Tag Archives: Common Crane

9th July 2021 – Summer Tour, Day 1

Day 1 of a three day Summer Tour. It was a lovely sunny morning, clouding over in the afternoon, but thankfully the rain held off until after we had finished. We spent the day down in the Broads.

Shortly after we set off on the long drive down, we passed a set of barns by the side of the road. As we approached we could see a shape right on the ridge, above the far gable. One of the resident Little Owls still out, enjoying the early sunshine. We stopped for a quick look from the minibus, where we wouldn’t disturb it.

Little Owl – unfortunately soon to be homeless

Unfortunately these barns have been granted planning permission for conversion into housing and have just been sold. The developers are moving in and the Little Owls will soon lose their home. It has been a recurring theme for some time, but has accelerated in the last year or two, with the mad rush to build houses at any cost and the resulting relaxation of planning constraints – many of these barns were deemed unsuitable for development in the last planning review!

Continuing on our way, a Red Kite drifted over. With the windows open, we could hear lots of birds singing. A Yellowhammer was giving its ‘little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheeeese’, perched on the wires over the road.

When we finally arrived at Hickling Broad, we set off along the track towards Stubb Mill. A Common Whitethroat was singing in the top of one of the bushes ahead of us. There were several Chiffchaffs in the trees and Reed Warblers flitting in and out of the reedy ditch by the path.

Looking over the bank at Brendan’s Marsh, we could see the Black-winged Stilts on the first pool, so we walked back to the junction and up the Whiteslea track instead, up to the viewpoint where we would have a better view from up on the bank. The Black-winged Stilts were feeding behind a low line of reeds but were often visible through a small gap and kept coming out into view beyond the end of the reeds too. We could see their long, bubble-gum pink legs.

Black-winged Stilt – the pair were still on Brendan’s Marsh

There were lots of other waders on the pool too. Several Ruff, in various colours and bewildering different stages of moult, a couple of Little Ringed Plovers, two Common Snipe, a Green Sandpiper briefly before everything was flushed by a passing Marsh Harrier, and a few Avocets. A pair of Egyptian Geese were loafing on one of the islands and two Little Grebes swam across in front.

It is a good vantage point here, from which to scan the surrounding pools and reedbeds. A Bittern came up out of the reeds behind us, flying across low over the tops before dropping back in again. It was a good morning for Bitterns, with the birds very active, probably flying in and out feeding young. We saw at least 4 flights, probably three different birds.

Bittern – flying over the reeds behind us

Two Common Cranes circled up in the distance, beyond the trees, trying to make use of the increasing heat to find a thermal. We watched them in the scopes as they drifted across and dropped back down out of view. A Spoonbill was just visible in the heat haze in the dead trees in the middle of the reedbed, and two flew out, dropping down behind the reeds to the pools further along. A Grey Heron perched up preening in the sunshine.

A Yellow Wagtail flew over behind us calling. A Hooded Crow hybrid flew in to the pools the other side of the track, landing with a Carrion Crow briefly. Three Little Egrets flew in too. A male Marsh Harrier drifted in and hovered over the pools just the other side of the track from us, before flying off.

Marsh Harrier – hovered over the pools in the reeds

There was a good selection of insects here too. One or two Norfolk Hawker dragonflies were hawking over the bank. A selection of butterflies were nectaring on the creeping thistle – Meadow Browns, Small Skippers and some very smart fresh second generation Small Tortoiseshells.

Meadow Brown – nectaring on creeping thistle

Eventually we managed to tear ourselves away and walked back to the Stubb Mill track again to explore further along. There were lots of tits in the trees now, including several Long-tailed Tits flitting around in the branches ahead of us.

Scanning with the scope, we picked up a few more waders from the new viewing platform, taking it in turns to come up for a look. There were several Greenshank and Dunlin on here to add to the list, as well as lots more Ruff, but no sign of the Wood Sandpiper or Spotted Redshank we had hoped to find here.

We continued on to the far end of the track, and scanned the pools this end from up on the bank. There were several Lapwings around the pools, a single Teal and Tufted Duck asleep at the back and a couple of Canada Geese with the Greylags. A Spoonbill appeared from behind the reeds at the back, bathing in the water and flashing its long spoon-shaped bill. We just make out a couple more still in the trees beyond, through the hear haze.

It was time to start heading back for lunch, but just as we had turned to leave one of the group spotted another pair of Cranes in the distance over Horsey Mere. We watched as they flew across, continuing over Heigham Holmes before disappearing over the south side of the broad.

Ruddy Darter – one of several basking by the path

There were several Ruddy Darter dragonflies by the path on the way back, as well as Common Blue and Blue-tailed Damselflies. We stopped again at the viewing platform, where a Green Sandpiper was now on the front edge of the pools, for those who had missed it earlier. A Willow Warbler was calling from the bushes by the overflow car park, much more disyllabic than the call of Chiffchaff, and flitted out ahead of us.

We had lunch in the sunshine in the picnic area. A couple of the group even succumbed to the temptation of the gooseberry ice cream! The clouds had started to bubble up over lunch, and it clouded over as we set out again, although it was still very warm. It is the end of the flight season now but there were meant to be still one or two Swallowtails out, so we walked round towards the broad to see if we could find one. We didn’t manage to, but we did see a fresh White Admiral which fluttered around the bushes just beyond the picnic area. Another Norfolk Hawker was flying around here too.

A Green Woodpecker was yaffling in the trees and a Water Rail squealed from deep in the reeds by the path as we passed. We had a quick stop at the viewpoint to look out at the Broad, where there were lots of Mute Swans and a couple of distant Common Terns. A Black-tailed Skimmer dragonfly kept landing on the information board just beyond the boat mooring.

Continuing on along the path towards the observatory, it was quiet now in the early afternoon. We did hear a couple of Bearded Tits pinging, and turned to see them fly across the path just behind us. They flew out over the reeds the other side, but dropped straight in out of view. A Reed Warbler flitting around in the tops of the reeds was more obliging.

Reed Warbler – flitting around in the tops of the reeds

Past Whiteslea Lodge, we turned onto the bank back towards the viewpoint. A couple of Common Terns flew over and a Bittern appeared briefly out of the reeds behind us. With the cloud now, the Common Swifts were hawking lower out over the reedbed. As we arrived back at the viewpoint again, we could hear Cranes calling, and just glimpsed two disappearing behind the trees towards Stubb Mill.

The Black-winged Stilts were much closer now, and we had a great view of them through the scope. They were more active, jumping and flapping their wings, then suddenly they took off. They gained height quickly and looked as if they were flying off, but then turned back and dropped steeply back down out of sight onto the last pool. They were only gone a couple of minutes, and as we were looking through the other waders they suddenly flew back in.

Black-winged Stilt – closer views this afternoon

Turning back to the Stilts, we noticed that the Spotted Redshank had appeared between them. We had a good view through the scope, a moulting adult its black breeding plumage mottled with winter white now, but we could see its long needle find bill. There was a single Black-tailed Godwit out here too now. The Wood Sandpiper was not so obliging – we could hear it calling, but couldn’t find it anywhere, so presumably it was hidden behind the reeds.

It continued to taunt us as we made our way back to the Visitor Centre, cutting back along the path through the trees. A male Blackcap flew out of the brambles and across the path in front of us. A Variable Damselfly settled on the vegetation nearby, allowing us to see its broken ante-humeral stripe.

Variable Damselfly – settled on the vegetation

We still had a bit of time left, so we drove round to Potter Heigham thinking we would have a quick look at the marshes there. As we got out of the minibus, we could see threatening dark clouds away to the west, but it wasn’t clear at first whether they were coming our way. We stopped to have a look at the first pool where a Common Sandpiper was on one of the islands, dwarfed by a nearby Little Egret. There were lots of Lapwings on here too.

Carrying on down the track, the reeds were now too tall to see into most of the other pools, although we could occasionally find a gap where we could get a narrow view. We continued on down to the end and up onto the bank, where we could benefit from a bit of height to see over. A Water Rail squealed from deep in the reeds. There was a single rusty eclipse drake Wigeon on the first pool here, and a Great Crested Grebe.

It was clear now that the dark clouds were heading our way, and we could hear thunder in the distance. Discretion is the better part of valour, so we decided to call it a day now and head back rather than risk getting a soaking!

5th June 2021 – Early Summer, Day 2

Day 2 of a three day Early Summer Tour today, including a Nightjar Evening. After a grey and cloudy start, it gradually brightened up and then the skies cleared from the west around midday, producing a lovely sunny afternoon. We spent the day down in the Norfolk Broads, then the evening looking for owls and Nightjars.

We started the day with the long drive down to the Broads. There had been a 1st summer male Red-footed Falcon at Hickling Broad reported yesterday and we were hoping to see that and some Swallowtails too. As we got out of the minibus at the NWT car park, several Willow Warblers were singing in the trees nearby and the Peacocks at the next door animal rescue charity were calling too (unfortunately that one doesn’t count!).

We set off down towards the track to Stubb Mill, which was where the falcon had been, stopping on the corner for our first scan. We could immediately see several distant Hobbys in the dead trees out in the reedbed. As we had hoped, the falcons were yet to really get going, with the cloudy start to the day. We could see a small group of other birders further up Whiteslea track, on the bank, looking for the Red-footed Falcon.

We were just debating which way to go, when we noticed a local birder walking back along the track towards us, so we asked him for an update. He told us there was no sign of the Red-footed Falcon this morning and he also suggested that most of the later reports yesterday related to misidentified Hobbys. So it looked increasingly like it hadn’t roosted in the trees here with the Hobbys overnight as we had thought it might have done, and had probably moved swiftly through yesterday. He did tell us about some Garganey on the pools, and we figured we would continue on down the track towards Stubb Mill to see what else we could see.

A couple of Common Whitethroats were flitting around in the bushes by the track ahead of us as we walked along. We had just stopped opposite the second of the pools to scan for the Garganey, when one of the group spotted a Common Crane flying in over the fields behind us. It disappeared behind the trees then reappeared over the track ahead of us, flying out over the pools, before circling round and dropping down into reedbed beyond. A nice start.

Common Crane – flew in

There were lots of hirundines and Swifts hawking low over the pools, including several Sand Martins. It was a good opportunity to compare them with the House Martins. A Common Buzzard and a Marsh Harrier circled high over the trees behind us now. A small group of Black-tailed Godwits were roosting on the short grass by the water. Several Lapwings were flying round calling, and there were a few Avocets out here too.

Most of the ducks were asleep, mainly Gadwall and a few Mallard, plus a single Wigeon and a couple of Teal out on the water beyond. Scanning carefully, we finally found the Garganey, two exclipse drakes in their drabber, female-like plumage, also asleep. For no apparent reason, one of the Avocet decided to run at them, and they woke up briefly, then moving further towards the bank where we couldn’t really get a clear view of them any more. Very helpful of the Avocet!

One of the group was looking at four distant Greylags flying over the back of the reedbed and noticed a large brown bird below. It was a Bittern flying across. Unfortunately it quickly dropped back down into the reeds before all the rest of the group could get on it.

We continued on to where track goes up onto the bank. We were a bit closer to the dead trees and had better views of the Hobbys from here, although it was starting to brighten up and the Hobbys were becoming more active, flying up hawking for insects.

We could see a pair of Ringed Plovers on one of the islands on the pool in front of us, one of which looked to be incubating. They were noticeably paler above than the tundrae Ringed Plovers we had seen at Titchwell yesterday. There were also a couple of Redshank on here and a couple of Common Terns flew over. A Bittern appeared again, from behind the dead trees over the reeds at the back, but again it was distant and hard to pick up against the trees.

We decided to walk back and up the track towards Bittern Hide, hoping for a better view of its namesake. There were several dragonflies flying around now – Four-spotted Chasers – and more damselflies in the vegetation by the path, including Large Red, Azure and Blue-tailed Damselflies.

