Category Archives: Winter Tour

5th-6th Dec 2017 – Two Winter Days

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

Tuesday 5th December

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

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

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

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

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

6O0A3546

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6O0A3567Stonechat – perched in some dead willowherb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 6th December

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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22nd Nov 2017 – Winter Specials

A Private Tour today. Rather than a general day of birding, we had a list of target species which we would be looking for, as well as trying to see various other birds on the way. It was a dry day, bright at times, but with a very blustery SW wind which at least had the benefit of being rather mild. A daytime peak of 15.5C is warm for this time of year, though it didn’t always feel like it in the wind!

Our first target was Lapland Bunting. There have been a few in recent weeks in the fields along the coastal cliffs at Weybourne, so we headed over there to start the day. As we walked down the lane, there were a couple of Blackbirds and Robins in the sparse hedges, possibly recent arrivals from the continent for the winter. There had apparently been one or two Lapland Buntings in the clifftop grass earlier, but there were several dogwalkers strolling up and down there now, so we concentrated on the field instead.

Most of the birds were hard to see out in the stubble in the middle of the field at first, and all we saw was occasional groups of birds flying round before landing back down out of view, mainly Skylarks and Meadow Pipits. Then the first Lapland Bunting appeared with a group of Skylarks. It was very hard to get onto in flight though and landed back down out in the middle. The birds were very skittish in the wind and we were treated to several more brief flight views of Lapland Buntings over the next few minutes as we waited. We could just hear their distinctive flight calls as they flew round, over the wind.

When an RAF jet came low overhead, all the birds flushed from the middle of the field and it was amazing how many were out there. There were lots of Linnets, in one or two large flocks, plus more Skylarks than we might have thought, watching from the side of the field.

There is a more open area of bare mud close to the side of the field and gradually birds started to land on or around it. Meadow Pipits and Skylarks at first, but then two Yellowhammers flew in too, catching the morning sun. Eventually a Lapland Bunting dropped in, landing in the stubble just beyond the bare patch. We got it in the scope and could just see it creeping around in the stubble, noticeably different from all the other birds we had seen here.

Unfortunately, not all the group managed to see the Lapland Bunting before it flew off again. There were a few other birds to see here too though, particularly a large flock of Pink-footed Geese which must have been feeding or loafing in the fields over towards Sheringham Park. When they were disturbed by one of the passes by the RAF jet, they all flew up calling.

Pink-footed Geese 1Pink-footed Geese – flushed from the fields towards Sheringham Park

One of the Lapland Buntings appeared to land further over, along the other edge of the field, so we walked round to see if we could pick it up from that side. Unfortunately, as we got round there, a dogwalker walked up along the grassy strip on the edge of the field. They then proceeded to walk out into the field along the edge of the stubble, and all the birds flushed and landed back down in the middle.

We made our way back to the gate where we had been earlier and fortunately, some of the birds started to drift back towards that corner. Another Lapland Bunting dropped down into the stubble behind the bare patch and again we managed to get it in the scope, where it was possible to see it creeping around in the stubble. Then a tractor drove up the lane with a flail, to cut the margins of the field. The driver stopped to open the gate and asked us what we were looking at, then very kindly offering to start on the far side of the field so as to minimise the disturbance. We figured this would be a good moment to move on.

Our next stop was at Kelling. There were not many birds in the lane this morning, just a few Blackbirds and Chaffinches, so we walked straight down to the Water Meadow. There were a few birds around the pool – a handful of Teal feeding along the back edge and several Black-tailed Godwits out in the middle, probing into the water with their long bills.

The Spotted Redshank was on the edge of the vegetation on the north edge, where it likes to feed. We stopped for a quick look from the other side, then made our way round for a closer look. Unfortunately, before we could get there, something spooked it and it flew further out and landed on the muddy edge. A juvenile Ruff flew in to join it and a Common Redshank too.

The Spotted Redshank and the Common Redshank fed together on the edge of the water for a few minutes, given us a great side by side comparison in the scope. The Spotted Redshank was a little bigger, longer legged and noticeably paler, more silvery grey above and whiter below. We could also see its much longer, finer bill. The Spotted Redshank is a first winter, we could see its darker wing coverts and tertials. It has been lingering here for several weeks now and looks like it may stay for the winter.

Spotted RedshankSpotted Redshank – lingering on the pool at Kelling Water Meadow

Then the Spotted Redshank went to sleep on the edge of the water. We had a quick look for any Jack Snipe around the edge of the pool, but the water level has risen here after the recent rain. The area where they had been roosting is now rather wet and none have been seen since last weekend. We decided not to linger here and moved on.

As we wound our way west along the coast road, we came across a field chock full of Pink-footed Geese. The sugar beet here was harvested a couple of weeks ago now, but still the geese are coming in to feed on the tops left behind by the harvester. We found a convenient layby to pull in for a closer look and there were well over a thousand geese in view and more out of sight in the field. We could see the pink legs and feet on the closest birds as they picked around in the field beside us, as well as their dark heads and delicate bills with a pink band.

Pink-footed Geese 2Pink-footed Geese – feeding in the harvested field by the coast road

With a little bit of time still before lunch, we headed round to Cley. There has been a Black Brant with the Dark-bellied Brent Geese here for several weeks now and in recent days it has been feeding in the Eye Field. As we drove up the Beach Road, we could see lots of Brent Geese feeding out in the grass, but even as we pulled up, small groups were flying off towards the reserve, presumably for a drink and a bathe.

Apparently, the Black Brant had been seen here earlier but there was no sign of it now. We had a good look through at the Dark-bellied Brent Geese. Just behind them, a large flock of Golden Plover were catching the sunshine.

Brent GeeseBrent Geese & Golden Plover – in the Eye Field

With the likelihood that the geese which had flown onto the reserve would return to resume feeding later, we decided to go off and have something to eat ourselves, before coming back for another look. It was rather breezy round at the visitor centre, but we still managed to make use of the picnic tables, as well as enjoying a hot drink from the cafe.

A few Ruff flew up from the reserve and headed off inland over the car park to feed in the fields inland. Something flushed all the Golden Plover from the Eye Field. We could see them whirling around in the distance, before they too flew over us in a series of small groups and headed off inland.

After lunch, we made our way back round to the Eye Field. This time, we quickly located the Black Brant feeding in amongst all the regular Dark-bellied Brent Geese. In the early afternoon sun, its more solid and cleaner white flank patch really stood out compared to the more muted flank patches on the other geese. Through the scope, we could also see its darker body plumage and more strongly marked white neck collar, complete under the chin and extending further round the sides towards the back of the neck.

Black BrantBlack Brant – with the Dark-bellied Brent Geese in the Eye Field

The wind was really quite gusty now. A Stonechat appeared close by, landing on the top a gorse bush just the other side of the West Bank from the Beach Road. A male, with a black face, it struggled to remain there in the wind.

StonechatStonechat – struggled to perch on the gorse in the wind

There did not appear to be much out on the reserve today, so we continued on our way west. White-fronted Goose was a particular target for the day, so we headed over to Holkham next. There are still only a very few White-fronted Geese in for the winter here yet, but we parked up overlooking the grazing marshes and started to scan.

At first, all we could see were lots of Greylag Geese down on the grazing marshes in front of us. There were a few Egyptian Geese in with them too. Thankfully it didn’t take us too long to find some White-fronted Geese, although they were a little further over today and tucked in beyond some trees.

Initially, we located a family group of four White-fronted Geese which we got in the scope. We could see the white surround to the base of the bills of the adults catching the sun. They were in the longer grass and mostly sitting down though, so it was hard to see any other details. Fortunately, we then found another pair further round and repositioning ourselves we could get a clear view. These White-fronted Geese were on shorter grass and we could see their distinctive black belly bars.

Red KiteRed Kite – catching the afternoon sun

There was a nice selection of raptors out at Holkham this afternoon too. As usual, we could see several Marsh Harriers and Common Buzzards. A single Red Kite flew low over the freshmarsh, landing down on the grass for a few minutes before flying off towards the Park. It really shone rusty red in the afternoon sun. A Kestrel flew in and landed in the tree in front of us. The Sparrowhawk was slightly less obliging, flying up out of the same trees just as the gusty wind blew a blizzard of beech leaves out of the park and over the fields. It was hard to work out which was Sparrowhawk and which was leaf!

There is usually at least one Great White Egret on view here, but we couldn’t see one at first today. One of the wardens had just done the rounds and was leaving as we arrived, so we wondered whether they had flown off. Fortunately, as we were standing admiring the geese, a Great White Egret appeared up over the trees out in the middle and flew out over the freshmarsh towards us. It landed down by one of the wet ditches, where we could get it in the scope.

Great White EgretGreat White Egret – flew in and landed out on the freshmarsh

With the White-fronted Geese safely in the bag, we carried on west. Our next stop was at Brancaster Staithe. This is often a good place to find waders and from the warmth of the car we could see Ringed Plover and Grey Plover, Bar-tailed and Black-tailed Godwits, Curlew and Redshank. Several Oystercatchers were picking over the discarded mussels and the Turnstones were running in and out of the cars. Further out, a Greenshank was feeding up to its belly in the water in the harbour channel.

While the waders were nice, we had really come here to see the Long-tailed Duck which has been feeding in the channel here in recent days. It was low tide now, so there wasn’t much water left, but we did eventually spot the Long-tailed Duck diving a little further out in the harbour, in the deeper part of the channel just behind a muddy bank. Thankfully it then came a little closer, swimming up the channel at first, before half waddling over a submerged sand bar, and then starting to dive again.

Long-tailed DuckLong-tailed Duck – the 1st winter drake still in the harbour

We had a good look at the Long-tailed Duck, though it was tricky to photograph because it was diving all the time. It could stay under for some time and then resurface some distance away. It was a first winter drake, rather pale around the head and with a scattering of white feathers in its black upperparts.

It had clouded over now and the light was already starting to fade when we finally got to Titchwell. Our main target here was Yellow-legged Gull, so we hurried out to the freshmarsh. There were already a few Marsh Harriers starting to gather over the reeds either side of the path.

We had been told that an adult Yellow-legged Gull was on the island in front of Island Hide, so we headed straight in there first. When we opened the shutters, we were greeted by the sight of hundreds and hundreds of gulls. They were mainly Black-headed Gulls but, even so, they would take a bit of searching through. There was a line of larger gulls on the island where the Yellow-legged Gull had been earlier, but as we searched through we couldn’t find it. There were just Herring Gulls, a couple of Lesser Black-backed Gulls and Great Black-backed Gulls there now.

No need to panic! We opened the shutters on the other side of the hide and started to work our way methodically through the massed throng. Thankfully, it didn’t take long to find the Yellow-legged Gull. It was quite close, on the near edge of one the islands behind a load of Black-headed Gulls. We got it in the scope and had a good look at it. It was standing in shallow water, so we could see the top halves of its bright custard yellow legs. Its mantle was a shade darker than the Black-headed Gulls around it and it had a clean white head with only limited dark streaking around the eye, very different from most of the other large gulls.

Yellow-legged GullYellow-legged Gull – one of the adults on the freshmarsh at dusk

When the Yellow-legged Gull sat down in the water and went to sleep, we continued to scan through the gulls. The only other gull of note we found was a second Yellow-legged Gull a bit further back – two for the price of one! There was also a nice selection of wildfowl here for the day’s list, including Greylag Goose, Gadwall, Teal, Shoveler, Shelduck and Wigeon.

With the light going now, we decided to head for home. As we walked back up the main path, we looked out across the reedbed and noticed there were loads of Marsh Harriers all in the air. We stopped for a quick count – 32 all together. It was quite a sight. Another, the 33rd, was still flying in over the reeds the other side of the path. It was a nice end to the day to see them all circling round in the wind, as we walked back towards the car.

19th Nov 2017 – Early Winter Birding, Day 3

Day 3 of a long weekend of Early Winter Tours today, our last day. It was another frosty start and another glorious, clear, sunny day. There was a light but fresh westerly breeze in the morning but that dropped by the afternoon. Another great day to be out birding!

Today we headed out in the other direction, west along the coast road. As we passed Holkham we could see lots of Pink-footed Geese in the grazing meadows beyond Lady Anne’s Drive. A small group was close to the road, so we pulled up by a convenient gap in the hedge for a closer look. We could see their small bills, mostly dark but for a narrow pink band, and their dark heads.

Pink-footed GoosePink-footed Goose – a group was right by the coast road as we passed by

A little further on, we stopped to have a look out across the freshmarsh. A large white shape flew across the front edge of one of the pool and landed in the rushes. Even at that distance, it was clearly a big heron and could only be a Great White Egret. Through the scope we could see its long, yellow dagger of a bill. A Grey Heron appeared next to it and was not much smaller – a nice size comparison. Then a second Great White Egret appeared on the front edge of the trees out in the middle.

There were a few geese out on this end of the freshmarsh today, mostly Greylags but with a few small groups of pairs of Egyptian Geese scattered among them too. Looking through them carefully, we managed to find a group of three White-fronted Geese in with the Greylags down at the front of the grass. Through the scope, we could see the white-surround to the base of their pink bills. When something flushed the geese and they resettled, more White-fronted Geese had appeared – there was now a tight group of at least thirteen together a little further out.

White-fronted GeeseWhite-fronted Geese – at least 13 were at Holkham today

A handful of Pink-footed Geese out on the freshmarsh here too included a single bird bearing a silvery grey neck collar. We could just read the lettering ‘VLS’ through the scope. It will be interesting to hear back where it has been seen before. There still don’t seem to be so many Wigeon here, but we could still see several flocks over in the distance around the pools to the east. It seems like it has still been rather mild on the continent and numbers of some wildfowl are still rather low. More should arrive in the coming weeks.

A nice selection of raptors put on a show for us this morning. A Red Kite drifted in from over the Park behind us and dropped down towards the grazing marshes. It appeared to land on the grass behind the trees and a Marsh Harrier flew straight in after it. The Red Kite promptly reappeared the other side of the trees, presumably seen off from whatever it had found. Its rusty red tail and underparts positively shone in the morning sun as it banked and turned.

A couple of Common Buzzards were perched out in various trees and bushes. One was a fairly conventional brown bird, but the other was strikingly pale, white below and around the head. As the air started to warm a little, more Marsh Harriers and Buzzards appeared in the air. A Sparrowhawk flew in along the line of the hedge below us amd chased out a second one. The two Sparrowhawks then landed in a tree where we could get them in the scope. A Kestrel was perched on the scaffold tower in the distance.

Continuing on our way west, we stopped again at Brancaster Staithe. A Long-tailed Duck had been reported for the last couple of days in the harbour channel here and it didn’t take us long to find it. It was diving further out in the channel, among the boats at first, but then swam up the channel past us and disappeared into the mouth of one of the muddy creeks.

There were lots of waders around the muddy edges of the creek. Several Bar-tailed Godwits gave us a great opportunity for closer inspection and a discussion of some of the differences between the two godwit species in non-breeding plumage. We could hear a Greenshank calling and quickly located it on the far bank in the sunshine, before a second Greenshank flew in and joined it.

Bar-tailed GodwitBar-tailed Godwit – close views at Brancaster Staithe this morning

There were also a few Dunlin down with the Bar-tailed Godwits and a Ringed Plover on the near edge. Further over, we could see a couple of Grey Plover and Curlew too. Several Turnstone were practically running around our feet until they spotted a Common Gull dropping a mussel, shattering it and then starting to pick it apart. They gathered round, waiting to pick off the scraps.

There were a few Brent Geese feeding round the harbour too, plus a scattering of Wigeon. A little group of Teal gathered down along the near edge of the harbour ramp looked stunning in the morning sunshine.

When the Long-tailed Duck reappeared, it was initially hard to follow. It was diving constantly and made its way even further up the channel away from us. But the tide was going out and it quickly turned back, swimming back down channel and straight past us, giving us a great close view as it went past. It was a first winter drake, rather pale around the head and with some pale feathering in the upperparts.

Long-tailed DuckLong-tailed Duck – in the harbour channel at Brancaster Staithe

As the Long-tailed Duck swam back out into the open water downstream, we decided to move on. We made our way west to Thornham Harbour next. As we got out of the car, we saw a flock of small finches drop down towards the saltmarsh beyond the car park. We would come to those in a minute, but first we had a quick look in the harbour channel. There were a few waders down on the mud – Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwit and Common Redshank – but no sign of any Spotted Redshank here.

From up on the seawall, we quickly located the flock of small finches down on the saltmarsh and sure enough they were the Twite which we were looking for. They were feeding on the dry seedheads but were rather nervous as usual and kept flying up and circling round over the harbour before landing back down on the edge of the saltmarsh right in front of us again, back where they had started. We had a great look at them through the scope – their rich orangey-brown-toned breasts and bright yellow bills catching the sun when they perched up on the taller seedheads.

TwiteTwite – around twenty were feeding on the saltmarsh vegetation

There are around twenty Twite here at the moment. This is a traditional wintering spot for the species, although numbers have declined markedly in recent years as the breeding population in the Pennines has declined, which is where most of our wintering Twite come from. There are always a few colour-ringed birds in with them, which help to confirm their origins.

Looking out across the harbour, we could see large flocks of Wigeon and Brent Geese in the distance. A single Red-breasted Merganser was just visible way out in a chink of open water where the harbour channel curved towards the sea, before it swam behind one of the sandbanks out of view. A Curlew was catching the sun down in the muddy channel just below the bank.

CurlewCurlew – warming itself in the morning sun

Continuing on out along the seawall, there were lots of Skylarks on either side, over the grazing meadows and the saltmarsh. A couple of Reed Buntings flew in and landed down amongst the Suaeda bushes just below the bank. A single Common Snipe flew in and landed out in the grass briefly, before heading back out across the saltmarsh. The Twite flew over our heads calling and landed down by a pool out on the grazing marsh for a quick drink, before flying back towards the harbour again.

We stopped for a quick look out across Broadwater. A Little Grebe and a few Coot were both new birds for the day, but otherwise there were just a few dabbling ducks around the reedy margins – mainly Mallard, Teal and Shoveler. In the grazing meadow beyond, a party of Brent Geese had flown in to join the local Greylags feeding on the grass.

Climbing up into the dunes, we had a look out to sea. The Common Scoter were very distant today and very spread out – we could just make out hundreds of tiny dark specks riding the waves out towards the horizon. A pair of Red-breasted Merganser flew in and landed behind the breakers. Otherwise, there was not much visible out on the sea today – just a couple of Great Crested Grebes.

When we got back to the harbour, we had another quick look in the harbour channel. A couple of Rock Pipits were chasing each other around on the mud and up onto the boats moored along the wooden jetties. There was still no sign of any Spotted Redshanks though, until we had started to leave and we spotted one further up the channel from the car. We got out and got the scope on it – we could see its long, needle-fine bill. It was also noticeably paler than the Common Redshank on the mud behind it. The Spotted Redshank was feeding in the water at first, sweeping its bill quickly from side to side, before it climbed out onto a line of rocks and stood where we could see its red legs.

With a bit of time still before lunch, we headed inland for a drive round to see if we could find any flocks of finches and buntings in the fields. We did find a lot of Blackbirds and thrushes feeding on the berries in the more overgrown hedges – including several Redwings and a couple of Fieldfares too.

A little further on, we came across a large flock of finches, coming down to drink in the puddles around a farm gateway. They were mostly Chaffinches, plus a few Goldfinches and one or two Greenfinches, but a smart male Brambling flew up too and landed in the hedge just in front of us. We could see its orange breast and shoulders, and its white rump as it eventually flew away ahead of us down the line of the hedge.

Dropping back down via Choseley, we passed a large mixed flock of Linnets and Goldfinches feeding in a strip of wild bird seed mix sown along the margin of a field. There was very little around the drying barns though – just a handful of House Sparrows feeding on some seed scattered in the layby. A group of Golden Plover was feeding in a winter wheat field along with some Lapwings further down.

As we got out of the car in the car park at Titchwell, a single Chiffchaff was feeding in the sunshine in the yellow autumn leaves of a sycamore. We stopped for lunch in the picnic area, and quickly picked out one of the Mealy Redpolls here, feeding up in the alders with the Goldfinches. We had a chat about the changing taxonomy of the Redpoll complex over lunch – the treatment of these birds is currently in a state of flux, to say the least! A flock of Long-tailed Tits passing through, along with a Goldcrest provided a welcome distraction.

Mealy RedpollMealy Redpoll – feeding up in the alders above the picnic area

After lunch, we headed out to explore the reserve. The feeders around the visitor centre were looking rather empty this afternoon. A Coal Tit was a welcome addition to the day’s list, but otherwise there were just a few Chaffinches and Blue and Great Tits. We could hear a couple of Siskin calling from somewhere high in the willows.

A careful scan of the ditches along the path provided a Water Rail feeding quietly down in the wet leaves in the bottom. Unfortunately, as more people gathered around us and started chatting noisily, it scuttled back into cover, although we could still see it feeding under the branches of an overhanging tree.

Water RailWater Rail – feeding down in the ditch below the path

There were just a few Mallard and a single Little Grebe out on the reedbed pool and we couldn’t see any activity on the dried up grazing meadow ‘pool’, so we headed straight out to the freshmarsh. A couple of Cetti’s Warblers sang from the bushes out in the reeds as we passed. A Kestrel was perched on the concrete bunker out on the saltmarsh and as we looked at it through the scope a Kingfisher appeared briefly, hovering behind.

There were lots of birds out on the freshmarsh, particularly ducks here for the winter. There are plenty of Wigeon here now and lots of Teal. We got a smart drake Gadwall in the scope and admired the subtle patterning of its plumage. There were a few Shoveler and Shelduck out there too.

TealTeal – good numbers on the freshmarsh for the winter now

A small gathering of gulls around one of the small islands were mostly Black-headed and Herring Gulls, but we did find an adult Yellow-legged Gull in with them. Unfortunately it was swimming on the water and it was impossible to see its custard yellow legs!

There was not a great variety of waders on view, but we could see a good number of Ruff here. One of the Ruff was still in full juvenile plumage, much darker than the others. It was also a female and noticeably smaller than the paler winter adult male it was next to. There were also a few Dunlin out on the mud amongst all the ducks.

There was a better selection of waders out on the Volunteer Marsh today. From the corner by the path to Parrinder Hide we stopped to scan. We could see Bar-tailed Godwit, Curlew, Dunlin, Grey Plover and Redshank. A Ringed Plover was feeding on the mud just the other side of the channel, with three more further back. A single Knot was picking around the islands of vegetation out in the middle.

Ringed PloverRinged Plover – there were several on Volunteer Marsh today

There were a few Black-tailed Godwits along the tidal channel at the far side of the Volunteer Marsh, including one on the mud just below the path which gave us a good opportunity to have a closer look at it, reminding ourselves of the differences from the Bar-tailed Godwits we had seen earlier. Most of the Avocets have departed for the winter, but we did find one lonely individual roosting on the spit out on the tidal pools. Otherwise, a single drake Pintail and a Little Grebe were the only other birds of note on here today.

The tide was already on its way in when we got out to the beach. We could see lots of Oystercatchers still down on the bits of the mussel beds which had not yet been covered by the water. We got a Sanderling in the scope, running around on the edge of the sea, dwarfed by an Oystercatcher next to it. The waders were starting to gather ahead of the rising tide and a large flock of forty or so Sanderling then flew in from the west, along with a big party of Bar-tailed Godwits.

Out on the sea, we found a Common Scoter close in, riding the waves just behind the breakers – a better view than the distant dots we had seen earlier! But other than a few more Common Scoter, we couldn’t see anything else on the sea today. There were lots of gulls out on the beach, feeding on razor shells washed up along the tide line, but a quick scan through them failed to locate anything other than the regular species.

We stopped in at Parrinder Hide on our way back. There were more gulls arriving all the time, coming in before roost – Herring Gulls, Lesser Black-backed Gulls and Black-headed Gulls. We found the Yellow-legged Gull again, asleep now, but at least we could see half its custard yellow legs above the water now.

There were a few more waders gathering too. There was already a little party of Golden Plover on the edge of one of the islands in front of the hide. As we sat and watched, every few minutes another small group would drop in and join them, calling plaintively as they flew in from the fields inland where they had been feeding. A single Knot had appeared on the edge of the gathered Black-headed Gulls and a flock of Turnstone flew in from the beach. There were a few more Black-tailed Godwits on here too now and the Ruff had gathered together into a tighter flock ready to roost.

Golden PloverGolden Plovers – gathering on the freshmarsh at dusk

The light was starting to go fast now – the evenings draw in quickly at this time of year. As we made our way back towards the visitor centre, we stopped on the path opposite the reedbed. The Marsh Harriers were gathering to roost over the reeds, and we counted at least 11 before we left, flying round and perched in the bushes. A twelfth then flew in overhead from the direction of Thornham as we walked on.

It was getting dark as we drove back towards Holkham. As we drove along the north side of the park, we could see lines and lines of geese flying overhead in the gathering gloom, thousands of Pink-footed Geese dropping down to the freshmarsh to roost. A typical Norfolk sight at this time of year and a nice way to end the day – and an action-packed three days of early winter birding.

18th Nov 2017 – Early Winter Birding, Day 2

Day 2 of a three day long weekend of Early Winter Tours today. It was a nice, bright start to the morning and, although it clouded over later, it stayed largely dry until dark.

As we made our way east along the coast road, we thought we might stop for a better look at the Cattle Egrets. We were looking into the sun and the cows were huddled in one corner of the field, but there appeared to be white shapes in with them as we drove past. We parked in the layby just beyond and crossed the road. A flock of Fieldfares flew across the field, landing in the hedge close to where we parked and started tucking in to the berries. As we walked down along the path, we flushed a couple of Blackbirds and a Song Thrush from the bushes there. A Stock Dove flew out of the game cover as we passed.

When we got down to the corner overlooking the wet grazing marsh where the cows were, we couldn’t see any sign of the Cattle Egrets. The cows were on the edge of a ditch, so we wondered whether the egrets might be hiding at first. While we waited to see if they might emerge, we scanned the pools in the grass. There was a nice selection of ducks – Shelduck, Wigeon, Teal and a single female Pintail with them too. A scattering of Black-tailed Godwits were feeding around the muddy edge.

Marsh HarrierMarsh Harrier – flew over our heads early this morning

A flock of Long-tailed Tits came along the hedge past us, calling noisily. A Marsh Harrier circled up over the trees behind us before flying over our heads. A Yellowhammer flew over the road calling. And it quickly became clear that the Cattle Egrets weren’t there. We would be coming back this way later, so we decided not to linger and headed back to the car.

As we made our way on east past Cley, we could see a small flock of Brent Geese feeding on the grazing marsh by the entrance to Babcock Hide. There was nothing behind us, so we pulled up and had a quick look at them from the car. One immediately stood out – more contrasting than the regular Dark-bellied Brents, blacker bodied with a brighter white flank patch. It was the Black Brant. We managed to get a quick look at it before something spooked the geese and they all took off. They circled round and dropped down onto Watling Water, out of view.

Our next stop was at Weybourne. We decided to have a quick look at the beach first. There were a couple of groups of gulls on the shingle but nothing particularly interesting with them today – a mixture of Herring Gulls and Great Black-backed Gulls. A couple of Lesser Black-backed Gulls flew past together with a Great Black-backed Gull, giving a great side-by-side comparison.

There were several Turnstones down on the beach too, although they should perhaps have been better named Turn-fish today. A large number of small flatfish were washed up after last weekend’s storms and have been providing sustenance for the gulls and the Turnstones.

TurnstoneTurnstone – turning over a flatfish instead!

One of the group spotted a Great Crested Grebe flying past just offshore. It is quite an incongruous sight, but they winter quite commonly on the sea here. A single Ringed Plover flew past some way out too, presumably a fresh arrival coming in for the winter. Two Gannets circled way out on the horizon, catching the sun. A Rock Pipit flew west over the beach along with a Meadow Pipit. Otherwise there was not much happening out at sea this morning, so we decided to explore the fields instead.

As we walked up the hill on the edge of the grass beside the stubble, we flushed several Skylarks which flew round and landed again out in the field. A little group of Meadow Pipits flew up from the grass calling. Then up towards the top of the field, a large flock of Linnets flew up from the stubble and wheeled round before landing again. We had really come to look for Lapland Buntings, a few of which have been in the stubble here in recent days, but at first we couldn’t find any.

As we got up towards the old Coastguard Cottages, we could see more activity out in the middle of the field so we thought we would try walking up along the track towards the mill. We would not be looking into the sun from there too, as we had been from the cliff side. When we got to the field gate half way up the track, we stopped to scan and were instantly rewarded with a Lapland Bunting. Even better, it was out in an open area of bare mud, where we could get it in the scope. Great views – we couldn’t believe our luck! They are more often just seen flying round or skulking in the stubble.

Lapland BuntingLapland Bunting – showed very well on an area of bare mud

We watched the Lapland Bunting for some time. It was strikingly pale, off-white below and around the face. It appeared to be a male, with a ghosting of a black bib. It was feeding with a couple of Skylarks and Linnets. It would disappear into the furrows from time to time and then reappear somewhere different. At one point it looked like it might be bathing in a furrow with a couple of Meadow Pipits. Then a Weasel appeared. It ran across the field to the open muddy area and all the birds started to chase after it, mobbing it.

After the Weasel had been seen off, all the birds flew round and the Lapland Bunting circled over the open area again before heading out across the field. A second Lapland Bunting appeared from somewhere and followed it, the two of them then dropping down into the stubble out of view.

Our next destination was Kelling Water Meadow. As we walked up the lane, there were a few Blackbirds still in the hedges, arrivals from the continent for the winter stopping off here to refuel on the berries. Otherwise, there were just a few Chaffinches on the walk out until we got to where the thick hedges run out. Then a female Stonechat flew up from the grassy verge and landed in a hawthorn beside us.

StonechatStonechat – this female flew up from the verge beside us

There did not appear to be many birds on the pool here today. Three Teal were feeding at the back. One of the things we had hoped to see was the Spotted Redshank which has been lingering here for some months now, but all we could find was a single Common Redshank. A Curlew flew in calling and landed along the muddy edge, followed shortly after by a single Black-tailed Godwit.

The other species we wanted to see here was Jack Snipe, so we made our way round to the area they have been favouring. They are hard to see at the best of times – they sleep most of the day, hiding deep in the grass, beautifully camouflaged. The water level has increased here in recent days too, which also doesn’t help – it seems to have driven them into the thickest vegetation. When one of the group called out almost immediately to say he had found a bird with a long bill walking in the grass on the edge of the water, it seemed too good to be true. It was – a Common Snipe was feeding along the edge of the water. Still, nice to see.

We stood and scanned the grass for a couple of minutes. Then something caught the eye – the vaguest darker shape deep in the grass, and a golden yellow stripe at a different angle to the vegetation. Through the scope we could see it was indeed a Jack Snipe. It was asleep, but we could see its eye staring at us. It half woke at one point, and started to bob up and down a little, the distinctive action of a Jack Snipe.

Jack SnipeJack Snipe – hiding deep in the grass

After enjoying the Jack Snipe for a while, we set off back up the lane. About half way back, we heard Bullfinches calling and a smart pink male flew out of the hedge andup the track ahead of us. It landed in a small tree with some Chaffinches, before flying back towards us and landing in the back of the hedge. We could hear it calling plaintively and a second Bullfinch answering nearby. Then it disappeared round behind the hedge.

We wanted to try to get better views of the Black Brant so we headed back to Cley next. There were only twenty or so Brent Geese off the East Bank, where it had been reported after we had seen it earlier, but it was not with them now. So we headed round to Beach Road instead. There was a much bigger flock of Brent Geese on one of the grazing meadows by the road here and a couple of cars had stopped to look at them. We joined them and after a couple of seconds the Black Brant appeared at the back of the flock.

Black BrantBlack Brant – feeding with the Brent Geese by Beach Road early afternoon

Through the scope, we got a really good look at the Black Brant. The white flank patch was really striking in the sunshine, very different to the more muted patches on the Dark-bellied Brents. When the Black Brant lifted its neck, we could also see its much bolder white collar, complete below the chin.

While we were watching the Black Brant, a small flock of Starlings flew over the reserve towards us, and across the road just beyond us. One of them was strikingly pale brown, but unfortunately it appeared to be just a leucistic Starling rather than anything rarer. Our timing was fortunate, because after a few minutes all the Brent Geese took off and disappeared much further out to the south side of Eye Field to join an even larger flock of Brents already there.

We continued on along Beach Road to the car park at the end and climbed up onto the shingle to have a quick look at the sea. A Grey Seal was swimming past just off the beach. A Red-throated Diver was on the sea rather distant and was diving constantly which made it harder to see. The wind had picked up a little and the sea was rather choppy too. Another Red-throated Diver flew past, along with a couple of distant Guillemots and a single adult Gannet. It was time for lunch, so we ate in the beach shelter out of the fresh breeze.

After lunch, we headed round to the East Bank. There were a few more Brent Geese feeding on the grazing marsh here now, along with several larger flocks of Wigeon. We could see more ducks out on the Serpentine, but as we walked up towards them to have a closer look we noticed a little group of waders feeding on the mud at the north end. One was noticeably smaller than the others, so we hurried straight up there and sure enough it was a Little Stint in with a group of Dunlin.

Little StintLittle Stint – with a larger Dunlin in front

It has been a good year for Little Stints here, with a maximum count of over 40 juveniles earlier in the autumn. However, Little Stint is predominantly a passage migrant here and numbers dwindled through October, as birds moved on towards their wintering grounds around the Mediterranean or to Africa. Winter Little Stints are not unprecedented in Norfolk but are unusual, so it will be interesting to see if this one stays here now. It was a juvenile moulting to 1st winter plumage, still with quite a few retained juvenile scapulars.

As well as the Dunlin and Little Stint, there were a few Black-tailed Godwits feeding down in the water here. There was a nice selection of ducks on the Serpentine too. As well as all the Wigeon and Teal, there were several Shoveler, a small party of Gadwall and a few Pintail, the drakes of which are now looking very smart. Further back, several Cormorants were drying their wings on one of the islands on Pope’s Pool.

A Curlew was feeding on the brackish pools behind the shelter overlooking Arnold’s Marsh, but it was nice to get in the shelter out of the breeze. There didn’t seem to be much out here at first, apart from a number of Common Redshanks, but looking carefully around the edges we found several more Dunlin and three Grey Plover. A Little Egret was fishing on the pool just in front, shaking one foot at a time in the mud out in front of it, trying to flush out some food.

Little EgretLittle Egret – feeding on the pool on the front edge of Arnold’s Marsh

With the evenings drawing in early now and a couple more things we wanted to do yet, we headed back to the car. It turned out that the Cattle Egrets had moved and were in a different field today, which is why we hadn’t found them earlier. This was more than a little unusual – one of them has been coming to the same field just about daily since mid September!

However, we didn’t have any trouble finding the Cattle Egrets now we knew where they were hiding today. We parked outside the pub in Stiffkey and they were out in the field opposite, with the cows. We had a great view of them feeding around the cows hooves, picking at the grass.

Cattle EgretCattle Egret – one of the two still at Stiffkey, but in a different field today!

Our final destination for the day was at Warham Greens. As we walked up the track, we flushed several Blackbirds from the hedge. Then a small group of six Redwings flew out ahead of us too and circled round calling, before landing in the top of the hedge along the edge of one of the fields. A Common Buzzard was surveying the scene from the top of the roof of the old barn and as we walked past several Stock Doves flew out too.

From the end of the track, we stopped and scanned out across the saltmarsh. There were plenty of Little Egrets and Redshanks out in the grass, plus a few Golden Plover and Brent Geese. A Barn Owl flew through the hedge beside us and disappeared away along the edge of the saltmarsh, before landing in the bushes in the Pit.

A large flock of Fieldfares appeared over the hedge, and flew down to the Pit, landing in the tops of all the bushes and it the hedges either side. A little later, more Fieldfares appeared from over the hedge the other side of us, accompanied by a small group of Redwings. It was hard to tell, but perhaps all these thrushes had only just arrived from Scandinavia for the winter and were stopping to feed up here.

It didn’t take long to spot our first Hen Harrier, a cracking grey male which flew across the saltmarsh in front of us. It dropped down into the bushes and almost immediately we picked up a ringtail Hen Harrier which flew up and started quartering the saltmarsh further back. We saw at least 4 possibly 5 Hen Harriers this evening. Another two ringtails appeared together away in front of East Hills. Then a grey male, possibly the same as earlier having sneaked out unseen or possibly a different bird, flew in from the left. It is a real treat to see so many of them.

The light started to go, as a band of dark cloud arrived from the west. We had enjoyed lovely weather all day, which was very welcome, and thankfully only now did it start to spit lightly with rain. We decided to call it a night.

Pink-footed GeesePink-footed Geese – lines and lines of them flew out to roost at dusk

As we walked back up the track, there were several Grey Partridge calling from the fields. We could hear Pink-footed Geese too and looked up to see lines and lines of them in the sky, flying towards us. They were heading out to roost on the flats beyond the saltmarsh and it was really evocative as they flew over our heads. A great way to end the day.

17th Nov 2017 – Early Winter Birding, Day 1

Day 1 of a three day long weekend of Early Winter Tours today. The flipside of waking up to a cold, crisp and frosty morning was that we enjoyed blue skies and sunshine during the day, great weather to be out birding.

Our destination for the day was NE Norfolk. On our way east along the coast road this morning, we passed through Stiffkey. The cows are still out on the wet meadow just to the east of the village and we managed to pull up and scan the grass from the car. We were looking towards the morning sun, low in the sky, but still it didn’t take long to spot a Cattle Egret in with the cattle, a nice way to start the day. There are two here at the moment, and they have been lingering here for some time now, but it is always worth a stop to look at them.

As a couple of cars appeared down the road behind us, we had to move on. We managed to see some other things on our journey though. As we passed through Cley, a big group of Curlew flew across the road in front of us and landed in the winter wheat on the other side where they started feeding. We could see several skeins of Pink-footed Geese making their way inland as we headed towards Sheringham.

Passing Cromer, we decided to have a quick look through the gulls down by the pier. There has been a Caspian Gull or two here in recent weeks, though they can be a bit erratic in their appearances. As we got down onto the Prom, we could see a group of gulls loafing on the rocks away to the west. They were rather distant, but looking through them with the scope, we couldn’t see anything unusual with them.

Out to sea, a small crab boat was tending to its pots and a large mob of gulls was following behind. We had a quick look through those too, but all we could see were Herring Gulls and Great Black-backed Gulls. A couple of Red-throated Divers flew east offshore and a Cormorant flew past heading west.

There are normally a few gulls on the beach by the pier but someone was walking his dog there today and just a handful of Herring Gulls were just offshore, waiting for him to leave. There was no sign of the Caspian Gull which is often here. The crab boat had finished its work and moved on, but we could still see lots of gulls on the sea further out. Another careful scan through and this time we managed to find a juvenile Glaucous Gull in with them. Great – one of the birds we had hoped to see this weekend. One had been reported flying off west from Sidestrand earlier, so this was possibly the same bird.

The gulls were just loafing on the sea now, with the prospect of food having departed with the crab boat, and the Glaucous Gull started to have a quick bathe. The sea looked fairly calm but there was still enough swell for the gulls to disappear in the waves. Still, we managed to get it in the scope and get a good look at it. We could see it was a rather uniform dark biscuit colour with paler wing tips. Even at that distance, we could see the distinctive black-tipped pink-based bill as it caught the morning sun.

TurnstoneTurnstone – several were around the picnic tables on the pier

We were right by the pier so we figured we would get a slightly closer view of the gulls from out on the end. Unfortunately, by the time we got out there the gulls had mostly dispersed and there was no further sign of the Glaucous Gull. However, we did get a good look at several Turnstones which were looking for scraps around the picnic tables outside the cafe on the pier.

It was then a rather slow drive along the winding coast road to Happisburgh. We parked in the car park by the lighthouse and set off down the coast path along the top of the cliffs. The winter wheat field here has been home to a group of Shorelarks in recent weeks and we were hoping to see them. But as we walked beside it, there were few birds present beyond a scattering of Black-headed Gulls. A couple of Gannets flew past offshore.

As we got towards the south end of the field, we met a couple of birders coming back the other way who told us that four Shorelarks had earlier been down on the beach but had flown up and out across the field. We stopped and had a good scan, but there was still no sign of them, so we continued on to the end. We could see a muck spreader haring up and down the next field inland and it put up a large group of Skylarks ahead of it. While we were scanning over in that direction, we heard Shorelarks calling and someone shouted to say they had dropped back down on the beach.

From the top of the cliffs, we could see two Shorelarks now picking their way along the high tide line. We got them in the scope and had a good look at them, their bright yellow faces glowing in the morning sunshine. They worked their way along, picking at the dead vegetation left behind by the sea, before turning round and coming back towards us. Even better, they then decided to run across the sand towards us, looking for food at the base of the cliffs, right below us. Great views!

ShorelarkShorelark – one of two feeding on the beach below us

A Meadow Pipit flew in to join the two Shorelarks but it was quickly spooked by a dogwalker out on the beach and flew off, taking the Shorelarks with it. They were quickly replaced with a small flock of eleven Snow Buntings which flew in and landed on the tide line, where the Shorelarks had earlier been feeding. We got the Snow Buntings in the scope and watched them as they picked their way along the vegetation, before flying off back up the beach.

The Snow Buntings have been feeding on some seedy weeds at the base of the cliffs, so on our way back we had a look for them – carefully, not getting too close to the edge as the cliffs here are rather unstable! The Snow Buntings we had just seen had joined up with another group and we found them just where we had expected. There were at least 25 now, and we had a great look at them feeding just below us. There was a noticeable mix of paler and darker birds, a mixture of two races from Scandinavia and Iceland respectively.

Snow BuntingSnow Bunting – one of about twenty five on the beach today

Having successfully caught up with the two species we had hoped to see here, we made our way back across country to Felbrigg Hall. We had lunch at one of the rather rustic picnic tables in the car park. The trees here can hold a nice variety of woodland birds at times but it was rather quiet here today.

After lunch, we set off to walk up to the Hall. A couple of Goldcrests flew across the road in front of us and disappeared into a holly tree. As we passed by a small pond we could hear Long-tailed Tits calling and looked across to see them feeding in the brambles by the water. There were Great Tits, Coal Tit and another Goldcrest in the trees too.

This autumn saw a massive arrival of Hawfinches, coming to the UK from the continent. Where exactly they have come from and why is still not entirely clear, but some of them have taken up temporary residence in suitable areas across the country, including a small number in Felbrigg Park. They have been rather mobile, but have been seen most often in the trees by the Orangery, which is where we found a small expectant crowd waiting for them.

Thankfully we didn’t have to wait too long before a Hawfinch flew in. It went back and forth a couple of times over the wood, flashing its bold white wing flashes, before landing in the top of one of the trees. We got it in the scope and could see its huge nutcracker of a bill. A second Hawfinch flew in and joined it, before the two of them dropped down out of view, possibly to feed on the berries in a yew tree.

HawfinchHawfinch – two flew in and landed in the trees by the Orangery

There were a few other birds around the house too. A Mistle Thrush flew out of one of the yews and away across the grass. A couple of Siskins flew over our heads calling, as did two Chaffinches. A Pied Wagtail was catching insects around the chimneys on the roof of the house.

We had been lucky that we did not have to wait too long to see the Hawfinches, so we decided to make the most of our time and move on to have a look down at the lake. We hadn’t gone more than about fifty metres when another Hawfinch flew in and landed in the trees in front of us. We just had time to get it in the scope before it flew off again. A Jay was hiding in the trees by the gate but flew off as we approached.

As we walked down past the wet meadows above the lake, a tight group of Teal wheeled round several times before eventually landing down on the water. There was a family of Mute Swans and a few Greylag Geese down on here too. We had a careful look to see if we could find a Common Snipe in the grass by the water but we couldn’t see one at first. Only when we had carried on down towards the lake did one of the group look back and spot a Common Snipe feeding surreptitiously in the grass.

There were more ducks out on the lake – lots of Mallard and Gadwall, a few Wigeon and three Tufted Ducks. We could hear Siskin calling and looked across to see a group fly up out of the alders on the other side of the reeds and disappear back over the trees. It is a nice walk around the lake here, but with the evenings drawing in quickly these days we decided to move on and make the most of the afternoon.

On our way back west, we stopped in Sheringham and walked down to the Prom. Our main target was Purple Sandpiper – there are usually a few which spend the winter on the sea defences here. However, as we got down to the edge of the beach and scanned the sea, we spotted a pale gull flying around the sea defences a short distance to the west. It was an Iceland Gull, a juvenile. It disappeared behind one of the shelters on the Prom, so we set off in pursuit.

When we got round to the other side of the shelter we could see the Iceland Gull now having landed on the rocks a bit further along with a few Herring Gulls. We stopped and had a quick look at it through binoculars. It was noticeably paler than the Herring Gulls, a pale biscuit colour with paler wingtips, like the Glaucous Gull we had seen earlier. However, it was a much daintier bird, not bigger than the Herring Gulls, quite long-winged in appearance and with a mostly dark bill. We had been very lucky to see both Glaucous Gull and Iceland Gull today!

Iceland GullIceland Gull – flushed by people on the sea defences as we approached

We hurried on round the prom to where the Iceland Gull was on the rocks below, but as we came round the corner we saw a couple carrying their toddler down the steps right by the rocks. As they proceeded to jump up and down in front of the sea, standing on the steps, the Iceland Gull decided it had seen enough and took off. The Herring Gulls simply flew along a little further and landed on the beach, but the Iceland Gull continued on west until we lost it from view.

Our journey along the Prom to here wasn’t entirely in vain though. As we looked down onto the rocks right below where we were standing, a Purple Sandpiper climbed out! It proceeded to walk around on the faces of the large boulders, picking at the seaweed occasionally, giving us a great up close look at it. Then with the couple with the toddler having moved on, the Purple Sandpiper flew out onto the rocks with the Turnstones, where the Iceland Gull had just been.

Purple SandpiperPurple Sandpiper – feeding on the sea defences at Sheringham

Having found our main target species here, we returned to the car and continued on our way west. A large flock of Pink-footed Geese were loafing in a winter wheat field by the coast road. We managed to pull up and have a look at them from the car, but there was nowhere convenient to stop. A few miles on, we saw more skeins of Pink-footed Geese flying in and we watched from a layby as they dropped down into a recently harvested sugar beet field to feed.

Pink-footed GeesePink-footed Geese – dropping into a recently harvested sugar beet field

The light was starting to go now, but we thought we would try our luck with a quick diversion down the Beach Road at Cley, to see if we could find the Black Brant which has been feeding here. There was no sign of any Brent Geese in the fields at first, but then we spotted a group flying over the Eye Field and they landed down in the grass. They were quickly joined by another couple of small groups and it felt like we might be in luck, with the geese perhaps having a last feed before heading off to roost.

We climbed up onto the West Bank for a better look. Unfortunately, there was no sign of the Black Brant with them. There were several hundred geese now but this was only part of the flock of Dark-bellied Brent Geese which has been feeding here. No more geese flew in to join them – presumably the rest had already gone off to roost.

Brent GeeseDark-bellied Brent Geese – part of the flock, feeding along Beach Road

Still, we spent an enjoyable 20 minutes or so here, enjoying the comings and goings at the end of the day. There were lots of Wigeon feeding out on the grass. Further back, we spotted a pair of Pintail on one of the pools and a single drake Shoveler with some Teal on another. A small group of Golden Plover flew up and whirled around repeatedly over the Eye Field calling plaintively. Several Redshanks called noisily from the saltmarsh the other side of the bank. A couple of Water Rails squealed from the reeds.

The Marsh Harriers were gathering to roost now. We could already see at least five out over the main reedbed, flying round or perched in the bushes in the reeds. While we stood on the West Bank, another two Marsh Harriers flew in from Blakeney Freshes, past us and out towards the reserve. Then a Barn Owl appeared, over the bank the other side of the Glaven channel. It flew up and down a couple of times before dropping down into the grass out of view.

When the Brent Geese decided it was finally time to stop feeding and head off to roost, taking off and flying right over our heads with a whoosh of wingbeats, we decided it was time to call it a day too.

5th Mar 2017 – Winter & Brecks, Day 3

Day 3 of a three day Winter & Brecks Tour, aiming to catch up with some of our wintering birds in North Norfolk, as well as the specialities of early spring in the Brecks, our final day. The weather forecast was not great again, with a band of heavy rain expected to move in quickly this morning and last for several hours, but as we have seen repeatedly over the last couple of days, it would be very foolish to rely on the forecast!

Having missed the Pallid Harrier over the last couple of days, the news that it was back early this morning was too tempting to miss. A quick visit by this correspondent on the way to collect the group confirmed where it was and soon we were all back watching this great bird.

img_1298Pallid Harrier – we finally caught up with the juvenile at New Holkham

It was nice and sunny first thing this morning in North Norfolk and excellent light. The Pallid Harrier was hunting over a more distant wheat field at first, flying low over the ground or down the hedge lines looking for food, trying to flush small birds or find small mammals. It was very narrow winged compared to the other harriers we had seen over the weekend, with a pointed ‘hand’, and an agile flight action.

Gradually the Pallid Harrier worked its way back towards us, at times disappearing behind a ridge. When it worked its way back along a hedge at one point, a Merlin appeared with it. The Merlin perched up on the hedge while the Pallid Harrier flew over the verge beside. The Merlin was probably looking for small birds flushed by the harrier, which it could chase after itself.

Finally the Pallid Harrier came in over a stubble field, just across from us. As it banked and turned, the morning sun caught on its underparts, which glowed orange, typical of a juvenile. Its upperparts were contrastingly dark brown, with a white square at the base of the tail and a pale creamy patch across the coverts. Through the scope, it was possible to see the Pallid Harrier‘s diagnostic pale collar and dark ‘boa’, the brown patches on the side of the neck behind the collar.

It flew back and forth over the stubble field for a while, allowing us all to get a great look at it, then the Pallid Harrier flew across to one side, had a quick stoop at an unsuspecting female Pheasant, and disappeared across the road. Wow!

It had been well worth the stop. Although we were intending to head back down to the Brecks this morning, this was just about on our way. As we finally got underway again and headed south, it started to rain. It was a bit earlier than expected, so it was good that we had been able to make the most of the early sunshine.

Our first stop in the Brecks was at Santon Downham. When we got out of the cars, yes it was raining, but it wasn’t exactly raining hard. The conditions were a long way from ideal, but we decided to give it a go and have a walk along the river. Our real target here was going to be Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, but that was going to be a real challenge to find now. As we walked along, a couple of Green Woodpeckers laughed at us from the trees. It didn’t sound like they thought much of our prospects! A sharp ‘kik’ call alerted us to the presence of a Great Spotted Woodpecker and we looked up to see it flying through the tops and landing high in a bare tree.

There were other birds along here too. A Crossbill flew over calling and landed in the top of a tall poplar. Through binoculars we could see that it was a red male and it then started singing, a jumbled mixture of call notes and quiet wheezes and trills, not much to write home about as birdsong goes but interesting to hear. A couple of Marsh Tits called from further back in the undergrowth. A Nuthatch was piping from somewhere in the trees too.

When we got to the Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers‘ favourite trees, all was quiet. We stood listening for a few minutes, and while we were standing there we turned to look across at the alders the other side. There was a lot of activity in the trees. A pair of Treecreepers were chasing each other round and round between the trunks. A couple of Siskins were swinging in the branches. There were several tits there too and a Nuthatch.

One of the group caught sight of a woodpecker and as we turned to look, a Great Spotted Woodpecker flicked across onto a tree. Then a much smaller bird appeared on the trunk of the tree behind. Rather than the bold white shoulder patches of the Great Spotted Woodpecker, it was densely barred with white on its black back and wings. It was a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker!

img_1302Lesser Spotted Woodpecker – barred with white on its back and wings

It was a female Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, lacking the red crown of the male. It was hard to get onto at first, as it kept flitting between trees, climbing up the trunks and sometimes disappearing round the back or behind other trees. With a bit of perseverance, we managed to get it in the scope and everyone had a great look at it. What an unexpected result!

When it disappeared deeper into the trees, we decided not to push our luck and headed back the way we had come. We stopped to look at a large flock of Siskins in the alders and found at least one Lesser Redpoll in with them. There were a few Bramblings in the trees too and a large flock of Redwings flew up from the meadows as we passed.

It stopped raining as we walked back, which was a most welcome surprise! It seemed like the band of rain had passed over much more quickly than expected and without raining as hard. It was still grey and damp though. We had a quick look up around the churchyard to see if we could find any Firecrests, but that was pushing our luck too far.

Before lunch, we had a quick drive over to Thetford, to the delights of a recycling centre on an industrial estate – there is nothing if not a variety in our choice of venues! This has been a very good spot for gulls in recent weeks. A Sunday is never the best day to look for them here, as the recycling centre is closed, although they often loaf around on the roofs anyway. Perhaps because of the earlier rain, there were very few today, just a few Lesser Black-backed and Herring Gulls, so we didn’t stop long.

Lakenheath Fen was our destination for the afternoon. We ate our lunch in the visitor centre, looking out at the feeders. A steady stream of birds came in and out – mainly Reed Buntings, Goldfinches and tits. One of the volunteers kindly drew our attention to a Water Rail which was lurking in the cut reeds below the balcony, before it scuttled back into cover.

6o0a9043Reed Bunting – a variety came in to feed by the visitor centre

It had started to brighten up from the west over lunch, so we set off to explore the reserve. It was still cool and damp as we walked down the path to New Fen. A Marsh Harrier was quartering over the reeds – it was a young bird and was carrying green wings tags on its wings. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts with scopes, we were unable to read the code, however it had most likely been ringed here.

There were several ducks on the water in front of the viewpoint, mainly Gadwall plus a few Mallard and Teal. Gadwall are one of the most under-rated of ducks, the male’s apparently grey plumage actually being a variety of different patterns – barring, scalloping, streaking – so we had a good look at one through the scope. A Common Snipe flew up and landed back down on the edge of the reeds briefly before scuttling back into cover. A Cetti’s Warbler sang half-heartedly from deep in the reeds.

img_1316Gadwall – the most under-rated of ducks

We pressed on west. There was no sign of any Common Cranes from Joist Fen viewpoint. A Cormorant was on a post, drying its wings. Several Marsh Harriers were quartering over the reeds. A Common Buzzard was standing on a fence post at the edge of the paddocks. There were still some dark clouds coming in on the brisk wind, so we waited while they passed over, even though it did nothing more than spit with rain for a few seconds. Once they were gone, we headed up to the river bank.

Scanning the fields north of the river, we spotted a pair of Common Cranes some way over. We got them in the scope, and we could see they were two adults, with well-marked black and white heads and a red patch on the top. We presumed they were one of the two regular breeding pairs from the reserve.

img_1324Common Crane – one of the breeding pairs, in a field north of the river

While we were watching this pair, we could hear more Cranes bugling further over, which prompted the ones we were observing to respond. Then a second pair of Cranes flew in and landed right next to the first. This second pair started to display, duetting with their heads pointing skywards.This was all slightly perplexing, as it would be odd for the other resident pair to trespass in the other’s territory.

The original pair then took off and it looked like they would land again a couple of fields over, but instead they flushed a fifth Crane which took off too. Now we knew already from one of the wardens that one of the resident Crane pairs had just today been trying to kick their juvenile born last year out of their territory. In the last few days it had still been accompanying the two adults everywhere, but it had been seen on its own earlier. It quickly became clear that this was the juvenile we were seeing take off, chased by its parents.

These three Cranes flew off over the reserve and disappeared over the trees way to the south, and they were soon followed by the other pair. However, after a few seconds they came back and the three landed down in the edge of the reedbed. Through the scope, we could see it was the pair and the juvenile. Then the other pair flew over and they took off again.

All five Cranes flew up and landed on the river bank. At this stage, we were still assuming that we were watching the two resident pairs with the one remaining juvenile from 2016. However, while they were standing on the bank, another pair of Cranes walked up to join them, duetting as they did so. We could now see seven Cranes standing on the bank together, in a line!

img_1351Common Crane – seven birds in a line, on the river bank

The juvenile Crane was still with what we believed were its parents at this stage, but they were clearly not happy with it. The next thing we knew they started to chase after it. The poor juvenile scrambled down along the bank and back up the other side of the other two pairs of adults, where it was out of reach. It was all action  – it was like watching a Crane soap opera!

It was rather hard to keep track of them for a while. Different Cranes were bickering, two flew off down to the edge of the river beyond, but it seemed we were missing one of the adults and the juvenile. The next thing we knew, three Cranes took off again – one of the pairs and the juvenile. We wondered whether the juvenile was being chased at first, but by the end it was not clear whether it was just trying to follow its parents. The three flew round over the reserve, turned back to the river, and then came straight over and past us along the river. Stunning! They disappeared off east, beyond the poplars and were lost to view.

6o0a9122Common Cranes – two adults, followed by a juvenile

While we were watching the Cranes flying right past us, one of the group spotted a Great White Egret flying away along the river. All very confusing, we didn’t know where to look! After the Cranes had disappeared, we walked along the river to see if we could find it. A Little Egret flew off ahead of us and disappeared behind a bush. As we walked past, two egrets took off from behind it and we could see they were very different sizes. The Great White Egret dwarfed the Little Egret.

6o0a9143Great White Egret and Little Egret – one big, one much smaller

The two egrets landed out of view in a channel in the wet meadows north of the river. But almost immediately, a male Marsh Harrier flew right over, flushing all the ducks and the egrets. We got a good look at the Great White Egret as it flew slowly away.

There were some more dark clouds approaching, so we made our way back to Joist Fen Viewpoint and sheltered as a brief shower passed over. Then we walked back across the reserve, with the dark clouds moving away ahead of us, the low sun lighting up the trees in front, and a double rainbow across the sky. Quite a view!

It had been a great way to end the day, and draw a very exciting weekend to a close, watching all the action with the Cranes. We made our way back to Mundord where part of the group left to head off south, while the rest of us continued on to North Norfolk.

POSTSCRIPT – as we drove through Swaffham, we could see an enormous flock of Starlings already starting to gather – we had thought we might be heading back too early to catch them, now the nights are drawing out. We couldn’t resist stopping.

The number of Starlings here still seems to be growing – there were at least 20,000 the last time we came but it looked to be much more than that now. The sky was black with birds. They were mostly flying round in a loose flock at first, a vast cloud covering the sky, rather than making tight shapes. But it was mesmerising standing underneath them, even if we were in danger of being spattered! The flock was composed of different layers, circling in different directions, it was enough to make you feel dizzy. We just stood and watched in awe.

img_1367Starlings – a huge cloud over Swaffham

Gradually, as it started to get dark, the groups started to coalesce. The point before they actually go into roost is when the Starlings are at their most nervous. Now we started to see them making some shapes, swirling around. Finally, they started to drop into the trees. It was like someone had turned on a vacuum cleaner – the flocks circled lower and suddenly a stream of birds would drop like a stone and dive headlong into the bushes. It is amazing they don’t crash into each other.

The swirling flocks were remarkably quiet, apart from the hum from the beating of thousands wings, but once they get into the roost trees the Starlings start to chatter and their was a remarkable cacophony building as the sky emptied. Now it really was time to head for home.

3rd Mar 2017 – Winter & Brecks, Day 1

Day 1 of a three day Winter & Brecks Tour, aiming to catch up with some of our wintering birds in North Norfolk, as well as the specialities of early spring in the Brecks. The weather forecast was dreadful for today, heavy rain pretty much all day, but while it did drizzle for most of the day, it was generally light and nowhere near as bad as we had been led to expect. Yet another ‘fail’ for the MetOffice, but a welcome one!

Our first stop of the day was at Holkham. As we drove up Lady Anne’s Drive, a pair of Grey Partridges were in one of the fields next to the road. A little further over, there was a good number of Pink-footed Geese too. Many of the Pinkfeet have left on their journey north already, but there are still a few left here. We pulled up and had a quick look at them from the car.

6o0a8610Pink-footed Geese – still a few at Holkham today

Once we had parked, we got out and scanned the fields at the north end of the Drive. There were lots of Wigeon out on the grass, plus a few Teal and Shoveler on the pools. Several Oystercatchers were piping noisily, and we could see a few Redshanks around the wetter bits. A Common Buzzard perched up on a bush.

A pair of Egyptian Geese started hissing and honking and, as we walked through the pines, another pair answered them from up in the trees. There were a few small birds on the north edge of the pines. We could hear a Goldcrest singing and saw a couple flitting around in the low bushes. A Treecreeper was singing from deeper in the trees.

As we walked along to the east end of the saltmarsh, there was a large gang of Shelduck out in the low vegetation. A Sparrowhawk circled up out of the trees. Several waders were feeding on the pools, mostly Redshank, but in with them we found a group of 10 Ringed Plover and a lone Dunlin. A Stonechat was busy feeding on the edge of the dunes. There were plenty of Skylarks but no sign of any Shorelarks in their favoured spot today. The Shorelarks had been reported further west at one point yesterday, so we decided to walk that way and try our luck.

Coming out through the dunes, we stopped to scan the sea. A single female Common Scoter was quite close inshore, but we could see a much larger raft, 80-100 strong, some way further out. In amongst the gulls on the beach, we could see several silvery white Sanderling running in and out between them. There were also more Ringed Plover on the beach and a little group of Turnstone flew past and landed on the tideline ahead of us.

There was still no sign of the Shorelarks where they had been yesterday, but we continued our way west. We were aiming for Joe Jordan Hide next, so we figured we could cut directly through the pines further along. It was a good move. As we came round a corner and could see the the high tideline stretching away in front of us, we spotted a flock of small birds some way ahead. Through the scope, we could see they were the Shorelarks.

img_1135Shorelarks – some of the 32 on the beach at Holkham today

At first we could only see 14 Shorelarks but then we noticed another 18 further along. Gradually the two groups caught up with each other and merged. It was great to see all 32 Shorelarks together, a very good sized flock by the standards of recent years. We walked further up towards them, to where we could get a good look at them through the scope, admiring their bright yellow faces and black bandit masks.

