Category Archives: Winter Tour

5th Mar 2017 – Winter & Brecks, Day 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

img_1316Gadwall – the most under-rated of ducks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6o0a9122Common Cranes – two adults, followed by a juvenile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

img_1367Starlings – a huge cloud over Swaffham

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

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

3rd Mar 2017 – Winter & Brecks, Day 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

img_1149Spoonbills – these five spent most of the time asleep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6o0a8718Teal – a little group of drakes were displaying today

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

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

6o0a8736Avocet – feeding on the Volunteer Marsh today

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

6o0a8732Grey Plover – feeding in front of Parrinder Hide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

27th Feb 2017 – Seaducks, Divers & Grebes

A Private Tour in North Norfolk today. The request was particularly to look for seaducks, divers and grebes, but there would be time for other birds too. It was cloudy but bright in the morning, but heavy showers were forecast for the afternoon. As it was the weather gods were smiling on us – we sat out one brief shower in the hide at Titchwell and didn’t see another until we were back in the car at the end of the day.

With the target to see some birds on the sea, we started the day at Thornham Harbour with a walk out towards Holme Dunes. As we parked the car, a lone Brent Goose was feeding on the saltmarsh by the road close by. It looked up briefly, but seemed disinterested in our presence.

6o0a8198Brent Goose – feeding in the harbour at Thornham

The tide was just going out and the tidal channel was still full of water. From up on the seawall, we could see a few waders on the areas of open mud – Curlew, Grey Plover and Bar-tailed Godwit, as well as several Redshank. The Twite have been rather elusive here this winter, tending to come and go, so it was no surprise that two small birds feeding down on the edge of the saltmarsh were a pair of Linnet.

6o0a8206Curlew – several were feeding on the mud in the harbour

Looking out across the harbour towards the sea, we could see a few ducks diving in the deeper part of the channel in the distance. Through the scope, we could see there were several Red-breasted Mergansers and a couple of female Goldeneye. A Great Crested Grebe was just offshore beyond.

As we walked along the seawall, there were Skylarks singing over the grazing meadows behind us. A couple of Reed Buntings flew out from one of the bushes below the bank, as did a Wren. When two more small birds flitted across the saltmarsh below us, we expected those to be Linnets again, but a quick look revealed they were Twite. Through the scope, we could see their yellow bills and orange-washed breasts. They fed for a time in the vegetation on the edge of the mud, before eventually disappearing off back into the saltmarsh.

img_0953Twite – we found a pair on the saltmarsh on our walk out

Six geese flying in from the east over the harbour were Pink-footed Geese. We heard them calling and watched as they dropped down towards the grazing marshes to the west. Looking across, we could see a large flock of geese already down on the grass. Through the scope, we could see that the vast majority were Pink-footed Geese too. But then a head came up with a distinctive white surround to the base of the bill – two White-fronted Geese were hiding in with the Pinkfeet.

A shrill call high overhead alerted us to a displaying Marsh Harrier, a male, flying up and down with exaggerated, flappy wingbeats. Two more Marsh Harriers, females, flew in over the saltmarsh and, behind us, another two circled up over the grazing marshes. The bright conditions were obviously encouraging a burst of Marsh Harrier display activity this morning.

6o0a8240Marsh Harrier – this male was displaying overhead

A quick look out across Broadwater from the edge of the dunes added Tufted Duck and Common Pochard to the day’s list. A few Mallard and a pair of Shoveler were lurking in the reeds. A few Greylag Geese and a big flock of Curlew were in the fields beyond.

From the top of the dunes, we set ourselves up to scan the sea. Almost the first bird we set eyes on was a Great Northern Diver. It was not far offshore, but diving regularly and drifting east. It was clearly big and we got it in the scope and could see the contrast between the blackish upperparts and white throat and breast, with a black half collar.

Scanning the sea, we could see several Red-breasted Mergansers out on the water. Five large, heavy ducks flying in from the east were Eider – three all dark females and two 1st winter drakes, with contrasting white breasts. They landed on the sea further out where we could see them distantly. A little later, we looked back and found two smart drake Eider in the same area. There were a couple of Common Scoter out here too today, a blackish drake and a pale-cheeked female.

The Long-tailed Ducks have become more elusive in recent days. It is possible they have already started to move back north, although they may just have moved further offshore. Fortunately a few obliged us by flying in this morning. First, we picked up a lone Long-tailed Duck flying in from way out to sea, but it turned east and eventually landed some way away, off Thornham Point. We could just make it out through the scope. Then a pair flew in and landed out beyond the Red-breasted Mergansers. They were still distant, but we could see there was a smart male and browner female. The fourth Long-tailed Duck, a female, was even more obliging, and landed with the mergansers where we could get a much better view of it. To round out the total, a fifth flew past a little later.

While we were looking through the ducks, we picked up a Slavonian Grebe on the sea. It was clearly small, next to the Red-breasted Mergansers. It had a flat crown, white cheeks and a neatly defined black cap. Red-throated Diver is the most regular diver species here and we found one or two out on the sea. Black-throated Diver is the rarest so it was a bonus to find one just as we were about to call it a day. We were alerted to it by a flash of its white flank patch as it dived. It was rather distant, but when it surfaced again we could also see its very contrasting black and white colouration, and sleeker, slimmer structure compared to the Great Northern Diver we had seen earlier.

After such a fantastically productive morning here, we decided to head back to the car. Three species of diver and an excellent selection of seaduck was a great return for our efforts. A Little Grebe on Broadwater on the way back made it three species of grebe for the site today too!

As we walked back along the seawall, we could hear Twite calling. We assumed it would just be the pair we had seen earlier, but a flock of around 25 Twite flew up from the saltmarsh and across the path in front of us. A couple of males flashed bright pink rumps as they flew past. They dropped down by a pool on the grazing marsh for a quick drink, before flying back to the saltmarsh again. We had another good look at them through the scope.

6o0a8254Twite – a flock of about 25 had appeared on the walk back

There had been a Glaucous Gull reported by some pig fields inland from here yesterday, so we decided to have a quick drive round to see if we could find it. We did find a large flock of gulls loafing in a field by an irrigation reservoir, but all we could see there were Black-headed, Common and Herring Gulls. There didn’t appear to be many gulls around the pig fields today.

The buntings were more obliging. There has been a big flock of Yellowhammers here through the winter and there must have been at least 60 here still today. Several were bathing in a puddle as we arrived, including some stunningly yellow males. They were rather flighty, constantly flying between the hedges and the field the other side. However, when they perched up in the hedge we could get a good look at them.

6o0a8275Yellowhammer – at least 60 in the flock today

As well as the Yellowhammers, there have been good numbers of Corn Bunting here and there were still at least 6 here today.We could hear one singing when we got out of the car, the song often compared to jangling keys, but we couldn’t see it through the hedge. Then one flew over as we walked along the road, we were alerted to it by its distinctive liquid ‘pit’ call. Finally we managed to get three in the scope, perched up together in the top of a small tree. They are getting so scarce now, it is always a delight to see Corn Buntings.

There were other things to see here too. There were several Reed Buntings in with the Yellowhammers and Corn Buntings. A pair of Stock Doves were feeding in a recently sown field, much more delicate birds then the similarly grey Woodpigeon. A couple of Red Kites hung in the air over a nearby wood. When a Kestrel flew over the field, all the Yellowhammers and Corn Buntings scattered.

