Tag Archives: Common Crane

10th Feb 2018 – Winter, Broads & Brecks #2

Day 2 of a three day long weekend of tours, and it was down to the Norfolk Broads today. It was a lovely sunny start to the day, although it clouded over late morning and then tried to rain on and off in the afternoon. Thankfully the rain was only light, just spitting with drizzle at times, so it didn’t stop us getting out.

Our first destination saw us driving along the coast road past Horsey. We had hoped we might find some Cranes along here, particularly on a lovely bright morning, but there was no sign of any today. We found a convenient layby to park and stretch our legs. There were lots of Pink-footed Geese out on the grazing meadows but they were very jumpy, constantly flying up and landing again. A light aircraft flew round over the fields, possibly the source of some of the nervousness.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese – flying round, very nervous today

There were also lots of Lapwings and a few Fieldfares out on the grass. We could see several Marsh Harriers circling over the reeds behind us. A couple of large herds of Mute Swans were out in the fields. With all the disturbance, there were not as many birds out here as there often are, so we moved quickly on.

Our next stop was round at Ludham. As we climbed up onto the river bank, we could see a small group of swans out on the grazing marshes. A closer look with the scope confirmed there were six Whooper Swans with a similar number of Mute Swans. We could see the prominent yellow wedge running down the bills to a sharp point on the Whooper Swans, and they were not much smaller than the accompanying Mutes.

Whooper Swans

Whooper Swans – 4 of the 6 out on the grazing marshes again today

Three Stock Doves were out in the field next to the cow barn and a couple of Pied Wagtails were picking around the muddy farm yard. Scanning the grass, we could see lots of Lapwing and Golden Plover and several Chinese Water Deer too. Looking along the river, a pair of Gadwall were swimming with a few Coot. But there were no Cranes here today either. It was a lovely morning and the footpath along the river bank was very busy with dog walkers, which meant there was presumably too much disturbance. Were we destined to miss out on the Cranes everywhere today?

We moved on again and headed south. Looking out of the window as we were driving along the road, we finally found our first Cranes of the day, standing in the field where we had seen a big group the other day. At first we could only see five together, on the edge of the maize strip. Then we looked round behind us, just in time to see another 14 Cranes circling in the sky. They disappeared off towards the river, dropping down behind some trees. We didn’t see where they had come from but someone was shooting pigeons a couple of fields over, so may have flushed them.

Common Cranes 1

Common Cranes – this flock of 14 flew round and headed off towards the river

Looking back at the original group, more Cranes started to emerge from the maize strip. Scanning the surrounding fields, we also found another pair nearby. The more we looked, the more we found and by the end we had 15 Cranes together in the field, and there could easily have still been some hiding in the crop. It was quite a sight!

Common Cranes 2

Common Cranes – several of the 15 which were still left down in the fields

There was even some more action. At one point, six of the Cranes flew up and circled round. There was lots of bugling, the calls echoing across the fields. Two flew off, but four of the Cranes dropped back down with the others again. Great stuff!

Common Cranes 3

Common Cranes – six of the group flew round bugling

Having finally found some Cranes – and enjoyed cracking views of a really good number to boot (it is not often we see large flocks such as this here, a significant proportion of the total Broadland population!), we headed on, down to the Yare valley. As we walked down to the gate and scanned the marshes at Cantley, it was rather disappointing. There were almost no geese here today – just a single Egyptian Goose which doesn’t really count! Otherwise, all we could see were Rooks, Lapwings and a few Mute Swans.

Darker clouds were gathering to the south, so we didn’t hang around here too long and made our way back to the car. As we were loading up, we looked across to the nearby sugar beet processing factory and noticed a small shape on the side of the tall steaming chimney. It was a Peregrine. Presumably it had found somewhere to keep warm?

Peregrine

Peregrine – finding a warm spot on the chimney of Cantley Beet Factory

At this point it started to spit with rain. We decided it would be a good moment for an early lunch, so we made our way round to Strumpshaw Fen. As we walked out to the Reception Hide, we stopped to look at all the tits coming down to the feeders A Marsh Tit made several visits as we watched, mostly dropping down to the ground where some seed had been sprinkled. A Jay came up from the path too as we arrived, and a Siskin flew over calling.

Marsh Tit

Marsh Tit – making regular visits down to the ground below the feeders

Looking out across the Reception Hide pool, there were lots of Gadwall and Coot on the water today. A little group of Shoveler didn’t linger and a couple of flocks of Teal flew over without landing. The Black Swan was in hiding today. A couple of Marsh Harriers circled over the reeds. As well as providing a very welcome hot drink, the Reception Hide also gave us great views of a very well camouflaged Common Snipe feeding in the cut reeds in front.

After lunch, the rain had stopped, so we headed back out towards the coast. A quick detour off the Acle Straight towards Halvergate produced four Bewick’s Swans out on the grazing marshes. This is a traditional stop off point for swans heading back towards the continent in late winter, so can often be a good place to look late in the season, when the wintering birds have departed. We could see immediately that they were small and short-necked compared to the Mute and Whooper Swans we had seen earlier and through the scope we could see the more restricted, squared off yellow patch on their bills.

Bewick's Swans

Bewick’s Swans – these four were on the grazing marshes near Halvergate

Continuing on to Great Yarmouth, we quickly located the Glossy Ibis in its usual field at Bure Park. It was very busy feeding down in the wet grass, finding a few worms while we watched. A wet grassy park in Great Yarmouth in winter must be a far cry from the marshes of southern Spain, but it seemed to be doing OK with a few Moorhens and Black-headed Gulls for company.

Glossy Ibis

Glossy Ibis – feeding in the wet grassy fields in front of the car park

After a quick stop to catch up with the Glossy Ibis, we made our way on further south again, down to Waveney Forest. It was spitting with rain now but it was relatively sheltered from the wind in the trees. Looking out across Haddiscoe Island from ‘the mound’, it appeared rather desolate at first. The gates and posts where the Buzzards like to perch were conspicuously empty but scanning more carefully, we quickly found our target. The Rough-legged Buzzard was standing down in the grass today, out in the middle.

It was rather distant, and a bit misty now, but we could see the Rough-legged Buzzard’s pale crown and white spotting in the upperparts, contrasting with its black throat and upper breast and black patches either side of its belly. This is a returning adult, which comes back to these grazing marshes each winter, from its breeding grounds in the arctic.

Rough-legged Buzzard

Rough-legged Buzzard – out in the mist on Haddiscoe Island

The cherry on the cake was duly provided when the Rough-legged Buzzard took off and flew low across the grass, flashing its distinctive white tail with a contrasting black terminal band. It turned into the wind and started hovering, like a giant Kestrel in slow motion. It repeated this several times – Rough-legged Buzzards are habitual hoverers when they hunt, unlike the more familiar Common Buzzard which will hover only occasionally. After hunting for a few minutes, the Rough-legged Buzzard flew back across and landed again down on the grass close to where it had been earlier.

We took that as our cue to leave. We weren’t sure whether we would make it out to Stubb Mill tonight, given the weather, but by the time we got to the car park at Hickling the rain had eased off again. We decided to give it a go. We took the direct route out today, along the road. Two Egyptian Geese were in one of the fields and four Cormorants flew over.

When we got to Stubb Mill, we immediately spotted two Cranes out on the grass. We had a good look at them through the scope, walking round, before they eventually flew round and dropped down in the reeds at the back. Shortly afterwards, someone spotted another pair, out in one of the meadows further over. And we could hear more Cranes bugling over towards the reserve – based on the noise, another two pairs at least.

Common Cranes 4

Common Crane – one of two pairs out at Stubb Mill this evening

We had already amassed quite a total of Cranes on our travels today. Then another five flew in, low over the grass in front of the watchpoint, and disappeared over towards the reserve. That took us to a massive 38 seen and several more Cranes heard today!

Common Cranes 5

Common Crane – another five flew in to roost at dusk

There were at least 5-6 Marsh Harriers in already, perched out in the bushes in the middle of the reeds or circling round overhead, but others were probably keeping down given the weather. Several more flew in while we were watching. A male Merlin shot across very low, only briefly breaking above the reeds, unfortunately too quickly for everyone to get onto it. A ghostly grey male Hen Harrier appeared in the distance, flying round above the bushes in the reeds where the Marsh Harriers were gathered for a couple of minutes, visible in the scope despite the gathering gloom.

Given the weather, the light was fading fast tonight. We had fared far better than we thought we might at Stubb Mill this evening, it was well worth coming out here. We decided to call it a night and head for home.

Advertisements

7th Feb 2018 – Wintry Broads

A Private Tour down in the Norfolk Broads today. After snow overnight, the wintry showers were supposed to die out through the morning and it was meant to brighten up. It never really happened that way, remaining mostly cloudy all day. but at least we were able to largely dodge the showers until late in the day. And it didn’t stop us seeing some good birds.

After meeting in Hickling, we headed round towards the coast. A slow drive stopping to scan some of the fields which the Cranes favour failed to yield the hoped for reward, but it was still cold and cloudy so they were probably hiding somewhere sheltered. We stopped in a convenient layby and got out to scan the fields.

There were a couple of large herds of Mute Swans here, on either side of the road, but nothing else with them. Further over, we could see a hundred or so Pink-footed Geese at the back of the grazing marshes, which were covered in Lapwing and Golden Plover. A Green Sandpiper called over towards the reeds, but we couldn’t see it. A Common Snipe flew up from the grass. We had a good look through the scope at one of the Fieldfares feeding among the molehills.

There were a few raptors too, starting to wake up. Three Marsh Harriers circled up out of the reeds and a Common Buzzard perched on the bank, trying to warm itself. A couple of Kestrels were perched on the wires.

Continuing on our way, we headed inland in search of more swans. As we parked at our next stop and got out of the car, we could see a little group of no more than half a dozen out on the grazing marshes. A quick look through the scope confirmed they were a mixture of Mute Swans together with a couple of Whooper Swans. There were a few more down out of view in a ditch, so we decided to walk round on the river bank to try to get a better look.

From up on the bank, we scanned the grazing marshes the other side of the river and immediately spotted a Common Crane out on the grass. A second Crane was nearby, but they were half hidden behind the reeds. We had to find a gap we could see over, but we eventually got a good look at one of the Cranes through the scope.

Common Crane 1

Common Crane – one of a pair, our first of the day

We could hear Bearded Tits calling from the reeds, but couldn’t see them. It was cold and there was a fresh breeze, so they were keeping well tucked down this morning. A Reed Bunting called and showed itself briefly. A Cetti’s Warbler was more typically elusive. However, we had great views of a Grey Wagtail which flew in and landed in a nearby farmyard, picking around the edge of a muddy puddle.

