Tag Archives: Blakeney

9th Jan 2018 – Looking for Owls

It was an Owl Tour today, the first of 2018. The weather was dry and the wind had dropped completely today, which was a real bonus, but it was still very dull, grey and chilly all day with a light mist which thickened in the afternoon.

After we met up on the coast this morning, we headed straight over to the grazing marshes to look for Barn Owls. One had been out hunting just before we arrived, but after a mild, dry night they can go to bed very early at this time of year. Thankfully, as soon as we got up onto the seawall, we could see a Barn Owl still hunting out over the grass in the distance.

We walked up along the bank and watched it for a while, flying round methodically over the same field. The Barn Owl dropped down onto the ground a couple of times but came up without anything shortly after. It disappeared round behind some reeds for a while, but then came back out and continued to hunt over the same area.

Barn Owl 1

Barn Owl 2

Barn Owl – we saw a couple still out hunting this morning

The Barn Owl gradually worked its way back away from us, working the fields further off along the bank, so we turned our attention to whatever else we could see. Several Marsh Harriers were quartering the reeds and the grazing marshes. A Kestrel flew in and landed on a bush before making its way over to perch on one of the information boards out on the seawall.

A big flock of Brent Geese flew up periodically in the distance out across the marshes, circling round calling, before dropping back down to feed on the grass. Several Pink-footed Geese flushed off the grazing marshes too, but they headed off inland, presumably to find some recently harvested sugar beet fields to feed it. We could hear their high-pitched yelping calls as they flew off.

The next thing we knew, the Barn Owl was back again, presumably the same one, much closer to us. It dropped down behind a line of reeds, so we made our way over towards it, and when it came up again we had a close flypast. Great views! It came straight past us, flying purposefully now, up and over the bank behind us, and disappeared off inland, presumably heading off to roost.

Barn Owl 3

Barn Owl 4

Barn Owl – gave us a close flypast as it headed off to roost

No sooner had that Barn Owl disappeared, than another turned up. This one was much paler, white winged, the resident male here. It circled round in front of the reeds, perching down in the grass for a few seconds where we managed to get it in the scope. Then it flew back over the reeds and disappeared off towards the trees. Presumably it too was heading in to roost now.

We were just turning to leave when a pair of Grey Partridges flew across and landed down on the grass in front of us. The male stood bolt upright, looking round, while the female picked around in the grass nearby. Then they were off again, running away across the open grass.

Our next target was Little Owl. They can often be found during the morning, perched up enjoying the sun at this time of year, but there was a distinct lack of any sun today! There was a distinct chill in the air too, despite the lack of wind. There was no sign of any Little Owls at our first stop. We stopped again a little further on and walked round to check out the back of some barns. We could just see the top of the head of one Little Owl from here, tucked tight down in the roof, but we couldn’t make out any detail. Not a stunning view!

Little Owl

Little Owl – tucked well down out of view this morning

We walked round to the other side of the barn, to see if we could get a better look at the Little Owl from there, but it had found a spot where it was sheltered, out of the wind, and it wasn’t visible at all from this side.

There were some other birds here. A big flock of Curlew flew up from a rape field next to the road as we stopped. A couple of Red-legged Partridges and a pair of Stock Doves were lurking around the farm buildings. A flock of Brent Geese flew up from the coast and headed off inland to feed on a winter wheat field somewhere. Given the weather, it seemed unlikely a Little Owl would come out into the open this morning, so we decided to head off and try our luck elsewhere.

Brent Geese

Brent Geese – flying up from the coast, heading inland to feed

As we made our way west, we saw several Bullfinches which flew out of the hedges as we passed, flashing their white rumps. A couple of Red Kites flew over, and a Common Buzzard perched on the top of the hedge took off as we pulled up alongside it. A Sparrowhawk flew low and fast along the grass verge ahead of us, up into a tree where it landed on a branch briefly, before flying on along the road as we approached. We drove round via several other sites for Little Owl, but there was no sign of any this morning, it seemed like perhaps it was just too dull and cold.

We decided to give up on Little Owls for now, so we continued our way west over to Snettisham. There had been a Shorelark seen here yesterday so, while the rest of the group stopped for a warming coffee, the intrepid leader headed out to look for it. It didn’t take long to find it, picking at the vegetation washed up along the high tide line.

ShorelarkShorelark – feeding along the tide line at Snettisham

Collecting everyone else after their coffee break, we walked back and had great views of the Shorelark in the scopes. We could see its bright yellow face and black mask and collar, but despite this it was very well camouflaged when feeding unobtrusively, creeping around in the dry brown vegetation.

After watching the Shorelark for a while, we turned our attention to the Wash. It was about high tide now, but it was not a big enough tide to cover the mud today. Still there were lots of waders out there. A long line of Oystercatchers had gathered towards the water’s edge, several thousand strong. A dark smear across the grey mud closer to us was actually a big flock of Golden Plover, roosting over high tide.

There were also lots of Bar-tailed Godwits, Grey Plover, Dunlin and Redshanks scattered liberally over mud, still busy feeding, which we had a look at through the scope. Several Curlews were sleeping further back. The Knot had all gone to sleep out in the middle too, in several smaller groups.

Knot

Knot – sleeping in smaller flocks, scattered over the mud

While we were gathered watching the waders, a Spanish couple visiting here walked over to speak to us. They had found an injured Pink-footed Goose – it looked like it had most likely been shot and winged and was unable to fly or stand. They were headed back in the direction of King’s Lynn, so we agreed the best option would be to take it to the RSPCA Wildlife Centre East Winch, which would be not far out of their way.

We made our way round to look at the pits. There are lots of Goldeneye here at the moment, and several of the drakes were displaying, throwing their heads back in an exaggerrated fashion. There was also a nice selection of other ducks – Wigeon, Gadwall, Teal, Mallard, Shoveler and a few Tufted Ducks. There were plenty of noisy Greylag Geese too and a few Little Grebes diving out on the water.

Goldeneye

Goldeneye – several of the drakes were displaying today

A Kingfisher flew past us, along the edge of the water. It disappeared from view, but by walking down onto the causeway and looking back we could see it perched on a bramble bush along the bank. It was easier to see in the scope – surprisingly well camouflaged for an electric blue bird!

Looking across to the other bank, we could see a shape tucked down under a bramble bush. It was a roosting Short-eared Owl. They often like to roost well hidden from view, but this one was not particularly well concealed by the brambles above it.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl – roosting under a bramble bush

There have been Fieldfares on the move in recent days and today was no exception. As we stood scanning the pits, a good-sized flock of about 150 Fieldfares flew south, followed by another 20 or so a little later, calling.

After lunch back at the car, we started to make our way back east. Again, we looked at several sites for Little Owls on the way, but it seemed like we would be out of luck again. It was even greyer know than it had been earlier. Driving past a set of barns where we know there are owls, we looked across to see a shape perched on the top of a roof. We pulled to a stop in front and looked up. There was a Little Owl, perched high on the ridge. It stared at us for a few seconds then, just as the camera came out, it flew off round the back of the buildings.

We made our way back to Blakeney. The mist had thickened and it was very dull now. As we walked out on the seawall, we could see a Barn Owl hunting across the other side. We stopped to scan the marshes and could see a couple of Marsh Harriers out over the reeds, presumably getting ready to go to roost. A pale-headed female perched on the top of a bush and a male did a nice circuit round in front of us.

Marsh Harrier

Marsh Harrier – quartering the reedbed before going to roost

We heard the pinging calls of Bearded Tits coming from the reeds in front of us and we could see the feathery seedheads swaying, despite the lack of any wind. Looking closely, we could see the Bearded Tits clambering through the reeds and feeding on the seeds. A Cetti’s Warbler called from the reeds too.

It didn’t look like the Barn Owl was going to do a circuit round to us today – there was no sign of it coming over to this side of the marshes. So, with the light fading, we headed back to the car and made our way inland again. We parked and walked down to a meadow. There is often a Barn Owl here, but not today – perhaps it had not yet emerged from its roost. A Water Rail squealed nearby.

As we made our way back into the nearby trees, a Tawny Owl started hooting from the wood behind us. We walked down to a nearby area where we know another Tawny Owl sometimes roosts. We heard it hoot once, but it was deep in the trees today. After a few minutes wait, it started calling from the far edge of the trees ahead of us and in reply came more hooting from back where we had heard the first.

