Tag Archives: Black Brant

18th Nov 2017 – Early Winter Birding, Day 2

Day 2 of a three day long weekend of Early Winter Tours today. It was a nice, bright start to the morning and, although it clouded over later, it stayed largely dry until dark.

As we made our way east along the coast road, we thought we might stop for a better look at the Cattle Egrets. We were looking into the sun and the cows were huddled in one corner of the field, but there appeared to be white shapes in with them as we drove past. We parked in the layby just beyond and crossed the road. A flock of Fieldfares flew across the field, landing in the hedge close to where we parked and started tucking in to the berries. As we walked down along the path, we flushed a couple of Blackbirds and a Song Thrush from the bushes there. A Stock Dove flew out of the game cover as we passed.

When we got down to the corner overlooking the wet grazing marsh where the cows were, we couldn’t see any sign of the Cattle Egrets. The cows were on the edge of a ditch, so we wondered whether the egrets might be hiding at first. While we waited to see if they might emerge, we scanned the pools in the grass. There was a nice selection of ducks – Shelduck, Wigeon, Teal and a single female Pintail with them too. A scattering of Black-tailed Godwits were feeding around the muddy edge.

Marsh HarrierMarsh Harrier – flew over our heads early this morning

A flock of Long-tailed Tits came along the hedge past us, calling noisily. A Marsh Harrier circled up over the trees behind us before flying over our heads. A Yellowhammer flew over the road calling. And it quickly became clear that the Cattle Egrets weren’t there. We would be coming back this way later, so we decided not to linger and headed back to the car.

As we made our way on east past Cley, we could see a small flock of Brent Geese feeding on the grazing marsh by the entrance to Babcock Hide. There was nothing behind us, so we pulled up and had a quick look at them from the car. One immediately stood out – more contrasting than the regular Dark-bellied Brents, blacker bodied with a brighter white flank patch. It was the Black Brant. We managed to get a quick look at it before something spooked the geese and they all took off. They circled round and dropped down onto Watling Water, out of view.

Our next stop was at Weybourne. We decided to have a quick look at the beach first. There were a couple of groups of gulls on the shingle but nothing particularly interesting with them today – a mixture of Herring Gulls and Great Black-backed Gulls. A couple of Lesser Black-backed Gulls flew past together with a Great Black-backed Gull, giving a great side-by-side comparison.

There were several Turnstones down on the beach too, although they should perhaps have been better named Turn-fish today. A large number of small flatfish were washed up after last weekend’s storms and have been providing sustenance for the gulls and the Turnstones.

TurnstoneTurnstone – turning over a flatfish instead!

One of the group spotted a Great Crested Grebe flying past just offshore. It is quite an incongruous sight, but they winter quite commonly on the sea here. A single Ringed Plover flew past some way out too, presumably a fresh arrival coming in for the winter. Two Gannets circled way out on the horizon, catching the sun. A Rock Pipit flew west over the beach along with a Meadow Pipit. Otherwise there was not much happening out at sea this morning, so we decided to explore the fields instead.

As we walked up the hill on the edge of the grass beside the stubble, we flushed several Skylarks which flew round and landed again out in the field. A little group of Meadow Pipits flew up from the grass calling. Then up towards the top of the field, a large flock of Linnets flew up from the stubble and wheeled round before landing again. We had really come to look for Lapland Buntings, a few of which have been in the stubble here in recent days, but at first we couldn’t find any.

As we got up towards the old Coastguard Cottages, we could see more activity out in the middle of the field so we thought we would try walking up along the track towards the mill. We would not be looking into the sun from there too, as we had been from the cliff side. When we got to the field gate half way up the track, we stopped to scan and were instantly rewarded with a Lapland Bunting. Even better, it was out in an open area of bare mud, where we could get it in the scope. Great views – we couldn’t believe our luck! They are more often just seen flying round or skulking in the stubble.

Lapland BuntingLapland Bunting – showed very well on an area of bare mud

We watched the Lapland Bunting for some time. It was strikingly pale, off-white below and around the face. It appeared to be a male, with a ghosting of a black bib. It was feeding with a couple of Skylarks and Linnets. It would disappear into the furrows from time to time and then reappear somewhere different. At one point it looked like it might be bathing in a furrow with a couple of Meadow Pipits. Then a Weasel appeared. It ran across the field to the open muddy area and all the birds started to chase after it, mobbing it.

After the Weasel had been seen off, all the birds flew round and the Lapland Bunting circled over the open area again before heading out across the field. A second Lapland Bunting appeared from somewhere and followed it, the two of them then dropping down into the stubble out of view.

Our next destination was Kelling Water Meadow. As we walked up the lane, there were a few Blackbirds still in the hedges, arrivals from the continent for the winter stopping off here to refuel on the berries. Otherwise, there were just a few Chaffinches on the walk out until we got to where the thick hedges run out. Then a female Stonechat flew up from the grassy verge and landed in a hawthorn beside us.

StonechatStonechat – this female flew up from the verge beside us

There did not appear to be many birds on the pool here today. Three Teal were feeding at the back. One of the things we had hoped to see was the Spotted Redshank which has been lingering here for some months now, but all we could find was a single Common Redshank. A Curlew flew in calling and landed along the muddy edge, followed shortly after by a single Black-tailed Godwit.

The other species we wanted to see here was Jack Snipe, so we made our way round to the area they have been favouring. They are hard to see at the best of times – they sleep most of the day, hiding deep in the grass, beautifully camouflaged. The water level has increased here in recent days too, which also doesn’t help – it seems to have driven them into the thickest vegetation. When one of the group called out almost immediately to say he had found a bird with a long bill walking in the grass on the edge of the water, it seemed too good to be true. It was – a Common Snipe was feeding along the edge of the water. Still, nice to see.

We stood and scanned the grass for a couple of minutes. Then something caught the eye – the vaguest darker shape deep in the grass, and a golden yellow stripe at a different angle to the vegetation. Through the scope we could see it was indeed a Jack Snipe. It was asleep, but we could see its eye staring at us. It half woke at one point, and started to bob up and down a little, the distinctive action of a Jack Snipe.

Jack SnipeJack Snipe – hiding deep in the grass

After enjoying the Jack Snipe for a while, we set off back up the lane. About half way back, we heard Bullfinches calling and a smart pink male flew out of the hedge andup the track ahead of us. It landed in a small tree with some Chaffinches, before flying back towards us and landing in the back of the hedge. We could hear it calling plaintively and a second Bullfinch answering nearby. Then it disappeared round behind the hedge.

We wanted to try to get better views of the Black Brant so we headed back to Cley next. There were only twenty or so Brent Geese off the East Bank, where it had been reported after we had seen it earlier, but it was not with them now. So we headed round to Beach Road instead. There was a much bigger flock of Brent Geese on one of the grazing meadows by the road here and a couple of cars had stopped to look at them. We joined them and after a couple of seconds the Black Brant appeared at the back of the flock.

Black BrantBlack Brant – feeding with the Brent Geese by Beach Road early afternoon

Through the scope, we got a really good look at the Black Brant. The white flank patch was really striking in the sunshine, very different to the more muted patches on the Dark-bellied Brents. When the Black Brant lifted its neck, we could also see its much bolder white collar, complete below the chin.

While we were watching the Black Brant, a small flock of Starlings flew over the reserve towards us, and across the road just beyond us. One of them was strikingly pale brown, but unfortunately it appeared to be just a leucistic Starling rather than anything rarer. Our timing was fortunate, because after a few minutes all the Brent Geese took off and disappeared much further out to the south side of Eye Field to join an even larger flock of Brents already there.

We continued on along Beach Road to the car park at the end and climbed up onto the shingle to have a quick look at the sea. A Grey Seal was swimming past just off the beach. A Red-throated Diver was on the sea rather distant and was diving constantly which made it harder to see. The wind had picked up a little and the sea was rather choppy too. Another Red-throated Diver flew past, along with a couple of distant Guillemots and a single adult Gannet. It was time for lunch, so we ate in the beach shelter out of the fresh breeze.

After lunch, we headed round to the East Bank. There were a few more Brent Geese feeding on the grazing marsh here now, along with several larger flocks of Wigeon. We could see more ducks out on the Serpentine, but as we walked up towards them to have a closer look we noticed a little group of waders feeding on the mud at the north end. One was noticeably smaller than the others, so we hurried straight up there and sure enough it was a Little Stint in with a group of Dunlin.

Little StintLittle Stint – with a larger Dunlin in front

It has been a good year for Little Stints here, with a maximum count of over 40 juveniles earlier in the autumn. However, Little Stint is predominantly a passage migrant here and numbers dwindled through October, as birds moved on towards their wintering grounds around the Mediterranean or to Africa. Winter Little Stints are not unprecedented in Norfolk but are unusual, so it will be interesting to see if this one stays here now. It was a juvenile moulting to 1st winter plumage, still with quite a few retained juvenile scapulars.

