Tag Archives: Flitcham

31st January 2016 – Raptor Quest

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

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

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

P1150959Barn Owl – our second of the morning

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

IMG_5782Red-breasted Merganser – showing off his spiky punk haircut

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

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

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

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

IMG_5806Rough-legged Buzzard – around Choseley again today

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_5821Twite – 25-30 were at Thornham Harbour again today

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

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

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

IMG_5845Brambling – a smart male, with an increasingly black head

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

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

IMG_5864Water Pipit – well camouflaged against the mud

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

P1150992Freshmarsh – a lone Redshank on acres of mud

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_5877Grey Plover – there were several on the Volunteer Marsh

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

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

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

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

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

P1160103Water Rail – in the ditch by the main path again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21st January 2016 – Winter Rarity Hunting

A Private Tour today. The mission was somewhat different to normal tours – with a concerted effort to find some of the lingering rarities which are around North Norfolk at the moment, as well as catching up with some of our scarcer wintering species. It was going to be an all action day!

It dawned very frosty and with a bit of lingering fog, although the sun was already doing its best to burn that off. We met in Wells and, after a quick look in the harbour on the way which didn’t produce anything noteworthy today, we made our way along to Holkham where we pulled in just off the road to scan the grazing marshes below.

We quickly located a good selection of geese. A long line of birds on the frozen grass beyond the hedge revealed themselves to be mostly White-fronted Geese, with an obvious white blaze around the base of their all-pink bills and orange legs. In with them, was a small group of Pink-footed Geese, very dark-headed with pink legs and a small, mostly dark bill with a pink band around it. There were also plenty of Greylag Geese too, much larger and paler with a large orange carrot of a bill, and a pair of Egyptian Geese.

IMG_5352White-fronted Geese – out on the frozen grass at Holkham

We could hear Pink-footed Geese calling and see odd groups flying back and forth in front of the pines, but it was only when we moved so that we could see round past the hedge and look out further over on the freshmarsh, that we could see just how many were out there.  Thousands of birds were huddled together out on the grass and around the frozen pools. The Pink-footed Geese roost on the marshes here and would normally fly inland to feed during the day, but perhaps the lingering fog and frost had caused them to stay this morning. They were quite a sight!

A careful scan of the marshes and a white shape was just visible half-hidden in the reeds towards the back. When it put its neck up, we could see through the scope that it was the Great White Egret that has been hanging around here for several months. It was hard to see well in the reeds, but thankfully it flew, first to a small area of marsh nearby and then across and into the trees where it perched on a branch in full view.

IMG_5353Great White Egret – flew up into the trees where it was easier to see

That was a great way to start, then we carried on west along the coast. With the remains of the fog burning off slowly, we made another stop at Brancaster Staithe to have a quick look in the harbour. A smart drake Red-breasted Merganser and a pair of Goldeneye were diving in the harbour channel. A little posse of Brent Geese were chattering noisily from the water’s edge, before flying off over the saltmarsh to feed.

P1150205Brent Geese – gathering in the harbour channel

There was a nice selection of waders on view here too. A group of Bar-tailed Godwits and Oystercatchers were roosting on the edge of the water, with a Curlew standing head and shoulders above them. Nearby, a Black-tailed Godwit gave a good opportunity to go through the key differences from the Bar-taileds. A couple of Grey Plovers were higher up on the mud. Where someone had hauled up and washed a load of Brancaster mussels, two Turnstones were picking around in the debris. Down on the sandbars in the channel, we could see several Redshanks but a Greenshank unfortunately only flew up briefly as a Marsh Harrier passed overhead, before dropping down out of sight again.

IMG_5365Bar-tailed Godwits & Oystercatchers – roosting in the harbour

The sun was now starting to come through more strongly, burning off the mist, so we decided to have a drive round via Choseley to see if we could find the Rough-legged Buzzard. Driving along the lane, we spotted a harrier working its way low along a hedge beyond, into the sun from us. It looked slim-built so we tried to catch up with it. As it dropped ahead of us along the side of the road, we got a flash of a white rump patch and it landed briefly, before continuing its journey east across the fields. We could confirm it was a Hen Harrier, a ringtail, working the hedges.

Scanning the hedges all around, we could see our first Buzzard but it was clearly too dark, a Common Buzzard. Over the other side of the road, two more Common Buzzards were perched up in the morning sun, and away in the distance beyond we could see yet another. They were all out warming up in the sunshine, but try as we might we could not find a Rough-legged Buzzard doing the same. We drove round to the corner south of the drying barns, were a couple of cars were just leaving. When we asked what they had seen, we were told they had been watching the Rough-legged Buzzard and, even better, it was still in view. Unfortunately, a quick look confirmed it was actually another Common Buzzard, looking rather pale-breasted in the morning sunshine, but not like a Rough-legged Buzzard should. We had a quick and unsuccessful drive round some of the Rough-legged Buzzard’s other favourite haunts and then decided to move on.

We had a particular request to try for the Pallid Harrier today, which has been gracing various sites around Norfolk since we first saw it back in mid-November. In recent weeks it has been seen inland, around the village of Flitcham, but it typically only makes intermittent flights over the fields here, before disappearing off to hunt elsewhere.

