Tag Archives: Bewick’s Swan

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

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

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

Whooper and Bewick's Swans 1

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

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

Whooper and Bewick's Swans 2

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

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

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

Common Cranes

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

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

Great Crested Grebe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cattle Egrets

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

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

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

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

Turnstone

Turnstone – turning stones over on the beach

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

11th Jan 2020 – Winter in Norfolk, Day 2

Day 2 of a three day Winter Tour in Norfolk, and we would be heading down to the Broads today. We were blessed with another dry day, but it was very windy at times.

As we got down into the Broads, we started to see more Rooks in the fields. They are much commoner here than in North Norfolk. We passed a couple of Marsh Harriers hunting too. As we came into Ludham village, we decided to have a quick look down on St Benet’s Levels, just in case the swans were down there today. We found several Mute Swans but nothing else.

We were just leaving when one of the locals, who was counting them for the International Swan Census, very helpfully stopped to tell us that the swans were on Ludham Airfield this morning, just where we were heading next. He directed us to the south-eastern corner.

We drove straight over and could see the swans feeding in a recently harvested sugar beet field. We found somewhere to park off the road and got out. It was a nice mixed herd, with both Whooper Swans and Bewick’s Swans together. It was good to see the two species side by side, the Whooper Swans noticeably bigger, with more extensive yellow on the bill extending down towards the tip in a wedge.

Bewicks and Whooper Swans

Whooper & Bewick’s Swans – a nice mixed herd on the old airfield

We counted 50 birds, of which 15 were Whoopers and the rest Bewick’s Swans. There were several Egyptian Geese in the field too, further back. It was open and exposed out on the old airfield, and the rather biting wind was cutting across, so after all having a good look at the swans, we moved on.

Our next stop was near Acle. As we drove up, we could already see several Common Cranes in the maize stubble. When we parked and got out, we could see a total of seven together in the nearest field, a group of four and a family of three still with their juvenile from last year. We got them in the scope and had a great view of them.

Cranes

Common Cranes – we counted 16 in the maize stubble today

There were at least three more Cranes further back, in the next field, beyond the reeds lining the ditch. Then another six flew up from further over. They only flew a short distance, before dropping back down out of view, but it was nice to see some in the air too. That meant at least sixteen Cranes in total.

There had been some geese down towards Great Yarmouth yesterday, on the grazing marshes along the Acle Straight. It was not far so we drove down to look, but there was no sign of any geese there today. Two temporary shooting butts, made of camo netting, had been erected in the middle of the field. Presumably someone had been shooting at the geese and they had moved on.

We called in at Halvergate on our way back. There was no sign of any geese down along the Branch Road, but we did find the lone Cattle Egret still with the cattle just before the village. We had a quick look at it, as it walked around between the cows.

Cattle Egret

Cattle Egret – on its own, with the cows just outside Halvergate

Our next stop was at Buckenham. The Taiga Bean Geese had not been reported for a few days, and we assumed they had gone already, but then there was a report of three again yesterday. Unfortunately, when we got there, we found lots of activity down along the railway line, lots of engineers in high viz coats doing works to the line. Unsurprisingly, there was no sign of any geese down along the edge of the grazing meadow closest to the railway line, which the Taigas generally favour.

There were lots of Pink-footed Geese out in the middle of the marshes, but they were keeping tucked down out of the wind, many sleeping. We could see more geese further up but we were looking into the sun from here, so we walked on up to the riverbank. There were plenty of Wigeon around the pools on the right of the track, but not the numbers there were in past years.

Wigeon

Wigeon – there were good numbers around the pools

It was very breezy out in the middle of the marshes, so we hurried on to the end. We managed to get out of the wind a little by the hide. There were lots of Lapwing out on the grass, and a few Ruff in with them. They were very jumpy in the wind, and kept flying up, whirling round, and dropping back down again. We couldn’t see any raptors over the grazing marsh itself, but we could see a Peregrine further back, hanging in the air around Cantley Beet Factory before landing on the ladder up one of the silos.

There were lots of Canada Geese out in the middle from here, feeding in and around the taller areas of rushes. A small number of White-fronted Geese was in with them. They are much smaller and were hard to see until they raised their heads. There were possibly more asleep we couldn’t quite see. A small group of Barnacle Geese were further back, mixed in with the Canadas.

We braved the wind and walked back, before driving round to Strumpshaw for lunch. There were a few Mallard and Gadwall on the pool in front of Reception Hide. While we ate, a succession of tits were coming and going at the feeders – Blue Tits and Great Tits, and a Coal Tit popped in a couple of times briefly. But there was no sign of any Marsh Tits today.

After lunch, we drove over to Ranworth. A female Ferruginous Duck had been there a few days ago and reported again earlier, so we thought we would take a look. As we walked out onto the staithe at Malthouse Broad, a single tame Pink-footed Goose was in with the Greylags on the green. It looked like it might have been injured in the past. The Ferruginous Duck was swimming around on Malthouse Broad when we got there, amazingly close, just off the Staithe, around the boats. A bit too close really! Ferruginous Ducks are very common in captivity and escapes are regular.

Ferruginous Duck

Ferruginous Duck – appears to be a returning bird from 2017

More interestingly, we noticed that this bird bore a striking similarity to one seen here in exactly the same place in January 2017. It had a rather chunky and dark head, with a noticeably paler area around the bill base, in some respects resembling a female Baer’s Pochard. Looking at photos later, the bill pattern was a perfect match for the 2017 bird too. Where has it been since then? The bird from 2017 was accepted as a wild Ferruginous Duck by the British Birds Rarities Committee, so presumably this one will be too!

Otherwise, a Great Crested Grebe asleep with Tufted Ducks out in the middle of the Broad was an addition to the trip list. We walked round to Ranworth Broad, and out along the boardwalk. We hoping to maybe catch up with some redpoll or tits. A Siskin flew over calling, but otherwise the trees were very quiet, despite being more sheltered in here. We wondered whether the birds might be in the gardens, where there might be more food.

We walked on down to the end and scanned the Broad from the platform by the Visitor Centre. There were lots of Wigeon out on the water, and a good number of Shoveler in with them too. The Marsh Harriers were starting to gather over the back of the Broad – it was time for us to be making tracks, so we could get back over to Stubb Mill in time for the roost there.

As we got back to the road, we could hear a Marsh Tit calling from the garden of the house opposite. We scanned the hedge, but could only see a couple of Blue Tits and a Coal Tit. We walked on a few metres and heard it again. From here, we could see down the drive into the garden where lots of birds were coming to some feeders. The Marsh Tit flew in and dropped to the ground under the bird table, grabbing a seed before flying to the bare tree by the garden wall. It made several repeat visits, so we could all get to see it.

We were later than originally planned getting to Hickling Broad tonight, although given the wind we didn’t want to stop too long there, and the light was already going as we walked out to Stubb Mill. A flock of Redwings was in the paddock as we walked out, and although most flew back into the trees, a couple stayed put down on the grass where we could get a look at them.

Redwing

Redwing – we passed a flock in the paddock as we walked out

A couple of Marsh Harriers flew in past us as we walked out, heading in for the roost. When we arrived at the Watchpoint, we discovered we had just missed a couple of Cranes flying off. Looking out towards the ruined mill (windpump!), we could see several more Marsh Harriers up over the reeds, flying in and out of the bushes. We couldn’t see how many were already in, but we had a maximum of 10 or so in the air at any one time.

