Category Archives: Owl Tour

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.

 

 

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4th Feb 2017 – Four Owls & More

An Owl Tour today. It was a nice start to the day, with a light frost and some sunshine first thing. It did cloud over during the day, but then the sun came out again late afternoon – good owling weather!

The day started with a drive round some grazing meadows which are regular hunting grounds for Barn Owls. With the bright start to the day, we thought this might have persuaded them to stay up, but it appeared they had gone in to roost already. We stopped for a short walk at one point, which did produce a nice selection of other birds. A Treecreeper feeding in an alder by the path, a flock of Long-tailed Tits moving quickly through the trees, Siskins flying over, a Little Egret and several Curlews feeding in a field.

6o0a6030Treecreeper – feeding in the alders by the path this morning

We decided to head off to look for Little Owls instead, in the hope we could still find one perched out enjoying the warmth after a frosty night. There was also a chance we might encounter a Barn Owl on our drive.

At the first set of barns we tried, we were in luck. Tucked up under the lip of the roof tiles was a Little Owl. We stopped some distance back along the road and got out of the car, so we could get it in the scope. We all had a good look at it, and with dog walkers going past without disturbing it, we decided to get a little closer. It stayed put, watching us, its feathers fluffed up.

img_0334Little Owl – watching us from under the lip of a roof

At one point the Little Owl hopped up and disappeared into the roof, under the tiles, but a few seconds later it came out again and resumed watching us. It seemed perfectly happy sitting out, despite the fact the sun had gone behind the clouds now. After a while, when it disappeared into the roof a second time, we decided to move on.

After our session with the Little Owl, the morning was getting on now, and it seemed less likely we would find a Barn Owl still perched out, particularly in the absence of the sun. Still, there is another complex of barns just a short distance from here and we thought it was worth a look anyway. It was lucky we did. As we pulled up in front, there were no owls perched around the barns but we looked up along the road to see a Barn Owl coming towards us, hunting the verges.

We hopped quickly out of the car, but it looked like the Barn Owl was heading directly in to roost, as it flew into the back of the barns. We were pleasantly surprised therefore when it flew straight through and out again on our side, where it landed on a wall right in front of us. Stunning views!

6o0a6100Barn Owl – landed on a wall right in front of us

The Barn Owl stood for a couple of minutes on the wall, looking round, seemingly unconcerned by our presence, before flying round and disappearing into one of the farm buildings to roost. We had got there just in the nick of time! While Barn Owls will regularly hunt during daylight hours if they need food, particularly at this time of year, they have not been doing it so regularly this winter. It may be because they are not hungry this year, possibly after rather mild and clement weather. To see one like this was therefore a real bonus.

That was a great way to start an Owl Tour – with such good views of Little Owl and Barn Owl already by this stage of the morning. As we stood reflecting on our fortune, a couple of Common Buzzards circled up out of a wood beyond and a Red Kite appeared over the field behind us. We decided to make our way back towards the coast.

As we drove through farmland, we saw several Brown Hares in the fields, reminding us that mad March is not far away now and ‘boxing’ season is almost upon us. We flushed several Bullfinches from the hedgerows as we passed, disappearing ahead of us with a flash of white rump. We did make one more stop on our way, at another regular site for Little Owls, but there was no sign of any here while we were there. We did see a couple of Stock Doves on the roof of one of the buildings. Given the great views of Little Owl we had already enjoyed, we weren’t too worried about not seeing another here and therefore didn’t linger long.

Down at Cley, there had been a Glaucous Gull in the meadows along Beach Road for the last couple of days. As we drove down towards the beach, there was no sign of it, just a first winter Great Black-backed Gull where it had been. We turned round in the car park at the end, noting the way the recent storm surge had pushed the shingle further into the parking area and beach shelter. As we drove back up the road a large pale shape appeared from the other side of the West Bank and flew over the road in front of us. It was the Glaucous Gull, right on cue.

The Glaucous Gull landed down on the grass, beside the Great Black-backed Gull. We found a convenient place to park and got out. The Glaucous Gull was completely unconcerned at our presence, and soon another couple of cars had joined us. We had great close-up views of it – a juvenile, pale biscuit coloured with paler wing tips and a distinctive pink-based, black-tipped bill.

6o0a6164Glaoucous Gull – this juvenile showed very well by Beach Road

A big bruiser of a gull, Glaucous Gulls breed in the arctic. Several were blown south by strong northerly winds earlier in January and continue to delight the crowds here. This particular Glaucous Gull has apparently been feeding on the carcass of a dead seal, washed up after the floods. We decided to leave the gathering crowds and move on.

Round at the other side of Cley, we headed out for a walk along the East Bank. There were lots of Blackbirds alarm calling in North Foreland wood, but we couldn’t see what they were agitated by. A Grey Heron flew up out of the trees circled round and landed in the tops, and that seemed to calm them somewhat.

There were not so many ducks out on Pope’s Marsh and the Serpentine today, but still there was a nice selection. A smart drake Pintail woke up and swam out onto the water just to show off its long tail to us! Several Shoveler were asleep as were most of the Teal, but a couple of drakes were swimming around at the front of the Serpentine. But there was no sign of the Smew in with them today. A female Marsh Harrier circled round over the reedbed in front of us. We could hear Bearded Tits calling, and glimpsed them several times as they flew quickly over the tops of the reeds, but they didn’t come down to the ditch to bathe or drink today.

6o0a6168Marsh Harrier – a female, quartering over the reedbed

Arnold’s Marsh was full of waders. They were mostly Dunlin and Redshank, but we managed to find a couple of Ringed Plover in with them too. Over at the back, we could see lots of Gadwall and several Shelduck. A quick look at the sea produced a handful of Red-throated Divers and a Guillemot out on the water. As it was nearing lunchtime, we made our way back to the car. As we got back to the car park, a Tawny Owl hooted from North Foreland Wood. A nice surprise, though it is not that unusual to hear them hooting in the middle of the day sometimes.

We stopped for lunch at the Visitor Centre. We had a quick scan of the pools from the car park when we arrived, but could not see anything out of the ordinary. Some Black-tailed Godwits feeding on Simmond’s Scrape were a nice addition to the day’s list. However, while we were eating, one of the helpful staff from the Cley Spy shop next to the visitor centre came out and shouted across to us. The redhead Smew had appeared on Pat’s Pool – and he had spotted it from his vantage point higher up above us. We had a good look at it through the scope, swimming out on the water amongst the Shelduck. Then as quickly as it had appeared, the Smew disappeared from view again. A real bonus, with many thanks to Cley Spy staff!

After lunch, we made our way further east. We made a quick stop at the Iron Road to admire the large flock of Russian Dark-bellied Brent Geese feeding on the grazing marsh by Attenborough’s Walk. A Ruff was nearby on the wet grass, at least until it flew off, but not before we had a look at it through the scope.

6o0a6193Brent Geese – feeding on the grazing meadows at Salthouse

There has been a large flock of Pink-footed Geese feeding in a harvested sugar beet field at Weybourne for several weeks now. When we pulled up, we were glad to see there was still a good number here today, although possibly down a touch in total, but perhaps still a thousand or more. The Pink-footed Geese are characterised by their pink legs and feet, plus the pink band around their otherwise mostly dark bill. They come here in the winter in their thousands from Iceland, particularly to feed on the tops and bits of beet left over after the sugar beet has been harvested.

A quick scan through them revealed a couple of pairs of day-glo orange legs, a pair of Tundra Bean Geese. They are superficially very similar to the Pink-footed Geese, but the Tundra Bean Geese have bright orange legs and feet and an orange bank around the bill. We had a look at them in the scope, a great opportunity to compare side by side with the Pinkfeet. A careful scan of the flock also revealed another three Tundra Bean Geese further over, towards the back of the field.

img_0369Tundra Bean Goose – in with a large flock of Pink-footed Geese

Tundra Bean Geese breed on the arctic tundra and winter mostly on the continent. We are at the western edge of the wintering range and get a variable number of them each year in with the bigger flocks of Pinkfeet. This has been a great winter for them, and they are always nice birds to see in the huge flocks of geese.

While we were watching the geese, all the Woodpigeons suddenly erupted from a neighbouring field. We looked up to see a Peregrine flying steadily across the field in front of us. All the geese looked distinctly unconcerned! The Peregrine flew down towards the cliffs, but then turned and came back past again. It was staring down intently and obviously thought it was on to something because it made another pass across the field and back again, before disappearing inland.

6o0a6224Peregrine – made several passes over the field in front of us

With one eye on the clock, it was getting on towards owl time again, so we made our way back along the coast to Blakeney. At the duckpond, the regular presumed hybrid Herring x Lesser Black-backed Gull was standing around waiting for feeding time. Darker backed than a Herring Gull, it is not as dark as a Lesser Black-backed Gull and its legs are an intermediate colour, neither pink nor yellow. It is a regular source of confusion for the unwary!

6o0a6243Presumed hybrid Herring x Lesser Black-backed Gull – often at the duckpond

As we walked out along the seawall, one of the group asked if there was any chance of seeing some Bearded Tits, having missed them at Cley earlier. We don’t often see them here but, just by coincidence as we were walking along, another birder called to us to say he was watching a group of Bearded Tits just a short distance further ahead of us. We were soon watching them too through the scope, feeding on the tops of the reeds, swinging around and clambering about in the stems.

img_0385Bearded Tit – a male feeding in the reeds

There were three Bearded Tits at first, two males with powder blue heads and black moustaches and a paler female. Then we heard calling and another pair flew in to join them. Great to watch! There were also a couple of Little Grebes and a Tufted Duck on the larger pool at Blakeney Barnett and a couple of Water Rails squealed unseen from the reeds.

