Category Archives: Owl Tour

4th Feb 2018 – Owls & More

An Owl Tour today, back in North Norfolk. The weather forecast was far from ideal – we were warned to expect cold and blustery NE winds bringing wintry showers in off the North Sea. Still, it didn’t turn out as bad as forecast and it is amazing what you can find when you go out looking, despite the weather!

After meeting up, we headed straight down to the coastal marshes to see if any Barn Owls might be out hunting still. It was cold and windy and, after passing through a sleet shower on our way down to the coast this morning, it was perhaps no surprise they had already gone in to roost. Not to worry. We hoped we might get another opportunity to look for Barn Owls later in the day, weather permitting.

There were other birds to see here. Several Marsh Harriers hung in the air over the reeds, coming out of their roost. A flock of Curlew flew up from feeding down in the damp grass in the grazing meadows below us. Little groups of Brent Geese flew back and forth. A Water Pipit came up from the recently cut reeds and flew off calling, and a Grey Wagtail flew high over us the other way.

We decided to try our luck inland and look for some Little Owls instead. At the first site we stopped at, we got out of the car and looked across to the roof of some farm buildings across the other side of a field. There, tucked in below the ridge out of the wind, facing into the few rays of morning sun coming through the clouds, were two Little Owls. We had a good look at them through the scope, spotted with white above and streaked below. It was nice to get the first owls of the day under our belts. Three Stock Doves were on the roof too, a little further along.

Little Owls

Little Owls – these two were standing on a barn roof out of the wind

From here, we meandered our way west. We were heading up to the Wash, but had a quick look at some other owl sites on the way, just in case any others might still be out. There weren’t any more owls, but we did have a nice variety of other things on the way. A pair of Grey Partridges were hiding in a stubble field. A Green Sandpiper was bathing in a stream but flew up and away as we pulled up. A Bullfinch zipped across the road in front of us and disappeared into the brambles, flashing its white rump. There were a few raptors too – a Red Kite flapped lazily across a field beside the road, a Sparrowhawk circled up, plus several Common Buzzards and Kestrels.

Eventually, we arrived at the Wash. As we got up to the seawall, we could see the tide was just going out. There were still lots of waders on the mud, chasing the rapidly receding waters down, so we stopped to take a closer look. The sky had cleared now and the first thing that struck us was a large flock of Golden Plover positively shining in the sunshine out on the mud.

Golden Plovers 1

Golden Plover – catching the sun, out on the Wash

Through the scope, we could see more waders. Large tight flocks of Knot and Oystercatcher, lines of Bar-tailed Godwits, plus Dunlin and Grey Plover more liberally scattered over the mud. In amongst them, we found two Avocets, hardy individuals which have probably decided to linger here through the winter (although others are already starting to move back). A few Redshank were picking around on the mud just below us and a Ringed Plover flew in and landed briefly nearby.

The waders were constantly on the move, following the tide. Periodically, a flock would fly up, whirl round and land again further down. It was great to watch the Knot in particularly, swirling out over the water, flashing alternately white and dark grey. The Golden Plover put on a show too, whooshing across in front of us, before circling up and then dropping back down to the mud. There was no sign of any raptors though, they were probably just nervous in the wind.

Golden Plovers 2

Golden Plover – the flock swirled around in front of us

There were ducks here too. The mud was covered with a sprinkling of white Shelduck, whereas the dark mass gathered on the edge of the water was a large flock of Teal. More Shelduck were swimming in the mouth of the channel and in with them we could see several Pintail too. A drake Goldeneye flew past behind us, flashing black of white, the first of several we saw here today.

However, we had not come here to look out at the delights of the Wash, so we tore ourselves away and headed round to the pits.

Goldeneye

Goldeneye – this drake flew past us over the pits

There have been a couple of Short-eared Owls roosting here this winter and, carefully scanning the bushes on our way round, we quickly found one of them hunched up under a mass of brambles. We got it in the scope and could see its ear tufts and staring yellow eyes.

Short-eared Owls

Short-eared Owl – roosting under the brambles again

Once we had all had a good look at the Short-eared Owl, we decided to head back to the car. The weather was much improved, but it was still cold in the wind and exposed out by the vast expanse of the Wash. We headed round to Titchwell for a couple of hours ahead of the afternoon owl shift.

It was time for lunch but, as we made our way from the car park to the Visitor Centre, we noticed a little patch of rusty colour, subtly contrasting with the browner leaves, half hidden underneath the sallows. A quick look confirmed it was a Woodcock! Gathering the group together, we had frame-filling views of it through the scope. Not an owl, but a real highlight to see one of these often so elusive birds so well.

Woodcock

Woodcock – feeding beneath the sallows between the car park & Visitor Centre

The Woodcock was tucked up asleep at first. After lunch (and a very welcome hot drink!), as we made our way back to the car to put away our bags, it was feeding more actively. We watched it walking round slowly, probing in the leaves, before it turned and disappeared beneath the branches.

There were a few birds around the feeders – Chaffinches, Greenfinches and Goldfinches, plus Blue, Great and Long-tailed Tits. As we started to make our way out onto the reserve, a quick look in the ditch by the main path revealed a Water Rail feeding on the far bank. It tried to hide under the overhanging brambles at first, before coming right out into the open for us, probing in the rotting leaves.

Water Rail

Water Rail – showing well in the ditch below the main path

The old pool out on Thornham grazing marsh looked particularly devoid of life at first. Scanning more carefully, we found a Reed Bunting feeding in some dead seedheads down near the front and, while we were watching it, a head popped up nearby. The Water Pipit was hard to see at first, lurking in a line of taller vegetation, picking around unobtrusively. Occasionally it would appear in an opening, and eventually we all got a good look at it through the scope.

A Marsh Harrier was circling over the reeds at the back and another was out over the reedbed the other side. Continuing on our way, the reedbed pool held a few Tufted Ducks and a scan of the Lavender Marsh as we passed revealed a single Grey Plover on the pool and a lone Black-tailed Godwit on the saltmarsh with a couple of Wigeon and Teal.

The freshmarsh is still flooded with water at the moment, meaning that there is not so much to see on here currently. The ducks like it though, with a number of Common Pochard in particular in a big raft towards the back. On the small piece of island remaining exposed above the flood by the junction to Parrinder Hide, we could see several Red-crested Pochards too, the males standing out with their bright orange heads (despite the fact they were all fast asleep), very different from their commoner cousins.

Red-crested Pochard

Red-crested Pochards – the drakes sporting bright orange heads

With some dark clouds out towards the beach, we opted for safety and headed for Parrinder Hide. It was a wise call, as shortly after we arrived the skies opened and it started to hail heavily. Thankfully, it was just a shower and passed through quickly, but we were certainly pleased to be inside as it did.

There was not so much else to see on the freshmarsh today. There were lots of Lapwing on the fenced off ‘Avocet Island’ and a few Golden Plover in with them too. A flock of 14 Avocet flew in after the shower, but ended up landing out in the water, given the lack of islands to stand on. We watched them swimming for a while, bobbing up and down, looking decidedly out of place, before they finally plucked up the courage to fly over and join all the Lapwing.

Avocets

Avocets – swimming on the freshmarsh, given the high water levels

As the rain stopped, we made our way round to the other side of Parrinder Hide, overlooking the Volunteer Marsh. There were a few waders out on the mud in front of the hide at first, Grey Plover, Dunlin, Redshank and Avocet, but they all flushed as a Marsh Harrier flew over and landed further back.

With the break in the weather, we made a quick dash out further along the main path. The sun even came out for a time! We had great views of several more waders close in along the near edge of the Volunteer Marsh, Black-tailed Godwit, Dunlin, Ringed Plover and Redshank. A Lapwing looked particularly stunning, its upperparts gleaming metallic green, bronze and even purple in the sunshine!

Lapwing

Lapwing – looking stunning in the bright sunshine

The Tidal Pools looked quite quiet as we stuck our heads up over the bank, apart from a couple of Little Grebes diving just below us. A more careful scan revealed a pale silvery grey and white wader asleep, tucked down on the edge of the saltmarsh, a lone Spotted Redshank in winter plumage. A nice bonus!

There was no time to head out to the beach today, as our focus needed to be back on owls for the afternoon. We made our way quickly back to the car, and set off back east. With the cold winds along the coast, we decided to head inland to see if we could find any sheltered spots where Barn Owls might be hunting.

Almost immediately, on our way down to the first meadows we wanted to check, a Barn Owl flew across the road in front of us. It disappeared round behind some houses, before reappearing again, back across the road and down to the meadows where we had hoped to find it. It worked its way quickly down a hedge through the middle of the meadow, flicking over either side, before landing on a post on the bottom of the field. We had a good look at it here, but by the time we got the scope up, it was on the move again and disappeared out the back.

