Tag Archives: Black Brant hybrid

15th Jan 2020 – More than just a Lark

A Private Tour today in North Norfolk. We had a particular list of things we wanted to see, so we would be very focused about what we did and where we went. The weather gods looked favourably on us again – after very heavy rain and high winds overnight, it was much calmer by morning, dry but cloudy initially, and then the skies cleared and we had some gorgeous winter sunshine in the afternoon. Lovely!

As we drove west along the coast road, we noticed a large flock of geese feeding in a grassy field and pulled up in a layby next to it. White-fronted Goose was on the target list for the day, and this is a field they sometimes like to feed in. Sure enough, that is just what they were. We got out quietly and set up the scope behind the minibus so as not to risk disturbing them.

White-fronted Geese

White-fronted Geese – 150 were feeding in a field by the coast road

We could see the adult White-fronted Geese with the white surrounds to their bills and black belly bars like fingerprints. There were several plainer juveniles with them too. We counted 120 when we arrived, and several more small groups flew in to join them as we watched. By the time we left, there were at least 150 feeding on the grass. There were a few Egyptian Geese in the field too, plus a pair of Mistle Thrushes and a couple of Brown Hares.

Our next destination was Sedgeford, to look for the Eastern Yellow Wagtail. As we arrived, there were only a few cars today – the crowds have started to dissipate now it has been around for several weeks. We could see a couple of people further down the track, by its favoured muck heap, but they were looking round and it seemed pretty clear they were not looking at the bird. It often starts the day out in the field, so we stopped on the corner to scan.

A large flock of Fieldfares was feeding out in the middle of the field, accompanied by a mob of Starlings. A small covey of Red-legged Partridges was in the far corner and a mixed group of Linnets and Chaffinches landed on the edge of the cover strip along the edge. A Pied Wagtail flew in and landed down in front of us, but unfortunately had not brought its rarer cousin with it.

When a big flock of Meadow Pipits landed out in the field, we scanned across through them and there was the Eastern Yellow Wagtail with a couple more Pied Wagtails. We quickly got the scope on it and had a good look as it walked across between the furrows, before the flock took off and the wagtail disappeared.

The Pied Wagtails had flown off down the field, in the general direction of the muck heap, so we thought we would walk down the lane and see if the Eastern Yellow Wagtail had gone that way too. We hadn’t gone very far, and were just talking about its distinctive rasping call, when we heard it just behind the hedge. We called to some people who had just arrived and were still standing on the corner by the road, and by the time we got back to them they had found the Eastern Yellow Wagtail feeding along the edge of the field.

Eastern Yellow Wagtail

Eastern Yellow Wagtail – feeding on the edge of the field this morning

The Eastern Yellow Wagtail was a bit closer now, and more settled, feeding on its own. We had a much longer look at it through the scope, with its grey head, bright white supercilium and yellow underparts. It gradually worked its way further away from us before flying off down the field.

A steady stream of Pink-footed Geese had been landing in a field away to the south, in the distance, while we were looking for the wagtail. Now we turned our attention to those. They were a long way off, but through the scope we found a single White-fronted Goose with them. Then someone else found two Barnacle Geese too.

We were just working our way steadily through the rest of the flock when something spooked them. The Pink-footed Geese all took to the air. It was quite a sight – a flock of several thousand geese taking off. Half of them flew off, while the other half landed back down in the field, although some were out of sight now beyond a ridge. We couldn’t see anything else of interest with those that were still visible, so we decided to move on. As we were walking back to the minibus, something spook them again and all the geese took off once more.

The Woodcock at Titchwell has been performing outstandingly for a steady stream of admirers in recent days. While it was not specifically on the target list for the day, we couldn’t not call in as we were within easy reach. We walked straight round to Meadow Trail and found a small group already gathered, and eventually as people moved on we were able to get the scope on it. It wasn’t where we had seen it recently, but thankfully had only moved about three feet to the left! Stunning!

Woodcock

Woodcock – still delighting the crowds

There were lots of other things we hoped to do today, so we elected not to go further out onto the reserve today – unfortunately, with days short at this time of year, we would not have enough time. We made our way back to the minibus, and turned back east along the coast road to Holkham.

As we drove up along Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see the grazing marshes were full of water after last night’s rain. There were loads of birds. Lots of ducks, mainly Wigeon and a few Teal. And lots of Black-headed Gulls and Common Gulls, presumably attracted by the prospect of worms forced up by the water. It is looking really good for wildlife here at the moment. We parked at the top and walked up towards the pines. A covey of Grey Partridges was very well camouflaged on the edge of the ditch, looking across the grass.

