Category Archives: Autumn Tour

6th Nov 2016 – Late Autumn Birding, Day 3

Day 3 of a 3 day long weekend of tours today, our last day and the last Autumn Migration Tour for this season. The weather forecast for today was dreadful but thankfully, as usual, the Met Office had got it wrong. It was windy all day and we did have to dodge some squally showers in the afternoon, but in the morning we were presented with most unexpected blue skies and bright sunshine.

Our first stop for the day was at Snettisham.As we made our way down to the reserve, we saw a group of swans on the northern pit and a quick look confirmed they were Whooper Swans, presumably stopped off on there way down to the Fens. There appeared to be two families – a pair with six juveniles and another pair with three young and an extra adult tagging along. There was a bit of squabbling going on between the two groups – wing flapping and adults chasing after each other with necks outstretched.

6o0a7585Whooper Swans – one of two families on the northern pit at Snettisham

It was getting on for high tide already, but it was not a particularly big tide today which meant that the waders would not be pushed very high up the mud. Scanning from the seawall, we could see huge flocks of waders out over the mud, thousands of Knot and smaller numbers of Bar-tailed Godwits in particular. Closer to us, little groups of Dunlin were more spread out, feeding feverishly.

Many of the flocks were seeking whatever shelter from the wind they could find out on the exposed mud. We got a group of Knot in the scope which were crammed tight in a small depression. On the edge of the channel down in from of us, down at of the wind, was a little huddle of Dunlin, together with a Grey Plover and a Redshank, all trying to sleep.

We took shelter in Rotary Hide to scan the mud. Looking out to the edge of the Wash, we could see long lines of Gannets battling north. They had been blown into the Wash by the strong north wind and were now trying to work their way back out again along the eastern shore. A couple of juvenile Gannets tried flying in across the mud instead, flushing the flocks of Knot which were not sure exactly what was flying overhead.

6o0a7606Gannet – trying to make its way back north, out of the Wash

Over on the edge of the water we could see a couple of large flocks of sleeping Oystercatchers, looking like a black smear along the shore line in the distance. Three Sanderling were much closer, landing on the near edge of the channel and running along on the mud.

Looking out the other side of Rotary Hide, we found one of the two Black-necked Grebes which have been here for a few days now. It was hard viewing from here, as we were looking into the morning sun. The water was also very choppy. whipped up by the blustery wind. The Black-necked Grebe was diving continually, with a couple of Little Grebes too, a little further back.

img_8281Black-necked Grebe – one of two on the southern pit again today

Braving the elements again, we walked further down along the seawall. A lone drake Pintail was on one of the small pools on the near edge of the mud as we passed so we stopped for a closer look at it. It was a smart drake, largely out of eclipse but still without its long pin-shaped tail.

img_8289Pintail – on its own out on the mud on the edge of the Wash

Round at Shore Hide we got ourselves out of the wind again. We had a better view across the pit from here, with the sun away to our right. Almost immediately we found the Scaup, bobbing about on the water in front of the hide. It was a 1st winter drake, just starting to get some grey feathers on its back and white on the rear flanks, and with a dirty white face.

6o0a7639Scaup – the first winter drake on the pit

The second Black-necked Grebe was also diving continually, a little further out behind the Scaup. As were a smart pair of Goldeneye. At first, they were rather distant, down at the southern end of the pit, but after a while they reappeared over in front of the far bank, out from the hide. There was a nice selection of dabbling ducks too, mostly Wigeon in various stages of moult, plus a few Shoveler and a lone pair of Gadwall. We stopped to admire the drake Gadwall, a most under-appreciated bird!

There were comparatively few waders on the pits today. With the small tide, they were not going to be pushed off the Wash. However, there was a tight huddle of fifty or so Redshank on the edge of one of the islands. The vast majority of them were Common Redshank, but a closer look revealed a single Spotted Redshank in with them. They were all asleep at first, but still it was possible to pick the Spotted Redshank out at the back of the flock – it was a slightly paler shade of grey, more silvery-grey than the slaty coloured Common Redshanks, and through the scope we could see the much more marked white supercilium in front of the eye. Eventually something spooked them and they woke up, at which point it was possible to see the Spotted Redshank’s longer, needle fine bill.

It had been gloriously sunny for the most part at Snettisham, but as we drove back to the north coast we could see some rain clouds coming in off the sea and it started to rain as we turned the corner. We planned to spend the afternoon at Titchwell, but we made a quick detour down to Holme on the way there. There had been a large flock of Waxwings here for the last couple of days. As we drove down the reserve entrance track, we couldn’t see any, but on our way back with the windows open we heard them flying over and saw them land in the hedge behind us, down near Redwell Marsh.

A quick about turn and we managed to get good views of the Waxwings through the scope from the road, in the top of a hawthorn. We walked round and down the footpath to Redwell Marsh, hoping to get a little closer, but by the time we got there they had disappeared. As we made our way back to the road, we heard them calling and they flew over, 25-30 in total, and disappeared over in the direction of the village.

At least it had stopped raining, but it was still rather overcast while we were here. We did see a few other birds. There were lots of Blackbirds and a few Redwing in the hedges, and a couple of Fieldfares flew over as we walked along the road. A Kingfisher zipped over but disappeared down into the river channel out of view. With the Waxwings having disappeared, we didn’t hang around and moved quickly on to Titchwell. On the way there, we could see a huge flock of Fieldfare feeding in a winter wheat field by the main road, presumably recently arrived from the continent.

After lunch at Titchwell, we made our way out onto the reserve. It was very blustery out on the main path, but we stopped for a quick look over Thornham grazing marsh and the dried up pool. We found the Water Pipit which had been frequenting the puddles here recently, but it was right at the back and unfortunately disappeared into the vegetation before everyone could get onto it. A Marsh Harrier hung over the reedbed at the back.

Island Hide offered us some welcome shelter from the wind. The water level on the freshmarsh is going up fast now, as the warden tried to get the vegetation under control. Consequently, there are fewer waders on here at the moment. A single Ruff was picking around in the vegetation on the edge of the cut reeds beside the hide, and a few more Ruff were further out on the islands. While we were scanning, at least 30 more Ruff flew in, one of them with a noticeably very white head. Even in winter, they can be very variable, underlining why Ruff is probably the most often confused wader.

6o0a7676Ruff – in winter plumage, feeding in the vegetation close to Island Hide

There were lots of ducks on the freshmarsh. Large numbers of Wigeon and Teal in particular, with some of the drakes looking increasingly smart as they have now mostly emerged from their duller eclipse plumage. In with them, were smaller numbers of Gadwall and Shoveler.

Good numbers of gulls were seeking shelter from the wind and loafing around on the water or on the islands. The Great Black-backed Gulls had probably sought refuge from the brunt of the wind out on the beach, where they would normally be. A single Yellow-legged Gull was asleep on one of the islands at first, but eventually woke up and showed us its bright yellow legs. It was also noticeably darker mantled than the nearby Herring Gulls.

img_8311Yellow-legged Gull – one was amongst all the gulls on the freshmarsh today

Round to Parrinder Hide and we called in on the north side first. A Curlew feeding in front of the hide was the highlight. Otherwise, there were several Redshank and a distant Grey Plover out on Volunteer Marsh. The islands of vegetation can sometimes conceal a lot of birds on here and down below us we could see a mob of Wigeon and Teal attacking the plants.

6o0a7694Curlew – feeding in front of Parrinder Hide on the Volunteer Marsh

On the other side of Parrinder Hide, overlooking the freshmarsh, there were two Common Snipe feeding just below the hide, although they quickly scurried away further along the bank. There are not so many places for them to hide here now, since the reeds on the bank have been cut down

img_8318Common Snipe – feeding on the bank outside Parrinder Hide

The piles of cut vegetation proved to be a perfect perch for a couple of Stonechat. They had been feeding from the fence around the island further over, dropping down from the posts to the ground. They gradually worked their way along, closer to us, and switched to using the mounds of cut reed as vantage points instead.

A smart drake Shoveler was feeding out on the water in front of the hide. When they are feeding, Shoveler swim around with their enormous bills under the water, stirring up food and then filtering it out with their bills. They can do this for long periods without lifting their heads out – making them very tricky to photograph!

6o0a7734Shoveler – a smart drake feeding in front of Parrinder Hide

There have been some White-fronted Geese at Titchwell for a week or so now. They seem to move between the maize field along the entrance road and the freshmarsh. Today, they were feeding on the fenced off island with all the Greylags. It was hard to tell exactly how many there were. There was the usual family party, two adults and two juveniles, and at least one further adult today.