That was a positive start, but we hoped to have more prolonged views of Barn Owls out hunting this afternoon. Spurred on, we drove round to another area where they like to hunt, and once again we spotted a Barn Owl before we even arrived! We followed it down to the main meadow and found somewhere to park. As we got out of the car to watch it, a second Barn Owl appeared.

Barn Owl 1

Barn Owl – out hunting over the meadows this afternoon

The two Barn Owls quartered the meadow for a while, each seemingly oblivious to the other, focused solely on its search for prey. The second bird disappeared over the hedge at the back – we could still see it hunting over another meadow further down – before a third Barn Owl appeared over the grass in front of us.

Barn Owl 2

Barn Owl – one of three out hunting these meadows this afternoon

For over half an hour, we watched transfixed as the Barn Owls hunted. They worked their way back and forth, round and round the meadows, seemingly in a random pattern, searching the grass. Occasionally, one would drop down into the grass, but we didn’t see them successfully catch anything while we were there. We did get a good look at them through the scope down on the ground though. In particular, as a light snow shower passed over briefly, they settled for a minute.

Barn Owl 3

Barn Owl – they would drop down in the grass occasionally

Eventually, the remaining two Barn Owls started to move off, heading away in different directions, hunting different patches. We decided to move on too. We made our way back down to the coast road and headed back east. There were no more Barn Owls out hunting along here this afternoon, but we didn’t stop to look too hard, after enjoying such fantastic views of them earlier.

We had an appointment down in the woods at dusk. We were a little early arriving this evening, so we walked through to look out over the meadows beyond as dusk fell. We had to retreat to the shelter of the trees on our first attempt, as another wintry shower passed through. As it cleared, we walked back to find a Barn Owl perched on a post on the edge of the meadows. We watched it for a while as it resumed hunting, flying round over the grass, occasionally dropping down into the taller vegetation.

A Tawny Owl hooted and we made our way back into the trees and down to an area where one of the males is known to favour. The Tawny Owls were a bit subdued this evening, possibly due to the weather, and it got dark rather quickly given the cloud. We did hear another pair hooting back behind us, deeper in the woods. Eventually, the male Tawny Owl we were listening for hooted again a couple of times. We set off along the path to see if we could see it, but it went quiet again before we got there. The next time we heard it, it had moved further off.

We stood and listened to the male Tawny Owl hooting for a while, a really evocative sound and always great to hear, before it started to get too dark and we called it a night.

 

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27th Jan 2018 – Owling in the Wind

An Owl Tour today. The weather forecast was not ideal. It started fine, with a lovely sunrise, but clouded over quickly and the wind picked up. There was some light drizzle too through the middle of the day but it wasn’t enough to put us off, and the rain stopped mid afternoon, so we were able to make the most of it. And see some owls!

After meeting up, we headed straight down to the coastal grazing marshes in the hope we might be able to find a late Barn Owl still out hunting. As we scanned the grass, there was no sign of any at first. It was a lovely bright morning, after a nice clear night, and it seemed like the owls might have gone in to roost already.

There were plenty of other birds to look at. We heard a Grey Partridge and looked over in that direction just in time to see the female fly across and land down in the grass. Just behind, the male was calling, standing upright, showing off the black kidney on its grey underparts and its orange face. It ran over towards the female. A large flock of Curlews was feeding a damper area in the meadow.

There were lots of geese flying round. Several skeins of Pink-footed Geese flew in, dropping down onto the grass in the distance to graze. We had a look at them in the scope. Several more disorderly groups of smaller Brent Geese were flying back and forth too.

Pink-footed Geese 1

Pink-footed Geese – coming in to the grazing marshes this morning

The daytime predators were already out hunting. A Kestrel perched briefly in a tree but was seen off by the attentions of a Rook. Three Marsh Harriers circled up over reeds, the male calling. He then tried to chase off one of last year’s juveniles, swooping down at it as the three of them flew round. Then a pale grey shape appeared low over the reeds, a stunning male Hen Harrier. We watched as it flew right across the marshes – even having time to get it in the scope for a closer look.

Just when it looked like we might not find a Barn Owl this morning, a ghostly white shape appeared from round the corner of the bank. It floated silently across the grazing marsh and spent a couple of minutes hunting in and out of the reeds. We had hoped it might come out and land on one of the posts, but it flew straight up to a nearby owl box and disappeared inside. Always a good start to the day, to get a Barn Owl under our belts, particularly today given the forecast for the afternoon!

Our next target was to find a Little Owl. We drove inland, up to a regular site where they can often be found. It was cool in the breeze, but the sun was still poking through the clouds, so we hoped we might find one out. We scanned the roofs of the farm buildings and quickly found a ball of feathers tucked up in the lee of the ridge, a Little Owl.

Little Owl

Little Owl – warming itself in the morning sun

The Little Owl had found a sheltered spot, out of the wind and facing into the morning sun, where it could warm itself. We had a good look at it in the scope. It was fluffed up and facing away from us at first, but then it turned to look towards the sun. A Marsh Harrier was quartering the fields nearby and a large flock of Brent Geese flew over, heading inland to feed.

We continued on our way west, via several other sets of old barns where Little Owls live, but it was clouding over steadily now and there was no sign of any others out this morning. We did find a few Stock Doves on the farm buildings. Several Brown Hares were running around in the fields already. There were lots of Lapwings gathered in large flocks.

A Red Kite flew lazily past us beside the road – the first of a number we saw on our journey today. There were also several Kestrels hovering over the verges or perched in the trees as we passed, and a few Common Buzzards up enjoying the breeze.

Red Kite

Red Kite – the first of several we saw on our journey today

Our next destination was Snettisham. On our way there, it had already started to spit with rain and it was exposed on the edge of the Wash. We had a quick walk up to see if the Shorelark was still here, but we couldn’t find it today. A flock of Goldfinches was feeding along the tideline and flew up ahead of us.

The tide was still out and the Wash was a vast expanse of mud. A large dark mass out in the middle turned out to be a big group of Teal roosting on the edge of one of the muddy channels. The white Shelducks stood out much better against the grey, and were scattered liberally over the whole area, feeding.

Shelduck

Shelduck – out on the mud of the Wash, feeding

A flock of Dunlin was running round on the near edge of the mud, just in front of us, and there were several Redshanks and a Curlew close in too. Most of the waders were further out in the murk, but we could pick out lines of Knot and Bar-tailed Godwits as well as a few Grey Plovers. Something spooked the big flock of Golden Plovers which had been asleep out on the mud and they flew up and over the seawall, dropping down to the fields inland.

It was not a day to be standing out on the edge of the Wash, so we turned our attention back to owls. There have been a couple of Short-eared Owls roosting here and after a short walk we found them, both in their usual spots, unusually choosing somewhere where they can be seen.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl – roosting under a bramble bush

We had a good look at the Short-eared Owls through the scope. The first had found a sheltered spot under a bramble bush, but was turned towards us so we could see its bright yellow eyes. The second was perched up in the brambles a little further over. It had its head turned in, but would occasionally look round.

There were a few other birds on the Pit here as we walked round. A selection of ducks, mostly tucked up by bank out of the wind, plenty of Wigeon plus a handful of Gadwall. A few Tufted Ducks and a pair of Goldeneye, which were diving continually. With our mission here accomplished today, having seen the Short-eared Owls, we didn’t linger and headed back to the warmth of the car.

Given the weather, we decided to head round to Titchwell where we could find some shelter in the hides. On our way back to the main road, we stopped to look at a small group of Pink-footed Geese in a field. We could see their dark brown heads, and small dark bills with a narrow pink band, very different from the Greylags we had been seen earlier. A pair of Egyptian Geese were nearby.

Pink-footed Geese 2

Pink-footed Geese – by the road on our way back from Snettisham

On our way round the coast, we called in briefly at Thornham Harbour. It was damp and blustery but we wanted to have a quick look to see if the Twite were around. As we walked up to the edge of the saltmarsh, they flew over calling and landed down in the vegetation in front of us, a flock of about 20 of them.

The Twite didn’t stop here very long though. After a couple of minutes, they flew up, circled round and dropped down behind us in the car park, to drink and bathe in the puddles. Again they didn’t stay long, but we had a great look at them here for a couple of minutes, before they were spooked by a car door slamming and flew off.

Twite

Twite – the regular flock came down to drink in the car park

It was time for lunch when we reached Titchwell. A Goldcrest was feeding in the trees right in front of the car when we arrived, just a metre or two from us. We headed over to the visitor centre for a hot drink and while we ate, we kept an eye on the feeders. As well as the regular Chaffinches, Goldfinches and Greenfinches, there were a couple of Bramblings too today, a female on the feeders in front and a brighter male on the ones round the other side.

After lunch, we had a quick walk round Fen Trail and Meadow Trail, in the shelter of the trees. There was nothing to see from Fen Hide today and no sign of the Woodcock under the trees. But we did have great views of one of the Water Rails in the ditch by the main path, picking around in the dead leaves on the bank.