Our destination for the afternoon was Titchwell. After lunch by the visitor centre and a welcome hot drink, we made had a look at the feeders. There were a few Greenfinches with the Chaffinches and Goldfinches, but the highlight was a couple of female Bramblings which dropped in to join them. The Water Rail was in the ditch by the main path as usual, but was lurking under a tangle of vegetation bathing today.

6o0a8282Water Rail – lurking under a tangle of vegetation bathing

The dried out grazing meadow ‘pool’ looked devoid of life at first. We repositioned ourselves further along the path, so we could see round behind the reeds at the front. At that point, one of the group spotted a bird right down at the front – the Water Pipit we had been looking for. We had a great view of it through the scope, noting its white underparts neatly streaked with black, and well-marked white supercilium.

img_1011Water Pipit – showed very well on the grazing meadow ‘pool’

A single Great Crested Grebe was at the back of the reedbed pool, asleep amongst the ducks. While we were scanning around the edges of the pool, a small wader flicked up and dropped down on a patch of cut reed at the front. We had a very restricted view, with a line of reeds in front. Looking through with the scope we managed to see there was a Common Snipe feeding there, but the bird we had just seen fly in was smaller than that. Then, just behind it, we caught sight of a Jack Snipe.

The Jack Snipe flew across the water at the front and landed on another patch of cut reed the other side, out of view. By walking a little further along the path and looking back, we were able to find it again, though we still had to look through the reeds in the front. It was very well camouflaged, with its bright golden mantle stripes in amongst the reed stems, but the Jack Snipe was feeding with its distinctive bobbing action. Great to watch!

We could see dark clouds approaching from the west, so we made our way quickly round to Parrinder Hide to scan the Freshmarsh from there. As we walked round, a huge flock of Golden Plover flew up from the fenced off island and most of them seemed to drift off inland. We got into the hide just in time, as a squally shower blew in.

There is still a good variety of ducks on the Freshmarsh at the moment – Wigeon, Gadwall, Teal and Shoveler. The birds huddled up against the rain. There were also good numbers of gulls again, but we couldn’t find anything other than Black-headed Gull, Common Gull and Herring Gull on here today.

6o0a8324Teal – a smart drake, huddled up facing into the rain

There were lots of Redshank in particular on the Freshmarsh today. Perhaps they had been flushed off the Volunteer Marsh by something? Several Knot flew in too and landed in with the gulls. A noisy little group of Oystercatcher were gathered in a circle giving a piping display. There were also lots of Avocet on here – numbers are continuing to increase as birds return after the winter. A colour-ringed Black-tailed Godwit stood pointing into the rain.

img_1018Black-tailed Godwit – a colour-ringed bird in the rain

Thankfully the rain blew through quickly. Once it stopped, we made our way round to the other side of Parrinder Hide, overlooking the Volunteer Marsh. There were several Knot, Grey Plover and Curlew on the mud in front of the hide when we walked in, but almost immediately something flushed all the birds and the waders all flew off. The Redshanks had gone over to join the others on the Freshmarsh – we could see them all busy bathing and preening from the window at the back of the hide.

As it was starting to brighten up again, we decided to make a bid for the beach. From round on the main path, we stopped to watch a couple of Knot and a couple of Dunlin which dropped back in together on the mud, a nice chance to compare the two species.

6o0a8332Shoveler – several were out on the Tidal Pools

The Pintail were all out on the Tidal Pools today, along with more Shoveler and Mallard. There were also a few waders on here, in particular several Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwits. This provided a good opportunity to compare the two species – the Bar-tailed Godwit being obviously smaller, shorter-legged and with paler, buffier upperparts streaked with dark.

The tide was coming in again out at the beach. Large groups of Oystercatcher and Bar-tailed Godwit were gathered along the shoreline. There was quite a lot of seaweed scattered across the sand today and we could see several silvery Sanderling feeding in amongst it.

There was a flock of Scoter further offshore and through the scope we could see they were mostly Velvet Scoter with a smaller number of Common Scoter in with them. Even better, a single Velvet Scoter was much closer in and we could see the distinctive twin smaller white spots on its face. A couple of Common Scoter were closer in too, and when it turned head on, we could see the yellow stripe down the top of the bill on the drake. Otherwise, the sea here was much quieter than it had been at Holme this morning – just a few Red-breasted Merganser and Goldeneye. Still, Velvet Scoter was a nice bird to round out the set of our seaduck for the day.

As we made our way back along the main path, we stopped for another look at the Jack Snipe. There were now two Common Snipe on the same side of the pool as the Jack Snipe, we could see their pale central crown stripes. The Common Snipe were out in the middle of the patch of cut reed, but typically the Jack Snipe was more secretive, still keeping nearer to cover at the edge of the tall reeds. However, it had worked its way out to the edge of a little puddle where we could see it better, its shorter bill and dark central crown.

img_1043Jack Snipe – feeding on the edge of the reedbed pool

On the way back, we cut round via Meadow Trail and out to Patsy’s Reedbed. The water level is being kept high on here this year – attractive for the Tufted Ducks, Common Pochard and Coot which were all diving on here. Several Marsh Harriers were starting to gather over the reedbed, ahead of going to roost. A Cetti’s Warbler sand from the bushes.

The afternoon was getting on and it was starting to get dark, but when we turned to look behind us we could see another bank of dark clouds approaching from the west, so we decided to make our way back. We had heard Bullfinches calling on the way out and seen a couple of shapes disappearing off into the bushes. On the way back, they were more helpfully feeding in the top of a small tree, picking at the buds. The three females were perched in full view, while the pink male lurked a little further back. A couple of Jays called noisily from the sallows and we flushed a Muntjac from beside the boardwalk, which scuttled off into the undergrowth.

We got back to the car just in time, as a wintry shower blew through. We had been remarkably lucky with the weather today and we didn’t mind a bit of rain now we were on our way home.

24th Feb 2017 – Wildfowl, Waders & Larks

A Winter Tour today in North Norfolk. After Storm Doris had blown through yesterday (thankfully, with no tours arranged!), bringing gusts of up to 81mph, it was a welcome return to calmer conditions today. It was mostly cloudy, but we did enjoy some nice sunnier intervals later in the afternoon.

Our first stop was at Holkham. As we drove up Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see large flocks of Wigeon still on the grazing marshes. It won’t be too long now before they will start to depart for their Russian breeding grounds.

6o0a7998Wigeon – still large flocks on the grazing marshes at Holkham

Most of the Pink-footed Geese have already departed on their way back north, although they will stop off in northern England or Scotland before continuing on their way to Iceland. However, there are still a few around and we managed to find a small party of Pink-footed Geese further over on the grazing marshes. A quick look through the scope, and we discovered there were a couple of White-fronted Geese with them too and a single Brent Goose.

Walking through the gap in the trees towards the beach, there were lots of small branches and leaves scattered over the path, the remnants of last night’s storm. We made our way east, along the path on the edge of the saltmarsh. Out in the vegetation, we could see a small group of Brent Geese and Shelduck. Most of the geese were Dark-bellied Brents, the commonest subspecies here in winter, they breed in northern Russia. There is also a regular Black Brant hybrid here, the returning progeny of a vagrant Black Brant which had paired up with a Dark-bellied Brent Goose many years ago, this hybrid now comes back every year to the same place.

img_0920Black Brant hybrid – the regular returning bird, still with the Brent flock at Holkham

It didn’t take long to find the Black Brant hybrid in with the small flock of Brents. It has a noticeably whiter flank patch and more extensive collar, as well as being a touch darker above and on the belly than the accompanying Dark-bellied Brent Geeese. However, it is not quite dark or contrasting enough to match a pure Black Brant. It is always an interesting bird to see here.

