Category Archives: Broads

24th Apr 2018 – Five Days of Spring, Day 4

Day 4 of five days of Spring Migration tours today. After three days up on the North Norfolk coast, we headed down to the Broads – not least because there were several good birds to see down there. It was thankfully less windy than yesterday but, after spitting on and off from late morning, it finally started to rain around 3pm, unusually around the time it was forecast!

It was a long drive down to the Broads this morning. A Pallid Harrier had been found on the coast between Horsey and Winterton yesterday and was reported to be still around today, so we headed straight over there first. We parked in the car park at Winterton and set off north through the dunes.

We could see four or five people standing on the top of a tall dune in the distance and we met one of the locals coming back who told us that was the best place to head for first, even though the bird had headed off north. As we made our way over the dunes, there were Wheatears everywhere, flying off in all directions ahead of us.

Wheatear

Wheatear – there were lots in the North Dunes today

When we got up onto the top of the tall dune, the message was the same as we had heard earlier – the Pallid Harrier had been seen flying off north and lost to view. Still, it had been back once or twice already, so this seemed like the best place to stand for now.

There were several dog walkers out this morning and one of them flushed a small group of Ring Ouzels, which flew off ahead of them and landed in the tops of a small group of scrubby trees down in the bottom of the dunes. We just got them in the scope before they were flushed again and flew off further north.

While we were all watching the Ring Ouzels, one of the group asked ‘what’s this bird over here?’. We turned around to see the Pallid Harrier a short distance away! It was chasing a Skylark over the dunes, twisting and turning. The Skylark got away and the Pallid Harrier turned towards the dune where we were standing and flew right past just below us. Wow!

Pallid Harrier 2

Pallid Harrier – came right past just below where we were standing

We could see the Pallid Harrier‘s pale collar, set off by the dark ‘boa’ just behind. It was much slimmer winged and more streamlined than a Hen Harrier too. It headed off south towards the car park, then turned and started to make its way back, along the seaward edge of the dunes. It came past us again, a bit more distant this time, and we watched as it disappeared away to the north. It was clearly doing a regular circuit of the dunes, between the beach car park and Horsey to the north.

Having enjoyed such fantastic views of the Pallid Harrier, we set off down into the dunes to try to get a better look at the Ring Ouzels now. There were more Wheatears here and a male Stonechat, which perched up obligingly in the top of a small tree next to the path.

Stonechat

Stonechat – this male perched up obligingly near the path

Before we even got to where we thought the Ring Ouzels had gone, we flushed one from a bramble clump ahead of us. It flew off over the crest of the dune calling. When we got to the top, we saw three Ring Ouzels fly again, from a ridge further over. They seemed to be very flighty today. We swung round in a wide arc to the north, to try to find somewhere to try to view them from a safe distance, but they were off again.

This time the Ring Ouzels, now four of them, flew across and landed in front of a large dune where some people were sitting looking for the Pallid Harrier. We made our way round to the back of the dune and crept up the side. When we looked over the edge we could see the Ring Ouzels on the next dune ridge over. They were feeding happily and we had a good look at them through the scope, several males and at least one female, before they dropped down the other side of the ridge out of view.

Ring Ouzel

Ring Ouzel – at least four of them showed very well from a discrete distance

As we walked up to join the others on the top of the dune, they alerted us to the fact that the Pallid Harrier was doing another pass behind us. We followed it as it disappeared off to the south again, down to the car park. A few minutes later, it was back and we watched as the Pallid Harrier headed off north low over the dunes. Great views again! We had been spoiled now, with the performance the Pallid Harrier had put on for us, so we decided to move on and see what else we could find.

Pallid Harrier 1

Pallid Harrier – we watched it do another couple of passes through the dunes

As we made our way back south through the dunes, there didn’t seem to be as many birds as on our way up earlier, particularly we didn’t see any more Wheatears. Probably they had all been flushed out of this part of the dunes by all the people walking through. There were lots of Skylarks singing and we did come across a smart male Yellowhammer perched in the top of a small tree.

We carried on south, over the road and on into the south dunes. As we got up to the first trees, we could see a small warbler flitting around in the bare branches and picking at the leaf buds which were just starting to open. It was a Lesser Whitethroat and we watched it for a couple of minutes as it worked its way through the branches. A Chiffchaff flew in and started singing from higher up in the same tree.

A little further on, we found a Willow Warbler and a Blackcap. The Willow Warbler was singing from time to time, a beautiful, sweet descending scale, and showed well in some low hawthorns. The Blackcap kept low in the brambles, subsinging.

Willow Warbler

Willow Warbler – we saw several in the south dunes

As we continued on south, there were more warblers in the trees and bushes. Another Lesser Whitethroat, another couple of Willow Warblers, another Blackcap. A Common Whitethroat started singing but disappeared off ahead of us.

There were not many birds moving today. We did see a small number of Swallows, but only about 4-5, heading north through the dunes, and next to nothing else. There were plenty of Linnets and a few Meadow Pipits in the dunes.

Linnet

Linnet – still quite common in the dunes

As we turned to head back, a male Stonechat was singing from the brambles in the middle of the Valley. A particularly bright, lemon-yellow breasted Willow Warbler was flitting around in one of the small oaks in the next clump of trees. We made our way slowly back to the car.

News had come through that the Black-winged Stilt, which had been found at Potter Heigham yesterday, was still present today. So we made our way over there next. When we got there, it was time for lunch. As we ate, a male Marsh Harrier was displaying high over our heads, calling.

Scanning the first pool we passed, we spotted a very smart drake Garganey out in the middle, so we stopped to have a look at it through the scope. There were lots of other ducks on here too – Mallard, Gadwall, Teal, Shoveler, Pochard and Tufted Duck. Plus both Little and Great Crested Grebes, both in breeding plumage.

We had just started to walk on when we received a phone call to say the Black-winged Stilt had just flown over our way. Sure enough, we found it on the next pool, quite close, down towards the front. We got it in the scope, noting its black mantle and black markings on the head, suggesting it is a male.

Black-winged Stilt

Black-winged Stilt – this lone male was very mobile around the pools today

The water levels are quite high here at the moment, so there are not that many places for it to feed and it appears to be very mobile. The Black-winged Stilt made its way along the edge of a flooded grassy island, then flew over to the next pool. We watched it on there for a few minutes before it was off again, and flew over to the pools at the back by the river.

From here we could see two more Garganey on the bank at the back of this pool. A flock of hirundines was hawking over the water, mainly Swallows and House Martins. One Common Swift was in with them.

We were told that a couple of Spoonbills had flown in and landed on one of the other pools, along the access track. We walked back there but couldn’t see them at first – they were not where they had been earlier. Then we picked them up, feeding with their heads down half hidden behind a line of reeds. Eventually they put their heads up briefly and we could just about see them properly.

There were lots more duck on these pools and a group of five Garganey were down towards the front. There were four smart drakes, with bold white stripes on their heads, and a single browner female. It is great to see groups of Garganey like this – a scene more like spring in the Mediterranean than the UK. There was also a single drake Pintail lingering here.

Garganey

Garganey – a flock of five, including four drakes

It was starting to rain now, but we wanted to see if we could find any Cranes. We headed back past the car park. A couple of Sedge Warblers were singing from the reeds and then we heard a Reed Warbler too – much more structured and rhythmical.

Continuing on, we came to an open area where we could scan a large expanse of grazing marsh. The first thing we set eyes on was a pair of Cranes over in the distance. We got them in the scope and there was no mistaking them. As it was raining harder now, we made our way back to the car. A Grasshopper Warbler reeled briefly from deep in the bushes out in the reeds.

Having achieved all our targets here, we decided to head back towards North Norfolk and stop to see if we could find anything from the car on the way. We made our way up to Cromer and turned west along the coast road.

Our first detour was at West Runton where we had a quick look in the paddocks along the road down to the beach. A single Wheatear was perched on one of the fence posts, looking decidedly soggy. It was too wet to have a look at Beeston Bump now, so we continued on to Salthouse and drove up the Beach Road. A single Wheatear was out in the grass just north of the main drain.

Our last detour was at Cley, where once again we headed down along the road to the beach. We stopped at the bend and scanned out along the fence line. The first bird we set eyes on was a cracking male Whinchat, preening in the wet. A great bonus at the end of the day! There were also dozens of Swallows here too, perching on the fence or hawking low over the reeds, along with several Sand Martins and one or two House Martins.

Hirundines

Hirundines – gathered on the fence in the rain

We had a quick look at the sea from the beach shelter, but there was not much happening offshore. A couple of Sandwich Terns flew past calling.

We had enjoyed a great day out, despite the rain setting in later, and see a really good selection of birds. We decided to call time and head for home.

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10th Feb 2018 – Winter, Broads & Brecks #2

Day 2 of a three day long weekend of tours, and it was down to the Norfolk Broads today. It was a lovely sunny start to the day, although it clouded over late morning and then tried to rain on and off in the afternoon. Thankfully the rain was only light, just spitting with drizzle at times, so it didn’t stop us getting out.