While we were watching the Marsh Harriers, a male Hen Harrier appeared in with them. We could see a ghostly grey shape with black wing tips, slimmer and smaller than the Marsh Harriers. The Hen Harrier flew back and forth several times, in and out of the trees and in front of the old mill, giving everyone a chance to get onto it.

A Great White Egret flew across over the back of the grazing marshes, heading towards the reserve, presumably going in to roost. We heard Cranes bugling behind us, presumably heading in to roost too over the trees, but we couldn’t see them where we were standing. Then two Cranes flew up from the grazing marshes and circled round, before dropping down into the reeds beyond.

The light was going now. The wind was picking up and with the cloud having thickened it felt like it might rain later. With a long drive back, we decided to call it a night. Still time for more tomorrow!

8th Feb 2019 – Breezy in the Broads

Day 1 of a three day long weekend of tours today. It was forecast to be wet and windy today. It was certainly windy, but thankfully we saw next to no rain until we had finished for the day and were on our way back. We spent the day today down in the Norfolk Broads.

Our first stop was at Barton Broad. It wasn’t too windy as we walked down along the road to the boardwalk, although the debris from yesterday was scattered on the road, leaves and small branches. It was quite sheltered on the boardwalk and when we got to the platform at the end, the first thing we saw was a pair of Great Crested Grebes displaying just in front.

Great Crested Grebes

Great Crested Grebe – this pair was displaying in front of the platform

The Great Crested Grebes were facing each other, turning their heads alternately side to side. They didn’t get much beyond that though, swimming off separately before coming back and doing some more head turning.

Beyond the grebes, we could see quite a few ducks out on the Broad. In particular, there was a good number of Goldeneye on here again. Further back, a large raft of diving ducks were mostly Tufted Ducks, although a single drake Common Pochard was with them. We had really come to see the two female Scaup, and it didn’t take too long to find them, the thick white surround to their bills being particularly striking.

A Marsh Harrier flew down the far side of the Broad, above the trees, then cut across over the water in front of us and hung in the air over the near side. With our mission accomplished we set off back along the boardwalk. There were more tits in the alders here now, with both Great Tit and Coal Tit singing and a small flock of Long-tailed Tits once we were almost back to the road.

As we walked back towards the car park, a flock of small birds came out of the hedge and circled round over the field beyond. As they dropped down again into the stubble, against the background of the trees, we could see they were Yellowhammers. The wind was starting to pick up now and a few Redwings had been feeding in the shelter of the car park, under the cars, and flew off as we returned.

The plan was to head for Ludham next, to see if we could find some Bewick’s and Whooper Swans. As we were driving along the main road just past Horning, we spotted a large group of swans in a harvested sugar beet field. This was well beyond the normal range where we have seen the Ludham herd, so we assumed these would most likely be just Mute Swans until we pulled up and noticed they were not.

Whooper Swans

Whooper & Bewick’s Swans – a nice surprise in a beet field by the road

We managed to find somewhere to pull in off the road and had a closer look. There was a mixture of Bewick’s Swans and Whooper Swans, about thirty of each. It was nice to be able to see the two species side by side, in the same scope view. The Bewick’s Swans were noticeably smaller and shorter necked, with a smaller and more squared-off patch of yellow on the bill, compared to the long wedge of the Whooper Swans.

Bewick's Swans

Bewick’s Swans – smaller and with more restricted and squared-off yellow on the bill

Having enjoyed such great views of the swans by the road, the pressure was off at Ludham now. Still, we drove down to the river to see if we could find any Cranes. A large flock of Woodpigeons and Stock Doves flew up from around the barns as we got out of the van.

It was very windy up on the river bank, and it started to spit with rain. A large flock of Lapwings and Golden Plover flew up across the other side of the Levels, but we couldn’t see what had spooked them. Three large shapes were flying across in the distance, which we could see were Common Cranes, our first of the day. They crossed the river and looked for a second like they might turn in our direction, but instead flew off away from us.

There were a handful of Mute Swans feeding on the grass here, but we could see a very large herd of swans way off beyond St Benet’s Abbey. They were mostly hidden behind a line of reeds, but we got the scope on them and they appeared to be mostly Bewick’s Swans. Since we had enjoyed such good views of them earlier, we decided not to walk further along the bank. We turned and headed back to the shelter of the van.

We did drive round to St Benet’s Abbey, to see what we could find there. As we came down along the entrance road, several more Bewick’s Swans flew over, but went down out of view.

There were lots of Greylag Geese on the grass here, but when we pulled up to check a flock by the side of the track, we could see there were Russian White-fronted Geese with them. We found somewhere to pull over and got out for a closer look. There were actually at least 55 White-fronted Geese here, many asleep down in the grass, but some feeding so we could see their distinctive black belly bars. There was one Barnacle Goose here too – as ever, it is hard to tell whether individuals of this species are feral birds or wandering wild individuals.

White-fronted Geese

Russian White-fronted Geese – about 55 were on St Benet’s Levels

From St Benet’s, we had a quick drive round via the coast, to see if we could find any Cranes and any more flocks of geese. There was no sign of any Cranes today, but it was rather windy and exposed out here now. There were rather few geese visible too. We saw a couple of small flocks of Pink-footed Geese but they dropped out of view behind some tress. Six more Pink-footed Geese were in a winter wheat field by the road, but no sign of any large flocks today. The herd of swans here were all Mute Swans.

As we made our way inland, we finally managed to spot some Cranes on the ground. There were 12 of them together, standing in some winter wheat, but they were rather distant, several fields over. Still, we got them in the scope and had a better look at them.

Common Crane 1

Common Crane – we spotted a flock of 12 distantly across the fields

Three of the Cranes took off and flew back further away from us, before landing again in another field. Gradually, the others followed in small groups until only two were left. When they flew too, we watched them go and realised that the group had all landed closer to a small road some way off. We figured we might be able to drive round for a closer look.

Little did we realise how right we were. The Cranes had landed in another field right next to the minor road. Edging along slowly, and stopping regularly to allow them to get comfortable with our presence, we eventually found ourselves right alongside them. The birds were very relaxed as we watched them from the van, continuing to feed. We could see now there were ten adults and two browner juveniles. We could see the red on the crowns of some of the adults, even without a scope. Stunning views, a real treat and a privilege to see them like this.

Common Crane 2

Common Cranes – we drove round and found them feeding right next to the road

Common Crane 3

Common Cranes – they were mainly adults with two duller brown juveniles

Common Crane 4

Common Crane – what you would call ‘showing well’!

We watched the Cranes, spellbound, for a while. Then we decided to leave them in peace and drove slowly away.

It was time for lunch now, so we headed round to the RSPB reserve at Strumpshaw Fen. Huge thanks have to go to the warden, Ben, and his staff. Someone had called in sick and they didn’t have enough people to staff the reception, so they had just closed it up for the afternoon. But they very kindly switched on the hot water urn just for us, so we could get an extremely welcome hot drink.