As we walked along, several Meadow Pipits flew up from the saltmarsh, but it wasn’t until we got to the east end that we found the Shorelarks, in their regular spot. They are currently feeding mostly in the slightly taller vegetation, so can be hard to see. Thankfully we were able to find them before some other birders walked right through the area they were hiding.

img_0906Shorelark – still 29+ here, feeding in the taller vegetation on the saltmarsh

We watched the Shorelarks for a while. At first, it looked like there were only 5-6 of them again, but gradually we spotted more creeping around in the sea lavendar seed heads. With their heads down, they were particularly hard to see, but occasionally a bright yellow face with black bandit mask would pop up out of the vegetation.

When a Common Buzzard drifted out from the pines and across the saltmarsh, the Shorelarks all took off and only at that stage could we see how many there really were. They landed on a slightly more open sandy ridge and a quick count suggested there were 29, although we could easily still have missed one or two. Then they scuttled quickly back into cover.

We walked over to the dunes and had a quick look at the sea. It was still rather rough after yesterday, and there didn’t appear to be a lot visible today. We did find a couple of Red-breasted Mergansers feeding in the breakers. There were also lots of Oystercatchers and gulls on the beach, feeding on shellfish washed up after the storm, and several Sanderling were running in and out of the waves between them.

As we made our way back to Lady Anne’s Drive, a small bird came zipping low across the saltmarsh and out towards the dunes. It was a Merlin. Often that is all you see of them, as they disappear off into the distance, but this one helpfully decided to land on a small Suaeda bush, where we could get a great look at it through the scope. It perched there for several minutes, before flying off over the dunes and away west over the beach. As we got back to the boardwalk, a Sparrowhawk was circling over the pines.

img_0932Merlin – perched up for us to get a great look at it

From Lady Anne’s Drive, we walked west on the inland side of the pines. A tree was down across the path and the wardens were in the process of clearing it with chainsaws. Despite the noise, we could hear Goldcrests and Long-tailed Tits in the trees. Further along, a Treecreeper was singing. Salts Hole held a Little Grebe, a pair of Tufted Ducks, plus a few Coot and Wigeon. A Jay flew across, over the back of the water.

As we approached Washington Hide, we saw a Spoonbill fly up briefly, which appeared to drop down again, possibly onto one of the pools. We had a scan of the grazing marshes from the boardwalk by the hide, but couldn’t see it from there. A Marsh Harrier circled up out of the reedbed. Then the Spoonbill flew up again and disappeared off further west.

At Joe Jordan Hide, there didn’t seem to be as much activity as recent days at first. There was a scattering of commoner geese – Greylags, Canada Geese and Egyptian Geese – out on the grass. A small group of White-fronted Geese were feeding on the old fort, but as we sat and watched, a steady stream of small groups flew in and joined them, mostly from the other side of Decoy Wood.

6o0a8013White-fronted Geese – flying in to land on the grazing marshes

A juvenile Peregrine was standing by the edge of one of the pools further over, but took off just as we turned the scope onto it. It proceeded to have a go at most of the other birds in the vicinity, swooping down at ducks and geese, but didn’t really seem to know what it was doing. We also saw several more Marsh Harriers and Common Buzzards from here – it is often a good spot for raptors.

Finally, we managed to find the Spoonbill. It was right out across the other side of the grazing marshes and feeding in a small pool. With its head down, it was impossible to see, but just visible occasionally as it lifted its head up. Thankfully, after a while it flew out and landed on the open grass where we could get a slightly better look at it. It was a juvenile, lacking the yellow bill tip and bushy crest of the adults. There was no sign of the other three Spoonbills today, or any Great White Egrets from here.

Back at Lady Anne’s Drive, we stopped for lunch at the picnic tables over looking the grazing marshes. As well as the Wigeon still, there was a selection of waders out on the grassy pools, including Oystercatcher, Curlew and Redshank. A pair of Mistle Thrushes flew down out of the pines. After lunch, as we drove back towards the coast road, the Pink-footed Geese were now close to Lady Anne’s Drive so we stopped quickly for a better look.

6o0a8028Pink-footed Geese – nice views close to Lady Anne’s Drive after lunch

From the road, we pulled up to scan the other side of the marshes and quickly spotted a very tall white shape, a Great White Egret. We stopped and got the scope on it. Helpfully, there was a Grey Heron just next to it for comparison and we could see that the Great White Egret was as tall or even slightly taller! The long yellow-orange bill also really stood out.

img_0934Great White Egret – out on the grazing marshes at Holkham

Scanning across the marshes, we found a second Great White Egret, hiding in a reedy ditch. There were also lots more White-fronted Geese this side, which is why there were not so many visible from Joe Jordan Hide today. Amongst a flock of Lapwings and Starlings down on the wet grass, we found a little group of Ruff too.

As we made our way further west along the coast road, a shout from one of the group alerted us to a Barn Owl perched on a post right beside the road as we drove past. Never an easy place to stop, we managed to reverse back to it. It sat for a few seconds looking at us, but then flew a little further along as another car pulled up behind. Driving forwards very slowly, we were able to watch it only about 10 metres away from us. Stunning views! Eventually, the growing number of cars stopping to look seemed to spur it into action and it flew across the road and started hunting over the marshes.

6o0a8049Barn Owl – perched on a post right beside the road in the middle of the day

There has not been as much daytime Barn Owl activity this winter, which may reflect the generally mild and clement conditions we have enjoyed. It they are not hungry, then there is no need for them to hunt during the day. Presumably Storm Doris had made hunting very difficult yesterday and overnight, so this Barn Owl had come out to try to catch something during the day. We could see that it was ringed, but unfortunately couldn’t read the full number from photos. Many wild Barn Owls are ringed in the nest in North Norfolk.

After that unexpected bonus, we continued on to Titchwell, where we planned to spend the rest of the afternoon. The feeders round the visitor centre held a selection of the commoner finches and tits, but no sign of any Brambling today. The Water Rail put on a good show, feeding out in the open in the ditch by the main path, probing in the decaying leaves, seemingly unconcerned by the large lenses pointed at it.

6o0a8104Water Rail – still in the ditch by the path

The grazing meadow was rather quiet again but the reedbed pool did at least provide Common Pochard as an addition for the day’s list. The water levels on the freshmarsh have been slowly coming down and there was a nice selection of birds on here today.

The first thing that struck us when we arrived was the gulls. There were large numbers of Black-headed Gulls and Common Gulls loafing on the edges of the islands or in the shallow water. In with them were a few Herring Gulls and Lesser Black-backed Gulls. We had a scan through from Island Hide, but it was only from further up that a Mediterranean Gull was visible. It was an adult, with white wing tips and bright red bill, just moulting in to summer plumage, with white speckling still around the front of its jet black hood.

img_0949Mediterranean Gull – an adult moulting into summer plumage

There was still the usual variety of ducks on the freshmarsh. The Teal were looking particularly smart, in the afternoon sunshine, just below the path. Further over, we could see a selection of Wigeon, Gadwall, Shoveler and a pair of Pintail. A large flock of Brent Geese flew in from the saltmarsh towards Brancaster, calling noisily, and landed on the water to bathe and preen.