We arrived and stationed ourselves at one end of the fields where a small group were scanning the thick hedge and cover strip in front. There were lots of Chaffinches flying up and down from the field to the hedge and in with them we could see a few Bramblings. Three Yellowhammers flew into the hedge as well and perched up so we could get them in the scope. We could hear Tree Sparrows calling as well. The Pallid Harrier had made a pass over the stubble field here about twenty minutes before we arrived, so we waited hopefully for it to return.

Thankfully we hadn’t been waiting very long when we got a surprise. There were others looking out over the fields a short way further along the road, but they hadn’t shouted anything across to us. It was only when a minibus pulled up alongside that we were kindly informed that the Pallid Harrier was actually being watched in a tree over there! We hastened down and sure enough, there it stood. We got a great look at it in the scope.

IMG_5369Pallid Harrier – perched up in a tree at Flitcham

We were just making our way a little further along to join the crowd there for a closer view when it became clear it had taken off – apparently, someone had got a little too enthusiastic and had tried to go into the field, so scaring it off. Very helpful! It disappeared off over the fields beyond, so we had a quick look to see if it would loop round and do a circuit over the stubble again, but there was no sign of it. We had a number of other things we wanted to see today, and with our main target here achieved, we decided to move on.

As we walked along the road, we could hear Tree Sparrows calling again and when all the finches flew up into the hedge from the weedy strip beyond, we got a good view of a Tree Sparrow right in front of us. Historically a common farmland bird here, they are now getting very scarce and it is always nice to catch up with them. There were also lots of Bramblings in the hedge here too.

P1150210Brambling – lots were in the hedges at Flitcham

We made our way back towards the coast, and dropped down towards Titchwell via Choseley. We pulled up to talk to another birder in the layby where we had been earlier and were told the Rough-legged Buzzard had been reported again about half an hour earlier. A quick scan and there it was, perched in a tree in the distance. It really stood out with its striking pale head and contrasting black belly patch, very unlike the Common Buzzards we had seen earlier.

IMG_5375Rough-legged Buzzard – flashing its black-banded white tail in flight

We had a quick look through the scope, then drove round to get a better look. The Rough-legged Buzzard was still perched in the tree across the field in front of us, watching us. Then suddenly it dropped down and flew a short distance across the field, flashing its distinctive mostly white tail as it did so, before flying up into another tree. When it landed we could see why – it had joined another Rough-legged Buzzard which was already sitting there. Two Rough-legged Buzzards for the price of one! We had a fantastic view of them in the scope. In the end we had to tear ourselves away.

IMG_5389Rough-legged Buzzards – two sat in a tree together!

We had originally thought we might have a look at Titchwell, but a discussion about some of the other good birds along the coast led to a change of plan. With our luck running, we had seen most of the birds we had hoped to catch up with quite quickly, so we had time to play with. We hopped in the car and headed back east, all the way to Cley.

There has been a Grey Phalarope in the area for several days now and it had been showing this morning from the new Babcock Hide on what used to be Pope’s Marsh. We made our way out to the hide and as soon as we got in there, we could see everyone looking at the mud below. There was the Grey Phalarope, right in front of the hide. Stunning views!

P1150282Grey Phalarope – right in front of Babcock Hide

Grey Phalaropes are more often to be seen swimming, twirling in circles to stir up the water and picking for food brought to the surface, or even out on the sea. They are mostly pelagic in the winter, surviving out in the Atlantic, generally only forced in by adverse weather. This one had presumably been blown inshore by the storms we had last week, and had come in to feed up on the marshes.

The water levels have gone down on Watling Water, the new pool in front of Babacock Hide, for the first time. There was a great selection of other waders out on the exposed mud. There were lots of Dunlin, with three larger Knot in with them, down by the water’s edge – a good chance to see the two alongside. A good number of Ruff were feeding higher up the mud, along with a few Redshank. Around the edges of the islands, we could see a few Snipe, well camouflaged against the reeds.

There were several Pied Wagtails around the drier margins of the mud, along with a number of Meadow Pipits. Then, from behind one of the islands, a Water Pipit appeared with them. Larger than the Meadow Pipits, greyer brown and less streaked above and plainer, whiter below.

IMG_5399Water Pipit – feeding around the edge of Watling Water

Having seen what we wanted to see so quickly, and so well, we had time to try something else. We drove further along the coast to Weybourne to look for the flock of Redpolls which has been feeding in the fields here for some weeks now. However, the field was harvested a week or so back and when we arrived the few remaining weeds were quiet. We walked up and down the road briefly, but all we could find was a Grey Wagtail which flew up and landed on the wires above briefly. It seemed like our luck had finally run out.

We were just packing up to leave when a flock of about 20 small finches flew in and circled overhead, before dropping down and landing in the hedge nearby. They were Redpolls and we could just see around half of them perched in the top. They were mostly face on to us and several were clearly rather brown around the cheeks and even washed onto the upper breast, Lesser Redpolls. One was clearly different, very frosty around the cheeks and breast, contrasting strongly with the black chin and red ