Tag Archives: Crane

31st Jan-4th Feb 2020 – Extremadura in Winter

A five day International Tour to Extremadura, organised together our friends from Oriole Birding. An annual destination for us, this year we did the winter version of the tour again. If you like what you see, you are welcome to join us for our next visit, in Spring 2021!

FRIDAY 31ST JANUARY

Our 06.45 flight from London Stansted arrived into Madrid a few minutes early, and with typical Spanish efficiency, our bags were there waiting for us when we cleared passport control. It didn’t take too long before we picked up our rental minibus and got underway, on the long drive down to Extremadura.

The sun was out now in the capital and as we made our way out through the suburbs a small kettle of White Storks was circling over the motorway, possibly early migrants on their way north. We also encountered several groups of Common Magpies, up to ten at a time, flying over. A common bird here, but there were so many we wondered whether they might be on their way somewhere rather than just local birds. Out into the countryside, and we started to see numerous Red Kites and more White Storks, with several on their untidy nests on buildings and pylons by the road, as well as our first Iberian Grey Shrikes on the wires.

We could see the edge of the cloud ahead of us and we didn’t get far into our journey before we drove into it. From then on, it was rather grey, misty, with patches of drizzle. When we stopped for lunch at the services beyond Talavera, it had stopped raining and the weather looked to be brightening up a bit. A Crested Lark was running around on the tarmac in the car park and a Common Buzzard perched on a nearby pylon.

After lunch, we drove back into the cloud and rain for a while, but then as it started to clear again we spotted our first Common Cranes. A couple of the group saw three one side of the road first, in the open dehesa woodland, and then we drove past a larger flock of about twenty or so on the other side, in between the trees, which everyone was able to get onto.

We turned off the motorway to Saucedilla and parked by the Visitor Centre for the Embalse de Almaraz-Arrocampo nature reserve, which was closed. Three Barn Swallows flew over – we would see a lot this trip, with birds seeming returning early in numbers this year, this far south. A White Wagtail was walking round on the short grass.

As we walked down to the first hide, a large mixed flock of finches flew up from the rough ground. There were well over 100 birds, including a good number of Linnets but up to half were European Serins. We got some in the scope, feeding on the ground, then flying up onto the fence and perching in the trees over by the Visitor Centre, the males with their bright yellow breasts. A couple of Western Marsh Harriers came up, patrolling over the reeds, and beyond we spotted a smaller raptor hovering in the distance. It was a Black-winged Kite, so we got it in the scope for a closer look. The weather seemed to warm up a little, and three Griffon Vultures circled up and drifted over.

From down by Hide 1, we could hear Penduline Tits calling and looked across to see a pair perched in the tops and picking at the seedheads of the bulrushes. We got them in the scope, but unfortunately they dropped down again before everyone could see them. A couple of Kingfishers were calling, and zipping back and forth low over the water, but wouldn’t perch out in the open. A lone Glossy Ibis flew up from the back of the sedge beds and dropped down to the fields beyond, out of view. A flock of Cattle Egrets flew across further back, off around the other side of the reserve.

White Stork

White Stork – a pair on their untidy nest platform

As we walked on down the track beyond the hide, we could see several pairs of White Storks on nests, one of which was quite close. The birds flew off as we walked past, dropping down to the fields nearby, but a little later, the pair flew back in behind us, and we could hear their bill clapping display as they greeted each other.

There were several Chiffchaffs in the sedges, flitting around flycatching, and a couple of Sardinian Warblers which were typically more skulking. A Hoopoe landed briefly in a tree, before flying off over the fields, and a Starling perched in the brambles nearby was of the common, spotted variety which occurs here in winter. A Green Sandpiper flew overhead calling. We heard the grating calls of one or two Western Purple Swamphens, and a couple of times one flew up out of the reeds, but quickly dropped back down again. There was no further sign of the Penduline Tits, unfortunately. Walking back round past Hide 1, we checked out the sedges in front of the hide again. A smart male Spanish Sparrow was perched in the brambles in a group of females, so we had a look at it in the scope.

Driving through the village, two Spotless Starlings were on the wires, our first confirmed ones of the trip. We made our way round to the hides on the other side of the reservoir, and stopped by Hide 5. There was not much on the pool here today, just a few Mallard. Several more Barn Swallows were hawking for insects low over the water. A Common Sandpiper came up from the smaller pool on the other side of the road, and landed on the muddy edge at the back where it fed along the shore with a Grey Wagtail. A Black-winged Kite flew out of the trees and away over the road, but a little later, one of the group spotted the same or another Black-winged Kite perched in the trees at the back beyond the water. Another Hoopoe flew over our heads and several White Wagtails and a small flock of Skylarks was feeding out in the grassy field.

Carrying on down the road, we couldn’t find the flock of Cattle Egrets we had seen earlier from round on this side now. We still had a bit of travelling to get to the hotel, so we decided it was time to be heading back. Before we got back to the village, we stopped to scan another large area of sedges and noticed yet another Black-winged Kite hovering over the fields beyond. It landed on a tree down along a side track, so we set off after it, but we got distracted on the way by an Iberian Grey Shrike on the fence alongside us. We stopped to watch it, dropping down to the ground and back up to another fence post further along each time.

Black-winged Kite

Black-winged Kite – one of several we saw at Saucedilla

The Black-winged Kite was now off again, and we drove down to where it was hovering, but it flew off over the fields when we pulled up. We had a quick look at the southern arm of the reservoir on our way back to the motorway. There were lots of Cormorants out on the concrete wall in the middle of the water, but not much else.

All things considered, we had been very lucky with the weather – we quickly drove into patches of misty low cloud and drizzle again on the journey south on the motorway. Three more Common Cranes flew over the road ahead of us, heading off to roost. We got to our hotel and checked in. Then after a short break to get settled in, we enjoyed a welcome drink with a selection of local cheeses, salami and chorizo, followed by a delicious traditional meal.

SATURDAY 1ST FEBRUARY

It looked foggy and damp outside when we met for breakfast, but the fog had lifted by the time we met at the minibus and although it was still very cloudy the light was beginning to improve as the sun started to come up. One or two Corn Buntings were singing as we set off and a Hoopoe perched on the wires by the access road. We drove through Trujillo and out along the Santa Marta road. Parking by a small reservoir, as we got out of the minibus, an Iberian Grey Shrike was perched on the bushes in front of us. We were surrounded with bird song – larks and Corn Buntings. A pair of Thekla Larks was feeding around the rocks down in the grass below us.

Thekla Lark

Thekla Lark – one of a pair first thing this morning

Huge flocks of Spanish Sparrows, several hundred strong kept flying round and landing in the trees on the slope behind us. A Rock Sparrow landed briefly on the fence in front of us but flew off before everyone could get onto it. A large group of Iberian Magpies came out of the trees on the other side of the road, and landed down on the short grass where we could get a look at them through the scope.

Spanish Sparrows

Spanish Sparrows – we found some huge flocks out on the plains

Moving on a little further along the road, we drove down a drovers track which heads out across the plains. When we stopped again and got out, Calandra Larks were singing all around us and we could see their black underwings with broad white trailing edges as they flew round past us. Several Golden Plover were feeding out on the short grass, with the numerous Lapwings. Two pairs of Black-bellied Sandgrouse flew up separately, crossing the track further up, but both landed out of view behind a ridge.

A small group of Great Bustards flying across in the distance only broke the skyline briefly and disappeared behind a ridge too before anyone could get onto them. We drove a bit further up the track to see if we could find where they might have landed, but there was no further sign. We did find a Merlin perched very distantly on a rock across the plains. And as we turned to come back and stopped again, we found a pair of Black-bellied Sandgrouse on the ground up on a ridge which this time lingered so we could get them in the scope.