Water Rail

Water Rail – showing well in the ditch

We decided to make a bid for the shelter of Parrinder Hide. On the way out, a Marsh Harrier was circling out over the reedbed, enjoying the wind. A lone Grey Plover was on the edge of the large pool out on Lavender Marsh and several Teal and Wigeon were feeding on the saltmarsh nearby.

The water levels on the freshmarsh are very high through the winter and there was little of note on here today. The raft of Common Pochard and Tufted Ducks were mostly tucked up against the reeds at the back. A lone Curlew dropped in for a bathe and preen on the edge of one of the few exposed bits of dry land.

The other side of Parrinder Hide, overlooking the Volunteer Marsh, was much more productive and we had good views of several species of wader from here. A single Knot was feeding on the mud just below the hide, though a larger group were weaving in and out of the vegetated islands further back. There were also several Dunlin, including a little mixed group with Knot giving a chance to compare the two side by side.

Knot

Knot – there were several on the saltmarsh in front of Parrinder Hide

Further over, we could see one or two Grey Plover, standing still surveying the mud for potential food, they were extremely well camouflaged until they moved. A couple of Ringed Plovers were running around as well. We had nice views of a Bar-tailed Godwit feeding on the mud and further back a couple of Black-tailed Godwits were hiding in one of the muddy channels. A Curlew or two and an Oystercatcher rounded off the selection nicely here.

The weather was improving, and it had stopped raining now, even if it was still a but blustery, so we decided to head out further across the reserve. There were some more nice views of waders close to the main path on the Volunteer Marsh, down in the shelter of the main channel. In particularly a Black-tailed Godwit was busy probing deep into the mud, flashing its black tail as it did so.

Black-tailed Godwit

Black-tailed Godwit – feeding close to the main path

Emboldened by the improvement in the weather, we decided to make a bid for the beach. There were lots more birds on the tidal pools, including a couple of nice close Bar-tailed Godwits which gave us a great chance to compare them with several more Black-tailed Godwits nearby. They were also helpfully flying across occasionally, flashing their very different respective wing and tail patterns.

Bar-tailed Godwit

Bar-tailed Godwit – nice views on the tidal pools

This is also where the Avocets were hiding. We counted at least thirteen today, though they were huddled up roosting along the spit at the back and it was hard to see all of them. Numbers are gradually starting to increase again, as birds start to return. There was also a large roost of Oystercatchers on the saltmarsh nearby.

A pair of Goldeneye were diving out on the Tidal Pools today, giving us better views than we had managed earlier at Snettisham. We had a great look at the male through the scope. There were also a few Pintail out here, including a couple of smart drakes, showing off their long pin-shaped central tail feathers as they upended to feed in the shallow water. One of the Little Grebes was diving just beyond the bushes right below the path.

It was nice to get out to the beach and into the shelter of the dunes, out of the wind. There were more waders out on the beach, even though it was around high tide now. More Bar-tailed Godwits were lined up along the water’s edge, with one or two Sanderlings running around in between them. A Turnstone walked past, picking at the seaweed along the high tide line, and another Sanderling ran past too.

It wasn’t as choppy as it might have been, given the wind, so we managed to find a few birds out on the sea. There was a group of six Long-tailed Ducks diving just offshore, including several smart drakes. We got them in the scope, but they took off before everyone had a chance to get a good look at them. They circled round offshore, before flying and landing back down much further out.

A line of dark, blackish Common Scoters was out there too, as well as a good number of Goldeneye. A couple of Guillemots were swimming just beyond the ducks and there were several Great Crested Grebes out on the water, but a Red-throated Diver was harder to see, diving constantly. Several Little Gulls flew past while we were watching the sea, the adults flashing alternately their black underwings and pale silvery grey upperwings.

The afternoon was getting on now and we had an appointment elsewhere at dusk, so we made a quick dash back to the car, heads down into the wind. We headed off inland on our way back east and checked out a couple of places in passing to see if there might be any more Barn Owls out, but they were probably in no hurry to come out this evening, given the wind.

When we got to the woods and started to walk along the track, we hadn’t gone very far when a male Tawny Owl started hooting from the trees behind us. It was an auspicious start, as we weren’t sure how active they would be given the wind tonight. We turned and walked back in the direction of the sound, and positioned ourselves where we know that particular Tawny Owl likes to perch up in the trees sometimes.

After a short wait, a dark shape flew towards us through the tops and landed in the back of an ivy-covered tree in front of us. Unfortunately, we couldn’t see it from where we were standing so we stood very quietly and were rewarded a few seconds later when the Tawny Owl flew again, right over our heads and into a tree close by. They are big owls up close, with very broad, rounded wings when they fly. It turned to look down at us.

We had a great view of the Tawny Owl perched there for a minute or so,  but it knew we were watching it from below and was spooked by a car passing on the road. It flew off again deeper into the trees. We knew roughly where it had gone and followed after it. Then helpfully it started hooting again, so we could work out exactly where it was and get it in the scope. We had a good view of it silhouetted against the last of the light, high in the branches, hooting, turning round.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – silhouetted against the sky, hooting

The Tawny Owl flew off a little further into the trees, where it landed briefly and called, before dropping away again. As we walked back to the car, we could still hear it hooting, a great way to end the day.

20th Jan 2018 – Seeking Owls

An Owl Tour today. It was cloudy and rather cold all day, but with light winds and the rain mostly held off – just a little light drizzle late morning and spots of rain for a time again early afternoon.

With an early start, we hoped to catch a Barn Owl out hunting still, and so it proved. After meeting up, we drove straight down to the grazing marshes on the coast and climbed up onto the seawall. There was a Barn Owl flying round over the grass. It flew up and down, landing a couple of times on a fence post, where we could get it in the scope. We all had a good look at it before it took off again and disappeared round the back of the reeds.

Barn Owl 1

Barn Owl – out hunting still on our arrival this morning

The Barn Owl had been a bit distant from where we were standing, so we walked up along the seawall for a closer look. We could hear Bearded Tits calling from the reeds as we passed. Then a Water Pipit flew up calling from an area of recently cut reed and two Grey Partridge flew across and dropped down in the middle of the same cut area, presumably to feed on any spilled seed. A flock of Curlew flew past us calling, heading inland.

The Barn Owl reappeared again, and was much closer to us now. We watched as it flew round again, staring intently down into the grass. It dropped down at one point, but came up again quickly with no sign of having caught anything, before landing on a nearby post briefly. When it took off again, it flew straight over towards us and made its way right past below the bank, before heading off inland presumably to roost.

Barn Owl 2

Barn Owl – a nice flypast as it headed off to roost

There were other birds here too. One or two Marsh Harriers quartered the reeds and we spotted a Kestrel perched on a telegraph post. Several geese were flying back and forth – including six Brent Geese which came right over our heads, and a couple of skeins of Pink-footed Geese further out over the grass. A Little Egret and a Rock Pipit were both feeding on the pools on the saltmarsh beyond the seawall. Another Barn Owl was only seen as it disappeared into a box to roost, before anyone could get onto it.

Little Egret

Little Egret – feeding on the pools on the edge of the saltmarsh

With the Barn Owls here having probably gone to roost now, we walked back to the car. We could hear Grey Partridge calling and looked across to see a pair on the bank in front of us. They then flew down into the grass, where we got a good look at them in the scope.

Some movement in the reeds on the edge of the ditch below us turned out to be a Chiffchaff. Mostly this is just a summer visitor and passage migrant here, but with increasingly mild winters a few stay on. In contract, Cetti’s Warbler is resident. We had heard a couple calling on our walk and, having just explained how it was unusual to see one out in the open, a Cetti’s Warbler flew past us and landed briefly in the top of a clump of brambles!

Our next target for the morning was Little Owl. On our drive inland to look for them, we noticed a white shape flying along the verge beside the road in front of us, another Barn Owl still out hunting. We drove slowly behind it for several minutes, watching it – it seemed oblivious to our presence. It landed briefly on a road sign, then carried on hunting. When it turned down a side road, it flicked over the hedge out of view, working the edge of the field. Then it came back over the hedge further along, crossing the road in front of us and going over the hedge the other side, before flying back the other way, behind us. Great to watch!

We stopped by a set of farm buildings where we know there are Little Owls. There was no obvious sign of them at first – perhaps not a great surprise as they like to perch up in the morning sun and today was cold and cloudy! As we walked round the other side, scanning carefully, we found one tucked in under the roof of an old barn. It was not easy to see from here – we could only see half of it and it was facing the other way – but we could make out its back spotted with white and the false eye pattern on the back of its head.

Little Owl

Little Owl – we could jut see the back of this one, hiding under the roof

We walked back round to the front of the barns, but the Little Owl had tucked itself in so well it was not visible at all from this side. There were a few other birds here – a few Brent Geese, Common Gulls and Curlew in the fields, and a pair of Stock Doves on the roof of one of the other barns.