It was lovely listening to the Tawny Owls, but then it went quiet. It was perhaps a bit cold and grey for them to get really worked up this evening. As it was getting dark, we decided it was time to call it a day and head for home.

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2nd Dec 2016 – Winter Wonders, Day 1

Day 1 of a three day long weekend of Winter Tours in North Norfolk today. It was a nice morning, cloudy with some brighter intervals, but the cloud thickened in the afternoon and brought some misty drizzle with it at times.

Our first stop was at Blakeney. As we set out towards the seawall, a small group of Brent Geese were feeding on the edge of the saltmarsh the other side of the harbour channel. The first half dozen were our regular Dark-bellied Brent Geese but a pair a few metres further on were more interesting. One of the pair was much paler on the flanks and belly. It was a Pale-bellied Brent Goose and it appeared to be paired with a male Dark-bellied Brent. It really stood out next to the Dark-bellieds.

6o0a0923Pale-bellied Brent Goose – this one is paired with a Dark-bellied Brent

Dark-bellied Brent Geese breed in arctic Russia and come here for the winter in large numbers. Pale-bellied Brent Geese breed from Svalbard across Greenland into the Canadian High Arctic. We regularly get a small number of Pale-bellied Brents in with our regular wintering flocks of Dark-bellied Brents.

While we were looking out over the saltmarsh beyond, suddenly lots of birds took to the air. A flock of Golden Plover whirled overhead. Low over the vegetation we picked up a Hen Harrier further back, quartering the marshes. A ringtail, it flashed its white rump patch as it flew away from us.

As we walked out past the harbour, a Rock Pipit flew across and landed on one of the small boats tied up on the water, where we could get it in the scope. We flushed several Meadow Pipits from the grassy banks of the seawall and a few Reed Buntings too. We heard the distinctive calls of a Lapland Bunting flying over, a dry rattle ‘t-t-t-t’ and a ringing ‘teu’, but it was long way out over the grazing marshes and we didn’t manage to find it.

There were various waders which flushed from the saltmarsh as we walked past, Curlews and Redshanks. A Little Egret was busy feeding in one of the channels. A group of Turnstone ran along a path ahead of a couple of dogs until they got too close and the Turnstone flew off towards the channel.

At the corner of the seawall, we stopped to look at a small flock of Dunlin on the edge of the harbour. A smart drake Goldeneye surfaced on the water just behind and then a raft of duck appeared in the channel. As well as a few more Goldeneye, there were several Red-breasted Mergansers with their spiky haircuts. While we were admiring them a rather nondescript brown duck bobbed up in their midst. It was a 1st winter female Scaup, normally difficult to find here in the winter but this appears to be a good year for them.

There were a few more waders here now too. A Ringed Plover and a Grey Plover, both picking at the surface with their short bills. An Oystercatcher too. The tide was starting to go out and more mud was beginning to appear. A little further along the seawall, where the harbour starts to open out, there were some bigger numbers of waders and sifting through them we found a small group of dumpy Knot and a couple of Black-tailed Godwits closer to us. The Bar-tailed Godwits were much further over.

We had seen a female Marsh Harrier earlier, on our walk out, flying over the reeds out in the middle of the Freshes. When all the Wigeon erupted from the grazing marshes, we turned to see a male Marsh Harrier flying towards us. It turned slightly and cut out across the saltmarsh, flying past us and flushing all the Brent Geese as it went.

6o0a0942Marsh Harrier – a smart, grey-winged male

There were a few Skylarks feeding on the short vegetation on the inland side of the seawall, which flushed as we approached. They circled round and landed again on the edge of an open area. A slightly smaller bird was with them now and through the scope we could confirm it was a Lapland Bunting. It was creeping around in the short grass at first and hard to see, but then it flew a short distance towards us and landed out in the open where we could get a great view of it through the scope.

img_9054Lapland Bunting – feeding with Skylarks below the seawall

The Skylarks were nervous and kept flying round. The Lapland Bunting also flew around a couple of times and landed back on the short grass. Then suddenly it was off, calling as it went.

Lapland Buntings can be very hard to find out in the open, so this was a great way to cap off our walk here. As we started to walk back, we could see five or six small birds perched on the fence and a closer look confirmed there were five Twite.They had obviously been bathing in the puddles by the path and were now busy preening. We got them in the scope and could see their yellow bills and burnt orange faces.

img_9074Twite – five were preening on the fence after having a bathe

The sixth bird was a single Linnet which perched on the fence near the Twite for comparison for a few seconds. We could see it had a grey bill and was not as brightly coloured on the face as the Twite.

Back to the car, and we made our way further east to Salthouse. We parked at the end of Beach Road and walked east along the edge of the shingle towards Gramborough Hill. Local photographers have been putting seed out for the Snow Buntings here, so when a small group of buntings appeared from around the back of the Hill, we initially thought they would be the Snow Buntings. They headed south, inland across the grazing marshes, which would be an odd direction for Snow Buntings to go and when they turned and dropped down, with the fields behind them, we could see they were actually more Lapland Buntings.

There were at least 15 Lapland Buntings in the flock, a very good number, but they kept on going and we lost sight of them as they flew off west. We weren’t finished though, and yet another lone Lapland Bunting circled over the grazing marshes calling a few minutes later before dropping down into the grass out in the middle.

The day’s delivery of seed had just been put out for the Snow Buntings and we didn’t have to wait long before they flew back in to enjoy it. They landed on the top of the shingle ridge first, where they had a good vantage point to check for any danger, before running down the slope to where the food was waiting for them. There were at least forty of them here today, although not all of them came down to feed.

6o0a1033Snow Buntings – coming down to feed on feed put out on the shingle ridge

The Snow Buntings can be quite tame and we had great close views of them when they came down to the food. Looking at the flock, we could see a variety of different looking birds, some much paler ones amongst a mass of darker, browner ones. We get two different races here in the winter from different breeding areas. The duller ones are predominantly female Snow Buntings of the Icelandic race, insulae, whereas the paler ones are from Scandinavia, of the race nivalis.

6o0a1017Snow Bunting – of the Scandinavian race, nivalis

Regardless of where they come from, the Snow Buntings are always great to watch. Along with Lapland Buntings, they are our two sought after winter buntings, so we had enjoyed a very successful morning getting such great views of both species.

We walked back over Gramborough and along the remains of the now flattened shingle ridge. The sea looked fairly quiet but we did see a loose groups of six Red-throated Divers flying past distantly. Another Red-throated Diver was on the sea, along with a single Guillemot, but both were hard to see out in the swell and diving constantly. A couple of Grey Seals surfaced just offshore and were much more obliging – they seemed to come in to investigate a couple of fishermen down on the beach. Back to the car and a very obliging group of Turnstones had flown in to feed on some food put out for them. We watched them feverishly turning the stones over – they had a lot to choose from here!

6o0a1092Turnstone – very tame, feeding by the Beach Road at Salthouse

It was already time for lunch, but we still wanted to make one last stop at the Iron Road before heading back to the visitor centre at Cley. Rather than have lunch here, the group decided on a late lunch back at the visitor centre, so we set off straight away to see what we could find. The water level on the pool by Iron Road has gone down nicely and there was a good flock of Dunlin on here today. However, apart from a Redshank, we couldn’t immediately see anything else. With time pressing, we headed out along Attenborough’s Walk.

There were four Pink-footed Geese on the grazing marshes close to the path, which flew off as we passed. A little further along, we could see a large flock of Brent Geese. The vast majority were Dark-bellied Brents, as we would expect here, but a quick look at them and we found our second Pale-bellied Brent Goose of the day, right at the front of the flock.

6o0a1163Pale-bellied Brent Goose – with Dark-bellied Brent behind for comparison

There were lots of Dunlin right in front of Babcock Hide but they were very nervous and kept flying round. A single Common Snipe, feeding on one of the islands nearby, took fright when they did so and landed much further back, out of sight in some taller vegetation. A single Ruff (or, more accurately, a female Reeve) was picking around on one of the islands further back, in amongst a large flock of sleeping Teal. Two Black-tailed Godwits were feeding up to their bellies in the deeper water.

