Tag Archives: Avocet

18th Jan 2019 – Winter on the Coast

A Private Tour today in North Norfolk, a more relaxed day of birding and walking. After a sharp frost overnight, it was cold and cloudy all day, even if the sun did try to show itself through the clouds at times. But it was dry and the wind was light, which meant it was a nice day to be out.

Our fist destination for the morning was Cley. As we parked at the south end of the East Bank, a Marsh Harrier was quartering over the reeds in front of us. From up on the bank, we could see that the grazing marsh was largely frozen, apart from the middle of the Serpentine. There were lots of Wigeon feeding out in the grass, despite the fact it was very frosty still, and quite a few Teal dozing in the vegetation around the edge sof the Serpentine. A skein of Pink-footed Geese, the first of many seen today, flew over calling.

wigeon

Wigeon – feeding out on the frozen grazing marsh

A Marsh Harrier flew in over the grazing marshes, a female, mostly chocolate brown but with a pale creamy head, pale leading edge to the wing and a pale crescent on her breast. It spooked all the Wigeon and they flew up, whistling, and landed down on the open water on the Serpentine.

We flushed a small flock of Linnets and a single Meadow Pipit from the bank just before the main drain, from where they were feeding in the grass below the edge of the reeds. Looking out along the drain, we could see a Little Grebe towards the back. Another surfaced, and then another, until there were 5 Little Grebes all out on the water. Some movement down at the front then caught our eye, and we looked down to see a Water Rail swimming across the channel. It disappeared straight into the long grass on the far bank.

Continuing straight out to the beach, there was no sign at first of the juvenile Glaucous Gull which had been here for several days now. It has been feeding on several dead seals which have washed up on the beach, but we couldn’t see it next to any of them now. Then someone walking back up the beach told us it was currently down on the shoreline, so we walked over the shingle to where we could see the water’s edge.

Sure enough, the Glaucous Gull was down on the edge of the beach. We watched it in the scope, walking in front of where the waves were breaking and seemingly picking things up from the stones. It had been rather stormy here yesterday, and there was probably a lot of things to eat washed up as a consequence. Through the scope, we could see its distinctive pale wingtips and its huge bill, pale pink with a ‘dipped-in-ink’ black tip.

glaucous gull

Glaucous Gull – the juvenile was on the beach again today (photo taken yesterday)

The Glaucous Gull spotted a raucous gathering of more gulls further up the beach, hovering over the breakers. It took off, giving us a good look at its pale primaries, and flew over to join them. It obviously didn’t find anything there to its liking, as it then continued further on and landed out on the sea.

There has been a flock of Snow Buntings along the beach here in recent days, so we walked up towards the beach car park at Cley to look for them. Three Pintail were fast asleep on one of the islands on North Scrape, as we passed. They didn’t even wake up when a large flock of noisy Brent Geese flew in and landed all around them. But when we got to the weedy vegetation on the top of the beach where the Snow Buntings have often been feeding, there was no sign of them. There was a large flock of Goldfinches here, and periodically several Skylarks would fly up out of the longer grass.

We stopped to watch the Glaucous Gull again for a few minutes. It flew in off the sea, hovered over the shoreline and dropped down to pick something up off beach, then flew back out to the water. It had obviously had enough of eating dead seal for the last few days, and was enjoying a bot of variety in its diet this morning. Two Guillemots flew west close inshore, but we couldn’t see much else out on the water today.

We decided to walk back to the East Bank. A Little Egret was feeding on the brackish pools by the path as we passed. We watched it trying to disturb fish by jiggling its foot in the mud ahead of it, looking to see if anything came out.

little egret

Little Egret – fishing on the brackish pools

From the shelter on the East Bank, we could see a selection of waders out on Arnold’s Marsh. A small group of Black-tailed Godwits were standing in the shallow water over on one side. There were several Curlews and Redshank scattered around and a single Turnstone on the stony island at the back. We could also see some Gadwall right over in the back corner, but they were too far away to appreciate from here.

Someone very kindly came in to tell us that the Snow Buntings had reappeared, just at the top of the East Bank. We walked back up to the beach, but there was no sign of them there again. Apparently they had flown off east. At that point a Marsh Harrier came over from the direction of Sea Pool towards the back corner of Arnold’s and we saw the Snow Buntings fly up from the shingle. We walked down that way for a closer look.

There was a large flock of Snow Buntings here, at least 50 birds today. They were very skittish, and kept flying round, in a flurry of white wings. After coming up and landing again a couple of times on the shingle beyond the fence, they flew straight towards us, and landed much closer on the bottom of the old shingle ridge. We had a great view of them here, but they didn’t stop long. Suddenly they were off again, over the ridge towards the beach, then back and off east over Sea Pool.

snow buntings

Snow Buntings – flew in and landed in front of us, before disappearing off east

We were much closer to the Gadwall now, so we trained the scope on a sleeping drake. From here we could really appreciate the intricacy of its plumage, not just plain old grey but a variety of different patterns, barred and scalloped. The connoisseurs’ duck!

Avocet was a target for the day, so we headed back to the Visitor Centre and walked out to Bishop Hide. The scrape was still partly frozen, and there didn’t seem to be much to see out here today. But we did find five Avocets asleep in the water in front of one of the small islands, so our mission was accomplished. A few Lapwings and Black-tailed Godwits were on the mud behind.

avocets

Avocet – still 5 on Pat’s Pool today

Holkham was our destination for the afternoon. As we drove up along Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see lots of Wigeon out on the grazing marsh to the west. A big flock of Brent Geese was feeding on the grass the other side, but they were rather more distant today.

It was time for lunch, so we called in at ‘The Lookout’ café for a welcome hot drink. Looking through the wooden slats, we could just see lots of Pink-footed Geese covering the grazing marshes beyond, although it was a better view of them from outside, without having to look through the slats.

pink-footed geese

Pink-footed Geese – there were lots on the grazing marsh from ‘The Lookout’ café

After lunch, we popped quickly back to the car to get the scope and drop off our bags. On our way, we noticed several Grey Partridges out on the grazing marsh, quite close to the edge, so we stopped for a closer look. We could see their orange faces, very different from the black-and-white pattern on a Red-legged Partridge.

grey partridge

Grey Partridge – a small covey was on the grazing marsh by Lady Anne’s Drive

We made our way out towards the beach next, through the pines and then east on the path on the edge of the saltmarsh. A flock of Linnets flew up in front of the dunes, and bounced around as if they were attached to something by elastic.

We could see some people further over, by the cordon, looking through their scopes. We hadn’t got to them when the Shorelarks took off, flew past us low over the saltmarsh and disappeared off west. We watched them almost to the Gap, when thankfully they turned and flew back, landing back over just before the path to the beach before the cordon.

When we got over to the beach path, we quickly found the Shorelarks out on the saltmarsh. They were tricky to see though, hidden down in the taller vegetation here. Eventually we got a good look at them as they came out into some slightly shorter grass.

When we heard Long-tailed Tits calling from over towards the pines, we looked over to see birds moving about in the buckthorn in the low dunes in front of the trees. We could see the tits moving through further back, but then we noticed a female Stonechat perched on one of the bushes. Looking through the scope, one of the group saw a small bird moving in the buckthorn below it. It was grey and brown, a Dunnock perhaps? Then they said it had a long tail – it couldn’t be, could it? Then suddenly a Dartford Warbler hopped out right beside the Stonechat.

This is not an area where you would routinely expect to find a Dartford Warbler. However, the young ones disperse from the heaths on which they breed and can then very rarely be found along the coast. They often follow Stonechats around on heaths, so that was what this Dartford Warbler was now doing here instead. A great bird to find here.

We watched the Dartford Warbler for a while. It kept disappearing down into the buckthorn and we lost sight of it, but if we followed the Stonechat then the Dartford Warbler would eventually appear in the bush underneath it again. Eventually everyone got a good look at it and by the end a few other people had joined us to watch it too.

In the meantime, while we had been looking the other way, the Shorelarks had worked their way through the saltmarsh straight towards us. We turned round to see they were now very close, just behind us. We didn’t know which way to look – Dartford Warbler or Shorelarks, a very rare choice to have to make! The Shorelarks don’t often come quite so close here – they were possibly affronted that we were paying them so little attention! So we had to tear ourselves away from watching the Dartford Warbler and make sure we admired the Shorelarks too.

shorelark

Shorelark – walked right up behind us while we were looking the other way!