When the adult White-fronted Geese raised their heads, you could see the distinctive white band around the base of their bills. At one point, as they came out of the vegetation, you could also see the black bands on their bellies. The two juvenile White-fronted Geese lacked the white face and black belly bars, but were still smaller and darker than the Greylags, with a pink bill.

img_8323White-fronted Goose – one of the adults, raising its head

There didn’t seem to be any Avocets left here are first. Most of the birds which breed here or gather post-breeding, have long since left for warmer climes further south. Most years, a small number linger on through into the winter. Eventually we found them, six Avocets lurking right in the back corner of the freshmarsh.

It seems rude to visit Titchwell without at least seeing the sea. We did make a quick sortie out to the beach today, to finish the day. As we passed the Volunteer Marsh, a little group of Dunlin were feeding along the channel right by the main path. Out on the tidal pools, there were a couple of Black-tailed Godwit and a Grey Plover. However, we didn’t linger on the walk out today, given the wind, but headed straight on to the sea.

As we got to the beach, we could see a squally shower blowing in and the first spots of rain were blowing in to our faces. The sea was rough, which would make it tricky to see any birds out here anyway. Still, it is always amazing to see the fury of the sea on a stormy day. With the rain starting to come in, we beat a hasty retreat.

Walking back past the freshmarsh, there were lots of birds coming in to roost. Lines of Black-headed Gulls flew in from the fields and another flock of Ruff came in over the reedbed and grazing marshes. A Marsh Harrier drifted in from the Thornham direction and headed off over the reedbed. With the light fading, it was time for us to call it a day too. The weather hadn’t been anyway near as bad as forecast and we had still managed to see a great selection of birds, despite the windy conditions.

5th Nov 2016 – Late Autumn Birding, Day 2

Day 2 of a 3 day long weekend of tours today. It was cloudy and increasingly blustery today, with winds gusting to 47mph this afternoon, so we spent the day dodging the showers. Still, it was surprising how much we saw despite the weather.

As we drove east along the coast road this morning, we flushed lots of Blackbirds and Chaffinches from the sides of the road. Our first destination was Blakeney, for a quick walk out around the Freshes before the wind picked up later. A couple of Brent Geese were feeding on the edge of the harbour channel just across from the car park but we could immediately see that one was much paler than the other. A closer look confirmed, one was a Pale-bellied Brent and the other a Dark-bellied Brent Goose.

6o0a7350Pale-bellied and Dark-bellied Brent Geese – a nice comparison

Dark-bellied is the regular form of Brent Goose which winters in large numbers here. This subspecies breeds in arctic Russia. Pale-bellied Brent Geese breed from Svalbard west across arctic Canada and winter mainly on the west coast of Scotland and in Ireland. We normally get a handful of Pale-bellied in with the flocks of Dark-bellied Brents here each winter and they occasionally form mixed pairs. Today was a great opportunity to see them side by side.

While we were watching the Brent Geese, we heard a Kingfisher call and looked across the channel to see two Kingfishers chasing each other low over the water. They flew over to our side of the channel and disappeared over the bank towards the Freshes. A little later we saw one of the zip back low across the reeds towards the wildfowl collection. A Marsh Harrier was quartering over the reeds a little further along.

Further along the seawall, as we got almost to the corner, we turned to look at the Freshes just in time to glimpse a dumpy bird dropping down into the grass on the edge of a flooded depression. We had a pretty good idea what it was, but we couldn’t see it from the seawall or from the path the other side. As we approached for a closer look, a Jack Snipe flew up and shot off towards the harbour – just what we had suspected. In flight, we could really see the small size and the shorter bill compared to a Common Snipe.

We continued on along the north side of the Freshes bank. There were lots of Skylarks down in the short weedy vegetation beyond the fence. A flock of Linnets flew in and dropped down there too briefly. A Rock Pipit flew over calling and landed on the fence, where we could get a good look at it through the scope. Reed Buntings occasionally flew up from the bushes but quickly disappeared back down again. A female Stonechat worked its way along the fence, dropping down onto the side of the bank periodically to look for food.

6o0a7371Stonechat – this lone female was working its way along the fence line

It is very exposed to the elements out on the seawall here. The wind was now starting to pick up and we could see dark clouds coming in towards us over the sea, so we decided to head back to the car. We had a quick look at the wildfowl in the Blakeney collection – none of which were allowed on the bird list for the day of course! We were just settled back in the warmth of the car when we saw two Peregrines over the edge of Friary Hills. A larger adult Peregrine, presumably a female, was chasing a smaller male juvenile – they swooped low over the grass before disappearing behind a hedge, coming out the other side and zooming off over the houses.

With the deterioration in the weather, we decided to head inland to get some respite. There have been some Waxwings in Holt for the last couple of days and as we turned into the road where they have most often been seen we could immediately see several photographers with long lenses pointed up into the trees. Even before we stopped, we could see Waxwings, and we could hear them calling as we got out of the car.

6o0a7387Waxwing – there were at least 20 in Holt today

There were at least 20 Waxwings, but they were hard to count as they were feeding in several different trees, and frequently flying round in small groups or singles. The bulk of the group seemed to keep returning to the top of a large chestnut tree, where they were hard to see among the leaves. From there, they would drop down into several smaller rowans, where they would proceed to wolf down the red berries, much to the annoyance of the local Blackbirds! There was also an apple tree in one of the front gardens by the road, and several of the Waxwings kept coming down to attack the apples, clinging on to them and biting away at the flesh where they had been half eaten already.

6o0a7454Waxwing – feeding on apples, as well as rowan berries

Having feasted ourselves, on such excellent views of such gorgeous looking birds, when the Waxwings flew off and disappeared round behind the buildings, we decided to move on. Our next stop was at Sheringham, where we went for a walk along the sea front.We thought we might pick up some seabirds on our way, but at first it seemed a little quiet, apart from hordes of Turnstones around the fishing boats which had been hauled up the slipway.

6o0a7525Turnstone – lots along the prom at Sheringham

There was no sign of any Purple Sandpipers on their usual favourite rocks below the pub, but when we got to the shelter at the east end of the prom, we could see first one and then two Purple Sandpipers distantly out on the sea defences.

We stopped to talk to another couple of local birders who told us that the movement of seabirds was just picking up, after the wind had strengthened. A line of Common Scoter flew past with a single Tufted Duck in amongst them. A steady stream of Gannets tacked across the wind, heading east offshore, both white adults and dark grey-brown juveniles. There were little groups of Guillemots zooming across and a couple of Red-throated Divers went past too.Then a few Great Skuas started to pass by – in the half hour we stood there sheltering from the wind, we saw about ten – but they were all rather distant and hard to get everyone onto. A single juvenile Pomarine Skua was even further offshore.

As a particularly fierce squall blew in off the sea, we took shelter until it passed. Perhaps prompted by a Sanderling which came in with them, the two Purple Sandpipers took off and flew towards us, passing by and heading back to the rocks below the pub. We waited until the rain had stopped and decided to walk back to look for them. Unfortunately, by that stage they had disappeared again. We did find a couple of Ringed Plovers which had probably stopped off with the Turnstones to sit out the wind.

6o0a7527Ringed Plover – stopped off with the Turnstones on the slipway

After lunch and a welcome hot drink back along the coast road at Cley, we drove round to Iron Road and headed down along Attenborough’s Way. There was a nice flock of Brent Geese out on the grazing meadows (all Dark-bellieds), and as well as the plain backed adults we could see quite a few stripe-backed juveniles. Hopefully, as the Brent Goose numbers increase over the coming weeks, it will prove to have been a good breeding season for them this year.

6o0a7537Brent Geese – adults & juveniles on the grazing marshes

Round at Babcock Hide, the wind was now whistling across the marshes. A little flock of Dunlin were feeding down at the front of the scrape below the hide, but they were very skittish and kept whirling round before dropping back down again. A pair of Redshank were defending their feeding territory in front of the hide, chasing off any others which tried to land there.

First one Black-tailed Godwit dropped in, then another five, stopping to feed for a few minutes before flying off again, flashing their boldly marked black and white wings. A couple of little groups of Lapwing flew in from the east and stopped to rest for a minute or two on the islands.

None of the waders would settle, in part because there were a couple of Marsh Harriers about. First, a dark juvenile flew across the reeds at the back of the pool, and drifted off towards Salthouse. Then a young male Marsh Harrier, with paler underwings and small patches of paler grey emerging on its upperwings, did the same. As they came over the grazing marshes, all the Wigeon shot out into the middle of the water from the banks. There were a few Teal and Mallard with them and three Shoveler appeared from behind the reeds too.

When a particularly dark cloud had passed over, we returned to the car and drove back round to the main part of the reserve. Just as we set out to walk to the hides, it started to rain so we hurried out along the boardwalk – thankfully it was only light rain and we got out there without getting wet.

