Tag Archives: Eastern Stonechat

3rd Nov 2018 – Late Autumn, Day 2

Day 2 of a 3 day long weekend of Late Autumn Tours in North Norfolk today. It was a cloudy start, but it brightened up nicely and the brisk southerly wind was mild, coming all the way from North Africa! Another nice day to be out. We planned to spend the morning trying to catch up with some lingering rarities along the coast, and then head out for some more general birding in the afternoon.

As we made our way east along the coast road this morning, we stopped first by the duck pond at Salthouse. Down along Meadow Lane, the ‘Eastern’ Stonechat was hiding at first, down in the reeds in the ditch which runs along the side of the track. It was just visible from the gate when it perched up. Helpfully, it then flew out to the taller reeds out in the middle, along the channel straight out from the gate, where we could get a really good look at it in the scope.

Eastern Stonechat

‘Eastern’ Stonechat – presumably of the form now called Stejneger’s

We could see its pale peachy orange breast contrasting with its white throat. When it flew, we could see its large, unstreaked, orange rump. At the time of writing, we are still waiting to hear back on its specific identity (which will hopefully be confirmed by DNA analysis!), although we know for sure it is one of the forms of ‘Eastern’ Stonechat.

The more easterly-breeding birds have been split out as a separate species, Stejneger’s Stonechat, which is what this bird is believed to be. However, the criteria for the separation of the two ‘Eastern’ Stonechats in the field are still largely untested so if this one isn’t Stejneger’s Stonechat, it will be back to the drawing board. Still, it is a really interesting bird to see whatever we end up calling it!

While we were watching the Stonechat, small flocks of Lapwing and Starling were passing west overhead, presumably more fresh arrivals from the continent coming in for the winter. A Sparrowhawk skimmed low over the grazing marsh and disappeared up across the field behind us, thankfully well away from the Stonechat.

Our next stop was at Sheringham. We parked at the Leas and made our way up along the coastal path to the Coastguard lookout on Skelding Hill. There were a couple of people already there who quickly put us on to the immature drake King Eider, which was out on the water. It was rather distant today, and diving constantly, but through the scope we got a good look at it. The distinctive bulbous frontal lobes on the base of its bill caught the morning light and shone bright orange.

King Eider

King Eider – an eclipse immature drake

Scanning the sea from the clifftop, we could see a few Cormorants diving among the fishing buoys. One looked a little smaller and had a different profile – a squarer head with a steep forehead and a thinner bill, as well as a more contrasting white throat. It was a Shag, a 1st winter. Shags are not common here, so this was a nice bonus bird to see. A few Gannets were circling and plunge diving offshore too.

A small flock of Pink-footed Geese flew over calling, possibly birds on their way up from the Broads to North Norfolk, rather than fresh arrivals. A few Skylarks in off the sea were more likely just arriving here for the winter.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese – possibly moving up from the Broads to North Norfolk

There has been a Richard’s Pipit lingering along the cliff top at Trimingham for the last few days, so we made our way along there next to see if we could find it. It had been reported already a couple of times this morning, but as we walked down along the path to the cliffs, we met a couple of people leaving who had not seen it for the last couple of hours. We carried on along the cliffs anyway – it was a lovely day now, and the view from here is stunning.

Trimingham cliffs

Trimingham Cliffs – a great view, but you can see the problem with erosion here

There were a few small flocks of Starlings coming in off the sea here too. We flushed a few Skylarks from the edge of the field as we walked past and a small group of Golden Plovers were hiding further out in the winter wheat. Looking over the edge of the cliffs, we could really see how the coastline is eroding here, with large areas below which had slipped down creating some substantial patches of undercliff. A Kestrel and a Meadow Pipit perched on one of the ridges.

When we got to the spot where the Richard’s Pipit had last been seen, there were a few people standing on the top of the cliffs looking, but there was still no further sign of it. It had been seen briefly in the long grass by the path but had then dropped over the cliff edge and disappeared. No one had seen which way it had gone, and it seemed like it had been roaming along a mile or more of the cliffs. We had a quick scan of the undercliff here, but it was like looking for a needle in a haystack. We didn’t want to waste too much time here, so we decided to walk back.

