Tag Archives: Blue-headed Wagtail

12th May 2021 – Cameras at the Ready

A Private Tour today, with the focus on trying to photograph birds rather than just looking at them. It was meant to be a sunny morning, with cloud increasing in the afternoon and the possibility of showers. Instead, there was more patchy cloud this morning and it was sunny and warm this afternoon – the wrong way round!

We spent the morning at Snettisham Coastal Park. As we walked in, a male Greenfinch was on the ground feeding on the short grass. We could hear various warblers singing: Common Whitethroat, Chiffchaff, Sedge and Cetti’s Warbler. But none of them wanted to pose for the cameras. We had a quick look out at the Wash from the outer seawall, but the tide was in and there wasn’t a lot flying past out over the sea.

As we set off up the middle of the Coastal Park, we could hear the distinctive rattling song of a Lesser Whitethroat now. It flew across to a large hawthorn on the edge of the reeds where we watched it feeding on one of the longer branches for a minute or so. When it was joined by a second, the two of them flew out and across to the bushes over on the seawall.

Lesser Whitethroat – in one of the hawthorns

There were lots of Goldfinches and Linnets in the bushes, and more warblers, as we made our way north. A Cetti’s Warbler was calling ahead of us in the brambles and flew up into a hawthorn next to the path, where it gave a quick burst of song. It only perched there briefly though, and quickly flew across to the other side of the path, disappearing back into the thicker vegetation.

Cetti’s Warbler – perched up singing briefly

A steady succession of Swallows came low over the bushes, migrants on their way, heading south round the Wash. There was no sign of the Turtle Dove as we walked up towards its favourite tree and when two Turtle Doves flew past away from us and disappeared into the bushes, we thought that was it. We stopped to admire a male Stonechat which perched on some low bushes in the middle, and a female appeared nearby too.

Stonechat – the male in a low briar

While we were watching the Stonechats, we heard the male Turtle Dove purring now from its favourite tree. Had it flown back while we weren’t looking. Then another Turtle Dove started purring from somewhere in the bushes off to our right, in the direction where the pair had disappeared earlier, so presumably different birds. We set up the scope and had a good view of the lone male perched in the branches of a dead tree.

Turtle Dove – purring from a dead tree

Then we noticed a Barn Owl flying around over the short grass out in the middle, beyond the bushes. We didn’t know which way to look! As we walked on along the path, the Turtle Dove took off and launched into its display flight. We found the Barn Owl again, but it was always rather distant ahead of us. We figured we would catch up with it somewhere later.

From up on the seawall again, the tide was going out now and there were lots of Oystercatchers out on the mud. A woman stopped to talk to us, she was a volunteer with the Wash Wader Ringing Group looking for one satellite Oystercatcher with them. Without a current fix, it was like looking for a needle in haystack! More Oystercatchers were still commuting from where they had been roosting on the marshes inland out to the beach.

As we walked across by the crossbank to the inner seawall, a Willow Warbler was singing in the bushes, along with another Lesser Whitethroat, and a couple more Common Whitethroats. Climbing up onto the inner seawall, the Barn Owl was now hunting over the bank just a little further up. It disappeared behind the bend in the bank, so we went through the gate and walked round on top. The Barn Owl was on a fence post just round the corner and took off when it saw us, but thankfully did a nice fly round, coming straight past below us.

Barn Owl – flew past below us

Turning our attention to Ken Hill Marshes, we picked up a Sparrowhawk disappeared away low over the water. In the reeds beyond, we could see a distant Great White Egret alongside a Little Egret. A good size comparison – the former completely dwarfing the latter.

There were plenty of ducks out on the pools, Shoveler, Gadwall and one or two lingering Wigeon. Four Barnacle Geese were presumably feral birds rather than genuine high Arctic breeders. Two Whimbrel were out on the short grass – one flew off and one disappeared down into a pool out of view as a small group of people walked along the footpath, but both reappeared after they had made it to the seawall.

We hadn’t had sight nor sound of the Cuckoo up to now, but as we walked back we heard it singing and looked ahead of us to see it perched in a dead tree. When we got alongside it, we watched it singing for a couple of minutes. A Chaffinch appeared on the branch next to it, and after a while worked up the courage to chase it off, at which point it was joined by one of the local Meadow Pipits.

Cuckoo – appeared as we started to walk back

Further on, we stopped again. There were several Mute Swans flying round, mostly young birds with dull bills. An adult with a brighter orange bill was bathing in the ditch on the edge of the marshes. There were several Common Swifts zooming about over the pools and one or two swept past us over the bank and the bushes the other side. We had a go at photographing them as they passed – never easy at that speed!

Common Swift – flew past us over the bank

A Mediterranean Gull started calling, a distinctive plaintive miaowing, and we turned to see it circling over the nesting Black-headed Gulls, its white wingtips translucent against the sun. A Chiffchaff posed on the outside of one of the hawthorns below the path briefly. Then we made our way back to the minibus.

As we headed back round to the north coast, we made a diversion into Hunstanton and stopped by the lighthouse. The Fulmars were only just coming above the clifftop occasionally today, but one or two gave some very nice photo opportunities.

Fulmar – circling over the cliffs

There were several House Sparrows in the fenced off vegetation on the top of the cliff and a male posed nicely on the fence. A very smart metallic Starling dropped onto the grass close to us to collect more insects – its bill was already pretty full with a large larva and a couple of flies.

