Tag Archives: Bewick’s Swan

17th Feb 2017 – Late Winter Birding, Day 1

Day 1 of a three day long weekend of Late Winter Birding tours today, and we made our way down to the Norfolk Broads. It was forecast to be mostly cloudy with some brighter intervals, but it turned out to be bright and sunny for most of the day, an unexpected bonus.

Our first stop was at Hickling Broad. The walk down the track was rather quiet at first. Out on the marshes, we could see a Little Egret on a pool. A line of Eurasian Teal were asleep round the edge, while some noisy Mallard came out of the rushes nearby. We had a quick look in on Bittern Hide, but there was not much to see from here today so we didn’t linger.

Back on the track, we could hear a Marsh Harrier calling high overhead. Scanning the sky, we eventually spotted one, and then another. The more we looked, the more we managed to find, there were soon Marsh Harriers everywhere. A young bird, still overall dark brown apart from a paler head, flew past lower down. Even better, a smart pale male was displaying to a nearby female way up in the sky, ‘skydancing’ – tumbling and rolling, gradually losing height. It was great to watch.

6o0a7018Marsh Harrier – some were displaying, ‘skydancing’, today

We made our way round on the bank beside the Broad, with the sound of Marsh Harriers calling overhead accompanying us all the way. By the observation tower, we heard a deep sound like a foghorn from the reeds and stopped for a listen. A Bittern was booming nearby, but from deep in the reedbed. Unfortunately it didn’t fly up for us to see, but it was great to hear, the first we have heard this year. With Marsh Harriers displaying and Bittern booming, spring was most definitely in the air at Hickling this morning!

Hickling Broad itself looked rather empty. We did stop for a quick look, which revealed a Great Crested Grebe and a distant raft of Tufted Duck, plus a few Mute Swans and Cormorants. As we walked through the trees, we could hear a Green Woodpecker yaffling and several Jays scolding calls in the wood. A Water Rail squealed from the rushes.

We were almost back to the car park when we stopped to listen to a Reed Bunting singing in a small sapling in the reeds. Back a short distance along the path, the way we had come, several Bearded Tits started calling. We walked back and could hear them either side of the path. A male hopped up briefly into the base of a small birch tree, but dropped down again quickly before zooming across the path in front of us and disappearing into the reeds the other side.

Hickling Broad can be a good place to see Cranes and we had hoped we might at least see some flying over or hear them calling today, but it was not to be. So we decided to drive round via some other good Crane sites to see if we could find any there. The first couple of places we tried drew a blank but at the next stop, we spotted a pair of Cranes distantly out on the marshes. We got out and got them in the scope.

img_0638Common Crane – a pair out on the marshes

For such enormous birds, Cranes can be remarkably hard to find. But while we were watching the first pair, we noticed two more Cranes walk out from behind a strawstack. They were quite a bit closer, but we didn’t have a good angle on them from here, so we drove a little further down the road and stopped again.

The second pair of Cranes had now stopped and were preening out in a rough field. As if that wasn’t enough, we looked back towards the first pair and from here we could see a third pair of Cranes walking straight towards them. They had their bustles fluffed up and looked like they might be calling. The first pair quickly got the message and flew off out of sight, but the third pair then set off after them, calling as they flew.

img_0646Common Crane – we found 3 pairs out on the marshes

A short while later, one of the Crane pairs flew back in and landed again and the next thing we knew the other pair was walking towards them. They were separated by a reed lined ditch and the two males seemed to face off to each other across the ditch, they seemed to be calling but we couldn’t hear them. It is that time of the year when the pairs of Cranes are starting to re-establish their territorial boundaries ahead of the breeding season.

After watching the Cranes for a while, we made our way round to Strumpshaw Fen. We didn’t have time to explore the reserve today, but we did stop for a quick look at the pool in front of Reception Hide. The Black Swan is still in residence, and was asleep at first. When it woke up it started calling, although it was giving a strange note which confused several members of the group into thinking it was a Bittern booming at first!

6o0a7039Black Swan – the feral bird still resident on the Reception Hide pool

There were lots of Gadwall out on the pool, along with good numbers of Mallard and Coot. A single drake Shoveler was asleep on the edge of the water. Suddenly the horde of Greylags loafing around on the area of cut reed took fright and most of the ducks took off. We raced back to the viewing screen, as a shout of ‘otter’ came from inside the centre, but unfortunately it was nowhere to be seen.

6o0a7045Gadwall – there were lots on the pool, until all the ducks were flushed

It was nice and sunny, so we had our lunch outside on the picnic tables. While we ate, we kept our eyes on the feeders nearby. A steady stream of Blue Tits and Great Tits came in to eat the seeds and eventually a Marsh Tit sneaked in too, darting in and grabbing a sunflower heart, before disappearing back into the bushes. It did this a second time but then didn’t come back again. A Coal Tit was singing from the trees nearby and a male Siskin was too. We managed to get a quick look at him, before he flew off closely followed by a female Siskin too.

After lunch, we made our way east. Most of the wild swans which have spent the winter in the Broads seem to depart in early February, but there are still some large herds of Mute Swans around. We stopped to look at one on the way and after a careful scan through we managed to find the two lingering Bewick’s Swans with them. They were noticeably much smaller and shorter necked compared to the Mute Swans. We could also see the triangular bills of the Bewick’s Swans with the squared off yellow patch at the base.

img_0672Bewick’s Swans – these two have been lingering with a herd of Mute Swans

From here it was just a short drive round via Great Yarmouth to Burgh Castle. The impressive roman fort here provides a great location from which to scan the marshes of Haddiscoe Island. It didn’t take too long to find the Rough-legged Buzzard on one of its usual posts, aided by the fact it was being mobbed by two Short-eared Owls at the time! It was very distant at first, but after a while it took off and flew round, coming a little closer. It landed on another gatepost for a few seconds before flying back round to where it had started again. At least it flashed its distinctive mostly white tail as it flew.

Scanning the island, we found another Short-eared Owl much closer to us. We watched it quartering the grass below us, flying round on distinctive stiff wings. A fourth Short-eared Owl appeared a little further back. While we were watching the Short-eared Owls, a Barn Owl made several passes back and forth over the reeds in front of us. When one of the group spotted an owl just behind the bushes on the near side of the river, it was assumed it would be a Barn Owl, but when we all got onto it it turned out to be a Short-eared Owl. Unfortunately, it flew quickly over the hedge and disappeared inland behind the fort.

There were a few ducks and waders gathered down on the muddy edge of the river channel in front of the fort. We could see three Shelduck along with a few Wigeon and Teal. There were quite a few Redshanks roosting but two of them looked rather paler. Through the scope, we could see that they were actually Spotted Redshanks, much whiter below and more silvery grey above than the nearby darker Common Redshanks.

One of the group had asked earlier in the car about how to identify Common Gull from Black-headed Gull and, conveniently, when two gulls landed close to us on the grass of the fort we could see that there was one of each. It was a good opportunity to see them side by side, the Black-headed Gull having reddish bill and legs and the Common Gull‘s being yellowish. The Common Gull also lacked the black spot on the head of the winter Black-headed Gull and had a darker grey back and more extensive black wingtips.

6o0a7086Common Gull – landed next to us with a Black-headed Gull for comparison

The Common Gull flew off a bit further across the grass but the Black-headed Gull remained just behind us. When we turned around to look at it again, we could see it was treading feverishly up and down on the spot. The sound of the fast footsteps is meant to resemble rain falling and bring worms and other invertebrates to the surface. It seemed to be working as the Black-headed Gull picked up several worms in the short time we were watching it doing its rain dance.

On our way back round, we stopped off on the south side of Breydon Water. There had been a large flock of Tundra Bean Geese on the grazing fields here for the last couple of days. They had not been seen this morning, but had apparently reappeared this afternoon, so we thought it was worth looking in. Unfortunately, they had already flown off again by the time we got there.

Breydon Water is a large tidal estuary and generally holds a wide selection of ducks and waders. Today was no exception, and we could see a huge throng from up on the South Wall. Scanning through the waders, there were good numbers of Avocet, Curlew, Black-tailed Godwit and Dunlin, as well as masses of Lapwing and Golden Plover. The duck included some smart looking Pintail, along with good numbers of Wigeon and Teal.

6o0a7092Breydon Water – huge numbers of waders, ducks and gulls gathered on the mud

We were just working our way through the birds to see what was there when suddenly all the waders erupted. We couldn’t see what had flushed them, possibly one of the local Peregrines, but the air was filled with vast swarms of whirling waders. Most of them were Golden Plover and Lapwing – recent counts here have numbered about 7,000 and 8,000 of each, respectively! It was quite a sight to watch them all in the sky.