Eventually we lost sight of the Dartford Warbler and the Shorelarks went back further out on the saltmarsh again. We decided to continue on out to the beach. As we got through the dunes, we could see a large flock of ducks just offshore. They were not seaducks though, but Wigeon, presumably disturbed from the grazing marshes and seeking sanctuary out here temporarily. The sea looked fairly calm, but there was a surprisingly big swell here, and they kept disappearing from view.

We had been told that a Red-necked Grebe had been offshore earlier, and it suddenly appeared just behind the flock of Wigeon. Otherwise, there was not much offshore here today – a few Cormorants flying back and forth, a couple of small groups of Common Scoter past and a Red-throated Diver which flew off west. The tide was in, but there were still a few Oystercatchers on the beach.

It had been a very successful walk out to the Bay, so we made our way back to the car. Time was getting on now, but we had a quick look out at the grazing marshes at the other side of Holkham. The first thing we noticed as a large white shape over in the far corner. It was a Great White Egret and through the scope we could see its long, yellow, dagger-like bill.

great white egret

Great White Egret – one of two on the grazing marsh this afternoon

There were some Greylag Geese over by the Great White Egret. Big and rather pale grey, we could see their large, orange carrot-like bills. As we scanned across the grazing marsh, we then spotted lots of White-fronted Geese too. Much smaller and darker than the Greylags, we could see the white surround to the base of their bills, from which they get their name, and the distinctive black belly bars on the adults.

white-fronted geese

Russian White-fronted Geese – we counted around 90 here today

Further round still, we spotted yet another Great White Egret, half hidden through the trees in front of us.

It was getting late now, and the light was already starting to go. By the time we got to Stiffkey, we thought we might have missed the Hen Harriers coming in to roost. But when we arrived we were told there had not been much activity so far tonight – it seemed like they were late coming in, possibly making the best of a good evening for some late hunting, particularly after the sleet and snow showers yesterday afternoon.

We stood and scanned for a while. Lots of Little Egrets flew past, heading off to roost, and we could hear the plaintive calls of Curlews out on the saltmarsh.  A very distant Hen Harrier, a ringtail, did fly in away to the west but it was impossible to see in the gathering gloom, low against the dark vegetation.

Looking west as the light faded, a huge flock of several thousand Pink-footed Geese came in from the fields, and headed out across the saltmarsh, dropping down to roost on the flats beyond. It was quite a sight, one of the real sights of a day birding on the North Norfolk coast in the winter, and a nice way to end the day.

18th & 20th April 2016 – General Birding

A two day special Private Tour, across Monday and Wednesday this week. It was to be two relaxed shorter days of general Norfolk birding, although we could always catch up on some of the less regular species if the opportunity presented itself.

A gentle start to day 1 saw us stopping at Holkham, but not before we had been forced to swerve to avoid two Egyptian Geese in the middle of the main road! The Marsh Harriers were displaying again – we watched the female circling above the trees, before the male flew in and started swooping from side to side, before dropping down into the reeds.

6O0A0336Marsh Harrier – the pair were displaying again today

Two large white birds half visible in the trees were Spoonbills. We could see their bushy nuchal crests flapping in the breeze and just make out their spoon-shaped bills. One of them did a nice fly round over the grazing marsh for us. The trees were also full of Cormorants which are busy nesting at the moment.

There were plenty of Greylag Geese and Egyptian Geese out on the marshes, and the odd Canada Goose too. But over on the old fort, we could see some lingering Pink-footed Geese as well, at least 15 today. There are always a few sick or injured birds which stay for the summer, but there are some healthy ones still here too which should soon be on their way back to Iceland. Through the scope, we could see their dark heads and small, mostly dark bills with a pink band around.

We could just make out lots of hirundines swooping around over the grass – mostly House Martins, plus a few Swallows – though they were hard to pick out against the vegetation in the distance, until a couple flew up higher into  the sky.

6O0A0347Grey Partridge – we saw several at Choseley today

Our next destination was Titchwell, but we made a short diversion on the way there, round the back via Choseley, to try to pick up some farmland birds. Our first stop produced a smart Grey Partridge lurking on the edge of a field, tucked in behind a hedge. It was a bit breezy up on the ridge, and cold in the wind, so we had a quick drive round to see if we could find anything else. The hedges were pretty quiet and the birds were obviously keeping themselves tucked down. There was no sign of the Ring Ouzels here unfortunately – they may have moved on or just found somewhere sheltered – and a quick walk along the footpath was similarly unproductive, apart from a pair of Linnets. We decided to move on to Titchwell.

The main car park was already full when we arrived, despite it being a Monday, cool and cloudy. We parked in the overflow car park and had a quick walk round – both Chiffchaff and Blackcap were singing from the sallows, both species now back for the summer. Up to the visitor centre and the feeders were rather quiet – just a few Chaffinches and tits coming in to feed – so we didn’t linger. We could hear a Siskin singing from the trees, but couldn’t see it, and we couldn’t find the Water Rail in the ditch when we went past at this point either.

We swung round via Meadow Trail. There were several Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs singing from the willows and we managed to get good views of both these two very similar species. A female Blackcap was flitting around in the reeds by the dipping pool. A pair of Bullfinches disappeared off over the tops of the trees as we approached.

A quick visit to Fen Hide, and a single drake Red-crested Pochard was out on the water, but flew off just as we sat down. We heard a Bearded Tit ‘ping’ but when it flew off across the reeds it was too quick for everyone to see. A Wren feeding down low on the edge of the cut reeds was behaving just like a Bearded Tit should! Out over the reedbed, there were lots of House Martins hawking for insects, and the odd Sand Martin in with them. There had obviously been a decent arrival of hirundines this morning.

6O0A0349Red-crested Pochard – three drakes were on Patsy’s Reedbed

There was a decent selection of ducks on Patsy’s Reedbed. Three drake Red-crested Pochard were busy feeding, a small group of Tufted Duck and Pochard were asleep on the near bank, and we could see a few Gadwall, Teal and Shoveler too. A couple of Little Grebes were diving constantly. Over the reeds beyond, a couple of Marsh Harriers were circling. As it was getting near to lunchtime, we decided to head back to the car for an early lunch, before exploring the rest of the reserve.

After lunch, we walked back out to the Visitor Centre. There was still not much on the feeders, but we could hear a Siskin singing in the trees and managed to get it in the scope. Another look in the ditch by the main path failed to produce a Water Rail again – surely they couldn’t have disappeared?

IMG_2497Siskin – this male was singing by the Visitor Centre

The grazing marsh ‘pool’ was rather exposed to the cold wind. Still, there were a few wagtails out there today. A closer look revealed at least four White Wagtails, as well as a few of their close cousins the Pied Wagtails, but no sign of any pipits here today. A lone Great Crested Grebe was at the back of the reedbed pool, which also held a selection of ducks – Red-crested Pochard, Common Pochard and Tufted Duck.

A particular target species was Avocet and Titchwell is a great place to see them up close. We popped in to Island Hide and were treated to fantastic views of them just in front of the hide. It was great to watch them feeding, sweeping their bills from side to side through the shallows.

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6O0A0399Avocets – great views from Island Hide today

There were also several Teal in front of the hide. Mostly paired up now, the drakes are looking particularly smart. Numbers of duck are well down from the peak of the winter now, as many have departed on their journey north to breed, but a scattering of Gadwall, Shoveler and Mallard remain.

6O0A0397Teal – a smart drake

We could hear Bearded Tits calling from the reeds, and caught the odd glimpse of a bird zooming off over the reeds. Eventually, we all managed to get on to one which made a quite lengthy cross-reed journey, before dropping back in out of view.

The water levels are going down now on the freshmarsh, and it is looking great for waders, but it still seemed a bit quiet here wader-wise, apart from the Avocets. There was a nice flock of roosting Black-tailed Godwits and a single Bar-tailed Godwit. When we got round to Parrinder Hide, the Bar-tailed Godwit had joined with a single Black-tailed Godwit, a Knot which must have just flown in, and a lone Oystercatcher – which made for an interesting little flock.