When we got out onto the edge of the saltmarsh, we could see that it was very wet today too, after a big high tide this morning. The Shorelarks have been very mobile and elusive at times this week, with their favoured cordon being wet at times. Shorelark was a particular target for the day, so we figured we may have to search them out. Rather than head towards the cordon first, we decided to try the opposite direction.

We walked round on the dry path along the edge of the dunes, and as we started to pick our way round the puddles and flooded channels on the path out across the saltmarsh we met two other birders coming back the other way. They confirmed what we had hoped – the Shorelarks were just ahead of us. When we got out to the middle, we could see them, feeding with about twenty Skylarks on the other side.

We followed the Shorelarks for a while, keeping a discrete distance so as not to disturb them. The Skylarks flew off, but the Shorelarks continued to pick their way round the edge of the saltmarsh. With patience, we had some great views of them, feeding on the small seedheads, chasing each other, stopping to stretch and preen.

Shorelark

Shorelark – we found the five of them out on the edge of the saltmash

After enjoying our fill of the Shorelarks, we left them in peace. They could have been one of the hardest of today’s target species to find, so it was great to get them in the bag. Snow Bunting was the next one we wanted to find, and they have remained more faithful to the cordon area, despite the high tides, so we headed round there next.

A Rock Pipit flew across calling, a sharper call than a Meadow Pipit, and landed briefly on the saltmarsh, before flying off again. We flushed a small flock of Linnets ahead of us too. A small flock of Brent Geese was feeding out in the middle as we made our way east from the Gap, but they were up to their bellies in the vegetation and it was hard to see anything different in with them. Looking up to the sky, we could now see the trailing edge of the weather front approaching and blue sky beyond.

When we got to the cordon, we could see a large flock of Snow Buntings down at the far end, on the edge of the dunes. We couldn’t get out to the beach on the west side of the cordon, as there was still too much water in the channel, so we walked down to the east end and out that way. By the time we got down there, the Snow Buntings were now out in the middle of the cordon, so we had a quick look at them in the scope, before carrying on to the beach.

We could see several thousand Common Scoter in a couple of rafts out on the sea. Most of them were quite a long way out again today, too far to make out if there were any Velvet Scoters in with them. Another smaller group of Common Scoter closer in had just a single Great Crested Grebe with them. There were a few Red-breasted Mergansers on the sea too, including one drake quite close inshore. After a bit of scanning, we finally found a single Long-tailed Duck as well, another one we were hoping to find today. A couple of Red-throated Divers flew past, very distantly offshore. Five Pintail flying past out to sea were more of a surprise.

The sun came out now, and the Snow Buntings flew round behind us calling. We turned to see them land on the beach very close to us. They were rather skittish, and quickly took off again, flying round past us, before settling once more. We watched as they picked their way over the shells on the sand. They stopped in little groups and seemed to be arguing with each other. We hadn’t realised what they were doing until we got back and looked at the photos – they were drinking rainwater from small upturned cockle shells on the beach!

Snow Buntings

Snow Buntings – drinking rainwater from shells on the beach

It was great watching the Snow Buntings in the sunshine, so when they flew off again and over our heads before disappearing off down the beach, we decided to head back. The flock of Brent Geese on the saltmarsh had now come a bit closer and we could pick out the Black Brant hybrid which is almost always with them – with a more obvious white flank patch and white collar than the others. A Short-eared Owl was hunting the dunes too, off in the distance.

After a quick stop to use the facilities in the Lookout, we walked back towards Lady Anne’s Drive. The Grey Partridges were now right on the corner of the grazing marsh, just below the path, so we stopped to admire them.

Grey Partridge

Grey Partridge – the covey was close to the path on our way back

We stopped for lunch in the sunshine in the car park up at Holkham Park and afterwards walked in through the gates. There were a few Jays flying back and forth as we headed down towards the lake and a couple of groups of Fallow Deer in the trees.

When we got to the lake, we found plenty of Tufted Ducks and several Common Pochard. We walked down along the edge and quickly came across the Black-necked Grebe, which is what we had come primarily to see. We followed it for a while, as it dived continually, surfacing each time in a completely different place.

Black-necked Grebe

Black-necked Grebe – still on the lake in the Park today

After watching the Black-necked Grebe for a while, we walked on down towards the hall, before turning and heading back towards the monument out across the open grass. There were lots of Fallow Deer feeding out on the grass, including quite a few grazing the outfield of the cricket pitch. They looked very smart in the low afternoon sun.

Fallow Deer

Fallow Deer – feeding out on the grass in the Park

A couple of Common Buzzards were hanging in the air above the trees as we got back to the monument. A Great Spotted Woodpecker was hanging on the bag of peanuts as we got back to the houses by the gate. We still had a bit of spare time to play with, so we decided to see if we could catch up with some egrets. As we made our way west, a Red Kite was hanging in the air over the fields.