6o0a8122Teal – a smart drake in the sunshine

Wader numbers on the freshmarsh are increasing now, in particular the number of Avocets, as birds return north. There were also more Black-tailed Godwits today, though mostly sleeping in amongst the gulls. A small group of Dunlin included a single Knot for comparison. Singles of Grey Plover and Turnstone had presumably flown in from the beach ahead of high tide. The fenced off Avocet Island at the back was packed with Golden Plover and Lapwing, with more small flocks of Golden Plover dropping in to join them all the time.

6o0a8190Curlew – on the Volunteer Marsh

There were more waders on the Volunteer Marsh. As well as more Knot, Dunlin and Grey Plover, there were lots of Redshank and Curlew. A single Ringed Plover was a welcome addition to the day’s list. With high tide approaching, more waders were roosting on the Tidal Pools, particularly several Bar-tailed Godwits. This gave us a great opportunity to compare them to a couple of Black-tailed Godwits feeding nearby. Even without seeing their respective tails, the buffier tones, black streaked upperparts, shorter legs and upturned bill all quickly distinguish the Bar-tailed Godwits.

6o0a8144Avocet – on the Tidal Pools

There were also more Knot and Redshank on the Tidal Pools, and several Avcoets feeding, including one close to the path.

We wanted to have a look at the sea, but there was not as much activity out here as there has been in recent weeks. There was still a big swell running, after the storm yesterday, and several of the ducks appeared to be quiet a way offshore. Fortunately, there was a nice group of about twenty Velvet Scoters close in, diving for shellfish. Several were holding their wings loosely folded, revealing the white wing flash as a stripe on their flanks. The face pattern is rather variable, particularly at this time of year, but it was possible to see the distinctive white spot at the base of the bill on some.

Helpfully, there was also a female Common Scoter with them for comparison, with a very extensive pale cheek and dark cap, and no white wing flash. There were more Common and Velvet Scoters in a larger raft much further out. A female Goldeneye drifted past in front of them, but most of the other Goldeneyes were a long way offshore today. A Fulmar flew past too.

Back at the Tidal Pools, we stopped to look again at a group of roosting waders, particularly with Bar-tailed Godwit and Black-tailed Godwit side by side. But a scan further along revealed that a Spotted Redshank had flown in while we were out at the beach. We walked back and had great views of it feeding in the shallows not far from the path. With a Common Redshank nearby for comparison, we could see that the Spotted Redshank was noticeably paler, more silvery grey above and whiter below, with a longer and finer bill and a better marked, brighter white supercilium.

6o0a8170Spotted Redshank – had flown in to the Tidal Pools while we were on the beach

As we passed the freshmarsh on our way back, the Golden Plovers and Lapwings all spooked, They took off and whirled round in flocks overhead, the Golden Plovers particularly tight packed. We couldn’t see anything which might have alarmed them, although they had been jumpy all afternoon, and they quickly settled back down again.

6o0a8192Golden Plovers – whirling around over the freshmarsh

A quick look down along one of the reedy channels in the reedbed revealed a Kingfisher, perched up on a reed along the edge. We had a quick look at it through the scope, before another bird spooked it and it flew off across the reeds. We looked back to see a second Kingfisher had appeared, presumably having chased off the first. Then it was time to call it a day and head for home.

21st Feb 2017 – From Heath to Coast

A Private Tour today in North Norfolk. The brief was to avoid the main nature reserves on the coast. The forecast was for it to be “rather cloudy with outbreaks of light rain at first” according to the Met Office. How wrong it was! Instead, when we met up in the morning it was wall to wall blue sky and crisp sunshine. With weather like that, there was only one place to start the day.

As soon was got out of the car up on the Heath, we heard a Woodlark calling as it flew away. A dog was running across the cleared area nearby and had probably just flushed it. Still, it seemed an auspicious start. A Yellowhammer flew in and landed in the top of one of the bushes by the car park. A smart male, we got it in the scope and its yellow head was positively glowing in the morning light. Stunning!

6o0a7787Yellowhammer – a smart male glowing yellow in the morning sun

A couple more Yellowhammers dropped in to join it, another male and a duller female. While we were watching them, we heard the Woodlark calling again as it flew back in. We saw where it landed in the long grass and walked a little closer to where we could see it. Thankfully, it was standing up on a slightly taller tussock and it started to sing softly as it stood there. We got it in the scope and all had a good look at it.

When the Woodlark took off again, it flew straight towards us and gained height. Then it started singing as it came right overhead, hovering above us for a minute or so. The Woodlark‘s song is not full of the joys like a Skylark but slightly more melancholy. It is still a beautiful sound, a real delight to stand and listen to it on such a sunny morning, one of the real sounds of early spring on the heaths. As it hung overhead, we could see the Woodlark‘s comparatively short tail and broad rounded wings.

6o0a7796Woodlark – hovering over our heads this morning, singing

After a while, the Woodlark flew down and landed again at the back of the clearing. We were planning to be greedy and go over for another look at it, but we were distracted by another smart male Yellowhammer hopping around on the ground in front of us. While we were watching it, the Woodlark took off again, calling. A second Woodlark got up from the ground and followed it – clearly the male had been singing while the female was feeding quietly over the back of the clearing all along.

Sunny mornings on the Heath at this time of the year are a great time to look for Adders. Having emerged from hibernation, they like to bask in the sunshine and warm themselves. We walked round to an area where we can often find them, a slope angled towards the morning sun. Very quickly we spotted one close to the path, but despite the early hour of the morning it was surprisingly lively already and quickly slithered off into the undergrowth. As we walked round this quiet corner, we heard a Bullfinch calling and looked across to see a smart pink male picking at the buds in the top of a dense blackthorn thicket.

After such a successful start to the morning, we decided to turn our attention to Dartford Warblers next. They are resident on the heaths all year round, but harder to find when it is cloudy and cold. At this time of year, on sunny days, they are starting to sing again. Walking round through the centre of one of their regular territories, all seemed rather quiet at first. Then we heard a distinctive rasping call and looked across to see a small dark long-tailed bird dart across a clearing between two gorse bushes. Our first Dartford Warbler.

Repositioning ourselves to where it had flown, we could soon see the Dartford Warbler flitting between the gorse bushes. As we followed it, it soon became clear there were actually at least three Dartford Warblers in the same area. They can be hard birds to track, as they are constantly on the move, disappearing into the dense vegetation for periods and then, just when you think you have lost them, flying out again. Occasionally one would perch out in the open for a couple of seconds – we could see there was a male, darker slate blue grey above and richer burgundy below, a duller female, and a young bird, much browner above and paler below, one of the juveniles from last year.

6o0a7835Dartford Warbler – the male singing from the top of a gorse bush

The male Dartford Warbler started singing. We could hear the bursts of scratchy song. At one point, we thought there might be two males, as we heard different bursts of song coming from different places in quick succession. After following them for a while, and having all enjoyed good views, we left them to it and continued our circuit of the Heath. As we walked round, were accompanied by the song of Woodlarks and Yellowhammers.

It was a perfect day for finding Adders today. We bumped into one of the local birders who is a regular on the Heath and he showed us three Adders basking round the base of a birch tree. A larger, darker female was stretched out on her own. Nearby, what looked like one snake turned out to be two curled up together as they moved – a large, dark female, and a smaller, slimmer, paler silvery male. A little further on, we found another two Adders, curled up in a couple of bare patches on a south facing bank. We had a great look at them.

6o0a7846Adder – we found at least six out basking this morning in a brief look

We had a quick look round another Dartford Warbler territory the other side of the Heath, but it was quieter here. There has been a pair of Stonechats here and the warblers have been following them round, but we couldn’t find any sign of either in their favourite area. Having enjoyed such a great session with the Dartford Warblers earlier, we weren’t overly concerned.