As well as the Dunlin and Little Stint, there were a few Black-tailed Godwits feeding down in the water here. There was a nice selection of ducks on the Serpentine too. As well as all the Wigeon and Teal, there were several Shoveler, a small party of Gadwall and a few Pintail, the drakes of which are now looking very smart. Further back, several Cormorants were drying their wings on one of the islands on Pope’s Pool.

A Curlew was feeding on the brackish pools behind the shelter overlooking Arnold’s Marsh, but it was nice to get in the shelter out of the breeze. There didn’t seem to be much out here at first, apart from a number of Common Redshanks, but looking carefully around the edges we found several more Dunlin and three Grey Plover. A Little Egret was fishing on the pool just in front, shaking one foot at a time in the mud out in front of it, trying to flush out some food.

Little EgretLittle Egret – feeding on the pool on the front edge of Arnold’s Marsh

With the evenings drawing in early now and a couple more things we wanted to do yet, we headed back to the car. It turned out that the Cattle Egrets had moved and were in a different field today, which is why we hadn’t found them earlier. This was more than a little unusual – one of them has been coming to the same field just about daily since mid September!

However, we didn’t have any trouble finding the Cattle Egrets now we knew where they were hiding today. We parked outside the pub in Stiffkey and they were out in the field opposite, with the cows. We had a great view of them feeding around the cows hooves, picking at the grass.

Cattle EgretCattle Egret – one of the two still at Stiffkey, but in a different field today!

Our final destination for the day was at Warham Greens. As we walked up the track, we flushed several Blackbirds from the hedge. Then a small group of six Redwings flew out ahead of us too and circled round calling, before landing in the top of the hedge along the edge of one of the fields. A Common Buzzard was surveying the scene from the top of the roof of the old barn and as we walked past several Stock Doves flew out too.

From the end of the track, we stopped and scanned out across the saltmarsh. There were plenty of Little Egrets and Redshanks out in the grass, plus a few Golden Plover and Brent Geese. A Barn Owl flew through the hedge beside us and disappeared away along the edge of the saltmarsh, before landing in the bushes in the Pit.

A large flock of Fieldfares appeared over the hedge, and flew down to the Pit, landing in the tops of all the bushes and it the hedges either side. A little later, more Fieldfares appeared from over the hedge the other side of us, accompanied by a small group of Redwings. It was hard to tell, but perhaps all these thrushes had only just arrived from Scandinavia for the winter and were stopping to feed up here.

It didn’t take long to spot our first Hen Harrier, a cracking grey male which flew across the saltmarsh in front of us. It dropped down into the bushes and almost immediately we picked up a ringtail Hen Harrier which flew up and started quartering the saltmarsh further back. We saw at least 4 possibly 5 Hen Harriers this evening. Another two ringtails appeared together away in front of East Hills. Then a grey male, possibly the same as earlier having sneaked out unseen or possibly a different bird, flew in from the left. It is a real treat to see so many of them.

The light started to go, as a band of dark cloud arrived from the west. We had enjoyed lovely weather all day, which was very welcome, and thankfully only now did it start to spit lightly with rain. We decided to call it a night.

Pink-footed GeesePink-footed Geese – lines and lines of them flew out to roost at dusk

As we walked back up the track, there were several Grey Partridge calling from the fields. We could hear Pink-footed Geese too and looked up to see lines and lines of them in the sky, flying towards us. They were heading out to roost on the flats beyond the saltmarsh and it was really evocative as they flew over our heads. A great way to end the day.

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2nd Nov 2017 – Autumn meets Winter

A Late Autumn day tour today, in North Norfolk. It was a nice day, with high cloud but dry and mild and with light winds. A good day to be out birding. We met in Wells and headed east along the coast road.

On our way, as we passed Stiffkey, we had a quick look in the wet field beside the road just beyond the village. The cows were very close to the verge and there, with them, were not one but now two Cattle Egrets. There is nowhere to stop here but we managed to pull over where other cars could pass and wound down the windows for a closer look.

Cattle EgretCattle Egret – one of two at Stiffkey now

One of the two Cattle Egrets was standing right out in the open, and we got a good look at it through our binoculars – we could see its short yellowish bill. But it was spooked by another car passing us and flew further back. The second Cattle Egret managed to hide itself very successfully behind a cow at first, but eventually the cow moved out of the way and we could see that one well too, before it then flew further back into the field to join the first.

While we were watching the Cattle Egrets, a pipit flew up from the edge of the pool behind and circled over calling. We could hear a shrill, sharp call, though not as piercing as a Rock Pipit. It sounded like a Water Pipit – and helpfully was seen there again later by someone else at the site.

Our first destination proper for the day was Kelling. We parked in the village and walked up along the lane towards the beach. There were lots of Blackbirds and Chaffinches in the hedges, which flew off ahead of us as we made our way along. These were presumably mostly migrants, just arriving here for the winter.

A male Bullfinch flew out calling and landed briefly in the top of the next hedge over across the field. A Reed Bunting and a couple of Yellowhammers perched up in the top of a hawthorn with some of the Chaffinches, just long enough for us to get a good look at them. A Blackcap was not so obliging, flitting across the track and disappearing into the densest blackthorn.

When we got to a gap in the hedge, we stopped to scan the fields. A flock of about 30 Fieldfares was perched in the top of the bushes just across the field and we were able to get them in the scope, before they flew off west over the track ahead of us, chacking. They were followed by a group of Starlings. This was to be a theme of the day, with flocks of Starlings passing overhead west continually all day, birds arriving in from the continent for the winter.

There were other birds moving today too. Several Skylarks passed high overhead calling as we walked along the lane, seemingly on their way west. We heard Redpolls calling overhead too. In the hedge north of the copse, a Goldcrest was probably also a migrant arrived for the winter. When we got to the edge of the Quags, a female Stonechat was flycatching from the brambles and was joined by a couple of Meadow Pipits which flew up from the grass and stopped there to preen.

Looking across at the pool on the Water Meadow, a flock of about twenty Dunlin were busy feeding feverishly on the exposed mud along the near edge. A Common Redshank was with them. Further back, we found the Spotted Redshank weaving in and out of the rushes on the edge of the island. We got it in the scope and could immediately see how much paler it was than its commoner cousin, with a more strongly marked white supercilium and a longer, much finer bill.

Spotted RedshankSpotted Redshank – lingering for several weeks here now

The Spotted Redshank, a 1st winter bird with darker grey retained juvenile wing coverts and tertials, has been lingering here for several weeks now – it will be interesting to see how much longer it stays here. The Spotted Redshank walked past a Common Snipe which was also feeding on the edge of the island.

There were a couple of other Common Snipe round the muddy edges of the pool too, helpfully feeding out in the open. The Jack Snipe are considerably more skulking – that one would take a bit more effort! Two Black-tailed Godwits flew in and circled over the pool nervously. They eventually dropped down into the water briefly, but changed their minds and took off again, flying off west.

At that point we noticed a report of a Sabine’s Gull which had apparently flown west past Cromer about 20 minutes earlier. It was headed our way, so we made our way straight to the beach to see if we could catch up with it. It later transpired the Sabine’s Gull had turned back and then appeared off Cromer again, so we didn’t manage to see it. But we did pick up a handful of Little Gulls moving west offshore – including a couple of slightly closer adults flashing alternately pale grey above and black underwings as they flapped.

Red-throated DiverRed-throated Diver – there were several on the sea off Kelling today

There were a few Gannets offshore too, mostly distant today though in the rather calm conditions. Several Red-throated Divers were closer in, including one diving just off the beach, in winter plumage now, dusky grey and white, with a rather pale face. A small group of female or juvenile Eider flew west, big chunky ducks with heavy wedge-shaped bills. While we were scanning the sea, a party of eleven Snow Buntings flew east along the shore line past us, calling. We could see as they dropped down onto the beach halfway towards Weybourne, so we set off to see if we could get a closer look.

We found the Snow Buntings again as they flew round and landed on the shingle some way ahead of us still. We got them in the scope and marvelled at how well camouflaged they are against the stones. A couple of them were running around on a patch of sand and were much easier to see. They all started to run up the beach towards a small patch of low sand cliff, and appeared to be feeding there, which gave us an opportunity to get much closer.

Snow BuntingSnow Bunting – great views feeding along the edge of the beach

In the end, we had great close views of the Snow Buntings. There were some annual weeds growing at the top of the sand and the Snow Buntings were feeding on the plentiful seed, up on the top of the cliffs or looking for seed which had fallen off and landed down below. We could see the flock consisted of a mixture of paler Scandinavian birds (of the subspecies nivalis) and darker Icelandic Snow Buntings (insulae). After watching them for a while at close quarters, we left them busy feeding.

On our walk back to the Water Meadow, a female Stonechat was feeding on the brambles on the edge of the Quags, along with a Reed Bunting. We stopped by the pool to have a look for Jack Snipe. As we stood there, we could hear a Great Spotted Woodpecker call and we looked up to see it flying over our heads. There are no trees out here, so it landed on fence post instead, before continuing on its way west.

