankfully it landed on the saltmarsh behind. A little later, another one appeared on the mud on the far side of the channel. We could see its striped crown. A Greenshank was busy feeding in the channel a bit further along.

Whimbrel – feeding on the mud in the harbour channel

There was still no sign of the Ring Ouzel emerging from the hedge, but two more Ring Ouzels had been reported earlier, a little further along the coast path, in the horse paddocks. We walked down for a look, but we couldn’t see any there either. Then we received a message to say the Ring Ouzel was back out by the car park. We turned and could already see it distantly on the short grass, so we walked back for a better look.

Ring Ouzel – finally showed well in the field by the car park

The Ring Ouzel performed very well now, feeding on the grass. A smart male, like a Blackbird with a bright white gorget, pale silvery wing edges and scaly fringes below. Ring Ouzels are scarce passage migrants here, these ones probably on their way from their wintering grounds in the Atlas Mountains, up to Scandinavia for the breeding season. They are normally mountain or moorland birds, but stop off here in fields along the coast before heading out across the North Sea. One we had hoped to see today, and we managed to squeeze it in right at the last.

The Red Kite drifted over again and the Ring Ouzel flew back up into the hedge. It was time for us to call it a day and make our separate ways home.

14th Apr 2021 – Back to Work

A Private Tour today in North Norfolk. After 6 months (to the day!) since our last tour, with everything in between cancelled due to COVID restrictions, it was very nice to be able to get back out again. The plan was to try to pick up some lingering winter visitors, as well as try to find some early spring migrants. It was mostly bright, with sunny intervals, cool in the morning particularly in the northerly breeze but warming up nicely in the afternoon, and with just a brief shower at lunchtime.

We started the day at Snettisham. Stopping by the entrance to the car park, a Barn Owl was hunting over the grass down along the inner seawall, flying across the road in front of us and disappearing off into the Coastal Park. A pair of Goldcrests were flitting around in some conifers by the pavement, the male singing and fluffing out its bright gold and flame-coloured crown feathers.

The fields either side of the road here can be good for Ring Ouzels at this time of year, but all we could find this morning were a couple of unringed Ouzels (also known as Blackbirds!). There were lots of Curlews feeding out on the grass too. We set off to walk up to the gate into the Coastal Park and a Greenfinch was singing and doing its fluttering song-flight over the garden of the nearby cottage. The sweet, descending scale of a Willow Warbler drifted out from the bushes. We could hear the distinctive call of Mediterranean Gulls too.

As we got to the gate, a couple with a rather lively dog were just ahead of us, the dog running in and out of the bushes either side of the path, significantly reducing our chances of seeing anything. We diverted up onto the outer seawall, and looked out across the Wash. We received a message to say that an Osprey had been seen over Ken Hill Marshes, just behind us, but had flown south. So we scanned across that way and picked up a large bird or prey way off in the distance, hovering slowly. Even through the scopes, it was right at the limit, too far to make out any detail, but as it broke off from hovering and turned, we could see it was very long-winged, a distinctive flight silhouette – the Osprey, but not the best views of one we have ever had!

The tide was in. Some more dogwalkers down along the beach further up flushed several Ringed Plovers as they walked along. There were lots of birds out on the water, but rather than seaduck they turned out to be several rafts of Teal and Wigeon, along with a small party of Cormorants and, further out, lots of large gulls.

Chaffinch – this very smart male perched up beside the path as we passed

As we dropped back down off the seawall and onto the path through the Coastal Park, a couple of Sedge Warblers were singing, and we eventually found one perched half way up a small bush in the reeds. There were lots of Chiffchaffs and one or two Blackcaps singing too, the early returning summer breeding warblers, although number of returning birds have probably been held up by the cold northerly winds over the last couple of weeks. A very smart male Chaffinch perched up on the top of a Hawthorn as we passed and there were lots of Linnets all the way up. We came across the Barn Owl again, hunting over the grassy area in the middle of the Coastal Park.

Linnet – a male; there were lots in the Coastal Park

There was a distinct lack of migrants moving overhead today, again a consequence of the northerly winds, but as we got up towards the crossbank, we heard a Yellow Wagtail calling and picked it up high in the sky approaching from the south. The first couple of calls sounded pretty conventional, but the next two or three had a distinctly rasping quality to them. Yellow Wagtails come in lots of different forms, and it would have been interesting to see this one on the ground, but unfortunately we watched as it flew off north into the distance.