6o0a7094

6o0a7107

6o0a7115

6o0a7113Waders – the whirling flocks over Breydon Water

As is the spectacle of the whirling wader flocks was not enough, we looked through beyond them and could see a large flock of Starlings in the sky, over the grazing marshes the other side of Breydon. The flock started to disperse, then suddenly coalesced again, swirling down towards the ground to be met by another flock of Starlings coming up from the ground below. As well as the mini Wader Spectacular, we had a mini murmuration too!

The sun was already going down fast now and we were running out of time. We still wanted to have a quick look in at Stubb Mill on the way home, so we made our way quickly round there. As we were walking up to the watchpoint, we heard someone call out ‘Cranes‘ and we looked across to see two Cranes flying in over the reeds. They flew across in front of us and disappeared round behind the bushes beyond. Not long after, a second pair of Cranes did exactly the same.

6o0a7126Common Crane – a pair flying in to roost in the mist at dusk

Unfortunately, some mist was starting to build over the ground when we arrived and it rapidly thickened which made it hard to see over to the raptor roost. We could see a few Marsh Harriers flying around and a few more made their way in high as we watched. However, with visibility deteriorating and the light fading, we decided to call it a day. As we drove back from the reserve towards the village, a Chinese Water Deer bounded across the road in front of us and a Barn Owl flew alongside the car, leading the way home.

Advertisements

21st Jan 2017 – Winter Birds & Owls, Day 2

Day 2 of a three day long weekend of Winter & Owl Tours, and we headed down to the Norfolk Broads today. It was frosty overnight and cloudy today, although it did brighten up a bit later on and there was no sign of any of the forecast patchy fog.

Our first stop was at Ludham. The field which had held all the swans last time we were down was looking comparatively empty today. There were six Bewick’s Swans here – we got them in the scope and could see the squared off yellow on the adults’ bills – but no sign of the rest of the big herd. The large flock of Egyptian Geese were still here though – about 30 today.

6o0a4076Egyptian Goose – part of the large flock still at Ludham

This is a good vantage point from which to scan the rest of the old airfield and we could see some more white shapes distantly away to the north. So we set off round to the other side for a closer look. Sure enough, we found the rest of the swans, though they were separated into two groups. We stopped by the first group which were feeding in a winter wheat field. There were 73 swans in total in this field – 13 Whooper Swans and 60 Bewick’s Swans. Another two pairs of Bewick’s Swans flew in calling and dropped down to join them.

6o0a4089Whooper & Bewick’s Swans – part of the herd between Ludham & Catfield

It is always nice to see the two species side by side. Next to the Bewick’s Swans, the Whooper Swans are much larger and longer necked. Their bills are also proportionately longer, and the yellow on the bill extends down towards the tip in a pointed wedge. In contrast, the Bewick’s Swans’ yellow is more restricted and squared off. There was also a lone Pink-footed Goose in the field with them.

6o0a4086Bewick’s & Whooper Swans – nicely showing the size & bill differences

Having had a good look at this group of swans, we drove a little further up the road and found a much larger herd. There was no easy place to stop here, but we managed a quick count – there were at least 108 birds in total, again a mixture of Whooper Swans and Bewick’s Swans, and predominantly the latter.

Our next target was to find some Cranes. We drove further into the Broads and stopped at a convenient vantage point from where we can see across an area where we know they like to feed. A quick scan of the marshes and we could see a single Crane some distance away, so we got out of the car and set up the scopes. Now there was no sign of it! For a bird which stands over a metre tall, they can be very hard to see and it had walked some distance along behind some reeds. As it walked back out, we could see there were two Cranes and then they took to the air and we could see there were actually four of them.

6o0a4099Cranes – a family party, two adults and two juveniles

The Cranes flew off behind some trees but a minute or so later they reappeared again. At the same time, another pair of Cranes appeared and flew over past them and disappeared from view. When the part of four landed back down on the marshes, we looked across to see yet another pair still down in the field beyond, making eight birds in total. Not a bad start to our Crane viewing!

We got the scopes on the party of four Cranes and could see there were two brighter adults and two duller grey juveniles, with less well-marked head patterns. We watched them walking around on the grass feeding.

img_0001Cranes – the family of four were feeding out on the marshes

After a helpful tip off from some locals that the Taiga Bean Geese were showing at Buckenham, we made our way straight over there next. After walking over the railway line, we stopped on the track and scanned the grazing marshes. Sure enough, we could see the six Taiga Bean Geese out in the grass towards their favoured corner. We had a look at them from here, through the scope, then quickly scanned the rest of the marshes.

There were a couple of Chinese Water Deer feeding out on the grass in front, so we stopped to have a good look at those. While we did so, we heard a Redpoll calling and watched it drop into a large bush overhanging one of the ditches. It had presumably come in to bathe or drink, because it quickly dropped down out of view. We walked round to the other side of the bush but couldn’t see it, then as we made our way back, three Redpolls flew off calling. Next, a single Siskin dropped in to the same bush but, more helpfully, it perched in the top for a few seconds so we could get a look at it. There were also two Redwings which flew in and landed in the tops of the trees the other side of the railway line.

We decided to walk down along the platform to try to get a closer look at the Taiga Bean Geese. Unfortunately, by this stage they had walked back further across the marshes, so were still not especially close. Still, when they put their heads up we could see the more extensive orange on their bills, compared to the Tundra Beans we had seen yesterday.

img_0009Taiga Bean Goose – 1 of the 6 still at Buckenham, helpfully with its head up

Back to the track, and we walked on down towards the river. There were not many Wigeon beside the track today – they were all much further out, across the back of the marshes. A smart adult Peregrine was perched out on a tussock, so had possibly flushed all the wildfowl from this side. The Common Snipe were also very nervous – at least thirty of them flew up from the marshes and circled round before dropping back down onto the edge of one of the channels in a tight flock.

There were lots more geese further over, towards the river, the majority being Pink-footed Geese. As we walked along, we periodically stopped to scan through them. In the first group nearest to us we found two White-fronted Geese. When they put their heads up we could see the white surround to their bills and their black belly bars. There were lots more White-fronted Geese scattered through the flocks of Pinkfeet further back too.

img_0046White-fronted Geese – two were with the nearest group of Pinkfeet

Out by the river, the pools were partly frozen and devoid of ducks. We had a quick look at the river itself from up on the bank, but all we could see were a few ducks, Mallard, Teal and Wigeon. In the field by the hide, a pair of Stonechats were feeding, perching on the taller dead seedheads. It was cold out on the marshes, exposed to the chill of the light wind, so we decided to head back. The Stonechats lead the way, and we met them again half way back.

6o0a4115Stonechat – a pair were feeding on the marshes at Buckenham

Strumpshaw Fen provided a sheltered picnic table for lunch, and the option of a hot drink from the visitor centre. The pool by Reception Hide was still largely frozen and most of the ducks were feeding in the small patch of open water by the reeds, or standing around on the ice. There were quite a few Gadwall, plus a handful of Teal and Shoveler, and the ubiquitous Mallards. The Black Swan had found somewhere quieter, a little further back.

6o0a4140Gadwall, Teal, Shoveler & Mallard – around the small area of open water

While we were eating lunch, we kept one eye on the feeders nearby. There was a steady stream of Blue Tits and Great Tits coming and going. Periodically a Marsh Tit would dart in, grab a sunflower heart, and dart back out to the bushes behind. A single Coal Tit popped in briefly too. Nearby, in the trees, a Lesser Redpoll appeared in the tops briefly. Some mournful piping calls alerted us to a smart male Bullfinch, which flew in and landed in a tree briefly, before flying off over towards the railway.

After lunch, we drove round via Halvergate. The four Cattle Egrets which were here at the start of January have now been reduced to one and even that only seems to visit here very occasionally. We had a quick look but couldn’t see it. Just a single Little Egret flew up from the grass and dropped down behind some reeds further over.

Haddiscoe Island is a great place for raptors and owls, so we wanted to have a look there next. There has been a Rough-legged Buzzard here this winter, but at first all we could find were a few Common Buzzards, including a stunningly pale one with very white underparts.

We could hear Bearded Tits calling so we stopped by the reeds and managed to find four feeding in the tops. Two males with powder blue heads and black moustaches and two browner females, we had a great view of them.

img_0054Bearded Tit – one of the males feeding in the reeds

There were lots of other raptors too. A Merlin had a dogfight with a pipit, climbing high into the air, the two birds jinking and swooping in unison, before the Merlin eventually lost interest. A little later, we found another, a smart male Merlin perched on a gatepost, with a Sparrowhawk on another gate nearby. A ghostly grey male Hen Harrier worked its way backwards and forwards over the grass. A Barn Owl flew up and down along the river banks.Time was running out, and we were about to leave when we finally found the Rough-legged Buzzard perched on a post out on Haddiscoe Island.