Black-bellied Sandgrouse

Black-bellied Sandgrouse – we had a good look at a pair, up on the ridge

We hoped the bustards might have gone over the hill to where we had stopped earlier, so we drove back round there for our morning coffee stop. There was no sign of them here either, but there were several Rock Sparrows now, feeding with the Spanish Sparrows down in the grass. A Black Redstart perched on the fence.

After coffee, we drove on through Santa Marta and stopped just beyond the bridge over the Rio Magasca. Several Crag Martins were flying round over the hillside and we managed to see a Woodlark which was singing over the trees on the ridge, before it dropped down out of view. One or two Serins were singing too. Walking down across the bridge, a Black Redstart flicked up on the rocks the other side. Several Long-tailed Tits were calling in the trees and a couple flew across right past us, very dusky birds of the distinctive local race irbii.

We followed the path down to the river, where loads of Chiffchaffs were flitting around, flycatching in the bushes along the bank, along with a single Blackcap. A Kingfisher called as it flew off up the river and a Grey Wagtail was feeding on the rocks out in the middle, where a Spanish Terrapin was resting too before it dropped into the water. A Small Heath which flew up from the grass was our first butterfly of the trip.

Back to the minibus, we drove on to the junction with the Monroy road and stopped again to scan the plains. It was starting to warm up now and lots of white butterflies were fluttering round the grass but wouldn’t land. A large kettle of vultures was circling up away to the west and out across the plains, a single Black Vulture was out on the ground in the distance, stretching its wings.

Calandra Lark

Calandra Lark – flew up singing as it warmed up

Further along, we stopped again. The Calandra Larks were out in force now and singing all around us, with two males chasing each other round overhead. Scanning the fields the other side, we found a small group of six Pin-tailed Sandgrouse down in the short grass, then as we looked further across we saw loads more. In the end we counted at least sixty! We walked over to the other side of the road for a closer look through the scope.

Pin-tailed Sandgrouse

Pin-tailed Sandgrouse – part of a flock of 60 we found in a field

Walking back to where we had parked the minibus, we had to pick our way round all the caterpillars in webs in the grass. One of the group had gone ahead, and shouted as he got to the bus. Four Great Bustards flew across out over the fields beyond and landed on the short grass. We had a good view of them in the scope – great for everyone finally to catch up with some bustards, iconic birds of the Extremaduran plains.

Great Bustards

Great Bustards – three of the four we found at our lunch stop

After lunch, we carried on further down the road, and stopped for a quick look at a Little Owl on a wall out in the middle of a field. Another two Little Owls were on the top of a ruined barn in the distance the other side.

There had been a Sociable Lapwing not far away seen several times in recent weeks, but we were not sure whether it had been seen in the last week. We had managed to get hold of the co-ordinates for where it had been seen, so we drove over to see if we could find it. As we drove down a rather rough track, it suddenly seemed to get very busy (rush hour on the plains!). We were overtaken twice, and when we stopped at the right spot several more trucks came bouncing past. All the regular Northern Lapwings which had been out on the grass near to the track flushed and several groups flew off, although we couldn’t see the Sociable Lapwing with them.

Some fodder had been spread across the grass, and a few Corn Buntings and two Rock Sparrows were feeding in the straw. Some of the Lapwings started to drop back in and scanning carefully across the grass further back, we found the Sociable Lapwing, smaller and browner than the regular Lapwings and with a striking pale supercilium. Sociable Lapwings breed across the Central Asian steppes and winter mainly in East Africa, the Middle East and into Pakistan and NW India. It is principally a rare vagrant to Western Europe but one or two appear most winters in Iberia and it is thought that this may be a regular wintering location for very limited numbers. The species is listed as Critically Endangered as its population has undergone a very rapid decline in recent years, so it is a great bird to be able to see.

Sociable Lapwing

Sociable Lapwing – we managed to catch up with this wintering bird

Making our way back west, towards Monroy we stopped abruptly as a raptor drifted high over the road, a Spanish Imperial Eagle. We all piled out and got it in the scope as it circled up, eventually drifted away to south. A welcome bonus, as this is not a site where we often see them. Further on, three Griffon Vultures were loafing on the pylons by the road, so we stopped again for a closer look.

Spanish Imperial Eagle 1

Spanish Imperial Eagle – circled over the road this afternoon

Beyond Monroy, there were lots of Common Cranes in the dehesa by the road. We got out very carefully and had a good look at a large group before something eventually spooked them. Several hundred took off from where we couldn’t see them and landed further back out of view in the trees, and more were still bugling further on. We stopped again a couple of hundred metres down the road, were two very obliging Cranes were standing in a field of yellow flowers.

Crane 1

Common Crane – we found hundreds in the dehesa this afternoon

Driving down towards Caceres, we were taken aback at the enormous scale of the new solar farms being built out in the middle of the countryside. What will the ecological impact of all this construction be?

Dropping down towards the Rio Almonte, we stopped just beyond the bridge. Lots of Crag Martins and House Martins were circling overhead and flying down to prospect their nest sites under the bridge. As we walked down the track towards the river, a female Blue Rock Thrush was on the rocks below us, but flew low across the water and disappeared on the bank the other side. We were just scanning to see if we could find it again, when one of the group found a Black Wheatear along the far bank, low down on the rocks. We had a good view of it in the scope, jet black with a striking white base to the tail. A second Black Wheatear on the near bank, further up, was a sooty brown female. A smart male Black Redstart appeared briefly on the rocks closer to the road bridge.

Time was getting on now, and we still wanted to make one last stop. As we drove out along the minor road onto the plains, there were lots of Lesser Black-backed Gulls in the fields. A small pool beside the road held a surprising selection of ducks – two Shoveler and six Gadwall, along with several expected Mallards. A Raven was perched on the top of a pylon and as we stopped and got out, we realised there were Red Kites everywhere, flying round, and perched on pylons and fence posts all around us.

A Great Bustard came up from the crop field, away on one side of the road, quickly followed by two more. They flew across the road and dropped down onto the plain in the distance. More and more followed, in ones and twos, until we eventually counted 24 Great Bustards which all flew across the road. We drove further up to see if we could see where they had landed, flushing loads of Corn Buntings and Meadow Pipits from the fences as we passed. We could see two Great Bustards distantly out on the grass, but the light was fading fast now. Another delicious dinner awaited us back at the hotel.

SUNDAY 2ND FEBRUARY

The regular flock of Iberian Magpies was by the parking area first thing, as we packed up the minibus, before flying down to the paddocks across the road. A Blackcap was in the bushes nearby. As we drove down to the main road, an Iberian Grey Shrike was on the top of a telegraph post and a Hoopoe flew in and landed on the wires next to it.

Iberian Grey Shrike

Iberian Grey Shrike – perched on a post by the road

Hoopoe

Hoopoe – flew in and landed on the wires by the shrike

Again, there were quite a few Barn Swallows on our drive south, on wires in the villages and flying round. A pair of House Martins were already prospecting nests in Zorita village. A little further on, we pulled up alongside a pool by the road, where a Great White Egret was fishing. Two Black-winged Stilts were on the far edge of the water too.

Our first destination for the day was the reservoir at Alcollarin, and we pulled up by the dam to scan from here first. There was huge numbers of  ducks out on the water, the thousands of Northern Shoveler being particularly impressive, along with hundreds of Wigeon and Teal. Looking more closely through the vast throngs, we found a few Gadwall, a couple of pairs of Pintail and a single lone Tufted Duck too. Two pairs of Egyptian Geese were on the far shore.

There were lots of grebes as well, particularly Great Crested Grebes and Little Grebes, but also quite a few Black-necked Grebes out in the middle. Mostly the latter were in black and white winter plumage, but a couple were already coming into breeding dress, with black necks and golden ear-tufts. A very distant Spoonbill and Black Stork could be made out at the far end, and the size difference between a Great White Egret and a Little Egret could be appreciated even at that distance. A Kingfisher landed on a dead stump on the water’s edge at the back, where it shone in the morning sunshine. A Sardinian Warbler flew across into the olive trees by the parking area. When a large group of noisy cyclists came over the dam towards us, we decided to move on.

