Tag Archives: Black Brant hybrid

10th Feb 2019 – (Some) Rain in N Norfolk

Day 3 of a three day long weekend of tours today, our last day. It was forecast to rain for much if not all of the day today. Fortunately, we had a rather drier start to the day and, even though it did rain for a few hours through the middle of the day, it dried out again for much of the afternoon. And the wind had thankfully dropped compared to yesterday. We spent the day up on the North Norfolk coast.

As we drove up towards the coast, we could see a large flock of Pink-footed Geese flying over, coming in from the roost and heading for a recently harvested sugar beet field, where they would spend the day feeding. We drove round to the field and watched them dropping down to join the few geese which were already there. There have been some other geese in with the Pink-footed Geese in recent days and we were keen to try to see them, so we set about scanning through the flock.

It didn’t take long to find the Barnacle Geese. With their pale grey and white bodies, black necks and white faces, they really stood out. We have an increasing number of feral Barnacle Geese turning up here and it is difficult to tell which are really wild these days, but birds which turn up with the Pink-footed Geese are perhaps more likely to have come from one of the Arctic island populations.

Barnacle Geese

Barnacle Geese – these two were in with the thousands of Pinkfeet

More Pink-footed Geese were arriving all the time. We could hear them calling away to the west as they approached, long before we could see them, and we watched as they circled down and landed in the field. We were looking for a couple of Tundra Bean Geese which have been with the geese here but despite scanning through several times we couldn’t find them. We weren’t sure whether they hadn’t arrived yet, or whether they had landed just over a low ridge in the middle of the field, out of view.

We did spot a male Bullfinch feeding in the brambles in the hedge behind the geese, which we could make out through the scope. Several Brown Hares were in the surrounding fields too.

There was still no sign of any Tundra Bean Geese from this end of the field, but we received a message to say one was on view at the other end. We drove a short distance further along the road and joined a couple of people who were scanning the flock from the hillside there. From here, we could see the geese on the other side of the ridge in the middle of the field. There, on the front edge of flock, was a goose with bright day-glo orange legs and bill band – a Tundra Bean Goose.

Tundra Bean Goose

Tundra Bean Goose – with the Pinkfeet

After a good look at the Tundra Bean Goose through the scope, with our mission here accomplished, we dropped down to the coast at Cley and parked at the beach. As we walked out along the shingle, we scanned the sea. A Great Crested Grebe and a Guillemot were diving just offshore and further out, we could see small numbers of Red-throated Divers, flying past or swimming on the calm water.

Crossing the grassy ridge, we flushed a number of Skylarks and Meadow Pipits from the weedy vegetation on the edge of the shingle. A flock of mainly Ringed Plover and a few Dunlin flew over calling. We could see several Pintail feeding on North Scrape.

From the other side of the ridge, we could see the juvenile Glaucous Gull down on the shingle. It has been here for over a month now, feeding on the carcasses of seals washed up in the winter storms, and was busy attacking its current favourite. We walked over for a closer look – as a young gull from the arctic, it has possibly not seen people before arriving here and is very approachable.

Glaucous Gull

Glaucous Gull – the juvenile feeding on a seal carcass on the beach at Cley

The Glaucous Gull was very pale, biscuit coloured, on closer inspection patterned with pale grey-brown on the back, much paler and lacking the darker spotting of a nearby young Great Black-backed Gull. We could also see the Glaucous Gull‘s distinctive pale wingtips and its large pink bill with a contrasting dipped-in-ink black tip.

There were dark clouds approaching from the west, and it started to spit with rain, so we turned and walked back. We had been lucky that it had been mostly dry so far this morning. As we drove west along the coast road, we drove into heavier rain. We had a quick look at Wells but there was no sign of any Brent Geese on the fields along Beach Road, so we headed on round to Holkham.

As we got out of the van at Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see lots of Greylags and a few Pink-footed Geese out on the grazing meadows. Groups of Wigeon were scattered liberally over the grass. There were several waders round the pools – mostly Redshank, and Lapwing, plus a few Curlew, a small group of Black-tailed Godwits and one or two Ruff. There were lots of Pied Wagtails feeding in the wet grass too.

With the rain falling steadily now, we stopped for a quick coffee break in ‘The Lookout’ café. There was no sign of it clearing, but it didn’t seem to be coming too hard, so we decided to make a bid for the beach. It had been quite calm on the beach at Cley just an hour back, but when we got to the other side of the pines, we found that the wind had picked up and was driving the rain across the saltmarsh.

There was a lot of standing water on the saltmarsh, which appeared to appeal to the Rock Pipits, as we found at least four feeding around the pools when we stopped to scan. As we got to the cordon, we could see the Snow Buntings feeding down on the sand at the far end, flying up and whirling round occasionally. We walked down for a closer look and the flock flew round and landed right in front of us.

Snow Buntings

Snow Buntings – feeding on the saltmarsh

With the saltmarsh so wet today, there was no sign of any Shorelarks. Despite having a thorough search of their favourite areas, we couldn’t find them today. We figured they might be out at the beach, but with everyone cold and wet now, we reluctantly decided to head back.

A flock of Brent Geese was feeding out on the saltmarsh as we turned to head back. Looking more closely, we could see that one was noticeably darker than the others, with a more striking pale flank patch and collar. It was the regular Black Brant hybrid which is often found here.

Black Brant hybrid

Black Brant hybrid – with the Brent Geese out on the saltmarsh

As we made our way back through the pines, two Goldcrests were feeding in the low bushes by the path. We decided to make use of ‘The Lookout’ for lunch, and to try to dry out a bit. A pair of Stonechats were flying around the small bushes out on the grazing marshes.

Finally, the sky looked to be brightening out to the west, so we decided to drive towards it. Before we left Holkham though, a quick scan of the grazing marshes produced a Great White Egret. Big and white, it really stood out, particularly when it flew across.

We took a detour round via Choseley. There was no sign of the reported Rough-legged Buzzard around the drying barns, but we could see several Common Buzzards perched on various hedges. A flock of Yellowhammers was feeding in the weedy edge of a sugar beet field, and with the rain now stopped a flock of Skylarks was flying round over a grassy meadow.

Dropping down to Thornham Harbour, the marshes here all looked rather quiet at first. Down in the harbour channel, a Little Egret was running up and down in the shallow water and a Curlew, a Common Redshank and a lone Black-tailed Godwit were feeding on the muddy bank. There was no sign of any Twite here.

Curlew

Curlew – feeding in the harbour channel at Thornham

We decided to try our luck out along the seawall. There were more waders further out in the harbour. A Spotted Redshank was preening on the edge of the water and a Greenshank was further out on the top of the muddy island. Several Grey Plovers were feeding on the mud.

It was rather fresh up on the seawall, still chilly in the breeze. Scanning from the corner, we spotted the Twite, much further along towards Holme, as they flew up briefly and landed back down on the edge of the saltmarsh.  We set off to walk along for a closer look, but before we could get there the Twite flew up again. They came straight towards us, and landed on the barbed wire fence just below the bank. We had a great view of them through scope – we could see their rusty-orange breasts and yellow bills.

Twite

Twite – three of the thirteen still at Thornham

There were some dog walkers coming the other way along the bank towards us and when the dogs ran along the bank past the Twite they took off again. They came straight over us, and headed back towards the Thornham Harbour. We walked back and found them feeding on the edge of the saltmarsh with a couple of Linnets.

We headed round to Titchwell to finish the afternoon. After having a look in the sightings book in the visitor centre, we were just leaving by the far door when we spotted a Barn Owl hunting over the Thornham grazing marsh beyond the trees. We hurried out to the main path and we were just watching the first Barn Owl hunting when we saw a second one fly across in front of us.

Barn Owl

Barn Owl – one of two at Titchwell this afternoon

When the Barn Owls finally disappeared out of view behind the trees, we turned our attention to the ditches below the path. After a quick walk up to the corner and back scanning, we found a Water Rail feeding quietly in the muddy water in the bottom, probing in the wet the leaves. This is a great place to get really good views of this normally secretive species.

Water Rail

Water Rail – feeding in the ditch below the main path

Round along Fen Trail, there was no sign of any Woodcock this afternoon, so we continued on to Patsy’ Reedbed. Three Marsh Harriers were circling over the reedbed in front, dropping down into the reeds then coming back up, occasionally swooping at each other and talon grappling at one point. There were more Marsh Harriers further back, over the bank on the Brancaster side, and we counted at least 15 in the air together at one point.

There were a few ducks out on the water, mainly Common Pochard and a pair of Gadwall. Several Teal were loafing in the cut reeds at the front and scanning carefully we found several Common Snipe asleep in there too.

We made our way back round to the main path via Meadow Trail. As we walked out towards the Freshmarsh, a Water Pipit flew up from the dried up pool on Thornham grazing marsh calling. It flew overhead, across the path and out across the reedbed. A Cetti’s Warbler called from somewhere down in the reeds.

The Freshmarsh is still very full of water, particularly so after the rain, and there was very little exposed island left. There were a few ducks scattered around, mainly Wigeon and Teal, and a flock of Lapwings on the bits of the fenced off Avocet Island which were still above water. A Barn Owl was hunting along the bank by Parrinder Hide, and then crossed over the main path and headed out over the saltmarsh.

We decided to continue on out to the beach. There were a few more waders on Volunteer Marsh. A Ringed Plover was down on the mud and we watched a Grey Plover wrestle with a long worm, finally pulling it out of its hole. There were more Curlews and Redshanks along the channel at the far side, and a closer Black-tailed Godwit.

The no longer tidal ‘Tidal Pools’ are very full of water at the moment too, with very few places for the waders to roost now. The three Avocets which are still clinging on here for the winter were looking rather lost, roosting up to their bellies in the water.

Avocet

Avocets – these three were still trying to roost on the flooded ‘Tidal Pools’

Out at the beach, there were lots of waders on the mussel beds when we arrived, but something spooked them and they all flew round and landed on the beach. There were lots of Knot, Dunlin and Bar-tailed Godwits, several more Grey Plovers and one or two Turnstones. A few Sanderling were running in and out ahead of the waves breaking along the shoreline. There was not much out on the sea this afternoon. We managed to find just a single distant Goldeneye and two Great Crested Grebes.

It was time to head back now. The weather had finally improved, a bit late in the day, and we were treated to a glorious sunset away to the west as we walked back along the main path.

Sunset Titchwell

Sunset – over Titchwell

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20th Jan 2019 – More Owls & More

Another Owl Tour today. It was very frosty this morning, and a cold start to the day, -4C at 8am. But when the sun finally got up above the line of cloud on the horizon, it was a lovely bright and sunny winter’s day with light winds. Good owling weather!