While we were walking round, another pair of Woodlarks flew over. The male landed on a post, where we could get him in the scope, while the female dropped down to the ground to feed. We were just watching them, when a third Woodlark started singing just behind us. These three were almostly certainly different to the pair we had seen earlier, which would mean potentially three pairs of Woodlark here this morning. It had been a great morning on the Heath and we could easily have stayed here all day, but we had other things we wanted to do today, so we made our way back to the car.

Our next destination was Holkham. As we drove down along Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see a large flock of geese on one of the grazing meadows nearby, so we stopped for a closer look. We could see they were mostly Brent Geese, smaller and darker, but nearby were a few grey-brown Pink-footed Geese too. A lot of the Pink-footed Geese which have spent the winter here have already departed on their way back north, so it was nice to be able to get a good look at some. We could see their delicate mostly dark bills with a pink band around and, when one stood up in the grass, its pink legs.

6o0a7850Pink-footed Geese – a few were still by Lady Anne’s Drive today

The vast majority of the Brent Geese here during the winter are Dark-bellied Brent Geese which breed up in arctic Russia. Occasionally, we get one of the other subspecies of Brent Goose in with the flocks, perhaps a Black Brant from NE Siberia or Alaska. In the past, some of these Black Brants have paired up and subsequently bred with one of the Dark-bellied Brents to produce hybrid young. One of these hybrids is a regular here at Holkham and a careful scan through the Brent flock revealed it. Subtly darker bodied than the others, it has a better marked white collar and more obvious whiter flank patch then the others.

img_0864Black Brant hybrid – a regular in with the Dark-bellied Brents at Holkham

While we were watching the geese, we could hear Lapwings starting to display on the fields behind us, giving their distinctive song. There were also still some big flocks of Wigeon grazing close to the road, whistling occasionally. Several Common Buzzards were enjoying the sunshine, circling up into the blue sky and even starting to display, swooping up and down. It was getting on for lunchtime already, so we decided to have an early lunch here before setting off to explore.

After lunch, we walked out onto the beach and made our way east alone the edge of the saltmarsh. At first there was no sign of the large flock of Shorelarks which has been feeding here for the last few weeks. We were told they had earlier been flushed by an errant dog running around there. We walked across for a look at the sea, in the hope that they might return. The tide was in and there was not so much activity here today – a few Great Crested Grebes and a single drake Goldeneye were all we could find riding out on the slightly choppy sea.

There were three birders eating their lunch in the dunes nearby, looking out through their scopes at the saltmarsh, so we walked back round to see if they had seen anything. Very helpfully, they got us on to six Shorelarks which were feeding half hidden in the taller vegetation out in the middle. We were looking into the sun from here, so we walked back round to the other side.

6o0a7902Shorelark – six were hiding in the taller vegetation on the saltmarsh

The Shorelarks were hard to see with their heads down while feeding, but occasionally one would look up and a bright yellow face would catch the sun. Then we could get a great look at them through the scope, admiring their black bandit masks and even occasionally get a glimpse of the black horns on the side of their heads. A Skylark was feeding nearby and a second flew in to join it, perhaps a male as it raised its crest and drew itself up erect, looking like it might be about to display to the first, before the two of them resumed feeding. As the Shorelarks gradually worked their way back deeper into the vegetation, we left them to it.

Back at :Lady Anne’s Drive, we made our way west along the path on the inland side of the pines. At this point it started to cloud over from the west. There were lots of Long-tailed Tits feeding high in the poplars as we passed. At Salts Hole, we stopped to watch a Little Grebe diving on the edge of the reeds. A couple of Mistle Thrush and a few Curlew were feeding on the grassy field beyond.

We had a quick scan from the raised boardwalk by Washington Hide. A Marsh Harrier circled up from the reeds. A Sparrowhawk flew past with something in its talons, trailing several long strands of grass with whatever prey it had grasped. Two Pintail flew in and landed on the pool, an adult drake with a long pin-shaped tail and a younger male without.

6o0a7917Spoonbills – 2 of the 4 circling round over the trees

As we approached Joe Jordan Hide, we got a glimpse through the trees of four white shapes taking off from the pool in front and through binoculars we could see they were Spoonbills. From up in the hide, we watched them circling round over the trees beyond, long white necks held outstretched in front. Eventually they landed again on the edge of the pool and started to preen before quickly going to sleep – which is what Spoonbills seem to like to do best! Two were adults and through the scope we could see their bushy nuchal crests flapping around in the breeze. When they did lift their heads we could see the yellow tips to their bills.

img_0889Spoonbills – the adults with bushy crests and yellow-tipped bills

There were lost of geese out on the grazing marshes all around, mostly White-fronted Geese. They were hard to count, as they kept flying round in small groups and landing in different places or dropping down out of view. Sitting in the hide, we could hear their yelping calls every time a party flew past, a constant backdrop to our visit. There were several hundreds here today, more than there seem to have been through much of the winter, perhaps boosted by other groups stopping off before departing back to their breeding grounds in Russia.

We got some of the White-fronted Geese in the scope, so we could see the white surround to the bill from which they get their name, and the black belly bars on the adults. At one point, a small group landed next to some Greylags and we could see the White-fronted Geese were notably smaller and darker overall, as well as having a smaller pink bill compared to the large orange carrot sported by the Greylags.

6o0a7924White-fronted Geese – their were large numbers at Holkham today

Scanning through the White-fronted Geese, we found a couple of smaller white-faced Barnacle Geese in with them. It would be nice to think that these also might be winter visitors from the arctic, but their status is complicated by feral populations, including in Holkham Park. There were also some Canada Geese here and several pairs of Egyptian Geese – a couple of more obviously feral geese species to round out the overall variety.

While we were looking through the geese, we noticed a large raptor flying low over the grassy ridge in the distance. It was clearly slimmer winged and tailed than the commoner Marsh Harriers and, as it turned, we could see a square white rump patch. It was a Hen Harrier, a ringtail. Unfortunately, it continued off away from us and it was not a great view, but a nice bird to see out hunting here nonetheless.

We had hoped we might see a Great White Egret here, but there was no sign at first. We were just thinking about leaving, when a large white shape walked out of some dense reeds on one side of the marshes. It was clearly huge, even with the naked eye, but through the scope we could see its long yellow bill. It was strutted across and went back into some deeper reeds, where it stood motionless fishing and it was surprisingly hard to see for such a large bird.

After a short while, the Great White Egret flew across and landed on the far side of one of the reedy ditches. Then a second Great White Egret flew out from nearby and chased after it, the two of them flying off together before eventually disappearing disappearing round behind the trees.

6o0a7954Great White Egret – a second flew in and chased off the first

Time was getting on now, so we decided to head back to the car. We still had time for one more stop on our journey back, so we turned off the coast road at Stiffkey Greenway on our way back east. Scanning the saltmarsh, we first picked up a Marsh Harrier working its way slowly along the grassy ridge at the back. It didn’t take us long to pick up our first Hen Harrier, a ringtail, hanging over the saltmarsh away to the west. We got it in the scope and got a good view of it, much better than the one we had seen earlier at Holkham. Even better, it then drifted back east and started hunting the saltmarsh out in front of us.

6o0a7986Hen Harrier – a ringtail hunting over the saltmarsh

At one point, as it quartered the saltmarsh, the Hen Harrier flushed a Merlin from the bushes below. Small and dark, it flew off swiftly low over the vegetation. It looked like it would disappear into the distance, but thankfully it landed on a dead branch and started preening, so we could all get a look at it through the scope.