Further along, we stopped at the corner and scanned the harbour. The tide was out and there were lots of waders on the mud. Amongst the masses of Dunlin on the near edge of the channel, we found a few Grey Plover and a single Knot. There were quite a few Black-tailed Godwits close to, but the Bar-tailed Godwits were further over, in the bottom of the Pit.

As the sun started to drop towards the west, it came out below the clouds and we were treated to some glorious winter afternoon light. Perhaps this would tempt the owls out early this afternoon? As we stood and scanned , we could see a Marsh Harrier perched on a bush out in the reeds. Another Marsh Harrier perched out on the saltmarsh the other side was bearing green wing tags but was unfortunately too far away to read the code. A Common Buzzard was perched on a bush nearby. Then we picked up a Barn Owl. It was a long distance away, across the other side of the Freshes, but we could see it as it flew up over the reeds and it seemed to be working its way round to our side.

While we were trying to keep tabs on the Barn Owl, we caught sight of another pale bird way off in the distance, flying low over the reeds. It was a male Hen Harrier. Thankfully it made its way steadily towards us, hunting low over the grass. It crossed the path ahead of us and did a circuit of the saltmarsh before cutting back and out across the Freshes again. It looked truly stunning in the afternoon sun, occasionally jinking from side to side and even flipping over at one point! Such a shame these magnificent creatures are still persecuted, such a delight to watch.

6o0a6268Hen Harrier – a stunning male hunting in the afternoon sun

After watching bewitched by the Hen Harrier for several minuted, when we looked back towards where the Barn Owl had been we couldn’t see any sign of it any more. However, while we were scanning we caught a half glimpse of a shape disappearing behind a bank low over the grass in the distance. It was a Short-eared Owl.

We walked quickly round to the other side to look for it and although there was no sign of it hunting one of the group quickly spotted the Short-eared Owl perched on a post. We just had enough time to get it in the scope and everyone had a quick look at it before it was flushed by some walkers on the bank ahead of us. It flew across the Glaven channel and started hunting along the edge of Blakeney Point. We watched it flying up and down, the distinctive rowing flight action on stiff wings, dropping down into the grass occasionally.

Time was getting on now. We had a long walk to get back to the car and an appointment with some Tawny Owls to keep. So we left the Short-eared Owl to its hunting and made our way back. We got to the woods just in time for the start of the evening’s activities, with a Tawny Owl hooting already just as we got out of the car, the earliest riser of the three regular hooting males here. We made our way round to the area where one the males has been roosting. After a short wait, we got a quick hoot from him, alerting us to where it was hiding. It had moved roosts again, back to where it had been a couple of weeks ago, high in the top of an ivy-covered tree. After a couple of minutes it flew out and landed on a bare branch briefly, before dropping back through the trees.

The Tawny Owl flew towards the other area where it likes to roost and it wasn’t long before we heard it hooting again. This time we managed to get it in the scope, although it was silhouetted against the last of the afternoon’s light. When it flew again – a surprisingly big and heavy owl on broad rounded wings – it landed much closer to us in the top of a tree, where we could see it perched. It then flew across in front of us and over the path, disappearing into the trees the other side. That might have been it, but a quick whistle and it flew back across the path again, perched up briefly, before dropping back away through the trees.

The light was fading fast now but, as we walked back to the car, we were serenaded by three different Tawny Owls hooting all around us. A great way to end a very successful Owl Tour.

28th Jan 2017 – Owls at Last

Another Owl Tour today. The weather forecast was not ideal and it was spitting with rain on the drive down to the morning’s meeting point, but after a few days of cold winds and fog and with some forecast sunny intervals we were still quietly confident of a good day for owls.

To begin with, we took a drive round looking to see if we could find a Barn Owl still out hunting, but it seemed the dull and slightly damp start to the day had encouraged them to go to roost promptly. No great surprise, as they have not been out hunting much into daylight hours this winter so far – after a mild and dry end to 2016, they have probably entered the New Year in very good condition. We decided to try our luck for Little Owls instead.

The sun was beginning to poke out from behind the clouds, so it seemed a good plan to drive round via some local barns to see if they were out sunning themselves. Some of our Little Owls are more sensitive to the weather than others, and it was perhaps still a little cold in the breeze. There was no sign of any owls around the first couple of sets of barns we stopped at. A Grey Wagtail feeding around a ford was a nice bonus on our travels. It was completely unfazed by the car and was too close to get a good look at, so we had to manoeuvre back!

6o0a5261Grey Wagtail – feeding around a ford right next to the car

There is one site where the Little Owls are normally more reliable, so we decided to head round there next. Very unusually, there was no sign of any here either today, despite the weather seemingly being not as bad as it often is when we see them here. We waited a while to see if we one might come out and enjoy the rays of sun coming through the cloud, but it was not to be today. Very frustrating!

There were other things here to look at. A couple of Stock Doves perched up on a barn roof. Two Brown Hares were hunkered down in a winter wheat field, looking just like two large clods of earth. A flock of Lapwing and Curlew was feeding in a stubble field, surprisingly tricky to see until they flew round periodically. Flocks of Brent Geese made their way backwards and forwards between the coast and the fields inland where they were feeding.

6o0a5264Brent Geese – flying inland to feed on the fields

With the clouds rolling in again, it seemed best to move on and try something different, so we headed down to the coast and along to Cley. The fields down by the Beach Road were quiet today, but a quick drive down there gave us a chance to see the impact of the recent storm surge, with the car park now much reduced in size having been filled with shingle. The old beach shelter has also been largely filled with stones again! As we drove back round, we could see the debris marking the high tide line, which appeared to have peaked just below the houses along the front.

The East Bank has been a very productive spot in recent days. The storm surge lifted a load of reed litter out of the bottom of the reedbeds and dumped large quantities of it along below the bank. Several birds have been feeding on seeds and insects in the rotting vegetation. A short distance along the bank we came across a huddle of birders staring down at the ditch below. A Siberian Chiffchaff was flitting around on all the reed debris covering the water.

6o0a5296Siberian Chiffchaff – paler than the normal Chiffchaffs, but not heard to call today

Siberian Chiffchaff is the eastern counterpart to our Common Chiffchaff. It is paler, more buff/brown and comparatively lacking in green tones to its plumage. Thankfully there were a couple of Common Chiffchaffs around for comparison, much darker and more olive-toned. There is believed to be considerable intergradation between Siberian and Common Chiffchaff in the Urals. The key identification feature for Siberian Chiffchaff is the call, but this bird was silent today. Apparently, others have heard it call and confirm that it is indeed a Siberian Chiffchaff. It is likely that Common Chiffchaffs regularly spend the winter in the reedbeds along the coast, but they are not often seen unless they are flooded out, as they have been hear recently.

The group were keen to see Bearded Tits today (even promising to forgive the lack of owls this morning, if we could find some!). A cold and windy winter’s day would not normally seem to be the best conditions for finding them, but they too have been coming out onto the reed debris along the East Bank. We could hear a few calling as we walked on down the bank, but at first all we saw were two Bearded Tits flying up out of the reeds and disappearing off away from us.

When we heard another Bearded Tit call close to the bank, we set off to find it. We were treated to cracking views of a smart male coming down to drink. It dropped down out of the reeds on the other side of the ditch and climbed down the short reed stems on the edge of the water. We had a great view of its powder blue head and black moustache.

6o0a5329Bearded Tit – coming down to drink

Pope’s Marsh and the flooded meadows around the Serpentine are also one of the best spots for birds on the reserve at the moment. There was a great selection of ducks out here today. There were several Pintail, and we got a smart drake in the scope, admiring its long pin-shaped tail as it upended in the shallow water. There were also little groups of Teal and Shoveler sleeping round the water’s edge. Further over, a flock of Wigeon were grazing on the edge of Pope’s pool – we could hear them whistling. A bright female Shelduck was feeding down at the front.

There has been a female Smew around the reserve for almost three weeks now, but it is often elusive. Presumably, it spends a lot of time feeding in the ditches where it cannot be seen. Today we were lucky. As we were scanning through the ducks around the Serpentine, we found it in with some Teal. At first, it was swimming around, but then it walked up onto a strip of mud and went to sleep. We could still see its white cheeks and rusty cap. Smew is an arctic breeding species. Birds disperse south for the winter, but the numbers reaching the UK seem to have dropped considerably in recent years, possibly due to milder winters on the continent. So this is a great bird to see.

img_0262Smew – the female still hanging around the Serpentine with Teal today

It has been a good January for Glaucous Gulls here and it wouldn’t be a day out on the coast (or sometimes inland too!) without seeing one this year. A juvenile Glaucous Gull was out on one of the islands on Pope’s Marsh. Through the scope, we could see its pale wing tips and pink-based, dark-tipped bill. It wasn’t doing much and it didn’t look especially well, so perhaps it was no surprise that it was unfortunately found dead the following day.

img_0257Glaucous Gull – this sickly juvenile was out on Pope’s Marsh

Four Marsh Harriers circled up out of the reedbed and one was chased off by the resident female and flew over our heads and off towards Pope’s Marsh.

