Category Archives: Winter Tour

13th Mar 2019 – Waders in the Wind

A Private Tour today in North Norfolk, looking mainly at waders. It has been unusually windy for March in the last couple of weeks and it was another windy day today as ‘Storm Graham’ swept in from the Atlantic and across the country. The peak gust recorded on the coast was an impressive 62mph! We had discussed rearranging the day, but a decision was made to press ahead and we were glad we did. It was dry all day, with some brighter intervals, and we saw lots of waders despite the wind.

It was not meant to be a particularly big tide today, but with the strong wind we thought it might be a little higher than forecast. With high tide scheduled for just after 10am, we headed up to Snettisham first to see what  the waders were doing there. On our way, we saw a few birds of prey enjoying the breeze – several Red Kites and a couple of Common Buzzards.

As we made our way in past the first pits, there weren’t many ducks out on the water, apart from a few Mallard and a handful of Wigeon. A female Goldeneye was standing on a concrete block at the bottom of the bank preening. You don’t often see them out of the water, but it was very choppy today and the Goldeneye had probably found  a sheltered spot out of the wind.

Up on the seawall, the wind was whistling in across the open expanse of the Wash. It was immediately clear that the water was indeed a lot higher than might have been expected without the gales today. There was still some exposed mud further down, so we carried on down the track. On our way, we could see a few waders huddled down on the shore. The Oystercatchers were fairly easy to see, and a couple of Turnstones were picking around the tideline but the first Ringed Plover we found had tucked itself in behind a small mound of dried vegetation to try to get out of the wind and was very well camouflaged.

Ringed Plover 1

Ringed Plover – tucked up out of the wind roosting over high tide

A couple of flocks of Golden Plover shot past, twisting and turning in the wind, and we saw a few small groups of Knot and Sanderling flying back and forth over the water. We made our way down to Rotary Hide where we could get out of the wind and look out over the area of still exposed mud.

There were several flocks of Dunlin feeding around the small muddy pools just in front of the hide, which we had a look at through the scope. A Sanderling appeared with the Ringed Plovers around the base of the old jetty, but disappeared behind the pillars. Then four more Sanderlings dropped in with one of the groups of Dunlin. It was good to see the two of them side by side – the Sanderlings much paler, silvery grey above and white below, with a shorter, straighter bill.

Sanderling

Sanderling – three of the four which dropped in with the Dunlin

There were a few Redshank down at the front too, and one or two Grey Plover. Further back, we could see lots more waders in bigger flocks out around the edge of the water. There were a couple of large, black flocks of Oystercatcher and some little huddles of Knot and Bar-tailed Godwits nearby, with a much larger flock of Knot back in the distance.

Looking out at the pits the other side, we could see a large roost of Avocets on one of the islands down closer to Shore Hide, so we decided to brave the wind again and walk down there. It was certainly an impressive flock of Avocets all huddled on the end of the island, several hundred all packed tightly together. Over the last month, they have returned in numbers ahead of the breeding season.

Avocets

Avocet – several hundred were roosting on the pit

At one end of the Avocets were four browner Black-tailed Godwits – we could see their long, straight bills – and on the next island back was a large flock of roosting Redshank.

A pair of Pink-footed Geese were swimming between the islands. Most of the Pink-footed Geese which spent the middle of the winter here have left already, gone north on the start of their protracted journey back to Iceland for the breeding season, but a few linger on. Through the scope, we could see their dark heads and delicate bills with a restricted pink band, very different from the larger, paler Greylags nearby with their big orange carrot bills. There was a single Canada Goose with them.

Otherwise, there were a few Wigeon and a small group of Shoveler on the pit. A couple of Goldeneye were diving down at the far end, where a line of Cormorants were roosting on one of the islands. A Little Egret was huddled under the brambles on the bank and a Little Grebe surfaced just in front of the hide.

Moving on, we drove north and stopped at Hunstanton on our way round the coast. There were lots of gulls loafing around on the green as we parked, mostly Black-headed Gulls but with a single smart adult Common Gull in amongst them. There has been a Purple Sandpiper roosting and feeding on the groynes here, but as we walked down to the prom we could see the tide was still much higher than it should be, held up by the strong wind, and the waves were still crashing over the sea defences.

We walked up to the start of the cliffs and could see several small groups of Oystercatchers and Turnstones roosting on the rocks on the beach, but despite looking through them carefully we could not find the Purple Sandpiper. In spite of the weather, there were some people clambering over the rocks, which probably didn’t help. As we walked back to the van, there were three or four Turnstones on the seawall which as usual were very obliging.

Turnstone

Turnstone – on the seawall at Hunstanton

It was lunchtime by the time we got to Titchwell, so we stopped for something to eat and a welcome hot drink by the Visitor Centre. There were lots of birds coming and going from the feeders. After lunch, we had a quick look for the Water Rail in the ditch by the main path. We had thought it might be fairly sheltered down in the ditch, but the wind was whistling in through the trees and bushes and there was no sign of anything there.

A Muntjac was huddled down in the bushes behind the feeders on the far side of the Visitor Centre as we made our way round to Fen Trail and out to Patsy’s Reedbed. We had come out here mainly to see if we could find the Common Snipe which have been feeding in the cut reed out along the front edge. There were three of them there but they were well camouflaged, their golden yellow stripes matching the colour of the surrounding reed, and hidden in the vegetation at first. Eventually one came out into the open where we could get a clearer look at it.

Common Snipe

Common Snipe – one of three on Patsy’s Reedbed

One or two Marsh Harriers hung in the air over the reedbed and from time to time a Mediterranean Gull would fly over calling, flashing its pure white wing tips. A Cetti’s Warbler shouted at us from the reeds. There were a few ducks on the water – a pair each of Tufted Ducks and Common Pochard over at the back and a few Gadwall down at the front. We got the scope on one of the drake Gadwall for a closer look, stopping to admire its intricately patterned plumage. Not a boring grey duck after all!

We made our way back round via Meadow Trail to the main path. As we got out of the trees, it was not as windy as we had feared. There were not many ducks out on the reedbed pool, but a Little Grebe was diving in one of the smaller pools just by the main path. A line of Knot flew over the saltmarsh and seemed to go down towards the Freshmarsh, so we headed down to the shelter of Island Hide.

There are lots of Avocets back here now too and several of them were feeding in front of the hide. The water level on the Freshmarsh is still very high and they were up to their bellies in the water and occasionally had to resort to swimming! More of them were clustered around the small island over by the path to Parrinder Hide.

Avocet

Avocet – having to swim on the Freshmarsh

The Knot we had seen flying in across the saltmarsh were bathing and preening along the front edge of the small island too when we arrived. We got the scope on them for a better look – they were a little closer than the ones we had seen earlier out on the Wash. Otherwise, there weren’t many waders on here still.

Duck numbers of most species have dropped now, particularly Teal and Wigeon, but there were still a few on the Freshmarsh. There seemed to have been an increase in the number of Shoveler, with quite a few swimming around the island where all the waders were roosting. We had a closer look at those too and looked at the differences compared to the drake Shelduck which was in front of the hide. A large noisy flock of Brent Geese flew in from where they had been feeding on the field by the entrance track and landed on the water.

As we made our way round to Parrinder Hide, we had an even closer view of some of the Knot on the same island. Then as we walked down along the path to the hide, they started to fly over to the Volunteer Marsh low over the bank, with several right over our heads.

Knot

Knot – on the small island by the path to Parrinder Hide

It was nice and sheltered in Parrinder Hide. A Curlew out in the water in front of the hide was the first we had seen today. We had come here primarily to get a better look at the Mediterranean Gulls which are getting ready to nest on the fenced off Avocet Island, along with all the Black-headed Gulls. It was a good opportunity to compare the two – the Mediterranean Gulls now starting to sport their black hoods and the Black-headed Gulls ironically having brown ones!

Looking out over the Volunteer Marsh from the other side of Parrinder Hide, there were a few Common Redshanks in front of the hide and we could see all the Knot feeding in the vegetation in the middle. We got a Grey Plover in the scope for a closer look, still in its winter plumage, grey below. Another Curlew was sheltering behind a clump of vegetation back towards the main path.

We decided to make a quick dash out to the beach to see if any waders were feeding out on the mussel beds. A Black-tailed Godwit was walking along the channel on the Volunteer Marsh just below the main path but flew off as we approached. The diminutive Teal were more obliging and we stopped to admire a couple of drakes which looked absolutely stunning in the afternoon sunshine.

Teal

Teal – a drake, looking stunning in the afternoon sunshine

There were more waders feeding in the channel on the far side of the Volunteer Marsh and we got a look at one of the Black-tailed Godwits here in the scope. Then it was heads down and over the bank. There was nothing on the island on the non-Tidal Pools so we continued straight on to the beach.

Despite it being not far off low tide now, the mussel beds were still covered by the sea. There were some flocks of Oystercatchers roosting with the gulls along the beach towards Brancaster. Looking the other way, we could see more waders scattered along the sand towards Thornham Point, but they were all quite distant. Thankfully we managed to find a closer Bar-tailed Godwit just beyond the old bunker in front of us – the one species here we hadn’t yet managed to get a good look at. We could see its upturned bill and pale sandy upperparts streaked with dark.