There were a few ducks on the Reception Hide pool, Gadwall, Shoveler and Mallard, but there was no sign of the resident Black Swan today. It was probably hiding somewhere out of the wind, which had increased steadily through the morning. There were plenty of Coot too and when they all suddenly raced across the water and onto the cut reeds at the front, we thought something might have spooked them, but we couldn’t see what it was.

Possibly also due to the wind, there were fewer tits than normal coming down to the feeders today too. A steady stream of Great Tits came in and out, but no sign of any Marsh Tits today.

After lunch, we headed round to Buckenham. As we crossed the railway line, we could see some geese on the right of the path. Looking closer, we found there were seven Russian White-fronted Geese in with the Greylags. There were lots of Pink-footed Geese on the other side of the path, tucked up in the far corner by the railway. Several small groups flew round and landed much closer to the path where we could finally get a good look at them.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese – flew in and landed closer to the path

The Wigeon were rather nervous today, possibly due to the wind. There are normally several small groups right by the path, but they were all out in the middle. There were plenty of Lapwing out on the marshes too, and scanning through them carefully we found a couple of Ruff in with them. We could see several Chinese Water Deer out on the marshes as well.

Chinese Water Deer

Chinese Water Deer – there were several on the marshes at Buckenham

It was rather exposed out here in the wind, so we made our way up to the hide by the river bank. We could see lots of ducks on here, mainly Teal, but also a few Shoveler and a couple of Shelduck. Something spooked all the Wigeon from the grazing marshes the other side of the track and they flew in, calling noisily. A quick count suggested at least 1,000 were here.

A single Lesser Black-backed Gull was loafing on the water on the further pool. We couldn’t see any other waders out here today though, and despite scanning the margins of the pools very carefully we couldn’t find any Snipe.

Wigeon

Wigeon – over 1,000 flew in from the grass and landed on the pools

It was grey and windy but miraculously still dry this afternoon. We wanted to have a look at the watchpoint at Stubb Mill while the weather held, so we headed round there next. As we walked down the track from the car park, several Marsh Harriers were already circling over the reeds.

We noticed another bird come up from the reeds. It seemed to struggle in the wind at first, almost appearing to be hovering, before it turned and started to fly across over the reedbed. It was a Bittern! Unfortunately, it was hard to see in the gloom, low over the reeds, before it disappeared behind some bushes.

When we arrived at the watchpoint, the small huddle of hardy people already there pointed out three Cranes at the back of the marsh. We had a look at them through the scope – another family party, two adults and a juvenile.

A small flock of Fieldfares flew over and landed first out on the grass in front of the watchpoint, then in one of the small hawthorns. A group of Long-tailed Tits worked their way through the bushes in front of us too. A Red Deer appeared out on the grass, followed shortly after by a second. They spent most of the time sheltering behind a large patch of brambles, out of the wind.

More Marsh Harriers drifted in and we could see a few already in the bushes over by the old ruined mill. When they flew up and circled round in a group, we counted at least 25 in the air together. A Hen Harrier appeared with them, a ringtail. It kept low, flying in and out of the bushes, but it reappeared several times while we were there, so in the end everyone had a chance to get a look at it through the scope.

Having had some unbeatable views of the Cranes earlier, and with the rather cold and windy weather, we didn’t fancy staying until dark tonight to see more Cranes come in to roost. An advance party went to get the van, while the others waited a the Watchpoint to be picked up. A Tawny Owl hooted from the trees by the mill. Time to head for home.

11th Jan 2019 – Midwinter Birding, Day 1

Day 1 of a three day Winter Tour today, and we made our way down to the Norfolk Broads. It was a rather grey start and end to the day, with a little bit of brightness in between, but dry and mild with light winds. A nice day to be out.

As we drove along the top road out of Ludham, we could already see lots of swans out on the fields on the old airfield below. We drove round on the maze of minor roads to a convenient spot overlooking where they were feeding. They were split at first into two  groups, one feeding in the remains of a harvested sugar beet field and the other group loafing in a neighbouring field of winter wheat. Through the scope, we could see there was a mixture of smaller Bewick’s Swans and larger Whooper Swans.

bewick's and whooper swans

Bewick’s and Whooper Swans – good to see the two species side by side

The feeding swans started to fly across in small groups to join the bigger herd in the winter wheat, where many were asleep in a slight dip in the ground. We could count around 100 swans in total, but it was hard to work out how many of each species there were today.

It was good to see the two species side by side, to be able to compare them. As well as being larger, the Whooper Swans have a distinctive wedge of yellow on their bills extending further towards the tip, whereas the yellow on the Bewick’s Swans is blunt, squared off, and not as extensive.

A pair of Stock Doves were feeding in the ploughed field in front of us and one of them did a nice fly round, showing off the black trailing edge to the wing, lacking the white band of a Woodpigeon. A couple of Common Buzzards were flying round, and we watched one fly off with a Brown Rat, the latters tail trailing from its talons. We would be looking for geese today too, and several groups of Pink-footed Geese flew over calling while we were watching the swans, to start things off.

Gradually, the swans started to walk back into the sugar beet field to feed, and we decided to move on. As we drove further into the Broads, we noticed three tall grey shapes in a field so we stopped for a look, flushing several Fieldfares from the hedge as we pulled up. As we suspected, the tall birds in the field were Common Cranes, a family party, two adults with their fully grown juvenile from last year, the young one browner and lacking the contrasting black-and-white head pattern of the adults.

common cranes 1

Common Crane – a family party, the first of 17 today

As we watched the family of Cranes feeding, like the swans we had seen earlier in a recently harvested sugar beet field, another pair of Cranes flew over. They disappeared down behind some trees further back and we thought they had most likely landed out of view, but when we looked further round we noticed two Cranes in another field, on the edge of a maize strip. Were they the same ones we had just seen flying over? But every time we looked back over, more Cranes appeared from out of the maize until there were seven together on that side, making ten visible in total including the first family of three. There could easily have still been more in the maize!

We had turned our attention back to the original family when we heard Cranes ‘bugling’. We looked across to see one of the pairs on the edge of the maize strip displaying. They were walking together, side by side, with the heads up and their bustles raised as they called. It was clearly a bit of a dispute, as they took off and flew towards one of the other Cranes standing in the field. The larger of the pair, the male, swooped down at the standing bird and chased it a short distance across the field. The pair then strutted together for a minute or so before flying off.

There was a cover strip, planted with a wild bird seed mix, along the edge of the road where we had pulled over. Birds were constantly flying back and forth across the road between the strip and the hedge of a garden the other side. They were mostly Greenfinches, always good to see in numbers given how the species had declined in recent years, along with quite a few House Sparrows, a smaller number of Chaffinches and Goldfinches, and one or two Reed Buntings.

Further over, a tight flock of Linnets kept flying up out of the cover strip, flying round and dropping back in again, rather than flying over to the garden. We watched their distinctive bouncing flight, looking almost like they were held up with elastic!

Taiga Bean Goose is one of the key target birds to see down in the Broads at this time of year. Since the start of 2018, it has been treated as a separate species from Tundra Bean Goose in the UK (the two were previously lumped together as ‘Bean Goose’). The Yare Valley is one of only two traditional wintering sites in the UK for this now species. The wintering population here is declining and a maximum of just over 20 have been seen in the last few years, so they can be tricky to find.

The Taiga Bean Geese had been reported from Cantley Marshes this morning, so we made our way over there nest. As we pulled up next to yet another recently harvested sugar beet field (we are in the shadow of the Cantley sugar beet processing factory here, after all!), a large flock of Rooks were looking for invertebrates among the chopped up leaves and debris.

rook

Rook – a large flock were feeding in the recently harvested sugar beet field

We made our way down over the railway crossing and stopped to scan the grazing marshes. At first sight, it looked quite devoid of life. A Peregrine was perched on a distant gatepost out in the middle and a Marsh Harrier was visible in the reeds beyond. A couple of Chinese Water Deer were hiding in the grass. The marshes here are often full of geese of various species, but we couldn’t see any at first today. We eventually found just one, lone Pink-footed Goose.

If the Taiga Bean Geese are not here, they can often be on the neighbouring marshes at Buckenham. We could see some geese flying up periodically over in that direction, so we decided to head over there next. As we walked back up the hill, a small skein of Pink-footed Geese flew in over the village and disappeared over that way.

The marshes at Cantley have lots of long grass and wet ditches where it easy to hide a small group of geese, so we walked out along the footpath across the field at the top of the hill to have one more scan from higher ground. There were the Taiga Bean Geese! They were tucked down behind a couple of gates, which explained why we couldn’t see them from lower down.

Slowly, some of the Taiga Bean Geese came out from behind the gate. We could see their long bills, though variable in pattern, mostly had quite an extensive amount of orange showing.

taiga bean goose

Taiga Bean Geese – hard to find at first, in the long grass hiding behind the gates

The Rooks had moved on, but there were now at least twenty Pied Wagtails feeding in the beet field, and a single Meadow Pipit was with them. Looking down at the near edge of the marshes, we could see two Marsh Harrier, a female chasing a darker juvenile. There was still an hour or so before lunch so, despite the fact we had seen the Taiga Bean Geese already, we decided to call in at Buckenham to see what else we could see on the marshes there.

A large flock of Wigeon were feeding out on the marshes as we walked down the track towards the river. We could hear their distinctive whistles. Some of them were very close to the track, so we could get a great look at them, the drakes with their distinctive rusty heads and creamy yellow paint stripe up their foreheads. When something spooked them, they all flew up and dropped into the nearby ditch, where a pair of Teal and several Shoveler were already feeding.

wigeon 1

Wigeon – there were lots feeding on the grazing marshes by the track

There were a few more geese on the marshes at Buckenham today, mostly Canada Geese and Greylags, but with a small number of feral Barnacle Geese in with them. Another group of about thirty geese flew up from the back of marshes, and dropped straight back down into the grass. Through the grass we could see they were Russian White-fronted Geese, with a narrow white surround to the base of the bill from which they get their name, as well as distinctive black belly barring.

A liberal scattering of Lapwings was spread out across the shorter grass. In with them, we found eight Ruff, including one with a white head (white-headed males make up a small percentage of the population), though they were walking round quickly and hard to keep up with. We heard a Water Pipit call once briefly, but we couldn’t see where the sound came from and there was no sound of it around the pools in the grass. We did find a Little Egret and a Grey Heron out there though.

Continuing on along the track, we stopped to scan the larger pools at the far end. There were lots more Teal asleep on the edges, and more Shoveler along with two Shelduck. A single Lesser Black-backed Gull was standing in the far corner and when we got the scope on it we could see a couple of Common Snipe lurking on the muddy bank next to it.

It was lunchtime now, so we walked back to the car, stopping briefly to watch a Red Kite circling over the trees beyond. We drove round to Strumpshaw Fen for lunch. The Reception Hide pool held lots of ducks as usual, with Gadwall an addition to the day’s list, as well as more Shoveler and Mallard. The resident Black Swan was standing on the edge of the water with one of the Mute Swans.

shoveler

Shoveler – loafing with the ducks and swans at Reception Hide

While we ate, we kept an eye on the feeders nearby. A steady succession of Blue Tits and Great Tits kept darting in to grab sunflower seeds. We could hear a Marsh Tit calling in the trees, but it was some time before it eventually came in to the feeders. Then we got good views of it, as rather than just darting in and out as it sometimes does, it perched on a dead tree stump next to the feeders several times and waited its turn.

There were a few other birds in the trees around Reception Hide. A Lesser Redpoll appeared in the tops with a Goldfinch before flying off back towards the wood. A Bullfinch came out of the trees calling and disappeared off towards the car park. A Siskin flew over the pool calling.

As we were packing up, we heard a Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming. With a few birds singing too today, it almost felt like spring was on its way already! As we walked back to the car across the railway, another Great Spotted Woodpecker responded, drumming from across the road.

A small group of Tundra Bean Geese had been reported for the last few days feeding in fields near Thrigby. So, as we made our way back north, we diverted round to look for them. We found them easily enough, in exactly the field they were in yesterday. They were on their own in some winter wheat, and mostly sat down, loafing. From the layby where we could pull over, they had typically chosen a spot just over the top of the ridge where they were mostly out of view.

At first, we could just see one of the Tundra Bean Geese which had stood up, but as the others began to move we could see more of them. Through the scope, we could see their bills, which were very different from the Taiga Bean Geese we had seen earlier – shorter and deeper-based, with a more restricted band of orange just behind the dark tip.

tundra bean goose

Tundra Bean Goose – with more restricted orange on the bill

There were no other geese with them, though there was a small herd of Mute Swans feeding in a field of oil seed rape on the other side of road and four Egyptian Geese away in the distance. Several Common Snipe flew up from time to time out of the oil seed rape too, but instantly disappeared again as soon as they landed. A Chinese Water Deer was lying down out there too and a Common Buzzard perched up in a tree at the back.

We made our way over to Stubb Mill to end the day. The cloud had thickened again and the light was already starting to go when we arrived. We were helpfully directed straight away to a Merlin perched on a post at the back of the fields. It was remarkably hard to see, being very similar in colour to the top of the post. A Green Woodpecker flew across over the grass and a Stonechat flicked up briefly.

There is a flight pond out in the fields beyond the mill. As we arrived, the landowner was just going out on his quadbike to put feed out for the ducks. It wasn’t long after he left again, that a pair of Cranes flew up from where they had been lurking behind the reeds and landed over by the pond, presumably to help themselves to some of the food. We could just see them walking about through the scope. A flock of Shelduck flew in too.

The Marsh Harriers were already gathering in the reeds further over. As we scanned across, we could see several perched in the scattered bushes. From time to time, more would fly up and we counted at least twenty at in the air together at one point. There was a slow trickle of Marsh Harriers still arriving, flying in from various directions, but it felt like a lot were probably already down in the roost this evening.

It was time for the Cranes to head into roost now. First one flew across, over the trees at the back, followed by another which came through much lower over the reeds. Then another three Cranes flew in, much closer this time, silhouetted against the last of the light.

common cranes 2

Common Crane – three more, flying in to roost at dusk

As it started to get dark, a herd of Red Deer emerged from the reeds and walked out across the marshes. A Woodcock shot past just a few feet from us, right in front of the viewpoint, but was gone as quickly as it appeared. It was time to head home, and as we got back to the car we could hear the Pink-footed Geese calling, going in to roost.

7th March 2018 – Winter Coast & Forest #2

Day 2 of two days of Private Tours today, and it was down to the Brecks for the day. We were originally forecast showers and brighter intervals, but this morning they changed their minds – a more organised band of rain was now expected. So it turned out, but at least it cleared through quickly and we even had a bit of brighter weather in the afternoon. As ever, it didn’t stop us getting out and seeing some really good birds!

One of the targets for the day was to be Goshawk, but the weather forecast was far from ideal now. We swung round first thing via one of the sites where we might hope to see them, but it was very damp, grey and misty. We decided to try for some of our other targets in the general area, so we could come back if the weather improved.

As we drove away, we noticed lots of thrushes, Fieldfares and Redwings in some low winter wheat. On the other side of the road, several Chaffinches were dropping down to feed in a weedy field. When we stopped to look through them, we noticed there were thrushes out here too. A single Mistle Thrush flew out to join them.

At least it wasn’t raining when we pulled up at the head of one of the rides leading into the Forest. Three Yellowhammers were sitting in the top of a small oak tree as we walked along the track. They flew off as we approached and landed in the top of another very tall tree out in the middle of a clearing.

We walked along the path around the edge of the clearing and, as we did so, we noticed a Woodlark flutter up from out in the middle and land in the top of the same tall tree. It wasn’t singing – perhaps not a surprise given the weather – but we had a nice view through the scope. This was the species we had come here to see, so it was good to get one under our belt.

Woodlark 1

Woodlark – showed well on the edge of the clearing

A little further along the path and we heard another Woodlark calling, in the edge of the clearing much closer to us. We stopped and scanned the ground and it flew up and landed a short distance back along the path. When we looked across where it had landed, there were now three Woodlarks together here. We walked back slowly and had a great view of them as they walked around in the low grass.

Two of the Woodlarks seemed to be following each other closely, while the third fed quietly nearby. The two were bobbing up and down nervously, calling. It looked like they might be two males, having a bit of a territorial dispute, while the female was busy feeding – the third bird looked a little duller coloured.  Eventually, one of the two Woodlarks flew up in one direction, where a fourth bird called in response, and the pair flew off the other way.

Woodlark 2

Woodlarks – these two were following each other, bobbing and calling

Having had great views of the Woodlarks, we headed off to another ride through the Forest to look for Willow Tits, while we waited for the weather to brighten up. As we walked in through the trees, it was rather quiet initially but when we got to one of the feeding stations put out for them on the edge of the pines, there was a lot more activity. A steady stream of birds were coming and going.

As we stood and watched for a while, we saw a very good selection of tits – lots of Coal Tits, Blue Tits and Great Tits, and several Marsh Tits. A family of Long-tailed Tits passed through the trees overhead. A Nuthatch came in to grab some sunflower seeds too. The Willow Tits here don’t seem to visit the feeding tables very often, but they can often be heard calling and singing in the vicinity. Unfortunately, in the cold grey weather there was very little vocal activity from any of the birds today.

Then it started to rain. We decided to head back to the car and go off to try something else instead. With no sign of the weather improving, we headed over to look for one of our other targets for the day, Common Crane. As we drove west towards Lakenheath, the sky seemed to brighten and the rain started to ease again.

Given the weather, we decided to drive round the area and try to find the Cranes feeding in the fields first, rather than walk out across the road. As we checked out some of the favoured spots, a Kingfisher perched on the edge of a drainage ditch by the road was a welcome sight. A Great White Egret out in the middle of a field took off as we pulled up and flapped away lazily, dropping down out of view.

Scanning the rushy meadows carefully, we found a pair of Cranes out in one of the fields. The rain had stopped now and they were busy preening, presumably drying themselves out. For such tall birds, they are remarkably inconspicuous on the ground, but when they stretched up we could see their black and white heads and long necks.

Cranes

Common Crane – we found this pair drying out in a rushy meadow

With the weather improving and our main target here achieved, we headed round to the RSPB reserve at Lakenheath Fen for a quick look out at the Washland. There were lots of Reed Buntings on the feeders, but they flew off into the bushes as soon as we came outside. As we walked down the path towards the river, the sun came out and it was lovely and warm as we climbed up onto the bank.

The water levels here are not surprisingly high at the moment – lots of water for wildfowl. A quick look at a party of five swans over the back of the pool confirmed they were Whooper Swans – we could see their wedge-shaped bills with a long tongue of yellow stretching down to a point.

Whooper Swans

Whooper Swans – a party of five on the Washes

There were plenty of ducks on here too – Wigeon, Shoveler, Gadwall, Teal and Shelduck. This is always a good spot for Garganey in spring and with the very first birds already arriving in the country in recent days we had a careful scan just in case. There was no sign of one today, but surely it is just a matter of a week or so, if the weather continues to warm up. Lots of Tufted Ducks were diving on the river.

The only egret we could see at first was a Little Egret tucked down in the reeds on the far side of the river. There are normally Great White Egrets here too, and we eventually managed to find one in the distance away downstream.

A Water Pipit had flown off calling as we walked up onto the bank and after a while what was presumably the same bird flew back past us. Another one flew up from the thick vegetation below the bank as it called and landed a little further along. We had a quick look for it, but with the water levels high they were feeding in the thicker rushes today.

With the weather now warming up nicely, we decided to have another go for Goshawks while we had our lunch. Unfortunately, it proved to be just a transitory window of brightness and it clouded over again as we drove back into the Forest. At least it was dry now though.

As we ate our sandwiches, we scanned the trees. There were a few raptors up from time to time. The Common Buzzards were spiraling up in little groups, looking for thermals to gain height, although they never seemed to gain any great elevation. At one point, we had eight in the air circling together. A Red Kite appeared behind us in the distance, and a Sparrowhawk was displaying a long way off too. A Kestrel perched in the top of a fir tree.

Common Buzzards

Common Buzzards – circling up trying to find a thermal

After a while, we did manage to spot a Goshawk. It too was some way off, but it circled up and started displaying, flying across with deep, exaggerated wingbeats. It dropped down behind the trees, but we guessed it was still in the area as the Woodpigeons over that way scattered in alarm. A short while later, what was presumably the same Goshawk circled up and displayed for a couple of minutes more.

The forecast had indicated it might brighten up early in the afternoon, but there was no sign of that happening yet. There were a few other birds here to distract us. Lots of Chaffinches were feeding under the trees and when they flew out a Brambling appeared with them and landed in a small oak in front of us.  A Treecreeper appeared too, working its way up and down the trunks, and a flock of Fieldfares flew over, ‘tchack, tchacking’ loudly.

At least we had managed to see a Goshawk, despite the weather. We decided to head down to Lynford Arboretum for the rest of the afternoon. As we walked in along the path, we could hear a Siskin singing high in the larches. There were lots of tits covering the cage of fatballs looking in from the gate, and plenty of Chaffinches down in the leaf litter below.

Blue Tit

Blue Tit – Lynford is a great place to see – and photograph – tits up close

There was no food out down at the bridge when we arrived, but fortunately we had brought supplies with us today. Only a few seconds after putting out some sunflower seeds, the hordes began to descend. At first, the Blue Tits, Great Tits and Coal Tits appeared, quickly joined by a couple of Marsh Tits.