Jack Snipe are nowhere near as obliging as the Common Snipe, and spend a lot of their time skulking in the vegetation around the pool. They tend to be most active at dawn and dusk too and sleep for much of the day. After some very careful scanning, we just managed to spot a hint of a shape hidden deep in the grass. Getting the scope on it, we could see it was a Jack Snipe.

Jack SnipeJack Snipe – skulking in the grass by the Water Meadow

The Jack Snipe was asleep at first, brilliantly camouflaged in the tussocks of brown grass and rushes, and all but impossible to see unless you knew where it was. By changing our angle of view, we managed to build up a composite view of bits of it. Just occasionally it would wake for a couple of seconds and then sometimes it would start its characteristic bobbing motion, at which point it was marginally easier to find! It edged round a little and we found a spot from where we could see its face and bill through the vegetation.

While we were watching the Jack Snipe, the Spotted Redshank also put on a great performance for us, feeding up and down along the front edge of the pool, only a few metres away from us at times.

Eventually, we had to tear ourselves away and head back up the lane towards the car. We were halfway back when three small birds flew up from the weedy vegetation in the beck by the path. They were three Lesser Redpoll and they helpfully landed in the top of one of the low trees just behind us, waiting for us to move on so they could move back to where they were feeding. We could see they were small and quite dark brown-coloured.

Lesser RedpollLesser Redpoll – three were feeding in the lane on our walk back

There has been a Black Brant with the Dark-bellied Brent Geese at Cley for a couple of weeks now, so we decided to go on a wild goose chase before lunch! The geese had been reported on the grazing marshes off the East Bank this morning, but there was no sign of any here when we got round there. The flock also likes to feed in the Eye Field, so we decided to have a quick look there next and sure enough there were the Brent Geese.

Some of the Brent Geese were feeding on the grass right by the road, so we pulled up carefully in the car and opened the windows. One of the closest birds to us was the Black Brant! It’s brighter white flank patch, contrasting more with its darker blackish body plumage, meant it immediately stood out from the duller Dark-bellied Brent Geese. We had a really good look at it from the car.

Black BrantBlack Brant – feeding right next to the Beach Road at Cley

We then parked at the end of the road and had a look at the geese through the scope from the West Bank. We could see the Black Brant’s much better marked white collar, connecting under the chin and wrapping round a long way at the back too. Our regular wintering Dark-bellied Brents breed in northern Russia, with the Black Brant coming from for north-east Siberia or across the Pacific in NW North America. Occasionally Black Brants get lost and get in with the Dark-bellied Brents, at which point they may remain with them – this bird is probably a regular returnee, having been seen here for several winters now.

As we walked back to the car, a couple of Rock Pipits were chasing each other round the fishing boats and tractors on the edge of the beach. We headed back towards the visitor centre for lunch, but on the way back along the Beach Road one of the group spotted a wader flying over from the direction of the reserve. A Greenshank – it disappeared over the West Bank in the direction of Blakeney Harbour.

It was mild today, so we were able still to sit outside and eat our lunch at the picnic tables overlooking the reserve at Cley. As we ate, a large skein of Pink-footed Geese about a thousand strong came up from the fields in the distance beyond North Foreland wood. They came along the edge of the ridge and as they got closer we could hear their distinctive high-pitched yelping calls. Almost at the car park, they turned towards the reserve and started to whiffle down, losing height rapidly, before landing on the scrapes. Quite a spectacle!

Pink-footed GeesePink-footed Geese – quite a sight, hundreds whiffling down towards the reserve

After lunch, we made our way round to Walsey Hills. A Yellow-browed Warbler had been reported here earlier and we thought we would like to try to get a look at it. A pair of Little Grebes were diving on the pool and we could hear a couple of Water Rails squealing from the reeds.

The Yellow-browed Warbler was frequenting the sallows at the back of Walsey Hills, a very dense area of cover. We headed out into the field at the back, where we could get a good look at the far edge of the trees. At first, all we could see were several tiny Goldcrests flitting around in the sallows. A flock of tits flew in from the wood and made their way through the trees. Then we heard the Yellow-browed Warbler call. We could just see it in the trees, but it disappeared behind a trunk and didn’t come out the other side. It was a good start, but we would like a better view.

After a few minutes, someone shouted to say the Yellow-browed Warbler was visible from the path through the trees, but by the time we got round there it had disappeared again. There was a better view of the trees from back out in the field and thankfully the Yellow-browed Warbler reappeared there after a couple of minutes. It never came out onto the edge, but we could see it flicking around in the leaves, noting its bright pale supercilium and wing bars. Amazing to think this tiny warbler had come all the way from the Urals, or even beyond!

We headed back across the road to the East Bank next. A Stock Dove flew up from the grazing marsh and disappeared off inland over the trees. We could hear Bearded Tits calling from the reeds behind Don’s Pool, but the most we could see of them was the occasional long-tailed shape darting across before diving back into cover.

WigeonWigeon – feeding out on the grazing marshes in good numbers now

There were good numbers of ducks out on the grazing marshes. More Wigeon have returned now and there were several good sized groups feeding down in the grass below the bank. There were plenty of Teal too, particularly around the Serpentine, where a more careful scan also revealed a few Pintail and Gadwall. There were a few waders here too, several Black-tailed Godwits feeding on the Serpentine and further back, on Pope’s Pool, we could see a little group of Dunlin and a few Redshank.

There were more waders on Arnold’s Marsh. Looking carefully through all the Dunlin on here we found a single diminutive Little Stint with them, running round on the edge of one of the shingle spits. There were also several Grey Plover, Curlew and a single Turnstone on here, plus more Black-tailed Godwits and Redshank. A big flock of Linnets whirled round repeatedly, before dropping back down onto the saltmarsh to feed.

CurlewCurlew – there were several on Arnold’s and around the brackish pools

We continued on to the beach to have another quick look out to sea. Although the wind had finally swung round to the north-west, it was still rather too light to blow anything inshore. A small flock of Ringed Plover flew past along the beach. Further out, a lone Common Scoter flew west, as did a single Brent Goose. We picked up a small group of six Shelduck flying in over the sea, presumably returning from the continent where they had gone to moult. Several Kittiwakes were circling distantly, feeding offshore.

As we made our way back along the East Bank, the sun was already going down. We stopped to watch a Little Egret feeding on the brackish pools in the evening light – shaking its feet ahead of it in the mud, trying to stir up fish or other invertebrates from the shallows. When it lifted its feet out of the water, we could see they were bright yellow, contrasting with its black legs.

Little EgretLittle Egret – feeding in the brackish pools

The light was already starting to fade but we still had time for one more quick stop on our way back west, at Stiffkey Greenway. The evenings draw in much earlier now, after the clocks have changed. As we pulled up into the car park, several small groups of Little Egrets were making their way west to roost.

We were hoping to catch up with some raptors to end the day. A distant Merlin appeared briefly against the sky, but we lost it as it dropped down against the saltmarsh again. A Peregrine was easier to see, standing out on the sand in the distance and a Common Buzzard perched in the top of the bushes at the back edge of the saltmarsh. We did manage to find a couple of Hen Harriers, but they were distant today. First a grey male appeared, way out in front of East Hills, but it almost immediately dropped down onto the saltmarsh out of view. Then a little later a ringtail appeared in the same area. It at least flew around for a while, but the light was really going now and it was very hard to get everyone onto against the dark of the trees.

With the evening drawing in, it was time to call it a day and head back to Wells. It had been a great day out, with some good birds, a nice mixture of late autumn migrants and winter visitors.

21st Oct 2017 – Migrants & Winter Visitors Day 2

Day 2 of a three day long weekend of Autumn Migration Tours today. It was a nice bright start to the day, but the wind increased during the morning as ‘Storm Brian’ swept across the UK. Thankfully, being on the east coast, it was nowhere near as windy here as it was in the west of the country, but it was still rather gusty at times. It clouded over a bit too, in the afternoon, but remained dry all day and we had a good day out.

Given the nice weather first thing, we decided to have a quick look in Wells Woods to see if any migrants had arrived overnight. There are lots of Little Grebes now on the boating lake – we counted at least 17 as we walked past – but no ducks other than the local Mallards.

Little GrebeLittle Grebe – one of at least 17 on the boating lake today

We set off into the woods but it was quiet at first in the trees. We could hear Long-tailed Tits calling further over, towards the east side of the Dell. On our way round there, a Treecreeper flew in and landed on the trunk of a large old pine tree in front of us. We watched it for a minute or so as it picked its way around the furrows in the bark, before it disappeared round the other side of the tree.

TreecreeperTreecreeper – flew in to the trunk of an old pine tree in front of us

At first we could only find three Long-tailed Tits together. They were calling constantly and had possibly lost the rest of the flock. They disappeared off the way we had come, but as we walked out onto the main path, we found the rest of the group. They were in a sheltered spot initially, but quickly moved round to the breezier side of the trees where they were harder to follow.

The tit flock was on the move, and didn’t seem to know which was they were going, They first started to head over to the caravan site, then changed their minds and went back to the edge of the Dell, before starting to fly over to the west side of the meadow. There was a nice selection of the commoner tits and a few Goldcrests, but it was hard to see the whole flock. In the end, they disappeared into the trees and we left them to it.

