Category Archives: Winter Tour

8th Mar 2020 – Winter, Brecks & Goshawks, Day 3

Day 3 of our three day Winter, Brecks & Goshawks tour, our last day today. It was a rather blustery morning, with the winds dropping in the afternoon, and mostly dry and bright – we managed mostly to dodge the showers. We spent the day up on the North Norfolk coast.

Holkham was our destination for the morning. As we drove up along Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see lots of ducks out on the floods on the grazing marsh, mainly Wigeon, with a scattering of Shoveler, Teal and one or two Gadwall. We parked at the north end and as we walked up towards the pines, we stopped to admire a smart pair of Grey Partridge feeding very quietly right by the fence behind the parking attendants’ hut.

Grey Partridge

Grey Partridge – this pair was feeding by Lady Anne’s Drive

There was a blustery wind blowing, so we elected to go round to the hides first, rather than out onto the beach. As we walked west along the track on the inland side of the pines, there were a few tits calling in the trees. We stopped briefly at Salts Hole, where four Little Grebes were diving out on the water. A pair of Mistle Thrushes were out on the grass beyond.

Diverting up onto the boardwalk by Washington Hide, we spotted a Great White Egret out on the grazing marshes. Its large size was immediately apparent and through the scope we could see its long yellow bill. Way off in the distance, we could just make out a few White-fronted Geese over by the road, behind the hedge, but we hoped to see some closer from the next hide.

A Chiffchaff was calling in the bushes by the track the other side of Meals House – it would be nice to think it might be an early spring migrant, but it was just as likely an overwintering bird here.

The first thing we saw when we got into Joe Jordan Hide was the lone Spoonbill asleep down on the pool below the wood, bright white in the morning sunshine. It did wake up at one point and flash its spoon-shaped bill, revealing that it was an immature bird – it also lacked the shaggy crest of the breeding adults. It then hopped into the shelter of the rushes on the edge of the pool. It was the only one we saw here today, the others possibly hiding from the wind in the trees.

Spoonbill

Spoonbill – asleep on the pool from Joe Jordan Hide

There were two more Great White Egrets out on the grazing marshes from here, feeding together out in a particularly thick clump of rushes. It was amazing that such a large white bird could completely disappear in the vegetation at times.

There was no sign of the large flock of wintering White-fronted Geese on the old fort today. Most of the Greylags were sleeping out on the marshes and scanning carefully through we did manage to find six White-fronted Geese in with them. They didn’t hang around though, for no apparent reason waking up and flying off, presumably to find the rest of the flock.

Before everyone got too comfortable, we decided to move on. As we walked out earlier, a runner had mentioned there had been a Short-eared Owl out on the beach, so we thought we would check in case it was hunting along the north side of the pines. When we got out into the dunes, there was no sign of the owl, but we did find three Stonechats flitting around in the bushes, the single male singing quietly, and several song-flighting Meadow Pipits fluttering up and parachuting back down.

The large raft of several thousand Common Scoter which has been in the bay all winter was directly offshore from here today, so we stopped for a quick look through them. The tide was out so, despite them being not too far offshore, they were distant from the dunes and it was very choppy. We did manage to pick out a Velvet Scoter in with them, but it was impossible to get everyone onto it in the conditions. More surprisingly, a pair of Pintail and a drake Shoveler were in with the scoter flock too.

It was more sheltered on the north side of the pines, so we decided to walk back through the dunes. It was a good call as it gave us the chance to scan the beach and saltmarsh on the way. We picked up a pair of Ringed Plovers roosting on the shingle, perhaps not for long given the number of dogs running round loose on the beach. Then we picked up five small birds flying round out on the saltmarsh in the distance. As they turned we could see they were fairly pale with contrasting black tails – Shorelarks!

We had a quick look at them from where we were – there was a spaniel running around out on the saltmarsh and heading in their direction and we worried they might fly off. Then we hurried over for a closer look. The Shorelarks were feeding in the low saltmarsh vegetation, but still remarkably hard to see until they lifted their heads. Then their canary yellow faces and black masks gave them away.

Shorelark

Shorelarks – two of the five which were feeding out on the saltmarsh

When the Shorelarks are not feeding in the cordoned-off area at the other end of the beach they can be hard to find, so it was great that we had bumped into them. By the end of this month, they will probably be off to their breeding grounds in Scandinavia.

Snow Buntings were on the target list for the day too, so we walked east to the cordon to see if we could find them there. Some people we passed had said they were on the beach at the far end, so we headed over there first. There was no sign of them on the beach and it was very windy and sand-blasted here. A quick scan of the sand bars produced a few Sanderling running around on the beach.

Another person further back on the inland side of the dunes waved to us, and as we started to walk over we realised he was watching a small group of Snow Buntings which were feeding between us in a sheltered gap in the dunes. We had a good look at them as they fed. There were six of them at first, but gradually they ran up and disappeared into the dunes.

Snow Buntings

Snow Buntings – six were feeding in the shelter of the dunes

It was then heads down for the walk back, into the wind. It was a relief to get to the Gap and the shelter of the pines. It was time for lunch now, so we took advantage of the Lookout Cafe to get a welcome hot drink and some food, and use the facilities.

The wind seemed to have eased a bit after lunch. It was bright and sunny now and we commented how there was no sign of any of the forecast showers – indeed the forecast had changed and was now not predicting any until mid afternoon. We set off west, but stopped where we had seen the White-fronted Geese very distantly from the other side early this morning.

There were lots of Greylags and Egyptian Geese in the field, and in with them were still at least 50 White-fronted Geese. We parked and got out, being careful not to spook them, and got them in the scope. We could see the white surround to the base of their bills and distinctive black belly bars.

White-fronted Geese

White-fronted Geese – there were at least 50 still in the field this afternoon

Thankfully, we had all had a chance to get a really good look at the White-fronted Geese when it started to spit with rain. How ironic, given the change to the forecast! We could see some dark clouds now out to the west, so we hopped back into the minibus and drove through a sharp shower and back out into the sunshine.

As we drove through Titchwell village, we noticed a Barn Owl hunting the grassy field by the road. We had just pulled up and were about to get out to watch it, when a young Common Gull which was flying over swooped down straight at it. The Barn Owl dropped sharply, clearly as surprised as we were at this act of unprovoked aggression! It then turned and made a zig-zagging beeline for the hedge, where it dropped down under the bushes in the bottom, looking round nervously. After convincing itself that the coast was clear, it flew out of the back of the hedge and straight into the back of the wood beyond.

Barn Owl

Barn Owl – hiding under the hedge after being attacked by a Common Gull

Carrying on past Titchwell, we stopped next at Thornham Harbour. There was no sign of any Twite around the old coal barn. A Black-tailed Godwit in the harbour channel was our first of the weekend and a Curlew was feeding on the saltmarsh opposite. With the wind having dropped, we decided to have a quick walk up to the corner of the seawall to see what we could see.

There were plenty of Common Redshank out in the muddy channels and one or two more Curlews. A small group of Linnets kept flying up from the vegetation in front of us and a Little Egret was on the edge of the saltmarsh just below the bank. Scanning further out in the harbour channel, we picked up a much paler wader. Through the scope, we could confirm it was a Spotted Redshank in silvery-grey non-breeding plumage. We could see the prominent white supercilium bridging the base of the bill, which was long and needle-fine at the tip.

Spotted Redshank

Spotted Redshank – in the harbour channel at Thornham again

Spotted Redshanks winter in very small numbers here – they are mainly passage migrants, passing through in spring and autumn. There have been two commuting between Thornham and Titchwell this winter, but they disappear into the tidal creeks and can be very hard to find at time. Looking further out, we could see a few Knot and Grey Plover on the tidal flats and a pair of Red-breasted Merganser in the outer channel through the sands.

We headed round to Titchwell next, to finish the afternoon. As we got out of the minibus and stopped to use the facilities, we heard the distinctive calls of Mediterranean Gulls and looked up to see a succession of birds flying in and out overhead.

Checking in at the Visitor Centre, there had been no sign of any Woodcock today but we were told that there were three Red-crested Pochard on Patsy’s Reedbed. We went that way first and quickly found them out on the water. The two drakes were already looking resplendent in the afternoon sun, but then they started displaying to the female, with their bright orange punk haircuts raised. One of the males was more successful, and we watched the pair mating while the second drake played gooseberry!

Red-crested Pochard

Red-crested Pochard – displaying and mating on Patsy’s Reedbed

Otherwise, there were not many other ducks on here today. Two or three Marsh Harriers were hanging in the air out over the reedbed or over towards Brancaster. A Chinese Water Deer appeared on the edge of the reeds briefly.

Back round on the main path, there were a few Common Pochards on the reedbed pool. A Cetti’s Warbler shouted from the bushes in the reeds. The water level on the freshmarsh is very high again and there was no sign of the shallow islands which had started to be exposed a couple of weeks ago.