Our mission for the afternoon was to find a feeding Spoonbill. After a break for a pizza in Thornham, we carried on east to Burnham Norton. Three Whimbrel were feeding out on the short grass as we got out of the vehicles. The path out towards the seawall was a bit muddy, but we managed to negotiate it without getting our feet wet.

Two Common Swifts were circling above us and started mating on the wing. They separated but stayed together and then did it again a bit further over. While we were watching the Swifts, we picked up two Hobbys way off in the distance. We watched them catching insects high above the reedbed.

There were lots of Sedge Warblers singing from the reeds along here and we could hear one or two Reed Warblers too but they were much harder to see. We finally got to see a couple of them, chasing around in the corner of the ditch below the seawall. A flock of four Yellow Wagtails flew over high, calling. They appeared to drop towards the herd of cows out in the middle of the marshes, so we made a mental note to have a look for them on our way back.

Walking along the seawall, the tide was out and we couldn’t see any Spoonbills out on the saltmarsh. The only white shapes flying in and out now were Little Egrets. There were lots of waders along here, several Avocets chasing each other in the muddy channel on the near edge of the saltmarsh and Redshanks flying back and forth over the bank. There were Lapwings here too, and one or two were displaying, singing as they performed their tumbling and rolling display flight.

Lapwing – displaying over the seawall

There were still lots of Brent Geese out on the saltmarsh – it won’t be long now before they head off to Siberia for the breeding season. But it looked like we might be out of luck with our main target here today. When we reached the junction with the path which cuts back across the middle of the grazing marshes, we turned for one last scan over the saltmarsh. And there they were, two Spoonbills flying in from the direction of Gun Hill.

One of the Spoonbills landed in one of the big channels and we could just see it distantly from the seawall. The tide was out and there are a couple of baitdiggers’ paths out to the channel here, so we walked out to the edge, picking our way and jumping over some of the narrower runnels. Eventually we got much closer. The Spoonbill was feeding constantly in the shallow water, and appeared to be finding lots of food, regularly flicking its head back as it snapped at something.

Spoonbill – feeding in one of the saltmarsh channels

Eventually the Spoonbill disappeared round the next corner in the channel, out of view. As we made our way back to the seawall, the second Spoonbill dropped in with it. A couple of small squadrons of Cormorants flew past, heading back towards Holkham.

We dropped down onto the path the other side and walked back through the middle of the grazing marshes. The distinctive foghorn of a Bittern booming drifted over to us from the reeds. There were herds of cows on both sides of the path, but looking through the reeds we couldn’t see anything with the ones on the left of the path. We stopped at a gate from where we could see the cows the other side – they were all walking in towards the reeds by the path, and we couldn’t see anything with them at first. Two Wheatears, a smart male and a closer female, were out on the grass just beyond, migrants stopping off on their way north.

It was hard to see through the throng of cows by the reeds at first, but as some started to move further down away from us, we could see a pair of Yellow Wagtails feeding round the feet of one of them. The male with bright day-glo yellow underparts and head, the female rather creamier yellow and shades of greenish-brown.

Yellow Wagtail – a bright yellow male

The cows moved further down so we continued on along the path to the next gate, which is where they seemed to be heading. We had just arrived when another small group of Yellow Wagtails seemed to drop in with the original pair. It is always worth looking through flocks of wagtails at this time of year, as they often contain birds from the continent with different variations of head colour.

In amongst these wagtails, we did indeed find an odd looking one. It had a greyish head and a bold white supercilium, very different to the yellowish heads of the others. It looked too bright for a female, with a very bright yellow vent and belly, but grading to paler yellow on the lower breast and pale yellowish white on the upper breast and throat, and a greenish mantle. With the paler throat, it clearly wasn’t an adult male either. These wagtails are very variable, and the different forms frequently intergrade in the zones where they meet, but the best fit for this one seemed to be a 1st summer male Blue-headed Wagtail, the race which is found across much of continental Europe but is a regular visitor here in spring.

Blue-headed Wagtail – probably a 1st summer male

We spent some time watching the wagtails feeding in among the cows, although they became harder to see as the cows all pressed in closer to the gate. They seemed to have gathered waiting to be fed. Then when the wagtails suddenly took off and flew over the reeds, we continued on our way back.

A Little Egret was feeding in the ditch ahead of us as we got back to the parking area. As we stood by the vehicles for a minute or two, several Brown Hares were running round over the grass. A Barn Owl flew past along the edge of the grazing marshes, disappearing off along the side of the road. Time for us to call it a day.

10th May 2021 – Wagtails & Waders

Another socially distanced small group day tour today, where we didn’t use the minibus. We met on site at Cley in the morning for a couple of walks, travelling in convoy onto Wells mid afternoon to finish the day there. It was cloudy at times with some nice sunny intervals in between, with an increasingly gusty wind in the afternoon, and we mostly managed to avoid the showers.

We set off from the Visitor Centre car park along The Skirts path. We hadn’t gone more than a few metres when a warbler flew up from the alexanders by the path into an elder bush nearby. A Garden Warbler, rather plain grey and featureless with a stocky build and heavy bill. Presumably a migrant, which had dropped in overnight and was now feeding up. It disappeared into the bush, and we could just see it from time to time looking out from behind the branches.

Garden Warbler – probably a migrant fresh-in overnight

The breeding warblers are now back in numbers. As we walked on along the path, a Common Whitethroat flew up into the top of a bush, singing . A Lesser Whitethroat was rattling a little further up, in the hedge across the road, and we could see it moving around in the blackthorn. A Willow Warbler was nearby too. A couple of Long-tailed Tits flitted past. When we heard Lesser Redpoll calling, we looked over to see a party of four flying west, more migrants on the move this morning.