The weather looked like it might be brightening a little, so we carried on our way west, hoping we might find another Little Owl elsewhere. However, we hadn’t gone far before it started to spit with rain. We drove past several more sets of occupied barns on our way, but there was no sign of any of the other Little Owls. It was just not the weather now for them to be sitting out, and we weren’t helped by lots of disturbance today too – a farmer with his dog was walking round the buildings at one site, a shoot was gathering outside another. We did see another late Barn Owl still out, perched on a post out in a field, looking slightly bedraggled.

Our next destination was Snettisham. As we got up onto the seawall, a smart drake Goldeneye was diving on the pit below the bank. The tide was out, and we were greeted by a vast expanse of mud stretching across to Lincolnshire in the distance, the Wash. There were a few smaller waders on the near edge, little groups of grey Dunlin and a couple of Ringed Plover too with nearest of them.

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Dunlin – feeding out on the mud of the Wash

There were clearly lots of waders out on the mud in the distance. Further out, we could see a few Grey Plover and Curlew. A tighter group beyond them was a line of Bar-tailed Godwits and Knot, busy feeding. A slick of Golden Plover was spread out across the mud, remarkably hard to see until we got them in the scope. Another flock of Golden Plover whirled round over the fields just inland, before dropping down out of view.

There were ducks out on the Wash too, lots of Teal and Mallard in flocks asleep on the edge of the muddy channels. Shelduck were liberally scattered across the mud. Inland, a big flock of Wigeon flew up calling before dropping back down behind the inner seawall.

There has been a Shorelark here in recent weeks, but we hadn’t heard anything about it for a while. We had a quick walk up along the tideline to see if it was still here and just as it seemed like it might have gone, we noticed some movement in all the seaweed and dry vegetation lined up along the top of the beach. Sure enough, it was the Shorelark. We had great views of it as it crept around in and out of the piles of vegetation, looking for seeds, its pale yellow face with distinctive black bandit mask and collar.

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Shorelark – along the tideline at Snettisham again this morning

As we made our way back along the track, we caught sight of a smart drake Pintail on the water below the bank. There were more Goldeneye diving out on the pits, and a couple of Little Grebes too. A flock of Tufted Duck flew off past us. On the main pit there were good numbers of Wigeon and a couple of Gadwall too, plus lots of Greylag Geese.

Walking round, we scanned the bushes and spotted a shape under the brambles. It was a Short-eared Owl roosting. We got it in the scope and had a look at it, but it was facing away from us at first. Another scan and we found a second Short-eared Owl in the bushes nearby. This one was looking straight at us.

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Short-eared Owl – one of two roosting here today

We stood and watched the Short-eared Owls for a few minutes. They were not doing very much, but would occasionally turn their heads. A pair of Brown Hares came chasing through the bushes towards them and ran straight into the brambles where the second Short-eared Owl was perched. We watched as it looking round and down towards them, making sure there wasn’t any threat, before going back to sleep.

After lunch back at the car, we started to make our way back east. We had hoped to have another go at finding another Little Owl on our way back, but having eased off earlier it now started to spit with rain again. Not surprisingly, there was no sign of any more owls still. We did find a big flock of Pink-footed Geese feeding in a recently harvested sugar beet field beside the road and had a quick stop to look at them.

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Pink-footed Geese – feeding in a recently harvested sugar beet field

When we got back to the coast, it stopped raining again, so we went back to the grazing marshes to see if any owls were coming out to hunt. As walked out on the seawall, we heard a Water Pipit call and looked down to see it feeding on the edge of a puddle where the reeds had just been cut. This time we had a good look at it through the scope, noting it pale off-white underparts with neat black streaking, and its prominent pale supercilium. A pair of Stonechats was feeding nearby too.

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Water Pipit – feeding around a puddle in the recently cut reeds

It was getting late now, and the light was starting to fade. We could see a big flock of Brent Geese feeding out on the grass in the distance and watched as they took off and flew across the marshes, heading off to roost.

A Barn Owl appeared behind us. It flew in over the reeds, past us on the bank, and headed out across the grazing marshes. It was a noticeably darker bird than the one we had seen here this morning. It hunted for a minute or so around the edge of the reeds out in the middle, then headed off over the other side.

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Barn Owl – a different bird, came out to hunt late this afternoon

It was getting late now. We already had a good haul of owls for the day, but there was one more still we wanted to try to see, so we headed inland again, and up to the woods. We walked through the trees and stood looking out over the grazing marshes as we waited for the light to fade. As we watched, several ducks flew in and landed down in the pools to feed, Mallard and Gadwall.

Then a Tawny Owl hooted from the trees behind us. We walked back into the wood and it hooted again. We looked over in that direction and saw a large shape fly out, disappearing off through the trees, as the Tawny Owl came out of its roost and headed off for the night.

We walked down along a path to an area where we know another male Tawny Owl favours. We had a short wait, but after a while it finally appeared through trees, and perched high above us. We managed to get it in the scope, silhouetted against the last of the day’s light, and watched it hooting, turning round on the branch, looking down towards us.

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Tawny Owl – silhouetted against the last of the light, hooting

The Tawny Owl stayed in the trees above us for several minutes, hooting on and off, before eventually it took off and disappeared deeper into the wood. We could still hear it, hooting in the distance, as we walked back to the car. It was a great way to end a very successful day out, seeking owls.

14th Jan 2018 – Norfolk Winter & Owls #3

Day 3 of a three day long weekend of tours today, our last day, and we were back exploring North Norfolk. It was another dull and cloudy day, but rather mild with very light winds and dry once again.

After meeting up this morning, we headed west before turning inland off the coast road. We hadn’t gone far when a ghostly shape flew across the road in front of us – a Barn Owl. It landed on a post by a gate, but flew off behind the hedge as we pulled up. We didn’t see it disappear across the field so we had a hunch it might have landed on another post further along, and as we looked round the hedge there was the Barn Owl. It flew again, across the grassy paddock, but landed on the fence the other side in full view.

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Barn Owl – finally, we had really good views of one this morning

The Barn Owl stayed standing on the post for some time – now we could get a really good look at it. Eventually it dropped down into the grass and appeared to catch something. It flew back up to the post briefly, and then disappeared off silently through the trees behind. There seem to be rather few Barn Owls out hunting in daylight hours at the moment, presumably because they are not struggling to hunt at night, so it was great to get one out during the morning.

Our first scheduled stop of the morning was at Thornham. There had been a couple of Waxwings here for the last few days, feeding on windfall apples in the orchards, and we were hoping to see them. Reports had suggested that they had flown off yesterday afternoon, but thankfully we received a message to say they were back this morning.

When we arrived, we found a couple of cars and several people with binoculars standing around in the car park not really looking anywhere. We decided to check the orchard the Waxwings had been favouring yesterday and were on our way over when we looked up into the tall tree by the entrance and there was a Waxwing! We got it in the scope and had a nice look at it.

Waxwings are very smart birds – from the punk crest to the delicate wing markings with red waxy tips to the wing coverts and yellow tip to the tail. It dropped down into the orchard and disappeared, presumably to feed, but a few minutes later it was back up again in another tree. This time it flew across and landed on top of a telegraph post on the other side of the car park.

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Waxwing – perched for ages on a telegraph post in the car park

The Waxwing stayed on the top of the post for some time. There was no sign of the second bird which has been with it in recent days, so perhaps it was looking for it, or any other Waxwings which might be around. It meant we had a great opportunity to admire it. Eventually, the lone Waxwing flew over us calling and dropped back down into the orchard.

There were a few other birds here. A couple of Fieldfares were in the tall tree when we first located the Waxwing, and more appeared up from the orchard at one point, along with a few Redwings and a Song Thrush.

However, the other stars of the show were across the road, a huge flock of hundreds of Linnets on the wires across a weedy field. They kept flying down to feed, in flocks of several hundred at a time, before flying back up to the wires. Linnets used to be common farmland birds here but have declined substantially in recent years, so it is great to see such a large number and goes to show what can happen when food is left for them.

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Linnets – in their hundreds, lining up on the wires

It was just a short drive from here round to the harbour. As we drove down the road by the saltmarsh, we could see several people with telescopes pointing down into the vegetation. When we got out, we could see they were watching a flock of Twite. We got out of the car and had a look at them – we could see their orange breasts and yellow bills, which in winter set Twite apart from Linnets. We could also hear the nasal, twangy ‘tveet’ calls from which they get their name.

This is another species which used to be much more common here, but it is not the loss of habitat in Norfolk which is the problem, as they feed mostly out on saltmarsh. Twite are just winter visitors here, and these birds come from the Pennines where the breeding population of Twite has declined markedly in recent years. Thornham is one of the last regular wintering sites, and there are just 20-30 here these days.

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Twite – we had great views of the flock right by the road today

It was proving to be a successful morning, so after admiring the Twite we made our way round to Titchwell next. As we made our way out onto the reserve, we had a quick look at the feeders by the visitor centre, but there were just a few Chaffinches, Goldfinches and the commoner tits here today.