6o0a1145Dunlin – one of several feeding right in front of Babcock Hide

At first all we could see were dabbling ducks out on the water, but then one of group picked up a Long-tailed Duck which emerged from behind one of the reed islands in the deep water right at the back. It was diving constantly, but when it surfaced we could get a good look at it through the scope. We could see its white face with large dark brown cheek patch. Long-tailed Ducks are mostly found out on the sea in winter, where they dive for shellfish. Occasionally one may wander to an inland water for a short time, especially after gales. This one is unusual in that it has been on this small pool for over a month now. It must be finding something good to eat here!

We didn’t linger too long in Babcock Hide, and stopped only briefly on the walk back to the car to admire a pair of Stonechats on the fence. We made our way quickly back to the visitor centre for a late lunch. As it was so mild, we decided we would eat outside on the picnic tables, but we were only half way through when the weather turned. Some low cloud blew in and brought with it some misty drizzle, so we retreated to the car.

After lunch, we drove back west along the coast road to Stiffkey. We wanted to finish the day at the harrier roost, but with the weather having deteriorated we thought it best to watch from here today. When we arrived, we were told we had already missed a ringtail Hen Harrier and a Merlin – it seemed bird may have come in early tonight given the conditions.

As we stood and scanned the saltmarsh, a Brambling flew over calling and headed inland over the campsite. Looking away to the west, we picked up a distant grey male Hen Harrier flying low over the vegetation. Unfortunately, it dropped quickly down out of view, before everyone could get onto it. Then a second grey male appeared over in the same area, but it was even less obliging. The Hen Harriers were flying straight into the roost this evening, without flying round, probably due to the mist. Even when it temporarily brightened up a little, there was no sign of a pick-up in Hen Harrier activity.

The light was starting to go and we were just thinking our luck had run out when a large bird flew in from the fields behind us, just a short distance to our left. It was a ringtail Hen Harrier and we could see its white rump patch as it flew out across the saltmarsh, before disappearing out into the mist. That was a great way to end, so we called it a day and headed for home.

 

 

6th April 2016 – Migrants & Showers

A Private Tour today in North Norfolk. It was forecast to be windy with April showers, so we set off to see as much as we could while dodging the rain. With native German- and English-speakers, we even managed some instant translation of species names, with a little help from modern technology!

We met in Salthouse this morning. Our first stop was down at Beach Road. A Ruff (Kampfläufer) was feeding on one of the pools beside the road, along with a couple of Avocet (Säbelschnäbler). We had not even got out of the car when we spotted our first Wheatear (Steinschmätzer). There were actually several out on the short grass around the pools. One was nice and close and we got really good views of it through the scope until it flew further back. A few Skylarks (Feldlerche) were flying around as well, with one towering high into the sky singing, despite the weather.

WheatearWheatear – this photo taken a couple of days ago

There were a few Meadow Pipits (Wiesenpieper) on the move this morning – several flew overhead calling while we stood by the road. Then a squally shower came through and we beat a hasty retreat back to the car. We were just pondering whether to get out again once it passed over when we heard  the sharp call of a bird approaching. We got out just in time to see a Yellow Wagtail (Schafstelze) flying towards us. Unfortunately, it didn’t land but continued on west.

The Eye Field at Cley is often a good place to see wagtails on the ground, so we made our way round there next. We pulled up on the road next to the pool just in time to see three wagtails fly across the field towards us and drop in next to the water. These were White Wagtails (Bachstelze), the continental European race of our Pied Wagtail and a regular early migrant along the coast here, most easily distinguished by their pale grey backs rather than the black or darker grey of the Pied Wagtails. We got out of the car and got them in the scope, with just enough time for us all to get a good look at them before they continued on their way. As we were to discover later, there were quite a few White Wagtails on the move today. A Swallow (Rauchschwalbe) swept through too, on its way west.

We parked in the car park and had a quick walk along the path to see if there was anything else in the Eye Field today. The best we could find were a couple more Wheatears – one flew across in front of us, flashing its white tail. A report of an interesting diver had us take a quick look at the sea from the beach shelter, but we couldn’t find it. We did see a single Great Crested Grebe (Haubentaucher) on the water. A couple of Common Scoter (Trauerente) and three Ringed Plovers (Sandregenpfeifer) flew past.

It seemed like a good idea to find a more sheltered spot, so we made our way west along the coast to Holkham. As we pulled up on Lady Anne’s Drive to scan the fields and marshes, another Wheatear flew over the fence and landed on the edge of the road right in front of us. It hopped around picking at the ground for a minute or so, before flying over into the field the other side.

P1190560Wheatear – feeding on the edge of Lady Anne’s Drive

We got out to have a closer look at the four Pink-footed Geese (Kurzschnabelgans) still out on the grazing marsh. The vast majority of the Pink-footed Geese which spent the worst of the winter here have long since departed, but a few tardy individuals are still lingering here. They were asleep at first but eventually one woke up and started feeding, allowing us a proper view of its dark head and short, dark bill with a pink band around the middle.

A Marsh Harrier (Rohrweihe) flew towards us over the grass. It appeared to be hunting, quartering low across the field. It seemed to spot something and dropped down towards the ground a couple of times, but never actually landed. Whatever it was after was in a dip at first, but when it moved we could see that it was a Brown Hare. When the Marsh Harrier dipped down at it, the Hare started trying to box it away. The pursuit continued for several minutes, the Hare moving a few metres and the Marsh Harrier setting off after it again, before it finally gave up and flew off.

P1190578Marsh Harrier – spent several minutes attacking a Brown Hare

There was a nice selection of ducks on the floods the other side of the Drive. Some smart Teal (Krickente), a pair of sleeping Shoveler (Löffelente) and a pair or two of Gadwall (Schnatterente). A Grey Heron (Graureiher) was stalking along the edge of the reeds further over.

There were not many other cars on Lady Anne’s Drive today, so we parked right down at the end and set off to walk west. At that point it started to rain, so we sat out the squall in the car. It blew through really quickly on the blustery wind, so we soon continued on our way.

It was more sheltered along the path. The migrant warblers are now starting to return for the summer. There were lots of Chiffchaffs (Zilpzalp) singing in the trees but a Blackcap (Mönchsgrasmücke) was not quite so vocal and immediately went quiet when we stopped to listen to it. A Sedge Warbler (Schilfrohrsänger) was singing away out in the reeds, but we couldn’t see it. Likewise a Cetti’s Warbler (Seidensänger), although this species is one of only two resident rather than migrant warblers. There were lots of tits and Goldcrests (Wintergoldhähnchen) in the holm oaks and a single Treecreeper (Waldbaumläufer) which was uncharacteristically skulking in a dense evergreen. A Mistle Thrush (Misteldrossel) was feeding out on the grass.

IMG_1544Pink-footed Goose – one of the few still remaining here

We stopped to scan the grazing marshes and found another Pink-footed Goose, this one all on its own. With several Greylag Geese (Graugans) nearby, we had a good opportunity to look at the differences between these two species. A few Egyptian Geese (Nilgans) and a pair of Canada Geese (Kanadagans) added to the day’s list, even if neither really belong here! Three Tufted Duck (Reiherente) were on Salt’s Hole.

The Marsh Harriers were displaying over the reedbed. We could hear one calling and watched it circle high up into the air before performing a series of little swoops. A couple of Red Kites (Rotmilan) drifted out from over the pines.

P1190598Red Kite – two drifted overhead from the pines

With a bit of brighter weather, we made our way all the way along as far as Joe Jordan Hide. There was a lot of activity around the trees. The Cormorants (Kormoran) are bust nesting now and birds were continually making their way in and out of the trees with nest material. Little Egrets (Seidenreiher) were coming and going too. We had hoped we might see a Spoonbill (Löffler) or two, but the first large bird we saw fly out of the trees turned out to be something different – a Great White Egret (Silberreiher).

IMG_1578Great White Egret – flew out of the trees and out across the marshes

The Great White Egret flew across the marshes and eventually landed some distance away on a small pool. Unfortunately it was partly obscured by a fence and thin line of reeds in front, but through the scope we could appreciate its very large size, long neck and very long dagger-shaped yellow-orange bill. Presumably this is still the same bird which we saw regularly over the winter here, although it has not been reported here for a few weeks now. After a while it flew back over and circled over the trees, given us great flight views, before dropping down out of view.

We were given a few tantalising glimpses of Spoonbills in the trees and were planning to start making our way back when we saw another shower approaching. Just as it cleared, a couple of Spoonbills circled up into full view and flew across above the bushes, necks outstretched and showing off their long bills. Perfect timing!

