Tag Archives: Barn Owl

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

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

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

Grey Partridge

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

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

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

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

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

Spoonbill

Spoonbill – asleep on the pool from Joe Jordan Hide

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shorelark

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

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

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

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

Snow Buntings

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

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

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

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

White-fronted Geese

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

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

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

Barn Owl

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

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

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

Spotted Redshank

Spotted Redshank – in the harbour channel at Thornham again

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

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

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

Red-crested Pochard

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

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

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

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

Avocet

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

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

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

Mediterranean Gull

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

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

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

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

Black-tailed Godwit

Black-tailed Godwit – starting to moult into breeding plumage

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

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

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

 

 

22nd Feb 2020 – Rescheduled Owls

An Owl Tour today, the last one of winter 2020. After having to cancel last weekend’s Owl Tour, as Storm Dennis lashed the UK with high winds, the day was rescheduled to today. Unfortunately, the forecast deteriorated in the day or two beforehand and now winds were forecast to be very gusty again today. And, as it turned out, they were actually much stronger than expected (the forecast is never to be relied upon!), with gusts up to 56mph in the morning. But having agreed to meet up, we decided to carry on regardless and have a go. By the end, we were all very glad we did, as we had a very good day and managed to see a great selection of owls, despite the wind.

After a very windy night, it was perhaps not surprising that there were no Barn Owls out hunting on our drive down to the meeting point this morning. Undaunted, we drove down to the marshes to see if we could find one hiding in a sheltered spot. But it was still very blustery here and there was no sign of any owls.

One of the first birds we did see was a Spoonbill, flying west out across the marshes. They have already been returning ahead of the breeding season in the last couple of weeks and number are slowly starting to build along the coast here. This one was probably just on its way back.

There were a few raptors up now. A Red Kite appeared briefly above the trees, and two Marsh Harriers circled up over the reeds. A Sparrowhawk zipped fast and low over the grass, too quick for most of the group to get onto it. The mob of immature Mute Swans was out in the wet grass again, along with a pair of Egyptian Geese. A flock of Meadow Pipits flew over, and a Reed Bunting came up from the reeds on the edge of the ditch.

We drove inland to check out some more sheltered meadows, but there were no Barn Owls here either. We would have another chance later in the afternoon, so hoping the wind would drop, we decided to turn our attention to Tawny Owls instead. As we parked by a field, three Oystercatchers were feeding in the winter wheat next door. We walked down the footpath to the edge of the wood. It was sheltered from the wind on this side, and there were a few rays of early brightness hitting the trees. Several Goldfinches and Chaffinches flew out of the branches above our heads.

We stopped to check out some tits in the trees and a Nuthatch flew across between the branches. When it landed on a bough, a second Nuthatch flew in to join it. A larger bird which flew out briefly to a lower bough was a Great Spotted Woodpecker and then a Treecreeper appeared too, working its way along the underside of one of the larger limbs of the tree. To round it off, a Goldcrest appeared with the tits in the bottom of a pine tree, right in front of us.

When the birds gradually disappeared back into the trees, we continued on down the footpath. As we rounded the corner, we walked out into the full face of the wind again. We wondered whether the Tawny Owl would be in its usual tree hole today, given the wind, but thankfully it was a little more sheltered on the far side. And there was the Tawny Owl, dozing in its hole. We got the scope on it and had a good look.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – in its usual tree hole again today, despite the wind

It was nice to see our first owl of the day, and as one of the most nocturnal of our regular owls, it is always a real treat to see a Tawny Owl during the daylight hours. Having admired it for a while, we set off back along the path. Two Mistle Thrushes had flown over the trees earlier, and as we walked back, they came up from the field the other side. A Song Thrush was singing in the trees, despite the wind.

We headed further inland to look for Little Owls next. It was always going to be an outside chance we could find one today, given the weather, and there was no sign of any at the first three sites we checked. Then it started to rain, which was the final nail in the coffin. We drove on west, out of the worst of the squally shower, but it was still spitting as we checked out a couple more sets of barns, to no avail. Another Sparrowhawk took off from the hedge ahead of us, skimming low over the road before flicking up over the hedge the other side. There were lots of Brown Hares in the fields, mostly hunkered down today, rather than boxing.

As we drove down towards the Wash, we stopped briefly to look at a sugar beet field which had been harvested earlier in the winter. A couple of Pink-footed Geese were feeding in a patch of beet which had been left in a damp corner and another one was in the long grass on the edge of the field. There were a couple of pairs of Egyptian Geese here too.

Pink-footed Goose

Pink-footed Goose – one of three in the old beet field on our way to the Wash

Making our way out to the edge of the Wash at Snettisham, a female Goldeneye was busy diving on the sailing club pit. When we got up onto the seawall, the tide was out, and we were presented with a vast expanse of mud. There were a few waders still closer in – Curlew, Redshank, Grey Plover and Knot, but most of the Dunlin were further out. We stopped to admire some of the closer birds in the scope, although it was not a place to linger today, given the wind. There was a liberal scattering of Shelduck over the mud too.

Our main target here was the owls, so we continued on round to see if we could find any. It didn’t take long to find one of the Short-eared Owls, tucked well in to a bramble bush, looking out. It was mostly dozing, its eyes closed. We got it in the scope, but it was very windy and hard to keep the scope steady. It was a little more sheltered a bit further down the path, so we stopped for a second look.

Short-eared Owl 1

Short-eared Owl – roosting in the brambles again

Continuing on round, we found a second Short-eared Owl roosting in the sparser brambles, back in its usual spot. A slightly paler individual, it stood out more against the vegetation. Again, it was mostly dozing but did wake up briefly at one point, flashing its yellow eyes.

Short-eared Owl 2

Short-eared Owl – the second one of the morning, roosting in the brambles

It was good to be back on track with some owls now. After admiring the Short-eared Owls for a while, we decided to head back. A Cetti’s Warbler was singing half-heartedly in the dense brambles on the seawall, sensibly keeping tucked well in.

Making our way back along the seawall, we found a lot of the Dunlin were closer in now, a bit further north towards the start of the chalets. There has been a single Little Stint wintering here, one of probably only a handful wintering in the country, although with all the thousands of waders looking for it can be a bit reminiscent of needles in haystacks. We have mostly seen the Little Stint off Rotary Hide, but surprisingly we found it again, further up here today. It seemed to be mostly keeping to itself, running around on the mud, although it was getting blown around quite a bit in the wind.

Little Stint

Little Stint – out on the mud again, but a bit further up today

As we passed the sailing club pits, there were several Goldeneye now including a nice close male. We stopped to admire its glossy green head, bold white cheek patch, and bright golden yellow eye – whenever it resurfaced from its regular dives. More of a surprise, a darker duck on the pit further up was an immature drake Common Scoter. They are mostly sea ducks and not often seen on the pools here, and had presumably been blown in on the wind.

Goldeneye

Goldeneye – a smart drake, diving on the pits

We made our way over to Titchwell next, for a break for lunch and a welcome hot drink. The ever helpful staff in the Visitor Centre told us that the Woodcock had been showing again this morning, so after lunch we made our way round to Meadow Trail. There were a few people already there who pointed out where it was. The Woodcock was very well hidden today, roosting down among the moss-covered branches, but from the right angle it was possible to get it in the scope for some frame-filling views.

Woodcock

Woodcock – roosting down among the moss-covered branches

Continuing on round to Patsys Reedbed, there were a few ducks out on the water here, mainly a small group of Gadwall and several Common Pochard, but we couldn’t see the drake Red-crested Pochard which was seen here earlier. We got the scope on a drake Gadwall so we could admire the intricacy of its feather patterning. Not just a dull grey bird – the connoisseur’s duck!

There were several Marsh Harriers up over the reedbed, with at least four together at one point, hanging in the wind. One landed on a small bush, where we could get a good look at it in the scope. More Marsh Harriers were further back, over Brancaster Marsh. A Kestrel landed on a tree just in front of the viewpoint too. A Common Buzzard was up along the ridge inland, where four Roe Deer were lying down in one of the fields.

Marsh Harrier

Marsh Harrier – one of four up together over the reedbed

One of the volunteers told us that the Red-crested Pochard was tucked into the reeds, only visible from the far end of the pool. So we walked down and looked back to see it sleeping with some more Common Pochard. We could see its brighter orange head.

It was quite sheltered round at Patsy’s Reedbed and it seemed like the wind might have dropped. We cut back round onto the main path and when we got out of the shelter of the trees we found it was still very windy, though perhaps not quite as strong as this morning.

We made our way straight up to Island Hide, where we could get out of the wind. There were lots of Teal feeding right in front of the hide, the drakes looking very smart now in their breeding plumage. The numbers of Avocets have been steadily growing, as birds are already returning ahead of the breeding season. Two Black-tailed Godwits were asleep in with the feeding Avocets.

Avocet

Avocet – numbers have been increasing steadily in the last few weeks

There were lots of gulls out on the Freshmarsh, and looking carefully through all the Black-headed Gulls, we found several Mediterranean Gulls in with them. Through the scope, we could see most were starting to get their dark, black hoods, contrasting with their white eyelids, and their bright red bills stood out too. There were several Common Gulls and Herring Gulls with them, and a single yellow-legged Lesser Black-backed Gull too. A Muntjac was working its way along the edge of the reeds.

We didn’t have time to explore the rest of the reserve today. As we walked back past the grazing meadow, there was no sign of the Barn Owl this afternoon, despite it being prime time now for it to be out. Perhaps it was just going to be too windy for them today.

Heading slowly back west, we kept scanning the likely fields, where we know Barn Owls like to hunt. Our luck was in, and as we passed a more sheltered meadow, we spotted a Barn Owl on a post at the back. It took off and flew towards us, but typically a car appeared behind us now and we were pulled up in the middle of the road on a corner.

There was somewhere to pull in further up and we walked back. The Barn Owl was on a post, under the trees, right by the gate now, so we edged our way down, trying not to disturb it. We needn’t have worried too much, as it eventually stayed where it was and didn’t mind us even when we got much closer, to find an angle from where we could get a clear look at it.

Barn Owl 1

Barn Owl – our first of the day, dozing on a post

The Barn Owl was dozing. It looked round at us a couple of times, only half opening its eyes, but then tucked its head back in. It looked like it might be unwell, and it would be no surprise if it was struggling to find food at the moment, given the ongoing windy weather. Eventually it did take off again and flew further back to another post, looking round a little more actively. In windy weather, Barn Owls will often hunt from posts, scanning the ground below.

It was great to get our first Barn Owl of the day, and see it so close. Our luck was really in now, as we turned to see another owl hunting over the grass in the middle of the field. It was much browner than a Barn Owl, longer winged, and flying with stiff wing beats and a rowing-like action. It was a Short-eared Owl!

Short-eared Owl 3

Short-eared Owl – a surprise find, out hunting this afternoon

We watched as the Short-eared Owl worked its way round the far end of the meadow, before disappearing back through the trees. This is not a place we normally see them, so we wondered whether it might have come in from the grazing marshes to try to find somewhere more sheltered to hunt. A very nice bonus! While we were watching the Short-eared Owl, we noticed a second Barn Owl perched low down in the trees at the back of the meadow.

Continuing on to Holkham, we stopped again overlooking the grazing marshes. Five Spoonbills flew up as we arrived and disappeared round behind the trees, but as we stood and scanned, more Spoonbills flew in and out in ones and twos. This is another sheltered spot and we found our third Barn Owl of the afternoon, perched on a post on the edge of the marshes. Again it was not flying round hunting, but made its way between a couple of different perches, scanning the ground below.

Barn Owl 2

Barn Owl – perched on a gate on the edge of the grazing marsh

Scanning the ditches and pools, we found a very distant Great White Egret out on the marshes. Then a second appeared from where it was hiding in a rush-lined ditch much closer and we had a good look at its long, snake-like neck and long, dagger-shaped yellow bill.