Walking up the main path, we scanned the ditches either side carefully, looking for any movement. One of the group spotted something lurking down in the vegetation and sure enough it turned out to be the Water Rail. It scuttled away deeper in, but then worked its way back towards us and we had a nice view of it feeding in the rotting leaves down in the water.

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Water Rail – feeding in the ditch by the main path again

Next stop was by the Thornham grazing meadow pool. At first it looked rather quiet here, but scanning carefully around the edges we found a Water Pipit creeping around on the mud on the edge of the reeds. We got it in the scope and everyone had a look at it – noting particularly its pale, off-white underparts neatly streaked with black – before it disappeared back into the reeds.

Out on the freshmarsh, the water level is still very high but there were fewer ducks than of late. There were still plenty of Shelduck and Teal, plus a few Gadwall. Several Common Pochard were lurking around the small island towards the back and a small group of Tufted Ducks were diving out in the middle of the water.

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Teal – looking very smart now in breeding plumage

With the water level high, there are few waders on here at the moment, apart from a few Lapwings and Golden Plover. A little more of the top of the island by the junction with the path to Parrinder Hide was visible today. As well as the Lapwing on here, and a single Golden Plover, a small group of Knot had flown in to bathe, along with a few Dunlin.

The tide was out and the Volunteer Marsh was rather dry now.  We managed to get a Grey Plover in the scope, and could see a scattering of Curlew, Redshank, Knot and Dunlin out on the mud. We also had good views of a Black-tailed Godwit in the channel at the front by the main path.

Black-tailed Godwit

Black-tailed Godwit – showing well on the Volunteer Marsh

Out at the Tidal Pools, we found where all the ducks were hiding. There were lots of Shoveler out here today, all asleep with their bills tucked in, as well as more Teal. Several Wigeon were feeding on the islands of saltmarsh. There were about half a dozen Pintail here too, including some smart drakes, though they were busy feeding with their heads under water for much of the time. A few Little Grebes were diving out on the pools.

Eight Avocets were sleeping out on the end of one of the muddy spits, a slight increase on the five that we have seen here recently. Otherwise, there were not many other waders on the Tidal Pools today, just a few more Black-tailed Godwits and Redshanks.

Avocets

Avocets – eight were here today, sleeping on the Tidal Pools

Most of the interest at Titchwell today was out on the sea, so we hurried out to the beach. The tide was out, so everything was distant from the top of the beach, but we scanned from the dunes to see what we could see. There has been a little group of Long-tailed Ducks here for a while now, and we could see them diving close to the shore away to the west of us.

Scanning through the Goldeneye, we could see two much larger ducks, with a prominent wedge shaped head and bill – Common Eider. There are always several Common Scoter offshore here but it took us a bit of time to find the single Velvet Scoter. It was rather distant, but everyone had a look at it through the scope and managed to see the white in the wings which is one of the easiest ways to distinguish Velvet Scoter from Common Scoter. A small grebe offshore with clean black cap and white cheeks was a winter-plumaged Slavonian Grebe.

With the Long-tailed Ducks close inshore today, we decided to walk out across the sand towards Thornham Point to get a better views. With only very light winds today, it was pleasant out in the open on the sand. We stood on the shore opposite where the Long-tailed Ducks were feeding and had cracking views of them, swimming on the sea, diving for shellfish or preening. There were at least nine of them, including several stunning males. Close up, we could see the striking elongated central tail feathers on the drakes, from which they get their name.

Long-tailed Ducks

Long-tailed Ducks – great views just offshore today from down on the beach

After we had enjoyed a great look at the Long-tailed Ducks, they had a brief fly round for us, before landing back down on the water a little further out. There were several Common Scoter here too, close inshore, and from this range we could even see the yellow stripe down the top of the bill of the otherwise black drake.

Some of the other divers and grebes had apparently drifted off further west, so we walked down along the shore to Thornham Point. There were lots of waders out on the beach here, mainly Bar-tailed Godwits, walking round probing in the sand with their long, slightly upturned bills. There were a couple of Dunlin and Oystercatchers with the godwits and a few Sanderling and Turnstones flew past along the edge of the sea.

Bar-tailed Godwit

Bar-tailed Godwits – feeding out on the beach towards Thornham Point

As we arrived at Thornham Point, several people were just leaving. They had not seen the Black-necked Grebe which was supposedly down this end. We stopped to scan the sea, but it was hard to see the birds being so low down on beach, they were disappearing in the light swell despite the sea being fairly flat calm. They were also diving all the time. We did manage to find the Black-necked Grebe, briefly but we lost track of it again before everyone could get to see it.

It was getting late now, and we still hadn’t eaten. After a brisk walk back along the beach we headed straight back to the visitor centre for a rather late lunch.

After lunch, we made our way over to Snettisham. The light was already going by the time we arrived. Looking out across the Wash, there was a vast expanse of mud – it was not a big tide today, and the tide was just starting to come in. The waders were scattered widely across the mud, apart from a couple of big groups of Oystercatchers which were huddled up together. There were lots of ducks here too, especially Shelduck out on the water’s edge and Mallard gathered around the channels in the mud. We had a quick walk up along the tide line but there was no sign of the Shorelark here now today.

We had come here mainly looking for owls. There was no sign of any out hunting yet, but scanning the bushes carefully we found a Short-eared Owl roosting under bramble. A second Short-eared Owl was roosting in the brambles nearby. They were both still asleep, with their heads tucked down, but they did look round a couple of times so we could see them properly through the scope.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl – one of two roosting in the brambles today

Short-eared Owls can often be found out hunting in the late afternoon, so we stood here for a few minutes to see if they might wake up and start flying round, but they were obviously not hungry enough at moment. They are probably finding enough food at night.

We saw a few other birds here. There were several Goldeneye on the pits, as well as a couple of Little Egrets. Some Greylag were on the pits, but more were gathering noisily in the fields just inland, before going to roost. There is a large roost of Pink-footed Geese on the Wash off Snettisham, but there was no sign of any here yet.

It was starting to get dark so it was time to make our way back. As we did, we could see long lines of dots approaching in the sky. We watched and listened as thousands and thousands of Pink-footed Geese flew in from the fields and headed out towards the Wash, coming in to roost. We stayed for several minutes as more and more birds came over. It was stunning sight and a great way to end the three days.

12th Jan 2018 – Norfolk Winter & Owls #1

Day 1 of a three day long weekend of tours today. The plan was to spend some of the time looking for a selection of our regular winter birds and some of the time trying to find owls. After two foggy days, it seemed like it might be more of the same today but then, contrary to all the forecasts, the sun came out! It was a lovely day to be out.

Holkham was our first destination this morning. As we turned into Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see several thrushes out on the wet grass feeding around one of the pools. We pulled up for a quick look and could see they were mainly Fieldfares along with a couple of Redwings too.  A short distance further on, a little covey of Grey Partridges was feeding in the grass on the other side.

As we got out of the car at the top of the Drive, a couple of Marsh Harriers flew low overhead, presumably heading out from the roost to feed. The first was a male, quite a dark one, possibly a young bird although greyness does not always correlate with age in male Marsh Harriers! This was closely followed by a female, dark brown with paler creamy yellow head and shoulders.

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Marsh Harrier – this male flew low over Lady Anne’s Drive

There were plenty of wildfowl here too. Little groups of Pink-footed Geese flew over calling, before landing out in the fields – we could hear their squeaky calls, higher pitched than the more familiar Greylags. A larger flock of Brent Geese arrived from the direction of Wells. On the other side, a big group of Wigeon was flushed by another passing harrier and flew round whistling, before landing back down in the grass.

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Brent Geese – flying in to feed on the grazing marshes

As we made our way through the trees towards the beach, a Treecreeper was calling in the pines. We walked east along the path on the edge of the saltmarsh. A couple of Skylarks flew over calling and a big flock of Meadow Pipits flushed from out in the vegetation.

There was no sign of any Shorelark in their usual favoured spot out on the saltmarsh. We continued on a little further, scanning all the time, and finally spotted one in the distance on a strip of shingle in a gap in the dunes. A couple walking their dog were just coming off the beach beyond, walking straight towards it. We all had a quick look at it through the scope in case it flushed, but thankfully it stayed put.

We walked over half way towards it and stopped again for a closer look through the scope. We could see its creamy yellow face and black bandit mask. We could see now that the Shorelark appeared to be on its own and was rather nervous. We could hear it calling, presumably trying to locate the rest of the group here. Then it flew over us and landed back on the saltmarsh where we had just been. We walked back, but the Shorelark was calling all the time now. It took off and circled round over the saltmarsh, before flying off over the dunes to the beach.

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Shorelark – just one this morning, this photo taken the other day

Out on the beach, we could feel the warmth of the sun, which was just high enough to reach here over the pines behind. Scanning the sea, we found a group of Red-breasted Mergansers. Several smart males were chasing round after a single female, showing off their spiky haircuts.