After a quick walk back to the van, we heard a Bullfinch calling in the car park and looked across to see a smart pink male perched up in the white blackthorn blossom in the corner, before it flew back into the bushes.

We still had time for a couple more stops on our way back. First we drove round to Thornham Harbour. We could see a few Common Redshanks and Black-tailed Godwits in the channel as we arrived and as we walked over to one of the jetties we could see a paler wader in the water in the bottom, a Spotted Redshank in its silvery grey winter plumage, just what we were hoping to find here.

Spotted Redshank

Spotted Redshank – feeding in the channel at Thornham

Only a very small number of Spotted Redshanks stay here through the winter, with the vast majority heading further south, to the Mediterranean or on to Africa. We had a great view of this one as it walked up and down in the water, sweeping its long, needle-fine bill from side to side in the shallows.

At one point, the Spotted Redshank stopped next to two Common Redshanks which were feeding on the muddy bank behind. As well as being slightly bigger and longer billed, it was noticeably paler with a more obvious pale superciliun between the bill and eye. We had a quick scan of the rest of the harbour, but there was no immediate sign of the Twite here this afternoon and we didn’t have time to explore more widely now.

As we made our way back east, we stopped briefly in Brancaster Staithe. There were several waders around the harbour and we had some nice views of them from the shelter of the van. A very close Ringed Plover was feeding with a similar sized Dunlin right where we pulled up. Further back, there were several Oystercatchers and Turnstones picking around the piles of discarded mussels.

Ringed Plover 2

Ringed Plover – nice views in Brancaster Staithe

A Grey Plover was feeding down by the water’s edge and further back we could see a couple of Bar-tailed Godwits too. It was lovely late afternoon light now too, which showed them off to their best.

Grey Plover

Grey Plover – on the mud down by the water’s edge

Our final quick stop of the day was at Holkham. A white shape out on the grazing marshes drew our eye and we got the scope on a Spoonbill feeding in one of the deep pools. It spent most of the time with its head down, but when it moved from one pool to another we had a good view of its yellow-tipped spoon-shaped bill and bushy nuchal crest. Another Spoonbill was perched in the trees out in the middle, along with a well hidden Grey Heron and a lots of Cormorants.

There were a few geese out on the grazing marshes but our eye was drawn to five smaller geese down at the front, half hidden behind the trees. We got the scope on them and we could see they were Russian White-fronted Geese, lingering winter visitors here. We could see the white surround to the base of their bills and black belly bars.

White-fronted Geese

Russian White-fronted Geese – some are still lingering at Holkham

A Marsh Harrier was enjoying the breeze, flying up and down over the reeds in front of the grazing marshes, but that was not the bird we had come here primarily to see. Ironically, after spending all day looking for waders, we had still not seen a Lapwing! We found a couple around one of the closer pools on the grazing marsh and got one in the scope, an appropriate way to bring our wader-filled day to a close.

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3rd Mar 2019 – Brecks & Winter Birds, Day 3

Day 3 of a three day tour today, our last day. After two days down in the Brecks, we would spend the day up on the North Norfolk coast today, looking for some of our lingering winter visitors as well as one or two early spring arrivals. It was damp and drizzly for much of the day, but it didn’t stop us getting out and seeing lots of birds.

Our destination for the morning was Holkham. There were still quite a few Wigeon by Lady Anne’s Drive, but it looks like numbers are already starting to drop now as birds which have spent the winter here start heading back to Russia. The regular very pale Common Buzzard was perched on a bush out in the middle of the grazing marshes and six Marsh Harriers were hanging in the air over the reeds the other side.

We made our way straight through the pines and out onto the saltmarsh. A large flock of pipits circled over as we descended the boardwalk and we could hear both Meadow Pipits and Rock Pipits calling. Several of the Rock Pipits landed on the edge of the saltmarsh right by the path, where we could get a closer look at them. The Rock Pipits come here from Scandinavia for the winter. We could see some of them were moulting and getting slightly pink on the breast – they can begin to look increasingly like Water Pipits at this time of year, a pitfall for the unwary.

Rock Pipit

Scandinavian Rock Pipit – one of several out on the saltmarsh

As we walked on further east, we scanned the saltmarsh for any movement. We were almost at the cordon before we found the Shorelarks, well hidden in the taller vegetation. At first we could only see one or two when they moved, but as we got closer we could see there were at least 5-6. As we stood and watched them, more and more appeared, so that by the end we had counted a minimum of 12, but it was still hard to know exactly how many were really there.

Shorelarks

Shorelarks – still on the saltmarsh at Holkham

The Shorelarks are always one of the highlights of winter birding here on the coast, so we spent a bit of time watching them. They gradually worked their way closer to the path and we had a great look at them through the scope. Despite the grey weather, their yellow faces still really stood out when they lifted their heads. There were a few Linnets and Meadow Pipits feeding on the saltmarsh with them.

The latest forecast had been for it to be dry all morning, but at this point it started spitting with rain. It was only light, so we carried on out to the beach anyway. As we started scanning the sea, there didn’t look to be much out there today at first. There were a few Great Crested Grebes, and a lone female Common Scoter. Then one of group spotted diver quite close inshore – a Great Northern Diver. It was diving regularly and moving west steadily each time it resurfaced, but eventually we all got some good views of it between dives.

There were not many waders down on the beach today. Several Oystercatchers were standing along the shore, and two Sanderling were running in and out of the waves, at least until they were all flushed by someone walking a pack of dogs along the beach.

Making our way back to Lady Anne’s Drive, we decided to brave the drizzle and walked west along the path on the inland side of the pines. We hadn’t gone far before we heard a Chiffchaff calling in the trees. Along here, it is hard to tell whether this is a bird which has spent the winter here, or an early returning breeding bird. With the unseasonally warm weather at the end of February, Chiffchaffs have already returned very early in several places.

As we passed Salts Hole, we stopped for a quick look. A little group of Tufted Ducks was over on the edge of the reeds and one Little Grebe was still in the far corner. We could see a few geese out on the grazing meadows beyond and through the scope we could see there were several Pink-footed Geese with a pair of Greylags. Most of the Pink-footed Geese which spent the winter here have already left, on their way back north before they head back to Iceland for the breeding season, but a small number often linger here much later. There was a pair of Egyptian Geese out here too, and a Grey Heron.

A little further on, we stopped for another look out over the grazing marshes. We could see several Shelduck on the small pools out in the middle, and there were two drake Pintail in with them too, although for much of the time we could only see their elongated tail feathers sticking up as they upended. A Cetti’s Warbler sang from the reeds over in front of Washington Hide.

With the drizzle picking up a bit, we made our way quickly on to Joe Jordan Hide, to get out of the rain. It was quite busy in the hide (clearly lots of other people had the same idea to shelter in here!), but eventually we managed to sit down. A Great White Egret was feeding out on the grazing marshes off to the right of the hide.

Great White Egret

Great White Egret – out on the grazing marshes from Joe Jordan Hide

The first Spoonbills have already started to return to the breeding colony and we quickly located two out on the marshes, but they were way off in the distance and hard to see in the mist, heads down feeding in a ditch. Thankfully a bit later on one appeared much closer, and we had a better view of it in the scope. We could see its spoon-shaped bill when it lifted its head.

Spoonbill

Spoonbill – one of the first returning birds

A Marsh Harrier was perched in a bush out along one of the ditch lines and there were lots of Cormorants in the trees behind the old fort. Down on the pools we could see four Avocets feeding in the shallows and several Shoveler and Teal scattered around.

The pines had been fairly quiet on the way out but as we started to walk back we came across a mixed flock of tits. We had passed some swarms of gnats gathered over the path in the damp conditions earlier and now we watched as a couple of Long-tailed Tits flew out from a large bush on the verge and hovered right out over the middle of the path, trying to catch some of the gnats. They hovered for second or two before flying back into the bush but then came out to try again. Really interesting to watch, and not behaviour you see often. A Goldcrest was flitting around in the bush too.

We stopped for lunch in The Lookout café, out of the rain. After lunch, as we made our way back to the van, we could see lots of gulls swarming over the grazing marsh, and landing down on the grass. We heard the distinctive call of a Mediterranean Gull and looking through the flock could see at least four in with the Black-headed Gulls.

Our next stop was at Holme. We were hoping to see some birds on the sea here so we walked straight out to the beach, where we were sheltered from the wind by the pines. There were lots of Red-breasted Mergansers on the water and scanning through we could see a dark duck in with them. It was a Velvet Scoter. You could just make out a pale spot on its cheek, but it was not until it flew round that you could see the diagnostic white in its wings. A small group of dark-winged Common Scoter flew past just afterwards.

Otherwise, the sea here was fairly quiet, with just a few Great Crested Grebes and a single Guillemot offshore. A couple of small groups of Brent Geese flew past and more unusually we picked up a flock of six Pink-footed Geese coming in off the sea. They should really be going the other way now!

Walking through the dunes to Gore Point, it was windier out of the lee of the Firs, although at least the rain had eased off now. The tide was coming in and there were a few waders roosting on the beach, at first several small groups of Oystercatchers. Further along, out on the point, we got the scopes on a flock of Bar-tailed Godwits. There were several smaller grey Knot in with them, as well as a couple of Grey Plover and a single Dunlin. A lone Turnstone was feeding on the shoreline a bit further along.