There was a better view across to the swans from up here and now we could see there were actually five Whooper Swans here. Through the scope, we could see the wedge-shaped yellow patch on their bills.

Whooper Swans

Whooper Swans – a small mixed group with Mute Swans

We could see a number of Chinese Water Deer out on the grass too, which once again was liberally sprinkled with Lapwings and Golden Plover. Suddenly all the birds erupted, taking to the air and whirling round. There are often Marsh Harriers here, but we couldn’t see any likely culprits until one of the group spotted a couple of raptors circling high over the marshes.

It was immediately clear there was a small bird of prey and a much larger one. The smaller bird was a Sparrowhawk, which was mobbing the bigger one, but it was only as the latter turned that we could see it was not one of the usual harriers or buzzards. It was another hawk, but a really huge one, a Goshawk.

Goshawk

Goshawk – a rare bird indeed in the Broads, a real surprise

Once all the group were on it, we had a closer look at the Goshawk. As it circled, we could see it was a young bird, born last year, rather brownish. As well as the huge size, we could see the distinctive long wings with bulging secondaries, broad-based and rounded tail and protruding head.

The Sparrohawk lost interest and flew off, while the Goshawk continued to circle and drift further away. At one point, it straightened up and flew a short distance, with deep, heavy wingbeats, very different from the fast bursts of flapping of the Sparrowhawk. While we do have Goshawks in Norfolk, they are very rare in the Broads, so this was a complete surprise.Young birds are very prone to wandering though and it was apparently a good breeding season for them in 2017. A real bonus for the day!

It was cold up on the river bank, so once the Goshawk had drifted away, we headed back to the car and a chance to warm up as we drove to our next stop. The stockman was just going in to feed the cattle in the barn next to where we had parked and as he did so he flushed out a Barn Owl, which flew across in front of us, over the bank, and disappeared down on the other side of the river.

We pulled up next on the edge of some overgrown fields, sown with a seed cover crop. Here we spotted a small group of finches fly up into an oak in the hedge and quickly got the scope on one, a smart male Brambling. Unfortunately, the birds flew again before everyone got onto it.

We spent a few minutes trying to get a better look at the finches. We walked up the footpath on the edge of the field and back again, but a lot of the birds were either in the trees above our heads or had flown off over the back of the field. We could hear the nasal call of more Bramblings and the hard calls of Linnets flying over, as well as plenty of Chaffinches and a few Goldfinches. Finally, they all flew across and landed in a tree on the edge of the field, where we could all get a good look at them.

Back in the car, we had another opportunity to warm up as we drove south. A quick glance out of the window though and we spotted some dark shapes in a field in the distance. We turned round and found a convenient place to stop. Once out of the car, we could see they were Cranes, and plenty of them!

Common Crane 2

Common Cranes – feeding in a cover strip on the edge of a field

The Cranes were hard to count. A few were standing around on the edge of the field, but more were feeding in the vegetation in a tall cover strip. Through the scope, we could see some of them ripping at the tall stems, but there were several more deep in the crop – we could just see bits of grey shapes moving around inside.

As we scanned across, we could see several more Cranes around the edge of the next field. An attempt to count them all got to 26 in total, but it is very possible there were more than that, given we struggled to see how many were deep in the cover strip. This is a very impressive flock by UK standards, a significant proportion of the Broadland total in one group, great to see.

Common Crane 3

Common Cranes – we counted at least 26 in the flock, a great sight

Unfortunately, it had started to spit with wintry rain now, so we didn’t linger as long as we might have done with the Cranes, but got back in the car and moved on.

Having not found any Bewick’s Swans earlier, we headed round to Halvergate next to see if we could find any here, another regular site for them. At first, we saw several groups of Mute Swans before we spotted four smaller birds on their own on the grazing marsh. Stopping in a convenient gateway, we got out to confirm they were four Bewick’s Swans.

Bewick's Swan

Bewick’s Swan – one of four at Halvergate today

Through the scope, we could see the smaller, squared off yellow patch on the bill of the Bewick’s Swans, very different from the more extensive, wedge shaped yellow on the Whooper Swans we had seen earlier. The Bewick’s Swans were also noticeably smaller and shorter-necked.

There was now a request to find somewhere warm to have lunch or a hot drink, so after an abortive attempt to visit the pub in Halvergate, which was closed, we headed back to Acle. The hot chocolate was especially welcome today!

After a break, we resumed our quest for more birds. There has been a Glossy Ibis on the outskirts of Great Yarmouth for the last week so, as it was just about on our way, we headed over to see if we could see it. There was no sign if it in its favourite wet field, just a few Moorhens. A Kingfisher zipped low across the grass and disappeared into a ditch, unfortunately too quickly for most of the group to get onto it.

Another birder was just leaving, and helpfully pointed us a little further along the road as he passed. There was the Glossy Ibis out on the back of the grass, with a few more Moorhens for company. It promptly went to sleep, but thankfully only for a couple of minutes before waking up, preening and resuming feeding in a flooded patch in the grass. Through the scope, we could see its long, downcurved bill.

Glossy Ibis

Glossy Ibis – showing off its long, curlew-like bill when it woke up

Glossy Ibises are still quite rare but increasingly regular visitors to the UK, with ringed birds seen here in recent years known to have originated from the expanding Spanish population.

Having enjoyed nice views of the Glossy Ibis, we set off on our way again. Our next destination was Waveney Forest. As we walked in through the trees, there were several Great Tits and a single Coal Tit coming to the feeders at the cottage. A Siskin flew over calling. Deeper in the trees, a Green Woodpecker called and flew across the path in front of us, up into the trees.

We made our way over to ‘the mound’ which overlooks Haddiscoe Island. The regular returning Rough-legged Buzzard has been here for a while now, and this is generally the best place to see it from. Scanning the posts and gates out on the Island, we could see several Common Buzzards and Kestrels. What looked like the Rough-legged Buzzard was unfortunately right over the far side of the island with its back to us, and even through the scope it was hard to make out much detail. We could see a pale off white crown and pale whitish spots in the mantle and scapulars. We waited a while to see if it would turn round, or even better fly, but it didn’t.

While we waited we did spot a group of about 15 Bearded Tits swinging in the tops of the reeds, feeding on the seedheads. The sun had come out and they had found a sheltered spot which was catching some warmth in the afternoon light. We had a great look at them through the scope, and could see the grey heads and black moustaches on the males.

It was time to move on again, before we got too cold. On our way back north, we stopped on the south shore of Breydon Water. It was about an hour and a half after high tide and the water was now starting to go out. There were thousands of birds gathered on the mud on the far side – ducks, waders and gulls.

Breydon Water

Breydon Water – thousands of ducks, waders and gulls were gathered on the mud

Through the scope, we could see the birds were neatly sorted into groups. Over to the right were mostly Lapwing and Golden Plover. In the middle, shining bright white in the afternoon sun, were loads of gulls, mainly Black-headed and Common Gulls. To the left, was more of a mixture, thousands of Wigeon with waders scattered through them including Black-tailed Godwits, Dunlin and on the end a number of Avocets. A Great Crested Grebe swam past.

It was already getting late by the time we left Breydon Water. Given the weather, we were not planning to spend too long at Stubb Mill this evening, but we thought we would try to call in for the last half hour. Unfortunately, as we drove back north we could see dark clouds gathering and by the time we got back to Hickling, it was starting to rain. We sat in the car for a couple of minutes trying to work out whether it would clear, before deciding to call it a day.

It was a wise call, as the rain turned to sleet on the short drive back to where we had started. But despite the weather at the end, we had enjoyed a very successful if rather chilly day today. Well worth going out for!

29th Jan-2nd Feb 2018 – Extremadura: Winter in the Spanish Steppes

A 5 day International Tour together with our friends from Oriole Birding, with great birds and fantastic scenery. We were very lucky with the weather – lots of blue sky and sunshine, though it was cold in the early mornings with a frost on the ground or when the wind picked up on one of the days.

Monday 29th January

Our group met up this morning early doors at London Gatwick airport for our 0725 flight down to Madrid, which departed roughly on time. The run down over the Pyrenees was spectacular in the clear skies, and we touched down in the Spanish capital a little ahead of schedule, enjoying a super quick transit through the airport.

Even as we sorted out the hire van, we could enjoy White Storks migrating overhead and these were the first of several large flocks seen as we drove south. After negotiating our way around the outskirts of the city, we picked up the E90 motorway and headed on down towards Extremadura.

This first part of the drive was frequently punctuated by roadside Red Kites and Common Buzzards, one or two Iberian Grey Shrikes [not seen by everyone from the fast moving vehicle!] and two superb Black Vultures. We stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant just beyond Talavera, noting our first Crested Larks in the car park, and then pushed on a further 30 minutes to our first proper birding stop at Saucedilla.

Just after we left the motorway, we encountered a raptor hovering by the roadside – it was a Black-winged Kite! Pulling up alongside the bird, we had the most amazing close up views of it from our vehicle. The bird was clearly very intent on watching its prey in the grass among some scattered tamarisks, and seemed totally unperturbed by us.

Black-winged Kite 1

Black-winged Kite 2

Black-winged Kite 3

Black-winged Kite – hunting by the roadside

We decided to disembark, knowing it would drift away a little but that we would be able to enjoy some scope views. In fact the bird soon returned, and we watched it on and off for half an hour, often passing quite close to us. Soon it was joined by a second bird, and after an aerial tussle, one of the pair landed on a wooden telegraph pole a short distance away and proceeded to give us remarkable scope views.

Black-winged Kite 5

Black-winged Kite – great views, perched on a telegraph post

We were very pleased to have enjoyed such a great performance from one of Extremadura’s most iconic birds at our very first stop! A really nice surprise here was a wintering Wryneck, which we flushed up from the roadside ditch as we got out of the van. It showed briefly in the depths of a tamarisk, before perching in the open on the fence and then retiring to the depths of a pine tree. We saw it twice more in flight, but never really out in the open – a scarce wintering bird here. Other species noted at this impromptu stop were Black Redstart, Corn Bunting and our first Common Chiffchaffs.

Just a couple of kilometres along the road we reached the ornithological centre at Saucedilla. This small wetland area is a great place to kick start the trip with many of the fairly common local birds, and we duly enjoyed flocks of Spanish Sparrows, Zitting Cisticola, Crested Larks, Black Redstart and a few common wetland birds here such as Gadwall and Common Snipe.

Another Black-winged Kite was also seen, hunting over the open fields to the north-west, and the small reedbed and surrounding trees were literally jumping with wintering Common Chiffchaffs. Almost every movement we saw was another of these spritely phylloscs flycatching in the warm afternoon sunshine. A young Western Purple Swamphen was observed among the dense reeds, and then its parent appeared, climbing up to the top of the vegetation and looking absolutely stunning in the perfect light conditions.