IMG_2501Waders – a nice group of Knot, Bar-tailed & Black-tailed Godwit, & Oystercatcher

A Little Ringed Plover flew in and landed on the island in front of the hide. We could see the fine, dark bill and golden-yellow eyering. A careful scan then revealed a second, very well camouflaged against the mud. A single Turnstone was feeding round the edge of the big island, tucked in behind the new Avocet nest protection fence.

IMG_2507Little Ringed Plover – 1 of 2 on the freshmarsh

There are still quite a few Brent Geese at the moment, and they were commuting back and forth between the saltmarsh where they were grazing and the freshmarsh for a wash and brush-up.

6O0A0406Brent Geese – quite a few still here, mostly on the saltmarsh

The Volunteer Marsh was rather quiet, apart from a few Redshank along the sides of the furthest tidal channel, and there was not much new to see on the Tidal Pools either, apart from a single Grey Plover.

Out on the beach, the tide was coming in and the shellfish beds were already covered by the sea. There were a few waders still out on the sand, being pushed ever higher – a few Grey Plover, a single Turnstone and a couple of little groups of silvery grey Sanderling running around like clockwork toys. Looking out to sea, all seemed quiet at first, until we found a couple of Great Crested Grebes and a small raft of Common Scoter.

It was a bit fresh out on the beach, so we didn’t hang around too long. On the way back, another Little Ringed Plover appeared on the Tidal Pools. We stopped to admire  a very smart pair of Shelduck by the path on the Volunteer Marsh. A Lesser Black-backed Gull, sporting bright yellow legs and feet, had appeared on the Freshmarsh. And there was now a pair of Great Crested Grebes on the reedbed pool and even better, they were displaying!

6O0A0419Shelduck – a pair were by the path

We still couldn’t find any pipits on the grazing marsh ‘pool’ but we did manage to find a Water Rail or two. We found the female first, feeding quietly in the water in the bottom of the ditch. Then she was joined by the male, and the two of them fed together for a few seconds, before he disappeared off again. It was great to see the two of them side by side.

6O0A04356O0A0424Water Rails – hard to see in the ditch

We were treated to great views of the Water Rails, and then it was time to call an end to Day 1.

Day 2 saw us starting from Lady Anne’s Drive to walk west. A few Teal were sleeping around the pools alongside the road. We could also see several Shelduck and a single Snipe feeding on the mud.

As we started to walk west along the path on the inland side of the pines, we could hear lots of warblers singing – Blackcap, Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff. It was to be a real theme of the morning, with warblers singing all the way. From the bushes in the reeds we added Sedge Warbler to the list and in the scrubbier areas we heard a couple of Lesser Whitethroat. At one point we could hear all five warblers singing at once from where we were standing.

There were also the usual tits in the trees – Blue Tits, Great Tits, Coal Tits and Long-tailed Tits. Jays called and one flew up into a poplar by the path briefly. A Treecreeper was singing and we managed to see it climbing up a bare trunk, stopping occasionally to deliver another burst of song.

While we were on our way through the trees, news came through of a party of six Cranes seen flying west from Cley. With a good chance they would come over Holkham too, we walked quickly up to Salts Hole where it was more open. We stood here for a while and scanned the sky. There were lots of raptors up – Buzzards and Marsh Harriers. A Sparrowhawk circled up too. But there was no sign of  any Cranes and it looked like they must have gone past before we made it out of the trees.

A Firecrest had been singing earlier just a little way back along the track, so we walked back into the trees the way we had just come. We had only waited a few seconds when we heard it singing further back in the pines. It would be impossible to find in there, but fortunately it flew forwards into the holm oaks by the track. We watched it flitting around in the trees, though it was hard to get onto – Firecrests rarely stay still for long.

Firecrest Holkham 2016-03-25_3Firecrest – this photo taken a few weeks ago here

We heard aggravated calls above us and looked up to see a Herring Gull and Peregrine chasing each other. It was hard to tell who was chasing whom, and we quickly lost sight of them over the trees.

Back on our way west, we had just got past Salts Hole when we received news that the Cranes had been seen again circling over Burnham Overy only five minutes earlier. They had somehow got past us, presumably when we were in the trees. We found a suitable vantage point and scanned the sky to the west, but we could not see anything at first. It really felt like we had missed them. Then finally we picked up two Cranes circling, very  high and very distant. They were not much more than dots in sky, even through binoculars. Then we found the other four too, circling lower down and all six gradually came back together. Through the scope we could just make out the shape, and get a glint of grey wing coverts as they turned and caught the sun. At least we had seen them, but they were not great views.

We carried on west, straight out to the dunes. Two adult Mediterranean Gulls flew past us calling on the way.  We knew exactly where the Ring Ouzels had been in the last few days and, even though several others had failed to see them find them, sure enough they flew out of their usual bushes. One at a time – first one, then a second, followed by a third and a fourth. We saw where they landed in some more bushes and walked round into the dunes to a convenient vantage point. They stayed hidden for several minutes but eventually came out briefly onto the grass, just long enough to get a smart male in scope, showing off the white gorget on his breast. Then they flew off across the dunes.

Ring Ouzel Burnham Overy 2016-04-13_4Ring Ouzel – one of the birds here a week ago

As we walked back towards the main path, the Ring Ouzels suddenly appeared again, flying back in to the bushes where they had been first off. But there were lots of people walking in the dunes today, and they were promptly flushed once more. This time they flew off to the other side of the fence and dropped down out of sight behind the dunes. We had a quick look further west, in the next dune slack, but there was no sign of any Wheatears here today. Then we had a request to head back for lunch.

We got back almost to the pines when we heard birds calling. It sounded like Cranes but surely it couldn’t be? The six Cranes from earlier had been seen going much further west, over Titchwell before heading out to sea over Holme. Distant at first, they progressively got a little louder. Then three Cranes appeared out of the sky, followed by three more. They circled over the grazing marshes in front of us for a minute or two, before drifting off back east. They had obviously got to the Wash and not fancied the sea crossing, so turned back. It was great that they did – we got much better views this time, through the scope.

6O0A0523Cranes – first three reappeared

6O0A0525Cranes – then all six together headed off back east

On the way, we stopped in at Joe Jordan Hide briefly. There were several Spoonbills on the pool in front, but they were mostly tucked down behind the reeds along the near edge. We did manage to see a couple preening through a gap in the vegetation. Two Red Kites were circling over the marshes beyond. Then it was time to head back for what was now a late lunch.

After the distraction of the Cranes in particular, we were running later than expected, so there was not really enough time this afternoon on a short day to go far. We drove round inland via some nearby farmland, where several Wheatears in a stoney field were a nice surprise. Then we made our way down to Burnham Norton. There had been a Green-winged Teal here yesterday, but some local birders were just coming back from a thorough search of the area and told us there was no sign of it today. We had thought we might walk round here anyway, but they informed us that the paths were very wet underfoot, so we moved on.

Back past Burnham Overy Staithe, we had a quick walk out across the fields to the seawall. A Yellowhammer and another Lesser Whitethroat were singing from the bushes beside the path. But there were no Sedge Warblers singing along here this afternoon, where they are normally fairly numerous. The wind had picked up now and it was a little cool out in the open, so perhaps they had decided to hunker down.

Out in the fields, there were lots of Redshanks and Lapwing. A careful scan produced a lone drake Wigeon on one of the pools – most of the birds which spent the winter have now departed on their way back to Russia to breed.There were a few geese out on the grazing marshes too. Mostly Greylags and Egyptian Geese, plus a handful of Brent Geese (most of the Brent Geese prefer to feed out the saltmarsh at this time of year). From up on the seawall we managed to find a few Pink-footed Geese still. Like with the Wigeon, most of the ones which spent the winter here have long since departed, in the case of the Pinkfeet back to Iceland. We had a closer view of these than the ones we had seen yesterday, noting the pink bill band and even the pink legs, though hard to see in the long grass.

A single Spoonbill flew low over the grazing marshes and looked like it might be dropping down onto the pools, but carried on west. Later, we watched two more Spoonbills coming from the direction of Holkham. They flew steadily west, out over the seawall, and seemed to go down in harbour channel back towards Overy Staithe. We walked that way along the path but, by the time we got round, there was no sign of them there. Just when we thought our luck was out, they circled up again from the saltmarsh just beyond the harbour. They seemed unsure of where they wanted to go, but after circling for a second or two, flew straight back past us. Cracking views!