As we drove down the track on the hillside east side of the reservoir, we stopped again to scan. We could see there were more Spoonbills than we had been able to make out earlier, at least five together now, busy sifting in the shallow water. Lots of White Storks were standing out on the short grass and the Black Stork was nearby, to compare. A Woodlark was singing over the hillside behind. As the mob of cyclists came down the track, everything took off and flew back towards the main reservoir out of view.

The first Red Kite of the day circled up over the hills beyond, and we looked over to see two Ravens mobbing a pale raptor on a rock, just as it dropped off and disappeared behind, out of view. Our first impression was Booted Eagle, but they are mainly summer visitors here. We continued on to the picnic area by the smaller pool further down and walked out onto the platform by the small dam. Scanning the hillside, it wasn’t too long before the pale adult Booted Eagle reappeared, a very scarce bird here in the winter. It circled up with the Red Kite, which was bigger than it in size – Booted is a rather small eagle.

A small group of Common Pochard were swimming around at the back of the pool. Several White Storks were on nest platforms in the trees, and when one flew in, we could hear the pair bill clapping. A Kingfisher perched up in the reeds by the channel downstream of the dam, then came and landed much closer, where we could finally get a good view of it in the scope, a Zitting Cisticola was flitting around down in the rushes and a Crested Lark was singing from a small rock nearby. Two Common Waxbills flew in and landed briefly in the reeds close to where we were standing and a Great White Egret flew up and landed on the dam.

As we walked further up the track, up the valley beyond the picnic area, we found a couple of Dunnocks in the trees, plus a Robin, a few tits and several Chaffinches singing. With the air starting to warm in the sunshine, more raptors were starting to circle up. Three Marsh Harriers appeared over the pool and a young male started displaying, twisting and swooping like a roller coaster. The female lower down didn’t seem particularly impressed. Two very distant Black Vultures were over the higher hills beyond.

Then two Bonelli’s Eagles circled up over the trees beyond the pool. One of the Marsh Harriers circled up with them, and started to mob them, swooping down at them from above – we could see how much smaller it was than the eagles. As the Bonelli’s Eagles circled, we could see the white patch on their backs. Eventually they gained height and drifted back over the hillside. We headed back to the minibus for coffee.

Bonelli's Eagles

Bonelli’s Eagles – these two were mobbed by a Marsh Harrier

After coffee, we decided to move on. As we drove down the minor road towards Campo Lugar, we ran into a traffic jam – a flock of sheep being herded along the road towards us! We had to wait while they were chivvied all round and past us.

Traffic jam

Traffic Jam – Extremaduran style!

The other side of village, seven Black-bellied Sandgrouse flew over as we turned onto the road over the plain. A Hoopoe flew along ahead of us, and kept landing on the wall by the road. We stopped at the top of the hill to scan the plains. There were lots of larks, Meadow Pipits and Corn Buntings all around us, but no sign of any bustards.

Our next stop was at the Sierra Brava reservoir. Lots of fishermen were stationed around the shore, despite the ‘no fishing’ signs. There were quite a few ducks way out in the middle – more Shoveler, Wigeon, a pair of Pintail – but less here than at Alcollarin. There were lots of Great Crested Grebes too. We could hear Common Cranes bugling and could see dozens out in the rice fields in the distance below. There were more standing on the grassy hillside beyond the reservoir, with occasional pairs of small groups of birds commuting from one to the other.

It was a beautiful warm day now, with clear air and a great view, so we decided to stop here for lunch. A pair of Sardinian Warblers was flitting around in the bushes below the dam. Several more white butterflies were more obliging here – a couple landed long enough to identify them, Western Dappled Whites.

Sardinian Warbler

Sardinian Warbler – a pair were in the bushes below the dam

After lunch, we carried on towards the rice fields. As we drove through a rocky area, we flushed a Marsh Harrier from the ditch beside the road, presumably off a kill. Six Ravens were waiting patiently nearby for any leftovers. There were lots of Cranes on the grassy hillside next to the road here, so we stopped and got out carefully. They were remarkably obliging, and posed nicely for photographs. Then when we got down into the rice fields, there were hundreds and hundreds of more Cranes all around us, feeding in the wet paddies, with some even more accommodating.

Crane 3

Common Cranes – there were hundreds out in the ricefields

Crane 2

Common Crane – stunning views today

As we stopped and got out, a few small groups of wild Greylag Geese flew up out of the fields. A flock of small finches flew past, disappearing round behind a bank where they appeared to land. We walked down the road and looked back to see them bathing in the reeds on the edge of one of the paddies, a group of Red Avadavats. Originally from India, there is now a well-established feral population in Spain. A single Green Sandpiper was feeding further along the edge, in the water amongst the clods of earth.

We were just getting back into the minibus when a ringtail Hen Harrier appeared. Everyone got out again remarkably quickly (and without anyone getting trampled in the rush!) and we watched it working its way low over the weedy banks around the edge of the fields.

Hen Harrier

Hen Harrier – hunting the margins of the ricefields

At our second attempt, we drove on, stopping again briefly as a Cattle Egret flew past and landed down in the wet paddy close by.

Cattle Egret

Cattle Egret – the first of many in the rice fields

A few hundred metres further we had another unscheduled stop as one of the group spotted something large and brown move in the tall dead cut rice right next to the road. We couldn’t see it and it was obviously hiding in the vegetation, so we started to get out and that was enough to put it up. A Great Bittern! It flew up and crashed down again a few metres further back, back down into the dead rice stems. After a minute or so, a bill appeared, pointing upwards and through the scope we could see its head and eye, presumably watching us. It turned, and we could see the black stripes down the front of its neck.

Bittern

Bittern – hiding in the dead cut rice

While we were watching the Bittern, we heard a churring call behind us, from the weeds along the ditch by the road. As we walked down the road towards it, a Dartford Warbler flicked out. We have seen them here before in the winter, presumably coming down out of the hills at this time of year. What a great place to stop!

Further along, we parked again by a track between the rice fields. As we got out, we caught a flash of a red tail as a bird flew from the muddy field margin into the inner edge of the roadside ditch further down, a Bluethroat. We got it in the scope briefly as it came out onto the edge again, a male with a flash of blue, but it immediately disappeared back into the ditch. Despite scanning for a couple of minutes, it didn’t appear again so we tried walking down beside the ditch, but drew a blank.

We thought we would try from the road side,  but as we walked round we flushed another Bluethroat from the ditch on the other side of the road, this time a female. Again, it was elusive, and we followed it down along the bank between two fields and eventually got it in the scope briefly, when it flew across to the far edge. But again, it dropped down into the cut rice before everyone could get a look. Several Common Snipe flew up out of the wet field.

Back at the minibus, what looked like the original Bluethroat was back out on the muddy edge, but when we got it in the scope, it was a female there now. It kept flitting back into the ditch vegetation, but with a bit of patience, everyone eventually got a look as came out onto the open grassy mud. We had already seen several Bluethroats, which was our main target here, but we had a quick walk down the track now anyway. Two more Bluethroats flicked along the ditch ahead of us, along with lots of Chiffchaffs, a couple of Zitting Cisticolas, a Cetti’s Warbler, and another little group of Red Avadavats. Another very productive spot!

With all the diversions, we stayed here later than planned. We wouldn’t have much time there, but we decided to have a quick run round to the south end of the Sierra de Villuercas. On the way, another Black Stork flew across the road and we passed a small group of Red Deer out on an area of open grass between the trees. It was a beautiful view from the pass at the top, but the light had gone from the trees the other side, and all was quiet here.

