Tag Archives: Barn Owl

14th April 2018 – Early Spring at Last, Day 1

Day 1 of a two day weekend of Bird Tours in North Norfolk. It was cloudy most of the day, but dry and mild and with light winds, before the sun came out later in the afternoon. We spent the day up on the coast, looking for spring migrants.

With the possibility that there could be some birds freshly arrived or on the move this morning, with the improvement in the weather after several cold and foggy days, we decided to spend the morning at Holkham and Burnham Overy Dunes.

As we drove up along Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see a couple of Egyptian Geese out on the grazing marshes and several Shoveler around the rushy edges of the pools. When we got out of the car, a more careful scan revealed a few Wigeon still lingering out on the grass (most have already departed on their way back to Russia for the breeding season) and a pair of Gadwall with them. There were also a couple of Oystercatchers and several Curlew. A pair of Lapwing were displaying further back.

Rather than heading out towards the beach, we turned west along the path before the pines. We could hear Chiffchaff and Blackcap singing deep in the trees along the first stretch, both early returning migrants. A Lesser Whitethroat started singing too, further back – it was probably just back from its African wintering grounds.

A Goldcrest started singing in the pines and we looked up to see it flitting around above us. We could hear a Treecreeper singing too, but it remained stubbornly elusive. Eventually we had a brief glimpse but it disappeared back into the pines before everyone could get onto it. A Great Spotted Woodpecker called from the trees too.

At Salts Hole there were a few Tufted Ducks and a single drake Teal out on the water. Another Chiffchaff was calling in the trees just beyond, and we followed it as it made its way quickly west on the edge of the trees, singing occasionally. Eventually it stopped to feed and we managed to get a better look at it. A Sedge Warbler was singing from the reeds as we scanned the grazing marshes from the gate. It popped up into some brambles briefly but dropped down before everyone could see it. Two Spoonbills flew past.

A couple of Marsh Harriers circled up out in the middle and then a Sparrowhawk appeared above our heads, over the path. From the boardwalk up to Washington Hide, we stopped to watch another pair of Marsh Harriers which were flying in and out of the reeds. The male made several short flights down to the edge of the marsh and then came back with sticks or bits of reed, presumably nest building.

Marsh Harrier 1

Marsh Harrier – the male, carrying nest material

Continuing on our way west, we had nice views of a Sedge Warbler in the reeds by Meals House, which perched up more obligingly than the one we had seen earlier. Then it performed a song flight, fluttering up singing, before parachuting back down into the reeds out of view.

There were a few tits in the trees as we walked along. Then just before the crosstracks, we heard a Willow Warbler singing. It was in a bare deciduous tree on the edge of the pines and we had nice views of it as it alternately preened and sang, perched in the morning sunshine. We could see the lemon yellow wash to the supercilium. Then it started to feed actively, still stopping to sing from time to time.

Willow Warbler

Willow Warbler – singing on the edge of the pines

Another longer distance, trans-Saharan migrant, the Willow Warbler was very possibly freshly arrived back. The song is a lovely sweet descending scale, very different from the Chiffchaff, a real sign of spring when the Willow Warblers return.

At this point we received a message to say that some Ring Ouzels had been seen out in the dunes. So, rather than stopping at the hide, we continued straight on towards the end of the pines. We stopped to scan from the gate. A couple of Blackbirds flew out of the bushes, unfortunately lacking the white gorget of their upland cousins. We made our way on into the dunes.

It was rather quiet at first out here. There had apparently been quite a good passage of commoner migrants earlier, but it seemed to have slowed now. There were plenty of Meadow Pipits and Linnets in the bushes or down in the grass as we passed. A male Stonechat on top of a bush looked very smart.

The Ring Ouzels had apparently been with some other thrushes earlier, but we saw the Mistle Thrushes fly off west ahead of us, while a couple of Song Thrushes came up out of the dunes behind us. It was hard to tell which way the Ring Ouzels would most likely have gone, but we then received another message to say one had reappeared a short distance behind us, so we walked back to find it feeding out on the grass beyond the fence.

Ring Ouzel

Ring Ouzel – this male showed well on the grass beyond the fence

The Ring Ouzel was a smart male, with a bold white gorget. We had great views of it through the scope, as it fed out in the open. We could even see the silvery edges to the wing feathers. It would occasionally disappear back into the bushes, but kept coming out again onto the grass, before eventually moving further back. As we scanned the dunes further along, we spotted another Ring Ouzel perched in the top of a bush away to the west.

The Ring Ouzels are on their way from their wintering grounds in North Africa, back to their breeding grounds in Scandinavia and stop off here to feed. There had been six of them earlier, but we were more than happy with the views we had of these two. We decided to venture on a little further to see if we could find a Wheatear which had been seen along here earlier.

We continued on to the next open area in the dunes, but there was no sign of the Wheatear. It was getting very disturbed here now, with several people and families out walking their dogs. We didn’t have time to go all the way to the end of the dunes today, so we decided to head back east and have a look from Joe Jordan Hide on our way. A quick look out at the grazing marshes from the edge of the pines revealed a distant Great White Egret and a presumably feral Barnacle Goose with the Greylags. We could see three Spoonbills in the distance in the trees too.

As we climbed up to Joe Jordan Hide, we spotted a Great White Egret in one of the wet ditches right outside. As well as its large size, its long yellow bill gave it away.  While we were watching it, we noticed another Great White Egret further back. This one had a black bill – their bills change colour when they are in breeding condition. Hopefully they will breed here again this year.

Great White Egret

Great White Egret – one of two we saw from Joe Jordan Hide

A few Little Egrets were coming in and out of the trees now too, which is good to see. The Little Egret population here was very badly hit by the cold weather earlier in the year. It will be interesting to see how many pairs breed here in 2018.

There was a lot of Spoonbill activity today. Several were down around the edges of the pool, bathing & preening. More were flying in and out from the trees, collecting nest material around the reedy margins of the water. We had a good view of them through the scope – the adults with their shaggy nuchal crests blowing in the breeze..

There were lots of Greylag Geese out on the grass around the old fort and looking carefully through we found two Pink-footed Geese with them. We could see they were smaller and darker, with a more delicate bill, dark with a pink bank. Most of the Pink-footed Geese which spent the winter here have gone already, back to Iceland for the breeding season, but a very small number normally over-summer here, typically sick or injured birds. One of the two today looked to have a damaged wing, presumably having been shot and winged over the winter.

Several Marsh Harriers were coming and going here too. A Red Kite circled up in the distance. While we were watching a dark Common Buzzard perched on a bush it suddenly took off and dropped sharply down onto the ground. It had caught something, and we watched as it flew off carrying it.

It was time to head back for lunch now. We made good use of the picnic tables at the top of Lady Anne’s Drive. It was nice weather to sit out and eat today, with the bonus of a couple of Spoonbills which flew over while we were there, one right over our heads so we got a very good look at its spoon-shaped bill.

Spoonbill

Spoonbill – flew right over us while we were having lunch

After lunch, we headed further west along the coast road. After a while, we turned inland to see if we could find some farmland birds. A pair of Red-legged Partridges and lots of Brown Hares were in the first fields. Then we spotted a big flock of Linnets lined up on the wires, and more in the hedge by the road, with a Kestrel perched nearby. A little further on, we found several Bramblings with a few Chaffinches in the hedge too. There is a wild bird seed crop growing here and the birds have been here all winter. It will soon be time for the Bramblings to leave.

We stopped again to check out another field where there is a seedy strip. As we scanned round, we spotted several Yellowhammers in the hedges, including a good number of lovely bright yellow males. We could see a distant Corn Bunting in the hedge over the far side too, so we walked a bit further down for a closer look.

When we stopped to scan again, we heard another Corn Bunting singing in the hedge just ahead of us, like a jangling bunch of keys. It was hard to see against the branches, very well camouflaged, but in the end we got a great look at it through the scope, perched up with the Yellowhammers.

Corn Bunting

Corn Bunting – perched up on the hedge with the Yellowhammers

Our destination for the rest of the afternoon was Titchwell, so we swung round via Choseley on our way there. A pair of Grey Partridge were feeding in a winter wheat field by the road, the male keeping watch while the female concentrated on finding food.

As we got out of the car at Titchwell, we could hear Mediterranean Gulls calling overhead. Four Common Snipe flew over the car park, but disappeared behind the trees before everyone could get on to them. On the walk to the Visitor Centre, another Willow Warbler was singing in the sallows and, when we got there, a male Blackcap was singing in the tree right above us.

Blackcap

Blackcap – singing in the trees by the Visitor Centre

A quick look at the feeders revealed several Bramblings. At first a female appeared in the trees behind, then a young male, with a black-speckled head but rather dull orange breast and shoulders still. Finally a third Brambling appeared, a much brighter orange bird, presumably an adult male.

Brambling

Brambling – one of at least three at the feeders

There have been a couple of Black Redstarts in the paddocks round by Patsy’s Reedbed for a few days, another early migrant just passing through here, so we went first to look for them. We couldn’t see any sign of them from the gate. The only bird of note on Patsy’s itself were a few Common Pochard,  and a couple of Marsh Harriers were displaying just beyond, the male calling and tumbling down from high in the sky.