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6O0A0555Spoonbills – flew back past us from the saltmarsh

There were a few waders down on the mud below the seawall, on the edge of the saltmarsh. Black-tailed Godwit, Redshank, Avocet and Grey Plover. A single Whimbrel flew across the grazing marsh calling and disappeared over the seawall. It was decidedly cool in the fresh easterly breeze up here on the seawall, and we had a request to head back.

There was just enough time left for a quick visit to the local gull colony. In amongst the hordes of Black-headed Gulls, we picked out a smart pair of Mediterranean Gulls. Side by side with a Black-headed Gull, we could see their darker jet black hoods, more extensive on the back of the head, their heavier, brighter red bills and their pure white wing tips. A Common Gull also flew right past in front of us.

IMG_2642Mediterranean Gulls – with a Black-headed Gull for comparison

There were lots of waders on the mud here too and we just had a chance for a quick scan through. Lots of Oystercatchers, a couple of large groups of Turnstone and two Bar-tailed Godwits. Then it was time to head for home.

21st July 2015 – Farmland Birds & Waders

A North Norfolk summer day tour today – the plan was to explore the farmland inland in the morning and drop down to the coast for the afternoon. It was a lovely day, bright & sunny, with a good breeze blowing which served to keep down the heat haze and keep us from overheating as well!

Once again, we meandered our way along the country lanes and parked up by one of our favourite farmland tracks. As soon as we got out of the car, we could hear Yellowhammers singing either side of us, the familiar sound of a ‘little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheeeeese’ as it was always described when we were young. We found one male perched up in the top of a hawthorn, its bright yellow head glowing in the sunshine.

P1050974Yellowhammer – there were several males singing in the hedgerows today

Many birds have fledged young now and we encountered several family parties on our way. A little group of Whitethroats were feeding in the overgrown vegetation between the track and the hedge and they flew ahead of us as we walked. When one of the adult Whitethroats flew up into the bottom of the hedge, one of the juveniles flew up with it, begging, and was duly fed. A family party of Blue Tits came along the hedge as well, calling noisily.

There were lots of butterflies along the verge too, flitting about in the vegetation. At this time of year, Meadow Browns and Ringlets tend to predominate and there was no shortage of those today. The Ringlets are a little faded now – they are much blacker when fresh – and rather brown themselves, but quite a bit smaller than the Meadow Browns and noticeably different when perched. There were also several Gatekeepers and Small Tortoiseshells. In the shorter grass along the track itself, we flushed several small orange butterflies, fast flying skippers. On close inspection of the ones we got to see perched, we could see distinctive black-tipped antennae, the key distinguishing feature of the Essex Skipper.

P1050980Essex Skipper on clover flower – note the black-tipped antennae

From up on the higher ground, we stopped at a place with a good panoramic view over the surrounding countryside. Here we stood for a while and scanned for raptors. We certainly saw a good selection. Several Buzzards circled over the trees, hanging in the breeze or drifted out over the fields.

There is lots of farming activity at the moment – the wheat and barley are ripe and ready and the combine harvesters are out. We saw several Kestrels taking advantage of the disturbance to catch small mammals forced out from the crop as it was cut. The Yellowhammers and Linnets were making hay in the sunshine too, flying in and out of the fields presumably to try to find any insects or spilt grain, though there is unfortunately precious little of the latter these days with modern machinery. The local Carrion Crows were looking to cash in on the bounty as well, but were chased off by the resident raptors when they got too close.

We stood here for a while, watching the interplay between modern industrial farming activity and the wildlife which tries to make a living here. Then, as we turned to leave, a pair of Grey Partridge burst noisily from the verge and disappeared into the uncut crop on the other side.

As we drove off, we could see an Oystercatcher sitting in a horse paddock. It appeared to be nesting, tucked down in the short grass next to a couple of dock rosettes. A little further on, its partner stood on the grassy verge, looking on warily. While often thought of as coastal birds, Oystercatchers do also attempt to nest inland and often some way from water. However, productivity can be pretty poor in the modern industrial farming landscape.

P1050998Oystercatcher – its partner attempting to nest in a nearby horse paddock

Our next destination was Choseley. On the way there, we saw several more Yellowhammers along the sides of the roads or on the wires and a couple more families of Kestrels, again around the freshly cut stubble fields. We stopped briefly to admire a Stock Dove coming down to drink at a puddle. We drove around the back lanes first, to see if we could find the pair of Corn Buntings we have seen regularly in recent weeks. There was no sign as we drove past at first, but on the way back down, one of the birds flew out across the field behind us. We reversed back and could see it had landed in the top of a single weed growing in the middle of the barley. When it flew back into the hedge, we got out and got the scopes onto it – and promptly found a second Corn Bunting perched in the hedge nearby.

Round at the drying barns, it was fairly quiet again, as it has been in recent days. A dog walker was just coming out of the footpath and there was lots of activity around the barns themselves, presumably with the harvest being brought in. There were several Linnets on the wires, hungrily eyeing up the grain spread on the concrete. A pair of  Collared Doves flew in to join them. A Marsh Harrier quartered the fields along the ridge. We decided to drop down to Titchwell for lunch.

Feeling suitably refreshed afterwards, we walked out across the reserve. At the reedbed pool, a single Red-crested Pochard was amongst the ducks out on the water – we noted its mostly dark bill with pinkish tip. There was a good selection of wildfowl on here again today – also a couple of Common Pochard diving next to the reeds, a little group of Gadwall at the front, plus a couple of Teal and a Shoveler further back. However, with the drakes all in female-like eclipse plumage now, none of them are arguably looking their finest! The juvenile Great Crested Grebe was hiding at the back by the reeds, but we couldn’t see its parents today.

The water levels on the freshmarsh are perfect for waders at the moment and there has been an amazing number and variety of birds present in the last week or so. Today was no exception – the mud was alive, covered with them. The counts of Avocets in particular have been hitting record levels – presumably post-breeding birds from elsewhere moving in to take advantage of the perfect feeding conditions. We counted at least 400 today, but lots more were asleep on the islands. The official reserve counts have been over 600 in recent days!

P1060106Avocet – amazing numbers gathering on the reserve at the moment

The variety of waders can change all the time and the surprise today was the number of Dunlin present. We counted a minimum of 375, the vast majority adults still sporting their summer plumage black bellies, but amongst them a few juveniles with black streaks below. Hiding in with the Dunlin, we could see a couple of Curlew Sandpipers as well. Slightly larger, and with a longer, more downcurved bill, they were both adults still partly in summer plumage, their chestnut underparts increasingly dappled with white.

IMG_7265Curlew Sandpiper – two moulting adults were in with the Dunlin today

There have been several Little Stints here in recent days, but at first we could only find one with the Dunlin flock. Easy to pick out if you look really closely, the Little Stint is noticeably smaller, with a shorter bill and bright white belly. It was only later, while we were looking at a couple of Golden Plover bathing on the edge of one of the islands, that we spotted the other six Little Stints, hiding amongst the rocks on the shoreline. All the waders had apparently been flushed earlier by a raptor and the Little Stints had obviously decided to vacate the open mud for a while for the safety of some cover. A couple of bright orange summer-plumaged Knot were also nearby. Later, as we walked back, all the Little Stints were back out again with the Dunlin feeding on the open mud.

The numbers of Ruff have also been impressive in recent days, though not in the sheer quantity of some of the other waders. They are also more scattered around the freshmarsh rather than gathered in a single mass, making them harder to cound. We didn’t try today – but numbers have been over 60. However, we did spend some time admiring the amazing variation in plumage. The male Ruffs in summer come in a wide variety of colours and now with the vagaries of moult to add in as well, they can be one of the most confusing waders to identify. There were also several females, sometimes known as Reeves, amongst them – smaller and less garishly plumaged.