It was slightly slow getting away this morning, so we were later than planned when we got to the grazing marshes. The grass was white with frost and there was no sign of the regular Barn Owl. Presumably it had gone in to roost already, possibly in response to difficult hunting.

The diurnal birds were slow to get going too. Eventually, the Marsh Harriers started to appear, first a juvenile over the reeds out in the middle, then a paler, greyer male flying past. Despite it being so cold, we spotted one Marsh Harrier high in the sky which started to display, swooping and twisting, through perhaps a bit half-heartedly. A few small flocks of Pink-footed Geese flew over calling, heading inland to look for fields where the sugar beet has just been harvested.

pink-footed geese 1

Pink-footed Geese – flying inland to feed, first thing this morning

We could hear Bearded Tits pinging from behind us, but the tops of the reeds were still frozen, and they were keeping tucked down despite it being fairly still today. We did get a quick glimpse of a couple as they flew over the reeds, but they quickly dropped back in out of view. A Great Spotted Woodpecker started drumming in the trees away on one side, and a second answered off in the other direction. It didn’t feel like spring was on its way anytime soon this morning, but hopefully the woodpeckers know something we don’t.

Then a Barn Owl appeared. It was not the usual male, which hunts here most mornings, this one was a much darker, more heavily patterned individual. It flew across over the reeds behind us, coming in from the direction of the village, and then dropped over the bank out of view. We saw it again briefly, as it flew up and along the bank, landing on a post for a second, then it disappeared behind the bank once more.

We walked up to where we could just see round the bank, but there was no sign of the Barn Owl at first. Then it appeared again over the reeds beyond, and circled round, hunting. A Marsh Harrier drifted over and circled above. The Barn Owl looked nervous, and flew across the road the other side of the bank and landed in a thick tree in a garden in the village. We got it in the scope, as it perched there for minute or so, then it disappeared off into the gardens.

It was still very cold, but the sun was finally starting to show itself. We decided to head back to the car to warm up, and then make our way inland to look for Little Owls. We figured it could be a good morning for them. After a cold night, they often like to warm up in the morning sunshine.

It was nice and bright now, and we could start to feel some warmth in the sun’s rays. At our first stop, we found a Little Owl, perched on the sheltered side of some farm buildings in the sunshine. It was rather distant, but we got a good look at it through the scope, puffed up like a ball of fluff. A good start.

Activity was picking up now that the air was warming up, and there were lots of other birds to see. Several Yellowhammers flew back and forth overhead, and three perched in the tops of some small trees in front of us. There were also Rooks in the fields, Stock Doves on the roofs of the barns,  and Common Gulls patrolling around the winter wheat.

While we were watching the first Little Owl, we could hear a second one calling, away to our right, behind the trees. The first answered. It was some distance away, but it was remarkable the delay between seeing it’s beak move and hearing the calls, the sound carrying well on the still crisp air.

We moved on to some more farm buildings, and found another Little Owl perched up, enjoying the sun, although we were looking into the light here, so it was not the best view. We scanned around the roofs again and spotted a third that had just appeared on some more barns across the fields on the other side of the road. It had just come out to warm up.

A footpath runs over that way, so we walked up for a closer look. The Little Owl was perched in the sunshine on the edge of the roof, preening. It looked round at us, but seemed fairly unconcerned as it turned back to face the sun.

little owl

Little Owl – enjoying the morning sunshine

A couple of small flocks of Fieldfares flew up out of the trees beyond and over overhead tchacking. A Green Woodpecker flew across and disappeared behind the trees and we watched several small flocks of Brent Geese flying in from the direction of the coast before disappearing off inland.

As we made our way west, we checked out a couple more sets of barns. There was no sign of any more owls out, but it was already mid-morning now. It was also sad to see many former Little Owl nest sites now being redeveloped for holiday cottages. At the rate things are going, it won’t be long before perhaps there are none left?

When we arrived at the Wash, and got up onto the seawall, the tide was out, and there were not many waders close enough to the bank to see. There was a small flock of perhaps several hundred Golden Plover out on the dry mud. They were catching the sun today, and stood out against the brown mud, looking distinctly golden. There were also a few Redshanks out on the Wash, as well as a liberal scattering of Shelduck and a couple of flocks of Mallard and Teal.

golden plover

Golden Plover – out on the Wash, catching the sunshine

As we made our way down along the seawall, we had a good look at the Pits. There was no sign of the Smew again today, where it has mostly been seen. But we did see several Goldeneye, including some smart drakes, their green heads shining in the sunshine.  There were lots of Wigeon on the Pits, and one or two Teal and Tufted Ducks.

On the causeway, we stopped to look at a pair of sleeping Gadwall through the scope. They are not the gaudiest of ducks, but the intricate patterns of their plumage are stunning in close-up. A Turnstone was picking at the stones on one of the shingle islands, running in and out amongst the Greylags.

We headed round to look for Short-eared Owls. There was no sign of the regular one again today, no clue as to why it has suddenly become more erratic in its habits. We couldn’t find the one we had seen yesterday either, where it had been. Again, it was starting to look like we might draw a blank. After a careful scan around the bushes, we finally spotted a Short-eared Owl hunkered down in the grass, a different bird, much darker. We had a nice view of it through the scope, and could see its yellow eyes.

short-eared owl

Short-eared Owl – hiding in the grass

Scanning along a bit further, we then found a second Short-eared Owl. This one was impossible to see without a scope, even when you knew where it was, and pretty difficult to see with it. It was tucked deep in a thicket of brambles, and you could just see its outline or an eye when it blinked.

It was lunchtime, so we stopped to eat on the benches overlooking the Wash. There were still very few birds on the mud close in, but we noticed a couple of small waders in front of Rotary Hide. Dunlin would be a new bird for the day’s list, so we looked over and could see that only one of them was actually a Dunlin. The other bird was noticeably smaller, with a short, fine, black bill. It was a Little Stint, a big surprise. They are very rare in winter here, typically occurring just as a migrant in spring and particularly in autumn. We had a good comparison of the two birds together.

little stint

Little Stint – a big surprise to find one in winter here

As made our way out, we glanced across and spotted the Smew on one of the other Pits. It was preening at first, but swam back away from us when it noticed us stop to watch it. It came to the attention of a drake Goldeneye just behind, which started to adopt a threat posture, head outstretched, low to the water.

The Goldeneye then swam after the Smew. The Smew dived, followed by Goldeneye. The Goldeneye resurfaced first, alert, looking round. When it spotted the Smew resurface some distance away, it set off after it again. Again and again the Smew dived and tried to get away, but each time the Goldeneye set off after it, chasing it off down the Pit, back in the direction we had just come.

smew

Smew – reappeared on one of the other Pits as we were leaving

A Barn Owl appeared, hunting over the rough grass around the Pits. It was still early afternoon, but presumably it was hungry after a tough night hunting in the frost last night.

As we headed back east, we decided to cut the corner off inland, round via Choseley to see if we could find the Rough-legged Buzzard again. As we were driving past, we noticed a buzzard in a tree across the other side of a field. We stopped to check just in case and at that moment it dropped from the branch it was on, flashing a bright white tail with a black terminal band. It was the Rough-legged Buzzard!

It flew across and landed on the top of a hedge running across the middle of the field. We stopped and got the scope on it. It flew a couple more times, moving further along the hedge each time, until it stopped up on the top of a ridge. We got a great view of it here.

rough-legged buzzard

Rough-legged Buzzard – perched on a hedge in the middle of a field

After we turned round in a layby, as we came back along the road, the Rough-legged Buzzard suddenly landed in the top of a tree on the verge in front of us. Unfortunately, before we could stop it flew again, down the road ahead of us, flashing its white tail. Then it turned and headed back out to the hedge in the middle.

Continuing on east, we called in at Holkham on our way to use the facilities and get a welcome hot drink in ‘The Lookout’ café. As we walked to the top of Lady Anne’s Drive, there were lots of Brent Geese in the field right by the fence. We stopped to look and one of the Black Brant hybrids was with them. It was very close, just a few feet beyond the fence, given us a great look at it. A smart bird, a bit darker than the others with a more contrasting flank patch and a bolder white collar.

black brant hybrid

Black Brant hybrid – with the Brent Geese, by Lady Anne’s Drive

Scanning from ‘The Lookout’, we could see another Barn Owl out hunting, way off in the distance towards Wells town. Several Grey Partridges were feeding down in the grass, much closer, and a Common Snipe flew across.

There were lots of Pink-footed Geese out on the grazing marshes east of the Drive. As we walked back to the car, something spooked them and they all took off. It was quite a sight – and sound – as several thousand geese took to the air in a cacophony of yelping calls.

pink-footed geese 2

Pink-footed Geese – something spooked all the geese on the grazing marshes

Back on the road, another Barn Owl was hunting the rough grass verge as we passed. The coast road is very busy and we couldn’t stop, but hopefully we were on our way to get better views of one elsewhere.

When we got to our final destination, we were worried that the Barn Owl might have come out early today. But just as we walked down along the path, we noticed it appear on the platform on the front of the owl box. It was still very sleepy, and stood their dozing, with its eyes half closed. We got a really good look at it through the scope.

barn owl 2

Barn Owl – came out of the box just as we arrived

Eventually, the Barn Owl stretched its wings and started to wake up. Then it dropped off platform and started hunting. The low lying meadows here were still frozen, having probably not caught the sun all day, so the Barn Owl started off hunting the grassy slope beyond today. It kept disappearing behind a hedge, to hunt a rough grassy strip, but then returning and quartering the slope above us, which was illuminated by the last of the setting sun’s rays.

The Barn Owl didn’t appear to be having any luck today. Several times it dropped down into the grass, but quickly came back up again and we could see it hadn’t caught anything. Periodically it would land on a post, or a couple of times in tree, where we got it in the scope again.

barn owl 3

Barn Owl – out hunting in the last of the setting sun’s rays

While watching the Barn Owl, the surprise of the afternoon were two Peregrines which flew in over trees. We could hear them calling first. They looked to be an adult and a juvenile, and they appeared to be having a disagreement. They chased each other off across the fields, then a little later, one flew in again and disappeared back over trees.

Finally, as the sun disappeared over the horizon, the Barn Owl flew down and started to work the water meadow. It didn’t seem to have much luck here either this evening, so headed off through the trees.

We decided to have a quick walk to warm up, in through the trees and down to the lake. A Grey Wagtail called from somewhere ahead of us. The lake was still frozen solid. Four juvenile Mute Swans had swum through the ice towards the near bank, but the water had then frozen again behind them. They now found themselves in a small pool wondering what to do. Eventually they realised they could break back through the ice the way they had come with a bit of effort. There was a small area of unfrozen water under the trees on the edge of the lake – it was full of ducks, and at least 15 Little Grebes.