Our first destination saw us driving along the coast road past Horsey. We had hoped we might find some Cranes along here, particularly on a lovely bright morning, but there was no sign of any today. We found a convenient layby to park and stretch our legs. There were lots of Pink-footed Geese out on the grazing meadows but they were very jumpy, constantly flying up and landing again. A light aircraft flew round over the fields, possibly the source of some of the nervousness.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese – flying round, very nervous today

There were also lots of Lapwings and a few Fieldfares out on the grass. We could see several Marsh Harriers circling over the reeds behind us. A couple of large herds of Mute Swans were out in the fields. With all the disturbance, there were not as many birds out here as there often are, so we moved quickly on.

Our next stop was round at Ludham. As we climbed up onto the river bank, we could see a small group of swans out on the grazing marshes. A closer look with the scope confirmed there were six Whooper Swans with a similar number of Mute Swans. We could see the prominent yellow wedge running down the bills to a sharp point on the Whooper Swans, and they were not much smaller than the accompanying Mutes.

Whooper Swans

Whooper Swans – 4 of the 6 out on the grazing marshes again today

Three Stock Doves were out in the field next to the cow barn and a couple of Pied Wagtails were picking around the muddy farm yard. Scanning the grass, we could see lots of Lapwing and Golden Plover and several Chinese Water Deer too. Looking along the river, a pair of Gadwall were swimming with a few Coot. But there were no Cranes here today either. It was a lovely morning and the footpath along the river bank was very busy with dog walkers, which meant there was presumably too much disturbance. Were we destined to miss out on the Cranes everywhere today?

We moved on again and headed south. Looking out of the window as we were driving along the road, we finally found our first Cranes of the day, standing in the field where we had seen a big group the other day. At first we could only see five together, on the edge of the maize strip. Then we looked round behind us, just in time to see another 14 Cranes circling in the sky. They disappeared off towards the river, dropping down behind some trees. We didn’t see where they had come from but someone was shooting pigeons a couple of fields over, so may have flushed them.

Common Cranes 1

Common Cranes – this flock of 14 flew round and headed off towards the river

Looking back at the original group, more Cranes started to emerge from the maize strip. Scanning the surrounding fields, we also found another pair nearby. The more we looked, the more we found and by the end we had 15 Cranes together in the field, and there could easily have still been some hiding in the crop. It was quite a sight!

Common Cranes 2

Common Cranes – several of the 15 which were still left down in the fields

There was even some more action. At one point, six of the Cranes flew up and circled round. There was lots of bugling, the calls echoing across the fields. Two flew off, but four of the Cranes dropped back down with the others again. Great stuff!

Common Cranes 3

Common Cranes – six of the group flew round bugling

Having finally found some Cranes – and enjoyed cracking views of a really good number to boot (it is not often we see large flocks such as this here, a significant proportion of the total Broadland population!), we headed on, down to the Yare valley. As we walked down to the gate and scanned the marshes at Cantley, it was rather disappointing. There were almost no geese here today – just a single Egyptian Goose which doesn’t really count! Otherwise, all we could see were Rooks, Lapwings and a few Mute Swans.

Darker clouds were gathering to the south, so we didn’t hang around here too long and made our way back to the car. As we were loading up, we looked across to the nearby sugar beet processing factory and noticed a small shape on the side of the tall steaming chimney. It was a Peregrine. Presumably it had found somewhere to keep warm?

Peregrine

Peregrine – finding a warm spot on the chimney of Cantley Beet Factory

At this point it started to spit with rain. We decided it would be a good moment for an early lunch, so we made our way round to Strumpshaw Fen. As we walked out to the Reception Hide, we stopped to look at all the tits coming down to the feeders A Marsh Tit made several visits as we watched, mostly dropping down to the ground where some seed had been sprinkled. A Jay came up from the path too as we arrived, and a Siskin flew over calling.

Marsh Tit

Marsh Tit – making regular visits down to the ground below the feeders

Looking out across the Reception Hide pool, there were lots of Gadwall and Coot on the water today. A little group of Shoveler didn’t linger and a couple of flocks of Teal flew over without landing. The Black Swan was in hiding today. A couple of Marsh Harriers circled over the reeds. As well as providing a very welcome hot drink, the Reception Hide also gave us great views of a very well camouflaged Common Snipe feeding in the cut reeds in front.

After lunch, the rain had stopped, so we headed back out towards the coast. A quick detour off the Acle Straight towards Halvergate produced four Bewick’s Swans out on the grazing marshes. This is a traditional stop off point for swans heading back towards the continent in late winter, so can often be a good place to look late in the season, when the wintering birds have departed. We could see immediately that they were small and short-necked compared to the Mute and Whooper Swans we had seen earlier and through the scope we could see the more restricted, squared off yellow patch on their bills.

Bewick's Swans

Bewick’s Swans – these four were on the grazing marshes near Halvergate

Continuing on to Great Yarmouth, we quickly located the Glossy Ibis in its usual field at Bure Park. It was very busy feeding down in the wet grass, finding a few worms while we watched. A wet grassy park in Great Yarmouth in winter must be a far cry from the marshes of southern Spain, but it seemed to be doing OK with a few Moorhens and Black-headed Gulls for company.

Glossy Ibis

Glossy Ibis – feeding in the wet grassy fields in front of the car park

After a quick stop to catch up with the Glossy Ibis, we made our way on further south again, down to Waveney Forest. It was spitting with rain now but it was relatively sheltered from the wind in the trees. Looking out across Haddiscoe Island from ‘the mound’, it appeared rather desolate at first. The gates and posts where the Buzzards like to perch were conspicuously empty but scanning more carefully, we quickly found our target. The Rough-legged Buzzard was standing down in the grass today, out in the middle.

It was rather distant, and a bit misty now, but we could see the Rough-legged Buzzard’s pale crown and white spotting in the upperparts, contrasting with its black throat and upper breast and black patches either side of its belly. This is a returning adult, which comes back to these grazing marshes each winter, from its breeding grounds in the arctic.

Rough-legged Buzzard

Rough-legged Buzzard – out in the mist on Haddiscoe Island

The cherry on the cake was duly provided when the Rough-legged Buzzard took off and flew low across the grass, flashing its distinctive white tail with a contrasting black terminal band. It turned into the wind and started hovering, like a giant Kestrel in slow motion. It repeated this several times – Rough-legged Buzzards are habitual hoverers when they hunt, unlike the more familiar Common Buzzard which will hover only occasionally. After hunting for a few minutes, the Rough-legged Buzzard flew back across and landed again down on the grass close to where it had been earlier.

We took that as our cue to leave. We weren’t sure whether we would make it out to Stubb Mill tonight, given the weather, but by the time we got to the car park at Hickling the rain had eased off again. We decided to give it a go. We took the direct route out today, along the road. Two Egyptian Geese were in one of the fields and four Cormorants flew over.

When we got to Stubb Mill, we immediately spotted two Cranes out on the grass. We had a good look at them through the scope, walking round, before they eventually flew round and dropped down in the reeds at the back. Shortly afterwards, someone spotted another pair, out in one of the meadows further over. And we could hear more Cranes bugling over towards the reserve – based on the noise, another two pairs at least.

Common Cranes 4

Common Crane – one of two pairs out at Stubb Mill this evening

We had already amassed quite a total of Cranes on our travels today. Then another five flew in, low over the grass in front of the watchpoint, and disappeared over towards the reserve. That took us to a massive 38 seen and several more Cranes heard today!

Common Cranes 5

Common Crane – another five flew in to roost at dusk

There were at least 5-6 Marsh Harriers in already, perched out in the bushes in the middle of the reeds or circling round overhead, but others were probably keeping down given the weather. Several more flew in while we were watching. A male Merlin shot across very low, only briefly breaking above the reeds, unfortunately too quickly for everyone to get onto it. A ghostly grey male Hen Harrier appeared in the distance, flying round above the bushes in the reeds where the Marsh Harriers were gathered for a couple of minutes, visible in the scope despite the gathering gloom.

Given the weather, the light was fading fast tonight. We had fared far better than we thought we might at Stubb Mill this evening, it was well worth coming out here. We decided to call it a night and head for home.

7th Feb 2018 – Wintry Broads

A Private Tour down in the Norfolk Broads today. After snow overnight, the wintry showers were supposed to die out through the morning and it was meant to brighten up. It never really happened that way, remaining mostly cloudy all day. but at least we were able to largely dodge the showers until late in the day. And it didn’t stop us seeing some good birds.

After meeting in Hickling, we headed round towards the coast. A slow drive stopping to scan some of the fields which the Cranes favour failed to yield the hoped for reward, but it was still cold and cloudy so they were probably hiding somewhere sheltered. We stopped in a convenient layby and got out to scan the fields.

There were a couple of large herds of Mute Swans here, on either side of the road, but nothing else with them. Further over, we could see a hundred or so Pink-footed Geese at the back of the grazing marshes, which were covered in Lapwing and Golden Plover. A Green Sandpiper called over towards the reeds, but we couldn’t see it. A Common Snipe flew up from the grass. We had a good look through the scope at one of the Fieldfares feeding among the molehills.