We made our way back to the car and set off back up Lady Anne’s Drive but we hadn’t gone very far when a large white shape on the pool just the other side of the fence caused us to stop and get out again. A Spoonbill was feeding out in the water, head down, sweeping its bill constantly from side to side as it walked. We got it in the scope and had great close up views of it – even the spoon-shaped bill when it periodically stopped feeding momentarily and lifted its head up.

IMG_1616Spoonbill – check out the spoon-shaped bill

It was a smart adult in breeding plumage, with a bushy crest on the back of its head, yellow tip to its bill, a bare yellow patch under its chin and a dirty yellowish wash across its breast.

IMG_1624Spoonbill – a very smart adult

It was ironic that, having waited to get a view of the Spoonbills at the hide earlier, we were now treated to such stunning views of one right by the road! Still it was a great way to end the morning and in the end we had to tear ourselves away to get some lunch.

After lunch, we made our way back east along the coast. The Lapland Buntings (Spornammer) which have been around Blakeney for most of the winter seem to have largely left now, presumably returned to the continent. However, one or two have been reported still in the last few days so, with the weather improving a bit, it seemed worth a look. We parked by the harbour in Blakeney and set off to walk along the seawall, stopping briefly to admire the bright yellow legs of one of the Lesser Black-backed Gulls (Heringsmöwe).

P1190667Lesser Black-backed Gull – by the harbour again

It was a bit blustery out on the seawall, but not as bad as it might have been. Several flocks of Brent Geese (Ringelgans) flew up from the saltmarsh and flew out towards the Pit. A Curlew (Grosser Brachvogel) was wading deep in the harbour channel and several Oystercatchers (Austernfischer) were nearby.

When we got out to the area where the Lapland Buntings have been favouring in recent weeks, by the gate, all seemed rather quiet. It quickly became clear that the seed which the local photographers had been putting out for them had all been eaten and was no longer being replenished. We had a good look round, up and down the track, but it seemed like we might be out of luck. Several Skylarks were feeding down in the grass, given great views. We had seen a couple more White Wagtails by one of the pools on the walk out and another was tucked in behind a muddy ridge out of the wind, singing. This one we got in the scope and got a much better look at.

IMG_1630White Wagtail – singing out of the wind

We walked a little further along the seawall, but all we could find were more Skylarks and a Meadow Pipit with a rather rich pink flush to its breast. A glimpse of something distantly in flight, chasing a couple of Skylarks round, looked like it might be a Lapland Bunting, but we lost sight of it before we could get a good look at it. We decided we must be out of luck and started to walk back, stopping to admire a little group of Brent Geese on the edge of the harbour.

IMG_1651Brent Geese – feeding on the saltmarsh on the edge of the harbour

When we got back to the gate, a small crowd had gathered. They were looking rather forlornly out across the grass in one direction. As we walked past them, we noticed two small birds in the grass behind them. The first was a Skylark, but the second was a Lapland Bunting, only about two metres from their backs!

It appeared to be a female Lapland Bunting, lacking the black face of the males. It was too close to get the scope on it at first, but we watched with binoculars as it picked around where the seed had previously been spread. As it worked its way back along the path a short distance, we were able to get it in the scope and have a really close look at it before it flew off back into the longer grass. Great stuff and made all the better by the wait and the appearance just when we had all but given up!

IMG_1684Lapland Bunting – just one remains from the group present over the winter

There was just enough time to have a quick look in at Cley on our way back.Two Black-tailed Godwits (Uferschnepfe) were squabbling out on the mud, flashing their black tails. Many more were scattered around the water, most now showing variable amounts of bright rusty-orange summer plumage. There were lots of Avocets feeding on the scrape too. A pair just in front of the hide were perfectly synchronised, sweeping their bills from side to side in time. They should soon be settling down to nest on here. A little group of Ruff should be on their way north soon.

P1190727Avocet – should soon be nesting on the scrapes

A smaller wader right at the front of the scrape was a Green Sandpiper (Waldwasserläufer). A small number spend the winter in Norfolk, mostly inland, but this was most likely a spring migrant, stopping off on its way north.

IMG_1736Green Sandpiper – a migrant, on its way north

A small wader further over, on one of the islands, was a lone Dunlin (Alpenstrandläufer), still in grey and white winter plumage. Two other small waders which flew in and landed on the closest island were Little Ringed Plovers (Flussregenpfeifer). They ran round from the back, right to the front of the island where we could see their golden-yellow eye-rings clearly through the scope.

IMG_1719Little Ringed Plover – one of two on the scrape today

It was a great way to end the day, with a nice selection of waders. The local Marsh Harriers were soaring over the reedbed and we could hear Bearded Tits (Bartmeise) ‘pinging’ from deep in the reeds, though they were keeping well hidden as usual in the blustery wind. We had been remarkably fortunate with the weather and successfully dodged most of the showers today, seeing quite a few good birds in the process.

25th March 2016 -Early Spring Sun

A Good Friday day tour today in North Norfolk. The weather forecast was for blue skies and sunshine, and so it turned out, even if there was still a lingering chill in the wind at times. It really felt like spring – at last!

We started the day at Blakeney. On the walk out along the seawall, a very smart male Marsh Harrier drifted across the freshmarsh towards us and across the path just ahead of us, flashing its silvery grey wings with black wingtips. The tide was in and it was quite a big tide today. A flock of Oysterctachers was roosting up on one of the dry saltmarsh islands and several small groups of Brent Geese were flying round the harbour.

We could see a small crowd gathered down by the gate as we approached – a phalanx of photographers waiting for the Lapland Buntings. We joined the line and it wasn’t long before we spotted one creeping around in the grass in front of us. Helpfully then it stopped and perched up on a small ridge of bare earth. It preened itself briefly and then started singing. This is a rare treat, to hear Lapland Buntings singing in the UK. The song itself is not really anything to write home about though!

It was not a great view of the Lapland Bunting in the grass, but thankfully one then flew out and landed on the path right in front of us, giving us amazing views. The local photographers have been liberally sprinkling seed around the area and the Lapland Buntings have been happily taking advantage. Even though they are normally rather skulking birds, they can be very tame and certainly these do not seem concerned unless people get too close.

IMG_0925Lapland Bunting – we had some great views of them today

We stayed a while and watched the comings and goings of the Lapland Buntings. There were at least 8 here today. Some of the males are rapidly developing their summer plumage now – their faces are going increasingly black. One male in particular was singing continually from behind us, out on the edge of a large puddle.

IMG_0845Lapland Bunting – a couple of the males were singing

IMG_0902Lapland Bunting – some of the males are now getting very black faces

IMG_0828Lapland Bunting – the females are more subtly coloured

There were other birds taking advantage of the seed and we had great views of Skylarks and Reed Buntings coming down in front of us too. Unfortunately, a Jack Snipe was less accommodating. It flew up from the long grass and disappeared over the seawall and down the other side, before anyone could really get onto it. A Stonechat perched up more distantly on a post and a male Marsh Harrier started displaying high in the sky above the reedbed.

IMG_0867Skylark – also coming down to the seed

With such a clear day, we had hoped there might be some more obvious signs of visible migration, early birds on the move along the coast. But the only two birds we saw which appeared to be migrants were two Pied Wagtails which flew in along the line of the seawall and continued on west without stopping. Perhaps the lingering chill in the air was just enough to keep a lid on things.

Eventually we decided to tear ourselves from the Lapland Buntings and move on. Out in the harbour, the tide had started to go out. There were more waders now out on the mud, a scattering of Knot and Dunlin, a few Grey Plover and some distant Bar-tailed Godwits. Some of the Brent Geese were now out on the mud too and scanning through them we found a single Pale-bellied Brent with all the regular Russian Dark-bellied Brents. A smart Lesser Black-backed Gull was standing on the muddy edge of the harbour when we got back to the car, its yellow legs glowing in the sun.

P1190207Lesser Black-backed Gull – showing off its yellow legs

It seemed like a good day to look for some early migrants. We drove round to Cley and walked along the north side of the Eye Field, but there was no sign of the hoped for early Wheatear, just Skylarks, Meadow Pipits and a flock of Starlings feeding out on the grass. A quick look at the sea as we walked back produced a handful of birds moving – a Knot, 2 Dunlin, 3 Brent Geese and a distant Red-throated Diver, all flying W. A quick look at Salthouse failed to locate any obvious migrants either.