There were lots of Avocets trying to find any shallow water in which to feed and most were gathered right in front of Island Hide, so we went in for a closer look. They were right up to their bellies in the water and either swimming or could just get their feet onto the bottom to kick themselves up to try to reach the mud with their bills.

Avocet

Avocet – trying to feed up to its belly in the deep water

There was very little else on the Freshmarsh apart from the gulls, which have taken over the large ‘Avocet Island’ again this year, where the Avocets are supposed to nest. We walked round to Parrinder Hide for a closer look at some Mediterranean Gulls. Another group of Avocets flew in over the saltmarsh, presumably feeding at the moment out in the harbour channels at low tide, and more were roosting in the water where one of the islands would normally have been.

Inside the fenced-off ‘Avocet Island’ we could see lots of gulls, mostly Black-headed Gulls, claiming the ground ahead of the breeding season. In with them we counted at least 40 Mediterranean Gulls, all adults coming into breeding plumage with white-speckled jet black hoods contrasting with bright white eyelids, bright red bills and white wing tips. It was good to compare the two species side by side.

Mediterranean Gull

Mediterranean Gull – there were at least 40 this afternoon on the Freshmarsh

Otherwise, all we could find here today was a single Knot which was roosting on one of the few taller bits of island which were above the water. There was no sign of the Water Pipit again, perhaps not a surprise with so little of the water’s edge exposed. We decided to head out towards the beach.

The tide was in now and with a bigger tide today, Volunteer Marsh was under water. As we walked past, we noticed a couple of little groups of Teal next to the path. The drakes were looking stunning in the afternoon sun and they were calling and displaying.

We walked out to the Tidal Pool to see if we could find some more waders. There were several godwits on here – mostly Black-tailed Godwits, with some starting to show some brighter rusty feathering as they begin to moult into breeding plumage.

Black-tailed Godwit

Black-tailed Godwit – starting to moult into breeding plumage

We managed to find a single Bar-tailed Godwit feeding on the edge of the mud – paler and more heavily streaked above that the Black-tailed Godwits – but surprisingly there were not more roosting here given the tide was in. On the spit where they normally gather there were just two Grey Plovers today. There were still quite a few Oystercatchers on the island, together with several Turnstones.

The tide was right in and there was next to no beach left. We had a quick scan of the sea, but all was quiet here – a lone seal and a single distant Great Crested Grebe. As we started to make our way back, a Skylark was dust bathing on the path. It was very confiding and seemed reluctant to stop what it was doing to make way and let us come past.

Unfortunately, we had to get back now, so those with longer journeys back could get away. As we made our way back east along the coast road, a Barn Owl was hunting where we had seen the one earlier, but this time a different paler bird.

 

 

7th Mar 2020 – Winter, Brecks & Goshawks, Day 2

Day 2 of our three day Winter, Brecks & Goshawks tour today. It was rather cloudy and grey first thing, with some brief spits of rain which were not in the forecast. Thankfully it didn’t come to anything, and remained dry thereafter, with some sunny intervals developing from late morning. The wind was very light again first thing, but did pick up a bit through the day. We headed back down to the Brecks in the morning, but finished the day up in North Norfolk.

When we got down to the Brecks it was spitting with rain – not the weather we were hoping for to look for Woodlarks. We parked by a large clearing and as we got out of the minibus a Great Spotted Woodpecker was calling. We looked across to the other side to see it perched in the top of a tree. A Green Woodpecker yaffled too. There were several birds feeding in the paddocks across the road – a small flock of Meadow Pipits, mixed finches, a couple of Mistle Thrush and a Redwing.

As we walked round the clearing, it was fairly quiet at first, with activity perhaps curtailed by the weather. Several Yellowhammers were flying in and out of the pines at the back, down into the clearing and back up, calling and singing. Two males spiralled up out of the tops of the trees fighting.

We saw something drop down into the grass in the far corner, so made our way over to see what we could find. We could hear a Woodlark singing quietly now, but couldn’t see it at first. It was down on the ground, hidden in the long grass. Then one flew up from further over, out in the middle of the clearing, and started singing. A second, possibly the one we had been listening to, also flew up and landed in the trees at the back, where we could get it in the scope.

Woodlark 1

Woodlark – flew up and landed in the trees at the back of the clearing

There was quite a bit of Woodlark activity now, involving at least three birds. We watched the Woodlark in the tree at the back for a while, before it dropped back down into the grass. We managed to see it on the ground this time, and a second bird nearby calling was possibly a female. When another male flew in, the two of them chased each other back up into the trees. But apart from the first bit of song flight, the males were only singing from perches in the trees or down on the ground this morning.

Having enjoyed good views of the Woodlarks, we drove round to another forest track and walked up into the trees. We were looking for Willow Tit here and there were certainly lots of tits coming and going from the feeding table set up in the pines. We stood and watched for a while, but all the black capped tits we saw were dozens of Coal Tits and a good number too of Marsh Tits. A Nuthatch typically darted in, grabbed a seed, and was back off into the trees.

Coal Tit

Coal Tit – there were dozens coming down to the feeding table

Then we heard a Willow Tit calling in the pines, a distinctive nasal scolding call. It was deep in at first, but gradually came closer each time we heard it again. Eventually it made its way to the edge of the trees and we managed to pick it out, feeding high in the pines. It seemed to be feeding on the cones. A second Willow Tit was still calling, deeper in. The first bird looked like it was making its way towards the feeding table, but it never dropped down and disappeared back into the trees behind. Both the Willow Tits then went quiet again.

The Willow Tits here are a small remnant population: the species has disappeared rapidly from large swathes of southern Britain in recent years and they are still just about clinging on here. They can be difficult to see in the dense coniferous plantations, spending much of their time up in the tops of the trees, so we had done well to get such prolonged views of one today. We decided to move on.

The weather was starting to brighten up and the wind seemed like it had picked up a little, so we headed over to see if we could find a Goshawk. We parked on a high point, overlooking the forest, where several other people had already gathered. While we were getting out of the minibus, someone came over to say there was a Goshawk perched in the top of a fir tree across the field in front. We got the scope straight on it, but unfortunately it dropped down before everyone could get a look and disappeared into the trees. Still, it was a good start.

With the brighter weather, there were lots of Common Buzzards circling up now, including a striking pale one. A Red Kite came up too, off in the distance. Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait too long before another Goshawk appeared. It circled up above the trees, a male, grey above and pale whitish below. It was distant at first, drifting first one way, then back the other. Then it turned and headed straight towards us. It was not displaying today, but flying purposefully, with deep and powerful wingbeats interspersed with short glides. It headed away to our right slightly, crossing the road as we lost sight of it behind some trees.

Goshawk

Goshawk – a male, flew up out of the trees and in across the road

When all the Woodpigeons came out of the trees, this would normally mean a Goshawk was hunting, but this time a Peregrine appeared instead. It flew out low over the treetops, across the field and over the road. It followed the line of the shelter belt on the far side of the field beyond us, flushing all the pigeons from there too, before disappearing off over the trees behind us. A Sparrowhawk made a brief appearance too and a Kestrel hovering over the field behind us added to an excellent variety of raptors here this morning.

It was almost time for lunch now, but we figured we had time for one more quick stop first. We made our way deeper into the forest and parked at the head of another ride. As we walked in, we heard a Woodlark overhead and looked up to see it fluttering over the trees beside the path singing. It flew round past us and disappeared back over the road, beyond where we had parked.

We had just started to walk back to look for it when the Woodlark came back overhead singing again and dropped down into the clearing further down the track. So we turned round again and walked over to where it had seemed to go down. We were scanning the low vegetation when it walked out from behind a low bank right by the path, just a couple of metres from us. It took off but thankfully landed just a couple of metres further back, and we had a great view of it as it picked its way through the vegetation feeding, stopping on the top of a small clod of earth. Cracking views and a better photo opportunity than the ones we had seen earlier, for the photographers in the group.

Woodlark 2

Woodlark – showed very well right beside the path

The Woodlark gradually made its way back into the long grass, so we headed back to the minibus and drove round to Brandon again for lunch and a welcome hot drink.

After lunch, we made our way north to Fincham. A Red Kite was hunting out over the fields as we drove down the road and found somewhere to park. As we got out, we could already see the Great Grey Shrike on the wires a little further up. We got it in the scope and had a good look at it.

Great Grey Shrike

Great Grey Shrike – showed well on the wires at Fincham

The Great Grey Shrike was very mobile, dropping down into the field to look for food, and then back up to the wires. It flew across to some bushes along the edge of the field further up, and spent some time hunting from there, then came back up onto the wires by the road. When it flew across the road and went further out across the field the other side we decided to move on.