It was time now to head back into the trees to listen for Tawny Owls. We positioned ourselves where we could see a favoured roosting tree, covered in ivy. After a few minutes, we heard a hoot, which was repeated several times. Then the Tawny Owl silently dropped out of the ivy and flew across through the trees. It landed again in the top of another ivy-covered tree where we couldn’t see it. Then it dropped again and flew off – we watched the big dark shape with broad rounded wings trees disappear off through the trees.

We walked on a short distance up the path. We stopped and the male Tawny Owl started hooting again, and we could hear the female answering. A couple of times we got one of them in the scope briefly, but they never stayed put long enough for everyone to see. We all saw it flying around between trees though, before it eventually moved deeper in.

The light was going fast now and it was getting dark. It was starting to get much colder again too, it was clearly going to be another frosty night. We decided to head for the warm.

16th Jan 2019 – A Big Day on the Coast

A Private Tour in North Norfolk today. It was to be a different day to normal, as we were planning to try to catch up with a selection of the scarcer winter visitors along the coast, as well as aiming to see as many different species as possible. We would need to cover quite a bit of ground, a bit of a whistle-stop tour of North Norfolk. After a grey start, it brightened up for a time during the morning, though it was rather breezy all day. We were forecast rain in the afternoon, and it arrived a bit earlier than forecast, but it didn’t stop us having a great – and very successful – day out.

It was an early start. As we drove up towards the coast, it was just getting light. We stopped off on the way, just in time to catch a Barn Owl out hunting still, before it went in to roost. An over-wintering Chiffchaff was calling from some trees nearby and the first Pink-footed Geese flew over, heading inland to feed.

barn owl

Barn Owl – one of the first birds we caught up with, early this morning

At our next stop, as we walked out beside the grazing marshes, the first bird we saw was another Barn Owl out hunting. It flew round over the field, disappeared over the bank, then came back again and did a couple more circuits before landing down in the grass. It stayed there for a minute, looking round, before flying off round the trees beyond. It was still early and rather cold here, and there didn’t seem to be many other birds awake yet. A Marsh Harrier quartered the grazing marshes.

We looped round to Cley and headed down to the beach. There has been a large flock of scoter on the sea here in recent days, but there was no sign of them this morning. While we were scanning, we noticed a flock of small birds fly up from the beach away to the east. Snow Buntings. We walked down along the shingle for a closer look.

The Snow Buntings were very flighty, flying up well before we got anywhere near, and heading further down the beach. Thankfully, as we got to where they had been feeding, they flew back in and landed on the shingle right in front of us. They were remarkably well camouflaged against the stones, but they were really close so we got a good really look at them. We counted at least 70 of them in the flock here today, although it was hard to get an accurate figure as they wouldn’t stop moving!

snow buntings 1

Snow Buntings – very well camouflaged on the shingle

While we were walking out for the Snow Buntings, we noticed a couple of gulls on the beach beyond. One was rather pale, and through the scope we could see it was the juvenile Glaucous Gull which has been hanging around here for a few days now. It has been feeding on dead seals washed up on the beach in last week’s storms, but this morning it was loafing. When we got down the beach, it was lying down on the beach, dozing. Still, we could see its very pale wing tips, much paler than the rest of the bird.

glaucous gull

Glaucous Gull – the juvenile was dozing on the beach first thing this morning

Looking out across North Scrape, there were several Shelducks scattered around the water. A small group of ducks closer to the front were all Pintail, busy upending in the shallows. As we turned to walk back, several groups of Brent Geese flew in, from the direction of the harbour where they had presumably roosted last night.

We stopped to have another scan of the sea when we got back to the beach car park. There was still no sign of the scoter flock, but we did pick up a Red-throated Diver on the water just offshore. A Guillemot flying past was a nice bonus too.

It was a very successful stop at Cley, but we had a busy day ahead and no time to explore the rest of the reserve today, so we moved on. We headed inland again next, to check out some farm buildings where there are sometimes Little Owls. It didn’t feel like a particularly good day to be looking for them – given the grey skies and wind – and they have not been very active recently anyway, but we thought we would have a quick look. Our luck was in. The first place we stopped, we spotted a Little Owl. It had found a sheltered spot, out of the wind, in the window of an old barn.

We moved on again, heading back across and down to the coast at Holkham. As we drove up along Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see more Pink-footed Geese out on the grazing marshes. There were lots of Wigeon out on the grass too, and a scattering of Teal around the pools.

Parking at the north end of the drive, we could see a large flock of Brent Geese feeding in the field next door. Most of them are Dark-bellied Brents, the regular form here which breeds in Siberia and spends the winter along the coast here. Looking through them carefully, we found one which was noticeably paler below, brighter white on the flanks and round under the belly. It was a Pale-bellied Brent, a scarce visitor here.

There was also a darker goose with them, with a more striking white collar than the others – one of the regular Black Brant hybrids, the result of a past pairing between a Black Brant (the third form of Brent Goose, which normally winters along the Pacific coasts) and one of our Dark-bellied Brents. They are regular here, with as many as three in the Wells / Holkham area, returning to the same fields each winter. A pitfall for the unwary, they are often misidentified as pure Black Brants.

black brant hybrid

Black Brant hybrid – one of the regular birds, with the Brents by the Drive

A careful scan around the field produced a Grey Partridge, over towards the back. We could see its orange face and the distinctive dark kidney mark on its belly through the scope. We were heading out for the beach, so we cut through the trees, which were quiet today.

Since Christmas, the Shorelarks have been more elusive and spend a lot of their time feeding in the taller saltmarsh vegetation where they can be hard to see. Thankfully, as we walked out towards the cordon, someone had already found them and a small group of people had gathered to watch them.

The Shorelarks were only a few metres out from the path, but were still very difficult to see, creeping around in the vegetation. Thankfully, one stopped to preen on a little tussock and we were able quickly to get it in the scope. We could see its bright yellow face and distinctive black mask. Once we had found one, we could see there were more around it. Probably there were all 26 here, but we could see no more then 3-4 at any time and at times it was hard to see any at all!

shorelark

Shorelark – hard to see in the taller vegetation on the saltmarsh

Continuing on to the cordon, a flock of small birds flew up from the edge of the sandy path ahead of us, and landed back down again. More Snow Buntings. There were eighteen here now (they were joined by another two when we walked back), the flock having declined since Christmas as some of the birds seem to have moved on. They are very obliging though, and let us walk right past them without flying off.

snow buntings 2

Snow Buntings – another 20 were at Holkham today

The sea at Holkham has been quiet in recent days, but we thought we would try our luck here, as we were doing so well. There were several Cormorants out on the sandbar just offshore, drying their wings. A few Oystercatchers were out there too, and a small flock of Sanderling whirled round and landed in with them.

Having set up the scope, we found it happened to be pointing right at a small party of Red-breasted Mergansers which were bobbing about on the water in front of the sandbar. Otherwise, the sea looked pretty empty on our first scan – just a single Common Scoter offshore.

On our next scan across, we spotted a diver quite close in, behind the breakers. We assumed it would be one of the two Great Northern Divers which we have seen here regularly in the last couple of weeks, but when it surfaced again from behind the waves we realised it was actually a Black-throated Diver. We could see the distinctive white patch on the rear flanks. A good bird to see here, the rarest of the three regular divers in Norfolk. Further down the beach, we then found a Great Northern Diver just offshore too. A three diver day – a rare treat indeed in this part of the world!

Back at the car, we made our way on west. We could see a lot of geese in one of the fields by the road, more than usual, so we pulled into a conveniently placed layby to check them out. A quick scan with binoculars revealed there were several Russian White-fronted Geese in with the regular Greylags and Egyptian Geese. Unfortunately, just at that moment a Marsh Harrier drifted across. The geese put their heads up and, as the harrier began to circle over them, they were off.

white-fronted geese

Russian White-fronted Geese – flushed by a Marsh Harrier as we pulled up

As we quickly got out of the car, we realised there were more White-fronted Geese out here – probably at least 120 in total. We watched as they all disappeared off over the grazing marshes towards the pines. The one thing we failed to find here was a Great White Egret, but rather than linger we figured we could have another quick look on our way back later.

A quick diversion down to the harbour at Brancaster Staithe added Black-tailed Godwit and Bar-tailed Godwit to the day’s list, as well as Little Egret. But there didn’t seem to be anything much else here, so we continued on to our next destination, Titchwell.

The feeders in front of the Visitor Centre were well-stocked but rather unusually devoid of birds when we arrived. There were a few Chaffinches, Goldfinches and a single Greenfinch on the feeders the other side, as well as Blue Tits and Great Tits for the list. We headed straight out onto the reserve, and a quick look in the ditch by the main path as we passed quickly revealed a Water Rail lurking in the water in the bottom.

water rail

Water Rail – lurking in the ditch by the main path

The sun was out as we walked along the path by the reedbed. It almost felt for a moment as if the forecast of rain later might be too pessimistic. The reedbed pool produced Gadwall and Tufted Duck, and we could see a single Grey Plover and a Curlew on Lavendar Marsh, but was otherwise fairly quiet, so we continued out to Parrinder Hide.

The Freshmarsh is very full of water at the moment, so there are not many places for waders here currently. There were a few Lapwings and a little group of Dunlin on the small remaining muddy island by the junction to the hide. Scanning through the ducks on the bigger, drier fenced-off island we were struck by the lack of Golden Plovers today – they must all have been feeding in the fields inland. Well, almost all, as we eventually found just a single one pretending to be a Wigeon.

There has been a Water Pipit regularly on this island, but it can be very elusive in the vegetation. Thankfully today, we found it pretty quickly, feeding on the spit on the front edge.

redshank

Common Redshank – on Volunteer Marsh as we passed

With not much else on here, we decided to head straight out to the beach. Apart from a few Redshanks and a couple of Grey Plover, there wasn’t much to see on Volunteer Marsh either. The now non-tidal ‘Tidal Pools’ are very full of water after last weeks high tides, which means there is very little island space left for roosting waders. There had apparently been some Knot on here earlier, but all we could find now was Oystercatchers and Bar-tailed Godwits, along with a small number of Dunlin and a couple more Grey Plovers.

The sea has been very productive at Titchwell in recent weeks and was one of the main reasons for coming here today, but when we got to the dunes one of the reserve volunteers was just leaving and told us there wasn’t much out there. He wasn’t wrong. All we could see on the sea was a single Common Scoter. We could see some cloud building from the west, and it started to spit with rain, so we decided to cut our losses. On the walk back to the car, the raft of Common Pochard and Tufted Duck which hadn’t been on the Freshmarsh on our way out had now reappeared.