A tip-off about a Little Ringed Plover saw us walking out along the East Bank next. There were lots of Lapwings and Redshanks out on the wet grazing marshes below. Both breed here and the Lapwings are displaying now. Further along, on the Serpentine, we found several Ruff – a group of three included one white-headed male, another male with a regular dappled grey-brown head, and a smaller female (a Reeve).

IMG_0979Ruff – a white-headed male on the Serpentine

It took a careful scan to find a Little Ringed Plover – it was further over, well camouflaged with its back to us on the mud at the back. While we were watching it, a second Little Ringed Plover appeared with it. It was hard to see their yellow eye-rings from this distance, but they are smaller and more elongated in the rear than Ringed Plovers, with a longer, dark bill. At the other end of the same pool, we then found a third Little Ringed Plover – there has obviously been a big arrival of them in recent days, as they are only summer visitors here. A pair of Pintail upending on the Serpentine were a nice addition to the day’s list.

IMG_0997Pintail – a pair were still on the Serpentine

Further along, at Arnold’s Marsh, there were lots more waders. A good number of Avocets are feeding out here at the moment, along with plenty of Dunlin and the usual selection of Oystercatchers, Redshank and Curlew. On one of the stony spits we found a couple of Ringed Plovers – despite the heat haze, we could see their shorter black-tipped orange bills. A flock of Linnets was down at the front on the saltmarsh.

There were several Marsh Harriers over the reeds on Pope’s Marsh and one perched in the top of a bush out in the main Cley reedbed. Scanning the ridge inland, we could see lots of Common Buzzards circling up. One which drifted towards us over the grazing marshes looked like a candidate for a possible migrants, until it folded its wings back and dropped sharply into North Foreland wood. Then it was time to head back for lunch.

In the afternoon we drove over to Holkham. This was not without an amount of trepidation, as the car park can get extremely busy on a sunny bank holiday, and so it proved as Lady Anne’s Drive was packed. Thankfully our gamble that some people would be leaving now was also correct and we managed to find a space not too far from the trees. A quick scan of the grazing marshes either side produced a small group of Pink-footed Geese. The vast majority of the birds which spent the winter here left in February, but small numbers linger in the area for a while longer, so we took advantage to get a good look at them in the scope. A Red Kite circled over the grass just in front of us.

The vast majority of people were just walking straight out to the beach and back, but we turned west along the path on the inland side of the pines, which was much quieter. We hadn’t gone too far before we heard a Chiffchaff singing from the trees. Some overwinter here, but this was most likely a returning summer migrant. Chiffchaff is generally the first migrant warbler to hear singing, a real sign that spring is just around the corner. A Jay perched in a tree nearby seemed to be enjoying the afternoon sunshine.

P1190220Jay – enjoying the afternoon sunshine

We stopped to have a look at Salts Hole. A raft of ducks out on the water consisted of no less than 17 Tufted Duck, plus a couple of Wigeon. Nearby, a couple of Little Grebes were diving continually. Six Common Buzzards circled high over the trees, calling, but were most likely just the local birds enjoying the warmth in the air.

P1190226Goldcrest – lots were feeding in the Holm Oaks along the path

Just past Salts Hole, the Holm Oaks alive were alive with Goldcrests. The trees here were in full sun, out of the wind, and we could see lots of small insects around the leaves. The Goldcrests were having a field day, picking at the leaves or making little flycatching sorties out from the branches. We stopped to watch them and checking through them carefully we found a Firecrest which appeared briefly in the top of a pine tree. Unfortunately, it promptly disappeared out over the tops of the Holm Oaks.

We walked back a short distance to see if the Firecrest might appear the other side of the trees, and when we turned round and carried on our way, it had reappeared again where it had first been. This time, it dropped down out of the pine into the front of the Holm Oaks just in front of us, at eye level. We got fantastic views of it now, picking at the underside of the leaves and flycatching between the branches. Firecrests really are one of the most stunning little birds.

P1190280Firecrest – came out to feed in the Holm Oaks just in front of us

There were several butterflies out in the sunshine along the path too. A bright orange Comma was basking in the sunshine on the grassy bank in front of the trees and a Small Tortoiseshell was doing the same on the mud from the gate a little further along. We continued on along the path to Joe Jordan Hide.

P1190237Comma – out in the spring sunshine

There were lots of Greylag Geese loafing around on the grass from the hide. Scanning through them, we found a group of six smaller geese in amongst them. These were White-fronted Geese. There is a flock of them here all winter and although many seem to have departed, a small number seem to be lingering still. A more careful scan through the Greylags with the scope revealed there were 12 in total at first, but a few more flew in to join them later, so there were at least 20 when we left.Through the scope, we could see the white blaze around the base of their bills and their distinctive black belly bars.

Several Marsh Harriers were flying in and out of the trees or landing down in the tall grass between the hide and the pool. A Kestrel appeared and started hovering over the bank in front of us, but it seemed to lose interest quickly and flew back into the trees. It then kept dropping down onto the grass in front of the pines, picking up and eating earthworms – obviously much less effort than hovering! A Barn Owl flew out of the trees as well and started quartering the rough grass down below us. It seemed to have more luck than the Kestrel, because it dropped down to the grass and the next thing we knew it had a vole in its bill which it promptly swallowed whole.

IMG_1013Barn Owl – caught a vole down in the grass

We had heard a Mediterranean Gull calling as we walked out and from the hide we heard the same call again. Looking over to the water to the left of the hide, where there were lots of Black-headed Gulls, we could see a pair of Mediterranean Gulls flying back and forth, flashing their pure white wing tips. They landed on the water and through the scope we could see that they were two smart adults in summer plumage, sporting extensive jet black hoods.

A good number of Pheasants appear to have survived the shooting season and were feeding out on the grass. A pair of Red-legged Partridges appeared too, and started calling. They were obviously having a shout-off against their neighbours, because we could hear another Red-legged Partridge calling back from further over. By comparison, the Grey Partridges were much quieter. They could easily have been overlooked, creeping around in the grass below us, looking rather like the molehills they were in amongst, but the male stood up at one point so we could see his orange face and kidney-shaped blackish-brown belly patch. The drabber female continued to feed quietly nearby.

IMG_1027Grey Partridge – a pair were creeping around quietly on the grass

We had hoped we might see a Spoonbill here, as they have started to return after the winter (talking to one of the wardens later, up to 8 are now back). At first, all we could see in the trees were Cormorants, loafing around on their guano-stained  nests. Then a Spoonbill flew up, but all too briefly as it disappeared again before anyone could get onto it. We waited patiently and even when a Marsh Harrier flew low into the trees, it just managed to flush eight Little Egrets out from exactly where the Spoonbill had landed. Finally a Spoonbill gave itself up properly, flying up out of the trees and circling round in full view of everyone before it dropped back in. That was a nice note to end on, so we walked back slowly in the sunshine to the car.

7th March 2016 -Snow Business

A Private Tour today, in North Norfolk. It was snowing on the way down to the rendezvous point at Titchwell Manor hotel, and that set the scene for the morning’s weather at least. We decided to make our way east and do some birding from the car while we waited for the worst of the snow and sleet to pass through.

We stopped at Brancaster Staithe first. The harbour is normally full of waders, but it was rather quiet today, not helped by the poor visibility due to the snow. We could see a few Bar-tailed Godwits over the other side. A little group of Teal were paddling round in the mud and a pair of Wigeon were doing the same further along. Presumably most of the birds had found somewhere to shelter from the weather and there was no sign of the Red-necked Grebe. We had to come back this way later, so we reasoned we would have another go when the weather had hopefully improved.

P1170925Brancaster Staithe – poor visibility in the snow

Our next stop was at Holkham. We couldn’t even see across to the freshmarsh from the road at first, so we drove down to Lady Anne’s Drive to see if there were any geese in the fields there. There weren’t, but we did see lots of Wigeon, Redshank, Dunlin and Oystercatcher around the floods out on the grass.

It seemed to be brightening up at one point, so we drove back to have another go looking out at the freshmarsh. At least this time we could see across to the pines! It stopped sleeting briefly, so we got out to scan the grazing marshes. We just managed to see a group of White-fronted Geese down on the grass and a handful of Pink-footed Geese fly past before the sleet started falling again.

Thankfully, that was probably the low point in the weather. As we drove along towards Wells, we could see that the sky was getting brighter to the north. By the time we got there, the sleet was starting to abate again. We didn’t even have to get out of the car to find the Shag, resident here for the winter but by no means always present, sleeping on the pontoons in the harbour. It helpfully woke up and had a preen as we drove up and got the camera out.

P1170996Shag – back in Wells Harbour again

There were also a few Brent Geese out in the harbour channel further out. A couple of Ringed Plover were running around on the sandbank. A Little Grebe was diving out in the water in the middle. With a window of better weather presenting itself, we decided to make our way over to Blakeney. The surprise of the day was a Kingfisher battling to fly over the main road just east of Wells. We wondered what it was from a distance – it was hanging in the air about 20 feet up over the middle of the road. When we got closer, we could see it was struggling to make any progress against the wind before it gave up and flew back over the hedge.

When we got to Blakeney, it had stopped sleeting and there was even a small patch of blue sky away to the north, heading our way. It was still a cold walk out along the seawall in the biting cold NW wind. We had not even got to the gate before we could see several small birds flying around down below us, including at least one Lapland Bunting. As we got to the corner, four Lapland Buntings flew up from the grass by the fence and landed again just beyond the gate, so we quickened our pace and made our way over there.

IMG_9349Lapland Bunting – kept returning to the grass to look for seeds

We spent the next 45 minutes or so watching the Lapland Buntings come and go. Someone has now put seed down for them in the grass and on the path, and they kept returning to a patch of grass just out from the gate. We got some stunning views of them through the scopes, at times they were too close!

IMG_9328Lapland Bunting – almost too close at times!

Once the blue sky made it overhead, it was not so bad with the sun on our faces and the wind at our backs. There were other things to see here too – Rock Pipits, Reed Buntings and Skylarks on the ground. A selection of waders out in the harbour behind us – Dunlin, Knot, Grey Plover, Curlew.

There were still dark clouds passing either side of us, but despite the fact that we were still in the clear we started to make our way back. A pair of Stonechats flew ahead of us, working their way along the fence beside the path.

P1180061Stonechat – male and…

P1180020Stonechat – female, working their way along the fence by the path

We had a drive around Cley next. There was a nice flock of Brent Geese in the fields beside the Beach Road. We stopped to look through them, but could only find Dark-bellied Brents in the group today.

Down at the beach, we tucked ourselves in the shelter as a brief squally shower came in off the sea and had a quick scan of the water. There was not a lot happening offshore today but we did manage to find a nice selection of different birds passing by – a few Gannets, a single Kittiwake, a lone Common Scoter. There were some distant Red-throated Divers on the water, though they were hard to pick up in the choppy swell, and a few others were more easily seen as they flew past. We just had a quick look at the sea and then, as the weather improved again, we moved on.

We made our way along past the reserve as far as the Iron Road, scanning the grazing marshes to see if we could see any more geese, or anything else, but it was very quiet along here today. Presumably the birds had gone somewhere more sheltered. So we headed back to the visitor centre for lunch.

Afterwards, we started to make our way back west. Our first stop was at Holkham again. This time, conditions were much improved and we got significantly better views of the White-fronted Geese this time. There were still 150-200 here today, no sign of numbers having dropped significantly yet, although they were hard to count accurately with many hidden from our view behind the hedge.

IMG_9363White-fronted Geese – still 150-200 at Holkham today

In contrast, numbers of Pink-footed Geese have declined substantially from their mid-winter peak. Eventually, we found four out on the grass. There were also lots of raptors out enjoying the improvement in the weather – several Marsh Harriers hanging in the air and a Red Kite flew leisurely down from the Park towards the pines, where another was already circling. A Barn Owl disappeared behind the hedge before everyone could get onto it.

Back at Brancaster Staithe, we picked up the Red-necked Grebe immediately this time and got a really good look at it in the scope. It is still in dull winter plumage, with no sign of its eponymous red neck appearing yet, but a very smart bird nonetheless.

IMG_9442Red-necked Grebe – no red neck yet!

The tide was coming in fast now and the Red-necked Grebe was swimming hard to try to stop itself being swept in along the harbour channel. It was joined in its endeavours by a Goldeneye – we had the two of them in the scope together at one point, before the latter gave up and swam upstream. A drake Red-breasted Merganser just swam straight in past us.

IMG_9389Red-necked Grebe & Goldeneye – swimming against the tide together

There were more waders here now, too. The Bar-tailed Godwits were back feeding in the mud along the edge of the car park. Some Turnstones had rejoined the Oystercatchers on the pile of discarded mussles, while others were cadging crumbs from the cars. A couple of Dunlin were following the tide in as well.

IMG_9399Bar-tailed Godwits – back around the car park this afternoon

It had been fairly bright up until now, but another dark cloud swept in off the sea towards us, so we packed up and moved on. We had hoped to find the Rough-legged Buzzard this afternoon, but it felt like we might have missed the best weather window now. We drove inland from Brancaster, scanning some of its favoured hedges and trees, but it wasn’t here so we headed round to try Chalkpit Lane instead.

There were loads of Brown Hares in the fields here, over 20 together in one spot, although they were all hunkered down against the weather rather than chasing each other round and boxing today. There is no shortage of Red-legged Partridge here – lots of them have obviously evaded the guns – but a pair of Grey Partridge which ran out from the verge right beside the car was a nice bonus. There are good numbers of them still here, but they can be elusive at times.

P1180063Grey Partridge – a pair ran out into the field from the verge

There were a few of the local Common Buzzards out now. Having probably been confined to quarters this morning in the snow, they were making the most of the improved conditions. Our hopes were up that the Rough-legged Buzzard might be doing the same. As we drove along Chalkpit Lane, we picked up a shape disappearing over the ridge towards the coast. From up on the top, we could see the Rough-legged Buzzard hanging in the wind halfway down the slope towards the sea between us and Brancaster.

It spent some time hovering, circling round  and hovering again. As it caught the sun, we got a great view of its bright white tail with sharply defined black terminal band. Then it turned headed back inland, carried quickly along by the wind. We could see it land in one of its favoured trees over towards the Brancaster road, so we made our way back round there. It gave us the run around for the next few minutes – it wasn’t in the tree when we got round there, but was back hovering over the fields to the north. Back at Chalkpit Lane, it was not hovering there any more, but had flown back to the tree again. When we got up onto the ridge to look for it there, it had flown off once more.

Then we spotted the Rough-legged Buzzard again, hanging in the air away to the south of us, catching the sun. It hovered and circled a couple of times, before flying towards us, landing in a tree although half obscured. Then it flew towards us again and did a lovely flypast – we could see the very pale, whitish head contrasting with the large blackish-brown belly patch. Great stuff!

IMG_9458Rough-legged Buzzard – over the fields at Choseley

We had a last drive round the fields via the drying barns at Choseley. There were lots more Brown Hares and Red-legged Partridges. The hedges below the barns were full of Chaffinches and the cover strip the other side of the hedge held a large flock of Goldfinches, but we couldn’t find anything else here.

Our last target for the day was a Barn Owl. No sooner had we reached the main road again than we found one hunting over the field the other side. We found a convenient gateway and stood watching it as it made its way back and forth over the grass. It dropped down a couple of times and the second time took a while to come up again – when it did, it was pursued by a Kestrel, the two birds talon grappling at one point. Kestrels will happily steal food from a Barn Owl, but we couldn’t see if it succeeded in getting something this time. The Barn Owl promptly ducked back through the hedge and moved off to hunt further over.

P1180146Barn Owl – hunting by the coast road

That was a great way to finish, and it was just a short journey back to Titchwell Manor to end the day. Once again, the weather hadn’t ruined a great day out on the coast.

22nd February 2016 – Lapland Buntings!

It was a day off today. I spent most of the day in the office catching up with admin, but had to pop out in the afternoon to drop in some paperwork at my friendly local optics retailer, Cley Spy (other optics retailers are available!). As I then found myself up near the coast with a couple of hours before sunset, I decided to have a quick walk out along the seawall at Blakeney.

The tide was just starting to come in, so the waders were mostly distant and there was nothing of note in the harbour channel. When I got to the bend in the seawall,the flock of seven Twite which has been coming in to drink here flew off out over the saltmarsh calling.