There were several Shelduck out on Pat’s Pool and  huddle of gulls out beyond the first island. A few Teal were out on one of the further islands, but there were not many waders – three Dunlin at the back and a couple of Black-tailed Godwits roosting in with the gulls. Simmond’s Scrape held more wildfowl – a larger flock of Wigeon, a good number of Teal and a huddle of around 20 Pintail asleep behind one of the islands. Presumably the waders had gone elsewhere in search of food and shelter. A Common Snipe was feeding on the bank outside Dauke’s Hide but flew across and landed down behind the grass in front of Teal Hide where we couldn’t see it.

A couple more Marsh Harriers quartered the reedbed beyond the scrapes this side. The light was starting to fade already and they were presumably gathering before going to roost. Several Pied Wagtails flew past while we watched, some of them dropping in to the islands briefly, before continuing on their way heading off to roost.

6o0a7562Marsh Harrier – gathering over the reeds before going to roost

Turning our attention to the gulls, we could immediately see a good selection of different species – Lesser and Great Black-backed Gulls, Herring Gulls and Black-headed Gulls. One of the herring gull-types looked different – it was very white-headed, whereas Herring Gulls typically have lots of grey blotches around the head at this time of year. Against the white head, the beady black eye really stood out – the nearby Herring Gulls instead showing a very pale iris. It was  an adult Caspian Gull.

img_8262Caspian Gull – this adult was hunkered down against the wind on Pat’s Pool

The Caspian Gull was hunkered down against the wind and didn’t initially look as long-billed and long-faced as they usually do. It kept returning to a little patch of cut rushes, behind which it tried to crouch down and shelter. However, the mantle was noticeably half a shade darker than the nearby Herring Gulls. Eventually, the Caspian Gull walked up onto the island and started preening, and now finally we could see the distinctive long head and bill.

Cley in the late evening is normally a good place to see different gulls gathering before they go to roost, but the Caspian Gulls often come in very late, just as it is getting dark, so we were lucky this one had arrived nice and early today. When some of the gulls flew across to Simmond’s Scrape, we turned to look there and found an adult Yellow-legged Gull to add to the day’s gull list. It was with a Lesser and a Great Black-backed Gull, giving a good comparison in mantle tone – it was noticeably much darker grey than the Herring Gulls but paler and less slatey than the Lesser Black-backeds.

At first, the Yellow-legged Gull was up to its belly in the water but eventually it climbed out onto the mud and we could finally see its deep yellow legs. The light was starting to fade now, and consequently they might not have appeared as bright to the unitiated as they otherwise would have done. It was time to call it a day, but it had been a nice way to end with such a good selection of gulls gathering.

4th Nov 2016 – Late Autumn Birding, Day 1

Day 1 of a 3 day long weekend of tours today. The last of our scheduled Autumn Migration Tours, we were looking to catch up with some lingering migrants and also see the arrival of many of our winter visitors. It was mostly cloudy all day, but not too windy today, good birding conditions for the time of year.

Our first destination of the day was Burnham Overy Staithe. We climbed up onto the seawall and set off to walk towards the dunes. As we did so, we heard Waxwings calling and looked over to the hawthorns further along just in time to see six of them flying off across the path in front of us and heading off west. A nice way to start the day.

The Waxwings had moved on but the bushes were still alive with birds as we walked past. Lots of thrushes were feasting on the berries, probably fresh in from the continent and hungry after their long journey over the sea. There were plenty of Blackbirds and with them a few Redwings and Song Thrushes. Several Robins chasing around in the bushes were also probably winter migrants. Out on the grazing marsh, a flock of Starlings were down in the brambles and a steady stream of small groups of Starlings were passing west overhead.

It was high tide and small parties of Brent Geese were flying around over the harbour or heading out across the grazing marshes. We could see three grey geese half hidden behind a line of reeds out on the grass and looking more closely we could see that they were White-fronted Geese, the white around the base of their bills showing when they lifted their heads.

img_8064White-fronted Geese – three were on the grazing marshes this morning

Further along, at the corner of the seawall, we could see loads more geese out on the marshes. They were mostly Greylags, larger and paler with a large orange carrot of a bill, and Pink-footed Geese, smaller and darker grey with a more delicate and mostly dark bill. In with them we found four Barnacle Geese. Unfortunately it is hard to know whether they were wild birds which had arrived with the Pink-footed Geese for the winter, or perhaps more likely feral birds from the flock in Holkham Park!

The geese were mostly distant, but two Pink-footed Geese swam in from the harbour and started feeding on the grass at the bottom of the seawall, giving us a closer look at their pink legs and feet and the pink bank around the dark bill.

6o0a7088Pink-footed Goose – two were feeding at the base of the seawall

While we were watching the geese, we received a phone call to let us know that a Great White Egret was flying across the harbour behind us. We turned to see it drop down onto the saltmarsh the other side, over towards Scolt Head. Through the scope we could see its long neck and long yellow-orange dagger of a bill. Even at that range, it was clearly much bigger than the Little Egrets, several of which we could see dotted around the harbour.

We made our way swiftly out to the dunes and turned west towards Gun Hill. There were a few photographers with massive lenses lying prone on the grass ahead of us and we could immediately see their target. The Isabelline Wheatear has been here for almost two weeks now. They are a very rare visitor here – breeding from Turkey across through southern Russia, they winter mostly in Africa, so this one was well off course. It seems to be finding plenty of food in the short grass though.

img_8139Isabelline Wheatear – has been in the dunes for almost two weeks

The more typical Northern Wheatear is a regular passage migrant here, but Isabelline Wheatear is paler and sandier-coloured. In flight, it has a similar black and white tail pattern, but the black terminal band is much broader. A great bird to catch up with here.

After admiring the Isabelline Wheatear for a while, we set off past Gun Hill and out to the beach. The tide was starting to go out and we could see more waders on the emerging mud. A couple of Grey Plover were feeding in a muddy creek. Several Bar-tailed Godwits were in the water by a sandbank along with two Curlew. Further over, we could see a Ringed Plover and several Dunlin. Small groups of Wigeon had gathered on the banks of the harbour channel.

Walking round onto the other side of the point, we started to scan the sea beyond the spit at the eastern end of Scolt Head. A surprise find here was a late adult Arctic Tern, fishing just offshore. It kept flying up and down just beyond the sand and diving periodically into the water. A Red-throated Diver moulting out of summer plumage drifted east and a juvenile Gannet flew past further offshore.

We had been told that there were some Snow Buntings on the beach, so we walked round along the tide line and eventually spotted nine of them flying towards us. They landed out on the beach at first, but then returned to the high water mark where they proceeded to feed on the piles of saltmarsh vegetation which had been washed up, looking for seeds. We edged closer to them and were watching them through the scope when they flew again – and promptly landed right in front of us. Stunning views!

6o0a7206Snow Bunting – there were nine on the beach by Gun Hill today

We made our way back along the beach, stopping to scan through a nice selection of waders which had gathered around the channels out on the sand north of the boardwalk. The silvery grey and white Sanderling contrasting with the much darker and longer billed Dunlin. More Ringed Plover were walking around on the sandbanks. A Bar-tailed Godwit was wading deeper in the water.

Crossing back over the dunes towards the grazing marshes we could hear birds calling plaintively and looked up to see a small flock of Golden Plover whirling over the grass. They settled down again and we had a look at them through the scope. While we were standing there, a flock of about a dozen Blackbirds came in from the direction of the sea and headed inland. Then three Mistle Thrushes flew in calling too and made their way in over the seawall.

It was time lunch, so we made our way quickly back towards the car. Scanning the grazing marshes on the way, we spotted some birds flycatching from the bushes in the distance. They were Waxwings, possibly the ones we had seen earlier having returned or more likely another group. There are large numbers of Waxwings arriving along the coast at the moment. They are irruptive, coming here in very variable numbers each winter, moving out of Scandinavia in response to cold weather or a lack of berries. After a couple of fairly lean winters for them, this looks like being a good Waxwing year!

We hurried back along the seawall and positioned ourselves where we could see them. The Waxwings were perching in the tops of the bushes and making little sallies up into the air after insects. Others were perched in the hawthorns, preening or eating berries. We counted six out on the grazing marshes at first – then as we walked back along the seawall, four were perched in the bushes just below, and we could still see at least four further over. Waxwings are such stunning birds and full of character with their spiky hairstyles! Suddenly they started calling and flew off towards Burnham Overy Staithe.

6o0a7251Waxwings – at least 8 were in the bushes on our way back

After a late lunch at Holkham, delayed due to our time spent admiring the Waxwings, we drove down to the end of Lady Anne’s Drive and walked out through the pines towards the beach. The saltmarshes here used to be a regular site for wintering Shorelarks, but they haven’t been here for nearly five years now. The numbers along the whole Norfolk coast have dropped in recent years and it seemed that seeing large flocks of Shorelarks could be a thing of the past. However, just like with Waxwings it looks like this winter could be a year for Shorelarks. A large flock of Shorelarks has gathered at Holkham in the last couple of weeks.