6o0a5338Marsh Harrier – one of four, this one circled over our heads

It wouldn’t be a visit to the East Bank without a look at the sea, so we carried on out in that direction. We made a quick stop in the shelter overlooking Arnold’s Marsh. There were good numbers of Dunlin and Redshank on here and, over the back, a large flock of Gadwall. Most of the remaining sections of the old shingle ridge have now been flattened, but a small portion remains just east of the East Bank, so we took shelter from the breeze behind that.

There were a few Red-throated Divers and Guillemots out on the sea, but they were hard to get everyone onto as they were diving constantly. A single Great Crested Grebe was a bit more obliging. A couple of adult Gannets flew past. Then we decided to make our way back for lunch.

More Bearded Tits were requested, and it would have been a shame not to deliver! A male was drinking briefly again, in the same spot we had seen one earlier. Another pair came down to the water’s edge a little further along, but also didn’t linger long. But a female Bearded Tit which came down to bathe was so obliging, we got good views of it through the scope, as it kept climbing down to the water and back up the reed stems to preen.

6o0a5348Bearded Tit – this rather damp female came down to bathe

As we walked back towards the car park, we spotted three geese flying towards us from the east. As they approached, we could see they were White-fronted Geese – we could see their white bill-surrounds and the black belly patches on two of them. Presumably a family party, the two adults were flanking a grey-bellied juvenile.

6o0a5357White-fronted Geese – this family of three flew west overhead

After a break for lunch back at the visitor centre, we made our way east along the coast road to Weybourne. There has been a large flock of several thousand Pink-footed Geese feeding in a harvested sugar-beet field here for a couple of weeks now. As we pulled up, we could immediately see the geese. There appeared to be slightly fewer in here today, but that was perhaps because the geese were scattered over a wider area, with several groups loafing in neighbouring fields. There were some nice close Pink-footed Geese which seemed completely unfazed by our presence, giving us a great view of their pink legs and bill bands.

There have been several Tundra Bean Geese with this group and it didn’t take us long to find one. Their day-glo orange legs can really stand out and although it was asleep, one with the closest group of Pinkfeet was easily picked out. The Tundra Bean Goose woke up and then started feeding, giving us a great view of its bill too – mostly dark like the Pink-footed Geese, but with a bright orange  rather than pink bank around it. A quick scan of the rest of the field revealed at least another six Tundra Bean Geese much further over.

img_0278Tundra Bean Goose – with day-glo orange legs & bill band

Pink-footed Goose is our commonest wintering species, with up to 100,000 coming here for the peak months of winter and the sugar beet harvest. Tundra Bean Goose is much rarer, as we are on the western edge of the wintering range for this species, which is more common in Netherlands and northern Germany. However, it has been a good winter for them this year and they are always great to see in with the flocks of Pinkfeet.

It was starting to get to owl time again, so we made our way back along the coast to Blakeney. It had brightened up nicely for a time, but typically it started to cloud over again and the wind picked up a bit. There is regularly an early Barn Owl out hunting here, but not today. It was a bit exposed out here today, so we decided to make our way back inland, to where it is more sheltered.

Our first circuit of the favoured hunting fields failed to produce any owls. It was starting to look worryingly like we might draw a blank today. We made our way back to one of the grassy fields and got out for a walk. Thankfully at that point our luck changed and a Barn Owl appeared. It did a quick circuit of the back of the field and landed low down in a willow. We just had time to get the scope on it before it was off again and disappeared back out of view. At least that was a start. A Tawny Owl hooted from the trees too.

Time was getting on, so we made our way up to the woods to look for Tawny Owls. There are some meadows next to the woods here which host a pair of Barn Owls. We had a quick scan here while we waited for the Tawny Owl action to start. It was already starting to get dark as one of the Barn Owls finally dropped out of its roost tree. They must be well fed this year, not coming out until so late! It flew round briefly and landed in another tree out of the breeze, where we could get it in the scope.

Then we made our way round to where one of the Tawny Owls likes to roost. We didn’t have to wait long until we heard the first hoot. He was not in the tree he had been using as a roost in recent weeks, but we got a bearing on where he was likely to appear. The next time he hooted, we could see him perched up in the back of the trees, silhouetted against the light. We got him in the scope, before he flew back along the line of trees.

A short while later, the Tawny Owl made his way back towards us through the trees. We couldn’t see him at first, but we could hear his hooting much closer to us. Then a large shape flew out over the trees in front of us on very broad rounded wings and across the path not far from us. It disappeared back into the trees again and seemed to go silent. We walked over in the direction it had disappeared and with a quick whistle, we got an instant response. It hooted a couple of times and then came flying back through the trees and over our heads. It landed again further back, silhouetted against the last of the light.

As it hooted again, another Tawny Owl responded. We walked back to the car surrounded by the hooting of Tawny Owls. Magical stuff!

20th Jan 2017 – Winter Birds & Owls, Day 1

Day 1 of a three day long weekend of Winter & Owl Tours today. It was a very frosty start but it turned into a beautiful winter’s day, with clear skies and sunshine. A great day for winter birding.

Leaving Wells, we headed inland. We were looking for owls first thing this morning, but with the combination of a frost on the ground and some warming early sunshine, we thought it might be worth a quick look around New Holkham. There has been a Great Grey Shrike here for the last couple of weeks, but it is obviously wandering over a huge area as it has only been seen on two days in all that time! As we drove along, the first birds we saw were two Red Kites perched in a tree in the sunshine. A little further along, we found a Common Buzzard standing on the top of a hedge. The raptors were out warming themselves in the sun, at least. But the shrike had not read the script and there was no sign of it in a very quick look round.

Continuing on, we came across a nice selection of farmland wildlife. There were several Brown Hares in the fields and two chasing after each other suggested that a mad March may not be far off. A couple of round lumps in a winter wheat field turned out to be a pair of Grey Partridge fluffed up against the cold – we could see the male’s black belly patch and orange face, as he watched the female feeding. A Pheasant‘s bright plumage glowed in the sunshine.

We checked out a couple of owl sites on the way, but there was no sign of any Barn Owls or Little Owls at first. However, at the third place we stopped  we immediately found ourselves watching a rather distant Little Owl. Scanning the other farm buildings periodically, a second appeared and eventually a third Little Owl, the latter much closer. It was also more active, presumably having just come out of its roost to enjoy the warming rays. It stood preening for a while, before flying up and down the roof.

img_9937Little Owl – we eventually found three enjoying the morning sun

There were lots of other birds to see here too. A smart male Yellowhammer flew up and landed on a tree in front of us. A large flock of Lapwing flew up from a stubble field, along with several Curlews. A small flock of Golden Plover flew overhead calling plaintively. Three Stock Doves took off from one of the barns and circled round. A small skein of Pink-footed Geese flew past and several flocks of Brent Geese came up from the direction of the coast and disappeared off inland, looking for a field of winter wheat to feed on. Another Red Kite flapped lazily across in front of the trees in the distance. It was a typical Norfolk winter farm scene, even including the banging gunfire in the distance from the local Pheasant shoot!

6o0a3933Brent Geese – heading inland from the coast to feed on the fields

Our next stop of the day was Sheringham. Even as we made our way down to the prom, we could see a large pale gull on the sea in front of us. A quick look through binoculars confirmed it was a cracking adult Glaucous Gull. There has been a small invasion of these arctic ‘white-winged’ gulls in the last few weeks, and several of them have been feeding along the beach here. We watched it swim across and climb out onto one of the wooden groynes, where we had a great view of it through the scope.

6o0a3958Glaucous Gull – a very smart adult with white wing tips

Looking across to the next groyne along, we could see another large and rather pallid gull, but this one was a juvenile Glaucous Gull. The adult dropped down to the sea and swam across, before chasing the juvenile off its perch. As the juvenile flew past us, we could see its pale wingtips, not white like the adult’s but still about the palest part of it’s plumage. The Glaucous Gulls have been feeding on the remains of a dead seal, washed up onto the beach after last week’s storms, but there was no sign of it today. Either the sea washed it away overnight or it has been ‘tidied’ up.

The juvenile Glaucous Gull landed again on another groyne, a short way back along the prom. We walked back for a closer look. Through the scope we could see its distinctive bill – large, with a bright pink base and squared off black tip looking like it had been dipped in ink. Helpfully, there was a nice selection of gulls on the posts here. The Glaucous Gull was about as big as the Great Black-backed Gull next door, and they both dwarfed a Herring Gull on the next post.

6o0a3972Glaucous Gull – a juvenile with a ‘dipped in ink’ bill tip

Having enjoyed fantastic views of the two Glaucous Gulls, we set off along the prom towards the east end. There were lots of Turnstones, and a little group were feeding on the grassy bank right beside the path as we passed. Scanning the rocky sea defenses further along, we found the Purple Sandpiper which is spending the winter here. Its upperparts looked sort of purple-toned through the scope, and we could see its orange bill base and legs. It was picking around on the seaweed and algae covered rocks on the edge of the sea.

6o0a3980Purple Sandpiper – on the rocky sea defenses at Sheringham

Looking out to sea, we could see a steady passage of Red-throated Divers, all heading east in little groups of two or three. A few Guillemots flew past too, and we also managed to find a couple on the sea. One was a regular pale-faced winter plumage individual but one of the Guillemots was already in summer plumage, with a blackish-brown head.