As we drove back down a bit, several Crag Martins were hawking over the hillside and an Iberian Green Woodpecker dropped down over the road ahead of us and disappeared into the trees on the other side. Previously considered a race of Green Woodpecker, this is now considered to be a full species in its own right. We parked in a small lay-by in the trees, where a Large Tortoiseshell butterfly was fluttering around the information board. A flock of Long-tailed Tits flew over the road. We heard a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker call in the trees, but it wouldn’t show itself, then we heard a Great Spotted Woodpecker a little further along, and could still hear it tapping on a tree somewhere but hidden from view. A Nuthatch was more obliging, perched in the top of a tree. Unfortunately we ran out of time here, and had to head back now to be in time for dinner.

MONDAY 3RD FEBRUARY

It was a lovely bright start up in the foothills, but we could see mist lingering in the valleys in the distance this morning. We still had not managed to catch up with Little Bustard so we headed over to Santa Marta again, thinking we would be high enough there to be out of the mist. Just as we got out of the trees onto the edge of plains, we drove into thick fog. We waited a few minutes, but it was obviously not going to clear any time soon, so we decided to try something else and when we got over to Belen, the plains were surprisingly clear, with beautiful blue sky and sunshine!

We stopped at the start of the plains to scan, with a couple of Crested Larks, one Thekla Lark and four Woodlarks all visible from our viewpoint. Scanning across we first found a very distant Merlin on a low rock and then a drove of eleven Great Bustards some way off feeding in amongst the cows. As we set off again, we spotted the bustards flying, across the road, before they disappeared away behind us.

As we drove across the plains, we kept stopping and scanning. There was not much of note at first, but when we came over a crest we noticed several vultures out in a field so we stopped for a closer look. As we got out of the minibus, we realised there were three Great Bustards out on the plain the other side. We watched them for a while, as they walked along feeding, before they disappeared over the ridge beyond.

Great Bustard

Great Bustard – we had great views of three out on the plains

Turning our attention back to the vultures, we could see three Black Vultures in with about ten Griffons, waiting to warm up before taking to the air, spreading their wings. Scanning back over the other side, we then found a single adult Egyptian Vulture distantly on the grass to complete the set. Being largely white, it stood out in the morning sun, and we could see its bare yellow face in the scope. There were Calandra Larks and Corn Buntings singing all around too.

From the far end of the plains, we drove across to the Torrejon road. On the way, we passed a couple of Great White Egrets on the small pools. Stopping at one pond, the bank at the back was covered in Spanish Terrapins and a Green Sandpiper was on another pool the other side. We were heading for the national park at Monfrague, but we could see cloud hugging the ridge as we drove up past Torrejon. It didn’t look promising and when we got to the turn for the Castillo, we couldn’t even see the castle itself up on the ridge. We decided to go on to the viewpoint at Salto del Gitano for coffee.

Griffon Vulture 2

Griffon Vulture – showed very well low down at Salto del Gitano

There were several Crag Martins swooping round the rocks as we got out. Loads of Griffon Vultures were circling up over the rock face opposite, up into the clouds. Lots were standing on the rocks too, with several hunkered down on nests already, which we got in the scope. Some were flying round much lower, and one or two came past at eye level or below, giving us a great view. One landed on the rocks just below us, coming in to collect nest material from the bushes. We watched it breaking off branches before launching itself off again with a bill filled with vegetation.

Griffon Vulture 3

Griffon Vulture – several were on the rocks

Griffon Vulture 4

Griffon Vulture – some were collecting nest material

When we could take our attention off the great show from the vultures, we noticed a smart male Black Redstart feeding below the trees just below the viewpoint boardwalk.

Black Redstart

Black Redstart – a smart male just below the viewpoint

A little further along, another male Black Redstart was singing from the top of a large rocky outcrop, and then a Blue Rock Thrush appeared nearby. A smart blue male, we had a great view in the scope.

Blue Rock Thrush

Blue Rock Thrush – showed very well on the top of a rocky crag

There were several Blackcaps, Song Thrushes and tits in the trees and we could hear Hawfinches calling here too. They were very hard to see at first, feeding on the wild olives, but eventually they became a little more obliging – a female perched up for ages in the top of a tree close to us, and then we watched two males and another female feeding lower down.

Hawfinch

Hawfinch – we had great views of several in the olive trees

The weather looked rather ominously grey the other side of the pass, very different from the sunshine to the south, but we decided to drive on through the national park to the far end. It was actually not too bad, and although it was cloudy and a bit misty, the visibility at ground level was OK. We parked in the lay-by at Portilla del Tietar and took our packed lunches down to the viewpoint.

At first it was rather quiet here. There were a few Long-tailed Tits calling in the trees as we walked down, and we could hear more birds in the trees further along from the viewpoint, including a Short-toed Treecreeper singing but we couldn’t see it. There were lots more Griffon Vultures circling here, up into the cloud, along with two or three Black Vultures, possibly trying unsuccessfully to find thermals. Occasionally a vulture would pass in front of the rocks lower down, and we had a better view of one Black Vulture as it did so.

With all the cloud, we thought we might struggle to see the Spanish Imperial Eagles here today, but we didn’t have to wait too long before one came in high over the rock face. It started to circle with a large group of Griffon Vultures which were gathered slightly further downstream, and we managed to get it in the scope, as it slowly drifted further away with them. It was better than nothing given the weather.

Then someone spotted an Otter in the water below the hide, so everyone gathered to watch that. It would dive for long periods but kept resurfacing, when the ripples gave away its new location.

Otter

Otter – in the river at Portilla del Tietar

We were still distracted when we heard an eagle calling over the hillside behind us. We couldn’t see it through the trees as it came in fast, but as it dropped over the water towards the rock face we could see it was a Spanish Imperial Eagle again. It folded its wings back and swooped down, skimming low over the top of the rocks opposite, before swooping up sharply, calling, a great view. It looked almost like it might land, but then a second eagle appeared over the trees beyond, and the two of them circled up together for several minutes, before first one then the other flew off over the hillside.

Spanish Imperial Eagle 2

Spanish Imperial Eagle – the pair put on a great display

We had one last look at the Otter, then had to tear ourselves away. The weather finally looked to be brightening up, and we were starting to see the tops of the ridges back into the park. A Hummingbird Hawkmoth was feeding round the flowers back by the lay-by. As we drove back through the park, we had a quick stop to look at a Red Deer feeding on the short grass by the road.

When we got back to the village, now bathed in sunshine, we had a quick stop to use facilities. We could see the Castillo now, up on the ridge, so we drove up the road and parked at the top. There were one or two Hawfinches calling in the trees and as we walked slowly up the path, a pair of Short-toed Treecreepers appeared in the trees.

Up at the Castillo, there was a fantastic view now that the cloud had cleared. A couple of large kettles of vultures were circling to the north of the ridge, mostly Griffons but with a small number of Black Vultures mixed in with them. Occasionally a Griffon Vulture would come along the ridge, straight past us, at eye level, just overhead, or even below us. Great views.

Griffon Vulture 6

Griffon Vulture – more great views up at the Castillo, when the sun came out

One of the group up in the top of the tower spotted a group of Cranes coming in, thirteen of them, and we watched as they circled up south of the ridge, calling. A Peregrine appeared in with the vultures over the pass, then folded its wings and swept down behind the rocks. Again, we had to tear ourselves away. It was great that the weather had cleared so we could make it up here, as it would have been a terrible shame to miss out on the experience.

As we still hadn’t seen a Little Bustard, we decided to make our way back and have one last go. As we drove out across the plains, we kept stopping and scanning. We found a small group of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse feeding out on the grass, but no sign of any bustards at first.

Then as we came over a rise, a large flock of Spotless Starlings came up from the short grass by the road ahead of us. Something white took off too – a Little Bustard! We watched from the minibus as it flew across the road and out over the grass the other side, eventually landing on a ridge in the distance. Typically, having not seen another vehicle for ages, a truck came along at that very moment, and we had to pull off the narrow road. By the time we had got out and managed to get the Little Bustard in the scope it was disappearing over the ridge. We walked back up the road, to the top of the rise, but couldn’t see it again.

Fortunately, as we turned to walk back to the bus a flock of thirty Little Bustards flew up and circled round out over the grass, flashing their white wings. They dropped down again, out of view, but from further on along the road, we could see them. We got them in the scope, feeding busily in the grass.

Little Bustards

Little Bustards – part of a flock of thirty we found this afternoon

Once we had enjoyed the Little Bustards, we could take in the beauty of our surroundings. It was bright out on the plains in the late afternoon sun. In the clear air, we could see all the way to the snow-capped mountains in the distance. We were surrounded by birdsong, Calandra Larks overhead, and Corn Buntings on the wires. A huge flock of Spotless Starlings was feeding in the grass, constantly whirling up, chattering. Lots of Lapwings were scattered over the fields, and a couple of flocks of Golden Plover were flying round further back. We reflected on how this is what the farmed countryside should be like, full of life. It was a great way to end our last full day.

TUESDAY 4TH FEBRUARY

After our last breakfast, we checked out of the hotel, said our goodbyes and loaded up the minibus. A Hoopoe was in a tree at the back of the paddock opposite, and we got it in the scope. A couple of Serins were chasing each other round through the trees. We hadn’t had a real chance to look round here in daylight hours before, so we had a short walk down the access road before we left.

There were Blackcaps, Chaffinches, and a Robin or two in trees. There were Sardinian Warblers calling in the bushes, and one flew across the road ahead of us. Several Spotless Starlings and House Sparrows were on the roofs of the houses. A flock of Iberian Magpies was feeding down on the short grass a couple of fields over, so we got those in the scope too. Then when they flew up and over the road past us, we decided to walk back. We could hear Hawfinches calling from the trees.

Iberian Magpie

Iberian Magpie – a flock flew past us as we walked down the road

We could see mist again in the lower lying areas from where we were and as we made our way up the motorway, we went in and out of the fog, which was rather thick at times. We turned off and took the old road up over the hills at Casas de Miravete. We stopped at the top of the pass, above the clouds, where the sun was out. A Woodlark was singing overhead and we stopped to listen to its mournful song.

As we walked up the track on the sunny side of the ridge, a pair of Cirl Buntings flew up and landed on the fence ahead of us. There were quite a few Serins here too and we watched a male song flighting over the path, with fast fluttering wingbeats. A lot of the trees have been cleared up here and the peace was now shattered with the song of chainsaws up in the hillside. We figured we wouldn’t see anything else up here (or be able to hear it!) so we walked back down.

Cirl Bunting

Cirl Bunting – we found a pair at the top of Casas de Miravete

The track on the other side looked quieter, so we decided to try our luck down there. This used to be a good place for Crested Tits, but most of the pines have been taken out (although ironically the non-native eucalyptus the other side of the track have been left in place!). A Black Redstart was flicking around at the start of the track and a Jay called and disappeared off ahead of us through the remaining trees. A couple of Mistle Thrushes flew off up the slope to the rocks above. We thought we heard a snatch of Crested Tit, but when we stopped to listen, we couldn’t hear anything.

We reached a patch which had been completely clear-felled and decided to turn back. This time we definitely heard a Crested Tit call and got a couple of glimpses of it in the pines, along with a pair of Long-tailed Tits. We followed them and eventually the Crested Tit flew up and landed in the top of a pine tree. We could hear a second one calling further back. A Great Spotted Woodpecker was drumming too, higher up.

Back in the minibus, we came out under the cloud on the other side of the ridge. It was rather grey and misty now, as we made our way up to Saucedilla. As we parked at the Visitor Centre again, a couple of Swallows were on the wires above us. As we walked up the track, two Kingfishers chased down over the channel and away through the trees. Two Little Grebes were in the water on the corner. We could hear Western Purple Swamphen calling, but it was hidden deep in the sedge bed. We scanned the channel in front of Hide 1, but couldn’t see anything along the edges of the vegetation either side, and then as we walked back the Purple Swamphen was now standing in the top of a sedge clump. Unfortunately it saw us coming and started to walk back into cover, but we still had a better look at it before it disappeared in completely.

Continuing down along the track, we stopped again to scan the tops of the bulrushes. A bird was perched in some dead branches which protruded from the reeds – a Wryneck. It was presumably trying to avoid the damp vegetation below, as it stayed where it was for several minutes while we had a good look at it in the scope. A nice bonus as they are not common here in winter!

Wryneck

Wryneck – perched up in the dry

A Water Rail called from deep in the vegetation and we could hear the pair of White Storks bill clapping again, on their nest platform behind us. A Green Sandpiper flew round calling and we stopped to look at an Iberian Grey Shrike perched on some wires. Continuing on past Hide 2, there were several Chiffchaffs flycatching in the bushes and a Zitting Cisticola feeding around the base of the low vegetation beside the path, again presumably trying to avoid the thicker, wetter stuff. A small flock of Common Waxbills shot past calling. First a Little Egret and then a Great White Egret appeared up briefly beyond the reeds.

Zitting Cisticola

Zitting Cisticola – showed well, feeding in the vegetation by the path

We didn’t have time to go much further, so we turned back. A flock of Spanish Sparrows flew in and landed on a fence by the path. Then a Water Pipit flew up calling from an area of damp grass, circled overhead, and then dropped down towards the fields. When we got back to the channel behind the visitor centre, we looked over to the sedges at the back and could see a Purple Swamphen standing on the water’s edge, out in full view now. It stayed there for several minutes, allowing us all to get a good look at its bright purple plumage, huge red bill and outsize pink feet. Then it walked back into the vegetation. It was a smart bird to end the trip with, and we walked back to the Visitor Centre and ate our packed lunches on the picnic tables.

Western Purple Swamphen

Western Purple Swamphen – finally showed well as we walked back

The journey back to Madrid was uneventful, although we did see a couple of pairs of Cranes in the dehesa on the way. Our flight back to London Stansted was on time and, even better, our bags were already waiting for us on the carousel when we got through passport control (perhaps they had been taking lessons from the Spanish!), before we said our goodbyes and went our separate ways.

 

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!

22nd-23rd July 2019 – Brecks, Coast & Nightjars

A two day Private Tour in Norfolk, we spent Monday in the Brecks before heading up to North Norfolk for an evening looking for owls and Nightjars. On Tuesday, we were out on the North Norfolk coast. The weather was sunny with mostly clear blue skies, and hot, although there was a keen and rather blustery wind on Monday which had died down the following day.

We met down in the Brecks. As it was already approaching mid-morning, we headed straight over to Weeting Heath to look for Stone Curlews before it got too hot. When we got into East Hide, there was no obvious sign of anything on view but a careful scan with the scope revealed a Stone Curlew hunkered down in the grass and flowers, looking rather like a clod of earth, but slightly paler than the clods around it. We had a look at it through the scope, and could see its yellow iris and black-tipped yellow bill as it turned its head.

Stone Curlew

Stone Curlew – in the flowers out on the heath from East Hide

Then another Stone Curlew stood up a little further over to the left. This was a much better view, and we watched it as it walked slowly over towards the first bird. Eventually, it settled down into the grass and disappeared again, so we took that as our cue to move on.

There had been a few tits and a Nuthatch high in the pines on our walk out, but on the way back to the car park we heard a Marsh Tit calling in the bushes ahead of us, its distinctive sneezing call. It flew towards us and landed in an elder right next to the path, just a few feet from us. So close, you didn’t even need binoculars!

From there, we made our way over to Lakenheath Fen. Having checked in at the Visitor Centre, we stopped briefly to look at the feeders. A few tits and Goldfinches were coming and going and a male Reed Bunting made several visits to the feeding table.

Reed Bunting

Reed Bunting – coming in to the feeders by the Visitor Centre

It was a bit too windy out along the main track for butterflies today, but still we saw lots of Red Admirals and a Comma landed on the brambles briefly. A couple of Brown Hawkers were hawking over the reeds and several Ruddy Darters were flying around and perching in the grass by the path. Most of the damselflies were hiding in the vegetation, but we did see one or two Azure Damselflies.