As we got to the path which cuts back across the fields to the road, we heard what sounded like a Rock or Water Pipit, but we were looking into the sun as it flew round. As we turned inland, a Water Pipit flew back over us. Two Common Buzzards drifted over from the small wood away to the east, passing right over our heads.

Common Buzzard

Common Buzzard – flew overhead as we walked back

When we got back to Cley, we stopped for lunch at the picnic tables overlooking the reserve. A Marsh Harrier drifted over the scrapes, flushing all the gulls, ducks and a large group of Black-tailed Godwits. A lone Ruff flew over, heading inland presumably to feed in the fields. We could hear Pink-footed Geese calling from the field behind the Visitor Centre, and when something spooked them, they all flew round and landed again behind the hedge just to the east of us.

After lunch, we headed out up the East Bank. We could hear Bearded Tits calling from the reeds, but it was a bit too windy this afternoon for them to show themselves. A Marsh Harrier was hanging in the wind out over the reedbed.

Looking across to Pope’s Pool, we could see lots of Wigeon and Teal, together with a few Shoveler and one or two Gadwall. More Black-tailed Godwits were feeding along the back edge and several Cormorants were drying their wings on the island. More ducks were loafing in the grass around the Serpentine. When a noisy motorbike raced along the coast road, revving hard, everything spooked.

Wildfowl

Wildfowl – disturbed by a noisy motorbike on the coast road

Looking down along the main drain, we could see several Little Grebes on the water. There were lots of waders on Arnold’s Marsh today, so we stood on the bank to go through them. There were more Black-tailed Godwits here, together with several Curlews and Redshanks. In amongst all the Dunlin, we found a single Knot. A Grey Plover and a Ringed Plover were feeding on the stony spits on the north side.

On the brackish pools opposite, a Little Egret was feeding just below the path, but flew up and landed again next to a Grey Heron further back.

Little Egret

Little Egret – feeding on the brackish pools by the East Bank

Out at the beach, the sea looked quiet at first glance. A couple of Grey Seals surfaced just offshore, watching some people gathered down on the shoreline. We could see one or two Gannets circling over the sea and then we found several Red-throated Divers and a single Razorbill on the water. Four Common Scoter flew past, but the highlight was a Great Skua which we picked up flying west offshore.

Back at the car, we headed west to Warham Greens. As we walked down the track, we flushed a few Blackbirds from the hedges but when we got to the paddock a large flock of Fieldfares flew up from the fields and landed in the bushes.

As we stopped to look at the Fieldfares, a harrier came up over the hedge beyond them. It was a ringtail Hen Harrier and as it dropped down low over the grass in front of the barn, we could see the white square at the base of its tail. It flew up over the hedge the other side and we walked over to the entrance to the field to find it quartering over the cover strip beyond.

Hen Harrier

Hen Harrier – having a last hunt before heading in to roost

The Hen Harrier flew round past us and disappeared through the hedge by the track. We crossed over and watched it as it continued hunting, patrolling either side of the hedge which runs along the far side of the field the other side. There were several Brown Hares in the field, but they didn’t seem particularly concerned by the Hen Harrier just beyond them.

When the Hen Harrier disappeared from view, we continued on down the track. A flock of Curlews and Lapwings was feeding in the winter wheat in the next field. A Sparrowhawk flew low across in front of them and perched up in the hedge briefly.

As we arrived down on the edge of the saltmarsh, another ringtail Hen Harrier was patrolling distantly along the far edge, out towards the beach. There were little groups of Brent Geese, Little Egrets and Curlews scattered over the saltmarsh. Flocks of Starlings were making their way west, although it was hard to tell now whether these were more migrants arriving or local birds heading in to the town to roost.

A small party of Pink-footed Geese had already settled out on the beach beyond and more flew in to join them. Further skeins of Pink-footed Geese looked to be gathering in the fields just inland from us.