P1060215

P1060184Ruff – large numbers present today but in a confusing array of plumages

There were perhaps fewer Black-tailed Godwits on the freshmarsh than in recent days, but still very good numbers and some very close to Island Hide giving us great views. Again, they were in a variety of plumages, with more moulting adults now still with mostly bright chestnut bodies and black belly bars, to add to the more variable 1st summer birds, some of which have been present all summer. We spent some time looking at them and talking about the key identification features, Black-tailed Godwit versus Bar-tailed Godwit. The black tail is usually hidden by the folded wings at rest, but some of the birds were dropping their tails while feeding so we could see the solid black.

P1060076Black-tailed Godwits – in bright summer & grey winter plumage

Out towards the back of the freshmarsh, where the water was deeper, we could see several Spotted Redshanks – a closer look revealed at least seven today. Some were still mostly in black summer plumage, but with an increasing amount of white feathering appearing now in the underparts, but a couple were looking increasingly silvery-grey. Three Greenshanks were walking around feeding very actively. Several Common Redshanks completed the set and provided a good comparison.

Looking closely amongst the vast hordes of waders, we could pick out a few individuals of other species as well. A couple of Common Sandpipers were feeding unobtrusively round the edges of the freshmarsh. A juvenile Yellow Wagtail nearby was a good spot. A Whimbrel dropped in briefly to rest on the edge of one of the islands, before flying off calling, its distinctive repeated piping whistle sounding a little like it is laughing. A 1st summer Little Gull amongst the Black-headed Gulls looked obviously much smaller by comparison.

IMG_7278Whimbrel – this one dropped in briefly before flying off west calling

We could see five Spoonbills from Island Hide, asleep on one of the islands. Typical Spoonbill behaviour! From round at Parrinder Hide we got a much closer look at them, and several even woke up briefly. We could see there were three shorter-, darker-billed juveniles and two adults – when the latter finally put their heads up, we could see the bright yellow bill tip.

P1060165Spoonbills – five, including three juveniles, were mostly sleeping!

There were several Little Ringed Plovers on the exposed mud in front of Parrinder Hide, a mixture of adults and juveniles. We could see the golden eye ring on the adults and the ghost of a paler eye ring on the juveniles. Out on the open mud with the other small waders there were a couple of Ringed Plovers as well.

P1060168Little Ringed Plover – an adult sporting a golden yellow eye ring

P1060302Little Ringed Plover – a juvenile with a ghosting of the adult’s eye ring

The Volunteer Marsh and tidal pools were quiet today, as they have been in recent weeks. There were several butterflies along the verges. A smart Gatekeeper basking on the path was clearly struggling for some reason when it finally flapped off into the grass.

P1060146Gatekeeper – basking on the path

Out on the beach, the sea itself looked fairly quiet. We managed to find a little group of four Common Scoter out on the water and several Sandwich Terns were flying back and forth offshore, fishing. The tide was out and the rocks were exposed. There were several Curlew feeding around the rock pools and nearby, we picked up a single, smaller, sleeker Whimbrel. While we were standing there, we also heard several more Whimbrel flying past behind us, calling. In amongst the birds on the rocks, we also picked out a few Bar-tailed Godwits – it was good to look at the differences from the Black-tailed Godwits we had seen earlier.

We picked up three Turnstones as they flew and when they landed we could see they were still in bright summer plumage, with rusty orange backs and white faces. A closer look down on the shore revealed a couple of Dunlin and next to them a little group of Sanderling, looking rather different to the bright silvery grey and white birds we see here in the winter in their spangled summer plumage.

Then unfortunately it was time to head back. Still, what an amazing spectacle of waders here today – the sheer number and the great variety.

29th May 2015 – Rain in the East

Day 1 of a long weekend of tours today. We met in Wells and headed east along the coast towards Cley.

The weather forecast wasn’t great, so we were prepared for the worst. However, it started bright, so we stopped at Stiffkey Fen on our way east. The sun was shining and the birds were singing. Blackcap, Willow Warbler, Reed & Sedge Warbler, Song Thrush and many more were in all full voice from the bushes by the path. Several Skylarks sang from the sky high above us as we walked out. A Bullfinch flew overhead calling.

Out on the Fen, we picked up first one, then two, then four Little Ringed Plovers. They were chasing each other around on one of the islands, running around like clockwork toys. There were also lots of Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits, several Redshank, Lapwing, and the ubiquitous Avocets.

From the seawall, looking inland, we could see a smart male Marsh Harrier circling up. A few seconds later a Sparrowhawk appeared with it and proceeded to dive at it repeatedly.

P1010363Blakeney Harbour – the view from Stiffkey Fen out to Blakeney Point

Most of the Brent Geese have now departed for Russia, but as we walked out towards the harbour we saw three flying off west over the saltmarsh and another was standing in one of the channels. The tide was out, but a scan of the mud revealed a couple of Curlews and a little group of Ringed Plovers. A closer look through the scope confirmed the latter were Tundra Ringed Plovers, on their way further north – smaller and darker than our breeding birds. A single adult Mediterranean Gull flew in over the saltmarsh towards Morston, flashing its white wing tips.

Even though it was still sunny, we could already see darker clouds gathering on the horizon. We fled ahead of them towards Cley and made for the East Bank before they could catch up with us. We were glad we did. Half way along the bank, a quick scan of the reeds along the ditch below us revealed a female Bearded Tit. She was working her way methodically along through the reeds, just above the water, occasionally coming out onto the edge and picking at the blanket weed. Great views.

P1010378Bearded Tit – this female showed really well from the East Bank this morning

There were both Reed and Sedge Warblers singing along the East Bank. A particularly obliging Sedge Warbler perched up on the reeds below the path, singing its super-fast, buzzy song. It sang for a while, then launched itself up in song-flight, parachuting back down to the base of the reeds, before moving back to where it had started and doing it all over again.

P1010387Sedge Warbler – singing, and song-flighting, by East Bank

Unfortunately, there was no sign of the Spoonbill on the Serpentine today. A drake Pintail was the surprise here – a late bird, possibly sick or injured. As usual, there was a very obliging Little Egret fishing very close to the bank. We were hoping to get out to Arnold’s Marsh, but the dark cloud had now caught up with us, so we decided discretion was the better part of valour and beat a hasty retreat to the Visitor Centre.

P1010385Little Egret – a smart breeding adult, with full set of plumes

When the rain came, thankfully at first it was not too hard. We walked out onto the reserve and headed for the main hide complex. This seemed like the best place to shelter form the rain. On the way, a Grey Heron posed on the bank of the main freshwater channel by the path.

P1010394Grey Heron – more intent on fishing than watching us

On first glance, both Pat’s Pool and Simmond’s Scrape looked a little quiet today. However, as the rain started to fall harder and harder, we were in here for a while. The more we sat, the more we saw things appear or drop in. There were several Avocets sitting on nests in front of the hide. We saw a couple of shift changeovers and watched the adults sitting tight as the rain fell on them.

IMG_5045Avocet – on the nest, hunkered down in the rain

There were also lots of Swifts, Swallows, House Martins and a few Sand Martins out over the reserve. In the rain, they came in to feed low over the scrapes. Amongst the Avocets, three Little Ringed Plovers flew in and proceeded to have a disagreement – about territory, mate, or something. One male flashed his tail, his wings, and then had a swoop at the others. Then a Little Gull appeared on Simmond’s Scrape, a 1st summer. It stood preening for a short while, before flying behind one of the taller islands and disappearing.

IMG_5054Little Gull – first one 1st summer appeared on Simmond’s Scrape

A short while later it reappeared and was promptly joined by a second 1st summer Little Gull which flew in and landed beside it. The two of them stood and preened in the rain for a while. Eventually, they obviously decided it was no fun standing there getting wet and both Little Gulls flew off together.

IMG_5064Little Gull – then a second 1st summer flew in to join it

Six Black-tailed Godwits flew over the reserve and then reappeared, dropping in to Simmond’s Scrape. The next thing we knew, they were joined by another five. Then three smaller waders appeared on the mud. We just had time to get a look at them – two Dunlin and a Sanderling. All three were in summer plumage, the former sporting smart black belly patches and the latter with chestnut above and on the breast, so different from the silvery winter plumage we so often see. Unfortunately, before we could get the scope of them they were off again.

Eventually, the rain started to ease and the sky started to brighten. We made a strategic decision to head back to the Visitor Centre. On the way, a Cetti’s Warbler flew in from the direction of the road and over the freshwater ditch, landing in the reeds on the other side. We watched it feeding quickly along the line of reeds and up into the brambles, before it flew back across the road towards the Visitor Centre.

After lunch, we drove round to the beach. We had intended to walk along to North Scrape, but as we arrived it started to rain yet again. While we had been in the hide earlier, we had seen a large feeding frenzy of terns just off the beach, distantly over the shingle ridge. We had even picked out a couple of Gannets circling with them. We decided to have a look at the sea from the beach shelter while we waited for the rain to clear. The big mob of feeding terns had dispersed, but we still saw feeding Sandwich, Common and Little Terns offshore. Another Gannet circled past. And a pair of Common Scoter flew west over the sea.

With the drizzle continuing, we decided to drive round via Salthouse instead. The pools behind the duck pond and along the Beach Road were quiet, apart from a group of Black-tailed Godwits feeding in the shallows. However, eventually it brightened up again and we stopped at the Iron Road and walked out to the grazing marshes. Another 1st summer Little Gull was hawking over by the shingle ridge, towards Sea Pool.

Out in the long grass at the back of the pool, we picked up a single drake Wigeon – or should we say, a Wigeon head sticking out from the grass! Most of the Wigeon which were here over the winter have long since departed back to Russia, so one seemed like a good find. However, on the pools on the other side of the track we found another two drake Wigeon. So this is where they have all been hiding! We walked out as far as the bridge over the main drain, and as we turned to come back we spotted a couple of Yellow Wagtails. They were feeding out on the mud which had been dredged from the channels, two females. They flew ahead of us, as we turned to walk back, but then we could see the gathering dark clouds again. We just made it back to the car as the heavens opened.

As that rain blew through, the skies seemed to clear a little from the west, so we headed up to the Heath. However, the wind had picked up and it was now very gusty – not ideal conditions for Dartford Warblers. We had a walk round, but couldn’t even hear any today – they were undoubtedly lying low out of the wind. A couple of Turtle Doves flew past us and landed deep in cover.

P1010400Gorse – the yellow flowers looked stunning once the sun finally came out

We had already started to walk back to the car when the sun finally came out. Some birds finally started to show themselves. A smart golden-headed male Yellowhammer perched up on a dead tree. A male Stonechat appeared from the gorse where we had been searching earlier and started to preen, but we were unfortunately out of time. As we headed back to the car, another Turtle Dove perched up in a birch tree briefly. Then it was time to head back.

We had managed to get a full day’s birding in, despite the rain’s best efforts, and a quick tally at the end of the day revealed we had seen and heard a very respectable 90 species – a very respectable total and well worth the effort.

23rd March 2015 – From Heath to Coast

A Private Tour, based around the Cley area in North Norfolk. It was to be a leisurely day of general birding today, looking mostly at the wide variety of birds found here.

It was a glorious sunny start to the morning, after the overnight frost had melted. A perfect day for the heath. A Bullfinch was calling from the bushes and we found it perched up feeding on buds, a smart male. We started out with a quick look for Adders – and it didn’t take long for us to find them. It was a great morning for them to bask in the sun after a cold night. Some were already warmed up and more active; they slithered away as we approached. Others were more sluggish and remained curled up amongst the leaves, some in little knots of several together.

P1010104 P1010105Adders – we saw several today

It was beautiful up on the heath. The Common Gorse was in flower and looking fantastic in the sunshine. It didn’t take long to find the Dartford Warblers either. We could hear a male singing and see it flitting around in the gorse, but it was a bit distant. We walked round to the other path and quickly found it again, much closer now. We watched it on and off for a while, singing intermittently and calling.

Then a second bird shot across between two bushes a short distance away – although we initially thought it must be a female, the next time it flew another Dartford Warbler was with it. The first male was still singing away to our left, and then the second male hopped up to the top of the heather and started to sing too – a territorial boundary was being marked out!

We spent some time in the trees. A Chiffchaff was darting around and calling. We stopped to watch a little group of Goldcrests, admiring their golden crown stripes. The Coal Tits were singing from the pines. A Greenfinch was also performing. A little group of Linnets flew overhead and out on the heath we paused to admire one singing from the top of some bushes.

A dry rattling song ahead alerted us to the presence of yet another Dartford Warbler. We watched it perched in the top of the gorse singing. A perfect morning for the Dartford Warblers today, with the sunshine.

P1120597Dartford Warbler – no photos from today, so here’s one from last week

We could easily have spent the whole day roaming round the heath in the sunshine, but we wanted to explore some other places today, so we headed down to the coast at Weybourne. A pair of Garganey have been hanging around on a small pool by the beach for a few days now, but there was no sign of them initially, when we arrived. Only when some people walked down to the edge of the pool, did everything flush from the water and the male flew out and landed in full view. We got it in the scope briefly but it quickly swam into the far corner, out of view again.

Walking round to the other side, we found an angle from where we could see that edge of the pool much better. It wasn’t long before both the male and the female Garganey swam out and started to feed along the edge of the reeds. Such a smart little duck (& drake!).

P1010128Garganey – this pair was on a pool by the beach at Weybourne

While we were there, a steady stream of Meadow Pipits was passing overhead, in ones and twos and small flocks. There were a few Pied Wagtails moving west as well, though with some passing by overhead it was impossible to be sure that there weren’t any of their continental European brethren, White Wagtails, in amongst them. It was good to see – migration in action.

P1010106Pied Wagtail – small numbers were on the move along the coast today

A Chiffchaff was singing from the bushes in the reedbed and, when we stopped to look for it, a second one appeared with it. We could also hear a Goldcrest calling from the same place. It seemed like they were all most likely on their way somewhere as well, just stopping off here to feed on all the insects around the edge of the reeds. A male Reed Bunting which perched up for us was more likely one of the residents.

From there, we drove on to Cley. We stopped for an early lunch and it was even nice enough to eat outside on one of the picnic tables in front of the visitor centre! While we were eating, we could hear a Marsh Harrier calling high overhead and we picked it up skydancing, before tumbling back down and dropping into the reedbed. Spring is in the air.

On the walk out onto the reserve, we stopped to look at a male Stonechat on the brambles by the road. Stonechats have been on the move for the last week or so and, although this may have been a lingering winter bird or even possibly one of the few that might stay to breed locally, perhaps more likely it will juts be pausing on its way back north.

Plenty of display activity was also underway on the reserve. A pair of Lapwings were displaying by the path on Cricket Marsh. The male was bowing deeply, in front of the female, showing off his orangey undertail. The female did not look impressed! Another Lapwing flew overhead and the male took off and flew round ‘singing’, giving a quick rolling display flight before landing back next to her and bowing again. She responded by flying off. We were more impressed – displaying Lapwings are one of the real sights and sounds of spring on the marshes.

Out on Pat’s Pool, there were lots of Avocets and they have all started to sort themselves into pairs. There was lots of displaying going on amongst them, too, walking around together and bowing to each other. We watched others feeding, sweeping their upturned bills from side-to-side through the water.

P1010200Avocet – we watched some feeding…

P1010209…and several pairs displaying

There were other waders to look at as well. Amongst the Black-tailed Godwits, several were now looking very orange, as they moult into breeding plumage. We admired the variety of Ruff, including one very white-headed male. A little group of Dunlin fed in the shallows and several Redshank flew around calling loudly. There were ducks, too. Lots of Teal and Gadwall, several Shelduck, Mallard and a little flock of Wigeon grazing on one of the banks.

P1010222Mallard – all the male ducks are looking at their best now, even the Mallard

However, the highlight was the Water Rail which was feeding in front of one of the hides. We saw it from one hide, in front of the other, so walked round there to get a closer look. When we got there, it was hiding in the reeds. We sat and waited for a few minutes, but it remained out of view – we could just see bits of it through the vegetation. Only when we had gone to look out of the other side of the hide did the Water Rail come out and feed in full view again. At least we got back over to see it before it ran back in again.

P1010249Water Rail – in front of one of the hides today

By now it had clouded over and cooled down, but that didn’t stop us from walking round to the East Bank. A Curlew fed quietly in the wet grazing marshes by the path. The Marsh Harriers were still over the reeds and a couple of Common Buzzards flew west the other side of the road. A Grey Heron flew over and dropped into the trees, calling. A Little Egret was feeding on the Serpentine.