Purple Swamphen

Western Purple Swamphen – perched up nicely for us in the reeds

In the distance, we saw two more Black Vultures soaring low over the dehesa on flat wings, and in the reeds we heard both Penduline Tit and Cetti’s Warbler, though both remained hidden from view. A Bluethroat flicked across briefly, but despite our best efforts we were unable to relocate it – one for another day!

It was now gone 1700, and we needed to be mindful that we still had around a forty minute journey to reach the accommodation. Our walk back along the track though was punctuated by a high pitched squeaking call. Another Wryneck perhaps? We peered into the small clump of trees where the sound was coming from, and found a female Lesser Spotted Woodpecker!

The bird was busy excavating for food low down on one of the trunks, and obliged with excellent scope views for several minutes before moving off through the bushes. A Spotless Starling was signing close by, imitating the calls of several other species in typical fashion!

The final part of the journey added our first Griffon Vultures, and a couple of fly-by Hoopoes before we reached our delightful accommodation. The sun was just beginning to dip down over the skyline and the temperature was really dropping as Song Thrushes were piling overhead going to their roost nearby. We were certainly all ready for a beer and a truly excellent meal of local dishes served by our welcoming hosts – we couldn’t wait for our first full day tomorrow!

Tuesday 30th January

We headed out at first light this morning, which being one hour ahead of GMT meant leaving the hotel after breakfast at around 0815. We made straight for the productive area of steppe between Trujillo and Caceres, on the well known Santa Marta road, which has now been resurfaced into a veritable motorway compared to its former self! It was magical driving out onto the plains as the sun rose, and from our first stop we found ourselves immersed in many of the great birds typical of the dehesa fringe and steppe.

Santa Marta steppes

Santa Marta steppes – looking toward the Sierra de Gredos

Huge flocks of Spanish Sparrows were congregating in the fields alongside squabbling Iberian Magpies [formerly Azure-winged], and careful scanning through the fields picked out the odd Chaffinch, Greenfinch and Mistle Thrush among them, plus a lovely Hoopoe perched on the bottom of a fence.

Iberian Grey Shrike was common here, and we enjoyed views of two or three different birds including a singing male, ringing out his peculiar almost electronic three note ditty from the tops of the surrounding bushes. We were able to well compare the darker upperparts, vinous tinged underparts and neat, distinct white supercilium with the Great Grey Shrikes we were used to seeing back home.

Also around this first stop were several singing Thekla Larks, a tricky species which can look extremely similar to Crested but with careful study of the plumage, bill structure and taking into account the habitat, can be reliably separated.

Thekla Lark

Thekla Lark – we had a good opportunity to study several up close this morning

Moving on from this vantage point, we drove slowly up the road, getting more superb views of the Iberian Magpies, before discovering a flock of 23 Little Bustards by the roadside at the top of the hill. The light was on our side, and we opted to stay in the vehicle as we felt they might flush if we tried to disembark. The views were really nice anyway, and we were really pleased to connect with a flock of this declining species so soon in the trip.

Little Bustards

Little Bustards – part of a flock of 23 on the steppe by the road

Next we took an old drovers track out across the open steppe. The views across this vast landscape were simply superb and there were both Thekla and now Calandra Larks criss crossing in front of us as we went. The Calandra Larks really stole the show here, with their trilling calls, elaborate songs and fantastic close range squabbling fly pasts. The species is an excellent mimic, and those birds in full song above the steppe could be heard doing some great impersonations of a variety of species, from Kestrel to Green Sandpiper!

Calandra Lark

Calandra Lark – singing over the steppe

We then spotted a small group of Great Bustards on the ridge in the distance, so decided to drive further on in order to find a vantage point that might afford us closer views. We thought we had lost them behind a ridge, but thankfully relocated the five birds and enjoyed our first views of this magnificent bird through the scopes.

In the crisp, clear morning air, the calls of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse began to ring out but boy were they high up in the sky! We located seven, way up high above our heads, and watched a pair indulging in an impressive synchronised flying display flight. Several of their passes were a bit closer in beautiful light, showing their gleaming white bellies and bright chestnut breast band on the males.

Two Black-bellied Sandgrouse were also seen, crouched unobtrusively behind a group of cattle. Once the beasts moved out of the view, the sandgrouse showed nicely – a much stockier bird than the Pin-tailed, the male showing a greyer neck and brighter orange head patch than the drabber female.

A small flock of Skylarks and a couple of Golden Plover were in the same field, and several Red Kites were beginning to appear over the ridge as the temperature slowly increased. In order to try and find some more sandgrouse on the ground, we opted to take a walk along one of the side tracks. A couple of Black Redstarts and some superb views of Calandra Larks were had here, but we couldn’t find the sandgrouse which again appeared to have landed just out of view behind the ridge.

We began walking back, when a loud chatter could be heard and a long-tailed bird appeared, flying straight towards us – it was a Great Spotted Cuckoo! The bird duly landed obligingly on a sunny rock, where it sat calling for a few minutes and allowed everyone a good view the scope. These very early migrants are known to begin their return passage in January, but this was the first time we had ever seen one here at this time of year. We went on to have several more excellent views of it, as it first flew past us and then began moving along the fenceline ahead of us before eventually heading out into the fields.

Great Spotted Cuckoo

Great Spotted Cuckoo – an early returning bird

Returning to the vehicle, we began to make our way back out towards the road, stopping though to check the last big stony field for more sandgrouse views. The two Black-bellied Sandgrouse from earlier had returned, and two Pin-tailed Sandgrouse flew in and gave some acceptable but distant views along the to of the ridge. A further eight Black-bellied flew in too, but as soon as they landed among the stones in the field, they completely disappeared! Such well camouflaged birds and very hard to spot when they are not moving!

The raptors were really starting to thermal up in numbers now, and we began to see numerous Griffon and Black Vultures joining the many Red Kites above the ridge looking north towards Santa Marta de Magasca. A distant large raptor joined them, showing flat wings but a longer tail. It banked in the sun to reveal pale tawny upperwing coverts, white tipped greater covert bar and a white horseshoe on the uppertail coverts – it was an immature Spanish Imperial Eagle. Everyone managed to scope the bird, though it was a long way off – perhaps we would get some better views later on!

Behind us, 13 Little Bustards were seen flying away from us distantly, and we saw them drop into a field about a mile back along the track. We really fancied seeing another flock on the deck, and so retreated back along the track to see if we could find them – we managed some nice scope views, albeit somewhat against the light, and had a cracking male Hen Harrier thrown in for good measure! A distant Merlin, and some more useful comparative views of Griffon and Black Vultures rounded off a very productive session here, before it was finally time to move on to another spot for lunch.

Winding our way through to the village of Santa Marta, we took the minor road west down across the river and up onto the cultivated steppe heading out towards Caceres. Two Griffon Vultures gave stunning views right beside the road, and we found a flock of 34 Great Bustards parading along the skyline and were able to pull up alongside the birds and enjoy some stunning views with the light behind us. We saw these birds again from our chosen vantage point for lunch, and added a further five birds further over in the distance.

Great Bustards

Great Bustards – part of a drove of 34 birds at our lunch stop

Lunch, however, was dominated by raptors! As we pulled up, we spotted two immature Spanish Imperial Eagles soaring around together above the track. In the still air, we could hear them calling to each other and the birds were in view for around half an hour solid, even coming down and perching on the adjacent pylons, and in the top of a big eucalyptus tree. We could see the nest hidden among the branches of the tree, and these were clearly last years offspring from the territory. There was no sign of mum and dad though, and instead the presumed siblings carried on displaying above the road!

Right over our heads, two Black Vultures appeared and we could see them looking down at us as they passed over! These were then joined by a Griffon Vulture for direct comparison, and then the two adult Spanish Imperial Eagles did loom into view and we were able to scope them soaring round together complete with white upperwing flashes. A male Hen Harrier then came into view, flying up the roadside verge towards us before spotting our group and veering off across the fields. What an incredible lunch stop!

Black Vulture

Black Vulture – two came right over our heads at our lunch stop!

The remainder of our day would involve something a bit different, as we made the one hour drive roughly south to the small town of Montanchez, with its Castillo sat high on the hilltop. After winding our way through the narrow streets to the top, we could drink in the quite spectacular views right back across the plains to the north, with the snow-capped Gredos looming large in the background.

Our quarry here was Alpine Accentor, an altitudinal migrant which often appears on the rocky slopes below the castle here in winter, having fled its icy home in the high tops to the north. From the viewpoint by the parking area, we enjoyed great views of two Hoopoes, and watched a Short-toed Treecreeper climbing around uncharacteristically on the mossy boulders below. A Crag Martin also wheeled into view, before we climbed up the road to the far side of the castle to start exploring the sunny slopes there.

Two Blue Rock Thrushes were seen, perching on the chimney pots of the houses below us, and a pair of Rock Buntings were also seen distantly through the scope, feeding way down in one of the small fields behind the village – fortunately the good light meant we could see quite a long way today!

Alpine Accentor

Alpine Accentor – up on the castle at Montanchez

Initially, despite careful searching, there was no sign of any accentors other than a pair of Dunnocks! We stuck to the task though, and eventually two of the group found a single Alpine Accentor on the shady side of the castle and we were all able to catch up with it and enjoy some excellent views through the scope. It had been an extremely successful day, connecting with all our target birds in amazing scenery and beautiful weather – Spain at its very best!

Wednesday 31st January

Another beautiful sunny day in Extremadura saw us head south beyond Zorita towards Sierra Brava reservoir. The sun was rising as we reached the dam, and we could hear Common Cranes bugling in the distance as we got out of the van. Away down below us on some stubble fields bordering the dehesa, we could see large flocks of Cranes feeding, with small parties flying across the skyline in the distance. A really evocative sight and sound!

Behind us, on the reservoir itself, were great rafts of dabbling ducks. Predominantly Mallard, there were also at least 150 Pintails, a few Common Teal, Shoveler and Gadwall, scores of Great Crested Grebes and the odd Eurasian Wigeon. We also saw a couple of Egyptian Geese, Lesser Black-backed Gull, a Grey Wagtail and enjoyed excellent views of three Thekla Larks foraging on the stony shore below us. These were classic individuals, with short deep based bills, short crest, grey washed mantle and contrasting blackish streaked breasts – a really nice opportunity to study them in detail.

Driving on, we followed the service road for a couple of miles, noting several Iberian Grey Shrikes along the way, until we dropped down into the network of ricefields in the direction of the new solar plant.

Spanish Sparrows

Spanish Sparrows – we saw some vast flocks, with a few Tree Sparrows in with them

Stopping overlooking an area of wet paddies, we had a fabulous session where at times we didn’t know where to look. The harvested rice stubble in the foreground was full of vast flocks of Spanish Sparrows numbering many hundreds – there were a few Tree Sparrows among them, hordes of Corn Buntings, and a few other finches thrown in for good measure.

High pitched thin calls alerted us to the presence of a flock of Red Avadavats, an introduced species thriving here in these wetland habitats. Normally they are quite skittish and difficult to view, but we had excellent views of flocks of them here today! Among them were also one or two Common Waxbills, another alien species with a naturalised population here.

Less exotic but just as exciting, we had cracking views of a Dartford Warbler which showed on and off the whole time we were here, and at the opposite end of the spectrum, a family group of four Common Cranes drifted in and landed right in front of us. The light was excellent, and the views simply superb.

Common Cranes 1

Common Cranes 2

Common Cranes 3

Common Cranes – this family of four flew in and landed in front of us

Further back in the distance, a flock of Cattle Egrets were following a tractor working in the field, and a single Great White Egret was also with them. A small party of Greylag Geese in the stubble beyond were interesting, since these birds are part of a small wintering population of Scandinavian birds, not the feral types we are used to seeing back home. We remarked at how dark headed they were, and how deep orange the bills appeared to be, but we never really saw them close up.

A real surprise on the open water at the back was a group of seven Wood Sandpipers – a species which does winter in Spain in small numbers in the right habitat, but which where nonetheless extremely nice to connect with.  Slightly more fortuitous was the scope view we had of a male Bluethroat which happened to pop up in the reeds while scanning for waders – amazingly everyone got a decent view of it despite the distance!

After a break for coffee and snacks, we opted to walk one of the reedy ditches at the edge of the rice paddies, to look specifically for Bluethroat. There were several Sardinian Warblers, a Blackcap, Cetti’s Warbler, more groups of Red Avadavat and Common Waxbills along the channel, but no sign of any luscinia.

Just as we were about to give up and move on, a female Bluethroat flushed from the edge of the adjacent rice paddy and flew along a narrow channel. The bird popped up twice more onto the top of the rice stubble, allowing everyone to connect with it, before disappearing for good into the middle of the field.

It was now noon, and time to move on to a different area. We retraced our route back out to the Sierra Brava dam, enjoying some more excellent close up views of Common Cranes along the way, before returning to the main road and heading off through the steppe towards Campo Lugar. This high road passes through open cultivated land and stony steppe, and can sometimes be a good place to find bustards and sandgrouse.

Little Owl

Little Owl – trying to hide from us between two rocks

We didn’t find either today, but instead found a nice vantage point to stop for lunch, enjoying excellent views of three different Little Owls. One of them, seen from the vehicle, had slid down to hide in a crack in the rocks on which it had been perched. It looked for all the world as if it was being squashed between the two slabs of rocks, and that its bulging yellow eyes were about to pop out of its head! Two Black Vultures, several Crested and Calandra Larks and a Hoopoe were also seen during a very tranquil lunch break.

The relatively new reservoir at Alcollarin was our next stop, and this excellent birding location certainly did not disappoint us today. Finding a good vantage point along the track for viewing the eastern arm of the reservoir, we could see a good selection of common wildfowl species, such as Wigeon, Shoveler, Gadwall and Common Pochard, flocks of Lapwings and great rafts of Common Coots.

Iberian Grey Shrike

Iberian Grey Shrike – perched on a bush right beside us

On the slopes just below, a nice flock of Serins were seen really well – the first ones we had managed a proper look at, rather than just birds bouncing by calling. A cracking Iberian Grey Shrike was on top of a bush right beside us and noisy groups of Iberian Magpies were moving through the bushes on the hillside.

Azure-winged Magpies

Iberian (Azure-winged) Magpies – a typically noisy, squabbling group

One of the days highlights came from the blue sky above though, as a large raptor drifted into view over the trees. Head on, it sported flat and rather paddle shaped wings, but its silhouette certainly did not fit with the main ‘flat-winged’ options of Red Kite or Spanish Imperial Eagle. Soon it banked, revealing a gleaming white body and black underwing covert bar – it was an adult Bonelli’s Eagle!

The bird gave stunning views, circling up behind us, before it was joined by a second adult bird which appeared to be the female. High in the distance, a second calendar year bird appeared and drifted right across, and this provoked a reaction from the female which battled to gain height quickly in order to get above the young interloper and escort it off the premises. This whole episode gave us a great opportunity to study the flight silhouette and jizz of this scarce raptor, the most desirable and difficult to find of the five species of eagle recorded in Extremadura. A real treat indeed!

Down at the second dam, we added Common and Green Sandpipers, a Swallow, Black-winged Stilt and some nice views of Common Snipe, Hoopoe and hordes of White Wagtails. Over the distant hillside, an adult Golden Eagle appeared twice above the ridge, but was rather brief and always distant.

We had decided to end the day by driving just under an hour to the north-east, into the Sierra las Villuercas, where a spectacular viewpoint offered a vista across the surrounding mountains to the north and open plains to the south. It was initially very quiet at the top here, and in fact you could hear a pin drop as there was no wind despite the high elevation. We did see lots of Griffon Vultures soaring over their breeding cliffs in the distance, and two Black Vultures which circled in to join them.

On the small bird front though, there was nothing moving so we decided to drive back down the hill a bit into the oak forest below. Here we had a mad five minutes, picking up the local race of Long-tailed Tit, a Great Spotted Woodpecker, Nuthatch, Short-toed Treecreeper and a Large Tortoiseshell butterfly!

The best though was a superb view of a foraging female Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, which we watched for several minutes including a couple of bouts of drumming from the top of a dead branch – if only they were so easy to see back home! The 45 minute drive back to base gave us an hour of downtime before our evening wine tasting session, followed by another superb meal.

Thursday 1st February

Today was our coldest day of the trip, with fresh winds throughout the day and a cloudy start making things feel decidedly nippy! We left as usual just as dawn was breaking and made the short journey onto the nearby Belen plain, a large area of agricultural steppe north-east of Trujillo.

It was actually pretty quiet out here – we found flocks of Calandra Larks, a few Red Kites and Common Buzzards, Iberian Grey Shrike, Hoopoe and the usual droves of Spanish Sparrow and Corn Bunting. Our tactic was to drive slowly along, stopping when necessary to scan for bustards, but we could not find any despite searching a large area.

The highlight was provided by several Griffon Vultures – first a small group on the ground in a field next to the road, and secondly three sitting on an electricity pylon! We had some superb views of them, and were able to compare the different plumages of adult and first-year individuals.

Returning to Belen, we made our way back through Trujillo making a quick stop for toilets and fuel. Before heading north of the town and picking up the road towards Torrejon. Branching west towards Monroy, we stopped at a convenient vantage point where we found a Little Owl, and our presence encouraged about 500 of the local sheep herd to come noisily across the plain towards us, thinking they were going to be fed! This was our queue to exit, and we continued a short way along the road to another vantage point, where we would stop for coffee.

The views across the plains in all directions were superb, and we had some good birds too – a small group of Rock Sparrows were feeding along the edge of an adjacent field with some Corn Buntings. This species is very easy to miss at this time of the year, leaving its breeding sites in the hills and joining mixed flocks of buntings and sparrows in farmland areas. We had excellent views of their super-stripy head pattern, before they disappeared over a ridge. Behind us, a ringtail Hen Harrier was quartering the fields favoured by Montagu’s Harriers in spring and summer.

The Rio Almonte crossing, just before the village of Monroy, would be our final stop of the morning. Crag Martins were wheeling round above us as we arrived here and out of the wind in this sheltered valley, we felt the warmest temperatures of the day. White and Grey Wagtails were along the river, and the surrounding bushes on the rocky slopes held many Song Thrush and Blackcap among other common birds.

Careful scrutiny of movement among the bushes also revealed a couple of Hawfinches, though they never showed well and always preferred to remain hidden. A pair of Cirl Buntings were also found on the walk back, with the male singing briefly before both flew off upstream. A lovely spot, and all the time with Griffon Vultures passing overhead.

Heading up through Monroy, we stopped at a favourite spot north of the village on the road to Torrejon el Rubio. By a stand of Stone Pines, we had our lunch looking north across the dehesa towards Monfrague – but it was very cold and windy here! Nevertheless a Woodlark was up singing, and overhead among the steady stream of Griffon Vultures, three superb Black Vultures soared by.

This whole area was full of Song Thrushes and Blackcaps too – we wondered how far some of these migrants may have travelled to spend the winter here in Spain. Continuing on through Torrejon, we then headed up into Monfrague National Park and in particular to the Castillo on the top of the low mountain ridge which forms the spine of the area.

On the southern side of the ridge, it was beautifully sheltered and warm and we found a small number of Hawfinches feeding by the steps on the way up to the Castillo. They were coming to drink up by the picnic area, and we enjoyed excellent scope views of a male and female together for comparison. There were several Black Redstarts around, and Crag Martins buzzing overhead, as we made our way up the steep steps to the viewpoint.

Griffon Vulture 1

Griffon Vulture 2

Griffon Vulture 3

Griffon Vultures – amazing views at the Castillo in Monfrague

Here we filled our boots with the Griffon Vultures – such amazing views today, with the strong breeze encouraging large numbers onto the wing, gliding past us at eye level. The resident population of these birds were now well into their breeding cycle, and we watched them collecting sticks and grasses from a small derelict garden just below the viewpoint before carrying them across to the breeding ledges on the Pena Falcon cliff.

Griffon Vulture 4

Griffon Vulture 5

Griffon Vultures – collecting nest material

Presumably these early nesters get to choose the best ledges, and gain a head start on the migrant population which will ne arriving from Africa to bolster the numbers in a few weeks time. High overhead we also saw Peregrine and a couple of Black Vultures, plus of course the spectacular views back south across the sweeping dehesa towards Trujillo.

Descending back down to the road, we called next at the Pena Falcon crag below where we had more fantastic views of the vultures, whooshing past so close that we could hear the rush of air through their wings! A young male Blue Rock Thrush also gave some nice views, and a Golden Eagle was displaying high above in the clouds.

Blue Rock Thrush

Blue Rock Thrush – nice views of this male at the Pena Falcon viewpoint

It was now after 4pm, and we still wanted to squeeze in a visit to the Portillar del Tietar on the other side of the park. This excellent location of course came with more Griffon Vultures!

Griffon Vulture 6

Griffon Vulture – many were on the nest already

In addition, Little and Great White Egrets were seen along the river, and a House Martin whizzed through overhead. Eurasian Jay, Iberian Magpies, another Blue Rock Thrush and an unseen Common Kingfisher were also noted, though the absolute highlight here was an unseasonal Black Stork which drifted in and landed low down on the crag. The beautiful glossy green sheen to its plumage and bright red bare parts were quite stunning in the evening light – a real bonus to pick one of these up to end the day!

Black Stork

Black Stork – an unexpected bonus at Portilla del Tietar

Our journey back took just over an hour, making use of the new motorway to Navalmoral, and then down to Trujillo.

Friday 2nd February

Today we would return to Madrid, with a little birding en route as we did not have to reach the airport until about 1430.

Trujillo

Trujillo – looking towards the town at dawn as we were leaving

Having done so well with the main target birds, particularly in the steppe, we opted to stick fairly close to the E90 motorway route on our way north, stopping first at 700m elevation at the Casas de Miravete. From this escarpment, the views down across Arrocampo-Almaraz were quite spectacular, the Gredos Mountains showing fresh snow fall in the background.

A Woodlark flew over calling as we disembarked the vehicle, but other wise it was rather quiet here. We noted Sardinian Warbler, and heard a Rock Bunting a couple of times though we only saw it in flight. Our main target, Crested Tit, did not materialise at all, though a Dartford Warbler called from the low scrub and whizzed across the track. We felt our remaining time would be better spent a little further on at the wetlands around Saucedilla, where we had started our trip on day one.

At the causeway, a Glossy Ibis flew over and dropped out of sight behind the reeds. We could hear several Western Purple Swamp-hens calling from dense cover, and of course the usual barrage of Corn Buntings and Spanish Sparrows to which we had now come accustomed, were in the surrounding tamarisk scrub.

Glossy Ibis

Glossy Ibis – flew in over the reeds

Moving along the the small reserve centre, we retraced our route from the first day. Getting excellent views of an adult Western Purple Swamp-hen, and picking up the Glossy Ibis again as it flew in from the causeway and circled us before dropping back into the reeds.

The bird we really wanted to see to finish the trip in style was Penduline Tit, since we had missed out on seeing one at the first attempt. Frustratingly we could hear one calling, but despite scanning the reedmace carefully we could not locate the bird. A Common Kingfisher popped into view as we searched, and a Water Rail squealed unseen from the reeds, but the tit would not co-operate.

Eventually, we heard it call again, and this time it sounded much closer to the path! Sure enough, a male Penduline Tit flew up from the trackside bushes and landed in full view in a big willow at the edge of the reedbed – scope views for everyone! The bird then flew down into some low reedmace closer to us and began feeding, and we finally had the really good views we were after.

Penduline Tit

Penduline Tit – finally showed well for us, a great bird to end the trip

But now it was time to make the two hour run up to Madrid, the two Black-winged Kites being seen in exactly the same location as they had been on Monday as we drove past! What a great way to end the trip! One or two Black Vultures, and several groups of Common Cranes, bid us farewell as we motored up the E90, arriving at the airport bang on schedule for our flight back to London.

It had been a wonderful five days – great birds, great food, great scenery and great company. We didn’t want to leave! The only thing to do is to plan a return trip next year. If you would be interested in joining us on our next visit to Extremadura in 2019, please get in touch.

25th Jan 2018 – Cranes, Swans & Raptors

A Winter Tour today, down in the Norfolk Broads. It was a glorious, sunny winter’s day, with blue skies and mostly light winds. Perfect weather to be out birding!

Our first destination was Ludham. This is a regular wintering area for Bewick’s and Whooper Swans, and we hoped to catch up with some here this morning. Numbers are lower than normal this winter, with mild weather on the continent meaning the majority of the swans have opted to remain further east this year. Still, there are a few around to see.

As we parked and got out of the car, a Chinese Water Deer was feeding out on the grazing marsh opposite, the first of many of this increasingly widespread non-native deer we would see today. A flock of Fieldfare flew up ‘tchacking’ and landed behind some barns and a Redwing called from the trees before flying down and landing on a fence where we could get a good look at it in the scope. We would see lots of these winter thrushes on our travels today too.

Chinese Water Deer

Chinese Water Deer – the first of many we would see today

As we walked up onto the river bank, a Bearded Tit called from the reeds below us and we had a quick glimpse of it as it flew a short distance over the tops of the reeds before darting back in. It did the same thing a couple more times, but you had to be really quick to see it. Several Reed Buntings flew up from the reeds too.

Suddenly we picked up the sound of swans approaching, their honking calls getting steadily louder until we picked up a flock of about thirty birds flying in over the trees. It is a wonderful sound, to hear wild swans calling as they fly in, particularly on a bright sunny winter’s morning like today. They appeared to be all Bewick’s Swans – we could see the more restricted, squared-off yellow patches on their bills as they caught the light.

Bewick's Swans

Bewick’s Swans – flying in to the Levels this morning

The Bewick’s Swans circled over the Levels calling, before dropping down to the grass. There were a few Mute Swans scattered over the grazing meadows, but they dropped down to join a small group of feral white geese on the edge of a small pool. The Bewick’s Swans started feeding on the grass or bathing in the pool beyond.

Scanning carefully through the Bewick’s Swans, we noticed a larger bird with them, longer-necked, and with a long wedge-shaped yellow patch on its bill, which tapered to a finer point. It was a single Whooper Swan. It didn’t appear to have come in with the Bewick’s Swans, so perhaps it was in the pool when they arrived. It was good to see the two species side by side in the scope.

Whooper Swan

Whooper Swan – with the smaller Bewick’s Swans in the pool behind

We stood on the bank for a few minutes scanning the marshes. There were lots of Lapwings scattered about the damp grass, along with a smaller flock of Golden Plover which flushed from the field beyond and whirled round in a tight group. A smart male Marsh Harrier was hunting along the line of reeds at  the back of the grass.

With both the swans in the bag, we decided to head down to the coast next. The short drive over was fairly uneventful, but when we got down to the coast road we started to see more birds. A large herd of Mute Swans was feeding in the water-logged fields and there were loads of Lapwings and Golden Plover hiding in the young oilseed rape nearby.

We stopped in a convenient layby and got out to scan the fields. A few hundred Pink-footed Geese flew in and landed out on a grassy field opposite, with smaller groups flying in every few minutes to join them. A Red Kite circled lazily overhead and a Sparrowhawk zipped low and fast across the stubble field behind us. This is often a very good area for Common Cranes, but there were none visible feeding out in the fields here this morning.

Common Cranes 1

Common Cranes – flying round over us, bugling

Then, turning to look behind us, we noticed two huge birds flying over the trees, long necks stretched out in front and long legs trailing behind, a pair of Cranes. At first it looked like they would drop back down behind the trees, but then they turned and flew straight towards us, turning in front of us and gliding across the road. A great view and wonderful to listen to these majestic birds, their loud bugling calls are a real sound of the Broads at this time of year.

The Cranes headed out towards the coast and dropped down out of view in the distance, but a few seconds later they reappeared flying back towards us. They appeared to land on the other side of the road, a short way further north behind some reeds, so we started to pack up, intending to drive along to try to see them there. But as we turned we noticed another pair of Cranes had circled up right behind us. They started bugling too and we watched as they dropped away behind some trees.

It was all action – we didn’t know where to look! The Cranes in the Broads are getting territorial again now, reclaiming their grounds, and we appeared to be in the middle of a territorial dispute between two rival pairs. The first pair of Cranes took off again and flew back across the road, heading for the area where the second pair had just landed, with both pairs bugling. But as they approached the trees they gained height and turned away, back in the direction they had originally come from.

Common Cranes 2

Common Cranes – two pairs were flying round bugling

It is one of the great sights and sounds of the Norfolk Broads at this time of the year – watching and listening to the Cranes. These birds are part of a population which re-established itself naturally, with the first birds arriving probably as wanderers from the continent right here in 1979. They first bred successfully in 1982, after an absence from the UK of around 400 years, and have grown steadily in number since the 1990s, spreading to other parts of the country. They are not part of the ‘Great Crane Project’ which released large quantities of captive-raised Cranes onto the Somerset Levels.

After being treated to a magnificent display from the Cranes, we popped in at Waxham next. There had been a Hume’s Warbler here for several weeks and, with such good weather, we thought it worth a quick look to see if it is still hiding somewhere. We didn’t spend very long here, but there was no immediate sign of it and the trees were otherwise pretty quiet, as was the sea, so we moved swiftly on.

Our next destination was the Yare Valley. We stopped at Cantley and walked down to scan the grazing marshes. There were good numbers of Pink-footed Geese out on the grass and with careful scanning we found a small number of White-fronted Geese too, though they were mostly keeping down in the low-lying wetter patches. There was no sign of any Taiga Bean Geese here today – these birds seem to have deserted the Yare Valley already this year, having not been seen here since the very start of January.

There were lots of waders out on the grass too, mainly Lapwing. Scanning carefully through them, we found a small number of Ruff too, though they were rather distant and hard to see from here. The waders were rather jumpy anyway, but when they all took off in unison we scanned the sky and quickly found the cause – a Peregrine. It was some way off, over towards the river, and it quickly lost interest and powered off towards Buckenham.

Peregrine

Peregrine – flew past right over our heads

As well as being distant, that Peregrine was hard to see in the melee of birds which it had successfully induced. Thankfully, just a minute or so later, either that Peregrine or possibly a different appeared right over our heads, flying off towards the nearby beet factory. A much better view! We also had a good look at a female Marsh Harrier from here, standing down in the grass.

It was time for lunch, so we headed round to Strumpshaw Fen to make use of the facilities. A Mistle Thrush was singing from the top of the trees by Reception Hide, another sign that spring is on its way! With only peanuts and niger seed feeders out here at the moment, the Marsh Tits seem to have lost interest and didn’t come in today, just a steady succession of Blue and Great Tits while we ate.

There were not so many ducks on the pool here today – a few Gadwall and Mallard. The Coot were starting to squabble and fight and the resident feral Black Swan was preening itself right in front of the screen. A Marsh Harrier or two quartered the reedbed beyond periodically.

After lunch, we headed round to nearby Buckenham Marshes. It was a lovely sunny afternoon to walk out here, down towards the river, but at first sight it appeared rather quiet. The only geese on view were the local Canada Geese and feral flock of Barnacle Geese. The latter are very smart bird and got a deserved look through the scope. A handful of Greylags were asleep over the other side.

Barnacle Geese

Barnacle Geese – several of the feral flock at Buckenham

On closer inspection, there were lots of Lapwing out on the grass and when they flew round at one point we noticed a good number of Ruff with them too. They landed closer to us and we managed to get a better look at them than the ones we had seen at Cantley earlier. Two much smaller Dunlin flew in land landed on a pool in the grass too.

As we got out towards the river, we found the ducks. Several Shoveler were swimming around in one of the drainage ditches, along with a couple of Wigeon and a few sleeping Teal on the bank. Further along, we could see several hundred Wigeon asleep on the main pool, with a scattering of the other two species mixed in.

Numbers of Wigeon in Norfolk appear to be down this winter too, with many of these remaining on the continent like the swans this year. We did however get a really good look at some which were feeding right next to the path as we walked out – smart ducks!

Wigeon

Wigeon – good views by the path out towards the river

There was nothing much happening down at the river, so we decided to head quickly back to the car and move on.

The last few winters, there has been an adult Rough-legged Buzzard which returns each year to Haddiscoe Island. There was no sign of it at the end of last year, but in the last few days it has reappeared. We headed down to a suitable vantage point overlooking the area it favours and scanned the posts and gates where it likes to stand.

It didn’t take long to find it. The Rough-legged Buzzard was perched on a post out in the middle. It was rather distant and face on to us at first, but we could see its rather blackish throat and upper breast, contrasting with a whitish top to the head, and black patches on either side of its belly, set off by a bold whitish band across the lower breast and down through the middle.

Rough-legged Buzzard

Rough-legged Buzzard – the returning adult on Haddiscoe Island

The Rough-legged Buzzard then helpfully turned round and we could see the pale top to the head and liberal white speckling to the dark upperparts. At one point, it preened and we got a quick flash of the white base to its tail. Unfortunately, we were looking elsewhere when it moved to another post!

There were several Common Buzzards here too, giving us an opportunity to compare the two species. A nice pale one had extensive off-white head and underparts, lacking the contrasting dark patches underneath of the Rough-legged Buzzard. A more typical darker Common Buzzard had noticeably rich brown on breast and belly in the sunlight, not the blackish colour of the Rough-legged Buzzard.

A female Marsh Harrier passed by just in front of us and there were several Kestrels out on the posts in the middle of the island too. But we were probably still a bit too early today for any owls and we had a long journey to get back for our last stop of the day.

As we walked out along the track towards Stubb Mill, several more Redwings and Fieldfares flew out of the hedges calling, a real theme of the day. A small flock of Linnets perched in the top of a tree in the afternoon sunlight. We heard the dulcet tones of a quad bike heading out over the marshes and saw a pair of Cranes fly up. The landowner was heading out to put some feed down on his duck flight pond. The Cranes circled round and appeared to go down in front of the raptor watchpoint the other side of the old mill, so we hurried round to try to see them.

The watchpoint was unbelievably busy this evening, the busiest we have ever seen it – probably everyone was out because of the good weather. They had all spread themselves out along the bank (even leaving space for a stool to sit on), and not left anywhere for the late arrivals like us to stand, so we made ourselves rather unpopular by asking people to shuffle along and make some room. There was plenty of space for everyone, but the process involved a surprising amount of grumbling from sections of the crowd! Our apologies if we upset anyone unduly!!

When we eventually got a space to stand and set up the scope, we discovered there were two pairs of Cranes on view out on the grass this evening. We had a nice view of them on the ground, to compliment the ones we had seen flying round earlier.  Striking birds, with their long black and white necks and bustle of feathers over the tail.

Common Cranes 3

Common Cranes – one of the two pairs in front of the watchpoint this evening

When the quad bike returned, the landowner got off and came over for a chat with us about the birds and what else we had seen. We watched as several Shelduck flew in and dropped down behind the reeds to the duck pond to feed on the newly delivered grain. They were followed shortly after by one of the pairs of Cranes, the one which had left there earlier and which flew back to take advantage of the food provided.

There were raptors too. A steady stream of Marsh Harriers flew in from all directions and out to the reedbed to roost. We could see several perched in the bushes in the distance, getting ready to go in. A ringtail Hen Harrier flew in along the back of the grazing marshes and, a little later, we spotted a ghostly grey male Hen Harrier in the distance, weaving in and out of the bushes out where they roost.

There was more Crane action as birds started to fly in to roost. First a pair flew across slowly in front of us, then another pair came in over the trees just behind the watchpoint. It is always a great way to end the day, watching the Cranes flying in,  listening to them bugling and others answering from the marshes.

Common Cranes 4

Common Crane – one of the pairs, flying in at dusk

A Tawny Owl hooted from the trees by the old mill, which was the cue for us to start thinking about heading back. As we walked back, another group of eight Cranes came in over the trees, over the road, and dropped down towards the marshes beyond. It was quite a sight, against the last of the pink and orange sunset. As we got back to the car park, a Woodcock shot over, heading out to feed on the marshes. It was time for us to head for home.

13th Jan 2018 – Norfolk Winter & Owls #2

Day 2 of a three day long weekend of tours today, and we headed off down to the Broads. We were back to rather grey and cloudy weather today, after the clear skies of yesterday morning, but it was not foggy and it was dry all day.

Our first destination was Ludham. When we climbed out of the car, the first birds we could see were two Mute Swans by the car park. We could see their orange bills with a prominent black knob. We had come here to look for swans, but not these ones.

We walked up onto the bank and a short distance along the path. From here, we could see more swans out on the grazing meadows behind the barns. They looked smaller than the Mute Swans we had just been looking at and through the scope we could see they had square yellow patches on their bills. They were Bewick’s Swans, about 40 of them.

Bewick's Swans

Bewick’s Swans – some of the 40 at Ludham today

Bewick’s Swan numbers in the Broads are well down this winter, so far. It appears that many of the swans have decided to stay on the continent, given mild conditions and plenty of food still there, so it was nice to see this many today. It we get a cold snap on the continent, more may well yet come here. There are often Whooper Swans with the Bewick’s Swans too, but they are rather mobile and come and go during the day, and there were none here this morning.

There were several Marsh Harriers quartering the marshes behind the swans. A small flock of Wigeon flew over along the river. We heard Bearded Tits calling from the reeds below the bank but they remained tucked well down out of view. We had a quick drive round to St Benet’s but there were no more swans there, so we decided to make our way down to the coast.

Round at Horsey, we found a much larger herd of swans. This used to be the best place to find the Bewick’s Swans but these days they seem to prefer the Ludham area. Sure enough, the vast majority of birds here were Mute Swans, as is usually the case these days. However, a careful scan through the herd did reveal a couple of Bewick’s Swans with them.

A little further on up the coast, we stopped again. A quick scan of the grazing marshes before we even got out of the car revealed two Common Cranes walking about on the grass nearby. We disembarked and were soon enjoying great views of them through the scope.

Crane

Common Crane – we had great views of a pair by the road this morning

The Cranes were walking around in a wet grassy field, with lots of rushy tussocks, occasionally bending down to peck at something in the vegetation. We could see their black necks with bold white stripes behind the eye meeting on the back of the neck, and the bustle of ornamental feathers at the rear of their bodies. For birds which stand about a metre or more tall, they can be remarkably unobtrusive.

There were a couple of Egyptian Geese here too and lots of Lapwings out on the shorter grass. A small flock of Golden Plover got up and wheeled round before landing back down out in the middle. A little group of Fieldfares flew in and landed in front of us on the grass.

Fieldfare

Fieldfares – flew in and started feeding on the short grass

After a quick pitstop, we made our way up to Waxham next. There is a Hume’s Warbler here at the moment – a rare visitor here which breeds in Russia and Central Asia and should normally be found wintering on the Indian subcontinent. It can be very elusive at times, but we thought we would have a quick look for it, as we were in the area.

As we walked in along the sandy track that leads to the beach, a Goldcrest flew down the hedge towards us and landed right beside us. It was flitting around in the ivy oblivious to our presence. There was a large crowd of people gathered by the bushes on the edge of the dunes. We assumed at first they were watching the Hume’s Warbler, but it turned out they had not seen it for over an hour and were simply waiting for it to reappear.

Rather than just stand around where the Hume’s Warbler was obviously not, we decided to walk south along the path below dunes and try our luck along there. We hadn’t gone very far when we saw a couple of people who waved us over – the Hume’s Warbler had just been seen here. It seemed to have disappeared again, but as we stood on the path scanning the bushes, one of the group spotted some movement down on the ground in the Alexanders only a few metres in front of us and out it hopped.

Hume's Warbler

Hume’s Warbler – taken a few days ago at Waxham

The Hume’s Warbler was constantly on the move and difficult to see well unless you were quick. Eventually, everyone got a look at it and most of the group had good views as it flitted around in the ivy covering a hawthorn by the path. When it disappeared again behind a thick clump of brambles, we started to make our way back to the car.

We had only walked a short distance back up the path, and had just stopped to look at a picture of Hume’s Warbler in the book, when it flew out again, right over our heads and landed in top of the hawthorn right in front of us calling. The call is one of the best ways to tell Hume’s Warbler from the rather similar and more common Yellow-browed Warbler, so this was great to hear. It flew back into some ivy covered trees beyond and we left it to it.

Back in the car, we headed south along the coast road, scanning the fields on the way. We quickly found three more Cranes. These were more distant than the ones we had seen earlier, and we had seen those so well, so we didn’t stop. A big flock of Fieldfares in a rape field next to the road had a few Redwings with them.

A little further along, we noticed a large pale bird flying over the field beside the road – a stunning male Hen Harrier, ghostly grey with black wing tips. It was hunting, moving fast and low over the fields, but managed to follow alongside it in the car, enjoying a great view of it before it turned inland.

Gadwall

Gadwall – lots were on the pool in front of Recepion Hide at Strumpshaw

We made our way over to Strumpshaw Fen for lunch. At the pool in front of reception hide, there were lots of ducks out on the water, mainly Mallard & Gadwall. A single young drake Shoveler swam out of the reeds. There were a couple of Mute Swans, and after a while the resident feral Black Swan swam out from behind the reeds.

There was a steady stream of tits coming into the feeders by the picnic tables. They were mainly Blue Tits and Great Tits, but a Coal Tit came down and spent some time attacking the peanuts. Two or three Marsh Tits made a brief visit too. At first we only caught sight of them as they were leaving, when we heard them calling in the trees above our heads. A little later we heard another Marsh Tit approaching through the sallows and this time we watched it darting in and grabbing sunflower hearts.

Coal Tit

Coal Tit – attacking the peanuts at Strumpshaw Fen

When we arrived in the car park at Strumpshaw, we could hear a Mistle Thrush singing. While we were eating lunch, a Great Spotted Woodpecker started drumming in the trees. It felt like spring might be on its way, despite the grey and gloomy weather! A flock of Siskin flew over calling and we heard a Redpoll overhead too.

After lunch, as we walked back to the car across the level crossing, we saw some movement in the ivy beside the track. We looked across and the head of a Redwing appeared. It was hidden at first, but it gradually clambered out to get a better angle to attack the berries. We could see the rusty orange (rather than ‘red’) patch on its flanks, under its wings.

Redwing

Redwing – feeding on ivy berries

The cloud had thickened noticeably while we were eating lunch, and it was already getting very dull, so we decided to head straight round to Hickling and out to the raptor roost watchpoint at Stubb Mill. As we made our way down the path, a couple of Marsh Harriers circled over the reeds.