We had managed to catch up with most of our main targets in the Brecks (and surrounding areas) now, so we decided to head up to the North Norfolk coast for the rest of the afternoon. The wintering Rough-legged Buzzard at Wells had gone AWOL for a couple of weeks but had then reappeared back in its usual bush a couple of days ago, as if nothing had happened. As we pulled up in the layby, we could see it on top of the aforementioned bush.

We got out of the minibus and got the scopes on it, noting the Rough-legged Buzzard‘s very pale head contrasting with a dark blackish-brown belly patch. Several Marsh Harriers were circling up beyond the bank and another Red Kite further back, more to add to the day’s raptor tally. There were lots of gulls on the flooded field in front of the layby, along with a few Redshanks, and a Linnet or two on the near edge.

We walked down the track where we could get a better view of the Rough-legged Buzzard, side on and not so obscured by branches, although we still couldn’t see its rough legs. A Common Buzzard drifted over the track behind us, a much darker bird altogether.

Rough-legged Buzzard

Rough-legged Buzzard – back on its usual bush

Continuing on over the bank, we stopped to scan the marshes. There was a nice selection of waders out on the flooded grazing marsh beyond, several Ruff flying round with a flock of Dunlin, a single Curlew, lots of Lapwings and a few more Redshanks.

A large flock of Brent Geese kept flying in and out of the old pitch and putt over towards the harbour wall, coming over our heads chattering noisily. Looking through the Greylags out on the grass, we found a single Pink-footed Goose hunkered down behind a line of reeds. Another little group of Pinkfeet flew up calling further back. There was a nice selection of ducks here too, including Wigeon, Teal and Shoveler.

A pre-roost gathering of Pied Wagtails was down in the wet grass in front of the water, along with a single Meadow Pipit. A bigger flock of Meadow Pipits flew in along the bank. Four Brown Hares in the ploughed field the other side of the track chased each other round at one point and even engaged in a brief bout of boxing (it is March, after all!).

It was a nice place to finish the day, scanning the marshes here, but it was time to head back now. We would be spending the day tomorrow along the coast here too, with lots more to see yet.

6th Mar 2020 – Winter, Brecks & Goshawks, Day 1

Day 1 of our three day Winter, Brecks & Goshawks tour today. We were lucky with the weather, mostly bright with sunny intervals and a light N wind, although there was a chill in the air. We spent the day down in The Brecks.

It was a slow journey down this morning, stuck first behind a tractor and then behind a very slow-moving lorry and with a road closure to contend with first thing too. So we were a little later than planned when we arrived at the car park in Santon Downham. A Greenfinch was wheezing in the trees as we got out of the minibus. A Coal Tit was singing down by the road as we walked towards the bridge, but there was no food in the feeders by the road so few birds in the gardens.

As we set off along the path by the river, a Grey Wagtail flew over calling. We could hear a Woodlark singing further back too, and several Siskins overhead. A Reed Bunting flew up and landed in the sallows by the path. We were hoping to find a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker this morning, but the small crowd gathered on the bank told us that there had been no sign for at least the last 1 1/2 hours. We stood with them for a while, but with nothing doing here, we decided to walk on a little further.

Our efforts were instantly rewarded with the distinctive ‘kee,kee,kee’ call of a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker from deeper in the trees. We stopped and scanned but couldn’t see anything and while we were listening to try to hear it again we received a message to say what was presumably the same bird had flown in back where we had been standing earlier. We hurried back, but the first people we got to had lost sight of it, and then next thing we knew it flew out of the tree tops and over our heads, disappearing into the sun across the river.

There was lots of action in the alders across the river, loads of Siskins and Redwings singing. We could see quite a few Redwings flying around lower down in the trees and got one in the scope. A female Mandarin was hiding in amongst the bottom of the trees, where the river had flooded over. But we couldn’t see any sign of the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker now.

We waited a while to see if it might come back. We could hear a Marsh Tit singing and the piping calls of several Nuthatches which we saw flying in and out of the trees, above our heads. A Kingfisher shot past upstream. We were just about to leave when we heard the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker again, drumming from deeper in the trees further along and back on our side of the river. But it went quiet again and despite waiting another 15 minutes, it didn’t show itself again.

As we walked back, a Muntjac was grazing on the bank beyond the bridge. We took the path up through the trees towards the churchyard, where a Great Spotted Woodpecker was calling in the trees and we could see it against the sky.

There had been a Firecrest in the churchyard earlier, but we met some other locals there who hadn’t seen it. We had just stopped to talk to them when we saw a small bird fly in to the sunny edge of trees. The Firecrest! It was low down in a box bush, at about eye level, and gave some great views as it flitted in and out of the branches. The light was perfect too and its bright golden yellow crown stripe was shining in the sun.

Firecrest

Firecrest – showed very well in the churchyard

The Firecrest flew across and landed in a conifer in the corner of the churchyard closest to us. We could see the striking black and white striped face pattern which distinguishes Firecrest from its close cousin, the Goldcrest.

With that target secured so easily, we decided to make our way back to the car park and head off for lunch. When we got out to the road, we noticed a bat flying round, in and out of the trees on the green opposite. Not what we expect to see in the middle of the day in early March! It appeared as if it might have prominent ‘ears’ as it zipped around overhead, but looking at the blurry photos afterwards they were not as obvious, and it was most like a Pipistrelle sp.

We made our way round to Brandon for lunch. There were lots of tits coming and going from the feeders as we ate out in the picnic tables in the sunshine, and a Nuthatch calling in the trees. Afterwards, we made our way down to the lake. A pair of Mandarin Ducks were loafing on the ledge of the duck house but it was hard to get a clear angle on them through the reeds. Thankfully, there was another pair over the far side, out of the reeds along the edge. We walked round and, predictably, they swam straight over to where we had just been, but then more helpfully came out into the open for us as we got back round.

Mandarin

Mandarin – a very smart drake on the lake

Our destination for the afternoon was Lynford Arboretum. We met someone in the car park who told us the Hawfinches were showing very well in the paddocks, so we headed straight down there to make sure we caught up with them, in case they flew off. Thankfully, several of the Hawfinches were still feeding in the grass below one of the hornbeams out in the middle and we quickly got the scopes on them and admired their enormous, cherry-stone-cracking bills.

Hawfinch

Hawfinch – feeding in the grass below the trees in the paddocks

It was hard to tell how many Hawfinches there were down on the ground here, but we counted at least four, including a couple of very smart, bright, richly coloured males. We could see several Chaffinches feeding with them. There were also a couple of Mistle Thrushes and several Redwings feeding out on the grass beyond, so we got the scopes on those too.

When something spooked all the birds from under the trees, they flew up and across to the next tree over. We walked up to the next gap in the hedge and got the scope on a couple of Hawfinches perched up in the branches in the sunshine. We could see at least three there when another five flew into the back of the same tree, making at least eight Hawfinches in total.

Having enjoyed some great views of the Hawfinches, we made our way back to the bridge. There was some seed spread out on the tops of the pillars, which we had topped up on our way past earlier. There was a steady stream of tits coming and going, and we had some great views of Marsh Tits here, as usual.

Marsh Tit

Marsh Tit – coming in to the seed put out on the bridge

There were lots of Siskins flying in and out of the trees above the bridge here too. We watched a Treecreeper climbing up the trunks of the alders opposite, before flying down to the base of the next one and starting again. A Nuthatch in the trees wouldn’t come in to the food today – probably put off by a combination of all of us standing on the bridge and a couple of photographers stood very close to the pillars.

We could hear Little Grebes cackling at us from the lake behind us, so after watching the comings and goings at the bridge for a bit, we had a short walk round on the path. We found one of the Little Grebes, hiding in the edge of the reeds. There were several pairs of Gadwall out on the water too, and a mixture of Canada Geese and Greylags squabbling with each other on the lawns behind the Hall. A Great Spotted Woodpecker posed nicely in the top of a tree on the far side of the lake and we had some much better views of several Siskins in the alders along the path.

Siskin

Siskin – showing well in the alders by the lake

Back over the bridge to the Arboretum, the Tawny Owls were in their usual tree, the two of them roosting side by side high in the spruce tree today. We had a look at them from the path, where they were very difficult to see until you knew where you were looking, and then got some better views from the other side.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – the two were roosting side by side in the usual tree today

Walking back up along the path through the arboretum, we stopped again at the gate. The feeders are still empty but there was not much seed on the ground either today. Consequently, there were fewer birds than normal coming and going. One or two Yellowhammers dropped down briefly, but we found more of them in the bushes on the edge of the orchard the other side, perched in the white blossom and dropping down into the long grass between the fruit trees.

