Category Archives: Autumn Tour

9th Nov 2018 – Late Autumn Rarities

A Private Tour today on the North Norfolk coast. It was a lovely sunny start to the day, and very mild out of the SE breeze, although there was a bit more cloud around at times in the afternoon. With several lingering rarities still along the coast, we decided on a day catching up with some of our scarcer winter visitors together with a bit of ‘twitching’!

Our first destination for the morning was Holkham. As we drove up along Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see some groups of Pink-footed Geese out on the grazing marshes. Several birds were right next to the road, so we stopped for a closer look. We could see their pink legs (and feet!), and small, dark bill with a pink band.

Pink-footed Goose

Pink-footed Goose – showing well by Lady Anne’s Drive

While we were watching the Pink-footed Geese, we looked up to see a large white bird flying away from us across the grazing marsh. It was a Great White Egret – we could see its long, dagger-shaped yellow bill. Great White Egrets have bred here for the last couple of years, but can be harder to find in winter, so this was a bonus.

Several small groups of Wigeon flew in to the pool on the other side of the road, but by the time we turned our attention to that side, they had gone back out to graze on the grass. We carried on up to the end of the Drive. A digger was clearing one of the ditches, piling the mud out on the bank, and two Grey Herons were standing by to take advantage of anything edible which it scooped out. As we got out of the car and scanned, a Marsh Harrier was quartering the marshes and a Kestrel was hovering nearby.

We walked through the pines and out onto the beach. Several Brent Geese were feeding out on the saltmarsh, so we stopped briefly to look at them through the scope. As we set off again, walking east, two Red Kites were hanging in the air over the dunes, flashing burnt rusty red as they circled in the morning sunshine. A Marsh Harrier flew past, a young bird, chocolate brown with a pale head, and then a rather pale Common Buzzard flew in over the saltmarsh and almost over our heads. The raptors were obviously out in force this morning enjoying the fine weather!

Common Buzzard

Common Buzzard – this very pale bird flew in off the saltmarsh

When we got out to the newly cordoned-off area of the saltmarsh, we could see a couple of small birds creeping about in the vegetation which caught the light. Looking more closely, we could see they were Shorelarks. We got them in the scope and could see their bright yellow faces, shining in the morning sunshine, contrasting with their black bandit masks and collars. Looking carefully, we counted six at first but then another five or so more flew in to join them.

Shorelark

Shorelark – one of at least eleven at Holkham today

Shorelarks are scarce and localised winter visitors to the UK most winters, and Holkham is a very traditional site for them. However, they are very vulnerable to disturbance and the beach here has become increasingly popular, particularly with dog walkers. Hopefully, the new fence, which was erected this week by the wardens, will help to keep disturbance to a minimum and will encourage them to remain here again for the winter.

While we were watching the Shorelarks, we could see a flock of Snow Buntings feeding further over, but by the time we had finished looking at the Shorelarks, they had disappeared. We walked over to the beach and scanned the shingle, as Snow Buntings can be very hard to spot when they get in the stones. But the next thing we knew they flew back in, flashing white in their wings and twittering, and landed behind us on the edge of the saltmarsh again.

Snow Buntings 1

Snow Buntings – flew back in to the saltmarsh

We stopped to admire the Snow Buntings for a while, as they fed on the sparse seedy vegetation. They were very active, running around on the sand, occasionally flying up and landing again, always on the move.

After watching the Snow Buntings for a while, we turned our attention to the sea. Scanning the water, we spotted a few seaduck out in the Bay. They were not easy to see at first though – even though the sea looked fairly flat, it was surprising choppy, enough to hide the birds. First we came across two female Eider, with long wedge-shaped bills. Then we found three darker birds with two white spots on their faces, Velvet Scoter. They were busy diving for shellfish, but the white spots caught the sunlight when they surfaced.

A couple of Gannets flew past, white adults with black wingtips. Then we noticed a larger gathering of Gannets further out. One had obviously found a shoal of fish and attracted the others as they were all busy feeding. We watched as one after another folded back its wings and plunged headlong into the water.

There were a few other birds out on the sea too – a winter plumage Red-throated Diver, its white face catching the light, and several Great Crested Grebes too. A couple of Guillemots were not playing ball though, diving constantly so that they were impossible to see.

There were lots of gulls out on the beach too, plus several Oystercatchers, and a few Sanderling and Turnstone were flying back and forth out along the shoreline. A small group of Brent Geese were fast asleep right down by the water’s edge. Something had obviously spooked the Snow Buntings again, because they suddenly flew up over the dunes and landed out on the beach in front of us. We watched them busily preening in the sunshine before they eventually plucked up the courage to fly back again.

Snow Buntings 2

Snow Buntings – flew out onto the beach to preen for a while

As we made our way back towards the Gap, the two Red Kites were still circling over the dunes – there must have been some carrion out there which they couldn’t resist. When we got back to Lady Anne’s Drive, three more were circling out over the grazing marshes on the other side of the pines.

Then, as we drove back towards the main road, we stopped to watch yet another Red Kite circling very close by. It dropped down into the grass and came back up with a rat in its talons. We couldn’t tell whether it had already been dead or not, but the Red Kite carried it out into the middle of the field and started to devour it.

Red Kite

Red Kite – feeding on a dead rat it found out on the grazing marshes

From Holkham, we headed east along the coast road to Kelling. There have been some Waxwings here for the last few days and we could see several large lenses pointed up into the dead tree right next to where we parked. They were right above our heads as we got out! Thankfully they didn’t seem to be in the least bit worried by us, and we walked across the road from where we could get a better angle to look at them.

With their punk haircuts and multi-coloured wing markings, Waxwings are one of the most charismatic birds and always worth a diversion to see. There were at least five of them here today. They occasionally dropped down to a neighbouring garden to feed on the rowan tree, then flew back up into the top of a dead tree, where they perched, digesting.

Waxwing 1

Waxwings – we saw at least five at Kelling today

Up close, through the scope, we could make out all the details of the Waxwings wings – including the small red waxy tips to its secondaries, from which it gets its name, as well as the yellow tip to the tail and the rusty undertail.

Waxwing 2

Waxwing – showing the small red waxy tips to the secondaries

Eventually, we had to tear ourselves away from admiring the Waxwings. We were heading back to Cley for lunch, so we stopped at Salthouse on the way there. There had been no mention of the ‘Eastern’ Stonechat all morning, so after a clear night last night it seemed like it had most likely gone, continuing on its journey.

We had a quick look anyway, and there was no sign. Hopefully the Sparrowhawk which was in the bushes close to where it had been favouring, had not had a Stonechat shaped meal! There was a family of Mute Swans on duck pond and a flock of Canada Geese out on the grazing marshes. A Lapwing and a Curlew both flew past, and several Meadow Pipits came up ‘seep-seeping’ out of the grass.

We carried on to Cley for lunch. As we sat down at the picnic tables, a slightly ominous line of dark grey cloud blew in from the south. It hung over us for precisely as long as we sat out eating and then, as soon as we stood up, it cleared again and went back to sunshine!

While we were eating, we could see a couple of flocks of Black-tailed Godwits busy feeding on Pat’s Pool. There were obviously lots of ducks out on North Scrape, as we could see when they were flushed by a Marsh Harrier, and flew round, mainly Wigeon and Teal.

After lunch, we went for a quick walk up along the East Bank. We stopped to look at some Greylag Geese out on the grazing marsh, with their large orange carrot-bills, very different from the Pink-footed Geese we had looked at earlier. There were lots of ducks out on Pope’s Pool, mainly Wigeon and Teal again. There were some closer Shoveler and Gadwall on the Serpentine, as well as more Teal. As we stopped to admire them, a Common Snipe flew across the water but ran straight into the long grass on the other side.

Teal

Teal – feeding on the Serpentine

It had clouded over again now, and with the wind seemingly having picked up a touch, we headed for the shelter to scan Arnold’s Marsh. There were plenty of Dunlin on here, scattered about in the shallow water, as well as a Grey Plover walking along the near edge, just beyond the vegetation. There were also several Redshank and Black-tailed Godwits, three Shelduck asleep at the back, and a few Cormorants drying their wings on the island.

Continuing on out towards the beach, a Little Egret was feeding in the reeds on the brackish pools. It seems to like it here!

Little Egret

Little Egret – feeding in the reeds on the brackish pools

Looking out to sea, we spotted two Common Eider just offshore. They were drifting quickly west, but through the scope we could see their wedge-shaped bills. A female Common Scoter was also close in on the sea, dark-capped and pale-cheeked. More Gannets circled out over the sea and a large bull Grey Seal swam past.

We had one last target for the day, so we turned to head back. Suddenly, all the ducks erupted from North Scrape again. We scanned over the marshes, but we couldn’t see a Marsh Harrier out there this time. Then we noticed a Peregrine come up from behind the reeds. We watched as it circled round a couple of times, then it powered down towards the other scrapes and we lost sight of it behind the reeds as it shot across in front of Dauke’s Hide.