We did a quick loop inland via Choseley on our way to Thornham, but the hedges along the side of the road here were quiet again, as they had been at the weekend. We decided to stop for lunch at Thornham Harbour and try for the Twite. While we were eating, the Twite first flew up and landed on the fence by the old sluice gate, then flew in over the saltmarsh and over to the coal barn, where they landed on the roof. After a couple of minutes they flew back in past us and landed down by the puddles in the car park for a drink, where we finally got a good look at them.

twite

Twite – flew in and landed in the car park while we were having lunch

After lunch, we headed round to Holme. As we drove down the track towards the Firs, we could see a photographer with a long lens pointing it into one of the gardens, his car abandoned in the middle of the road with the door still open. As we passed, we looked across to see what he was trying to photograph and saw a Barn Owl on a pile of brash in the back garden. A couple of Mistle Thrushes were in one of the trees on the other side of the road.

When the seaduck are not at Titchwell, Holme can be a good place to look instead. As we got down to the beach, there didn’t seem to be much offshore at first, apart from a trawler being followed by a huge mob of hungry gulls. As we scanned across, we first found a few Great Crested Grebes out on the water. Then we picked up some Eider a bit further offshore, which helpfully started to fly in much closer after the trawler had passed, lots of females, several 1st winter drakes and one or two very smart adult drakes.

A paler bird caught the light a bit further out, on the sea away to the east. It didn’t look like a gull and when it surfaced again from behind the waves we could see it was a drake Long-tailed Duck, one of the birds we were hoping to see today.

There were more waders on the beach here, over towards Thornham Harbour, with a small group of Knot in with the Grey Plover and Dunlin. It had brightened up again while we were at Holme, but now we could see some very dark clouds heading our way. We got back to the car, just as it started to rain.

Our next destination was Snettisham. As we got out onto the seawall, the tide was well out. There was a big flock of Golden Plover out on the mud, and a large huddle of Oystercatchers on the beach away to the north. More waders scattered liberally around, mostly Bar-tailed Godwit, Grey Plover and Dunlin. But it was raining hard now and windy and exposed up here, so we couldn’t spend long standing and scanning without risking getting very wet.

We had come here mainly to try to see the Smew which has been at Snettisham on and off for several weeks now. It can disappear at times, but thankfully today it was on the first pit just south of the cross bank, diving with three drake Goldeneye. We had a quick look at it – it was a bit more sheltered on the inland side of the seawall – and then continued on down towards the hide.

smew

Smew – still at Snettisham on one of the pits today

The Short-eared Owl, which had gone missing at the weekend, was apparently back under its usual bramble bush yesterday, so we made our way round to see if we could see it. Sure enough, there it was. It looked a bit bedraggled in the rain, and we were in danger of becoming the same, so with our mission here accomplished we made a swift retreat. Still, it meant we had racked up three different owls on our travels today.

short-eared owl

Short-eared Owl – back under its usual bramble bush in the rain

Back in the car, we made our way back east inland. We made a quick stop by a field with a strip planted with seed mix. We were looking mainly for Yellowhammers, and could see lots of birds in the hedge right at the back. They were mainly Reed Buntings, but as we scanned through them we found several Yellowhammers in with them. Even in the gloomy conditions, the bright yellow males really stood out.

Then we spotted a Tree Sparrow too. It dropped straight down out of sight, but as we scanned back we found a second Tree Sparrow a bit further back which stayed put until we all got a look at it. We could see the black spot on its white cheek. Not a great view in the driving rain, but a real bonus and not one we were expecting to get today.

There were a few common farmland birds which we had missed on our way out, so we had a look to see if we could find them on the way back, cutting across back to the coast road at Holkham. But it was a bit of a struggle to find much in the rain now. A quick stop back at Holkham was more productive though. Having drawn a blank on Great White Egret this morning, we found four together out on the grazing marshes this afternoon. For what was not that long ago a rarity in the UK, four together is quite a sight (well, away from Somerset at least)!

We had planned to finish the day at one of the raptor roosts, but when we got there the conditions were really dreadful. It was getting dark, but the driving rain meant visibility was much worse than it should have otherwise been. We headed for shelter and were told by the two people already there that they had just seen a male Hen Harrier land out on the marshes. Unfortunately they couldn’t find it again now – they couldn’t even find the post it was next to at first!

Thankfully, as we scanned across trying to find it, we spotted a harrier fly up at the back of the saltmarsh. It was not the male, but it was a ringtail Hen Harrier. We could see the flash of the white square at the base of its tail. It landed again and we could just make it out, perched on the ground.

That was more than we thought we would see, given the conditions, so we decided to call it a day. When we got back to the warm and dry, we tallied up the day’s list. 100 species! Not bad at all for a mid-winter day, and even more so given the conditions this afternoon. It just goes to show…

 

24th Nov 2018 – Out for a Lark (or Twenty)

A Private Tour today in North Norfolk. It was a rather grey morning, with a moderate and rather blustery east wind, but dry and fairl. the wind dropped in the afternoon and the sun even came out for a time!

Our main target for the morning was to see a Shorelark, so we headed straight round to Holkham first. When we got to Lady Anne’s Drive, the grazing meadows either side seemed rather quiet today. There were no ducks around the pools and no Wigeon out on the grass. A pair of Greylags and an Egyptian Goose flew over, but there were not many Pink-footed Geese out here this morning. A lone Brent was feeding on the grass close to the Drive.

We decided to head straight out towards the beach. Just before we got to the pines, we stopped to scan the hedges either side and we could see several Blackbirds flying back and forth across one of the ditches, between the hawthorns which are still laden with berries. These are presumably migrants which have stopped here to refuel.

On the other side of the pines, we could see a lot more Brent Geese out on the saltmarsh. Most were regular Dark-bellied Brents but in with them was our old friend, the Black Brant hybrid, noticeably darker, with a slightly more contrasting white flank patch and more striking white collar. The fact that it returns here each winter shows just how site faithful all these Brent Geese are.

Black Brant hybrid

Black Brant hybrid – the usual bird, out on the saltmarsh again

The saltmarsh was very wet this morning, as there had been a big spring tide overnight. There had been comparatively few reports of the Shorelarks in the last couple of days, perhaps as a consequence of the tides, and when we got to the area which has been cordoned off for them, we found lots of standing water and no larks! They were clearly going to take a bit more finding today.

We headed straight on to the beach, picking our way round the pools and puddles. The beach itself was also rather quiet, with fewer gulls than recently and a distinct lack of waders, despite the comparative lack of dog walkers out on the sand today. The Cormorants were standing out on the sand off Wells Harbour today. It was much windier than the last few days, which perhaps was the reason for the relative dearth of birds.

The sea was rather choppy out in the bay, but we did manage to find a few things out here. A line of Eider were riding the waves, and we found a group of Common Scoter further out. Several Red-throated Divers flew past, as did a few Gannets. A Guillemot just offshore was hard to see as it was diving constantly.

We were just wondering which way to go, when a large group of walkers appeared round the dunes from the Wells direction. They didn’t seem to be flushing anything ahead of them and we figured it was unlikely there would be any birds left on the beach that way. So we walked west instead.

There was nothing on the beach or along the edge of the dunes ahead of us. We kept stopping to scan and looking out to sea. We did find three Slavonian Grebes in a group just offshore, which was a very nice bonus. We decided to try along the edge of the saltmarsh, on the inland side of the dunes where it was more sheltered, and we flushed a large flock of Linnets which was slightly more promising. But there was still no sign of any Shorelarks.

When we got to the Gap, we started to walk back out onto the beach. We noticed some movement on the stones ahead of us, around the corner of dunes and looked across to see Shorelarks. Success! They were moving fast over the stones, or flying round in twos and threes, chasing each other. We got them in the scope and managed to see their distinctive yellow faces with black bandit masks before they took off and flew, heading away across the beach and over the dunes other side. We counted at least 20 Shorelarks again as they flew off.

Shorelark

Shorelark – we finally found them out on the beach

There was still a lot of water draining off the saltmarsh. We thought about crossing to the other side of the Gap but when we got half way over we found that we couldn’t all get across the channel flowing out across the beach without getting wet feet. So we turned to head back the way we had come, and as we did so the Shorelarks flew in again and landed back where they had been.

We stood and watched the Shorelarks again, feeding on the stones. There didn’t seem to be much food here for them, but presumably there were seedheads from the saltmarsh in the sand. They gradually worked their way along the beach away from us, so we decided to leave them to it and head back along the other side of the dunes.

Back at Lady Anne’s Drive, lots of Pink-footed Geese were now dropping in to the grazing marshes, so we stopped for a good look at them through the scope. It had taken a bit of time to find the Shorelarks today, but with our main target in the bag, we decided to explore the coast to the west, looking for waders and wildfowl, taking in the reserve at Titchwell. As we drove west along the coast road, we saw a couple of Red Kites hanging in the air over the fields.

There was still an hour or so before lunch, so we figured we would explore a couple of the harbours before going to Titchwell. At Brancaster Staithe, the tide was out and there were lots of Brent Geese bathing in the channel or loafing around on the sand beyond. A large group of Teal was asleep on the mud bank, and Wigeon were liberally scattered around the harbour.

Black-tailed Godwit

Black-tailed Godwit – feeding in the thick mud

There were a few waders, but still not so many as there are usually through the winter. A couple of Black-tailed Godwits were wading in the thick mud, there were several Redshanks further up the channel and three Oystercatchers were roosting by the water. A Curlew picking around on the mud dwarfed a Dunlin next to it. A Turnstone flew in and started feeding on the piles of discarded mussels.

Our luck was in when we got to Thornham Harbour. As we drove up along the road, a flock of small birds flew across in front of us and landed on the top of one of the wooden jetties. They were Twite, fourteen of them, and there looked to be three colour-ringed birds in with them too.

Twite 1

Twite – flew across in front of us as we drove in

We parked the car and got out very quietly, so as not to disturb them. We got the Twite in the scope from here, noting their orangey breasts and yellow bills. They dropped down one by one to the vegetation below, to feed, and we walked over very slowly for a closer look, to try to get the colour ring combinations.

Twite 2

Twite – feeding on the seedheads on the edge of the saltmarsh

We had a great look at some of the Twite as they fed, although it was hard to see all the rings with them down in the vegetation. Fortunately, two of them had already been reported and we had got enough information to identify the third. They were all ringed in Derbyshire, two of them in the spring and one back in 2016. The latter bird spent last winter here too.