Yellowhammer

Yellowhammer – mostly in the trees on the edge of the orchard today

A Brambling dropped down to the pool in front of the gate for a drink and then perched briefly on a branch above. But it flew off before everyone could get onto it. We thought that was it before more appeared higher up in the beech trees and we all got a good look at one or two. There have been very few here this winter – probably they have stayed on the continent this year.

We still had just enough time for a quick look at the gravel pits.  There were several Tufted Ducks, a pair of Great Crested Grebes, and more geese on the first one we checked. A drake Wigeon asleep in the grass at the back was more of a surprise here and a welcome bonus on today’s list. On the pit the other side, a Coot was in with the Tufted Ducks, another Great Crested Grebe was closer in on the edge of the reeds, and a distant Cormorant was busy diving over at the back.

It had been a good start to the tour today, but it was now time to head for home, with a bonus couple of Barn Owls out hunting on the way. We would be back down for more in the Brecks tomorrow!

13th Feb 2020 – Lucky with the Weather

A Private Tour today, in North Norfolk. After the recent inclement weather, we were lucky (despite the date!) – the wind was light and it was mostly bright with sunny intervals, just the briefest of light drizzle as a shower passed to the south of us early afternoon, and a lovely end to the day. The forecast for today up until a couple of days ago had been for yet more wind and rain – fortunately, as is often the case, it couldn’t have been much more wrong!

After meeting up in Wells, we made our way to the edge of town. As we got out of the minibus, we could already see the Rough-legged Buzzard perched on the top of its usual bushes across the field. We got the scope straight on it, and admired its very pale head, contrasting with the dark blackish belly patch.

Rough-legged Buzzard

Rough-legged Buzzard – still perched on its usual bushes this morning

The Rough-legged Buzzard was quite active this morning, and kept taking off and flying round, flashing its white tail with black terminal bar. It never went far though, and kept returning to its perch on the bushes after a few seconds. It seemed to be mainly hunting down along the edge of the field just below where it was perched – dropping down into the grass at one point, and later stopping to hover there just a metre or so above the ground.

There were other raptors here too. We got a couple of darker Common Buzzards in the scope, very different from the Rough-legged Buzzard. Three or four different Marsh Harriers circled up, including a very dark juvenile, a pale-headed female and a grey-winged male. A Kestrel flew in and landed on the hedge.

A Barn Owl was still out, hunting along the grassy bank. It was a wet night last night, and after all the recent wind it was probably hungry and therefore out feeding during daylight hours. It would be the first of several we would see today.

There were lots of Lapwings around the flood in the ploughed field in front of us and a little group of Golden Plovers on the grass further back. A few Skylarks came up from the fields and a pair of Grey Partridge flew in and landed on the verge at the front of the nearest one.

Moving on, we stopped again at Holkham. A quick check of a field by the road revealed a Mistle Thrush feeding in amongst all the Egyptian Geese. A little further on, as we pulled up overlooking the grazing marshes, all the geese were in the air – we could see a couple of people walking around out in the middle. They gradually started to settle again, with mostly Greylags on the grass at first, although we picked out a more distant group of Barnacle Geese too. Most of the Pink-footed Geese seemed to disappear off over the park.

We could hear the distinctive yelping calls of White-fronted Geese and a couple of largish flocks of 30-60 flew back in but seemed reluctant to land again. Some came down behind the trees but eventually a small number dropped down onto the grazing marshes in view. We got three in the scope, noting their black belly bars and white surround to their pink bills.

White-fronted Geese

White-fronted Geese – eventually a few settled back down on the grazing marshes

There were lots of Lapwing and Curlew out on the grazing marshes too, and scanning one of the larger pools we found a small group of roosting Avocet, in with the Shoveler and Teal. More Avocet have been returning over the last week or so, having spent the winter further south. Spring is in the air!

A large white shape out on the grazing marshes was a Great White Egret. Through the scope, we could see its long, dagger-shaped, yellow bill. A second Great White Egret flew out from behind the trees and landed beyond the reeds at the back. A smaller white shape appeared in a field of taller grass and clumps of rushes – a Cattle Egret. Looking more carefully, we realised there were actually six Cattle Egrets there, as more flew up from further over and came in to join the first. We watched them actively running around between the clumps, catching frogs.

Great White Egret

Great White Egret – one of two on the grazing marshes this morning

News had come through now that the Eastern Yellow Wagtail had been seen again this morning over at Sedgeford, so we set off inland to try to see it. A Red Kite was hanging in the air over the road as we made our way there. As we pulled up on the verge just north of the village, we looked over to the muck heap in the edge of the field alongside to see three wagtails fly up and land on the top. In with the Pied Wagtails was the Eastern Yellow Wagtail.

We got out quietly and were watching the Eastern Yellow Wagtail as it started to feed on the side of the heap, but a lorry came thundering down the road and the wagtails all took off. We heard the Eastern Yellow Wagtail call several times, a raspy, grating call, very different from the typical call of ‘our’ Western Yellow Wagtail, as it flew over the road and out into the field the other side.

We crossed the road and could see the Eastern Yellow Wagtail out on the bare ground with the Pied Wagtails and several Meadow Pipits. Then something spooked them again, and the Eastern Yellow Wagtail flew up and disappeared. There were lots of other birds here – several Fieldfares feeding out in the field and a small covey of Red-legged Partridges walking down along the edge.

Several Yellowhammers were in the hedges and dropping down to the ground in the lane, including some very smart yellow-headed males. A large flock of Chaffinches was feeding along the edge of the field and in with them we could see 4-5 Bramblings. They have been in short supply this winter, so it was nice to catch up with some today.

We set off down the lane to see if the Eastern Yellow Wagtail was on the other muck heap further along, with all the Chaffinches, Bramblings and Yellowhammers flying down along the hedges either side, ahead of us. A large flock of Linnets was swirling round further along, but there was no sign of the wagtail, so we walked back.

When we got back to the first muck heap, by the road, the Eastern Yellow Wagtail was back. We had a great view of it now, as it fed on the sides of the heap and around the puddles at the base in the sunshine. It is a striking bird, with yellow underparts and a grey head with bold white supercilium. Having been found here originally just before Christmas, it looks like it may stay here through the winter now.

Eastern Yellow Wagtail

Eastern Yellow Wagtail – still feeding around its favoured muck heaps

We were heading for Titchwell next, but we called in at Thornham Harbour on our way. The water level in the harbour channel was still quite high and there were just a couple of Common Redshanks and a single Black-tailed Godwit here at the moment, with a flock of Brent Geese further out in the harbour. Three Rock Pipits flew in and landed in the vegetation just beyond the channel. There was no sign of the Twite, so we didn’t stop – we had plenty of other things we wanted to try to fit in this afternoon.

Round at Titchwell, there were loads of Goldfinches twittering in the tops of the trees in the car park. We decided to have a quick whisk round the reserve before a late lunch. We were told there was no sign of the Woodcock on Fen Trail, but we had a quick look on our way round anyway. We couldn’t find it now either, and there was no sign of any Water Rails in the ditches by the main path, so we set out onto the reserve. There were a few Common Pochard with the Gadwall on the reedbed pool and we heard a quick burst of Bearded Tits calling, but couldn’t see them.

There were not so many waders on the Freshmarsh today – a small group of Avocets asleep, and a Black-tailed Godwit asleep with them, and several pairs of Avocets busy feeding in the shallow water. There were lots of Teal around the edges of the water and several Shoveler busy shovelling, the drakes of both looking very smart now in their breeding plumage.

Teal

Teal – the drakes are looking very smart in full breeding plumage now

We were hoping to find a Water Pipit here, but at first all we could find were Rock Pipits. First one flew towards us from the direction of the reedbed, but carried on over our heads and dropped down on to the saltmarsh the other side of the bank. Then we looked across to see several small birds land on the pile of bricks in front of Parrinder Hide – but through the scope, we could see they were three Rock Pipits accompanied by a Reed Bunting, the former presumably having come in for a freshwater bath.

Scanning the cut reeds along the edge of the bank beyond the hide through the scope, we could see a small bird in the vegetation. At last, a Water Pipit! It was hard to see at this range, so we walked quickly round to Parrinder Hide, but by the time we got round there needless to say it had disappeared again. Thankfully, after a bit of scanning, we found it on Avocet Island, on the ground behind the fence.

The Water Pipit had obviously had a bathe, as it was now busy preening. The Rock Pipits had been bathing too, and a couple of them flew up and landed on the fence, in the same view. The Water Pipit was clearly much cleaner, white below, with finer black streaks, and less swarthy above, greyer headed with a clear white supercilium. The Water Pipit finished preening and flew up onto the fence too, before flying back over to the bank out to the east of the hide. We watched it back down in the cut reeds before it walked further back out of view.

Curlew

Curlew – feeding down at the front of Volunteer Marsh from the hide

Someone in the hide asked whether we had seen a Knot and was quite insistent there should be one on the Freshmarsh because it was on the recent sightings board! We pointed out that they only drop in here occasionally and are normally to be found on the saltmarsh or out on the beach. We popped into the other side of Parrinder Hide and just about the first bird we saw on the saltmarsh out on Volunteer Marsh was a Knot! It was with a Grey Plover nearby, and feeding down at the front was a muddy-faced Curlew. When we walked back out, we could see a small flock of Knot had now dropped into the Freshmarsh too, for a quick bathe.

Out at the Tidal Pool, one of the first birds we found was a Red-breasted Merganser. It was diving in the shallow water and seemed to be pulling at something or probing around one of the smaller islands. They are more commonly seen out on the sea than on here. A single pair of Pintail were fast asleep towards the back and a Little Grebe was dozing below the vegetation along the edge. A Water Rail swam out from the edge and we watched as it make its way straight across the deeper water in the middle. It came out and ran nervously across one of the low muddy islands before swimming across the last strip of water to the safety of the vegetated bank the other side.

There were not so many waders on here now – with the tide out, they were mostly feeding out on the beach. There were a few Common Redshanks, and it was nice to compare a single Bar-tailed Godwit on one of the small islands with a Black-tailed Godwit feeding in the water down at the front.

Black-tailed Godwit

Black-tailed Godwit – feeding down at the front of the Tidal Pool

There were a lot more Bar-tailed Godwits feeding out on the beach. A few Turnstones were feeding on the top of the mussel beds and several Dunlin were running around on the sand nearby. Scanning the sea, we could see a few Great Crested Grebes offshore. A couple of Eider and a small group of Goldeneye were rather distant today. We couldn’t immediately see much else out there today, so we walked back for lunch at the Visitor Centre. A Coal Tit coming into the feeders was an addition to the day’s list.

After lunch, we made our way back east along the coast road. On the way, we stopped to look at a small group of Pink-footed Geese in a field beside the road, the first we had seen on the ground today. We stopped again briefly at Holkham, overlooking the grazing marshes where we had stopped earlier. We were immediately rewarded with three Spoonbills on a small pool, just what we were hoping to find here. We watched them feeding, walking round quickly, sweeping their bills from side to side through the shallow water. The Spoonbills are starting to return already, ahead of the breeding season, having spent the winter down on the south coast.

A Barn Owl appeared over the grassy field next to us. We watched it flying round hunting, turning into the wind and doing a transect across over the grass, before flying back to the near edge and turning into the wind to do it again. It landed on a post for a rest, where we had a good look at it in the scope. Then when it started hunting again, we saw it drop sharply down into the tall grass. We could just see it seemed to be ‘mantling’ over something, with its wings open, and sure enough it came back up with  vole in its talons, landing on a post again briefly before flying off with it over the hedge. Looking out across the grazing marsh, we could see a second Barn Owl off in the distance.

Barn Owl 1

Barn Owl – hunting the field as we looked out over the grazing marshes

We stopped next at Lady Anne’s Drive. There is a lot of water still on the marshes here after the recent rains, and they were alive with ducks, particularly big numbers of Wigeon, which were looking very smart in the late afternoon sunshine.

Walking up towards the pines, a Grey Partridge was feeding on the grass just beyond the fence. It is quite tame, so we stopped to admire it. The larger covey which spent the winter here appears to have broken up now, with birds pairing up for the breeding season already. This male seems to be on its own. Looking over beyond The Lookout cafe as we walked towards the pines, we could see another Barn Owl in the distance, perched on a post.

Grey Partridge

Grey Partridge – this lone male was on the grass by the fence

It was a big high tide this morning and the saltmarsh was under water first thing, which was why we hadn’t ventured out onto the beach here earlier today. The Shorelarks hadn’t been seen for the last few days – they always tend to get more mobile when the saltmarsh is wet – and we figured our best chance would be later in the day, to give it a chance to dry out. But there was still quite a lot of standing water on the saltmarsh when we walked out through the pines and the people we met walking back confirmed there was no sign of them again this afternoon.

There were lots of other birds feeding on the saltmarsh as we walked out towards the cordon, lots of Skylarks, several Meadow Pipits and a few Rock Pipits, and a large flock of Linnets. There were just a few more Skylarks in the cordon so with reports of some Long-tailed Ducks just offshore, we continued on out to the beach.

It didn’t take long to find the three Long-tailed Ducks, feeding in the breakers just beyond the sand bar. They were diving constantly, but in the low afternoon light we had a great look at them when they surfaced. A small group of Common Scoter were just offshore too, including several drakes and they were so close we got a good look at the yellow stripe which runs down the front of their bills. A much larger slick of Common Scoter, thousands strong, was much further out, too far for us to be able to pick anything out in with them today.

There were lots of birds on the sandbar, lots of gulls, Cormorants and Oystercatchers, and running around in and out of their legs were several small silvery-grey Sanderlings. We still hadn’t seen the Snow Buntings, and we couldn’t see any sign of them out on the beach now, so we walked a little further along and spotted them as they flew up from behind the dunes by the gap at the far end of the cordon.

The Snow Buntings landed again and we stood on the edge of the dunes and watched as they came running along the tideline towards us. We had a great look at them until they got to the end of the line of washed-up vegetation and then they were off again. They whirled round in the air and looked like they would land again a bit further back, but then turned and headed off. We counted over 50 of them as they disappeared off towards Wells.

Snow Buntings

Snow Buntings – we eventually found the flock of 50+ on the edge of the beach

The late afternoon light was stunning now, out on the beach and it was a great view across the saltmarsh and dunes as we walked back towards the Gap. When we got back to The Lookout, we could see a couple of people looking intently out at the bank beyond and when we got so we could look down the line of the ditch, we could see a Barn Owl on a post.

We got the Barn Owl in the scope and had a look at it – and let a couple of young children who were watching it excitedly with their parents have a look through the scope too. Then it took off and flew straight towards us, landing on another post much closer still. Then yet another Barn Owl appeared on the fence further back – the wet weather last night had really brought them out in force this afternoon!

Barn Owl 2

Barn Owl – on a post by The Lookout as we made our way back

The light was starting to go now, so we made our way back to Wells. It had been a great day and we had been really lucky with the weather today.

 

9th Feb 2020 – Winter, Broads & Brecks, Day 3

Day 3 of our three-day Winter, Broads & Brecks tour today. With ‘Stormageddon’ Ciara forecast for today, we knew the weather would be challenging, with winds around 40mph and gusts up to 60mph+. It was also meant to be heavy rain all day, and thankfully that part of the forecast was wrong – we had some squally light drizzle at times, most of which we were able to dodge, but the only really horrible weather was as we were driving back north late afternoon. Armed with the knowledge that it would be difficult, we set off down to the Broads to see what we could find.

Our first stop was at Ludham. We could see the herd of swans from the main road, so we made our way down a couple of minor roads on the edge of the old airfield and parked on the edge of the beet field they were in. It was certainly windy when we got out, but we got the scope set up on them, a mixture of Bewick’s Swans and Whooper Swans.

Whooper and Bewick's Swans 1

Bewick’s Swans & Whooper Swans – the mixed herd at Ludham

It is always nice to see the two species side by side, which they normally area here. We could see the smaller, shorter-necked Bewick’s Swans, with less yellow at the base of the bill and the yellow squared off. The Whooper Swans were bigger and longer-necked, with the more extensive yellow on the bill extending down towards the tip in a wedge. There were several greyer juvenile Whooper Swans towards the back of the group, with dull bases to their bills. Two Mute Swans were feeding on their own in the winter wheat further over.

Whooper and Bewick's Swans 2

Bewick’s Swans & Whooper Swans – a nice comparison, side by side

Our first mission accomplished, we were happy to get back in the minibus and out of the wind again. We decided to head down to look for some Common Cranes next. There has been a large group feeding in the fields at Billockby this winter, but when we got there it was very exposed and windy, with no sign of any Cranes.

We figured they might be out on the marshes instead today, where they could be able to find a bit more cover, so we set about scanning the surrounding area. It didn’t take us long to find the Cranes – they were rather distant here, but we got them in the scope and watched them feeding in around the wet pools and amongst the dense rushy tussocks. We counted at least 11 Cranes, hard to be sure as some were difficult to see at times in the vegetation.

Common Cranes

Common Cranes – we counted at least 11 together out on the marshes

From here, we drove round to the causeway between Rollesby and Ormesby Broads. We scanned Rollesby Broad from the shelter of the minibus first. The water was very choppy, whipped up by the wind, and most of the birds were sheltering down in the near corner, behind the reeds – with two Great Crested Grebes in amongst the Tufted Ducks, Mallards and Coots. An adult Lesser Black-backed Gull was trying to stand on one of the floating jetties beyond.