The bushes in the more open areas by the track still held a few thrushes – several Blackbirds and a Redwing or two – plus a handful of Chaffinches, but not the number of migrants that they have produced in the last few days. It seemed like there had not been much in the way of new birds in overnight, and earlier arrivals had already mostly moved off inland. A Bullfinch flew out of the brambles and away ahead of us, flashing its white rump. There were a few Curlews in the nearer fields, and we could see small flocks of Pink-footed Geese dropping into the fields further south.

The drinking pool seemed like a good place to check, as it would be relatively sheltered. As we walked in, we could hear Long-tailed Tits calling in the pines beyond, but it took us a while to locate them. Thankfully, they worked their way round to the pool and many of them dropped down into the smaller trees round the edge. We had great views of the tits and in particular a couple of Goldcrests which were feeding low down right in front of us.

GoldcrestGoldcrest – one of several feeding in the bushes round the drinking pool

As the tit flock moved back up into the pines, we decided to make our way back and try our luck elsewhere. The wind had already started to pick up now, and we really noticed it as we got out of the trees. When we got back to the car, we headed off east along the coast to Cley.

There has been a Black Redstart hanging around here for a few days now and today it had taken up residence on the roof of the wardens house. As we walked out to the hides, we could see it flitting around on the tiles. The sun was on the east side of the roof, which was also most sheltered from the wind. Presumably it was finding insects up there because, as well as the Black Redstart, there were also two Pied Wagtails on the roof.

Black RedstartBlack Redstart – on the roof of the warden’s house at Cley

Black Redstarts breed in small numbers in Norfolk, mainly around Great Yarmouth. This one is presumably a migrant, heading from the breeding grounds in northern Europe to winter around the Mediterranean.

The boardwalk out to the hides was also in the sun, and sheltered from the wind by the tall reeds either side. There were lots of Common Darter dragonflies along here, basking in the sunshine on the bare wood.

Common DarterCommon Darter – basking in the sun along the boardwalk

At the end of the boardwalk, we headed for Dauke’s Hide first. There were lots of ducks out on Simmond’s Scrape – mainly Wigeon and Teal, now returned in larger numbers from Russia and northern Europe for the winter. They were very jump in the wind, and kept flying up into the air, taking everything else up with them, before landing again.

There have been good numbers of Little Stints at Cley this autumn and the same was still true today. There were at least 7 on Simmond’s Scrape while we were there, although they were hard to count. They really are tiny birds and were easily lost from view among the ducks or around the back edges of the islands. They were all juveniles – amazing to think they are making their way unguided from the Arctic down to Africa for the winter.

Little StintLittle Stint – a juvenile, one of at least 7 on Simmond’s Scrape

There were not so many other waders on here this morning. This might be partly due to the ducks, which caused them all to take flight several times when we were there, not helped by the two Marsh Harriers which were quartering over the reeds most of the time but would occasionally drift over the edges of the scrapes, presumably enjoying the mayhen which ensued.

There were three Black-tailed Godwits feeding in the deeper water along the edge of the scrape, and a couple of Ruff in among the ducks. A little group of Dunlin included some already in winter plumage and a couple of juveniles with black spotted bellies. A lone adult was still sporting most of its large black belly patch, a remnant from its breeding plumage. A single Common Snipe flew in and landed in the cut dead reeds in the back corner, where it immediately became very difficult to see!

There had been a Curlew Sandpiper reported here earlier, but we couldn’t find it – presumably it had flown off at some point, when all the ducks flushed. We did find a Ringed Plover out on the grass in the middle of one of the islands. When something else landed with it, we looked over and were surprised to see a dumpy, much darker wader – a Purple Sandpiper.

Through the scope, we could see the Purple Sandpiper’s yellow legs and bill base. It was a first winter bird, still with its retained pale-fringed juvenile wing coverts. It stayed just long enough for us all to get a good look at it through the scope. Then suddenly all the ducks erupted again, as the Marsh Harrier drifted across the back of the scrapes, and the waders took to the air too. Unfortunately, despite most of the birds quickly returning to the water, the Purple Sandpiper had disappeared.

One of the smartest birds on here today was a Starling. We don’t tend to look at them as much as we should, as they are not uncommon here especially in winter, but this one was probing in the grass for invertebrates, on the bank right in front of the hide, and demanded our attention. It looked particularly striking in its fresh plumage, with striking white or pale brown tips to the feathers head and body feathers. A real stunner!

StarlingStarling – feeding in the grass in front of the hide, a stunning bird close-up

There are not so many birds on Pat’s Pool at the moment, but we popped into Teal Hide for a quick look. The highlight was a single Avocet in a line of roosting Black-headed Gulls and Ruff. Most of the Avocets here have left already, but there are still a very few hanging on along the coast. There seem to be fewer than recent years, so perhaps they know something we don’t about the coming winter!

The Ruff here today were mainly juveniles, faded now to a variety of pale, buff, stone, ecru underparts. A single winter adult with them was much paler, whitish below, and with obvious bright orange legs and bill base.

AvocetAvocet & friends – with a few Ruff and Black-headed Gulls

Then it was back to the visitor centre for lunch. It was rather windy now, but not enough to stop us from making the use of the picnic tables and enjoying the view across the reserve.

After lunch, we made our way round to the beach car park. As soon as we got out of the car, we could see a small group of Brent Geese in the Eye Field. There was a Black Brant here a couple of days ago and a quick glance through the flock revealed an obviously different bird – much darker, blackish bodied, than the accompanying Dark-bellied Brents, with a brighter, cleaner white flank patch. A smart Black Brant.

Black BrantBlack Brant – with the Brent Geese in the Eye Field

This was our second Black Brant in two days, presumably another returning individual, which has got attached to a group of Dark-bellied Brents in Siberia and now remains with them all year, migrating back and forth to Norfolk. It didn’t appear to have such a strongly marked neck collar as yesterday’s Black Brant at first, but it was feeding and hunkered down against the wind. When it lifted its head, the extensive neck collar, connecting under the chin and almost joining at the back of the neck, was more obvious.

There had been several Gannets circling offshore earlier, we had seen them distantly from the hides before lunch, so we had a quick look out to sea. Unfortunately they had moved further offshore or along towards Salthouse now – we could still see them, a mixture of black-tipped white-winged adults, dusky grey juveniles and some in betweens. Otherwise, there was not much happening out to sea, no wildfowl moving today. We did see a few distant auks, Guillemots and Razorbills, flying past.

To finish off our visit to the reserve at Cley today, we headed round to the East Bank to head out to Arnold’s Marsh. It was rather windy up on the East Bank, but the wind was at our backs on the walk out. We could just about hear the Bearded Tits calling at the back of Don’s Pool, but it was not the day to be looking for them today – Bearded Tits don’t like the wind, and typically remain tucked deep down in the reedbed on days like today.

There was a good smattering of ducks out on the grazing marshes to the east as we walked out, mostly Wigeon and Teal. Looking through more carefully, we found a few Pintail asleep in the grass and a few Gadwall too. Several juvenile Ruff were feeding on the mud at the north end of the Serpentine.

We took shelter from the wind in the shelter overlooking Arnold’s Marsh. There was a nice selection of waders out on the water here, mostly Black-tailed Godwits and Redshanks along with several Curlew. Around the edges and the islands we found three Ringed Plovers and two Grey Plovers. Then it was a brisk walk back into the wind!

For our final stop, we finished the day with a visit to Kelling Water Meadow. As we walked up along the lane, we could hear a Chiffchaff calling from deep in the hedge. Several Blackbirds flushed ahead of us from where they were feeding on the berries, as we saw this morning, probably birds lingering having arrived over the last couple of days.

There had been a Yellow-browed Warbler reported from the copse here earlier and we arrived to find a small crowd leaving. We were told it had been in the hedge on the sheltered north side and after only a minute or so it appeared among the leaves. It flitted about for a while, long enough for us to get a good look at it, before it disappeared back into the trees as a flock of tits moved through.

Continuing on down to the Water Meadow, we stopped at the gate on the cross track and looked back over the pool. Three small waders on the mud were the three lingering juvenile Curlew Sandpipers, so we had a good look at those through the scope. A little bigger and sleaker than a Dunlin, with a longer, more downcurved and Curlew-like bill, cleaner white and buff below with delicately scaled upperparts. They have been around here for a while now, stopping off to feed on their way down from the breeding grounds in central Siberia to Africa for the winter. Presumably they will be on their way again sometime soon.

Further back, in the most distant corner of the pool, we could see a couple of larger waders and through the scope, we could see that they were two Spotted Redshanks. These birds have been lingering here for several weeks now too. Like the Curlew Sandpipers, they are both young birds, reared in the Arctic in the summer and now making their way south. There were a couple of Common Snipe feeding with them, but there was another Common Snipe closer, on the edge of the island, which we got a better look at. There have been one or two Jack Snipe here in recent days, but we couldn’t find them today.