Marsh Tit

Marsh Tit – quickly came in to take advantage of the sunflower seeds

They were then joined by a couple of Nuthatches, which made repeated forays in from the trees, grabbing a beakful of seeds each time, presumably stashing them somewhere away in the wood. We stopped and spent a while photographing all the birds coming in to feed.

Nuthatch

Nuthatch – one of two which came in repeatedly to the seeds we put out

There had been a lot of disturbance out over the paddocks when we arrived, with military helicopters repeatedly circling out very low from the battle area. We had a walk down to see if we could find any Hawfinches feeding there, but there was no sign of them this afternoon. There were fewer other finches feeding under the trees than normal too, with just one Brambling today and a 2-3 each of Greenfinch and Chaffinch.

The flock of Redwings had been in the trees just beyond the bridge when we arrived, but had now flown back out into the paddocks, along with a couple of Mistle Thrushes. A Great Spotted Woodpecker was chipping away at a branch low down in the hornbeams.

While we were standing and looking at the trees in the paddocks, we heard some distant yelping, honking noises. It was hard to work out where they were coming from at first, but then we realised they were swans calling and a large flock of 58 came over the trees at the back. They flew straight towards us over the paddocks and over our heads, Bewick’s Swans heading off east.

Bewick's Swans

Bewick’s Swans – some of the 58 which flew over us this afternoon

Bewick’s Swans are on the move at the moment, leaving their wintering grounds at Welney and Slimbridge and heading back to the continent on their way back towards their breeding grounds in Russia. It was great to see and hear them as they passed over us. It was quite late in the day and they were flying rather low, so perhaps they were planning to stop off somewhere in east Norfolk for the night.

We still hadn’t seen any Hawfinches though, so we walked further up along the edge of the paddocks, scanning the trees. The sky had cleared and the sun was out now. Suddenly we noticed two birds fly in and land in the top of a fir tree at the back – two Hawfinches. They were silhouetted against the light, but we assumed they would sit in the tops for a while in the late afternoon sunshine. We walked round to where we might get a better view of them, but by the time we got there they had dropped down out of sight.

We waited a while, scanning the trees, and it wasn’t long before another Hawfinch appeared in the tops. From where we were standing, we had a much better look at this one, catching the sun. We could see its enormous bill, bright chestnut plumage, and white tip to the tail. We had a good look at it through the scope, a cracking male, but when we tried to reposition ourselves for a closer look it too had dropped down into the trees.

Hawfinch

Hawfinch – a smart male perched up in the late afternoon sun

We still wanted to have a quick look at the gravel pits, so we decided to make our way back. At the bridge, the sunflower seeds we had put out had already all gone! As we walked up towards the pits, a Green Woodpecker laughed and flew across behind us. We had received a message to say that there was a pair of Goosander on the pits this afternoon and when we arrived we immediately spotted one, a redhead, resting on one of the platforms.

Goosander

Goosander – this redhead was resting on one of the platforms

There was no sign of the male Goosander though at first, but after scanning from the hide for a few seconds, he appeared from behind the trees at the back, accompanied by another female. There was a single male Goldeneye on here too, and three further drakes on the other pit.

It was getting late now and we had to be back, so we made our way back to the car. As we got to the car park, a Firecrest was calling from somewhere high in the fir trees, although it proved difficult to see before it went quiet. That would have been a nice way to end, but it was starting to get dark as we drove back and the return journey added no less than 4 Barn Owls and a couple of Woodcock zipping past in the dusk. Then it was back home for tea (and medals?!).

10th Feb 2018 – Winter, Broads & Brecks #2

Day 2 of a three day long weekend of tours, and it was down to the Norfolk Broads today. It was a lovely sunny start to the day, although it clouded over late morning and then tried to rain on and off in the afternoon. Thankfully the rain was only light, just spitting with drizzle at times, so it didn’t stop us getting out.

Our first destination saw us driving along the coast road past Horsey. We had hoped we might find some Cranes along here, particularly on a lovely bright morning, but there was no sign of any today. We found a convenient layby to park and stretch our legs. There were lots of Pink-footed Geese out on the grazing meadows but they were very jumpy, constantly flying up and landing again. A light aircraft flew round over the fields, possibly the source of some of the nervousness.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese – flying round, very nervous today

There were also lots of Lapwings and a few Fieldfares out on the grass. We could see several Marsh Harriers circling over the reeds behind us. A couple of large herds of Mute Swans were out in the fields. With all the disturbance, there were not as many birds out here as there often are, so we moved quickly on.

Our next stop was round at Ludham. As we climbed up onto the river bank, we could see a small group of swans out on the grazing marshes. A closer look with the scope confirmed there were six Whooper Swans with a similar number of Mute Swans. We could see the prominent yellow wedge running down the bills to a sharp point on the Whooper Swans, and they were not much smaller than the accompanying Mutes.

Whooper Swans

Whooper Swans – 4 of the 6 out on the grazing marshes again today

Three Stock Doves were out in the field next to the cow barn and a couple of Pied Wagtails were picking around the muddy farm yard. Scanning the grass, we could see lots of Lapwing and Golden Plover and several Chinese Water Deer too. Looking along the river, a pair of Gadwall were swimming with a few Coot. But there were no Cranes here today either. It was a lovely morning and the footpath along the river bank was very busy with dog walkers, which meant there was presumably too much disturbance. Were we destined to miss out on the Cranes everywhere today?

We moved on again and headed south. Looking out of the window as we were driving along the road, we finally found our first Cranes of the day, standing in the field where we had seen a big group the other day. At first we could only see five together, on the edge of the maize strip. Then we looked round behind us, just in time to see another 14 Cranes circling in the sky. They disappeared off towards the river, dropping down behind some trees. We didn’t see where they had come from but someone was shooting pigeons a couple of fields over, so may have flushed them.

Common Cranes 1

Common Cranes – this flock of 14 flew round and headed off towards the river

Looking back at the original group, more Cranes started to emerge from the maize strip. Scanning the surrounding fields, we also found another pair nearby. The more we looked, the more we found and by the end we had 15 Cranes together in the field, and there could easily have still been some hiding in the crop. It was quite a sight!

Common Cranes 2

Common Cranes – several of the 15 which were still left down in the fields

There was even some more action. At one point, six of the Cranes flew up and circled round. There was lots of bugling, the calls echoing across the fields. Two flew off, but four of the Cranes dropped back down with the others again. Great stuff!

Common Cranes 3

Common Cranes – six of the group flew round bugling

Having finally found some Cranes – and enjoyed cracking views of a really good number to boot (it is not often we see large flocks such as this here, a significant proportion of the total Broadland population!), we headed on, down to the Yare valley. As we walked down to the gate and scanned the marshes at Cantley, it was rather disappointing. There were almost no geese here today – just a single Egyptian Goose which doesn’t really count! Otherwise, all we could see were Rooks, Lapwings and a few Mute Swans.

Darker clouds were gathering to the south, so we didn’t hang around here too long and made our way back to the car. As we were loading up, we looked across to the nearby sugar beet processing factory and noticed a small shape on the side of the tall steaming chimney. It was a Peregrine. Presumably it had found somewhere to keep warm?