There were a few raptors too, starting to wake up. Three Marsh Harriers circled up out of the reeds and a Common Buzzard perched on the bank, trying to warm itself. A couple of Kestrels were perched on the wires.

Continuing on our way, we headed inland in search of more swans. As we parked at our next stop and got out of the car, we could see a little group of no more than half a dozen out on the grazing marshes. A quick look through the scope confirmed they were a mixture of Mute Swans together with a couple of Whooper Swans. There were a few more down out of view in a ditch, so we decided to walk round on the river bank to try to get a better look.

From up on the bank, we scanned the grazing marshes the other side of the river and immediately spotted a Common Crane out on the grass. A second Crane was nearby, but they were half hidden behind the reeds. We had to find a gap we could see over, but we eventually got a good look at one of the Cranes through the scope.

Common Crane 1

Common Crane – one of a pair, our first of the day

We could hear Bearded Tits calling from the reeds, but couldn’t see them. It was cold and there was a fresh breeze, so they were keeping well tucked down this morning. A Reed Bunting called and showed itself briefly. A Cetti’s Warbler was more typically elusive. However, we had great views of a Grey Wagtail which flew in and landed in a nearby farmyard, picking around the edge of a muddy puddle.

There was a better view across to the swans from up here and now we could see there were actually five Whooper Swans here. Through the scope, we could see the wedge-shaped yellow patch on their bills.

Whooper Swans

Whooper Swans – a small mixed group with Mute Swans

We could see a number of Chinese Water Deer out on the grass too, which once again was liberally sprinkled with Lapwings and Golden Plover. Suddenly all the birds erupted, taking to the air and whirling round. There are often Marsh Harriers here, but we couldn’t see any likely culprits until one of the group spotted a couple of raptors circling high over the marshes.

It was immediately clear there was a small bird of prey and a much larger one. The smaller bird was a Sparrowhawk, which was mobbing the bigger one, but it was only as the latter turned that we could see it was not one of the usual harriers or buzzards. It was another hawk, but a really huge one, a Goshawk.

Goshawk

Goshawk – a rare bird indeed in the Broads, a real surprise

Once all the group were on it, we had a closer look at the Goshawk. As it circled, we could see it was a young bird, born last year, rather brownish. As well as the huge size, we could see the distinctive long wings with bulging secondaries, broad-based and rounded tail and protruding head.

The Sparrohawk lost interest and flew off, while the Goshawk continued to circle and drift further away. At one point, it straightened up and flew a short distance, with deep, heavy wingbeats, very different from the fast bursts of flapping of the Sparrowhawk. While we do have Goshawks in Norfolk, they are very rare in the Broads, so this was a complete surprise.Young birds are very prone to wandering though and it was apparently a good breeding season for them in 2017. A real bonus for the day!

It was cold up on the river bank, so once the Goshawk had drifted away, we headed back to the car and a chance to warm up as we drove to our next stop. The stockman was just going in to feed the cattle in the barn next to where we had parked and as he did so he flushed out a Barn Owl, which flew across in front of us, over the bank, and disappeared down on the other side of the river.

We pulled up next on the edge of some overgrown fields, sown with a seed cover crop. Here we spotted a small group of finches fly up into an oak in the hedge and quickly got the scope on one, a smart male Brambling. Unfortunately, the birds flew again before everyone got onto it.

We spent a few minutes trying to get a better look at the finches. We walked up the footpath on the edge of the field and back again, but a lot of the birds were either in the trees above our heads or had flown off over the back of the field. We could hear the nasal call of more Bramblings and the hard calls of Linnets flying over, as well as plenty of Chaffinches and a few Goldfinches. Finally, they all flew across and landed in a tree on the edge of the field, where we could all get a good look at them.

Back in the car, we had another opportunity to warm up as we drove south. A quick glance out of the window though and we spotted some dark shapes in a field in the distance. We turned round and found a convenient place to stop. Once out of the car, we could see they were Cranes, and plenty of them!

Common Crane 2

Common Cranes – feeding in a cover strip on the edge of a field

The Cranes were hard to count. A few were standing around on the edge of the field, but more were feeding in the vegetation in a tall cover strip. Through the scope, we could see some of them ripping at the tall stems, but there were several more deep in the crop – we could just see bits of grey shapes moving around inside.

As we scanned across, we could see several more Cranes around the edge of the next field. An attempt to count them all got to 26 in total, but it is very possible there were more than that, given we struggled to see how many were deep in the cover strip. This is a very impressive flock by UK standards, a significant proportion of the Broadland total in one group, great to see.

Common Crane 3

Common Cranes – we counted at least 26 in the flock, a great sight

Unfortunately, it had started to spit with wintry rain now, so we didn’t linger as long as we might have done with the Cranes, but got back in the car and moved on.

Having not found any Bewick’s Swans earlier, we headed round to Halvergate next to see if we could find any here, another regular site for them. At first, we saw several groups of Mute Swans before we spotted four smaller birds on their own on the grazing marsh. Stopping in a convenient gateway, we got out to confirm they were four Bewick’s Swans.

Bewick's Swan

Bewick’s Swan – one of four at Halvergate today

Through the scope, we could see the smaller, squared off yellow patch on the bill of the Bewick’s Swans, very different from the more extensive, wedge shaped yellow on the Whooper Swans we had seen earlier. The Bewick’s Swans were also noticeably smaller and shorter-necked.

There was now a request to find somewhere warm to have lunch or a hot drink, so after an abortive attempt to visit the pub in Halvergate, which was closed, we headed back to Acle. The hot chocolate was especially welcome today!

After a break, we resumed our quest for more birds. There has been a Glossy Ibis on the outskirts of Great Yarmouth for the last week so, as it was just about on our way, we headed over to see if we could see it. There was no sign if it in its favourite wet field, just a few Moorhens. A Kingfisher zipped low across the grass and disappeared into a ditch, unfortunately too quickly for most of the group to get onto it.

Another birder was just leaving, and helpfully pointed us a little further along the road as he passed. There was the Glossy Ibis out on the back of the grass, with a few more Moorhens for company. It promptly went to sleep, but thankfully only for a couple of minutes before waking up, preening and resuming feeding in a flooded patch in the grass. Through the scope, we could see its long, downcurved bill.

Glossy Ibis

Glossy Ibis – showing off its long, curlew-like bill when it woke up

Glossy Ibises are still quite rare but increasingly regular visitors to the UK, with ringed birds seen here in recent years known to have originated from the expanding Spanish population.

Having enjoyed nice views of the Glossy Ibis, we set off on our way again. Our next destination was Waveney Forest. As we walked in through the trees, there were several Great Tits and a single Coal Tit coming to the feeders at the cottage. A Siskin flew over calling. Deeper in the trees, a Green Woodpecker called and flew across the path in front of us, up into the trees.

We made our way over to ‘the mound’ which overlooks Haddiscoe Island. The regular returning Rough-legged Buzzard has been here for a while now, and this is generally the best place to see it from. Scanning the posts and gates out on the Island, we could see several Common Buzzards and Kestrels. What looked like the Rough-legged Buzzard was unfortunately right over the far side of the island with its back to us, and even through the scope it was hard to make out much detail. We could see a pale off white crown and pale whitish spots in the mantle and scapulars. We waited a while to see if it would turn round, or even better fly, but it didn’t.

While we waited we did spot a group of about 15 Bearded Tits swinging in the tops of the reeds, feeding on the seedheads. The sun had come out and they had found a sheltered spot which was catching some warmth in the afternoon light. We had a great look at them through the scope, and could see the grey heads and black moustaches on the males.

It was time to move on again, before we got too cold. On our way back north, we stopped on the south shore of Breydon Water. It was about an hour and a half after high tide and the water was now starting to go out. There were thousands of birds gathered on the mud on the far side – ducks, waders and gulls.

Breydon Water

Breydon Water – thousands of ducks, waders and gulls were gathered on the mud

Through the scope, we could see the birds were neatly sorted into groups. Over to the right were mostly Lapwing and Golden Plover. In the middle, shining bright white in the afternoon sun, were loads of gulls, mainly Black-headed and Common Gulls. To the left, was more of a mixture, thousands of Wigeon with waders scattered through them including Black-tailed Godwits, Dunlin and on the end a number of Avocets. A Great Crested Grebe swam past.

It was already getting late by the time we left Breydon Water. Given the weather, we were not planning to spend too long at Stubb Mill this evening, but we thought we would try to call in for the last half hour. Unfortunately, as we drove back north we could see dark clouds gathering and by the time we got back to Hickling, it was starting to rain. We sat in the car for a couple of minutes trying to work out whether it would clear, before deciding to call it a day.

It was a wise call, as the rain turned to sleet on the short drive back to where we had started. But despite the weather at the end, we had enjoyed a very successful if rather chilly day today. Well worth going out for!