We walked over to the end of the paddocks and there was still no sign of the Black Redstart. It had just been seen on one of the stable, but had dropped down out of view, and it didn’t reappear while we waited. There had been some wagtails here too earlier, but there were just a couple of Pied Wagtails now, the Yellow Wagtail having flown off towards the freshmarsh. We decided to head back to the main path.

Walking out across the reserve, the Thornham grazing marsh was quiet and there was nothing singing in the reedbed today. A single Little Grebe was hiding in the channel through the reeds and a few Common Pochard and Tufted Ducks were on the reedbed pool. Then we heard a Yellow Wagtail calling over the edge of the saltmarsh in front of us and looked over to see it flying across. It came past us, back over the main path, and headed away back towards Patsy’s and the paddocks. Another nice spring migrant for the day’s list.

Mediterranean Gull

Mediterranean Gull – flying overhead, calling

There were Mediterranean Gulls flying around calling non-stop, with lots of gulls flying back in from the fields inland. We could see the pure white wing-tips on the Mediterraean Gulls, which were translucent from below. The water levels on the Freshmarsh are much better now, much lower than they had been, but the islands seem to have been largely taken over by gulls. As well as loads of Black-headed and good numbers of Mediterranean, we found a few Common, Herring, Lesser Black-backed and Great Black-backed Gulls too.

With the improvement in the water levels, there are a few more waders back on here now. As well as the ubiquitous Avocets, there were a few Black-tailed Godwits, with many already moulting into their rusty breeding plumage. A lone Ruff was feeding around the edge of the nearest island, but there were mare further back, by the bank beyond Parrinder Hide, with a Redshank alongside providing a nice comparison.

There were still a few ducks on the freshmarsh, mainly Teal, although many have already departed back to their breeding grounds. The sun had come out now and the drake Teal looked particularly stunning in the late afternoon light.

Teal

Teal – a smart drake in the afternoon sun

We had a quick look on Volunteer Marsh, but the tide was already coming in fast and the channel was flooded. There were a few Redshanks and Curlews out on the mud in the middle. We didn’t have time to head out to the beach today, but the tide would be in anyway, so we started to walk back.

As we got back to the reedbed, we heard a Bearded Tit call and watched as it flew in skimming the tops of the reeds and dropped down out of sight. A few seconds later, it flew again, back across the reedbed and disappeared once more. That is often all you see of the Bearded Tits but a little further along, we noticed some movement down low in the reeds at the back of the pools by the path and looked across to see a male Bearded Tit.

Bearded Tit

Bearded Tit – a pair were feeding around the edge of the pools by the path

We watched the male Bearded Tit as it weaved its way in and out of the reeds, occasionally picking at the water surface or at the stems, presumably looking for insects. Then it flew across the water and disappeared into a thicker patch of reeds. As we waited to see if it might come out, a female Bearded Tit appeared in the reeds nearby.

Almost back to the trees, a ghostly pale shape flew in across the reeds and over the path. It was a Barn Owl. It headed round to the Thornham grazing marsh and started hunting over the rushy grass. We made our way back to where there is a gap in the trees and had geat views of it flying round. Eventually it dropped sharply down into the grass and when it finally flew up again we could see that it had caught a vole. It flew off with it in its talons, back the way it had come.

Barn Owl

Barn Owl – caught a vole on Thornham grazing marsh

That would have been a very nice way to end, but back in the car park, we decided to have a quick look out towards the paddocks from the gates at the back. A quick scan of the stable revealed one of the Black Redstarts on the roof. It was the male, dark slate grey with a black face and an orange-red tail. It was perched, looking into the afternoon sun, presumably warming itself. A nice extra bonus to finish the day.

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30th March 2018 – Good Friday Birds

A Private Tour today, on the North Norfolk coast. It was a lovely sunny start to the day and, although it clouded over later in the morning, it rather helpfully remained dry until just as we finished this afternoon.

Our first stop this morning was at Holkham. As we drove into Lady Anne’s Drive, we spotted a Grey Partridge out on one of the fields. As we pulled up, it started to chase after a second bird which was further back, nearer the hedge. Two more Grey Partridge were watching nearby and it seemed like a territorial dispute was underway between two pairs.

The two Grey Partridges chasing each other were males and eventually one ran over towards the road, collecting one of the females on its way past, before ducking under the gate and coming out onto the verge. We had a great view of the two of them here, from the car, as the female fed and the male stood nearby, keeping watch.

Grey Partridge

Grey Partridge – several were by Lady Anne’s Drive this morning

 

We hadn’t got much further when we caught a quick glimpse of a Barn Owl flying up over a line of reeds beside the road. We pulled up just beyond the reeds and there was the Barn Owl down in the short grass. We got out quietly and watched as it appeared to pick at something at its feet. We couldn’t see whether it had caught anything, but when it eventually flew up its talons were empty.

It flew back over the line of reeds and we walked back to find the Barn Owl now on a post the other side. It was staring intently down into the grass below, occasionally looking round or up to make sure it was not about to be mobbed or attacked.

Barn Owl 1

Barn Owl – still out hunting this morning

Periodically, the Barn Owl would fly along to the next post and start looking down at the ground again. Once or twice it took off and dived sharply down into the long grass, but once again we didn’t actually see it catch anything.

Barn Owl 3

Barn Owl – dropping down into the grass

It gradually worked its way towards us along the fence line, until it got to a large bush which blocked its progress. Then the Barn Owl took off and flew straight at us, passing by just a few metres in front of us before landing on one of the posts back along the edge of Lady Anne’s Drive. Stunning views!

Barn Owl 2

Barn Owl – flew right past us

We left the Barn Owl in peace to carry on hunting and walked a little further up Lady Anne’s Drive to have a look on the pools. Several Teal and Shoveler were asleep in the rushes along the edge and there were a few Greylag and Egyptian Geese here too. But there were no Wigeon along here today – there appears to have been a big clear out over the last week, as birds have departed on their way back to their breeding grounds for the summer.

There were a few waders too. A scattering of Curlew, Redshank and Lapwing were feeding on the mud, as were a pair of Oystercatcher and a couple of Common Snipe zipped across before dropping down into the vegetation out of view. A Little Egret was good to see as numbers along the coast appear to have declined after the recent snow. A couple of Marsh Harriers circled up over the back and a very pale Common Buzzard perched on a bush out in the middle of the grazing marsh.

As we walked back to the car, we could see the Barn Owl had returned to the posts out in the middle, where it had been earlier. We eventually tore ourselves away and carried on to the end of Lady Anne’s Drive, where we parked. The Shorelarks have not been reported at Holkham for over a week now, so we assumed they had probably moved on, but we bumped into one of the wardens who told us he had seen them again earlier this morning. We decided to head out for a look.

As we headed through the pines, a Chiffchaff was singing in the trees nearby, a sign that spring is on its way. It was lovely and bright as we walked east along the edge of the saltmarsh, and the Skylarks and Meadow Pipits were singing. However, there were quite a few people out ahead of us today and plenty of dogs running round too. Perhaps it was no surprise therefore to find the Shorelarks had moved on – they have obviously found somewhere else quiet and out of the way to feed at the moment.

We had a quick look out on the beach and scanned the bay. There was a bit of mist offshore and we couldn’t see anything other than gulls and Oystercatchers on the sand. We decided to try our luck elsewhere and walked back to Lady Anne’s Drive.

This time we walked west along the track on the inland side of the pines. We heard tits calling in the trees and stopped to look. A Goldcrest started singing and we picked one up flitting around in the trees nearby. A Treecreeper appeared briefly, but was hard to see before it flew off across the path. When a second Treecreeper flew in a couple of seconds later, it was thankfully much easier to get onto as it climbed up the trunk of one of the pines. A little further on, we found a couple of Long-tailed Tits feeding in the poplars.

Salt’s Hole was fairly quiet, apart from a couple of Tufted Ducks and two Little Grebes. A Grey Heron was standing statuesque on the edge of a ditch beyond. A little further on and scanning from the gate we finally managed to find a flock of Wigeon out on the grazing marshes. A lone Pink-footed Goose was also out here, by the looks of it an injured bird which was unable to join its peers on the flight back to Iceland. There was very little on the pool in front of Washington Hide, although a couple of Marsh Harriers flew in and out of the reeds. We decided to carry on to the next hide.

The wardens had been out on the grazing marshes doing a count this morning, so there were just a few Egyptian Geese and a load of Greylags out on the grass when we arrived. We couldn’t find any White-fronted Geese here today – they also seem to have largely departed this week, back to the continent.

The Spoonbills were hiding in the trees, but we managed to find a pair asleep which were just about visible and they helpfully woke up occasionally to flash their spoon-shaped bills and shaggy crests. Two of three more Spoonbills flew in and out of the trees.

A female Kestrel in front of the hide kept us amused, as it kept dropping down to the ground amongst the molehills, catching worms. A Red Kite drifted across the middle of the grazing marshes and a Sparrowhawk appeared on a post briefly. We couldn’t see any sign of the Great White Egrets at first, but eventually one appeared out of one of the ditches to the left of the hide.

Great White Egret

Great White Egret – feeding in one of the ditches on the grazing marshes

On the walk back, we stopped to watch a flock of tits which were dropping down to feed on the sandy bank by the edge of the track. It was slightly odd seeing several Long-tailed Tits, Coal Tits and even a Goldcrest hopping around on the ground here. Eventually they were flushed by someone walking past and disappeared back up into the trees.

Coal Tit

Coal Tit – one of several birds feeding on the ground by the path

A quick scan of the grazing marshes from the other side failed to locate any White-fronted Geese either, although there were five more Pink-footed Geese this side. We made our way on to Titchwell for lunch. As we ate at one of the picnic tables by the visitor centre, a couple of Greenfinches came in to join the Chaffinches and Goldfinches on the feeders. We could hear Bramblings singing high in the trees here too.

After lunch, as we carried our picnic bags back to the car, we could hear several more Bramblings – more of a wheeze than a song really. We stopped and found them feeding on buds in the sallows alongside the path.

Brambling

Brambling – feeding on buds in the sallows by the path

We made our way out onto the reserve to see what we could find next. There was no sign of a Water Rail in the ditches by the path, but we did find one on the edge of the reeds at the back of the Thornham grazing marsh ‘pool’. There were also a few Pied Wagtails and Linnets on here, but we couldn’t find anything else today. There were a few Tufted Duck and three Common Pochard, as well as a lone Gadwall, on the reedbed pool. A single Grey Plover was out on the Lavendar Marsh pool.

The Bearded Tits have been showing really well this week, around the small pools along the edge of the reedbed next to the path. It had clouded over and was rather cool now that the wind had picked up, so we wondered whether they would still be there today. It seemed very quiet as we walked up, but after waiting a couple of minutes we heard a Bearded Tit call and looked down to see a very smart male working its was between the reeds along one edge.

Bearded Tit 2

Bearded Tit 1

Bearded Tit – showing well again on the edge of the reeds

 

There were actually several Bearded Tits around the small pools here again this afternoon, although it was hard to say how many as they were constantly on the move and in and out of the reeds. We saw at least two smart males, admiring their powder blue-grey heads and black moustaches.

The water level on the freshmarsh is still very high at the moment, so we didn’t stop at Island Hide again. Given the chilly wind, we headed straight round to the shelter of Parrinder Hide. We took a quick detour just beyond the turn to the hide to admire a Knot which was feeding on the mud right by the path on the Volunteer Marsh.

As we were walking along the path which leads out to the hide, we spotted a couple of small waders on the muddy edge of one of the few islands which protrude above the water and a quick look through binoculars confirmed they were a pair of Little Ringed Plover. We could just make out their golden yellow eye rings.

Little Ringed Plover

Little Ringed Plover – a pair were back on the freshmarsh today

 

Little Ringed Plovers are summer visitors here, so it is always nice to see them return in the spring, although there is not much mud for them on the freshmarsh at the moment. We could just see them over the bank, but we had a better look out from the end of the hide.

There were a few other waders on here today. A small group of Black-tailed Godwits were asleep in the deeper water and a loose flock of Ruff were feeding nearby. A single female, a Reeve, was noticeably smaller next to the males, one of which sported a partly white head. There were a few Redshank with the Ruff too. A lone Knot dropped in with them and a small group of Turnstone flew in and landed on the pile of bricks which stood clear of the water.

As well as  the usual Teal and a single Gadwall, three Red-crested Pochard eventually appeared from behind one of the islands in the middle and a smart pair of Pintail were hiding with the Mallard beyond the larger, fenced off island. A small flock of Brent Geese flew in for a bathe and a preen.

We had heard several Mediterranean Gulls and seen them flying past as we walked out along the path. We could see lots now, in amongst the Black-headed Gulls out on the fenced-off island. A pair or two of Mediterranean Gulls landed out in the water in front of the hide too, where we could get a really good look at them. They look particularly smart at the moment, with their jet black hoods and white eyelids.

Looking more closely through all the gulls, we noticed a smaller bird out on the island. It was a single Sandwich Tern. Through the scope we could see its yellow-tipped black bill and shaggy black crest. They are only now starting to return for the breeding season, and are not often on the freshmarsh, so this was a nice bonus today.

Sandwich Tern

Sandwich Tern – another summer visitor just returned

 

Looking out from the other side of Parrinder Hide, the Volunteer Marsh looked quite quiet. There were quite a few Shelduck out on the mud, and a Curlew either side of the hide, but not much else. We decided to make a dash out towards the beach. Back out on the main path, at the far end of Volunteer Marsh, an Avocet was feeding up to its belly in the deepest pool. There were more waders along the edge of the channel here – Black-tailed Godwits, Redshank and Curlew.

The Tidal Pools are full of water at the moment, so there is not much on here apart from a few Shelduck and Teal. However, while we were walking past, five Red-crested Pochard flew in. They couldn’t make up their minds whether they wanted to land on the water or not, almost touching down several times before flying up and round us again. Eventually, they decided not to and headed off back over towards the freshmarsh.

Red-crested Pochard

Red-crested Pochard – one of the five which didn’t land on the Tidal Pools

 

The tide was coming in fast out at the beach. The Knot were all flying off to roost as we walked out, but there were still a few waders out on the shore. As well as lots of Oystercatchers, we found a couple of Bar-tailed Godwits with them. Several Sanderling were running in and out of the waves.

As well as being windy, there was quite a bit of misty cloud now which meant we couldn’t see too far offshore. A quick scan revealed a Great Crested Grebe close inshore and a male Red-breasted Merganser which wasn’t easy to see in the swell. We decided to head back.

Knot

Knot – feeding on the near edge of the Volunteer Marsh

 

As we passed the Volunteer Marsh, the Knot was back close to the path so we stopped for another look. On our way to the visitor centre, we swung round via the Meadow Trail, but the bushes here were all very quiet now. On our way to the car park, a Redwing was hiding deep under a pile of branches beneath the sallows and it was very tricky even to see the leaves it was throwing up. A Chiffchaff was flitting around overhead.

When we got back to the car, it started to spit with rain. We didn’t mind now we had finished – it was time to head for home.

4th Feb 2018 – Owls & More

An Owl Tour today, back in North Norfolk. The weather forecast was far from ideal – we were warned to expect cold and blustery NE winds bringing wintry showers in off the North Sea. Still, it didn’t turn out as bad as forecast and it is amazing what you can find when you go out looking, despite the weather!

After meeting up, we headed straight down to the coastal marshes to see if any Barn Owls might be out hunting still. It was cold and windy and, after passing through a sleet shower on our way down to the coast this morning, it was perhaps no surprise they had already gone in to roost. Not to worry. We hoped we might get another opportunity to look for Barn Owls later in the day, weather permitting.

There were other birds to see here. Several Marsh Harriers hung in the air over the reeds, coming out of their roost. A flock of Curlew flew up from feeding down in the damp grass in the grazing meadows below us. Little groups of Brent Geese flew back and forth. A Water Pipit came up from the recently cut reeds and flew off calling, and a Grey Wagtail flew high over us the other way.

We decided to try our luck inland and look for some Little Owls instead. At the first site we stopped at, we got out of the car and looked across to the roof of some farm buildings across the other side of a field. There, tucked in below the ridge out of the wind, facing into the few rays of morning sun coming through the clouds, were two Little Owls. We had a good look at them through the scope, spotted with white above and streaked below. It was nice to get the first owls of the day under our belts. Three Stock Doves were on the roof too, a little further along.

Little Owls

Little Owls – these two were standing on a barn roof out of the wind

From here, we meandered our way west. We were heading up to the Wash, but had a quick look at some other owl sites on the way, just in case any others might still be out. There weren’t any more owls, but we did have a nice variety of other things on the way. A pair of Grey Partridges were hiding in a stubble field. A Green Sandpiper was bathing in a stream but flew up and away as we pulled up. A Bullfinch zipped across the road in front of us and disappeared into the brambles, flashing its white rump. There were a few raptors too – a Red Kite flapped lazily across a field beside the road, a Sparrowhawk circled up, plus several Common Buzzards and Kestrels.

Eventually, we arrived at the Wash. As we got up to the seawall, we could see the tide was just going out. There were still lots of waders on the mud, chasing the rapidly receding waters down, so we stopped to take a closer look. The sky had cleared now and the first thing that struck us was a large flock of Golden Plover positively shining in the sunshine out on the mud.

Golden Plovers 1

Golden Plover – catching the sun, out on the Wash

Through the scope, we could see more waders. Large tight flocks of Knot and Oystercatcher, lines of Bar-tailed Godwits, plus Dunlin and Grey Plover more liberally scattered over the mud. In amongst them, we found two Avocets, hardy individuals which have probably decided to linger here through the winter (although others are already starting to move back). A few Redshank were picking around on the mud just below us and a Ringed Plover flew in and landed briefly nearby.

The waders were constantly on the move, following the tide. Periodically, a flock would fly up, whirl round and land again further down. It was great to watch the Knot in particularly, swirling out over the water, flashing alternately white and dark grey. The Golden Plover put on a show too, whooshing across in front of us, before circling up and then dropping back down to the mud. There was no sign of any raptors though, they were probably just nervous in the wind.

Golden Plovers 2

Golden Plover – the flock swirled around in front of us

There were ducks here too. The mud was covered with a sprinkling of white Shelduck, whereas the dark mass gathered on the edge of the water was a large flock of Teal. More Shelduck were swimming in the mouth of the channel and in with them we could see several Pintail too. A drake Goldeneye flew past behind us, flashing black of white, the first of several we saw here today.

However, we had not come here to look out at the delights of the Wash, so we tore ourselves away and headed round to the pits.

Goldeneye

Goldeneye – this drake flew past us over the pits

There have been a couple of Short-eared Owls roosting here this winter and, carefully scanning the bushes on our way round, we quickly found one of them hunched up under a mass of brambles. We got it in the scope and could see its ear tufts and staring yellow eyes.

Short-eared Owls

Short-eared Owl – roosting under the brambles again

Once we had all had a good look at the Short-eared Owl, we decided to head back to the car. The weather was much improved, but it was still cold in the wind and exposed out by the vast expanse of the Wash. We headed round to Titchwell for a couple of hours ahead of the afternoon owl shift.

It was time for lunch but, as we made our way from the car park to the Visitor Centre, we noticed a little patch of rusty colour, subtly contrasting with the browner leaves, half hidden underneath the sallows. A quick look confirmed it was a Woodcock! Gathering the group together, we had frame-filling views of it through the scope. Not an owl, but a real highlight to see one of these often so elusive birds so well.

Woodcock

Woodcock – feeding beneath the sallows between the car park & Visitor Centre

The Woodcock was tucked up asleep at first. After lunch (and a very welcome hot drink!), as we made our way back to the car to put away our bags, it was feeding more actively. We watched it walking round slowly, probing in the leaves, before it turned and disappeared beneath the branches.

There were a few birds around the feeders – Chaffinches, Greenfinches and Goldfinches, plus Blue, Great and Long-tailed Tits. As we started to make our way out onto the reserve, a quick look in the ditch by the main path revealed a Water Rail feeding on the far bank. It tried to hide under the overhanging brambles at first, before coming right out into the open for us, probing in the rotting leaves.

Water Rail

Water Rail – showing well in the ditch below the main path

The old pool out on Thornham grazing marsh looked particularly devoid of life at first. Scanning more carefully, we found a Reed Bunting feeding in some dead seedheads down near the front and, while we were watching it, a head popped up nearby. The Water Pipit was hard to see at first, lurking in a line of taller vegetation, picking around unobtrusively. Occasionally it would appear in an opening, and eventually we all got a good look at it through the scope.

A Marsh Harrier was circling over the reeds at the back and another was out over the reedbed the other side. Continuing on our way, the reedbed pool held a few Tufted Ducks and a scan of the Lavender Marsh as we passed revealed a single Grey Plover on the pool and a lone Black-tailed Godwit on the saltmarsh with a couple of Wigeon and Teal.

The freshmarsh is still flooded with water at the moment, meaning that there is not so much to see on here currently. The ducks like it though, with a number of Common Pochard in particular in a big raft towards the back. On the small piece of island remaining exposed above the flood by the junction to Parrinder Hide, we could see several Red-crested Pochards too, the males standing out with their bright orange heads (despite the fact they were all fast asleep), very different from their commoner cousins.

Red-crested Pochard

Red-crested Pochards – the drakes sporting bright orange heads

With some dark clouds out towards the beach, we opted for safety and headed for Parrinder Hide. It was a wise call, as shortly after we arrived the skies opened and it started to hail heavily. Thankfully, it was just a shower and passed through quickly, but we were certainly pleased to be inside as it did.

There was not so much else to see on the freshmarsh today. There were lots of Lapwing on the fenced off ‘Avocet Island’ and a few Golden Plover in with them too. A flock of 14 Avocet flew in after the shower, but ended up landing out in the water, given the lack of islands to stand on. We watched them swimming for a while, bobbing up and down, looking decidedly out of place, before they finally plucked up the courage to fly over and join all the Lapwing.

Avocets

Avocets – swimming on the freshmarsh, given the high water levels

As the rain stopped, we made our way round to the other side of Parrinder Hide, overlooking the Volunteer Marsh. There were a few waders out on the mud in front of the hide at first, Grey Plover, Dunlin, Redshank and Avocet, but they all flushed as a Marsh Harrier flew over and landed further back.

With the break in the weather, we made a quick dash out further along the main path. The sun even came out for a time! We had great views of several more waders close in along the near edge of the Volunteer Marsh, Black-tailed Godwit, Dunlin, Ringed Plover and Redshank. A Lapwing looked particularly stunning, its upperparts gleaming metallic green, bronze and even purple in the sunshine!

Lapwing

Lapwing – looking stunning in the bright sunshine

The Tidal Pools looked quite quiet as we stuck our heads up over the bank, apart from a couple of Little Grebes diving just below us. A more careful scan revealed a pale silvery grey and white wader asleep, tucked down on the edge of the saltmarsh, a lone Spotted Redshank in winter plumage. A nice bonus!

There was no time to head out to the beach today, as our focus needed to be back on owls for the afternoon. We made our way quickly back to the car, and set off back east. With the cold winds along the coast, we decided to head inland to see if we could find any sheltered spots where Barn Owls might be hunting.

Almost immediately, on our way down to the first meadows we wanted to check, a Barn Owl flew across the road in front of us. It disappeared round behind some houses, before reappearing again, back across the road and down to the meadows where we had hoped to find it. It worked its way quickly down a hedge through the middle of the meadow, flicking over either side, before landing on a post on the bottom of the field. We had a good look at it here, but by the time we got the scope up, it was on the move again and disappeared out the back.

That was a positive start, but we hoped to have more prolonged views of Barn Owls out hunting this afternoon. Spurred on, we drove round to another area where they like to hunt, and once again we spotted a Barn Owl before we even arrived! We followed it down to the main meadow and found somewhere to park. As we got out of the car to watch it, a second Barn Owl appeared.

Barn Owl 1

Barn Owl – out hunting over the meadows this afternoon

The two Barn Owls quartered the meadow for a while, each seemingly oblivious to the other, focused solely on its search for prey. The second bird disappeared over the hedge at the back – we could still see it hunting over another meadow further down – before a third Barn Owl appeared over the grass in front of us.

Barn Owl 2

Barn Owl – one of three out hunting these meadows this afternoon

For over half an hour, we watched transfixed as the Barn Owls hunted. They worked their way back and forth, round and round the meadows, seemingly in a random pattern, searching the grass. Occasionally, one would drop down into the grass, but we didn’t see them successfully catch anything while we were there. We did get a good look at them through the scope down on the ground though. In particular, as a light snow shower passed over briefly, they settled for a minute.

Barn Owl 3

Barn Owl – they would drop down in the grass occasionally

Eventually, the remaining two Barn Owls started to move off, heading away in different directions, hunting different patches. We decided to move on too. We made our way back down to the coast road and headed back east. There were no more Barn Owls out hunting along here this afternoon, but we didn’t stop to look too hard, after enjoying such fantastic views of them earlier.

We had an appointment down in the woods at dusk. We were a little early arriving this evening, so we walked through to look out over the meadows beyond as dusk fell. We had to retreat to the shelter of the trees on our first attempt, as another wintry shower passed through. As it cleared, we walked back to find a Barn Owl perched on a post on the edge of the meadows. We watched it for a while as it resumed hunting, flying round over the grass, occasionally dropping down into the taller vegetation.

A Tawny Owl hooted and we made our way back into the trees and down to an area where one of the males is known to favour. The Tawny Owls were a bit subdued this evening, possibly due to the weather, and it got dark rather quickly given the cloud. We did hear another pair hooting back behind us, deeper in the woods. Eventually, the male Tawny Owl we were listening for hooted again a couple of times. We set off along the path to see if we could see it, but it went quiet again before we got there. The next time we heard it, it had moved further off.

We stood and listened to the male Tawny Owl hooting for a while, a really evocative sound and always great to hear, before it started to get too dark and we called it a night.

 

27th Jan 2018 – Owling in the Wind

An Owl Tour today. The weather forecast was not ideal. It started fine, with a lovely sunrise, but clouded over quickly and the wind picked up. There was some light drizzle too through the middle of the day but it wasn’t enough to put us off, and the rain stopped mid afternoon, so we were able to make the most of it. And see some owls!

After meeting up, we headed straight down to the coastal grazing marshes in the hope we might be able to find a late Barn Owl still out hunting. As we scanned the grass, there was no sign of any at first. It was a lovely bright morning, after a nice clear night, and it seemed like the owls might have gone in to roost already.

There were plenty of other birds to look at. We heard a Grey Partridge and looked over in that direction just in time to see the female fly across and land down in the grass. Just behind, the male was calling, standing upright, showing off the black kidney on its grey underparts and its orange face. It ran over towards the female. A large flock of Curlews was feeding a damper area in the meadow.

There were lots of geese flying round. Several skeins of Pink-footed Geese flew in, dropping down onto the grass in the distance to graze. We had a look at them in the scope. Several more disorderly groups of smaller Brent Geese were flying back and forth too.

Pink-footed Geese 1

Pink-footed Geese – coming in to the grazing marshes this morning

The daytime predators were already out hunting. A Kestrel perched briefly in a tree but was seen off by the attentions of a Rook. Three Marsh Harriers circled up over reeds, the male calling. He then tried to chase off one of last year’s juveniles, swooping down at it as the three of them flew round. Then a pale grey shape appeared low over the reeds, a stunning male Hen Harrier. We watched as it flew right across the marshes – even having time to get it in the scope for a closer look.

Just when it looked like we might not find a Barn Owl this morning, a ghostly white shape appeared from round the corner of the bank. It floated silently across the grazing marsh and spent a couple of minutes hunting in and out of the reeds. We had hoped it might come out and land on one of the posts, but it flew straight up to a nearby owl box and disappeared inside. Always a good start to the day, to get a Barn Owl under our belts, particularly today given the forecast for the afternoon!

Our next target was to find a Little Owl. We drove inland, up to a regular site where they can often be found. It was cool in the breeze, but the sun was still poking through the clouds, so we hoped we might find one out. We scanned the roofs of the farm buildings and quickly found a ball of feathers tucked up in the lee of the ridge, a Little Owl.

Little Owl

Little Owl – warming itself in the morning sun

The Little Owl had found a sheltered spot, out of the wind and facing into the morning sun, where it could warm itself. We had a good look at it in the scope. It was fluffed up and facing away from us at first, but then it turned to look towards the sun. A Marsh Harrier was quartering the fields nearby and a large flock of Brent Geese flew over, heading inland to feed.

We continued on our way west, via several other sets of old barns where Little Owls live, but it was clouding over steadily now and there was no sign of any others out this morning. We did find a few Stock Doves on the farm buildings. Several Brown Hares were running around in the fields already. There were lots of Lapwings gathered in large flocks.

A Red Kite flew lazily past us beside the road – the first of a number we saw on our journey today. There were also several Kestrels hovering over the verges or perched in the trees as we passed, and a few Common Buzzards up enjoying the breeze.

Red Kite

Red Kite – the first of several we saw on our journey today

Our next destination was Snettisham. On our way there, it had already started to spit with rain and it was exposed on the edge of the Wash. We had a quick walk up to see if the Shorelark was still here, but we couldn’t find it today. A flock of Goldfinches was feeding along the tideline and flew up ahead of us.

The tide was still out and the Wash was a vast expanse of mud. A large dark mass out in the middle turned out to be a big group of Teal roosting on the edge of one of the muddy channels. The white Shelducks stood out much better against the grey, and were scattered liberally over the whole area, feeding.

Shelduck

Shelduck – out on the mud of the Wash, feeding

A flock of Dunlin was running round on the near edge of the mud, just in front of us, and there were several Redshanks and a Curlew close in too. Most of the waders were further out in the murk, but we could pick out lines of Knot and Bar-tailed Godwits as well as a few Grey Plovers. Something spooked the big flock of Golden Plovers which had been asleep out on the mud and they flew up and over the seawall, dropping down to the fields inland.

It was not a day to be standing out on the edge of the Wash, so we turned our attention back to owls. There have been a couple of Short-eared Owls roosting here and after a short walk we found them, both in their usual spots, unusually choosing somewhere where they can be seen.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl – roosting under a bramble bush

We had a good look at the Short-eared Owls through the scope. The first had found a sheltered spot under a bramble bush, but was turned towards us so we could see its bright yellow eyes. The second was perched up in the brambles a little further over. It had its head turned in, but would occasionally look round.

There were a few other birds on the Pit here as we walked round. A selection of ducks, mostly tucked up by bank out of the wind, plenty of Wigeon plus a handful of Gadwall. A few Tufted Ducks and a pair of Goldeneye, which were diving continually. With our mission here accomplished today, having seen the Short-eared Owls, we didn’t linger and headed back to the warmth of the car.

Given the weather, we decided to head round to Titchwell where we could find some shelter in the hides. On our way back to the main road, we stopped to look at a small group of Pink-footed Geese in a field. We could see their dark brown heads, and small dark bills with a narrow pink band, very different from the Greylags we had been seen earlier. A pair of Egyptian Geese were nearby.

Pink-footed Geese 2

Pink-footed Geese – by the road on our way back from Snettisham

On our way round the coast, we called in briefly at Thornham Harbour. It was damp and blustery but we wanted to have a quick look to see if the Twite were around. As we walked up to the edge of the saltmarsh, they flew over calling and landed down in the vegetation in front of us, a flock of about 20 of them.

The Twite didn’t stop here very long though. After a couple of minutes, they flew up, circled round and dropped down behind us in the car park, to drink and bathe in the puddles. Again they didn’t stay long, but we had a great look at them here for a couple of minutes, before they were spooked by a car door slamming and flew off.

Twite

Twite – the regular flock came down to drink in the car park

It was time for lunch when we reached Titchwell. A Goldcrest was feeding in the trees right in front of the car when we arrived, just a metre or two from us. We headed over to the visitor centre for a hot drink and while we ate, we kept an eye on the feeders. As well as the regular Chaffinches, Goldfinches and Greenfinches, there were a couple of Bramblings too today, a female on the feeders in front and a brighter male on the ones round the other side.

After lunch, we had a quick walk round Fen Trail and Meadow Trail, in the shelter of the trees. There was nothing to see from Fen Hide today and no sign of the Woodcock under the trees. But we did have great views of one of the Water Rails in the ditch by the main path, picking around in the dead leaves on the bank.

Water Rail

Water Rail – showing well in the ditch

We decided to make a bid for the shelter of Parrinder Hide. On the way out, a Marsh Harrier was circling out over the reedbed, enjoying the wind. A lone Grey Plover was on the edge of the large pool out on Lavender Marsh and several Teal and Wigeon were feeding on the saltmarsh nearby.

The water levels on the freshmarsh are very high through the winter and there was little of note on here today. The raft of Common Pochard and Tufted Ducks were mostly tucked up against the reeds at the back. A lone Curlew dropped in for a bathe and preen on the edge of one of the few exposed bits of dry land.

The other side of Parrinder Hide, overlooking the Volunteer Marsh, was much more productive and we had good views of several species of wader from here. A single Knot was feeding on the mud just below the hide, though a larger group were weaving in and out of the vegetated islands further back. There were also several Dunlin, including a little mixed group with Knot giving a chance to compare the two side by side.

Knot

Knot – there were several on the saltmarsh in front of Parrinder Hide

Further over, we could see one or two Grey Plover, standing still surveying the mud for potential food, they were extremely well camouflaged until they moved. A couple of Ringed Plovers were running around as well. We had nice views of a Bar-tailed Godwit feeding on the mud and further back a couple of Black-tailed Godwits were hiding in one of the muddy channels. A Curlew or two and an Oystercatcher rounded off the selection nicely here.

The weather was improving, and it had stopped raining now, even if it was still a but blustery, so we decided to head out further across the reserve. There were some more nice views of waders close to the main path on the Volunteer Marsh, down in the shelter of the main channel. In particularly a Black-tailed Godwit was busy probing deep into the mud, flashing its black tail as it did so.

Black-tailed Godwit

Black-tailed Godwit – feeding close to the main path

Emboldened by the improvement in the weather, we decided to make a bid for the beach. There were lots more birds on the tidal pools, including a couple of nice close Bar-tailed Godwits which gave us a great chance to compare them with several more Black-tailed Godwits nearby. They were also helpfully flying across occasionally, flashing their very different respective wing and tail patterns.

Bar-tailed Godwit

Bar-tailed Godwit – nice views on the tidal pools

This is also where the Avocets were hiding. We counted at least thirteen today, though they were huddled up roosting along the spit at the back and it was hard to see all of them. Numbers are gradually starting to increase again, as birds start to return. There was also a large roost of Oystercatchers on the saltmarsh nearby.

A pair of Goldeneye were diving out on the Tidal Pools today, giving us better views than we had managed earlier at Snettisham. We had a great look at the male through the scope. There were also a few Pintail out here, including a couple of smart drakes, showing off their long pin-shaped central tail feathers as they upended to feed in the shallow water. One of the Little Grebes was diving just beyond the bushes right below the path.

It was nice to get out to the beach and into the shelter of the dunes, out of the wind. There were more waders out on the beach, even though it was around high tide now. More Bar-tailed Godwits were lined up along the water’s edge, with one or two Sanderlings running around in between them. A Turnstone walked past, picking at the seaweed along the high tide line, and another Sanderling ran past too.

It wasn’t as choppy as it might have been, given the wind, so we managed to find a few birds out on the sea. There was a group of six Long-tailed Ducks diving just offshore, including several smart drakes. We got them in the scope, but they took off before everyone had a chance to get a good look at them. They circled round offshore, before flying and landing back down much further out.

A line of dark, blackish Common Scoters was out there too, as well as a good number of Goldeneye. A couple of Guillemots were swimming just beyond the ducks and there were several Great Crested Grebes out on the water, but a Red-throated Diver was harder to see, diving constantly. Several Little Gulls flew past while we were watching the sea, the adults flashing alternately their black underwings and pale silvery grey upperwings.

The afternoon was getting on now and we had an appointment elsewhere at dusk, so we made a quick dash back to the car, heads down into the wind. We headed off inland on our way back east and checked out a couple of places in passing to see if there might be any more Barn Owls out, but they were probably in no hurry to come out this evening, given the wind.

When we got to the woods and started to walk along the track, we hadn’t gone very far when a male Tawny Owl started hooting from the trees behind us. It was an auspicious start, as we weren’t sure how active they would be given the wind tonight. We turned and walked back in the direction of the sound, and positioned ourselves where we know that particular Tawny Owl likes to perch up in the trees sometimes.

After a short wait, a dark shape flew towards us through the tops and landed in the back of an ivy-covered tree in front of us. Unfortunately, we couldn’t see it from where we were standing so we stood very quietly and were rewarded a few seconds later when the Tawny Owl flew again, right over our heads and into a tree close by. They are big owls up close, with very broad, rounded wings when they fly. It turned to look down at us.

We had a great view of the Tawny Owl perched there for a minute or so,  but it knew we were watching it from below and was spooked by a car passing on the road. It flew off again deeper into the trees. We knew roughly where it had gone and followed after it. Then helpfully it started hooting again, so we could work out exactly where it was and get it in the scope. We had a good view of it silhouetted against the last of the light, high in the branches, hooting, turning round.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – silhouetted against the sky, hooting

The Tawny Owl flew off a little further into the trees, where it landed briefly and called, before dropping away again. As we walked back to the car, we could still hear it hooting, a great way to end the day.

20th Jan 2018 – Seeking Owls

An Owl Tour today. It was cloudy and rather cold all day, but with light winds and the rain mostly held off – just a little light drizzle late morning and spots of rain for a time again early afternoon.

With an early start, we hoped to catch a Barn Owl out hunting still, and so it proved. After meeting up, we drove straight down to the grazing marshes on the coast and climbed up onto the seawall. There was a Barn Owl flying round over the grass. It flew up and down, landing a couple of times on a fence post, where we could get it in the scope. We all had a good look at it before it took off again and disappeared round the back of the reeds.

Barn Owl 1

Barn Owl – out hunting still on our arrival this morning

The Barn Owl had been a bit distant from where we were standing, so we walked up along the seawall for a closer look. We could hear Bearded Tits calling from the reeds as we passed. Then a Water Pipit flew up calling from an area of recently cut reed and two Grey Partridge flew across and dropped down in the middle of the same cut area, presumably to feed on any spilled seed. A flock of Curlew flew past us calling, heading inland.

The Barn Owl reappeared again, and was much closer to us now. We watched as it flew round again, staring intently down into the grass. It dropped down at one point, but came up again quickly with no sign of having caught anything, before landing on a nearby post briefly. When it took off again, it flew straight over towards us and made its way right past below the bank, before heading off inland presumably to roost.

Barn Owl 2

Barn Owl – a nice flypast as it headed off to roost

There were other birds here too. One or two Marsh Harriers quartered the reeds and we spotted a Kestrel perched on a telegraph post. Several geese were flying back and forth – including six Brent Geese which came right over our heads, and a couple of skeins of Pink-footed Geese further out over the grass. A Little Egret and a Rock Pipit were both feeding on the pools on the saltmarsh beyond the seawall. Another Barn Owl was only seen as it disappeared into a box to roost, before anyone could get onto it.

Little Egret

Little Egret – feeding on the pools on the edge of the saltmarsh

With the Barn Owls here having probably gone to roost now, we walked back to the car. We could hear Grey Partridge calling and looked across to see a pair on the bank in front of us. They then flew down into the grass, where we got a good look at them in the scope.

Some movement in the reeds on the edge of the ditch below us turned out to be a Chiffchaff. Mostly this is just a summer visitor and passage migrant here, but with increasingly mild winters a few stay on. In contract, Cetti’s Warbler is resident. We had heard a couple calling on our walk and, having just explained how it was unusual to see one out in the open, a Cetti’s Warbler flew past us and landed briefly in the top of a clump of brambles!

Our next target for the morning was Little Owl. On our drive inland to look for them, we noticed a white shape flying along the verge beside the road in front of us, another Barn Owl still out hunting. We drove slowly behind it for several minutes, watching it – it seemed oblivious to our presence. It landed briefly on a road sign, then carried on hunting. When it turned down a side road, it flicked over the hedge out of view, working the edge of the field. Then it came back over the hedge further along, crossing the road in front of us and going over the hedge the other side, before flying back the other way, behind us. Great to watch!

We stopped by a set of farm buildings where we know there are Little Owls. There was no obvious sign of them at first – perhaps not a great surprise as they like to perch up in the morning sun and today was cold and cloudy! As we walked round the other side, scanning carefully, we found one tucked in under the roof of an old barn. It was not easy to see from here – we could only see half of it and it was facing the other way – but we could make out its back spotted with white and the false eye pattern on the back of its head.

Little Owl

Little Owl – we could jut see the back of this one, hiding under the roof

We walked back round to the front of the barns, but the Little Owl had tucked itself in so well it was not visible at all from this side. There were a few other birds here – a few Brent Geese, Common Gulls and Curlew in the fields, and a pair of Stock Doves on the roof of one of the other barns.

The weather looked like it might be brightening a little, so we carried on our way west, hoping we might find another Little Owl elsewhere. However, we hadn’t gone far before it started to spit with rain. We drove past several more sets of occupied barns on our way, but there was no sign of any of the other Little Owls. It was just not the weather now for them to be sitting out, and we weren’t helped by lots of disturbance today too – a farmer with his dog was walking round the buildings at one site, a shoot was gathering outside another. We did see another late Barn Owl still out, perched on a post out in a field, looking slightly bedraggled.

Our next destination was Snettisham. As we got up onto the seawall, a smart drake Goldeneye was diving on the pit below the bank. The tide was out, and we were greeted by a vast expanse of mud stretching across to Lincolnshire in the distance, the Wash. There were a few smaller waders on the near edge, little groups of grey Dunlin and a couple of Ringed Plover too with nearest of them.

Dunlin

Dunlin – feeding out on the mud of the Wash

There were clearly lots of waders out on the mud in the distance. Further out, we could see a few Grey Plover and Curlew. A tighter group beyond them was a line of Bar-tailed Godwits and Knot, busy feeding. A slick of Golden Plover was spread out across the mud, remarkably hard to see until we got them in the scope. Another flock of Golden Plover whirled round over the fields just inland, before dropping down out of view.

There were ducks out on the Wash too, lots of Teal and Mallard in flocks asleep on the edge of the muddy channels. Shelduck were liberally scattered across the mud. Inland, a big flock of Wigeon flew up calling before dropping back down behind the inner seawall.

There has been a Shorelark here in recent weeks, but we hadn’t heard anything about it for a while. We had a quick walk up along the tideline to see if it was still here and just as it seemed like it might have gone, we noticed some movement in all the seaweed and dry vegetation lined up along the top of the beach. Sure enough, it was the Shorelark. We had great views of it as it crept around in and out of the piles of vegetation, looking for seeds, its pale yellow face with distinctive black bandit mask and collar.

Shorelark

Shorelark – along the tideline at Snettisham again this morning

As we made our way back along the track, we caught sight of a smart drake Pintail on the water below the bank. There were more Goldeneye diving out on the pits, and a couple of Little Grebes too. A flock of Tufted Duck flew off past us. On the main pit there were good numbers of Wigeon and a couple of Gadwall too, plus lots of Greylag Geese.

Walking round, we scanned the bushes and spotted a shape under the brambles. It was a Short-eared Owl roosting. We got it in the scope and had a look at it, but it was facing away from us at first. Another scan and we found a second Short-eared Owl in the bushes nearby. This one was looking straight at us.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl – one of two roosting here today

We stood and watched the Short-eared Owls for a few minutes. They were not doing very much, but would occasionally turn their heads. A pair of Brown Hares came chasing through the bushes towards them and ran straight into the brambles where the second Short-eared Owl was perched. We watched as it looking round and down towards them, making sure there wasn’t any threat, before going back to sleep.

After lunch back at the car, we started to make our way back east. We had hoped to have another go at finding another Little Owl on our way back, but having eased off earlier it now started to spit with rain again. Not surprisingly, there was no sign of any more owls still. We did find a big flock of Pink-footed Geese feeding in a recently harvested sugar beet field beside the road and had a quick stop to look at them.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese – feeding in a recently harvested sugar beet field

When we got back to the coast, it stopped raining again, so we went back to the grazing marshes to see if any owls were coming out to hunt. As walked out on the seawall, we heard a Water Pipit call and looked down to see it feeding on the edge of a puddle where the reeds had just been cut. This time we had a good look at it through the scope, noting it pale off-white underparts with neat black streaking, and its prominent pale supercilium. A pair of Stonechats was feeding nearby too.

Water Pipit

Water Pipit – feeding around a puddle in the recently cut reeds

It was getting late now, and the light was starting to fade. We could see a big flock of Brent Geese feeding out on the grass in the distance and watched as they took off and flew across the marshes, heading off to roost.

A Barn Owl appeared behind us. It flew in over the reeds, past us on the bank, and headed out across the grazing marshes. It was a noticeably darker bird than the one we had seen here this morning. It hunted for a minute or so around the edge of the reeds out in the middle, then headed off over the other side.

Barn Owl 3

Barn Owl – a different bird, came out to hunt late this afternoon

It was getting late now. We already had a good haul of owls for the day, but there was one more still we wanted to try to see, so we headed inland again, and up to the woods. We walked through the trees and stood looking out over the grazing marshes as we waited for the light to fade. As we watched, several ducks flew in and landed down in the pools to feed, Mallard and Gadwall.

Then a Tawny Owl hooted from the trees behind us. We walked back into the wood and it hooted again. We looked over in that direction and saw a large shape fly out, disappearing off through the trees, as the Tawny Owl came out of its roost and headed off for the night.

We walked down along a path to an area where we know another male Tawny Owl favours. We had a short wait, but after a while it finally appeared through trees, and perched high above us. We managed to get it in the scope, silhouetted against the last of the day’s light, and watched it hooting, turning round on the branch, looking down towards us.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – silhouetted against the last of the light, hooting

The Tawny Owl stayed in the trees above us for several minutes, hooting on and off, before eventually it took off and disappeared deeper into the wood. We could still hear it, hooting in the distance, as we walked back to the car. It was a great way to end a very successful day out, seeking owls.