Oystercatchers

Oystercatchers – there were a few waders roosting on the beach at Holme

The sea was noticeably more choppy on the far side of the point. Scanning the sea from the shelter of the dunes, we could see a distant group of Eiders out on the water. A closer Red-throated Diver was diving constantly but a single Great Northern Diver was a long way out too. A Gannet and a Fulmar flew past.

We had wanted to see the Long-tailed Ducks off here, but they proved rather hard to find and harder still to see. We eventually found a few in with a larger group of Red-breasted Mergansers, but they were quite distant and diving constantly. Out in the choppier water, when they did surface they looked not unlike the froth on the wave crests and they kept disappearing into the troughs.

It was already getting late now, but we drove back along the coast to Titchwell to finish the day. We wanted to at least walk out to Parrinder Hide to get a proper look at the Mediterranean Gulls, but it took some time to find a Water Rail first. We eventually found one when it walked back into the bottom of the ditch from the vegetation in the bank beyond. We got a good look at it then, as it walked along through the water.

Water Rail

Water Rail – eventually showed itself in the ditch

The rain may have eased but the wind had now picked up, and it was rather gusty this evening. The Marsh Harriers seemed to be enjoying it, with several up over the back of the reedbed as we walked out.

Three waders were on the pool out on Lavender Marsh. Two were the usual Common Redshanks, but as we glanced across the one asleep at the back looked rather pale. A quick look through the scope, confirmed it was slightly more silvery grey above, spotted with white, a touch lighter than the Common Redshank next to it. We could also just see tiny bit of pale supercilium, just visible where the bill was tucked into its back. It was a Spotted Redshank. They normally like to roost on the Tidal Pools, but it was perhaps a bit more sheltered on here this evening.

Spotted Redshank

Spotted Redshank – asleep on Lavender March with a Common Redshank

After we had all had a look at it through the scope, the Spotted Redshank woke up briefly and flashed its distinctive longer, needle-fine bill, just in case any of the group had any lingering doubts over its identity. A Grey Plover appeared from behind the vegetation at front.

The water level on the Freshmarsh is still fairly high – good for ducks, but not so good for waders. The Avocets which were on here were roosting on one of the only exposed small islands, by the corner of the path to Parrinder Hide.

Avocets

Avocets – roosting on one of the few exposed islands

As we headed straight down the path for the shelter of Parrinder Hide, we heard a Water Pipit call from the other side of the bank. When we got into the hide, we looked back along the edge of the water but there was no sign of it that way. A quick look out the other side of the hide and we found it feeding on the shore. We had a good look at it through the scope.

Having seen the closely related Rock Pipits this morning, it was interesting to contrast them with the Water Pipit this evening. The Water Pipit was noticeably whiter below, cleaner with more defined black streaks, with whiter wing bars and a whiter supercilium. It was also greyer above, not so oily olive-brown.

Water Pipit

Water Pipit – feeding along the water’s edge beyond the hide

The fenced off Avocet Island was chock full of gulls (perhaps it should be renamed ‘Gull Island’!). We had come to see Mediterranean Gulls and there were lots here, in with Black-headed Gulls. Several appeared to be paired up already and were even still displaying. It was a good opportunity to compare the two species – the Mediterranean Gulls with a blacker, more extensive hood, heavier red bill and pure white wing tips.

Mediterranean Gull

Mediterranean Gull – there are lots back now in with the Black-headed Gulls

There were more gulls coming in to roost, bobbing around on the open water in the middle. As well as all the smaller gulls, we could see several Herring Gulls, Lesser Black-backed Gulls and a few Great Black-backed Gulls. We had a look at a few adults of each of the three species and talked about the main differences between them. (we decided to leave the more confusing immatures to a later lesson!).

The Marsh Harriers were gathering over the reedbed beyond to roost. More were flying in all the time – one came in over the Volunteer Marsh and straight over Avocet Island, sending all the gulls up into the air. The Marsh Harriers seemed to be playing in the wind this evening and we counted a minimum of twenty all in the air at the same time.

With all the excitement over the gulls, we had not noticed the time and it was already getting late. Unfortunately it was time to call it a day, and wrap up what had been three very successful day’s birding, despite the weather.

27th Feb 2019 – Has Spring Sprung?

A Private Tour today in North Norfolk. A glorious sunny day, unseasonably warm with temperatures up to 16C by the afternoon. With lots of birds singing now, it felt like spring had sprung! But it is not set to last, so we had a good day out trying to make the most of it.

There have been lots of birds on the sea in NW Norfolk in the last few days – divers, grebes, seaduck – so we decided to start the day up there to try to see some of them. On our way west along the coast road, we stopped to admire a Barn Owl which was dozing on a post, warming itself in the early sunshine.

Barn Owl

Barn Owl – enjoying the morning sun on a post by the road

The Barn Owl stared at us for a while, seemingly unhappy at being rudely awoken from its slumbers, then flew back across the field and landed on another post on the other side.

Our first scheduled stop of the morning was at Titchwell. As we walked down the path towards the Visitor Centre, a Chiffchaff was singing from somewhere deep in the sallows. They have started singing early this year, lulled into thinking spring is here already with all the recent warm weather. We could hear our first Mediterranean Gulls of the day flying over too.

The feeders had been taken down for refilling, so there were no birds coming in, but there was lots of chattering from high in the trees around the Visitor Centre. We heard a redpoll singing and looked up to find a Lesser Redpoll perched in the very top of one of the trees. There were quite a few redpolls here this morning and several Siskins too. They were very mobile, flying around in the trees. When a little group of redpolls came down into the bushes lower down, we picked up one or two Mealy Redpolls too.

There have been small numbers of finches on the move in the last week or so, birds starting to head back north after spending the winter further south. We would hear small numbers of Siskin in particular moving through the day.

Stopping to scan the Thornham grazing meadow, a distant Common Buzzard was down in the grass in the middle and another was even further off on a bush at the back. Looking down into the ditch below the path, a Water Rail was picking around in the leaves in the bottom. We stopped to watch it, and a second Water Rail ran across the path a bit further up, which we could then see down in the water in the bottom as we walked on.

Water Rail

Water Rail – one of two in the ditch this morning

A couple of Cetti’s Warblers were calling from the edges of the reedbed, but despite one being very close to the path typically it kept well hidden. A male Reed Bunting was more obliging, perched in one of the small bushes. Through the scope we could see that its black head was still partly obscured by brown fringing which it still gradually wearing of.

Several Marsh Harriers were up beyond the bank at the back, over Brancaster marsh. Then another Marsh Harrier appeared closer to us, up from the reedbed. It was a male and as it flew across we could see it was carrying a couple of pieces of reed in its talons. It dropped down again into the reeds, presumably busy building up a nesting platform.

The old pool on Thornham grazing marsh is now getting overgrown and hard to see anything, but a quick look across as we passed revealed a Redshank down on the pool at the front and a smaller birds picking round the edge nearby. It was a Water Pipit. We had a good look at it through the scope, before it worked its way further back into the vegetation and disappeared.

Water Pipit

Water Pipit – a nice surprise on the old pool on Thornham GM

The Water Pipit in recent days has mostly been seen feeding on the cut reed by the reedbed pool on the other side of the path, but they can be very difficult to see out here. There was one out here too, this morning. But it wasn’t until the first Water Pipit flew over from the Thornham side that we could see it. It flew across and chased off the new arrival, which returned across the path. What was possibly a third Water Pipit then flew up from the back and disappeared back over the reeds.

Several Common Snipe were also well hidden, roosting in the cut reeds. There were a few ducks out at the back of the reedbed pool – Common Pochard and Tufted Ducks. A Little Grebe was hiding behind the reeds on one of the small pools just below the path. A few Wigeon were feeding out on the saltmarsh behind us.

The Water Level on the Freshmarsh is still very high, although it has started to go down a touch and there was a little more mud exposed around the tallest of the islands. The Avocets were still roosting in the deeper water, with a good number now back here. On the small island by the junction with the path to Parrinder Hide, we could just see a small group of Knot busy bathing and preening on the mud at the back. A lone Golden Plover was standing with the Lapwings on the drier mud in the middle.

Avocets

Avocets – more are back now, roosting out on the Freshmarsh

Some people returning from the beach told us there were a couple of Black-throated Divers offshore, so we decided to head straight out there. We had a quick look at the Volunteer Marsh on our way past. It looked pretty empty at first, apart from a few Redshanks, until a flock of Knot appeared from out of the vegetation and whirled round before flying back out towards the beach. There were more waders along the channel at the far end, more Redshanks, several Curlews, one or two Black-tailed Godwits and a little group of six Dunlin.

With the tide coming in, more waders were roosting on the non-tidal ‘Tidal Pools’. The water level has dropped here a little in the warm weather and there is a bit more space for them on here at the moment. There were several more little groups of Knot, with a few Bar-tailed Godwits and Grey Plover standing with them. A few diminutive Dunlin were running round the mud next to them.

By the time we got out to the beach, the Black-throated Divers had drifted east towards Scolt and further out. It was also very hazy offshore, but we managed to get one of the divers in the scope and get a good look at it – we could see the distinctive white flank patch. Several Great Crested Grebes and a single Razorbill were closer in, but everything else was rather distant. There were a few Red-breasted Mergansers and Goldeneye and three Eider flew past in the distance.