Blue-tailed Damselfly – warming up

We walked up Whiteslea Track now, and a Treecreeper was singing in the trees as we passed. We took the path up onto the bank and scanned the pool, picking up an Egyptian Goose from round on this side. Then we continued on towards the hide. A Bittern flew up again, but again was only up for couple of seconds and some of the group still hadn’t seen one, so we stood for a while on the corner before Bittern Hide. We scanned the reeds, but it didn’t reappear. Four more Cranes circled up slowly in the distance. Behind us, we could see the edge of the front which had brought all the cloud and the skies slowly cleared from the west to sunshine.

We heard Bearded Tits pinging and turned to see a couple fly across the ditch in front of us. A female perched in the edge for a few seconds. Some more Bearded Tits were calling further along, in the reeds by the path, and the male climbed up briefly into the tops, before flying and dropping back in. It seemed like they might have young in here. A couple of times the male flew out across the track and then back in with food.

Bearded Tit – the female in the reeds

It was time to head back for lunch now. We had seen an adult Black-headed Gull walking around on the top of the bank earlier, which seemed odd, and now we realised why. A fluffy Black-headed Gull chick had walked out of the long grass on the edge of the path. We waited for it to go back in before we walked on. A female Common Blue butterfly was nectaring on a buttercup.

Common Blue butterfly – a female

We cut across on the path through the wood, back to the Visitor Centre. There were several Four-spotted Chasers warming themselves on the brambles here in the sunshine. A male Reed Bunting was gathering food and flew across into a dead tree. A Common Whitethroat flitted in and out of the trees ahead of us.

Four-spotted Chaser – basking in the sunshine

We had our lunch in the picnic area in the sunshine. A Garden Warbler was singing in the trees nearby briefly. Our initial plan was to go somewhere different after lunch, but we had to be back early and didn’t have much time now, and figured we could look for Swallowtails here and maybe have another chance for the members of the group who had not caught any of the Bittern flights earlier.

It was warm now, as we set off again. We walked the other way round the reserve this time, out past the hides, towards the Broad, following the Covid one-way system. A couple of Reed Warblers showed well in the young reeds next to path. When we stopped to look at a male Reed Bunting singing in the top of a dead tree, a Great Spotted Woodpecker flew out of the trees behind and overhead.

We stopped to scan one of the overgrown ditches. There were several more dragonflies here, including a Hairy Dragonfly as well as more Four-spotted Chasers. A small shoal of Common Rudd was in the open water amongst the marestail.

Common Rudd – in one of the ditches

We stopped again at the first viewpoint overlooking the Broad. There were lots of Mute Swans out on the water, but not much else – often the way with the actual Broads themselves. A Marsh Harrier circled over in the sunshine. Continuing along the path, several Willow Warblers were calling in the sallows, collecting food, and one perched right in the top of an alder, singing.

Willow Warbler – in the sallows

We were struggling at first to find any Swallowtails or any flowers out for them to nectar on. Everything is very late this year after the cold spring. Finally, along the path towards the Observation Hide a Swallowtail flew in. But it carried on straight past us, flying very quickly ahead of us along the path. We tried to follow to see if it might land, but then it turned behind some sallows out of view and by the time we got there we had lost track of it.

We had yet another brief glimpse of a Bittern flying over the reeds, over by Bittern Hide, so we decided to head straight round that way. We popped into the hide. The reeds which had been cut in front of the hide are now growing up fast and making it harder to see anything on there. We were running out of time slightly, as we had to be back early today ahead of our evening foray later, but we decided to have a quick rest in the hide, before heading back to car park.

Scanning the dead trees in the distance through binoculars, there were still one or two Hobbys around. When a falcon flew out head on towards us we assumed it was just another Hobby, but it looked to have a rather pale crown and head which appeared to catch the sun, unlike the dark hood of a Hobby or a male Red-footed Falcon (like yesterday’s). But there was a lot of heat haze now and it was a long way off, so we figured we were imagining it. It turned and landed back in the dead trees out of view behind a branch.

It flew out again, another short sally after insects, and it really did look to have a pale head. As it turned to head back to the trees, it looked to have pale orangey underparts too. It couldn’t be though could it? Yesterday’s Red-footed Falcon was a 1st summer male and this one looked like a female. It lLanded again, and this time we realised we needed to get it in the scope quickly. Now we could confirm what we thought we had seen – it was a female Red-footed Falcon!

Red-footed Falcon – we found a female

The Red-footed Falcon was distant and there was a lot of heat haze, but we could see it did have a pale head, orange on top, whiter on the cheeks, with a thin black mask and small moustache. The back and wings looked rather dark grey and the underparts pale orangey-buff. It kept doing little sallies from the trees, shorter flights than the Hobbys, with more gliding, and quick bursts of wingbeats when chasing prey. It even did a brief hover. At one point it landed in the same tree as one of the Hobbys, and was noticeably a little smaller, more compact.

We had come to see someone else’s Red-footed Falcon, been disappointed to find it gone, but then found our own. Hickling is a good site for them and hosted multiple birds just last year, presumably the gathering of Hobbys helping to pull in passing birds. We put the news out – but when we went outside and onto the bank we could see everyone else had long since given up and gone. We were thinking it might be a bit closer from bank, but there was still lots of heat haze. Still what a great bird!

Unfortunately it was really time to go now, or we would be late for our early evening meal. As we set off to walk back, another Swallowtail flew past. This time it turned in front of us and looked like it might land on the flowers growing on the bank. It meant we had a better view, but it changed it’s mind and flew off rather than land. Then it was a quick walk back to the car park and a long drive back home, albeit with a spring in our steps!

Nightjar Evening

After a break and something to eat, we met again early evening. We went looking for Little Owls first. We checked out some barns by the road, but there was no sign. So we tried another site and immediately spotted one perched on the roof half way down one of the barns, enjoying the evening sunshine. We got it in the scope.

While we were watching it, another Little Owl flew across in front, disappearing into the trees nearby. After a few seconds it came back out and landed on the ground by the barns, running around looking for food on the concrete. It then flew up again, then across to the other side, perching on the near edge of the roof the other side. Great views.

Little Owl – hunting around the barns

We dropped down towards the coast to look for Barn Owls next. It was a lovely evening, and we heard several Yellowhammers singing through the open windows as we drove down the country lanes. We drove a quick circuit round via some meadows where they like to hunt, without any success, so we parked up nearby and walked up onto the seawall to scan the marshes. At first, we couldn’t find any owls – but we did see several Brown Hares and a pair of Grey Partridge down in the grass. A Song Thrush was singing from the trees on the far side.

Then a Barn Owl appeared out of the trees, the regular very white one, nicknamed ‘Casper’, which is well known here. It started hunting around a recently cut grass field, we watched it fly round, drop into the grass a couple of times, then come back up. It disappeared behind some trees and looked like it had gone off in the other direction, but then reappeared and flew back towards us. It came much closer, flying past us over the reeds and out along the bank across the marshes. It landed briefly, and we thought about going out for a closer look, but it quickly too off again as some people walked past and we watched it head out away from us.

Barn Owl – ‘Casper’, the white one

It was time to head up to the heath. The sun had already gone down and the temperature was dropping when we arrived and got out of the minibus. We set off out onto the middle of the heath, and we were not even already in position when we heard our first Nightjar churring. We got out of the edge of the trees just in time to hear it stop and take off wing-clapping. We could see it flying round over the gorse further up, and watched it drop down behind the vegetation ahead of us. We walked quickly on down the path but when we got to the area it had seemed to drop, it had disappeared.

Another Nightjar started churring now, right out in the middle. We stopped to listen to it, such an evocative sound, of summer evenings on the heaths. For some time we could only hear one. It flew round at one point – the churring stopped and we heard it wing-clapping as it took off. Then it flew back to the trees where it had been and resumed churring.

When another Nightjar started up behind us, it sounded closer. We walked on to see if we locate this one, but it was still too far from path to give us a chance to find it. A fourth male then started churring in the distance, and we stood and listened to the two of them for a couple of minutes. A Woodcock flew over roding – we could hear its squeaky call, and looked up to see it fly over with exaggerated slow wingbeats. A Tawny Owl called from the trees.

The first male Nightjar we had seen earlier started churring again, so we walked back. It was getting darker now, so we couldn’t see where it was perched on the edge of the trees. It took off and we watched two Nightjars chasing each other through the tops, silhouetted against the last of the light in the sky. One came back down into the gorse not far from us, and we had a quick view of it flying round lower as it broke the skyline. Then it went quiet again.

One of the other Nightjars was still churring out in the middle. We stood and listened to that for a couple more minutes, a lovely way to while away a summer’s evening. Then it was time to head back – it had been a long day, and we had another busy one ahead tomorrow. As we walked off the heath, we were serenaded by another of the Nightjars churring. It was in a tree above the path but too dark to see it perched now. As we walked underneath, we watched it fly out, dropping down out across the Heath.

19th May 2021 – Three Spring Days, Day 1

Day 1 of a rescheduled 3 day Spring Tour, to take advantage of the relaxation of Covid restrictions this week. Mostly warm in the long sunny spells, there were some cloudier periods when it felt a bit cooler. Some very dark clouds early afternoon were accompanied by some long rolls of thunder, but thankfully passed well to the south of us, and it wasn’t until we were on our way home that we drove into one of the forecast showers.

With a Caspian Tern over in the Broads for its second day this morning, we decided to head east for the day. It was a long drive over to Potter Heigham, but we left in good time and it was still early when we got to the car park. As we crossed the road and set off down the track, we heard a Cuckoo calling, and turned to see it flying away over the river. It was a cloudy start, and our first Common Swifts off the tour were chasing overhead. A Great Spotted Woodpecker came out of the small copse of trees and flew ahead of us, landing on a low gatepost by the track – an odd place to see one.

A pair of Egyptian Geese were close to the path on the grazing marshes. Further out, among the horses, was a lone Oystercatcher. Several Lapwings were flying round too. We could hear distant Lesser Whitethroat and Willow Warbler singing in the bushes and trees the other side of the marshes. Closer to us, both Sedge and Reed Warblers were singing from the reedy margins of the ditch, but were typically hard to see. Never mind, we would see lots later. A couple of Reed Buntings flew across the track. One or two Marsh Harriers quartered the marshes and a Common Buzzard circled overhead.

Common Buzzard – circled overhead

There were lots of Greylag Geese on the fields which flushed as a local farmer drove past in his truck. They flew across to the pools. At the first pool, as well as the geese, we could see a few Mallard and one or two Gadwall. A Little Egret was out in the shallow water in the far corner.

It’s yelping call alerted us to a Lesser White-fronted Goose in with the Greylags, dwarfed by its much larger cousins. Through the scope, we could see the white blaze extending up its forehead and the golden yellow eye-ring. This would be a rare bird here if it were wild, but unfortunately it is a known escapee which has been hanging around here for the last year or so, presumably having hopped the fence from a wildfowl collection somewhere.

The Caspian Tern had flown off once this morning, but thankfully returned, so we were keen to get round to the other side to see it, while making sure we didn’t miss anything this side on the way. Moving on to the next pool, a quick scan revealed two Common Pochard with more Greylags and a couple of distant Common Terns. The cloud was breaking now and it was warming up nicely as the sun was coming out. Having planned for the risk of rain which was forecast, we had to shed our coats.

Up to the corner, we climbed up onto the bank for a better view. On the corner pool we could see more Pochard, a couple of Tufted Ducks, and three late lingering Wigeon. Looking across to the other side, we could just see the Caspian Tern through the reeds, between some Cormorants roosting on one of the islands. A little further up, we got clear of the reeds and had a better if still distant view – we could see its huge red bill. It was standing in the shallow water next to a Herring Gull and didn’t look much smaller – Caspian Tern is the largest tern, like an enormous oversize Sandwich Tern with a massive red dagger for a bill.

With the Caspian Tern in the bag, we could relax a little, but we continued on round more slowly, for a closer view. A Willow Warbler was signing from the top of an oak across the other side of Candle Dyke. A Common Sandpiper was flushed from a mooring by a passing boat a little further along and a Common Tern flew past, looking much daintier than its cousin on the pools, with a much less threatening bill!