On the way back, we had a quick scan of the main drain, which produced a couple of Little Grebes. Then we drove further east along the coast road to Sheringham. There has been a young drake King Eider lingering off here for the last week or so. There were only one or two people looking for it now, late in the day, and they had lost sight of it. We scanned up through the flags, marking the position of the crab pots, and quickly relocated it again.

The King Eider is not at its smartest at the moment. It is just in its second winter and is still moulting out of its duller eclipse plumage, but it was still a treat to be able to watch this high arctic species so well south of its normal range. It was busy diving, presumably looking for the very crabs for which this area is so famous!

The light was fading fast now. Lots of Black-headed Gulls were gathered down on the beach below the cliffs, for a quick bath before heading off to bed. It had been a very enjoyable day out, but it was time for us to head off too now.

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4th Nov 2018 – Late Autumn, Day 3

Day 3 of a 3 day long weekend of Late Autumn Tours in North Norfolk, our last day today. It was another mild and dry day, with some brighter spells in the afternoon. The weather gods had clearly been looking favourably on us this weekend.

The plan was to spend the morning at Holkham. As we drove up along Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see a few Greylag Geese and Wigeon feeding out in the wet grass. Wigeon numbers are just starting to climb here now, as birds return for the winter. At the north end, as we parked and got out of the car, we could see lots of Pink-footed Geese in the field. Most were asleep or loafing, but a small number were awake and busy feeding on the grass.

Pink-footed Goose

Pink-footed Goose – quite a few were feeding by Lady Anne’s Drive

We walked through the trees to the beach and turned east on the edge of the saltmarsh. A small flock of Brent Geese dropped in ahead of us, so we stopped to look at them. There were at least two family parties with several juveniles, which is always good to see. We stood on the path, scoping them out in the middle, looking at the striped backs of the juveniles compared to the plain adults.

Then we noticed a couple striding out across the saltmarsh straight towards the geese, their dog running backwards and forwards ahead of them. Presumably they noticed us, because they stopped, called their dog back and put it on the lead. We thought they were going to walk round, but they marched straight up to the geese and flushed them. Then they immediately let their dog off the lead again. Bizarre behaviour and very rude too!

A little further on, we heard a Green Woodpecker calling towards the pines. We followed the sound and spotted it perched in a dead tree in the edge of the dunes. We got it in the scope and had a quick look at it.

Green Woodpecker

Green Woodpecker – perched in a dead tree in the dunes

There were lots of people and lots of dogs out walking already – lots of disturbance around the beach and the saltmarsh. Thankfully we found the Shorelarks feeding quietly on an area of saltmarsh away from the main dog walking route, but the Snow Buntings we had come to see were further out on the edge of the beach and were flushed as we arrived. We watched them fly off and disappear away over the pines way off to the east of the Gap.

We stopped to watch the Shorelarks. There were nine of them, feeding in the low vegetation, picking at the seedheads. When they lifted their heads, we could see their canary yellow faces shining in the morning sun, contrasting with their black masks and collars.

Shorelarks

Shorelarks – there were nine feeding on the saltmarsh this morning

While we were watching the Shorelarks, we heard a twittering call and looked up to see three Snow Buntings flying back in. They landed back over towards the beach and were quickly followed by another two. We walked over to get a closer look at them and were  admiring them through the scope when the rest, another 18, also returned. They dropped in with a flurry of variably white wings and we watched all 23 Snow Buntings scurrying about on the sand in a tight group.

Snow Buntings

Snow Buntings – eventually they all flew back in

We left the Snow Buntings where they were and walked over the dunes to the beach. The tide was out and their were lots of gulls and Oystercatchers out on the sand. A few Sanderling were running around too.

Looking out to sea, we spotted a small flock of Common Scoter flying off east towards Wells harbour mouth. We then scanned across and found about another 1,000 Common Scoter still offshore! They were too far out to see if anything different was in with them today. Something had obviously disturbed the Shorelarks, because while we were standing on the edge of the dunes we saw them fly over and land on the beach right out by the sea.

We made our way back to the Gap and walked west on the track on the inland side of the pines. We hoped to find some tits and smaller birds here, and we made a good start. A Blackcap was calling from the bushes, a Goldcrest flicked in and out of a briar climbing up one of the pines and we could hear a Treecreeper calling from deeper in the trees. There were lots of Jays too, busy collecting and stashing acorns at this time of year.

Jay

Jay – we heard and saw several in the Meals today

At Salt’s Hole, there were at least five Little Grebes on the pool, one of which obviously found something amusing because it laughed at us maniacally! There were a few Wigeon with the assembled Mallard on the bank at the back. We could hear Long-tailed Tits calling a little further along the path, so we walked over to see if we could catch up with a tit flock but they had disappeared into the pines by the time we got there.

Scanning from the gate just before Washington Hide, a Marsh Harrier was circling over the reeds and landed in one of the bushes. A Common Buzzard and a Red Kite were circling over the trees in Holkham Park beyond. We popped into the hide, but there wasn’t much out on the grazing meadows – a few Pink-footed Geese were hiding behind the sallows beyond the pool.

Marsh Harrier

Marsh Harrier – perched in the bushes in front of Washington Hide

As we continued west along the track, a Cetti’s Warbler was singing from the reeds, and we could hear a Water Rail squealing too. We stopped again in Joe Jordan Hide, but it was very quiet here too. A couple of Egyptian Geese were down on one of the pools and two Magpies were busy pecking at some bones on the bank in front of the hide.

We decided to walk back for lunch. On the way, there were a few Blackbirds in the bushes and a Redwing perched up nicely for us in the top of a hawthorn by the path. There were still some Starlings coming in over the trees, but otherwise it was fairly quiet here today.

We stopped for lunch at Lady Anne’s Drive. It was to be an early finish this afternoon, so people could get away in good time, but we still had over an hour to play with. We were planning to head along the coast to Kelling to try to see some Waxwings which had turned up there this morning, but over lunch a message came through to say they had flown off, so we decided to head round to Wells instead, to look for the redpolls we had seen earlier in the week.

As we walked in from the car park, there were lots of Little Grebes on the boating lake, along with three Tufted Duck which were a welcome late addition to the weekend’s list.

Little Grebe

Little Grebe – there were several on the boating lake

When we heard its plaintive piping call, we looked over to see a very smart male Bullfinch perched in a hawthorn by the path. We could hear a Chiffchaff calling from the bushes too, but otherwise there seemed to be very few birds in here this afternoon. It felt like there had been a big clear out of all the migrants which had stopped in here in the last few days. There were still one or two Blackbirds and Redwings, but a lot fewer than had been here earlier in the week. We couldn’t find any sign of the redpolls.

There was not much time left now, but we decided to try somewhere else instead, and headed over to the other side of Wells. Looking round the pools there, we could see lots of Greylags and a good number of Egyptian Geese. Duck numbers here appear to have dropped a bit, but there was still a nice flock of Wigeon and Teal and a single Pintail was asleep in with them. There were still a few Lapwings and one Ruff around the muddy edges or in the wet grass beside the water.

A mixed flock of Greenfinches and Linnets flew round, and the Greenfinches landed on the fence, where we got them in the scope. We had seen a Yellowhammer briefly when it dropped down into the grass, but helpfully two then flew up and came over towards us, landing in the hawthorns by the path. One, a smart yellow-headed male, landed in the top where we got it in the scope. A pair of Stonechats were feeding along the fence line here too, dropping down to the grass below to feed.

Yellowhammer

Yellowhammer – this smart male perched up in the bushes by the path

Unfortunately, we were now out of time, as we had promised to get everyone back in good time today. Thankfully, it wasn’t far back to Wells, where we said our goodbyes. It had been a very enjoyable three days out, with a good selection of lingering autumn rarities and arriving winter visitors.

 

 

3rd Nov 2018 – Late Autumn, Day 2

Day 2 of a 3 day long weekend of Late Autumn Tours in North Norfolk today. It was a cloudy start, but it brightened up nicely and the brisk southerly wind was mild, coming all the way from North Africa! Another nice day to be out. We planned to spend the morning trying to catch up with some lingering rarities along the coast, and then head out for some more general birding in the afternoon.

As we made our way east along the coast road this morning, we stopped first by the duck pond at Salthouse. Down along Meadow Lane, the ‘Eastern’ Stonechat was hiding at first, down in the reeds in the ditch which runs along the side of the track. It was just visible from the gate when it perched up. Helpfully, it then flew out to the taller reeds out in the middle, along the channel straight out from the gate, where we could get a really good look at it in the scope.

Eastern Stonechat

‘Eastern’ Stonechat – presumably of the form now called Stejneger’s

We could see its pale peachy orange breast contrasting with its white throat. When it flew, we could see its large, unstreaked, orange rump. At the time of writing, we are still waiting to hear back on its specific identity (which will hopefully be confirmed by DNA analysis!), although we know for sure it is one of the forms of ‘Eastern’ Stonechat.

The more easterly-breeding birds have been split out as a separate species, Stejneger’s Stonechat, which is what this bird is believed to be. However, the criteria for the separation of the two ‘Eastern’ Stonechats in the field are still largely untested so if this one isn’t Stejneger’s Stonechat, it will be back to the drawing board. Still, it is a really interesting bird to see whatever we end up calling it!