High tide was not until midday today, so we decided to make our way slowly back and head round to Holme to see if there was any more to see on the sea there. We called in at Parrinder Hide to admire the Mediterranean Gulls. Numbers are growing steadily now and it will be interesting to see how many pairs breed in 2019, after the big increase in pairs last year. We could see several pairs displaying in with the more numerous Black-headed Gulls on the fenced off Avocet Island, and we got a couple in the scope to look at the differences between the two species.

Mediterranean Gulls

Mediterranean Gulls – displaying on Avocet Island in with the Black-headed Gulls

There were a few ducks still on the Freshmarsh. A good number of Teal were sleeping along the edge of the bank either side of the hide. Several pairs of Gadwall were roosting on the smaller islands along with a few Shoveler.

As we came out of the hide, we could hear a Marsh Harrier calling high above. We could just see it way up in the blue sky. It was flapping steadily and calling at first, but as it got back over towards the reedbed it started to tumble and twist, skydancing. A couple of Common Buzzards appeared in the sky too, circling over the path before drifting off west, possibly birds on the move.

We cut across by Meadow Trail, where there was no sign of the Woodcock now, round to Patsy’s Reedbed. There were not so many ducks on here today – just a few Gadwall, Common Pochard and Tufted Duck. Several Common Snipe were hiding in the cut reeds along the edge. Two or three Marsh Harrier circled up over the reedbed, and one drifted closer over the back of the pool.

Marsh Harrier

Marsh Harrier – circled over the back of Patsy’s Reedbed

The highlight here though was the Bearded Tit. We could hear two birds pinging, one in the reeds in front of the right of the viewpoint and a second back on the edge of the reeds on the left of the pool. That second Bearded Tit worked its way closer along the edge of the pool and then perched up for a few seconds in full view – a smart male with powder blue-grey head black moustache. It zipped across the open water and disappeared into the reeds where the first bird had been calling, at which point both then went quiet.

Back to the Visitor Centre and after stopping to get a quick cup of tea, we headed round to Holme. It was lunchtime now, so we walked out to the beach with our food and scanned the sea while we ate. A Red Kite circled over the pines and drifted out over the beach, perhaps another raptor on the move taking advantage of the warm weather.

There were more birds on the sea off The Firs, but it was very hazy here too. The highlight was a Red-necked Grebe, which at one point swam up to join a small group of Great Crested Grebes, giving us a great comparison. There were lots more Red-breasted Mergansers off here and several more Eiders too. We still hadn’t found the Long-tailed Ducks, so once we had finished eating we decided to walk up through the dunes to Gore Point to try our luck there.

Another Marsh Harrier was calling from high over the grazing marshes, and we looked across to see several geese out on the grass. They were mostly Greylags but there were a small number of Pink-footed Geese still here too, smaller, darker-headed and darker-billed. Most of the winter’s Pink-footed Geese have already departed on their way back north, but a few are still lingering along the coast. The Brent Geese stay here a little longer and there was a tight flock out on the grazing marshes and several smaller groups flying in and out from the beach.

Brent Geese

Brent Geese – flying past as we walked up to Gore Point

There were a lot more birds on the sea off Gore Point, and it didn’t take long to find the Long-tailed Ducks. They were diving regularly and hard to count, but eventually we got to a total of 21 together. The long tails of the drakes were hard to see when they were diving but when they stopped a couple of the drakes appeared to be displaying, swimming after a female with their tails cocked in the air.

There were even more Red-breasted Mergansers here – there seemed to be a very good number of them today, though they were too spread out to count easily. A distant Velvet Scoter appeared too briefly, but disappeared again when we took our eyes off it. A single Great Northern Diver was very distant, but a closer Slavonian Grebe then appeared. A Fulmar flew past low over the water. Non-avian interest included a Harbour Porpoise which rested at the surface for a few seconds before diving again.

Having walked up to Gore Point, we were a little later than planned leaving Holme which meant we could only enjoy a brief visit to Holkham on our way back east. There were lots of Wigeon still out on the grazing marshes by Lady Anne’s Drive as we parked, but not so many geese here now.

Out through the pines, we walked east on the edge of the saltmarsh. As we got closer to the cordon, we could see lots of pipits out in vegetation. A closer look revealed they were a mixture of Scandinavian Rock Pipits and Meadow Pipits. It was interesting to compare the two side by side, and also to compare and contrast the Rock Pipits with the closely related Water Pipit which we had seen earlier. There were a few Skylarks here too and one or two were singing in the sunshine.

There were a few people watching the Shorelarks already. They were quite a long way back in the taller vegetation before the cordon again, and a couple of people couldn’t resist the temptation to walk out onto the saltmarsh to get closer. We stood on the path and admired them through the scope. It was lovely afternoon light now and their bright yellow faces glowed in the sunshine when they lifted their heads.

Shorelark 1

Shorelarks – still out on the saltmarsh

The best strategy with the Shorelarks is to wait and let them come to you, and we could see they were gradually working their way towards the path further along. We walked up and watched them, busily picking around and creeping through the vegetation. We carried on a little further to see if the Dartford Warbler was still around, despite the fact it has not been reported here for a week or two. There was no sign of it and no sign of the Stonechat which has previously helped to tempt it out of the dense buckthorn, so we didn’t linger here.

Shorelark 2

Shorelarks – great views when they worked their way closer to the path

When we returned to the Shorelarks, they were very close to the path now and walking very slowly we were able to position ourselves without disturbing them. It was a great view of them from here. We tried to count them – there were at least 10 in the closer group, but there were still some further back on the saltmarsh which were mostly hidden. We still had one last thing we wanted to try to do today, so we eventually had to tear ourselves away

Continuing on along the coast, we parked and made our way down a track towards the saltmarsh. A male Marsh Harrier was still out hunting and crossed the track ahead of us. A few Chaffinches and tits flew in and out of the hedges ahead of us. We could hear a couple of Yellowhammers singing and had nice views of one of the males perched in the top of the hedge, bright yellow in the evening sun.

Yellowhammer

Yellowhammer – one of two males singing in the hedge

As we got down to the edge of the saltmarsh, a Barn Owl flew past across the grass in front of us. A nice start! A Peregrine was perched out on one of the sandbanks in the distance, but it was a long way off and little more than a blob in the misty haze even through the scope. A Marsh Harrier was quartering the back of the saltmarsh and a couple of late Common Buzzards circled over the edge of the field behind us calling.

Then a Hen Harrier appeared, a ringtail, flying in across the back of the saltmarsh. It was a long way off, but through the scope we could see the white square at the base of its tail. Shortly after, a second ringtail flew in a bit closer. It landed down in the vegetation for a few minutes and when it flew up again it came across and flushed the first Hen Harrier from where it was hiding. We saw the two of them several times over the next 15 minutes or so.

We really wanted to see a Merlin here, but they were a bit elusive this evening. Eventually the one other person down here with us spotted one, right at the back of the saltmarsh, perched on the top of a small bush. It was a long way off, but we could see what it was through the scope.

That was a great way to end, so with the light starting to go now we walked back up the track. There were loads of Brown Hares out in the fields here now. We stopped to listen to a couple of Grey Partridge calling from the next field over, which were then accompanied by a Red-legged Partridge calling too. Then it was time to head for home.

13th Feb 2019 – Winter Coast Hopping

A Private Tour today in North Norfolk. It was to be a relaxed day of birding and photography along the North Norfolk coast. The weather was kind to us – after a cloudy start, it brightened up late morning and was lovely and sunny in the afternoon. It was so warm, it almost felt like spring!

As we made our way east along the coast road, we spotted a Barn Owl hunting the verge ahead of us. There were trees either side beyond, so it turned and came back towards us, crossing the road right in front before disappearing over the hedge the other side. A pair of Grey Partridges flew across the road too.

Our first destination for the morning was Cley. As we parked at Walsey Hills and walked back to the East Bank, several small flocks of Brent Geese flew east and appeared to head inland.

The grazing marshes from the East Bank looked quiet at first, but on closer inspection we could see quite a few ducks. A flock of Wigeon were just in the process of walking back out from the Serpentine onto the grass to graze. We watched them all, walking in the same direction, heads down feeding. Small parties of Teal were flying round, landing on the pools. Several Gadwall were swimming on the Serpentine. Six Shelduck were on the island on Pope’s Pool then flew across to the grass. A Grey Heron was in the ditch at the back.

Wigeon

Wigeon – feeding on the grazing marshes from the East Bank

Three Marsh Harriers circled up over the reeds the other side. One of them landed in a bush, where we could get it in the scope. Another did a nice fly past, one of last year’s juveniles, dark chocolate brown with a pale head. From up by the main drain, we could hear Bearded Tits calling but despite scanning the edges of the reeds we couldn’t see them. They were presumably keeping well down in the reeds as usual.

Arnold’s Marsh had a good number of waders on it today, so we stopped in the shelter for a closer look. There were quite a few Dunlin scattered around the shallow water, and two Ringed Plover with them. A Grey Plover and two Turnstones were feeding on one of the gravel spits on one side. There were plenty of Redshanks and a few Curlews too. A Little Egret was walking around on the brackish pools just behind the shelter.

Over on the beach by sea pool, we could just make out a seal carcass on the shingle. The Glaucous Gull has been feeding on it recently but was not there today – we could see a  young Great Black-backed Gull there instead. From the other side of the shelter, we could see another seal carcass on the beach over towards North Scrape but we couldn’t see the Glaucous Gull at that one either. We spotted a couple of the locals coming back from the beach and they told us that the Glaucous Gull was currently on North Scrape so we decided to walk over there to try to see it.

Before we got to the screen where the hide used to be, we looked across to North Scrape and could see the Glaucous Gull standing in the water on the edge of one of the islands. We got the scope on it and watched it, busy preening. Presumably, after a messy morning feeding on one of the seals it had decided it needed a wash and a tidy up!

Looking out to the sea behind us, we spotted a small flock of Common Scoter flying past. They landed on the sea away to west in the distance. A couple of Red-throated Divers flew across too.

Continuing on to the screen overlooking North Scrape, we had a much closer view of the Glaucous Gull. It was a juvenile – pale biscuit coloured, with subtle slightly darker markings on the wings and back and very pale whitish wing tips. The heavy bill, perfect for tearing into seal carcasses, was pink with a clearly marked black tip. It has been here for over a month now and seems to be finding plenty of food.

Glaucous Gull

Glaucous Gull – on North Scrape this morning, busy preening

Otherwise, there were quite a few ducks on North Scrape. Most notably, there were at least 50 Pintail. We got two smart drakes, which had walked out onto one of the islands to preen, in the scope for a closer look. Out of the water, we could see their long pin-shaped tail feathers. Several Shoveler were asleep down towards the front and more Brent Geese flew in and landed out on the water.

There has been a flock of Snow Buntings along the beach here, so when we heard one calling we assumed there was a flock coming. Instead, there was just one Snow Bunting accompanying a flock of Goldfinches. The latter dropped down to feed out on the beach, while the Snow Bunting carried on.

As walked on west towards the beach car park at Cley, we found more Snow Buntings in the weedy vegetation at the top of the shingle. The Goldfinches joined them, but the latter were very jumpy and kept flying up, taking the Snow Buntings with them. Eventually, the Snow Buntings settled down to feed in the vegetation on their own and we could get a better look at them. There were a few Skylarks hiding in the grass here too.

Snow Bunting

Snow Bunting – a flock of about 20 was feeding in the vegetation on the beach

When we heard Pink-footed Geese calling, we looked across to see a huge flock dropping down onto Blakeney Freshes beyond the West Bank. The group stopped to try to photograph the Snow Buntings, and then walked on to the car park, where the van came round to pick them up.

From Cley, we drove back west. From the main road, we could see a flock of Brent Geese feeding in winter wheat east of Wells. There has been a Black Brant at times with the geese here, but there was nowhere to stop on this stretch. When we found somewhere to pull in and let the cars behind us pass, the geese were hidden from view in a dip in the field from here. There were a few more Brent Geese out on the saltmarsh in the middle of the harbour at Wells, but none on the old pitch and putt course today.

After a busy morning a break was called for now, so we stopped for an early lunch at the Victoria in Holkham. Then after lunch, we drove up to the top of Lady Anne’s Drive to park. The wardens were working out on the fields east of the Drive, so there wasn’t much out that side. There were lots of geese and Wigeon on the grazing marshes to the west though. Three Common Buzzards circled over, and all the ducks and Lapwing flushed and whirled round.

A small group of Pink-footed Geese were feeding close to the fence, so we stopped and got the scope on them for a closer look. A couple of Greylags were with them, giving us a nice comparison between the two species alongside each other. A few Brent Geese flew in and landed just the other side of the drive, but a Brown Hare which had probably been disturbed by the wardens ran across and flushed them before they could settle.

Pink-footed Geese_1

Pink-footed Geese – feeding on the grazing marshes by Lady Anne’s Drive

We made our way through the pines and out onto the saltmarsh, turning east along the path below the dunes. When we saw movement in the low vegetation we stopped for a look. There were lots of Rock Pipits, at least ten, feeding on the saltmarsh close to the path. We had really good views of them here, their underparts heavily blotched with dark and oily brown above, with a noticeable pale supercilium. These are Scandinavian Rock Pipits here for the winter. A flock of Linnets flew up from the back of the saltmarsh and whirled round.

Rock Pipit

Rock Pipit – there were lots feeding on the saltmarsh close to the path

A small group of people had been watching the Shorelarks but were leaving as we arrived. They pointed out where they were, and when we got there it didn’t take us long to relocate them. They were a bit too distant for photographs, but we had a great view through the scope of their yellow faces and black masks. We could only see five at first, so we scanned around for the rest, hoping we might find some closer to the path. Unfortunately, when we found them, they were even further back. Still, Shorelarks are great birds to see and we stopped to admire them for a bit.

The Dartford Warbler is still lingering in the dunes here, so we decided to go to look for that and see if the Shorelarks might come closer later. It didn’t take long to find the Stonechat here, perched up on a curl of bramble stem above the sea buckthorn. True to form, while we were admiring the Stonechat, the Dartford Warbler flew in. It landed right on the top of the bushes for a couple of seconds, before dropping down into cover.

We continued watching the Stonechat, and after a while we saw the Dartford Warbler come up again in the sea buckthorn nearby. It didn’t come right out again, but we could see it creeping around in the branches, feeding on buckthorn berries.

Stonechat

Stonechat – feeding in the dunes below the pines

The Snow Buntings were in the cordoned off area of saltmarsh, but they were hiding in the taller vegetation today. At one point they flew round, at least 40 of them in the flock today, flashing the white in their wings, but landed in cover again. Having enjoyed great views of the Snow Buntings at Cley earlier, we didn’t stop to see them here.

When two people walked right across the middle of the saltmarsh, not surprisingly they flushed the Shorelarks. We heard them calling and turned to see them flying round. We could now see how many there were, still around 25 in the flock, which is the number that have been here on and off for most of the winter.

Most of the Shorelarks flew further back across the saltmarsh and landed out in the really thick vegetation where they would be impossible to see from the path. But three had obviously been separated from the rest and flew round again. We watched one land by the path back towards the Gap, where we had stopped to watch the Rock Pipits earlier. So we walked back and found two Shorelarks now feeding with the pipits.

Shorelark

Shorelark – close views of two by the path on our walk back

Approaching slowly on the path, we were able to get quite close to the Shorelarks and they gradually worked their way closer still, so we were able to enjoy great views of them and finally get some better photos. Their yellow faces positively shone in the low afternoon sunlight.

Eventually, we had to tear ourselves away and walked back to Lady Anne’s Drive. As we  drove on west, we had a quick look in at Brancaster Staithe. It was low tide now and there were a few waders scattered around. A small group of Oystercatchers was roosting down on the edge of the water, a Grey Plover was picking around on the shore in front, and several Bar-tailed Godwits were feeding on the exposed sandbar beyond.

Titchwell was our final destination for the day. We had a walk round the trails to look for Woodcock first. As we passed the Visitor Centre, there were not many birds on the feeders this afternoon. There was no sign of the regular Woodcock on Fen Trail, but with some helpful directions we were able to quickly locate the one on Meadow Trail. It was very well hidden, below a tangle of branches in the sallows. It took a bit of time, but eventually we found an angle through the scope where we could see its eye staring back at us.

Walking quietly along the main path back towards the Visitor Centre, scanning carefully we found a Water Rail in the ditch. While we were watching it, a second one walked into view along the ditch nearby. One was noticeably bulkier than the other, presumably a male and female. They worked their way quite quickly back along the ditch, not exactly together but not far apart, and the smaller of the two came out slightly more into the open. Then we lost sight of them and they had obviously turned back and disappeared into cover.

Water Rail

Water Rail – feeding in the ditch by the main path

There were some Long-tailed Tits in the trees above the ditch and when they started alarm calling, we realised there must be a raptor about. We couldn’t initially see it where we were in the trees, but a Sparrowhawk flew out over the grazing meadow and we watched it land on a post in the distance.

Further out along the path, we could hear a Cetti’s Warbler calling in the vegetation right by the path, but it remained typically elusive. A few Marsh Harriers were already in, circling over the back of the reeds or perched in the bushes.

As we walked out to the Freshmarsh, the first thing we noticed were the Avocets, 23 of them today. This is the most we’ve seen this year, with only 2-3 in recent weeks, suggesting they are starting to return to the coast already for the summer. They were flushed by a Marsh Harrier and flew round, flashing black and white. There were lots of Lapwings too, which landed back in the fenced off island, along with a small group of Golden Plover.

Avocets

Avocets – there were 23 back at Titchwell today

There were a few gulls dropping in to bathe, but otherwise with the water level on the Freshmarsh high for the winter, there were just a few ducks and geese. Unfortunately the light was starting to go now, particularly in the lee of the bank, but we watched a little group of Teal displaying on the water below us.

Teal

Teal – we watched a small group displaying on the edge of the Freshmarsh

There were more Marsh Harriers coming in all the time, to join the increasing number gathered over the back of the reedbed. We turned to see a harrier flying straight towards us low over the saltmarsh behind and realised it was a Hen Harrier. It was quite close when it turned and flashed the white square at the base of its tail. It worked its way north over the saltmarsh close to the path, flushing lots of pipits from the vegetation. Some last minute hunting before heading into roost.