Spotted RedshankSpotted Redshanks – gave great close views after everyone else had gone

One of the Spotted Redshanks is much paler than the other – the paler one is more advanced in its moult, with more silvery grey moulted first winter feathers in its mantle and scapulars. The second bird is now starting to moult and we could see a smattering of new feathers here, but it still appears rather dusky by comparison.

There were a few other birds here too, while we stood and watched the waders. A Fieldfare flew past behind us and we caught it as it continued on west, over the hill and into the sun, the only one of the weekend. A flock of Linnets flew across the Quags calling and a Stonechat zipped across and disappeared over the hedge.

The Spotted Redshanks made their way along the east side of the pool and down towards the top corner, so we made our way along behind the reeds and were soon treated to great close-up views of them as they fed just a few metres away from us. We could see their long, needle-fine bills, with a slight kink at the tip. They were feeding busily, in and out of the grass around the edge of the pool.

Then it was time to head back. The nights are drawing in now and the light was already starting to fade as we wended our way along the coast road to finish the day.

20th Oct 2017 – Migrants & Winter Visitors Day 1

Day 1 of a three day long weekend of Autumn Migration Tours today. It was cloudy all day but not too windy and, thankfully, the only shower fell while we were having lunch – and it was mercifully brief!

With lots of thrushes and finches arriving in over the last few days, we decided to start with a visit to check out the hedges at Warham Greens. As soon as we parked, we could hear several Blackbirds alarm calling.

As we walked up along the track, lots of birds came out of the hedges and flew on ahead of us. As well as lots more Blackbirds, there were plenty of Song Thrushes and a few Redwings too. They had probably all just arrived in from the continent and were taking a break to refuel on all the berries. We saw several tiny Goldcrests along here too – amazing to think that a bird so small can make it all the way across the North Sea. A Blackcap was typically elusive, climbing through the hedge before zipping across the track in front of us.

We stopped by a gate and looked across the grassy field beyond to some old barns. There were several Stock Doves on the roof. Here we saw a couple of Yellowhammers perched in the top of the hedge, with a Reed Bunting for company. A Chiffchaff flew across the track and dropped into the bushes at the base of a large sycamore. A Redwing perched up nicely for us in the top of the hedge.

Continuing on up the track, a little flock of Golden Plover flew over, calling. We could hear some rather noisy Grey Partridge out in one of the fields, but couldn’t see where they were through a thick hedge. A Sparrowhawk flew off across a field, disappearing into a hedge before emerging the other side a minute or so later, presumably after a quick rest.

As we were walking past a large oak tree, a sharp call caught our attention and we looked up to see a small bird flitting around in the leaves. It was a Yellow-browed Warbler. It was hard to see at first, high in the tree, but eventually we all got a good look at it, particularly as it dropped out of the tree and into the hedge, before working its way back up the track.

Yellow-browed WarblerYellow-browed Warbler – flitting around high in an oak tree

Yellow-browed Warblers breed in Siberia and winter mainly in Asia. They have become increasingly common in autumn here over the last 30 years, as the species has extended its breeding range westwards. Still, it a great bird to see and amazing to think that this small bird probably started its journey over at the Urals.

At the top of the track, we emerged out onto the coastal path and stopped to scan the saltmarsh. There were lots of Little Egrets scattered around, so common now it is amazing to think how rare they were only 20 years ago. A flock of Golden Plover down in the vegetation was very well camouflaged and hard to see until you looked through the scope. We could hear several Curlew calling from time to time, and eventually one landed close enough so we could get it in the scope.

There are always lots of Brent Geese out on the saltmarsh and today was no exception, with numbers having increased steadily even in the last few days, as more return for the winter. Most of the birds which come here at this time of year are Russian Dark-bellied Brents, but it is always worth checking through the groups carefully. Sure enough, as we looked through them, one bird instantly stood out. It was much darker, blackish, with a bright white flank patch and much more extensive white collar. It was a Black Brant.

Black BrantBlack Brant – probably a returning individual, with the Dark-bellied Brents

Black Brant is one of the other subspecies of Brent Goose. It breeds in NW North America and far eastern Siberia, wintering either side of the Pacific. It is a regular visitor here, with lost birds mixing with Dark-bellied Brent Geese in Russia and migrating to western Europe with them. Some of these birds then return winter after winter with the same group of Brents and there has been a Black Brant here in the winter for several years now. This is the first time we have seen it this winter, so it was a welcome surprise to find it here today.

Looking out beyond the saltmarsh, out towards the beach, we could see lots of waders on the sand flats in the distance. Through the scope, we could just make out a flock of Knot, accompanied by a few Grey Plover. In one of the tidal channels nearby, we picked out three ducks – Red-breasted Mergansers. But they were all very distant and hard to see much detail, even with a scope.

There were not so many flocks of thrushes coming in off the sea today, but there were still lots of birds moving. A steady stream of flocks of Starlings of various sizes flew west along the edge of the saltmarsh this morning. A flock of Lapwing flew over us. There were a few Chaffinches and Skylarks coasting too.

YellowhammerYellowhammer – we saw several this morning in the hedges and down by the Pit

We had a quick look in the Pit, but it was fairly quiet today, suggesting there was perhaps not so much fresh in overnight last night. We did flush a few more Redwings from the bushes, one perching nicely in the top for us briefly, plus several Chaffinches and a couple of Yellowhammers. A large flock of Goldfinches kept coming & going, between the bushes round the Pit and the weedy vegetation on the edge of the saltmarsh. A male Stonechat put in a brief appearance down in the Suaeda too.

There were a few raptors out over the saltmarsh today. Three Marsh Harriers were quartering out along the edge of the beach pretty much all the time we were there. As we were leaving, we spotted a Red Kite flying lazily over the back of the saltmarsh and when we turned to head back, we noticed a second Red Kite circling over the field just behind us.

Red KiteRed Kite – the second of two at Warham Greens today

The walk back up the track was fairly uneventful – with fewer birds flushed from the hedgerows now, but still lots of Blackbirds, thrushes and a few Goldcrests. We were almost back to the car when we found a mixed flock of finches – mostly Chaffinches and Greenfinches but with at least one Brambling too. We heard the Brambling call, but unfortunately couldn’t see it in the thick vegetation.

We had a bit of time still before lunch, so we decided to head further east and have a look for the Cattle Egret at Stiffkey. As we drove past, we had a quick scan of the field, but the cows were lying down and there appeared to be no sign of the Cattle Egret with them. Being white, it normally sticks out like a sore thumb! We decided to have a quick look out at Stiffkey Fen, and then go back to the cows again afterwards.

As we walked down along the path beside the river, we could hear a Yellow-browed Warbler calling in the trees. It sounded as if it was making its way towards the near edge, so we walked back and could just see it up in the trees. It was very vocal, calling continually for a couple of minutes before going quiet. Our second Yellow-browed Warbler of the morning!

There were more birds along the path too. A Cetti’s Warbler shouted at us from deep in the brambles. A Yellowhammer called from the trees the other side of the river. We could hear Bullfinches calling plaintively and looked up to see a nice pink male fly past. We flushed more Blackbirds, Song Thrushes and Redwings from the brambles as we passed. Almost out to the seawall, a Chiffchaff called from the sallows.

Half way along, we stopped to look out at the Fen from the path. We could see lots of Ruff along the northern edge, below the reeds, and several smaller waders with them. Just as we got the scope onto them, they all took off. Several of the Ruff flew off inland, but two of the smaller waders landed on the mud in the middle of the Fen. One was a Dunlin but the other was a juvenile Little Stint, a nice surprise. We were just admiring the Little Stint through the scope when it took off and we didn’t see where it went.

Out on the seawall, we had another scan of the Fen, but we couldn’t see the Little Stint again, just a group of about ten Ruff where it had been. There was a nice selection of ducks on here, mostly Teal and Wigeon, but also quite a few Pintail, including some increasingly smart drakes as they emerge from eclipse plumage.

Looking out to Blakeney Harbour, the tide was out. A nice close Grey Plover was on the mud on the side of the channel, a juvenile, looking slightly golden-tinged on its upperparts. There were lots of Oystercatchers out on the sand in Blakeney Pit. As we scanned, we picked up a mixed flock of Bar-tailed Godwits and Sanderling which landed out on a sandbank with them. A big flock of Dunlin and Turnstone flew past.

There were also lots of Brent Geese and Wigeon out in the harbour. Several groups of gulls were loafing, Herring Gulls and big brutes of Great Black-backed Gulls. On the sand flats beyond the habour, we could see lots of seals hauled out, and through the scope we could see several Gannets diving into the sea beyond them.

As we turned to walk back, a Kingfisher was calling from down along the river channel, but we didn’t see it. The Yellow-browed Warbler showed itself again briefly on our way back past.

We continued on along the path and stopped down at the corner overlooking the grazing marshes. We were immediately informed that the Cattle Egret was back, but not in view. Thankfully we didn’t have to wait long before it walked out from behind the cows and we got a really good view of it through the scope. This Cattle Egret has been lingering here for some time now – perhaps it will stay until the cows are taken in for the winter? There were also two Grey Herons, lots of ducks, and several Ruff on the muddy flash here.