When we arrived at the watchpoint, the resident pair of Cranes was already on view. It was not as good a view as the ones we had seen earlier, but we could see their heads and necks above the reeds. As well as raptors, this is a great place to see Cranes coming in to roost and as we stood and watched, more flew past. First three Cranes flew across in front of us, then another two came over the trees behind us, followed by 3 more in front. All dropped down towards the reserve and we could heard them bugling in the distance.

Cranes

Common Cranes – 3 of the total of 35 we saw this evening!

There was not a huge number of Marsh Harriers into the roost tonight. There were perhaps around ten or more scattered around in the bushes in the reeds when we arrived, including one carrying green wings tags but unfortunately it was too far away for us to reed the code. A trickle more flew in while we were standing at the watchpoint tonight.

A smart male Hen Harrier flew across, low over the fields in front of us, before heading off round behind the wood, possibly for some late hunting before going in to the roost. A while later, two male Hen Harriers could be seen with the Marsh Harriers, very distantly over the reeds by the ruined mill.

There were a few other things to see while we waited. A large flock of Pink-footed Geese flew up from the fields in the distance, over towards the road, and headed off to roost. A Tawny Owl hooted from the trees behind us. A couple of Chinese Water Deer appeared out on the grass. A Sparrowhawk flew across low over the grass and finally a Merlin appeared at the back, zipping across and up into a low bush on the edge of the reeds. The light was going fast now, so it was hard to see.

It was time to walk back. As we made our way along the road, we heard more bugling behind us, and looked back to see a large flock of 19 Cranes flying in over trees, closely  followed by another 6. The Cranes dropped down towards the reserve, where we could hear them bugling. It was an impressive sight – and took our total count of Cranes for the evening to a massive 35!

There were no Barn Owls out hunting at Stubb Mill this evening, but once it was dark, on our way home, we came across two in the headlights – one which flew across in front of us and one perched on a post by the road.

19th March 2015 – Fen & Forest

A Private Tour today down in the Brecks. We wanted to visit a couple of different areas today, with a trip across into the Fens as well as some birding around the Forest. The forecast was for it to be grey and cold all day, but at least we avoided any rain and even saw some brief sunny intervals.

Our first stop was at Lakenheath Fen. As usual there was a lot of activity around the feeders, with a steady stream of tits and finches, mainly Chaffinches, Goldfinches and a couple of Greenfinches, and there were plenty of Reed Buntings in the bushes and reeds as well. We could hear Siskins and Redpolls calling, seemingly coming from the alders further along the path, but the latter had gone quiet by the time we got there and we only saw the Siskins as they flew off back towards the trees by the car park.

Reed BuntingReed Bunting – regular on the feeders at Lakenheath, here’s a recent photo

It was cold and windy up on the river bank at the Washland Viewpoint, and there is still a lot of water on Hockwold Washes. There was a good selection of wildfowl on view – Wigeon, Gadwall, Teal and Shoveler – and a gang of Tufted Duck on the river. We could see several Little Egrets, but no sign of the Great White Egret on here today. We had quite a lot of ground to cover if we wanted to explore the whole of the reserve this morning, so we didn’t linger too long and set off back round to the main path.

Out at the New Fen Viewpoint, the newly opened out areas of open water and cut reed look very promising, but on our first scan we couldn’t see much around the pools, a few duck, several Coot and a pair of sleeping Canada Geese. However, our attention was drawn to a very smart male Marsh Harrier hanging over the reeds further back, calling. We could see his pale silvery grey and black wingtips, and pale head and breast contrasting with rufous belly underneath. A female Marsh Harrier appeared from the reeds and started to circle below him, slightly larger than the male. The two then proceeded to mock talon grapple, the male dropping repeatedly towards the female, who would then turn upside down and raise her talons, classic Marsh Harrier display activity and great to watch. Spring is in the air and the breeding season is now upon us!

Another scan across the fen revealed a head come up out of the reeds. It had to be a tall bird and indeed it was – a Common Crane. We got it in the scope and had a great view – the black face and foreneck contrasting with white neck sides and the bright red patch on the top of the head. The bird kept bending down to feed, then stretching up again to look around.

IMG_0309Common Crane – a head appeared above the reeds

While we watched, a second head then appeared next to it, slightly smaller, not as tall as the first. They were a pair of Common Cranes, the smaller bird being the female. They were obviously in a small clearing in the reeds and made their way slowly across, briefly passing across behind a thin line of lower reeds where we could see more of them, before disappearing out of view again.

IMG_0315Common Cranes – a pair in the reeds together

That was a great start, so we continued out across the reserve to see what else we could find. There were lots of Cetti’s Warblers singing unseen from deep within the reeds, and plenty of Reed Buntings calling, but it is still a month or so yet before the reedbeds will come alive with the songs of the returning Reed Warblers and Sedge Warblers. As we walked down towards the West Wood, we could hear Bearded Tits calling though. A male appeared briefly in the top of the reeds, but it was hard to pick up amongst all the seed heads blowing in the breeze and dropped down again all too quickly before we could get the scope onto it.

A Kingfisher was perched in the reeds across the pool in front of Mere Hide when we arrived. The glass windows are a bit dirty at the moment, with lots of greasy fingerprints, and when we tried to ease one open very quietly it unfortunately flew off round the corner out of view. However, we were glad we had the window open a few seconds later as it meant we had a great view of a cracking male Bearded Tit which flew across the water right below us.

As we approached the Joist Fen Viewpoint, we heard what sounded like a single boom from a Bittern. We stopped to see if we could hear it again, but annoyingly it had gone quiet again. We continued to listen from up at the viewpoint. Looking out across Joist Fen, there were several more Marsh Harriers circling over the reeds and a Cormorant standing on the tall post. We had a look in the paddock for any Cranes but all we could see in there today was a few Greylag Geese.

We turned round to scan the reeds behind again, just in time to see two enormous birds flying round the back of West Wood over the river. Two Common Cranes, perhaps the same two we had seen earlier on New Fen? Even better, they then turned slightly and headed straight for us, flying over the Viewpoint and almost over our heads! We had stunning views as they flew towards us in one of the rare moments of sunshine.

P1180992Common Crane – this pair flew over Joist Fen Viewpoint…

P1180995Common Crane – they came almost overhead at one point…

P1190012Common Crane – before dropping down into the reeds beyond

From there, we decided to have a quick look round from up on the river bank. The first white shape we looked at was a Mute Swan, but a second one further along was a Great White Egret. It was rather distant, and there was no real desire to walk further along for a better view, but through the scope we could see its long, dagger-shaped yellow bill when it stopped preening and raised its head briefly.

IMG_0338Great White Egret – visible distantly from the river bank

A Little Egret nearby was much more obliging, posing for photos before flying off over the bank the other side, where another three Little Egrets were seen flying around.

IMG_0331Little Egret – much more obliging!

That all made for a very successful early season look round the reserve this morning, particularly on such a grey day, so we made our way back to the Visitor Centre. Lakenheath Fen is a large reserve and it takes a bit of time to explore, so the morning was already all but gone by the time we headed off into the Forest.

The walk down one of the rides through the commercial pine plantations was fairly quiet as usual, until we were almost at the clearing. Then the distinctive ‘glip, glip’ call of Common Crossbills echoed through the trees. We had a scan of the sky above the ride ahead, but they obviously didn’t come our way and we couldn’t see them through the trees.

It was rather cold and exposed out in the clearing, and there was not much activity at first. A couple of Mistle Thrushes flew off as we arrived and a pair of Skylarks flew across and landed not far from us. We made our way across to the other side and could hear Woodlarks calling. One fluttered up across the back of the clearing briefly, singing rather half-heartedly  – and it seemed like that would be the sum total of their performance today. Fortunately, as we walked back round, another Woodlark flew up and perched on a post where we could get it in the scope and have a better look at its key distinguishing features. At that point, we heard the ‘glip, glip’ of Crossbills again and this time we saw them come flying across, over our heads and away over the trees beside us.

WoodlarkWoodlark – one perched on a post today, just like this recent photo

The raptors were rather subdued today, in the cold and grey weather, but we did see six Common Buzzards circle up over the trees at one point. It was not ideal weather for Goshawks, and with a lot to pack in today we decided not to wait here long. As we made our way back via a different route, we flushed another two pairs of Woodlarks from beside the path. One pair landed in a small clearing nearby, where we could see them creeping through the grass.

IMG_0347Woodlark – one of two pairs by the path on our way back

Our next destination was Grime’s Graves and the Great Grey Shrike was obligingly on view as usual, as soon as we arrived. It was a little distant at first, but easy to pick up. Even though rather small, a little shorter in length than a Blackbird and slighter in build, it really stood out as a bright white dot perched high in the top of a small bare tree. Through the scope, we could see more detail – the black bandit mask and black wings contrasting with the very pale silvery grey upperparts and bright white underneath.

The Great Grey Shrike flew across to the top of another taller tree and then seemed disinclined to do very much. It remained perched there for ages, looking round, not flying down to the ground repeatedly, looking for food, as it normally does. Having seen it so quickly, and not bad views through the scope, we decided we would move on. However, as we walked back it suddenly became more active again and started flying around between the bushes. It even had the decency to come much closer to us, and we had great views of it now from the path.

IMG_0387Great Grey Shrike – showed very well again, in the end

We drove round to Lynford Arboretum and walked out along the track, stopping by the gate to look at the feeders. Lots of seed was spread on the ground today, and the birds were mostly feeding on this rather than the fat balls. A steady stream of Blue Tits, Great Tits and Coal Tits dropped down to forage in the leaves. There were plenty of Chaffinches but there has still been next to no sign of the Hawfinches using this area, so we didn’t stop here too long. We had a quick walk around the arboretum. There were several Goldcrests singing in the fir trees but very little else in here this afternoon. Down at the bridge, there was no food put out today so activity here was rather more limited than usual. However, a Marsh Tit appeared right in front of us, which was a nice addition to the day’s list.

Marsh TitMarsh Tit – one was by the bridge today, this photo from last year here

At this point we heard the news that 10 Hawfinches had been seen a little earlier around the paddocks, so we made our way down there to see if we could see them. There have been small numbers feeding in the paddocks on and off all winter, but generally no more than 3-4 (and sometimes just a single female), so this would be a very good number for here this year. It is not so long ago that it was possible to see 30+ Hawfinches here, but this is a species that has been declining everywhere, including at strongholds such as this.

As soon as we arrived we could hear Hawfinches calling, and we were just in time to see them all fly up from beneath the trees. Several small groups flew round in different directions, and we watched as one party of four flew off high away from us and disappeared into the distance. Thankfully others remained in the trees around the paddocks, or in the tops of the trees in the distance beyond, and we could hear Hawfinches calling everywhere, and see birds flitting around in the hornbeams or flying back and forth. At one point we managed to count nine in view at the same time, so assuming the four had not returned unseen that would imply at least thirteen.