There were a few people looking out across the grazing marshes from the layby at Burnham Overy. They had seen a couple of Cattle Egrets and a Great White Egret, but none of them were visible now. Two White-fronted Geese were out in the field in front with a small group of Pinkfeet. We walked down along the verge and looked out towards the seawall. A Cattle Egret flew up but immediately dropped down again behind some thick reeds and brambles. It seemed for a minute like we might be frustrated.

Then we looked back towards the dunes to see a Great White Egret fly round. When it landed on the back edge of the furthest pool, we got it in the scope. It was a long way off and behind the reeds at first, but when it came out we could see its long yellow bill and long neck. When we turned our attention back to the grazing marsh below the seawall, the Cattle Egrets had reappeared – we could see seven of them out on the grass now.

We still had one thing we wanted to do, so we made our way back east and walked down the track to the edge of the saltmarsh. There were several Brown Hares in the fields, with three chasing each other round.

We had the roost to ourselves this evening. We didn’t have to wait long before the first Hen Harrier appeared, a ringtail. We watched it hunting, as it made its way further west until we lost sight of it. Then a smart grey male Hen Harrier flew in from the other direction. We watched as it flew low over the middle of the saltmarsh, before flying back to the far edge and then coming back in the opposite direction.

There were quite a few small groups of Brent Geese scattered around the saltmarsh. One of the groups contained a noticeably paler bird, a Pale-bellied Brent Goose with a creamy white belly. There were several groups of Golden Plover too, and one of them whirled round at one point, alternating white and gold as they turned in the low sunshine.

A Merlin came in high from the fields, away to our left. It dropped down and shot low over the ground before landing on a bush out in the middle of the saltmarsh. There was still some low sunlight and it was perfectly illuminated in the scope. While we were watching it, what was presumably the same male Hen Harrier ghosted across in front of it. And then we looked away to the west to see a second male hunting further back.

We could see the flocks of Knot swirling round over the beach beyond – perhaps the Peregrines were still out there hunting? A couple of hundred Pink-footed Geese were already sleeping out on the flats. A scan with the scope picked up a very distant Barn Owl hunting over in front of East Hills.

We were about to call it a day, when a Merlin suddenly shot up into the sky right in front of us. It was chasing a Meadow Pipit and we watched the two of them climb higher and higher, the pipit desperately trying to stay above the falcon. There followed an amazing dogfight for several minutes, the pipit twisting and turning, the Merlin very nearly catching it on a couple of occasions, but the pipit just managing to take evasive action at the last second, dropping suddenly, then turning up as the Merlin stooped and overshot. Eventually the two of them chased down into the bushes off to our right – we didn’t get to learn the ending, but it was exciting to watch.

If that wasn’t enough, two Hen Harriers then circled back in high over the middle of the saltmarsh, a male accompanied by a ringtail, the latter noticeably bigger, a female. We followed the male as he lost height and returned to hunting, disappearing off east.

The light was starting to go now and we couldn’t have hoped for a better end to the day. What a great day it had been too. It was time to head for home.

12th Jan 2020 – Winter in Norfolk, Day 3

Day 3 of a three day Winter Tour in Norfolk today. The heavy rain cleared through overnight and it was dry again all day. After a cloudy start, the sun started to break through the clouds before we enjoyed a lovely bright afternoon, even if it was rather breezy again.

Part of the plan for this weekend was to look for some owls. Having seen Short-eared Owls and Barn Owls on Friday, we headed out to add to our owl list this morning. We drove inland and set off down a footpath. Two Mistle Thrushes flew up out of the neighbouring field and into wood.

When we got to the edge of the wood, we could hear Long-tailed Tits calling in the trees. A Goldcrest appeared above us, feeding in the outer branches of a pine tree, hovering to pick food from the needles. A Coal Tit flew out into the bare tree next to it. A little flock of finches was feeding in the edge of a harvested beet field alongside and flew up into the trees as we came out from behind the hedge. There were several Chaffinches and Goldfinches and at least one Greenfinch in with them too.

We walked on, round to the far side of the wood and looked back at the edge of the trees. The Tawny Owl was asleep in its hole. We got it in the scope and from time to time it moved its head or opened its eyes, enough to prove it wasn’t a cardboard cutout we had put there earlier!

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – roosting in its usual tree hole

We stood and watched the Tawny Owl for a while. A Stock Dove flew out from over the wood and across the field next to us. Then we had to tear ourselves away and walk back. There were lots of Pied Wagtails in the beet field now – we counted at least 40 together at one point, an impressive flock.