P1010252Little Egret – feeding by the East Bank

We added a couple more ducks to the days list. There were plenty of Shoveler and when we finally found one with its head not under the water, we had a good look at its enormous bill. A cracking drake Pintail was up-ending in one of the deeper pools, which gave us a great view of its long pin-tail. There were also lots of Brent Geese still feeding out on the grass. Surely they should be heading off soon too, on their way back to Russia.

There were more waders as well. We stopped to watch a Snipe feeding alongside one of the channels. It was so well camouflaged, it was tricky at times to see even through the scope as it lurked amongst the grassy tussocks. Out on Arnold’s Marsh, we found a Grey Plover, still mostly grey with white spangles but starting to get a little black around the face, the start of its moult into summer plumage. While we were watching it, a Ringed Plover ran into view in front of it.

Then it was time to walk back. We stopped briefly to admire a pair of Goldfinches in the bushes opposite the car park and a Cetti’s Warbler sang loudly from the brambles nearby, bidding us farewell.

16th March 2015 – Back North

A Private Tour today. It was a cold and misty start – always a problem with easterly winds at this time of year. But it brightened up a little by the afternoon.

We started at Titchwell. A quick walk around the overflow car park produced a little group of five Bullfinches feeding on buds in the bushes, their quiet piping calls gave their presence away. A small olive-green bird flicked around in the brambles – a Chiffchaff. We watched it flycatching, though it may have struggled to find any flies in the chilly temperatures. There has been one around the reserve all winter, but this was not the only one we saw today, so some will presumably have been early migrants on their way back north.

P1120447Chiffchaff – the first of several today, some will have been early migrants

We set out onto the reserve. The Thornham grazing marsh pool is now looking very dry and rather birdless. However, we stopped to look along one of the channels in the reedbed and a pair of Red-crested Pochard swam briefly out from the edge. Nearby, on the reedbed pool were another three – we got one smart male in the scope, admiring its bright orange punk haircut and pinkish-red bill. There were even more on the freshmarsh when we got there later, at least seven, but hard to know if there was any double counting.

IMG_3247Red-crested Pochard – check out that haircut

While we were scanning the reedbed, two birds flitting around in the reeds by the pool turned out to be two more Chiffchaffs. The Cetti’s Warblers were singing loudly in the scrub.

The large flock of Brent Geese had been flushed from their favourite field in front of Titchwell Manor hotel as we set off – presumably the farmer objects to having his winter wheat ‘mown’! They were all still out on the freshmarsh when we got there. We could hear the chattering as we walked out.

We made our way round to Parrinder Hide. The water levels on the freshmarsh are finally starting to recede and there were a few more waders today – the reappearance of the tops of the islands means they don’t have to get their feet quite so wet! There were a couple of little groups of Dunlin and a small flock of Knot flew in to join them, along with a Grey Plover and a handful of Turnstone. We got a good look at both Bar-tailed and Black-tailed Godwit – a great opportunity to look at the differences between these two similar species. And the Avocets were looking a bit happier, now the islands have reappeared!

P1120483Avocet – feeding in the channel on Volunteer Marsh

There was still a good selection of ducks to see. As well as the Red-crested Pochards, there were still good numbers of Common Pochard and Tufted Duck, and a couple of Goldeneye. The dabbling ducks were well represented as usual, with lots of Teal, a few Wigeon, plenty of Gadwall today, Mallard and Shoveler. The drakes are all looking very smart at the moment, in their spring best.

P1120465Gadwall – a smart drake, a subtle and under-rated bird

P1120466Gadwall – an alternative view!

While we were looking out at the freshmarsh, the smaller waders suddenly took to the air. A Peregrine was circling behind the hide, over the Volunteer Marsh, before drifting away. We picked it up again later, perched on the concrete bunker out across the saltmarsh, where it stayed for the rest of the morning. Needless to say, when we had a look at the Volunteer Marsh shortly after, most of the waders had all disappeared. However, we did find a rather nice Grey Plover feeding on the mud near the bank.

P1120471Grey Plover – the one not flushed by the Peregrine

As we walked back from the hide, a call overhead alerted us to a Marsh Harrier displaying. We watched it tumbling high above us, with buoyant flappy wingbeats. It drifted out over Thornham Marsh, before dropping down into the reedbed. We had also seen the Marsh Harriers in the main reedbed collecting nesting material on our way out – the breeding season for the harriers at least is a ‘go’!

A few birds had dropped back to feed on the edge of Volunteer Marsh nearest the main path. We stopped to watch a little group of Teal feeding – a couple were in the water, sweeping their bills backwards and forwards across the surface, and another two were doing the same on the mud.

P1120453Teal – feeding on the edge of Volunteer Marsh

On the tidal pools, we added Pintail to the day’s list. We admired a really smart drake and his long pin-shaped tail projection and several ducks. The tide was in, so more waders were huddled together here – lots of Oystercatcher, Bar-tailed Godwit and Knot. We walked out onto the beach briefly, but it was cold in the wind and very misty just offshore. There were a few Red-breasted Mergansers on the sea still, just close enough to see, but few waders. We didn’t hang around long and set off back to the car.

P1120485Black-headed Gull – begging from someone else today

We had a particular request to see Brown Hares. They had been lying low in the fields before we started today. The weather was starting to brighten a little now, so we had a drive round the back of Titchwell village. There was certainly no shortage of Hares – 15 in one field, 12 in another, etc, etc. But there was still very little activity and most were huddled down. The sun popped out briefly while we explored inland – just long enough for two Hares to chase each other round and fists to be raised, but the hoped for bout of boxing did not happen.

P1120486Brown Hare – most were lying low in the fields today

We stopped to admire a male Yellowhammer perched on some overhead wires. Unfortunately, a Corn Bunting wasn’t quite so accommodating and flew straight over without stopping.

Our next stop was Holkham. There were still lots of Fieldfares out on the grazing meadows by Lady Anne’s Drive, waiting for warmer weather before heading over the sea back to Scandinavia. We walked west on the inland side of the pines. It was nicely sheltered from the wind and the sun was finally starting to break through the mist. The Goldcrests were taking advantage and feeding in the brightness, low down in the young Holm Oaks along the path. There was also a good selection of tits, and several Treecreepers on the edge of the pines.

P1120494Goldcrest – lots were feeding along the path

We stopped at the Joe Jordan hide and it didn’t take long to spot a Spoonbill flying out of the trees and down to the nearby pool. Unfortunately, the flip-side of the sun coming out was that we were now looking directly into it. But we watched the Spoonbill wrestling a stick out of the water before flying back up into the trees with it – nest building has started for the Spoonbills too. A little later, the same bird or a second did exactly the same thing.

IMG_3251Spoonbill – collecting nest material

There were also lots of Marsh Harriers to look at, circling over the marshes. A Common Buzzard was feeding on a kill, and one Marsh Harrier in particular clearly had its eye on it – standing patiently nearby. Amongst the resident feral Greylag, Canada and Egyptian Geese we also found a few lingering White-fronted Geese. They are only with us for the winter, but are yet to set off back to Russia – unlike the Pink-footed Geese which have already mostly departed on their way back to Iceland.

Walking up into the edge of the dunes, we struggled to find our final target for the day at first. It was particularly difficult looking out across the grazing marshes, into the sun and remains of the mist. Eventually, a shape materialised distantly out on the grass – its pale head and contrasting blackish belly patch immediately gave it away. The Rough-legged Buzzard was still present, but it wasn’t the best of views. Thankfully, a Carrion Crow landed nearby and came over to annoy it. The Rough-legged Buzzard eventually took umbrage and flew off, with several Crows in pursuit. It circled out over the dunes, flashing its black-banded white tail, and finally shaking off its pursuers, before flying back out over the marshes. It landed a little closer and we had a last look at it through the scope before heading back to the car. A good bird to end the day.

27th February 2015 – Owls & Other Fowl

Today was originally billed as a Winter Tour in North Norfolk, but by special request, we added in a smidgeon of Owls as well – we just can’t get enough of them.