Common Swifts have been passing through in the last few days and from the path we could see several distantly over the reedbed. As we stopped to look at them, a Great White Egret flew over too, big and white with long black legs and feet and a dark bill. In breeding condition, a Great White Egret‘s bill darkens so is no longer the long yellow-orange dagger it is otherwise, a pitfall for the unwary. It dropped down somewhere beyond Bishop Hide out of view.

Great White Egret – and Common Swift over the reedbed

From up on East Bank, we could see a steady passage of Swallows going west. More Swifts and lots of Sand Martins were hawking out over the marshes.

Looking out across the grazing marshes, a large white shape distantly behind the Serpentine was a Spoonbill. It was busy feeding, head down, sweeping its bill from side to side as it walked round in the shallow pools. Then suddenly it walked up out of the water and took off, flying off west over the path and away over the reeds.

Spoonbill – flew off west

We could hear a Yellow Wagtail singing and eventually found it feeding amongst the clumps of grass, a very smart canary yellow male. There were obviously others on the move today, and when we heard one call we looked across to see a female Yellow Wagtail drop in with a Pied Wagtail up by the Serpentine. A female Wheatear was running around out on the grass too.

Then a smart male Blue-headed Wagtail appeared nearby, with a grey blue head and prominent pale supercilium. The heads of yellow wagtails vary across Europe, with the British Yellow Wagtail having a yellow head and those from across central continental Europe and southern Scandinavia having blue-grey heads, so this one was probably on its way there from its wintering grounds Africa. It flew up and landed amongst the cows much further back, where we lost sight of it behind one cow lying down.

There were fluffy Lapwing chicks down in the grass along with their parents along with several Redshanks. Both those species breed here, but the two Whimbrel feeding in the grass are migrants stopping off to refuel. A lone Black-tailed Godwit on the Serpentine looked like it might be a young bird which will not migrate up to its breeding grounds in Iceland this year.

Duck numbers have thinned out significantly over the last few days, as many are now heading off back to northern Europe after having spent the winter here. A pair of Barnacle Geese were in with the Greylags and Canada Geese, presumably feral birds rather than genuine wild Arctic breeders.

Barnacle Geese – the first pair, behind the Serpentine

There were more waders out on Arnold’s Marsh – a smattering of Dunlin and Ringed Plovers, several Curlew over on the saltmarsh in one corner, a smart Grey Plover with summer black face and belly and two Bar-tailed Godwits over the back.

Continuing on to the beach, we had a quick look out to sea. There were several Sandwich Terns flying past, along with a single distant Little Tern, and an even more distant Gannet out towards the horizon. But the sea is fairly quiet at this time of year, so we didn’t linger and set off to walk back. A couple more Sandwich Terns flew in over Arnold’s Marsh as we passed, so we could see their yellow-tipped black bills.

Sandwich Tern – flew over Arnold’s Marsh

Somebody who had come out to see the Blue-headed Wagtail we had seen earlier had now found two Grey-headed Wagtails which had dropped in too, so we headed back to see if we could see those too. We just got back in time to see them running around on the grass amongst he cows, before all the wagtails took off and we watched as all six flew off strongly west. It was proving to be a really good day for yellow wagtails! Grey-headed Wagtails breed in northern Scandinavia, a scarce migrant through here and our third yellow wagtail subspecies of the day.

Now we heard a report that a Golden Oriole had been seen flying west past Muckleburgh Hill, just a couple of miles east of us and heading our way. There had been several Golden Orioles seen further east in NE Norfolk too this morning, but none this far west. Still we scanned the sky just in case and after just a few minutes we picked the Golden Oriole up flying over the back of Snipe’s Marsh, presumably having come over the back of Walsey Hills. Unfortunately it was only in view for a few seconds before it disappeared round the back of North Foreland wood. We scanned the other side in case it came out there but it looked like it might have dropped in.

We decided to wait for a bit in case it came out again. An Iceland Gull was reported flying west past Salthouse now, and we managed to see it very distantly before it dropped down out of view, into the fields way off east from us. The Visitor Centre was on the line the Golden Oriole was flying, so we decided to walk back for an early lunch and keep our eyes peeled in case it came out in our direction, but it wasn’t seen again so may have slipped out the back. A male Marsh Harrier circled over as we walked back.

After lunch, we set off back along The Skirts path, past the East Bank and down Attenborough Walk. We stopped to scan through the gulls gathered on Pope’s Marsh, but the Iceland Gull obviously hadn’t decided to join them today. There were now two pairs of Barnacle Geese out on the grazing marsh. We were hoping to find a Whinchat, but just past the gate to Babcock Hide we found a pair of Stonechats instead.

Stonechat – the male

We turned onto Iron Road and walked up to scan the pool. It appeared to be empty at first, but looking more carefully we found several small waders lurking round the edges – two Little Ringed Plovers, and three different Common Sandpipers. An Egyptian Goose was lying down in the grass beyond.

Common Sandpiper – one of three at Iron Road

Continuing on to the bridge over the main drain, we found two female Wheatears on the dry mud on the edge of the channel. It was the wrong time of day really, so perhaps no surprise that there was no sign of any Short-eared Owls here now.