Great Crested Grebe

Great Crested Grebe – sheltering from the wind at the front with the Coots

The near edge of Ormesby Broad, the other side of the road, was a bit more sheltered from the wind by the causeway. There were more ducks on here, including several Common Pochard and a scattering of Goldeneye further back. We got one of the closer drake Goldeneye in the scope and admired its golden eye and white cheek patch. We couldn’t see any sign of the Long-tailed Duck which had been here earlier in the week though.

There was still a little bit of time before lunch, and we wanted something else to do which would not require braving the conditions, so we decided to drive down a nearby track which overlooks some pools and marshes, which we could then scan from the minibus. It was a bit muddy down the track, but perfectly passable. We could see lots more ducks on the pools, Wigeon, Shoveler, Teal and Gadwall. A Marsh Harrier was battling into the wind along the near edge, over the reeds.

The first area where we might turn around looked rather muddy, so we drove on to the end of the track, where there is a larger turning area with a hardcore base. Typically, having not seen a sign of anyone else braving the conditions here today, there were two cars parked in the turning area and in such a way there was no way we could get around. There was no option but to reverse back. All was fine until we got back to the area we would have to turn round, and as we prepared to manoeuvre, the front wheel got stuck in the muddy edge on the edge of the track. As we tried to get out, we just ended up getting more stuck.

Fortuitously, there was a cafe not far away, so we wrapped up and everyone walked back along the track to the road. With the group installed in the warm with a hot drink, we managed to find a very helpful couple of locals with a 4×4 who could help. After a bit of a wait to assemble the required gear, it was thankfully a fairly painless process to tow the minibus out of the mud and back onto the firmer ground of the track. Many thanks to the help from the locals. All that was not spared was the embarrassment of the guide! We couldn’t even really blame the weather.

Back on the road, with everyone back in the bus, we drove round to Hickling Broad and stopped for lunch by the Pleasure Boat Inn. There had been a couple of Scaup out on the broad in recent days, so we walked out to the shore to have a look after lunch. There was a Marsh Tit calling in the bushes by the car park, but when we got out to the water it was far too choppy for any ducks to be out in the middle. A Cormorant was fishing around the staithes, presumably where the water was a little less churned up.

We had a message now to say that the two Cattle Egrets were still at Potter Heigham, and some directions as to where to look. We drove back round and parked in the car park by the boat yard. As we walked down the footpath which runs alongside, a Kingfisher zipped away along the ditch ahead of us. It landed on some brambles above the water, long enough for us to get it in the scope, but was quickly on its way again.

Once we got out of the shelter of the trees, it was very windy. We could see some cows on the grazing marshes at the far end, so we put our heads down and walked on. There were lots of Black-headed Gulls out on the wet grass, but two larger white shapes were feeding around the feet of the cows. When we stopped by the gate at the end, we could confirm they were the two Cattle Egrets. Some squally drizzle started up now, just when we didn’t want it, but we got them in the scope and could see their short, yellow bills. Everything was very flighty in the wind and kept whirling round and dropping back down again.

Cattle Egrets

Cattle Egrets – feeding on the grazing marshes with the cows and gulls

With the Cattle Egrets in the bag, we turned and headed back to the shelter of the trees. Typically, the drizzle stopped as we walked back.

It felt like we had got the best we might get out of the Broads today, so we thought we would drive back round on the main roads via the North Norfolk coast. We figured we would still have time to have a look in at Sheringham on the way, where it would be more sheltered down along the prom. Having not had any heavy rain all day, we now drove into a very heavy squall at Stalham, with very gusty winds, driving rain and poor visibility. Thankfully, we were in the dry and it passed over fairly quickly, although we lost a bit of time as it was slow going. It was also good that we hadn’t had these conditions all day, as had been forecast.

Even better, as we drove up towards the coast, we could see the back edge of the front approaching and bright sky beyond. As we walked down to the prom, we were mostly out of the wind, which seemed to have dropped now, and the sun even came out. We couldn’t find much life along the prom though this afternoon – perhaps it was just a bit too late in the day now or perhaps many of the birds had gone elsewhere to find shelter in the wind and rain earlier. Despite it approaching high tide, we couldn’t find any Purple Sandpipers on the sea defences, although we did eventually find a few Turnstones feeding on the beach below the slipway. True to their name, they were busily flicking the stones over, looking for food underneath.

Turnstone

Turnstone – turning stones over on the beach

The light was starting to go now, so we decided to call it a day and head for home. It had certainly not been easy-going in the wind today, but there was general agreement in the group that we had done pretty well all things considered – it was certainly better than cancelling the day. And we had enjoyed a very successful three days in aggregate, with a total of 127 species on the list and a good selection of winter visitors and a couple of rarities thrown in for good measure.

8th Feb 2020 – Winter, Broads & Brecks, Day 2

Day 2 of our three-day Winter, Broads & Brecks tour today. It was a cloudy start, with some brighter intervals through the day, with a moderate SW wind. With one eye on the forecast for tomorrow, we decided to spend the day in North Norfolk today.

There had been no reports of the Waxwing yesterday at Salthouse, but we heard a suggestion it was possibly still there. We went to look anyway, first thing, but there was no sign of it in the churchyard, where it had been, and no berries left on its favoured hedge. We scanned the trees in the village, and found several Greenfinches and Starlings and House Sparrows in the hedge. Rather than waste any more time, not knowing if it was even still here, we decided to move on. We had a lot of other things we wanted to try to squeeze in today.

When we got to Wells, the Rough-legged Buzzard was perched more obligingly on its usual bush. We got out of the minibus an trained the scopes on it. We could see its very pale head, contrasting with its dark blackish belly patch.

Rough-legged Buzzard

Rough-legged Buzzard – perched on its usual bush this morning

There were lots of Lapwings and gulls in the ploughed field in front of the layby, including several different ages of Herring Gull which we took a closer look at (by popular request!). A Sparrowhawk flew past, flushing everything, and disappeared behind the hedge.

After having a good look at the Rough-legged Buzzard, we carried on round to Holkham, and parked at the top of Lady Anne’s Drive. There were lots of ducks around the pools out on the grazing marsh – lots of Wigeon, a few Shoveler and one or two Teal. As well as several Redshanks, there were two Ruff feeding out on the grass quite close to the fence, giving a good comparison. We could see the distinctive scaly appearance caused by the pale fringes to the upperparts feathers on the Ruff.

Ruff

Ruff – feeding out on the grazing marsh, with the Redshank

As we walked up towards The Lookout cafe, we could see several Grey Partridges feeding on the grass. A nice orange-faced male was very close to the fence, and as we walked up it stopped feeding and lifted its head up, showing off its dark, kidney-shaped belly patch. A second male was feeding with a duller, browner female a little further back.

Grey Partridge

Grey Partridge – showing off its dark belly patch

Scanning from the Lookout, while some of the group went inside to use the facilities, someone standing there mentioned that he had found what he thought was a Peregrine way out, down in the grass. Looking through his scope, it was indeed a Peregrine, an adult. We trained our scopes on it too – we could just see its head and shoulders, its dark cap extending down in a broad, rounded moustache. Two Rock Pipits flew in for a quick bathe on the pools before flying back out over the pines. We could see small numbers of Brent Geese dropping in further back too.

Heading out towards the beach, we met someone who had been out with us yesterday who told us that the Shorelarks were not in the cordon this morning. Armed with that knowledge, we thought we would check the saltmarsh west of the Gap first instead. As we walked out, several small flocks of Linnets flew over along with one or two Skylarks. But there were two dogs having a high old time, running backwards and forwards around over the whole saltmarsh that side, their owners miles away and oblivious, and needless to say there were no birds left there.

As we turned to walk across the Gap, we saw a large flock of Snow Buntings in the distance. They flew up from the saltmarsh off towards the cordon, over the dunes and dropped down towards the beach. A small group of Skylarks flew in and landed on the shingle, where we might have hoped the Shorelarks would drop in instead!

We walked through the back of the dunes the other side and cut through a gap to the beach. The first thing we saw was a large flock of scoter gathered like a black oil slick just offshore. There were hundreds of Common Scoter, lots of pale-cheeked browner females accompanied by a good number of plainer, blacker drakes. Looking with the scopes, we could see several Velvet Scoters in with them, but they were very hard to pick out, not helped by the fact that the flock was constantly on the move and diving.

Most of the Velvet Scoters were females or young males, but we did find one adult male with bright yellow edges to the bill and white tick mark surrounding the eye. Eventually everyone got onto at least one of the Velvet Scoters, though it took some time to get your eye in, despite the fact that this group was not far offshore. A larger group of Common Scoter was much further out – we didn’t even attempt to try to find the Velvet Scoters in that group! There were a few Red-breasted Mergansers mixed in with the scoters too.