As we walked down along the edge of the saltmarsh, we could see several people ahead of us. They were not here to see the larks but were walking their dogs – they were off the lead and one of them, a spaniel, was haring about over the whole of the saltmarsh, back and forth. Disturbance from dogs may be one reason why Holkham doesn’t get Shorelarks every year like it used to do. When we got to the place the birds have been favouring, we were pleased to see that some were still left. There were only ten of them though, as we proceeded to stop and admire them.

As we watched them, another flock of about 25 Shorelarks flew back in and joined them. Then another similar sized group returned to. It was hard to count them all, as they were moving all the time and some were hidden in the saltmarsh vegetation but there were at least 62 in total, an amazing number and the most we have seen for many years.

img_8217Shorelark – the Holkham flock numbered at least 62 today, an amazing number

While we were watching them, a covey of nine Grey Partridge strolled out of the dunes and across the path and proceeded to feed on the edge of the saltmarsh, next to the Shorelarks. A very odd combination!

Having enjoyed great views of the Shorelarks, we made our way out to the beach. The tide was out but we stopped by the dunes to look at the sea. We could see lots of Common Scoter scattered across the bay, numbering several hundred in total. Closer inshore, we picked up a group of five Long-tailed Duck just off the beach. Before we made our way down to the shore for a closer look, we had a quick scan of the sea.

We got a glimpse of a diver as it disappeared beneath the water and it looked very contrasting, black and white, and we felt sure we had seen a white flank patch. When it finally resurfaced, our suspicions were confirmed – it was a smart winter plumage Black-throated Diver, a nice find as it is the rarest of the three regular UK divers in Norfolk. It was diving all the time, but each time it reappeared we got it in the scope and eventually everyone got a look at it.

By this stage, the Long-tailed Ducks had unfortunately flown further out into the bay, but we still made our way down to the shore. We got a flock of Common Scoter in the scope for a closer look – they appeared to be almost entirely pale-cheeked females/1st winters. Then a more careful look through the various flocks revealed a couple of Velvet Scoters too, larger and darker faced, with two smaller white spots. They were loosely associating with one of the groups of Common Scoter but still keeping to themselves. Conveniently the Velvet Scoter were at the front of the flock which made them easier to pick out.

The sun was already setting and we were starting to lose the light already, so we made our way back across the saltmarsh, the Shorelarks flying in again and landing right beside us as we did so. There was a little group of Brent Geese in the taller vegetation and we stopped briefly for a look through them. One stood out – it had a slightly white flank patch than the others and a somewhat better marked collar.

It was a Black Brant hybrid – not contrasting enough for a pure Black Brant. This bird is regular here every winter, the progeny many years ago of a wandering Black Brant which got in with the Russian Dark-bellied Brent Geese which winter here and ended up pairing up with one of them. The parents are long gone, but the hybrid young still returns.

As we walked back towards the car park we could already hear the high-pitched yelping of Pink-footed Geese. We stopped on the south side of the pines to admire the stunning sunset away to the west, across the grazing marshes. At first, there were only a few small lines of geese which flew over and landed with some Pink-footed Geese which were still feeding on the grass the other side of Lady Anne’s Drive.

Then away in the distance, over Holkham Park, we saw them coming – skein after skein of geese, several thousand strong in total. As they got closer, they were accompanied by a  cacophony of yelping. The Pink-footed Geese circled round against the bright pinks and firey oranges of the sky, before whiffling down onto the grass to roost. It was a truly stunning spectacle – and a great way to end the day. One of the greatest sights and sounds of a North Norfolk winter.

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6o0a7306Pink-footed Geese – coming in to roost at Holkham at sunset

 

16th Oct 2016 – Eastern Promise, Day 3

Day 3 of a long weekend of Autumn Migration tours today, our final day. With rain forecast for the morning, and having bagged most of the best birds along the coast in the last couple of days, we decided to head for Titchwell where we could get some shelter in the hides.

A couple of Dotterel were belatedly reported from Choseley yesterday. We had no idea if the report was genuine, but we diverted round that way for a brief look first, just in case. Not surprisingly, there was no sign of any Dotterel in the fields, but a little group of five Golden Plover flew over calling, as did a Yellowhammer. At that stage the rain started, so we headed down to Titchwell.

The car par was already surprisingly busy when we arrived, and we couldn’t find any spaces in the first section. There didn’t seem to be much activity in the bushes around the overflow car park – most of the birds were probably sheltering from the wind and rain – so we headed straight out towards the reserve. At first the feeders by the visitor centre appeared quiet, but something spooked a load of finches from the ground behind and they flew up into the trees. In with them, we found a couple of Brambling and one helpfully then dropped down onto one of the feeders where we could get a better look at it.

6o0a4340Brambling – two were on the feeders by the visitor centre first thing

Given the rain, we decided to head straight out to the shelter of Island Hide. It proved to be a wise move, as the rain got stronger for a time while we were in there. We did have a quick look at the grazing meadow ‘pool’ on the way, which was once again pretty empty, and the reedbed pool which held just a few Gadwall and a couple of Coot today.

There were lots of birds out on the freshmarsh, particularly large numbers of duck now – mainly Teal and Wigeon, plus smaller numbers of Shoveler and Gadwall, and a few Shelduck. Some of the drakes are now starting to emerge from drab eclipse plumage, & looking correspondingly smarter.

6o0a4346Teal – starting to emerge from eclipse plumage now

There was a good selection of waders too, and while we waited for the rain to ease we set about looking through them. Most of the larger waders were in the deeper water over towards the back, a good number of Black-tailed Godwits and about 15 Avocets still (most of the Avocets have now gone south for the winter). On the mud at the edge of the reeds, the Ruff had presumably found some shelter from the wind. A party of three Greenshanks stood with them calling for a while, before they flew off west.

Looking around the various islands,we could see several Golden Plover and Lapwing in the grass. A few Dunlin and Ringed Plover were running around in amongst them too. Then we found a Little Stint – it was hard to see at first, being so small in the taller vegetation, but we all eventually got a good look at it when it came out onto a small pool. A Jack Snipe on the nearest island came out into the open for a time, where we could see it bobbing up and down continuously as it walked along slowly feeding, before disappearing into the vegetation again.

By this stage the rain had eased, so we decided to walk round to Parrinder Hide. As we got round to the junction in the path, we had a quick look over the bank at Volunteer Marsh, which was rewarded with a nice close Curlew Sandpiper and two nearby Dunlin. We watched the Curlew Sandpiper for a while as it fed on the mud just the other side of the channel, before it walked into the water and started bathing, giving us a great view of its white rump in the process. Then it flew off further back and we headed for the hide.

6o0a4385Curlew Sandpiper – this juvenile gave great views on the Volunteer Marsh

From round at the Parrinder Hide, you get a different view of the freshmarsh. At first, we saw many of the same birds that we had seen from the other side, but then one of the group picked up a different Curlew Sandpiper on one of the islands, another juvenile but this one much paler, lacking any orangey wash on the breast now and already moulting some of its upperparts to grey first winter feathers. We also found a second Little Stint, a much duller individual than the first. Three Spoonbills were asleep over the back of the fresmarsh, until two decided to wake up and fly off over the bank.

A Jack Snipe appeared on the edge of the mud directly opposite the hide, much closer than the one we had seen earlier, giving us great views as it crept in and out of the vegetation. We could see the golden yellow back strips contrasting with the otherwise very dark upperparts, and the dark central crown strip. This was presumably our second of the day, as it was in a very different place to the first, and there have been at least two Jack Snipe at Titchwell recently.

img_7712Jack Snipe – showed very well in front of Parrinder Hide

There were lots of Meadow Pipits on the grass in front of Parrinder Hide and we had been looking for a Rock Pipit in with them. While everyone was looking at the Jack Snipe, a sharp call alerted us to an incoming pipit but it didn’t sound strident enough for a Rock and we looked across to see a very smart Water Pipit drop in, the first we have seen here this autumn. With very white underparts with black streaks, a well marked white supercilium and white wing bars, and the greyish head and neck contrasting with the browner mantle, it is a very different bird to the more swarthy Rock Pipits.

img_7659Water Pipit – the first we have seen at Titchwell this autumn

Between the Jack Snipe and the Water Pipit, we didn’t know which way to look. Then both worked their way round so they were together, saving us that decision!

img_7719Water Pipit & Jack Snipe – together, in the same scope view

For once the forecast was right and the rain stopped. It hadn’t even hindered our ability to see a great variety of birds! We had a quick look at the Volunteer Marsh from the other side of Parrinder Hide. We had very nice views of a close Grey Plover, and what was presumably the same Curlew Sandpiper we had seen earlier from the path was now in front of the hide.