Our final destination for the day was Stubb Mill. Given the time we spent at Haddiscoe, we were later than we had hoped for getting back round there. On the way, we passed the area where we had seen the Cranes earlier just as the family of four took off to fly to roost. We could see them from the car as they flew over the trees parallel with us. We left them behind, but were stopped by some roadworks further along. Once we eventually got through the lights, we found the four Cranes had overtaken us and nearly flew over the car. On the walk out to the watchpoint, we were treated to the evocative sound of Cranes bugling beyond the trees. We were a bit late this evening, but thankfully, when we got there, it didn’t sound like we had missed anything yet.

There were already a few Marsh Harriers in to roost, perched out in the bushes in the reeds. A steady stream of more Marsh Harriers flew in to join them, coming in from all different directions. It didn’t take long for the first Hen Harrier to appear, another grey male, flying in through the bushes at the back, over the reeds. A short while later, a ringtail Hen Harrier flew in too, a little closer, along the front edge of the reeds. It was hotting up!

There were other birds here too. A flock of Fieldfares were hiding down in the grass behind the reeds until they flew up and all landed in a low hawthorn bush, where we could get them in the scope. A Tawny Owl hooted from the trees behind us. A Barn Owl flew in across the marshes and round behind the mill.

The two resident Cranes were hiding behind the reeds – we could just see the occasional head pop up for a second. Then we spotted another pair coming in to roost, flying in distantly to the east, over beyond Horsey Mill, before dropping down behind the bushes. It seemed like that might be it, until just when most people had started to leave, we heard Cranes calling away to the north. We scanned over in that direction and picked up a large flock flying in, twenty Cranes, all in the air together. It was quite a spectacle!

The Cranes were in two groups. Eleven of them appeared to drop down into the reeds, and three more peeled off from the other nine, which had been slightly ahead of them. These three turned back and seemed to go down towards where the eleven had gone. The final six Cranes carried on, flying steadily south and right past in front of the watchpoint. A great sight! As they flew over calling, the resident pair bugled back to them and finally emerged from where they had been hiding. That was a perfect way to end the day – 24 Cranes in total this evening, taking our total for the day to a whopping 32.

We walked back with flocks of White-fronted Geese and Pink-footed Geese heading off to roost and with the sound of more Cranes bugling still across the marshes.

7th Jan 2017 – Broads in the Mist

The first tour of 2017, and it was down to the Norfolk Broads today. It was a misty start and, contrary to the forecast, the mist never really lifted completely all day. But it was clear enough, pretty much dry throughout, not too cold – not a bad day to be out and about.

Our first stop was at Ludham. As we pulled up alongside the field which the swans have been favouring, the first thing we saw was a load of Egyptian Geese right beside the road, about 60 of them. Quite a sight!

6o0a3302Egyptian Geese – a few of the 60 that were in the fields at Ludham today

Through the mist, we could make out lots and lots of white shapes and through binoculars we could see they were the swans. Out of the car, we got them in the scope, fortuitously straight onto a view with a Bewick’s Swan and a Whooper Swan side by side in the foreground! One of the nice things about this herd of swans is that it is generally mixed, giving a great opportunity to compare the two species side by side. We could see the Whooper was noticeably larger and longer necked that the Bewick’s Swan and yellow on the bill of the Whooper Swan extends down towards the tip in a pointed wedge.

6o0a3299Whooper & Bewick’s Swans – in the mist this morning

A quick count revealed there were 123 swans of which 23 were Whooper Swans and 100 Bewick’s Swans. Numbers of Whoopers have been pretty static since the turn of the year, but the number of Bewick’s here has increased, perhaps with birds moving in from the continent in response to colder weather over there.

Across the other side of the road, a field of sugar beet had recently been harvested and loaded onto lorries to be taken away – although several large beet and a significant quantity of accompanying mud had been deposited into the road! A single Egyptian Goose was feeding on the beet tops which had been left behind out in the field and, after a quick scan, we found two more geese in the field over at the back. Through the scope, we could just make out their orange legs and orange-banded dark bill – they were Tundra Bean Geese. There are two subspecies of Bean Goose which regularly winter in the UK – Tundra and Taiga Bean Goose. A variable number of Tundra Bean Geese come over each winter and are more often found in with the large flocks of Pink-footed Geese.

Having taken our fill of the swans, we set off again and made our way south. On the way, we came across a huge flock of geese in another large recently cut sugar beet field by the side of the road. Unfortunately, there was nowhere to stop and lots of traffic but we marveled at them as we drove past. Most of the flock was comprised of thousands of Pink-footed Geese. We could also make out three swans with them, more Whooper Swans. Quite a sight!

We had hoped to pick up a few Cranes in the fields on our travels, but it was still too misty to see far from the roads. We decided to head for Halvergate. There have been four Cattle Egrets here since before Christmas, which we hoped to catch up with. There was no sign of them at first. We could see several cows out on the grazing marshes, so we walked along the road to where we could get a better view to see if anything was with them.

One of the group noticed something swimming in the ditch next to the road, but it disappeared into the near bank. Then something else appeared on the far bank, a Weasel. We walked up to where it had been and there was no sign of it at first. But then suddenly it appeared again out of the grass and ran out across a wooden cattle bridge. We had great views of it as it ran in and out of the wooden sleepers on the bridge, then ran back along the far bank of the ditch, looking for something to eat.

6o0a3306Weasel – ran up and down the river bank in front of us

A white shape appeared out of the rushes on the bank of one of the ditches further back and flew out to join the cows, landing in among their feet. It was one of the Cattle Egret. It was darting in and out of the cows’ legs, and the cattle helpfully then walked out of the rushes and onto the shorter grass, bringing the Cattle Egret with them. We got a great look at it through the scope.

img_9704Cattle Egret – 1 of the 4 birds at Halvergate showed very well

Cattle Egret is a species which has been spreading north out of its historic core range in Spain and Portugal. It has yet to properly colonise the UK, like the Little Egret has done, although it did breed in Somerset in 2008. It is prone to irruptions and this winter a large number have arrived into the UK again. Hopefully, some might stay to breed again in this country again in 2017!

While we were watching the Cattle Egret, there were a few other birds around the marshes here. A Grey Heron was showing well in the same field as the cows, and a pair of Stonechats was feeding in among the cattle too, perching up on the taller dead thistles between dropping down to the ground after insects churned up in the mud.

Visibility improved while we were at Halvergate and, driving round to Cantley next, the sun appeared finally to be breaking through. Could it burn off the mist? Unfortunately it was short-lived, and by the time we got to Cantley Marshes the mist had descended again. There were no geese immediately visible directly in front of the gate, where they have been feeding recently. However, we could see quite a number of Marsh Harriers all standing out in the grass. There were at least five of them and they kept flying round from time to time before landing again. When one of them landed closer, we could see it was carrying green wing tags and through the scope we could see it had the code ‘VC’. Checking later, we found that it had been tagged as a nestling at Hardley in the Norfolk Broads in July 2016, so she hadn’t ventured too far afield.

Scanning further round, we could see lots of Pink-footed Geese out to the left of us. We could see their dark heads and necks and small, dark bills with a variable pink band. One of them was carrying a grey neck collar with the code ‘N29’. Checking online later, we could see that this goose was ringed in Denmark in March 2009. It was seen in Denmark again in September-December 2009, before moving over to Buckenham Marshes in Norfolk in January 2010.In subsequent winters, it has been seen in Lancashire, Scotland and even the Netherlands, but has also regularly been seen in Norfolk and particularly at Buckenham and Cantley. Interesting stuff, showing the benefit of colour marking birds in tracking their subsequent movements.

Eventually we found the White-fronted Geese too, out to the right, along the railway line. There was still quite a bit of mist and they were rather distant, which made them harder to see. We could just see their white fronts when they lifted their heads – the white surround to the base of the adults’ bills. There were also two Ruff out in the grass, one of which was sporting a rather striking pure white head which made it easier to see (the males are rather variable in winter, much as they are in breeding plumage). However, we couldn’t see any sign of any Taiga Bean Geese here today.

When several birds started alarm calling behind us, we turned to see a young Peregrine disappearing off over the houses. A couple of seconds later, it flew back towards us and off along the railway towards Buckenham. The next time we herd the birds getting upset, we turned to see an adult Peregrine flying low across the grazing marshes. It flushed a Common Snipe and chased it half-heartedly. Then a second adult Peregrine flew in behind it, and had a quick go at a passing Lapwing. Both adult Peregrines then flew across the grass and landed on a gate, where we could see them perched distantly, clearly the resident local pair.