After walking back to the car park, we travelled in convoy on to Wells for the rest of the afternoon. Scanning the pools from the parking area, we could see a couple of Brent Geese out on the grass and two of three Teal on the water, our first of the day. There were lots of Lapwings, with several fluffy juveniles, and a few Redshanks here too.

Walking a short distance down the track, we quickly located one of the Jack Snipe which have been lingering here, on the pool east of the track. It was right out in the open, on the bare mud between the clumps of rushes, probably the best views of it we have had here in the last few weeks. It was busy feeding, probing in the mud. We could see its comparatively short bill and bright golden mantle stripes. Then suddenly something spooked it and it ran back into the rushes out of view.

Jack Snipe – showing very well today

There were several Common Sandpipers here again today, at least four, and two Wood Sandpipers east of the track too, all migrants stopping off to refuel here on their journeys north to breed. Through the scopes, we could see the Wood Sandpipers’ spangled backs and pale superciliums, a little larger, longer legged and longer necked than the Common Sandpipers. Another Wood Sandpiper called behind us and we turned to see it emerging from the thicker clumps of rushes on the pool west of the track.

Wood Sandpiper – one of three here today

There was another Yellow Wagtail here this afternoon, another bright yellow male – they really were an ever-present theme today. This one was quite close to the track, feeding on the mud, at least when it wasn’t being chased off by one of the Lapwings. It obviously thought the Yellow Wagtail posed a grave threat to its young, which were feeding on the edge of the rushes nearby. Lapwings are obviously not the brightest of parents!

Yellow Wagtail – a smart male by the track

Continuing on round to the west pool, the bushes were quiet today, although it was mid afternoon now and the wind had picked up quite a bit. We had a quick scan of the pool from the low bank. There were lots of Avocets on nests on the island, and more Lapwings, but we couldn’t see any other waders on here today. A Brown Hare ran straight towards us along the grass verge on the edge of the pool until it realised we were standing there, froze looking at us for a few seconds, and ran off back the way it had come.

Unfortunately after an action-packed day full of spring migrants it was time to call it a day and head back now.

15th April 2016 – Singing in the Rain

Day 1 of a three day long weekend of Spring Migration tours today. It was forecast to rain today, and it did, but thankfully it was never as heavy as we had been promised. We met in Wells and headed east along the coast in search of migrants.

As we drove along the coast road, it was overcast and damp. At Walsey Hills, a small group of Swallows and Sand Martins had gathered on the wires. There are lots of our breeding hirundines in now, so these could have been locals or birds stopping off on their way further north.

6O0A0174Swallows & Sand Martins – on the wires at Walsey Hills

Our first stop was at Kelling. A Song Thrush was singing half-heartedly by the school. A little further along, we could hear a Lesser Whitethroat singing from the hedge across the other side of the field and then a Chiffchaff started up from the bushes by the lane. Many of the first warblers are now back on territory, and newly arrived they will often sing almost regardless of the weather.

From the first gate overlooking the Water Meadow, a scan of the fields revealed a pair of Mediterranean Gulls. Both adults, we got them in the scope and could see their jet black hoods and white wing tips. Otherwise, the Water Meadow itself looked fairly quiet from here at first. On the other side of the lane, a ‘dopping’ of Shelducks had gathered in a field and were inspecting the rabbit burrows along the edge for suitable nest sites.

6O0A0177Shelducks – pairing up and looking for nest sites

Another small warbler flicked across the path and disappeared into the alexanders on the other side. When we got up to where it had gone, we finally managed to get a good look at it and could see that it was a Willow Warbler. Presumably a migrant, it was feeding actively in the dense vegetation alongside the hedge. We followed it for a while, getting occasional views of it as it worked its way to the edge. As it continued up along the hedge row, it gave a quick burst of song. A Goldcrest came down the hedge the other way and landed in the top of a hawthorn beside us – possibly also a migrant, stopping to feed up before heading out across the North Sea.

6O0A0182Willow Warbler – feeding in the alexanders by the path

We had really hoped to find the Yellow Wagtails which have been here for a couple of days now and just as we got to the end of the tall hedge, so that we could see out across the Water Meadow again, we heard them calling. They came up out of the rushes and flew round. Most dropped straight down back out of view in the tall grass, but three landed on the top of some tall posts. Even better, the Blue-headed Wagtail which has been in with them was one of the three! Through the scope, we could see it’s dark blue-grey cap and contrasting white supercilium, a smart male. Then it dropped down out of view as well.

IMG_2294Blue-headed Wagtail – here’s a photo of it from yesterday

Several of the Yellow Wagtails flew out and landed on the short grass by the pool, so we could get a better look at them. Bright dayglo yellow, they looked stunning running around among the daisies. But the Blue-headed Wagtail did not come out to join them.

There were several other birds on the Water Meadow. The resident pair of Egyptian Geese have four goslings. There were also a few Gadwall, Teal and Shoveler, and a couple of Avocet too. There were lots of Sand Martins hawking for insects low over the water and a single House Martin flew in to join them, flashing its white rump patch. A Common Whitethroat started calling from the bushes behind us, before flying out onto the brambles and bursting into song – another of the warblers to have returned for the summer just in the last couple of days.

Round by the Quags, a male Stonechat was perched on a post at the edge of the sheep field. It kept dropping down to the short grass to feed. There were lots of Meadow Pipits and Linnets along the path up the hill and at least seven Wheatears in the sheep field from the top path. They seemed to be trying to stay just out of view, over the crest of the ridge, but thankfully they kept running out where we could see them.