Walking across to the inner seawall, we climbed up to the top and scanned the grass to the north of the crossbank. There were no cows out, which explained why the wagtail didn’t stop. The Barn Owl was out hunting here now. There were lots of Meadow Pipits and a couple of Skylarks, along with a pair of Grey Partridge. Two smaller, slimmer, shorter-billed birds in with a small group of Curlew were confirmed as two Whimbrel through the scope. They were a bit distant, but turning our attention across to Ken Hill Marshes the other side, we realised there was another Whimbrel on the grass just beyond the ditch. We had a really good view of the striped crown on this one.

There were lots of Avocets, Redshanks and Lapwings on the new pools. Scanning carefully, we found several Common Snipe around the vegetated islands too. There was a nice selection of wildfowl, lots of ducks including a single pair of Pintail. In with the commoner geese, we found a single Pink-footed Goose, its smaller size, dark head and more delicate and mostly dark bill distinguishing it from the nearby Greylags. Most of the Pink-footed Geese which spent the winter here have long since left, although a few are still lingering, some having been shot and winged and unable to make the journey back to Iceland. Our first Marsh Harrier of the day was hunting out over the water.

Barn Owl – out hunting all the time we were in the Coastal Park

The Barn Owl seemed to be following us! It flew back south over the crossbank as we turned to head back along the inner seawall. Most of the way, it kept flying off ahead of us, before coming back again. Great to watch, but it must have been hungry to be out mid-morning, and we didn’t see it catch anything all the time it was in view. A single Swallow and a Sand Martin flew past, surprisingly the only hirundines we saw here this morning. Back to the minibus, another Grey Partridge was out with the Curlew now and a Sparrowhawk came in low from the direction of the marshes. There was still no sign of any Ring Ouzels in the paddocks though.

One request for this morning was to try to see some waders, and there is no better place than Snettisham for that! The tide was already going out fast by the time we got down to the pits and up on the seawall by the Wash. Looking out across the mud, we could see thousands of birds out here still, loads of Knot, Dunlin, Ringed Plover, Redshank and Oystercatcher. A Grey Plover moulting into breeding plumage looked very smart with its black face and white-spangled upperparts. There were lots of Black-tailed Godwits feeding in the mouth of the channel, most already in their orange summer attire, feeding up before heading off to Iceland to breed. A similarly dressed Bar-tailed Godwit further up on the water’s edge was noticeably different, with the rusty colour extending right down under the tail.

Wash Waders – there were thousands of birds out on the mud still

Unlike many of the other waders, the Avocets don’t spend the winter here but there are already lots back. There was a liberal scattering across the mud all the way down to the hides. We just wanted to have a quick look at the southern pit today, which has been taken over by hundreds of breeding gulls. Scanning from the causeway, in amongst the more numerous Black-headed Gulls we found a few Mediterranean Gulls, with their more extensive jet black hoods and white wing tips, and a single Common Gull too.

Avocet – there are lots back already

We had lots we wanted to try to pack in today, so we moved on. A brief check of some paddocks at Hunstanton, where there had been Ring Ouzels a few days ago, failed to produce any here either. Rounding the corner of the coast, we drove into some dark clouds and a sharp shower. It had already stopped by the time we got to Holme, but it was now rather cool and cloudy and a couple of brief stops listening for Grasshopper Warblers drew a blank. We did manage to get a hot drink down at The Firs and stopped to eat our lunch. A young Peregrine flew through quickly towards Thornham before circling back more slowly a little later and five more lingering Pink-footed Geese were out on the grazing marshes.

Our next stop was at Titchwell. We wouldn’t have long here today, but we wanted to have a quick look at the Freshmarsh at least, so we headed straight out. As we got out of the trees on the main path, a Red Kite drifted out across the reedbed and another was hunting out over the dunes. A few Pied Wagtails were feeding out on the former pool on Thornham grazing marsh. The reedbed pool produced a few Tufted Ducks and Common Pochard, but a Little Grebe remained hidden in the reeds and we could only hear it laughing at us. There were still quite a few Brent Geese here, commuting between the Freshmarsh and the saltmarsh the other side of the west bank. In the next month or so, they will be off back up to Russia to breed.

Brent Geese – still here, commuting between the Freshmarsh and saltmarsh

We stopped on the bank by one of the benches to scan the Freshmarsh. Apart from several Avocets, there were no many waders on here. The water level is still quite high, and there is not much exposed mud. On the small area which has appeared in front of Parrinder Hide, we could see two Little Ringed Plovers which have returned already for the breeding season. With the hides closed, they were not particularly close but we could see their golden yellow eye-rings through the scopes.

Little Ringed Plovers – these two were out in front of the closed Parrinder Hide

The large, fenced off island has been taken over by gulls again, with several pairs of Mediterranean Gull in among the Black-headed Gulls. We were hoping to find some Sandwich Terns on the Freshmarsh, but there weren’t any now – there had been earlier, but presumably they had gone out to the sea. Some very smart Teal were feeding just below us, on the near edge of the water. A couple of the drakes were squabbling and the more aggressive displayed too, squashing itself up before throwing its head back. Sometimes, one or two may stay all summer but most will be moving on soon.