We made our way round to Buckenham Marshes next, just a short distance as the Peregrine or Pink-footed Goose flies, but a rather more circuitous drive. We walked out over the railway again and down the rough track across the marshes. There is a particular area of the marshes which is favoured by the Taiga Bean Geese when they are here, and a quick glance across revealed a small party of geese in the distance. Through the scope and through the mist we could just make out that they were indeed the Taiga Bean Geese, but they didn’t help matters by disappearing into some taller vegetation.

Thinking we would have another look for them on the way back, we carried on down the track. There were some nice groups of Wigeon feeding on the grass close to the path, giving us a great opportunity to get a close look at them. The drakes are looking especially smart now, with their rusty brown heads and creamy yellow foreheads, looking like someone has attacked them with a paintbrush.

6o0a3326Wigeon – a drake showing the creamy yellow stripe up its forehead

A smart Common Snipe posed nicely for us next to one of the small wet pools out in the grass. Several Meadow Pipits flew back and forth across the track and one settled briefly on the mud for us to look at it. A couple of Little Egrets chased each other up and down one of the ditches. A single adult Peregrine was preening on one of the many wooden gates out on the marshes, and this one was much closer than the pair we had seen earlier at Cantley, giving us a great view of it through the scope.

img_9710Peregrine – this adult posed nicely for us at Buckenham

Up towards the river bank, the pools held a few more ducks. Among the many Teal, we managed to find a few Shoveler. On one of the small islands, two small waders were running around in among the Teal, a couple of Dunlin. There were lots of Lapwing around the marshes too.

Walking back towards the railway crossing, we could not see any sign of the Taiga Bean Geese. However, we could get rather closer to where we had earlier seen them by walking down the railway platform. When we got to the end, there they were out on the grazing marsh, around 20 Taiga Bean Geese. We had a much better view of them from here, despite the lingering mist. We could see the more extensive orange on their bills compared to the Tundra Bean Geese we had seen earlier this morning. A very small number of Taiga Bean Geese winter regularly in the UK, from the declining breeding population in Sweden, but they are very faithful to only two sites, one group here in Norfolk and one at Slamannan in Scotland.

img_9721Taiga Bean Geese – about 20 were at Buckenham today

It was getting on for lunchtime, so we headed round to Strumpshaw Fen. We ate our lunch overlooking the pool in front of reception hide. There was a good number of Gadwall and Coot out on the water, plus a few Shoveler and a single Cormorant drying its wings on a post. More Cormorants were standing in the dead trees in the distance, over towards the river, and four or five Marsh Harriers circled over the reeds.

The resident escaped Black Swan was also standing on the edge of the pool, a reminder of home for the Australian contingent in the group today! A Cetti’s Warbler sang briefly and was then to be heard calling in the reeds. More obliging was the very smart Kingfisher which perched on a curved reed stem out in full view in front of us.

img_9728Kingfisher – posed very nicely for us at Strumpshaw Fen over lunch

Once we had finished eating, we turned our attention to the feeders behind us. There were  lots of Blue Tits and Great Tits coming in and out all the time. It didn’t take long before our attention was rewarded with a single Marsh Tit. Several times it darted in, grabbed a seed and disappeared back into the trees behind to eat it, before flying across to the woods beyond.

We drove round via Ranworth next, and had a quick look at Malthouse Broad. On a tour to the Broads, it is always nice to see a proper broad! On the lawn on the edge of the moorings, a tame Pink-footed Goose was feeding with three Greylag Geese. It was an odd place to see one, but great to see it up front and in close comparison with the Greylags. The Pink-footed Goose appeared to have an injured wing, which would probably explain why it was here.

6o0a3352Pink-footed Goose – this apparently injured bird was feeding with the local Greylags

There were lots of Tufted Ducks and Coot out on the water. A single Little Grebe was hiding at the back of the broad, under the overhanging trees. Unfortunately there was no sign of the Ferruginous Duck which had been here for a couple of days, though by all accounts it was very tame so was best described as of ‘uncertain origin’!!

At this point the mist appeared to start rolling in again, so we decided to head back to look for Cranes in case visibility deteriorated much further again. At our first stop, we could only see a lone Grey Heron initially. Then we noticed two large, pale grey shapes in the distance. Through scope, we could just see they were two Cranes, walking about half obscured behind the reeds. It was hard for everyone to get onto them, given the combination of vegetation and mist. We figured we might be able to see them better from further along road.

img_9742Crane – one of a pair we found in the fields today

After a short drive, we managed to pull off the road and got out. The Cranes were much easier to see from here and the whole group got good views of them through the scope. Such huge and majestic birds, it is great to see them wild in the Norfolk countryside. After watching them feeding happily for some time, they suddenly took off and circled round, their long necks held out in front and long trailing legs behind, before dropping back down behind some trees out of view. Great stuff!

It was then time to head back to Hickling for the last of the afternoon’s activities. As we walked out past Stubb Mill, a single Goldcrest was flicking around in the bushes.

From the watchpoint, one of the resident pair of Cranes was visible on arrival, standing behind the reeds. We watched it walking up and down, before it disappeared from view behind the vegetation. Sometime later, it appeared again with its partner in tow.

There were lots of finches around the mill bushes – Chaffinches, Linnets, a Greenfinch. While we were standing watching the comings and goings over the marshes a small flock of Bramblings flew in. Most of them dropped down to the path below, presumably to drink, but one perched up nicely for us in the top of one of the bushes. Through the scope, we could see its bright orange shoulders. A flock of Fieldfares also perched up in the trees just behind. An extended family of Long-tailed Tits appeared in the trees from our left and made their way back and forth through the bushes right in front of the watchpoint.

A steady trickle of harriers flew in to roost. Most of them were Marsh Harriers, at least 30 today. They flew in from all directions, and several of them perched up in the bushes in the reeds. We also saw two male Hen Harriers, both smart grey males, though they were a little distant this evening. They both came in from the south and flew steadily in over the reeds towards the gathering of Marsh Harriers. A Merlin was more obliging, and perched up in the bushes on the near edge of the reeds so we could get it in the scope. We had hoped for more Cranes to fly in at dusk, but the mist descended and visibility deteriorated again.

We had seen all we wanted to see, so we decided to call it a night. A Tawny Owl hooted briefly from the bushes by the mill and, on the walk back, we could hear a second Tawny Owl calling and a third hooting back in the car park. A nice way to end a very enjoyable – and successful – winter’s day in the Broads.

20th February 2016 – Cranes & Owls

Day 2 of another three day long weekend of tours today and we made our way down to the Norfolk Broads. It was meant to rain all afternoon, but once again it was not as bad as forecast. Although we had some drizzle on and off early afternoon, it cleared up again for the end of the day.

We started with a drive along the coast. There were a few Pink-footed Geese in the fields beside the road. We drove along slowly, scanning the favoured fields, and it wasn’t long before we found our first Cranes. A pair were feeding in a field, though they were hard to see behind a bank. We pulled into a convenient layby and walked back to where we could see them. We got a good view of them through the scope, especially when they put their heads up to look round.

While the rest of the group were all looking at them, we had a scan of the grazing meadows the other side of the road. The first thing we picked up was a Short-eared Owl. It was some way over, and hard to see the other side of two reed-fringed dikes until it flew up a little at the end of each hunting run. Scanning a little further over, we found another pair of Cranes, but these were even harder to see than the first pair, from here. We got them in the scope and it was just possible to make out a grey blob through the reeds.

We were back at the car and just packing up to leave when we saw that the Short-eared Owl had come out into the open, a little nearer to us. Now we could see it properly, flying up and down the edge of one of the fields, hunting on stiff wings with a distinctive rowing action, attention focused on the ground below. As we watched it, we could see it was working its way closer and closer to the road, so we leapt into the car and drove back – just in time to have it fly along the edge of the field near the road, right beside the car. Great stuff!

P1170623Short-eared Owl – hunting over the grazing meadows this morning

We watched the Short-eared Owl making its way round and round the field in  front of us. It landed at the back briefly, down on the grass. Then flew right towards us and landed on a post. Unfortunately it didn’t stay long – and by the time the group had finished looking at it through the scope it was off. It clearly didn’t want to pose for the cameras!

IMG_8067Short-eared Owl – down in the grass briefly

While we were distracted by the Short-eared Owl, one of the group noticed a Crane walk out of the dense rushes in the field behind. A quick scan with the scope confirmed that there were two Cranes out there. This was undoubtedly the same pair we had seen distantly earlier, but from this angle we had a much better view. For a bird which stands about a metre tall, they can be remarkably hard to see. While they were feeding in the thick rushes, they were all but invisible at times, but when they put their heads up or walked out into the more open grass, we had great views of them.