It is great to be able to contribute sightings, as they are helping us to learn more about these birds, where they spend the winter and how they move. The Pennines breeding population of Twite has dropped sharply in recent years, and they are much more scarce here in winter than they used to be as a consequence.

There were not many waders here now, perhaps because it was just after low tide. There were several Redshanks in the various channels we checked. We walked up along the seawall as far as the corner and looked out across the harbour. There were plenty of Shelducks out on the saltmarsh, and we noticed a large flock of Brent Geese flying out over the shore line beyond the dunes. A flock of Linnets circled round overhead and a few dropped down to drink at the puddles on the bank.

It was time for lunch now, so we headed round to Titchwell. There were a few finches on the feeders, including one or two Greenfinches which are always good to see these days. A Coal Tit came in too. After lunch, we headed out to explore the reserve.

In the winter, it is often possible to see a Water Rail in the ditches by the path here. We scanned carefully as we walked along, and quickly found one just below the path. This is the first time we have seen it here this winter. We had a great look at it, as it fed in the water in the bottom, throwing leaves out of the way to see what it could find underneath.

Water Rail

Water Rail – back in the ditch by the main path

There were a few more birds on the reedbed pool today, so we stopped for a look. As well as several Mallard and Coot, we could see a pair of Gadwall and a single drake Common Pochard in the far corner. Looking across to the back of the reedbed, we could see a surprising number of Marsh Harriers in already. There are over 30 roosting here at the moment apparently, and we counted at least 12 and it was still early afternoon.

When we got to the Freshmarsh, we popped in to Island Hide. The water levels have not yet been raised for the winter, so there were still lots of waders on here. Large flocks of Golden Plover and Lapwings were standing around – separately – in the shallow water. There were several small parties of Dunlin working there way round the muddy edges of the islands and we found a single Ruff on the middle of one of them. Most of the Avocets have departed for the winter, but twelve are currently still trying to remain.

Golden Plover 1

Golden Plover – roosting on the Freshmarsh

There are lots of Teal still on the Freshmarsh, with several dabbling in the mud in front of the hide. The Wigeon are feeding mainly on the fenced off island, and there were a few Shelduck over the back. But there aren’t many other ducks on here at the moment. A lone Greylag was feeding right outside the window, and small groups of Brent Geese flew in from time to time.

With the light good at the moment, we decided to head straight out to the beach. With the tide out, there was not much on the Volunteer Marsh – a single Curlew feeding quite close to the path, and a few Redshanks along the channel.

Curlew

Curlew – pulling worms out of the mud on the Volunteer Marsh

With the big tides, the now non-tidal ‘Tidal Pools’ are very full with water. There were a few ducks roosting on the one remaining island. We could see a few Shoveler, which was new for the day, and we eventually found the drake Pintail fast asleep.

The tide was still out and all the waders were still on the beach. Possibly it was a bit less disturbed here today, because there were some big flocks of Knot out on the wet sand to the west. There were good numbers of Grey Plover in with them, and Bar-tailed Godwits closer to the sea beyond. We could see several Sanderlings running around on the shore too.

There had been some good birds on the sea today, so we scanned the water from the shelter of the concrete blocks. We found a couple of Red-breasted Mergansers, a drake Goldeneye and one or two Great Crested Grebes, but we couldn’t immediately see any sign of any divers, other grebes or the Long-tailed Ducks.

We walked down to the mussel beds, to get a better look at some of the waders. We got a nice little group of Knot in the scope, and then a Bar-tailed Godwit. The Knot were rather flighty and kept flying round.

Knot

Knot – there were good numbers on the beach today

It was exposed to the elements out on the open sand, so we walked back up the beach to the edge of the dunes to scan the sea again. We finally managed to find where the Long-tailed Ducks were, but they were a long way off to the west, half way to Thornham Point, and impossible to see with the light starting to go now. There was a diver and a couple of more interesting looking grebes even further off that way. We did discuss whether we wanted to walk up along the beach to try to see them, but it was getting late now. We decided to head back.

We called in at Parrinder Hide on our way. There were lots of gulls gathering to roost now, and in amongst the Lesser Black-backed Gulls and Herring Gulls, we found an adult Yellow-legged Gull. We hadn’t seen a Common Snipe today, so we scanned along the margins where the reeds have been cut this week, to no avail. Then one flew out of the vegetation on one of the islands and landed in with the Lapwings, before scurrying back in to cover.

The Golden Plover and Lapwings all spooked and whirled round over the Freshmarsh, silhouetted against the last of the light. We couldn’t see what caused it, possibly just a Marsh Harrier drifting over, but they settled down again quite quickly.

Golden Plover 2

Golden Plover – silhouetted against the last of the light

As we walked back along the main path, we looked across to the back of the Freshmarsh to see a small falcon flying fast and low along the bank, a Merlin. It cut the corner over the Freshmarsh and dropped over the top of the bank towards the Volunteer Marsh. We stopped by the reedbed to watch the Marsh Harriers and Little Egrets gathering over the back. More were still arriving, flying in from the west over the path as we made our way towards the trees. Unfortunately, it was time for us to head for home too.

17th Nov 2019 – Autumn to Winter, Day 2

Day 2 of a three day long weekend of Early Winter Tours today. After a misty start, the sun came out and the skies cleared, and it was a lovely bright sunny late autumn / early winter’s day. Great weather to be out.

It was very misty out on the grazing marshes when we arrived at Holkham and drove up along Lady Anne’s Drive. The sun was already starting to burn off the mist as we parked and got out of the car. We could see a couple of Pink-footed Geese in the field right by the north end of the Drive, along with a lone Brent Goose. Another two Pinkfeet flew over calling.

Pink-footed Goose

Pink-footed Goose – two were feeding right by Lady Anne’s Drive

There were clearly lots of birds in the hedge on the south side of the trees, so we stopped for a closer look.  The hawthorns were full of Redwings, feeding on the berries, along with a few Song Thrushes, presumably all fresh arrivals from the continent overnight, coming in for the winter. One Redwing was perched on the edge, enjoying the early sun as the mist lifted. Several then dropped down onto the grass in the middle of the grazing marsh to feed, in amongst the ubiquitous Woodpigeons.

A small group of Bullfinches flew along the hedge, flashing their white rumps. A smart pink male perched up in the hawthorns briefly, but quickly dropped back into cover. Four Greenfinches appeared in the trees nearby but quickly flew off east. Then a flash of a small pale bird flying along the brambles stretching out across the far side of the grass, turned out to be a female Blackcap once it landed and we got it in the scope.

The new café, ‘The Lookout’, wasn’t open yet, but we took advantage of the raised ground around it as a vantage point to scan the grazing marshes to the east. A couple of Stonechats perched up in the top of the reeds, waiting for it to warm up. A Common Buzzard flew across and landed on a concrete block out in the middle; nearby a second Buzzard was perched in the top of the hedge.

As we walked through pines, we could hear Long-tailed Tits calling in the trees. Out onto the edge of the saltmarsh, we turned right and walked along the path below the pines. It was rather quiet along here today, and when we got to the new cordon, erected to help protect the Shorelarks from disturbance, there was no sign of them.

The Shorelarks often like to feed on the beach too, so we continued on to look for them there. We could see a long line of Cormorants drying their wings out on the sand bar beyond. Several gulls were feeding just offshore, mainly Black-headed Gulls, flying up and down over a narrow strip of water, dipping regularly down to pick food from the surface. A couple of gulls were slightly larger, bulkier, with pure white wing tips – two adult Mediterranean Gulls. Then a much smaller gull flew in to join the same group, a dainty Little Gull flashing its dark underwings.

While scanning back and forth through the gulls, another white shape bobbing on the sea caught our eye. As we focused in, we could see it was an Avocet! Swimming out on the sea! This is not something Avocets normally do, although most waders are capable of swimming short distances if required. We assumed it had only landed briefly, but over the following 15 minutes or so we were on the beach, it remained happily out on the sea. Seemingly there were a few Avocets on the move today, with other birds seen flying along the coast, so perhaps this was just a tired migrant stopping for a rest? Whatever it was doing there, it was bizarre to see it!

With a very calm sea, there were not so many duck visible today (they were presumably feeding further out). We did find a flock of Red-breasted Mergansers closer in, off the sandbar. There were a few Gannets flying back and forth offshore too, and when we focused the scope on two distant Gannets resting on the sea, we could see one or two Guillemots on the water in front of them.

There had been a few Meadow Pipits and Skylarks flying over calling, but then we heard the Shorelarks and we turned to see them flying in to the cordoned off area on the saltmarsh behind us. We walked back round for a closer look, and when we got to where the Shorelarks were, we heard Snow Buntings calling. We looked across to the other side of the cordon to see three Snow Buntings fly in and drop down on the edge of the dunes at the back. We didn’t know where to look first!

After a look at the Snow Buntings first, we turned our attention back to the Shorelarks. Very obligingly, they flew across and landed down on the saltmarsh in front of where we were standing. They are very well camouflaged when they are feeding down in the vegetation, and they were hard to count at first, but eventually everyone who was counting managed to see all 12 of them. When they put their heads up, you can see their yellow faces and black bandit masks, and it was a perfect day for watching them today. Their yellow faces glowed in the morning sun, which was shining from behind us. Stunning!

Shorelarks 1

Shorelarks – there were 12 today on the saltmarsh

Shorelarks 2

Shorelarks – their yellow faces shone in the sunshine

Shorelarks are very scarce winter visitors from Scandinavia, in variable numbers from year to year, and Holkham is a very traditional site for them. They feed on the seedheads out on the saltmarsh here. Hopefully the new cordon will encourage them to remain here through the winter again.

Having enjoyed great views of the Shorelarks, we made our way back to Lady Anne’s Drive. ‘The Lookout’ café was now open, so we made a quick stop to use the facilities. A Kingfisher shot across the top of the Drive and disappeared west behind the trees, down the line of the ditch, unfortunately too quick for most to get onto it. A Sparrowhawk was perched on a post in the middle of the grazing marsh.

We walked west from there, on the inland side of the trees. We flushed lots of Blackbirds from down under the trees or the hawthorns as we went. There had clearly been a major arrival overnight from the continent, and more seemed to be arriving now, coming in through the tops of the pines. Three Jays flew across the path and one landed in the poplars.

We could hear tits in the pines and looked up to see a flock of mainly Long-tailed Tits working its way through the tops. A Treecreeper called from somewhere deep in the trees, but we couldn’t see it. A Goldcrest appeared in the pines right above our heads and dropped down to feed low down in a tree right beside us.