Common Tern – flew past over Candle Dyke

Walking round towards the river, there was lots of activity in the reeds. We finally got to see both Sedge Warbler and Reed Warblers here. We caught a quick glimpse of a Bearded Tit which zipped over the reeds and dropped down. It was carrying food in its bill, so we waited to see if it would come back out. Before it did, a second Bearded Tit flew in, this time the female, also carrying food in her bill. She perched for a few seconds in the reeds, allowing us all to get on her, before she dropped in, as the male flew out and disappeared back away. Obviously they are feeding a hungry brood in the reeds there.

Bearded Tit – the female, carrying food

Walking up beside the river, we arrived opposite the pool where the Caspian Tern was standing. But we had only just put up the scopes before it took off, before everyone could get a look. We watched it fly off east, circling over the reeds for a while, gaining height, before it disappeared from view. We were very pleased we had stopped to look at it distantly on the way round!

Caspian Tern – flew off just as we arrived on the river bank

The Caspian Tern had flown off earlier and returned, so we figured it was probably just heading off to fish somewhere and would most likely be back here again at some point. The only question was how long, but we thought we would have a more leisurely look around now and see what happened. There were two Shoveler out on this pool. A Great Crested Grebe was over in the far corner and then another appeared from behind the reeds at the front. Another male Bearded Tit was chasing a rival round and round over the reeds.

Walking up to the last pool from the river bank, we could see a single Avocet on one of the islands. A pair of Teal nearby would be the only ones we would see – most have left already, heading off to northern Europe for the breeding season. We hadn’t been here long though, before we turned to see the Caspian Tern flying back in behind us. It landed back down on the pool where it had been before, so we walked straight back. Now we all had a really good view of it through the scopes.

Caspian Tern – flew back in and landed on the same pool

Caspian Tern is a rare visitor to the UK, with just a few records most years. They breed in small numbers around the Baltic, as well as further over in SE Europe, wintering down in West Africa. Potter Heigham seems to be a good site for them – there was one here last year too.

We could see dark clouds way off west, so we decided to walk slowly back. A Cetti’s Warbler was singing in the bushes by the river, and we had a quick flash of a rounded chestnut-red tail as it flew past. Two different male Marsh Harriers flew past over the reeds. A couple of Common Whitethroats were in the trees, three Reed Warblers chased round and a Chiffchaff was singing in the old orchard by the mill.

Marsh Harrier – one of two males over the reeds

We headed round to Hickling Broad to use the facilities and as the sun was out now, we decided to have an early lunch in the picnic area before heading out onto the reserve. A juvenile Robin was calling in the trees behind the Visitor Centre – good to see some early broods are proving productive, despite the cool spring we are having. As we sat down to eat, a Hobby circled high over the trees beyond. A pair of Great Tits were flying in and out of a nearby nest box. Two Bullfinch called, and we looked over to see them fly across the far end of the picnic area.

There were some dark clouds to the south of us, and we heard some long and rather ominous rolls of thunder from that direction, but it looked like they would probably miss us, so we headed out onto the reserve. As we set off down the track, there were House Martins overhead calling and we found a couple of Sand Martins with them.

As we got to the corner with the Stubb Mill track, one of the group spotted a Common Crane flying over high in the distance – the first of many, as it would prove later. There were lots of Hobbys out over the reedbed beyond the water, flying back and forth, hawking for insects, some low, some circling up much higher. Further over, there were more perched in the tops of the dead trees, probably around 15 Hobbys in all, always great to watch these spring gatherings. A Cuckoo flew over the back of the pool, up over the bank, and disappeared behind the trees towards the Visitor Centre.

We walked down the track towards Stubb Mill. There had been a Wood Sandpiper on the marsh here yesterday, so we scanned the islands and the margins of the water. A small flock of seven Ringed Plovers flew up and disappeared off west, presumably of the Tundra race, which are always late migrants through here. Again we heard a Lesser White-fronted Goose calling and looked over on the island to see it in with the Greylags. Presumably the same bird we had seen earlier at Potter Heigham, as it is only a short distance away as the goose flies.

Lesser White-fronted Goose – unfortunately an escapee

A much closer Hobby flew in over the water and over the track behind us. While everyone was watching it, we turned to see a Grey Heron fly up from the reeds beyond the pool and noticed a Common Crane in the reeds too, a little further back. We got it in the scope and watched it for some time, preening, then walking around through the reeds. Then it took off and flew towards us, unfortunately attracting the attention of one of the Shelduck, which decided to mob it as it flew over the water. As the Shelduck finally gave up, we watched as the Common Crane disappeared away over the fields to the north.

Common Crane – pursued by a Shelduck

As we continued on down the track, we could hear a Bittern booming from somewhere deep in the reeds now. We scanned the pools on the way, but the only other waders we could find were Redshanks. When we got to the end, there were more Hobbys zooming about low over the reeds and we looked past them to the east and noticed four Common Cranes circling low over the bushes.

Another four Cranes circled up nearby and all eight then turned and started to fly towards us. They stopped to circle again, giving us a great view, then started calling and drifted away to the north over Stubb Mill, where we lost sight of them behind the trees.

Common Crane – another eight, near Stubb Mill

After watching the Cranes, we turned our attention back to the pools, looking back parallel with the track. It was a better view from up on the top of the bank. There were two Little Grebes diving in the blanket weed here, more Redshanks and several juvenile Lapwings which teased us into thinking they might be a different small wader before we saw them clearly. Then we did find a different small wader right up at the far end, walking in and out of a line of thick reeds and rushes. It was the Wood Sandpiper we had been searching for – a distant view, but better than nothing!

The dark clouds had remained off to the south as we had hoped and the sun had come out again now, encouraging a flush of insects. A Four-spotted Chaser dragonfly was drying its still papery wings on the bank in the sunshine, with several also freshly emerged Azure Damselflies fluttering around nearby. A Small Copper butterfly was trying to find flowers to feed on, our first of the year.

Four-spotted Chaser – drying its wings on the bank

We had been intending to walk up to Bittern Hide, but we met someone here who had just come back from there and had seen nothing we hadn’t already seen. A Great Reed Warbler had been found at Breydon Water this morning and after being very elusive, it now seemed to be showing on and off. As it was just a short drive from here, we decided to go over there to see if we could see it.

As we arrived in the car park, a friendly face walking back confirmed the Great Reed Warbler was still present, so we set off out along the north wall. We could see six people standing on the path on the first corner, looking down across the railway line to the bushes beyond. As we walked up, we could immediately hear the Great Reed Warbler singing.

The Great Reed Warbler was singing from inside the bush and looking in, we could just see it. We got it in the scopes and had various views of different parts of it as it moved around. Great Reed Warblers are scarce visitors from continental Europe, overshooting in spring as they fly back from Africa and ending up in the UK. Normally a bird of reedbeds, like a much larger version of our Reed Warbler, this one had probably been attracted down by the sight of Breydon Water and found the best habitat it could to feed.

After a while it stopped singing and went quiet, disappeared into the bushes. It had earlier come out into the open when it stopped singing, but all we could see now were a couple of Blackcaps, male & female. A regular Reed Warbler appeared too, in the same bush. People were getting tired now so we decided it was time to walk back.

Breydon Water – looking out from the north wall

Some of the group were a little too keen to get back to the minibus and sit down, as they disappeared over the horizon before we the rest of us had packed away our tripods. Those who had brought their scopes out stopped on the way back to scan Breydon Water for waders. The islands of vegetation at the edge of the saltmarsh are a regular roosting site for waders.

We had already seen a flock of Curlews out there, and stopping to scan now we found a group of at least 19 Whimbrel too, tucked down in the vegetation a little further over. A lone wader on the end of a vegetated spit a bit further round was a single Greenshank.

It was a long drive back and time was getting on, so the rest of us headed back to join the others in the minibus. As we cut round past Norwich we drove into a heavy rain shower – we had been very lucky with the weather today. A great start to our three day tour, with two new birds for most of the group.

Jan/Feb 2021 – Through Winter, now into Spring

I am conscious that I haven’t written any blog posts for several months now – COVID-19 has meant no tours have run since last October, with a succession of national lockdowns interspersed with ‘tiered’ regional restrictions which have meant it has not been possible to operate.

As we head into spring, hopefully there is finally light at the end of the tunnel. Following last week’s announcement by the Government, we are planning to restart tours on a limited basis from April 12th and then look to run a full programme from May 17th. If you might be interested in joining us, please check the website to see what we have planned or contact me directly.

In the meantime, this is what I have been up to, keeping busy over the last couple of months…

2021: Happy New Year

In Norfolk, we found ourselves put into Tier 4 from Boxing Day. Normally, my son and I would have a ‘big day’ on January 1st, trying to find as many species as possible up and down the coast to see in the New Year. With the restrictions in place, that wouldn’t be possible this year, but we did manage a couple of short trips out locally.

We drove down to the beach at Weybourne for a walk on New Year’s Day. Our journey there took us over Kelling Heath, where fortuitously a Waxwing was feeding on rosehips right next to the road. We stopped briefly to watch it – they have been in very short supply this winter, so it was a real bonus to be able to catch up with one so close to home today. One of everyone’s favourites, and a great way to start the year.

Waxwing – feeding on rosehips by the road on New Year’s Day

Continuing on down to Weybourne, we had only just walked up onto the beach when the lingering juvenile Iceland Gull flew up from the shingle in front of us. A scarce bird in Norfolk in most winter’s, and another good one to get 2021 underway. A walk along the beach didn’t produce much else, but the Iceland Gull patrolled up and down the shore past us a couple of times.

Iceland Gull – this juvenile has been lingering along the North Norfolk coast

Driving back along the coast road, we stopped briefly half way down Beach Road at Cley. As we climbed up the West Bank, a Kingfisher was perched on the concrete sluice the other side. A lone Canada Goose was out on the grazing marshes, lots of Pintail were asleep on the brackish pools and the hoped for Barn Owl was picked up hunting in front of the Mill.

On Jan 2nd, we went for a walk at Holkham. Heading down through the trees in the park produced a selection of commoner woodland birds and the lake added a few ducks to the slowly growing year list. But the surprise of the day was finding six Cattle Egrets (or should that be ‘Deer Egrets’?!) in the park feeding in amongst the Fallow Deer.

Cattle Egrets – four of the six feeding in the park among the deer

It was a nice gentle start to the 2021 birding year, but little did we realise that would be the end of it. On the evening of January 4th it was announced we were all going into a new National Lockdown the following day. That was that!

Staying Local

At first, staying local meant turning my attention to the garden and the surrounding fields. We are lucky with owls here, and regularly, early morning or late afternoon, one or two of our local Barn Owls could be found out hunting.

Barn Owl – often found out hunting early morning or late afternoon

We also have a pair of Little Owls here. On sunny days, they like to perch up somewhere and warm themselves and this year one of them has sometimes used a holly tree outside the back door of the house, from where it watches us coming and going.

Little Owl – watching from a sunny spot in the holly tree

The garden has delivered some surprises this lockdown – as well as an occasional Grey Heron or a pair of Mallard, we often get one or two Teal drop in to the overgrown pond at the back of us here, but a Water Rail there on January 10th was more unexpected. However, possibilities in the immediate area are always going to be slightly limited and there are only so many times you can walk up and down the footpath here, particularly with the rest if the village using it, and the ground getting increasingly muddy.

Still within the local area, there are lots of woods and footpaths which I have never explored, so I set off on foot to see what I could find. The fields and hedgerows held small number of winter thrushes, Fieldfares and Redwings come here from Scandinavia for the winter.

Redwing – small flocks could be found in the fields

Some of the fields have game cover or wild bird seed mix strips along their edges, and one area in particular held impressive numbers of Bramblings, with a flock of at least 100 in one location. There were smaller numbers of Siskins and Lesser Redpolls around too, plus a few Common Crossbills in the conifer blocks.

The best find of early January were the Hawfinches. They used to breed in many of the local parks when I was a boy, but they have sadly declined to the point where they only seem to be regular now in the Brecks. Variable numbers also still come to the UK from the continent in winter, and I often wonder if birds could still be lingering in some of their traditional haunts, as they are surprisingly unobtrusive creatures for so big a finch. Still it was a big surprise out on one of my walks to see two Hawfinches fly in over the fields and land in some trees behind some houses on the edge of the village.