We could see a very distant group of White-fronted Geese and another small flock flew round calling, mixed in with some Greylags. Then we found some a little closer, out on the grazing marsh, so we could see their black belly bars and white surround to their bills. A flock of tits flew along the hedge behind us, and we picked out a single Goldcrest in with the Long-tailed Tits, Blue Tits and Great Tits as they worked their way past.

White-fronted Geese

White-fronted Geese – out on the grazing marsh

Time was getting on now and the light was starting to go. We hadn’t managed to see a Little Owl this morning, so we decided to have another throw of the dice and have a quick look at one site on our way back, in case one might be out hunting. It was still very windy though, and there was no sign. One to come back for another day! A Chinese Water Deer ran across the field as we drove round, adding to the day’s deer list.

We had done remarkably well for owls today, considering the weather, and everyone agreed we had enjoyed a great day out, with lots of other birds and wildlife too. We were so pleased we hadn’t had to cancel again. The moral of the story – it is always worth going out regardless!

18th Feb 2020 – Return of the Owls

An Owl Tour today. After yet more windy weather over the weekend, as Storm Dennis swept across the country, it was nice that conditions had improved today and we could get out looking for owls. The wind had dropped, although it got more blustery again through the day. It was dry and we even had some bright sunny periods through the morning.

After a prompt get away, we headed straight down to the marshes and before we even got out of the minibus we could see a Barn Owl out hunting over the grass by the road. It did a circuit of the field, round over the edge of the reeds and then disappeared round behind a hedge.

Barn Owl 1

Barn Owl – our second of the morning, perched on a post

Walking up onto the bank, we could see another Barn Owl on a fence post down on the marshes the other side. We got the scope on it, and could see it was scanning the long grass below intently. Then it took off, hovered, and dropped sharply down into the vegetation. When it came up again, we could see it had a vole in its bill, which it quickly transferred to its talons. It made a beeline back over the grass towards the trees beyond. At this time of day, Barn Owls are often robbed of their catch and it took evasive action as a Rook flew towards it, before disappearing with its prey back into the wood.

Looking back the other side, there were now two different Barn Owls hunting the fields there. We watched them for a few minutes, until they both disappeared, presumably heading in to roost. A Kestrel flew across and landed in the top of the hedge briefly, the main prey-stealing culprit here!

The other raptors were coming out too now. Two Red Kites drifted out of the trees and across the marshes. A Common Buzzard circled up inland and flew in towards us, mobbed by two Jackdaws. A couple of Marsh Harriers were quartering the marshes in the distance. There were other things to see here as well. A small flock of Curlews were feeding in the grass around a small flood which had appeared after all the recent rains. The local mob of teenage Mute Swans had gathered round it too. A Brown Hare ran across the grass. A Song Thrush was in full song back in the trees.

Barn Owl 2

Barn Owl – hunting in the morning sun

The Barn Owl we had seen catch a vole earlier now appeared out of the trees again, presumably having digested its earlier prey. With the low morning sunshine behind us, it was beautiful light as we watched it working its way methodically around the grazing marsh. It dropped down into the grass a couple of times, but didn’t catch anything more. Then it flew back and landed in the trees on the edge of the wood. It perched there for a while, sunning itself, and we watched it in the scope before it dropped down onto a fence post just below. Then it set off again, purposefully, along the edge of the grass, across the road, and then turned sharply and disappeared into the trees.

Presumably, the Barn Owl was heading into roost. It was good that we had managed an early start to catch them out hunting, as there was no sign of any of the three Barn Owls we had seen this morning. We decided to move on. We headed inland, parking on the edge of some fields before setting off down a footpath.

There were a few tits and Chaffinches in the trees, and one or two Robins in the hedges this morning. As we rounded the corner, two Mistle Thrushes flew out and off across the neighbouring field. A couple of Common Buzzards were hanging in the breeze in the sunshine.

As we got to the far side of the wood, we turned to look back along the edge. The Tawny Owl was there as usual, in a big hole in one of the trees. We got the scope on it and watched as it seemed to stare back out at us. After a while, it closed its eyes and went back to dozing. Tawny Owl may be the commonest of our regular owls but is also the most nocturnal, so it is always a privilege to see one like this in the daytime.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – roosting in its regular hole again

After enjoying watching the Tawny Owl for a while, we decided to move on. We headed inland to look for Little Owls next. Although the wind had dropped from recent days, there was still a rather brisk and fresh breeze, so we weren’t sure how many would be out enjoying the morning brightness today. At the first site we checked, there was no sign of any owls, but when we pulled up in a gateway overlooking the sheltered side of some barns, we could see a small round shape on the roof.

Once we got out of the minibus and set up the scope, we could see it was indeed a Little Owl, perched in a spot out of the wind and facing into the morning sun. A second Little Owl was just a few metres further down the roof, tucked in on the frame of one of the ventilation windows.

Little Owl

Little Owl – one of two, sunning itself on the roof of one of the barns

We had a look at some more barns, a little further up the road, but there were no more Little Owls out today. We were probably lucky to find the two we had seen, given the cool breeze. So we decided to switch our attention to the next owl on our target list – Short-eared Owl.

After the long drive over to the Wash, we stopped briefly to look at some Pink-footed Geese feeding in a strip of unharvested sugar beet in a field by the road down towards the beach at Snettisham. When we got out and up onto the seawall, the tide was out and a vast expanse of grey mud stretched all the way between Norfolk and Lincolnshire, visible in the distance.

When we got down towards Rotary Hide, we set up the scopes. With the tide out, most of the waders were very distant, but there was still a good scattering of Dunlin out on the mud closer to us and several Ringed Plover too. We could see a few Grey Plover and Knot plus one or two Turnstones with them, but despite having a good scan through the birds which were nearer to the shore there was no sign of the Little Stint which we have seen here on previous days. A couple of small groups of Golden Plover flew in and out. There were lots of Shelduck spread out over the mud too.

Our main target here was Short-eared Owl, so we made our way round to check-out the area where they normally like to roost. A Cetti’s Warbler was shouting periodically from the brambles as we passed. At the first set of bushes we scanned, we found one tucked in the brambles. It was dozing, and we couldn’t see its staring yellow eyes from here, but we all had a good look through the scope.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl – tucked into the brambles today

A bit further on, we stopped to scan again. We couldn’t find any other Short-eared Owls today, but we did have a different view of the first one again. Now it woke up and started preening, and we finally got a chance to see its distinctive yellow eyes, and even its short ‘ear’ tufts at one point.

There were not so many ducks on the pits at first today, but something seemed to spook lots of wildfowl from somewhere and lots flew in and landed on the water. As well as a good number of Wigeon, there were several Shoveler, one or two Gadwall and a few Tufted Ducks. We got the scope on a smart drake Goldeneye, admiring its green head, bold white cheek patch and eponymous bright golden-yellow eye. A Little Grebe was busy diving in the lee of one of the small rocky islets. When something spooked them, a large flock of noisy Greylag Geese flew in off the fields just inland.

On our way back, we stopped again to scan the mud out on the Wash. A Bar-tailed Godwit had now appeared, just beyond the channel, and there were a couple of Grey Plover and a Knot even closer, on the small pools just below us. A careful scan with the scope of the Dunlin failed to produce any sign of the Little Stint, and we were packing up when we looked away to the north and caught sight of a very small, paler wader out on the mud.

Putting the scope up again, we confirmed it was the elusive Little Stint. It was very mobile today though, in the freshening wind, and we had to keep relocating it as it got swept away several times when it took off. It was often in the company of one or two Dunlin or a Turnstone, when it certainly looked small, but it was when it ran past a Curlew that you could really appreciate just how tiny it was! One of probably just a handful of Little Stints wintering in the UK, it seems to like it here – what is probably the same bird has returned to the same area of mud for the last two winters at least. Come the spring, it will be heading off to the arctic to breed.

Grey Plover and Knot

Grey Plover & Knot – feeding on the mud on the edge of the Wash

We were heading to Titchwell to have lunch, but we took a small detour inland to Sedgeford. We were hoping to catch the Eastern Yellow Wagtail here, but there was no sign of it on its currently most favoured muck heap by the road. Another birder driving back from the other muck heap down the lane opposite told us it had not been seen down there either, for several hours at least. We stopped for a minute to watch several Brown Hares chasing round in the stubble field and then continued on our way. We had lots to pack in this afternoon and unfortunately had no time to wait to see if the wagtail might reappear later.

Titchwell was surprisingly busy for midweek and mid-winter, but the picnic tables were free when we arrived so we made good use of one for lunch and a welcome hot drink. We wouldn’t have time to explore the reserve whole today, but we had planned to have a quick look to see if we could see the Woodcock. One of the volunteers coming back to the Visitor Centre told us there was no sign of it now, so we diverted instead out onto the main path, where a Barn Owl had just been seen over the grazing meadow.

The Barn Owl was down in the long grass and rushes when we arrived but after a short wait it came up again. It seemed to be struggling in the freshening wind, and again dropped down into the vegetation for a while. When it came up again, it put on a much better show for us, eventually working its way down over the grass just beyond the fence. It landed briefly on one of the fence posts but was off again almost immediately and disappeared round towards the road.

Barn Owl 3

Barn Owl – hunting over the Thornham grazing meadow

Barn Owl 4

Barn Owl – put on a good show for us early this afternoon

A Common Buzzard was feeding on something further back in the field while we were watching the Barn Owl, so we got that in the scope too. A second Buzzard was on a fence post just behind and several Red-legged Partridges were in the grass closer to us. When the Barn Owl disappeared, we walked on round via Meadow Trail. A small group of Long-tailed Tits was feeding in the cut branches placed on the ground in the trees. We couldn’t find any sign of the Woodcock either now, so we decided to head back to the minibus and move on. The very tame Reeve’s Muntjac was chomping on the grass where the feeders used to be, behind the Visitor Centre.

Back at Holkham, we stopped to scan the grazing marshes. A large flock of Black-tailed Godwits was whirling round out in the middle as we got out of the minibus. There were several Spoonbills on the pools today. First we found two together, busily feeding with their heads down in the water, sweeping their bills from side to side as they walked round. Three more were much further back, way off towards the pines, but flew in to join them, and a sixth Spoonbill flew out of the trees and disappeared off east.

Spoonbill

Spoonbills – two of six we saw today, feeding busily

For a very large and bright white bird, the Great White Egrets made themselves surprisingly harder to find today. We eventually found one, right back in front of the pines, down in a rushy ditch where it was hard to see until it put its head up. Then if flew up, with slow and heavy wingbeats and landed again behind a sparse line of reeds. All the while, there was a second Great White Egret much closer to us, but it had managed to hide itself completely in the rushes until it eventually walked into view.

There are still quite a few lingering (Russian) White-fronted Geese at Holkham, but there were none down on the grazing marshes today. They were feeding further back, on the grass in the middle of the old Iron Age fort, and we could just see a few of them over the rim of the grassy bank. We thought we might find another Barn Owl or two out hunting here, but there were none out this afternoon.

Our next stop was at Wells. There was no sign of the Rough-legged Buzzard on its usual bushes when we arrived. We got out of the minibus and set off down the track towards the bank and we hadn’t gone too far before the Rough-legged Buzzard flew back in. It looked like it would land straight away, but instead flew on, up over the fields towards the Freeman Street car park, flushing all the Brent Geese. It was strikingly pale and, as it turned, we could see its bright white tail with broad black terminal band. It even stopped to hover at one point, rather like an over-sized, slow-motion Kestrel!

Rough-legged Buzzard 1

Rough-legged Buzzard – flew in over the fields

After flying round for a few minutes, the Rough-legged Buzzard returned to its normal bushes and landed on the top of one of them. Now, we could get a better look at it through the scope – its very pale white head and neck contrasting with the dark blackish belly patch. It was hard to see its feathered legs though, through the leaves and branches.