Teal – displaying just below the main path

A small falcon came in high over the Freshmarsh now, grey-brown and compact, a Merlin. It carried on across Volunteer Marsh and when it got out to the dunes it turned and disappeared off to the east. Another lingering winter visitor here. We decided to make a quick dash out to the beach to see if we could find a Sandwich Tern out there. A single Redshank was hiding in the channel at the front of Volunteer Marsh and there were a few Curlew in the wide channel at the far end. We couldn’t see anything of note on the Tidal Pool today.

The sea was quiet. After a couple of minutes scanning with the scopes, we did manage to pick up a Sandwich Tern flying past – mission accomplished! A single Great Crested Grebe still out on the sea was a nice bonus. Most of the waders were further up along the beach towards Thornham Point, and despite the shimmer we managed to pick out a few Sanderling in the haze. A couple of Turnstone flew in and landed on the mussel beds, along with a flock of Knot.

With time getting on now and a few more things to try to squeeze in to the itinerary this afternoon, we decided to head straight back. As we walked back past the reedbed, we could hear a Bittern booming out in the reeds.

Continuing on east along the coast road, we stopped past Burnham Overy at the top of Whincover. There had been four Ring Ouzels seen from the track earlier this morning, so we thought we would try our luck as we were passing. With no further reports since, it was probably no surprise we couldn’t find them where they had been and another lone Pink-footed Goose and a Little Grebe were the best we could find out on the grazing marshes.

We were just about to give up and head back when we received a message to say that three had been seen again somewhere nearby, although the location given didn’t make sense. We had an idea where they might mean and thankfully we guessed right – we were almost down the seawall towards Burnham Overy Staithe when a revised message come through with the right directions.

Scanning the field, we thought for a few minutes like our luck might be out again. We could see a couple of Blackbirds, two Mistle Thrushes and a Song Thrush, but no sign of any Ring Ouzels. They do have a habit of disappearing into cover when they are disturbed though, so we carried on down the seawall and kept looking. Thankfully it didn’t take too long until a smart male Ring Ouzel appeared on a fence post on the edge of the field. It dropped down onto the grass and started feeding, and through the scopes we had a good view of its bright white gorget and silvery-edged wings.

Ring Ouzel – we finally managed to catch up with this male

With another target in the bag, we set off back along the seawall towards Whincover. A Great White Egret was flying away from us across the grazing marshes – we could see that its bill was dark, rather than yellow, as the colour changes in the breeding season which can be a pitfall for the unwary. Back along the track across the grazing marshes, a Sedge Warbler was singing away in full view now in one of the briar clumps.

Sedge Warbler – singing from the briar patches by the track

Our last destination for the afternoon was going to be back at Wells, but on the way there we made a very brief stop. We had surprisingly failed to come across any Spoonbills on our travels so far, but now we could see several distantly in the trees and flying in and out. As it was, we needn’t have worried.

There was meant to be a Grey Phalarope on the pools at Wells, which we were hoping to see to end the day. It had apparently flown off at dawn but had thankfully reappeared after a couple of hours. We knew it was favouring the far side of the pool east of the track, right in the far corner and only visible from further down, but as we walked down the track towards there we met a couple looking through their scope the wrong way. They told us that the phalarope had apparently flown off again, across the pool west of the track, just a few minutes before we arrived. Our hearts sank – we were just too late! We stopped anyway and lifted our binoculars and the first thing we saw was the Grey Phalarope flying straight towards us! It came right over our heads, and then flew back to its favoured spot over in the far corner.

Grey Phalarope – flew right over our heads on its way back to its favoured corner

A large white shape over at the back of the pool to the east was another Spoonbill. Before we could get to the corner, it took off and flew straight towards us, passing over the track just behind us. A much better view than the ones we had seen on our brief stop on the way here.

Spoonbill – flew off over the track behind us

From the edge of the track at the far side of the pools, we set up our scopes again and looked back into the far corner. Sure enough, the Grey Phalarope was back in its favourite spot in the south-east corner of the eastern pool. It was swimming round in between several Avocets which were busily upending in the deep water, presumably stirring up the mud at the bottom and bringing food up for the phalarope to pick up.

It was a nice way to end the day, and it was now time to head for home. Despite the cool northerlies, we had succeeded in seeing a very selection of spring migrants, as well as picking up a good number of lingering winter visitors. It was great to be out again – hopefully we can now slowly get back to normal and resume a full programme of tours as planned in the coming months.

If you would like to come out birding in Norfolk, we are ready to go!