As we looked out over the marshes, another ringtail Hen Harrier made its way in purposefully from the east and across in front of us. We were really hoping to see a male Hen Harrier, but they kept us waiting a bit this evening. We did get an early glimpse of one, but it disappeared down into the vegetation very distantly to the west and didn’t reappear. Eventually one flew in from the west towards us, at the back of the saltmarsh. It flew past a male Marsh Harrier, giving a nice comparison of size and shape, the Hen Harrier a ghostly grey apparition. When it flew up against the grey sky, it almost disappeared.

After quartering the saltmarsh for a while, the male Hen Harrier dropped down into the vegetation at the back. We saw it fly up again briefly and we could just see its pale head in the grass occasionally, but it was clearly in no rush to fly again. It was a nice way to end the day, watching the harriers, so with the light fading we decided to head for home.

19th Feb 2017 – Late Winter Birding, Day 3

Day 3 of a three day long weekend of Late Winter Birding tours today, our last day and we made our way down to the Brecks. This was forecast to be the best day of the weekend, but after better than expected weather on Friday and Saturday, it remained stubbornly cloudy through the day today. Still, we made the best of it and managed to see all the specialities we were looking for. After the drive down to the Brecks, we regrouped in Swaffham (so members of the group could make a quick getaway at the end of the day) and set off to explore the forest.

Our first stop saw us at a site from which we could overlook the forest. We were just setting the scope up and the first bird we saw as we lined it up on the trees was a Goshawk. It was just a glimpse between the tops of trees. We expected it to circle up above the canopy, but it but didn’t. A few seconds later another local standing nearby asked ‘is that a Buzzard in the tree’, but as we swung the scope onto it, we could see that it was a juvenile Goshawk, perched in the top of a fir tree. It was obviously huge, very brown-toned above and spotted with pale feathers (the adults are grey above). Unfortunately it quickly dropped down again into the trees, before the whole of group could get a look at it through the scope.

Encouraged by our early Goshawk sighting, we waited for a reappearance. With the low cloud today, and cool conditions, there was less raptor activity in terms of numbers but still we saw a great variety. The Common Buzzards were coming and going all the time, though not circling up high into the sky. A rather pale bird caught the eye on a couple of occasions – Common Buzzards are very variable and there are some very white birds around. A Kestrel perched on a post. A Sparrowhawk circled up, and was pursued by a pair of Crows. Even a Peregrine put in a brief appearance, circling over behind us before disappearing behind the trees. But there was no more sign of Goshawk.

There were other things to see while we waited. A large flock of Redwings flew up and perched in the top of the trees, before flying down to the field below. Through the scope we could see their prominent pale superciliums. A large bare tree over the other side held four thrushes – two Mistle Thrushes, a Fieldfare and another Redwing. A little later, one of the Mistle Thrushes  started singing. There were several Skylarks around and they were singing despite the cool weather. A couple of Yellowhammers flew round in front of us calling. A flock of Linnets whirled over the field periodically.

6o0a7520Brown Hare – we watched a couple of pairs chasing round the fields

There was one pair of Brown Hares each side of us in the fields. They spent a lot of time just feeding, but we did watch one pair as the male chased the female in circles for a while. She didn’t turn round and ‘box’ him though, unfortunately. He seemed to lose interest fairly quickly and they resumed feeding.

Eventually we could see some brighter weather approaching from west. The sun just poked out from behind clouds, enough to light up the trees in front of us. More Common Buzzards circled up, gaining a little more height too than they had all morning. Finally the juvenile Goshawk appeared again, flying low across over the tops of the trees. As we watched it, we could see see why – an adult Goshawk was chasing it, silvery grey above and gleaming white below in the sunshine.

The two Goshawks flew across the length of the line of trees in front of us and disappeared into the wood in the corner. All the Woodpigeons scattered from the wood as they flew in. A short while later, the adult Goshawk flew back again low over the trees, across to where it had come from. Presumably it felt it had achieved its mission, chasing off the youngster.

Then the juvenile Goshawk started to drift back too. It circled up out of the trees, giving us a chance to get it in the scope and everyone managed to get a look at it. The upperparts were brown and the black-streaked apricot toned underparts caught the sun. Then it dropped down behind the trees again and we decided to move on.

Our next stop was at St Helens picnic site. As we drove in, we could see some Bramblings on the ground among the leaves. There were a lot of cars here today, so it was obviously rather disturbed and the Bramblings were very flighty. As we got out of the car, the last of them flew up into the trees, and they gradually started to fly off calling. We drove round to the other side of the car park to see if they had landed over there, but when we came back round we found a good number of them had landed again back where they had been at first.

6o0a7541Brambling – a bright male, with only limited black visible on its head

By carefully positioning the car, we had nice views of the Bramblings feeding on the beech mast. They were very hard to see among the orange leaves, but there were at least 20 of them still. The brighter males were noticeably variable, with some already getting blacker heads.

After watching the Bramblings for a while, we drove over to Santon Downham for an early lunch. A Greenfinch was singing from the birches in the car park. A Goldcrest was flitting around in a fir tree singing and we could hear a Marsh Tit singing nearby. Spring was obviously in the air! There were more Bramblings here too, dropping down out of the taller trees into the gardens.

After lunch, we drove deeper into the Forest.We parked up and walked down a ride to a large clearing. It is normally very quiet here, but just as we arrived at the clearing we met a dog walker coming the other way. We were hoping to find a Woodlark here, but with the dogs having just gone through their favoured area, we thought we might be out of luck. However, as we turned the corner two Woodlarks flew up in front of us.

img_0771Woodlark – dropped down into the top of a fir tree

The Woodlarks started singing, a much more melancholy song than a Skylark. They fluttered up, gaining height, but then flew round, song flighting over the clearing. One then dropped down and landed in the top of a fir tree out in the middle, where we could get it in the scope. We had a great view of it, the bright rusty ear coverts, the well-marked supercilia meeting on the back of the nape in a shallow ‘v’. Eventually it dropped down onto an open patch of ground, but still managed to disappear into the low vegetation.

We were just looking for the Woodlark, when we heard the faint ‘glip, glip’ call of a Common Crossbill. They are often to be heard flying over here, but when the calls were repeated they seemed to be coming from the same place. We scanned across the tops of the trees and could see a Crossbill perched up partly obscured, in the bare branches in the top of a deciduous tree. We repositioned ourselves for a clearer line of sight and got it in the scope.

img_0782Crossbill – a male perched nicely for us in the top of a tree

The Crossbill was a male – we could see its rusty orange overall colour. Through the scope, we could also see its distinctive crossed mandibles. Its throat feathers were moving and it appeared to be singing quietly, although we couldn’t hear it from where we were standing. Then it dropped back into the trees and disappeared.

Our main target for the afternoon was Hawfinch, and it was now time for us to get back to Lynford to await their arrival. As we walked down the path beside the Arboretum, we stopped by the feeders. There were lots of Bramblings in the leaves, along with several Chaffinches, but they were very hard to see. They were very well camouflaged, but they were throwing beak-fulls of leaves up in the air to look for beech mast, which rather gave their presence away. It was funny to watch too!

6o0a7583Brambling – a female in the leaves, Chaffinch in the foreground

6o0a7590Bramblings – two males in the leaves, with different degrees of black heads

Down at the bridge, there was lots of seed which had been put out. A steady stream of tits were coming down to feed, mostly Blue Tits and Long-tailed Tits but also a few Great Tits and a Coal Tit. A single Marsh Tit kept darting in, grabbing some seed, and flying back in the bushes to eat it. Overhead, we could hear a cacophony of twittering from all the Siskins in the top of the trees.