6O0A0186Stonechat – a male, down by the Quags

A large white bird came high overhead, heading west. Head – and long bill – held stretched out in front and long legs trailing behind, it was a Spoonbill. It didn’t show any signs of stopping, but carried straight on towards Salthouse. We figured it might eventually come down over towards Cley, so thought we would have a look for it on our way that direction later.

There had been no more than light drizzle so far, but it started to rain a little harder now, so we turned round and started to make our way back. We thought perhaps more of the wagtails might have come out onto the short grass, where it was not so wet, but once again there were only a few Yellow Wagtails out in view.

Back at the gate, we stopped for another last scan and a pale shape dropping down into the grass, out of the brambles at the back caught our eye. When it flew back up again we could confirm what it was, a female Common Redstart. This bird was in exactly the same place yesterday, but despite looking on our way past this morning, we hadn’t seen it. It had been very hard to see yesterday too though, and kept disappearing into the brambles or flying over the top into the other side, on the edge of the sheep field, out of view. As it flew between the fence posts, we could see the flash of its orange-red tail and eventually it perched up on the brambles for a few seconds so that we could get it in the scope. Redstart is always a very nice spring migrant to catch up with, as they can be tricky to see at this time of year here.

Our next stop was at Salthouse, down at the end of Beach Road. Scanning from the car, we could see lots of Wheatears out on the short grass, at least a dozen. One or two were a bit nearer to the road, so we got out for a closer look.

IMG_2305Wheatear – at least a dozen were at Salthouse today

Thankfully, we didn’t have to go far from the car, as it was raining a little more persistently now – all the action here came to us! Three more Yellow Wagtails flew in and landed close by as well. Further over, we could see a White Wagtail as well – its pale silvery-grey back contrasting with the black cap, setting it immediately apart from its close relative the Pied Wagtail.

6O0A0188Yellow Wagtail – three were at Salthouse too

It is not just passerines on the move or arriving for the breeding season, waders are a feature of spring too. A Little Ringed Plover was feeding down by one of the small pools in the grass. Through the scope, we could see its golden yellow eye-ring. We could hear the distinctive laughing call of a Whimbrel approaching and looked up to see it fly west overhead. From the other direction, we heard a Greenshank calling and turned round to see two fly in from the west and drop down on one of the pools over by the shingle ridge. Both the Whimbrel and the Greenshanks are just stopping off here on their way further north.

IMG_2312Greenshanks – these two dropped into the pools by the beach at Salthouse

Making our way further back west, a quick stop by Walsey Hills for a scan and we relocated the Spoonbill we had seen flying over earlier. It was out on the pool at Pope’s Marsh and doing what Spoonbills like to do most – sleeping! We had a look at it through the scope, although it wouldn’t show off its bill for us.

IMG_2333Spoonbill – sleeping out on Pope’s Marsh

After a break for lunch, we set out to explore the reserve at Cley. The rain had eased off a bit now, but it was still nice to get into the shelter of the hides. Pat’s Pool held a good selection of waders. A Ruff was right down at the front with a couple of Redshank.The male Ruff are in the process of moulting into summer plumage now, and were a mixture of blotchy colours.

6O0A0205Ruff – just moulting into summer plumage

We eventually found the Green Sandpiper when it walked out of a sheltered bay, into view. The lack of the white ‘spur’ on the side, between the breast and wings, is a good way to distinguish from  Common Sandpipers at a distance. A couple of Snipe were lurking round the edges of the scrape. There are no shortage of Avocets here now – paired up and ready for the breeding season.

6O0A0203Avocet – there are lots on the scrapes now

There are always plenty of Black-tailed Godwits here, and most of them are looking very smart now, having moulted into summer plumage. However, one of the godwits stood out, with deep rusty underparts extending right down under the tail, whereas a Black-tailed Godwit should have a black-barred white belly. This was a very smart summer plumage male Bar-tailed Godwit. Round on Simmond’s Scrape, another Bar-tailed Godwit was lacking any deep rusty colour below, a female.

6O0A0224Black-tailed Godwit – looking smart in summer plumage

Also on Simmond’s Scrape, there was a group of smaller waders on the mud on one side. Including at least 12 Dunlin, many of these were also started to attain breeding plumage, sporting small black belly patches and increasingly brightly coloured upperparts. In with them were several Ringed Plovers. A few Lapwing were on the grassy bank in front of the hide.

6O0A0228Lapwing – on the bank right in front of the hide

Given the rain, we had not seen any raptors so far today, but once it eased off a bit, the first Marsh Harrier flew in over the scrape and landed in one of the bushes in the reedbed beyond. A Water Rail squealed from the reeds but did not show itself.

Back to the car, and we had a quick drive round to the beach car park to see if there were any migrants around the Eye Field, but it looked pretty quiet here today so we didn’t linger. A Sparrowhawk perched on a gate by the road meant that the detour was worthwhile.

We rounded off the day with a walk out along the East Bank. There were several Marsh Harriers up now, quartering over the reedbeds on either side.The Spoonbill had disappeared, but a few Wigeon out on Pope’s Marsh were new for the day, and a couple more Little Ringed Plovers were out in the grass.

6O0A0233Marsh Harrier – several came out once the rain eased

We took advantage of the new shelter and had a good look at Arnold’s Marsh. There were lots of Dunlin and Ringed Plover out on here, as well as more Bar-tailed Godwits, Redshank and Curlew. A single Grey Plover was also an addition to the day’s list.