There were lots of Cormorants standing on the sand and several more diving out on the sea, along with a handful of Great Crested Grebes. Looking carefully, we managed to find a single Red-throated Diver with them, but it was hard to get onto, diving all time. There were not many waders on the beach, just a few Oystercatchers, but three Sanderling flew past just offshore, shining white in the morning sunshine.

As we walked back towards Holkham Gap, a movement in the dunes just below the trees caught our eye. A female Stonechat had landed down in the marram grass. It flew up and very helpfully posed in front of us on the top of a young pine.

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Stonechat – feeding in the dunes below the pines

Back through the pines, we headed west along the track on the other side of the trees. It was fairly quiet until we reached Salts Hole. Here, we could see two Little Grebes asleep on the edge of the reeds on the far side, in the sun. A couple of Coot were busy diving, and a female Goldeneye swam out into the middle to join them. A big flock of Wigeon flushed from the grazing marsh behind, and several flew in and landed on the water whistling noisily.

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Goldeneye – this female was diving out on Salts Hole

The drawback of it being such a lovely morning was that at Washington Hide, we were looking into the sun. There was no sign of anything on the pool in front of the hide today, although we did hear a Bearded Tit calling from the reeds.

One of the Great White Egrets then appeared, landing on the grazing marsh just to the west of us. A Grey Heron flew across and chased after it – a good size comparison, we could see that there was nothing between them. The Grey Heron seemed to lose interest pretty quickly and the Great White Egret landed again, before walking down into one the reedy ditches.

We carried on our way west. We were almost up to the crosstracks when we came across a big flock of tits. We heard the Long-tailed Tits first and they dropped out of the pines and made their way through the bushes across to the other side of the track. They were followed by several Coal Tits and Goldcrests. A few seconds later, a rather wet Coal Tit flew back to the bushes on the edge of the pines and perched in the top of one preening. A wet Goldcrest followed. They had obviously been down for a drink and a bathe in one of the ditches.

As we opened the windows of Joe Jordan Hide, we could see lots of geese on the grass just below. They were mainly Greylags, but a single Pink-footed Goose was with them. It was a good comparison – we could see the large orange carrot of a bill on the Greylag Geese compared to the more delicate and darker bill of the Pinkfoot.

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White-fronted Geese – more today, feeding out on the old fort

There were more geese further back, feeding on the grass on the top of the old fort. Through the scope we could see they were White-fronted Geese – we could see the distinctive white surround to the base of their bills and their dark belly bars. These birds come here from their breeding grounds in Russia for the winter in very variable numbers. There have been rather few present so far this winter but numbers have just started to increase, possibly in response to colder weather out on the continent. 

Another Great White Egret appeared, landing out in the wet grass between the hide and the pool. It looked huge next to the Greylag Geese feeding nearby. Through the scope we could see its long, dagger-shaped yellow bill.

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Great White Egret – showing off its size relative to the Greylags

There were a few ducks around the pool beyond, mainly Teal along with a few Shoveler. A couple of Mistle Thrushes landed on the grass below the hide, feeding in amongst the molehills with a Fieldfare. A female Kestrel was walking around looking for worms in the grass too.

Looking out of the side window, we noticed a good number of waders around the pools down in the grass. Through the scope, we had good views of Ruff and a nice comparison with a Common Redshank. There were lots of Black-tailed Godwits too and several diminutive Dunlin running around between them. A few Curlew were feeding out on the grass as well, until everything was flushed by a passing Marsh Harrier.

It was getting on for lunch time now, so we made our way back to the car. As we ate, a Red Kite flew lazily across over the grazing marshes.

After lunch, we headed inland. We drove round via a couple of sets of barns where Little Owls live, but there was no sign of any at first. Unfortunately, it had clouded over a bit now. At our third attempt, we found one. It was rather distant and tucked down under the lip of the roof, but we could see its speckled breast, and the white spots on its brown back.

The afternoon was getting on now and it was already starting to get rather dull. We made our way back down to the coast and out onto the grazing marshes. A distant Barn Owl was already out hunting on our arrival, but it didn’t come round our way as we had hoped. We could hear Bearded Tits and Reed Buntings calling in the reedbed below the seawall, and a nice male Bearded Tit perched up in the top of the reeds briefly for us.

Thousands of Pink-footed Geese flushed from the far side of the grazing marshes. It was quite a sight and sound. Some of them landed back down on the grass, but some flew off over our heads calling. Very noisy!

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Pink-footed Geese – thousands flushed from the grazing marshes

We drove round to the other side of the grazing marshes to see if we could find where the Barn Owl had gone. There was no sign of it here either. We did get a glimpse of a second Barn Owl out hunting, a darker bird, but it dropped down behind the reeds out in the middle before everyone could see it and didn’t reappear. We drove back inland, round via some other sites where Barn Owls like to hunt, but there was no sign of any – they must not be hungry enough to come out feeding in the daylight at the moment.

It was starting to get dark now, so we headed up to the wood. We stood on the edge for a few minutes and looked out over the meadows below, where a Water Rail was squealing. Then the first Tawny Owl starting hooting behind us, so we walked back into the trees. We stopped on the corner of the track and waited.

After a few minutes, a female Tawny Owl called behind us. Then we heard another male hooting in the distance. Finally, a third male Tawny Owl started hooting close to us. We stood and listened for a while and eventually this one flew towards us. It landed in a tree in front of us briefly, but it looked like it saw us and flew across the track and deeper into the trees. It seemed like the opportunity might have passed.

Then we heard the Tawny Owl hooting again and it seemed to be coming from the edge of the track a little further down. We walked along and scanning the branches managed to find it perched high in tree above us. We managed to get it in the scope, silhouetted against the last of the light. It stayed there for several minutes, first hooting, then calling,  before dropping back through the trees in the direction it had first come. As we walked back to the car, we could still hear it hooting from deeper in the wood.

It was a great way to end our first day, watching Tawny Owls at dusk. But it was getting dark now, so it was time to call it a day.

9th Jan 2018 – Looking for Owls

It was an Owl Tour today, the first of 2018. The weather was dry and the wind had dropped completely today, which was a real bonus, but it was still very dull, grey and chilly all day with a light mist which thickened in the afternoon.

After we met up on the coast this morning, we headed straight over to the grazing marshes to look for Barn Owls. One had been out hunting just before we arrived, but after a mild, dry night they can go to bed very early at this time of year. Thankfully, as soon as we got up onto the seawall, we could see a Barn Owl still hunting out over the grass in the distance.

We walked up along the bank and watched it for a while, flying round methodically over the same field. The Barn Owl dropped down onto the ground a couple of times but came up without anything shortly after. It disappeared round behind some reeds for a while, but then came back out and continued to hunt over the same area.

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Barn Owl – we saw a couple still out hunting this morning

The Barn Owl gradually worked its way back away from us, working the fields further off along the bank, so we turned our attention to whatever else we could see. Several Marsh Harriers were quartering the reeds and the grazing marshes. A Kestrel flew in and landed on a bush before making its way over to perch on one of the information boards out on the seawall.

A big flock of Brent Geese flew up periodically in the distance out across the marshes, circling round calling, before dropping back down to feed on the grass. Several Pink-footed Geese flushed off the grazing marshes too, but they headed off inland, presumably to find some recently harvested sugar beet fields to feed it. We could hear their high-pitched yelping calls as they flew off.

The next thing we knew, the Barn Owl was back again, presumably the same one, much closer to us. It dropped down behind a line of reeds, so we made our way over towards it, and when it came up again we had a close flypast. Great views! It came straight past us, flying purposefully now, up and over the bank behind us, and disappeared off inland, presumably heading off to roost.

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Barn Owl – gave us a close flypast as it headed off to roost

No sooner had that Barn Owl disappeared, than another turned up. This one was much paler, white winged, the resident male here. It circled round in front of the reeds, perching down in the grass for a few seconds where we managed to get it in the scope. Then it flew back over the reeds and disappeared off towards the trees. Presumably it too was heading in to roost now.

We were just turning to leave when a pair of Grey Partridges flew across and landed down on the grass in front of us. The male stood bolt upright, looking round, while the female picked around in the grass nearby. Then they were off again, running away across the open grass.

Our next target was Little Owl. They can often be found during the morning, perched up enjoying the sun at this time of year, but there was a distinct lack of any sun today! There was a distinct chill in the air too, despite the lack of wind. There was no sign of any Little Owls at our first stop. We stopped again a little further on and walked round to check out the back of some barns. We could just see the top of the head of one Little Owl from here, tucked tight down in the roof, but we couldn’t make out any detail. Not a stunning view!

Little Owl

Little Owl – tucked well down out of view this morning

We walked round to the other side of the barn, to see if we could get a better look at the Little Owl from there, but it had found a spot where it was sheltered, out of the wind, and it wasn’t visible at all from this side.