Making our way back west along the coast road, we could see a huge throng of geese in a recently harvested sugar beet field, so we stopped for a closer look. They were mostly Pink-footed Geese, which have been coming in here over the last few days to feed on the beet tops left behind after the beet itself has been harvested. Thankfully, another local birder was there and quickly got us on to two of the Tundra Bean Geese which have been with them. Through the scope, they were easiest to pick out from the Pink-footed Geese by their bright orange legs but we could also see the heavier bill with orange band on the Tundra Bean Geese.

At that point, the geese in one corner of the field started to fly up. Most of them landed again further over, and we were just getting everyone on to a couple of White-fronted Geese when the whole field erupted. There were thousands of geese circling nervously overhead calling. It was quite a sight to watch and listen to all the geese flying round. We looked across to see a farm worker in a tractor driving round the edge of the field. After he had driven round two sides and back again, and then round in front of us and down the fourth side for good measure, we started to think he had probably just flushed the geese for the sake of it!

6o0a3990Pink-footed Geese – around 5,000 were in fields at Weybourne today

Eventually all the geese started to fly off west and we decided to join them. It was fortunate there was someone to show us where the Tundra Bean Geese were, as there were apparently only 8-9 in with 5,000 Pinkfeet and we would not have had time to search through the flock on our own before they were flushed.

Our next stop was at Kelling. The floods along the coast after last weekend’s storm surge have largely receded now, but they have left behind large amounts of debris, particularly reed litter washed out from the bottom of the reedbeds at Cley and Salthouse. With large quantities of seed mixed in with it, this debris has been a bonus for seed eating birds. The flock of Snow Buntings which had been feeding on the shingle ridge before the storm surge have now taken to feeding on the tide line where all this debris has been deposited.

We were warned as we walked down along the track past the Water Meadow that the Snow Buntings had earlier been pushed further and further along the lane by people watching them, and it was perhaps no surprise that we couldn’t find them at first. We did find a pair of Stonechats feeding along the tideline, accompanied by a Chiffchaff which had probably been forced out of the reedbed by the floods. There were also a couple of Reed Buntings and a few Meadow Pipits.

6o0a3999Reed Bunting – a couple were feeding on the reed debris left behind by the flood

Looking over towards the shingle ridge, we could see a small group of birders gathered and then a small group of Snow Buntings flew up from the ground near to them. The birds had obviously gone over to that side when they had been flushed. There was no sign of them coming back, so we set off to walk round there. Needless to say, we got half way round to be told that they had just flown back again! Thankfully, when we returned there the Snow Buntings were now feeding happily on the debris again and we had a great look at them. They may have given us the runaround, but we got there in the end!

6o0a4020Snow Buntings – feeding on the reed debris left behind by the floods

There were at least 40 Snow Buntings here, though they were hard to count as they rooted in and out of the piles of dead reeds. Periodically, they would fly round in a little whirl, white wings flashing, before landing back down to feed.

With our mission finally accomplished, we set off back to the car and made our way along the coast towards Cley for a later than planned lunch. We had to make one more unscheduled stop on the way though, as a Barn Owl appeared over the field behind Walsey Hills. It flew towards us and then crossed the road, going right past us over the verge the other side. A stunning view!

6o0a4029Barn Owl – flew past us along the coast road at Cley

The reserve at Cley is closed after the floods, but after lunch we had a quick scan of the scrapes from the Visitor Centre. There was no sign of the Smew which had been seen here this morning but we did see a couple of pairs of Pintail, the drakes looking very smart now with their long pin-shaped tails. A couple of Marsh Harriers quartered over the reedbed.

We headed out along the East Bank next. There were lots of Golden Plover out on the grass, now the flood waters have receded. In amongst them, were good numbers of diminutive grey and white Dunlin. A couple of Common Snipe flew down along the grassy edge just beyond the channel and landed next to a Lapwing right in front of us, giving us great views of them through the scope. Further over, we found a couple of Black-tailed Godwit and a lone Ruff. A Grey Plover feeding on the grass had possibly been forced over from Arnolds Marsh, which is still flooded.

6o0a4035Lapwing – on the grazing marsh below the East Bank at Cley

There was a nice selection of ducks out here too. There were several more Pintail and again we stopped to admire a couple of very smart drakes. We also found a couple of Gadwall and a few Shoveler which were new for the day. Some Brent Geese were feeding nervously out on the grass but got spooked by something and flew off calling. A lone Little Grebe was diving out on the water at the back. A Little Egret looked stunning in the late afternoon sun down in front of us, trying to stir up the mud below the water with its feet, hoping to disturb something tasty to eat.

6o0a4045Little Egret – feeding on the pools off the East Bank

Scanning the edges of the marshes carefully, we came across a large pale gull sitting down on a muddy bank. On closer inspection, it was another juvenile Glaucous Gull, our third Glaucous Gull of the day. As we walked further along the bank, it finally woke up and had a fly round over the water.

We had a quick look out to sea from the end of the East Bank. As at Sheringham earlier, there were several Red-throated Divers still moving past, but this time we also managed to find a couple of them on the sea. There were also a few more Guillemots. A distant Gannet flew past offshore. Then it was time to head back.

Turning off the coast road and heading inland, we hadn’t gone very far when we found another Barn Owl. It was hunting out over a grassy field, flying round and round. It dropped down into the grass and when it came up again it flew over onto a fence post nearby. It appeared to have caught something but by the time we got the scope onto the Barn Owl, whatever had been caught had already been eaten.

6o0a4071Barn Owl – our second of the day, taking a break from hunting

Then the Barn Owl was off again, doing a quick circuit of the back of the field, before flying over the hedge at the back. We caught up with it briefly as it flew across the field next door and then it was off again back and out of view. As we turned to walk back to the car, a small flock of about 40 geese flew overhead. We could just see the distinctive black belly bars of White-fronted Geese before the flew off away from us.

It was almost time to look for Tawny Owls, so we made our way over to where we hoped to see them. It was such a bright evening that we had enough time for a quick look at some wet meadows nearby and were rewarded with another two Barn Owls out hunting. We could hear a Song Thrush singing in the trees behind us, the first we have heard this year. Perhaps it knows something we don’t, that spring is not far away? Then it was time to get into position.

It was a slow start this evening. The Tawny Owls were not hooting much again and were rather late to emerge from the roost tonight. A muffled hoot did alert us to the fact that the nearest male had moved roost tree tonight, but then he went silent. It looked like we might be out of luck, but then a large dark shape flew towards us through the trees on big, rounded wings. Even better, it perched up in a tree in front of us. We all had a great view of it through binoculars as it perched looking at us for a few seconds. Then it was off again through the trees.

We followed after the Tawny Owl, but without him hooting he would be hard to locate. A quick whistle from us and we were rewarded with a hoot in reply. Another whistle, and we thought we might be able to work out where he was perched, but instead a dark shape whistled past us only a few metres away and low over the ground – he had flown past to check us out! Unfortunately, it was getting dark now and with him so low through the trees he was all but impossible to see, but then he started hooting again behind us. It was time to leave him in peace, but what a great way to end a day of winter birds and owls!

 

14th Jan 2017 – Owling Wind

The first Owl Tour of the year today. After gales, snow and a storm surge along the coast yesterday, the weather was much, much better today. But it was still cold in the wind which remained a rather blustery NW, and we were thankfully close to the car when a couple of wintry showers hit us during the morning. The afternoon was better, with the wind easing a bit and blue skies. Not a bad day to be out and we did very well.

After meeting in Blakeney, we had a quick drive round the back roads to see if any Barn Owls were still out hunting – or had come out to find food after a difficult night – but it was still rather too windy. A stop down by the river produced a few nice birds. A Kingfisher went zooming off over the reeds as we approached. A Cetti’s Warbler called from the dense vegetation by the water, but then showed nicely. A Siskin flew over without stopping, but a Yellowhammer dropped into the top of a tree nearby briefly.

Several small groups of Pink-footed Geese flew overhead calling, heading inland along the river valley. A short while later, we looked away to the south and saw a huge cloud of Pink-footed Geese come up from behind the trees. They had obviously been flushed from the fields, possibly from a recently harvested sugar beet field on which they had been feeding.

After the storms yesterday, coinciding with a very high spring tide, the coastal marshes between Cley and Kelling had been flooded overnight. We drove over the back roads and walked down to the coast road at Salthouse. It was a sorry sight. The road itself, the main A149, was completely underwater. All the grazing marshes between the coast road and the beach were flooded – to all intents and purposes, they looked like the sea. We could see the top of the shingle ridge and some big waves still beyond.

img_4132Salthouse – the coast road underwater and the flooded grazing marshes

img_9854Salthouse – looking E along the flooded coast road from the village green

The houses in the village seemed to have escaped any damage but most of the avian residents of the marshes had been rendered homeless. We could hear Bearded Tits calling from a flooded patch of brambles the other side of the ‘road’ and looked over to see seven of them climb up to the top. They should be out in the middle of the reedbed, but the reedbed was underwater and they were desperately searching for anywhere to hide. They flew up calling, over the water, but quickly dropped back again into the garden of the pub.