While we were watching the Stonechat, small flocks of Lapwing and Starling were passing west overhead, presumably more fresh arrivals from the continent coming in for the winter. A Sparrowhawk skimmed low over the grazing marsh and disappeared up across the field behind us, thankfully well away from the Stonechat.

Our next stop was at Sheringham. We parked at the Leas and made our way up along the coastal path to the Coastguard lookout on Skelding Hill. There were a couple of people already there who quickly put us on to the immature drake King Eider, which was out on the water. It was rather distant today, and diving constantly, but through the scope we got a good look at it. The distinctive bulbous frontal lobes on the base of its bill caught the morning light and shone bright orange.

King Eider

King Eider – an eclipse immature drake

Scanning the sea from the clifftop, we could see a few Cormorants diving among the fishing buoys. One looked a little smaller and had a different profile – a squarer head with a steep forehead and a thinner bill, as well as a more contrasting white throat. It was a Shag, a 1st winter. Shags are not common here, so this was a nice bonus bird to see. A few Gannets were circling and plunge diving offshore too.

A small flock of Pink-footed Geese flew over calling, possibly birds on their way up from the Broads to North Norfolk, rather than fresh arrivals. A few Skylarks in off the sea were more likely just arriving here for the winter.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese – possibly moving up from the Broads to North Norfolk

There has been a Richard’s Pipit lingering along the cliff top at Trimingham for the last few days, so we made our way along there next to see if we could find it. It had been reported already a couple of times this morning, but as we walked down along the path to the cliffs, we met a couple of people leaving who had not seen it for the last couple of hours. We carried on along the cliffs anyway – it was a lovely day now, and the view from here is stunning.

Trimingham cliffs

Trimingham Cliffs – a great view, but you can see the problem with erosion here

There were a few small flocks of Starlings coming in off the sea here too. We flushed a few Skylarks from the edge of the field as we walked past and a small group of Golden Plovers were hiding further out in the winter wheat. Looking over the edge of the cliffs, we could really see how the coastline is eroding here, with large areas below which had slipped down creating some substantial patches of undercliff. A Kestrel and a Meadow Pipit perched on one of the ridges.

When we got to the spot where the Richard’s Pipit had last been seen, there were a few people standing on the top of the cliffs looking, but there was still no further sign of it. It had been seen briefly in the long grass by the path but had then dropped over the cliff edge and disappeared. No one had seen which way it had gone, and it seemed like it had been roaming along a mile or more of the cliffs. We had a quick scan of the undercliff here, but it was like looking for a needle in a haystack. We didn’t want to waste too much time here, so we decided to walk back.

As we got to the path which cuts back across the fields to the road, we heard what sounded like a Rock or Water Pipit, but we were looking into the sun as it flew round. As we turned inland, a Water Pipit flew back over us. Two Common Buzzards drifted over from the small wood away to the east, passing right over our heads.

Common Buzzard

Common Buzzard – flew overhead as we walked back

When we got back to Cley, we stopped for lunch at the picnic tables overlooking the reserve. A Marsh Harrier drifted over the scrapes, flushing all the gulls, ducks and a large group of Black-tailed Godwits. A lone Ruff flew over, heading inland presumably to feed in the fields. We could hear Pink-footed Geese calling from the field behind the Visitor Centre, and when something spooked them, they all flew round and landed again behind the hedge just to the east of us.

After lunch, we headed out up the East Bank. We could hear Bearded Tits calling from the reeds, but it was a bit too windy this afternoon for them to show themselves. A Marsh Harrier was hanging in the wind out over the reedbed.

Looking across to Pope’s Pool, we could see lots of Wigeon and Teal, together with a few Shoveler and one or two Gadwall. More Black-tailed Godwits were feeding along the back edge and several Cormorants were drying their wings on the island. More ducks were loafing in the grass around the Serpentine. When a noisy motorbike raced along the coast road, revving hard, everything spooked.

Wildfowl

Wildfowl – disturbed by a noisy motorbike on the coast road

Looking down along the main drain, we could see several Little Grebes on the water. There were lots of waders on Arnold’s Marsh today, so we stood on the bank to go through them. There were more Black-tailed Godwits here, together with several Curlews and Redshanks. In amongst all the Dunlin, we found a single Knot. A Grey Plover and a Ringed Plover were feeding on the stony spits on the north side.

On the brackish pools opposite, a Little Egret was feeding just below the path, but flew up and landed again next to a Grey Heron further back.

Little Egret

Little Egret – feeding on the brackish pools by the East Bank

Out at the beach, the sea looked quiet at first glance. A couple of Grey Seals surfaced just offshore, watching some people gathered down on the shoreline. We could see one or two Gannets circling over the sea and then we found several Red-throated Divers and a single Razorbill on the water. Four Common Scoter flew past, but the highlight was a Great Skua which we picked up flying west offshore.

Back at the car, we headed west to Warham Greens. As we walked down the track, we flushed a few Blackbirds from the hedges but when we got to the paddock a large flock of Fieldfares flew up from the fields and landed in the bushes.

As we stopped to look at the Fieldfares, a harrier came up over the hedge beyond them. It was a ringtail Hen Harrier and as it dropped down low over the grass in front of the barn, we could see the white square at the base of its tail. It flew up over the hedge the other side and we walked over to the entrance to the field to find it quartering over the cover strip beyond.

Hen Harrier

Hen Harrier – having a last hunt before heading in to roost

The Hen Harrier flew round past us and disappeared through the hedge by the track. We crossed over and watched it as it continued hunting, patrolling either side of the hedge which runs along the far side of the field the other side. There were several Brown Hares in the field, but they didn’t seem particularly concerned by the Hen Harrier just beyond them.

When the Hen Harrier disappeared from view, we continued on down the track. A flock of Curlews and Lapwings was feeding in the winter wheat in the next field. A Sparrowhawk flew low across in front of them and perched up in the hedge briefly.

As we arrived down on the edge of the saltmarsh, another ringtail Hen Harrier was patrolling distantly along the far edge, out towards the beach. There were little groups of Brent Geese, Little Egrets and Curlews scattered over the saltmarsh. Flocks of Starlings were making their way west, although it was hard to tell now whether these were more migrants arriving or local birds heading in to the town to roost.

A small party of Pink-footed Geese had already settled out on the beach beyond and more flew in to join them. Further skeins of Pink-footed Geese looked to be gathering in the fields just inland from us.

It was a good evening for watching raptors. A couple more ringtail Hen Harriers appeared and quartered the saltmarsh, one coming quite a bit closer to us at one point. A ghostly grey male Hen Harrier flew in from the east, along the back edge of the saltmarsh, and shortly after a second male flew in too. A Common Buzzard flew back and forth. A rather dark looking young Peregrine flew in over the beach and tussled with a Marsh Harrier briefly, before flying off towards Wells. A male Merlin appeared on one of the posts out on the saltmarsh and perched preening in the last of the evening’s light.

It was a great way to end the day, but dusk was drawing in fast now, so we decided to head back to the car before it got dark.

2nd Nov 2018 – Late Autumn, Day 1

Day 1 of a 3 day long weekend of Late Autumn Tours in North Norfolk today. It was a glorious sunny day today, with blue sky and with winds falling light. A great day to be out.

As we made our way west along the coast road, we stopped briefly just outside Burnham Overy Staithe to admire a large flock of Pink-footed Geese in a stubble field by the road. We could see their dark heads and small, mostly dark bills.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese – feeding in the stubble as we drove past this morning

Our first destination for the morning was Holme. As we got out of the car, a large flock of Starlings flew low over us, heading west. It was to be a feature of the morning, with a constant stream of Starlings moving, many passing low over the  beach. These are birds arriving from the continent for the winter, coasting here before turning inland.

There were small numbers of Chaffinches moving too first thing, and three Jackdaws west over the beach looked like they might be migrants too. A Skylark was singing, but others looked like they might be fresh arrivals, also on the move. As we walked across the golf course, a Sparrowhawk flew low over the fairway and into the dunes, presumably hoping to find some tired migrants in the bushes.

When we got over to the saltmarsh, we could see several people with binoculars and telescopes walking through the vegetation. They flushed several small groups of birds as they went – mainly Skylarks and Linnets. But as one flock came up, we heard a Shorelark call and it seemed to drop over the dunes towards beach with all the other birds.

We walked over the dunes but all we could see were a couple of Skylarks down on the high tideline. We couldn’t see where everything else had gone.

We stopped to scan the beach, looking through the waders dotted about on the sand. There were lots of Oystercatchers and Redshank, several Turnstones, silvery white Sanderling running up and down in front of the waves and a single Knot. All along the shoreline, Cormorants were standing, drying their wings in the morning sunshine.

There were lots of dog walkers out now, particularly on the beach towards Old Hunstanton. As the dogs raced around on the sand, they flushed all the birds down that end, which flew up past us. As well as lots of Oystercatchers and Brent Geese shining in the morning light as they passed by, we could see a couple of Bar-tailed Godwits with them too.