Moving on, we made our way further inland, looking for Little Owls. There were none on the first barns we checked, but at the second we could see a shape tucked under the lip of the roof, a Little Owl. We parked out of sight and walked back to where we could view it from a distance. It was in a spot sheltered from the wind, and it was looking out towards the morning sun, which just poked out from behind the clouds at times.

Little Owl

Little Owl – out of the wind, looking out towards the morning sun

Having all had a good look at the Little Owl, we moved on again and dropped back down to the coast. We made our way along to Holkham and parked at the top of Lady Anne’s Drive. There were lots of Wigeon feeding on the grazing marshes, some very close to the road, and looked stunning as the sun came out again. A few Teal were in amongst them, as well as a scattering of Lapwing, Curlew and Redshank. A single Fieldfare was out on the grass too.

Wigeon

Wigeon – feeding on the grazing marsh by Lady Anne’s Drive

We heard Pink-footed Geese calling and looked over to see a large flock come up from Quarles Marsh, over towards Wells. They flew towards us in several skeins, and we noticed there were some smaller geese in with them, Barnacle Geese. They came right overhead, at least a dozen.

Barnacle Geese

Barnacle Geese – flew over Lady Anne’s Drive with the Pinkfeet

The geese all whiffled down and landed on the grazing marshes the other side of the Drive. Most landed behind the first ditch, out of view behind the reeds and brambles, but a few of the Pink-footed Geese landed closer, on our side of all the vegetation. We had a good look at some of them in the scope, we could see their delicate dark bills with a narrow band of pink and their pink legs.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese – good views on the grazing marsh by Lady Anne’s Drive

As we walked up towards the pines, we could see a covey of Grey Partridges on the bank before the ditch on the far edge of the grass. We counted twelve together, looking rather like clods of earth.

After a quick stop in the Lookout Cafe, we made our way out to the beach. As we got to the bottom of the boardwalk, we could see some larks very distantly feeding on the edge of the dunes out to the west, but through the scope we could see they were Skylarks. A big flock of Linnets flew up from the saltmarsh over in that direction too, swirling round before dropping down again.

There was a lot of water on the saltmarsh, after a big tide overnight and lots of rain. We decided to walk east first. A flock of Brent Geese was feeding out in the middle and a quick scan through them revealed a slightly darker bird with a more noticeable white flank patch and collar than the others. It was the regular Black Brant x Dark-bellied Brent hybrid which returns here with the Brent flock each winter.

Black Brant hybrid

Black Brant hybrid – with the Brent Goose flock on the saltmarsh again

Two Rock Pipits flew in and landed on the edge of the saltmarsh in front of us, feeding for a minute or so before flying off again calling. There were a few people walking back from the cordon and they all said there was no sign of any Shorelarks there. We couldn’t see the Snow Buntings either when we got there. We walked all the way down to the far end and out onto the beach.

It was very windy out here. We tried to find some shelter in the edge of the dunes, although it was hard to find anywhere out of the wind, and stopped to scan the sea. A lone Sanderling flew down along the shoreline. When we turned round, the Snow Buntings flew in and landed in the cordon just behind us. They were very flighty today, and when they flew up again they landed next on the edge of the sand just behind us, a great view.

Snow Buntings 1

Snow Buntings – landed on the edge of the sand just behind us

Thousands of Common Scoter were out on the sea again, but they were a bit further out today and the sea was quite choppy, which with the wind made it impossible to pick out anything else in with them. We managed to find three Long-tailed Ducks, but they were thankfully much closer in. Even so, they were diving constantly and hard to see in swell, but eventually everyone got a look at them. There were several Red-breasted Mergansers too, plus a single Red-throated Diver on the sea and another flying past.

We were hoping the Common Scoter would fly, to give us a chance to find a Velvet Scoter in with them, but they were just riding out the waves, and not taking off today. We decided to start walking back, and have another look for the Shorelarks. The Snow Buntings were in the cordon still, probably about 90 of them, catching the low winter sun which had come out now. There was still no sign of the Shorelarks there though.

Snow Buntings 2

Snow Buntings – feeding in the cordon as we walked back

We thought we would check out the saltmarsh west of the Gap, to see if the Shorelarks were there. On our way back, we bumped into one of the wardens who told us they had also been seen just east of the Gap this week. We out round to the dunes for a quick look there first, but there was no sign. We could see lots of water still in the Gap channel, and there was no way across without wellies. So while the group walked back round via the cordon again, the intrepid guide set off for a quick check of the saltmarsh the other side to save time. We arranged to meet back by the boardwalk.

When the group got back to the cordon, they found a couple of people watching the Shorelarks, which had flown back in. They had a good look at them through the scopes, but by the time their guide got over, the Shorelarks had flown off again. At least the most important people had seen them!

We walked back to the Lookout Cafe for lunch. Afterwards, we drove across to Holkham Park and walked in through the trees. There were lots of tits coming to the feeders by the houses, and we found a Marsh Tit and a Coal Tit in with them. We made our way down to the lake, starting at the northern end. There were lots of ducks on the water – Mallard, Gadwall and Shoveler, plus Tufted Duck and Pochard.

As we walked slowly down along the bank, we scanned the water, looking for the Black-necked Grebe. We could see a Great Crested Grebe and a Little Grebe, busy diving. A flock of Long-tailed Tits was feeding in the trees by the path. A Great White Egret flew across the lake further down.

We found the Black-necked Grebe in the middle of the lake. At first, we were looking into the sun, but we managed to get round to the other side of it, where the light was much better. It was diving constantly too, and we had to be quick to get it in the scopes. Eventually everyone got a good view of it, a small grebe with the dark on the head curling down onto the sides of the face behind the red eye. A Great Crested Grebe appeared in the same view at one point, much larger, with a much longer dagger-shaped bill.

Black-necked Grebe

Black-necked Grebe – photo taken a few days ago, when it was very close!

After watching the Black-necked Grebe for a while, we walked back through the middle of the Park. There were lots of Fallow Deer by the path which looked stunning in the afternoon sunshine. A Red Kite drifted over the edge of the trees. A Green Woodpecker was feeding out on the open grass with four Mistle Thrushes. When we got back to the gates, we found a Great Spotted Woodpecker now on the peanuts by the houses.

As we were getting everything back in the minibus, a Barn Owl flew across the road just beyond the car park and in through the trees behind. Out hunting already. As we drove east, another Barn Owl was hunting over the verge by the side of the road.

We parked at the top of Stiffkey Greenway and set up the scopes on the edge of the saltmarsh to scan. It was a lovely bright evening and the wind had even dropped now. There were several groups of Brent Geese, lots of Little Egrets, and a scattering of Curlews and Redshanks out there. A Marsh Harrier was hanging in the air away to the east. A Merlin appeared away to the west, perched on a low bush, preening out on the saltmarsh.

A distant ringtail Hen Harrier came up in front of East Hills. We watched it hunting, making the use of the last of the light, disappearing off towards Wells. A little later what was presumably the same bird came back the other way, a little bit closer to us this time. We had a couple more Merlin sightings, perched on different bushes – but it was hard to tell how many different birds were involved. A very distant Barn Owl was hunting out at East Hills and another flew across the road behind us.

Finally a grey male Hen Harrier appeared, also way out at East Hills. It flew up and down in front of the trees a few times before dropping into the vegetation. The light was starting to go now so we decided to call it a night. It had been another great day, to wrap up three very successful days out, great Norfolk winter birding.

19th & 20th Dec 2019 – Two Days of Winter Birding

A two day Private Tour in North Norfolk looking to catch up with some of our regular and scarcer winter visitors. We were very lucky with the weather on Thursday, when it was dry with some unforecast dry intervals. On Friday, although we didn’t get anything like as bad as the Met Office yellow warning for heavy rain in the morning implied, it did drizzle on and off and ironically got slightly worse into the afternoon. It didn’t stop us though, and we got out and saw some great birds on both days.

We met this morning at Titchwell. The walk from the car park was fairly quiet but a large flock of Goldfinches flew over as we got to the Visitor Centre. We decided to head straight out down the main path, but scanning the ditches failed to produce a Water Rail. As we got out of the trees, a Water Pipit flew over calling and dropped down on to the former pool out on Thornham grazing marsh. We had a quick scan from further up, but there is too much vegetation on here now, and it had disappeared out of view.

A Marsh Harrier was circling out over the reedbed the other side, a female, so we stopped to watch it. Another was perched in the dead trees at the back and a third, this time a male, drifted over towards the path. We got a good look at it, a rather dark male, with patchy grey in the outerwing. A Cetti’s Warbler called from somewhere deep in the reeds and a second bird was singing half-heartedly a little further along.

Marsh Harrier

Marsh Harrier – a darker male, circled over the reedbed

A flock of Lapwings came in high over the saltmarsh and a short while later we spotted another small group coming high over the Freshmarsh. They were probably on the move, fresh arrivals from the continent coming in for the winter.

The water level on the Freshmarsh is very high now, and there are next to no islands still exposed. At least the wildfowl seem to appreciate it – there were quite a few ducks, including lots of Teal. We stopped to admire some of the smart drakes, in their finest breeding plumage now, with bright green and chestnut heads and creamy yellow patches under their tails. Several small groups of Brent Geese flew in from where they had been feeding, out on the saltmarsh.

Brent Goose

Brent Goose – several small flocks flew in from the saltmarsh

The weather was surprisingly good, much better than forecast, with some bright patches in the sky, so we decided to head straight out towards the beach first. We had just walked over the bank towards the Volunteer March, when we heard a Water Pipit calling behind us. We turned to see it circle round and drop down in the near corner of the Freshmarsh.

So we walked back over the bank, and found the Water Pipit feeding on the flotsam on the edge of the water, just below the Parrinder Bank. We had a great look at it through the scope, very clean white below with well-marked black streaks, and a clean white supercilium. Very different from the more familiar and rather swarthy Rock Pipit, two of which flew over the saltmarsh the other side, calling.

Water Pipit

Water Pipit – feeding on the flotsam on the edge of the Freshmarsh

Even though the tide was in, it was not a particularly big tide today and there was still a good selection of waders on the Volunteer Marsh. There were one or two Common Redshanks in the channel below the main path and more birds at the far end, where the channel turns and heads away from the path.

We stopped to admire a smart Grey Plover in the scope. A couple of Knot were feeding nearby and a Dunlin flew in to join them, giving us a nice comparison of the three species side by side. Looking down the sides of the muddy channel, we could see one or two Curlew and more Redshank. Several more Knot were feeding in the taller vegetation out in the middle of the marsh, making them very hard to see.

Grey Plover

Grey Plover – one of several waders feeding on the mud on Volunteer Marsh

The Tidal Pool is now tidal again, with lots of exposed mud and islands, which means it is now a lot more productive. There was a nice selection of waders on here today. First up, we found a small roosting group of shanks – two Greenshanks, slightly larger and paler, very white below, together with two Spotted Redshanks. The latter were asleep, so we couldn’t get a look at their bills, but we could see the extensive white spotting on the wings and upperparts.

There were several Bar-tailed Godwits feeding on the small islands – and it was good to get a proper look at them through the scope. The spit at the back was packed with Knot and more sleeping Bar-tailed Godwits, and a mob of Oystercatchers were roosting on the island nearby.

A single Red-breasted Merganser was diving out in the middle of the water, unusual to see on here, amongst the several Pintails which were busy upending. We got the scope on the Pintails for a closer look – the drakes looking very smart now, in full breeding plumage, with their long, pin-like tails. There are more Little Grebes on here too now, including one which had climbed out onto one of the islands for a preen.

Little Grebe

Little Grebe – one of several on the Tidal Pools, not often seen out of the water

Continuing on to the beach, the tide was in. Apparently a couple of trawlers had just gone through and flushed most of the ducks. Those that were still here were a long way out. Scanning carefully,  we found four drake Long-tailed Ducks, but they were very distant, and we could only see them when they flapped. There were lots more Red-breasted Merganser on the sea, off towards Scolt, including some smart drakes. And several Great Crested Grebes.

A Goldeneye flew in from the east. While we were watching it, another drake Long-tailed Duck flew past the other way, coming in from the direction of Thornham Point. The Goldeneye turned to follow it, and they both flew past us close inshore. It was a much better look at the Long-tailed Duck than the ones on the sea in the distance. As it flew past beyond the concrete blocks it looked for a second like it might land, but then it turned and flew back out towards the windfarm.

On our way back, we called in to Parrinder Hide. All the ducks were getting spooked by Marsh Harriers flying over the bank, so there were none close to the hide now. We did see more Water Pipits – probably at least two now. And there were several Lapwings on the one island which remains out above the water. Continuing on, we stopped by Island Hide to watch a pair of Reed Buntings which were feeding on the path. They flew up into the trees and perched there, flicking their tails and flashing their white outer tail feathers.

Reed Bunting

Reed Bunting – feeding on the path to Island Hide

When we got back to the tree, there seemed to be lots of birds feeding along the path. There were several Chaffinches on the ground and tits in the bushes beside the path. As we stopped to look, someone called us over to say they had found one of the Water Rails down in the ditch. It was busy feeding, digging around in the wet leaves, and well hidden under the tangles of branches. There was a Chiffchaff in the bushes here too, and as we got back almost to the Visitor Centre, we stopped to watch a Goldcrest flitting around right beside us.

Water Rail

Water Rail – feeding under the tangle of branches in the ditch

We had a break for lunch today – back at the Jolly Sailors in Brancaster Staithe. Afterwards, we drove further east along the coast to Warham.

It was fairly quiet as we walked up along the track. There were a few Blackbirds which flew out of the hedge ahead of us, and a Kestrel perched on the corner of the old barn. As we got to the end, a flock of Long-tailed Tits was working its way through the tops of the trees, and several Yellowhammers flew over calling.