After enjoying the Shorelarks for a while, we took the path up over the dunes and through the pines and emerged at the cross-tracks right by the Joe Jordan Hide. As we walked up to the steps, we could see several large white shapes on the pool out in front – Spoonbills. They were doing what Spoonbills seem to like doing most, namely sleeping! From up in the hide, we got them in the scope.

img_1149Spoonbills – these five spent most of the time asleep

There seemed initially to be only four Spoonbills, but on closer inspection there were two asleep in front of each other, meaning five birds in total, one more than there has been in recent days. Occasionally, one of them would wake up briefly, have a quick stretch or a preen, and then go back to sleep. We could see the bushy nuchal crest on a couple of them blowing in the breeze and when one of them woke up, we could see the yellow tip to its blackish bill, confirming it as an adult. A juvenile Spoonbill nearby, one of last year’s brood, had no crest and, when it woke briefly, a fleshy coloured bill.

There were fourteen Avocets on the pool too. Like the Spoonbills, they are starting to return now after the winter. In contrast, a couple of Ruff out on the wet grass with the Lapwing have probably been here all winter and should be heading off north to breed in a month or two.

The other thing which immediately struck us when we got into the hide was the number of geese. They were predominantly White-fronted Geese, probably at least 500, scattered in groups all over the grass. There were several right down in front of the hide today, which meant we got a great view of them, their white blaze around the base of the bill and the adult’s with their black belly bars.

6o0a8658White-fronted Goose – an adult, with black belly bars

We could hear the distinctive yelping calls of the White-fronted Geese as they bickered among themselves. We talked a little about different races of these geese and the fact that the birds here are Russian White-fronted Geese. They should be off back to Russia for the breeding season soon. Looking through the flock down below us, there was a single Pink-footed Goose in with them and three Greylag Geese nearby for comparison.

Despite the light drizzle which was falling, there was still a little bit of raptor activity. Several Marsh Harriers were flying and at one point one male even started displaying. We could hear it calling first and then saw it flying with distinctive flappy wingbeats and doing some half-hearted swooping up and down.

The one bird we hadn’t seen from the hide which we might have hoped to was a Great White Egret. However, we had only gone a short distance along the path on our way back when we spotted one on the edge of a reedy ditch not far away on the grazing marsh. We got it in the scope and admired its long, yellow bill. It stretched its neck up, so we could see just how tall it was.

6o0a8713Great White Egret – on the edge of the grazing marsh on the way back

Then the Great White Egret flew. As it took off, we could see from the effort required just how big it was. It flew off east and, as we got back to Washington Hide we saw what we presumed was the same bird dropping down away from us over the reeds. The next thing we knew another Great White Egret appeared from the ground below and the two of them flew off together, back in the direction from which we had just come.

Another couple of Goldcrests were feeding with some Long-tailed Tits in a bush beside the path. A quick look at Salts Hole on our way past added Tufted Duck, Coot and Little Grebe to the day’s list. Then we headed back to the car.

There has been a Pallid Harrier in the last few days, seen occasionally in the area behind Holkham and Wells. We were heading west to Titchwell for the afternoon, so we had a quick drive round via that way. It was always going to be like looking for a needle in a haystack, and it was still drizzling, so it was perhaps no surprise that we didn’t find it. We did see a Red Kite over the fields.

It was time for lunch when we got to Titchwell. While we were eating the rain picked up a bit – it was still not heavy, but just heavier drizzle than it had been. After lunch, we set off to explore the reserve. The feeders in front of the visitor centre were fairly quiet, but there was much more activity around the ones the other side. Mostly Chaffinches, Greenfinches and Goldfinches, but we soon found a couple of Bramblings too.

Unusually, there was no sign of the Water Rail in the ditch by the path today – perhaps it was hiding from the rain? The Thornham grazing marsh ‘pool’ was exposed to the elements and consequently also quiet. We had a quick look for the Bittern in the ditch across the reedbed, but that was empty too. Three Marsh Harriers circled up at the back of the reeds. The reedbed pool was a little more productive, but the two drake Red-crested Pochard flew off just as we arrived.

Given the rain, we made our way quickly round to Parrinder Hide from where we could have a good look at the Freshmarsh. It looked rather quiet here at first, with fewer gulls and Avocets than there have been in recent days. However, as we scanned across we found a few birds and a steady succession of different things dropped in.

There was a nice little flock of Dunlin feeding feverishly around the muddy islands, occasionally swirling round and landing again somewhere nearby. A couple of larger Knot appeared nearby briefly. A Bar-tailed Godwit dropped in for a quick bathe and preen too. Most of the Black-tailed Godwits were right over the far side, but two landed with the gulls in front of the hide so we could get a good look and see the differences between the two species.

img_1158Common Snipe – one flew in and proceeded to try to hide on one of the islands

A Common Snipe flew in and landed on the mud as we arrived at the hide. When we went to have a look at it, we found it had walked up onto the middle of one of the islands and was trying to hide in the cut vegetation on top. The other wader highlight was a single Spotted Redshank which was feeding along the edge of the reeds opposite the hide. Even from a distance, it was strikingly pale, silvery grey above and white below.

The smaller number of gulls here today consisted of just Black-headed Gulls plus a few Herring Gulls. But while we were watching the waders, we heard a loud ‘keeyu’ call and looked up to see a smart adult Mediterranean Gull flying in. It landed on the edge of the other gulls but attracted the attention of a particularly aggressive Avocet which decided to chase it off. The Mediterranean Gull flew a short distance away and the Avocet went after it, before the whole process repeated itself.

Eventually the Mediterranean Gull was able to settle briefly so we could get a look at it in the scope. It was a full summer adult, with a complete and jet black hood, a bright red bill, thicker than a Black-headed Gull‘s, and distinctive pure white wingtips. However, possibly as a result of the Avocet‘s earlier aggressive pursuit, the Mediterranean Gull didn’t stay long and soon flew off back west again.

6o0a8718Teal – a little group of drakes were displaying today

There were not so many ducks on here today. There are still a few Teal, though numbers appear to be dropping. A little group of drakes in front of the hide were busy chasing each other and displaying. There were also a few Gadwall and Shoveler and a little group of Wigeon over in the far corner. A pair of Red-crested Pochard dropped in briefly, over by the reeds.

As the rain had eased, we made our way across to the other side of the Parrinder Hide, to have a look at the Volunteer Marsh. There was a good selection of waders on here at first. Several Avocets were obviously preferring to feed here rather than the Freshmarsh, and were vigorously sweeping their bills back and forth over the mud in front of the hide.

6o0a8736Avocet – feeding on the Volunteer Marsh today

A smart Grey Plover was also feeding just in front of the hide. We watched it standing motionless, then stepping forward and picking at the ground, before taking another couple of quick steps and then standing still again. At one point it managed to find a large worm. There were also several Dunlin, a few Knot, a couple of Bar-tailed Godwits, plus assorted Redshank and Curlew. Then suddenly everything took off and all the waders flew towards the Freshmarsh. We scanned the sky, but couldn’t see what might have spooked them.

6o0a8732Grey Plover – feeding in front of Parrinder Hide

With most of the birds having flown, and the rain having eased back to a light and intermittent drizzle, we decided to make a bid for the beach. The Tidal Pools were unusually quiet today. It was just after low tide, so most of the waders were on the beach, but there were fewer ducks and no Pintail. A single Little Grebe swam across quickly and dived into cover beneath the path.

Out at the beach, the sea was still a long way out. We stood in the shelter of the dunes and scanned the water. As we arrived, we could see a large flock of ducks flying. They only went a short distance before landing again, but long enough for us to see the distinctive white wing flash on most of them – they were Velvet Scoters. There were probably around 100 still today, with just a few Common Scoter mixed in with them, and a few more Common Scoter nearby.

Otherwise, we could see several Red-breasted Merganser distantly, over in the mouth of Brancaster harbour channel. A few Great Crested Grebes were on the sea, as was a single Red-throated Diver, which we got in the scope.

The rain had stopped by the time we started to make our way back. The Pintail were out on the saltmarsh, which was why we hadn’t seen them on the Tidal Pools earlier. A pair flew in and over the bank towards the Freshmarsh, giving us a great view of the male’s long tail as they passed. Back at the Freshmarsh, a large flock of Brent Geese flew in from the east and landed on the water. A pair of Red-crested Pochard were preening on the edge of the reedbed pool.

6o0a8740Brent Geese – a large flock flew in to the Freshmarsh

There was still no sign of the Bittern in the reedbed channel, but there were two Kingfishers perched up in the reeds either side on the way past. Then it was back to the car.

We still had enough time to swing round via the back of Holkham and Wells on our way back. The Pallid Harrier had been reported again briefly at lunchtime. As we turned off the coast road, we spotted a harrier flying low along the edge of a field. Unfortunately, it was clearly too big and broad winged, and a quick look through binoculars confirmed it was a Hen Harrier. Still a great bird to see!

We found a few people looking for the Pallid Harrier, but they confirmed it had not been seen again, so we decided to call it a day and made our way back to Wells. It had been a good day and we hadn’t even got too wet!