Cattle EgretCattle Egret – still lingering with the cows at Stiffkey

After we had all had a good look at the Cattle Egret, we headed back to the car and drove back to Holkham for a late lunch. While we were eating, the cloud thickened again and it start to rain. Thankfully it was just a shower and it quickly passed over, although it remained rather cool and cloudy.

After lunch, we headed into Holkham Park. The walk in through the trees was fairly quiet, perhaps with the weather clouding over and the breeze picking up they had retreated now. There are always lots of Fallow Deer in here and we saw several groups of females and a few bucks barking to defend their territories.

Fallow DeerFallow Deer – we saw lots in the Park again today

We made our way straight down to the lake, but there was no sign of the Osprey in any of its favourite trees. We couldn’t find it fishing at the north end of the lake either. We did find a nice variety of ducks on the lake – including Gadwall, Pochard and Tufted Duck – plus several Great Crested Grebes and Little Grebes.

Turning round, we walked down to the south end of the lake to see what we could find there. A quick scan revealed a juvenile Scaup in with a raft of Tufted Duck. It swam off out into the middle of the lake as we approached, but we had a good look at it through the scope, noting its pale surround to the bill and cheek spot.

ScaupScaup – a juvenile, with the Tufted Duck on the lake

There were a couple of Egyptian Geese out on the lawn in front of the hall, but still no sign of the Osprey anywhere, so we set off back to the car. With everyone tired of walking, we decided to have a quick look out at the freshmarsh to finish the day. It turned out to be a good call. As soon as we pulled up, we could see a Great White Egret out on the edge of a ditch. By the time we had got out of the car, there were now two Great White Egrets. A second bird had appeared further back and was preening in the base of the sallows. Three species of egret in a day!

Great White EgretGreat White Egret – one of two out on the freshmarsh late this afternoon

Scanning around the various pools, we picked up three Avocets on the edge of one of the more distant ones. There are not many Avocets around now, with most having left for the winter, so we stopped to look at them through the scope. As we did so, we noticed another small pale bird nearby. It was small and swimming in circles, in and out of the ducks nearby, a Grey Phalarope. A real bonus!

We had a good look at the Grey Phalarope before something flushed all the ducks and waders and it settled again on the water even further back. The geese down on the grass below us were almost entirely Greylags. Still, we scanned through them carefully to see if we could find anything else. We had almost given up when a family of three Russian White-fronted Geese walked out from behind the bushes, two adults with black belly bars and white fronts and a plainer juvenile. This is a regular wintering site for Russian White-fronts but these are the first we have seen here this winter. Nice to see them returning now.

It had been a really productive stop here, with lots of birds coming and going, but it was now time to call it a day and head for home. Here’s hoping for more of the same tomorrow!

20th November 2015 – The Calm Before The Storm

The first of two days of tours based in North Norfolk. The weather forecast was cloudy and breezy with the chance of wintry showers later on – it was mostly right today for once, but we were surprised to find some pleasant sunshine at times this morning.

We met in Wells and spent a brief moment looking at the harbour. There were some large groups of Brent Geese out on the saltmarsh or flying across to the main channel to bathe. One lone Brent Goose was swimming around in the water just in front of us, which gave us chance for a good look up close. It was one of our regular Dark-bellied Brent Geese, which come in from Russia to spend the winter here in good numbers.

IMG_3018Brent Goose – a regular Dark-bellied bird in the harbour this morning

There were several Marsh Harriers quartering out over the saltmarsh too. A few Little Egrets were fishing along the channel and a nice selection of waders were along the muddy edges – plenty of Redshank, a few Curlew, a Lapwing and a smart Grey Plover.

IMG_3025Grey Plover – feeding on the mud in Wells Harbour

We made our way east along the coast to Cley, which was our first proper destination for the morning. We had a quick look at the fields along Beach Road, but there was no sign of the flock of Brent Geese along there yet today. So we headed onto the reserve instead.

A Cetti’s Warbler sang half-heartedly from the bushes but wouldn’t how itself. Along the path to Bishop Hide, we could hear Bearded Tits calling. We thought it was a bit too windy to see them perched out on the tops, but we managed to find a female feeding on a seed head, though it wasn’t easy to see through the reed stems even in the scope.

As we walked out to the hide, a Merlin whisked past and powered away inland along the hedgeline. A little while later, from the hide, we saw a second Merlin chasing what was presumably a Meadow Pipit over towards the beach. They towered high into the sky, the pipit at first climbing steeply, then swerving wildly as the Merlin dived at it repeatedly, at times missing it by fractions. Finally the pipit dropped vertically towards the cover of the beach. The Merlin, presumably realising it might be about to lose its target, plunged down after it, and we lost sight of them behind the reeds.

The Marsh Harriers put on a good display too. There were at least six of them up at one point. One of the resident females perched nicely in the top of one of the bushes in the reedbed in the morning sun, so we could get her in the scope. Later, she quartered over the reeds right in front of the hide.

P1120664Marsh Harrier – this female flew right past the hide

There was a good selection of other birds out on Pat’s Pool. A small party of Dunlin were feeding feverishly on the mud round the edges of the islands. Further over, a group of Black-tailed Godwit were mostly asleep. Five hardy Avocets were easy to overlook, also asleep amongst the gulls – most of them have gone south for the winter, but a few choose to hang on here.

There are lots of ducks in now for the winter. A good number of Wigeon were grazing on the islands. There were fewer Teal out on the water here than in recent days, but a group of four smart drakes were quite close. Four Shoveler were asleep further over. But the prize for the smartest of all goes to the pair of Pintail – although the male was still not in full breeding plumage, with a few brown feathers still to be moulted and his long pin-shaped tail feathers a bit shorter than full length.

IMG_3033Pintail – this pair were on Pat’s Pool this morning

As we walked out of the hide, a male Stonechat was perched briefly on a dead stem by the reed screen but flew off as soon as it saw us. There are a few around the reserve at the moment and, when we got to the start of the East Bank, we found another pair along the edge of the path below. The male disappeared off along the reedy channel, but the female stayed put and spent some time flycatching from the bushes.

IMG_3052Stonechat – this female was one of several around Cley today

We could hear more Bearded Tits calling here but couldn’t see any at first. Again, it seemed unlikely they would come out given the wind. But then we spotted some movement along the mud at the bottom of the reeds opposite and realised there was a group of Bearded Tits feeding there. They didn’t hang around, and quickly disappeared out of view, but thankfully a few more followed along behind and we managed to get a cracking male in the scope. A Water Pipit was more elusive. It flew up calling from the mud as we first got up onto the bank and disappeared behind some reeds. It had found a sheltered spot and we only had another quick glimpse of it as it disappeared round a corner of the mud further along.

There were lots more ducks and a few Brent Geese on Pope’s Marsh. Scanning through them, the one addition to the day’s list we managed was a single Common Snipe feeding in the wet grass. Out on Arnold’s Marsh, we could see another big group of Dunlin and more Redshank, with a single Ringed Plover and Turnstone on one of the islands.

As we walked out towards the beach, a small falcon came flying towards us chasing something. As it got alongside us, we could see it was a Kestrel and it was chasing an exhausted Blackbird. The Blackbird dived into the reeds and the Kestrel hovered briefly overhead, before flying off. Out here, we assumed the Blackbird had probably just arrived in over the North Sea, coming here for the winter from Northern Europe. This was confirmed by what we saw on the beach. We were looking out to sea when we spotted another five Blackbirds battling in low over the waves into the wind – they made it safely in and over the beach.

It was windy out on the beach and the sea had quite a swell, but there was quite a lot of activity out there. A few Guillemots and Razorbills were riding out the waves offshore and more auks were whirring past over the waves left and right in ones and twos. Several Gannets were fishing offshore, folding back their wings and plunging into the water, both slate-grey juveniles and adults with black-tipped white wings. While we were watching one Gannet fly past, we spotted a Red-throated Diver riding the surf below it. Further out, a melee of gulls contained three darker shapes and a look through the scope revealed three Great Skuas harrying them.

There were a few ducks and geese battling in over the sea, presumably fresh in from the continent – a little party of four Teal, a pair of Gadwall, a couple of Brent Geese. However, the highlight was a single young Velvet Scoter which flew past, flashing white trailing edges to its wings and two bright white face spots as it went.

We were on our way back along the East Bank when we saw a large flock of Brent Geese come overhead and disappear off east, before circling back round and dropping down behind Walsey  Hills. We took a short detour along the road and down the footpath up to the fields behind there. We couldn’t see the Brent Geese at first, although a very noisy group of Pink-footed Geese were in the field further over behind the wood.

We climbed up to the top of the hill to get a better look and could see a few Brent Geese feeding on the winter wheat, but nothing like the number we had seen fly in. The ground here undulates and it was quickly clear that the flock had managed to hide themselves in a dip in the ground! We walked back down and then further along the footpath and the rest of the flock magically appeared. Even better, there on the front edge was our target – a Black Brant. Its brighter white flank patch positively glowed in the sunshine and we could see its better marked white collar when it raised its head.

