Tag Archives: Brancaster

28th Sept 2016 – Migrants From All Directions

Day 1 of a two day Private Tour today. It was a lovely bright and mostly sunny day, warm if a little breezy. We made our way west along the coast to Titchwell to start the day.

On the edge of the car park, we ran into a flock of Long-tailed Tits. They were chasing each other around in the sallows. We could hear a Chiffchaff singing nearby too. The feeders by the visitor centre were rather quiet, with just a Blue Tit, Great Tit and a single Chaffinch this morning.

Out along the main path, the dried-up grazing meadow ‘pool’ held just a Grey Heron and a single Moorhen. The reedbed pool was more productive. The drake Greater Scaup was still present, diving continually, along with a couple of Tufted Ducks. We could hear Bearded Tits calling and all of a sudden a flock of nine flew up out of the reeds and disappeared back out across the reedbed – we saw the back of them as they flew away from us.

A Curlew had earlier circled over the saltmarsh towards Thornham, but now there seemed to be a bit of a commotion over there. We turned to see several Curlews, Redshank and gulls all flying around – everything appeared to have taken to the air. Scanning the sky, we found the culprit – an Osprey was flying over from the direction of Thornham Harbour. We watched as it flew over the saltmarsh, turning and heading over the visitor centre and disappearing behind the trees. A great start to the day!

6o0a2835Osprey – flew over from the direction of Thornham Harbour

We carried on along the path, past the Island Hide. A single Grey Plover and a couple of Redshank were on the saltmarsh pool.  A Water Rail flew out from the edge of the reeds below us, but turned straight back in to cover, where it started squealing. Then we stopped and scanned the freshmarsh from the bank. There were large numbers of ducks on here today – a lot of Teal, but also a good number of Wigeon and a few Shoveler.

There were quite a few Ruff in the deeper water, feeding in amongst the Teal. One of the grassy islands was full of Golden Plover, looking bright with their golden-spangled upperparts catching the morning sunshine. A single Bar-tailed Godwit was preening nearby – we had a good look at it through the scope, admiring its more strongly marked upperparts and slightly upturned bill, compared to all the Black-tailed Godwits further back.

The muddier edges of the islands held quite a few Dunlin and we started to work our way through to see if we could find something else with them. All the Golden Plover took off and a Little Stint flew in and landed in the water just behind some of the Dunlin. We were just having a good look at it when everything took flight. Through the whirling flocks we could see a larger bird approaching and a Peregrine flew in and landed on one of the islands in front of Parrinder Hide.

img_7384Peregrine – this juvenile landed on the freshmarsh

The Peregrine was a juvenile and seemed in no hurry to go anywhere. The waders flew round for a while and eventually landed over on the reedbed side of the freshmarsh, as far as they could get from the Peregrine. We scanned through them again and found a Curlew Sandpiper. It gradually came back a bit closer to the path as the birds relaxed a little, at which point we had it side by side with a Dunlin. A great comparison, the Curlew Sandpiper was noticeably a little larger with a slightly longer bill and cleaner, paler underparts. A second Curlew Sandpiper was further over with more Dunlin.

img_7398Curlew Sandpiper – at least two were on the freshmarsh again today

There were also a couple of Spotted Redshanks now, out in the middle of the water, paler than the Common Redshanks, silvery-grey above and whiter below. One of the Spotted Redshanks had gone to sleep but, through the scope, we could see the other’s longer, needle fine bill. Three more Bearded Tits started calling from the reeds below the path a little further along and then flew past us, back towards Island Hide.

By the time we got round to Parrinder Hide, the Peregrine had flown off. But there was still a distinct lack of birds in front of the hide as a consequence of its earlier presence. Further over, on the far side of the island, we found the Little Stint again, feeding with a couple of Dunlin. We had a good look round, but we couldn’t find any sign of the Pectoral Sandpiper which has been here for the past few days.

6o0a2840Curlew – there were several on the Volunteer Marsh

From the other side of the Parrinder Hide, we could see several Curlews out on the Volunteer Marsh, but not much else today. A single Bar-tailed Godwit on the far side walked down towards the channel by the main path, so we headed round there for a better look. A Little Egret and a couple of Redshanks were feeding along the channel, but the Bar-tailed Godwit walked quickly away as we approached along the path.

6o0a2858Bar-tailed Godwit – on the Volunteer Marsh, by the path briefly

With the sun shining, we decided to make our way out towards the beach. As we walked up to the tidal pools, we heard a Kingfisher call and saw it fly into the bushes along bank straight ahead  of us. Moving a little way further along the path, we could see where it was perched. We watched it for a while, as it flew between various branches overhanging the water, flashing electric blue as it went.