6o0a4442Grey Plover – nice views on the Volunteer Marsh from Parrinder Hide

With the improvement in the weather, we decided to make our way out towards the beach. On the other side of the Volunteer Marsh, along the near edge of the channel next to the main path, we had a nice close Black-tailed Godwit. Just across the channel on the other side, a Turnstone (or perhaps a ‘Turn-mud’) was turning over the dried and cracked plates of mud looking for invertebrates. Perhaps this was the same bird we had seen doing exactly the same thing here three weeks ago?

6o0a4475Black-tailed Godwit – right by the main path on the Volunteer Marsh

The Tidal Pools added a few Little Grebes for the day’s list and a flock of Starlings which flew across from there to the saltmarsh included the striking all-white leucistic bird which has been hanging around the area for some weeks now. Out at the beach the tide was out, so the waders were all down feeding on the mussel beds. As well as lots of Oystercatchers, we could see a good number of Bar-tailed Godwits and Knot. A few Sanderling were running in and out of the waves down on the edge of the beach but another came and landed right in front of us on the sand briefly.

We walked halfway down the beach to the comparative shelter of the concrete blocks, giving us a bit of protection from the brisk southerly breeze, and started to scan the sea. A nice close Velvet Scoter was the main prize, diving for shellfish just offshore. There were lots of Common Scoter way off in the distance towards the Wash but one drifted closer in just behind the Velvet Scoter giving us a much better view. There were also several Great Crested Grebes out on the sea closer inshore, but a couple of Red-throated Divers were much further out and hard to get onto given the choppy water. Two Red-breasted Mergansers and a couple of Gannets flew west.

img_7753Velvet Scoter – diving for shellfish offshore

The other highlight out at the beach was watching lots of different birds coming in over the sea, presumably fresh from the continent, migration in action! Several small groups of Brent Geese flew in and a few landed on the beach. Flocks of Chaffinches, Starlings and thrushes all got to dry land safely. An exhausted Fieldfare just made it to the mussel beds and crashed down out of view, but was promptly chased off by several of the waders and was forced to rest out in the open on the beach. We picked up a Grey Heron coming in, some way out to see initially. It eventually flew in over the beach and dropped down onto the tidal pools.

6o0a4480Grey Heron – flew in from the sea and over the beach

Despite the early rain, it had been an action packed morning but it was now time to start heading back for lunch. We walked back round via the Meadow Trail, and not far in from the main path we heard a Yellow-browed Warbler calling from deep in the sallows. It was a bit windy here today and we had all enjoyed good views of Yellow-browed Warbler already in the last couple of days, so we didn’t linger.

Back at the visitor centre, a couple of birders told us that a White-fronted Goose had been seen in the cut maize field by the reserve entrance road, so we made a short detour to see that. It was feeding on its own by a small pool out in the field, so we had a nice look at it through the scope, an adult with white blaze around the bill and black belly bars.

img_7767White-fronted Goose – in the field by the reserve entrance road

We had lunch in the sunshine in the car park today. While we were eating, we heard a Yellow-browed Warbler calling on the sunny edge of the sallows at the far end. Most of the group decided to focus on refuelling, but for those that didn’t we had brief views of the Yellow-browed Warbler flitting around in the trees.

News had come through during the morning that a Cattle Egret had been seen coming in off the sea at Cley and it had later been located with the cows out on Blakeney Freshes. As it would be a new bird for several of the group, we decided to drive back that way and try to see it in the afternoon. When we got to Blakeney, we parked by the harbour and walked round towards Friary Hills which is a good vantage point from which to scan. We had just got past the duck pond when a couple coming back the other way told us that they had just watched the Cattle Egret fly off towards Cley, where they had lost it to view.

Back to the car, we climbed in again and drove round towards Cley, pulling up briefly at the entrance to Friary Hills to confirm the news of the Cattle Egret‘s departure with a couple local birders. From the West Bank at Cley, it was immediately apparent there were no cows left out on the marshes, they had all been taken in for the winter already. Cricket Marsh did at least provide Canada Goose and Rook as additions to the weekend list, so perhaps he journey wasn’t entirely wasted!

Climbing up onto the West Bank by the main sluice to scan the marshes, we happened to look back towards Blakeney where we could see some cows out in the distance over on the Freshes. Just at that moment, we a saw small egret fly up from with them and head off away from us back to where the Cattle Egret had originally been seen. Back in the car and we drove back round to Friary Hills.

When we got up onto the top we were told that the Cattle Egret had indeed reappeared with the cows here, but had been flushed by a Marsh Harrier and had flown up from the nearest herd and dropped back out of view behind the reeds with a more distant group. Thankfully it then flew out and joined the cows and we watched it for some time, walking about, in with cows at times but also stalking around on its own in the low lying boggy areas of the marsh.

img_7789Cattle Egret – in with the cows

We had a good look at the Cattle Egret through the scope – we could see its short yellow-orange bill and small size, with scale being provided by a Grey Heron which was close to it at one point. It was always a little distant and never came back to the closer group of cows while we were there. We did talk about walking out along the bank around the Freshes to get a closer look, but there was little enthusiasm for the walk and it was lovely standing up on Friary Hills in the afternoon sun, scanning the marshes and watching the Cattle Egret with the cows.

There were other birds to see here too. A Green Sandpiper flew around over the marshes a couple of times and a Common Snipe or two did the same. There were lots of Wigeon down on the grazing marshes below us, and a huge cloud flew in to join them when they were flushed from the eastern part of the Freshes by a group of walkers. In with them, we could see a few Teal and a single Pintail.

Several species of raptor were enjoying the sunshine. A couple of Common Buzzards perched on some fenceposts, preening, before flying round and hovering out over the grass. Several Marsh Harriers quartered back and forth over the reeds, unfortunately never quite getting close enough to the Cattle Egret to flush it back towards us. A Sparrowhawk flew in from hunting out over the marshes and disappeared over the trees behind us.

There were still a few migrants to see from here too. Several little flocks of thrushes, particularly Redwings, flew overhead. Two Fieldfares were feeding down in the grass with a flock of Starlings. It was a lovely way to end what had been a very exciting three days of birding, with some very good birds seen and great company.

15th Oct 2016 – Eastern Promise, Day 2

Day 2 of a 3-day long weekend of Autumn Migration tours today. The easterly winds of the last couple of weeks finally swung round to the south overnight, but there were some new birds arriving overnight and some others still to catch up with. The change in the wind direction meant it was a bit drier, after the morning mist cleared, and brighter and warmer in the afternoon.

It was a bit misty and cool as we arrived at Holkham. We could hear Pink-footed Geese calling watched as a flock disappeared off inland from the grazing marshes, heading off to feed on the fields. In the holm oaks right on Lady Anne’s Drive, we came across a small tit flock, the usual Long-tailed Tits, other tits and Goldcrests, but we couldn’t find anything else with them.

As we walked west on the south side of the pines, a variety of thrushes flew out of the trees – Song Thrushes, Redwings and Blackbirds. There were finches on the move again today – with Bramblings, Siskins and Redpolls all flying over calling. However, they were eclipsed in number by the Starlings today, with a steady stream of flocks flying west right through the morning, some numbering several hundred birds.

We stopped at the gate before Washington Hide to have a scan of the grazing marshes and watch all the activity. We were just turning to leave when one of the group spotted a Great White Egret approaching. It circled over the fields in front of us a couple of times before disappearing back towards the trees.

6o0a4149Great White Egret – circled over the grazing marshes

The sycamores by Washington Hide were rustling in the breeze and still cool in the morning mist. There was no sign of any tit flock here and we couldn’t find any warblers either, just a couple of Goldcrests hiding in among the leaves. However, as we walked up a Redstart started calling and showed very well, flying backwards and forwards between the trees, perching on the lower branches.

6o0a4162Redstart – showed very well by Washington Hide

While we were watching the Redstart, we heard Bearded Tits calling on and off. Then we just caught sight of a flock as it dropped out of the sky and down into the reeds. We couldn’t see them from the boardwalk by the hide, but as we got back down onto the main path we heard them again and looked up to see six Bearded Tits flying round in circles high over the reeds. Even though they look like quite weak fliers, they can disperse over considerable distances, particularly at this time of year. As we stood watching them, a flock of 80 Redwings flew out of the trees and off south across the marshes. Lots of birds on the move today!

At this point, we heard news that a Dusky Warbler had been found out in Burnham Overy Dunes. This would be a great bird to see, so we set off to walk over that way. We assumed that we could have a better look for warblers in the trees on the way back, once it had brightened up a little. We did hear a couple of Yellow-browed Warblers on the way through the trees, and got a brief look at one when it came to the edge of the sallows in which it was hiding.

Coming out into the dunes, we didn’t stop to search the bushes, but pressed on west. Someone was walking through the top of the dunes and as he went was  flushing lots of thrushes, which flew across in front of us to the bushes beyond the fence. Several Redwings landed in a bush in front of us. We noticed a blackbird with silvery wings heading towards us and when it turned we could just make out a paler off-white gorget – it was a Ring Ouzel. It saw us standing there and circled round, before dropping down again in the dunes further over. A couple of Stonechats perched up in the bushes by the fence.

We made our way quickly over to where the Dusky Warbler had first been found, but there was no sign of it. It had apparently been moving west, so we decided to check out all the bushes out towards Gun Hill. There was no sign of it out there, but we did see another Redstart.

After having a good look round, we happened to notice another birder only 200m or so back east in the dunes from us who suddenly started to hurry back towards the boardwalk. There were still quite a few other people looking for the Dusky Warbler out further west of us too, towards Gun Hill, but there was no shout in our direction. As he passed three more birders who had just been sitting down, they got up and followed him, so we suspected something might have been found. However, checking the news services there was nothing to indicate what it might be. On a hunch, we set off in the direction he had gone, but when we got back towards the boardwalk there was no sign of anyone there. Perhaps he was just in a hurry to get back?

We started to check the bushes this way again, while another birder passed us by and walked back over the boardwalk into the dunes. After a few seconds, he very kindly ran back up to the top of the dunes and shouted over – a small crowd had been sitting in the dunes watching the Dusky Warbler the other side, without telling anyone. Not especially helpful!

We hurried over there, but by the time we arrived, the Dusky Warbler was on the move again. We could hear it calling but it flicked out the back of the bushes where it had been performing for the crowd and flew over the fence beyond. We could just see it flitting around in some vegetation the other side, before it flew further back and then flew off east behind the dunes. Most of the group managed to get a look at it, but it would have been much better for all if the news of its relocation had been put out in a more timely fashion. A nice bird to see, but all a little frustrating!

6o0a4165Common Darter – perched on one of the group’s hats

It had brightened up by the time we got back to the pines and there were lots of insects flying around the trees on the sunny side. When we stopped, we were suddenly surrounded by several Common Darters, several of which decided to perch on people’s faces, arms and hats!

Almost at the far west end of the pines, we heard another Yellow-browed Warbler calling, but it was quite a way from the path.Walking slowly back east, we met someone who had just seen a Radde’s Warbler, but the vegetation here is very dense and after a quick look, it became clear we could struggle to relocate it. We did find yet another Yellow-browed Warbler nearby and this one showed well in an oak tree.

6o0a4170Yellow-browed Warbler – one of at least 6 we saw or heard today

It was to be the story of much of the walk back – the warmer and brighter weather had brought them all out from hiding. We heard or saw at least five Yellow-browed Warblers before we got to the crosstracks. Otherwise, there were a few Chiffchaffs now enjoying all the insects, as well as lots of Goldcrests. We did find a tit flock as we approached the crosstracks, but all we could find with it was one of the Yellow-browed Warblers.

The other side of Meals House, we found another tit flock. There had been a Pallas’s Warbler with these birds the day before yesterday, but it had not been reported since. Despite that, we thought it was most likely still with them, so we stopped to check them out. There was no sign of the Pallas’s at first, but we did find yet another Yellow-browed Warbler. Then the Long-tailed Tits set off east through the trees, with the rest of the flock following in their wake.

We set off in pursuit of the tit flock, and tried to get ahead of them on the boardwalk by Washington Hide. We succeeded but, rather than stopping in the sycamores, the whole flock flew high over the gap and disappeared into the pines the other side. We had a tantalising glimpse of a warbler as they did so. We set off after them again and they made their way very quickly east through the middle of the pines. We could hear the Long-tailed Tits calling from deep in the trees as they made their way as far as Salts Hole and then they went quiet and seemed to disappear.

While most of the group stayed on the path, a couple of us set off into the trees to see if we could find which direction they had gone. Deep into cover, we found The Long-tailed Tits were still there, but they had started feeding lower down in the evergreen holm oaks and were now just calling quietly to each other. We were standing in a small sunny clearing, but the birds were all but impossible to see in the dense foliage. Then the Pallas’s Warbler suddenly appeared right in front of us in the sunshine on the outside of the closest tree. Despite whistling, the rest of the group did not realise and by the time we ran down to tell them the Pallas’s Warbler had disappeared into the trees again.

With all the chasing after tit flocks, it was now getting on, so we made our way back to the car for a rather late lunch. Given the sunny weather, we sat outside on the picnic tables on Lady Anne’s Drive – it could almost have been summer! While we were eating, a Red Kite circled over the grazing marshes beyond. A Jackdaw perched on the post next to us and eyed our food hungrily.

6o0a4181Jackdaw – hanging round the picnic tables at lunchtime

After lunch, we drove round to Burnham Overy Staithe. A Barred Warbler had been in the bushes just the other side of the seawall from the car park for a couple of days. They can be inveterate skulkers sometimes, but this one was much more amenable. As soon as we got up onto the seawall, we could see it lumbering around in the brambles just below us. It flew up into the hedge a little further over but kept returning down to the same bushes. We spent some time enjoying watching it.

6o0a4234Barred Warbler – showed well in the bushes at Burnham Overy Staithe

Barred Warblers breed from central and eastern Europe across into Asia and winter in eastern Africa. They are annual visitors here in small numbers, usually blown off course on easterly winds. Most of the Barred Warblers which occur here are 1st winter birds, as was this one – with just faint barring on the flanks.

While we were enjoying the Barred Warbler, we could see a selection of other birds from our vantage point on the seawall. Six Swallows flew in and started hawking for insects just along from us. Out in the harbour we could see flocks of Brent Geese and lots of Little Egrets and Curlews out on the saltmarsh. A Great Black-backed Gull down in the harbour channel was wrestling with a large flatfish, trying to work out how it might be able to eat it.

We had tried for the Radde’s Warbler at Warham Greens yesterday, but it had proven impossible to see in the cool and windy conditions. With the better weather, it had seemingly been showing much better today, so we headed over there again to try our luck a second time. This time it was in – a small crowd was watching the bird as we walked up. It was hard to see , skulking in the thickets of nettles or the ivy-covered tree trunks, but with a bit of patience and perseverance, we were all able to get good views of it. It was very close, but at one point we had it only a metre or so away from us, down on the ground in the nettles. Great stuff!

6o0a4276Radde’s Warbler – skulking in the nettles

It was a great way to end the day, so we eventually had to tear ourselves away and head back to the car. As we did so, a small party of four Grey Herons flew overhead, making their way west over the track. A reminder that it is migration season and lots of birds are still on the move.

14th Oct 2016 -Eastern Promise, Day 1

Day 1 of a 3-day long weekend of Autumn Migration tours today. The easterly winds we have been enjoying for the last couple of weeks are continuing, though only for a day or so more. That means there are still some great rarities from Siberia to catch up with – it was going to be a busy day! Our first destination was Wells Woods. There has been at least one Olive-backed Pipit here for the last few days, although it has been very flighty and elusive at times. Still, we thought we would give it a go and try to see it.

As we walked in from the car park, we could hear Bramblings calling and a couple of small groups flew back over our heads. Then a bigger flock of finches came out of the birches, about 40-50 strong. From their calls, they seemed to be mostly Redpolls – there have been a growing number in the trees here in recent days and there were lots more arriving yesterday, mostly Mealy Redpolls. Unfortunately, these didn’t stop and we watched them fly away to the east, over the car park.

A flock of Siskin were more amenable – we could see them landing in the bushes and several then dropped down to the puddles on the path ahead of us to drink.

6o0a4030Siskin – coming down to drink on the path this morning

We cut in through the trees, around the area where the Olive-backed Pipit had been originally, but it seems to have been disturbed from here now by the crowds. There were fewer thrushes than recent days, but still plenty of Goldcrests in the birches and loads of Robins everywhere we looked – the vast majority are migrants escaping from northern Europe for the winter and stopping here to feed on their way south.

6o0a4036Robin – some of the northern migrants are very tame!

News came through that the Olive-backed Pipit was in the north side of the pines, where it had been at times yesterday, so we made our way quickly over there. When we arrived, there were lots of people milling around but no one seemed to know where it was. We walked quietly through the trees, checking out the old dune hollows where there is grass and small trees, and it didn’t take us long to find it. The Olive-backed Pipit was down on the ground under a young holm oak, but it was hard to see and it crept up the bank and out of view behind the foliage.

Unfortunately, our attentions drew the crowds over and we lost the Olive-backed Pipit. As we tried to follow it, with various people encroaching from different directions, it kept flushing. We could see it fly and hear it call, but then it vanished altogether. We decided to leave it in peace and try again later, once the crowds had dispersed.

While we were looking for the pipit, a Pallas’s Warbler had been reported over by the drinking pool, so we made our way over that way. When we got there, there was no sign of it but we did manage to ascertain that it was with a flock of Long-tailed Tits – so the challenge was to find the tits!