We stopped at the New Fen Viewpoint and looked out over the pool below. A Great Crested Grebe was still on its nest on the edge of the reeds, and what was presumably its partner appeared and swam out into the middle of the water. There were a couple of well-grown broods of Gadwall and some moulting Mallard at the back, along with several Coot and Moorhen. A Reed Warbler was feeding low down along the edge of the reeds at the back.

Great Crested Grebe

Great Crested Grebe – still on the nest in front of New Fen Viewpoint

Continuing on along the track towards Mere Hide, there were one or two Black-tailed Skimmers basking on the gravel which kept flying on ahead of us. We had a junior member of the group with us who could hear loud buzzing in the grass by the track, whereas the grown-ups couldn’t hear it above the wind. It was a Roesel’s Bush-cricket and following the noise, we eventually found several in the vegetation and watched one stridulating.

Roesel's Bush Cricket

Roesel’s Bush Cricket – there were lots in the grass, inaudible to the grown-ups!

From the hide, we could see a family of Little Grebes away to the left at the back of the open channel, an adult feeding two well-grown juveniles. A flock of five Little Egrets flew over towards, heading over towards Joist Fen. Several Four-spotted Chasers were flying around the edges of the water or perching on reed stems. Otherwise it was rather quiet here today, we we decided to continue on to Joist Fen.

As we sat on the benches looking out over Joist Fen, it was rather quiet here too at first. A few Marsh Harriers circled up from the reeds from time to time, a male with the silvery-grey panel it is upperwings, a female and one or two dark chocolate brown juveniles. A couple of Common Terns commuted back and forth from the pools out in the middle of the reeds.

One or two Reed Warblers flicked in and out on the edge of the reeds. We heard Bearded Tits calling several times, but they were mostly hidden behind the reeds down at the front of the pool, just below the viewpoint, until a juvenile flew back across the water and landed in the reeds at the back.

Then two Common Cranes appeared, flying across low over the reeds, before dropping down away from us into the reeds out in the middle out of sight. As well as the breeding pair which still has a youngster which has not yet fledged, there have been two different Cranes seen from time to time around the reserve recently. They were presumably the ones we saw, possibly returning juveniles from 2018 according to reserve staff. Several Little Egrets had already flown in and out and when a Great White Egret appeared. It came up out of the reeds, much larger, with slower wingbeats, and flew back away from us.

We had been hoping to see a Bittern here, and normally this is a good time to see them as they fly back and forth regularly with food for their young, but they have not been very active this summer. The reserve staff hope that there are still good numbers breeding, after a record count of eleven booming males in spring here, and think they may just be walking to find food due to the conditions.

It was nice sitting here in the sunshine with the breeze over the reeds, so we decided to wait some more. A Grey Heron came up and did a fly round. When it dropped down out of sight in the reeds again, it chased a second Grey Heron out. Finally, a Bittern put in an appearance, flying up out of the reeds over towards the river bank, across low over the tops, before dropping back in out in the middle. Success!

It was a long walk back to the Visitor Centre and was early afternoon already by the time we got back. We stopped for a cold drink and a snack to recover. With evening activities planned too, we didn’t have much time this afternoon, but we called in quickly at Lynford Arboretum. There was lots of activity around a tree laden with berries in the car park – several Blackbirds coming and going, and a family of Garden Warblers. We watched the adult feeding one of the juveniles up in the top.

As we walked down the path towards the bridge, a Siskin flew over calling. There were not many birds out in the heat of the afternoon, so we carried on down to the lake. Several Little Grebes out among the lilypads, including an adult feeding two juveniles. An Emperor Dragonfly was hawking over the water. Making our way back up towards the car park, we stopped to look at the feeders by the cottages and a Great Spotted Woodpecker flew out.

Little Grebe

Little Grebe – one of several on the lake at Lynford

On our way north, we stopped off again in the forest. We parked by a clearing and walked a short way out along a ride through the middle. A Yellowhammer was singing from the top of the pines on one side, and we found an Essex Skimmer in the grass (we could see the black tips to the underside of its antennae) but there was not much else here today so we carried on our way.

After a break to get checked in and get something to eat, we met again in the evening. First, we drove over to a site to look for Little Owls. As soon as we pulled up, we could see one of the adults perched on the roof of some old farm buildings. We watched from the minibus as it stood there staring at us, a great view.

Little Owl

Little Owl – one of the adults, hiding under the roof

As the adult Little Owl seemed fairly settled, we pulled a little further forwards and could see two paler grey, fluffier juvenile Little Owls on the same roof a little further down. They were more active, looking round, stretching their wings, running up under cover and back down into the open. We stayed and watched them for a short while, then headed down to the coast to look for Barn Owls.

We drove round through an area of meadows where the Barn Owls like to hunt, but there was no sign of any out yet. So we parked and walked down along the bank by the grazing marshes. Several Common Swifts were screaming around the rooftops of the village nearby – it won’t be long now before they are off, on their way south. A few House Martins circled in with them. A Grey Partridge was feeding in the grass on the edge of a ditch across the meadows.

Scanning from the bank, we picked up a very distant Barn Owl out over the back of the marshes, hunting. As we watched it, it seemed to be coming a bit closer, flying towards us, but then it turned and went back out into the middle. At least we had seen a Barn Owl. We turned to walk back to the minibus and another Barn Owl appeared from behind the reeds back towards the road. It was the regular all-white male, a stunning bird! It flew straight past us and disappeared round over the bank.

Barn Owl

Barn Owl – the all-white male flew past us over the reeds

It was time to get up to the heath for this evening’s main event now. As we walked out into the middle of the heath, we spotted a large bat flying over the tops of the pines, probably a Noctule.

We didn’t have long to wait before we heard the first Nightjar of the evening calling. It sounded like it was flying round in the trees at first, but then it came out over the edge of the heath, circling round a few times in front of the trees. Then it turned and came right past us, heading out into the middle. A male, we could see its white wing patches as it came past. It dropped down out of view and started churring.

Another Nightjar called from trees. It too flew round like the other had done earlier. It landed briefly on a branch, one of its favourite churring posts, and we got it in scope, but it didn’t stay long. It flew round past us and out into the middle of the heath too,another male. We stood and listened to the churring and from time to time could see one flying round, hawking for insects.

Then one of the male Nightjars flew back in low over the heath and came back right past us, another good view. It flew up into an oak tree quite close to where we were standing and started churring. Great to hear up close. Unfortunately it was obscured by leaves where we were standing and as we tried to walk round to the other side to see if we could see it, it dropped out of the tree and flew back out into middle again.

After a long day, it was time to call it a night. We could hear another Nightjar churring as we walked back to the minibus, and a Tawny Owl hooting away in the distance. It was time for bed.

After our late night last night, we had a more relaxed start to the morning today. After  we met up, we headed down to Wells. As we parked, we could already see the Spoonbills. There were at least six, tucked in the grass, asleep. There were several Little Egrets with them too and hard to tell what some of the white shapes were from here, further over hidden by the vegetation.

After a while, two of the Spoonbills woke up. One was one of this year’s juveniles, from the breeding colony at Holkham. When they want to be fed they are relentless, and we watched the juvenile as it walked over towards the adult and started begging, bobbing its head up and down and flapping its wings. The adult tried walking away, but the juvenile followed. After a while, the adult tried flying away but the juvenile just flew after it and carried on begging when it landed. In the end, the adult gave in.

Spoonbills

Spoonbills – sleeping on one of the islands

There were a few waders on the pools here too. We could see a distant Greenshank roosting on the back of one pool, but then found another feeding close to the track on the other side. A Green Sandpiper appeared from behind one of the islands too. A large flock of Black-tailed Godwits was out in the middle and there were still plenty of Lapwings, presumably the local breeding birds. There is just one pair of Avocets left here now though. Most have finished breeding and moved off elsewhere to moult, but these ones still have a cute, half-grown fluffy juvenile. Moulting will have to wait until family duties have finished!