There were some other birds here. A big flock of Curlew flew up from a rape field next to the road as we stopped. A couple of Red-legged Partridges and a pair of Stock Doves were lurking around the farm buildings. A flock of Brent Geese flew up from the coast and headed off inland to feed on a winter wheat field somewhere. Given the weather, it seemed unlikely a Little Owl would come out into the open this morning, so we decided to head off and try our luck elsewhere.

Brent Geese

Brent Geese – flying up from the coast, heading inland to feed

As we made our way west, we saw several Bullfinches which flew out of the hedges as we passed, flashing their white rumps. A couple of Red Kites flew over, and a Common Buzzard perched on the top of the hedge took off as we pulled up alongside it. A Sparrowhawk flew low and fast along the grass verge ahead of us, up into a tree where it landed on a branch briefly, before flying on along the road as we approached. We drove round via several other sites for Little Owl, but there was no sign of any this morning, it seemed like perhaps it was just too dull and cold.

We decided to give up on Little Owls for now, so we continued our way west over to Snettisham. There had been a Shorelark seen here yesterday so, while the rest of the group stopped for a warming coffee, the intrepid leader headed out to look for it. It didn’t take long to find it, picking at the vegetation washed up along the high tide line.

ShorelarkShorelark – feeding along the tide line at Snettisham

Collecting everyone else after their coffee break, we walked back and had great views of the Shorelark in the scopes. We could see its bright yellow face and black mask and collar, but despite this it was very well camouflaged when feeding unobtrusively, creeping around in the dry brown vegetation.

After watching the Shorelark for a while, we turned our attention to the Wash. It was about high tide now, but it was not a big enough tide to cover the mud today. Still there were lots of waders out there. A long line of Oystercatchers had gathered towards the water’s edge, several thousand strong. A dark smear across the grey mud closer to us was actually a big flock of Golden Plover, roosting over high tide.

There were also lots of Bar-tailed Godwits, Grey Plover, Dunlin and Redshanks scattered liberally over mud, still busy feeding, which we had a look at through the scope. Several Curlews were sleeping further back. The Knot had all gone to sleep out in the middle too, in several smaller groups.

Knot

Knot – sleeping in smaller flocks, scattered over the mud

While we were gathered watching the waders, a Spanish couple visiting here walked over to speak to us. They had found an injured Pink-footed Goose – it looked like it had most likely been shot and winged and was unable to fly or stand. They were headed back in the direction of King’s Lynn, so we agreed the best option would be to take it to the RSPCA Wildlife Centre East Winch, which would be not far out of their way.

We made our way round to look at the pits. There are lots of Goldeneye here at the moment, and several of the drakes were displaying, throwing their heads back in an exaggerrated fashion. There was also a nice selection of other ducks – Wigeon, Gadwall, Teal, Mallard, Shoveler and a few Tufted Ducks. There were plenty of noisy Greylag Geese too and a few Little Grebes diving out on the water.

Goldeneye

Goldeneye – several of the drakes were displaying today

A Kingfisher flew past us, along the edge of the water. It disappeared from view, but by walking down onto the causeway and looking back we could see it perched on a bramble bush along the bank. It was easier to see in the scope – surprisingly well camouflaged for an electric blue bird!

Looking across to the other bank, we could see a shape tucked down under a bramble bush. It was a roosting Short-eared Owl. They often like to roost well hidden from view, but this one was not particularly well concealed by the brambles above it.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl – roosting under a bramble bush

There have been Fieldfares on the move in recent days and today was no exception. As we stood scanning the pits, a good-sized flock of about 150 Fieldfares flew south, followed by another 20 or so a little later, calling.

After lunch back at the car, we started to make our way back east. Again, we looked at several sites for Little Owls on the way, but it seemed like we would be out of luck again. It was even greyer know than it had been earlier. Driving past a set of barns where we know there are owls, we looked across to see a shape perched on the top of a roof. We pulled to a stop in front and looked up. There was a Little Owl, perched high on the ridge. It stared at us for a few seconds then, just as the camera came out, it flew off round the back of the buildings.

We made our way back to Blakeney. The mist had thickened and it was very dull now. As we walked out on the seawall, we could see a Barn Owl hunting across the other side. We stopped to scan the marshes and could see a couple of Marsh Harriers out over the reeds, presumably getting ready to go to roost. A pale-headed female perched on the top of a bush and a male did a nice circuit round in front of us.

Marsh Harrier

Marsh Harrier – quartering the reedbed before going to roost

We heard the pinging calls of Bearded Tits coming from the reeds in front of us and we could see the feathery seedheads swaying, despite the lack of any wind. Looking closely, we could see the Bearded Tits clambering through the reeds and feeding on the seeds. A Cetti’s Warbler called from the reeds too.

It didn’t look like the Barn Owl was going to do a circuit round to us today – there was no sign of it coming over to this side of the marshes. So, with the light fading, we headed back to the car and made our way inland again. We parked and walked down to a meadow. There is often a Barn Owl here, but not today – perhaps it had not yet emerged from its roost. A Water Rail squealed nearby.

As we made our way back into the nearby trees, a Tawny Owl started hooting from the wood behind us. We walked down to a nearby area where we know another Tawny Owl sometimes roosts. We heard it hoot once, but it was deep in the trees today. After a few minutes wait, it started calling from the far edge of the trees ahead of us and in reply came more hooting from back where we had heard the first.

It was lovely listening to the Tawny Owls, but then it went quiet. It was perhaps a bit cold and grey for them to get really worked up this evening. As it was getting dark, we decided it was time to call it a day and head for home.

11th Feb 2017 – More Owls & More

Another Owl Tour today. The weather forecast was not ideal for owls – cold, cloudy and windy with the risk of snow showers! Thankfully, once again it was not as bad as forecast and we had a great day. We managed to find some owls and some other good birds besides.

We started with a drive round to see if we could find some Barn Owls still out hunting, but with the conditions it was perhaps no surprise to find that they had already gone in to roost. At one brief stop two Stock Dove flew past, we flushed a Little Egret from a wet meadow and listened to Greylag Geese flying inland honking. A little further along and we could see a large skein of several hundred geese flying towards us over the fields. Pink-footed Geese presumably looking for a recently harvested sugar beet field on which to feed. We pulled over and listened to them as they flew overhead, their distinctive higher pitched yelping calls very different from the Greylags we had heard earlier.

6o0a6356Pink-footed Geese – a large skein flew over the road calling

Making our way further inland, we headed for one of our regular Little Owl spots. It didn’t take long to find our first Little Owl, perched up in a sheltered spot on the roof of one of the farm buildings. It was a long way off, so we drove along the road for a slightly closer look. We could see it better from here but it was still some way away, a little ball of feathers fluffed up against the cold.

A short distance down a footpath, we made our way round to the back of some other farm buildings which are more sheltered. Sure enough, here we found another two Little Owls, a little closer still. They too were hunched up under the roof of a barn. One of them did fly out onto the roof at one point, but clearly thought better of it and headed back quickly to where it had been tucked up out of the wind.

On our way back to the car, we disturbed a Brown Hare, which ran across the path in front of us at high speed and disappeared into the trees. A stubble field nearby held a nice flock of Curlew, all but invisible until they flew round. A group of Lapwing flew inland from the direction of the coast.

Carrying on our drive westwards, we stopped briefly at another couple of sets of barns, which we know are occupied by both Little Owls and Barn Owls. Given the weather, it was perhaps not a great surprise that no owls were perched out here today. We did see some nice farmland birds on our drive. A covey of Red-legged Partridges next to the road were accompanied by a pair of Grey Partridges – always nice to see. Several Kestrels were perched on posts or wires, looking down from there for food rather than hovering this morning. And we saw several more Brown Hares, although they were mostly hunkered down in the fields.

6o0a6364Grey Partridge – a pair were by the road with a covey of Red-legged Partridges

A little further on, we had hoped to catch up with a flock of geese in a recently harvested sugar beet field, where they have been feeding for the last few days. However, when we got there, we couldn’t find any sign of them. We thought they might be loafing in another field further back, so we drove round there to have a look, only to find a long line of twenty or more men with shotguns strung out across the landscape. Perhaps it was no surprise that we couldn’t find any geese today! With the shooting season for most game having closed at the beginning of this month, they were shooting Brown Hares. We could see that many of them had dead Hares hanging from their waists. Sad to see such beautiful animals like this.

With the morning getting on, we decided to head for Titchwell to do some more general birding and resume our search for owls later. As we set off from the car to head for the visitor centre, one of the group asked about the Woodcock which has been seen recently by the path here. Often it is further back in the trees out of view, but today we were lucky. Just as we were talking about it, we glanced into the bushes and there was the Woodcock less than 10 metres from the path!

6o0a6419Woodcock – great views, feeding by the path at Titchwell

The Woodcock was feeding actively, walking about among the branches and probing its long bill into the wet leaves looking for earthworms and other invertebrates. They are surprisingly large, chunky birds, with very intricate patterning which provides great camouflage. Against the rather dark brown rotting leaves here, this Woodcock’s rusty colouration meant it rather stood out! We watched it for a while as it worked its way further back into the trees and disappeared from view. Given Woodcock are mainly nocturnal, it was great to see one so well, a rare treat.