There didn’t seem to be much on the sea, looking out from here. A lone Red-breasted Merganser flew past. As we stood and watched, we started to notice flocks of Teal coming in low over the waves, 20-50 at a time. They poured past all the time we were watching, hundreds by the time we left, all birds arriving here from the continent for the winter. Several skeins of Pink-footed Geese came in off the sea too – we watched one flock all the way in from out towards the wind farms. Real migration in action

Then we noticed a large, dark bird coming along the beach straight towards us. It was a juvenile Pomarine Skua, presumably blown inshore by last week’s storms and now scavenging along the shoreline here.

There was no sign of any Shorelarks out on the beach here, so we started to walk back the other way. As we did so, a Shorelark flew over calling and we watched it drop down over the far side of saltmarsh, on the edge of the dunes. Unfortunately, by the time we got round there, we found two people walking along the tideline, and there was no sign of it. We turned back to continue east and we hadn’t gone more than a few metres when the Shorelark flew past again.

This time it dropped down on an open area of saltmarsh, and we could see where it landed. We walked over and had a good look at the Shorelark through the scope out in the open, before it ran across and disappeared into the vegetation. We made our way round to the other side, to see if we could find it again, and it ran out of the saltmarsh right in front of us. It was just a few metres away and we had a great view of it through our binoculars. We could see its bright yellow face catching the sun as it turned, with a black bandit mask.

Shorelark

Shorelark – we could only find one on the beach today

Eventually the Shorelark ran back into the vegetation. There has been a flock of over ten here in recent days, so this one was probably looking for the rest of them. We decided to walk up a little further along the beach, to see if we could find the flock and to have a look at the sea up towards Gore Point.

We didn’t quite get that far, but we stopped to scan the sea from the beach. There were lots of Great Crested Grebes offshore, their white winter faces and necks shining in the morning light as they crested the waves. There were three grebes together not far offshore, diving and drifting with the tide. One looked much smaller than the others and through the scope we could see it was a Slavonian Grebe with two Great Crested Grebes.

Otherwise, all we could see off here today was a young Gannet diving offshore, way off in the distance. We decided not to continue along the beach, so we turned and headed back to the car. As we got there, we heard Fieldfares chacking, and looked up to see a large flock flying over. They were quite spread out, but they continued to pass overhead for several seconds. A couple of Redwings flew over with them, teezing.

Fieldfare

Fieldfare – a large flock flew over as we got back to the car

Our next stop was at Thornham Harbour. All we could find in the channel by the road was a single Common Redshank, perhaps because there were several people walking around here now, out enjoying the lovely morning. There were a couple more Redshank by the sluice and further out along the edge of the harbour, two Greenshank were roosting on the muddy bank. They really stood out, their much whiter underparts glowing in the sunshine.

Up on the seawall, we made our way along to the corner where we stood for a while and scanned. A large flock of Curlew flew past with a single Bar-tailed Godwit in with them. They circled round and landed down on the saltmarsh out in the middle, joining an even larger group which was already roosting there, well camouflaged in the vegetation. There were two Grey Plover feeding down on the muddy island in the harbour channel and they were joined by a couple more Bar-tailed Godwits which gave us a chance to get a good look at them in the scope. Further out, a couple of Ringed Plover were roosting on the edge of the channel.

Looking out to the middle of the harbour, we could see lots of gulls roosting, mainly Herring Gulls and Great Black-backed Gulls. Around the edges of the channels, we could see lots of Brent Geese, lots of Wigeon and a few Shelducks. A Little Egret flew in, flashing its yellow feet, and landed in the mud just below the bank.

Little Egret

Little Egret – flew in and landed in the muddy channel next to us

Several Linnets flew back and forth across the saltmarsh, in small groups. But when another four small finches flew past, their distinctive call immediately attracted our attention. They were Twite, once a common wintering bird along the coast here, but now mainly restricted to a handful of sites of which this is the best.

The Twite flew past us and out over the saltmarsh, getting almost to Holme before they circled back round and flew in past us again. They had picked up a few friends, as there were eight of them now. They wouldn’t settle though, and they circled round and back out towards Holme again. When they came round past us for a third time, this time they headed for their favourite tree in the field nearby and landed. They were silhouetted against the sun though, so it wasn’t a great view.

The Twite showed no sign of moving, so we turned our attention back to the harbour. Eventually, they took off again and we heard them calling as they flew in behind us. This time, two of them dropped down to the puddles on the seawall to drink. We had a quick look at them through the scope – their yellow bills catching the sun – before they flew off again and disappeared out over the saltmarsh.

As we made our way back, a small flock of Linnets flew in and landed on some seedheads on the edge of the saltmarsh below the path. Through the scope, we could see they were duller and darker, with grey bills. Tide coming in fast now.

Our final destination for the day was Titchwell. It was time for lunch when we arrived, and we ate watching the finches and tits on the feeders by the Visitor Centre. After lunch, we made a quick trip back to the car park to get the scope, where a Chiffchaff was calling in the sallows by the path.

Walking out along the main path, we couldn’t see anything of note on the former pool on the Thornham grazing marsh, which is now getting very overgrown. A Cetti’s Warbler was calling in the reeds, but there was nothing at all on the reedbed pool. A couple of Coot were feeding in one of the reedbed channels.

Avocets

Avocet – there were still seven on the Freshmarsh today

The Freshmarsh looked rather quiet today, when we arrived. The reeds in front of Parrinder Hide looked freshly cut, so we suspected the wardens had been clearing vegetation on here and had probably scared a lot of birds off. There were still a few waders on here, most notably seven lingering Avocets and a small flock of Bar-tailed Godwits which had presumably flown in to roost from the beach on the rising tide. A single Dunlin was feeding in front of Parrinder Hide.

While we were watching, a few Ruff flew in and landed down onto the mud, winter adults with pale scalloped upperparts. Several groups of Golden Plovers dropped in too, but they were rather nervous and wouldn’t settle, flying up again and whirling round in the sunshine, flashing alternately golden brown and white. Great to watch!

Golden Plover

Golden Plover – a large flock whirled round over the Freshmarsh

Small groups of Brent Geese commuted in and out from the saltmarsh too. There are plenty of ducks here now, as birds have returned for the winter – Teal, Shoveler and Wigeon. The drakes are now moulting out of eclipse plumage and back into their breeding finery, slowly getting back to their best. A single Greylag and one of the two injured Pink-footed Geese, which have spent the whole year here, were feeding on one of the closer islands. There were two Egyptian Geese here too.

We had already seen one Red Kite, very distantly hanging in the air over the fields inland. Then when everything flushed from the Freshmarsh, we looked up to see a Red Kite drifting over. It made a beeline directly out towards the beach, and was swiftly followed by a second Red Kite which followed it.

Red Kite

Red Kite – one of two which passed over the Freshmarsh this afternoon

It was nice in the sunshine up on the West Bank path today, so we didn’t feel any rush to go into the hides. With the weather so calm and the light so good, we decided to head straight up to the beach. The tide was in when we got to the Volunteer Marsh, but a nice close Common Redshank was feeding along the muddy edge just below us.

Common Redshank

Common Redshank – showing well on the Volunteer Marsh on the way out

All the waders were roosting on the one remaining island on the no-longer ‘tidal’ pools today, which was why they were not on the Freshmarsh. There were lots of Oystercatchers, Grey Plover and Dunlin. Several much paler birds really stood out and through the scope, we could see they were four Spotted Redshanks and three Greenshank. We had a good look at the Spotted Redshanks, noting their longer, needle-fine bills and white stripe over the lores.

Carrying on to the beach, the sea was in and covering all the mussel beds. The Turnstones had taken to roosting on the concrete blocks of the old bunker and looking more closely we could see there was a single Purple Sandpiper hiding in with them. We walked down the beach and got it in the scope for a closer look.

Purple Sandpiper

Purple Sandpiper – on the concrete blocks out on the beach

The Purple Sandpiper dropped down to feed on the beach with the Turnstones, picking around in the pile of razorshells left behind by last week’s storms. There were several Sanderling running around on the sand too, in and out of the waves like clockwork toys, and a larger group trying to roost on the beach further down. A couple of Bar-tailed Godwits were feeding along the edge of the water.

Looking out to sea, we could still see lots of Great Crested Grebes, but with the sea much calmer than this morning they were all now very distant. Three Razorbills in a small group were diving offshore, not easy to see despite the gentle swell, and three Common Eider flew east offshore. There were still more small skeins of Pink-footed Geese coming in off the sea – we could hear their high-pitched yelping calls as they flew in over the beach.

As we walked back along the main path, we stopped to admire one of the Spotted Redshanks which had now moved to the Volunteer Marsh. It was feeding with a Common Redshank in the channel just below the bank, very close to the path, giving us a great, close-up, side-by-side comparison. We could even see the small downward kink in the tip of the Spotted Redshank‘s bill through our binoculars – it was too close for a scope!