25th Jan 2018 – Cranes, Swans & Raptors

A Winter Tour today, down in the Norfolk Broads. It was a glorious, sunny winter’s day, with blue skies and mostly light winds. Perfect weather to be out birding!

Our first destination was Ludham. This is a regular wintering area for Bewick’s and Whooper Swans, and we hoped to catch up with some here this morning. Numbers are lower than normal this winter, with mild weather on the continent meaning the majority of the swans have opted to remain further east this year. Still, there are a few around to see.

As we parked and got out of the car, a Chinese Water Deer was feeding out on the grazing marsh opposite, the first of many of this increasingly widespread non-native deer we would see today. A flock of Fieldfare flew up ‘tchacking’ and landed behind some barns and a Redwing called from the trees before flying down and landing on a fence where we could get a good look at it in the scope. We would see lots of these winter thrushes on our travels today too.

Chinese Water Deer

Chinese Water Deer – the first of many we would see today

As we walked up onto the river bank, a Bearded Tit called from the reeds below us and we had a quick glimpse of it as it flew a short distance over the tops of the reeds before darting back in. It did the same thing a couple more times, but you had to be really quick to see it. Several Reed Buntings flew up from the reeds too.

Suddenly we picked up the sound of swans approaching, their honking calls getting steadily louder until we picked up a flock of about thirty birds flying in over the trees. It is a wonderful sound, to hear wild swans calling as they fly in, particularly on a bright sunny winter’s morning like today. They appeared to be all Bewick’s Swans – we could see the more restricted, squared-off yellow patches on their bills as they caught the light.

Bewick's Swans

Bewick’s Swans – flying in to the Levels this morning

The Bewick’s Swans circled over the Levels calling, before dropping down to the grass. There were a few Mute Swans scattered over the grazing meadows, but they dropped down to join a small group of feral white geese on the edge of a small pool. The Bewick’s Swans started feeding on the grass or bathing in the pool beyond.

Scanning carefully through the Bewick’s Swans, we noticed a larger bird with them, longer-necked, and with a long wedge-shaped yellow patch on its bill, which tapered to a finer point. It was a single Whooper Swan. It didn’t appear to have come in with the Bewick’s Swans, so perhaps it was in the pool when they arrived. It was good to see the two species side by side in the scope.

Whooper Swan

Whooper Swan – with the smaller Bewick’s Swans in the pool behind

We stood on the bank for a few minutes scanning the marshes. There were lots of Lapwings scattered about the damp grass, along with a smaller flock of Golden Plover which flushed from the field beyond and whirled round in a tight group. A smart male Marsh Harrier was hunting along the line of reeds at  the back of the grass.

With both the swans in the bag, we decided to head down to the coast next. The short drive over was fairly uneventful, but when we got down to the coast road we started to see more birds. A large herd of Mute Swans was feeding in the water-logged fields and there were loads of Lapwings and Golden Plover hiding in the young oilseed rape nearby.

We stopped in a convenient layby and got out to scan the fields. A few hundred Pink-footed Geese flew in and landed out on a grassy field opposite, with smaller groups flying in every few minutes to join them. A Red Kite circled lazily overhead and a Sparrowhawk zipped low and fast across the stubble field behind us. This is often a very good area for Common Cranes, but there were none visible feeding out in the fields here this morning.

Common Cranes 1

Common Cranes – flying round over us, bugling

Then, turning to look behind us, we noticed two huge birds flying over the trees, long necks stretched out in front and long legs trailing behind, a pair of Cranes. At first it looked like they would drop back down behind the trees, but then they turned and flew straight towards us, turning in front of us and gliding across the road. A great view and wonderful to listen to these majestic birds, their loud bugling calls are a real sound of the Broads at this time of year.

The Cranes headed out towards the coast and dropped down out of view in the distance, but a few seconds later they reappeared flying back towards us. They appeared to land on the other side of the road, a short way further north behind some reeds, so we started to pack up, intending to drive along to try to see them there. But as we turned we noticed another pair of Cranes had circled up right behind us. They started bugling too and we watched as they dropped away behind some trees.

It was all action – we didn’t know where to look! The Cranes in the Broads are getting territorial again now, reclaiming their grounds, and we appeared to be in the middle of a territorial dispute between two rival pairs. The first pair of Cranes took off again and flew back across the road, heading for the area where the second pair had just landed, with both pairs bugling. But as they approached the trees they gained height and turned away, back in the direction they had originally come from.

Common Cranes 2

Common Cranes – two pairs were flying round bugling

It is one of the great sights and sounds of the Norfolk Broads at this time of the year – watching and listening to the Cranes. These birds are part of a population which re-established itself naturally, with the first birds arriving probably as wanderers from the continent right here in 1979. They first bred successfully in 1982, after an absence from the UK of around 400 years, and have grown steadily in number since the 1990s, spreading to other parts of the country. They are not part of the ‘Great Crane Project’ which released large quantities of captive-raised Cranes onto the Somerset Levels.

After being treated to a magnificent display from the Cranes, we popped in at Waxham next. There had been a Hume’s Warbler here for several weeks and, with such good weather, we thought it worth a quick look to see if it is still hiding somewhere. We didn’t spend very long here, but there was no immediate sign of it and the trees were otherwise pretty quiet, as was the sea, so we moved swiftly on.

Our next destination was the Yare Valley. We stopped at Cantley and walked down to scan the grazing marshes. There were good numbers of Pink-footed Geese out on the grass and with careful scanning we found a small number of White-fronted Geese too, though they were mostly keeping down in the low-lying wetter patches. There was no sign of any Taiga Bean Geese here today – these birds seem to have deserted the Yare Valley already this year, having not been seen here since the very start of January.

There were lots of waders out on the grass too, mainly Lapwing. Scanning carefully through them, we found a small number of Ruff too, though they were rather distant and hard to see from here. The waders were rather jumpy anyway, but when they all took off in unison we scanned the sky and quickly found the cause – a Peregrine. It was some way off, over towards the river, and it quickly lost interest and powered off towards Buckenham.

Peregrine

Peregrine – flew past right over our heads

As well as being distant, that Peregrine was hard to see in the melee of birds which it had successfully induced. Thankfully, just a minute or so later, either that Peregrine or possibly a different appeared right over our heads, flying off towards the nearby beet factory. A much better view! We also had a good look at a female Marsh Harrier from here, standing down in the grass.

It was time for lunch, so we headed round to Strumpshaw Fen to make use of the facilities. A Mistle Thrush was singing from the top of the trees by Reception Hide, another sign that spring is on its way! With only peanuts and niger seed feeders out here at the moment, the Marsh Tits seem to have lost interest and didn’t come in today, just a steady succession of Blue and Great Tits while we ate.

There were not so many ducks on the pool here today – a few Gadwall and Mallard. The Coot were starting to squabble and fight and the resident feral Black Swan was preening itself right in front of the screen. A Marsh Harrier or two quartered the reedbed beyond periodically.

After lunch, we headed round to nearby Buckenham Marshes. It was a lovely sunny afternoon to walk out here, down towards the river, but at first sight it appeared rather quiet. The only geese on view were the local Canada Geese and feral flock of Barnacle Geese. The latter are very smart bird and got a deserved look through the scope. A handful of Greylags were asleep over the other side.

Barnacle Geese

Barnacle Geese – several of the feral flock at Buckenham

On closer inspection, there were lots of Lapwing out on the grass and when they flew round at one point we noticed a good number of Ruff with them too. They landed closer to us and we managed to get a better look at them than the ones we had seen at Cantley earlier. Two much smaller Dunlin flew in land landed on a pool in the grass too.

As we got out towards the river, we found the ducks. Several Shoveler were swimming around in one of the drainage ditches, along with a couple of Wigeon and a few sleeping Teal on the bank. Further along, we could see several hundred Wigeon asleep on the main pool, with a scattering of the other two species mixed in.

Numbers of Wigeon in Norfolk appear to be down this winter too, with many of these remaining on the continent like the swans this year. We did however get a really good look at some which were feeding right next to the path as we walked out – smart ducks!

Wigeon

Wigeon – good views by the path out towards the river

There was nothing much happening down at the river, so we decided to head quickly back to the car and move on.

The last few winters, there has been an adult Rough-legged Buzzard which returns each year to Haddiscoe Island. There was no sign of it at the end of last year, but in the last few days it has reappeared. We headed down to a suitable vantage point overlooking the area it favours and scanned the posts and gates where it likes to stand.

It didn’t take long to find it. The Rough-legged Buzzard was perched on a post out in the middle. It was rather distant and face on to us at first, but we could see its rather blackish throat and upper breast, contrasting with a whitish top to the head, and black patches on either side of its belly, set off by a bold whitish band across the lower breast and down through the middle.

Rough-legged Buzzard

Rough-legged Buzzard – the returning adult on Haddiscoe Island

The Rough-legged Buzzard then helpfully turned round and we could see the pale top to the head and liberal white speckling to the dark upperparts. At one point, it preened and we got a quick flash of the white base to its tail. Unfortunately, we were looking elsewhere when it moved to another post!

There were several Common Buzzards here too, giving us an opportunity to compare the two species. A nice pale one had extensive off-white head and underparts, lacking the contrasting dark patches underneath of the Rough-legged Buzzard. A more typical darker Common Buzzard had noticeably rich brown on breast and belly in the sunlight, not the blackish colour of the Rough-legged Buzzard.

A female Marsh Harrier passed by just in front of us and there were several Kestrels out on the posts in the middle of the island too. But we were probably still a bit too early today for any owls and we had a long journey to get back for our last stop of the day.

As we walked out along the track towards Stubb Mill, several more Redwings and Fieldfares flew out of the hedges calling, a real theme of the day. A small flock of Linnets perched in the top of a tree in the afternoon sunlight. We heard the dulcet tones of a quad bike heading out over the marshes and saw a pair of Cranes fly up. The landowner was heading out to put some feed down on his duck flight pond. The Cranes circled round and appeared to go down in front of the raptor watchpoint the other side of the old mill, so we hurried round to try to see them.

The watchpoint was unbelievably busy this evening, the busiest we have ever seen it – probably everyone was out because of the good weather. They had all spread themselves out along the bank (even leaving space for a stool to sit on), and not left anywhere for the late arrivals like us to stand, so we made ourselves rather unpopular by asking people to shuffle along and make some room. There was plenty of space for everyone, but the process involved a surprising amount of grumbling from sections of the crowd! Our apologies if we upset anyone unduly!!

When we eventually got a space to stand and set up the scope, we discovered there were two pairs of Cranes on view out on the grass this evening. We had a nice view of them on the ground, to compliment the ones we had seen flying round earlier.  Striking birds, with their long black and white necks and bustle of feathers over the tail.

Common Cranes 3

Common Cranes – one of the two pairs in front of the watchpoint this evening

When the quad bike returned, the landowner got off and came over for a chat with us about the birds and what else we had seen. We watched as several Shelduck flew in and dropped down behind the reeds to the duck pond to feed on the newly delivered grain. They were followed shortly after by one of the pairs of Cranes, the one which had left there earlier and which flew back to take advantage of the food provided.

There were raptors too. A steady stream of Marsh Harriers flew in from all directions and out to the reedbed to roost. We could see several perched in the bushes in the distance, getting ready to go in. A ringtail Hen Harrier flew in along the back of the grazing marshes and, a little later, we spotted a ghostly grey male Hen Harrier in the distance, weaving in and out of the bushes out where they roost.

There was more Crane action as birds started to fly in to roost. First a pair flew across slowly in front of us, then another pair came in over the trees just behind the watchpoint. It is always a great way to end the day, watching the Cranes flying in,  listening to them bugling and others answering from the marshes.

Common Cranes 4

Common Crane – one of the pairs, flying in at dusk

A Tawny Owl hooted from the trees by the old mill, which was the cue for us to start thinking about heading back. As we walked back, another group of eight Cranes came in over the trees, over the road, and dropped down towards the marshes beyond. It was quite a sight, against the last of the pink and orange sunset. As we got back to the car park, a Woodcock shot over, heading out to feed on the marshes. It was time for us to head for home.

13th Jan 2018 – Norfolk Winter & Owls #2

Day 2 of a three day long weekend of tours today, and we headed off down to the Broads. We were back to rather grey and cloudy weather today, after the clear skies of yesterday morning, but it was not foggy and it was dry all day.

Our first destination was Ludham. When we climbed out of the car, the first birds we could see were two Mute Swans by the car park. We could see their orange bills with a prominent black knob. We had come here to look for swans, but not these ones.

We walked up onto the bank and a short distance along the path. From here, we could see more swans out on the grazing meadows behind the barns. They looked smaller than the Mute Swans we had just been looking at and through the scope we could see they had square yellow patches on their bills. They were Bewick’s Swans, about 40 of them.

Bewick's Swans

Bewick’s Swans – some of the 40 at Ludham today

Bewick’s Swan numbers in the Broads are well down this winter, so far. It appears that many of the swans have decided to stay on the continent, given mild conditions and plenty of food still there, so it was nice to see this many today. It we get a cold snap on the continent, more may well yet come here. There are often Whooper Swans with the Bewick’s Swans too, but they are rather mobile and come and go during the day, and there were none here this morning.

There were several Marsh Harriers quartering the marshes behind the swans. A small flock of Wigeon flew over along the river. We heard Bearded Tits calling from the reeds below the bank but they remained tucked well down out of view. We had a quick drive round to St Benet’s but there were no more swans there, so we decided to make our way down to the coast.

Round at Horsey, we found a much larger herd of swans. This used to be the best place to find the Bewick’s Swans but these days they seem to prefer the Ludham area. Sure enough, the vast majority of birds here were Mute Swans, as is usually the case these days. However, a careful scan through the herd did reveal a couple of Bewick’s Swans with them.

A little further on up the coast, we stopped again. A quick scan of the grazing marshes before we even got out of the car revealed two Common Cranes walking about on the grass nearby. We disembarked and were soon enjoying great views of them through the scope.

Crane

Common Crane – we had great views of a pair by the road this morning

The Cranes were walking around in a wet grassy field, with lots of rushy tussocks, occasionally bending down to peck at something in the vegetation. We could see their black necks with bold white stripes behind the eye meeting on the back of the neck, and the bustle of ornamental feathers at the rear of their bodies. For birds which stand about a metre or more tall, they can be remarkably unobtrusive.

There were a couple of Egyptian Geese here too and lots of Lapwings out on the shorter grass. A small flock of Golden Plover got up and wheeled round before landing back down out in the middle. A little group of Fieldfares flew in and landed in front of us on the grass.

Fieldfare

Fieldfares – flew in and started feeding on the short grass

After a quick pitstop, we made our way up to Waxham next. There is a Hume’s Warbler here at the moment – a rare visitor here which breeds in Russia and Central Asia and should normally be found wintering on the Indian subcontinent. It can be very elusive at times, but we thought we would have a quick look for it, as we were in the area.

As we walked in along the sandy track that leads to the beach, a Goldcrest flew down the hedge towards us and landed right beside us. It was flitting around in the ivy oblivious to our presence. There was a large crowd of people gathered by the bushes on the edge of the dunes. We assumed at first they were watching the Hume’s Warbler, but it turned out they had not seen it for over an hour and were simply waiting for it to reappear.

Rather than just stand around where the Hume’s Warbler was obviously not, we decided to walk south along the path below dunes and try our luck along there. We hadn’t gone very far when we saw a couple of people who waved us over – the Hume’s Warbler had just been seen here. It seemed to have disappeared again, but as we stood on the path scanning the bushes, one of the group spotted some movement down on the ground in the Alexanders only a few metres in front of us and out it hopped.

Hume's Warbler

Hume’s Warbler – taken a few days ago at Waxham

The Hume’s Warbler was constantly on the move and difficult to see well unless you were quick. Eventually, everyone got a look at it and most of the group had good views as it flitted around in the ivy covering a hawthorn by the path. When it disappeared again behind a thick clump of brambles, we started to make our way back to the car.

We had only walked a short distance back up the path, and had just stopped to look at a picture of Hume’s Warbler in the book, when it flew out again, right over our heads and landed in top of the hawthorn right in front of us calling. The call is one of the best ways to tell Hume’s Warbler from the rather similar and more common Yellow-browed Warbler, so this was great to hear. It flew back into some ivy covered trees beyond and we left it to it.

Back in the car, we headed south along the coast road, scanning the fields on the way. We quickly found three more Cranes. These were more distant than the ones we had seen earlier, and we had seen those so well, so we didn’t stop. A big flock of Fieldfares in a rape field next to the road had a few Redwings with them.

A little further along, we noticed a large pale bird flying over the field beside the road – a stunning male Hen Harrier, ghostly grey with black wing tips. It was hunting, moving fast and low over the fields, but managed to follow alongside it in the car, enjoying a great view of it before it turned inland.

Gadwall

Gadwall – lots were on the pool in front of Recepion Hide at Strumpshaw

We made our way over to Strumpshaw Fen for lunch. At the pool in front of reception hide, there were lots of ducks out on the water, mainly Mallard & Gadwall. A single young drake Shoveler swam out of the reeds. There were a couple of Mute Swans, and after a while the resident feral Black Swan swam out from behind the reeds.

There was a steady stream of tits coming into the feeders by the picnic tables. They were mainly Blue Tits and Great Tits, but a Coal Tit came down and spent some time attacking the peanuts. Two or three Marsh Tits made a brief visit too. At first we only caught sight of them as they were leaving, when we heard them calling in the trees above our heads. A little later we heard another Marsh Tit approaching through the sallows and this time we watched it darting in and grabbing sunflower hearts.

Coal Tit

Coal Tit – attacking the peanuts at Strumpshaw Fen

When we arrived in the car park at Strumpshaw, we could hear a Mistle Thrush singing. While we were eating lunch, a Great Spotted Woodpecker started drumming in the trees. It felt like spring might be on its way, despite the grey and gloomy weather! A flock of Siskin flew over calling and we heard a Redpoll overhead too.