14th Jan 2018 – Norfolk Winter & Owls #3

Day 3 of a three day long weekend of tours today, our last day, and we were back exploring North Norfolk. It was another dull and cloudy day, but rather mild with very light winds and dry once again.

After meeting up this morning, we headed west before turning inland off the coast road. We hadn’t gone far when a ghostly shape flew across the road in front of us – a Barn Owl. It landed on a post by a gate, but flew off behind the hedge as we pulled up. We didn’t see it disappear across the field so we had a hunch it might have landed on another post further along, and as we looked round the hedge there was the Barn Owl. It flew again, across the grassy paddock, but landed on the fence the other side in full view.

Barn Owl

Barn Owl – finally, we had really good views of one this morning

The Barn Owl stayed standing on the post for some time – now we could get a really good look at it. Eventually it dropped down into the grass and appeared to catch something. It flew back up to the post briefly, and then disappeared off silently through the trees behind. There seem to be rather few Barn Owls out hunting in daylight hours at the moment, presumably because they are not struggling to hunt at night, so it was great to get one out during the morning.

Our first scheduled stop of the morning was at Thornham. There had been a couple of Waxwings here for the last few days, feeding on windfall apples in the orchards, and we were hoping to see them. Reports had suggested that they had flown off yesterday afternoon, but thankfully we received a message to say they were back this morning.

When we arrived, we found a couple of cars and several people with binoculars standing around in the car park not really looking anywhere. We decided to check the orchard the Waxwings had been favouring yesterday and were on our way over when we looked up into the tall tree by the entrance and there was a Waxwing! We got it in the scope and had a nice look at it.

Waxwings are very smart birds – from the punk crest to the delicate wing markings with red waxy tips to the wing coverts and yellow tip to the tail. It dropped down into the orchard and disappeared, presumably to feed, but a few minutes later it was back up again in another tree. This time it flew across and landed on top of a telegraph post on the other side of the car park.

Waxwing

Waxwing – perched for ages on a telegraph post in the car park

The Waxwing stayed on the top of the post for some time. There was no sign of the second bird which has been with it in recent days, so perhaps it was looking for it, or any other Waxwings which might be around. It meant we had a great opportunity to admire it. Eventually, the lone Waxwing flew over us calling and dropped back down into the orchard.

There were a few other birds here. A couple of Fieldfares were in the tall tree when we first located the Waxwing, and more appeared up from the orchard at one point, along with a few Redwings and a Song Thrush.

However, the other stars of the show were across the road, a huge flock of hundreds of Linnets on the wires across a weedy field. They kept flying down to feed, in flocks of several hundred at a time, before flying back up to the wires. Linnets used to be common farmland birds here but have declined substantially in recent years, so it is great to see such a large number and goes to show what can happen when food is left for them.

Linnets

Linnets – in their hundreds, lining up on the wires

It was just a short drive from here round to the harbour. As we drove down the road by the saltmarsh, we could see several people with telescopes pointing down into the vegetation. When we got out, we could see they were watching a flock of Twite. We got out of the car and had a look at them – we could see their orange breasts and yellow bills, which in winter set Twite apart from Linnets. We could also hear the nasal, twangy ‘tveet’ calls from which they get their name.

This is another species which used to be much more common here, but it is not the loss of habitat in Norfolk which is the problem, as they feed mostly out on saltmarsh. Twite are just winter visitors here, and these birds come from the Pennines where the breeding population of Twite has declined markedly in recent years. Thornham is one of the last regular wintering sites, and there are just 20-30 here these days.

Twite

Twite – we had great views of the flock right by the road today

It was proving to be a successful morning, so after admiring the Twite we made our way round to Titchwell next. As we made our way out onto the reserve, we had a quick look at the feeders by the visitor centre, but there were just a few Chaffinches, Goldfinches and the commoner tits here today.

Walking up the main path, we scanned the ditches either side carefully, looking for any movement. One of the group spotted something lurking down in the vegetation and sure enough it turned out to be the Water Rail. It scuttled away deeper in, but then worked its way back towards us and we had a nice view of it feeding in the rotting leaves down in the water.

Water Rail

Water Rail – feeding in the ditch by the main path again

Next stop was by the Thornham grazing meadow pool. At first it looked rather quiet here, but scanning carefully around the edges we found a Water Pipit creeping around on the mud on the edge of the reeds. We got it in the scope and everyone had a look at it – noting particularly its pale, off-white underparts neatly streaked with black – before it disappeared back into the reeds.

Out on the freshmarsh, the water level is still very high but there were fewer ducks than of late. There were still plenty of Shelduck and Teal, plus a few Gadwall. Several Common Pochard were lurking around the small island towards the back and a small group of Tufted Ducks were diving out in the middle of the water.

Teal

Teal – looking very smart now in breeding plumage

With the water level high, there are few waders on here at the moment, apart from a few Lapwings and Golden Plover. A little more of the top of the island by the junction with the path to Parrinder Hide was visible today. As well as the Lapwing on here, and a single Golden Plover, a small group of Knot had flown in to bathe, along with a few Dunlin.

The tide was out and the Volunteer Marsh was rather dry now.  We managed to get a Grey Plover in the scope, and could see a scattering of Curlew, Redshank, Knot and Dunlin out on the mud. We also had good views of a Black-tailed Godwit in the channel at the front by the main path.

Black-tailed Godwit

Black-tailed Godwit – showing well on the Volunteer Marsh

Out at the Tidal Pools, we found where all the ducks were hiding. There were lots of Shoveler out here today, all asleep with their bills tucked in, as well as more Teal. Several Wigeon were feeding on the islands of saltmarsh. There were about half a dozen Pintail here too, including some smart drakes, though they were busy feeding with their heads under water for much of the time. A few Little Grebes were diving out on the pools.

Eight Avocets were sleeping out on the end of one of the muddy spits, a slight increase on the five that we have seen here recently. Otherwise, there were not many other waders on the Tidal Pools today, just a few more Black-tailed Godwits and Redshanks.

Avocets

Avocets – eight were here today, sleeping on the Tidal Pools

Most of the interest at Titchwell today was out on the sea, so we hurried out to the beach. The tide was out, so everything was distant from the top of the beach, but we scanned from the dunes to see what we could see. There has been a little group of Long-tailed Ducks here for a while now, and we could see them diving close to the shore away to the west of us.

Scanning through the Goldeneye, we could see two much larger ducks, with a prominent wedge shaped head and bill – Common Eider. There are always several Common Scoter offshore here but it took us a bit of time to find the single Velvet Scoter. It was rather distant, but everyone had a look at it through the scope and managed to see the white in the wings which is one of the easiest ways to distinguish Velvet Scoter from Common Scoter. A small grebe offshore with clean black cap and white cheeks was a winter-plumaged Slavonian Grebe.

With the Long-tailed Ducks close inshore today, we decided to walk out across the sand towards Thornham Point to get a better views. With only very light winds today, it was pleasant out in the open on the sand. We stood on the shore opposite where the Long-tailed Ducks were feeding and had cracking views of them, swimming on the sea, diving for shellfish or preening. There were at least nine of them, including several stunning males. Close up, we could see the striking elongated central tail feathers on the drakes, from which they get their name.

Long-tailed Ducks

Long-tailed Ducks – great views just offshore today from down on the beach

After we had enjoyed a great look at the Long-tailed Ducks, they had a brief fly round for us, before landing back down on the water a little further out. There were several Common Scoter here too, close inshore, and from this range we could even see the yellow stripe down the top of the bill of the otherwise black drake.

Some of the other divers and grebes had apparently drifted off further west, so we walked down along the shore to Thornham Point. There were lots of waders out on the beach here, mainly Bar-tailed Godwits, walking round probing in the sand with their long, slightly upturned bills. There were a couple of Dunlin and Oystercatchers with the godwits and a few Sanderling and Turnstones flew past along the edge of the sea.

Bar-tailed Godwit

Bar-tailed Godwits – feeding out on the beach towards Thornham Point

As we arrived at Thornham Point, several people were just leaving. They had not seen the Black-necked Grebe which was supposedly down this end. We stopped to scan the sea, but it was hard to see the birds being so low down on beach, they were disappearing in the light swell despite the sea being fairly flat calm. They were also diving all the time. We did manage to find the Black-necked Grebe, briefly but we lost track of it again before everyone could get to see it.

It was getting late now, and we still hadn’t eaten. After a brisk walk back along the beach we headed straight back to the visitor centre for a rather late lunch.

After lunch, we made our way over to Snettisham. The light was already going by the time we arrived. Looking out across the Wash, there was a vast expanse of mud – it was not a big tide today, and the tide was just starting to come in. The waders were scattered widely across the mud, apart from a couple of big groups of Oystercatchers which were huddled up together. There were lots of ducks here too, especially Shelduck out on the water’s edge and Mallard gathered around the channels in the mud. We had a quick walk up along the tide line but there was no sign of the Shorelark here now today.

We had come here mainly looking for owls. There was no sign of any out hunting yet, but scanning the bushes carefully we found a Short-eared Owl roosting under bramble. A second Short-eared Owl was roosting in the brambles nearby. They were both still asleep, with their heads tucked down, but they did look round a couple of times so we could see them properly through the scope.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl – one of two roosting in the brambles today

Short-eared Owls can often be found out hunting in the late afternoon, so we stood here for a few minutes to see if they might wake up and start flying round, but they were obviously not hungry enough at moment. They are probably finding enough food at night.