We started by heading inland, looking for Little Owls. Despite the gloriously sunny morning, which would normally be heaven for sunbathing owls, it began to feel like it wasn’t going to be our day. At our first stop, often the most reliable site, a dog walker was just passing as we arrived and the owls had disappeared. We eventually located one at the very back of the barns, but there was too much haze even to see it properly today. In addition, the stubble field which we have enjoyed so much over the winter, with all its Curlews and Brown Hares, had been ploughed during the week, so was now empty. We moved swiftly on.

P1110953Pied Wagtail – we came across a little group on the edge of a field…

Meandering our way west, we came across a little group of at least 10 Pied Wagtails. They were feeding around the piles of spoil on the edge of a field where sugar beet had been loaded, the ground churned up, with lots of rainwater-filled ruts. As we pulled up to admire them, a single Grey Wagtail appeared in their midst. An uncommon bird in this part of the world at the best of times, it was a nice surprise to see one out here in the middle of nowhere. There were also a couple of Meadow Pipits and a little group of Linnets with the wagtails – clearly taking advantage of a feeding opportunity.

P1110955Grey Wagtail – …was a surprise find amongst them

Further on, we came across a nice mixed flock of Fieldfare, Redwing and Starling feeding in a field of stubble. They were very easily spooked, flying up into the trees along the hedge line at any perceived sign of trouble, before dropping back down again shortly afterwards. Nearby, on the verge, we surprised a lovely pair of Grey Partridge right by the road, which moved away from us stealthily into the vegetation. However, despite the sunshine, we were having no luck with Little Owls. We stopped at several old barns and large oak trees which on other days might have provided us with one or two, but for whatever reason they were not there today.

We were about to give up, but we had one last site to try. We pulled up in view of the barns and there stood not one, but two Little Owls basking in the morning sun! We got a really good look at them, while they were looking at us, heads bobbing up and down (theirs, not ours!) as they did so. Real characters.

P1110965Little Owl – one of the two catching the sun here this morning

From there we headed up to Titchwell. On the way, we stopped to admire a field full of Brown Hares. There were at least ten in one large block of winter wheat today, chasing each other round, but no boxing while we were there. As we climbed out of the car at Titchwell, a Red Kite flew overhead, west over the car park. It stopped to circle over the trees, before heading off along the coast.

It may only be February, but birds are on the move already. Some of our winter visitors are already leaving (or have left!), and others are gathering in sight of the coast, staging, in anticipation of making the journey further north. A lot of the Pink-footed Geese have already departed, but there were small groups flying west along the coast all day today. They are probably heading up to Scotland now, where they will stop for a while before making the journey onwards to Iceland to breed.

P1110973Pink-footed Goose – small groups were moving overhead all day today

As usual, the reserve at Titchwell provided the opportunity to observe an excellent selection of waders. The drained grazing marsh pool held a Ringed Plover and a couple of Redshank, and a small group of Dunlin flew in just as we moved on. There was a nice group of Avocet out on the freshmarsh, though they were roosting with their feet wet, given the continued high water levels.

P1110979Avocet – roosting on the still-flooded freshmarsh

The few remaining small bits of island still showing above the flood also held a few Dunlin, plus several Lapwing, a Turnstone and a Grey Plover. However, the Volunteer Marsh had more variety – more of the same, plus Oystercatcher, Curlew, Black-tailed Godwit, several Knot. A Spotted Redshank flew over calling, but unfortunately didn’t drop in. On the tidal pools, we added Bar-tailed Godwit. Out on the beach, a little group of Sanderling were chasing in and out of the waves as they broke on the sand. As we walked back later, a single Greenshank had dropped in to the Volunteer Marsh on the rising tide and fed along the edge of one of the channels.

P1110984Black-tailed Godwit – there was a great selection of waders at Titchwell today

There was also a good selection of wildfowl to be seen. Out on the freshmarsh, the ducks and geese were enjoying the raised water levels. A large flock of Brent Geese had flown in from the saltmarsh to bathe and preen. Numbers of ducks were down on recent weeks, but there were still plenty of Teal, plus a smattering of Wigeon and Shoveler and a handful of Gadwall. There were several Pintail as well, although they were hiding at the back  – we got better views of a small group a little further along, out on the tidal pools. The reedbed pool held a few Pochard and Tufted Duck.

P1110993Teal – a stunning male, feeding in the mud on the Volunteer Marsh

There were fewer ducks as well out on the sea than in recent weeks. There was still a decent raft of Common Scoter and a few Goldeneye, but we couldn’t find anything else today. A Red-throated Diver flew past and a Great Crested Grebe was diving further out.

The feeders around the Visitor Centre are always alive with tits and finches. We stopped to scan them and a burst of twittering song from the alders nearby caught our attention. After a little bit of searching, we located the source – a couple of very smart male Siskin. Then it was back to the car for lunch, to the sound of the Bullfinches calling from the sallows and with little groups of Golden Plover passing west overhead.

The rest of the afternoon was spent at Burnham Overy. As soon as we got out of the car, a Barn Owl floated silently over the road beside us and started to hunt along the grassy margin of the field opposite. Great to watch and a sign of things to come!

P1120006Little Egret – feeding in one of the saltmarsh channels on the falling tide

As usual, the grazing marshes on the walk out were alive with waders. The large flocks of Lapwing and Golden Plover were whirling round all the time, seemingly spooked by any sudden movement overhead, friend or foe. There were lots of Curlew and, in amongst them, we found a couple of much smaller Ruff. The flooded dips in the grass were ringed with little groups of diminutive Dunlin. Once we got up onto the seawall, there were even more waders out on the saltmarsh.

There were still plenty of geese out on the grazing marshes, but the numbers now are dominated by Brent Geese. Most of the Pink-footed Geese have departed already, but still some small groups remained out on the grass. As we had seen in the morning, more Pinkfeet were still heading west overhead.

Suddenly all the birds behind us took off, the large flocks of Wigeon particularly noisily. We looked round just in time to see a sleek, streamlined shape powering towards us. A small, male Peregrine shot through, down over the reeds and low across the grass towards the Golden Plover flock by the dunes, scattering everything as it went. Interestingly, on our walk back later we were to see exactly the same thing again – it has obviously identified a lucrative food source out on the marshes here.

That was not the only raptor to be seen here. As well as several Marsh Harriers and Kestrels, it didn’t take us long to locate one of the wintering Rough-legged Buzzards, out on one of its favoured posts across the other side of the grazing marshes. A pale Common Buzzard perched on a nearby post provided a useful highlight of the pitfall of Rough-legged Buzzard identification – the Common Buzzard being strikingly creamy-white on head and underparts, but clearly lacking the contrasting black belly patch of its rarer cousin. While we were scanning the marshes, the second Rough-legged Buzzard appeared over the pines and dropped down to land in the dunes, its very pale head and dark belly standing out even at a distance. We walked over into the dunes to get a better look at it through the scope.

IMG_2910Rough-legged Buzzard – one of two today, this one perched up in the dunes

However, the afternoon really belonged to the owls. Holkham and Burnham Overy are often good for Barn Owl, but we had an amazing performance from them today. After the one we had seen on arrival, we picked up a couple more distantly from the seawall, looking towards the pines. Then one appeared in front of us and proceeded to hunt over the seawall itself, where it dropped down suddenly into the grass. The local Kestrel came over for a look and landed a couple of metres away, where the two engaged in a stare-off. As the Barn Owl took off again, we could see it had caught a vole. The Kestrel wouldn’t leave it alone and set off in pursuit, swooping down at it until the Barn Owl dropped into the reeds. The Kestrel then gave up and when the Owl reappeared the vole had gone – hopefully eaten!

P1110998P1120002Barn Owl – there were at least six hunting over the grazing marsh today

There were so many Barn Owls, it was hard to count them all properly. There were at least six in view at one time, so probably more in total out hunting. Eventually the Short-eared Owl appeared – bigger, longer-winged, and better camouflaged than its smaller cousins. It was hunting a bit further over, towards the pines today, but we got great views of it through the scope, quartering back and forth on its stiff wings. From out in the dunes, we could see it hiding in the grass, looking round furtively all the time, its yellow irises flashing in the late afternoon sunlight.

As the light started to fade, we walked back, stopping to admire the view across the saltmarsh as the sun descended to the west. Another great day of winter birding, with a very respectable list of around 90 species for the day, as well as plenty of owls. Not bad!

P1120016Burnham Overy – the sun going down over the saltmarsh