We had time for a quick look at the sea. All we could see at first were a few Cormorants, but then three ducks appeared, a drake and two female Common Scoter. They were diving continually, which made them hard for everyone to get onto at first. A single Red-throated Diver flew past. Then it was time to head back.

The weather had been far from perfect, but the rain had not really been bad all day today – and we had managed a very decent haul of birds despite the conditions. Once again, well worth going out!

26th April 2015 – Wagtail Wonderland

Day 3 of a long weekend of tours today, the last day. We would focus on the eastern end of the North Norfolk coast today, between Kelling and Stiffkey. It had actually rained overnight, the first rain for some time, and the day dawned overcast and cool, but it cleared up through the day and was sunny and warm (out of the wind) by the close.

P1000455Blakeney Freshes from Friary Hills

We started at Friary Hills. This can at times be a very good spot for migrants, but the bushes were quiet today. From the top, we scanned over Blakeney Freshes, picking up a variety of wildfowl for the day. As we walked back, we did hear a Reed Warbler singing from the bushes and a Lesser Whitethroat, which eventually showed well.

It was our intention to head round to Kelling, but news of several Blue-headed Wagtails in the Eye Field at Cley saw us take a small diversion on the way. Blue-headed Wagtail is the main central European subspecies, the equivalent of the British Yellow Wagtail, and they form just two of many subspecies of a very widely distributed and very variable species. Several subspecies occur or are suspected to occur in the UK from time to time, but as we were to see today, the subject is even more complicated than that!

It took us a while to find the wagtails, as they were mobile and distant at first. We contented ourselves with looking at several Wheatears intially. Finally we picked up a couple of Yellow Wagtails and a smart male Blue-headed Wagtail dropped in with them. So far, so simple!

IMG_4274Blue-headed Wagtail – a smart male in the Eye Field

In the end, we saw at least 8 ‘yellow’ or flava wagtails, the all-encompassing moniker for the species (Motacilla flava is the Latin name for the species as a whole). There were several male Yellows, as well as at least one male Blue-headed, and a number of females of different hues (it is still not clear where the appearance of female Yellow stops and female Blue-headed starts!).

At one point, the little group of flava wagtails landed with four ‘monochrome’ alba wagtails. In a similar way to the Yellow Wagtail, the British Pied Wagtail is replaced on the continent with the grey-backed White Wagtail (two subspecies of the very widely distributed Motacilla alba – a theme is emerging!). We could see that the group of four in the Eye Field included two smart silvery-grey backed White Wagtails as well as two Pied Wagtails. A great start – four subspecies of Wagtail together!

Round at Kelling, we set off along the track to the beach. A Goldcrest sang from the trees by the school and a couple of Common Whitethroat sang from the hedges. The cows were feeding up by the gate, but there were no wagtails with them as we arrived. However, as we walked further on, we could see two flava wagtails on the short grass by the pool. One was a smart male Yellow Wagtail, but whilst the other resembled a Blue-headed Wagtail, it looked a little pale around the head. Unfortunately they were flushed by a couple of people walking along the track before we could get the scope on them.

We could still hear the odd Yellow Wagtail calling from time to time, but we couldn’t see them at first, until we realised they had flown into the dense clumps of rushes. It was only when the cows started to walk back down the water meadow towards the pool that the wagtails came out. Then we realised there were flava wagtails everywhere – at least 12-15 birds!

At first, we contented ourselves wit watching the bright yellow British Yellow Wagtails. We admired the way they ran in and out of the cows feet and even seemed to get so close to them feeding that it would not have been a surprise to see one get eaten! They looked stunning in amongst the daisies and dandelions in the short grass.

P1000478Yellow Wagtail – a smart ‘British’ male

P1000479Yellow Wagtail – careful, not too close!

There were a couple of nice smart male Blue-headed Wagtails in amongst them as well – nice contrasting blue-grey heads with a strongly marked white supercilium. Then the paler-headed male appeared – unlike the regular Blue-headed males, this one appeared to have a pale silvery grey crown, a ‘Channel’ Wagtail.

P1000458‘Channel’ Wagtail – paler silvery grey on the crown than a regular Blue-headed

Blue-headed and Yellow Wagtails are known to ‘hybridise’ in northern France, and the resulting intergrades are known as ‘Channel’ Wagtails. These show much paler heads than Blue-headed – silvery-grey, powder-blue or even approaching white. They turn up quite regularly with our Yellow Wagtails in the spring.

As if that wasn’t already complicated enough, then another darker headed bird appeared. We glimpsed it a couple of times and it looked really quite striking. At first, it appeared to have an all dark grey head – dark slate grey on the crown and blacker on the ear coverts. However, when we got a good look at it, we could see that it had a very thin supercilium. It also had a rather white upper throat.

IMG_4297flava Wagtail ssp – most likely an intergrade of some form

P1000464flava Wagtail ssp –  a thin white supercilium and white on throat

This bird did not obviously fit any of the regular subspecies or intergrades. Perhaps it was a mixture of Blue-headed and the Italian subspecies, Ashy-headed? We will never know, but it was an interesting bird to see nonetheless. The morning as a whole was a great opportunity to study a variety of different wagtail forms. We spent time discussing the different subspecies and known intergrades between them. At the end of the day, it was just great to watch them all running amongst the cows and spring flowers. Still, after all that we needed a sit down and some lunch!

As we walked back up the track, three young Field Voles were trying to hide in the middle of the path – presumably a dog had dug them out of their nest. We tried to usher them to the safety of the verge, but they kept running back out into the middle.