6o0a7613Marsh Tit – kept darting in to grab some seed from the bridge

Then it was time to look for the Hawfinches. As we made our way along the side of the paddock, we could already see two distantly in the tree tops behind. We had a quick look through the scope, just to make sure everyone had seen them, and then walked round further for a better view. There were several Hawfinches now, singles or pairs in different trees, and they kept flying between the tops. We spent some time watching them, admiring their large powerful bills, big heads and short tails.

img_0799Hawfinch – several flew down to the trees in the paddocks

Suddenly, several Hawfinches all flew out of the trees together. A couple flew off, but most dropped down into the trees in the paddocks. Here we got much better views of them, low down and not against the brighter sky. After a short while, most of the Hawfinches seemed to make their way back up into the pines. When they all flew round again, it looked like there were around 15 Hawfinches here today. This was not quite as many as recent days, but having enjoyed very good views of them, we started to walk back, perhaps before they were all in.

As we made our way back around the paddocks, a few people were staring up into the pines on the other side. A pair of Common Crossbills were in a small tree by the side of the path. The male was harder to see in the branches at the back,  but we had a great view of the female as she tucked into a pine cone. After working her way round it for a while, pulling it open and taking out the seeds, she dropped the cone and had a quick stretch and preen. Then the pair of Crossbills both flew off over the path calling.

6o0a7715Common Crossbill – the female tucking into a pine cone

6o0a7742Common Crossbill – the female having a stretch afterwards

We continued up past the car park to the old gravel pits beyond. We had hoped to see a Goosander but we were informed when we arrived that they had just flown off, unfortunately. We did manage to find a single drake Goldeneye, a few Tufted Ducks and a couple of Great Crested Grebes. We were just about to give up, when a pair of Mandarin appeared out from behind the overhanging trees. They were followed by a pair of Mallard and the two drakes then had a brief altercation before the pair of Mandarin flew off.

img_0829Mandarin – this pair were on the gravel pits at Lynford

It was time to head back, but we still had one surprise in store. As we drove into Swaffham, we could see a flock of Starlings circling over the houses. By the time we got back to the car park, there were already several thousand overhead and more were coming in all the time from different directions. Several hundred tried to go down into a fir tree earlier than the rest, but they were clearly nervous and promptly took off again.

The Starling murmuration grew and grew, probably numbering over 20,000 birds at its peak. They all flew round overhead for about half hour, twisting and turning, quite an amazing sight. Then suddenly they started to drop down into the trees. They descended in several different places, but a large number went into a couple of holly trees nearby. It was fascinating to watch – when a group decided they were going in to roost, they dropped  out of the sky at speed and went hurtling into their chosen tree, disappearing completely from view. Hundreds and hundreds all went into a single small tree.

6o0a7756

6o0a7765Starlings – the murmuration at the end of the day was quite a sight

Once they had decided to go to roost, within just a few minutes all the Starlings had gone. We still could hear them though, even if we couldn’t see them, their noisy chattering coming from the trees all around. It was a stunning sight, and a great way to end three exciting days of winter birding.

18th Feb 2017 – Late Winter Birding, Day 2

Day 2 of a three day long weekend of Late Winter Birding tours today, and we spent the day in North Norfolk. It was forecast to be dull and cloudy all day, but thankfully we were treated to some long spells of sunshine, great winter weather to be out birding. There was still a bit of a chill in the brisk SW wind though – it is February after all!

As we made our way down towards the coast, a Red Kite circled lazily through the trees beside the road. We flushed a Common Buzzard out of the trees too, as we stopped, which flew away across the fields. A dead Brown Hare lay on the tarmac, which was obviously being eyed up by the local raptors. We watched as the Red Kite turned over the trees, twisting its tail like a rudder, before it too reluctantly drifted away, leaving behind its potential meal.

Our first destination was Holkham. There were lots of ducks on the pools alongside Lady Anne’s Drive – Wigeon, Shoveler and Teal. However, there were no Pink-footed Geese here today. Numbers of geese are now falling as the birds have started to make their way back north again after the winter.

Parking at the north end of the road, we made our way out through the pines and onto the saltmarsh. There were several birders making their way back along the sandy path who told us that our quarry was ahead. Shorelarks. The birds had been harried and chased around by a photographer, who was just leaving as we arrived, and they were rather skittish and unsettled initially.

They had been mostly keeping to the longer vegetation but when the Shorelarks were flushed by a loose dog and its associated walker, they flew round calling and landed on a more open area. We got them in the scope from a distance at first, and admired their canary yellow faces with black bandit masks, bright in the morning sunshine.

6o0a7241Shorelarks – their bright yellow faces catching the morning sun

6o0a7181Shorelarks – around 30 were still at Holkham this morning

The Shorelarks flew round again and settled near the path. We positioned ourselves nearby and waited patiently, rather than chasing in after them. Gradually, a small group, four of them, came out of the taller sea purslane towards us and started picking at the seedheads of the saltmarsh vegetation in front of us. We enjoyed some great close up views through the scope of them feeding. The poor Skylark singing its heart out in the sky high overhead was all but ignored until we realised that we could listen to one and watch the other, and enjoy both.

6o0a7266Shorelark – came to us as we waited patiently

The Shorelarks are winter visitors to the coast here, in very variable numbers. In recent years, only a very small number have typically made it here, but this winter has seen a resurgence. Early on in the winter, 70-80 were here at Holkham but they have now dispersed along the coast a little. Still, it was a real treat to see a flock of 30 here today.

After watching the Shorelarks for a while, we made our way over to the dunes and had a look out to sea. A drake Red-breasted Merganser we got in the scope was asleep but a drake Goldeneye was awake, its glossy green head catching the sunlight. Several Great Crested Grebes were mostly rather distant, but a winter plumage Red-throated Diver was diving just off the beach. Between dives, everyone eventually got a really good look at it through the scope.

After a great start to the morning, we made our way back to Lady Anne’s Drive. The lure of a hot drink at the coffee van proved too strong and we drank it by the picnic tables looking out over the marshes. There was a lot of action here. As well as all the Wigeon and Woodpigeons, a pair of Mistle Thrushes were feeding out on the grass, amongst the molehills. The sunshine had brought the raptors out and at least four Common Buzzards circled over us.We had failed to find any Pink-footed Geese on the grass by the drive earlier, but a flock of about 50 flew in from the west and landed on the marshes, though unfortunately behind a hedge where we couldn’t get a clear look at them.

6o0a7274Common Buzzard – several circled over Lady Anne’s Drive in the sunshine

Three large white shapes circled up out of the trees in the middle of the marshes. With their long necks held outstretched in front and long legs trailing behind, we could see they were Spoonbills. They dropped down into the trees, but a few minutes later were up and circling again. They repeated this a couple of times more. The UK’s only colony of Spoonbill breed here so these were early returning birds presumably checking out the colony. Spring is definitely in the air!

We made our way round to the other end of the freshmarsh, closer to the trees, and it wasn’t long before the Spoonbills were up and circling again. We had a much improved view of them from here. Even better, when they landed back in the trees at one point, one was in view so we managed to get it distantly in the scope. We could see the yellow tip to its black spoon-shaped bill, confirming that it was an adult Spoonbill.