IMG_8084Cranes – our second pair of the day

When we looked back to the field, suddenly there were two Short-eared Owls out hunting. A couple of times they passed through the same field of view, but most of the time they kept apart, patrolling slowly round different parts of the field at different times, although often covering the same ground one after the other. It was quite a sight to be watching a pair of Cranes and have a Short-eared Owl fly through the foreground, or vice versa!

P1170635Short-eared Owl – two birds were patrolling the same meadow

IMG_8094Short-eared Owl photobombing a Crane – not a sight you see everyday!

It was a magical moment, watching the Cranes and Short-eared Owls. Eventually, we had to drag ourselves away and continue on. Further back along the road, we stopped again to look at a large flock of Pink-footed Geese. We had just got out of the car and a quick scan over the grass produced yet another two more Cranes.

IMG_8115Crane – one of our third pair of the day

They were feeding quietly out on the grass, walking about slowly and rooting around in the ground or picking at the surface, possibly looking for worms on the short turf. When the Cranes we had been watching earlier, back along the road, started calling, this pair responded, throwing their heads back, pointing skyward, and bugling in unison. Great to watch.

IMG_8131Cranes – calling in unison in response to the other pair

There were plenty of other birds here too. Lots of Lapwings out on the grass, all flying up whenever something spooked them. A huge flock of Golden Plover whirling round in the distance and a smaller number in the wet fields behind us. In with them, we also found a single Ruff and a couple of Dunlin. Several Marsh Harriers were quartering over the reeds.

Our next stop was down at Winterton. It being the Saturday of half term week, the beach was perhaps not surprisingly very busy – lots of people and even more dogs running about wildly. We walked north, hoping to get away from the worst of the commotion, stopping on our way to scan sea. There were loads of black Cormorants flying past or fishing out on the sea, and in amongst them flashes of white, a few Gannets circling offshore too. Scanning the sea with the scope, as well as the Cormorants, we found four smaller black shapes riding the waves, four Common Scoter diving offshore. There were good numbers of Red-throated Divers on the sea too, still in winter plumage with grey backs and bright white faces and underparts. We also picked up a single Guillemot on the sea briefly.

We hadn’t gone very far, when we spotted a couple of Snow Buntings dropping down into the dunes. We walked over and could see three Snow Buntings in a little clear area of sand and stones among the marram grass, but between us and them were also two Ringed Plover roosting. We decided to work our way round behind the dunes so as not to disturb them, but when we got round there was only one Snow Bunting left. Still, we had a good look at it in the scope, before it was flushed by a dog rampaging through the dunes and it flew away north calling.

IMG_8155

IMG_8149Snow Bunting – getting flushed repeatedly by dogs on the beach today

We walked on further up through dunes and eventually found more Snow Buntings on the beach, a nice group of about ten of them picking around on the shingle. They were not getting much peace here either, constantly getting flushed by walkers and dogs, whirling around in a flutter of white wing flashes, before landing again somewhere different. The waders were not having an easy time of it either. Four Sanderling were picking around high up the beach, on the edge of the dunes, trying to make their way down to the shore before getting flushed again. In the end, we left them to it and headed back to the car.

We meandered our way inland from here, scanning various favoured sites for more Cranes. At one particular pale we picked up three more Cranes but they were very distant, out on the grazing marshes. While we were trying to get everyone onto them, yet another two Cranes flew in over the field in front of car and dropped down away to join them.

P1170642Cranes – two flying in to join another three on the grazing marshes

Our next port of call was Strumpshaw Fen. A large flock of Siskins flew in noisily and began feeding in the alders around the car park. They were very jumpy and before long they were off again in a flurry away through the trees. A Goldcrest was feeding in the cut branches piled by the edge, and a Treecreeper was calling away in the wet woodland beyond.

After lunch, we walked out onto the reserve. A couple of Marsh Tits were hiding in the bushes around the feeders, calling noisily and showing themselves occasionally. The Reception Hide pool was busy with wildfowl. There were lots of Gadwall in particular, and we got a stunning male at the front in the scope. A much underrated duck, being shades of monochrome rather than gaudy colours, they are actually stunningly patterned when seen close up. Several more members of the Gadwall Appreciation Society were duly signed up!

IMG_8191Gadwall – a stunningly patterned drake when seen up close

There were also a good number of Pochard on here today, mostly drakes and mostly asleep, plus three Teal roosting half hidden in the cut reeds at the front, and a single pair of Shoveler. A Mute Swan swam out from behind the reeds accompanied by a Black Swan, the resident escapee. Several Marsh Harriers were quartering the reeds beyond, with a male and female engaged in a bout of talon-grappling.

As we walked out through the trees, a Song Thrush was in full song. We could hear both Nuthatch and Treecreeper calling, from the woods and a Great Spotted Woodpecker landed in the trees in front of us. Another smaller flock of Siskins were in the wet alders by the start of Sandy Wall.

IMG_8181Siskins – lots were feeding in the alders today

The view from Fen Hide was quiet again. A couple of Coot were on the pool as usual and a pair of Shoveler dropped in briefly. We scanned the cut reeds carefully and found a Snipe asleep, extremely well camouflaged in among the dead reed stems.The more we scanned, the more we found – a second nearby, then another two further over. One woke up and walked back into cover, disappearing from sight completely – we wondered how many more might be out there lurking unseen. A Cetti’s Warbler called from the reeds. But there was no sign of the hoped for Bittern or Otter today.

IMG_8202Snipe – fantastically well camouflaged, asleep among the dead reed stems

We made our way back. A Kingfisher flashed away along the ditch beside the Sandy Wall, but did not linger long enough for rest of group to get onto it. A Water Rail squealed from deep in the reedbed.

The swans at Ludham which we have been enjoying through the winter seem to have departed already, an earlier than normal return towards their breeding sites. We decided to have a quick look at an alternative location to see if we could find any birds lingering there. As we drove along, there were lots of swans in the fields, but every herd we stopped to scan through seemed to be just Mute Swans. We were about to give up when we spotted two smaller birds with shorter necks in with some distant Mute Swans. We stopped the car in a convenient field entrance for a closer scan and found at least twenty Bewick’s Swans in with them. It was a bit misty with drizzle at this point, but at least these ones had decided to stay here a little longer so we could catch up with them!

IMG_8207Bewick’s Swans – we eventually located 20+ in with some Mute Swans

We finished the day at Stubb Mill. By the time we got to the car park at Hickling, the drizzle had stopped and it had even brightened up a fraction. On the walk out, we could hear the flock of Teal calling from the flood out on the grazing marshes and a large flock of Fieldfare flew over the fields. A single Redwing flew past as well.

There were not many Marsh Harriers present at first, only three or four out in the bushes, but through the late afternoon they slowly started to drift in. Then a ringtail Hen Harrier circled in high over the marshes in front of us, dropping away towards the reeds at the back. A little later we spotted another ringtail Hen Harrier coming in low from the back – though it could conceivably have been the same one coming back in after a fly round.

There are often Merlins here, but they can appear rather late to perch in the trees, or just zip through quickly. We got lucky today. First, one was perched up in the top of a rather distant bush. Then what we possibly a second darted round through the bushes in the front of the reeds and perched up nicely where we could get a great look at it through the scope. As the light started to fade, more Marsh Harriers arrived so that there were probably around twenty in tonight.

A distant Barn Owl was hunting right out the back of the reeds, despite the weather, and an early Tawny Owl hooted from behind us. A small number of Pink-footed Geese appeared to be feeding on the grazing marshes away to our left, flying up occasionally between the fields, but as dusk fell a much larger flock came up from that direction and flew off to roost. A Stonechat perched up on the brambles and a couple of Yellowhammer flew over calling. The usual Chinese Water Deer appeared out on the grass and a Stoat ran through the rushes in front of us, returning a few seconds later back the other way with something in its jaws.

One of the group was struggling with walking, so your correspondent went back to get the car. On the way back, three Cranes dropped silently over the road towards. Thankfully the rest of the group had not missed out, and had themselves seen nine more Cranes fly past the watchpoint, heading off to roost as the light faded.

What a great way to finish. That took us to a massive combined total of 23 Cranes for the day! A classic day in the Broads.

12th February 2016 – Cranes, Swans & Owls

Day 1 of a three-day long weekend of tour today. We started with a trip down to the Norfolk Broads.

It was a gloriously crisp, frosty, sunny winter’s morning – perfect weather for owls to be out hunting. As we meandered along the coast road, a shape on a post caused us to stop and a quick look confirmed it was a Short-eared Owl. We had a good look at it from the shelter of the car, but when we tried to get the scope out it flew. Thankfully, it was just to start hunting, and it worked its way back and forth across the field.

P1160749Short-eared Owl – hunting by the coast road

It looked stunning in the morning light as it flew round on stiff wings, focused intently on the ground below. Then it flew back over and landed on one of the posts again.

IMG_6948Short-eared Owl – landed back on one of the posts

While we were watching the Short-eared Owl, another owl appeared over the same field, this time a Barn Owl. It was also hunting intently round and round over the rough grass. We didn’t know where to look. Across the other side of the road, a second Barn Owl appeared as well, a couple of fields over. It really was a good morning for owls! We could hear the distant sound of Cranes calling beyond.

P1160752Barn Owl – over the same field as the Short-eared Owl

Continuing along the coast road, we came across several groups of Pink-footed Geese in the roadside fields. We stopped to scan through them, in the hope that we might find something else in amongst them, but there was nothing with them today. Another field of winter wheat was full of Fieldfares instead, with a single Mistle Thrush in with them.

P1160701Pink-footed Geese – there were several flocks by the road today

We eventually stopped in a convenient layby to scan the fields. We immediately latched on to a pair of Cranes, but they were very distant. We could see them well enough through the scope, although they kept disappearing out of view behind some reeds. A good start, our first Cranes of the morning, but we would hope for some a bit nearer.

There were several Marsh Harriers circling over the reedbed and a Buzzard perched up in a bush catching the morning sun. There were lots of Lapwing out on the grazing meadows and a Turnstone in with them was a bit of a surprise. A flock of Golden Plover were in one of the fields across the road. A good number of Snipe were out in the fields as well this morning, presumably encouraged out to the damper patches in the short grass by the frost.

While we were scanning through all the waders, we were surprised to see two Red Deer stags walk out into the middle of one of the fields. They stood there for a while, steam coming from their nostrils. They seemed to be stranded on the wrong side of one of the ditches, and walked along beside it before finally running off back across the field.

IMG_6979Red Deer – 2 stags appeared in the fields

Our next stop was at Winterton. We parked by the beach and walked out onto the sand. There were lots of dog walkers out this morning, presumably taking advantage of the sunny start to the day. As we walked north along the beach, a couple of Ringed Plovers flew past going the other way. A Skylark was singing over the dunes.

The beach itself seemed very quiet today, apart from all the dogs, and there was no sign at first of the Snow Buntings. We got as far as their favourite area and just as we were wondering where they might be, they flew in, about 40 of them, flashing the white in their wings and twittering. They settled just long enough for us to get the scope on them and then they were flushed again. We saw where they had landed and this time we waited for all the dog walkers to go past before we approached. The Snow Buntings were picking around on the edge of the dunes, and we got a much better look at them, until they flew again, back the way they had come.

IMG_7004

IMG_7011Snow Buntings – very mobile today, with lots of disturbance on the beach

We made our way back along the beach and stopped to scan the sea. A small party of Gannets were circling offshore. There were also lots of Cormorants, flying past both ways or circling over the sea. As we looked through them, we started to see Red-throated Divers, first a single one, then a couple more, then some small groups. They were all flying north – we must have seen 40-50 go past in the short time we were looking out to sea. A smaller number of Guillemots went past us as well. Seabirds were clearly on the move today.

While we were looking out to sea, we could see some dark clouds in the sky heading our way. We were almost back when it started to rain, but thankfully it was only light. As we drove back inland, we passed through the middle of it and were much happier to be in the car!

We weaved our way inland looking for Cranes. It was hard scanning some of the more distant fields in the rain, but that didn’t matter when we finally got lucky and found a pair of Cranes not too far from the road. We parked in a layby and walked back to where we could see them. The rain had stopped now and they were busy preening at first, presumably having just got wet! Then the smaller female started preening and the male stood with his neck up, giving us a great view of his head pattern.

IMG_7046Crane – we finally found a pair not too far from the road

We made our way over to Strumpshaw Fen next, in the hope that the frosty weather might have tempted something out of the reeds. The pool by Reception Hide was still half frozen, and all the ducks were out in the middle – Gadwall, Teal, Mallard and Shoveler – plus a lot of Coots and the resident Black Swan, asleep.

P1160784Stumpshaw Fen – the Reception Hide pool was half frozen still

The walk out through the trees was rather quiet, although we did come across a flock of rather flightly Siskin in the alders. There was not much life from Fen Hide either, apart from a single Coot and a rather noisy Carrion Crow. We heard some Bearded Tits calling and a male flew across and landed in the top of the reeds briefly, before dropping down out of sight. A Cetti’s Warbler called from the reeds in front of us, but did not show itself. There was no sign of the hoped-for Bittern, so we decided to move on.

The walk back was a little more productive. Three Bullfinches flew out of the brambles as we approached, flashing their white rumps as they went. A Marsh Tit was picking about in the bushes. A Treecreeper or two were climbing up the trees and a Goldcrest was in the conifers. A couple of Song Thrushes were feasting on ivy berries.

We had enough time for one more site before we needed to be making our way back north, and it was a choice between Buckenham or Cantley. As the former was distinctly quiet and all the geese were at the latter during the week, we headed for Cantley. Unfortunately, the geese were not there today – apart from a few Canada Geese – so we moved swiftly on.

Our next stop was back up at Ludham. The swans were in their usual place, or at least some of them were. Numbers were well down on earlier in the week, particularly of Bewick’s Swans. We could only see 8 Bewick’s Swans today (compared with c65 on Tuesday) with less than 40 Whooper Swans. Bewick’s Swans have been on the move across the county this week, with small groups seen flying towards the coast, so it is possible that a number of them have gone back to the continent already.

IMG_7062Bewick’s Swans – only 8 today, in with the Whoopers

Still it was nice to see them side by side, the Bewick’s Swans noticeably smaller in direct comparison. We also admired their bill patterns, with the yellow squared off on Bewick’s Swan compared to the longer, pointed extension of yellow down the bill on Whooper Swan.

IMG_7065Whooper Swan – still up to 40 today

Our final stop of the day was at Hickling Broad, where we parked and walked out to Stubb Mill. The walk itself was quiet at first, until we got almost to the mill, when a Short-eared Owl appeared from round the trees. We thought it would do its usual and disappear back round in front of the mill, but today it flew straight towards us and started hunting backwards and forwards over the wet grassland in front of us. Cracking stuff!

P1160837Short-eared Owl – hunting around the back of Stubb Mill

Round at the watchpoint, there was no sign of the two regular Cranes when we arrived. We contented ourselves with watching the Marsh Harriers out in the trees in the reedbed. A ringtail Hen Harrier came in through the trees at the back, but it was a little distant. Two Red Deer, hinds this time, were feeding out on the grass and a third appeared through the reeds further over. A couple of Chinese Water Deer came out of the ditches to graze.

The Short-eared Owl appeared again, this time out in front of the watchpoint. It was hunting at the back of the grazing meadows at first, until suddenly it appeared in the top of one of the bushes quite close to us. We got it in the scope and got some stunning views of it as it looked around. We could really see its bright yellow iris. It stayed in the same place for an age – every time we looked back, it was still perched in the bush. A Barn Owl was also out hunting, at the back of the fields.

IMG_7091Short-eared Owl – perched in one of the bushes in front of the watchpoint

While we were watching the Short-eared Owl, three Cranes appeared overhead, flying past. We didn’t know which way to look! They called as they flew. Then another pair of Cranes flew in from the back and dropped down into the reeds.

P1160865Cranes – flew past the watchpoint calling

While we were watching the pair of Cranes, another ringtail Hen Harrier flew across the scope view in the foreground. This one was much closer than the one we had seen earlier and we got a much better look at it, flashing its square white rump patch as it went. Finally the normally resident pair of Cranes flew in from the left (taking the total to 11 Cranes for the day) and across in front of us, as the light started to fade. They were calling all the way, as they dropped down onto the ground, a beautiful sound and a fitting way to end the day.

9th February 2016 – Calling Cranes

A Private Tour for the day down to the Broads today. It was a glorious day to be out – the wind was light and after high cloud in the morning, we were treated to a wonderfully clear, sunny winter’s afternoon.

Our first target was Cranes. We set off along the coast road, checking out various of their regular spots. At first, all seemed quiet, but little did we know what was around the next corner. Scanning the sky, two large birds appeared way off in the distance but heading straight towards us, a pair of Cranes. We pulled off into a convenient layby and watched them as they flew in, turning north across in front of us before circling low over the trees.