I encountered the Hawfinches regularly over the next couple of weeks, with a maximum of four on a couple of occasions, but mostly they were distant in the tops of the trees or flying over. Then on 18th Jan, I was walking along a track out of the woods and a lone Hawfinch flew up from the verge in front of me. It landed in some bare branches above my head, looking down at me, before flying back into the trees. Just a moment of luck – that was the only time I got close and I never did see one in the same spot again!

Hawfinch – flushed from the verge and landed in the tree above my head

The other highlight locally were the Goshawks. Once confined to the Brecks in Norfolk, they finally seem to be spreading more widely, and lots of people seem to have found them locally to them across the county in the last couple years. A succession of lockdowns has probably helped, with people forced to explore closer to home. There seem to be very good numbers of juveniles around at the moment, presumably birds dispersing after a good breeding season last year. The best time to look for them is on sunny days from the turn of the year, when Goshawks can be found displaying – perfect timing for Lockdown 3.0!

Goshawk – seem to be expanding rapidly now in Norfolk

The little things matter in lockdown too. It got colder around the end of January and this seemed to stimulate a bit of movement. A female Stonechat took up residence on the fence around a field full of sheep, the first I have ever seen locally. Common enough on the coast in winter, and in some of the bigger river valleys in Norfolk, but rarer than hens’ teeth in the agricultural desert that is much of inland Norfolk.

A couple of milder days at the start of February lulled some creatures into a false sense that spring was imminent. A Peacock on my walk on 4th was my first butterfly of the year and my first Hoverfly (Eristalis tenax) appeared in the garden that afternoon. A drake Goosander flying over the woods was a bit of a surprise late one afternoon, as was a Marsh Harrier flying high north towards the coast at dusk on another evening.

Then the snow arrived on 8th February and over the next couple of days, we found ourselves with up to a foot of lying snow, the most I have seen here for many years. Where the hedges have been grubbed out along the road out of the village and the verge had been helpfully mown flatter than a billiard table just the week before, the snow was drifting in the wind too. So that day was a stay at home day.

It was a surprise to find one of the local Barn Owls out hunting in the worst of the snow and wind that morning, before it then more sensibly settled onto a post on the edge of the meadow where it was more sheltered to see if it could hear something in the grass below. Obviously already hungry and with a problem with one of its eyes, it didn’t seem like it would survive a prolonged period of snow (spoiler alert: somehow it did and it is still here!).

Barn Owl – out hunting in the worst of the snow
Barn Owl – then tried to find food from the fenceposts

There was an arrival of Woodcock on the coast before and during the snow, presumably fleeing even colder weather on the continent. People close to the coast reported big numbers – on the beach, in coastal scrub and fields and even on the lawn in some lucky peoples’ gardens! This arrival didn’t seem to percolate this far inland though. We always have a few Woodcock which spend the winter in the woods here and numbers seemed to be much as usual.

Woodcock are normally very nocturnal, and seldom seen during the day unless flushed, but when they are struggling to feed and hungry in snowy or icy conditions, they can sometimes be found out in the middle of the day. Despite searching all the places where I have seen Woodcock locally in the past, the most I could find in the snow here were birds flying past or deep in the trees which flew off before I even saw them. We have had them on the lawn here before, in the snow, but no such luck this year.

There were also reports of large numbers of Common Snipe and smaller number of Jack Snipe elsewhere, displaced by the snow. We always have two or three Green Sandpipers which spend the winter in farm ditches locally, and I had regularly seen one or two on my walks prior to the snow, but otherwise we have few wet areas suitable for waders. It was not a great surprise therefore that I had failed to even see a single Common Snipe so far this year. So when a Common Snipe was reported by one of the other birders in the village from the ditch where the Green Sandpipers could often be found, I was very pleased to be able to catch up with it. The next day, I then flushed two Common Snipe from the old farm pond behind the house – just like buses!

Given the lack of snipe here, I thought a Common Snipe would be the best I could hope for. It was therefore an even bigger surprise the following day, when I stopped on my daily walk to scan the ditch where the Common Snipe was still feeding, and as I looked further back I noticed some bright golden mantle stripes bobbing up and down. A Jack Snipe! The first I have ever seen locally.

Jack Snipe – found feeding in a ditch locally, in the snow

Having scoured the woods in the local area for a daytime-feeding Woodcock, I received a message one day from one of the other birders in the village that he had seen one early that morning on the edge of the small copse directly across the lane from our garden! I had looked in there most mornings, on my way out for a walk, and had not seen anything. Surely it wouldn’t still be there now, but I had to have a quick look just in case.

There was no sign of it where it had been earlier, but after walking up and down on the edge of the copse several times, I noticed a rusty brown lump not far into the trees. The Woodcock! It was out in an open patch, on the ice which had been a large puddle, presumably trying to feed in the damp edges just above, where the lying snow was less deep. It froze when it saw me, presumably not realising that its wonderful cryptic plumage did not provide much camouflage against a background of white snow!

Woodcock – finally I got to see one out in the daytime

After a week, the weather changed and the snow melted very quickly. The waders – Woodcock, Jack Snipe, Common Snipe – all disappeared, the snipe not helped by the rapid rise in water levels in the ditches over the next few days. Finally able to get out further afield again, it became clear that other things had been forced to move by the snow too – there was no sign of the Hawfinches or Stonechat now, and numbers of Bramblings in the fields seemed to have dropped too.

For the last week or so of February, temperatures then rose so that for a while it felt like spring. The insects responded quickly, with my first Common Wasp of the year on on 20th and several Honey Bees gathering pollen around the snowdrops on 21st. Two Brimstone butterflies were out in the sunshine in the woods on 24th and over the following days the bee list expanded with Early and Buff-tailed Bumblebees, and Yellow-legged (Andrena flavipes) and Gwynne’s Mining Bees (A. bicolor) all in the garden.

Honey Bee – one of several gathering pollen around the snowdrops

There had already been several reports of Common Cranes on the move elsewhere over the previous few days, but that is another species we struggle with here. They wander from the Broads in early spring but tend to follow the coast or the major river valleys, and seldom seem to wander over the open fields in the agricultural middle of the county. I was really missing not having seen them in the Broads this year, one of the highlights of Jan and Feb for me. I was therefore delighted when I was out on my daily walk on 26th February in the sunshine and heard bugling high overhead. I turned to see a small group of five Common Cranes circling in the sun. After a few seconds they broke off and continued on their way west.

Common Cranes – these five flew over in the sunshine

I was pleased enough to see them, but when I got home later I noticed a message on the newswires that the Cranes had actually flown over my village a few minutes before I saw them. I hope they didn’t go over my house – it is still one I need for my garden list!

It remained warm right to the end of the month. A Chiffchaff singing in the garden on 27th February may be our earliest ever here, and seemed to be part of quite a widespread arrival across the county that day. With a sunny morning on 28th, it felt like a day for raptors so I stood on the lawn for a while scanning as the local Buzzards started to circle up. I probably saw upwards of 15 Common Buzzards and four Sparrowhawks, but nothing more exotic.

I left my scope on the lawn and walked out through the gap in the tall hedge at the back, onto the footpath beyond, to scan the fields to the south. As I emerged, I noticed a pale shape hovering over the rough grass field just beyond the hedge. It looked the wrong shape for one of the Barn Owls which usually like to hunt over there, before it turned and the penny dropped. It was a cracking silvery-grey male Hen Harrier! And for once I didn’t have a camera with me.

I ran back into the house and grabbed one, but by the time I got back out, the Hen Harrier was working its way down the field away from me, into the sun. I set off down along the footpath, and for a few seconds when it got to the far end of the field it looked like it was going to work its way back again. But then it disappeared round behind the trees and was gone. I have only ever seen one Hen Harrier here before, also a male, back in early 2011. It just goes to show what you can sometimes find when you are forced to stay home. As I walked back into the house, a Peacock butterfly was basking on the steps in the sun.

Peacock – basking on the steps in the sun

The weather has turned cooler again at the moment. The last three days have been dull, grey, foggy and have given me a chance to sit down in the office and write this. But it finally feels like spring is just around the corner and I cannot wait to get out again and explore the rest of Norfolk in just a few weeks time.

10th Oct 2020 – Four Autumn Days, Day 3

Day 3 of a four day Autumn Tour in Norfolk. It was meant to be dry this morning, at least at first, but it had already started raining by the time we met up. It remained very grey with drizzle on and off for most of the morning, but brightened up a bit more in the afternoon, with the showers becoming more intermittent and even some sunny intervals.

The forecast for a dry and bright start to the morning had evaporated overnight, but as there seemed to be a window of drier weather coming, we headed straight down to Wells first to try for the Red-backed Shrike again.

The Little Grebes were present as ever, but there was no sign of the Tufted Ducks as we walked in past the boating lake this morning. We made our way quickly along the main track and as we got round and out of the shelter of the trees, we were caught by the wind and realised it was rather breezy already.

It was a bit better along the track down beside the caravan park, with the shelter from the reeds. We had a quick look at the marshes and scanned the fences as we passed. There were several Curlews, Lapwings and Pied Wagtails on the first field again. A Kestrel flew over and was chased away by one of the Pied Wagtails.

There were lots of ducks on the large flood in the second field, mainly Teal, plus a couple of Mallard and a few Wigeon on the grass nearby. Further over, we could see a small group of Pink-footed Geese with a pair of Egyptian Geese.

Pink-footed Geese – out on Quarles Marsh with a pair of Egyptian Geese

It was very windy again as we got out into the open past the caravan site, and already starting to spit with rain. We stopped to scan and found a couple of Stonechats working their way along the fence line where the shrike had often been recently. We walked down the track opposite again, but it was starting to rain properly now, and there was still no sign of the shrike. We figured it would be unlikely to come out in this weather, so we turned back. We could always try again later, but as it turned out it was not seen again.

It was raining more heavily when we got back on the main track, but we cut in round on the east side of the Dell. A Redwing was sheltering from the rain deep in a hawthorn. We did find a tit flock in the birches, but it was hard to see much with the rain dripping from the leaves and we couldn’t see anything obviously different with it.

Redwing – sheltering from the rain in a hawthorn

Back in the car park, we checked the weather forecast and the rainfall radar. It looked like there was likely to be rain on and off all morning here, so we decided to drive over to the Broads in the hope that it would be starting to ease off by the time we arrived.

It was already late morning by the time we got to Martham Ferry, but it had indeed thankfully stopped raining. We walked down to the riverside path and when we found a place where we could see over the reeds, stopped to scan the grazing marshes over the other side of the river. Almost immediately we spotted two large grey birds walking around near the cows, a pair of Common Cranes. They were rather distant but we managed to get them in the scope – a good start.

Common Cranes – we could see a pair distantly across the river

Continuing on down the path, a Cetti’s Warbler called from the brambles in the reeds on the edge of the fishing lakes. A dark shape in the first field was just a Carrion Crow, but in the second field we found our main target here, the Glossy Ibis.

Glossy Ibis – in the fields by the river at Martham Ferry

It was quite close, and we had a great view of the Glossy Ibis through the scope. It was feeding busily, walking and probing in the wet grass, then it stopped to preen. Glossy Ibis mostly breeds around the Mediterranean, heading to Africa for the winter.

The breeding population has increased dramatically in Iberia since the 1990s and the number reaching the UK has similarly grown, with influxes typically occurring after drought in Spain has caused more birds to disperse. Glossy Ibis is now a regular visitor to the UK, but still a great bird to see – even if it does look slightly out of place here on a grey and drizzly October morning!

There was a single Black-tailed Godwit in the field too, which came over to feed alongside the Glossy Ibis at one point. A Common Snipe flew over calling. A small gaggle of Greylags and Canada Geese was in the wet grass further back and two Grey Herons flew in. A rather dark looking Common Buzzard was perched in a bare tree at the back and a male Marsh Harrier flew over.

A large flock of Redwings came up from behind the trees at the back and flew across, disappeared round the back of the fishing pits, followed quickly by a second smaller group. There were well over 100 Redwing in total, presumably freshly arrived from Scandinavia here for the winter and now dispersing inland.

There were rather grey clouds approaching from the west now, so we decided to head back to the minibus. A lone Pink-footed Goose flew over calling.

It was good to get the two distant ones earlier, but we decided to have a quick drive round next to see if we could find some closer Cranes. There were none at the first site we tried. On our way back, we turned down a side road and stopped to scan the fields. It was rather misty, but we could see a large group of tall grey birds in the distance, Cranes.

Common Cranes – 15 of the 21 we found this morning

We realised we could see the Cranes better from a high point on the main road, so we drove back round. We were worried they might be too close to the path, but they were settled in the back of the field and allowed us to view them from the verge at a discrete distance. It was a great view of them here, feeding in a weedy field with a small flock of Greylags. We counted 21 in total, including three families, each pair of adults with a single browner juvenile, raised this summer.

Common Cranes – feeding in a weedy field
Common Cranes – one of three families, with a browner juvenile

Having enjoyed great views of the Cranes, we set off to find somewhere for lunch, and a hot drink. The weather was much improved now, brighter, and even with some patches of blue sky, so we sat outside on a convenient picnic table.

After lunch, we headed round on the coast road to Waxham. On the way, we stopped to look through a mass of gulls feeding in a field that was just being cultivated. Amongst the mostly Black-headed Gulls we found a couple of Mediterranean Gulls, and got everyone onto a nice winter adult with pure white wing tips and black bandit mask.

We had been told about a Black Redstart at Waxham earlier, on the scaffolding on the house on the corner, but there was no sign of it now. There were people in the house and lots of people coming and going from the beach, lots of cars on the narrow road. We walked up to the churchyard to see if it might be there, but drew a blank there too.

We decided to have a look at the beach. As we got up to the dunes, a Grey Seal was just offshore and a juvenile Red-throated Diver was diving nearby, very close in. We walked down to the shore and had great views of it as it resurfaced repeatedly in the breakers just in front of us.

Red-throated Diver – this juvenile was diving just off the beach

There was a steady stream of Gannets flying past further out over the sea. An Oystercatcher landed briefly on the rocks. As another shower blew in over the beach, we sought shelter in the gap in the seawall. Another adult Mediterranean Gull flew past just offshore.

There was still no sign of the Black Redstart around the house on the corner. With a long drive back, we decided to set off back to North Norfolk now. The journey was better than expected today, and the weather had now improved, bright and sunny by the time we got back to the north coast. We decided to stop off at Stiffkey for a quick scan out over the saltmarsh.

There a a liberal scattering of Curlew, Redshank and Little Egrets over the saltmarsh. A couple of Marsh Harriers were hunting out at the far edge, towards the beach. We managed to find a small group of Brent Geese feeding in the vegetation out towards Blakeney Pit. A Greenshank flew across calling and dropped down again into a large creek out of view.

A Spoonbill appeared out on the saltmarsh away to the west, presumably coming up out of one of the small pools where it had been feeding. It was joined by a Little Egret, noticeably smaller and slimmer. While we were watching it, a second Spoonbill appeared nearby. Most of the Spoonbills which spent the summer here have gone south already – many normally spend the winter in Poole Harbour – but there are still a small number clinging on here, for now at least.

Spoonbill – joined by a Little Egret out on the saltmarsh

It was a productive quick stop for half an hour, but it was now time to head back. We had managed to see a lot today, despite the weather.

9th Feb 2020 – Winter, Broads & Brecks, Day 3

Day 3 of our three-day Winter, Broads & Brecks tour today. With ‘Stormageddon’ Ciara forecast for today, we knew the weather would be challenging, with winds around 40mph and gusts up to 60mph+. It was also meant to be heavy rain all day, and thankfully that part of the forecast was wrong – we had some squally light drizzle at times, most of which we were able to dodge, but the only really horrible weather was as we were driving back north late afternoon. Armed with the knowledge that it would be difficult, we set off down to the Broads to see what we could find.

Our first stop was at Ludham. We could see the herd of swans from the main road, so we made our way down a couple of minor roads on the edge of the old airfield and parked on the edge of the beet field they were in. It was certainly windy when we got out, but we got the scope set up on them, a mixture of Bewick’s Swans and Whooper Swans.

Whooper and Bewick's Swans 1

Bewick’s Swans & Whooper Swans – the mixed herd at Ludham

It is always nice to see the two species side by side, which they normally area here. We could see the smaller, shorter-necked Bewick’s Swans, with less yellow at the base of the bill and the yellow squared off. The Whooper Swans were bigger and longer-necked, with the more extensive yellow on the bill extending down towards the tip in a wedge. There were several greyer juvenile Whooper Swans towards the back of the group, with dull bases to their bills. Two Mute Swans were feeding on their own in the winter wheat further over.

Whooper and Bewick's Swans 2

Bewick’s Swans & Whooper Swans – a nice comparison, side by side

Our first mission accomplished, we were happy to get back in the minibus and out of the wind again. We decided to head down to look for some Common Cranes next. There has been a large group feeding in the fields at Billockby this winter, but when we got there it was very exposed and windy, with no sign of any Cranes.

We figured they might be out on the marshes instead today, where they could be able to find a bit more cover, so we set about scanning the surrounding area. It didn’t take us long to find the Cranes – they were rather distant here, but we got them in the scope and watched them feeding in around the wet pools and amongst the dense rushy tussocks. We counted at least 11 Cranes, hard to be sure as some were difficult to see at times in the vegetation.

Common Cranes

Common Cranes – we counted at least 11 together out on the marshes

From here, we drove round to the causeway between Rollesby and Ormesby Broads. We scanned Rollesby Broad from the shelter of the minibus first. The water was very choppy, whipped up by the wind, and most of the birds were sheltering down in the near corner, behind the reeds – with two Great Crested Grebes in amongst the Tufted Ducks, Mallards and Coots. An adult Lesser Black-backed Gull was trying to stand on one of the floating jetties beyond.

Great Crested Grebe

Great Crested Grebe – sheltering from the wind at the front with the Coots

The near edge of Ormesby Broad, the other side of the road, was a bit more sheltered from the wind by the causeway. There were more ducks on here, including several Common Pochard and a scattering of Goldeneye further back. We got one of the closer drake Goldeneye in the scope and admired its golden eye and white cheek patch. We couldn’t see any sign of the Long-tailed Duck which had been here earlier in the week though.

There was still a little bit of time before lunch, and we wanted something else to do which would not require braving the conditions, so we decided to drive down a nearby track which overlooks some pools and marshes, which we could then scan from the minibus. It was a bit muddy down the track, but perfectly passable. We could see lots more ducks on the pools, Wigeon, Shoveler, Teal and Gadwall. A Marsh Harrier was battling into the wind along the near edge, over the reeds.

The first area where we might turn around looked rather muddy, so we drove on to the end of the track, where there is a larger turning area with a hardcore base. Typically, having not seen a sign of anyone else braving the conditions here today, there were two cars parked in the turning area and in such a way there was no way we could get around. There was no option but to reverse back. All was fine until we got back to the area we would have to turn round, and as we prepared to manoeuvre, the front wheel got stuck in the muddy edge on the edge of the track. As we tried to get out, we just ended up getting more stuck.

Fortuitously, there was a cafe not far away, so we wrapped up and everyone walked back along the track to the road. With the group installed in the warm with a hot drink, we managed to find a very helpful couple of locals with a 4×4 who could help. After a bit of a wait to assemble the required gear, it was thankfully a fairly painless process to tow the minibus out of the mud and back onto the firmer ground of the track. Many thanks to the help from the locals. All that was not spared was the embarrassment of the guide! We couldn’t even really blame the weather.

Back on the road, with everyone back in the bus, we drove round to Hickling Broad and stopped for lunch by the Pleasure Boat Inn. There had been a couple of Scaup out on the broad in recent days, so we walked out to the shore to have a look after lunch. There was a Marsh Tit calling in the bushes by the car park, but when we got out to the water it was far too choppy for any ducks to be out in the middle. A Cormorant was fishing around the staithes, presumably where the water was a little less churned up.

We had a message now to say that the two Cattle Egrets were still at Potter Heigham, and some directions as to where to look. We drove back round and parked in the car park by the boat yard. As we walked down the footpath which runs alongside, a Kingfisher zipped away along the ditch ahead of us. It landed on some brambles above the water, long enough for us to get it in the scope, but was quickly on its way again.

Once we got out of the shelter of the trees, it was very windy. We could see some cows on the grazing marshes at the far end, so we put our heads down and walked on. There were lots of Black-headed Gulls out on the wet grass, but two larger white shapes were feeding around the feet of the cows. When we stopped by the gate at the end, we could confirm they were the two Cattle Egrets. Some squally drizzle started up now, just when we didn’t want it, but we got them in the scope and could see their short, yellow bills. Everything was very flighty in the wind and kept whirling round and dropping back down again.

Cattle Egrets

Cattle Egrets – feeding on the grazing marshes with the cows and gulls

With the Cattle Egrets in the bag, we turned and headed back to the shelter of the trees. Typically, the drizzle stopped as we walked back.

It felt like we had got the best we might get out of the Broads today, so we thought we would drive back round on the main roads via the North Norfolk coast. We figured we would still have time to have a look in at Sheringham on the way, where it would be more sheltered down along the prom. Having not had any heavy rain all day, we now drove into a very heavy squall at Stalham, with very gusty winds, driving rain and poor visibility. Thankfully, we were in the dry and it passed over fairly quickly, although we lost a bit of time as it was slow going. It was also good that we hadn’t had these conditions all day, as had been forecast.

Even better, as we drove up towards the coast, we could see the back edge of the front approaching and bright sky beyond. As we walked down to the prom, we were mostly out of the wind, which seemed to have dropped now, and the sun even came out. We couldn’t find much life along the prom though this afternoon – perhaps it was just a bit too late in the day now or perhaps many of the birds had gone elsewhere to find shelter in the wind and rain earlier. Despite it approaching high tide, we couldn’t find any Purple Sandpipers on the sea defences, although we did eventually find a few Turnstones feeding on the beach below the slipway. True to their name, they were busily flicking the stones over, looking for food underneath.

Turnstone

Turnstone – turning stones over on the beach

The light was starting to go now, so we decided to call it a day and head for home. It had certainly not been easy-going in the wind today, but there was general agreement in the group that we had done pretty well all things considered – it was certainly better than cancelling the day. And we had enjoyed a very successful three days in aggregate, with a total of 127 species on the list and a good selection of winter visitors and a couple of rarities thrown in for good measure.

11th Jan 2020 – Winter in Norfolk, Day 2

Day 2 of a three day Winter Tour in Norfolk, and we would be heading down to the Broads today. We were blessed with another dry day, but it was very windy at times.

As we got down into the Broads, we started to see more Rooks in the fields. They are much commoner here than in North Norfolk. We passed a couple of Marsh Harriers hunting too. As we came into Ludham village, we decided to have a quick look down on St Benet’s Levels, just in case the swans were down there today. We found several Mute Swans but nothing else.

We were just leaving when one of the locals, who was counting them for the International Swan Census, very helpfully stopped to tell us that the swans were on Ludham Airfield this morning, just where we were heading next. He directed us to the south-eastern corner.

We drove straight over and could see the swans feeding in a recently harvested sugar beet field. We found somewhere to park off the road and got out. It was a nice mixed herd, with both Whooper Swans and Bewick’s Swans together. It was good to see the two species side by side, the Whooper Swans noticeably bigger, with more extensive yellow on the bill extending down towards the tip in a wedge.

Bewicks and Whooper Swans

Whooper & Bewick’s Swans – a nice mixed herd on the old airfield

We counted 50 birds, of which 15 were Whoopers and the rest Bewick’s Swans. There were several Egyptian Geese in the field too, further back. It was open and exposed out on the old airfield, and the rather biting wind was cutting across, so after all having a good look at the swans, we moved on.