Rough-legged Buzzard 2

Rough-legged Buzzard – eventually landed on one of its favourite bushes

We continued on to the bank and stopped to scan the marshes beyond. There were a few Pink-footed Geese out on the grass and we got them in the scope, noting their dark heads and delicate, mostly dark bills. A passing farmer in a truck seemed like he would have preferred to run us over, although unfortunately we had all stepped to the side to let him pass, and when he drove out across the fields in the distance, he flushed a lot more Pink-footed Geese from over towards the pines. This can be a good place for owls in the late afternoon, but we couldn’t see any here today. It had clouded over progressively though and was no rather grey and cool in the strengthening breeze.

We cut back inland for one last stop on our way back. As we walked down the footpath across the meadow, two more Red Kites and a Common Buzzard hung in the air above the hillside behind us. There was no sign of the regular Barn Owl here this evening – it wasn’t out hunting and we couldn’t see it around the box where it likes to roost either. We were rather later than normal though, so it was hard to tell whether it had already gone off further afield, or was in no hurry to come out tonight given the weather.

We had a quick listen in the trees, but there were no Tawny Owls hooting yet. It is increasingly late before it gets properly dark now, and with the wind and threat of rain approaching, we decided to call it a night and not hang on any longer. Having enjoyed such great views of the Tawny Owl earlier this morning, and four different Barn Owls out hunting,  not to mention the Little Owls and Short-eared Owl, we did not feel like we were short of owls today

13th Feb 2020 – Lucky with the Weather

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

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

Rough-legged Buzzard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

White-fronted Geese

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

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

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

Great White Egret

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eastern Yellow Wagtail

Eastern Yellow Wagtail – still feeding around its favoured muck heaps

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

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

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

Teal

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

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

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

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

Curlew

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

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

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

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

Black-tailed Godwit

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

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

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

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

Barn Owl 1

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

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

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

Grey Partridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snow Buntings

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

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

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

Barn Owl 2

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

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

 

18th Jan 2020 – 4-3-2-1 Owls!

An Owl Tour today. It was a beautiful, bright, sunny winter’s day, although there was a chill in the air and a rather fresh breeze blowing in the middle of the day.

We made our way down to the marshes first thing, to see if we could find a Barn Owl still out hunting. There was a lot of water on the fields after the recent rains, so much that the Environment Agency were pumping out one of the ditches to stop it from overflowing. Lots of birds were enjoying the water – a noisy mob of Black-headed Gulls were feeding round the edge of the pools and several Little Egrets were feeding on the wet edge of the field, along with a Grey Heron. The other side, the wet grass was full of Curlew, Lapwing and Starlings, busy feeding. A pair of Mute Swans flew in and landed on one of the pools.

The raptors were already circling up. A Kestrel flew across (maybe wondering where the Barn Owl was, so it could steal its catch!) and a couple of Marsh Harriers came up out of the reeds. One landed on a bare tree where we could get it in the scope. A Buzzard was on a bush behind us, before flying off to the wood beyond, and presumably the same one later circled above the trees. A Red Kite flew across in front of the wood, its red tail catching the morning light as it turned.

There was no sign of any Barn Owls – perhaps they had already gone in to roost, as the latter part of the night had probably been good for hunting, or perhaps they were avoiding the grazing marshes given all the water. We decided to move on and headed inland, parking on the edge of some fields before setting off down a footpath.

There were a few tits in the hedges as we walked down towards the wood, and a Jay flew across the track in front of us. A Pied Wagtail flew across and landed in the beet field next to us – just the one today. A little group of Chaffinches dropped down to feed on the weedy margin. Two Mistle Thrushes flew through the trees as we walked round the edge of the wood, before flying out again and dropping down in the middle of the field. There were a few Red-legged Partridges out in the field too and a Red Kite hung in the air over the hedge on the far side.

There were more tits in the trees above the path, including several Long-tailed Tits. We could hear a Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming and a Nuthatch piping loudly. When we got to the far side of the wood, we looked back along the edge. The Tawny Owl was there, in its usual spot, in a big hole in one of the trees. We got it in the scope and had a great view. It was a little bit more active today (just to scotch any rumours it might be stuffed!), looking round and even picking at its feet with its bill at one point.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – roosting in its usual hole

After watching the Tawny Owl for a while, we decided to head back. A flock of Goldfinches was feeding in the sunshine above the track now. Looking up, we could see they were feeding on buds on the branches.

We made our way further inland to look for Little Owls next. There was no sign of any at the first couple of places we looked, but at the next stop we spotted one hiding under the lip of the barn roof. We pulled up out of sight and walked back to where we could get it in the scope without disturbing it. It had chosen a sheltered spot, facing into the morning sun but out of the wind.

Little Owl

Little Owl – looking out from under the lip of the barn roof

Eventually the Little Owl was spooked by a passing farmworker and disappeared in under the roof. We walked back to the minibus. There were some more farm buildings across the field from here and we could see a small blob out on the roof in the sunshine. Through the scope, we could see that it was indeed a second Little Owl. There is a footpath which runs up the far end of the field, so we drove the short distance over there and started off up it.

There were several birds coming and going from the trees by the paddocks at the start of the footpath. As well as Starlings, we could see several Fieldfares so we got them in the scope when they landed in the top of one tree. A Redwing appeared in the top of another tree, before flying over to join the Fieldfares.

We had a quick walk up the footpath and stopped where we could see across to where the second Little Owl was perched on the roof. It was still there, out in full view, and through the scope we could see it was fluffed up, with its eyes closed, looking towards the morning sun, presumably enjoying the warmth of the rays.

Dropping back down to the coast, we made our way along to Holkham and parked at the top of Lady Anne’s Drive. There were lots of Wigeon feeding out on the grazing marshes and lots of Pink-footed Geese loafing on the second field back, just beyond the line of reeds and brambles. As we walked up towards the trees, a family party of Brent Geese flew in and landed just beyond the fence.

Brent Geese

Brent Geese – a family party landed right by Lady Anne’s Drive

We headed over to The Lookout Cafe to use the facilities quickly and some of the group, who had hurried on ahead, called back to say there was a Barn Owl. When we got there, it was perched on a post by the bank, but before we could get the scope on it, it was off again. We watched it hunting backwards and forwards over the reeds beyond the pool in front of The Lookout – although the building was in the way, so we had to dart round to the other side of it at one point! Then it stopped to hover and dropped down into the grass.

Some of the group, who had hurried inside, had not seen the Barn Owl, so when they came out we waited for it to reappear. A Stonechat kept flicking up and down from the brambles and posts on the bank. Presumably the Barn Owl had caught something, because it stayed down in the grass for some time, but finally it reappeared. Again, we had some stunning views of it flying round hunting, stopped to hover a couple of times.

Barn Owl 2

Barn Owl – out hunting behind The Lookout

Barn Owl 1

Barn Owl – stunning views in the late morning sun

Barn Owls will hunt during the day, but only tend to do so if they are hungry. Perhaps the wet and windy weather yesterday evening meant that this one needed to hunt. It was already late morning now, and it seemed to be showing no signs of wanting to head in to roost. We watched the Barn Owl for a while, until it stopped to hover and then dropped down into the grass again.

We wanted to see if we could find a Short-eared Owl here today, so we walked out through the dunes. It had been very calm all morning, but when we got out past the lee of the pines there was a very brisk west wind now. We scanned all the places we had seen the Short-eared Owl hunting in recent days, but couldn’t see it. We had gone as far as we wanted and decided to have one last scan from the top of the dunes. As we looked round, it came up from the grass just behind us.

The Short-eared Owl flew off downwind, with its distinctive stiff-winged rowing action and notably long, slim wings. It went some way, before turning and coming back towards us over the dunes, into the wind. We were hoping it would come back past us, but it got caught by the wind and gained height, before turning and disappearing over the pines. We hoped it might reappear, but it had either gone into the trees to roost or perhaps might have gone over the other side to try to find some shelter.

Short-eared Owl 1

Short-eared Owl – flushed from the dunes

We made our way back, cutting through the pines and walking down the track the other side out of the wind. There were lots of Pink-footed Geese out on the grazing marsh, along with a few carrot-billed Greylags and a pair of Egyptian Geese. At Salts Hole, there were several Little Grebes out on the water and a Weasel darted along the far bank.

We stopped for lunch back at The Lookout. There was no sign of the Barn Owl now, but the Stonechat was still just outside the window. As we made our way back to the minibus afterwards, a pair of Grey Partridges were busy preening in the grass just beyond the fence.

Grey Partridge

Grey Partridge – a pair were right next to Lady Anne’s Drive

Having only had a short time with the Short-eared Owl in the dunes before it disappeared, we decided to make a quick dash over to Snettisham to see if we could see the ones there. We didn’t have much time once we got over there, so we headed straight round to where they roost. Scanning the brambles, we quickly found one Short-eared Owl perched in a little nook among the branches. We had a good look at it in the scope.

Short-eared Owl 2

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

A little further on, we found the second Short-eared Owl under its usual sparse bramble bush. It stood out more, with its sandy colouration, but was not moving and we were looking at it from the side so we couldn’t see its eyes today. On our way back round, there were a few ducks on the pits, including a smart drake Goldeneye which was diving constantly.

Back at the Wash, the tide was out now and most of the large flocks of waders were way out in the distance, on the water’s edge. There were a few birds closer to us on the mud – a Grey Plover and a couple of Redshank. A scattering of diminutive Dunlin were feeding on the mud just beyond the channel and a quick scan across with binoculars revealed an even smaller wader in with them. Through the scope, we could confirm it was the Little Stint which is wintering here.

Little Stint

Little Stint – out on the mud with the Dunlin again

Little Stints are very scarce winter visitors in the UK, being more common on passage, particularly in autumn on their way from their Arctic breeding grounds with most heading down to Africa for the winter. As we saw a Little Stint in almost exactly the same patch of mud regularly through last winter, we wonder whether this bird has come back for the second year in a row.

Back in the minibus, we made our way back across country, passing a couple of large flocks of Pink-footed Geese in the fields on our way. We stopped again at Wells and, as we disembarked, we didn’t know which way to look. A Barn Owl was hunting up and down the banks of the ditch in front of the layby, while the long-staying Rough-legged Buzzard was perched on its usual favoured bush beyond.

We watched the Barn Owl hunting, while we got the scope on the Rough-legged Buzzard. Eventually the Barn Owl flew off back across the field, and we turned our full attention to the Rough-legged Buzzard. We could see its very pale head, contrasting with its very dark, chocolate brown belly.

Rough-legged Buzzard

Rough-legged Buzzard – perched on its usual favoured bush

We decided to walk out along the track to the bank. The Rough-legged Buzzard had flown back and landed down in a ploughed field beyond, by the time we got out there, but shortly afterwards flew back in again. We had an even better view of it from here.

The first Barn Owl was now working its way up the edge of the paddocks across the road, but a second Barn Owl now appeared at the back of the field close to the buzzard and flew round the edge to hunt around the entrance to the car park. It was a paler bird, with whiter, unmarked flight feathers, presumably a male.

The Rough-legged Buzzard had another fly round, flashing its white tail with black terminal band, chasing a Common Buzzard off from the top of a bush by the old pitch & putt, taking over its perch. We had taken our eyes off them, but what was possibly the first Barn Owl again then started flying down along the bank towards us. It was getting closer when it stopped, turned, hovered, and dropped into the grass. It took some time to come up again, and when it did unfortunately flew back away from us – we were hoping it might come right past us.

Barn Owl 3

Barn Owl – one of at least two at Wells this afternoon

The sun was going down now and we had one last port of call. As we walked back to the minibus, the Rough-legged Buzzard flew back in to its favoured bush again. We drove inland and parked in some trees at the top of a footpath.

The Barn Owl which we often come to see emerging from its box in the evening had not been around the last few times we had looked for it. The good news today was that it was back. We had missed it coming out, but it was busy hunting the grassy bank beyond the gate. We had got out into the open along the footpath just in time to see it disappearing into the trees, but after a while it came out again. It weaved in and out of the edge of the trees several times, before disappearing deeper in through the wood.

It was time for the Tawny Owls to start hooting now, and as we walked back into the trees we could hear one hooting distantly. We heard it a couple more times, before it went quiet. It was a clear, bright evening and the light took some time to fade. The other Tawny Owls were slow to get going tonight and time was getting on, but after a smorgasbord of owls today, we didn’t worry too much about calling time. 4 Barn Owls, 3 Short-eared Owls, 2 Little Owls & 1 Tawny Owl (plus another hooting!).

10th Jan 2020 – Winter in Norfolk, Day 1

Day 1 of a three day Winter Tour in Norfolk today. It was very wet overnight, but the rain passed through by morning and the cloud gradually broke to leave a day of blue skies and winter sunshine. Great weather for winter birding!

As we drove west this morning, we could see lots of White-fronted Geese in a field by the road at Holkham but unfortunately there was nowhere to stop and we had several cars behind us. A little further on, a Barn Owl was hunting over a grassy meadow next to the road, and it turned to cross right in front of us. Thankfully we were already going slowly, as we only narrowly avoided it and it saw us at the last minute.

A large flock of Pink-footed Geese was flushed from a potato field by the farmer just before Burnham Overy as we approached and flew over the road ahead of us. We turned inland in the village, and just beyond we found a small mixed flock of Greylags and Pink-footed Geese in a muddy field by the road. It was quieter here, and we could pull up to have a quick look from the minibus. It was a good chance to see the two species side by side.

Pink-footed Goose

Pink-footed Goose – we found a small mixed flock with Greylags by the road

Our first stop of the morning was at Sedgeford. There were a few cars already parked along the verge and as we got out of the minibus we were told the Eastern Yellow Wagtail had been seen earlier by its favoured muck heap down along the track opposite. But when we got to the small group of birders gathered there, they seemed to be unsure whether it had been seen or where it had gone.

It normally flies in here eventually, so we stopped to wait. There were several Brown Hares in the field opposite and a large gathering of Common Gulls feeding up on the ridge. A Yellowhammer came over calling. A Sparrowhawk flew along the hedge line at the far end. We could see lots of Fieldfares in the field back towards the road, but they flew back and disappeared behind the ridge back towards where we were parked.

We had a lot to try to do today and we figured we could always call in to try for the wagtail again on our way back later, so we walked back towards the road to have a look for the Fieldfares. When we got back there, we discovered that the Eastern Yellow Wagtail had earlier flown in with a couple of Pied Wagtails and landed in the field right next to where everyone was parked. A couple of people had been watching it while everyone else was standing down the track by the muck heap. But the birds had flown off again and although the two Pied Wagtails had returned, their rarer cousin had disappeared again.

We could see the Fieldfares out in the field, so got those in the scopes, feeding with a rather jumpy flock of Starlings. There were several Red-legged Partridges behind and a flock of Linnets and Goldfinches in the set aside strip along the field margin. A Bullfinch flew over calling and landed in the hedge, where we got it in the scope, a very smart pink male.

Knowing that the Eastern Yellow Wagtail was around now, we decided to walk back to the muck heap, hoping that it would now fly back in there. We were just walking up when we heard it call and it landed in the edge of the field right next to where everyone was standing. We had great views of it now, as it picked around on the bare mud – well worth the wait!

Eastern Yellow Wagtail

Eastern Yellow Wagtail – eventually flew in to its favoured muck heap

Eventually the Eastern Yellow Wagtail flew up calling – the diagnostic rasping call, very unlike our regular Western Yellow Wagtails and more like a Citrine Wagtail – and dropped down onto the muck heap. We took this as a cue to move on.

Our next stop was at Snettisham. There were a few Goldeneye and Little Grebes on the pits on the way in. When we got up onto the seawall, the tide was out – high tide was in the early hours this morning. We were not here mainly for the waders today though, our target was Short-eared Owl. As we made our way round, we scanned the brambles and quickly found one hidden in some long grass – it was hard to see, but eventually everyone managed to get onto it.

We decided to push our luck again, and walked on a little further. There was a second Short-eared Owl, hiding in the same place we had seen it last week, under a rather sparse bramble bush. Even better, we looked back at the first Short-eared Owl and with the change of angle we now found we were looking straight at it out in the open. We had a great view of it through the scope.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl – one of two again this morning

Scanning the main pit, we could see a good selection of wildfowl – more Goldeneye, Tufted Ducks, several Wigeon and a few Gadwall and Shoveler. The Swan Goose hybrid was in with the Greylag Geese again. A flock of a few hundred Pink-footed Geese came up from the Wash and flew over calling noisily.

Turning our attention to the Wash, most of the Knot and Bar-tailed Godwits were way off in the distance, but we could see quite a few Dunlin out on the mud quite close in despite the fact that the tide was out. We decided to have a quick look through the Dunlin, pointing out that we had seen a Little Stint here with them several times last winter, when the very next bird we saw was… a Little Stint! What a coincidence!

The Little Stint was feeding with the Dunlin, and was much smaller when they were seen side by side, with a shorter, finer bill. They are mainly passage migrants here, and rare in winter. It was in exactly the same area we had seen the Little Stint last year, so perhaps it it is the same bird come back here for a second winter.

Little Stint

Little Stint – feeding on the edge of the Wash with Dunlin

There were one or two Grey Plover quite close in too. With the sun now coming out, we could see a large flock of Golden Plover out on the mud, packed tightly together in a long line, shining in the low winter’s light. There were lots of Lapwing too, darker, and scattered more liberally over the mud.

We had lots we wanted to do today, so we moved on. We called in for a quick stop at Thornham Harbour, but we were told the Twite which had been there earlier had disappeared. There were quite a few people there and there were not many waders in the harbour channel either – a couple of Redshank and Curlew, and a single Oystercatcher. A couple of Brent Geese were out across the saltmarsh towards the beach.

We walked up to the old sluice and had just stopped to scan the saltmarsh when we heard the distinctive nasal twang of a Twite calling back behind us, somewhere beyond the car park. We turned to see a small group of birds perched on the vegetation on the far side of the harbour channel but before we could get back they had taken off. They landed back down on the saltmarsh a bit further back, disappearing out of view.

We stood and scanned for a bit. A couple of Rock Pipits flew over. A few Linnets flew in and out and when a larger flock flew over, we heard Twite calling again. Two birds landed on the cross bar of one of the wooden jetties on the edge of the harbour and conveniently they were a Twite and a Linnet next to each other – another great comparison.

Twite

Twite – one showed well with Linnets around the Harbour

We had a good look at them through the scope before the Twite flew down and landed on the other side of the channel directly opposite us. We could see its yellow bill and its burnt orange breast caught the sun. It seemed to be on its own and when the Linnets flew up again, the Twite flew back over to join them. One was enough – we decided to head round to Titchwell for lunch.

After lunch, we headed straight round to Meadow Trail. We were told the Woodcock was in its usual spot and when we got there we didn’t have to look for it – a crowd was gathered there and lots of long lenses were pointed in its direction. Thankfully the throng quickly dwindled so we could find a spot where we could all admire it. It was not far from the boardwalk and clearly relying on its cryptically patterned plumage for camouflage, probably convinced that we couldn’t see it.

Woodcock

Woodcock – showing very well by the boardwalk, despite the crowds

We moved on, to create space for the next Woodcock admirers, and headed round to the main path. We could see a Marsh Harrier out beyond the reedbed and lots of Greylags and a couple of Mute Swans on the reedbed pool. The Freshmarsh is still full of water, although with the sluice apparently now repaired, the water level has started to drop. There were lots of ducks on there, including a single drake Goldeneye.

Time was running short, so we continued straight out to the Tidal Pool. A single Spotted Redshank was feeding up to its belly in the far corner – through the scope, we could see its long bill and bright supercilium as it lifted its head. A Bar-tailed Godwit walked across in front of it. A Turnstone was picking around on one of the islands next to a couple of Black-tailed Godwits.

A little further up, we stopped to look at all the Bar-tailed Godwits roosting on the spit. There were several Grey Plovers in with them and scanning with the scope we found a couple of Knot too. There were a few ducks out on the water and, in with all the Mallard, we could see five Pintail. We got a pair in the scope and the drake looked especially stunning in the low afternoon sunlight. As it upended, we could see its long, pin-shaped tail.

We had one more thing we wanted to do today, so we needed to head back. We had to make a brief stop as we passed the Freshmarsh to train the scope on one of the drake Teal on the bank. Again the light was perfect and the plumage detail through the scope was exquisite.

Teal

Teal – looking stunning in the low afternoon light

Titchwell had one more gift to give us today. As we got back into the trees, we looked down into the ditch beside the path to see a Water Rail picking along the far bank of the water in the bottom. A Chiffchaff was calling in the bushes in the car park as we made our way round to the minibus.

Our last stop of the day was back at Wells. As we got out of the minibus, a Short-eared Owl was down in the grass on the edge of the ditch a short way down the track. We got it in the scope and could see its yellow eyes as it looked round. We didn’t know which was to look, as the Rough-legged Buzzard was on its usual bush off towards the bank in the other direction. We got the scopes set up, some on each, and everyone moved between them admiring the two birds.

Rough-legged Buzzard

Rough-legged Buzzard – still perched on its usual favoured bush

The Short-eared Owl took off and flew a bit further back, landing back down in the grass again. Then we looked over to the bank by the Rough-legged Buzzard to see a Barn Owl appear. It dropped down to the ground on the bank and came up again with a vole in its talons, disappearing with it into the bushes where the Rough-legged Buzzard was still perched.

A Common Buzzard had now landed in the grass where the Short-eared Owl had been and the latter had taken offence. We watched as it flew up repeatedly, before swooping down at the Buzzard, pulling up at the last minute. The Buzzard eventually decided it had had enough, flying off with the Short-eared Owl in pursuit, before the owl turned back and circled up and over the bank.

There was a stunning moonrise this evening – it is a full moon tonight, a ‘wolf moon’, the first full moon of the New Year. We decided to walk down the track to the bank to admire it. A Grey Heron was motionless at the back of the first flood, looking rather like a wooden post in the gloom. As we passed one of the grassy fields, two small birds circled over and dropped in – two Water Pipits. Unfortunately they immediately disappeared into the long grass.

From up on the bank, we got the scope on the Rough-legged Buzzard. With the change in angle, we were now looking at it back on, and could see the white base to its tail. We looked away and it took off – we watched it fly off towards the pines, presumably heading off to roost, longer, slimmer-winged and longer-tailed than a Common Buzzard.

Wolf Moon

Wolf Moon – the first full moon of the New Year tonight

We took that as our cue to head for home too. As we walked back, with the full moon away to our left and the last yellow light of the sunset illuminating the sky away to our right, the Short-eared Owl was still hunting over the grassy field beside the track and a Grey Partridge was calling in the stubble the other side. A great way to wrap up our first day.

5th Jan 2020 – Return of the Owls

An Owl Tour today, our first one of the New Year. It had originally been forecast to be bright but by the time we got to the day, it was dull and overcast. There were some spots of very light drizzle on and off, which were not even in the latest forecasts, but at least they were just while we were driving and it thankfully remained dry while we were out and about.

We were a bit later than planned getting away this morning. With mild weather recently, the Barn Owls are not especially hungry at the moment and are not out hunting much during daylight hours, so we would need to be lucky to catch one. We drove down to the grazing marshes and stopped to scan from the bank. One of the group shouted as they spotted a Barn Owl ghost across a gap in the hedge, but only a couple of people were looking the right way. We hoped it would swing back round, hunting, but it didn’t reappear. It looked to be heading off to roost.

We walked out along the seawall. A Brown Hare ran across the grass. A flock of Curlews flew over, coming in from the coast and heading inland to feed on the flooded meadows. Two Grey Herons chased each other out of a ditch. The Marsh Harriers were starting to circle up now, coming out of the reeds where they had roosted. A Red Kite drifted in over the reeds, and landed in a dead tree where we got it in the scope. A rather pale Common Buzzard was perched in the trees behind.

Red Kite

Red Kite – flew in and landed on a dead tree as it got light

As we walked back, we could see a pair of Egyptian Geese in the trees at the back of the grazing meadows. They look like they are getting ready to nest. Egyptian Geese often attempt to breed in the middle of winter – perhaps their body clocks have never adapted to the fact they are not in Africa any more!

We drove inland and parked on the edge of a field, before walking down along a footpath to a small wood. As we got to the trees, a Great Spotted Woodpecker was drumming and we could hear a Coal Tit singing. Despite the grey weather, it could almost have been early spring already.

Round on the other side, we looked along the edge to see a large hole in one of the trees. There, in the hole, a Tawny Owl was dozing. We got it in the scope and it almost looked like a cardboard cutout, until it blinked and then turned its head.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – roosting in a hole in a tree

Tawny Owl is the commonest owl in the UK, but is not often seen as they are strictly nocturnal. Most roost well hidden in ivy or evergreen trees, or hidden in holes, so it is always a special treat to see one in the daytime.

After admiring the Tawny Owl for a while, we walked back along the footpath. A Great Tit was singing now. A pair of Mistle Thrushes flew up from the field and disappeared back into the trees. A flock of Long-tailed Tits was making its way down the hedge.

It was time to look for Little Owls now, but the weather was not ideal. There was no sign of any on the first two groups of barns we stopped at, and it seemed like it might be a bit cold and grey. Then at our third stop, we spotted a small shape tucked under the edge of the roof, looking out. We parked out of sight, and walked round to where we could get it in the scope without disturbing it.

Little Owl

Little Owl – tucked in under the roof out of the weather

Eventually the Little Owl was disturbed by a passing tractor and disappeared in under the roof. As we drove back down to the coast, an untidy flock of Brent Geese was flying inland to feed. After a quick pit-stop in Wells, we drove west, over to the Wash coast at Snettisham. On our way, we passed several a couple of flocks of Pink-footed Geese feeding in the recently cut sugar beet fields.

From up on the seawall, there was still a huge expanse of exposed mud. The tide was coming in fast but it was not a big tide today, so the water would not push everything up towards the bank. As we made our way down, an enormous flock of Golden Plover several thousand strong flew up from out in the middle of the mud. The birds circled round before quickly dropping down again. As soon as they landed, they disappeared, remarkably well camouflaged against the mud.

Golden Plover

Golden Plover – the vast flock occasionally spooked and flew round

Carefully scanning the bushes as we walked along, we spotted a shape in the brambles. A Short-eared Owl roosting. It was very well camouflaged too, but once you knew where it was it was relatively easy to pick out. It was mostly asleep, but occasionally opened its eyes so you could see its yellow irises through the scope.

Short-eared Owl 1

Short-eared Owl – roosting in the brambles

We decided to push our luck, and tried scanning again a bit further up. There was a second Short-eared Owl, hiding under a rather sparse bramble bush, but it blended in well against the sandy, stony ground. A large flock of noisy Greylags flew over, honking and dropped down towards the pits.

Short-eared Owl 2

Short-eared Owl – a second bird, hiding under some brambles

We walked round to the causeway to scan the pits. There were several Goldeneye diving out on the water, including several smart drakes. Scattered round the edges and islands was a selection of Wigeon, Shoveler and a variety of conventional Mallard and domesticated Mallard intergrades. The pits here seem to attract different feral or escaped wildfowl, and in with the Greylags we found the rather odd looking Swan Goose hybrid. Several Little Grebes were on the water too.

Back on the seawall, a small flock of Pink-footed Geese flew over, coming in off the Wash. We stopped to scan the mud. A Grey Plover was on the edge of a small pool right down at the front, with a Bar-tailed Godwit and a Dunlin on the pools a little further back, just beyond the channel. Further back, the huge flock of Golden Plover looked like a darker smear on the mud until we got it in the scope and could see it was actually a mass of small golden lumps. There were lots of Lapwing too. The Knot were much further out, right over towards the waters edge. A huge black slick back towards the sailing club was a big roost of Oystercatchers.

Grey Plover

Grey Plover – feeding on the mud on the edge of the Wash

There were lots of Shelduck scattered out over the mud and some flocks of Mallard and Teal sleeping along the edge of the muddy channels. Further out, we found a small group of Pintail on the edge of the water. It was lunchtime now and, as it wasn’t cold, we stopped for lunch on the benches.

After lunch, with the days short at this time of year, time was getting on. We drove back east and stopped again on the outskirts of Wells. A quick scan and we picked up the Rough-legged Buzzard on a bush in the distance. It took off just after we got out of the minibus and flew across in front of the pines, stopping to hover a couple of times. Then it dropped down out of sight towards marshes beyond bank.

We decided to walk out along the track to the bank. A small flock of Skylarks flew up from the stubble and a little further on a group of Pied Wagtails was feeding in there too, close to the path. They were presumably starting to gather already, before heading off to roost somewhere.

We could see the Rough-legged Buzzard again, perched on a bush in the distance. We got it in the scope now and everyone had a chance to have a good look at it, its pale head contrasting with its dark, blackish-brown belly. There had been a Short-eared Owl hunting here the last couple of afternoons, but there was no sign of it today. Perhaps it was a bit cold and grey, and after good hunting conditions on the previous days perhaps it was not hungry too.

Rough-legged Buzzard

Rough-legged Buzzard – perched on a bush

There were lots of Lapwing and Curlew out on Quarles Marsh. Two pairs of Gadwall swimming on the pool were an addition to the day’s list. A Kestrel was hovering over the bank just behind us.

The last stop of the day was back inland. We were hoping to catch a Barn Owl coming out of the box in which it usually roosts. We were a little later than planned by the time we got there, but we got ourselves into position, overlooking the box.

Three Red Kites circled up over the trees behind us, calling noisily and chasing each other round in the breeze. A large flock of Pied Wagtails flew in and circled over the reeds. They kept flying up and dropping down again, obviously looking to go to roost together but still nervous. More were arriving and we counted at least 65 in the air together at one point.

It was getting dark now and there was still no sign of the Barn Owl tonight. Had we missed it and it had gone off to hunt elsewhere already? Had something happened and it had roosted elsewhere? Or was it just not hungry enough to come out before dark tonight? Time may tell.

We walked up the footpath into the trees. We hadn’t gone far when we heard a Tawny Owl hooting. We stood and listened to it, such an evocative song. It was deep in the trees, so we couldn’t see it from the path. It hooted several times, but the neighbouring male didn’t answer tonight so after a while it fell silent. It was a nice way to end, so we decided it was time to call it a night.

22nd-23rd July 2019 – Brecks, Coast & Nightjars

A two day Private Tour in Norfolk, we spent Monday in the Brecks before heading up to North Norfolk for an evening looking for owls and Nightjars. On Tuesday, we were out on the North Norfolk coast. The weather was sunny with mostly clear blue skies, and hot, although there was a keen and rather blustery wind on Monday which had died down the following day.

We met down in the Brecks. As it was already approaching mid-morning, we headed straight over to Weeting Heath to look for Stone Curlews before it got too hot. When we got into East Hide, there was no obvious sign of anything on view but a careful scan with the scope revealed a Stone Curlew hunkered down in the grass and flowers, looking rather like a clod of earth, but slightly paler than the clods around it. We had a look at it through the scope, and could see its yellow iris and black-tipped yellow bill as it turned its head.

Stone Curlew

Stone Curlew – in the flowers out on the heath from East Hide

Then another Stone Curlew stood up a little further over to the left. This was a much better view, and we watched it as it walked slowly over towards the first bird. Eventually, it settled down into the grass and disappeared again, so we took that as our cue to move on.

There had been a few tits and a Nuthatch high in the pines on our walk out, but on the way back to the car park we heard a Marsh Tit calling in the bushes ahead of us, its distinctive sneezing call. It flew towards us and landed in an elder right next to the path, just a few feet from us. So close, you didn’t even need binoculars!

From there, we made our way over to Lakenheath Fen. Having checked in at the Visitor Centre, we stopped briefly to look at the feeders. A few tits and Goldfinches were coming and going and a male Reed Bunting made several visits to the feeding table.

Reed Bunting

Reed Bunting – coming in to the feeders by the Visitor Centre

It was a bit too windy out along the main track for butterflies today, but still we saw lots of Red Admirals and a Comma landed on the brambles briefly. A couple of Brown Hawkers were hawking over the reeds and several Ruddy Darters were flying around and perching in the grass by the path. Most of the damselflies were hiding in the vegetation, but we did see one or two Azure Damselflies.

We stopped at the New Fen Viewpoint and looked out over the pool below. A Great Crested Grebe was still on its nest on the edge of the reeds, and what was presumably its partner appeared and swam out into the middle of the water. There were a couple of well-grown broods of Gadwall and some moulting Mallard at the back, along with several Coot and Moorhen. A Reed Warbler was feeding low down along the edge of the reeds at the back.

Great Crested Grebe

Great Crested Grebe – still on the nest in front of New Fen Viewpoint

Continuing on along the track towards Mere Hide, there were one or two Black-tailed Skimmers basking on the gravel which kept flying on ahead of us. We had a junior member of the group with us who could hear loud buzzing in the grass by the track, whereas the grown-ups couldn’t hear it above the wind. It was a Roesel’s Bush-cricket and following the noise, we eventually found several in the vegetation and watched one stridulating.

Roesel's Bush Cricket

Roesel’s Bush Cricket – there were lots in the grass, inaudible to the grown-ups!

From the hide, we could see a family of Little Grebes away to the left at the back of the open channel, an adult feeding two well-grown juveniles. A flock of five Little Egrets flew over towards, heading over towards Joist Fen. Several Four-spotted Chasers were flying around the edges of the water or perching on reed stems. Otherwise it was rather quiet here today, we we decided to continue on to Joist Fen.

As we sat on the benches looking out over Joist Fen, it was rather quiet here too at first. A few Marsh Harriers circled up from the reeds from time to time, a male with the silvery-grey panel it is upperwings, a female and one or two dark chocolate brown juveniles. A couple of Common Terns commuted back and forth from the pools out in the middle of the reeds.

One or two Reed Warblers flicked in and out on the edge of the reeds. We heard Bearded Tits calling several times, but they were mostly hidden behind the reeds down at the front of the pool, just below the viewpoint, until a juvenile flew back across the water and landed in the reeds at the back.

Then two Common Cranes appeared, flying across low over the reeds, before dropping down away from us into the reeds out in the middle out of sight. As well as the breeding pair which still has a youngster which has not yet fledged, there have been two different Cranes seen from time to time around the reserve recently. They were presumably the ones we saw, possibly returning juveniles from 2018 according to reserve staff. Several Little Egrets had already flown in and out and when a Great White Egret appeared. It came up out of the reeds, much larger, with slower wingbeats, and flew back away from us.

We had been hoping to see a Bittern here, and normally this is a good time to see them as they fly back and forth regularly with food for their young, but they have not been very active this summer. The reserve staff hope that there are still good numbers breeding, after a record count of eleven booming males in spring here, and think they may just be walking to find food due to the conditions.

It was nice sitting here in the sunshine with the breeze over the reeds, so we decided to wait some more. A Grey Heron came up and did a fly round. When it dropped down out of sight in the reeds again, it chased a second Grey Heron out. Finally, a Bittern put in an appearance, flying up out of the reeds over towards the river bank, across low over the tops, before dropping back in out in the middle. Success!

It was a long walk back to the Visitor Centre and was early afternoon already by the time we got back. We stopped for a cold drink and a snack to recover. With evening activities planned too, we didn’t have much time this afternoon, but we called in quickly at Lynford Arboretum. There was lots of activity around a tree laden with berries in the car park – several Blackbirds coming and going, and a family of Garden Warblers. We watched the adult feeding one of the juveniles up in the top.

As we walked down the path towards the bridge, a Siskin flew over calling. There were not many birds out in the heat of the afternoon, so we carried on down to the lake. Several Little Grebes out among the lilypads, including an adult feeding two juveniles. An Emperor Dragonfly was hawking over the water. Making our way back up towards the car park, we stopped to look at the feeders by the cottages and a Great Spotted Woodpecker flew out.