A Common Snipe flew in across the water and tried to land in the strip of vegetation which would have been the far verge of the road. But it struggled to find any dry land there and it quickly flew on west. Presumably it had been spending the winter out on the grazing marshes before the flood.

Looking up, a drake Goosander flew low over the village towards us and then disappeared off west towards Cley. There have been a few on the move in the last day or so, presumably birds moving off the continent in response to colder weather, to spend the rest of the winter here. At that point, a squally shower blew in from the sea and we beat a quick retreat, back to the car.

Heading back west, we drove out of the clouds and started looking for owls again. The weather didn’t seem particularly conducive – even though it wasn’t raining, it was still windy and cold. However, at one of our regular sites we struck gold. We very quickly found a rather distant Little Owl, sheltering under the roof on a distant farm building. Nearby, a second Little Owl was doing the same. We had a look at them through the scope, and thought that might be the best of it.

We drove a little further along, and found a third Little Owl. It had found a sheltered spot out of the wind and facing into the morning sun, and was presumably trying to warm itself up. It was facing us and we could see its head pattern this time. Turning behind us, a fourth Little Owl appeared. This was was much closer and, though tucked in tight under the roof of one of the sheds, we got a good look at it through the scope. Amazing – four Little Owls out on such an unpromising day!

img_9865Little Owl – sheltered under the roof, facing into the morning sun

There were other birds around the farmland while we were watching the various Little Owls. A stubble field held a large flock of Curlew, which flew round periodically. A Redpoll flew out of the trees when we pulled up, and disappeared back away from us calling. A Common Buzzard came out of the wood and started to fly across the fields before thinking better of it and returning whence it came. At that point, another wintry shower blew in from the coast, and again we sought shelter in the car.

The skies looked clear further west along the coast, so we decided to head that way and try to escape the squalls. It was the right decision – that was the last shower we saw today. Drove along the coast to Titchwell, where we would also have the benefit of hides.

We had a quick look at the feeders by the visitor centre. The normal finches, Chaffinch, Greenfinch and Goldfinch, plus a selection of tits, were coming in to feed. We had limited time here today, so we pressed on. Scanning the ditches either side of the main path, a Water Rail showed briefly in the water at the bottom on one side before disappearing back into deeper cover. Rather than wait for it to reappear, we decided to have another look on the way back.

The Thornham grazing marsh ‘pool’, which has been dry for the last year or so, was flooded again, but this time with seawater which had come in through the open sluice. Consequently, there was no sign of any Water Pipits and no other birds of note. A lone Tufted Duck was diving out on the reedbed pool. Three Marsh Harriers were circling out over the main reedbed.

Island Hide provided some welcome shelter from the cold wind. The Freshmarsh is flooded at the moment, but not with seawater. Reserve staff have raised the levels of fresh water on here to kill the vegetation on the islands, and consequently there was very little dry land to be seen. It is to the liking of the ducks – there were plenty of Teal, Shoveler and Mallard, plus a few Wigeon and Shelduck. The flocks of Brent Geese frequently fly in from wherever they are feeding for a wash and preen.

6o0a3673Teal – a smart drake, enjoying all the water on the Freshmarsh

With all the water on here, there are rather few waders on the Freshmarsh at the moment. We did find a few around one of the only remaining small patches of island. About half a dozen Avocets were asleep, along with various ducks which were also trying to find somewhere to roost. In amongst the duck’s feet, we found a couple of Knot and a small group Dunlin too. There were lots of gulls, mostly Black-headed and Common Gulls, bobbing about on the water, taking shelter from the wind.

Round at Parrinder Hide, we had a different view of the Freshmarsh. From here, we picked up a few Pintail. A drake was preening on one of the islands, but promptly went to sleep. A pair of Pintail out on the water were more obliging and through the scope we could see the drake’s  long pin-shaped central tail. The largest, fenced off island was packed with roosting Teal but around the flooded vegetation on the near side we managed to find a single Ruff.

6o0a3608Wigeon – quite a few on the Freshmarsh, this one in front of Parrinder Hide

One of the group spotted a small bird making its way towards us along the edge of the bank. It was a Water Pipit – we could see its clean whitish underparts, neatly streaked with black on the breast. We were just hoping it would come right down towards the hide when it flew off.

6o0a3613Redshank – feeding on the Volunteer Marsh from Parrinder Hide

From the other side of the hide, overlooking the Volunteer Marsh, we could see quite a few waders. A Redshank was feeding just below the hide, its orange-red legs shining in the winter sunshine. There was also a Lapwing out just in front, and it too was looking particularly resplendent in the light, its green upperparts iridescent. Further over, we could see a little group of Knot, a couple of Ringed Plover, a Grey Plover and a single Black-tailed Godwit.

6o0a3621Lapwing – showing off its glossy green upperparts to perfection

Having warmed up in the hides, we decided to brave the conditions again and make a bid for the beach. On the way, we stopped to look at the tidal pools. A pair of Goldeneye were diving in the deeper water, catching small crabs. We got the male in the scope, looking particularly smart. There were several Little Grebes as well, also diving constantly. A pair of Gadwall were easier to see. But with the water level on here still high after the big tide, and with low tide out on the beach, there were fewer waders than normal.

img_9897Goldeneye – a smart drake, showing off his bright yellow eye

Out at the sea, the storms of yesterday had left large quatities of shellfish wrecked on the beach. A huge number of gulls had flown in to take advantage. There were quite a few waders on the beach too, particularly Sanderling and Oysterdatchers. Scanning the sea, we could see a large raft of Common Scoter out on the water but they were a long way offshore today. Still with a brisk north-west wind bringing cold air straight in from the arctic, we didn’t stay long out here, but headed back for lunch.

On the way back past the Volunteer Marsh, there were a few waders now close to the main path. A nice Bar-tailed Godwit was feeding out on the mud. We could see its shortish legs, slightly upturned bill and black-streaked upperparts. Two dumpy grey Knot were picking their way along the muddy slope just beyond the channel, and a single Ringed Plover was running around on the open mud nearby. Further over, a Grey Plover was feeding with another Knot.

6o0a3645Bar-tailed Godwit – showing well on the Volunteer Marsh on the walk back

Almost back to the visitor centre, we found the Water Rail showing much better, now feeding out on the open mud in the ditch. We stopped to watch it for a while and got fill the frame views of it in the scope as it dug around in the mud with its long red bill. It was then back to the car for a late lunch.

6o0a3695Water Rail – showed very well out in the open on the walk back

After lunch, we left Titchwell and started to make our way back along the coast road. We stopped at Brancaster Staithe briefly, to see if there was anything of note in the harbour. There were a few waders. Several Turnstones were picking around the stones in the car park, between the cars. Further over, a little group of Oystercatchers and Bar-tailed Godwits was roosting on the edge of the water. Another Bar-tailed Godwit and two Black-tailed Godwits were feeding in a muddy channel as we turned to leave.

It was still perhaps a little bit early for Barn Owls as we drove back, but we kept our eyes peeled nonetheless. Two white shapes out on the grazing marsh at Holkham were way too big to be owls but, with a good idea what they were we stopped for a look. Sure enough, they were two Great White Egrets. We had a good look at them through the scope, one standing next to a Grey Heron providing a great size comparison – the Great White Egret was slightly bigger!

img_9902Great White Egret – one of two out at Holkham this afternoon

There were also lots of geese out on the grazing marshes. Scanning across, we could see a good smattering of White-fronted Geese. Three were feeding closer to us, so we got them in the scope, noting the white surround to the bill base and the black belly bars. There were loads of Pink-footed Geese further over out on the grass too, thousands and thousands of them. The Pink-footed Geese normally roost on the marshes at night and spend the days feeding in the fields inland, but around the time of the full moon that reverses and they roost by day and feed inland by night. As we stood scanning the marshes, a steady succession of flocks of Pink-footed Geese took off and flew up and over our heads.

6o0a3719Pink-footed Geese – flying inland to feed after day-roosting on the grazing marshes

As we carried on our way east, it was getting into prime time for Barn Owls now. However, we found nothing along the coast road as we drove beyond Holkham. Perhaps it was still rather exposed here, cold and windy, so we turned inland. We were heading for an old barn where which we know Barn Owls inhabit. We hadn’t even reached it, when a Barn Owl flew up from the grass on the verge beside the car. We slowed and the Barn Owl caught us up and flew along beside the car, before crossing over the road in front of us.

It was a great view from the car, but we really wanted to get a Barn Owl in the scope. We tried to follow it, but it then gave us the runaround for a while, disappearing off across a field, cutting back, then flying back behind us as we stopped. Finally it landed in a tree beside the road. We stopped a suitable distance back and all managed to get a good look at it in the scope before it was off again, resuming its hunting.

6o0a3724Barn Owl – our first of the day gave us a bit of a runaround for a while!

We drove on the other way and after only a short distance one of the group spotted another Barn Owl in a tree by the road. We reversed back and it sat looking at us for a just a couple of seconds before it flew off. We passed by another Little Owl site, but there were no sign of any here, there favoured perch visible from the road now not in the afternoon sun. Worryingly, there are now planning notices here, yet another barn nesting site for Little Owls scheduled for conversion into holiday cottages. Soon there will be none left! A covey of Grey Partridges in the field nearby were nice though.