Three Hawfinches flew across from one of the hornbeams to the trees by the lake, so we walked along to try to get a closer look at them. We could hear them calling, but unfortunately just at that moment a jogger came along the track towards us and we didn’t see which way they went. As we walked back to look in the paddocks again, six Hawfinches flew out in a group – but we couldn’t tell if the earlier three had flown back in to join them or not. They circled round and landed in the tops of the trees by the bridge. At the same time, at least one bird was still in the treetops beyond. It was great to see and hear so many around here today, but it was hard to know just how many there were, there was so much activity!

IMG_0465Hawfinch – a bright male

We walked down alongside the paddocks and a single Hawfinch was still calling from deep in the trees. As we stood a while, more started to fly back in and this time several perched up for a while in full view. We got them in the scope and got fantastic views of them now, both bright males and slightly duller brown females with less extensive black face masks around their still very hefty bills.

IMG_0419Hawfinch – a slightly duller brown female

In between all the Hawfinch excitement, we found a little time to look at some of the other birds here. The Little Grebes were cackling away as usual on the lake. The Kestrel was flying around the paddocks, perching up on the wires again. A flock of Redwings flew up from the damp edge of the paddocks to perch up in the alders by the lake. We had a walk round to the end of the paddocks, and it was getting late in the afternoon now. With a long drive home ahead, we had a request to call it a day, so made our way back to the car park.

However, we were still not completely finished. On our way back over the bridge, we could hear a Hawfinch calling and looked up to see one perched in up in the trees beside the lake. We couldn’t resist a final look at it in the scope, before it flew off back across the paddocks. A great way to end the day, after such a fantastic Hawfinch performance.

IMG_0500Hawfinch – bidding us farewell, as we walked back to the car

3rd October 2015 – From Cranes to Snow Bunting

Day 2 of a long weekend of tours today. After a cloudy and misty start, the weather brightened up in the afternoon and it was warm again in the sunshine and light winds.

We met in Wells this morning. Fortuitously, just as we arrived, a timely message reported that two Common Cranes were flying west from Stiffkey Fen. That should put them on course straight for Wells. We walked out onto the edge of the quay and scanned the sky. After only a minute or so, the two Cranes appeared over the houses on the east side of Wells. We could see their huge size, long legs and necks. They flew steadily over towards the quay, before turning slightly and heading off towards Holkham. What a great start to the day!

P1100670Common Cranes – flew over Wells towards Holkham this morning

With some new migrants arriving yesterday, we decided to have a look in Wells Woods this morning, to see if we could find anything new. There were lots of Goldcrests calling as we walked into the trees. It didn’t take us long to find a tit flock this morning, just on the edge of the Dell. As well as more Goldcrests, we could see Long-tailed, Coal, Blue and Great Tits, Treecreepers, a Great Spotted Woodpecker and a couple of Chiffchaffs. Quite a variety, but no suggestion of any new migrants having dropped in overnight.

We worked our way west through the trees, checking out all the most likely spots. We saw lots more of the same, but nothing out of the ordinary. West of the drinking pool, we found another flock of Long-tailed Tits. We followed them through the trees for a while, looking to see what might be with them. Again, a single Chiffchaff was the highlight. We lost them for a while as we searched further west, but picked the flock up again as we turned to head back.

The Long-tailed Tits were feeding low down in the hawthorn and rose by the path, so we stopped to admire them. Suddenly, a Firecrest appeared with them – its black and white striped face immediately distinguishing it from the nearby Goldcrests. It was also cleaner, whiter below and brighter green above, with a bronzey shawl. Firecrests are very smart birds!

P1100689Long-tailed Tit – there were several flocks in the Woods today

There were more Siskins flying around the Woods again today, but we mostly just heard them flying above the pines. One flock appeared to drop in to a dense pine tree so we worked our way over through the undergrowth to try to see them. Unfortunately, they were tucked well in to the top and flew off again before we could get to see them. There were also more Redpolls flying overhead today, calling, but similarly elusive. The highlight of the flyover calling finches was a Crossbill which we heard coming over the pines. Unfortunately, we could only glimpse it through the tree tops and it kept going.

A Yellow-browed Warbler had been reported by the caravan site, so we took a short detour down the path along the west side on our way back. A Reed Warbler was working its way noisily through the reeds along the ditch, but proved hard to see. A small flock of Pink-footed Geese dropped down into the fields – it was nice to see some on the ground, after them giving us the run around yesterday.

P1100719Pink-footed Geese – this group showed themselves on the ground

There appeared to be no sign of the Yellow-browed Warbler so, having seen a couple yesterday, we started to walk back. We hadn’t gone far when we heard the distinctive call of a Yellow-browed Warbler and the bird flew across into the sallows. It was hard to see at first – very mobile, flying back and forth along the line of trees. Eventually it settled in a sycamore and after flitting around high up in the top for a bit, it dropped down a bit lower and gave us some cracking views of all its stripes.

P1100086Yellow-browed Warbler – here’s one from Wells earlier in the week

We drove east along the coast to Cley next. The plan was to get a bit of variety and look for some waders and wildfowl on the reserve there. We parked at the visitor centre and popped into Bishop Hide quickly before lunchtime. We could hear a Water Rail squealing from deep in the reeds, not unlike a young pig, as we walked along the path. In front of the hide, we could hear two Water Rails – one squealing either side of us.

We could hear Bearded Tits as well, ‘pinging’ from the reeds outside the hide, but they were rather elusive. We saw them fly a couple of times. A smart male Marsh Harrier was easier to see, quartering the reedbed. It flew towards us, before hovering and dropping down into the reeds.

P1100730P1100733Marsh Harrier – flew past and hovered before dropping into the reeds

The water levels are still quite high on the reserve, which has really hindered the variety of waders here in recent weeks, though it is better than it was. There were a couple of Dunlin out on Pat’s Pool, but more larger waders again – several Black-tailed Godwits and Ruff.

P1100721Black-tailed Godwit – feeding on Pat’s Pool

The wader highlight was the flock of Golden Plover. There were a few already on the scrape when we arrived, but more flocks proceeded to drop in as we watched. They had come in from the fields for a wash and a brush up – many were bathing and preening.

IMG_1482Golden Plover – large numbers dropped in to bathe on Pat’s Pool

The Golden Plover seemed settled for a while, but they proved to be very nervous and suddenly all took off for no apparent reason, whirling round in a tight flock, alternately flashing yellow-spangled upperparts and white underparts. It was a recurring theme as we walked around the reserve today – the Golden Plover would drop in for a bit before flushing again and heading off inland.

There were lots of ducks out on Pat’s Pool, particularly Wigeon. We could hear them calling all the time, a pretty whistled ‘wee-oo’. A couple of Pintail dropped in with them, an eclipse drake just starting to moult into breeding plumage again, and a female. Another flock of 13 Pintail circled over, but appeared to drop down on North Scrape instead. There were plenty of Teal and Shoveler too, with a few of the drakes now starting to look much smarter, as they also moult out of eclipse.

It was getting on by now, so we decided to make our way back to the visitor centre for a late lunch. On our way back along the path, we saw a group of six Bearded Tits fly in and drop into the reeds. Even better, two females worked their way up the stems and sat in the tops, in full view, before flying off further out into the reedbed. We could hear another Bearded Tit calling from the reeds by the path further along, so we walked up to it. It was calling quietly no more than a couple of feet from us – we could see the reeds moving – but unfortunately it wouldn’t show itself until it flew off calling.

P1100748Bearded Tit – one of two females which perched up in the tops of the reeds

After lunch, we walked out to the main complex of hides. It was warm now in the sunshine and the insects were out. A Common Darter basked on the boardwalk and a Migrant Hawker flew along the ditch next to the path.

P1100762Common Darter – basking on the boardwalk

We had seen a couple of Greenshank drop into Simmond’s Scrape earlier, from over in Bishop Hide, so we hoped there might be more waders on here today. There was no sign of the Greenshank but there were a few more Dunlin on there, plus more Ruff and Black-tailed Godwit. A Common Snipe flew up from the back of the scrape, circled round and dropped back down into the grass along the edge. We could see it feeding, tucked into the vegetation. A second Snipe was preening in the taller grass on the edge of one of the islands.

There were a couple more Marsh Harriers out over the reeds. First a female flew past – mostly dark brown but with a pale head and yellowish patches on the leading edge of the innerwing. Later a juvenile flew across as well – darker brown then the female and lacking the pale patches in the wings.

We eventually made our way back, stopping to admire a large flock of Goldfinch dropping down to feed on the seeding thistles on the grazing marshes. We had seen a noisy flock of House Sparrows in the bushes by the car park at lunchtime and now they were all gathered in a hawthorn by the path, enjoying the afternoon sunshine.

P1100777House Sparrow – a noisy flock was enjoying the sunshine

Our next stop was round at the beach car park. A Leach’s Petrel had been reported past Salthouse and the East Bank earlier, but the assembled throng of seawatchers at this end had been disappointed – it hadn’t made it this far. We joined them for a while and scanned the sea. There was a steady stream of Gannets flying east, mostly dark, slatey grey juveniles. Several Guillemots were on the sea, pale-headed in winter plumage now.

We continued to scan the sea as we walked east along the beach. A Mediterranean Gull flew over the beach and dropped down towards the sea, where we got it in the scope. It was a second winter – mostly very pale grey/white like an adult, but with some black flecks in the wing tips. A Razorbill was fishing just offshore nearby, diving constantly. A few Sandwich Terns were still patrolling offshore – the bulk of the breeding birds appear to have left for warmer climes already. An Arctic Skua flew past low over the sea. Several little groups of Brent Geese flew in over the sea, presumably just on their way in from Russia for the winter.

Not far along the beach we could see three photographers standing in a cluster with their lenses pointed down at the shingle in front of them. We went over to join them and could see the subject of their photographic efforts. A Snow Bunting was feeding on the weedy vegetation. It was ridiculously tame – approaching us to within a couple of metres at one point. It appeared to be a 1st winter male, so perhaps it had never seen a human before?

P1100889Snow Bunting – a very confiding individual, feeding on the shingle

It fed along the old path, in and out of the vegetation at first. Then it hopped out onto the shingle and sat enjoying the late afternoon sunshine, looking at us from time to time but totally unaffected by our presence and the clicking of cameras. We stood and marvelled at it for a while. It was almost too close to focus the scope on it, but looking through we could see amazing details of every individual feather. What a lovely bird and a fitting way to end the day.

P1100813Snow Bunting – flashing the white in its wings as it stretched its wings