We continued on west, but the deciduous trees beside the path seemed rather quiet, despite the fact that the wind was lighter today. We did see a variety of raptors – a Common Buzzard flew low out of the trees, a Marsh Harrier quartered the fields to the south, a Sparrowhawk came over the tops of the pines and we were alerted to a Peregrine way overhead by its loud calls. There were lots of Jays too, carrying acorns off to bury them somewhere eminently forgettable!

A loud ‘tsooeet’ from an oak tree right next to us alerted us to a Yellow-browed Warbler. We could see it flicking around in the top, above our heads, but we got better views when it dropped down into a small birch tree. We could see its pale supercilium and double wing bar.

6o0a4040Yellow-browed Warbler – calling by the path

Walking on a little further, we finally heard Long-tailed Tits calling and cut into the trees to try to see them. But they disappeared into some pines and our attempts to catch them coming out the other side proved mostly fruitless. While we waited for them, we did see a Treecreeper climbing up a young oak, and watched a Great Spotted Woodpecker excavating a hole in a dead birch stump, pulling out beak-fulls of woodchips and scattering them below.

6o0a4059Great Spotted Woodpecker – excavating in a birch stump

It seemed possible that the tit flock had made its way past us back towards the drinking pool, so we returned to the main path and started making our way back. Almost back there, we heard Long-tailed Tits again and made our way back into the trees. Almost immediately, we spotted a Firecrest flitting around in a small briar just in front of us, before it flew back up into the pines.

The tits seemed to be dropping out of the pines, and several came down into the small deciduous trees and undergrowth in front of us. After watching them for a minute or so, we had a tantalising glimpse of a warbler, but it disappeared before we could see it properly. Frustrating, but it felt like we might have the right flock this time. As the Long-tailed Tits started to make their way towards the path, we cut through and positioned ourselves in their path, in an open area with some lovely small deciduous trees in front of us.

The positioning worked perfectly! Just as we had hoped, the Pallas’s Warbler appeared in one of the oaks and we were treated to great views of it as it fluttered between the branches. We could see its yellow supercilium, brighter yellow at the front than the comparatively inappropriately named Yellow-browed Warbler we had seen earlier. The Pallas’s Warbler also had an extra stripe, a yellow central crown stripe, and when it hovered to pick insects off the leaves we could see it lemon yellow rump patch.

6o0a4067Pallas’s Warbler – our favourite warbler!

Pallas’s Warbler is an annual visitor here, blown off course on its was south, typically just in small numbers at this time of year. They breed in southern Siberia and winter in China and SE Asia, so this one was a long way from home. With all the stripes and the lemon yellow rump, they are always a great favourite. A fantastic bird to see! As the tit flock continued on east, the Pallas’s Warbler flew off with them. We followed the flock to the drinking pool, but it didn’t stop. We did get great views of several Goldcrests and a Chiffchaff coming down to bathe.

We had bumped into some other birders before we found the tits who told us that they had just flushed an Olive-backed Pipit from south of the main path (in an area near where one had been reported yesterday). The one we had seen earlier had still not been relocated, and it was not far away as the Olive-backed Pipit flies, but it would have to be mobile to be the same one. We had a look where they had seen it but there was no sign and we were told it may have flown back north. We went back to where we had seen the Olive-backed Pipit earlier, but there was no sign of it there either.

Having had a quick look around the Dell, we decided to check out the path beside the caravan park. However, we had not got very far when another birder emerged from the trees talking on his mobile and told us his mate was watching the Olive-backed Pipit back behind the drinking pool. We hot-footed it round there only to find his mate had walked off and the pipit had flown up into the trees and been lost again. There were a few people still milling round but looking lost again. Frustrating.

The area looked promising – open mature pines, long grass below, and some scattered younger trees, meaning plenty of cover – perfect for an Olive-backed Pipit. So we circled round to the back of the grass and started walking very quietly along the furthest edge. Some movement in the grass caught our attention and there were not one, but two Olive-backed Pipits together!

Thankfully one of the Olive-backed Pipits stopped in the grass and turned to look at us, so we could get everyone onto it. The birds then made their way a bit further back, out of view, but circling round again the other side and we watched one flit up onto a dead branch lying underneath a young holm oak. This time we all got a great view of it as it perched there, pumping its tail up and down.

6o0a3942Olive-backed Pipit – a photo from yesterday (when it was quieter)

Olive-backed Pipits can be very secretive and skulking so it was great to finally see one so well. This is another mostly Siberian species, although its breeding range spreads just into NE European Russia, and it normally winters in S Asia. After that, we made our way back to the car for a very well-earned lunch. It had certainly been a productive morning in the Woods.

After lunch, we climbed up over the seawall and made our way down to the lifeboat station to scan the harbour. There were several Brent Geese down in the harbour channel and a nice selection of waders out on the mud – lots of Oystercatchers, a single Black-tailed Godwit in with a group of Bar-tailed Godwits and Redshank, several Curlew, a couple of small flocks of Knot and, further over, a scattering of Grey Plover, Ringed Plover, Dunlin and a Turnstone.

The highlight here was the aerial battle between a juvenile Peregrine and a Ringed Plover. We first spotted them out over the mudflats across the other side of the harbour channel. The Peregrine was in quick pursuit, but every time it got close, the Ringed Plover turned sharply, much tighter than the Peregrine could turn, and opened up the gap again. Several times the Ringed Plover tried to escape by gaining height, but the Peregrine powered up higher. They were very evenly matched – it was just a question of which one would tire first.

The chase went on for ages – an adult would probably have given up much earlier, but this young Peregrine was either inexperienced or just very hungry. We lost sight of them round behind the lifeboat station but the next thing we knew they appeared again flying fast and low over the water just below us, flushing all the geese and roosting waders. When they disappeared from view again, the Peregrine must have finally given up because the next thing it appeared from round the lifeboat station only a few metres away from us!

6o0a4084Peregrine – exhausted after chasing after a Ringed Plover, unsuccessfully

The Peregrine tried to land on one of the groyne posts not far from us, but thought better of it, so flew a short distance across the harbour channel and landed on a mudbank just the other side. We had a great view of it through the scope.

img_7580Peregrine – taking a breather after the fruitless chase

Our final destination for the day was Warham Greens. As we made our way down along the middle track, a small flock of Golden Plover flew over calling. A Blackcap flew across the track and we could hear Goldcrests in the hedge. There were still a few Blackbirds and thrushes in the bushes and, as we got down towards the end of the track, we heard a Ring Ouzel chacking from deep inside, although we couldn’t see it.

From out on the coastal path, we could see several flocks of Brent Geese out on the saltmarsh. Several bright white Little Egrets stood out against the dark vegetation. A couple of Marsh Harriers quartered the marshes in the distance. We made our way west to the pit where we could hear a Brambling, but couldn’t see it in the bushes.

There had been a Radde’s Warbler on Garden Drove earlier in the morning, but when we arrived there had been no sign of it for several hours. We had a quick look in the copse at the end, which was a bit exposed to the wind. There seemed to be more birds in the hedges along the track, and we quickly found the Yellow-browed Warbler, which flew across out of the taller trees and landed in a low hawthorn briefly.

We walked slowly up the track to the concrete pad and back down again. We did see a few Chiffchaffs and several Robins. And plenty of Goldcrests in the trees – amazing to think that these tiny birds, weighing less than a 20p piece, have made it all the way across the North Sea.

6o0a4097Goldcrest – there are still lots in the trees along the coast

With no sign of anything more exciting on Garden Drove, we decided to check out the hedgeline to the west, towards Wells. As we walked along the coastal path, flocks of finches got up from the edge of the field and flew up into the hedge. There were loads and loads of Bramblings, at least 100, probably a lot more, as well as Chaffinches, Goldfinches, Greenfinches, a few Linnets and a single Reed Bunting.

6o0a4116Brambling – there were loads in the fields this afternoon

We stopped by one field which was planted with a seed mix and 20-30 Bramblings flew up into the hedge beside us, calling away. They have all arrived from Scandinavia in the last few days and have stopped to feed in the fields here. As we were admiring them, a small falcon flew fast towards us along the top of the hedge, scattering all the birds. It was a Merlin – it saw us at the last minute and turned away, flying off across the field the other side of the hedge towards the saltmarsh.

Then it was time to start making our way back. We scanned the saltmarsh on the way, seeing three Marsh Harriers now quartering in the distance. As we walked back along the middle track almost back to the car, a Merlin flew high east ahead of us – possibly a different bird returning to roost. It had been a tiring day, but a great one with some great birds.

9th Oct 2016 – Arrivals from the East, Part 3

Day 3 of a 3 day long weekend of Autumn Migration Tours today. We had some sunny intervals today but isolated showers were coming in off the North Sea from time to time on the NE wind. Thankfully, they missed us in the morning and we managed to dodge them in the afternoon.