Spotted Redshank

Spotted Redshank – showing very well on the way back

A Little Egret was fishing here too. As the tide was going out, small fish and invertebrates were trapped in the pools or trying to escape over the small weirs created by the mud, providing easy prey for the birds. We watched the Spotted Redshank catch a large shrimp. It seemed to play with it for several minutes, dropping it back in the water, picking it up and turning it in its bill, then dropping it again. We thought it might lose it at one point but eventually it seemed to have enough and with a bit of effort, managed to swallow it.

Lots of other waders had gathered in the wider channel which runs back away from the path too. We stopped to admire a Bar-tailed Godwit on the mud, and a couple of Black-tailed Godwits feeding in the deeper channel nearby. A Grey Plover was positively glowing in the last of the afternoon’s light, and there were plenty of Redshank and a few Curlew here now too. A couple of smart drake Teal swam past.

Suddenly a large dark shape came hurtling towards us low over the Volunteer Marsh. It turned at the last minute and crash-landed on the path beside us, just a couple of metres away. It was a Woodcock, presumably a fresh arrival in off the sea from the continent. It took a couple of seconds to get its bearings, saw us, and then flew off quickly over the bank.

Back at the Freshmarsh, the gulls were starting to gather to roost. We stopped to look through them. They were mainly Black-headed Gulls, with an increasing number of larger ones, mainly Herring Gulls and Lesser Black-backed Gulls. One caught our eye – slightly darker than the Herring Gulls but not as dark as a Lesser Black-backed Gull. It was chunky too, with a heavy bill, and a rather white head with limited and fine dark streaking around the eye. It was an adult Yellow-legged Gull, but unfortunately it waded into the deeper water and hid its yellow legs from view.

The Marsh Harriers were gathering to roost too now. We could see three or four over the back of the reedbed or over the trees beyond. The light was starting to go, so we made our way back to the car. As we got back to the car park a flock of Long-tailed Tits was feeding in the trees and we managed to pick out a Blackcap feeding in the sycamore with them just as we packed up to go.

28th Oct 2018 – Autumn Weekend, Day 2

Day 2 of a weekend of Autumn Tours today. It was much better weather today – mostly bright, even sunny at times, though with one or two squally showers we mostly managed to miss and cold in the still blustery NE wind.

With the wind coming in off the continent overnight, we headed down to Wells Woods first, so see what it might have brought us. As we passed the boating lake, we could see several Little Grebes out on the water and one seemed to be laughing at us (their call sounds like mad laughter!).

Armed with a tip off about a vocal Yellow-browed Warbler a short distance along the track, we went to look for it. As we walked along, we could hear the teezing calls of Redwings and the chucking of Blackbirds in the bushes. A large flock of Redpolls, 40-50 strong, flew out of the birches by the boating lake and circled overhead. We could hear the Yellow-browed Warbler calling from deep in a large sallow clump as we approached, but it was immediately clear it would be a devil to see here.

Walking into the trees, round the back of the sallows, we flushed tons of Blackbirds and Redwings – there had clearly been a sizeable arrival of them overnight, birds arriving from the continent for the winter. There were Redpolls in the trees here too, and we watched several rich brown-toned Lesser Redpolls as they dropped out of the birches and into a large hawthorn in front of us.

Round by the Dell, we could hear tits calling in the trees – Blue, Great and Coal Tits, but surprisingly no Long-tailed Tits with them. There were Goldcrests everywhere here, flicking about in the trees, low down in the briars, in every bush. There had clearly been a big arrival of Goldcrests too – amazing to think that these tiny birds, weighing about the same as a 20p piece, can make it all the way across the North Sea.

Goldcrest

Goldcrest – there had clearly been a big arrival overnight

There is a more open area, with lots of hawthorns, which is normally good for thrushes when they have just come in, but it was disappointingly quiet today. With the bright weather, there were lots of people out walking in the woods this morning and lots of dogs running round, so perhaps they had all been flushed from here already.

Making our way back into the birches, we managed to locate a second Yellow-browed Warbler, even though it wasn’t calling. This time we got a good look at it, flitting around in the branches of the trees. We could see its striking pale supercilium and two pale wing bars.

Yellow-browed Warbler

Yellow-browed Warbler – we managed to get a good look at the second one this morning

Yellow-browed Warblers are very much an expected feature of autumn in here these days, but amazing to think these small birds make it all the way here from their breeding groups over towards the Urals, on their way south for the winter. There were a couple of Chiffchaffs in the trees here too.

Continuing on towards the drinking pool, the trees by the path here were also full of Goldcrests. But the bushes round the drinking pool itself were quiet. While we walked through, we did hear a Crossbill calling and looked up to see a nice red male flying over the tops of the pines, disappearing off east. Having only had brief views of them earlier, we decided to head back and see if we could get a better look at the Redpolls next. Several Siskins flew back and forth overhead calling on the way.

Approaching the Dell meadow, someone waved to call us over and told us that a Barn Owl had been hunting over the grass. We stood for a minute and looked, but there was no sign of it now. However, we did see a couple of people walk out of the trees at the far side, and stop to look up into the birches above them. We could see they were looking at a small group of Redpolls, so we walked over to join them.

Lesser Redpoll

Lesser Redpoll – small and rather rich brown in colouration

The five or six Redpolls closest to us, lower down in the front of the birch, were obvious Lesser Redpolls. They are smaller and darker, more richly coloured, tawny brown on the back with a brighter brown wash on the breast. The three Redpolls higher up were larger and paler. They were mostly facing us and we assumed at first they were all Mealy Redpolls, migrants from further north in Scandinavia.

One of the paler Redpolls was lurking deeper in the branches, so we concentrated on looking at the others first. Then the third bird turned and we could see it looked rather pale frosty above, buff and white-toned on the back rather than grey-brown. It also appeared to have a rather bright white wingbar too.

It climbed higher up and came out where we could get a better look at it. It was face on to us again, but it did look very pale, with more limited streaking on the flanks than the neighbouring Mealy Redpoll and with a pale creamy, chamois wash on the face and breast. It found a catkin to feed on and hung on it above us – we could see the white feathers underneath looked thick and densely padded and it had just a single, narrow dark streak in the middle of its undertail coverts.

Surely it was an Arctic Redpoll? We trained the scope on it, hoping it would turn and we might see the diagnostic white rump. It fed for a minute or two, hanging on the catkin, but then something spooked it and it disappeared into the trees. It looked good, but without seeing the rump, we just didn’t have enough to be 100% sure.

Arctic Redpoll

Coues’s Arctic Redpoll – it’s identity was confirmed the following day

We waited a while to see if the Redpolls would return to the birches where they had been feeding. We were rewarded with the Barn Owl, which reappeared, and started quartering the meadow in front of us. Great views in the sunshine! It landed in one of the trees for a few minutes, where we could get it in the scope, before resuming the hunt.

Barn Owl

Barn Owl – hunting over the Dell Meadow

The Barn Owl flew back into the trees and landed in an area of sparser birches. It seemed to be looking down into the grass below, looking for prey – an unusual place for a Barn Owl to hunt. Then it disappeared on through the trees.

A couple of Bramblings appeared in the tops of the birches, along with one or two Redwings. Two Lesser Redpolls chased through the trees and appeared to go down to drink, but there was no sign of any more Redpolls coming back to feed on the edge. We could still hear them feeding in the tops of the denser birches beyond, but apart from seeing the odd one or two at any time, they were impossible to get a good look at in here.

Postscript – it felt like that would be the end of the story, as we decided to move on. However, on Monday morning, after several hours chasing round after the Redpoll flock, we were able to confirm that there was indeed at least one Coues’s Arctic Redpoll in with them. A nice post-tour confirmation and a great late addition to the day’s list!

As we walked back to the car, the Barn Owl was still hunting, flying around between the trees where the wood is a bit more open. A pair of Bullfinches also perched up briefly in the hawthorns, piping to each other plaintively, before disappearing in.

From Wells, we headed west to Holme. As we got out of the car by the golf course, we could hear Redwings, Song Thrushes and Blackbirds calling in the trees. A Fieldfare tchacked noisily too and a steady stream of small flocks of Starlings flew overhead, on their way west. All fresh arrivals from the continent, coming in for the winter.

As we walked out over the golf course, it was very busy – lots of people, and lots of dogs, out enjoying the morning sunshine. We were hoping to find a small group of Shorelarks, which has been feeding on the beach here, but with so much disturbance, it didn’t look promising.

When we got up to the top of the beach, we stopped to scan the sea. A Great Crested Grebe was out on the water and a winter-plumage Red-throated Diver was diving as it made its way east just off the beach. There were lots of waders on the wet sand – Bar-tailed Godwits, Knot, Sanderling, Grey Plover and Turnstones. Two Ringed Plovers flew past.

There were some threatening dark clouds just offshore, although they looked like they might miss us. Just in case, we thought we should have a quick look for the Shorelarks now. As they had apparently been feeding that way yesterday, we set off east along the high tideline. As we walked past, several Rock Pipits and Skylarks came up from the saltmarsh just behind the beach. It started to spit with rain briefly, which at least had the advantage of encouraging most of the other people to head back in for cover!