When we finally took our attention off the rafts of seaduck, we noticed a large flock of Snow Buntings had appeared out on the sand. We got them in the scope, and counted 48 of them. They were flushed by two people walking along the beach and flew round, over the dunes behind us and then almost overhead, before landed again on the beach, much closer to us. We had a great view of them now.

Snow Buntings

Snow Buntings – we counted 48 out on the beach today

Further over, along the beach to the east of us, we could see lots of birds on the sandbank beyond the channel, presumably where there was less disturbance. Through the scopes, we could see several silvery-grey Sanderlings running in and out of the Oystercatchers and gulls. A few Cormorants were drying their wings further back.

When we walked along the beach and cut back in towards the cordon, we found that the Shorelarks had now reappeared. We scanned from up in the dunes first, and could see them feeding down on the saltmarsh inside the fence. They were much closer from round the other side, and we had a much better view of them. Their canary yellow faces caught the sunshine when they lifted their heads.

Shorelark

Shorelark – the five reappeared in the cordon this morning

We walked back, and stopped for lunch in The Lookout. As we made our way back to the minibus afterwards, a flock of Pink-footed Geese flew over and dropped down towards the grazing marshes out in the middle, the only ones we saw here today.

A little further on, we stopped to scan the grazing marshes again. The first thing we found was a group of White-fronted Geese out on the grass. As we scanned across, we counted at least fifty of them, the white surrounds to the base of their bills (the white ‘front’) showing clearly as they lifted their heads.

White-fronted Geese

White-fronted Geese – we counted at least 50 on the grazing marshes today

A Great White Egret feeding in one of the rushy pools stood out a mile off, being very large and very white. A second flew across over the back and landed beyond the reeds. When another white bird flew out from behind the trees, it immediately looked different, its head and neck held extended out in front as it flew. It was a Spoonbill – the first two birds have returned already for the summer just in the last couple of days, so it was great to see one today. Spring must be on its way! It landed on the largest of the pools, and we got it in the scope, watching it feeding, sweeping its bill from side to side as it walked round through the shallow water.

Spoonbill

Spoonbill – one of the first two birds to return here for the summer

Several Marsh Harriers were flying round over the grazing marshes and we picked out a Red Kite distantly over the trees too. Then a Hen Harrier appeared, a ringtail, smaller and lighter built and flashing the white square at the base of its tail. It flew low west over the grazing marsh, quartering and disappeared round behind the trees.

Back in the minibus, we drove west inland next, over to Sedgeford. As we pulled up, we could see three people looking intently at the muck heap right by the main road. We quickly got out and sure enough, the Eastern Yellow Wagtail was right there. If only it was always so easy! We watched it feeding on the mud around the base of the heap. It has been a bit more erratic in its appearances in the last few days, so it was great to find it so obliging.

Eastern Yellow Wagtail

Eastern Yellow Wagtail – still lingering by its favoured muck heaps

There were lots of gulls loafing in the ploughed field opposite. When a large group circled up and overhead, we looked up to see a Mediterranean Gull in with them, its white wingtips translucent against the blue sky. It was rather hard to pick out though, and despite looking through the flock out in the field, we couldn’t find another one with all the Black-headed, Common and Herring Gulls there. Thankfully, numbers are already starting to increase now and we would see some more later.

We made our way down to the coast at Thornham next. As we drove down the road to the harbour, we could see ten small birds circling over the narrow strip of saltmarsh right beside it – the Twite. They clearly wanted to come in to land, but there were too many people walking down the road and they wouldn’t settle. They circled round several times, then flew back to the old coal barn and landed on the roof. We piled out, and had a great view of them, the sunshine catching their yellow bills and burnt orange breasts.

Twite 2

Twite – flew round and landed on the roof of the old coal barn

When the Twite flew again, they dropped down and landed on the saltmarsh, to feed on the seed heads. Something spooked them again, and seven flew straight back up to the barn roof, but three Twite remained down on the saltmarsh. One perched up nicely and we could see it was sporting a set of coloured rings – this bird wintered at Thornham last winter too, and was originally ringed in Derbyshire in May 2018.

Twite 1

Twite – a colour-ringed bird, regular in winter here, originally ringed in Derbys in May’18

There were no different waders in the harbour channel, so we got back in the minibus and drove over to Titchwell next. A quick check in at the Visitor Centre confirmed that one of the Woodcock was in situ again, so we made our way straight round to look for it. A large crowd was gathered on the narrow boardwalk, and we had to wait a few minutes until we eventually got to a place where we could see it. It was then fill the frame views in the scope, albeit of just its head and the top of its body where it was hiding down amongst the moss covered branches.

Woodcock

Woodcock – hiding in the sallows close to the boardwalk

Continuing round, back to the main path, we had a quick look for Water Rails in the ditch. There was no sign of any, but we did see a Chiffchaff flitting around in the bushes just below the pass. As we walked on, a couple of Marsh Harriers were hanging in the air, up over the back of the reedbed. Several Common Pochard and Tufted Duck were in amongst the Greylags and Canada Geese on the reedbed pool.

Hundreds of Golden Plovers and Lapwings were whirling round over Freshmarsh, as we walked out, gradually landing back again. The water level has finally gone down now, and there are more islands exposed, much to the appreciation of the waders. the nearest ones were now covered in the Golden Plover. There were lots of Avocets too, with numbers steadily climbing again now with one eye on spring already, up to seventy today. A single Black-tailed Godwit was asleep in the middle of them.

Golden Plover

Golden Plover – gathered on the islands on the Freshmarsh

There were lots of gulls on here too – they seem to appreciate the shallower water. They were mostly Black-headed Gulls, but looking through them, we found several Mediterranean Gulls too. We got two adults in scope, one already getting some of its black hood. There were lots of Teal gathered round the edges of the Freshmarsh, with the drakes looking stunning now, particularly in the late afternoon sun.

We had a quick look in Parrinder Hide, but there was no sign of any Water Pipit around the islands or along the reedy edges below the bank, so we carried on out towards the beach. As we passed the Volunteer Marsh, we could see the tide was now comng in quickly. The small channel below the bank was filling fast, and the Redshanks had climbed up the bank beyond. Looking down the wider channel at the far side, we could see several Curlew, more Redshanks, a single Grey Plover and a couple of Knot.

The Tidal Pool has been really good for waders, since it has returned to being tidal again. We scanned the SE corner first, but there was no sign of any different shanks down there now. A little further along, there were two Black tailed Godwits feeding close to the path. The spit further back was full of roosting waders, mostly Bar-tailed Godwits mixed with a smaller number of Grey Plover, Knot and Dunlin. More were flying in all the time, coming in off beach to roost here over high tide. There were lots of Oystercatchers too, roosting higher up on the island, and a scattering of Turnstones along the far edge.

Bar-tailed Godwits

Bar-tailed Godwits – roosting on the Tidal Pool over high tide

Beyond waders, there were several Pintail, including several smart drakes, busy upending with the Mallards out on the water. We could see their long, pin-shaped central tail fathers. Four Little Grebes were hiding along the bank.

We had a quick look out at the sea. The tide was in now and the beach was covered. There were a few Goldeneye out on the water, closer in, and one or two Great Crested Grebes, but most of the birds were much further out. A drake Eider flew in and landed on the sea, and another group of eight flew past much further out, along the horizon. We picked out a distant Red-throated Diver too, but it dived before anyone could get onto it and we couldn’t relocate it.

As we started to walk back, we stopped to scan the far corner of the Tidal Pool again. This time we found a Spotted Redshank, tucked in on the edge of one of the small islands at the back, roosting.

We stopped again in Parrinder Hide. We could see the Marsh Harriers gathering out over the reedbed. A distant Barn Owl appeared, flying through the back of the reedbed and disappearing round towards the church. A few Pied Wagtails started to drop in to the islands ahead of going to roost in the reedbed. A Water Pipit appeared too, perched on the fence. We got it in the scope, before it flew further along to a post, but it didn’t linger and then flew off shortly after.

The light was starting to go now, so we walked back. There was a stunning moon, rsiing over the bank at the back, and we stopped for a quick look at it in the scope. It is not just the birds which are worth stopping to look at! The Marsh Harriers were still coming in, and we counted at least 15 in the air together as we passed the reedbed. Lots of Little Egrets were coming in to roost too. A Barn Owl was perched on a post at the back, before taking off and flying over the bank.

It was time to head for home. We had enjoyed a really productive day and made the most of the good weather ahead of tomorrow.

7th Feb 2020 – Winter, Broads & Brecks, Day 1

Day 1 of our three-day Winter, Broads & Brecks tour today. After a frosty start, it was a lovely bright and sunny winter’s day, with a fresh SE wind. With the best weather forecast of the long weekend, we decided to head down to the Brecks today.