Little Grebe

Little Grebe – one of several on the lake at Lynford

On our way north, we stopped off again in the forest. We parked by a clearing and walked a short way out along a ride through the middle. A Yellowhammer was singing from the top of the pines on one side, and we found an Essex Skimmer in the grass (we could see the black tips to the underside of its antennae) but there was not much else here today so we carried on our way.

After a break to get checked in and get something to eat, we met again in the evening. First, we drove over to a site to look for Little Owls. As soon as we pulled up, we could see one of the adults perched on the roof of some old farm buildings. We watched from the minibus as it stood there staring at us, a great view.

Little Owl

Little Owl – one of the adults, hiding under the roof

As the adult Little Owl seemed fairly settled, we pulled a little further forwards and could see two paler grey, fluffier juvenile Little Owls on the same roof a little further down. They were more active, looking round, stretching their wings, running up under cover and back down into the open. We stayed and watched them for a short while, then headed down to the coast to look for Barn Owls.

We drove round through an area of meadows where the Barn Owls like to hunt, but there was no sign of any out yet. So we parked and walked down along the bank by the grazing marshes. Several Common Swifts were screaming around the rooftops of the village nearby – it won’t be long now before they are off, on their way south. A few House Martins circled in with them. A Grey Partridge was feeding in the grass on the edge of a ditch across the meadows.

Scanning from the bank, we picked up a very distant Barn Owl out over the back of the marshes, hunting. As we watched it, it seemed to be coming a bit closer, flying towards us, but then it turned and went back out into the middle. At least we had seen a Barn Owl. We turned to walk back to the minibus and another Barn Owl appeared from behind the reeds back towards the road. It was the regular all-white male, a stunning bird! It flew straight past us and disappeared round over the bank.

Barn Owl

Barn Owl – the all-white male flew past us over the reeds

It was time to get up to the heath for this evening’s main event now. As we walked out into the middle of the heath, we spotted a large bat flying over the tops of the pines, probably a Noctule.

We didn’t have long to wait before we heard the first Nightjar of the evening calling. It sounded like it was flying round in the trees at first, but then it came out over the edge of the heath, circling round a few times in front of the trees. Then it turned and came right past us, heading out into the middle. A male, we could see its white wing patches as it came past. It dropped down out of view and started churring.

Another Nightjar called from trees. It too flew round like the other had done earlier. It landed briefly on a branch, one of its favourite churring posts, and we got it in scope, but it didn’t stay long. It flew round past us and out into the middle of the heath too,another male. We stood and listened to the churring and from time to time could see one flying round, hawking for insects.

Then one of the male Nightjars flew back in low over the heath and came back right past us, another good view. It flew up into an oak tree quite close to where we were standing and started churring. Great to hear up close. Unfortunately it was obscured by leaves where we were standing and as we tried to walk round to the other side to see if we could see it, it dropped out of the tree and flew back out into middle again.

After a long day, it was time to call it a night. We could hear another Nightjar churring as we walked back to the minibus, and a Tawny Owl hooting away in the distance. It was time for bed.

After our late night last night, we had a more relaxed start to the morning today. After  we met up, we headed down to Wells. As we parked, we could already see the Spoonbills. There were at least six, tucked in the grass, asleep. There were several Little Egrets with them too and hard to tell what some of the white shapes were from here, further over hidden by the vegetation.

After a while, two of the Spoonbills woke up. One was one of this year’s juveniles, from the breeding colony at Holkham. When they want to be fed they are relentless, and we watched the juvenile as it walked over towards the adult and started begging, bobbing its head up and down and flapping its wings. The adult tried walking away, but the juvenile followed. After a while, the adult tried flying away but the juvenile just flew after it and carried on begging when it landed. In the end, the adult gave in.

Spoonbills

Spoonbills – sleeping on one of the islands

There were a few waders on the pools here too. We could see a distant Greenshank roosting on the back of one pool, but then found another feeding close to the track on the other side. A Green Sandpiper appeared from behind one of the islands too. A large flock of Black-tailed Godwits was out in the middle and there were still plenty of Lapwings, presumably the local breeding birds. There is just one pair of Avocets left here now though. Most have finished breeding and moved off elsewhere to moult, but these ones still have a cute, half-grown fluffy juvenile. Moulting will have to wait until family duties have finished!

Greenshank

Greenshank – one of two here this morning

We watched a lovely grey male Marsh Harrier circling over the fields beyond the pools. Then a female appeared and flew in over the pools and past us.

Marsh Harrier

Marsh Harrier – flew inland over the pools

There were several Reed Buntings along the track, and Linnets and Goldfinches in the bushes, along with a few House Sparrows. When we heard a Sedge Warbler calling, we turned and could see it climbing around in the base of a large hawthorn by the edge of the ditch behind us.

We moved on from here, driving west along the coast road all the way to Holme. It was hot already, but there was a nice breeze coming in off the sea as we walked out through the dunes. A big dragonfly flew past – an emperor, but with a dark abdomen with a bright blue segment at the base. A Lesser Emperor! It disappeared straight off east through the dunes, presumably fresh in. There were hirundines on the move too today, little groups of Swallows and Sand Martins heading along the coast.

As we walked out towards the beach, we could hear Sandwich Terns calling, from the shore we could see a steady stream flying past. They were heading back to the breeding colony at Scolt, most carrying fish for their young which they had presumably caught in the Wash. Some of them came past us very close, so we could clearly see the yellow tip to their black bills (despite them being full of fish!). A couple of orange-red billed Common Terns came past too.

Sandwich Tern

Sandwich Tern – flying back to the breeding colony with fish

There were a couple of Little Terns diving just off the beach at the point away to our west, so we walked along to try to get a closer view. There were two at first, then four. They drifted off west, and when they came back again there were at least ten. We had great views of them fishing just offshore. As well as the small size, we could see their black-tipped yellow bills and white foreheads.

Little Tern

Little Tern – there were at least ten fishing offshore

There was a single Bar-tailed Godwit on the point and several Ringed Plovers higher up on the beach. A flock of waders flew in and landed on the point. We got them in the scope and could see they were mostly Sanderling, at least 150 of them, with the majority still largely in dark breeding plumage. Very different from the silvery grey and white ones we see in the winter. There were around ten Dunlin in with them, the black bellies of their breeding plumage immediately identifying them.

Sanderling

Sanderling – at least 150 flew in to roost on the point

Looking away to the west, towards the mouth of the Wash, we watched as a huge flock of birds flew up. They were largely Knot, probably at least 2,500 of them. It was amazing to watch as they whirled round out over the sea, presumably having been spooked from where they were roosting over high tide. Some flew over our way and past over the sea, and we could see they were also mostly still in their rusty breeding plumage.

Knot

Knot – part of the flock which whirled out over the sea

It was very pleasant out on the beach today, particularly with so much to see, and our junior correspondent even went for a paddle. Eventually, it was time to walk back and get some lunch. We drove round to the village to the White Horse for a cold drink and a sandwich. Then it was on to Titchwell for the rest of the afternoon.

Making out way out onto the reserve, we stopped first at the reedbed pool where a Great White Egret was lurking in the reeds on one side. Through the scope, we could see its long snake-like neck and dagger-shaped yellow bill. There were several ducks on here, Common Pochard and Tufted Duck being new for the trip list, and two Great Crested Grebes, one adult and a juvenile.

Great White Egret

Great White Egret – hiding in the reeds on the reedbed pool on our way out

We particularly wanted to see the Semipalmated Sandpiper which had been here for a few days now, so we decided to head straight out towards the Tidal Pools which was where it had been seen todat.

On the way, we spotted at least six Spoonbills on the island at the back of the Freshmarsh. A smart Black-tailed Godwit was feeding at the front on the mud, and as we walked along the bank more flew up and headed out west, flashing their distinctive black and white wings. Several Ruff were also feeding on the mud below the bank, bewildering in their variation with no two looking the same and all looking patchy, at different stages of moult.

Ruff

Ruff – a moulting male, no two look the same at this time of year

We stopped briefly to look at an adult Mediterranean Gull roosting in with the Black-headed Gulls on one the islands, one of the other birds we had hoped to catch up with here today. We could see its brighter, heavier red bill, blacker hood, and white wing tips, compared to the neighbouring Black-headed Gulls.

Pressing on to the Tidal Pools, when we got there the Semipalmated Sandpiper had just been chased off by Turnstones and walked into the vegetation out of view. We had a look at the Turnstones, still mostly in their bright breeding plumage. There was also a small group of Dunlin, feeding on the edge of the island, plus Redshanks and Oystercatchers roosting.

The Semipalmated Sandpiper did walk out for a couple of seconds but went back in before we could all get a look at it. At least it was still there. We didn’t have too long this afternoon though, so we decided to walk back to Parrinder Hide and come back again later. A friend who was still waiting promised to let us know if it reappeared.

The Great White Egret was now on the Freshmarsh, preening out on one of the islands amongst all the gulls, looking oddly out of place. A single orange Knot in breeding plumage was feeding nearby, so we could get this one in the scope and have a better look at it than the ones which had flown past earlier.

From the hide, we could really appreciate just how many Avocets there are on the Freshmarsh now, with over 600 counted in the last day or so. They gather here to moult at this time of the year, so some of these birds may have come from very different places. They were mostly sleeping on the islands. We also had a nice close view of a Black-tailed Godwit still in breeding plumage in front of the hide, where we could clearly see the rusty colour of the head extending down to the breast and then barred with black on a white belly.

Avocets

Avocets – numbers soar, as birds come here to moult

Several juvenile Pied Wagtails were flitting around in front of the hide and out on the short grassy islands. A juvenile Yellow Wagtail was in with them, browner above and creamy yellow below. Some of the Spoonbills were awake now, and we watched a couple of juveniles practicing feeding, sweeping their bills from side to side in the shallow water. We could see there were more Mediterranean Gulls here, in with Black-headed Gulls. A good opportunity to practice newly-learnt Mediterranean Gull identification and pick them out!

The phone buzzed, as a message arrived to say that the Semipalmated Sandpiper had come out, so we walked quickly back to the Tidal Pools. By the time we got there, it had of course disappeared back into the vegetation again but after scanning for a minute or so, we found it standing in a patch of short samphire. It was rather tucked in at first, but then put its head up, looking round. Then suddenly all the waders took off and headed straight out towards the beach. The Semipalmated Sandpiper appeared to go down with them.

We walked up onto the dunes and scanned the beach from the top. The tide was just going out and the mussel beds were only starting to be exposed in a few places. Thankfully it meant there weren’t too may places to hide and we quickly relocated the Semipalmated Sandpiper with a Dunlin feeding down on the shore. It was distant from here, so we walked down for a closer view, and had a really good view of it from the beach.

Semipalmated Sandpiper

Semipalmated Sandpiper – finally showed well, out on the beach

Semipalmated Sandpiper is a rare visitor here from North America, closely related to our Little Stint. It is more often seen on the west coast, and particularly unusual here in Norfolk. It gets its name from the small amount of webbing between the base of its toes, which is not shown by our stints.

It was a nice way to end our two days. After seeing a good variety of our breeding bids, as well as a selection of returning passage waders, we got to round it off with a proper rarity. Unfortunately we had to get back as there was a train to catch. It had been a very enjoyable couple of summer days out.

6th July 2019 – Summer Birds & Wildlife, Day 2

Day 2 of a long weekend of Summer Tours today. It was originally meant to be sunny and warm today, but the forecast changed a couple of days ago to rain in the middle of the day and cooler. The rain came early – it was already spitting with drizzle when we met up and it continued on and off through the morning. Thankfully, it was only light and intermittent and it didn’t really stop us getting out, and it dried up in the afternoon.

Having been east along the coast yesterday, we drove west today. A Red Kite drifted over the road as we made our way to Holme. As we got out of the minibus, a Sedge Warbler was singing, but it was keeping tucked down out of view this morning. We could see a couple of dark juvenile Marsh Harriers flying round over the bushes out in the middle of the grazing marsh. When the male flew past, they thought they were going to get fed, but were disappointed when it didn’t stop. Up on the seawall, we could see one of the juveniles standing in a recently cut silage field, presumably trying to find something for itself.