Our next stop was near Acle. As we drove up, we could already see several Common Cranes in the maize stubble. When we parked and got out, we could see a total of seven together in the nearest field, a group of four and a family of three still with their juvenile from last year. We got them in the scope and had a great view of them.

Cranes

Common Cranes – we counted 16 in the maize stubble today

There were at least three more Cranes further back, in the next field, beyond the reeds lining the ditch. Then another six flew up from further over. They only flew a short distance, before dropping back down out of view, but it was nice to see some in the air too. That meant at least sixteen Cranes in total.

There had been some geese down towards Great Yarmouth yesterday, on the grazing marshes along the Acle Straight. It was not far so we drove down to look, but there was no sign of any geese there today. Two temporary shooting butts, made of camo netting, had been erected in the middle of the field. Presumably someone had been shooting at the geese and they had moved on.

We called in at Halvergate on our way back. There was no sign of any geese down along the Branch Road, but we did find the lone Cattle Egret still with the cattle just before the village. We had a quick look at it, as it walked around between the cows.

Cattle Egret

Cattle Egret – on its own, with the cows just outside Halvergate

Our next stop was at Buckenham. The Taiga Bean Geese had not been reported for a few days, and we assumed they had gone already, but then there was a report of three again yesterday. Unfortunately, when we got there, we found lots of activity down along the railway line, lots of engineers in high viz coats doing works to the line. Unsurprisingly, there was no sign of any geese down along the edge of the grazing meadow closest to the railway line, which the Taigas generally favour.

There were lots of Pink-footed Geese out in the middle of the marshes, but they were keeping tucked down out of the wind, many sleeping. We could see more geese further up but we were looking into the sun from here, so we walked on up to the riverbank. There were plenty of Wigeon around the pools on the right of the track, but not the numbers there were in past years.

Wigeon

Wigeon – there were good numbers around the pools

It was very breezy out in the middle of the marshes, so we hurried on to the end. We managed to get out of the wind a little by the hide. There were lots of Lapwing out on the grass, and a few Ruff in with them. They were very jumpy in the wind, and kept flying up, whirling round, and dropping back down again. We couldn’t see any raptors over the grazing marsh itself, but we could see a Peregrine further back, hanging in the air around Cantley Beet Factory before landing on the ladder up one of the silos.

There were lots of Canada Geese out in the middle from here, feeding in and around the taller areas of rushes. A small number of White-fronted Geese was in with them. They are much smaller and were hard to see until they raised their heads. There were possibly more asleep we couldn’t quite see. A small group of Barnacle Geese were further back, mixed in with the Canadas.

We braved the wind and walked back, before driving round to Strumpshaw for lunch. There were a few Mallard and Gadwall on the pool in front of Reception Hide. While we ate, a succession of tits were coming and going at the feeders – Blue Tits and Great Tits, and a Coal Tit popped in a couple of times briefly. But there was no sign of any Marsh Tits today.

After lunch, we drove over to Ranworth. A female Ferruginous Duck had been there a few days ago and reported again earlier, so we thought we would take a look. As we walked out onto the staithe at Malthouse Broad, a single tame Pink-footed Goose was in with the Greylags on the green. It looked like it might have been injured in the past. The Ferruginous Duck was swimming around on Malthouse Broad when we got there, amazingly close, just off the Staithe, around the boats. A bit too close really! Ferruginous Ducks are very common in captivity and escapes are regular.

Ferruginous Duck

Ferruginous Duck – appears to be a returning bird from 2017

More interestingly, we noticed that this bird bore a striking similarity to one seen here in exactly the same place in January 2017. It had a rather chunky and dark head, with a noticeably paler area around the bill base, in some respects resembling a female Baer’s Pochard. Looking at photos later, the bill pattern was a perfect match for the 2017 bird too. Where has it been since then? The bird from 2017 was accepted as a wild Ferruginous Duck by the British Birds Rarities Committee, so presumably this one will be too!

Otherwise, a Great Crested Grebe asleep with Tufted Ducks out in the middle of the Broad was an addition to the trip list. We walked round to Ranworth Broad, and out along the boardwalk. We hoping to maybe catch up with some redpoll or tits. A Siskin flew over calling, but otherwise the trees were very quiet, despite being more sheltered in here. We wondered whether the birds might be in the gardens, where there might be more food.

We walked on down to the end and scanned the Broad from the platform by the Visitor Centre. There were lots of Wigeon out on the water, and a good number of Shoveler in with them too. The Marsh Harriers were starting to gather over the back of the Broad – it was time for us to be making tracks, so we could get back over to Stubb Mill in time for the roost there.

As we got back to the road, we could hear a Marsh Tit calling from the garden of the house opposite. We scanned the hedge, but could only see a couple of Blue Tits and a Coal Tit. We walked on a few metres and heard it again. From here, we could see down the drive into the garden where lots of birds were coming to some feeders. The Marsh Tit flew in and dropped to the ground under the bird table, grabbing a seed before flying to the bare tree by the garden wall. It made several repeat visits, so we could all get to see it.

We were later than originally planned getting to Hickling Broad tonight, although given the wind we didn’t want to stop too long there, and the light was already going as we walked out to Stubb Mill. A flock of Redwings was in the paddock as we walked out, and although most flew back into the trees, a couple stayed put down on the grass where we could get a look at them.

Redwing

Redwing – we passed a flock in the paddock as we walked out

A couple of Marsh Harriers flew in past us as we walked out, heading in for the roost. When we arrived at the Watchpoint, we discovered we had just missed a couple of Cranes flying off. Looking out towards the ruined mill (windpump!), we could see several more Marsh Harriers up over the reeds, flying in and out of the bushes. We couldn’t see how many were already in, but we had a maximum of 10 or so in the air at any one time.

While we were watching the Marsh Harriers, a male Hen Harrier appeared in with them. We could see a ghostly grey shape with black wing tips, slimmer and smaller than the Marsh Harriers. The Hen Harrier flew back and forth several times, in and out of the trees and in front of the old mill, giving everyone a chance to get onto it.

A Great White Egret flew across over the back of the grazing marshes, heading towards the reserve, presumably going in to roost. We heard Cranes bugling behind us, presumably heading in to roost too over the trees, but we couldn’t see them where we were standing. Then two Cranes flew up from the grazing marshes and circled round, before dropping down into the reeds beyond.

The light was going now. The wind was picking up and with the cloud having thickened it felt like it might rain later. With a long drive back, we decided to call it a night. Still time for more tomorrow!

8th Feb 2019 – Breezy in the Broads

Day 1 of a three day long weekend of tours today. It was forecast to be wet and windy today. It was certainly windy, but thankfully we saw next to no rain until we had finished for the day and were on our way back. We spent the day today down in the Norfolk Broads.

Our first stop was at Barton Broad. It wasn’t too windy as we walked down along the road to the boardwalk, although the debris from yesterday was scattered on the road, leaves and small branches. It was quite sheltered on the boardwalk and when we got to the platform at the end, the first thing we saw was a pair of Great Crested Grebes displaying just in front.

Great Crested Grebes

Great Crested Grebe – this pair was displaying in front of the platform

The Great Crested Grebes were facing each other, turning their heads alternately side to side. They didn’t get much beyond that though, swimming off separately before coming back and doing some more head turning.

Beyond the grebes, we could see quite a few ducks out on the Broad. In particular, there was a good number of Goldeneye on here again. Further back, a large raft of diving ducks were mostly Tufted Ducks, although a single drake Common Pochard was with them. We had really come to see the two female Scaup, and it didn’t take too long to find them, the thick white surround to their bills being particularly striking.

A Marsh Harrier flew down the far side of the Broad, above the trees, then cut across over the water in front of us and hung in the air over the near side. With our mission accomplished we set off back along the boardwalk. There were more tits in the alders here now, with both Great Tit and Coal Tit singing and a small flock of Long-tailed Tits once we were almost back to the road.

As we walked back towards the car park, a flock of small birds came out of the hedge and circled round over the field beyond. As they dropped down again into the stubble, against the background of the trees, we could see they were Yellowhammers. The wind was starting to pick up now and a few Redwings had been feeding in the shelter of the car park, under the cars, and flew off as we returned.

The plan was to head for Ludham next, to see if we could find some Bewick’s and Whooper Swans. As we were driving along the main road just past Horning, we spotted a large group of swans in a harvested sugar beet field. This was well beyond the normal range where we have seen the Ludham herd, so we assumed these would most likely be just Mute Swans until we pulled up and noticed they were not.

Whooper Swans

Whooper & Bewick’s Swans – a nice surprise in a beet field by the road

We managed to find somewhere to pull in off the road and had a closer look. There was a mixture of Bewick’s Swans and Whooper Swans, about thirty of each. It was nice to be able to see the two species side by side, in the same scope view. The Bewick’s Swans were noticeably smaller and shorter necked, with a smaller and more squared-off patch of yellow on the bill, compared to the long wedge of the Whooper Swans.

Bewick's Swans

Bewick’s Swans – smaller and with more restricted and squared-off yellow on the bill

Having enjoyed such great views of the swans by the road, the pressure was off at Ludham now. Still, we drove down to the river to see if we could find any Cranes. A large flock of Woodpigeons and Stock Doves flew up from around the barns as we got out of the van.

It was very windy up on the river bank, and it started to spit with rain. A large flock of Lapwings and Golden Plover flew up across the other side of the Levels, but we couldn’t see what had spooked them. Three large shapes were flying across in the distance, which we could see were Common Cranes, our first of the day. They crossed the river and looked for a second like they might turn in our direction, but instead flew off away from us.

There were a handful of Mute Swans feeding on the grass here, but we could see a very large herd of swans way off beyond St Benet’s Abbey. They were mostly hidden behind a line of reeds, but we got the scope on them and they appeared to be mostly Bewick’s Swans. Since we had enjoyed such good views of them earlier, we decided not to walk further along the bank. We turned and headed back to the shelter of the van.

We did drive round to St Benet’s Abbey, to see what we could find there. As we came down along the entrance road, several more Bewick’s Swans flew over, but went down out of view.

There were lots of Greylag Geese on the grass here, but when we pulled up to check a flock by the side of the track, we could see there were Russian White-fronted Geese with them. We found somewhere to pull over and got out for a closer look. There were actually at least 55 White-fronted Geese here, many asleep down in the grass, but some feeding so we could see their distinctive black belly bars. There was one Barnacle Goose here too – as ever, it is hard to tell whether individuals of this species are feral birds or wandering wild individuals.

White-fronted Geese

Russian White-fronted Geese – about 55 were on St Benet’s Levels

From St Benet’s, we had a quick drive round via the coast, to see if we could find any Cranes and any more flocks of geese. There was no sign of any Cranes today, but it was rather windy and exposed out here now. There were rather few geese visible too. We saw a couple of small flocks of Pink-footed Geese but they dropped out of view behind some tress. Six more Pink-footed Geese were in a winter wheat field by the road, but no sign of any large flocks today. The herd of swans here were all Mute Swans.

As we made our way inland, we finally managed to spot some Cranes on the ground. There were 12 of them together, standing in some winter wheat, but they were rather distant, several fields over. Still, we got them in the scope and had a better look at them.

Common Crane 1

Common Crane – we spotted a flock of 12 distantly across the fields

Three of the Cranes took off and flew back further away from us, before landing again in another field. Gradually, the others followed in small groups until only two were left. When they flew too, we watched them go and realised that the group had all landed closer to a small road some way off. We figured we might be able to drive round for a closer look.

Little did we realise how right we were. The Cranes had landed in another field right next to the minor road. Edging along slowly, and stopping regularly to allow them to get comfortable with our presence, we eventually found ourselves right alongside them. The birds were very relaxed as we watched them from the van, continuing to feed. We could see now there were ten adults and two browner juveniles. We could see the red on the crowns of some of the adults, even without a scope. Stunning views, a real treat and a privilege to see them like this.

Common Crane 2

Common Cranes – we drove round and found them feeding right next to the road

Common Crane 3

Common Cranes – they were mainly adults with two duller brown juveniles

Common Crane 4

Common Crane – what you would call ‘showing well’!