After the drive down to the Brecks, we parked by the entrance to a ride which heads off into the forest. As we got out of the minibus, two Woodlarks flew over calling and we watched them drop down into the clearing opposite. Two Yellowhammers flew over too and landed in a nearby tree. A Green Woodpecker flew away across the clearing and landed on the side of a pine tree on the near edge of the block over the far side. All before we had walked a step!

As we set off to walk round the edge of the clearing, two Mistle Thrushes were down on the ground in the entrance to  the paddocks opposite, and flew up as we walked past. We took a path along the edge of the clearing, where it skirted the margin of a neighbouring field. There were lots of finches and more Yellowhammers in the trees on the edge of the field and we got the scope on a smart yellow-headed male Yellowhammer.

Several Goldfinches dropped down to feed on the seed heads of some fat hen on the edge of the field. A male Lesser Redpoll dropped down with them. They flew up and landed in the trees, then dropped down again and we watched the Lesser Redpoll feeding with the Goldfinches.

Lesser Redpoll

Lesser Redpoll – this male was feeding with Goldfinches

As we walked round the far side, we could hear a couple of Coal Tits singing in the pines. A male Woodlark started singing quietly out in the clearing, presumably one of the birds we had seen drop down earlier. They were somewhere on the ground, but the vegetation was too thick to see them. Continuing out into the sunshine, out beyond the pines, we tried scanning up between the rows of newly-planted trees. We couldn’t see the Woodlarks from here either, but then the pair flew up from the back of the clearing calling and we watched them fly off over where we had parked.

We heard the deep ‘kronk’ call of a Raven, which disappeared over pines, but only one or two of the group got onto it. A Great Spotted Woodpecker flew over, landing in a tree at the back briefly. Then one Woodlark flew back in, circling high out over the clearing on the other side of the track. A second Woodlark came up from the ground to join it, and the two of them flew over our heads together and dropped back down in the clearing where the pair had been earlier. Again, we couldn’t see them in long grass.

Back to where we had parked, there were lots of birds in the ground in the paddocks now. Several Redwings, a couple of Mistle Thrushes, and small groups of Chaffinches and Goldfinches. There were more finches up in a couple of large beech trees on the edge of the paddocks, several Greenfinches and we picked out a couple of Bramblings in with them. They have been scarce this winter, with fewer than normal coming here from Scandinavia. A Nuthatch was feeding in the top of one of the beech trees too.

We were just getting back into the minibus when one of the Woodlarks flew over our heads calling, out over the paddocks. It started to sing, it’s rather mournful song. They had been so to get going this morning, possibly due to the cold and frosty start to the day, so it was good to hear one singing properly.

We moved on, and parked again by another ride. It was quiet walking in through the dense pines, until we came out towards the sunny edge on the far side. There were several Coal Tits singing and lots of birds coming and going from the feeding table set up in the trees. We added some more seed and stood back to watch. Lots of tits came in, including a steady succession of Marsh Tits. We heard a Treecreeper singing and then it appeared on a pine trunk by the feeder. A Goshawk called from somewhere deep in the forest.

Then we heard the distinctive nasal calls of a Willow Tit. It called three times, then went quiet. We hoped it might pay a visit to the feeding table, but despite checking all the birds more carefully, there was no sign of it coming in for food. Then it called again – it seemed to be coming from the sunny outer edge of the trees, so we walked round to look there. We did see a Goldcrest, low in a holly bush in the edge of the pines. But the Willow Tit had now gone quiet again.

It was warming up a little now, and after a rather still start, the wind had picked up a touch too. It felt like good conditions for Goshawks. We drove round to a lay-by overlooking the forest, where quite a few people had already gathered. A Goshawk had just flown across before we arrived apparently, but was not yet displaying. A few Common Buzzards were circling up above the trees, normally a good sign. But the Goshawks were rather slow to get going.

There were other raptors to see while we waited. A Red Kite away to right, was chasing after a young Lesser Black-backed Gull for some reason. Then two Red Kites circled up together and drifted west past us. A Kestrel had been hovering over the cover strip in the middle of the field in front, on and off while we were there. So when a small falcon flew in high from the left, we assumed it would be the Kestrel until we looked more closely. It was a Merlin. It dropped down and flushed a Meadow Pipit from the low oil seed rape crop, chasing it up and into the trees. The Merlin quickly lost interest though and we watched it disappear off east. Merlin is a rare bird here in the Brecks, much rarer than Goshawk!

There was other wildlife too. A pair of Roe Deer ran across the field and disappeared into the trees at the back. There were several Skylarks singing.

Finally a Goshawk circled up out of the trees, a big female. It looked very different from the Common Buzzards, pale silvery grey above, and almost white below, and a very different shape. It had puffed out its white undertail coverts, and they were wrapped round the base of its tail, so it almost looked like it had a white rump. It started to display, flying across with deep, exaggerated wing beats.

Goshawk 1

Goshawk – came up and started displaying, with its white undertail coverts puffed out

The Goshawk was up for some time, displaying across to the left of us, then stopping to circle for a bit. Then it flew back right displaying again, circling again a couple of times in front of us, before it continued off behind the trees. It was a great show, well worth the wait!

It was time for lunch now, so we drove down to Brandon Country Park to use the facilities. We enjoyed lunch outside on the picnic tables, in the sunshine. A Nuthatch was calling in the trees and we could hear both Coal Tits and Great Tits singing, two different variations on the squeaky bicycle pump theme.

After lunch, we had a quick walk down to the lake. There were lots of Mallard out on the grass, and as we got got closer we could see some Mandarin Ducks in with them, including several smart drakes. They looked rather out of place, here on the lawns. There were a few more Mandarins on the water – we counted fourteen in total.

Mandarin

Mandarin Ducks – we counted fourteen on the lake and lawn

The trees down by the lake were rather quiet today, and we knew we needed to get back to Lynford promptly – the Hawfinches have been disappearing early recently. The car park at Lynford was almost full. We met some people we knew, who said most of the Hawfinches had flown off, and the remaining birds had been very flighty, so we walked quickly down to the paddocks to look for them. We tried not to get distracted on the way, but we did take a quick look at a Brambling under the trees from the gate.

As we got to the paddocks, we could see several people looking intently through their scopes. The Hawfinches were back, feeding in the grass under one of the trees in the middle. We got them in our scopes, and could see several there, but they were hard to count in the long vegetation. There were some in the hornbeam above too. Then something spooked them and they flew, we counted at least 25 in total, as they came up from ground and lots flew out of the middle of the tree.

Hawfinch 1

Hawfinch – there were several feeding under one of the trees

Some of the Hawfinches appeared to land in the top of the next hornbeam over, so we walked down to where we could see it through a gap in the hedge. We got a nice male in the scope now, perched in the top, and counted at least four together there. One by one they flew, landing in the ash trees next, where they were much harder to see in the tangle of branches. Then they all disappeared too.

One female Hawfinch flew back in, and landed back in the very top of the first hornbeam. We had a great view of it now, in the low afternoon light. We admired its enormous cherry stone cracker of a bill!

Hawfinch 2

Hawfinch – this female flew back in and posed in the top of one of the hornbeams

We were glad we had hurried straight down to the paddocks, and now we had seen the Hawfinches we walked back to the bridge. There were several Siskins feeding up in the alders above – having heard several flying over earlier, it was nice now to get a proper look at some. There were lots of tits coming to the food put out on the bridge, including several Marsh Tits and Long-tailed Tits. One or two Nuthatches darted in and out. A male Reed Bunting flew in and landed in a tree by the lake.

Marsh Tit

Marsh Tit – coming down to food put out on the bridge

Along the path on the way back, we stopped to look at the Tawny Owl which was roosting in its usual tree. It was hard to see unless you got in just the right place. We managed to find a spot to get the scopes on it, perched up high, tucked in right next to the trunk.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – roosting in its usual tree

We stopped again back at the gate. There were loads of birds coming down to feed in the leaves. We could see several Bramblings now, including a couple of smart looking males with bright orange shoulders. We counted at least sixteen Yellowhammers too, in amongst the throng of tits and Chaffinches.

Brambling

Brambling – coming to feed on the food put down in front of the gate

Continuing on past the car park, we walked out to the gravel pits the other side. There were lots of Tufted Ducks on the back of the first pit, along with several Coots, a pair of Great Crested Grebes and a Cormorant. A Little Egret was in the reeds on the back edge.

Making our way round the second pit, three Goosanders appeared under the trees on the far side, two males and a redhead female. There were more Tufted Ducks here, a small flock of Teal flew up, two Canada Geese were honking noisily on the platform, and a couple of Grey Herons flew over.

Goosander

Goosander – one of three on the pits this afternoon

It was time to head back now, after a very successful visit to the Brecks. But we were all looking forward to another day out tomorrow.