P1000497Field Vole – three youngsters were in the middle of the path at Kelling

After lunch, we went for a walk at Salthouse. We eventually found the single Snow Bunting feeding in the field about half way towards Gramborough. The flock of Snow Buntings which roamed the beach through the winter appears to have long departed, but this single bird remains. Still, it seemed perfectly happy feeding quietly on its own, until something upset the local Sand Martins and they flew round calling – and the Snow Bunting joined them.

IMG_4327Snow Bunting – the rest of the winter birds have departed

There were also several Wheatears in the field. As with the birds we saw yesterday at Burnham Overy, the males at Salthouse were washed with orange underneath, especially on the throat and upper breast, to varying degrees of intensity – Greenland Wheatears.

P1000504Wheatear – the rich orange wash on the breast suggests a Greenland bird

We finished the day at Stiffkey Fen. As we crossed the road, a Willow Warbler was singing in the sallows by the river. We stopped to try to see it and a Reed Warbler was lumbering around in the same tree. A Cetti’s Warbler sang loudly nearby, and we could hear the scratchy notes of a Sedge Warbler from the Fen. A hooting Tawny Owl was more of a surprise, in the middle of the afternoon.

Scanning the Fen from the path, we could see a selection of waders. A Little Ringed Plover lurked on one of the islands. Several Black-tailed Godwits stood in the water. A smart male Ruff was hiding in the vegetation on the shore and a Common Snipe eventually showed itself, preening nearby.

From up on the seawall, we could get a better look over the Fen. At first we couldn’t see anything we hadn’t seen from the path. Finally, we picked up a Common Sandpiper working its way round the water’s edge at the very back. On the saltmarsh side, a Greenshank was working its way up the creek and quickly disappeared from view. Thankfully, a few moments later, it flew back out and onto the Fen where it proceeded to bathe and preen. There were also several Avocet in the channel by the seawall.

P1000509Avocet – a couple of pairs were in the tidal channel at Stiffkey, more on the Fen

As we walked round towards Blakeney Harbour, we could hear a Whimbrel calling. It then flew in and landed on the edge of the creek opposite us. Eventually, once it came round out of the sun, we could see its pale central crown stripe. It then flew out into the creeks in the harbour.

P1000516Whimbrel – feeding on the edge of the harbour

As we came round the corner, we could see a couple of Common Buzzards soaring up over the fields just behind us and a Red Kite was circling lazily over the saltmarsh. There were still plenty of Brent Geese out in the harbour and we could see lots of gulls and Sandwich Terns out toward Blakeney Point. As we turned to walk back, a pair of adult Mediterranean Gulls flew over us calling.

From back on the seawall, the Common Sandpiper was on the edge of the mud on the tidal channel. But it was very jumpy and flew off as we approached, flicking down the channel on bowed wings. A Redshank flew up from the Fen and over the seawall, displaying over our heads – fluttering its wings fast, again holding them deeply bowed, then gliding for a second, before another burst of quick fluttering, before it glided down across the channel and landed on a post. Stunning to watch. As we walked back, we stopped to admire a cracking male Lapwing feeding quietly in the set-aside field amongst the flowers. A lovely end to the day.

P1000519Blakeney Harbour from Stiffkey Fen seawall

22nd April 2015 – Spring has Sprung

Back to business today and a Spring Tour around the Cley area looking for migrants. It was slightly cool and cloudy first thing up on the coast, in a light north wind, but the sun came out and it warmed up in the afternoon – a lovely April day.

We started off looking – or listening – for Nightingales, which have started to arrive in the last few days. As we got out of the car, we could hear plenty of warblers singing – a couple of Blackcaps, several Chiffchaffs and a Cetti’s Warbler. With all the sounds around us, it felt like a real spring morning. We heard a Bullfinch call and a smart pink male perched up briefly in the bushes in front of us. But there was no sound of the Nightingale at first.

We began to walk down the road. A couple of Long-tailed Tits were calling from the hedgerow and as they flew up we could see some grey lichen in the area they had been – a closer look confirmed our suspicions and we found a beautiful nest tucked in amongst the branches. As we stopped to admire it, the Nightingale started singing back where we had been – but only two brief snatches of song before it went quiet again. It seemed like it might still be too chilly for it to really get going.

P1000269Long-tailed Tit nest – an amazing construction, well concealed in the hedge

Continuing back down the road, we stopped every so often to listen to the bird song around us. A Whitethroat or two were new additions for the day – we got a look at one smart male – and a Lesser Whitethroat rattled from deep in the bushes but didn’t similarly oblige. A male Cuckoo sang from the trees, really adding to the feeling of spring, and then we heard the amazing bubbling sound of a female nearby. We got a look at her perched up in a tree before she flew across the road behind us. Unfortunately, a Cuckoo is not as common a sight (or sound) now as it used to be.

We had gone some way down the road when a second Nightingale started singing just behind us. We turned and walked back a short way to listen to it. It was a delight just to stand there and hear the song, the liquid phrases rolling out from the dense undergrowth. After a while it stopped singing and we could hear it calling (a bit like a frog!), before it flew across the road and disappeared into the hedge the other side, flashing a russet tail as it did so. We listened to it singing there for a while, close beside us, catching another glimpse of it in flight before it finally went quiet again and we headed back. What a magical moment. As we walked back to the car, a Tawny Owl hooted from the trees – not what we were expecting in the middle of the morning!