Before I got to the gate, I could hear the Lapland Buntings calling and looked up to see a flock of eight flying round overhead. They have a distinctive couple of calls which are often the best way of picking up a Lapland Bunting, a dry rattle ‘pt-t-t-t’ and a clipped but ringing ‘teu’, the two often interspersed. They also have a particular way of flying, often chasing each other while circling around. They have been around here on and off for several months now, but can often be hard to find, normally requiring a little time and patience to locate them.

Today it seemed like they would never land. The eight Lapland Buntings flew off way over the freshmarsh, and back again, out towards the shingle ridge, and back again, then out over the saltmarsh. They looked like they were going to land a couple of times, but each time seemed to lose their nerve and fly up and off again. I got down off the seawall and stood by the gate where I thought I would be less obvious and less likely to put them off. Finally, after 10 or more minutes in the air, they came round again and suddenly all dropped into the denser vegetation – annoying, as I had hoped they might land in the open.

I edged my way down along the fence and, scanning the ground carefully, started to see some birds in the grass. There are lots of taller dead weed stems here, which hamper visibility, but after finding a little group of Skylarks in there at first, I finally came across three Lapland Buntings. They are amazing birds to watch like this. They creep about on the ground like mice, with their heads down, so they can disappear in the shortest of grass. They can also run surprisingly quickly like this, so are hard to follow. By positioning myself carefully, I was able to see through to an area where they were feeding and get them in the scope.

IMG_8261Lapland Buntings – two feeding hidden in the vegetation

These would normally be classed as pretty good views of Lapland Bunting, given how secretive and skulking they can be. I spent some time watching them, creeping about in the low grass, occasionally scuttling in to deeper cover, but returning to the same slightly more open patch to feed.

IMG_8272Lapland Bunting – a fairly classic view, hiding in short grass

I had seem one of the local Barn Owls hunting over the fields beyond, and at one point it passed quite close to where the Lapland Buntings were feeding. The birds froze and flattened themselves to the ground at first, then started to look up and seemed like they might take off. The Barn Owl drifted off again.

P1170704Barn Owl – hunting out over the grazing marshes

The Barn Owl was doing a circuit of the fields and the next time it came even closer. This time the Lapland Buntings were not going to hang around and suddenly burst into the air calling. As I was standing the opposite side of them to the Barn Owl, they flew past me with a couple of metres, calling. There were now ten Lapland Buntings in the flock, perhaps the other two had already been on the ground with the Skylarks when the eight I had been watching flew in. They headed out towards the seawall, before circling back round, at one point flying low over the hunting Barn Owl as if to take a closer look at the apparent threat from above.

I had expected the Lapland Buntings to disappear off at this point, but they circled back round to where they had been feeding and came into land. But rather than land in the thick vegetation again, they flew straight towards me and started to land on the fence right next to me. Amazing!

IMG_8293Lapland Bunting – some of them landed on the fence

Some of the other Lapland Buntings dropped down onto the path in front of me, and the birds dropped down one by one from the fence to join them. They were still nervous of the threat and the ones on the path stayed frozen to the spot, looking round, ready to take off again. Amazingly, given how close they were to me, they were not startled again as I slowly turned my scope onto them. Point blank views out in the open of Lapland Buntings is not something you can enjoy very often!

IMG_8330

IMG_8350Lapland Bunting – perched out on the path or several minutes

IMG_8352Lapland Bunting – looking round nervously

IMG_8345Lapland Bunting – this male showing off its rusty nape

As they relaxed, the Lapland Buntings all shuffled into the grass. But rather than disappear back in deep, they started to feed right on the open edge by the base of the fence, right in front of me. There were at least six of them there, possibly more, although the others may have dropped in further back.

IMG_8370Lapland Buntings – started feeding in the grass in front of me

It was a real treat to be able to watch them like this. Some were preening, while others started to pull seeds from the grass and weeds. There was quite a bit of interaction between them. As in flight, they would occasionally chase each other through the grass.

IMG_8420Lapland Bunting – another male with black speckled breast

IMG_8380Lapland Bunting – settled down in the grass to feed

It was also great to be able to look closely at the differences between them. Lapland Buntings can be hard to age and sex through the winter, but there were some obvious males with bright rusty napes and more solid black markings on the underparts. Other birds were more obviously streaked below and with less obvious and more broken colour on their napes.

IMG_8397Lapland Bunting – a less well-marked bird, presumably female

After snapping away a few photos, I turned the camera to video and left it to capture some of the action, while I marvelled at the birds through my binoculars. Some video of the Lapland Buntings is linked below:

I had the Lapland Buntings to myself for around 20 minutes, feeding in the grass right in front of me. The late afternoon sunlight, shining through low beneath the clouds, lit them up beautifully. It was a magical few minutes, a real privilege. Eventually, for no apparent reason, they were off again, flying round calling, and off over the freshes.

Lapland Buntings are scarce winter visitors here most years. They breed up on the Arctic tundra, from Scandinavia eastwards through Russia, and also in North America. The majority of the European population winters on the steppes of SE Europe, but small numbers can generally be found along the east coast of the UK. Norfolk is a good place to look for them, but they can be hard to find in some years.

There is still time to come and enjoy some of the lingering delights of winter birding in Norfolk, if you are interested in seeing birds like our Lapland Buntings. Otherwise, spring is now not far away and undoubtedly more exciting moments lie in store. If you would like to join us, please get in touch.

Marcus Nash  –  The Bird ID Company

13th February 2016 – Winter Birding

Day 2 of a three-day long weekend of tours today. We spent the day in North Norfolk, trying to catch up with a few of our speciality wintering birds and several long-staying rarities. It was cold and rather windy today, with an east wind off the continent, but it stayed dry all day (earlier in the week, it was forecast to rain all day today!).

We started down at Blakeney. It was rather windy and exposed up on the seawall. We scanned the harbour as we walked out. The tide was almost in and a little roost of waders was lined up on one of the spits. There was a large group of Oystercatchers which were mostly asleep. In front of them, the Dunlin were still busy feeding on the small area of remaining mud. We got them in the scope and found a single Knot in with them. A Grey Plover emerged from the muddy channel nearby. A smart drake Goldeneye was out on the water in front of Halfway House, but diving constantly.

As we came round the corner and up to the gate, a couple of Skylarks flew up from the grass and landed again immediately on the edge of the mud, just a little further along from where we were and close to the path. The Lapland Buntings here often associate with the Skylarks, so we made straight for them. We were in luck – a Lapland Bunting was creeping through the grass beside them. We got it in the scope and had a good look at it, before it disappeared further back into the vegetation.

We walked on a little further and could see a Lapland Bunting in the grass. But as we looked at it, we could see that this was a different bird, more strongly marked with black on the underparts.It gradually worked its way towards us and came out onto the mud. It was still sticking to the few tufts of vegetation or running quickly between them – it did not like to be out in the open. We watched it creeping up and through the dried weed stems, looking for seeds. Stunning views of what can be such a secretive species!

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IMG_7255Lapland Bunting – creeping about in the vegetation

While we were watching the Lapland Buntings, a little group of seven Twite were out among the tufts of vegetation a little further over. We got them in the scope and had a quick look at them, before they flew off. Three Rock Pipits were feeding round the edge of one of the small pools.

A second Lapland Bunting flew over calling, a dry rattle and a sharp ‘teu’, and the one we had been watching flew up to join it. The two of them raced over towards the gate and dropped down into the grass. We decided that would be a good moment to walk back, and when we got to the gate, some people were watching a Lapland Bunting down in the grass with three Skylarks there.

That was a great start to the day. As we walked back, the tide was now very high and various birds forced out of the saltmarsh were feeding around the Suaeda bushes by the path – a pair of Stonechats, Reed Buntings and Rock Pipits.

P1160880Fallow Deer – a large herd live in Holkham Park

Our next destination was Holkham Park. We parked outside the gate and walked in through the trees. The large herd of Fallow Deer which live in the Park were feeding in the trees close to the path. We got quite close to them before they finally started to run back away from us. We made our way down to the lake.

Several people were watching the female Ferruginous Duck when we arrived, but it was standing preening, half hidden in all the vegetation along the far bank. We managed to get an OK look at it. The stunning male Ferruginous x Pochard hybrid was close by, asleep on one of the branches of a fallen tree lying in the water. It woke up briefly, but swam in deeper underneath the tree and promptly went back to sleep.