We hadn’t gone too far before we found the Shorelarks, feeding on the top of the beach some distance ahead of us. They were heading away, but we stopped and had a quick look at them through the scope. We were planning to try to walk up a little closer, but before we had a chance they took off and flew towards us. They came right over us, calling softly, and landed on the beach back where we had just been. There were six of them – an extra two, as only four had been reported earlier.

Shorelark

Shorelark – there were six at Holme today

We walked back and found the Shorelarks feeding on the tideline in a sandy slack in the dunes. We got them in the scope, and had some good views. We could see their yellow faces and black bandit masks and collars. A walker came along the shoreline and flushed them, but the Shorelarks flew towards us and landed even closer, even better views. They fed here for a few minutes and they were off again. flying off along the beach behind us.

It was time for lunch, so we headed round to Titchwell and made use of the picnic tables, out of the wind. Afterwards, we headed out to explore the reserve. The feeders by the visitor centre held just a few Chaffinches and Goldfinches, but we could hear Bramblings calling in the alders by the main path. We looked up to see two Bramblings feeding above us. There was a tit flock working its way through the trees here too, but we couldn’t find anything different in with the tits.

The dried-up Thornham grazing marsh ‘pool’ was fairly devoid of life – just a single Redshank and a Pheasant. The reedbed pool held just a few Coots and Mallards today, so we continued quickly on to Island Hide. Just before we got to the access ramp, we looked down at the mud in the corner below the path and noticed a Grey Wagtail feeding on the edge of the water. They are not common here, so this was presumably a migrant stopping off on its way.

Grey Wagtail

Grey Wagtail – feeding on the mud by Island Hide

From the shelter of Island Hide, we stopped to scan the Freshmarsh. A winter adult Ruff was feeding on the mud just outside the hide, next to an adult Dunlin still moulting out of breeding plumage, still sporting a rather spotty black belly patch. There were more Dunlin and Ruff on the islands further back.

Ruff

Ruff – an adult in non-breeding plumage

There were still five Avocets on here today. A small number normally try to stay through the winter, while most of the other decide to head south instead. There were a few Black-tailed Godwits too, mostly asleep on the islands. Two Golden Plover were tucked in on the edge of the vegetation but were spooked when all the ducks took off and flew off.

There are plenty of ducks on here now, mostly Wigeon and Teal, as more return from their northern breeding grounds . More of the drake Teal are emerging from eclipse now and regaining their smart breeding plumage. The drake Wigeon on average are a little behind them. The Brent Geese are returning too, as we saw yesterday, and small groups kept dropping in to the Freshmarsh to drink or bathe, from the saltmarsh beyond.

Teal

Teal – many of the drakes are getting back into their smart breeding plumage now

A sharp call alerted to an incoming pipit, but we were in the other part of the hide so didn’t see it come in. We eventually found it, feeding along the edge of the reeds to the side of the hide. Normally we might expect it to be a Water Pipit on here, but this was a Rock Pipit, rather oily brown above and heavily streaked and blotched below. A Water Rail put in a brief appearance next to it, but quickly disappeared back into the reeds. A Marsh Harrier circled over the reedbed.

The wind picked up as a squally shower came in off the sea. It mostly missed us, passing inland to the west, but it did rain for a few minutes. We sat it out in the hide. Once it had cleared through, we decided to head round towards Parrinder Hide for a change of scene, but once we got up onto the main path the wind had dropped a bit too and it looked OK ahead of us, so we continued straight out towards the beach.

As we walked past Volunteer Marsh, a couple of close Black-tailed Godwits were feeding in the channel just below the bank. There were more Redshanks on the mud in the wider channel at the far end, along with a single Grey Plover which we got in the scope.

When we got to the beach, the tide was out but we stopped on the edge of the dunes to scan the sea. We could see a line of Common Scoter flying way out in front of the wind turbines and a couple of juvenile Gannets making their way past, but otherwise the sea was quite choppy and we couldn’t see much out on the water.

There were lots of waders out on the mussel beds – mostly Oystercatchers, Curlew and godwits. A Marsh Harrier drifted along the shoreline and over the mussel beds, causing pandemonium and flushing waders. Even though the wind had dropped a bit, it was still breezy and cold out here, so we decided to head back to shelter.

We stopped in at Parrinder Hide. With the clocks having gone back last night, it was getting dark early today and the gulls were already gathering to roost. We had a good look through them, to see if anything different had come in, but all we could see were the usual Black-headed, Common, Lesser Black-backed, Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls.

A couple of geese walked across in front of the hide – a single Pink-footed Goose following a lone Greylag, giving a nice comparison. The Pink-footed Goose was one of the two injured birds, with a mangled wing, which has been here all year, though there was no sign of the second today. A flock of Golden Plovers, circled over calling and dropped down onto the mud amongst the ducks.

It was time to start heading back now. As we walked back along the path, a Cetti’s Warbler was practicing its song from the bushes in the reedbed, nice to hear them back as the population here was devastated by the cold weather earlier in the year. We had seen small flock of Starlings flying west all day, but now a huge flock of at least 1,000 birds came over and disappeared on west.

As we got back to the trees, there seemed to be a burst of activity as Blackbirds and thrushes started spiralling up out of the trees. They circled overhead, seemingly getting their bearings, before heading off into the gathering gloom. Having rested up here for the day, they were now looking to continue on their journey. An amazing thing to watch.

As we made our way back, there was one last surprise in store. A shape on the roof of a barn, silhouetted against the last of the light, caught our eye. A quick U-turn confirmed it was a Little Owl. We stopped and wound down the windows. It dropped into a roof vent but stayed perched half in where we could see it watching us. A lovely end to the day and en exciting Autumn weekend.

Little Owl

Little Owl – perched on a barn at dusk on our way back

27th Oct 2018 – Autumn Weekend, Day 1

Day 1 of a weekend of Autumn Tours today. It was a wet and windy day, with a cold and gusty northerly bringing squally showers in off the North Sea. Perfect seawatching weather – but we had a few other things we wanted to try to do today as well.

With seawatching in mind, we made our way over to Sheringham first thing. It was a big tide this morning and with the strong north wind, the waves were crashing over the prom. It meant we couldn’t get along the prom to the shelter, so we had to drive round to the other side, and it also meant there were already a lot of people taking shelter here. We managed to find a spot out of the wind and settled in to scan the sea.

It was immediately clear there was a lot of wildfowl moving this morning, birds arriving from the continent, coming in over the North Sea to spend the winter here. We saw a steady stream of flocks of Wigeon and Teal flying past, mostly low over the waves. A couple of groups of Common Scoter coming past further out, and then some flew through with a group of Teal, providing a nice size and colour contrast.

The Brent Geese are arriving for the winter too at the moment, flying in short lines, and there were a small number of Shelducks, sometimes mixed in with them. Two Goldeneye flying past were the wildfowl highlight.

There was a steady movement of commoner seabirds passing by this morning too – mostly Gannets, Kittiwakes and Guillemots, blown inshore by the wind. Two dark juvenile Arctic Skuas came through reasonably close and disappeared off east. A single Manx Shearwater was too far out for everyone to get onto. A Great Northern Diver flew west, typically flying strongly well above the waves, despite the wind. But there was no sign of any Pomarine Skuas or Little Auks while we were watching, which we had thought we might see this morning.

There are always a small number of Purple Sandpipers along the shoreline here through the winter and a much larger number of Turnstones. The Turnstones will often run along the prom but the Purple Sandpipers are normally down on the rocks below. However, the crashing waves were obviously too much even for the hardy Purple Sandpiper today, and a couple of times it was pushed up onto the prom in front of us. When it flew back down onto the rocks, we had a good look at it over the railings.

Purple Sandpiper

Purple Sandpiper – on the rocks just below the Prom

We only spent an hour seawatching this morning, then with other things we wanted to try to see, we decided to move on. As we drove west along the coast road, we could see a large flock of Pink-footed Geese in a stubble field. We found somewhere to pull in and would down the windows. The geese nearest us flew up and settled again towards the back of the field, out of view, but it was clear we couldn’t get out of the car without flushing the rest of the flock. We could still see quite a few geese from the car, but most of them were hidden now in a dip in the field.

There were several Red-legged Partridges feeding in the stubble too, and we heard Skylarks calling as we opened the windows. A couple of smart Yellowhammers perched in the hedge nearby, calling..

Continuing on to Salthouse, we parked by the duck pond. As we got out of the car, a Woodcock shot past. It felt like it might almost have crashed into us, but veered round, over the road and into the gardens beyond. Another bird arriving from the winter, possibly from as far away as Russia, presumably fresh in and looking for somewhere sheltered to rest. Several Black-tailed Godwits were standing around in the pools behind the duck pond.

There has been an ‘Eastern’ Stonechat here for the last week or so, which we were keen to see. As we walked down along the track, we could see quite a crowd gathered already, but they didn’t seem to be looking at anything in particular, mostly standing around chatting. Apparently the Stonechat had not been seen for the last 15 minutes – it was clearly keeping down out of the wind today.