It was already spitting with rain, but we thought we would be OK for an hour or so, based on the forecast. Enough time to get out to the beach and back. It was a very high tide this morning and lots of Redshanks were roosting out on the islands of vegetation on the saltmarsh. Five Little Egrets were roosting too. The Meadow Pipits and Skylarks had been forced off the saltmarsh and up into the dunes by the water, and we flushed several as we walked out.

Looking out over the dunes, we could see a Little Tern distantly over the beach. A Bar-tailed Godwit was feeding on the edge of the water. A Fulmar flew past offshore. When we got out to the beach, we found there was very little sand left exposed. A few Oystercatchers and gulls were roosting on the bit of beach left exposed. We could see a few Sandwich Terns flying past over the sea.

As we walked a little further down along the edge of the dunes, a Ringed Plover ran ahead of us. We had seen one on the nest here recently, but the area where it had been looked to be under water now. A Sanderling appeared on the sand on the edge of the dunes too, still in its dark breeding plumage.

Sanderling

Sanderling – still in dark breeding plumage

One of the Little Terns flew over calling. It started to drizzle more heavily now, so we decided to walk back to get our waterproofs from the minibus. From the dunes, we could see the pair of Little Terns mobbing an Oystercatcher back on the beach. Hopefully they had not been impacted by the high tides.

Little Tern

Little Tern – flew over calling

It had stopped drizzling again when we got back on the coastal path. Lots of Linnets and Meadow Pipits were in feeding in the dunes. Back at the minibus, we layered up just in case. A Cuckoo flew across the grazing marshes on the other side of the track and when we looked across we could see a second Cuckoo perched on the top of some brambles. We had a look at it in the scope. It will not be long now before the adults leave and head off back south, their breeding season over and the surrogate parents left to raise the young.

We wanted to have a quick look in the old paddocks, so we walked back round and up onto the coastal path. But when we got there it started drizzling more heavily again, so we decided to change plans and head round to Titchwell instead, where we could use the hides. When we got to Titchwell, we had a quick look at the latest rainfall radar and realised the rain band looked to be moving over quickly, so we stopped for coffee at the Visitor Centre. Afterwards the rain had eased off again, so we headed out onto the reserve.

When we got out to the reedbed, a Reed Bunting was singing from the top of a small sallow. A few Sedge Warblers and Reed Warblers were flitting round the small pools below the path. A small flock of waders flying in over the saltmarsh turned out to be a Whimbrel with ten Redshank. The latter dropped down on the saltmarsh, but we watched the Whimbrel disappear out over the Freshmarsh.

There were lots of ducks on the reedbed pool, mainly Mallard, Gadwall and Common Pochard with a single Tufted Duck. The drakes are now all in their drab eclipse plumage. A single Red-crested Pochard sailed out from the reeds. It looked rather like a female, apart from its bright coral-red bill – it was a drake in eclipse too. A couple of Mediterranean Gulls flew off over the reeds, flashing their white wing tips.

We continued on to Island Hide. There were several Black-tailed Godwits feeding on the mud in front of the hide. One of them was bearing a collection of colour rings including one with the letter ‘E’ and a flag with the number ’27’. This bird is a Continental Black-tailed Godwit, from the very small UK breeding population on the Nene Washes.

Continental Black-tailed Godwit

Continental Black-tailed Godwit – a bird from the small UK breeding population

In order to try to help the struggling UK breeding population of Continental Black-tailed Godwits, a number of eggs are now being hatched and raised in captivity each year, before being released once they are fully grown. ‘E27’ is one of those, raised in 2018. After spending the winter in Spain, it has since toured East Anglia.

Most of the birds here are Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits, which are faring much better. There were lots of them out on the Freshmarsh today, and there seemed to be birds moving too. A large flock had flown off as we walked up towards Island Hide, disappearing off west. We saw more flying off or over during the morning, and others dropping in.

A small group of Knot was out with the Black-tailed Godwits when we first arrived and we had a look at them through scope. But they had disappeared when we looked back, possibly out to the beach or perhaps they were on the move today too. We counted 44 Dunlin on the Freshmarsh, but there had apparently been 83 earlier – again waders were obviously dropping in and moving on.

Ruff

Ruff – scrawny-necked, having already moulted its ruff

There were about a dozen Ruff here today, all of them different colours. They are all males which have finished breeding, and already moulted their ornate ruffs. Some were looking very scruffy, with very scrawny necks. An adult Avocet and a well-grown juvenile were feeding in front of the hide, but there were lots more resting on the islands out in the middle. The Avocets are gathering here to moult now, with birds travelling here from elsewhere, and over 400 were counted here today. A single Spotted Redshank was visible over by the fenced-off Avocet Island but was rather distant from here.

The juvenile Bearded Tits like to feed along the edge of the reeds in front of Island Hide and we looked across to see three working their way round, hopping out onto the edge of the mud. We had a great look at them, tawny brown with black backs and black masks.

Bearded Tits

Bearded Tit – three juveniles, on the mud on the edge of the reeds

Spoonbills were reported on the Freshmarsh this morning, but they were apparently over in the back corner and not in view from here. One of the volunteers radioed through to a colleague over by Parrinder to check they were still present, and the reply came through that they were just taking off. We looked over to see six of them flying low towards us, they passed right in front of the hide, before disappearing off west over the bank, presumably heading to to feed.

Spoonbills

Spoonbills – five of the six which flew off from the Freshmarsh

There are still lots of gulls out here, and plenty of Mediterranean Gulls loafing around on the islands in with all the Black-headed Gulls. A couple of Common Terns were out on one of the islands too.

Four Barnacle Geese flew in over the back from the direction of Brancaster and landed on the island in front of Parrinder Hide. When we walked round, we had a better look from there. They are presumably feral birds from the now established UK breeding population, which tend to wander.

Barnacle Geese

Barnacle Geese – two of the four which dropped in on the Freshmarsh

We had a closer look at the gulls from Parrinder Hide. There were lots of juvenile Mediterranean Gulls, much greyer and scalier than the rather dark brown juvenile Black-headed Gulls. Several of the juvenile Mediterrnaean Gulls were begging from the adults.

There was a much better view of the Spotted Redshank by the Avocet Island fence from here too. It was still mostly in sooty black breeding plumage but starting to moult now with patches of paler grey emerging. At least four more Spotted Redshanks were right over the far side, on the edge of the reeds. A couple of those were already noticeably whiter below than the others.

Spotted Redshank

Spotted Redshank – starting to moult out of its black breeding plumage

There were more ducks loafing on the islands over this side of the Freshmarsh, the drake all in drab eclipse plumage. Teal and Shoveler were both additions to the day’s list. Hundreds of Swifts had gathered over the reeds, and we could see a few House Martins and Sand Martins in with them. They were hawking low, trying to find insects in the cool and rain. There had been a steady passage of Swifts moving west along the coast today.

It was lunchtime now, so we set off to walk back. We had a quick look over the wall at Volunteer Marsh, but there wasn’t much on there – a single Curlew, an Oystercatcher, and a Lapwing. We hadn’t got back to the trees before it started to spit with rain again. As we didn’t fancy sitting out in the rain, we decided to divert round via Meadow Trail before lunch. A Song Thrush was singing on Fen Trail, perched right on the top of a dead tree. We stopped to watch a pair of Blackcaps feeding their young in the bushes behind Fen Hide.

Blackcap

Blackcap – a pair were feeding their young in the bushes behind Fen Hide

The drizzle had stopped by the time we got round to Patsy’s and there were lots more warblers in the bushes around the screen, coming out to feed after the rain. We saw several Common Whitethroats and a couple of Chiffchaffs, as well the usual Reed Warblers. A couple of Bearded Tits zipped back and forth across the reeds.

There were lots of ducks on Patsy’s, mainly Mallard and Gadwall, the drakes all in eclipse. A female Common Pochard with several ducklings was diving out in the middle. Two more Red-crested Pochard were again drakes in eclipse, given away by their bright red bills.

When we finally got back to the Visitor Centre, it was time for a rather late lunch. We were very kindly allowed to eat inside as it was not busy today and the clouds still looked rather threatening. Afterwards, we made our way back east along the coast and stopped again at Burnham Overy Staithe.

As we walked out along the seawall, we saw a distant Spoonbill fly across over the harbour towards the dunes. A male Kestrel landed in the top of the hawthorn bushes on the near edge of the grazing marshes and a couple of Greylag heads popped up from time to time out of the long grass beyond. A Little Grebe was diving in the channel on the edge of the reeds and we stopped to watch a family of Sedge Warblers down in the wet grass below the bank.

There were a few waders out in the harbour. A flock of Redshanks around the small pools on the sandbanks and more with a flock of roosting Black-tailed Godwits on the mud on the corner. There were several Oystercatchers too, but it was very disturbed today with several boats in the channel and people walking out over the middle of the saltmarsh and round the edge of the harbour.

We stopped on the corner by the reedbed pool. There were lots of Coot and a few ducks on the water and we could hear Bearded Tits calling from the reeds. Then a Black Tern appeared over the pool. It circled round over the reeds, giving us a good look at it. It was a very smart adult, still in sooty black breeding plumage. Then as quickly as it had appeared it flew up and over the bank and disappeared out over the harbour. There had apparently been a Black Tern here a couple of days ago, so it was possibly lingering here.

Black Tern

Black Tern – a smart adult, appeared over the reedbed pool briefly

There were some cattle grazing on the marshes further up along the bank, so we walked over. There had been some Cattle Egrets with them earlier this week, but there didn’t seem to be anything there at first today. We stood and looked out over the grazing marshes and we were just about to head back, when the Cattle Egrets suddenly appeared. They were not feeding around the cows, but on a small pool hidden in the long grass in between them. We couldn’t see the Cattle Egrets behind the tall vegetation until they happened to walk out into the open, just in time.

We had a good view of the Cattle Egrets through the scope. They were looking particularly smart, in breeding plumage with a pale orange wash on the top of the head, the back and breast. Then they flew back to join the cows further back and we lost them from view again in the long grass.

Cattle Egrets

Cattle Egrets – feeding on a small pool in between the cows

A Spoonbill flew in over the harbour and out across the grazing marshes, heading for the breeding colony. As we walked back, we were almost at the car park and had stopped to look out over the marshes, when another Spoonbill dropped in behind us into the harbour channel. It would have been a great view, but there were more people out with dogs paddling in the harbour, and they flushed it as we turned round to look at it.

We were heading out again this evening, looking for Nightjars, so it was time to head back now, so we could all have a break and get something to eat.

Nightjar Evening

When we met again in the early evening, the weather was much improved, and the sun was even shining. We headed over first to look for Little Owls at a nearby complex of barns. We were in luck tonight. As we pulled up and started to scan the roofs, we spotted two fluffy juvenile Little Owls perched on the top enjoying the evening sun.

Little Owls

Little Owls – two juveniles enjoying the evening sun on the roof

One of the adult Little Owls appeared on the roof opposite, and one of the juveniles flew over to see if it was going to be fed. We stopped and watched them for a while and there was lots of flying backwards and forwards between the roofs. A second adult appeared on another roof, which we assumed was the other parent, but the first adult flew over straight at it as if it was trying to chase it off. The second Little Owl flew a short distance, but it landed on the same place we had first seen the two juveniles and was ignored thereafter, so it was hard to be sure what its relationship was to the others.

Eventually we had to tear ourselves away – we could have stayed watching the Little Owls all evening but we wanted to head down to the coast to look for Barn Owls. We drove round some meadows where they like to hunt, but there was no sign initially of any out tonight. We stopped, and walked up onto a bank from where we could scan the grazing marshes.

When we looked back, we found a Barn Owl out hunting the field behind us, where we had just been looking. It flew round and landed on some bales, but by the time we got the scopes out, it was off again. It landed a second time, on a fence below the bank by the reeds, and this time we had a good view, perched looking at us. It dropped down to the ground and flew back up to the fence. Then it was away over the reeds.