Goldcrest

Goldcrest – fed just above our heads

There were lots of Mallard on Salts Hole today, and in with them we found at least six Little Grebes, several Coot and three Tufted Duck. A small flock of Wigeon was feeding on the grass beyond, and three Egyptian Geese were calling noisily just behind them. One of the Egyptian Geese flew up into the pine tree, perhaps checking out a potential nest site already.

Two Marsh Harriers circled over the reeds in front of Washington Hide, flushing all the ducks. We could see a small flock of Shoveler circling round. As we started to walk in that direction, we looked back at Salts Hole to see two Water Rails fly out of the reeds. One flew across to the other side but the other turned back. Both disappeared straight into the reeds unfortunately, but we could then hear them squealing to each either from either side.

Little Grebe

Little Grebe – there were at least six on Salts Hole today

There were some more Long-tailed Tits in the Holm Oaks along the side of the track and we stopped to watch two Coal Tits chasing each other in and out of the trees. A quick scan from the gate overlooking the grazing marshes revealed a distant flock of Pink-footed Geese and more Wigeon out on the grass.

From up on the boardwalk to Washington Hide, we watched one of the Marsh Harriers quartering over the reeds. It hovered for a couple of seconds and looked like it was going to drop down after something, but then drifted away to the grazing marshes beyond. We were looking straight into the low sun from here – one of the disadvantages of such a nice day at this time of year – so we decided to press on west. There were a few Common Darter dragonflies still out, enjoying the late sunshine, and one was basking on the wood of the boardwalk by the track.

Marsh Harrier

Marsh Harrier – hunting over the reeds in front of Washington Hide

The pools and grazing marshes in front of Joe Jordan Hide looked rather quiet at first, but a scan of the grass to the west of the hide revealed eight Russian White-fronted Geese with the Greylags. Compared to the Greylags, the Whitefronts were noticeably smaller, with a more delicate pinkish bill surrounded with white at the base. The White-fronted Geese are just returning now for the winter, but numbers here will depend on the weather and food availability on the continent.

There were a couple of people already in the hide when we arrived, and they told us we had just missed a Great White Egret flying past. It was still almost visible away to the east of us, but hidden behind hedge. When a second Great White Egret was then flushed by a Marsh Harrier from the reeds closer to us, the first flew back in and the two of them chased round over the edge of the grazing marsh and in and out of the hedge. One eventually flew back and landed on the far side of the marshes.

Great White Egrets

Great White Egret – two were chasing around the grazing meadows

On the walk back, we bumped into the tit flock again, where we had seen the Goldcrest earlier. It or another Goldcrest was still in the same tree! A Treecreeper appeared in one of the poplars above us and we watched as it worked its way out along the underside of one of the branches. It was then joined by a second Treecreeper briefly, before the two of them flew back deeper into the trees.

Back at ‘The Lookout’, a large flock of Blackbirds came in over the pines and headed off inland. Unfortunately, with the opening of the new café, the picnic tables by Lady Anne’s Drive have been removed (presumably to encourage people to frequent the new establishment!), so we decided to find somewhere else to eat our lunch. There are still some benches at Burnham Overy Staithe, which had the added advantage of a lovely view overlooking the harbour, particularly on a glorious day like today.

After lunch, we had a quick walk out along the seawall. With the tide in, there were a lot of boats sailing up and down the harbour channel and a lot of disturbance as a consequence. There were not to many waders along the sides of the channel at first – a couple of Grey Plover over the far side, and a Curlew down below us which was catching the afternoon sun.

Curlew

Curlew – feeding on the edge of the harbour channel

As we got a bit further out, more waders started to appear. A couple of small flocks of Dunlin flew out of one of the side channels and across the harbour towards us. Several Bar-tailed Godwits landed out on a sandbar in the middle of the channel out towards the dunes and were joined by a few Grey Plover. When another boat sailed towards them, they flew again and came across to our side of the harbour.

Round the corner of the seawall is a muddy bay which is less disturbed by passing boats. A large flock of the Dunlin had all gathered here, feeding feverishly on the mud. Looking through we could see several Ringed Plover with them, their distinctive black ringed faces instantly setting them apart. A few more Grey Plover and Redshanks were scattered around the mud too and the Bar-tailed Godwits flew in to join them. It was nice to see all the waders together, to compare sizes, bill shapes and watch the different ways in which they were feeding.

Bar-tailed Godwits

Bar-tailed Godwits – flushed by a boat and flew in over the harbour

One of the group spotted an Avocet flying across the harbour towards us. It looked like it might drop in with the other waders, but changed its mind and continued on over the seawall towards Holkham.

At the next corner on the seawall, where the path across the grazing marshes meets the bank, a large flock of Brent Geese had gathered to feed on the grass just below us. We could see several stripy-backed juveniles in with the plainer adults, which suggests they have had a better breeding season this year than last. There were also ten or so Barnacle Geese further back, most likely feral birds hopped over the wall from Holkham Park.

One of the adult Brent Geese stood out from the others – it had a much more striking white collar, a slightly paler flank patch and appeared slightly darker, more blackish overall. It is a hybrid Black Brant, an intergrade between two forms of Brent Goose, between our regular Dark-bellied Brent and a Black Brant from NE Siberia or NW North America. It is an old friend – it returns to exactly the same fields every winter, showing us just how site faithful all these geese are.

Black Brant hybrid

Black Brant hybrid – the regular returning bird was on the grazing marshes

The afternoon was getting on and had we wanted to fit in one more thing before it got dark, so we headed back to the car and drove along the coast to the other side of Wells. As we walked down the track heading towards the coast, we flushed several Goldcrests which flew along the hedge ahead of us. There were also a few Blackbirds and Redwings which flew out of the hedge calling, presumably feeding up on the berries after their journey across from the continent. Another large flock of Brent Geese was feeding in the winter wheat here, chattering noisily.

When we got down to the edge of the saltmarsh, there were already a few people gathered here. A Merlin was perched up on the top of a very distant bush, having just been flushed by a wildfowler walking around out on the marshes.

Apparently a male Hen Harrier had flown past before we arrived, but then a second one appeared perched on a bush, also rather distant though clearly visible through the scope. A ringtail Hen Harrier flew in from the east, across the back of the saltmarsh, and dropped straight into the grass, straight to bed. With the clear weather, it appeared the birds had been making the most of it, hunting late rather than coming in early and flying around before going in to roost. The first male Hen Harrier flew back in from the west, and the second came up so we could see the two males flying round together

A large skein of Pink-footed Geese came over from the fields behind us calling, and flew out across the saltmarsh and landed on the flats beyond to roost. One of the group, looking the other way from the rest of us, spotted another Merlin coming in from behind us too. It came over our heads, turned out over the saltmarsh and we watched it fly across against the sky, before it dropped down and landed on a bush, where we got it in the scope. It was much closer than the first one we had seen, but the light was starting to go now.

A Green Sandpiper flew west calling, but we couldn’t see it in the gathering gloom, so we decided it was time to call it a day and head back.

24th Feb 2017 – Wildfowl, Waders & Larks

A Winter Tour today in North Norfolk. After Storm Doris had blown through yesterday (thankfully, with no tours arranged!), bringing gusts of up to 81mph, it was a welcome return to calmer conditions today. It was mostly cloudy, but we did enjoy some nice sunnier intervals later in the afternoon.

Our first stop was at Holkham. As we drove up Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see large flocks of Wigeon still on the grazing marshes. It won’t be too long now before they will start to depart for their Russian breeding grounds.

6o0a7998Wigeon – still large flocks on the grazing marshes at Holkham

Most of the Pink-footed Geese have already departed on their way back north, although they will stop off in northern England or Scotland before continuing on their way to Iceland. However, there are still a few around and we managed to find a small party of Pink-footed Geese further over on the grazing marshes. A quick look through the scope, and we discovered there were a couple of White-fronted Geese with them too and a single Brent Goose.

Walking through the gap in the trees towards the beach, there were lots of small branches and leaves scattered over the path, the remnants of last night’s storm. We made our way east, along the path on the edge of the saltmarsh. Out in the vegetation, we could see a small group of Brent Geese and Shelduck. Most of the geese were Dark-bellied Brents, the commonest subspecies here in winter, they breed in northern Russia. There is also a regular Black Brant hybrid here, the returning progeny of a vagrant Black Brant which had paired up with a Dark-bellied Brent Goose many years ago, this hybrid now comes back every year to the same place.

img_0920Black Brant hybrid – the regular returning bird, still with the Brent flock at Holkham

It didn’t take long to find the Black Brant hybrid in with the small flock of Brents. It has a noticeably whiter flank patch and more extensive collar, as well as being a touch darker above and on the belly than the accompanying Dark-bellied Brent Geeese. However, it is not quite dark or contrasting enough to match a pure Black Brant. It is always an interesting bird to see here.

As we walked along, several Meadow Pipits flew up from the saltmarsh, but it wasn’t until we got to the east end that we found the Shorelarks, in their regular spot. They are currently feeding mostly in the slightly taller vegetation, so can be hard to see. Thankfully we were able to find them before some other birders walked right through the area they were hiding.

img_0906Shorelark – still 29+ here, feeding in the taller vegetation on the saltmarsh

We watched the Shorelarks for a while. At first, it looked like there were only 5-6 of them again, but gradually we spotted more creeping around in the sea lavendar seed heads. With their heads down, they were particularly hard to see, but occasionally a bright yellow face with black bandit mask would pop up out of the vegetation.

When a Common Buzzard drifted out from the pines and across the saltmarsh, the Shorelarks all took off and only at that stage could we see how many there really were. They landed on a slightly more open sandy ridge and a quick count suggested there were 29, although we could easily still have missed one or two. Then they scuttled quickly back into cover.

We walked over to the dunes and had a quick look at the sea. It was still rather rough after yesterday, and there didn’t appear to be a lot visible today. We did find a couple of Red-breasted Mergansers feeding in the breakers. There were also lots of Oystercatchers and gulls on the beach, feeding on shellfish washed up after the storm, and several Sanderling were running in and out of the waves between them.

As we made our way back to Lady Anne’s Drive, a small bird came zipping low across the saltmarsh and out towards the dunes. It was a Merlin. Often that is all you see of them, as they disappear off into the distance, but this one helpfully decided to land on a small Suaeda bush, where we could get a great look at it through the scope. It perched there for several minutes, before flying off over the dunes and away west over the beach. As we got back to the boardwalk, a Sparrowhawk was circling over the pines.

img_0932Merlin – perched up for us to get a great look at it

From Lady Anne’s Drive, we walked west on the inland side of the pines. A tree was down across the path and the wardens were in the process of clearing it with chainsaws. Despite the noise, we could hear Goldcrests and Long-tailed Tits in the trees. Further along, a Treecreeper was singing. Salts Hole held a Little Grebe, a pair of Tufted Ducks, plus a few Coot and Wigeon. A Jay flew across, over the back of the water.