As we were making our way back, another Barn Owl appeared, perched on a post by the road, our third of the afternoon. With another car behind us and nowhere to stop, we had to drive on and turn round. Thankfully, when we got back it was still on its post. We parked in a gateway some distance away and watched it for a while through the scope. It had probably found a sheltered spot, out of the wind, and was staring at the ground below looking for voles. Then, with no cars coming, we drove down along the road and pulled up alongside for some close ups. Great views!

6o0a3738Barn Owl – our third of the afternoon gave cracking views on a post by the road

It was getting late now. We had a quick drive round via one of the meadows where we know a Barn Owl likes to hunt, but there was no sign. It was time to head round to look for Tawny Owls. We walked down and got into position, but strangely there was no hooting to be heard as we did so. The Tawny Owl came out of its roost site on cue, but annoyingly rather than fly out into the trees, it dropped straight out of the roost and disappeared back into the wood. Eventually, we could hear one Tawny Owl distantly hooting behind us. The male we had seen gave a quick burst of half-hearted hooting in front of us and then went quiet again.

The Tawny Owls were oddly subdued this evening. The wind was catching the tops of the trees, or perhaps they had been disturbed by last nights storm. It was getting dark now so we decided to call it a day. Still, it had been a remarkably successful one considering the weather.

17th February 2016 – A Parliament of Owls

A half term weekday tour today, the plan was to look for owls and try to spend some time with general birding up on the coast.

We started with a drive around some likely grazing marshes, where Barn Owls like to hunt. It didn’t take long to find out first Barn Owl of the day, perched on a post on the edge of a field. We found a convenient place to park and walked back to a gate from where we could get the scopes on it.

IMG_7719Barn Owl – our first of the day

The Barn Owl remained on its post for a while, looking round, enjoying the morning sunshine.  Then it was off again to resume hunting. It made its way along the hedge and away through the trees. There were a few other birds in the hedgerows where we had stopped. A Song Thrush was singing – they are in full voice now. A Marsh Tit worked its way along the bushes, alternately singing and calling. hopping up onto the top in front of us briefly. A Treecreeper was working its way through the trees and appeared for a few seconds to work its way up one on the edge where we could see it.

We drove on a little further and parked up again. There was no sign at first of any of the local Barn Owls on their favourite posts. So we set off to walk along the footpath beside the meadows to see if we could find one of them further along. We hadn’t got very far when one of the group spotted through the trees that a Barn Owl had now appeared on one of the posts, so we made our way back there.

IMG_7727Barn Owl – hunting from the posts

This Barn Owl seemed to be hunting from the fence posts. It spent some minutes perched on a post, staring down into the grass below, looking round. Then it would fly a short distance and land on another post and resume its search of the ground. It did this repeatedly, dropping down into the grass a couple of times but only hovering briefly over it once.

There were a few other birds here too. A Grey Wagtail dropped in by the water briefly, before flying off through the trees calling. Several Siskins were whizzing around through the alders. A Great Spotted Woodpecker was drumming nearby. In the end, we had to tear ourselves away from the Barn Owl and move on.

Our next target was Little Owl. We drove up to one of their regular haunts, a series of old farm buildings. They normally like to perch up on the roofs here, but we couldn’t see one in any of the usual places today. It was a nice bright morning and they normally like to sit out in the sunshine, but there was a cold southerly wind blowing which might have taken the edge off it. They had presumably found somewhere more sheltered.

A Barn Owl was a nice distraction. It flew through the trees the other side of the road and as we were standing quietly next to the car, it didn’t see us until the last minute. It appeared out of the trees directly across the road from us, flew straight towards us at first then turned and flew right past us. Stunning!

P1170133Barn Owl – flew past us while looking for Little Owls

There were several Brown Hares running around on the grassy verges by the farm buildings. A small group of Lapwing were in the winter wheat field across the road and, later, were joined by a few Golden Plover as well. Several ragged groups of Brent Geese flew up from the coast and inland to find somewhere to feed, passing overhead. One of them looked at the winter wheat field opposite us as well, circled over it a couple of times, but seemed to be put off by us standing there and continued on inland.

P1170151Brent Geese – flocks were flying inland to feed this morning

While we were standing there, we heard a Little Owl calling through the trees beside us, a little like a plaintive cat miaowing. We decided to set off to see if we could find it. We walked a little way back along the road to another gateway from where we could get a different view over the buildings. These were a little more sheltered from the wind and, sure enough, there was a Little Owl perched on a wall in the sunshine. We got it in the scope and had great views of it.

IMG_7743Little Owl – in a sheltered spot, enjoying the morning sunshine

What was presumably the same Barn Owl was doing another circuit of the fields the other side of the road, and came straight past us again, landing in the back of the trees briefly before resuming its hunting duties.

P1170159-001Barn Owl – still flying round through the trees

Out in the long grass, a large flock of Fieldfares was feeding. We could just see their heads poking out until they moved. A Song Thrush was out there too. A Kestrel perched obligingly on the overhead wires nearby and we couldn’t resist a closer look at it.

IMG_7758Kestrel – perched on some wires close to us

We had enjoyed a very good morning’s owling, but time was now getting on. After such success, it seemed like a good moment to switch our attention to some more general birding and return to owls later on. We made our way down to the coast and headed west.

Our next stop was at Brancaster Staithe. There are usually lots of waders around the car park here and so it proved again today. With questions over how to separate Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwits, this was a good opportunity to get up close with some of the latter. There were several Bar-tailed Godwits feeding around the edge of the harbour channel and we studied them in the scopes – their well-marked, pale buffy coloured upperparts, and striking pale supercilium, complementing the slightly upturned bill and shortish legs.

IMG_7761Bar-tailed Godwits – a good opportunity to look at them close-up

There were lots of Turnstones picking around in the car park and Oystercatchers too, particularly where the local mussels had been brought ashore to be washed and sorted, leaving lots of pickings for the birds. A couple of Grey Plover were unobtrusive out on the mud. A little group of diminutive Dunlin was feeding down at the water’s edge. A much larger Curlew was on the sandbank opposite.

We had also come to look for the Red-necked Grebe which has been here on and off for several months now. It is not always around, but thankfully it didn’t take too long for us to locate it today. It was swimming around among the boats, further up the harbour channel. We got it in the scopes where we could see it, diving regularly.

Red-necked Grebe Brancaster 2016-02-13_2Red-necked Grebe – a recent photo, when it was closer in

We had a drive inland next to see if we could find one of the Rough-legged Buzzards. They seem to have been seen at Choseley less regularly in recent days, so we had a quick look round some of their other favourite sites, but we couldn’t find one today. A Barn Owl flying right across the road just in front of the car on a quiet back road was a nice compensation for our efforts, and still out hunting in the middle of the day too.

We had a quick drive round at Choseley just in case, but there was no sign there either today. A couple of Common Buzzards were enjoying the breeze, hanging in the air over one of the pine copses on the ridge. Then we dropped down to Titchwell for lunch.

The feeders by the visitor centre were full of finches, as usual – Chaffinches, Greenfinches and Goldfinches. A Marsh Tit zipped in and out briefly and the Long-tailed Tits were enjoying the peanuts. Round at the back, there were several Bramblings in with the throng as usual. The two males were subtly different – one with a much blacker head already, the other still with considerably more pale fringing to the head and back feathers, yet to wear off to reveal the black summer plumage. A single female Brambling dropped in as well, but was chased off her perch at the feeders by one of the greedy males.

IMG_7792Brambling – this male was blacker-headed already than the other

Despite lots of visitors today and lots of noise (it is half term!), the Water Rail was down in the ditch by the main path as usual. A lot of people simply walked past it, but equally it seemed to largely ignore us staring down at it, cameras clicking. It was well hidden at first in the overhanging vegetation but gradually worked its way out into the open. Eventually something spooked it and it scuttled back quickly into cover.

P1170211Water Rail – largely oblivious to the stream of visitors on the main path

Further along, we stopped to scan the still dried-out grazing meadow ‘pool’. At least the pipits have been enjoying it. It didn’t take us long to find the lone Water Pipit, quite close today. We had a really good look at it in the scope, much whiter below, more neatly streaked, a more obvious pale supercilium and a cleaner grey-brown above, compared to the two rather swarthy Rock Pipits nearby. A Barn Owl, our first of the afternoon, was circling over the marshes at the back, towards Thornham. A raft of Common Pochard was on the reedbed pool, along with 2-3 Tufted Ducks.

IMG_7809Water Pipit – on the drained grazing meadow ‘pool’ again

Having been lowered right down for management work to be undertaken, there is a little more water again on the freshmarsh at the moment. The waders were certainly making the most of it. There were 42 Avocets on there today – a winter site record, according to the warden! Several large groups of Dunlin were feeding feverishly on the exposed mud. And there were good numbers of Black-tailed Godwits on here today, with several right down in front of Island Hide. We had a good look at them, remembering the Bar-tailed Godwits we had seen earlier and noting the differences.

P1170364Black-tailed Godwit – enjoying the wet mud on the freshmarsh

It had been a lovely bright morning, but high cloud was now starting to encroach from the west. We made our way out towards the beach, just in case the forecast of rain this afternoon proved to be correct (it didn’t!). We stopped again at the Volunteer Marsh to look through the waders. As well as lots of Redshank and a few Curlew, we found a couple of rather unobtrusive Knot, picking around one of the island of vegetation on the edge of the mud. Closer to the path, we got a smart Grey Plover, resplendent even in its winter plumage, in the scopes.