We could hear the unmistakable sound of Pink-footed Geese approaching, and looked up to see several skeins flying in overhead from the fields. We watched them head out across the saltmarsh and drop down to roost on the flats beyond. From out on the coastal path, we could see a long line of Pink-footed Geese on the mud in the distance.

There were three Marsh Harriers way out over the beach when we arrived. Thankfully it wasn’t long before a Hen Harrier appeared too, a very smart grey male. It was a bit closer too, hunting back and forth over the back of the saltmarsh. We had a good view of it in the scope. Otherwise, there were several Little Egrets and Curlews out on the saltmarsh, plus a small group of Golden Plover and a well camouflaged Brown Hare.

We had a brief glimpse of a Merlin, too quick for everyone to get onto as it disappeared straight into some bushes. While we were scanning to see if we could find it again, what was presumably the same male Hen Harrier appeared, further over now, close to where the Merlin had been, but it too dropped down out of view.

Eventually the Merlin came out again, and we watched as it flew across fast and low over the saltmarsh. It was about to land on the top of a bush, but suddenly set off again instead, in pursuit of small group of Meadow Pipits. The Merlin chased one of the pipits higher and higher into the sky, both of them circling round and round. Then the Meadow Pipit dropped down vertically, with the Merlin in pursuit, before the two of them towered up again.

For a minute or so, the Merlin and the Meadow Pipit twisted and turned, up and down. Then suddenly the male Hen Harrier appeared below them, and as we watched it came up and grabbed the Meadow Pipit which the Merlin was chasing. Amazing! The Hen Harrier dropped down into the bushes with its prey and the Merlin disappeared off too, with nothing to show for its efforts.

It was a great display. The light was starting to go now, so we decided it was time to head for home.

We met again the following morning in Wells. The weather was not great – it was drizzling steadily – but at least there was no sign of the threatened yellow weather warning for heavy rain that the Met Office had belatedly decided we were going to get. At least they are reliably wrong with their forecasts!

We made our way down to the edge of the town, and pulled up in a gateway overlooking some fields. There were lots of Golden Plover huddled next to a flood in one of the fields, looking convincingly like clods of earth on first glance, and more Lapwings in another ploughed field beyond. A male Marsh Harrier came slowly past, hunting, and a rather dark Common Buzzard was perched on a post further back.

Scanning further across, we quickly found the Rough-legged Buzzard we had come to see, perched on the top of a bush back towards the car park. We had a quick look through the scope from here, just in case it decided to fly off. It was back on to us, but we could see its very pale head and just make out the white base to the tail visible between its folded wings. Then we drove round to the car park for a closer look.

From the edge of the car park, we got the Rough-legged Buzzard in the scope. It was a great view from here – we could see the distinctive blackish belly patch, contrasting with the pale head. Then it took off, flashing its black carpal patches, and flew round the back of the bushes out of sight.

Rough-legged Buzzard

Rough-legged Buzzard – the juvenile at Wells showed very well in the rain

We had been talking earlier about winter thrushes, so when we heard a Fieldfare call, we walked over towards the football pitch to see if we could find it. There was no sign of it at first, just a few Brent Geese flying round, then two thrushes flew up and landed on top of a tree at the back of the pitch. One was smaller than the other, a Redwing and Fieldfare side by side, a good comparison in the scope. We had also hoped we might find the Rough-legged Buzzard hunting round this side but we couldn’t see it from here.

Walking back round to where we had seen it earlier, we found the Rough-legged Buzzard back on the same bushes. We couldn’t resist another look through the scope, and we watched as it regurgitated a pellet, the indigestible remains of what it had been eating.

We could hear a Mistle Thrush singing behind us, so we turned to see two distantly on the wires over towards the town. A Meadow Pipit flew up and landed on some wires too, this time a bit closer. There were several Chaffinches in the hedge, and a Greenfinch landed in the top of a taller tree, where we could hear it calling. Eventually the Rough-legged Buzzard took off again and flew round out of sight once more, so we decided to move on.

Our next stop was round at Holkham. As we drove up along Lady Anne’s Drive, we stopped to admire a covey of Grey Partridge right next to the fence. They were rather damp, but it was a good view of them from the minibus.

Grey Partridge

Grey Partridge – one of two coveys by Lady Anne’s Drive

We parked at the top of the Drive. After all the recent rain, there is a lot of water on the grazing marshes now. There were lots of Wigeon feeding out on the grass, with a few Teal, Shoveler and Mallard scattered round too. However, all we could find was just one distant Pink-footed Goose, which we got in the scope. There were several Redshank and a few Curlew out on the wet grass too.