As we approached Washington Hide, we saw a Spoonbill fly up briefly, which appeared to drop down again, possibly onto one of the pools. We had a scan of the grazing marshes from the boardwalk by the hide, but couldn’t see it from there. A Marsh Harrier circled up out of the reedbed. Then the Spoonbill flew up again and disappeared off further west.

At Joe Jordan Hide, there didn’t seem to be as much activity as recent days at first. There was a scattering of commoner geese – Greylags, Canada Geese and Egyptian Geese – out on the grass. A small group of White-fronted Geese were feeding on the old fort, but as we sat and watched, a steady stream of small groups flew in and joined them, mostly from the other side of Decoy Wood.

6o0a8013White-fronted Geese – flying in to land on the grazing marshes

A juvenile Peregrine was standing by the edge of one of the pools further over, but took off just as we turned the scope onto it. It proceeded to have a go at most of the other birds in the vicinity, swooping down at ducks and geese, but didn’t really seem to know what it was doing. We also saw several more Marsh Harriers and Common Buzzards from here – it is often a good spot for raptors.

Finally, we managed to find the Spoonbill. It was right out across the other side of the grazing marshes and feeding in a small pool. With its head down, it was impossible to see, but just visible occasionally as it lifted its head up. Thankfully, after a while it flew out and landed on the open grass where we could get a slightly better look at it. It was a juvenile, lacking the yellow bill tip and bushy crest of the adults. There was no sign of the other three Spoonbills today, or any Great White Egrets from here.

Back at Lady Anne’s Drive, we stopped for lunch at the picnic tables over looking the grazing marshes. As well as the Wigeon still, there was a selection of waders out on the grassy pools, including Oystercatcher, Curlew and Redshank. A pair of Mistle Thrushes flew down out of the pines. After lunch, as we drove back towards the coast road, the Pink-footed Geese were now close to Lady Anne’s Drive so we stopped quickly for a better look.

6o0a8028Pink-footed Geese – nice views close to Lady Anne’s Drive after lunch

From the road, we pulled up to scan the other side of the marshes and quickly spotted a very tall white shape, a Great White Egret. We stopped and got the scope on it. Helpfully, there was a Grey Heron just next to it for comparison and we could see that the Great White Egret was as tall or even slightly taller! The long yellow-orange bill also really stood out.

img_0934Great White Egret – out on the grazing marshes at Holkham

Scanning across the marshes, we found a second Great White Egret, hiding in a reedy ditch. There were also lots more White-fronted Geese this side, which is why there were not so many visible from Joe Jordan Hide today. Amongst a flock of Lapwings and Starlings down on the wet grass, we found a little group of Ruff too.

As we made our way further west along the coast road, a shout from one of the group alerted us to a Barn Owl perched on a post right beside the road as we drove past. Never an easy place to stop, we managed to reverse back to it. It sat for a few seconds looking at us, but then flew a little further along as another car pulled up behind. Driving forwards very slowly, we were able to watch it only about 10 metres away from us. Stunning views! Eventually, the growing number of cars stopping to look seemed to spur it into action and it flew across the road and started hunting over the marshes.

6o0a8049Barn Owl – perched on a post right beside the road in the middle of the day

There has not been as much daytime Barn Owl activity this winter, which may reflect the generally mild and clement conditions we have enjoyed. It they are not hungry, then there is no need for them to hunt during the day. Presumably Storm Doris had made hunting very difficult yesterday and overnight, so this Barn Owl had come out to try to catch something during the day. We could see that it was ringed, but unfortunately couldn’t read the full number from photos. Many wild Barn Owls are ringed in the nest in North Norfolk.

After that unexpected bonus, we continued on to Titchwell, where we planned to spend the rest of the afternoon. The feeders round the visitor centre held a selection of the commoner finches and tits, but no sign of any Brambling today. The Water Rail put on a good show, feeding out in the open in the ditch by the main path, probing in the decaying leaves, seemingly unconcerned by the large lenses pointed at it.

6o0a8104Water Rail – still in the ditch by the path

The grazing meadow was rather quiet again but the reedbed pool did at least provide Common Pochard as an addition for the day’s list. The water levels on the freshmarsh have been slowly coming down and there was a nice selection of birds on here today.

The first thing that struck us when we arrived was the gulls. There were large numbers of Black-headed Gulls and Common Gulls loafing on the edges of the islands or in the shallow water. In with them were a few Herring Gulls and Lesser Black-backed Gulls. We had a scan through from Island Hide, but it was only from further up that a Mediterranean Gull was visible. It was an adult, with white wing tips and bright red bill, just moulting in to summer plumage, with white speckling still around the front of its jet black hood.

img_0949Mediterranean Gull – an adult moulting into summer plumage

There was still the usual variety of ducks on the freshmarsh. The Teal were looking particularly smart, in the afternoon sunshine, just below the path. Further over, we could see a selection of Wigeon, Gadwall, Shoveler and a pair of Pintail. A large flock of Brent Geese flew in from the saltmarsh towards Brancaster, calling noisily, and landed on the water to bathe and preen.

6o0a8122Teal – a smart drake in the sunshine

Wader numbers on the freshmarsh are increasing now, in particular the number of Avocets, as birds return north. There were also more Black-tailed Godwits today, though mostly sleeping in amongst the gulls. A small group of Dunlin included a single Knot for comparison. Singles of Grey Plover and Turnstone had presumably flown in from the beach ahead of high tide. The fenced off Avocet Island at the back was packed with Golden Plover and Lapwing, with more small flocks of Golden Plover dropping in to join them all the time.

6o0a8190Curlew – on the Volunteer Marsh

There were more waders on the Volunteer Marsh. As well as more Knot, Dunlin and Grey Plover, there were lots of Redshank and Curlew. A single Ringed Plover was a welcome addition to the day’s list. With high tide approaching, more waders were roosting on the Tidal Pools, particularly several Bar-tailed Godwits. This gave us a great opportunity to compare them to a couple of Black-tailed Godwits feeding nearby. Even without seeing their respective tails, the buffier tones, black streaked upperparts, shorter legs and upturned bill all quickly distinguish the Bar-tailed Godwits.

6o0a8144Avocet – on the Tidal Pools

There were also more Knot and Redshank on the Tidal Pools, and several Avcoets feeding, including one close to the path.

We wanted to have a look at the sea, but there was not as much activity out here as there has been in recent weeks. There was still a big swell running, after the storm yesterday, and several of the ducks appeared to be quiet a way offshore. Fortunately, there was a nice group of about twenty Velvet Scoters close in, diving for shellfish. Several were holding their wings loosely folded, revealing the white wing flash as a stripe on their flanks. The face pattern is rather variable, particularly at this time of year, but it was possible to see the distinctive white spot at the base of the bill on some.

Helpfully, there was also a female Common Scoter with them for comparison, with a very extensive pale cheek and dark cap, and no white wing flash. There were more Common and Velvet Scoters in a larger raft much further out. A female Goldeneye drifted past in front of them, but most of the other Goldeneyes were a long way offshore today. A Fulmar flew past too.

Back at the Tidal Pools, we stopped to look again at a group of roosting waders, particularly with Bar-tailed Godwit and Black-tailed Godwit side by side. But a scan further along revealed that a Spotted Redshank had flown in while we were out at the beach. We walked back and had great views of it feeding in the shallows not far from the path. With a Common Redshank nearby for comparison, we could see that the Spotted Redshank was noticeably paler, more silvery grey above and whiter below, with a longer and finer bill and a better marked, brighter white supercilium.

6o0a8170Spotted Redshank – had flown in to the Tidal Pools while we were on the beach

As we passed the freshmarsh on our way back, the Golden Plovers and Lapwings all spooked, They took off and whirled round in flocks overhead, the Golden Plovers particularly tight packed. We couldn’t see anything which might have alarmed them, although they had been jumpy all afternoon, and they quickly settled back down again.

6o0a8192Golden Plovers – whirling around over the freshmarsh

A quick look down along one of the reedy channels in the reedbed revealed a Kingfisher, perched up on a reed along the edge. We had a quick look at it through the scope, before another bird spooked it and it flew off across the reeds. We looked back to see a second Kingfisher had appeared, presumably having chased off the first. Then it was time to call it a day and head for home.

21st Feb 2017 – From Heath to Coast

A Private Tour today in North Norfolk. The brief was to avoid the main nature reserves on the coast. The forecast was for it to be “rather cloudy with outbreaks of light rain at first” according to the Met Office. How wrong it was! Instead, when we met up in the morning it was wall to wall blue sky and crisp sunshine. With weather like that, there was only one place to start the day.

As soon was got out of the car up on the Heath, we heard a Woodlark calling as it flew away. A dog was running across the cleared area nearby and had probably just flushed it. Still, it seemed an auspicious start. A Yellowhammer flew in and landed in the top of one of the bushes by the car park. A smart male, we got it in the scope and its yellow head was positively glowing in the morning light. Stunning!

6o0a7787Yellowhammer – a smart male glowing yellow in the morning sun

A couple more Yellowhammers dropped in to join it, another male and a duller female. While we were watching them, we heard the Woodlark calling again as it flew back in. We saw where it landed in the long grass and walked a little closer to where we could see it. Thankfully, it was standing up on a slightly taller tussock and it started to sing softly as it stood there. We got it in the scope and all had a good look at it.

When the Woodlark took off again, it flew straight towards us and gained height. Then it started singing as it came right overhead, hovering above us for a minute or so. The Woodlark‘s song is not full of the joys like a Skylark but slightly more melancholy. It is still a beautiful sound, a real delight to stand and listen to it on such a sunny morning, one of the real sounds of early spring on the heaths. As it hung overhead, we could see the Woodlark‘s comparatively short tail and broad rounded wings.

6o0a7796Woodlark – hovering over our heads this morning, singing

After a while, the Woodlark flew down and landed again at the back of the clearing. We were planning to be greedy and go over for another look at it, but we were distracted by another smart male Yellowhammer hopping around on the ground in front of us. While we were watching it, the Woodlark took off again, calling. A second Woodlark got up from the ground and followed it – clearly the male had been singing while the female was feeding quietly over the back of the clearing all along.