IMG_7814Grey Plover – in white-spangled grey winter plumage

A lone Ringed Plover on the edge of the mud was soon joined by a load more, presumably flying in from the beach. One of them, a brighter bird, was noticeably aggressive to some of the others, chasing after them and calling.

IMG_7826Ringed Plover – a small group flew in to the Volunteer Marsh

We heard a Spotted Redshank call further over and made our way along to look for it, but there was no sign along the channel at the far end. There were lots of Black-tailed Godwits there and a single Bar-tailed Godwit – an opportunity to see both species close to each other. An Avocet was feeding in the deep channel by the path, sweeping its bill from side to side. There was no sign of the Spotted Redshank on the other side of the bank either, on the Tidal Pools. In fact, there were rather few waders on there today, just a few more Bar-tailed Godwits.

IMG_7844Pintail – you can see where it got its name when the drakes are feeding!

There were a few more ducks on here today. We spent some time admiring all the Pintail, many of them now organised into pairs. The drakes are looking very smart at the moment. We got one of them in the scope and had a good look at it. They were upending in the shallow water to feed, giving us a great view of their pin-shaped central tail feathers as they did so.

IMG_7837Pintail – a more conventional view of a smart drake

While we were scanning through the ducks, our attention was drawn to a dark duck on the mud at the back. It looked distinctly out of place – it appeared to be limping, as it walked across to the water and started to swim. It was a Common Scoter, a young male, rather blotchy in appearance as it starts to gain some more of its black adult feathers. There are lots of them on the sea through the winter here, but you rarely see one come in onto the pools. A female Goldeneye was also diving out here.

IMG_7833Common Scoter – a young drake was on the tidal pools briefly

Out on the beach, the tide was high. There were still lots of waders along the tideline – Oystercatchers and Bar-tailed Godwits, and a few Sanderling in with the larger flocks of Dunlin.

We had a look out to sea, which was fairly calm today, now that the wind had dropped. A pair of Red-breasted Merganser were fairly close inshore, and we managed to get a good look at them when they stopped diving long enough. There were more Goldeneye out on the water. The small raft of Common Scoter were quiet a long way out today and we couldn’t see anything else in with them. While we were standing there, the Common Scoter we had seen earlier flew back out from the Tidal Pools over the beach to the sea – normal service resumed!

We made our way back along the main path, and stopped to scan the waders along the channel on the Volunteer Marsh again. This time we found the Spotted Redshank. It was towards the back, but we got it in the scope so everyone could see it. There was a Redshank next to it at one point and you could see the paler, silvery grey colour of the Spotted Redshank and its longer, finer bill.

While we were watching the Spotted Redshank, we had a call from the warden (thanks!) who was standing a little further along – a young Peregrine was making a pass over the freshmarsh and had scattered all the waders. We could see it circling up over the roof of the Parrinder Hide, with flocks of Lapwing and Dunlin whirling round nervously. It climbed up and then made another pass over the mud, powering down and disappearing behind the bank, before climbing up again. It wasn’t having any luck, but was creating pandemonium among all the birds which had been on the freshmarsh!

We stopped to talk to him on our way back, and he told us that rather annoyingly a Short-eared Owl had flown across the reserve while we had been out at the beach and dropped down over the bank at the back, towards Brancaster. We had been scanning the dunes and saltmarsh on the way hoping for just such an event. We had to content ourselves with yet another Barn Owl hunting in the distance over that side.

Back at the car and we started to make our way back west. We had a drive out to the beach at Brancaster and a quick stop again at Brancaster Staithe to see if we could find the Short-eared Owl hunting out around the golf course, but all was quiet. We did find more Barn Owls on our way back – we stopped to watch three hunting over the grazing marshes by the road at Holkham. They were working their way methodically round the edges of the fields – one of them dropped sharply down into the long grass, presumably having heard something. As we drove further along, another flew over the road in front of us and one was hunting along some rough grass beside the road, taking us to a grand total of 11 Barn Owls for the day!

We couldn’t hang around now, as we had an important appointment with some Tawny Owls. They were hooting already when we arrived, before we got into position, which made it hard to judge exactly where they were roosting today. By the time we had walked down into the trees, our regular bird had either come out of the roost already or had been sleeping in a different place today.

We listened to Tawny Owls hooting on both sides of us for a while, then a large shape flew silently through the trees in front of us. It landed above the path briefly, but only one of the group got onto it before it flew again further along. We made our way quickly back and could hear it hooting. This time, we could see where the Tawny Owl had landed and got the scope onto it, where everyone could see it. We could see it perched on a branch, in the last of the evening’s light, hooting. Then it disappeared silently back into the wood. It was a great way to end the day, and we walked back to the car with several Tawny Owls hooting all around us.

Tawny Owl Bayfield 2016-01-24Tawny Owl – this one taken in the same trees a few days ago

It had been a great day’s birding – we had been lucky with the weather, as the forecast rain had still not arrived. Only as we drove back to the meeting point, did it start to spit and on the way home the rain finally arrived. Perfect timing!

7th February 2016 – Owl Time

Day 3 of a long weekend of tours today and it was time to look for Owls. The weather gods were shining on us today – it was a gloriously sunny start to the day, if a little breezy.

After rain overnight and strong winds yesterday, there should normally be some hungry Owls out hunting in the morning. We drove round through some favoured areas first thing, scanning the fields and gate posts, but there was surprisingly no sign of any. We parked up in an area where we know there is a very active pair, but we couldn’t find either of them at first. The favoured fields, the gate posts, all empty.

We decided to take a walk down along the footpath which runs beside the wet grazing meadows. A Little Egret flew up from some wet pools in the trees, causing some momentary excitement in the group – they can sometimes look rather like a Barn Owl in flight from a distance. A Green Woodpecker disappeared away through the trees the way we had come, and a little further along a Great Spotted Woodpecker flew along the hedge the other side towards the woods. A Grey Wagtail came up from the wet ground in front of us.

Then we spotted the Barn Owl. It had flown over to the meadows in the lee of the woods, where it was out of the wind. It flew round briefly and dropped down out of sight. We walked a little further along and it came up again, working its way back and forth over the meadows, before turning back towards us. It flew straight past us on the other side of the meadows, and perched up in a tree in the sun for a few minutes. Then it disappeared back into the ivy to roost, presumably having had some success hunting already.

That was a great way to start, so we made our way back to the car and headed back the way we had come. We hadn’t driven very far when another Barn Owl appeared, over some more meadows just beside the road. We pulled up in a convenient layby and got out, expecting the Barn Owl to continue hunting further over from us. It did at first, but then came towards us and proceeded to fly up and down right in front of us, not 20 metres away. Stunning views in the morning sunshine.

IMG_6606Barn Owl – out hunting in the  morning sun

The Barn Owl dropped down into the grass and seemed to be pulling at something – we couldn’t see if it had actually caught anything. It kept looking round nervously and we could see its face looking at us through the vegetation. Then it resumed hunting again. It came round a couple of times, again coming right in front us, seemingly oblivious to our presence, dropping down into the grass again but coming up empty taloned.

IMG_6623Barn Owl – our second of the morning

We stood transfixed, watching it for about 15 minutes, a real treat. Eventually, it moved off and disappeared away through the trees. Two Barn Owls already, and such great views.

It seemed like our luck might be in, so we drove on inland to look for Little Owls next. It was cold in the wind, but at least the sun was out. We came to a complex of farm buildings where we now there is a pair of Little Owls and a quick scan revealed one sitting on the roof of an old shed. It was far enough away that we wouldn’t distub it, so we got out and had a good look at it through the scopes. The Little Owl had found a spot mostly out of the wind and facing the sun. It was quite active, looking round, occasionally hopping back into a more sheltered position, before coming out again onto the roof. Great stuff.

IMG_6661Little Owl – sunbathing on the roof of some old farm buildings

There were other things to look at here as well. A small group of Rooks were hanging around the farm buildings, as well as a couple of Red-legged Partridges. The latter flew up onto the roof as well, but the Little Owl seemed disinterested. A Goldfinch perched up on a dead burdock seedhead on the verge, looking stunning in the morning sunshine. In the field behind us, were several Lapwings and a few Common Gulls. A couple of suspicious looking clods of earth turned out to be Brown Hares, tucked down in the wind.

We drove on inland, round via a couple of other Little Owl sites, but it was perhaps a little windy for them today, with less shelter in the more exposed places. The morning was now getting on, so we decided to drive on towards Titchwell for a couple of hours until the owling could resume. We dropped down via Choseley and had a quick look for the Rough-legged Buzzards, but there was no sign in their favoured trees – they were probably sitting somewhere out of the wind. The Common Buzzards were up enjoying the wind though. From the road below Choseley barns we could see at least five in the air, but despite the best attempts at the others gathered there to turn them into something more interesting, there were just Common Buzzards out today.

The car park at Titchwell was very busy. We only had limited time today, as Owls were the main focus of the day, but we wanted to have a quick look round the reserve. The feeders in front of the visitor centre were packed with finches – Chaffinches, Greenfinches, Goldfinches – but as usual the ones round the other side held more variety.

IMG_6668Brambling – a female around the feeders by the visitor centre

A female Brambling was perched up in the tree behind and dropped down onto the feeders briefly, grabbing a seed before disappearing back into the vegetation. A Siskin then appeared on the feeders as well – there are usually more in the alders, but it was windy in the tops of the trees today.