Peregrine

Peregrine – finding a warm spot on the chimney of Cantley Beet Factory

At this point it started to spit with rain. We decided it would be a good moment for an early lunch, so we made our way round to Strumpshaw Fen. As we walked out to the Reception Hide, we stopped to look at all the tits coming down to the feeders A Marsh Tit made several visits as we watched, mostly dropping down to the ground where some seed had been sprinkled. A Jay came up from the path too as we arrived, and a Siskin flew over calling.

Marsh Tit

Marsh Tit – making regular visits down to the ground below the feeders

Looking out across the Reception Hide pool, there were lots of Gadwall and Coot on the water today. A little group of Shoveler didn’t linger and a couple of flocks of Teal flew over without landing. The Black Swan was in hiding today. A couple of Marsh Harriers circled over the reeds. As well as providing a very welcome hot drink, the Reception Hide also gave us great views of a very well camouflaged Common Snipe feeding in the cut reeds in front.

After lunch, the rain had stopped, so we headed back out towards the coast. A quick detour off the Acle Straight towards Halvergate produced four Bewick’s Swans out on the grazing marshes. This is a traditional stop off point for swans heading back towards the continent in late winter, so can often be a good place to look late in the season, when the wintering birds have departed. We could see immediately that they were small and short-necked compared to the Mute and Whooper Swans we had seen earlier and through the scope we could see the more restricted, squared off yellow patch on their bills.

Bewick's Swans

Bewick’s Swans – these four were on the grazing marshes near Halvergate

Continuing on to Great Yarmouth, we quickly located the Glossy Ibis in its usual field at Bure Park. It was very busy feeding down in the wet grass, finding a few worms while we watched. A wet grassy park in Great Yarmouth in winter must be a far cry from the marshes of southern Spain, but it seemed to be doing OK with a few Moorhens and Black-headed Gulls for company.

Glossy Ibis

Glossy Ibis – feeding in the wet grassy fields in front of the car park

After a quick stop to catch up with the Glossy Ibis, we made our way on further south again, down to Waveney Forest. It was spitting with rain now but it was relatively sheltered from the wind in the trees. Looking out across Haddiscoe Island from ‘the mound’, it appeared rather desolate at first. The gates and posts where the Buzzards like to perch were conspicuously empty but scanning more carefully, we quickly found our target. The Rough-legged Buzzard was standing down in the grass today, out in the middle.

It was rather distant, and a bit misty now, but we could see the Rough-legged Buzzard’s pale crown and white spotting in the upperparts, contrasting with its black throat and upper breast and black patches either side of its belly. This is a returning adult, which comes back to these grazing marshes each winter, from its breeding grounds in the arctic.

Rough-legged Buzzard

Rough-legged Buzzard – out in the mist on Haddiscoe Island

The cherry on the cake was duly provided when the Rough-legged Buzzard took off and flew low across the grass, flashing its distinctive white tail with a contrasting black terminal band. It turned into the wind and started hovering, like a giant Kestrel in slow motion. It repeated this several times – Rough-legged Buzzards are habitual hoverers when they hunt, unlike the more familiar Common Buzzard which will hover only occasionally. After hunting for a few minutes, the Rough-legged Buzzard flew back across and landed again down on the grass close to where it had been earlier.

We took that as our cue to leave. We weren’t sure whether we would make it out to Stubb Mill tonight, given the weather, but by the time we got to the car park at Hickling the rain had eased off again. We decided to give it a go. We took the direct route out today, along the road. Two Egyptian Geese were in one of the fields and four Cormorants flew over.

When we got to Stubb Mill, we immediately spotted two Cranes out on the grass. We had a good look at them through the scope, walking round, before they eventually flew round and dropped down in the reeds at the back. Shortly afterwards, someone spotted another pair, out in one of the meadows further over. And we could hear more Cranes bugling over towards the reserve – based on the noise, another two pairs at least.

Common Cranes 4

Common Crane – one of two pairs out at Stubb Mill this evening

We had already amassed quite a total of Cranes on our travels today. Then another five flew in, low over the grass in front of the watchpoint, and disappeared over towards the reserve. That took us to a massive 38 seen and several more Cranes heard today!

Common Cranes 5

Common Crane – another five flew in to roost at dusk

There were at least 5-6 Marsh Harriers in already, perched out in the bushes in the middle of the reeds or circling round overhead, but others were probably keeping down given the weather. Several more flew in while we were watching. A male Merlin shot across very low, only briefly breaking above the reeds, unfortunately too quickly for everyone to get onto it. A ghostly grey male Hen Harrier appeared in the distance, flying round above the bushes in the reeds where the Marsh Harriers were gathered for a couple of minutes, visible in the scope despite the gathering gloom.

Given the weather, the light was fading fast tonight. We had fared far better than we thought we might at Stubb Mill this evening, it was well worth coming out here. We decided to call it a night and head for home.

7th Feb 2018 – Wintry Broads

A Private Tour down in the Norfolk Broads today. After snow overnight, the wintry showers were supposed to die out through the morning and it was meant to brighten up. It never really happened that way, remaining mostly cloudy all day. but at least we were able to largely dodge the showers until late in the day. And it didn’t stop us seeing some good birds.

After meeting in Hickling, we headed round towards the coast. A slow drive stopping to scan some of the fields which the Cranes favour failed to yield the hoped for reward, but it was still cold and cloudy so they were probably hiding somewhere sheltered. We stopped in a convenient layby and got out to scan the fields.

There were a couple of large herds of Mute Swans here, on either side of the road, but nothing else with them. Further over, we could see a hundred or so Pink-footed Geese at the back of the grazing marshes, which were covered in Lapwing and Golden Plover. A Green Sandpiper called over towards the reeds, but we couldn’t see it. A Common Snipe flew up from the grass. We had a good look through the scope at one of the Fieldfares feeding among the molehills.

There were a few raptors too, starting to wake up. Three Marsh Harriers circled up out of the reeds and a Common Buzzard perched on the bank, trying to warm itself. A couple of Kestrels were perched on the wires.

Continuing on our way, we headed inland in search of more swans. As we parked at our next stop and got out of the car, we could see a little group of no more than half a dozen out on the grazing marshes. A quick look through the scope confirmed they were a mixture of Mute Swans together with a couple of Whooper Swans. There were a few more down out of view in a ditch, so we decided to walk round on the river bank to try to get a better look.

From up on the bank, we scanned the grazing marshes the other side of the river and immediately spotted a Common Crane out on the grass. A second Crane was nearby, but they were half hidden behind the reeds. We had to find a gap we could see over, but we eventually got a good look at one of the Cranes through the scope.

Common Crane 1

Common Crane – one of a pair, our first of the day

We could hear Bearded Tits calling from the reeds, but couldn’t see them. It was cold and there was a fresh breeze, so they were keeping well tucked down this morning. A Reed Bunting called and showed itself briefly. A Cetti’s Warbler was more typically elusive. However, we had great views of a Grey Wagtail which flew in and landed in a nearby farmyard, picking around the edge of a muddy puddle.

There was a better view across to the swans from up here and now we could see there were actually five Whooper Swans here. Through the scope, we could see the wedge-shaped yellow patch on their bills.

Whooper Swans

Whooper Swans – a small mixed group with Mute Swans

We could see a number of Chinese Water Deer out on the grass too, which once again was liberally sprinkled with Lapwings and Golden Plover. Suddenly all the birds erupted, taking to the air and whirling round. There are often Marsh Harriers here, but we couldn’t see any likely culprits until one of the group spotted a couple of raptors circling high over the marshes.