We saw a few other birds here. There were several Goldeneye on the pits, as well as a couple of Little Egrets. Some Greylag were on the pits, but more were gathering noisily in the fields just inland, before going to roost. There is a large roost of Pink-footed Geese on the Wash off Snettisham, but there was no sign of any here yet.

It was starting to get dark so it was time to make our way back. As we did, we could see long lines of dots approaching in the sky. We watched and listened as thousands and thousands of Pink-footed Geese flew in from the fields and headed out towards the Wash, coming in to roost. We stayed for several minutes as more and more birds came over. It was stunning sight and a great way to end the three days.

9th Jan 2018 – Looking for Owls

It was an Owl Tour today, the first of 2018. The weather was dry and the wind had dropped completely today, which was a real bonus, but it was still very dull, grey and chilly all day with a light mist which thickened in the afternoon.

After we met up on the coast this morning, we headed straight over to the grazing marshes to look for Barn Owls. One had been out hunting just before we arrived, but after a mild, dry night they can go to bed very early at this time of year. Thankfully, as soon as we got up onto the seawall, we could see a Barn Owl still hunting out over the grass in the distance.

We walked up along the bank and watched it for a while, flying round methodically over the same field. The Barn Owl dropped down onto the ground a couple of times but came up without anything shortly after. It disappeared round behind some reeds for a while, but then came back out and continued to hunt over the same area.

Barn Owl 1

Barn Owl 2

Barn Owl – we saw a couple still out hunting this morning

The Barn Owl gradually worked its way back away from us, working the fields further off along the bank, so we turned our attention to whatever else we could see. Several Marsh Harriers were quartering the reeds and the grazing marshes. A Kestrel flew in and landed on a bush before making its way over to perch on one of the information boards out on the seawall.

A big flock of Brent Geese flew up periodically in the distance out across the marshes, circling round calling, before dropping back down to feed on the grass. Several Pink-footed Geese flushed off the grazing marshes too, but they headed off inland, presumably to find some recently harvested sugar beet fields to feed it. We could hear their high-pitched yelping calls as they flew off.

The next thing we knew, the Barn Owl was back again, presumably the same one, much closer to us. It dropped down behind a line of reeds, so we made our way over towards it, and when it came up again we had a close flypast. Great views! It came straight past us, flying purposefully now, up and over the bank behind us, and disappeared off inland, presumably heading off to roost.

Barn Owl 3

Barn Owl 4

Barn Owl – gave us a close flypast as it headed off to roost

No sooner had that Barn Owl disappeared, than another turned up. This one was much paler, white winged, the resident male here. It circled round in front of the reeds, perching down in the grass for a few seconds where we managed to get it in the scope. Then it flew back over the reeds and disappeared off towards the trees. Presumably it too was heading in to roost now.

We were just turning to leave when a pair of Grey Partridges flew across and landed down on the grass in front of us. The male stood bolt upright, looking round, while the female picked around in the grass nearby. Then they were off again, running away across the open grass.

Our next target was Little Owl. They can often be found during the morning, perched up enjoying the sun at this time of year, but there was a distinct lack of any sun today! There was a distinct chill in the air too, despite the lack of wind. There was no sign of any Little Owls at our first stop. We stopped again a little further on and walked round to check out the back of some barns. We could just see the top of the head of one Little Owl from here, tucked tight down in the roof, but we couldn’t make out any detail. Not a stunning view!

Little Owl

Little Owl – tucked well down out of view this morning

We walked round to the other side of the barn, to see if we could get a better look at the Little Owl from there, but it had found a spot where it was sheltered, out of the wind, and it wasn’t visible at all from this side.

There were some other birds here. A big flock of Curlew flew up from a rape field next to the road as we stopped. A couple of Red-legged Partridges and a pair of Stock Doves were lurking around the farm buildings. A flock of Brent Geese flew up from the coast and headed off inland to feed on a winter wheat field somewhere. Given the weather, it seemed unlikely a Little Owl would come out into the open this morning, so we decided to head off and try our luck elsewhere.

Brent Geese

Brent Geese – flying up from the coast, heading inland to feed

As we made our way west, we saw several Bullfinches which flew out of the hedges as we passed, flashing their white rumps. A couple of Red Kites flew over, and a Common Buzzard perched on the top of the hedge took off as we pulled up alongside it. A Sparrowhawk flew low and fast along the grass verge ahead of us, up into a tree where it landed on a branch briefly, before flying on along the road as we approached. We drove round via several other sites for Little Owl, but there was no sign of any this morning, it seemed like perhaps it was just too dull and cold.

We decided to give up on Little Owls for now, so we continued our way west over to Snettisham. There had been a Shorelark seen here yesterday so, while the rest of the group stopped for a warming coffee, the intrepid leader headed out to look for it. It didn’t take long to find it, picking at the vegetation washed up along the high tide line.

ShorelarkShorelark – feeding along the tide line at Snettisham

Collecting everyone else after their coffee break, we walked back and had great views of the Shorelark in the scopes. We could see its bright yellow face and black mask and collar, but despite this it was very well camouflaged when feeding unobtrusively, creeping around in the dry brown vegetation.

After watching the Shorelark for a while, we turned our attention to the Wash. It was about high tide now, but it was not a big enough tide to cover the mud today. Still there were lots of waders out there. A long line of Oystercatchers had gathered towards the water’s edge, several thousand strong. A dark smear across the grey mud closer to us was actually a big flock of Golden Plover, roosting over high tide.

There were also lots of Bar-tailed Godwits, Grey Plover, Dunlin and Redshanks scattered liberally over mud, still busy feeding, which we had a look at through the scope. Several Curlews were sleeping further back. The Knot had all gone to sleep out in the middle too, in several smaller groups.

Knot

Knot – sleeping in smaller flocks, scattered over the mud

While we were gathered watching the waders, a Spanish couple visiting here walked over to speak to us. They had found an injured Pink-footed Goose – it looked like it had most likely been shot and winged and was unable to fly or stand. They were headed back in the direction of King’s Lynn, so we agreed the best option would be to take it to the RSPCA Wildlife Centre East Winch, which would be not far out of their way.

We made our way round to look at the pits. There are lots of Goldeneye here at the moment, and several of the drakes were displaying, throwing their heads back in an exaggerrated fashion. There was also a nice selection of other ducks – Wigeon, Gadwall, Teal, Mallard, Shoveler and a few Tufted Ducks. There were plenty of noisy Greylag Geese too and a few Little Grebes diving out on the water.

Goldeneye

Goldeneye – several of the drakes were displaying today

A Kingfisher flew past us, along the edge of the water. It disappeared from view, but by walking down onto the causeway and looking back we could see it perched on a bramble bush along the bank. It was easier to see in the scope – surprisingly well camouflaged for an electric blue bird!

Looking across to the other bank, we could see a shape tucked down under a bramble bush. It was a roosting Short-eared Owl. They often like to roost well hidden from view, but this one was not particularly well concealed by the brambles above it.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl – roosting under a bramble bush

There have been Fieldfares on the move in recent days and today was no exception. As we stood scanning the pits, a good-sized flock of about 150 Fieldfares flew south, followed by another 20 or so a little later, calling.

After lunch back at the car, we started to make our way back east. Again, we looked at several sites for Little Owls on the way, but it seemed like we would be out of luck again. It was even greyer know than it had been earlier. Driving past a set of barns where we know there are owls, we looked across to see a shape perched on the top of a roof. We pulled to a stop in front and looked up. There was a Little Owl, perched high on the ridge. It stared at us for a few seconds then, just as the camera came out, it flew off round the back of the buildings.

We made our way back to Blakeney. The mist had thickened and it was very dull now. As we walked out on the seawall, we could see a Barn Owl hunting across the other side. We stopped to scan the marshes and could see a couple of Marsh Harriers out over the reeds, presumably getting ready to go to roost. A pale-headed female perched on the top of a bush and a male did a nice circuit round in front of us.

Marsh Harrier

Marsh Harrier – quartering the reedbed before going to roost

We heard the pinging calls of Bearded Tits coming from the reeds in front of us and we could see the feathery seedheads swaying, despite the lack of any wind. Looking closely, we could see the Bearded Tits clambering through the reeds and feeding on the seeds. A Cetti’s Warbler called from the reeds too.

It didn’t look like the Barn Owl was going to do a circuit round to us today – there was no sign of it coming over to this side of the marshes. So, with the light fading, we headed back to the car and made our way inland again. We parked and walked down to a meadow. There is often a Barn Owl here, but not today – perhaps it had not yet emerged from its roost. A Water Rail squealed nearby.

As we made our way back into the nearby trees, a Tawny Owl started hooting from the wood behind us. We walked down to a nearby area where we know another Tawny Owl sometimes roosts. We heard it hoot once, but it was deep in the trees today. After a few minutes wait, it started calling from the far edge of the trees ahead of us and in reply came more hooting from back where we had heard the first.

It was lovely listening to the Tawny Owls, but then it went quiet. It was perhaps a bit cold and grey for them to get really worked up this evening. As it was getting dark, we decided it was time to call it a day and head for home.