P1160478Cranes – we watched our first of the morning fly in

They were clearly trying to land, but took a couple of attempts to do so, circling up again in between. Eventually the two Cranes dropped down out of view behind the trees. A great start to the morning. Over the other side of the road, small groups of Pink-footed Geese were flying in and landing on the meadows. Ahead of us on the wires, a Fieldfare perched precariously.

P1160491Fieldfare – perched on the wires above the road

We drove on a little further and pulled in again off the road. A couple of Marsh Harriers were circling over the reedbed behind and a Barn Owl was perched on a distant fence post. The grazing meadows looked rather quiet at first, apart from a liberal scattering of Lapwings, but a careful scan revealed more Cranes. This time, a pair were standing out on the grass, busy preening. We got them in the scope this time and had a really good look at them – noting the red crown patch particularly on the larger of the two birds, the male.

IMG_6865Cranes – our second pair of the day, preening in a field

A helicopter flew overhead and the Cranes seemed to take little notice as it did so. It did spook all the Pink-footed Geese which then took flight from the fields beyond. The Cranes seemed to be more concerned with the actions of the geese, and now raised their heads and looked round to see what was happening.

P1160492Pink-footed Geese – spooked by a passing helicopter

Out at the back of the meadows, we picked up a ringtail Hen Harrier out hunting. It was flying round and repeatedly dropping down onto the ground. We managed to get it in the scope, before it flew off strongly and over behind a hedge, pursued by a couple of Crows.

While we were watching the Hen Harrier, another pair of Cranes appeared over the meadows flying straight towards us. We had to check at first, but the other pair were still standing on the grass. They flew steadily in our direction, across the road a short distance back the way we had just come, and dropped down out of view behind the trees. An amazing start to the day – three pairs of Cranes in such a small area.

P1160500Cranes – our third pair of the morning, flew across the road

By this time, we figured that we deserved a coffee break, so we drove back to where we could park. We were within earshot of where we had seen the two pairs of Cranes land earlier and we could hear them bugling to each other – quite a way to spend your morning break, listening to the sound of calling Cranes!

After such a successful start to the morning, and being so spoilt with Cranes (or so we thought!), we decided to head off and do something different. We made our way along to Winterton and parked by the beach. Snow Bunting had been mentioned as a bird on the wish list to see, so a walk along the beach here made sense. It was nice to get out for a bracing stroll along the sand.

There were lots of dog walkers out on the beach and we had to get past them before we found the Snow Buntings. Eleven flew down the beach towards us and landed on the shingle behind us, where we had just walked. We made our way back and got the scope on them, but just as the dogs caught us up and they flew again. Thankfully the Snow Buntings landed up on the ridge further out on the beach and watched from there as the dogs passed. Once the danger was gone, we got much better views as they picked about for seeds on the stones.

IMG_6881Snow Bunting – looking for seeds out on the beach

Several of the Snow Buntings settled down for a rest, tucking themselves down in little depressions in the shingle so that only their heads were showing. At this point they were remarkably well camouflaged, shades of brown, russet, grey and off white matching the colours of the stones. It was only because we knew where they were that we could see them.

IMG_6878Snow Bunting – very well camouflaged among the stones

A couple of Skylarks were picking about on the beach as well, among the sandier places on the edge of the dunes. Two Sanderlings appeared on the ridge and a Ringed Plover flew along ahead of us. There were lots of Cormorants flying past offshore, presumably commuting between their fishing grounds and the favoured roosting place on Scroby Sands further south. A distant Gannet flew past casually, overtaken by the Cormorants. A Red-throated Diver in winter plumage was on the sea just offshore, drifting with the tide.

IMG_6903Ringed Plover – on the beach at Winterton

We meandered our way inland through Crane country from here. Scanning some favoured meadows revealed another three Cranes, but they were rather distant. It was a challenge to pick them out, as they were working their way through a deep bed of rushes. The road was busy and there was nowhere convenient to stop. Having done so well for Cranes already this morning, we had a quick look through binoculars from the car and moved on.

Little did we realise what might be around the next corner. It is always worth keeping your eyes peeled on the fields around here and a shout from the eagle-eyed spotter on the passenger side went up as we almost drove past another pair of Cranes. They were tucked down in the corner of a field right next to the road, behind a hedge! A quick u-turn in a convenient gateway and we drove back slowly past on the other side of the road. We carried on a little further past them, where we thought we wouldn’t disturb them and stayed in the car.

P1160526Crane – we surprised a pair in a field right next to the road

The two Cranes were clearly a little nervous and walked slowly out into the middle of the field, treating us to fantastic close-up views as they did so. Unfortunately, there was a lot of traffic on the road and a large lorry went past at that moment which spooked them. They took off – necks down, walking at first, then running with huge wings beating to get them airborne – and dropped down again a little further over. Wow! What a treat to see Cranes like that. And that took us to a total of 11 for the day!

We made our way over to Strumpshaw Fen for lunch. We had a couple of different options for the early afternoon, but the choice was made to walk out onto the reserve here. There were lots of ducks on the area of open water in front of Reception Hide – Gadwall, Teal, Mallard and Shoveler. And a good number of Coots. A Marsh Harrier circled over the trees out in the middle of the reedbed.

P1160545Shoveler – catching the winter sun at Strumpshaw Fen

As we walked through the trees, we could hear a Song Thrush singing ahead of us. Such a beautiful song and so sad that it is a species in decline, but we are still blessed with a number here. A little party of Siskins were feeding in the alders above our heads, hanging upside down to pick at the cones for the seeds.

P1160554Siskin – feeding in the alders above the path

As we walked out along Sandy Wall, we could hear a Marsh Tit calling and just caught a couple of glimpses of it as it disappeared away through the trees. It was really beautiful in the crisp afternoon sun, with the light catching the reeds as they rustled in the light winds. We sat in Fen Hide for a short while, but it was rather quiet here again today, so we didn’t linger too long. We didn’t have time to explore the whole of the reserve, so we made our way slowly back. The Song Thrush was still singing from the trees and this time the Marsh Tits gave themselves up properly – a pair picking about in the oak trees above the path.

Our next appointment was with the swans, so we made our way back north through the Broads to Ludham. Thankfully, they are still in their usual fields at the moment. Most of the Whooper Swans were in a separate group, picking at the remains of the sugar beet tops in the field which was harvested some time ago and very close to the road. There are still around 40 here at the moment. A tractor was in the process of ploughing the field, pursued by a throng of Black-headed Gulls, so the Whooper Swans were probably making the most of the sugar beet remains while they still can. We had a good look at them from the car as we drove past towards our usual parking spot.

P1160604Whooper Swans – feeding on the remains of the sugar beet tops

The Bewick’s Swans were out in the winter wheat next door, and a lot of them asleep again this afternoon. Six of them were very close, so we pulled up and got out very slowly and quietly, giving them a chance to walk away slowly to a safe distance, back towards the main herd. They settled down again and we got a really good look at them through the scope.

IMG_6911Bewick’s Swan – two white adults and a greyer juvenile

There were two Whooper Swans feeding in with the Bewick’s Swans, which gave us a great opportunity to compare the two species side by side. The Whooper Swans were noticeably bigger and with more yellow on the longer bill, extending further down in a wedge shape.

Our final stop of the day was at Hickling Broad. We parked in the car park and set off towards Stubb Mill for the harrier roost. A Barn Owl was hunting around the meadow behind the visitor centre, perching on the fence posts in the late afternoon sunshine.

IMG_6926Barn Owl – hunting around the meadows at Hickling Broad

A large flock of Fieldfares were feeding further along the path ahead of us. Some of them were looking particularly bright yellow-orange breasted as they caught the light. Something spooked them and they all flew up into the trees, ‘tchacking’ as they went. As we turned the corner at Stubb Mill, another Barn Owl flew across right in front of us and disappeared out towards the grazing meadows.

There were only about 5-6 Marsh Harriers around the trees when we arrived, but a steady trickle continued to arrive while we were there. There were probably close to 20 by the time we left, with more still arriving, but numbers have started to drop now as the birds start to head off back to their breeding territories. A ringtail Hen Harrier came through low over the meadows in front of us, flashing the white square at the base of its tail as it did so.

A Short-eared Owl flew in from the back and landed on a woodpile in the low sunshine. It perched there preening for the rest of the time we were there – it had obviously enjoyed a successful afternoon’s hunting already. A second Short-eared Owl circled up very distantly over the back of the trees. There were more Barn Owls too – it was hard to know how many we saw altogether here this evening. One was hunting along the field edge behind us and another far off over the reeds in front.