The feeders by the Visitor Centre held a nice selection of finches, mainly Chaffinch, Goldfinch and Greenfinch. But in amongst them we managed to find a single female Brambling, which kept flying out of the bushes behind and hovering by one of the feeders, but it seemed reluctant to land. We scanned the alders for redpolls, but all we could find in the trees today were more Goldfinches and Greenfinches.

The Water Rails were more obliging. As we got out onto the main path, one was feeding in the ditch straight ahead of us. We had a great look at it as it walked around nervously out in the open, probing in the dead leaves. A little further along, a second Water Rail was in the ditch on the other side of the path briefly.

6o0a6441Water Rail – feeding in the ditch by the path again

Out of the shelter of the trees, there was a keen cold breeze, so we made our way quickly along the path. A couple of Marsh Harriers were circling over the reedbed at the back of the still dry Thornham grazing marsh ‘pool’. The Water Pipit appeared briefly out of the ditch along one side, but flew off behind the reeds before everyone could get onto it. Otherwise, it was very quiet on here again today. The reedbed pool held a single Tufted Duck and a few Mallard.

The water level on the freshmarsh is still rather high, but has now dropped a fraction. We made our way straight round to Parrinder Hide to scan from the comparative warmth inside! There was a nice selection of winter ducks on here today, including several Pintail sleeping in front of the hide. Through the scope, we could see the drakes’ long, pin-shaped tails.

6o0a6460Pintail & Wigeon – sleeping on the freshmarsh

A single Bar-tailed Godwit was bathing on the edge of the mud, and then flew across to join the ducks in the shallower water and preen. A single Black-tailed Godwit dropped in nearby too, and we were able to get a good comparison looking between them  and see the key differences between these rather similar species in winter plumage. A few Knot flew in too and in with them we found a single Ruff (a female, or Reeve), similar sized but longer legged and with distinctive scaly-patterned upperparts.

The thirteen over-wintering Avocet have returned to the freshmarsh, now that the water level has dropped a little. The fenced off island was covered with roosting Lapwing and in one corner were several Golden Plover which had obviously just been bathing and were now preening and flapping. While we watched, another large flock of Golden Plover flew in from the fields and dropped in to join them.

From the other side of Parrinder Hide, we had a look out across the Volunteer Marsh. There was a nice selection of waders in front of the hide here. Several dumpy grey Knot were feeding on the mud just below the windows with a few smaller and browner Dunlin nearby for comparison. A Grey Plover was hard to pick out against the mud until it moved. There were also several Curlew and Redshank.

6o0a6483Knot – in grey winter plumage

Having warmed up in the hide, we decided to make a quick dash out to the beach. On the way, we stopped briefly to admire a Black-tailed Godwit on the mud just below the path on the Volunteer Marsh and a couple of close Little Grebes on the near edge of the tidal pools.

6o0a6507Little Grebe – on the tidal pools

There was a chill in the north-easterly wind out on the beach, so we didn’t want to stay out there long. The tide was out but we had a quick look at the sea from the edge of the dunes. About 30 Velvet Scoter were diving just offshore, hunting for shellfish. We could see the twin white spots of the females, although the young males with them are now looking mostly dark headed. We could see the white in the wings, visible on the flanks of several which were holding their wings loosely and on others as they flapped. The Common Scoter were much further out, probably about 2,000 today, visible as a long black slick spread out across the water.

While we were watching the Velvet Scoter, a couple of Long-tailed Ducks appeared with them briefly. We just had time for a quick look at them through the scope, before they flew off. There were also a few Goldeneye and a pair of Red-breasted Merganser out on the sea today. Then, with the group starting to get cold, we made a quick turnaround and walked back.

After finishing lunch back at the car (the first sitting had been held in Parrinder Hide), we set off again. It was still a bit early for owls, so we had a quick look in the harbour at Thornham first. There was no sign of the Twite here today, but we did find a few waders in the channel – including Black- and Bar-tailed Godwit and Curlew. A very obliging pair of Brent Geese fed on the tiny strip of saltmarsh between the road and the boats.

6o0a6535Brent Goose – one of a very obliging pair at Thornham today

A quick look in at Brancaster Staithe produced a few more waders. The highlights were a few Turnstone and Oystercatcher feeding around the piles of discarded mussels. Several Goldeneye were diving down in the harbour channel. Then, with the afternoon progressing, we made our way back west to look for owls again. We stopped off at several regular Barn Owl sites on the way, but with the weather as it was it always seemed unlikely we would encounter too many out hunting before dark. We would need a bit of luck!

There were no Barn Owls out yet at Holkham either. We scanned the freshmarsh for geese too, but all was quiet here apart from a Grey Heron. There are still good numbers of White-fronted Geese here normally, but there was no sign here today. A few hundred metres further down the road we found out why – they were all in a field beside the road! We pulled up with our hazard lights on and had a look at them from the car so as not to flush them. There were more than a hundred White-fronted Geese here, we could see the white around their bills and black belly-barring on the adults, along with a few Greylags.

6o0a6554White-fronted Geese – over a hundred were next to the road at Holkham

A little further along, we found a single Egyptian Goose  in the same field and at Lady Anne’s Drive we stopped to look at a small group of Pink-footed Geese out on the grass. The wind had picked up and it was quite blustery on the coast, so we decided to continue our search inland. We stopped at a set of barns where a pair of Barn Owls roost, but there was no sign of them out hunting yet today, despite it being around the time they usually emerge.

We drove on, round via several more sites where Barn Owls like to hunt. We had just checked out one grassy field, without success, and were driving away when we happened to glance over and caught a glimpse of a white shape through the trees. Reversing carefully, we pulled up in a gateway and could see it was indeed a Barn Owl on a post.

6o0a6573Barn Owl – on a post

There was a convenient path we could walk along to overlook a rather overgrown field which was sheltered on all sides by a belt of trees. From here, we had a great view of the Barn Owl perched on a fence post. Given the wind, it was probably trying to hunt by sight, and it worked its way down along the fence line in short hops, stopping each time to scan the ground below.

Then a second Barn Owl appeared, flying over the field at the back. It landed in a tree further over. While we were watching it, the first Barn Owl then started to hunt more actively, circling round over the field, dropping down into the tall grass from time to time. It came much closer, hunting round into the corner of the field closest to us, great to watch. Eventually, it retreated to the trees where it perched and the second Barn Owl started to hunt over the grass. We watched them both for some time, leaving them only when both had disappeared into the trees to rest.

6o0a6596Barn Owl – eventually started hunting over the field in front of us

These two Barn Owls had obviously found a sheltered field to hunt, which was why they were out here today and showed no inclination to go anywhere else. Great for us. It was already getting on towards Tawny Owl time, but we had a quick swing round via some other meadows where there are often Barn Owls, without further success.

We arrived at the woods just in time. As we got out of the car, we could already hear a Tawny Owl hooting, earlier than normal tonight, possibly due to the grey and overcast skies meaning the light was fading fast. We made our way quickly down to the area where we know one of the Tawny Owls likes to roost, just in time to hear it hooting from the roost trees. At least this meant we knew roughly where it was going to emerge tonight.

After a couple more hoots, the Tawny Owl flew out of the trees and straight towards us. It normally likes to perch up further back first, but perhaps because of the wind, it came further through the trees. It landed on a perch not far from us, but was hard to see against the dark background of ivy-covered trunks. Before we could get it in the scope it took off again, possibly surprised by our presence, and disappeared back into the trees. Then it went silent.

The other Tawny Owls had stopped hooting too, and it seemed for a few minutes like that might be it for tonight. We tried a quick whistled hoot, but got no response. The trees were quiet, but for the raucous coughing of the many Pheasants going to roost in the trees. We were about to give up, but tried one more whistle. Without a sound, a large dark shape came out of the trees behind us and flew over our heads. The Tawny Owl was back!

I had disappeared back into the trees again, but after a few seconds it flew back out and landed in a tree right above us. Once again, the Tawny Owl was frustratingly hard for the group to get onto here, against the ivy in the gloom, despite the fact that it was only a few metres above us. We tried to get it in the scope, but before we could it was off again. Thankfully, this time it flew across the path and landed in a bare tree, silhouetted against the sky. Now everyone could see it. It perched there for some time hooting, before flying back through the trees towards us and landing above us again. Fantastic stuff!

6o0a6632Tawny Owl – perched above our heads, hooting at dusk

The Tawny Owl remained above us hooting for a couple of minutes. At one point it flew across the path, right over our heads, to a tree the other side. It was great to see it overhead, to get a real sense of its large size and broad, rounded wings. Eventually, it dropped back into the trees and was lost to view. It was getting dark as we made our way back to the car, but we still had the evocative hooting of the Tawny Owls from the trees to listen too, a great way to end another very successful Owl Tour.