We watched the Cranes, spellbound, for a while. Then we decided to leave them in peace and drove slowly away.

It was time for lunch now, so we headed round to the RSPB reserve at Strumpshaw Fen. Huge thanks have to go to the warden, Ben, and his staff. Someone had called in sick and they didn’t have enough people to staff the reception, so they had just closed it up for the afternoon. But they very kindly switched on the hot water urn just for us, so we could get an extremely welcome hot drink.

There were a few ducks on the Reception Hide pool, Gadwall, Shoveler and Mallard, but there was no sign of the resident Black Swan today. It was probably hiding somewhere out of the wind, which had increased steadily through the morning. There were plenty of Coot too and when they all suddenly raced across the water and onto the cut reeds at the front, we thought something might have spooked them, but we couldn’t see what it was.

Possibly also due to the wind, there were fewer tits than normal coming down to the feeders today too. A steady stream of Great Tits came in and out, but no sign of any Marsh Tits today.

After lunch, we headed round to Buckenham. As we crossed the railway line, we could see some geese on the right of the path. Looking closer, we found there were seven Russian White-fronted Geese in with the Greylags. There were lots of Pink-footed Geese on the other side of the path, tucked up in the far corner by the railway. Several small groups flew round and landed much closer to the path where we could finally get a good look at them.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese – flew in and landed closer to the path

The Wigeon were rather nervous today, possibly due to the wind. There are normally several small groups right by the path, but they were all out in the middle. There were plenty of Lapwing out on the marshes too, and scanning through them carefully we found a couple of Ruff in with them. We could see several Chinese Water Deer out on the marshes as well.

Chinese Water Deer

Chinese Water Deer – there were several on the marshes at Buckenham

It was rather exposed out here in the wind, so we made our way up to the hide by the river bank. We could see lots of ducks on here, mainly Teal, but also a few Shoveler and a couple of Shelduck. Something spooked all the Wigeon from the grazing marshes the other side of the track and they flew in, calling noisily. A quick count suggested at least 1,000 were here.

A single Lesser Black-backed Gull was loafing on the water on the further pool. We couldn’t see any other waders out here today though, and despite scanning the margins of the pools very carefully we couldn’t find any Snipe.

Wigeon

Wigeon – over 1,000 flew in from the grass and landed on the pools

It was grey and windy but miraculously still dry this afternoon. We wanted to have a look at the watchpoint at Stubb Mill while the weather held, so we headed round there next. As we walked down the track from the car park, several Marsh Harriers were already circling over the reeds.

We noticed another bird come up from the reeds. It seemed to struggle in the wind at first, almost appearing to be hovering, before it turned and started to fly across over the reedbed. It was a Bittern! Unfortunately, it was hard to see in the gloom, low over the reeds, before it disappeared behind some bushes.

When we arrived at the watchpoint, the small huddle of hardy people already there pointed out three Cranes at the back of the marsh. We had a look at them through the scope – another family party, two adults and a juvenile.

A small flock of Fieldfares flew over and landed first out on the grass in front of the watchpoint, then in one of the small hawthorns. A group of Long-tailed Tits worked their way through the bushes in front of us too. A Red Deer appeared out on the grass, followed shortly after by a second. They spent most of the time sheltering behind a large patch of brambles, out of the wind.

More Marsh Harriers drifted in and we could see a few already in the bushes over by the old ruined mill. When they flew up and circled round in a group, we counted at least 25 in the air together. A Hen Harrier appeared with them, a ringtail. It kept low, flying in and out of the bushes, but it reappeared several times while we were there, so in the end everyone had a chance to get a look at it through the scope.

Having had some unbeatable views of the Cranes earlier, and with the rather cold and windy weather, we didn’t fancy staying until dark tonight to see more Cranes come in to roost. An advance party went to get the van, while the others waited a the Watchpoint to be picked up. A Tawny Owl hooted from the trees by the mill. Time to head for home.

11th Jan 2019 – Midwinter Birding, Day 1

Day 1 of a three day Winter Tour today, and we made our way down to the Norfolk Broads. It was a rather grey start and end to the day, with a little bit of brightness in between, but dry and mild with light winds. A nice day to be out.

As we drove along the top road out of Ludham, we could already see lots of swans out on the fields on the old airfield below. We drove round on the maze of minor roads to a convenient spot overlooking where they were feeding. They were split at first into two  groups, one feeding in the remains of a harvested sugar beet field and the other group loafing in a neighbouring field of winter wheat. Through the scope, we could see there was a mixture of smaller Bewick’s Swans and larger Whooper Swans.

bewick's and whooper swans

Bewick’s and Whooper Swans – good to see the two species side by side

The feeding swans started to fly across in small groups to join the bigger herd in the winter wheat, where many were asleep in a slight dip in the ground. We could count around 100 swans in total, but it was hard to work out how many of each species there were today.

It was good to see the two species side by side, to be able to compare them. As well as being larger, the Whooper Swans have a distinctive wedge of yellow on their bills extending further towards the tip, whereas the yellow on the Bewick’s Swans is blunt, squared off, and not as extensive.

A pair of Stock Doves were feeding in the ploughed field in front of us and one of them did a nice fly round, showing off the black trailing edge to the wing, lacking the white band of a Woodpigeon. A couple of Common Buzzards were flying round, and we watched one fly off with a Brown Rat, the latters tail trailing from its talons. We would be looking for geese today too, and several groups of Pink-footed Geese flew over calling while we were watching the swans, to start things off.

Gradually, the swans started to walk back into the sugar beet field to feed, and we decided to move on. As we drove further into the Broads, we noticed three tall grey shapes in a field so we stopped for a look, flushing several Fieldfares from the hedge as we pulled up. As we suspected, the tall birds in the field were Common Cranes, a family party, two adults with their fully grown juvenile from last year, the young one browner and lacking the contrasting black-and-white head pattern of the adults.

common cranes 1

Common Crane – a family party, the first of 17 today

As we watched the family of Cranes feeding, like the swans we had seen earlier in a recently harvested sugar beet field, another pair of Cranes flew over. They disappeared down behind some trees further back and we thought they had most likely landed out of view, but when we looked further round we noticed two Cranes in another field, on the edge of a maize strip. Were they the same ones we had just seen flying over? But every time we looked back over, more Cranes appeared from out of the maize until there were seven together on that side, making ten visible in total including the first family of three. There could easily have still been more in the maize!

We had turned our attention back to the original family when we heard Cranes ‘bugling’. We looked across to see one of the pairs on the edge of the maize strip displaying. They were walking together, side by side, with the heads up and their bustles raised as they called. It was clearly a bit of a dispute, as they took off and flew towards one of the other Cranes standing in the field. The larger of the pair, the male, swooped down at the standing bird and chased it a short distance across the field. The pair then strutted together for a minute or so before flying off.

There was a cover strip, planted with a wild bird seed mix, along the edge of the road where we had pulled over. Birds were constantly flying back and forth across the road between the strip and the hedge of a garden the other side. They were mostly Greenfinches, always good to see in numbers given how the species had declined in recent years, along with quite a few House Sparrows, a smaller number of Chaffinches and Goldfinches, and one or two Reed Buntings.

Further over, a tight flock of Linnets kept flying up out of the cover strip, flying round and dropping back in again, rather than flying over to the garden. We watched their distinctive bouncing flight, looking almost like they were held up with elastic!

Taiga Bean Goose is one of the key target birds to see down in the Broads at this time of year. Since the start of 2018, it has been treated as a separate species from Tundra Bean Goose in the UK (the two were previously lumped together as ‘Bean Goose’). The Yare Valley is one of only two traditional wintering sites in the UK for this now species. The wintering population here is declining and a maximum of just over 20 have been seen in the last few years, so they can be tricky to find.

The Taiga Bean Geese had been reported from Cantley Marshes this morning, so we made our way over there nest. As we pulled up next to yet another recently harvested sugar beet field (we are in the shadow of the Cantley sugar beet processing factory here, after all!), a large flock of Rooks were looking for invertebrates among the chopped up leaves and debris.

rook

Rook – a large flock were feeding in the recently harvested sugar beet field

We made our way down over the railway crossing and stopped to scan the grazing marshes. At first sight, it looked quite devoid of life. A Peregrine was perched on a distant gatepost out in the middle and a Marsh Harrier was visible in the reeds beyond. A couple of Chinese Water Deer were hiding in the grass. The marshes here are often full of geese of various species, but we couldn’t see any at first today. We eventually found just one, lone Pink-footed Goose.

If the Taiga Bean Geese are not here, they can often be on the neighbouring marshes at Buckenham. We could see some geese flying up periodically over in that direction, so we decided to head over there next. As we walked back up the hill, a small skein of Pink-footed Geese flew in over the village and disappeared over that way.

The marshes at Cantley have lots of long grass and wet ditches where it easy to hide a small group of geese, so we walked out along the footpath across the field at the top of the hill to have one more scan from higher ground. There were the Taiga Bean Geese! They were tucked down behind a couple of gates, which explained why we couldn’t see them from lower down.

Slowly, some of the Taiga Bean Geese came out from behind the gate. We could see their long bills, though variable in pattern, mostly had quite an extensive amount of orange showing.

taiga bean goose

Taiga Bean Geese – hard to find at first, in the long grass hiding behind the gates

The Rooks had moved on, but there were now at least twenty Pied Wagtails feeding in the beet field, and a single Meadow Pipit was with them. Looking down at the near edge of the marshes, we could see two Marsh Harrier, a female chasing a darker juvenile. There was still an hour or so before lunch so, despite the fact we had seen the Taiga Bean Geese already, we decided to call in at Buckenham to see what else we could see on the marshes there.

A large flock of Wigeon were feeding out on the marshes as we walked down the track towards the river. We could hear their distinctive whistles. Some of them were very close to the track, so we could get a great look at them, the drakes with their distinctive rusty heads and creamy yellow paint stripe up their foreheads. When something spooked them, they all flew up and dropped into the nearby ditch, where a pair of Teal and several Shoveler were already feeding.

wigeon 1

Wigeon – there were lots feeding on the grazing marshes by the track

There were a few more geese on the marshes at Buckenham today, mostly Canada Geese and Greylags, but with a small number of feral Barnacle Geese in with them. Another group of about thirty geese flew up from the back of marshes, and dropped straight back down into the grass. Through the grass we could see they were Russian White-fronted Geese, with a narrow white surround to the base of the bill from which they get their name, as well as distinctive black belly barring.

A liberal scattering of Lapwings was spread out across the shorter grass. In with them, we found eight Ruff, including one with a white head (white-headed males make up a small percentage of the population), though they were walking round quickly and hard to keep up with. We heard a Water Pipit call once briefly, but we couldn’t see where the sound came from and there was no sound of it around the pools in the grass. We did find a Little Egret and a Grey Heron out there though.

Continuing on along the track, we stopped to scan the larger pools at the far end. There were lots more Teal asleep on the edges, and more Shoveler along with two Shelduck. A single Lesser Black-backed Gull was standing in the far corner and when we got the scope on it we could see a couple of Common Snipe lurking on the muddy bank next to it.

It was lunchtime now, so we walked back to the car, stopping briefly to watch a Red Kite circling over the trees beyond. We drove round to Strumpshaw Fen for lunch. The Reception Hide pool held lots of ducks as usual, with Gadwall an addition to the day’s list, as well as more Shoveler and Mallard. The resident Black Swan was standing on the edge of the water with one of the Mute Swans.

shoveler

Shoveler – loafing with the ducks and swans at Reception Hide

While we ate, we kept an eye on the feeders nearby. A steady succession of Blue Tits and Great Tits kept darting in to grab sunflower seeds. We could hear a Marsh Tit calling in the trees, but it was some time before it eventually came in to the feeders. Then we got good views of it, as rather than just darting in and out as it sometimes does, it perched on a dead tree stump next to the feeders several times and waited its turn.