A Chinese Water Deer appeared out in the grass and we got it in the scope. Then it ran across in front of us, before dropping down into one of the ditches, flashing its tusks as it went past. A couple of Red Deer were grazing further over again, and at one point we could see them in the same view as the Short-eared Owl!

A Wildlife Trust van had driven across the marshes as we walked out and there were several people walking around behind Stubb Mill by the time we got there. The two resident Cranes had flown off before we arrived – presumably flushed by all the people and activity. We weren’t too concerned today, as we had enjoyed so many and such good views of Cranes this morning. However, we could hear a number of Cranes bugling from away behind the wood while we stood scanning the marshes – there is a lot of vocal activity from all the Cranes now. It was a lovely evocative way to end the day, listening to Cranes calling as we admired the traditional Broadland landscape.

P1160630The view from Stubb Mill in the afternoon sun

6th February 2016 – Back to the Broads

Day 2 of a long weekend of tours and today it was off down to the Broads. The weather forecast throughout the last week had foretold heavy rain all day today. Thankfully the Met Office can be relied upon for one thing… to get it wrong! We barely saw a drop of rain – it was cloudy and rather windy, but mercifully dry.

We started with a drive along the coast road from Sea Palling. We hadn’t gone very far when we spotted our first Cranes of the day. They were in a field some distance from the road, but unfortunately we had nowhere to stop. We pulled into a convenient layby and walked back with the scopes to the spot from where we could see them, but even though we were several fields away they started to look nervous. We just had time to get a look at them in the scope before they took off and dropped down a little further over, out of view.

P1160371Pink-footed Geese – one of several small groups this morning

We carried on along the road, scanning the fields. We came across a couple of small groups of Pink-footed Geese in the grazing meadows. Further along, south of Horsey Mill, we pulled over and got out for a good look round. There was an even bigger flock of Pink-footed Geese here – at least until the farmer arrived. He seemed to object to the Mute Swans in the fields across the road, and shot into the air scaring everything off apart from one stubborn Mute Swan.

P1160379Pink-footed Geese – scared off by one of the local farmers

Before the farmer arrived, there was actually quite a nice selection of birds to look at. There were large numbers of Lapwing out on the grass and a smaller flock of Golden Plover. On the flooded field the other side of the road, we were rather surprised to see a small group of five Knot. Several Marsh Harriers were circling over the reeds behind, and two of them started diving at each other. But we couldn’t find any more Cranes here.

We decided to move on and drove round to Ludham Airfield. Once again, we could see the swans before we left the main road, a white smear across the fields from a distance. We drove round and positioned ourselves where we wouldn’t disturb them as we got out of the car to look at them through the scopes.

IMG_6486Bewick’s Swan – there were at least 85 today

The swans were in two groups today, with most of the Bewick’s Swans sat down in the middle of the winter wheat, whereas most of the Whooper Swans were over on the edge of the field. It was as if they had fallen out with each other and were now not speaking! On closer examination, we did find a small group of four Bewick’s Swans closer to the Whoopers and three Whooper Swans sleeping in with the Bewick’s, so there were obviously a few swans which couldn’t pick sides.

IMG_6496Whooper Swans – over 40 today, mostly on the edge of the field

Despite their attempt at separating by species, we could still get a good comparison between the two – the Whooper Swans noticeably larger, longer necked and longer billed, and with the yellow coming down the bill into a point, unlike the more squared off yellow on the Bewick’s Swans’ bills. There were at least 85 Bewick’s Swans here today, a little down on recent counts, but over 40 Whooper Swans still.

We decided to head down to Great Yarmouth next to look for some gulls. We stopped briefly on the way to see if there was anything on Rollesby or Ormesby Broads. It was pretty rough out in the middle – there were just a few Coots and Tufted Ducks. A Great Crested Grebe swam out from close in to the bank as we pulled up and a very white-headed Cormorant dropped down from a post into the water and swam past. A Grey Heron crept out of the reeds to the water’s edge.

We had wanted to see the Glaucous Gull at Great Yarmouth, but there was not a sign of it today around any of its usual haunts. It seems to have a nasty habit of going missing at times. We had to content ourselves with going to see the Mediterranean Gulls on the beach instead.

IMG_6502Mediterranean Gull – a colour-ringed adult in winter plumage

There were only three Mediterranean Gulls on the beach when we arrived and they promptly flew off. Someone else was obviously feeding them elsewhere. Quickly deploying some choice sliced white bread, they soon came back and brought a few of their friends with them. They were mostly winter adults, but a couple of 2nd winters arrived too. After squabbling over the bread, they all settled on the beach so we could get a good look at them. A crafty Starling came along and ran around our feet after the crumbs.

P1160407Starling – came round our feet for the crumbs

We had a quick look out to sea. There is a large sandbank offshore called Scroby Sands and we could see a large number of seals pulled out of the water. At one end, a black mass on the sand was a big flock of Cormorants – there can be a huge number of them out here. A few Kittiwakes were struggling past into the wind.

From there, we drove inland and down to Strumpshaw Fen. As we got out of the car, we could hear the twittering of Siskins and looked up to see lots of them in the alders. A noisy flock of Long-tailed Tits came through the car park. The reserve itself seemed to be very quiet again, so we just ate our lunch and moved on.

The grazing marshes at Buckenham seemed to be strangely deserted today. There were very few geese – just a few Canada Geese and an odd-looking Canada x Greylag Goose hybrid – but that is not necessarily unusual. However, there were also very few ducks and a distinct shortage of Lapwings and Golden Plover. Presumably, something had disturbed everything off here today. A Chinese Water Deer provided a brief distraction.

IMG_6541Chinese Water Deer – on the grazing marshes at Buckenham

Given the lack of birds, we decided not to walk out at Buckenham, but went round to Cantley instead. At least we found the geese here. There was a big flock of Pink-footed Geese over towards the river. We got the scopes on them and, scanning carefully, we started to find a few White-fronted Geese in with them. There were probably quite a few there, because the more we scanned, the more we found.

As we were looking through the geese, we found something different on the ground in the middle of them – a Peregrine. The geese seemed particularly unconcerned, and more flew in and landed all around it. The Peregrine was hopping about in the grass and perching up on tussocks. Eventually it took off and swept round over the marshes a couple of times, flushing the Lapwings and Golden Plover, before flying straight towards us and then turning off towards Cantley Beet Factory.

P1160458Peregrine – flew past us after standing in with the geese

The afternoon was getting on, and we wanted to get to Stubb Mill in good time for the roost, so we started to make our way back north. We tried various more sites where Cranes are regularly to be found, but there was no sign of any anywhere today. Perhaps they were put off by the wind, which had become very gusty by this stage.

Our timing was right today though. As we walked out towards the Stubb Mill watchpoint from the car park at Hickling Broad, first two Cranes flew over the marshes, and dropped down towards Heigham Holmes. We could see their long necks and long trailing feet. Then we turned to see a ringtail Hen Harrier coming low across the grass in front of the reeds, right in front of us – a great view. It flushed a few Snipe and a big flock of Teal as it went, before turning and working its way back over the reeds. Even better, the sky just brightened a little as we arrived.

There were not so many Marsh Harriers over the reeds and bushes this evening. It was hard to tell how many were already in, or whether they were planning to arrive late due to the wind. There were around 6-8 flying around over the trees at any one time, and a few more trickled in while we were waiting. However, we were treated to a good display from the Hen Harriers. First, another ringtail flew south past the assembled crowd, low over the grazing marshes just in front. Later on, another ringtail flew in from the east.

There was no sign of any Cranes from the watchpoint when we arrived there. Then suddenly the resident pair, which is usually always around, flew in from the reeds at the back and dropped down onto the grass where they should have been. They had obviously been hiding – possibly due to the wind. Where they landed they were out of view at first, but eventually walked out to where we could see them and a little later flew across and landed in the open. Much better!

IMG_6585Cranes – the resident pair finally came out of hiding

There was another Chinese Water Deer out on the marshes, but suddenly we spotted two larger deer further back. A couple of Red Deer were grazing on the grass. At one point, the two Cranes walked out in front of the two Red Deer – not a combination you see every day.

While we were watching them, someone shouted and three more Cranes flew over from the north. They came in slowly over the trees, up in the sky at first – helpfully where we could see them well – before dropping down below treetop level and disappearing from view towards Horsey Mere. That took us to a total of nine Cranes for the day!

IMG_6579-001Cranes – these three flew across, in front of the watchpoint

The light was starting to fade and we had enjoyed a very productive session at Stubb Mill, so we decided to head back. As we turned to go, we could hear the Cranes bugling out across the marshes, a fitting way to end the day.

P1160474Stubb Mill Watchpoint – the view across the marshes to the ruined mill