The Hen Harrier was a nice way to end, and it was getting late now, so we started to walk back. As we looked out over the reedbed one last time, we could see loads of Marsh Harriers up now all together. A quick count totalled thirty in view at once – quite a sight!

There was one last bird to add to the list. On our drive back, we noticed a small bird perched on the corner of a barn, silhouetted against the last of the light. A Little Owl, coming out just as we were finishing for the day.

10th Feb 2019 – (Some) Rain in N Norfolk

Day 3 of a three day long weekend of tours today, our last day. It was forecast to rain for much if not all of the day today. Fortunately, we had a rather drier start to the day and, even though it did rain for a few hours through the middle of the day, it dried out again for much of the afternoon. And the wind had thankfully dropped compared to yesterday. We spent the day up on the North Norfolk coast.

As we drove up towards the coast, we could see a large flock of Pink-footed Geese flying over, coming in from the roost and heading for a recently harvested sugar beet field, where they would spend the day feeding. We drove round to the field and watched them dropping down to join the few geese which were already there. There have been some other geese in with the Pink-footed Geese in recent days and we were keen to try to see them, so we set about scanning through the flock.

It didn’t take long to find the Barnacle Geese. With their pale grey and white bodies, black necks and white faces, they really stood out. We have an increasing number of feral Barnacle Geese turning up here and it is difficult to tell which are really wild these days, but birds which turn up with the Pink-footed Geese are perhaps more likely to have come from one of the Arctic island populations.

Barnacle Geese

Barnacle Geese – these two were in with the thousands of Pinkfeet

More Pink-footed Geese were arriving all the time. We could hear them calling away to the west as they approached, long before we could see them, and we watched as they circled down and landed in the field. We were looking for a couple of Tundra Bean Geese which have been with the geese here but despite scanning through several times we couldn’t find them. We weren’t sure whether they hadn’t arrived yet, or whether they had landed just over a low ridge in the middle of the field, out of view.

We did spot a male Bullfinch feeding in the brambles in the hedge behind the geese, which we could make out through the scope. Several Brown Hares were in the surrounding fields too.

There was still no sign of any Tundra Bean Geese from this end of the field, but we received a message to say one was on view at the other end. We drove a short distance further along the road and joined a couple of people who were scanning the flock from the hillside there. From here, we could see the geese on the other side of the ridge in the middle of the field. There, on the front edge of flock, was a goose with bright day-glo orange legs and bill band – a Tundra Bean Goose.

Tundra Bean Goose

Tundra Bean Goose – with the Pinkfeet

After a good look at the Tundra Bean Goose through the scope, with our mission here accomplished, we dropped down to the coast at Cley and parked at the beach. As we walked out along the shingle, we scanned the sea. A Great Crested Grebe and a Guillemot were diving just offshore and further out, we could see small numbers of Red-throated Divers, flying past or swimming on the calm water.

Crossing the grassy ridge, we flushed a number of Skylarks and Meadow Pipits from the weedy vegetation on the edge of the shingle. A flock of mainly Ringed Plover and a few Dunlin flew over calling. We could see several Pintail feeding on North Scrape.

From the other side of the ridge, we could see the juvenile Glaucous Gull down on the shingle. It has been here for over a month now, feeding on the carcasses of seals washed up in the winter storms, and was busy attacking its current favourite. We walked over for a closer look – as a young gull from the arctic, it has possibly not seen people before arriving here and is very approachable.

Glaucous Gull

Glaucous Gull – the juvenile feeding on a seal carcass on the beach at Cley

The Glaucous Gull was very pale, biscuit coloured, on closer inspection patterned with pale grey-brown on the back, much paler and lacking the darker spotting of a nearby young Great Black-backed Gull. We could also see the Glaucous Gull‘s distinctive pale wingtips and its large pink bill with a contrasting dipped-in-ink black tip.

There were dark clouds approaching from the west, and it started to spit with rain, so we turned and walked back. We had been lucky that it had been mostly dry so far this morning. As we drove west along the coast road, we drove into heavier rain. We had a quick look at Wells but there was no sign of any Brent Geese on the fields along Beach Road, so we headed on round to Holkham.

As we got out of the van at Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see lots of Greylags and a few Pink-footed Geese out on the grazing meadows. Groups of Wigeon were scattered liberally over the grass. There were several waders round the pools – mostly Redshank, and Lapwing, plus a few Curlew, a small group of Black-tailed Godwits and one or two Ruff. There were lots of Pied Wagtails feeding in the wet grass too.

With the rain falling steadily now, we stopped for a quick coffee break in ‘The Lookout’ café. There was no sign of it clearing, but it didn’t seem to be coming too hard, so we decided to make a bid for the beach. It had been quite calm on the beach at Cley just an hour back, but when we got to the other side of the pines, we found that the wind had picked up and was driving the rain across the saltmarsh.

There was a lot of standing water on the saltmarsh, which appeared to appeal to the Rock Pipits, as we found at least four feeding around the pools when we stopped to scan. As we got to the cordon, we could see the Snow Buntings feeding down on the sand at the far end, flying up and whirling round occasionally. We walked down for a closer look and the flock flew round and landed right in front of us.

Snow Buntings

Snow Buntings – feeding on the saltmarsh

With the saltmarsh so wet today, there was no sign of any Shorelarks. Despite having a thorough search of their favourite areas, we couldn’t find them today. We figured they might be out at the beach, but with everyone cold and wet now, we reluctantly decided to head back.

A flock of Brent Geese was feeding out on the saltmarsh as we turned to head back. Looking more closely, we could see that one was noticeably darker than the others, with a more striking pale flank patch and collar. It was the regular Black Brant hybrid which is often found here.

Black Brant hybrid

Black Brant hybrid – with the Brent Geese out on the saltmarsh

As we made our way back through the pines, two Goldcrests were feeding in the low bushes by the path. We decided to make use of ‘The Lookout’ for lunch, and to try to dry out a bit. A pair of Stonechats were flying around the small bushes out on the grazing marshes.

Finally, the sky looked to be brightening out to the west, so we decided to drive towards it. Before we left Holkham though, a quick scan of the grazing marshes produced a Great White Egret. Big and white, it really stood out, particularly when it flew across.

We took a detour round via Choseley. There was no sign of the reported Rough-legged Buzzard around the drying barns, but we could see several Common Buzzards perched on various hedges. A flock of Yellowhammers was feeding in the weedy edge of a sugar beet field, and with the rain now stopped a flock of Skylarks was flying round over a grassy meadow.

Dropping down to Thornham Harbour, the marshes here all looked rather quiet at first. Down in the harbour channel, a Little Egret was running up and down in the shallow water and a Curlew, a Common Redshank and a lone Black-tailed Godwit were feeding on the muddy bank. There was no sign of any Twite here.

Curlew

Curlew – feeding in the harbour channel at Thornham

We decided to try our luck out along the seawall. There were more waders further out in the harbour. A Spotted Redshank was preening on the edge of the water and a Greenshank was further out on the top of the muddy island. Several Grey Plovers were feeding on the mud.

It was rather fresh up on the seawall, still chilly in the breeze. Scanning from the corner, we spotted the Twite, much further along towards Holme, as they flew up briefly and landed back down on the edge of the saltmarsh.  We set off to walk along for a closer look, but before we could get there the Twite flew up again. They came straight towards us, and landed on the barbed wire fence just below the bank. We had a great view of them through scope – we could see their rusty-orange breasts and yellow bills.

Twite

Twite – three of the thirteen still at Thornham

There were some dog walkers coming the other way along the bank towards us and when the dogs ran along the bank past the Twite they took off again. They came straight over us, and headed back towards the Thornham Harbour. We walked back and found them feeding on the edge of the saltmarsh with a couple of Linnets.

We headed round to Titchwell to finish the afternoon. After having a look in the sightings book in the visitor centre, we were just leaving by the far door when we spotted a Barn Owl hunting over the Thornham grazing marsh beyond the trees. We hurried out to the main path and we were just watching the first Barn Owl hunting when we saw a second one fly across in front of us.

Barn Owl

Barn Owl – one of two at Titchwell this afternoon

When the Barn Owls finally disappeared out of view behind the trees, we turned our attention to the ditches below the path. After a quick walk up to the corner and back scanning, we found a Water Rail feeding quietly in the muddy water in the bottom, probing in the wet the leaves. This is a great place to get really good views of this normally secretive species.

Water Rail

Water Rail – feeding in the ditch below the main path

Round along Fen Trail, there was no sign of any Woodcock this afternoon, so we continued on to Patsy’ Reedbed. Three Marsh Harriers were circling over the reedbed in front, dropping down into the reeds then coming back up, occasionally swooping at each other and talon grappling at one point. There were more Marsh Harriers further back, over the bank on the Brancaster side, and we counted at least 15 in the air together at one point.

There were a few ducks out on the water, mainly Common Pochard and a pair of Gadwall. Several Teal were loafing in the cut reeds at the front and scanning carefully we found several Common Snipe asleep in there too.

We made our way back round to the main path via Meadow Trail. As we walked out towards the Freshmarsh, a Water Pipit flew up from the dried up pool on Thornham grazing marsh calling. It flew overhead, across the path and out across the reedbed. A Cetti’s Warbler called from somewhere down in the reeds.

The Freshmarsh is still very full of water, particularly so after the rain, and there was very little exposed island left. There were a few ducks scattered around, mainly Wigeon and Teal, and a flock of Lapwings on the bits of the fenced off Avocet Island which were still above water. A Barn Owl was hunting along the bank by Parrinder Hide, and then crossed over the main path and headed out over the saltmarsh.

We decided to continue on out to the beach. There were a few more waders on Volunteer Marsh. A Ringed Plover was down on the mud and we watched a Grey Plover wrestle with a long worm, finally pulling it out of its hole. There were more Curlews and Redshanks along the channel at the far side, and a closer Black-tailed Godwit.

The no longer tidal ‘Tidal Pools’ are very full of water at the moment too, with very few places for the waders to roost now. The three Avocets which are still clinging on here for the winter were looking rather lost, roosting up to their bellies in the water.

Avocet

Avocets – these three were still trying to roost on the flooded ‘Tidal Pools’

Out at the beach, there were lots of waders on the mussel beds when we arrived, but something spooked them and they all flew round and landed on the beach. There were lots of Knot, Dunlin and Bar-tailed Godwits, several more Grey Plovers and one or two Turnstones. A few Sanderling were running in and out ahead of the waves breaking along the shoreline. There was not much out on the sea this afternoon. We managed to find just a single distant Goldeneye and two Great Crested Grebes.

It was time to head back now. The weather had finally improved, a bit late in the day, and we were treated to a glorious sunset away to the west as we walked back along the main path.

Sunset Titchwell

Sunset – over Titchwell

9th Feb 2019 – Breezy in the Brecks

Day 2 of a three day long weekend of tours today. It was always going to be very windy again today, but it was supposed to be bright and sunny this morning, according to the forecast. Instead, it was cloudy and grey, not brightening up much until this afternoon, and the wind didn’t drop appreciably until the very end of the day. We spent the day today down in the Brecks.

There has been a Great Grey Shrike at Santon Downham recently, but it has been very erratic in its appearances. We thought we would try our luck and see if we could find it first thing, even though we were a little later than planned getting there this morning. As we walked in along the track, we heard the mournful song of a Woodlark and looked over to see it fluttering up from the ground over by the trees. It came right over our heads, and we could see its short tail and rounded wings, before it disappeared behind us.

Woodlark

Woodlark – flew over our heads singing first thing this morning

There was no sign of the Great Grey Shrike it is usual spot today – it was obviously going to be one of those days it spends elsewhere. We did see our first Marsh Tit of the day, down beside the river, its sneezing call alerting us to its arrival. A couple of Siskins flew over calling.

The surprise of the day was a ringtail Hen Harrier which flew down the valley over the trees, chased by two Carrion Crows. We were saw the crows first, and realised they were mobbing something. Rather than the expected Goshawk, it turned out to be a Hen Harrier, the first time we have ever seen one here. We watched it as it disappeared up and over the taller pines, much better views of the one we had seen distantly yesterday afternoon.

Hen Harrier

Hen Harrier – chased down the river valley by two Carrion Crows

Almost back to the road, and we could hear lots of finches twittering in the trees the other side of the river. We looked across to see several Bramblings in one of them just across from us. We got them in the scope and could see the brighter orange breast and shoulders, particularly on the male.

We could see more birds over in the gardens by the road that side, so we made our way round over the bridge. We stopped opposite the garden with all the feeders and watched for a while. A steady stream of tits came and went, and a Nuthatch popped in a couple of times. At first, there were just Chaffinches and Goldfinches, but then more Siskins started to arrive and a couple of Bramblings dropped in too. A Lesser Redpoll put in a brief appearance. And a Moorhen came in to pick around on the ground below too.

Siskin & Bramblings

Siskins & Bramblings – under the feeders with a Blackbird

As we walked back to the van, a couple of Bullfinches flew across the road and landed in the bushes nearby. It looked like it was starting to brighten up, so we decided to head over to look for Goshawks.

When we arrived at a good spot overlooking forest, we counted 15 Common Buzzards up in the air together and a Sparrowhawk with them. It seemed like a good sign, but the brighter interval hadn’t lasted and it had already clouded over again. Pretty quickly, the Buzzards dropped back down into the trees and it went rather quiet. It was very windy, and Goshawks like the wind, but it was rather cool and grey now which is less conducive to them putting on a good display.

Eventually, we spotted a very distant Goshawk – a good start. Then a closer one circled up and drifted across the road, but it quickly disappeared behind the trees. We could see all the Woodpigeons flush in the direction it had just headed.

Then a third Goshawk came up over the trees. It didn’t gain much height at first, and then dropped down again out of view, but when it reappeared it started trying to display. At first it was carried quickly downwind, then it turned into the wind and hung in air. We could see its white undertail coverts puffed out as it started to fly with exaggerated, deep wingbeats. It stayed up for some time too, so everyone could get a look at it through the scope.

Otherwise it was quiet here and with nowhere to shelter from the chilly wind, we retreated to the van and headed off to Thetford to look for a coffee. We swung round via the industrial estate first, to see if there were any gulls around the recycling centre, despite it being a Saturday. There were plenty of gulls, but before we could get there something spooked them and the majority flew off. A few eventually dropped back in on one of the other roofs, but there was nothing out of the ordinary with them – a few Black-headed Gulls, a handful of Herring Gulls and one or two Lesser Black-backed Gulls.

Gulls

Herring & Black-headed Gulls – we couldn’t find anything exciting with them today

The café on the industrial estate was closed, so we went across the road to try the retail park opposite. We had thought that Macdonalds might serve fast coffee as well as fast food, but it took ages to get served. We ended up spending longer getting coffee than we did looking through the gulls!

We headed back to St Helens for lunch. A couple of Mistle Thrushes were feeding on the grass in the meadows by the road. There were no Bramblings in the car park today, but a large flock did fly over while we were eating, disappeared over the pines the other side of the railway line.

Lynford was our destination for the afternoon. As we walked in along the track, we stopped to look at the feeders. The ground around the small pool under the trees was absolutely coated in Bramblings, at least 50 of them feeding in the leaves. An impressive sight!

Bramblings

Bramblings – at least 50 were on the ground by the feeders

Down at the bridge, someone had put food out on the pillars and several tits kept coming in to grab something to eat. We had great views of Marsh Tits here, down to just a few feet at times, plus Blue Tits, Great Tits, Coal Tits and Long-tailed Tits. We could hear Nuthatches calling in the trees nearby and several Siskins came down to drink below the bridge, perching in the trees in front of us before they did so.

Marsh Tit

Marsh Tit – coming to seed put out at the bridge

As we walked on along the edge of the paddocks, we could hear Hawfinches calling. Eventually one or two flew up into the tops of the hornbeams, where we could get them in the scope, but they were very mobile today and didn’t stay long. Possibly it was the blustery wind unsettling them today.

Four Hawfinches flew back and up into the tops of the pines beyond, where they joined some others which were already there. When they flew back down to the paddocks, there were at least seven now. Over the space of half an hour or so, we eventually all got quite good views of them.

Hawfinch

Hawfinch – there were at least 7 in the paddocks, but v mobile today

A flock of Redwings was feeding down on the ground under the trees in the paddocks too, and two Mistle Thrushes appeared on the grass as well.

Two raptors appeared over the trees. One was a Common Buzzard and the second was a similar size but a different shape. It was a Goshawk. We watched them circle up together, before the Goshawk drifted towards us, out above the paddocks, before it turned and flew slowly off south. This was a much better view than the ones we had seen this morning and a real bonus to get one here.

Goshawk

Goshawk – a nice bonus, much closer this afternoon

Having enjoyed good views of the Hawfinches, we decided to have a quick look around the lake. A pair of Gadwall and some Greylags and Canada Geese were all additions to the day’s list, but otherwise it was fairly quiet along here today.

There was not much more activity as we walked up through the arboretum. We did hear a couple of Goldcrests singing, and managed to see one flicking about on the edge of a tall fir tree. It did seem like the wind was still keeping everything down.

Past the car park, and we continued on up to the gravel pits. A Great Crested Grebe was out on the water in front of the hide and a couple of Cormorants were resting on the platform. There were lots of Tufted Ducks over towards the back, and we just spotted a pair of Goosander before they sailed out of view behind some trees. Not all the group had seen the Goosander, so we set off to walk further round to try a different angle.

On the way round, we had a quick look at the other pit. There were more Tufted Ducks on here and a single drake Goldeneye was with them. With a change of angle, we successfully got everyone on to the Goosander too. By the time we got back to the van, everyone was exhausted so we decided to head for home.

As we drove in to Swaffham, we could see a large gathering of Starlings circling overhead. We decided to stop and watch them for a while. Numbers are hopefully now growing, as they have done for the last couple of years, but there were already several thousand, in a number of different groups which kept merging and splitting apart. It was great to stand and watch the flocks twisting and turning. A nice way to end the day.

Starlings

Starlings – numbers are starting to build again

8th Feb 2019 – Breezy in the Broads

Day 1 of a three day long weekend of tours today. It was forecast to be wet and windy today. It was certainly windy, but thankfully we saw next to no rain until we had finished for the day and were on our way back. We spent the day today down in the Norfolk Broads.