There were a few other birds in the trees around Reception Hide. A Lesser Redpoll appeared in the tops with a Goldfinch before flying off back towards the wood. A Bullfinch came out of the trees calling and disappeared off towards the car park. A Siskin flew over the pool calling.

As we were packing up, we heard a Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming. With a few birds singing too today, it almost felt like spring was on its way already! As we walked back to the car across the railway, another Great Spotted Woodpecker responded, drumming from across the road.

A small group of Tundra Bean Geese had been reported for the last few days feeding in fields near Thrigby. So, as we made our way back north, we diverted round to look for them. We found them easily enough, in exactly the field they were in yesterday. They were on their own in some winter wheat, and mostly sat down, loafing. From the layby where we could pull over, they had typically chosen a spot just over the top of the ridge where they were mostly out of view.

At first, we could just see one of the Tundra Bean Geese which had stood up, but as the others began to move we could see more of them. Through the scope, we could see their bills, which were very different from the Taiga Bean Geese we had seen earlier – shorter and deeper-based, with a more restricted band of orange just behind the dark tip.

tundra bean goose

Tundra Bean Goose – with more restricted orange on the bill

There were no other geese with them, though there was a small herd of Mute Swans feeding in a field of oil seed rape on the other side of road and four Egyptian Geese away in the distance. Several Common Snipe flew up from time to time out of the oil seed rape too, but instantly disappeared again as soon as they landed. A Chinese Water Deer was lying down out there too and a Common Buzzard perched up in a tree at the back.

We made our way over to Stubb Mill to end the day. The cloud had thickened again and the light was already starting to go when we arrived. We were helpfully directed straight away to a Merlin perched on a post at the back of the fields. It was remarkably hard to see, being very similar in colour to the top of the post. A Green Woodpecker flew across over the grass and a Stonechat flicked up briefly.

There is a flight pond out in the fields beyond the mill. As we arrived, the landowner was just going out on his quadbike to put feed out for the ducks. It wasn’t long after he left again, that a pair of Cranes flew up from where they had been lurking behind the reeds and landed over by the pond, presumably to help themselves to some of the food. We could just see them walking about through the scope. A flock of Shelduck flew in too.

The Marsh Harriers were already gathering in the reeds further over. As we scanned across, we could see several perched in the scattered bushes. From time to time, more would fly up and we counted at least twenty at in the air together at one point. There was a slow trickle of Marsh Harriers still arriving, flying in from various directions, but it felt like a lot were probably already down in the roost this evening.

It was time for the Cranes to head into roost now. First one flew across, over the trees at the back, followed by another which came through much lower over the reeds. Then another three Cranes flew in, much closer this time, silhouetted against the last of the light.

common cranes 2

Common Crane – three more, flying in to roost at dusk

As it started to get dark, a herd of Red Deer emerged from the reeds and walked out across the marshes. A Woodcock shot past just a few feet from us, right in front of the viewpoint, but was gone as quickly as it appeared. It was time to head home, and as we got back to the car we could hear the Pink-footed Geese calling, going in to roost.

19th March 2018 – Brecks & Fens

A Private Tour today down in the Brecks, but with a difference. We had a specific list of target species, which meant we would aim to spend the morning in the Brecks themselves and the afternoon at Lakenheath Fen and the surrounding area. After a frosty night, it was a lovely bright, clear, sunny day, but cold in the still blustery NE wind.

After an earlier than normal start, we headed out to look for Stone Curlews first. A few early birds have already arrived back and presumably must be regretting it! It had snowed a little yesterday and the fields were covered in a light dusting of snow this morning.

The first field we checked, where we had seen them a couple of days ago, was empty today, apart from a couple of Red-legged Partridges. We checked out the other field they favour and at first it appeared devoid of life too until somebody noticed two shapes huddled up tight against the hedge – the Stone Curlews. They were clearly trying to get out of the cold wind, despite the fact they were up to their knees in snow!

Stone Curlew

Stone Curlew – one of two sheltering from the wind in the snow this morning

The Stone Curlews walked out a short distance into the field, where we had a very good look at them through the scope, before they headed back in to the shelter of the hedge once more. Further over, out in the middle of the field, a pair of Grey Partridge were trying to hide in one of the wheel ruts.

Goshawk was another target for the day, but it was still a bit cold for them to be up. We drove round via a good site for them but a quick scan from the warmth of the car revealed very little aerial activity. There were several Fieldfares feeding on the ground out in the field nearby, along with a couple of Mistle Thrush and a few Chaffinches. We would come back later, when it had warmed up a little (relatively speaking!). In the meantime, we headed off to look for Woodlarks.

As we walked along the ride past the first clearing, there was quite a bit of snow covering the ground. It didn’t look especially promising. The second clearing we looked in was even worse. There is some farmland just beyond the forest here, and we figured they might have moved out to the fields to look for food, so we headed over that way.

As we walked past the third clearing towards the fields, we heard a Woodlark call and looked across to see two come up off the bare ground beyond. They flew over towards us and did a circuit of the clearing, calling to each other. The male twittered, but never really broke into full song. While one of them flew quickly back to the fields, the male Woodlark landed in the top of a small oak tree on the edge of the clearing, where he did start to sing rather half-heartedly.

 

We walked round to the oak tree for a closer look and got the Woodlark in the scope, getting a good look at it before he took off and flew away over the clearing and dropped down again onto the field beyond. Satisfied with what we had seen, we turned to go but we hadn’t got very far before a pair of Woodlarks flew in calling again. They circled round and landed only a short distance away from us, in a small patch in the clearing which was relatively free of lying snow.

Woodlark

Woodlark – a pair flew in and landed in a snow-free patch in the clearing

 

As we walked back to the car, it was still very cold in the wind but it felt like the sun was starting to get a bit more warmth to it, so we headed off to look for Goshawks. We hadn’t been there long before the first Common Buzzards started to appear, first one or two, then a group of three circled up behind.

Not too long afterwards, a Goshawk circled up too. It was rather distant, but through the scope we could see it was an adult, pale grey above and bright whitish below, a male by the looks of things. It didn’t gain much height as it circled, drifting slowly across and eventually dropping back down behind the trees. It wasn’t the best view, but at least we had seen a Goshawk. It was rather cold here standing out in the open, so we decided to head off and look for something else.

Willow Tit was the next species on the list. We drove round to a spot where some feeding tables have been set up in the hope of tempting them in. As we walked up the ride, a Redwing appeared in the trees by the path.

The feeding tables were well stocked with sunflower seeds and a steady stream of Blue Tits, Great Tits and Coal Tits were coming in to take advantage, or flitting around in the pines nearby. A Marsh Tit appeared in the trees by the path – a bit too plain and grey compared to the one we were hoping for. We had nice views of a Nuthatch climbing down a tree trunk here too.

Coal Tit

Coal Tit – there were lots around the feeders today

 

We didn’t have to wait long before we heard a Willow Tit, a male singing deep in the plantation behind one the feeders. For a minute or so, it sang repeatedly, a series of loud, ringing ‘tseeooo’ notes, and it seemed like it might be working its way towards us. Then it went quiet. We scanned the edge of the trees in case it came out but about ten minutes later, we got two more ‘tseeooo’s from about the same place, and that was it.

It gradually became clear that was all we were going to get for a while. We were about to leave when we looked up and saw a raptor circling low over the trees – a Goshawk. It disappeared back over the trees but a couple of minutes later, we saw it fly across the ride further up, closely followed be a second Goshawk. We thought there was a good chance they might start to display, so we walked up to a spot where there was an opening in the trees.

When we got there, we could see one of the two Goshawks still up above the pines. It was hanging in the wind, not really displaying, but with its white undertail coverts puffed out. It was a much better view than the distant one we had seen earlier. It gradually drifted away and dropped down behind the trees again.

Goshawk

Goshawk – hanging in the wind, with its undertail coverts fluffed out

As we walked back, the two Goshawks appeared again, high over the ride. The male was displaying now, way up in the sky, flying with deep, exaggerated wingbeats, while the larger female circled below.

Apart from actually seeing a Willow Tit, we had found all our Brecks targets already, and had very good views of all the rest of them. We decided to head off and try something different – we could always swing back round here on our way back later.

Common Crane was next on the list, which meant a drive over into the edge of the Fens. We had a look round several of the places they like to feed and, after stopping to check through various Greylag and Canada Geese off in the distance, we spotted a lone Common Crane flying over the meadows. It dropped down behind an area of thick rushes, where it started to feed.

Common Crane

Common Crane – on its own today

There is usually a pair of Common Cranes here and they are rarely seen apart, so hopefully the fact that it was on its own may suggest that this pair are getting down to breeding already.

It was getting on to lunchtime now, so we made our way round to Lakenheath Fen next, where we stopped for a bite to eat. After lunch, we headed out towards the Washland viewpoint. There were lots of Reed Buntings around the feeders outside the visitor centre.

Great White Egret

Great White Egret – along the river from the Washland viewpoint

 

As we walked up onto the river bank at the Washland, the first bird we saw was a Great White Egret, a short distance away to the east along the river. Just behind it, a swan on the edge of the reeds turned out to be a lone Whooper Swan. They are not often on their own here and this one didn’t look entirely well, so perhaps it had been unable to follow the rest of the Whooper Swans back towards Iceland.

There were lots of ducks out on the Washland too, mainly Shoveler, Wigeon and Shelduck. A couple of small parties of Tufted Duck were down on the river, along with a few Teal.

The bird we had really hoped to see here was Water Pipit. There are usually quite a few along the river here, but they can be horribly elusive. Today, however, our luck was in as we quickly spotted one picking around one of the islands of rushes just below the viewpoint. It appeared to be in moult, gradually losing its streaked underparts before gaining the brighter pink breast of summer plumage.

Water Pipit

Water Pipit – in the middle of moulting to summer plumage

Spoonbill is an unusual bird down here – much commoner up on the coast – so it was not one we had predicted as a possible today. However, following news that one was here yesterday, we had learnt at the visitor centre that it was still present today, along the river. We hadn’t ventured far from the Washland viewpoint, when we spotted a large white shape further downstream, feeding along the far bank. Through the scope, we could confirm it was the Spoonbill.

We walked up the bank until we were roughly opposite the Spoonbill and had a good look at it. We could see the yellow tip to its spoon-shaped bill, the mustard wash across its breast and a flowing crest blowing around in the wind, suggesting it was an adult.

Spoonbill

Spoonbill – on the river bank opposite New Fen

 

We were now opposite New Fen, so we cut back in onto the reserve. A pair of Gadwall and a couple of Little Grebe were the only new birds here. With out targets achieved so quickly, we decided not to walk out around the rest of the reserve and made our way back to the visitor centre.

Willow Tit was the only one of the species we had set out to see today which still eluded us, so we decided to head back over for one more go, on our way back to where we had started the day. When we arrived, we met a couple of people leaving who told us that it had just been singing and calling pretty constantly, but remained rather elusive.

Siskin

Siskin – had now joined the tits on the feeding table

 

We walked back up to the feeding stations, where a smart male Siskin had joined the tits down on the sunflower seeds. We stood and watched the comings and goings for a while, but it started to seem like we might be out of luck. Then we heard a Willow Tit calling in the plantation on the other side of the ride, a deep, nasal scolding. Once again, it sounded like it might be heading our way, so we stood and scanned the edge of the trees.

This time the Willow Tit did come out, but it flew from the tops of the pines of one side of the ride, right over our heads. It appeared to be dropping down towards one of the feeding tables, but then seemed to go down into the bushes beyond. We focused on the feeding table, expecting it to make a visit there, but we didn’t see it. The next thing we knew, it started singing from the pines behind.

The Willow Tit was not far into the plantation this time, so we followed the song and found ourselves standing below the tree where it was. It sang and sang for about 10 minutes, but even though we knew exactly which tree it was in, it was almost impossible to see. It was high in the top and not moving. Eventually, it started to move and we get a quick look at it when it came to the outer branches of the tree, before moving off and going quiet.

Perhaps not the best view ever of a Willow Tit, but at least we had seen it now. It meant we had completed the set, all the target species we had set out to find today. With long journeys back and after our early start, we decided to call it a day and head for home.