IMG_7425Ferruginous Duck x Pochard hybrid – mostly asleep under the fallen tree

Ferruginous Duck is very common in captivity. Birds routinely escape from wildfowl collections and it is always very difficult to say for certain where odd ducks in an apparently wild state have come from. However, turning up with a hybrid in tow arguably does not aid the credentials of this Ferruginous Duck!

While we were watching the ducks, a shout went up and we turned round to see a Barn Owl flying through the trees not far behind us. Even better it landed on an old tree stump where we could get fantastic close-up views of it. Always a delight to see, it perched for some time, looking round, before flying a short distance and landing again in a tree. It seemed to be performing for the crowd and for a while all the big lenses were trained on it, rather than the ducks.

IMG_7416-001Barn Owl – simply stunning!

When the Barn Owl eventually flew off, we made our way down to the north end of the lake, where more Tufted Ducks were out on the water in the more sheltered corner. In with them were the two 1st winter drake Scaup, their grey backs immediately distinguishing them from their commoner cousins. They were preening when we found them, but as soon as they finished they promptly went to sleep. It was obviously bedtime for all the ducks on the lake!

IMG_7435Scaup – one of the 1st winter drakes, preening before bedtime

We walked back along the side of the lake the way we had come and when we got back to where the Ferruginous Duck was we could see it was now awake and swimming out on the water. This was a much better view.

IMG_7451Ferruginous Duck – the female of uncertain origin still on the lake

Then we made our way back through the trees towards the gate. It was mostly rather quiet in here today, but we did hear a Goldcrest and see a Nuthatch in the top of an oak tree. We made a quick stop down on the coast road at Holkham, to scan the grazing marshes. There were a lot of White-fronted Geese out there today, at least 200, the most we have seen here for a while. Then we carried on our way west.

IMG_7479White-fronted Geese – at least 200 on the freshmarsh today

Our next stop was  at Brancaster Staithe. The tide was quiet high still and the water very choppy in the wind, but a quick scan located the Red-necked Grebe diving out in the channel. We got it in the scope and watched as it came a little closer, diving all the time.

IMG_7528Red-necked Grebe – still in the harbour at Brancaster Staithe

That was all nice and easy today, so we quickly turned our attention to the waders. There were several close Bar-tailed Godwits along the shoreline in front of us and a couple of Turnstones running around in the car park. Further over, more Turnstones and several Oystercatchers were picking over the piles of mussels left behind when the catch was brought in and sorted. Eventually, we retreated to the car out of the wind and as we drove out of the car park, we turned to see a group of Black-tailed Godwits feeding in one of the channels.

IMG_7504Bar-tailed Godwit – in the harbour at Brancaster Staithe

The day was getting on, but we had a quick swing round via Choseley before lunch. It was very windy and exposed now up on the ridge, and it was no real surprise that we couldn’t find a sign of any of the Rough-legged Buzzards in any of their favourite trees. In contrast, a couple of the local Common Buzzards were hanging in the air, enjoying the breeze.

After a quick late lunch at Titchwell, we walked out onto the reserve. We did not have time to explore the whole reserve today, so it was only going to be a swift visit, but we had a few particular things we wanted to try to see. In front of the visitor centre, there were lots of finches – Chaffinches, Greenfinches and Goldfinches – squabbling over the feeders. A single Lesser Redpoll did well to find a spare port on a feeder and fend off the others for a while. A Coal Tit zipped in, grabbed a seed, and disappeared back into the trees.

IMG_7537Lesser Redpoll – on the feeders in front of the visitor centre

Round at the feeders the other side, there was even more variety. A female Brambling was in the bushes behind and kept dropping down onto the feeders briefly, before flying back up. Further up above it, a male Brambling perched in the same bush briefly but promptly flew off. Then a second, even duller female Brambling appeared instead.

IMG_7569Brambling – a female, coming in to the feeders

A smart male Siskin flew in as well and took up position on one of the feeders. It was joined by one of the Bramblings on the other side, until a large Woodpigeon flew in and scared them off.

IMG_7577Siskin – with Brambling on the other side

Out on the main path, a quick scan revealed the Water Rail in its usual place in the ditch. It was out in full view today, rooting about in the rotting leaves on the far bank. Giving great views.

P1160957Water Rail – in the ditch by the main path

It was very windy out on the main path, once we got out of the trees. It was therefore perhaps no surprise to find the dried-up grazing marsh ‘pool’ was devoid of life, save for a single Lapwing. Even though the water level on the freshmarsh has risen a little, there are still not many birds on there at the moment. There were plenty of Teal and a few Gadwall over by the reeds and more Teal over in the deeper water at the back. In amongst them, we could see several Pintail.

P1170029Avocet – around 40 on the reserve at the moment

Around 40 Avocets were also over the back, a good number for this stage of the winter, along with several small ‘flings’ of Dunlin. There were more waders out on the Volunteer Marsh. A couple of Ringed Plovers were chased off relentlessly by the Grey Plovers. There were also lots of Redshank, plus a few Curlew and Black-tailed Godwits.

IMG_7596Ringed Plover – chased off by the Grey Plovers

The Tidal Pools have been very productive recently, but were rather quiet today, perhaps because of the blustery wind. The Pintail were all on the freshmarsh and there were few other duck. A single female Goldeneye was diving out in the far corner and only one Little Grebe came out of hiding today.

The tide was out on the beach and there were plenty of waders out around the shellfish beds. We really wanted to catch up with some seaduck today, but it was not really the weather for it, as the wind had whipped up a bit of swell. We found the flock of Common Scoter, but it was just too windy to see for sure if there was anything else in with them and they singularly refused to flap their wings or fly. Most of the Red-breasted Mergansers were over towards Brancaster, but a pair flew over us and down across the beach, landing just offshore, where we could get a better look at them. We decided to beat a retreat.

Back at the grazing meadow ‘pool’, all again seemed deserted at first, there were not even any Rock Pipits out there today. As we got to the gap in the reeds at the front, a shape moved on the edge of the small pool just beyond and a quick look confirmed it was a Water Pipit. We got it in the scope and had a good look at it, before it walked back out of view behind the reeds. It had found the one sheltered spot out of the wind – we were lucky that it happened to come out into the open as we were passing.

Beyond the rushes, out over the grazing meadow itself, the Barn Owl was already out hunting, despite the wind, flying back and forth over the grass. As we got back almost to the junction for the visitor centre, we could see it perched on a fence post. We had a quick look at it through the scope, but we had perhaps been a bit spoiled by the performance earlier as the level of interest was not as high this afternoon!

IMG_7611Barn Owl – our second of the day, at Titchwell

Time was really pressing now, as we had somewhere else we needed to be, but we had a quick swing round via Choseley just in case, which not surprisingly proved fruitless. Then we cut across country to Roydon Common. It was almost 4pm when we got there and there was nowhere to park – there were an unbelievable number of cars there this evening. We found somewhere we could get off the road and walked back to the car park. Several people were scanning from beside the cars and kindly confirmed the Pallid Harrier was already in and perched on a post. A quick look through a kind person’s scope there, and then we decided to make our way quickly out along the path to where we could get a closer look.

IMG_7630Pallid Harrier – perched on a post when we arrived

It was the right decision. We got a much better look at the Pallid Harrier from here, just in time before it took off and flew round, before turning and heading straight for us. It turned away and came round behind us, working along the fenceline on the ridge, dropping down to the ground before climbing back up with something in its talons. Whatever it was, it was not to its liking as it was promptly dropped again. It worked its way over towards the entrance track, hanging in the air for a while, before swinging away and dropping down out of view.

We waited a while and then noticed that the Pallid Harrier was back up again, flying around the trees. Finally it turned and came straight towards us, flying along the ridge just behind us. Great stuff! It dropped back down across the heather and landed again on the same perch it had been on earlier.

P1170071Pallid Harrier – fantastic flight views this evening

Over the next half an hour, we watched it flying round. The Hen Harriers were starting to gather now too, and we had 3-4 ringtails also circling out over the grass. It was fantastic to see the two species side by side, noting the small size and slim falcon-like wings of the Pallid Harrier. At one point we had a Hen Harrier on one post and the Pallid Harrier on another, only a short distance away. Then the Pallid Harrier did another circuit of the heath, coming towards us again, giving us a great flypast low over the grass just at the bottom of the heather bank in front of us. Cracking stuff! And with the light starting to fade, that seemed like the perfect point to call it a day. What a day it had been!