Our first stop was at Barton Broad. It wasn’t too windy as we walked down along the road to the boardwalk, although the debris from yesterday was scattered on the road, leaves and small branches. It was quite sheltered on the boardwalk and when we got to the platform at the end, the first thing we saw was a pair of Great Crested Grebes displaying just in front.

Great Crested Grebes

Great Crested Grebe – this pair was displaying in front of the platform

The Great Crested Grebes were facing each other, turning their heads alternately side to side. They didn’t get much beyond that though, swimming off separately before coming back and doing some more head turning.

Beyond the grebes, we could see quite a few ducks out on the Broad. In particular, there was a good number of Goldeneye on here again. Further back, a large raft of diving ducks were mostly Tufted Ducks, although a single drake Common Pochard was with them. We had really come to see the two female Scaup, and it didn’t take too long to find them, the thick white surround to their bills being particularly striking.

A Marsh Harrier flew down the far side of the Broad, above the trees, then cut across over the water in front of us and hung in the air over the near side. With our mission accomplished we set off back along the boardwalk. There were more tits in the alders here now, with both Great Tit and Coal Tit singing and a small flock of Long-tailed Tits once we were almost back to the road.

As we walked back towards the car park, a flock of small birds came out of the hedge and circled round over the field beyond. As they dropped down again into the stubble, against the background of the trees, we could see they were Yellowhammers. The wind was starting to pick up now and a few Redwings had been feeding in the shelter of the car park, under the cars, and flew off as we returned.

The plan was to head for Ludham next, to see if we could find some Bewick’s and Whooper Swans. As we were driving along the main road just past Horning, we spotted a large group of swans in a harvested sugar beet field. This was well beyond the normal range where we have seen the Ludham herd, so we assumed these would most likely be just Mute Swans until we pulled up and noticed they were not.

Whooper Swans

Whooper & Bewick’s Swans – a nice surprise in a beet field by the road

We managed to find somewhere to pull in off the road and had a closer look. There was a mixture of Bewick’s Swans and Whooper Swans, about thirty of each. It was nice to be able to see the two species side by side, in the same scope view. The Bewick’s Swans were noticeably smaller and shorter necked, with a smaller and more squared-off patch of yellow on the bill, compared to the long wedge of the Whooper Swans.

Bewick's Swans

Bewick’s Swans – smaller and with more restricted and squared-off yellow on the bill

Having enjoyed such great views of the swans by the road, the pressure was off at Ludham now. Still, we drove down to the river to see if we could find any Cranes. A large flock of Woodpigeons and Stock Doves flew up from around the barns as we got out of the van.

It was very windy up on the river bank, and it started to spit with rain. A large flock of Lapwings and Golden Plover flew up across the other side of the Levels, but we couldn’t see what had spooked them. Three large shapes were flying across in the distance, which we could see were Common Cranes, our first of the day. They crossed the river and looked for a second like they might turn in our direction, but instead flew off away from us.

There were a handful of Mute Swans feeding on the grass here, but we could see a very large herd of swans way off beyond St Benet’s Abbey. They were mostly hidden behind a line of reeds, but we got the scope on them and they appeared to be mostly Bewick’s Swans. Since we had enjoyed such good views of them earlier, we decided not to walk further along the bank. We turned and headed back to the shelter of the van.

We did drive round to St Benet’s Abbey, to see what we could find there. As we came down along the entrance road, several more Bewick’s Swans flew over, but went down out of view.

There were lots of Greylag Geese on the grass here, but when we pulled up to check a flock by the side of the track, we could see there were Russian White-fronted Geese with them. We found somewhere to pull over and got out for a closer look. There were actually at least 55 White-fronted Geese here, many asleep down in the grass, but some feeding so we could see their distinctive black belly bars. There was one Barnacle Goose here too – as ever, it is hard to tell whether individuals of this species are feral birds or wandering wild individuals.

White-fronted Geese

Russian White-fronted Geese – about 55 were on St Benet’s Levels

From St Benet’s, we had a quick drive round via the coast, to see if we could find any Cranes and any more flocks of geese. There was no sign of any Cranes today, but it was rather windy and exposed out here now. There were rather few geese visible too. We saw a couple of small flocks of Pink-footed Geese but they dropped out of view behind some tress. Six more Pink-footed Geese were in a winter wheat field by the road, but no sign of any large flocks today. The herd of swans here were all Mute Swans.

As we made our way inland, we finally managed to spot some Cranes on the ground. There were 12 of them together, standing in some winter wheat, but they were rather distant, several fields over. Still, we got them in the scope and had a better look at them.

Common Crane 1

Common Crane – we spotted a flock of 12 distantly across the fields

Three of the Cranes took off and flew back further away from us, before landing again in another field. Gradually, the others followed in small groups until only two were left. When they flew too, we watched them go and realised that the group had all landed closer to a small road some way off. We figured we might be able to drive round for a closer look.

Little did we realise how right we were. The Cranes had landed in another field right next to the minor road. Edging along slowly, and stopping regularly to allow them to get comfortable with our presence, we eventually found ourselves right alongside them. The birds were very relaxed as we watched them from the van, continuing to feed. We could see now there were ten adults and two browner juveniles. We could see the red on the crowns of some of the adults, even without a scope. Stunning views, a real treat and a privilege to see them like this.

Common Crane 2

Common Cranes – we drove round and found them feeding right next to the road

Common Crane 3

Common Cranes – they were mainly adults with two duller brown juveniles

Common Crane 4

Common Crane – what you would call ‘showing well’!

We watched the Cranes, spellbound, for a while. Then we decided to leave them in peace and drove slowly away.

It was time for lunch now, so we headed round to the RSPB reserve at Strumpshaw Fen. Huge thanks have to go to the warden, Ben, and his staff. Someone had called in sick and they didn’t have enough people to staff the reception, so they had just closed it up for the afternoon. But they very kindly switched on the hot water urn just for us, so we could get an extremely welcome hot drink.

There were a few ducks on the Reception Hide pool, Gadwall, Shoveler and Mallard, but there was no sign of the resident Black Swan today. It was probably hiding somewhere out of the wind, which had increased steadily through the morning. There were plenty of Coot too and when they all suddenly raced across the water and onto the cut reeds at the front, we thought something might have spooked them, but we couldn’t see what it was.

Possibly also due to the wind, there were fewer tits than normal coming down to the feeders today too. A steady stream of Great Tits came in and out, but no sign of any Marsh Tits today.

After lunch, we headed round to Buckenham. As we crossed the railway line, we could see some geese on the right of the path. Looking closer, we found there were seven Russian White-fronted Geese in with the Greylags. There were lots of Pink-footed Geese on the other side of the path, tucked up in the far corner by the railway. Several small groups flew round and landed much closer to the path where we could finally get a good look at them.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese – flew in and landed closer to the path

The Wigeon were rather nervous today, possibly due to the wind. There are normally several small groups right by the path, but they were all out in the middle. There were plenty of Lapwing out on the marshes too, and scanning through them carefully we found a couple of Ruff in with them. We could see several Chinese Water Deer out on the marshes as well.

Chinese Water Deer

Chinese Water Deer – there were several on the marshes at Buckenham

It was rather exposed out here in the wind, so we made our way up to the hide by the river bank. We could see lots of ducks on here, mainly Teal, but also a few Shoveler and a couple of Shelduck. Something spooked all the Wigeon from the grazing marshes the other side of the track and they flew in, calling noisily. A quick count suggested at least 1,000 were here.

A single Lesser Black-backed Gull was loafing on the water on the further pool. We couldn’t see any other waders out here today though, and despite scanning the margins of the pools very carefully we couldn’t find any Snipe.

Wigeon

Wigeon – over 1,000 flew in from the grass and landed on the pools

It was grey and windy but miraculously still dry this afternoon. We wanted to have a look at the watchpoint at Stubb Mill while the weather held, so we headed round there next. As we walked down the track from the car park, several Marsh Harriers were already circling over the reeds.

We noticed another bird come up from the reeds. It seemed to struggle in the wind at first, almost appearing to be hovering, before it turned and started to fly across over the reedbed. It was a Bittern! Unfortunately, it was hard to see in the gloom, low over the reeds, before it disappeared behind some bushes.

When we arrived at the watchpoint, the small huddle of hardy people already there pointed out three Cranes at the back of the marsh. We had a look at them through the scope – another family party, two adults and a juvenile.

A small flock of Fieldfares flew over and landed first out on the grass in front of the watchpoint, then in one of the small hawthorns. A group of Long-tailed Tits worked their way through the bushes in front of us too. A Red Deer appeared out on the grass, followed shortly after by a second. They spent most of the time sheltering behind a large patch of brambles, out of the wind.

More Marsh Harriers drifted in and we could see a few already in the bushes over by the old ruined mill. When they flew up and circled round in a group, we counted at least 25 in the air together. A Hen Harrier appeared with them, a ringtail. It kept low, flying in and out of the bushes, but it reappeared several times while we were there, so in the end everyone had a chance to get a look at it through the scope.

Having had some unbeatable views of the Cranes earlier, and with the rather cold and windy weather, we didn’t fancy staying until dark tonight to see more Cranes come in to roost. An advance party went to get the van, while the others waited a the Watchpoint to be picked up. A Tawny Owl hooted from the trees by the mill. Time to head for home.