The morning was spent exploring Cley. We parked at the visitor centre and walked out towards the main hides. Looking out towards the sea, we could see a couple of lines of Brent Geese flying in, presumably migrants arriving from Russia for the winter. Along the Skirts path, a male Stonechat flew ahead of us, perching on the brambles and fence posts, before flying out into the field. A Meadow Pipit perched up in the morning sun on a dead thistle. A Kestrel circled up overhead, and was chased off by another couple of Meadow Pipits.

6o0a3628Kestrel – circled overhead, pursued by a Meadow Pipit

As we walked out along the boardwalk, we flushed a noisy flock of House Sparrows from the bushes in the reeds. A young Marsh Harrier was quartering over the reeds and seemed to delight in flushing all the birds from the scrapes as it flew over.

There were lots of small waders in front of Teal Hide visible from the visitor centre earlier, but by the time we got out there they seemed at first to have disappeared, presumably unnerved by the Marsh Harrier. We found them again as they emerged from behind the large island, 30 Dunlin. Then a Ruff appeared from the same place as the Dunlin. It was a juvenile, with buffy underparts. It was followed shortly after by a winter adult Ruff, whiter below and paler grey-brown above, and with orange legs. It was good to see the two Ruff next to the Dunlin for size comparison.

A Black-tailed Godwit was feeding just in front of the hide, but a larger flock were sleeping over towards Bishop Hide, all in a line, all on one leg with heads tucked in. They are mostly in winter plumage now, dull grey. A single Avocet stood at the end of the line. Further over, we picked up a couple of Swallows hawking for insects over the reeds. They eventually made their way past, followed by a few more – migrants, on their way south down to Africa for the winter, pausing briefly to refuel on their journey.

6o0a3648Black-tailed Godwit – this one was feeding in front of Teal Hide

Simmond’s Scrape has just been ‘reprofiled’. The digger has gone, but the scrape itself will presumably take a while to settle back down. Still, from Dauke’s Hide we could see lots of ducks, all still mostly in duller eclipse plumage – Wigeon, Teal and Shoveler. A single Grey Plover and a single Golden Plover were on the bare island over at the back – a nice opportunity to compare them side by side. Several Meadow Pipits and Pied Wagtails were still enjoying the bare muddy margins of the scrape.

Some of the flocks of Brent Geese we had seen arriving earlier had landed in Eye Field. Looking out from the hide in that direction, we could see more Brents landing with a large gaggle of Canada Geese. On the front edge of the flock, out on the grass, we could see some ‘grey’ geese and through the scope we confirmed our suspicions – they were White-fronted Geese. Small numbers come to Norfolk from Russia for the winter, normally to the Broads or Holkham, so these birds had probably stopped off briefly to get something to eat and have a rest after a long journey from the continent.

img_7497White-fronted Geese – we could see nine in with the Canadas and Brent Geese

Looking more carefully, we could count nine White-fronted Geese. Several had sat down in the grass to sleep. On the ones that were awake and feeding, we could see their pink bills with white band round the base, and the distinctive black belly bars.

After making our way back to the visitor centre, we drove on to the car park at the end of the East Bank. Up to four Jack Snipe had been reported just across the road on Snipe’s Marsh (for once, appropriately named!!), so we walked over to see if we could see them. Thankfully there were a couple of people there who told us where two of them were, because the Jack Snipe had gone to sleep in the edge of the reeds and were very well camouflaged.

img_7521Jack Snipe – with bright golden yellow mantle stripes and dark central crown

We watched the Jack Snipe for a few minutes and one of them then woke up and started feeding. As it did so, we could see the distinctive bobbing action, bouncing up and down as it walked slowly along, probing its bill into the mud. Nearby, we could see at least five Common Snipe too, larger and longer-billed, and through the scope we could see the diagnostic pale central crown stripe on one of them.

With some very dark clouds coming in from the direction of the beach, we made our way back to the car. Just in time, as it started to rain. We drove a little further east and parked at Iron Road. As it seemed like the rain might be slow to clear, we opted for an early lunch. By the time we had finished, the sun was out again.

The muddy pools by Iron Road have been quiet recently, and consequently we weren’t going to walk up there, but scanning from the path we could see a few waders, so we changed our minds. There was a little more water after the recent rain. When we got up there we could see a smart juvenile Curlew Sandpiper and two Ringed Plovers out on the mud, along with lots of Meadow Pipits. A Green Sandpiper appeared from over the back and flew past us. A Common Snipe flew round and landed in the reeds the other side of the track.

img_7540Curlew Sandpiper – with two Ringed Plovers

While we were standing there, we could hear a Bearded Tit calling. It seemed to be coming from back along the path, in the reeds along the ditch. Then the Bearded Tit flew over and landed just behind us, down in the reeds along the ditch the other side of the track. Even though it was out of view, we could hear it ‘pinging’, and occasionally see movement. We walked over to the edge of the ditch, peering over the top of the vegetation. Then more helpfully it climbed up into the tops of the reeds in full view just a few metres from us. It was a female – with no grey head, no black moustache. It perched up in full view for a minute or two, then the Bearded Tit flew off towards Salthouse. Great views!

6o0a3680Bearded Tit – perched up in the tops of the reeds right next to us

Walking back towards the road, we turned right onto Attenborough Walk and headed for Babcock Hide. On the way, we stopped to admire the Egyptian Geese on the grazing meadow. While we were standing there, a Wheatear appeared out on the grass, in amongst the cows.

The water levels at Babcock Hide have been rather static recently, which is not so good for waders, and the scrape looked fairly empty at first. There were a few ducks – Shelduck, Teal and Wigeon. There are cows grazing out here at the moment, and they kept walking back and forth in front of the hide. They mostly seemed to be very nervous of us, but it was quite a shock when one walked up and almost stuck its head through the flaps right in front of us, particularly as we were looking through binoculars at the time!

img_7556Cow – looking in on Babcock Hide

There were several Meadow Pipits and Pied Wagtails around the edges of the scrape. When a wagtail appeared right in front of the hide, we might have expected it to be another Pied, but it was very pale grey backed and also grey rumped. It was a White Wagtail, the continental race of Pied Wagtail, more commonly identified here in spring. Another migrant which had stopped off here on its way south.

6o0a3719White Wagtail – in front of Babcock Hide

As the cows walked round in front of the hide, two Common Snipe came up from the grass round to our left and flew off over the back. Then a smaller snipe flew up from the reeds – another Jack Snipe. It flew back over the water, circled round a couple of times, before eventually dropping down again out of view at the back of the scrape. There are obviously a lot of Jack Snipe arriving at the moment for the winter – the number we have seen in the past three days is unusual.

With more shower clouds out over the sea and heading our way, we decided to spend the latter part of the afternoon at Holkham, where we had some more hides for shelter if necessary. We walked west from Lady Anne’s Drive, on the inland side of the pines. There were lots of Goldcrests in the trees and we heard a Yellow-browed Warbler calling. We had a quick look for it, but we were looking into the sun, and it seemed to move through very quickly. It stopped calling, and we couldn’t see any movement.

6o0a3750Goldcrest – showing very well at Holkham

A quick scan of Salts Hole produced three Little Grebes. We stopped again at the gate before Washington Hide. There were four Curlews in the field – hard to see until they put their heads up – and several Jays kept dropping down into the grass. A couple of Coal Tits chased each other round the pine above us. Then we saw black clouds coming and made a quick dash for the hide.

We got to Washington Hide just in time, and took shelter from the rain. Thankfully it passed through very quickly. We just had time to admire a few Gadwall in with the Mallard on the pool. There were several Song Thrushes and Redwings in the bushes. A Common Buzzard perched up in a tree. We had hoped we might be able to find a few Pink-footed Geese out on the grazing marshes. Although we saw a lot, they were flying up from behind the trees and heading off east.

When the rain stopped, we had a quick walk out onto the boardwalk, to pay homage to the sea. On the way, an exhausted Chiffchaff was flitting around on the ground below us.

6o0a3791Chiffchaff – exhausted and feeding on the ground behind Washington Hide

Carrying on west, we made our way along to Joe Jordan Hide. There were several Marsh Harriers flying in and out of the trees and hedges here. A Common Buzzard perched on a post in front of us. Scanning the grass, we found a single Pink-footed Geese on its own. Through the scope we could see that it was an injured bird, with one wing hanging down. That probably explains why it was here, rather than out on the saltmarsh.

Then it was time to walk back. We were almost back to Lady Anne’s Drive, when a Pied Flycatcher flew up from a puddle on the edge of the path. Unfortunately it disappeared into the trees before we could get a good look and wasn’t going to show itself again. Another Yellow-browed calling was some consolation. Then it was time to head for home. We rain clouds all around us, there were some stunning rainbows to admire.

6o0a3797Rainbow – Holkham