We walked up to where it had last been seen and scanned the edge of the grazing marsh, but couldn’t see any sign of it. Then we walked back to where it had been favouring in previous days, out from one of the field gates. It wasn’t out there either, but scanning back along the reedy ditch which runs beside the path, we spotted the Stonechat down in the vegetation.

It was obviously more sheltered down in the ditch but you could only see the Stonechat looking back from the gate and it kept disappearing into the reeds. When it did finally venture out onto the edge of the grazing marsh where it was more visible, a Sparrowhawk promptly appeared just beyond it, flying out low over the grass. The Stonechat sensibly dived back into the reeds, but then went made its way further back along the ditch away from us, where we couldn’t see it.

About half the group had managed to see the Stonechat, but there was a big crowd by the gate so not everyone had got onto it. Climbing up onto the top of the bank, we walked along level with where it had been. After a few minutes scanning, we spotted it again out in the middle of the grazing marsh this time.

The Stonechat was well camouflaged against the dead sedges, shades of orange and brown. But the wind seemed to have dropped, and it became more active, perching up on the top of the vegetation like a good Stonechat should! Finally, we all got nice views of it through the scope.

Stejneger's Stonechat

‘Eastern’ Stonechat – this photo taken yesterday, hopefully DNA will confirm its identity

‘Eastern’ Stonechat is the name currently being used for a group of species, including Siberian and Stejneger’s Stonechats, both of which can turn up here. It used to be much simpler, as they were all lumped together under the title ‘Siberian’, but DNA analysis has shown Stejneger’s to be distinct from Siberian and it is now treated as a full species in its own right. Unfortunately, our ability to identify these birds in the field has not kept up with the pace of taxonomic change driven by genetics!

The Salthouse Stonechat appears to be a Stejneger’s Stonechat – at least it looks similar to Stejneger’s Stonechats which have been confirmed by DNA testing recently. Hopefully, DNA has been collected and will be able to confirm it’s identity. If it is not Stejneger’s, then it will be back to the drawing board with the ID criteria!

Either way, it is an interesting and well travelled bird. ‘Eastern’ Stonechats breed across Russia to Japan and China, mostly wintering on the Indian subcontinent, with the range of Stejneger’s being further east than Siberian.

Once we had all enjoyed good views of the Stonechat, we drove on to Cley and stopped at the Visitor’s Centre for an early lunch. There were lots of birds on the scrapes and, with the wind having dropped a bit, we could even eat at the picnic tables overlooking the reserve.

A Marsh Harrier drifted across the scrapes, causing a mass panic, flushing  lots of Black-tailed Godwit and Wigeon. Thankfully, as it drifted off, the birds all seemed to settle back down. Two Lesser Redpoll flew over calling and eight Golden Plover circled over. The surprise here was a Gannet circling over the fields behind the Visitor Centre, presumably blown inland on the wind.

Marsh Harrier

Marsh Harrier – circled over the scrapes, flushing everything

After lunch, we could see black clouds approaching from the north, so we decided to head out to the hides, where we could get some shelter. As we walked along the Skirts path, a Spoonbill flew past over the reserve. Most of the Spoonbills which spent the summer here have departed now, with many of them heading down to Poole Harbour for the winter. There are only one or two still lingering on, so it was nice to see one today. It circled over the scrapes and looked like it might land, but then continue on east.

Spoonbill

Spoonbill – flew east as we walked out to the hides

By the time we got out to Dauke’s Hide and looked out, we were surprised by the comparative lack of birds, particularly compared to the masses we had seen when we were eating lunch. Talking to one of the volunteers in the hide, it seems the Marsh Harriers had made several more passes over the scrapes and eventually succeeded in scaring off most of the birds. We could still see a couple of Marsh Harriers quartering the reedbed in the distance.

There were still a few waders left. A couple of little groups of Dunlin were picking around on the muddy edges of the islands. Several Black-tailed Godwits were feeding in the deeper water. The Lapwing were mostly asleep on the grass and a lone Avocet was standing in the water behind one of the islands. Like the Spoonbills, most of the Avocets have gone south now for the winter, but a very small number always try to remain as long as it doesn’t get too cold. A Common Snipe dropped in at back, but quickly disappeared into grass.

Avocet

Avocet – just the one left at Cley now

There were still a few ducks left on the scrapes too, mainly Wigeon and Teal, along with a few Shelduck. The Black-headed Gulls were joined by a couple of Common Gulls and a single Lesser Black-backed Gull was asleep on one of the grassy islands. The Spoonbill came back west and headed off towards Blakeney Harbour.

While we were in the hide, it started to rain, so we stayed in the dry until it eventually eased. Then we headed back to the car, and drove round to the East Bank car park. As we got a short distance up the bank, it started to sleet, so heads down, we walked quickly up to the shelter overlooking Arnold’s Marsh.

The forecast was for heavy showers, but the weather seemed to set in for a while now. There was lots of water already on Arnold’s Marsh, which was good for the ducks, presumably with many coming over here when they were flushed from the scrapes. There were lots of Wigeon and Teal again, but with a few Shoveler here too. Scanning through carefully, we found a female Pintail and four Gadwall in with them. A group of Brent Geese dropped in, possibly fresh arrivals stopping for a rest. With the high water levels, the Black-tailed Godwits were feeding in the tall vegetation around the edges.

We had been told about two Snow Buntings feeding at the end of the bank, by the beach. When the rain finally eased again, we walked up to look for them but as we arrived we could see two walkers had just come up off the beach and gone right through the area. There was no sign of any Snow Buntings, presumably having been flushed.

We set off east along the grassy part of the old shingle ridge, but there was no sign of them along here. When we got back to the East Bank,  the Snow Buntings flew up from the shingle ahead of us, presumably having flown back in. They landed back on the north end of the path just a few metres ahead of us and we had nice views of them as they fed on amongst the stones, picking around the clusters of vegetation. They were looking a bit bedraggled, but we were probably too!

Snow Bunting

Snow Bunting – out on the beach, looking a bit bedraggled

While we were watching the Snow Buntings, we noticed a large dark bird drifting west right past us, with the gulls over the beach. It was a Pomarine Skua. We watched it as it hung in the wind – we could see it was heavy, bulky, especially compared the Arctic Skuas we had seen earlier. It landed on the beach and we could just about see it in the scope from here through the sea spray, so we walked over for a closer look.

After we had all had a good look at the Pomarine Skua in the scope, it took off and flew further west again. It looked like it went down towards the beach car park, so we  decided to head back to the car and drive round there to see if we could find it again.

As we walked back along the East Bank, we could hear Pink-footed Geese calling and looked up to see a small skein coming in from the east. They came in overhead and dropped down towards the reserve. Four Marsh Harriers were already gathering to roost out over the reeds.

Pink-footed Goose

Pink-footed Geese – flying in to the reserve, late afternoon

By the time we got round to the beach car park at Cley, the Pomarine Skua had taken off and gone further west again. Looking out to sea, there were still lots of Kittiwakes & and Gannets pouring past. Lines of Brent Geese were still moving west offshore too.

We were just about to leave when someone seawatching there shouted that there were two Little Auks on the sea. They were in the surf just offshore, drifting west towards us, but despite being close they were still hard to see in the crashing waves. We managed to get the scope on them, and you could see them as they rode up the face of the waves.

They seemed to swim a bit further out and we lost sight of the Little Auks. Then we noticed a Great Black-backed Gull drop down into the breakers, followed by three more. When they came up again, one of them was carrying a Little Auk in its bill! We didn’t see what happened to the second one, but Little Auks are always vulnerable when they are blown in by gales. They breed in the Arctic and spend the rest of their lives far out at sea, away from predators like gulls. They are often exhausted when they are close inshore and easy pickings for the gulls.

That was a fairly gruesome end to our seawatching today – nature red in tooth and claw! We still had one more stop to make on our way back. With the blustery wind and rain, the Peregrine was in its usual spot on the sheltered side of the church tower, tucked in an alcove between the stone pillars. We stopped and had a nice look at it through the scope.

Peregrine

Peregrine – tucked in out of the wind, on the south side of the tower

We had done well today, despite the wind and rain. The weather forecast is a bit better for tomorrow, so let’s see what the wind had brought us!

14th Oct 2018 – Four Autumn Days, Day 4

Day 4 of a four-day Autumn Tour today, our last day. It was meant to rain all day today and, although it was wet at times, it was nowhere near as bad as we might have feared based on the forecast. The wind was very light in the morning, but swung round to the north and picked up a bit more in the afternoon.

With the forecast of rain, we headed over to Cley first thing, so we could take shelter in the hides. But when we got there, it wasn’t raining, so we decided to make the most of it and drove round to the beach first.

As we walked along the shingle, a large flock of Linnets came out of the weedy vegetation the other side of the fence accompanied by Goldfinches and followed by a number of Meadow Pipits. We were looking for a Snow Bunting, which had been here for a few days, but there was no sign of it with these other birds here.