After lunch, as we walked back to the car across the level crossing, we saw some movement in the ivy beside the track. We looked across and the head of a Redwing appeared. It was hidden at first, but it gradually clambered out to get a better angle to attack the berries. We could see the rusty orange (rather than ‘red’) patch on its flanks, under its wings.

Redwing

Redwing – feeding on ivy berries

The cloud had thickened noticeably while we were eating lunch, and it was already getting very dull, so we decided to head straight round to Hickling and out to the raptor roost watchpoint at Stubb Mill. As we made our way down the path, a couple of Marsh Harriers circled over the reeds.

When we arrived at the watchpoint, the resident pair of Cranes was already on view. It was not as good a view as the ones we had seen earlier, but we could see their heads and necks above the reeds. As well as raptors, this is a great place to see Cranes coming in to roost and as we stood and watched, more flew past. First three Cranes flew across in front of us, then another two came over the trees behind us, followed by 3 more in front. All dropped down towards the reserve and we could heard them bugling in the distance.

Cranes

Common Cranes – 3 of the total of 35 we saw this evening!

There was not a huge number of Marsh Harriers into the roost tonight. There were perhaps around ten or more scattered around in the bushes in the reeds when we arrived, including one carrying green wings tags but unfortunately it was too far away for us to reed the code. A trickle more flew in while we were standing at the watchpoint tonight.

A smart male Hen Harrier flew across, low over the fields in front of us, before heading off round behind the wood, possibly for some late hunting before going in to the roost. A while later, two male Hen Harriers could be seen with the Marsh Harriers, very distantly over the reeds by the ruined mill.

There were a few other things to see while we waited. A large flock of Pink-footed Geese flew up from the fields in the distance, over towards the road, and headed off to roost. A Tawny Owl hooted from the trees behind us. A couple of Chinese Water Deer appeared out on the grass. A Sparrowhawk flew across low over the grass and finally a Merlin appeared at the back, zipping across and up into a low bush on the edge of the reeds. The light was going fast now, so it was hard to see.

It was time to walk back. As we made our way along the road, we heard more bugling behind us, and looked back to see a large flock of 19 Cranes flying in over trees, closely  followed by another 6. The Cranes dropped down towards the reserve, where we could hear them bugling. It was an impressive sight – and took our total count of Cranes for the evening to a massive 35!

There were no Barn Owls out hunting at Stubb Mill this evening, but once it was dark, on our way home, we came across two in the headlights – one which flew across in front of us and one perched on a post by the road.

5th-6th Dec 2017 – Two Winter Days

A Private Tour across two days, this was not a standard tour but we had a specific list of birds we wanted to see. December can be a very good month to go looking for some of our scarcer wintering species. We were blessed with good weather too – a bit dull under the blanket of cloud, but dry and rather mild for the time of year.

Tuesday 5th December

Our first destination was down in the Brecks at Santon Downham. We wanted to catch up with the Parrot Crossbills which have been here for a couple of weeks now. They were initially to be found around the picnic site at St Helen’s, but have started to wander more widely into the forest now, where they can be much harder to locate. Fortunately, our luck was in today. As we drove into the car park we could see a cluster of long lenses by the side of the road, pointing up into a small clump of trees.

As we got out of the car in the car park, we could hear Parrots Crossbills calling – they have a deeper and less sharp call, more of a ‘peek, peek’ than the familiar ‘glip, glip’ of Common Crossbills. We looked across and could see one or two perched in the top of the beech tree in the corner of the car park by the road.

There seemed to be more Parrot Crossbills – and better light – on the other side of the trees, where all the cameras were focused, so we started to make our way round. Just at that moment, the Parrot Crossbills started to drop down to a tiny puddle in the road, right in front of the assembled photographers (though it took them a while to notice!). We were a little further away, but still only about 10 metres from them. Stunning!

6O0A3517Parrot Crossbills – coming down to drink at the puddle in front of us

We had a great view of the Parrot Crossbills while they were drinking. A couple of times they spooked, for no apparent reason, and flew back up into the trees but quickly returned to the puddle again. It was amazing how many could pack themselves into the tiny area of water! We could see their deep, heavy bills, much bigger than a Common Crossbill’s, and their big heads with thick necks. Parrot Crossbills use their large bills and cheek muscles to prise open the tightest of pine cones to get at the seeds.

6O0A3546

6O0A3528Parrot Crossbills – amazing how many could fit into a tiny puddle!

There were a variety of different colours amongst the Parrot Crossbills. The more obvious males were red or orange, some of the latter with a scattering of golden yellow feathers. The females were grey-green, with a brighter yellow-green rump. There seem to be a high proportion of young birds in this group, 1st winters, with a varying number of pale tipped greater coverts forming a pale bar across the wing.

After dropping down to drink several times, the Parrot Crossbills flew up into one of the beech trees and sat around preening and calling. One or two of them started to pick at the beech nut capsules, trying to extract the seeds. Then most of them flew and landed in some pine trees in the middle of the car park where we could watch them doing what they do best, snipping of the pine cones and then taking them to a convenient branch where they could methodically work their way round them prising open the scales and extracting the seeds.

Having succeeded with our first target so quickly, we now had time on our side. We decided to head straight on to the Broads to look for the next bird on the list – Taiga Bean Goose. After the long drive across to Buckenham Marshes, we parked in the car park and headed out along the track. A Marsh Harrier drifted across the grazing marshes, flushing all the Rooks from down in the grass.

A short way down the track, we stopped to scan the grazing marshes, particularly looking out towards the corner by the railway which the Taiga Bean Geese usually favour when they are here. There was no sign of them, although they do have a remarkable ability for such a large bird to hide in the dips in the ground. There was a big flock of Canada Geese and a small group of feral Barnacle Geese further over towards the river. A pair of Pink-footed Geese flew in calling and landed out on the grass in the distance.

At that point, we received a message to say that the Taiga Bean Geese had not been seen at either Buckenham or nearby Cantley so far this morning. They had done something similar yesterday, only appearing later in the day, and we had plenty of time on our hands, so we were not completely discouraged. We walked a bit further and stopped to scan for the geese again, on the off chance that they had reappeared and were just hiding. A smart adult Peregrine flew across and landed on one of the gates out in the middle.

IMG_9171Peregrine – landed on one of the gates in the middle of the grazing marsh

We decided to walk out to the river, checking for the geese on the way, and hoping they might fly in while we were there. If not, we could always then go somewhere else for a couple of hours and come back for another go later in the day.

Something flushed all the ducks from the pools down by the river – a good number of Wigeon and Teal, plus a few Shoveler with them. They all gradually settled back down again and when we got down to that end of the track, we had a better look at them. There were a few Greylags out here too and another three Pink-footed Geese flew in to join them. But there was still no sign of the Taiga Bean Geese hiding out on the grazing marshes the other side.

6O0A3560Wigeon – there were several hundred on the marshes by the river

A couple of Dunlin were still left on a muddy island on one of the pools and the Lapwing which had also been disturbed gradually started to settle down around them. Two Ruff flew in across the grazing marshes and dropped down out of view. We had a quick look out across the river, then turned to head back. We heard a Water Pipit call earlier, on the way out, but hadn’t seen it, and at that moment either it or another Water Pipit flew over our heads calling and disappeared off towards Strumpshaw.

We stopped to scan the grazing marshes again, as we had done several times on the way out, but this time we noticed a line of geese had appeared while we had been looking out across the river, right over the far side, against the reeds. Where they were, they could only really be one thing and, setting up the scope quickly, we confirmed they were the Taiga Bean Geese. We could see their rather wedge-shaped heads and long bills, and as they turned and caught the light, we could see the quite extensive patches of orange on their bills.

IMG_9227Taiga Bean Geese – at the far side of the grazing marsh, against the reeds

A little further back along the track, we were a little bit closer and stopped for another look. We could see at least 13 Taiga Bean Geese, but some were well hidden down on the edge of the ditch, so there were possibly the full 18 which is the maximum which have been reported in the last few days.

Taiga Bean Geese are a declining winter visitor to the UK. They have particular habitat requirements and only winter regularly at two sites – here in the Yare Valley in Norfolk or up on the Slamannan plateau in Scotland. The numbers coming here have dropped steadily in recent years, from several hundred in Norfolk in the 1980s and 1990s to just around 20 in the last few years. In milder winters, they have often only stayed for a shorter time, but recently have sometimes departed in early to mid January, having just arrived in late November.

The Taiga Bean Geese will probably take on an increased significance from the start of 2018. When the BOU British List moves to adopt the IOC World Bird List taxonomy from 1st January, Taiga and Tundra Bean Goose will be treated as separate species (they are currently treated as two subspecies of Bean Goose). For those who are interested in ‘ticks’, it will be prudent to come and see the wintering Taiga Bean Geese while you still can!

As we walked back to the car, a pair of Stonechats were feeding along the side of the track, perching up in the tall dead willowherb seedheads. We had enjoyed a remarkably productive morning, with the two of our main target species already under our belts, either of which could easily have taken us much of the day to find.