6o0a7322Spoonbills – early returning birds checking out the colony

Another large white bird out in the middle of the freshmarsh was a Great White Egret. Even without binoculars, we could see it was huge, with a long neck. Through the scope we could see its long, dagger-shaped yellow bill. There were also three Ruff feeding out on the grass around one of the pools. Several Marsh Harriers and Common Buzzards circled in the sunshine or perched around in the trees.

6o0a7339Marsh Harrier – a female, circling above the marshes

The other highlight here was the geese. Scattered across the grass, mixed in with the Greylags, we could see lots of White-fronted Geese. Smaller and darker than the Greylags, through the scope we could see their more delicate pink bills with distinctive white surrounds to the bases. We could also see the distinctive black belly bars on the adult White-fronted Geese. They should be on their way back north soon, back to northern Russia where they breed.

img_0760White-fronted Geese – there were still a good number at Holkham today

From here, we also finally managed to find some Pink-footed Geese on the ground and in view. There were just two of them, but they were handily with a couple of Greylags for comparison. Again, the Pink-footed Geese were smaller and darker, particularly dark on the head and neck, with a more delicate dark bill. Through the scope we could see the pink legs and pink bank around the bill. There were also a couple of Egyptian Geese out on the grass, just to round off the goose selection nicely.

Leaving Holkham, we made our way west. Our next stop was at Brancaster Staithe, where the tide was on its way out. There was a nice selection of waders feeding around the harbour. We had a good look at some Bar-tailed Godwits, noting the dark streaks on their pale buff-coloured upperparts an the long but slightly uptilted bill.

6o0a7360Bar-tailed Godwit – showed well at Brancaster Staithe

Lots of Turnstones and several Oystercatchers were picking around the piles of discarded mussels on the shoreline. A couple of Grey Plovers were picking around on the mud, and a group of smaller Dunlin were feeding feverishly in the shallow water.

It was lunchtime when we arrived at Titchwell, so we made our way to the picnic area. We had been intending to sit at the picnic tables, but we didn’t get a chance! First of all, we heard a Goldcrest singing and walked over to see it flitting around in the bare sallows right by the path. There were lots of Goldfinches twittering high in the alders and then a pair of Siskin appeared with them. The male fed in the top of one of the trees in the sunshine for a minute or so, where we could get a good look at it.

Then one of the group spotted another bird in the top of the same alder. It was hanging on one of the outer branches, picking at the cones. It was much paler and browner, and when it turned to face us we could see that it had a small red patch on its forehead and a bright pinkish red wash across its breast. A Mealy Redpoll and a smart male too. When it climbed around reaching for the cones, we could see it had a distinctive pale whitish rump streaked with black.

6o0a7398Mealy Redpoll – feeding in one of the alders opposite the picnic area

After lunch, we headed out onto the reserve. We had a quick look at the feeders the other side of the visitor centre, but at first there were no birds. Gradually, they started to reappear – Chaffinches, Greenfinches, Goldfinches and tits. Finally a Brambling flew in and joined them. It was a female, with greyish head and a pale orange wash across the breast and shoulders contrasting with the white belly.

6o0a7430Brambling – a female on the feeders by the visitor centre

On the walk out along the main path, we had a quick look in the ditches either side but could not see a Water Rail – we resolved to have another look on the way back. The grazing meadow dry ‘pool’ was rather quiet again, but the reedbed pool the other side held a small group of Common Pochard, along with the regular Mallards and Coot. We stopped to have a look around the reeds. There had been a Bittern feeding in one of the channels yesterday, but there was no sign of it this afternoon. However, we did find a Kingfisher perched in the edge of the reeds.

The water level on the freshmarsh is still rather high, although a few small islands have started to reappear. This is continuing to prove popular with the wildfowl, and there were good numbers of Teal on here still today, as well as a selection of Shoveler, Gadwall and Wigeon. A large flock of Brent Geese flew in from over towards Brancaster and dropped in for a wash and a drink.

The number of Avocets is now starting to increase again. They were mostly sleeping by one of the smaller islands, until everything was spooked and they flew round flashing black and white as they twisted and turned. A small group of Knot and Dunlin were bathing on one of the other small islands. The larger fenced-off island was absolutely packed with Golden Plover and Lapwing.

6o0a7468Avocets – numbers are increasing again as birds return after the winter

The mud on the Volunteer Marsh is proving a more attractive feeding ground for waders and there was a nice selection on here again today. A lone Ringed Plover looked very smart in the scope, with the black and white rings around its head and neck. A Grey Plover was looking very pale in the sunshine. There were lots more Knot and Dunlin on here, plus a few Curlew and Black-tailed Godwit.

As we made our way over to the bank at the far side of the Volunteer Marsh, one of the group spotted a Water Rail scuttling into the vegetation right below the bank. We waited and eventually it showed itself again briefly. We thought it might work its way all the way along beneath us, but when it came to a more open area it stood lurking in the vegetation for a couple of minutes before thinking better of it and heading back in the better hidden direction from whence it came.

6o0a7478Water Rail – lurking in the bushes on the edge of the Volunteer Marsh

Out at the Tidal Pools, there were a couple of nice close Black-tailed Godwits. Conveniently, a Bar-tailed Godwit was also nearby, giving us a chance to compare the two. We could see the buffier upperparts of the latter, extensively streaked with black, compared to the plainer, duller grey Black-tailed Godwit. The Bar-tailed Godwit was also noticeably smaller and shorter legged, with a distinct upturn to its bill compared to the straighter billed Black-tailed Godwit.

6o0a7489Black-tailed Godwit – showing very well on the Tidal Pools

Next stop was the beach. As soon as we came through the dunes, we could see a huge raft of scoter out on the sea, several thousands strong. It looked like a massive black oil slick across the water. Periodically, parts of the raft would take off and fly a short distance and in flight we could see that the vast majority of these birds had all black wings, making them Common Scoter.

Closer in, we could see some smaller rafts of scoter and through the scope we could see they were made up of a nice mixture of Common Scoter and Velvet Scoter, including at least 30 of the latter. Several of the Velvet Scoter were conveniently holding their wings loosely folded, which meant that we could see the white wing patch as a white stripe across their sides. Others had more distinctive twin white spots on their faces, very different from the pale cheeks of the female Common Scoter.

Two Long-tailed Duck flew across and landed on the sea next to one of the closer scoter rafts. We managed to get them in the scope, but they were hard to see against the water, which was also a bit choppier now than it had been this morning. While we were trying to get everyone to get a look at them, they flew again and disappeared.

It is very mild at the moment for February, but out of the sun in the lee of the dunes, and with the chill in the wind, several of the group were getting cold. With the sun already starting to sink in the sky, we decided to call it a day and make our way back.

There were still some more things to see. Scanning along the channel on the north edge of the Volunteer Marsh, a much paler wader caught our eye. It was a Spotted Redshank in silvery grey and white winter plumage. It walked across the mud and dropped down into the deep channel in the middle. Thankfully we picked it up again walking towards us in the channel and then it climbed out again onto the mud.

As we walked past the freshmarsh, all the waders took flight. They seemed to be especially jumpy this afternoon. We stood and watched the Golden Plover and Lapwing wheeling in the sky over the water, and then a large group of Golden Plover flew towards us and right overhead – we could hear the beating of their wings.

We had failed to find the Water Rail in the ditch by the path on the way out, but on our way back it was feeding down in the bottom, under an overhanging tree. We got a good look at it through the branches, probing around in the rotting leaves. A nice way to end the day, then it was back to the car and time to head for home.