Greenshank

Greenshank – one of two here this morning

We watched a lovely grey male Marsh Harrier circling over the fields beyond the pools. Then a female appeared and flew in over the pools and past us.

Marsh Harrier

Marsh Harrier – flew inland over the pools

There were several Reed Buntings along the track, and Linnets and Goldfinches in the bushes, along with a few House Sparrows. When we heard a Sedge Warbler calling, we turned and could see it climbing around in the base of a large hawthorn by the edge of the ditch behind us.

We moved on from here, driving west along the coast road all the way to Holme. It was hot already, but there was a nice breeze coming in off the sea as we walked out through the dunes. A big dragonfly flew past – an emperor, but with a dark abdomen with a bright blue segment at the base. A Lesser Emperor! It disappeared straight off east through the dunes, presumably fresh in. There were hirundines on the move too today, little groups of Swallows and Sand Martins heading along the coast.

As we walked out towards the beach, we could hear Sandwich Terns calling, from the shore we could see a steady stream flying past. They were heading back to the breeding colony at Scolt, most carrying fish for their young which they had presumably caught in the Wash. Some of them came past us very close, so we could clearly see the yellow tip to their black bills (despite them being full of fish!). A couple of orange-red billed Common Terns came past too.

Sandwich Tern

Sandwich Tern – flying back to the breeding colony with fish

There were a couple of Little Terns diving just off the beach at the point away to our west, so we walked along to try to get a closer view. There were two at first, then four. They drifted off west, and when they came back again there were at least ten. We had great views of them fishing just offshore. As well as the small size, we could see their black-tipped yellow bills and white foreheads.

Little Tern

Little Tern – there were at least ten fishing offshore

There was a single Bar-tailed Godwit on the point and several Ringed Plovers higher up on the beach. A flock of waders flew in and landed on the point. We got them in the scope and could see they were mostly Sanderling, at least 150 of them, with the majority still largely in dark breeding plumage. Very different from the silvery grey and white ones we see in the winter. There were around ten Dunlin in with them, the black bellies of their breeding plumage immediately identifying them.

Sanderling

Sanderling – at least 150 flew in to roost on the point

Looking away to the west, towards the mouth of the Wash, we watched as a huge flock of birds flew up. They were largely Knot, probably at least 2,500 of them. It was amazing to watch as they whirled round out over the sea, presumably having been spooked from where they were roosting over high tide. Some flew over our way and past over the sea, and we could see they were also mostly still in their rusty breeding plumage.

Knot

Knot – part of the flock which whirled out over the sea

It was very pleasant out on the beach today, particularly with so much to see, and our junior correspondent even went for a paddle. Eventually, it was time to walk back and get some lunch. We drove round to the village to the White Horse for a cold drink and a sandwich. Then it was on to Titchwell for the rest of the afternoon.

Making out way out onto the reserve, we stopped first at the reedbed pool where a Great White Egret was lurking in the reeds on one side. Through the scope, we could see its long snake-like neck and dagger-shaped yellow bill. There were several ducks on here, Common Pochard and Tufted Duck being new for the trip list, and two Great Crested Grebes, one adult and a juvenile.

Great White Egret

Great White Egret – hiding in the reeds on the reedbed pool on our way out

We particularly wanted to see the Semipalmated Sandpiper which had been here for a few days now, so we decided to head straight out towards the Tidal Pools which was where it had been seen todat.

On the way, we spotted at least six Spoonbills on the island at the back of the Freshmarsh. A smart Black-tailed Godwit was feeding at the front on the mud, and as we walked along the bank more flew up and headed out west, flashing their distinctive black and white wings. Several Ruff were also feeding on the mud below the bank, bewildering in their variation with no two looking the same and all looking patchy, at different stages of moult.

Ruff

Ruff – a moulting male, no two look the same at this time of year

We stopped briefly to look at an adult Mediterranean Gull roosting in with the Black-headed Gulls on one the islands, one of the other birds we had hoped to catch up with here today. We could see its brighter, heavier red bill, blacker hood, and white wing tips, compared to the neighbouring Black-headed Gulls.

Pressing on to the Tidal Pools, when we got there the Semipalmated Sandpiper had just been chased off by Turnstones and walked into the vegetation out of view. We had a look at the Turnstones, still mostly in their bright breeding plumage. There was also a small group of Dunlin, feeding on the edge of the island, plus Redshanks and Oystercatchers roosting.

The Semipalmated Sandpiper did walk out for a couple of seconds but went back in before we could all get a look at it. At least it was still there. We didn’t have too long this afternoon though, so we decided to walk back to Parrinder Hide and come back again later. A friend who was still waiting promised to let us know if it reappeared.

The Great White Egret was now on the Freshmarsh, preening out on one of the islands amongst all the gulls, looking oddly out of place. A single orange Knot in breeding plumage was feeding nearby, so we could get this one in the scope and have a better look at it than the ones which had flown past earlier.

From the hide, we could really appreciate just how many Avocets there are on the Freshmarsh now, with over 600 counted in the last day or so. They gather here to moult at this time of the year, so some of these birds may have come from very different places. They were mostly sleeping on the islands. We also had a nice close view of a Black-tailed Godwit still in breeding plumage in front of the hide, where we could clearly see the rusty colour of the head extending down to the breast and then barred with black on a white belly.

Avocets

Avocets – numbers soar, as birds come here to moult

Several juvenile Pied Wagtails were flitting around in front of the hide and out on the short grassy islands. A juvenile Yellow Wagtail was in with them, browner above and creamy yellow below. Some of the Spoonbills were awake now, and we watched a couple of juveniles practicing feeding, sweeping their bills from side to side in the shallow water. We could see there were more Mediterranean Gulls here, in with Black-headed Gulls. A good opportunity to practice newly-learnt Mediterranean Gull identification and pick them out!

The phone buzzed, as a message arrived to say that the Semipalmated Sandpiper had come out, so we walked quickly back to the Tidal Pools. By the time we got there, it had of course disappeared back into the vegetation again but after scanning for a minute or so, we found it standing in a patch of short samphire. It was rather tucked in at first, but then put its head up, looking round. Then suddenly all the waders took off and headed straight out towards the beach. The Semipalmated Sandpiper appeared to go down with them.

We walked up onto the dunes and scanned the beach from the top. The tide was just going out and the mussel beds were only starting to be exposed in a few places. Thankfully it meant there weren’t too may places to hide and we quickly relocated the Semipalmated Sandpiper with a Dunlin feeding down on the shore. It was distant from here, so we walked down for a closer view, and had a really good view of it from the beach.

Semipalmated Sandpiper

Semipalmated Sandpiper – finally showed well, out on the beach

Semipalmated Sandpiper is a rare visitor here from North America, closely related to our Little Stint. It is more often seen on the west coast, and particularly unusual here in Norfolk. It gets its name from the small amount of webbing between the base of its toes, which is not shown by our stints.

It was a nice way to end our two days. After seeing a good variety of our breeding bids, as well as a selection of returning passage waders, we got to round it off with a proper rarity. Unfortunately we had to get back as there was a train to catch. It had been a very enjoyable couple of summer days out.

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.

24th Apr 2018 – Five Days of Spring, Day 4

Day 4 of five days of Spring Migration tours today. After three days up on the North Norfolk coast, we headed down to the Broads – not least because there were several good birds to see down there. It was thankfully less windy than yesterday but, after spitting on and off from late morning, it finally started to rain around 3pm, unusually around the time it was forecast!

It was a long drive down to the Broads this morning. A Pallid Harrier had been found on the coast between Horsey and Winterton yesterday and was reported to be still around today, so we headed straight over there first. We parked in the car park at Winterton and set off north through the dunes.

We could see four or five people standing on the top of a tall dune in the distance and we met one of the locals coming back who told us that was the best place to head for first, even though the bird had headed off north. As we made our way over the dunes, there were Wheatears everywhere, flying off in all directions ahead of us.