6O0A3567Stonechat – perched in some dead willowherb

Snow Bunting was the next species on the list, so we headed down to the coast. There are several beaches where you can see flocks of these winter visitors here, but the best option today seemed like the area around Happisburgh and Eccles, where a large group had been seen in recent days. There had also been a Desert Wheatear at Eccles in recent days, but it appeared to have done a bunk overnight – fortunately it was not a target for us today. However,  there were a couple of other things of peripheral interest which we could also possibly see in the area.

Cart Gap seemed like the best place to park, so we stopped for lunch there. After we had eaten, we noticed another Norfolk birder returning to his car and went over to ask for an update on what was about. He told us that he had seen the Snow Buntings but they were a good distance south of us, so we got back in the car and drove round closer to Sea Palling.

As we crossed onto the beach, a beach buggy of sorts was being driven north along the sand. We had no idea what it was doing out here, but as it disappeared round the corner of the dunes, we saw a flock of small birds fly up from the beach and land back down again. The Snow Buntings. We walked further up and found them on an area of shingle on the top of the beach. They flew towards us and landed on the sand up by the dunes. We could see a patch of the sand which looked a different colour there and they gathered into a tight group around it, feeding – someone has put seed out for them here.

6O0A3580Snow Buntings – coming in to seed put out on the beach for them

There was a good size flock of Snow Buntings here – probably at least 60 birds in total. They flew off and landed on the stones again, before coming back to the seed. We watched them for a while – there appeared to be a mixture of paler Scandinavian and darker Icelandic birds in the flock. Eventually, they flew up and landed back in the dunes.

It had been cloudy all day, but the sky seemed to have darkened and the light was fading already. We had a quick scan of the beach and out to sea, but couldn’t immediately see anything beyond a few gulls and a single seal just offshore. Rather than try to drive back round to Eccles, in the limited time we had before it was likely to get dark, we decided to walk back up there along the beach. It wasn’t too far and it was nice to have a walk after spending quiet a bit of time in the car today.

We crossed to the track inland of the dunes and stopped briefly by the field where the Desert Wheatear had been. Three Shorelarks had been reported here earlier this morning, but there was no sign of those either now, thankfully also not a target for today, though always nice to see. What we really hoped to see here was the Arctic Redpoll which had been feeding in the edge of a beet field a little further north, so we didn’t linger here.

When we arrived at the beet field, there was no sign of anything feeding in the weeds along the edge and at first the hedge looked empty too. There was a large bush sticking out from the hedge much further down and we could see there were some birds perched on the near side of it. We got them in the scope and could see they were Redpolls, a good start.

There appeared to be a mixture of darker Lesser Redpolls and slightly paler Mealy Redpolls, but one bird in the middle of the bush stood out. It was face on to us, busy preening, but looked much paler, whitish below, paler faced. It turned briefly and puffed itself up and we could see a large pale rump. It was the Arctic Redpoll. Once again we were fortunate, because after watching it for a few minutes, all the Redpolls took off and flew away across the field, presumably heading off to roost.

It was starting to get dark by the time we got back to the car, passing the Snow Buntings again on our way. It had been a very successful day.

Wednesday 6th December

With the pressure off, after all our successes yesterday, there was only one more species on the list of the most likely targets which we really wanted to find today, Lapland Bunting. There have been a few in the clifftop fields at Weybourne for a few weeks now, but they can be very mobile and elusive. We headed over there to see what we could find.

As we walked down the track towards the Coastguards Cottages, we could hear Pink-footed Geese calling. We looked across to see hundreds of them circling over the fields before dropping down out of view to feed on an area of recently cut sugar beet. A Grey Wagtail flew over calling, an odd place to find this species, so possibly a migrant.

When we got to the gate, the stubble field which the Lapland Buntings have been favouring looked quite deserted. Appearances can be deceptive though. We could see some Skylarks flying round and landing in the grass on the clifftop, so we made our way round to that side. Unfortunately, as we walked over the hill, we met a dog walker coming the other way right along the edge of the stubble, just where we had planned to look, flushing all the Skylarks and Meadow Pipits out of the grass as he approached us.

Most of the birds appeared to drop back down into the stubble, down at the bottom of the hill. Then we spotted a flock of Linnets down there too, which flew up, circled round, and dropped back in to the stubble not far in from the grassy edge. That looked the best place to try. Finally, as we walked slowly down the hill, carefully scanning through the Skylarks which flew up from the stubble as we passed, we heard a Lapland Bunting calling, a distinctive dry rattle, followed by a clipped ringing ‘teu’. It didn’t appear to have come up out of the field but flew in from behind us, high overhead, and dropped down into the stubble over where we were headed.

At least we had seen a Lapland Bunting in flight – now finding one out in the middle of the stubble would be a bigger challenge. We continued on down the hill and stood on the grass opposite where it had seemed to land, scanning the field, but we could barely see anything in the vegetation. We needed a break, and after a while we got one. The Linnets took off and whirled round over the field. As they came back in low over the stubble, a Lapland Bunting flew up to join them and this time we could see where it landed.

Even though we had seen roughly where it had landed, it still took us quite a while to find the Lapland Bunting on the ground. We scanned back and forth across the area repeatedly, at first finding nothing but Skylarks and the odd Linnet. Finally it came out of the thick stubble into a slightly more open patch, and we got a good look at it through the scope. It was creeping around like a mouse, head down, not like the much bolder Skylark just behind it. We managed to stay on the Lapland Bunting for several minutes, despite it disappearing in and out of the stubble and furrows at times. Eventually we lost sight of it again and we decided to head back to the car.

Black Redstart was also on the wanted list, but we knew it would be unlikely we could find one at this time of year. There had been the odd one reported in very disparate parts of the coast in recent weeks, but they all seemed to be one day birds, possibly just passing through. As we still had some time available, we thought we might as well give it a go on the off chance. Sheringham can be a good place for them sometimes and, although there had been no reports from there for over two weeks, it seemed worth the long shot – especially as it was not far away.

We had a good look around the Leas, the ornamental garden and the boating lake, round the back of some of the buildings they sometimes favour, but not surprisingly we drew a blank. We decided to have a walk along the prom and a look out to sea. There were a few Red-throated Divers moving offshore and a Guillemot was diving out on the sea. Four Common Scoters flew east.

6O0A3604Turnstones – feeding on seed put out for them on the Prom

There were lots of Turnstones along the Prom, with a large group feeding on some seed put out for them by ‘The Tank’. There are usually at least a couple of Purple Sandpipers on the sea defences along here too and just past there we found one, feeding on one of the seaweed encrusted slipways. It flew back towards ‘The Tank’ and we followed it, finding it feeding on the concrete blocks just below the Prom.

We started to make our way back and a second Purple Sandpiper was feeding on the blocks further back. We watched it slipping and sliding on the seaweed as it tried to clamber up and down the faces of the concrete.

6O0A3618Purple Sandpiper – feeding on the seaweed-encrusted sea defences

We had already found all the target species which we had identified as likely possibilities prior to the tour. Rather than enjoy a couple of hours of general birding on our way back along the coast for the rest of the afternoon, looking for some of the other specialities you can find on a winter’s day in North Norfolk, with a long drive ahead, the decision was made to head for home. We called it a day: mission accomplished.

10th June 2017 – Broads Birds, Butterflies & More

A private group tour today down in the Norfolk Broads. It was to be a day spent looking for birds, butterflies and dragonflies plus the odd orchid or two, a nice mixture of general wildlife. The day started cloudy but brightened up nicely and was bright and sunny with blue skies in the afternoon, even if the wind did pick up during the day again.

Our first destination was Potter Heigham. We were particularly hoping to see the Black-winged Stilts which have nested here, but it is possible to see a very good variety of different species here at the moment. As we made our way down along the access road, two Spoonbills were on one of the pools, the first of quite a few we would see here.

As we climbed up onto the bank, we could hear a couple of Reed Warblers singing. We eventually got a good look at one through the scope, perched up in the reeds. Along the river bank, there were a couple of Sedge Warblers singing too, which gave us a great opportunity to listen to the differences between them. One Sedge Warbler showed very nicely in front of us, so we could see its striking off white supercilium, very different from the plain face of the Reed Warbler. A Cetti’s Warbler shouted at us from deep in the bushes but typically didn’t show itself.

Sedge WarblerSedge Warbler – singing from the reeds just ahead of us

Walking round the reeds, we could hear Bearded Tits calling. It seemed unlikely we would see one perched up today, with a fresh breeze blowing, but we had a good look each time called nonetheless. Then two tawny brown long-tailed shapes flicked up into the top of the reeds and stayed there just long enough for us all to get a quick look at them. A pair of Bearded Tits. The male was closest to us and slightly higher up the reeds, so we could see its powder blue head and black moustache.

There were a few hairy Garden Tiger moth caterpillars on the path again this morning – we had to keep one eye on the ground to avoid standing on them. A little later, we saw a Jackdaw on a post trying to eat one. It clearly did not want to eat the hairs, so was trying to pull it apart but appeared to be struggling.