IMG_6688Siskin – one appeared on the feeders with the other finches

Then two male Bramblings dropped in. Much brighter orange below and on the shoulders than the female, and with increasingly black heads as the pale feather edges wear off to reveal the birds’ summer plumage.

IMG_6702Brambling – two males dropped in to the feeders as well

There was no sign of the Water Rail in the ditch on the way out, but lots of people were walking up and down, so we decided to have a better look on the way back. The grazing meadow ‘pool’ was rather windswept and deserted today apart from a couple of Lapwings. We headed for the shelter of Island Hide.

The freshmarsh is currently being drained to undergo management work and was very dry today. Consequently there are relatively few ducks on here now. There is a little bit of water still in the deeper parts towards the back, and the Teal were mostly around here or clustered on the far bank. Otherwise, there was just one pair of Shoveler. The Brent Geese which flew in from the saltmarsh towards Brancaster dropped down in the remaining pool at the back as well.

There are still a few waders on here, but the mud nearer the main path is starting to dry out, so they are also concentrated round the edges of the remaining water. There was a good sized flock of Dunlin on here, and still at least twenty Avocet. A couple of Black-tailed Godwits were a little closer and two Ringed Plovers were on one of the drier islands.

IMG_6721Titchwell freshmarsh – being drained currently for management work

We had a quick look here and, with time pressing, quickly moved on. The Volunteer Marsh was a bit more productive. There are generally lots of Shelduck, Redshank and Curlew on here. We stopped in the shelter of the bank and had a scan. There were a few waders down in the near corner. The first we looked at were a couple of Knot, grey and dumpy with shortish bills, picking around the edge of one of the muddy channels.

IMG_6726Knot – good views on the Volunteer Marsh

Just behind the Knot was a single Grey Plover, looking very smart in the winter sunshine. We watched it feeding – taking a couple of quick steps, stopping and looking down at the mud, occasionally picking at something it could see on the surface.

IMG_6733Grey Plover – also on the Volunteer Marsh

A couple of Ringed Plovers flew in and landed on the mud close by. Much smaller than the Grey Plover and very different looking, they share similarities in the way they feed. One of the two was attempting to display to the other, fanning its tail, but being blown along by the wind as it tried to do so.

IMG_6761Ringed Plover – two flew in to the mud close to the main path

We had already seen a few Black-tailed Godwits more distantly on the freshmarsh, but there were two more feeding right by the main path at the far end of the Volunteer Marsh. This is regularly a great place to see them up close, so we stopped for a few minutes to admire them and watch them feeding.

IMG_6750Black-tailed Godwit – feeding right next to the main path

Out on the Tidal Pools, we could see a couple of female Goldeneye diving amongst the other ducks on the water. We had a look at the Wigeon grazing out on the edge of the saltmarsh behind. A Little Grebe surfaced right in front of us, before seeing us and diving again quickly. There were a few more Black-tailed Godwits, Redshanks and Grey Plovers on here but no other waders today.

A little further along, we stopped to admire the Pintail out on the water – there were several here upending, including some smart drakes. Another male further over out on one of the islands was asleep, but we could see his long pin-shaped tail.

IMG_6771Pintail – one of several smart drakes on the Tidal Pools

Out on the beach, the tide was out. The waders were rather distant, as we tucked oursleves into the shelter of the dunes rather than walk out across the sand. We could see lots of Oystercatcher, Dunlin, Turnstone and a few Bar-tailed Godwits. Close inshore, we could see a few Red-breasted Mergansers, including some smart drakes.

There were also 2-3 Common Scoter just offshore, so we had a good look at them too, a couple of females with their pale cheeks and a dowdy young male. Way off towards the Lincolnshire coast, out in the middle of the wash, we could just pick up the bulk of the wintering Common Scoter, like a dark smear across the sea. There are several thousand out here at the moment, but they are always a long way out these days. Eventually we found a slightly larger group on the sea off the beach, but they were also rather distant and hard to get a good look at as they rode in and out of the troughs on the swell. We could just make out at least one Velvet Scoter in with them, which flapped its wings briefly revealing the white flash in the secondaries, but it was all but impossible to get the rest of the group onto it unfortunately.

It was already later than planned, so we made our way quickly back. We had seen a single Bar-tailed Godwit on the Tidal Pools on our way out, but on our way back it was right next to the path. Even better, there was a Black-tailed Godwit with it. We had to stop to have a close look at the two side by side, the Bar-tailed Godwit noticeably smaller by comparison, shorter legged, with a very slightly upturned bill, paler and more buffy-coloured with more obvious streaking on the upperparts.

IMG_6782Bar-tailed Godwit – right by the path on the Tidal Pools

When we got back almost to the visitor centre there were only two people on the main path and they were watching the Water Rail in its usual place. It was tucked down in the vegetation at first, but then came out onto the mud on the far side of the ditch in full view, giving us a great look as it probed its long red bill into the rotting leaves.

P1160118Water Rail – showed very well on the way back

After a late lunch, we started to work our way back along the coast. We swung inland at Choseley, but once again there was no sign of any Rough-legged Buzzards in the blustery wind, just several Common Buzzards still. A quick stop at Brancaster Staithe was more productive. The Red-necked Grebe was immediately on show, tucked in along the muddy edge of the channel just beyond the car park.

IMG_6798Red-necked Grebe – showing well at Brancaster Staithe again

There were also a few waders here as usual – Oystercatchers, Bar-tailed Godwits and several Turnstones running around between the cars in the car park. It was a bit exposed here in the wind and it was now owl time again, so we didn’t hang around too long.

There are lots of good places to look for Barn Owls along the coast road, particularly if you know where to look. The first site we went past was deserted, but we pulled into a layby at the second. In the process of saying “This is normally a good spot for Barn…” we turned to see one huddled down out of the wind on a gate in the hedge behind us, not 10 metres from the car. It was startled by our arrival and looked at us for a few seconds before disappearing behind the hedge. Our first Barn Owl of the afternoon and they were out and about.

We stopped at Holkham next to scan the grazing marshes. This is always a good place to look for Barn Owls and it had the added benefit of being sheltered from the wind by the Park behind us. A scan of the geese revealed a large flock of White-fronted Geese still, though a little distant again today over on the old fort.

IMG_6804White-fronted Geese – still a good number at Holkham

There were plenty of raptors up too, in the late afternoon. A Peregrine circled up over the trees, before stooping down towards one of the pools. A Common Buzzard landed in the top of a tree in front of us. There were lots of Marsh Harriers flying back and forth over the grazing marshes and three closer to us kept landing down on the grass. One of them, a female, was wing-tagged and near enough so we could read the tags ‘KX’. Ringed here in the nest in 2014, this bird has apparently not been seen since being sighted in Lincs in December 2014 – so a good resighting!

IMG_6807Marsh Harrier – with green wing tags ‘KX’

We could see a Barn Owl out hunting, distantly over the marshes. While we stood scanning, a second flew over along the bottom of the field in front of us, before flying over the reeds beyond and out onto the marshes too. We hadn’t seen the third Barn Owl before it appeared in front of us! It was working its way along the front grassy edge of the field and saw us standing in the gateway at the last minute, veering out over the field away from us. Yet more great views, we watched it flying round and even making another flypast along the same route – though this time we were ready for it, as it flew straight towards us.

We got back in the car and continued east, and suddenly yet another Barn Owl appeared from the trees and across the road in front of us. It seemed to be flying towards Lady Anne’s Drive, so we pulled in there for a scan. On the edge of the first field was a Barn Owl perched on the post. We got out of the car and it stayed put, allowing us stunning views of it through the scopes.

IMG_6809Barn Owl – perched on a post at Holkham

It looked noticeably darker than the one we had seen fly across the road and sure enough, that Barn Owl appeared on a post further along a few minutes later. It was hunting from the posts, flying between them, scanning the ground below. The first was also scanning the ground, but fluffed itself up and appeared to be going to sleep.

IMG_6819Barn Owl – fluffed itself up and appeared to doze

We turned round to see yet another Barn Owl hunting over the fields behind us – three in view at once, our seventh of the afternoon and ninth of the day! When we turned back, the dozing Barn Owl had mysteriously disappeared and the paler one, presumably the male, flew off over the road into the trees, so we decided to move on.

We had a quick look at some other sites on the way, to see if we could find any more, but time was getting on and we had a date with a Tawny Owl. We drove into some woods and walked along a footpath through the trees. We could hear hooting even before we got to where we needed to be, much earlier than normal tonight. We hurried along to get into position and the Tawny Owl hooted again, from its roost deep in the ivy in a tree ahead of us. It was very windy in the treetops.

We waited patiently and caught a glimpse of the Tawny Owl as it dropped down out of its roost tree and landed on a branch over the path, back the way where we had come. Unfortunately it didn’t stay there very long and flew off into the wood the other side. We walked back and could hear it hooting. Then suddenly it flew back towards us and right over our heads – broad-rounded wings beating silently – disappearing back into the trees. It continued hooting but further over out of view. We decided to call it a night.

We were getting back into the car, when a Tawny Owl started hooting very close to us. Then a second started hooting back where we had come from, presumably the one we had seen earlier. Unfortunately, it was now getting too dark to see them. Still, it was a great way to end the day – with Tawny Owls hooting all round us.