IMG_3060Black Brant – the whiter collar and flanks give it away

We were edging our way along the path trying not to flush the flock. The birds had seen us, but seemed to start to settle. Then suddenly they panicked and all took to the air. The Black Brant came right over our heads, but also in the flock we saw another Brent Goose with a much paler belly than any of the others – a Pale-bellied Brent Goose. We thought at first we might actually have disturbed the geese, but then a man appeared over the hill, a walker coming along another footpath which ran right through the field where the geese were feeding. Typical timing! It would have been great to get a better view of all the subspecies of Brent Goose together.

We made our way back to the Visitor Centre for lunch. No sooner had we arrived than the Brent Goose flock flew in overhead from the fields behind and dropped down onto the reserve. We could see the Black Brant and the Pale-bellied Brent Goose in with them. While we were eating our sandwiches a Peregrine flew off the reserve and inland, carrying its own lunch! It had clearly just caught some unsuspecting bird out over the reserve.

After lunch, we had thought we might go out onto the new part of the reserve, ‘Salthouse Marshes’. We drove along to Iron Road, but the wind had picked up and was whistling across and there were people pounding in new fenceposts out along the track past Babcock Hide. We could see there were very few birds in front of the hide today. There were a few Ruff in with the Lapwing on the marshes by Iron Road though.

We drove back to Cley and down Beach Road again, as we had first thing this morning. While we were having lunch, it had looked like some of the Brent Geese had headed this way. Sure enough, about half way down Beach Road, we spotted a small flock of about 30 Brent Geese out on the grazing marshes. We pulled into the side and scanned with binoculars and once again the Black Brant immediately stood out from the throng, so we parked up and got the scope out. There was the Black Brant but, even better, there was the Pale-bellied Brent as well – the three (main?) subspecies of Brent Goose together in one small flock. What a treat!

IMG_3066Brent Geese – 3 subspecies togther: Black Brant, Pale- & Dark-bellied

Brent Geese of the various forms are found breeding all around the arctic, with Dark-bellied Brents breeding in central and west Siberia, Pale-bellied Brents breeding in Franz Josef Land, Svalbard, Greenland and the Canadian high arctic and Black Brants breeding in NE Canada, Alaska and far eastern Siberia. Dark-bellied Brent Geese winter commonly here – an estimated half the population winters in southern England. Black Brants are rare stragglers which should winter along the coasts of the Pacific.

A few Golden Plover were in the same field as the geese, but were very nervous and after circling around a couple of times and landing again, they flew off. After enjoying the geese, we drove on to the beach car park to turn around. An even larger flock of Golden Plover had now gathered in the Eye Field, hunched down in the grass face on into the wind. Their gold-spangled backs shone in the sunshine.

Next, we drove back west past Wells to Holkham. As we did so, we could see some very dark clouds being pushed past on the gusty wind. It was clearly raining hard out over the sea. When we got to Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see we were just about to catch the back edge of it. Rather than walk out to Washington Hide immediately , we decided to drive a little further west and scan the marshes.

We were pleased we did. Our first stop only yielded a few Greylags and a couple more Pink-footed Geese. However, on our next scan a tall white shape was apparent on the edge of one of the ditches – a Great White Egret. This bird has been present here since the end of August, but can be very elusive, particularly in the last few weeks, so it was great to catch up with it again today.

IMG_3077Great White Egret – in one of the ditches out on the grazing marsh

The Great White Egret flew across and landed on the grass next to a Grey Heron, a great side-by-side comparison. If anything, it was actually a little larger than the heron! The Grey Herons seemed to object to its presence and actually chased it off a couple of times, but it seemed to like the area and kept returning to the ditches here.

We had hoped to see some White-fronted Geese from here – that was the main reason for coming this way, and the egret was a surprise bonus. We were not disappointed as there were at least 30 scattered across the grass in front of the Great White Egret, once we had taken our eyes off it. Most of the White-fronted Geese were adults, with white blaze around the base of the bill and black belly bars, but there were also several plainer juveniles which lacked these diagnostic features. Nearby, a lone Barnacle Goose was accompanied by a rather odd looking hybrid – local feral geese.

IMG_3084White-fronted Geese – we could see at least 30 here today

The clouds moved through quickly and the skies cleared again while we were scanning the marshes, so we drove back down to Lady Anne’s Drive, stopping on the way to admire a little group of Pink-footed Geese in the field nearby. It was great to be able to look at them up close, and see the differences from all the other geese we had seen through the day.

IMG_3100Pink-footed Geese – nice close-up views along Lady Anne’s Drive

We set off to walk west along the edge of the pines to Washington Hide. However, we hadn’t gone very far before we heard the yelping of Pink-footed Geese behind us and turned to see several hundred flying in from the fields. They turned and dropped down onto the grazing marshes where we had been watching the others earlier. Just before we got to the pines, we heard a Chiffchaff calling and could just see it flicking around in the low brambles. Most of the Chiffchaffs have departed south for the winter, but in mild years there is often one or two which lingers in the pines.

We were just past Salts Hole when we heard Long-tailed Tits calling from the trees. We stopped to look at them and realised there were a few Goldcrests with them. Then a sharper call alerted us to the presence of a Firecrest as well, in fact two Firecrests. They were in the trees south of the track, looking towards the evening sky and the sun had already set, which meant it was harder to make them out clearly. Then they flew across and landed in a Holm Oak the other side of the track. They only stopped in there briefly, but this time we could see one of them more clearly. The male Firecrest flashed his orange crown stripe before disappearing back towards the pines.

We continued on to Washington Hide and could already see quite a few Pink-footed Geese already out on the grass. Unfortunately, the clouds were building once more and the light was starting to fade fast now. We decided to call it a day and make our way home. And a very nice day it had been, too!

P1120702Sunset – over Salts Hole at Holkham

13th November 2015 – Glossy Surprise

Day 1 of a long weekend of tours today. We met at Cley and the plan was to spend the day at the eastern end of the North Norfolk coast. It was beautifully sunny out across the reserve when we arrived, and we could hear the evocative sound of Pink-footed Geese calling as they landed in the fields behind the car park, but we could already see grey clouds building to the west.

P1120504Cley Marshes – in the early morning sunshine

A Black Brant, the NW North American or far Eastern Siberian form of Brent Goose, has been in with our regular flock of Russian Dark-bellied Brent Geese at Cley for a couple of weeks now. There had been no sign of it in the Eye Field before we met up but, from the car park at the Visitor Centre, we saw a huge flock of wildfowl and waders flush from North Scrape. There were lots of Brent Geese in amongst them and most of them seemed to land in the Eye Field, so we drove round for a look.

P1120519Black Brant – standing out among the regular Dark-bellied Brents

The geese were quite close to the road and we picked the Black Brant up immediately without getting out of the car. It was much darker than the other Brent Geese, brownish black on the back and belly, with a larger and whiter patch on the flanks. We wound down the windows and had a good look at it, then drove on to the car park and set up the scopes. We could see its more extensive white collar as it fed with the flock, occasionally lifting its head up and stretching its neck to give us a better look. A smart bird to start the day.

IMG_2732Black Brant – a striking bird up close

As the grey clouds rolled in it started to spit with rain. We were forecast a band of rain to pass through this morning, so we made a dash for the beach shelter and had a look out to sea. Almost immediately we picked up two drake Goldeneye flying west just offshore. There were several Gannets circling out over the sea, both black-tipped white adults and dark slaty juveniles. A Red-throated Diver was preening just off the beach and gave us great views in the scope. We waited a short while but as the rain seemed to be holding off and there were not many birds moving past, we decided to make a dash round and onto the reserve.

We got into Bishop Hide just before the rain really started. There were plenty of birds to look through, with lots of ducks in now for the winter. A little group of Teal were feeding just in front of the hide. There were lots of Wigeon and we could hear them whistling constantly. Smaller numbers of Shoveler were feeding over towards the back and three Pintail were hiding amongst the sleeping hordes. There were fewer waders on here today – a fair number of Black-tailed Godwit, a few Lapwing, but only one Dunlin. Our first Marsh Harrier of the day circled over the reeds.

P1120526Teal – a small group was feeding in front of Bishop Hide

Thankfully the rain stopped as quickly as it started and the clouds lightened, so we moved on. We headed round to the new Babcock Hide, which only finally opened last month, on the new part of the reserve now sometimes referred to as ‘Salthouse Marshes’. There were more Brent Geese feeding on the grazing meadows by the new path (‘Attenborough Walk’) – the first small group were too nervous to stay as we walked past and took flight, but the rest of the flock reassuringly stayed put. A couple of Egyptian Geese were typically unconcerned!

P1120531Babcock Hide – the new hide on what was known as Pope’s Marsh

The pool in front of Babcock Hide (now known as ‘Watling Water’ – too many new names to keep up with!) looked rather lifeless initially, apart from a couple of Little Grebes. A careful scan revealed a single Common Snipe asleep on one of the islands. A smart male Marsh Harrier quartered the reeds in front of us, but a Merlin over towards Salthouse was too brief for everyone to get onto. A Little Egret was fishing in the shallow water in front of the hide.

P1120538Little Egret – feeding in front of Babcock Hide

We had really hoped to see a Water Pipit. There had been up to four of them here in recent weeks, but with a very blustery wind blowing around the exposed margins of the water, it was deserted apart from a single brave Pied Wagtail. Frustratingly we heard a Water Pipit call, which prompted us to give it a little longer. Just when we were about to give up, not one but two Water Pipits flew in. One of them gave us great views as it fed along the edge of one of the islands. Well worth the wait!

IMG_2744Water Pipit – one of two which eventually gave themselves up for us

While we were waiting for the Water Pipit to appear, we had seen news of a Glossy Ibis a short distance east at Felbrigg Park, but it appeared to have flown off. Having admired the Water Pipits, we saw that it had returned so we decided to make our way over there to try to see it. It was only a short drive and after a quick break for lunch in the car park, we made our way down to the lake.

Unfortunately, by the time we got to where it had been showing, it had flown off again, apparently spooked by a Pied Wagtail! Worse, it was reported to have flown way off over the trees in the distance and away. Two people had set off across the grazing marshes to look for it and were already disappearing in the distance without success, so we walked back to have a look at the lake. As we did so, a Barn Owl came out of the trees in front of us and flew across to the other side of the grazing marshes.

There was a single female Goldeneye in amongst the Tufted Ducks out on the lake, but nothing else of note. We knew the Glossy Ibis had already flown off and returned once to where it had been feeding, so it still felt like not all hope was necessarily lost. We continued to scan over the grazing marshes just in case. We saw the two intrepid explorers returning in the distance, their expedition to try to relocate it obviously having been unsuccessful. As they made there way back they suddenly stopped and started to look intently at something. We knew what it must be, so headed out across the grazing marshes to join them.

There was the Glossy Ibis, feeding quietly in the stream, hidden from view by the banks and the thick rushes. It was only when you looked back along the line of the stream that you could see it – it obviously hadn’t flown off into the distance after all! We got stunning views of it in the scopes, feeding in the thick vegetation in the water. Mostly brownish from a distance, we could see it had a greenish gloss to the wings up close.

IMG_2780Glossy Ibis – a striking bird more at home by the Mediterranean

Then it flew again, looking oddly prehistoric in flight with long neck and legs, and landed back where it had been feeding before we arrived. A rare visitor more normally found in southern Europe, in the marshes of the Mediterranean basin, Glossy Ibis sometimes turn up further north in the UK at this time of year. A great bird to see and a nice surprise today.

On our way back towards Cley, we stopped off briefly at Kelling. There have been a few Bramblings along the lane here recently, in with a big flock of Chaffinches. But the hedges seemed rather quiet today as we walked down – just a handful of Chaffinches – perhaps most of the finches were feeding somewhere more sheltered today?

We walked down as far as the Water Meadow. The water level is normally very high here through the winter and there were just a few ducks on the pool – Wigeon, Shoveler and Gadwall. A single Redshank and a lone Black-tailed Godwit were feeding around the edge, but several Curlew were out on the damp grass. Further along, towards the Quags, a female Stonechat appeared on top of the brambles.

We made our way back – we wanted to be at Cley in good time – stopping to look at a couple of Chaffinches in the dead trees along the lane as we did so. A few more flew into the hedge from the field and right at the top was a single Brambling!

IMG_2792Brambling – just one today, along the lane at Kelling

Back at Cley, we parked in the new East Bank car park. Before we had even had a chance to get out of the car, a falcon appeared over the bank flying straight towards us. Through the windscreen, we could see it was a Merlin – more obliging than the one we had seen briefly earlier. It disappeared west over the reeds. A pair of Stonechat were in the reeds by the path – the male hovering repeatedly in the air above the female, before dropping down to perch.

We climbed up onto the East Bank from where we could get a good view over the reeds on Pope’s Marsh. It was lovely evening light – an increasingly orange sky with scattered cloud at first. There were lots of ducks out on the grazing marsh in front, including a couple of smart drake Pintail, unfortunately mostly asleep! A flock of small birds took off from the reeds and flew over towards the East Bank – a party of 14 Reed Buntings flying in to roost. Scanning along the shingle ridge, a dark shape on the top of one of the fence posts revealed itself to be another Merlin – it had been a good day for them today.

There were a couple of Marsh Harriers already out over the reedbed when we arrived but more started to arrive in ones and twos. At least 12 came into roost this evening – at times, we could see 6-7 circling over the reeds together. We had hoped to see a Hen Harrier here, but we had obviously used up our luck today. The light faded quickly as the cloud rolled in again, so we decided to call it a day. As we turned to head back to the car, we could hear Pink-footed Geese calling again – just as we had heard them flying in to the fields this morning. A flock appeared in the sky from behind the trees and we watched them drop down over towards North Scrape to roost.

16th December 2014 – Photographing Geese

A private tour again today. The request was to spend the day watching and photographing geese. There is no shortage of geese in Norfolk in the winter! Getting up close to them can sometimes be more of a challenge.

We went first to Salthouse, which was a convenient pale to start the day. This has been a good place for Brent Geese in recent weeks, and we were not disappointed. A large group of Dark-bellied Brent Geese was feeding on the grazing marsh by the Iron Road. A quick scan through them revealed the Black Brant which has been present for the last few weeks, though roaming up and down the coast and elusive at times. It’s much darker – almost black – body plumage and extensive white flank patch and collar meant it stood out obviously from the rest.

P1100364Black Brant – this very striking bird stood out amongst the Dark-bellieds

P1100359Black Brant – the white collar is extensive, across the neck under the chin

Also in the same flock was a single Pale-bellied Brent Goose. Whereas our regular Dark-bellieds come from Russia, and Black Brant from North America or Eastern Siberia, we get a few Pale-bellieds from Svalbard, Franz Josef Land or Canada every winter. It was  a great opportunity to compare three subspecies of Brent Goose in a single flock.

P1100384Pale-bellied Brent Goose – the near-white belly is obvious here

We spent some time watching the geese and particularly the Pale-bellied Brent Goose. Even though it was in the middle of a vast throng, it was clear that this bird had three juveniles accompanying it. It was also paired to a male Dark-bellied Brent Goose – a mixed pair, and the young birds appear to be hybrids between the two subspecies. This pairing is very rarely reported, given that the populations are typically geographically separated, but this pair has been returning for a couple of years now. It was particularly interesting to look at the young hybrids.

P1100380Pale-bellied & Dark-bellied Brent Goose pair & hybrid young

P1100339Pale-bellied Brent Goose – can you tell the 3 hybrid young from the others?

Also amongst the Brents was a small group of Pink-footed Geese. They were mostly in the longer grass and hard to see but one bird glimpsed occasionally appeared to have a neck collar. Eventually, it came out into view and we could read the letters on the grey collar – ‘THS’. A quick check back at base later revealed that I had actually seen this bird two years ago, nearby at Kelling! It was ringed as an adult male at Loch of Lintrathen in Angus on 16th December 2007, and had been seen in Norfolk over the winter of 2010/11 and in December 2012 at least.

IMG_2057Neck-collared Pink-footed Goose – I had seen ‘THS’ at Kelling in Dec’12!

From there, we moved on to Holkham. Most of the Pink-footed Geese spend the days feeding inland, on discarded sugar beet tops in recently harvested fields. A few remain at Holkham, loafing around on the grazing marshes. By carefully positioning the car, we were able to get close to a view and get some great photos.

P1100397

P1100457

P1100466Pink-footed Geese – great photographic opportunities at Holkham

There were fewer geese at the west end of Holkham, and most of those present appeared to be Greylags. However, a closer look through the geese revealed several White-fronted Geese hiding in the deeper vegetation out on the grazing marshes.

The days are short in the middle of winter, and the only other thing required today was a quick visit to see Snettisham. It seemed like a nice way to round off the day. Out on the Wash, there were enormous quantities of waders. Lots of Golden & Grey Plover, Lapwing, Oystercatcher, Knot, Sanderling, Dunlin, Bar-tailed Godwit, Curlew, Redshank & Turnstone. It was great to watch the swirling flocks. The Golden Plover were quick to take flight. However, whenever a raptor flew over, all the other birds took to the air. The odd Marsh Harrier flew over, but two young Peregrines spent some time chasing fruitlessly after various waders, putting them all up.

On the pits, amongst the feral Greylags, were lots of ducks – mostly Wigeon and Mallard, but a few Gadwall, Tufted Duck and also several Goldeneye. There were a number of Little Grebes and amongst them a single Black-necked Grebe – quite a rare bird in Norfolk and a nice one for the list. As the sun started to go down, we walked back to the car – fittingly, the backdrop was provided by the Pink-footed Geese flying out onto the Wash to roost.