Sunny mornings on the Heath at this time of the year are a great time to look for Adders. Having emerged from hibernation, they like to bask in the sunshine and warm themselves. We walked round to an area where we can often find them, a slope angled towards the morning sun. Very quickly we spotted one close to the path, but despite the early hour of the morning it was surprisingly lively already and quickly slithered off into the undergrowth. As we walked round this quiet corner, we heard a Bullfinch calling and looked across to see a smart pink male picking at the buds in the top of a dense blackthorn thicket.

After such a successful start to the morning, we decided to turn our attention to Dartford Warblers next. They are resident on the heaths all year round, but harder to find when it is cloudy and cold. At this time of year, on sunny days, they are starting to sing again. Walking round through the centre of one of their regular territories, all seemed rather quiet at first. Then we heard a distinctive rasping call and looked across to see a small dark long-tailed bird dart across a clearing between two gorse bushes. Our first Dartford Warbler.

Repositioning ourselves to where it had flown, we could soon see the Dartford Warbler flitting between the gorse bushes. As we followed it, it soon became clear there were actually at least three Dartford Warblers in the same area. They can be hard birds to track, as they are constantly on the move, disappearing into the dense vegetation for periods and then, just when you think you have lost them, flying out again. Occasionally one would perch out in the open for a couple of seconds – we could see there was a male, darker slate blue grey above and richer burgundy below, a duller female, and a young bird, much browner above and paler below, one of the juveniles from last year.

6o0a7835Dartford Warbler – the male singing from the top of a gorse bush

The male Dartford Warbler started singing. We could hear the bursts of scratchy song. At one point, we thought there might be two males, as we heard different bursts of song coming from different places in quick succession. After following them for a while, and having all enjoyed good views, we left them to it and continued our circuit of the Heath. As we walked round, were accompanied by the song of Woodlarks and Yellowhammers.

It was a perfect day for finding Adders today. We bumped into one of the local birders who is a regular on the Heath and he showed us three Adders basking round the base of a birch tree. A larger, darker female was stretched out on her own. Nearby, what looked like one snake turned out to be two curled up together as they moved – a large, dark female, and a smaller, slimmer, paler silvery male. A little further on, we found another two Adders, curled up in a couple of bare patches on a south facing bank. We had a great look at them.

6o0a7846Adder – we found at least six out basking this morning in a brief look

We had a quick look round another Dartford Warbler territory the other side of the Heath, but it was quieter here. There has been a pair of Stonechats here and the warblers have been following them round, but we couldn’t find any sign of either in their favourite area. Having enjoyed such a great session with the Dartford Warblers earlier, we weren’t overly concerned.

While we were walking round, another pair of Woodlarks flew over. The male landed on a post, where we could get him in the scope, while the female dropped down to the ground to feed. We were just watching them, when a third Woodlark started singing just behind us. These three were almostly certainly different to the pair we had seen earlier, which would mean potentially three pairs of Woodlark here this morning. It had been a great morning on the Heath and we could easily have stayed here all day, but we had other things we wanted to do today, so we made our way back to the car.

Our next destination was Holkham. As we drove down along Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see a large flock of geese on one of the grazing meadows nearby, so we stopped for a closer look. We could see they were mostly Brent Geese, smaller and darker, but nearby were a few grey-brown Pink-footed Geese too. A lot of the Pink-footed Geese which have spent the winter here have already departed on their way back north, so it was nice to be able to get a good look at some. We could see their delicate mostly dark bills with a pink band around and, when one stood up in the grass, its pink legs.

6o0a7850Pink-footed Geese – a few were still by Lady Anne’s Drive today

The vast majority of the Brent Geese here during the winter are Dark-bellied Brent Geese which breed up in arctic Russia. Occasionally, we get one of the other subspecies of Brent Goose in with the flocks, perhaps a Black Brant from NE Siberia or Alaska. In the past, some of these Black Brants have paired up and subsequently bred with one of the Dark-bellied Brents to produce hybrid young. One of these hybrids is a regular here at Holkham and a careful scan through the Brent flock revealed it. Subtly darker bodied than the others, it has a better marked white collar and more obvious whiter flank patch then the others.

img_0864Black Brant hybrid – a regular in with the Dark-bellied Brents at Holkham

While we were watching the geese, we could hear Lapwings starting to display on the fields behind us, giving their distinctive song. There were also still some big flocks of Wigeon grazing close to the road, whistling occasionally. Several Common Buzzards were enjoying the sunshine, circling up into the blue sky and even starting to display, swooping up and down. It was getting on for lunchtime already, so we decided to have an early lunch here before setting off to explore.

After lunch, we walked out onto the beach and made our way east alone the edge of the saltmarsh. At first there was no sign of the large flock of Shorelarks which has been feeding here for the last few weeks. We were told they had earlier been flushed by an errant dog running around there. We walked across for a look at the sea, in the hope that they might return. The tide was in and there was not so much activity here today – a few Great Crested Grebes and a single drake Goldeneye were all we could find riding out on the slightly choppy sea.

There were three birders eating their lunch in the dunes nearby, looking out through their scopes at the saltmarsh, so we walked back round to see if they had seen anything. Very helpfully, they got us on to six Shorelarks which were feeding half hidden in the taller vegetation out in the middle. We were looking into the sun from here, so we walked back round to the other side.

6o0a7902Shorelark – six were hiding in the taller vegetation on the saltmarsh

The Shorelarks were hard to see with their heads down while feeding, but occasionally one would look up and a bright yellow face would catch the sun. Then we could get a great look at them through the scope, admiring their black bandit masks and even occasionally get a glimpse of the black horns on the side of their heads. A Skylark was feeding nearby and a second flew in to join it, perhaps a male as it raised its crest and drew itself up erect, looking like it might be about to display to the first, before the two of them resumed feeding. As the Shorelarks gradually worked their way back deeper into the vegetation, we left them to it.

Back at :Lady Anne’s Drive, we made our way west along the path on the inland side of the pines. At this point it started to cloud over from the west. There were lots of Long-tailed Tits feeding high in the poplars as we passed. At Salts Hole, we stopped to watch a Little Grebe diving on the edge of the reeds. A couple of Mistle Thrush and a few Curlew were feeding on the grassy field beyond.

We had a quick scan from the raised boardwalk by Washington Hide. A Marsh Harrier circled up from the reeds. A Sparrowhawk flew past with something in its talons, trailing several long strands of grass with whatever prey it had grasped. Two Pintail flew in and landed on the pool, an adult drake with a long pin-shaped tail and a younger male without.

6o0a7917Spoonbills – 2 of the 4 circling round over the trees

As we approached Joe Jordan Hide, we got a glimpse through the trees of four white shapes taking off from the pool in front and through binoculars we could see they were Spoonbills. From up in the hide, we watched them circling round over the trees beyond, long white necks held outstretched in front. Eventually they landed again on the edge of the pool and started to preen before quickly going to sleep – which is what Spoonbills seem to like to do best! Two were adults and through the scope we could see their bushy nuchal crests flapping around in the breeze. When they did lift their heads we could see the yellow tips to their bills.

img_0889Spoonbills – the adults with bushy crests and yellow-tipped bills

There were lost of geese out on the grazing marshes all around, mostly White-fronted Geese. They were hard to count, as they kept flying round in small groups and landing in different places or dropping down out of view. Sitting in the hide, we could hear their yelping calls every time a party flew past, a constant backdrop to our visit. There were several hundreds here today, more than there seem to have been through much of the winter, perhaps boosted by other groups stopping off before departing back to their breeding grounds in Russia.

We got some of the White-fronted Geese in the scope, so we could see the white surround to the bill from which they get their name, and the black belly bars on the adults. At one point, a small group landed next to some Greylags and we could see the White-fronted Geese were notably smaller and darker overall, as well as having a smaller pink bill compared to the large orange carrot sported by the Greylags.

6o0a7924White-fronted Geese – their were large numbers at Holkham today

Scanning through the White-fronted Geese, we found a couple of smaller white-faced Barnacle Geese in with them. It would be nice to think that these also might be winter visitors from the arctic, but their status is complicated by feral populations, including in Holkham Park. There were also some Canada Geese here and several pairs of Egyptian Geese – a couple of more obviously feral geese species to round out the overall variety.

While we were looking through the geese, we noticed a large raptor flying low over the grassy ridge in the distance. It was clearly slimmer winged and tailed than the commoner Marsh Harriers and, as it turned, we could see a square white rump patch. It was a Hen Harrier, a ringtail. Unfortunately, it continued off away from us and it was not a great view, but a nice bird to see out hunting here nonetheless.

We had hoped we might see a Great White Egret here, but there was no sign at first. We were just thinking about leaving, when a large white shape walked out of some dense reeds on one side of the marshes. It was clearly huge, even with the naked eye, but through the scope we could see its long yellow bill. It was strutted across and went back into some deeper reeds, where it stood motionless fishing and it was surprisingly hard to see for such a large bird.

After a short while, the Great White Egret flew across and landed on the far side of one of the reedy ditches. Then a second Great White Egret flew out from nearby and chased after it, the two of them flying off together before eventually disappearing disappearing round behind the trees.

6o0a7954Great White Egret – a second flew in and chased off the first

Time was getting on now, so we decided to head back to the car. We still had time for one more stop on our journey back, so we turned off the coast road at Stiffkey Greenway on our way back east. Scanning the saltmarsh, we first picked up a Marsh Harrier working its way slowly along the grassy ridge at the back. It didn’t take us long to pick up our first Hen Harrier, a ringtail, hanging over the saltmarsh away to the west. We got it in the scope and got a good view of it, much better than the one we had seen earlier at Holkham. Even better, it then drifted back east and started hunting the saltmarsh out in front of us.

6o0a7986Hen Harrier – a ringtail hunting over the saltmarsh

At one point, as it quartered the saltmarsh, the Hen Harrier flushed a Merlin from the bushes below. Small and dark, it flew off swiftly low over the vegetation. It looked like it would disappear into the distance, but thankfully it landed on a dead branch and started preening, so we could all get a look at it through the scope.

As we looked out over the marshes, another ringtail Hen Harrier made its way in purposefully from the east and across in front of us. We were really hoping to see a male Hen Harrier, but they kept us waiting a bit this evening. We did get an early glimpse of one, but it disappeared down into the vegetation very distantly to the west and didn’t reappear. Eventually one flew in from the west towards us, at the back of the saltmarsh. It flew past a male Marsh Harrier, giving a nice comparison of size and shape, the Hen Harrier a ghostly grey apparition. When it flew up against the grey sky, it almost disappeared.

After quartering the saltmarsh for a while, the male Hen Harrier dropped down into the vegetation at the back. We saw it fly up again briefly and we could just see its pale head in the grass occasionally, but it was clearly in no rush to fly again. It was a nice way to end the day, watching the harriers, so with the light fading we decided to head for home.