Continuing on to where the vegetation grows out over the open shingle, we walked through amongst the sparse tall weeds around the edge. A couple of Skylarks came up from the edge of the grass and disappeared off towards the Eye Field, and then a Wheatear flew out and landed on a lump of concrete on the beach. It was looking rather bedraggled, presumably from the wet vegetation, and stood there watching us.

Wheatear

Wheatear – this bedraggled individual was feeding out on the edge of the beach

Just a couple of metres further along, we noticed something moving on the shingle right in front of us, as we almost trod on the Snow Bunting. It was feeding quietly on the top of the beach, where some low weeds were growing through the stones. Snow Buntings are often very tame, coming from places where they probably are not used to seeing people, and this one was very accommodating. It was a male, but rather dark grey and brown, an Icelandic Snow Bunting of the insulae subspecies.

Snow Bunting

Snow Bunting – feeding quietly on the top of the shingle ridge

A large flock of Ringed Plover flew round over the sea and landed back on the beach some distance further up ahead of us. Looking through the scopes, we could see there were a few Dunlin with them too, but the birds were remarkably hard to see on the stones and part of the flock was hidden from view over a rise in the beach.

There was quite a bit of activity over the rather calm sea this morning, so we stood for a while and scanned out over the water. A steady stream of Gannets came past, mostly flying east, a variety of different colours and ages, from dark grey-brown juveniles, to the white adults with black-tipped wings, and various stages in between.

Gannet

Gannet – several dark grey juveniles were among those flying past

Several Red-throated Divers were swimming on the water and we had a closer look at both an adult still mostly in breeding plumage and one already in grey and white winter attire. A Shag flew west along the shoreline, past us.

At this time of year, birds are arriving from the continent for the winter and there was a nice selection of wildfowl coming in over the sea today. A steady stream of small lines of Brent Geese flew past low over the sea, coming back from their breeding grounds in Russia, and we saw several flocks of Wigeon and Teal too. Two Red-breasted Mergansers flew past just off the beach together with a couple of Teal and a few Common Scoter went past further out.

Looking inland, a Marsh Harrier was standing down on the short grass on the edge of North Scrape, but there didn’t seem to be much else on there today. A Common Snipe and two Redshank were feeding on Billy’s Wash. Remarkably, the rain was still holding off – despite it being forecast to rain all morning – so we thought we would push our luck and head round to the East Bank for a walk. A pair of Grey Seals was bobbing in the water just off the beach, watching the people walking past, as we made our way back to the car.

The East Bank car park was quite full, so we parked at Walsey Hills instead. We stopped to have a look at Snipe’s Marsh first. We could see a Little Egret feeding on the mud amongst the cut reeds, but there didn’t appear to be any waders here at first. However, a careful scan around the edges eventually produced the hoped for Jack Snipe, well spotted by one of the group, asleep in the reeds on one side.

Jack Snipe

Jack Snipe – showed well, sleeping on the edge of reeds

We had a good look at the Jack Snipe through the scope. It woke up at one point and we could see its bill, thicker and shorter than a Common Snipe. We could also see the distinctive head pattern. A Water Rail ran across the mud the other side but disappeared into the reeds before anyone could get onto it. Helpfully it re-emerged a little later and walked back the other way.

There seemed to be some smaller birds on the move this morning, and we could hear Chaffinches calling overhead as we stood by Snipe’s Marsh. One or two Bramblings gave their wheezy calls too. A Cetti’s Warbler was singing from time to time from the reeds and a Bullfinch was calling over by North Foreland wood.

There looked to be some darker clouds approaching now, so we decided to have a quick look in the trees at Walsey Hills. As we walked along the footpath, we could hear Robins and a Chiffchaff calling. We had been lucky with the weather up until now but at this point it finally started to rain. We walked up to the top to have a look in the trees, but beat a hasty retreat.

It was time to head for the hides and get out of the weather. Having been to the Visitor Centre to get our permits, we walked quickly out along the boardwalk and straight into Dauke’s Hide. As soon as we got inside, someone very kindly pointed out a Kingfisher, which was perched down on the mud right in front.

The Kingfisher was wrestling with a stickleback. It had dropped it on the mud, but hopped down and picked it up and proceeded to beat it against the small mound it was standing on. It dropped it again and stood looking down at it, before finally picking it up once more and eating it.

Kingfisher

Kingfisher – was wrestling with a stickleback on the mud in front of the hide

We enjoyed stunning views of the Kingfisher – it kept coming closer to the hide, perching on a post in the channel just in front. Eventually, it flew off up the channel but a few minutes later it was back again on its favourite post.

Dragging our attention away from the Kingfisher, we noticed a Little Stint with ten Dunlin on Whitwell Scrape. It was hard to see properly from Dauke’s, particularly to get an angle for the scopes, so we hurried round to Avocet Hide for a closer look. The Little Stint was noticeably smaller than the accompanying Dunlin, with a shorter bill and cleaner white underparts.

Little Stints have been thin on the ground this autumn. The passage of juveniles through here way outnumbers adults, so it could be that they have had a poor breeding season, or perhaps just the persistent westerlies mean that the numbers reaching here have been low. Either way, it was nice to catch up with one today.

Little Stint

Little Stint – a juvenile with 10 Dunlin on Whitwell Scrape

The Dunlin and Little Stint were spooked by something and flew back across to Simmond’s Scrape, so we went back round to Dauke’s Hide. The Kingfisher had disappeared, but a Water Rail was now running around down in front of the hide, giving great views.

There were a few other waders out on Simmond’s Scrape today, including a Curlew, and a couple of Ringed Plovers. A flock of Golden Plover dropped in. Several Black-tailed Godwits were feeding in the deeper water on Pat’s Pool.

There are lots of ducks back for the winter already, mainly Wigeon and Teal, along with a few Shoveler. Looking through them carefully, we found a single Pintail, a drake starting to moult out of eclipse plumage. There was a big RSPB group in Dauke’s Hide today, so there was nowhere for us to sit. They had given up looking at the birds though and had settled in to eat their lunch. Eventually, all the loud discussions about double cherry bakewells and their different home made chutneys started to make us hungry, so we decided to head somewhere more appropriate to eat our lunch. Thankfully, the rain had now stopped again.

The shelter round at the beach car park was the perfect spot, out of the wind, which had now swung round to the north. After lunch, we had a quick look out at the sea. There were still lots of Gannets moving, plus one or two plunge diving just offshore now. Several Sandwich Terns were patrolling up and down. A Razorbill flew past, and a Guillemot was diving, out on the sea just off the beach.

There had apparently been an arrival of Blackbirds and Robins overnight, with a few seen around Cley first thing, so we thought we would see if there was any sign of activity down at Kelling Water Meadow. However, the lane was disappointingly quiet, just a few Chaffinches in the trees. Perhaps it had been too disturbed during the morning to hold anything here. There were lots of Pheasants in the fields, and Red-legged Partridges calling – this is a shooting estate after all. Rooks and Jackdaws were flying around the trees or on the hillside beyond the Water Meadow.

Down at the pool, the first thing we noticed were the gulls. There were quite a few Black-headed Gulls, but one young bird immediately stood out. It was a young Mediterranean Gull, a 1st winter. Continuing down to the corner for a better look, we found another two Mediterranean Gulls on here as well, a second 1st winter and also a 2nd winter. There were a few Herring Gulls, Lesser Black-backed Gulls and Great Black-backed Gulls too.

Mediterranean Gull

Mediterranean Gull – one of three immatures on the Water Meadow this afternoon

It was rather exposed when we got out of the shelter of the lane, and it was spitting with rain again. With the lack of any obvious sign of any migrants, we decided to head somewhere more sheltered.

On our way back west, we had a look up at the church tower and could see the Peregrine back again. It didn’t look particularly happy though, facing in to the wall and hunched up, presumably sheltering from wind & drizzle. We got it in the scope and had a good look at it – eventually it even turned its head to look round.

Peregrine

Peregrine – back on the church tower, sheltering from the wind & rain

Wells Woods seemed like a good place to finish, where we could get out of the northerly breeze. Several Little Grebes were diving out on the boating lake as we passed. We made our way in and up to the Dell, before we came to a tit flock. One of the first birds we got our binoculars on was a Yellow-browed Warbler. It was feeding in a small birch and we all managed to get a good look at it. A Goldcrest flew into one of the low bushes right next to us to feed, giving us a chance to appreciate just how small they are.

Their glipping calls alerted us to some Common Crossbills in the pines and we quickly realised they were right above our heads. We watched them flying down to the lower branches to find cones, before taking them higher up to deal with. They have been rather few and far between over the last year or so here, so it was great to see them and quite well.

Crossbill

Common Crossbill – feeding above our heads in the pines by the Dell

We followed the tit flock as it made its way through the trees for a few mins. As well as all the Long-tailed Tits, Blue Tits, Great Tits and Coal Tits, we could hear Treecreeper and Chiffchaff calling. Eventually, the Long-tailed Tits led the other high up into the pines and they disappeared.

It was a productive few minutes, and a nice way to end the tour, in Wells Woods. We got as far as the drinking pool, but it was time to head back, with people wanting to get away quickly. It had been a very good four days too, with a nice selection of different Autumn birds.