It was immediately clear there was a small bird of prey and a much larger one. The smaller bird was a Sparrowhawk, which was mobbing the bigger one, but it was only as the latter turned that we could see it was not one of the usual harriers or buzzards. It was another hawk, but a really huge one, a Goshawk.

Goshawk

Goshawk – a rare bird indeed in the Broads, a real surprise

Once all the group were on it, we had a closer look at the Goshawk. As it circled, we could see it was a young bird, born last year, rather brownish. As well as the huge size, we could see the distinctive long wings with bulging secondaries, broad-based and rounded tail and protruding head.

The Sparrohawk lost interest and flew off, while the Goshawk continued to circle and drift further away. At one point, it straightened up and flew a short distance, with deep, heavy wingbeats, very different from the fast bursts of flapping of the Sparrowhawk. While we do have Goshawks in Norfolk, they are very rare in the Broads, so this was a complete surprise.Young birds are very prone to wandering though and it was apparently a good breeding season for them in 2017. A real bonus for the day!

It was cold up on the river bank, so once the Goshawk had drifted away, we headed back to the car and a chance to warm up as we drove to our next stop. The stockman was just going in to feed the cattle in the barn next to where we had parked and as he did so he flushed out a Barn Owl, which flew across in front of us, over the bank, and disappeared down on the other side of the river.

We pulled up next on the edge of some overgrown fields, sown with a seed cover crop. Here we spotted a small group of finches fly up into an oak in the hedge and quickly got the scope on one, a smart male Brambling. Unfortunately, the birds flew again before everyone got onto it.

We spent a few minutes trying to get a better look at the finches. We walked up the footpath on the edge of the field and back again, but a lot of the birds were either in the trees above our heads or had flown off over the back of the field. We could hear the nasal call of more Bramblings and the hard calls of Linnets flying over, as well as plenty of Chaffinches and a few Goldfinches. Finally, they all flew across and landed in a tree on the edge of the field, where we could all get a good look at them.

Back in the car, we had another opportunity to warm up as we drove south. A quick glance out of the window though and we spotted some dark shapes in a field in the distance. We turned round and found a convenient place to stop. Once out of the car, we could see they were Cranes, and plenty of them!

Common Crane 2

Common Cranes – feeding in a cover strip on the edge of a field

The Cranes were hard to count. A few were standing around on the edge of the field, but more were feeding in the vegetation in a tall cover strip. Through the scope, we could see some of them ripping at the tall stems, but there were several more deep in the crop – we could just see bits of grey shapes moving around inside.

As we scanned across, we could see several more Cranes around the edge of the next field. An attempt to count them all got to 26 in total, but it is very possible there were more than that, given we struggled to see how many were deep in the cover strip. This is a very impressive flock by UK standards, a significant proportion of the Broadland total in one group, great to see.

Common Crane 3

Common Cranes – we counted at least 26 in the flock, a great sight

Unfortunately, it had started to spit with wintry rain now, so we didn’t linger as long as we might have done with the Cranes, but got back in the car and moved on.

Having not found any Bewick’s Swans earlier, we headed round to Halvergate next to see if we could find any here, another regular site for them. At first, we saw several groups of Mute Swans before we spotted four smaller birds on their own on the grazing marsh. Stopping in a convenient gateway, we got out to confirm they were four Bewick’s Swans.

Bewick's Swan

Bewick’s Swan – one of four at Halvergate today

Through the scope, we could see the smaller, squared off yellow patch on the bill of the Bewick’s Swans, very different from the more extensive, wedge shaped yellow on the Whooper Swans we had seen earlier. The Bewick’s Swans were also noticeably smaller and shorter-necked.

There was now a request to find somewhere warm to have lunch or a hot drink, so after an abortive attempt to visit the pub in Halvergate, which was closed, we headed back to Acle. The hot chocolate was especially welcome today!

After a break, we resumed our quest for more birds. There has been a Glossy Ibis on the outskirts of Great Yarmouth for the last week so, as it was just about on our way, we headed over to see if we could see it. There was no sign if it in its favourite wet field, just a few Moorhens. A Kingfisher zipped low across the grass and disappeared into a ditch, unfortunately too quickly for most of the group to get onto it.

Another birder was just leaving, and helpfully pointed us a little further along the road as he passed. There was the Glossy Ibis out on the back of the grass, with a few more Moorhens for company. It promptly went to sleep, but thankfully only for a couple of minutes before waking up, preening and resuming feeding in a flooded patch in the grass. Through the scope, we could see its long, downcurved bill.

Glossy Ibis

Glossy Ibis – showing off its long, curlew-like bill when it woke up

Glossy Ibises are still quite rare but increasingly regular visitors to the UK, with ringed birds seen here in recent years known to have originated from the expanding Spanish population.

Having enjoyed nice views of the Glossy Ibis, we set off on our way again. Our next destination was Waveney Forest. As we walked in through the trees, there were several Great Tits and a single Coal Tit coming to the feeders at the cottage. A Siskin flew over calling. Deeper in the trees, a Green Woodpecker called and flew across the path in front of us, up into the trees.

We made our way over to ‘the mound’ which overlooks Haddiscoe Island. The regular returning Rough-legged Buzzard has been here for a while now, and this is generally the best place to see it from. Scanning the posts and gates out on the Island, we could see several Common Buzzards and Kestrels. What looked like the Rough-legged Buzzard was unfortunately right over the far side of the island with its back to us, and even through the scope it was hard to make out much detail. We could see a pale off white crown and pale whitish spots in the mantle and scapulars. We waited a while to see if it would turn round, or even better fly, but it didn’t.

While we waited we did spot a group of about 15 Bearded Tits swinging in the tops of the reeds, feeding on the seedheads. The sun had come out and they had found a sheltered spot which was catching some warmth in the afternoon light. We had a great look at them through the scope, and could see the grey heads and black moustaches on the males.

It was time to move on again, before we got too cold. On our way back north, we stopped on the south shore of Breydon Water. It was about an hour and a half after high tide and the water was now starting to go out. There were thousands of birds gathered on the mud on the far side – ducks, waders and gulls.

Breydon Water

Breydon Water – thousands of ducks, waders and gulls were gathered on the mud

Through the scope, we could see the birds were neatly sorted into groups. Over to the right were mostly Lapwing and Golden Plover. In the middle, shining bright white in the afternoon sun, were loads of gulls, mainly Black-headed and Common Gulls. To the left, was more of a mixture, thousands of Wigeon with waders scattered through them including Black-tailed Godwits, Dunlin and on the end a number of Avocets. A Great Crested Grebe swam past.

It was already getting late by the time we left Breydon Water. Given the weather, we were not planning to spend too long at Stubb Mill this evening, but we thought we would try to call in for the last half hour. Unfortunately, as we drove back north we could see dark clouds gathering and by the time we got back to Hickling, it was starting to rain. We sat in the car for a couple of minutes trying to work out whether it would clear, before deciding to call it a day.

It was a wise call, as the rain turned to sleet on the short drive back to where we had started. But despite the weather at the end, we had enjoyed a very successful if rather chilly day today. Well worth going out for!