We walked quickly round to where the Black-winged Stilts have been and immediately located one standing in the shallow water on the edge of one of the islands. We got it in the scope and had a look at it. However, it was immediately clear this was not one of the pair, but instead a lone male which has been hanging around the site too, with a black (rather than brown-tinged) mantle but lacking the black on the head of the breeding male. Still, it was a smart bird and a great start.

Black-winged StiltBlack-winged Stilt – we found the lone male first this morning

Just a short walk further along, we found the pair of Black-winged Stilts on a muddy island. At first, the female was looking after the chicks and the male was feeding nearby, before they switched roles and the male took over parenting duties. Black-winged Stilts are not particularly attentive parents, and the tiny juveniles, less than 3 days old were left to wander round the island and feed for themselves. They were quite hard to see in the cut reed stems but looking carefully through the scope, we got a good look at them.

Black-winged StiltsBlack-winged Stilts – the male standing guard, with 2 of the 4 juvs nearby (circled)

The adult Black-winged Stilts would fly up occasionally if a potential predator was detected coming overhead, a Marsh Harrier or a Lesser Black-backed Gull for instance. The Marsh Harriers made several passes over the pools and at one point a female surprised a couple of Coots in the water as it came low over a line of reeds. It looked like it was going to dive after one and hovered over the water for a second, but the Coots saw it at the last minute and managed to escape.

Marsh HarrierMarsh Harrier – thinking about attacking a Coot

While we were busy watching the Black-winged Stilts, a shout from a small group of birders further along the path alerted us to a bird flying across in the distance. We thought it was going to be a Bittern at first, but looked up to see it was a Night Heron. There has been a young (1st summer) Night Heron here for the past couple of days, but it had only been seen at dusk as it emerges from the trees where it roosts during the day. It was therefore a nice surprise to see it during the day. We watched as it dropped away from us over the trees.

On the next pool along, we found three Spoonbills. They were doing what Spoonbills like to do best – sleeping! Occasionally, one would wake up long enough to flash its spoon shaped bill. We stood here for a while, and gradually more Spoonbills flew in from the direction of Hickling Broad, in small groups, and landed with them. Eventually we got up to twelve Spoonbills all together, but later as we walked back to the car, another one flew in so there were possibly 13 today in total.

SpoonbillsSpoonbills – another five flying in to the pools at Potter Heigham

All the Spoonbills all appeared to be immature birds, some in their first summer with still extensively fleshy-coloured bills, but others older with yellow-tipped black bills. However, all lacked the full crest of a summer adult and the yellow-brown wash on the breast, or had black in the tips of their wings, which indicated they were still not mature. There were lots of Little Egrets here too, plus a couple of Grey Herons.

Black-winged Stilts and Night Herons are both more southerly European species which have overshot on their way north in the spring. Together with all the Spoonbills and Little Egrets, it gave a real Mediterranean feel to the birding at Potter Heigham this morning. All of which is presumably an indication of our changing climate.

There were not many other waders here this morning, apart from the breeding birds. A lone Ruff was the only wader which doesn’t breed here. As well as the Black-winged Stilts, there were plenty of breeding Avocets, plus Lapwings and a few Redshanks. A few Common Terns were nesting too and flying in and out. We also saw both Great Crested Grebe and Little Grebe on the pools here.

We had been hoping to see one the Garganey which have been lingering here this summer but all our scanning failed to locate one on our way round. There were plenty of other ducks – a single Wigeon, a few Teal and Shoveler, lots of Gadwall and a few Tufted Ducks. A female Common Pochard had a couple of ducklings following her. There were plenty of geese too – Greylags, Canada Geese and a couple of Egyptian Geese. As we turned to walk back, we spotted a drake Garganey flying in and it landed on the island with the Spoonbills. We got a nice look at it through the scopes before it went to sleep.

GarganeyGarganey – flew in and landed between the Spoonbills

The Norfolk Hawker is one of the rarer UK dragonflies, largely restricted in its distribution to the Norfolk Broads and neighbouring parts of Suffolk. So it was great to see one flying up and down the river bank here. It landed briefly, but tucked itself down in the vegetation out of the wind. In the end, we would see quite a few of them today, but this was the only one which stopped long enough for us to get a close look at it.

Norfolk HawkerNorfolk Hawker – landed in the vegetation along the river bank

Back at the car, we had a quick a quick look amongst the cattle on the approach road to see if we could see the Cattle Egret which has been here on and off for a few days, but there was no sign of it. There are lots of cows on the marshes all round here, and it seems possible this bird wanders further afield during the day, as it appears to be seen here mostly early and later in the day.

With an hour or so to spare before lunch, we had a quick walk out from Potter Heigham church and along Weaver’s Way. We could hear a Yellowhammer singing from the hedge further along the road, as we turned off along the footpath. There were lots of dragonflies here, hunting in the shelter of the hedges or basking on the bare ground out of the wind. We saw our first Black-tailed Skimmers and Four-Spotted Chasers of the day.

Walking through the wood, we could hear Blackcap and Willow Warbler singing from the trees. Lots of Azure Damselflies were flying around the edge of the ditch on the far side. Another Norfolk Hawker was hawking up and down along the edge of the footpath along the bank. A Hairy Dragonfly perched up nicely for us, hanging on the leaf of a reed stem at the edge of the path, despite the wind.

Hairy DragonflyHairy Dragonfly – the distinctive hairs on the thorax just visible

We had a quick look out over Hickling Broad, which revealed only a few Mute Swans in the distance and a single pair of Great Crested Grebe. Rush Hill Scrape looked similarly rather quiet today. A Marsh Harrier quartered over the reeds.

We had come here hoping to see our first Swallowtail butterfly of the day, as we figured this part of the reedbed might be more sheltered from the wind. There were very few butterflies at first along the path, until we found a couple of Small Tortoiseshells feeding on the brambles. We continued on past Rush Hill Scrape and finally found a Swallowtail. It flew in and landed on the brambles close to us, feeding on the flowers. It was keeping well down out of the wind, which hampered the photographic efforts, but we all got a great look at it.

Swallowtail 1Swallowtail – our first of the day, feeding on bramble flowers

Swallowtails are restricted in the UK to the Norfolk Broads and with only a short flight season from May to early July, this is the only time and place to see them. A must see at this time of year! With that one in the bag, we headed back to the car and round to Hickling village for a pub lunch.

After lunch, we made our way over to Upton Fen. This is a particularly good site for dragonflies but we were also hoping to see some orchids. We quickly started to find lots of purple Southern Marsh Orchids and paler Common Spotted Orchids, with their distinctive leaf spots. But there are also some confusing hybrids here – these two species readily mix – so we didn’t stop and look too closely!

Southern Marsh OrchidSouthern Marsh Orchid – common around the Fen

This site is known as one of the few places in the UK where you can see the very rare Fen Orchid. Most of the area where these flowers are found is now fenced off, but we eventually located a single Fen Orchid outside the fence. They are very small and not especially striking orchids at the best of times, but this was not a particularly good example either. The non-orchid enthusiasts in the group were perhaps a little underwhelmed and more impressed with the commoner orchids here!

Fen OrchidFen Orchid – not the best example of this rare species

It was bright and sunny now, and warm, so there was not much bird activity. We heard the occasional Blackcap, Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler singing in the trees. We thought we could hear a Grasshopper Warbler reeling in the distance, but it was very hard to hear over the wind rustling the leaves on the trees. We made our way along a path towards it and eventually got to spot where we could hear its distinctive song. But the path ran out and it was presumably keeping low down out of the wind, so we couldn’t get near enough to even try to see it.

There were several Swifts hawking low over the open Fen, trying to find insects out of the wind. A Hobby made a quick pass up and down over the edge of the trees. When we got out of the trees and onto the marshes beyond, we could see a could of Marsh Harriers quartering. Then we turned to head back, with a Stock Dove on the wires the most notable bird on the way.

Much of the Fen was rather quiet today, as far as dragonflies were concerned, perhaps because of the wind. We did see a few more Norfolk Hawkers on our travels. However, the highlight was a single Brown Hawker on the walk back along a sheltered path between lines of trees, its golden brown wings glowing in the afternoon sun.

We finished off the day with a quick visit to How Hill on our way back. We were hoping to get better photos of Swallowtails here, but the highlight was probably a Hobby which was hawking over the trees and marshes by the river, passing right over our heads at one point.

HobbyHobby – great views of this one hunting at How Hill this afternoon

There were just a few butterflies on the brambles here at first, several Small Tortoiseshells and a single Large Skipper, which was a new one for the day. A pair of Banded Demoiselles perched in the nettles added to our damselfly list. We had almost got to the end of the path when we spotted two Swallowtails. It was rather windy here and they were very mobile, but eventually came and gave us great close views.

Swallowtail 2Swallowtail – we saw two more at How Hill this afternoon

It was a fitting way to end a day in the Broads with this iconic Broadland species, so we made our way back to the car.