Heading down to the coast, our next stop was Walsey Hills. There had been a Black Redstart hanging around opposite here for the last couple of days, but there was no  sign today. We had a quick explore along the footpath, and had a good look at a couple of Willow Warblers which were singing from the bushes. But with no sign of any more life, we didn’t hang around.

Further along the coast road, we pulled up outside the visitor centre at Cley. Our intention had been to use the facilities and get a cup of coffee first, but from the car park we could already hear the Grasshopper Warbler reeling from the bushes just across the road. We didn’t want to miss the opportunity to get a good look at it, particularly as it has been performing so well of late, so we walked over to see it. Unfortunately, by the time we got over there it had already decided to go quiet. Typical! We stood for a while, and the call of the coffee was growing ever more tempting when we caught a couple of quiet reels. The Grasshopper Warbler sounded like it had moved much further away. Then suddenly it hopped up into some low brambles not 5 metres in front of us. We got a great look at it as it sang in short bursts and clambered about in the nettles close to the ground. After that, we celebrated with a coffee in the visitor centre!

P1000274Grasshopper Warbler – reeling right in front of us today

We were planning to explore the reserve later in the day, so after our coffee we headed back along the coast to Kelling. As we walked down along the lane, a Red Kite drifted over and disappeared to the west. The cows are out on the water meadow early this year and that seemed to have pulled in the Yellow Wagtails. But the first bird we saw was not a typical ‘Yellow’, but a very smart male Blue-headed Wagtail, the continental European subspecies. We got him in the scope and set about admiring his blue-grey crown and striking white supercilium, which contrasted with his bright yellow underparts. As we did so, a male British Yellow Wagtail appeared next to him. As we scanned in amongst the cows feet, we eventually picked up four of them – three males and a duller female. One of the male Yellow Wagtails in particular sat preening in the grass and positively glowed bright canary yellow in the (now) sunshine.

P1000245Blue-headed Wagtail – with 4 Yellow Wagtails amongst the cows today

Down at the pool, there were several Black-tailed Godwits and Avocets wading around in the water. Amongst them was a stunning Spotted Redshank in mostly black summer plumage. Flushed by some walkers along the cross track, it flew towards us and started to feed close by. We admired its white eye-ring, contrasting with the blackish head and neck, the white-spotted upperparts and the long and needle-tipped bill.

IMG_4238Spotted Redshank – a smart bird, in fine black summer plumage

That wasn’t the only good wader down on the pool today. It was hiding on the island at first, but eventually the Knot appeared. It was starting to live up to its proper name of ‘Red Knot‘, beginning to moult into its much brighter summer plumage, rather than the grey winter grab with which we are more familiar. The resident Egyptian Geese had already hatched three goslings, already starting to look quite well grown.

P1000287Red Knot – or ‘Reddish Knot’ perhaps still at the moment

We carried on down towards the beach and up onto the top, hoping that we might pick up a Wheatear or Whinchat. No sign of either of those, but we did find a couple of pairs of Stonechat, presumably local breeding birds. One of the males decided to come down the fence line towards us – another smart bird! As we stood there admiring it, we could hear a Mediterranean Gull calling and after a while we picked up a pair of adults, flashing their white wing-tips, circling high above the field behind.

P1000286Stonechat – one of the males at Kelling today

The morning was long gone, so we eventually managed to tear ourselves away and head back to the car. We drove a short way along the coast to Salthouse for a late lunch on the Beach Road. While we ate, we picked up a small group of Wheatear out on the grazing marshes. A Greenshank appeared on the pools behind the beach.

After lunch, we drove back to Cley and headed out to explore the reserve. The main scrapes were fairly quiet – a smattering of duck (Wigeon, Gadwall, Teal, Mallard & Shoveler), a few Black-tailed Godwits and lots of Avocets. Looking more closely, we found a pair of Little Ringed Plovers on one of the islands, displaying. There were also lots of Ruff (& Reeves). The first ones we saw still appeared to be in mostly winter plumage, but eventually we found a male with lots of black on head and neck, clearly moulting into summer plumage. It was a good opportunity to look at the variation, and the differences between males and females.

P1000303Shelduck – this pair were mating right outside the hide

The Eye Field seemed a bit quiet as we drove down Beach Road. However, a scan from the car park revealed four Wheatears out on the grass. We set out to walk towards North Hide and as we did so, a lovely male Whinchat appeared on the fence. It was quite flighty and wouldn’t settle near us, but we eventually got it in the scope – another cracker. On the edge of the shingle, we stopped to admire a Ringed Plover on one of the pools and as we did so, we picked up a White Wagtail by the grass. Unfortunately, it didn’t linger and flew off out into the Eye Field and disappeared from view. We did manage to find it again, looking from further along, and got a good look through the scope. A nice haul of classic spring migrants for the list for the day.

IMG_4241Whinchat – a smart male on the Eye Field fence

Billy’s Wash had a few ducks on it, including three Pintail, one of them a smart male. North Scrape was fairly quiet – just a couple more Little Ringed Plover and a few of the other Cley regulars. Then it was time to start heading back, stopping briefly to admire a female Wheatear right by the fence.

P1000320Wheatear – we saw a few at Salthouse & Cley today

We had met in Wells, so made our way back there to finish. A single Common Seal (or perhaps more appropriately ‘Harbour’ Seal) was pulled up and resting nearby.

All-in-all, a decent haul of early spring migrants and incoming breeding birds for the day.

P1000328Common Seal – hanging around in the harbour