Wigeon

Wigeon – there were lots feeding on the flooded grazing marshes

As it was still just drizzling, still no sign of the forecast heavy rain, we decided to brave the weather and walk out onto the saltmarsh. As we walked down the boardwalk the other side of the pines, we spotted a large flock of Brent Geese out in the middle feeding. More Brent Geese flew over from behind us and dropped down to join them. We walked over for a closer look.

One of the geese on the front of the feeding flock stood out – it was a little darker than the others, with a slightly more obvious white flank patch and extensive white collar. It is a Black Brant hybrid, a regular returning bird which has been coming back to exactly the same spot with the same flock of Brent Geese each winter for several years. Looking through the flock more carefully, we found a Pale-bellied Brent Goose too. The vast majority of our wintering Brent Geese are Dark-bellied Brents, which breed up in Central Siberia. The Pale-bellied Brent immediately stood out, with its much paler flanks and belly. A very interesting and instructive flock of geese!

Black Brant hybrid

Black Brant hybrid – with the regular flock of Dark-bellied Brents

We carried on along the path on the edge of the saltmarsh, out to the cordon. There was no sign of any Shorelarks here today, but it was quite wet, with lots of standing water. There are also only five so far this winter and they have been very mobile. We did find a nice flock of Snow Buntings though, feeding on the edge of the saltmarsh at the far end of the cordon. They were surprisingly hard to see until they flew up, flashing the white in their wings. There were about 50 Snow Buntings in total, some much paler than others, a mix of Scandinavian and Icelandic birds.

Continuing out onto the beach, we could see several Red-throated Divers just offshore, fishing just behind the breakers. We had some very good views of them in the scope – paler adults with their white faces and beady eyes, and a darker juvenile with duskier cheeks. We could see their distinctive upturned bills. A very pale, winter plumaged Great Crested Grebe was diving nearby.

Further out, we could see some very large rafts of Common Scoter, looking like long oily slicks until you looked through binoculars. A couple of Eider were out on the sea too, and several Red-breasted Mergansers including some smart spiky-haircutted drakes. Two distant Long-tailed Ducks flew across away to our left, but we lost sight of them round behind the dunes. Otherwise, there were surprisingly large numbers of Wigeon on the sea today, closer in, presumably having been flushed off the grazing marshes and sought the safety of the water out here.

We had planned to walk back along the beach, but it started to rain more heavily now so we decided to walk straight back to the minibus instead. It was already after midday by the time we got back (the forecast ironically had suggested the rain would ease in the afternoon!), so we drove round to Burnham Overy Staithe for lunch. On our way there, we could see large number of Pink-footed Geese in a potato field just beside the road, but there was nowhere to pull in for a closer look. It was nice to get in the warmth of The Hero and take the opportunity to dry out a little.

After lunch, we had a quick walk out along the seawall. The rain had eased off again, but it was still very grey and damp. The tide was in, and a single female Red-breasted Merganser was diving in the channel. A lone Common Scoter had walked up onto the shingle bank further back towards the dunes.

There had been Cattle Egrets out here still in the last couple of days, but there was no sign of any cattle now – they must have just been taken in. There were plenty of Little Egrets enjoying the many wet puddles in the fields.

There were lots more Wigeon out on the grazing marshes here. We had a nice view of a small group of Pink-footed Geese and Greylags together, feeding on the grass just below the bank. A good comparison and our best look at some Pinkfeet. A big flock of Brent Geese flew up from out on the saltmarsh over towards the dunes.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese – feeding on the grazing marsh with the Greylags

We stopped to scan from the corner of the seawall. There were about a dozen Barnacle Geese out here, very smart looking little geese, but most likely feral birds from Holkham. There were loads of waders out on the flooded grazing marsh too, Redshanks and Curlews, several little groups of diminutive Dunlin, lots of Lapwings, and a large flock of Golden Plover further out. It looked like it might be about to rain again, so we set off back to find the shelter of the minibus.

On our way back east, we stopped again at Holkham. There were not many geese feeding on the grazing marshes today – a few Greylags and a pair of Canada Geese with them. But scanning carefully, we eventually managed to find a small group of White-fronted Geese over at the back, in the mist. We could see their white fronts through the scope, when they lifted their heads.

We still had a small amount of time before we were due to finish, but we didn’t fancy venturing out in the rain again. We popped in for a quick look at the pools east of Wells, where we could have a scan from the bus. There was a single Little Egret out on one of the pools, but no sign of any other egrets here today. There was plenty of of water here, but it was rather quiet today. Something seemed to have been spooking the birds – the Teal were all in the grass and very flighty. The Lapwings were very jumpy too, and everything took off and flew round. Presumably a raptor had just been through.

It was time to call it a day now and head back to dry out properly. It had been a very enjoyable few days, despite the weather today, with a great selection of some of our finest winter birds.

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

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.