It was a good evening for watching raptors. A couple more ringtail Hen Harriers appeared and quartered the saltmarsh, one coming quite a bit closer to us at one point. A ghostly grey male Hen Harrier flew in from the east, along the back edge of the saltmarsh, and shortly after a second male flew in too. A Common Buzzard flew back and forth. A rather dark looking young Peregrine flew in over the beach and tussled with a Marsh Harrier briefly, before flying off towards Wells. A male Merlin appeared on one of the posts out on the saltmarsh and perched preening in the last of the evening’s light.

It was a great way to end the day, but dusk was drawing in fast now, so we decided to head back to the car before it got dark.

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27th Oct 2018 – Autumn Weekend, Day 1

Day 1 of a weekend of Autumn Tours today. It was a wet and windy day, with a cold and gusty northerly bringing squally showers in off the North Sea. Perfect seawatching weather – but we had a few other things we wanted to try to do today as well.

With seawatching in mind, we made our way over to Sheringham first thing. It was a big tide this morning and with the strong north wind, the waves were crashing over the prom. It meant we couldn’t get along the prom to the shelter, so we had to drive round to the other side, and it also meant there were already a lot of people taking shelter here. We managed to find a spot out of the wind and settled in to scan the sea.

It was immediately clear there was a lot of wildfowl moving this morning, birds arriving from the continent, coming in over the North Sea to spend the winter here. We saw a steady stream of flocks of Wigeon and Teal flying past, mostly low over the waves. A couple of groups of Common Scoter coming past further out, and then some flew through with a group of Teal, providing a nice size and colour contrast.

The Brent Geese are arriving for the winter too at the moment, flying in short lines, and there were a small number of Shelducks, sometimes mixed in with them. Two Goldeneye flying past were the wildfowl highlight.

There was a steady movement of commoner seabirds passing by this morning too – mostly Gannets, Kittiwakes and Guillemots, blown inshore by the wind. Two dark juvenile Arctic Skuas came through reasonably close and disappeared off east. A single Manx Shearwater was too far out for everyone to get onto. A Great Northern Diver flew west, typically flying strongly well above the waves, despite the wind. But there was no sign of any Pomarine Skuas or Little Auks while we were watching, which we had thought we might see this morning.

There are always a small number of Purple Sandpipers along the shoreline here through the winter and a much larger number of Turnstones. The Turnstones will often run along the prom but the Purple Sandpipers are normally down on the rocks below. However, the crashing waves were obviously too much even for the hardy Purple Sandpiper today, and a couple of times it was pushed up onto the prom in front of us. When it flew back down onto the rocks, we had a good look at it over the railings.

Purple Sandpiper

Purple Sandpiper – on the rocks just below the Prom

We only spent an hour seawatching this morning, then with other things we wanted to try to see, we decided to move on. As we drove west along the coast road, we could see a large flock of Pink-footed Geese in a stubble field. We found somewhere to pull in and would down the windows. The geese nearest us flew up and settled again towards the back of the field, out of view, but it was clear we couldn’t get out of the car without flushing the rest of the flock. We could still see quite a few geese from the car, but most of them were hidden now in a dip in the field.

There were several Red-legged Partridges feeding in the stubble too, and we heard Skylarks calling as we opened the windows. A couple of smart Yellowhammers perched in the hedge nearby, calling..

Continuing on to Salthouse, we parked by the duck pond. As we got out of the car, a Woodcock shot past. It felt like it might almost have crashed into us, but veered round, over the road and into the gardens beyond. Another bird arriving from the winter, possibly from as far away as Russia, presumably fresh in and looking for somewhere sheltered to rest. Several Black-tailed Godwits were standing around in the pools behind the duck pond.

There has been an ‘Eastern’ Stonechat here for the last week or so, which we were keen to see. As we walked down along the track, we could see quite a crowd gathered already, but they didn’t seem to be looking at anything in particular, mostly standing around chatting. Apparently the Stonechat had not been seen for the last 15 minutes – it was clearly keeping down out of the wind today.

We walked up to where it had last been seen and scanned the edge of the grazing marsh, but couldn’t see any sign of it. Then we walked back to where it had been favouring in previous days, out from one of the field gates. It wasn’t out there either, but scanning back along the reedy ditch which runs beside the path, we spotted the Stonechat down in the vegetation.

It was obviously more sheltered down in the ditch but you could only see the Stonechat looking back from the gate and it kept disappearing into the reeds. When it did finally venture out onto the edge of the grazing marsh where it was more visible, a Sparrowhawk promptly appeared just beyond it, flying out low over the grass. The Stonechat sensibly dived back into the reeds, but then went made its way further back along the ditch away from us, where we couldn’t see it.

About half the group had managed to see the Stonechat, but there was a big crowd by the gate so not everyone had got onto it. Climbing up onto the top of the bank, we walked along level with where it had been. After a few minutes scanning, we spotted it again out in the middle of the grazing marsh this time.

The Stonechat was well camouflaged against the dead sedges, shades of orange and brown. But the wind seemed to have dropped, and it became more active, perching up on the top of the vegetation like a good Stonechat should! Finally, we all got nice views of it through the scope.

Stejneger's Stonechat

‘Eastern’ Stonechat – this photo taken yesterday, hopefully DNA will confirm its identity

‘Eastern’ Stonechat is the name currently being used for a group of species, including Siberian and Stejneger’s Stonechats, both of which can turn up here. It used to be much simpler, as they were all lumped together under the title ‘Siberian’, but DNA analysis has shown Stejneger’s to be distinct from Siberian and it is now treated as a full species in its own right. Unfortunately, our ability to identify these birds in the field has not kept up with the pace of taxonomic change driven by genetics!

The Salthouse Stonechat appears to be a Stejneger’s Stonechat – at least it looks similar to Stejneger’s Stonechats which have been confirmed by DNA testing recently. Hopefully, DNA has been collected and will be able to confirm it’s identity. If it is not Stejneger’s, then it will be back to the drawing board with the ID criteria!

Either way, it is an interesting and well travelled bird. ‘Eastern’ Stonechats breed across Russia to Japan and China, mostly wintering on the Indian subcontinent, with the range of Stejneger’s being further east than Siberian.

Once we had all enjoyed good views of the Stonechat, we drove on to Cley and stopped at the Visitor’s Centre for an early lunch. There were lots of birds on the scrapes and, with the wind having dropped a bit, we could even eat at the picnic tables overlooking the reserve.

A Marsh Harrier drifted across the scrapes, causing a mass panic, flushing  lots of Black-tailed Godwit and Wigeon. Thankfully, as it drifted off, the birds all seemed to settle back down. Two Lesser Redpoll flew over calling and eight Golden Plover circled over. The surprise here was a Gannet circling over the fields behind the Visitor Centre, presumably blown inland on the wind.

Marsh Harrier

Marsh Harrier – circled over the scrapes, flushing everything

After lunch, we could see black clouds approaching from the north, so we decided to head out to the hides, where we could get some shelter. As we walked along the Skirts path, a Spoonbill flew past over the reserve. Most of the Spoonbills which spent the summer here have departed now, with many of them heading down to Poole Harbour for the winter. There are only one or two still lingering on, so it was nice to see one today. It circled over the scrapes and looked like it might land, but then continue on east.

Spoonbill

Spoonbill – flew east as we walked out to the hides

By the time we got out to Dauke’s Hide and looked out, we were surprised by the comparative lack of birds, particularly compared to the masses we had seen when we were eating lunch. Talking to one of the volunteers in the hide, it seems the Marsh Harriers had made several more passes over the scrapes and eventually succeeded in scaring off most of the birds. We could still see a couple of Marsh Harriers quartering the reedbed in the distance.

There were still a few waders left. A couple of little groups of Dunlin were picking around on the muddy edges of the islands. Several Black-tailed Godwits were feeding in the deeper water. The Lapwing were mostly asleep on the grass and a lone Avocet was standing in the water behind one of the islands. Like the Spoonbills, most of the Avocets have gone south now for the winter, but a very small number always try to remain as long as it doesn’t get too cold. A Common Snipe dropped in at back, but quickly disappeared into grass.

Avocet

Avocet – just the one left at Cley now

There were still a few ducks left on the scrapes too, mainly Wigeon and Teal, along with a few Shelduck. The Black-headed Gulls were joined by a couple of Common Gulls and a single Lesser Black-backed Gull was asleep on one of the grassy islands. The Spoonbill came back west and headed off towards Blakeney Harbour.

While we were in the hide, it started to rain, so we stayed in the dry until it eventually eased. Then we headed back to the car, and drove round to the East Bank car park. As we got a short distance up the bank, it started to sleet, so heads down, we walked quickly up to the shelter overlooking Arnold’s Marsh.

The forecast was for heavy showers, but the weather seemed to set in for a while now. There was lots of water already on Arnold’s Marsh, which was good for the ducks, presumably with many coming over here when they were flushed from the scrapes. There were lots of Wigeon and Teal again, but with a few Shoveler here too. Scanning through carefully, we found a female Pintail and four Gadwall in with them. A group of Brent Geese dropped in, possibly fresh arrivals stopping for a rest. With the high water levels, the Black-tailed Godwits were feeding in the tall vegetation around the edges.

We had been told about two Snow Buntings feeding at the end of the bank, by the beach. When the rain finally eased again, we walked up to look for them but as we arrived we could see two walkers had just come up off the beach and gone right through the area. There was no sign of any Snow Buntings, presumably having been flushed.

We set off east along the grassy part of the old shingle ridge, but there was no sign of them along here. When we got back to the East Bank,  the Snow Buntings flew up from the shingle ahead of us, presumably having flown back in. They landed back on the north end of the path just a few metres ahead of us and we had nice views of them as they fed on amongst the stones, picking around the clusters of vegetation. They were looking a bit bedraggled, but we were probably too!

Snow Bunting

Snow Bunting – out on the beach, looking a bit bedraggled

While we were watching the Snow Buntings, we noticed a large dark bird drifting west right past us, with the gulls over the beach. It was a Pomarine Skua. We watched it as it hung in the wind – we could see it was heavy, bulky, especially compared the Arctic Skuas we had seen earlier. It landed on the beach and we could just about see it in the scope from here through the sea spray, so we walked over for a closer look.

After we had all had a good look at the Pomarine Skua in the scope, it took off and flew further west again. It looked like it went down towards the beach car park, so we  decided to head back to the car and drive round there to see if we could find it again.

As we walked back along the East Bank, we could hear Pink-footed Geese calling and looked up to see a small skein coming in from the east. They came in overhead and dropped down towards the reserve. Four Marsh Harriers were already gathering to roost out over the reeds.

Pink-footed Goose

Pink-footed Geese – flying in to the reserve, late afternoon

By the time we got round to the beach car park at Cley, the Pomarine Skua had taken off and gone further west again. Looking out to sea, there were still lots of Kittiwakes & and Gannets pouring past. Lines of Brent Geese were still moving west offshore too.

We were just about to leave when someone seawatching there shouted that there were two Little Auks on the sea. They were in the surf just offshore, drifting west towards us, but despite being close they were still hard to see in the crashing waves. We managed to get the scope on them, and you could see them as they rode up the face of the waves.

They seemed to swim a bit further out and we lost sight of the Little Auks. Then we noticed a Great Black-backed Gull drop down into the breakers, followed by three more. When they came up again, one of them was carrying a Little Auk in its bill! We didn’t see what happened to the second one, but Little Auks are always vulnerable when they are blown in by gales. They breed in the Arctic and spend the rest of their lives far out at sea, away from predators like gulls. They are often exhausted when they are close inshore and easy pickings for the gulls.

That was a fairly gruesome end to our seawatching today – nature red in tooth and claw! We still had one more stop to make on our way back. With the blustery wind and rain, the Peregrine was in its usual spot on the sheltered side of the church tower, tucked in an alcove between the stone pillars. We stopped and had a nice look at it through the scope.

Peregrine

Peregrine – tucked in out of the wind, on the south side of the tower

We had done well today, despite the wind and rain. The weather forecast is a bit better for tomorrow, so let’s see what the wind had brought us!