There were a few waders on the tidal pools today too, including a couple more Grey Plover and a little group of roosting smaller waders – four Ringed Plovers, a Turnstone and a Dunlin. Further along, just behind the beach, a lone Black-tailed Godwit was feeding in the shallows close to the path, a nice opportunity to compare with the Bar-tailed Godwit we had just seen. Looking out the other side, over the saltmarsh towards Thornham Point, we could see two Marsh Harriers quartering.

6o0a2880Black-tailed Godwit – feeding by the path on the tidal pools

The tide was out so there were a few waders on the beach. Down on the mussel beds, we could see several small flocks of Knot and quite a few Oystercatchers, as well as more Bar-tailed Godwits. Further along the beach towards Thornham, we could see several diminutive Sanderlings running around on the shoreline.

Looking out to sea, we picked up a couple of Great Crested Grebes and a winter plumage Red-throated Diver. A single Gannet was plunge diving a short way along the coast and a steady stream of other Gannets flew in past us too, heading west, mostly dark slate grey juveniles.

On our way back, we took a detour round via the Meadow Trail. There was a flock of Long-tailed Tits by the junction with the main path, but all we could find with them was a Chiffchaff. However, further along the Meadow Trail we heard the distinctive sound of a Yellow-browed Warbler calling. It called repeatedly, several bursts, but unfortunately remained deep in the sallows. It was a bit windy round here today, which probably didn’t help our chances of seeing it. Still, it was nice to hear.

We continued on round to Patsy’s Reedbed, stopping on the way to watch a Reed Warbler clambering around in some elder trees. Patsy’s was rather quiet, apart from a flock of Lapwing and handful of Ruff, but we did find a Common Snipe on there as we carried on round the path to the Autumn Trail. A little group of Swallows flew through west, migrants on their way now.

There had been a few smaller waders in the far corner of the freshmarsh viewed from the other side, but they had gone by the time we got round to the end of the Autumn Trail. We could see three Spotted Redshanks roosting over by the fence and heard a Greenshank calling. Another two Bearded Tits flew past and disappeared into the reeds.

There were lots of dragonflies out enjoying the sunshine today. Common Darters were everywhere, basking on the boardwalks, signs and handrails. A few Migrants Hawkers were hunting, mostly in the trees where they could find some shelter from the wind.

6o0a2827Common Darter – lots were enjoying the autumn sunshine today

After lunch, we made our way back along the coast to Brancaster. Parking at the end of Beach Road, we walked out onto the sand and turned east. Immediately, we could see a little crowd gathered further ahead of us, in the edge of the dunes. We made our way along there and were soon enjoying stunning close-up views of a Hoopoe.

img_7430Hoopoe – feeding in the dunes by Brancaster golf course

The Hoopoe has probably been here for over a week now, but has been showing well for the last couple of days. It seemed relatively unconcerned by the presence of so many people and was happily feeding in the sand, probing vigorously around with its long bill at the base of the plants growing in the dunes. It seemed to be finding lots of caterpillars. We watched the Hoopoe for some time, before it suddenly flew up over the dunes and out towards the golf course (it also likes to feed on the greens!).

6o0a2954Hoopoe – stunning with its crest raised

Next, we turned our attention to the sea. There were several Sandwich Terns feeding in the channel between the beach and Scolt Head. Behind them, more Sandwich Terns were loafing around on a sandy point. When they all suddenly took flight, we looked over to see a larger, dark, blackish bird flying straight into the flock. It was an Arctic Skua – a smart pale phase adult. It chased half-heartedly after the terns for a while, before drifting off around the north end of Scolt Head where we could see it distantly joined by a second Arctic Skua.

Returning to the car, we made our way back east along the coast and called in at Holkham. It felt like the wind had dropped a little while we were at Brancaster, but it seemed to have picked up again here and become a little stronger. It was quiet at first walking west through the trees. Salt’s Hole held a single Wigeon with the Mallard and three Little Grebes. A couple of Common Buzzards circled over the pines together with a Kestrel.

We had a quick look from the boardwalk by Washington Hide but the grazing marshes here were quiet and the sycamores behind were being lashed by the wind, so we carrier on west. We were almost at the crosstracks, when we stopped to check out the bushes in a sheltered corner out of the wind. Suddenly there was a rush of wings and a Hobby swooped in low, just over the bracken, and grabbed a dragonfly not 10 metres in front of us! It was all a bit of a blur as it came past so close, but we watched it as it climbed back up eating its prey. Great stuff!

6o0a2996Pink-footed Geese – flying in to the pools to bathe

We could hear Pink-footed Geese calling as we climbed up to Joe Jordan hide, but none were visible at first. Gradually small groups got up from the grazing marshes and flew round to the pools away to our left to bathe. The numbers gradually increased until there was a decent sized flock on the water, with birds starting to drift back to the marshes.

A Grey Partridge called from the grass below the hide and we could see it creeping through the vegetation. A Jay flew across and landed in the top of a hawthorn, carrying an acorn. Several Marsh Harriers circled over or sat perched in the bushes. We could see lots of Cormorants already in the trees, but watched as over 100 flew in to join them, presumably to roost.

However, the highlight was not one but two Great White Egrets which flew in across the grazing marshes. The first continued on east and landed again out of view behind some reeds, but the second circled round and dropped down behind Decoy Wood.

It was time to start making our way back, but just out of the trees to the east of the crosstracks we came across a tit flock. We could hear Goldcrests and Coal Tits calling on the edge of the pines and then a Yellow-browed Warbler started calling from the sallows beyond. The flock was working its way quickly back through the bushes away from us, but we managed to get a couple of views of the Yellow-browed Warbler on its way, before the birds all disappeared towards Bone’s Drift.

That was a nice way to end, so we headed back to the car.

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!

IMG_7384

IMG_7352

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!

7th February 2016 – Owl Time

Day 3 of a long weekend of tours today and it was time to look for Owls. The weather gods were shining on us today – it was a gloriously sunny start to the day, if a little breezy.

After rain overnight and strong winds yesterday, there should normally be some hungry Owls out hunting in the morning. We drove round through some favoured areas first thing, scanning the fields and gate posts, but there was surprisingly no sign of any. We parked up in an area where we know there is a very active pair, but we couldn’t find either of them at first. The favoured fields, the gate posts, all empty.

We decided to take a walk down along the footpath which runs beside the wet grazing meadows. A Little Egret flew up from some wet pools in the trees, causing some momentary excitement in the group – they can sometimes look rather like a Barn Owl in flight from a distance. A Green Woodpecker disappeared away through the trees the way we had come, and a little further along a Great Spotted Woodpecker flew along the hedge the other side towards the woods. A Grey Wagtail came up from the wet ground in front of us.

Then we spotted the Barn Owl. It had flown over to the meadows in the lee of the woods, where it was out of the wind. It flew round briefly and dropped down out of sight. We walked a little further along and it came up again, working its way back and forth over the meadows, before turning back towards us. It flew straight past us on the other side of the meadows, and perched up in a tree in the sun for a few minutes. Then it disappeared back into the ivy to roost, presumably having had some success hunting already.

That was a great way to start, so we made our way back to the car and headed back the way we had come. We hadn’t driven very far when another Barn Owl appeared, over some more meadows just beside the road. We pulled up in a convenient layby and got out, expecting the Barn Owl to continue hunting further over from us. It did at first, but then came towards us and proceeded to fly up and down right in front of us, not 20 metres away. Stunning views in the morning sunshine.

IMG_6606Barn Owl – out hunting in the  morning sun

The Barn Owl dropped down into the grass and seemed to be pulling at something – we couldn’t see if it had actually caught anything. It kept looking round nervously and we could see its face looking at us through the vegetation. Then it resumed hunting again. It came round a couple of times, again coming right in front us, seemingly oblivious to our presence, dropping down into the grass again but coming up empty taloned.

IMG_6623Barn Owl – our second of the morning

We stood transfixed, watching it for about 15 minutes, a real treat. Eventually, it moved off and disappeared away through the trees. Two Barn Owls already, and such great views.

It seemed like our luck might be in, so we drove on inland to look for Little Owls next. It was cold in the wind, but at least the sun was out. We came to a complex of farm buildings where we now there is a pair of Little Owls and a quick scan revealed one sitting on the roof of an old shed. It was far enough away that we wouldn’t distub it, so we got out and had a good look at it through the scopes. The Little Owl had found a spot mostly out of the wind and facing the sun. It was quite active, looking round, occasionally hopping back into a more sheltered position, before coming out again onto the roof. Great stuff.

IMG_6661Little Owl – sunbathing on the roof of some old farm buildings

There were other things to look at here as well. A small group of Rooks were hanging around the farm buildings, as well as a couple of Red-legged Partridges. The latter flew up onto the roof as well, but the Little Owl seemed disinterested. A Goldfinch perched up on a dead burdock seedhead on the verge, looking stunning in the morning sunshine. In the field behind us, were several Lapwings and a few Common Gulls. A couple of suspicious looking clods of earth turned out to be Brown Hares, tucked down in the wind.

We drove on inland, round via a couple of other Little Owl sites, but it was perhaps a little windy for them today, with less shelter in the more exposed places. The morning was now getting on, so we decided to drive on towards Titchwell for a couple of hours until the owling could resume. We dropped down via Choseley and had a quick look for the Rough-legged Buzzards, but there was no sign in their favoured trees – they were probably sitting somewhere out of the wind. The Common Buzzards were up enjoying the wind though. From the road below Choseley barns we could see at least five in the air, but despite the best attempts at the others gathered there to turn them into something more interesting, there were just Common Buzzards out today.

The car park at Titchwell was very busy. We only had limited time today, as Owls were the main focus of the day, but we wanted to have a quick look round the reserve. The feeders in front of the visitor centre were packed with finches – Chaffinches, Greenfinches, Goldfinches – but as usual the ones round the other side held more variety.

IMG_6668Brambling – a female around the feeders by the visitor centre

A female Brambling was perched up in the tree behind and dropped down onto the feeders briefly, grabbing a seed before disappearing back into the vegetation. A Siskin then appeared on the feeders as well – there are usually more in the alders, but it was windy in the tops of the trees today.

IMG_6688Siskin – one appeared on the feeders with the other finches

Then two male Bramblings dropped in. Much brighter orange below and on the shoulders than the female, and with increasingly black heads as the pale feather edges wear off to reveal the birds’ summer plumage.

IMG_6702Brambling – two males dropped in to the feeders as well

There was no sign of the Water Rail in the ditch on the way out, but lots of people were walking up and down, so we decided to have a better look on the way back. The grazing meadow ‘pool’ was rather windswept and deserted today apart from a couple of Lapwings. We headed for the shelter of Island Hide.

The freshmarsh is currently being drained to undergo management work and was very dry today. Consequently there are relatively few ducks on here now. There is a little bit of water still in the deeper parts towards the back, and the Teal were mostly around here or clustered on the far bank. Otherwise, there was just one pair of Shoveler. The Brent Geese which flew in from the saltmarsh towards Brancaster dropped down in the remaining pool at the back as well.

There are still a few waders on here, but the mud nearer the main path is starting to dry out, so they are also concentrated round the edges of the remaining water. There was a good sized flock of Dunlin on here, and still at least twenty Avocet. A couple of Black-tailed Godwits were a little closer and two Ringed Plovers were on one of the drier islands.

IMG_6721Titchwell freshmarsh – being drained currently for management work

We had a quick look here and, with time pressing, quickly moved on. The Volunteer Marsh was a bit more productive. There are generally lots of Shelduck, Redshank and Curlew on here. We stopped in the shelter of the bank and had a scan. There were a few waders down in the near corner. The first we looked at were a couple of Knot, grey and dumpy with shortish bills, picking around the edge of one of the muddy channels.

IMG_6726Knot – good views on the Volunteer Marsh

Just behind the Knot was a single Grey Plover, looking very smart in the winter sunshine. We watched it feeding – taking a couple of quick steps, stopping and looking down at the mud, occasionally picking at something it could see on the surface.

IMG_6733Grey Plover – also on the Volunteer Marsh

A couple of Ringed Plovers flew in and landed on the mud close by. Much smaller than the Grey Plover and very different looking, they share similarities in the way they feed. One of the two was attempting to display to the other, fanning its tail, but being blown along by the wind as it tried to do so.

IMG_6761Ringed Plover – two flew in to the mud close to the main path

We had already seen a few Black-tailed Godwits more distantly on the freshmarsh, but there were two more feeding right by the main path at the far end of the Volunteer Marsh. This is regularly a great place to see them up close, so we stopped for a few minutes to admire them and watch them feeding.

IMG_6750Black-tailed Godwit – feeding right next to the main path

Out on the Tidal Pools, we could see a couple of female Goldeneye diving amongst the other ducks on the water. We had a look at the Wigeon grazing out on the edge of the saltmarsh behind. A Little Grebe surfaced right in front of us, before seeing us and diving again quickly. There were a few more Black-tailed Godwits, Redshanks and Grey Plovers on here but no other waders today.

A little further along, we stopped to admire the Pintail out on the water – there were several here upending, including some smart drakes. Another male further over out on one of the islands was asleep, but we could see his long pin-shaped tail.

IMG_6771Pintail – one of several smart drakes on the Tidal Pools

Out on the beach, the tide was out. The waders were rather distant, as we tucked oursleves into the shelter of the dunes rather than walk out across the sand. We could see lots of Oystercatcher, Dunlin, Turnstone and a few Bar-tailed Godwits. Close inshore, we could see a few Red-breasted Mergansers, including some smart drakes.

There were also 2-3 Common Scoter just offshore, so we had a good look at them too, a couple of females with their pale cheeks and a dowdy young male. Way off towards the Lincolnshire coast, out in the middle of the wash, we could just pick up the bulk of the wintering Common Scoter, like a dark smear across the sea. There are several thousand out here at the moment, but they are always a long way out these days. Eventually we found a slightly larger group on the sea off the beach, but they were also rather distant and hard to get a good look at as they rode in and out of the troughs on the swell. We could just make out at least one Velvet Scoter in with them, which flapped its wings briefly revealing the white flash in the secondaries, but it was all but impossible to get the rest of the group onto it unfortunately.

It was already later than planned, so we made our way quickly back. We had seen a single Bar-tailed Godwit on the Tidal Pools on our way out, but on our way back it was right next to the path. Even better, there was a Black-tailed Godwit with it. We had to stop to have a close look at the two side by side, the Bar-tailed Godwit noticeably smaller by comparison, shorter legged, with a very slightly upturned bill, paler and more buffy-coloured with more obvious streaking on the upperparts.

IMG_6782Bar-tailed Godwit – right by the path on the Tidal Pools

When we got back almost to the visitor centre there were only two people on the main path and they were watching the Water Rail in its usual place. It was tucked down in the vegetation at first, but then came out onto the mud on the far side of the ditch in full view, giving us a great look as it probed its long red bill into the rotting leaves.

P1160118Water Rail – showed very well on the way back

After a late lunch, we started to work our way back along the coast. We swung inland at Choseley, but once again there was no sign of any Rough-legged Buzzards in the blustery wind, just several Common Buzzards still. A quick stop at Brancaster Staithe was more productive. The Red-necked Grebe was immediately on show, tucked in along the muddy edge of the channel just beyond the car park.

IMG_6798Red-necked Grebe – showing well at Brancaster Staithe again

There were also a few waders here as usual – Oystercatchers, Bar-tailed Godwits and several Turnstones running around between the cars in the car park. It was a bit exposed here in the wind and it was now owl time again, so we didn’t hang around too long.

There are lots of good places to look for Barn Owls along the coast road, particularly if you know where to look. The first site we went past was deserted, but we pulled into a layby at the second. In the process of saying “This is normally a good spot for Barn…” we turned to see one huddled down out of the wind on a gate in the hedge behind us, not 10 metres from the car. It was startled by our arrival and looked at us for a few seconds before disappearing behind the hedge. Our first Barn Owl of the afternoon and they were out and about.

We stopped at Holkham next to scan the grazing marshes. This is always a good place to look for Barn Owls and it had the added benefit of being sheltered from the wind by the Park behind us. A scan of the geese revealed a large flock of White-fronted Geese still, though a little distant again today over on the old fort.

IMG_6804White-fronted Geese – still a good number at Holkham

There were plenty of raptors up too, in the late afternoon. A Peregrine circled up over the trees, before stooping down towards one of the pools. A Common Buzzard landed in the top of a tree in front of us. There were lots of Marsh Harriers flying back and forth over the grazing marshes and three closer to us kept landing down on the grass. One of them, a female, was wing-tagged and near enough so we could read the tags ‘KX’. Ringed here in the nest in 2014, this bird has apparently not been seen since being sighted in Lincs in December 2014 – so a good resighting!

IMG_6807Marsh Harrier – with green wing tags ‘KX’

We could see a Barn Owl out hunting, distantly over the marshes. While we stood scanning, a second flew over along the bottom of the field in front of us, before flying over the reeds beyond and out onto the marshes too. We hadn’t seen the third Barn Owl before it appeared in front of us! It was working its way along the front grassy edge of the field and saw us standing in the gateway at the last minute, veering out over the field away from us. Yet more great views, we watched it flying round and even making another flypast along the same route – though this time we were ready for it, as it flew straight towards us.

We got back in the car and continued east, and suddenly yet another Barn Owl appeared from the trees and across the road in front of us. It seemed to be flying towards Lady Anne’s Drive, so we pulled in there for a scan. On the edge of the first field was a Barn Owl perched on the post. We got out of the car and it stayed put, allowing us stunning views of it through the scopes.

IMG_6809Barn Owl – perched on a post at Holkham

It looked noticeably darker than the one we had seen fly across the road and sure enough, that Barn Owl appeared on a post further along a few minutes later. It was hunting from the posts, flying between them, scanning the ground below. The first was also scanning the ground, but fluffed itself up and appeared to be going to sleep.

IMG_6819Barn Owl – fluffed itself up and appeared to doze

We turned round to see yet another Barn Owl hunting over the fields behind us – three in view at once, our seventh of the afternoon and ninth of the day! When we turned back, the dozing Barn Owl had mysteriously disappeared and the paler one, presumably the male, flew off over the road into the trees, so we decided to move on.

We had a quick look at some other sites on the way, to see if we could find any more, but time was getting on and we had a date with a Tawny Owl. We drove into some woods and walked along a footpath through the trees. We could hear hooting even before we got to where we needed to be, much earlier than normal tonight. We hurried along to get into position and the Tawny Owl hooted again, from its roost deep in the ivy in a tree ahead of us. It was very windy in the treetops.

We waited patiently and caught a glimpse of the Tawny Owl as it dropped down out of its roost tree and landed on a branch over the path, back the way where we had come. Unfortunately it didn’t stay there very long and flew off into the wood the other side. We walked back and could hear it hooting. Then suddenly it flew back towards us and right over our heads – broad-rounded wings beating silently – disappearing back into the trees. It continued hooting but further over out of view. We decided to call it a night.

We were getting back into the car, when a Tawny Owl started hooting very close to us. Then a second started hooting back where we had come from, presumably the one we had seen earlier. Unfortunately, it was now getting too dark to see them. Still, it was a great way to end the day – with Tawny Owls hooting all round us.

31st January 2016 – Raptor Quest

Day 3 of a long weekend of tours today, our last day, and a day of general birding along the coast. We were trying to catch up with a few of the good birds around Norfolk at the moment which we hadn’t seen yet this weekend. Depending which weather forecast you looked at, it was either going to rain all day or just some heavy rain around the middle of the day. As it was, it did neither and was a lot better than expected. A bonus! We met in Wells and made our way west along the coast road.

We hadn’t gone far when we made our first impromptu stop. A Barn Owl was hunting over a field beside the road, head down, focused intently on the ground below. We watched it for a minute or so, flying round, before it disappeared out of view behind a hedge.

One a short distance further along the road, we had to make another stop for another Barn Owl, this one perched on a post. Despite our best efforts, it flew off just as we got out and circled round the field hunting. It then had second thoughts and came back to perch on the post again, just so we could have a good look at it! Then it was off hunting over the grass once more. Two Barn Owls – a great way to start the day.

P1150959Barn Owl – our second of the morning

Brancaster Staithe is always a nice place to stop, with a good selection of waders in the harbour and normally a few Red-breasted Mergansers in the channel. There had been a Red-necked Grebe here for much of December, going missing for a fortnight before reappearing again for a week in mid January. It had not been seen since 15th January, so we weren’t expecting to see it, but we had a good scan of the harbour just in case. We had to content ourselves with several smart Red-breasted Mergansers this morning.

IMG_5782Red-breasted Merganser – showing off his spiky punk haircut

The tide was coming in, already quite high, and there were several Bar-tailed Godwits and Dunlin feeding along the water’s edge by the car park. A Turnstone ran in front of the car across the stones. Further over were on a sandbank were several Grey Plover and Ringed Plover. A pile of debris on the shore were the mussels had been brought in and washed was being picked over by a little posse of Oystercatchers and more Turnstones.

P1150964Bar-tailed Godwits & Dunlin – by the car park at Brancaster Staithe

Having had a good look round, we decided to press on, cutting inland towards Docking. We stopped to scan some trees in the hope of finding the Rough-legged Buzzard on one of its favourite perches. We couldn’t see it, but while we were watching a flock of Chaffinches and Yellowhammer feeding on the edge of a field, a ghostly grey shape appeared over a cover strip the other side. A stunning male Hen Harrier, it was hunting low over the ground and against the dark trees in the background we could see the black wing tips contrasting with the silvery grey upperparts. It got to the back of the field and dropped down over the ridge the other side out of view.

We hopped in the car and drove round, in the hope that we might be able to find it again, but it was gone. So we carried on along the road, scanning the trees and hedges. At only our second stop, we found the Rough-legged Buzzard. It was perched on the top of a hedge – its very white head stood out a mile off. We got it in the scope for a closer look – we could even see the feathered tarsi (bottom half of its legs) from which it gets its name.

IMG_5806Rough-legged Buzzard – around Choseley again today

The Rough-legged Buzzard dropped down to the ground and appeared to land, but shortly after we picked it up again flying low along the hedge line, before swooping up to land in one of its favourite trees. It was round the other side of the tree, out of view from here, so we drove back round to where we had been looking earlier. We were much closer, but the view wasn’t much better from here – we could see its head and shoulders above the branches. It perched for a while, before dropping down out of the tree and flying off – we were treated to great flight views as it did so, flashing its mostly white tail with just a black terminal band. Great stuff.

A little further along the road we stopped again to count the Brown Hares. There were at least ten in one field and another four in a smaller field next door. Most of them were hunkered down, but a couple were sitting up feeding. At one point they had a half-hearted chase, before resuming what they were doing. It was probably a bit too cold and damp to expect much boxing today.

We made a quick detour round by an area where we had seen Corn Buntings in the past few weeks. They had been a little erratic more recently, so we weren’t expecting much. As we drove along the road, we could see a large flock of Linnets circling over the field. Then a little group of Skylarks got up as well. The next thing we know a flock of buntings flew across the road in front of us and landed in the hedge the other side. We pulled into a convenient gateway and got out to have a closer look. We could see there were several Yellowhammers, but at least one had looked bulkier as they flew in.

Unfortunately, before we could get a good look at them, first a Sparrowhawk flew across the road carrying some poor unsuspecting victim – probably why everything had flown out of the field in the first place – and then a very helpful soul came bombing along the road in his Land Rover and hooted his horn at us. That was the end of the buntings, as they all burst into the air. We could hear Corn Bunting calling and saw at least one as they erupted and flew off. After a short while, the Yellowhammers started to return to the field but the only Corn Bunting we saw flew over calling, a liquid ‘ptt, ptt’, and disappeared over the horizon. We scanned the hedges as we went on, but all we could find was a large flock of Chaffinches and Linnets, although we did glimpse a Brambling briefly with them.

We made our way down to Thornham Harbour next. We didn’t see anything as we drove in, so we walked down to the edge of the creek. A Rock Pipit flew off from the edge as we approached. A Spotted Redshank called a couple of times as it flew over, but we couldn’t get onto it. Then one of the group spotted the Twite behind us, landing in the vegetation by the side of the road. We made our way back towards them and had just set up the scope for a closer look when another helpful soul, our second of the morning, came down along the rutted harbour road at high speed in his shiny Range Rover and the Twite were off again.

IMG_5821Twite – 25-30 were at Thornham Harbour again today

The Twite landed over on the seawall, so we set off round to try again. They were rather jumpy at first and wouldn’t settle, but eventually landed down on the saltmarsh below us and resumed feeding. This time we could get them in the scope and have a proper look at them, before they made their way back to the place from which they had been flushed earlier.

The cloud was now starting to thicken and it began to spit with rain. With heavy rain forecast, we thought we would spend the middle of the day at Titchwell, with the benefit of some hides to shelter in if need be. Unusually for mid-morning on a Sunday, there were spaces in the main car park. We set out towards the visitor centre, stopping to watch a Goldcrest in the tangled branches on the way.

The feeders in front of the visitor centre were a hive of activity – Chaffinches, Greenfinches, Goldfinches and tits. A male Brambling flew off before everyone could see it and a Marsh Tit came in and out too quickly as well. A Coal Tit was more obliging. However, we were more successful round at the feeders the other side. There were several Bramblings here – at least three males and two plainer females which we saw simultaneously, so probably a few more. The males are starting to look particularly smart, bright orange breast and shoulders and increasingly black heads as the pale tips to the feathers wear off through the winter. The Marsh Tit was also more obliging on this side, though still darting in, grabbing a seed, and flying back into the bushes to eat it.

IMG_5845Brambling – a smart male, with an increasingly black head

IMG_5856Brambling – another male, this one with a paler head still

Unusually, there was no sign of a Water Rail in the ditches on the way out onto the reserve – there was always the way back to have another look. We stopped at the drained grazing marsh ‘pool’, and once again it was covered in Rock Pipits, at least 20 out on the mud. It took a bit of scanning, but eventually we found the Water Pipit nearby – it was remarkably well camouflaged against the grey brown mud. Compared to the Rock Pipits, the Water Pipit was much cleaner white below, with the heavy streaking more restricted to the breast.

IMG_5864Water Pipit – well camouflaged against the mud

It was starting to drizzle a little harder now, so we made for the shelter of Island Hide. It was a bit of a surprise to see just how far the water levels have fallen on here in recent days. There was a lot of exposed mud, but the waders don’t seem to have read the script and there were precious few taking advantage of it. A lone Redshank was out in the middle.

P1150992Freshmarsh – a lone Redshank on acres of mud

Further over, towards the back, the Avocets were at least enjoying it. They have often been asleep in recent weeks, but today they were all wide awake and feeding, sweeping their bills side to side through the shallow water. Over towards the Parrinder Hide, a couple of Black-tailed Godwits were feeding in a deeper pool.

There were not so many ducks on here today. A pair of Teal were feeding in the muddy channel below the hide, and lots more Teal were over towards the back on the open water. With them were a few Shoveler and Gadwall. A number of Brent Geese were also swimming around at the back.

P1150987Teal – a pair were feeding in the mud below Island Hide

We decided to carry on out towards the beach. We were scanning from the main path when we noticed a Merlin in the air, beyond the back of the freshmarsh out towards Brancaster. We could see it was chasing a small bird – it looked like a pipit. The pipit was desperately trying to get away – climbing higher in the sky, constantly changing direction – and all the while the Merlin was stooping at it, then towering back up above it to stoop again. The two of them went high into the sky, before dropping back down sharply again, at which point we lost sight of them behind the bank. History does not relate what befell the pipit!

We stopped to have a look at Volunteer Marsh. There were several Grey Plover quite close to the main path on the mud. A Ringed Plover was there as well. A single Knot was standing on the edge of one of the channels. We were just getting the scope on it when all the waders took off – we couldn’t see what had spooked them.

IMG_5877Grey Plover – there were several on the Volunteer Marsh

Out at the Tidal Pools, we could see several Little Grebes and several Goldeneye, all diving in the shallow water. A Cormorant was wrestling with a large eel which it had caught. The eel wrapped itself round the Cormorant’s neck, and the Cormorant kept plunging the eel into the water. At one point it even tossed it into the air and caught it again. Eventually, it worked it round so it had hold of it by its head and it managed to swallow it with a bit of effort. We could see the Cormorant‘s distended crop afterwards. When we came back from the beach it was standing on one of the islands, probably attempting to digest its huge meal!

We couldn’t find the Spotted Redshank here today, but in its place was a single Greenshank, in with the Common Redshank. There were several Bar-tailed Godwits on here and, further out by the beach, a single Black-tailed Godwit. It was now starting to drizzle harder, so we made our way out to the beach.

IMG_5872Black-tailed Godwit – on the tidal pools behind the beach

Out on the beach, the tide was now in. As a consequence, there were not so many waders as usual – just a few Oystercatchers, Bar-tailed Godwits and Sanderling. We would normally have had a good look at the sea, but the drizzle had turned to mist and we couldn’t see very far offshore at all. A couple of Common Scoters were helpfully just offshore behind the breakers, but that was all we could see. At least it gave us a good excuse to head back.

Almost back to the visitor centre, we had another good look in the ditches either side of the path. This time we found the Water Rail, lurking underneath a mass of branches over the water, preening. It was really hard to see until eventually it finished preening and came out onto the far bank, probing in amongst the rotting leaves.

P1160103Water Rail – in the ditch by the main path again

While we were having lunch, it stopped drizzling and started to brighten up. At the same time, some news came through – the Red-necked Grebe had reappeared, just where we had been earlier this morning. This bird is nothing if not erratic! We couldn’t let it get away with that, so after we had finished eating we made a quick detour back there. Sure enough, there it was bobbing about on the water, diving occasionally. It swam towards us and it was clear the Red-necked Grebe wanted to come past us along the channel, so we stood close to the car where we would frighten it less. It kept diving and surfacing again much closer and then it bobbed up right in front of us. Cracking views.

IMG_5906Red-necked Grebe – came right past us in the harbour channel

It surfaced a couple of times right in front, then the Red-necked Grebe swam up the channel away from us.  We had planned to go to Flitcham this afternoon, but going back for the Red-necked Grebe had cost us time. At least with the weather improving, we thought the Pallid Harrier might be out hunting now. As it turned out, it had been there earlier but had flown off when the rain stopped. At least we hadn’t hurried over there and not seen the grebe as well, because we would have missed it anyway.

We had a good scan of the fields. Another Merlin was up in the sky some way away, hunting in exactly the same way as the one we had seen earlier, chasing some unlucky small bird. Once again, we did not see the outcome as they both dropped down out of view.

The hedges here are alive with finches – Chaffinches, Bramblings, Goldfinches – as a consequence of the cover strips and wild bird seed mix strips which have been sown around the edges of the fields and the over-wintered stubbles in various fields. This is how farms used to be, but modern agriculture and flocks of seed-eating birds seem to be incompatible unless food is specifically sown for them. In with the finches, we found several Tree Sparrows. This is one a the few remaining regular spots for them in Norfolk, a bird which used to be common. Again, a sad reflection of the impact of modern agriculture on our wildlife.

IMG_5925Tree Sparrow – in the hedge, with a Brambling bottom left

Although we had missed the Pallid Harrier at Flitcham, we still had one last card to play. While it has often been at Flitcham on and off during the day since mid December, it has not been known where it has been roosting. Last night it was seen going in to roost with Hen Harriers at nearby Roydon Common. So tonight, we decided to see if we could find it there. Several other people had the same idea, and left Flitcham before us.

We had just arrived at Roydon when we received a phone call from one of them to say the Pallid Harrier was there. We quickened our pace and got out to join them. It was a bit misty and drizzley again at first, although we could see the bird perched down in the grass. Then the sky cleared again and we got a better view – we could even see its collar now.

The Pallid Harrier then took off and flew round for a while – we admired its slim wings and pointed ‘hand’, giving it a rather falcon-like silhouette. We lost it, probably down on the ground, then the next harrier we saw was a ringtail Hen Harrier circling round. The Hen Harriers were starting to arrive, and we saw at least another two ringtails come in over the trees and drop down onto the common. The next time we saw the Pallid Harrier, it was flying again and this time with a Hen Harrier – it was great to see the two of them alongside each other. They even tussled a little, stooping at each other as they flew across the heathland. Then the Pallid Harrier dropped down again out of view.

It was a lovely way to end the day – and the weekend – out on the heath in the wilds of NW Norfolk, watching the harriers coming in to roost.