We turned to see a second Barn Owl had flown along the bank right behind us and was disappeared off out over the marshes. It was a striking almost all-white male, a regular bird here. It disappeared away out of view before we could get a good look at it, but thankfully quickly caught something and came back with a vole in its talons.

It flew straight towards us initially, then veered off and disappeared into the trees, presumably heading back to its nest to feed its young. Only a short while later, it was out hunting again. It flew round over the meadows, where we had seen the first Barn Owl, then came past us across reeds and disappeared out over marshes.

Barn Owl

Barn Owl – the ghostly white male caught a vole

It was time now to head up to the heath for the evening’s main event. It was quiet as we walked out to the middle, but not long before we heard our first Nightjar calling. We looked over to see it flying round the treetops in the distance. It started churring so we walked over to look for it.

The Woodcock were still roding too. We heard a squeaky call, and looked up to see one flying over, with flicking wingbeats, it distinctive display flight. It or another came right over us a couple of times this evening.

The Nightjar was churring in a dense oak, and impossible to see in the evening gloom. We stood nearby and listened and after a while it dropped out and came towards us over the heath. Then a female appeared, and came in to investigate, hovering right in front of us. We had a great view as it flew round just above our heads.

Nightjar

Nightjar – flew round above our heads

When the female Nightjar flew back towards the trees, a second male came in, and the two of them flew round together calling, the flashing the white in his wings and tail. The first male was still churring out in the middle of the heath, while an intruder was on its territory. These two birds often seem to have dispute, and after a while the first Nightjar flew back off towards its territory.

We stood for a while and listened to the Nightjars churring. Occasionally one would fly in and circle round above us again. A Tawny Owl hooted from deep in the woods behind. The light was fading now, so we set off to walk back. We heard another couple of churring male Nightjars on our way back to the minibus. Then it was time for bed – we had another busy day tomorrow.

19th June 2019 – Exploring the NE Coast

A Private Tour today with a difference – having recently moved to Norfolk, the request from our guests was to visit some different sites slightly off the beaten track along the NE coast. We were not going to worry particularly about when we would be seeing in the way of birds today. It was a largely bright but cloudy day, but it stayed dry and we didn’t see any signs of the forecast showers until after we had finished up.

As we met in Wells, we started with a visit to the pools east of town. The Spoonbills were doing what Spoonbills like to do best – sleeping! They were right at the back of the water, by the far bank, but we could count at least 14 here this morning, a mixture of off-white adults and brighter white juveniles.

Spoonbills 1

Spoonbills – sleeping over by the far bank

We walked down the track, where a Sedge Warbler was singing from the bushes. A family of Reed Buntings was in the long grass beyond the ditch, one of the juveniles flying to the fence in front of us calling.

The Egyptian Geese were still in the grass by the pool on the other side of the track and at least one pair of Shelducks had a large brood of growing shelducklings. There was a good number of (Eurasian) Teal here today, with birds already returning now from their breeding grounds further north. Otherwise, there were a few Gadwall, Mallard and Shoveler, the drakes now moulting into their drabber eclipse plumage.

There were several juvenile Avocets of various ages around the pools. They appear to be doing well, despite the limited attention paid to them by the adults. A couple of young Redshank were out in the middle too and there were still a few Lapwings visible in the long grass round the edge. We heard what sounded like a Spotted Redshank call towards the back at one point, but it was possibly flying over as we couldn’t see any sign of it.

The Grey Herons which have been doing their best to reduce the number of young birds on here were still around, being chased back and forth by the Avocets. One of the Grey Herons landed in the corner of the pools by the track, and immediately attracted the attention of one of an adult Lapwing which mobbed it relentlessly until it flew off again.

Grey Heron

Grey Heron – mobbed by one of the Lapwings

We continued on past the first pools, but as the seawall is closed for works at the moment, we turned left and walked through the grass towards the westernmost pool. There were more warblers in the reeds and bushes here. A couple of Reed Warblers flicking around in the hawthorns and a family of Sedge Warblers down in the vegetation beyond the sedges. We watched a recently fledged juvenile, still with a short tail, begging and eventually being fed by one of the adults. There were a few Common Whitethroats and a Lesser Whitethroat singing.

Sedge Warbler

Sedge Warblers – feeding time for one of the recently fledged young

The pool at the end held a few more Avocets, Lapwings and a Redshank, but no sign of any Spotted Redshank here either. We made our way slowly back to the minibus, a Song Thrush was singing and flew up into the top of the hawthorns briefly.

Making our way east, we stopped again at Stiffkey Fen. A Yellowhammer was singing from the top of the pines by the layby and a Marsh Harrier quartered the field next door. As we crossed the road, another Marsh Harrier was down in the valley the other side. A bright pink Cinnabar Moth fluttered up from the vegetation by the path and a Chiffchaff flicked ahead of us along the hedge.

Into the copse, and a pair of Bullfinches flew out of the trees, the female landing briefly on a branch across the path. Out of the trees the other side of the road, and a few House Martins were flying in and out of the eaves of the house at the top of the hill, but there seen to be fewer here than usual, which appears to be a recurring theme everywhere this year. A family of Sedge Warblers were in the long grass below the willows along the path, and the juveniles scrambled away through the vegetation as the adults alarm called.

Looking over the brambles towards the Fen, we could see a small group of four Spoonbills asleep on the island. Three Greenshanks were roosting in the grass nearby and a Green Sandpiper was feeding along the far edge, a nice selection of waders already making their way back south and our first of the ‘autumn’ of each species.

Spoonbills 2

Spoonbills – there were four roosting on the Fen this morning

We had a better view over the Fen from up on the seawall. We got the Spoonbills and the various waders in the scope. But there was no much more visible from up here that we hadn’t seen on the walk out, a few Common Redshanks and a single Black-tailed Godwit which flew off soon after we arrived.

The tide was just going out in the harbour and we made our way on, past the end of the seawall and out to the corner of the coast path to have a scan. Two pairs of Shelduck were displaying down at the bottom of the grassy bank as we passed and looked like they might be still prospecting for nest sites.

A frenzy of Common Terns was gathered out over the middle of the harbour, presumably having found a shoal of fish. A Sandwich Tern was on one of the sandbars nearby, its partner returning periodically with a fish to present to it. There were not many waders out here yet, apart from the Oystercatchers which have spent the summer here. A single Curlew was out on the mud and two more flew over, more early returning birds. We could see a few seals pulled out on the shingle on Blakeney Point in the distance.

Greenshanks

Greenshanks – two of the three from the Fen, flying out to the harbour

As we walked back to the seawall, a male Marsh Harrier flew in across the reedbed out out towards the edge of the saltmarsh. The Greenshanks started calling and took off, flying past us and out towards the harbour, presumably looking to feed again on the falling tide. On the way back along the path to the road, a Cetti’s Warbler flicked up out of the bushes by the river and disappeared into the willows, the sight of a chestnut tail disappearing into the vegetation being a typical view of a Cetti’s Warbler!

A Green-winged Teal had been reported this morning from the hides at Cley, so we thought we would call in there next, on our way past. As we walked out along the boardwalk, we heard a Bearded Tit calling and turned to see a male flying straight towards us over the reeds. It dropped across the path just ahead of us and disappeared straight into the reeds the other side.

We stood on the boardwalk where it had gone in and could see the reed moving as it worked its way through. It came back towards us, passed by just a few feet away but tucked down mostly out of view, before flying up and out again back across the boardwalk. A little further on, another Bearded Tit was more obliging, perched in the reeds with a large caterpillar in its bill. It didn’t seem to know quite what to do with it!

Bearded Tit

Bearded Tit – wondering what to do with a caterpillar

We went in to Teal Hide first, as the drake Green-winged Teal had been reported from Pat’s Pool earlier. There were quite a few Eurasian Teal swimming round on the water or asleep on the islands. After a short while, the Green-winged Teal swam out with the other Teal. It was busy feeding, with its head mostly down in the water, but we could see the distinctive thick white vertical stripe on the foreflank. Several drake Eurasian Teal were swimming with it, giving us a good comparison of the two species, the Eurasian Teal showing instead a horizontal white stripe.

Green-winged Teal

Green-winged Teal – showing the distinctive vertical white foreflank stripe

Green-winged Teal is the North American cousin of our regular Eurasian Teal, and is a scarce but regular visitor across this side of the Atlantic. Given the number of Eurasian Teal returning here at the moment, it seems most likely that the Green-winged Teal had come here with them, rather than arriving fresh across ‘the Pond’.

There was a nice selection of waders on the scrapes here too, split between Pat’s and Simmond’s. There were at least 120 Knot, hard to count exactly as they were mobile between the hides and kept splitting into different groups. Most of them were in grey non-breeding plumage, though there were two or three rusty birds in with them. They are probably 1st summer birds which have not bred this year.

Knot

Knot – mostly in grey non-breeding plumage

There were lots of Black-tailed Godwits too and looking through them we found a single Bar-tailed Godwit in amongst them, sleeping on the back of one of the islands. The Black-tailed Godwits are mostly Icelandic birds (of the race islandica), but there was a colour-ringed bird of the Continental race, limosa, in with them, a moulting adult. At one point, we had the Continental Black-tailed Godwit, the Bar-tailed Godwit and one of the Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits all in the scope together, giving us a great 3-way comparison.

Continental Black-tailed Godwit

Continental Black-tailed Godwit – a colour-ringed bird from the Nene Washes

While the population of Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits has been increasing, the Continental Black-tailed Godwit has been struggling. There are only about 40 pairs which breed in the UK, in the Fens on the Nene and Ouse Washes, where they are very vulnerable to summer flooding. They are the subject of urgent conservation action, through ‘Project Godwit’ and the headstarting programme.

It was time for lunch, so we made our way back to the Visitor Centre and made use of the picnic tables outside. A Green Sandpiper circled over calling while we were sitting there, possibly a fresh returning migrant. After lunch, we continued on our way east.

Our next stop was at Iron Road, where we had a quick look at the pool. It has filled up with water again after the recent rains, although there were no waders on here today, but it is always a good place to check when birds are on the move. As we turned to walk back to the minibus, a Barn Owl was out hunting over the marshes. It was a wet night last night and it probably has young to feed somewhere.

Barn Owl

Barn Owl – out hunting in the middle of the afternoon

Our final destination for the afternoon was Kelling. A Greenfinch was singing from the top of the fir tree by the school as we set off along the lane, and there were a few Goldfinches and Chaffinches in the bushes, but otherwise the hedges were rather quiet here. When we got to the copse, we stopped to scan from the gate. There were lots of Brown Hares out on the hillside beyond, a couple of them sprawled out across the grass fast asleep. We had to get the scope on them to double check they were actually still alive!

The pool on the Water Meadow was very full of water, with no muddy edge suitable for waders now. The pair of Egyptian Geese still have two goslings which are getting very big now, not far off fully grown. A Common Whitethroat flew across to the brambles on one edge carrying food. Continuing on down towards the beach, there were a few Linnets and Meadow Pipits.

We took the permissive path up the hill towards the gun emplacements. Looking out to sea, a few Sandwich Terns flew past and a couple of Little Terns were fishing just offshore. Given the walk out had been rather quiet, we decided to continue on round on a circular walk back towards the village. A Marsh Harrier was hunting over the grassy field above the Water Meadow.

Meadow Brown

Meadow Brown – feeding on the brambles

We had just remarked how few butterflies we had seen out today, when we started to find them. First we found a couple of Meadow Browns in the grass and nectaring on the brambles by the path. Then we started to come across Painted Ladys. There has been a noticeable invasion from the continent in the last week or so and we have been seeing large numbers most days. There were a few basking on the path but when we stopped to admire all the poppies growing in the strip left fallow at the top of the field we realised it was full of Painted Ladys.

By the time we got back down to the village it was time to call it a day and make our way back. We had seen a few of the different sites along the coast today, and we had even managed to squeeze in a few good birds on the way!