Wheatear

Wheatear – there were lots in the North Dunes today

When we got up onto the top of the tall dune, the message was the same as we had heard earlier – the Pallid Harrier had been seen flying off north and lost to view. Still, it had been back once or twice already, so this seemed like the best place to stand for now.

There were several dog walkers out this morning and one of them flushed a small group of Ring Ouzels, which flew off ahead of them and landed in the tops of a small group of scrubby trees down in the bottom of the dunes. We just got them in the scope before they were flushed again and flew off further north.

While we were all watching the Ring Ouzels, one of the group asked ‘what’s this bird over here?’. We turned around to see the Pallid Harrier a short distance away! It was chasing a Skylark over the dunes, twisting and turning. The Skylark got away and the Pallid Harrier turned towards the dune where we were standing and flew right past just below us. Wow!

Pallid Harrier 2

Pallid Harrier – came right past just below where we were standing

We could see the Pallid Harrier‘s pale collar, set off by the dark ‘boa’ just behind. It was much slimmer winged and more streamlined than a Hen Harrier too. It headed off south towards the car park, then turned and started to make its way back, along the seaward edge of the dunes. It came past us again, a bit more distant this time, and we watched as it disappeared away to the north. It was clearly doing a regular circuit of the dunes, between the beach car park and Horsey to the north.

Having enjoyed such fantastic views of the Pallid Harrier, we set off down into the dunes to try to get a better look at the Ring Ouzels now. There were more Wheatears here and a male Stonechat, which perched up obligingly in the top of a small tree next to the path.

Stonechat

Stonechat – this male perched up obligingly near the path

Before we even got to where we thought the Ring Ouzels had gone, we flushed one from a bramble clump ahead of us. It flew off over the crest of the dune calling. When we got to the top, we saw three Ring Ouzels fly again, from a ridge further over. They seemed to be very flighty today. We swung round in a wide arc to the north, to try to find somewhere to try to view them from a safe distance, but they were off again.

This time the Ring Ouzels, now four of them, flew across and landed in front of a large dune where some people were sitting looking for the Pallid Harrier. We made our way round to the back of the dune and crept up the side. When we looked over the edge we could see the Ring Ouzels on the next dune ridge over. They were feeding happily and we had a good look at them through the scope, several males and at least one female, before they dropped down the other side of the ridge out of view.

Ring Ouzel

Ring Ouzel – at least four of them showed very well from a discrete distance

As we walked up to join the others on the top of the dune, they alerted us to the fact that the Pallid Harrier was doing another pass behind us. We followed it as it disappeared off to the south again, down to the car park. A few minutes later, it was back and we watched as the Pallid Harrier headed off north low over the dunes. Great views again! We had been spoiled now, with the performance the Pallid Harrier had put on for us, so we decided to move on and see what else we could find.

Pallid Harrier 1

Pallid Harrier – we watched it do another couple of passes through the dunes

As we made our way back south through the dunes, there didn’t seem to be as many birds as on our way up earlier, particularly we didn’t see any more Wheatears. Probably they had all been flushed out of this part of the dunes by all the people walking through. There were lots of Skylarks singing and we did come across a smart male Yellowhammer perched in the top of a small tree.

We carried on south, over the road and on into the south dunes. As we got up to the first trees, we could see a small warbler flitting around in the bare branches and picking at the leaf buds which were just starting to open. It was a Lesser Whitethroat and we watched it for a couple of minutes as it worked its way through the branches. A Chiffchaff flew in and started singing from higher up in the same tree.

A little further on, we found a Willow Warbler and a Blackcap. The Willow Warbler was singing from time to time, a beautiful, sweet descending scale, and showed well in some low hawthorns. The Blackcap kept low in the brambles, subsinging.

Willow Warbler

Willow Warbler – we saw several in the south dunes

As we continued on south, there were more warblers in the trees and bushes. Another Lesser Whitethroat, another couple of Willow Warblers, another Blackcap. A Common Whitethroat started singing but disappeared off ahead of us.

There were not many birds moving today. We did see a small number of Swallows, but only about 4-5, heading north through the dunes, and next to nothing else. There were plenty of Linnets and a few Meadow Pipits in the dunes.

Linnet

Linnet – still quite common in the dunes

As we turned to head back, a male Stonechat was singing from the brambles in the middle of the Valley. A particularly bright, lemon-yellow breasted Willow Warbler was flitting around in one of the small oaks in the next clump of trees. We made our way slowly back to the car.

News had come through that the Black-winged Stilt, which had been found at Potter Heigham yesterday, was still present today. So we made our way over there next. When we got there, it was time for lunch. As we ate, a male Marsh Harrier was displaying high over our heads, calling.

Scanning the first pool we passed, we spotted a very smart drake Garganey out in the middle, so we stopped to have a look at it through the scope. There were lots of other ducks on here too – Mallard, Gadwall, Teal, Shoveler, Pochard and Tufted Duck. Plus both Little and Great Crested Grebes, both in breeding plumage.

We had just started to walk on when we received a phone call to say the Black-winged Stilt had just flown over our way. Sure enough, we found it on the next pool, quite close, down towards the front. We got it in the scope, noting its black mantle and black markings on the head, suggesting it is a male.

Black-winged Stilt

Black-winged Stilt – this lone male was very mobile around the pools today

The water levels are quite high here at the moment, so there are not that many places for it to feed and it appears to be very mobile. The Black-winged Stilt made its way along the edge of a flooded grassy island, then flew over to the next pool. We watched it on there for a few minutes before it was off again, and flew over to the pools at the back by the river.

From here we could see two more Garganey on the bank at the back of this pool. A flock of hirundines was hawking over the water, mainly Swallows and House Martins. One Common Swift was in with them.

We were told that a couple of Spoonbills had flown in and landed on one of the other pools, along the access track. We walked back there but couldn’t see them at first – they were not where they had been earlier. Then we picked them up, feeding with their heads down half hidden behind a line of reeds. Eventually they put their heads up briefly and we could just about see them properly.

There were lots more duck on these pools and a group of five Garganey were down towards the front. There were four smart drakes, with bold white stripes on their heads, and a single browner female. It is great to see groups of Garganey like this – a scene more like spring in the Mediterranean than the UK. There was also a single drake Pintail lingering here.

Garganey

Garganey – a flock of five, including four drakes

It was starting to rain now, but we wanted to see if we could find any Cranes. We headed back past the car park. A couple of Sedge Warblers were singing from the reeds and then we heard a Reed Warbler too – much more structured and rhythmical.

Continuing on, we came to an open area where we could scan a large expanse of grazing marsh. The first thing we set eyes on was a pair of Cranes over in the distance. We got them in the scope and there was no mistaking them. As it was raining harder now, we made our way back to the car. A Grasshopper Warbler reeled briefly from deep in the bushes out in the reeds.

Having achieved all our targets here, we decided to head back towards North Norfolk and stop to see if we could find anything from the car on the way. We made our way up to Cromer and turned west along the coast road.

Our first detour was at West Runton where we had a quick look in the paddocks along the road down to the beach. A single Wheatear was perched on one of the fence posts, looking decidedly soggy. It was too wet to have a look at Beeston Bump now, so we continued on to Salthouse and drove up the Beach Road. A single Wheatear was out in the grass just north of the main drain.

Our last detour was at Cley, where once again we headed down along the road to the beach. We stopped at the bend and scanned out along the fence line. The first bird we set eyes on was a cracking male Whinchat, preening in the wet. A great bonus at the end of the day! There were also dozens of Swallows here too, perching on the fence or hawking low over the reeds, along with several Sand Martins and one or two House Martins.

Hirundines

Hirundines – gathered on the fence in the rain

We had a quick look at the sea from the beach shelter, but there was not much happening offshore. A couple of Sandwich Terns flew past calling.

We had enjoyed a great day out, despite the rain setting in later, and see a really good selection of birds. We decided to call time and head for home.

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.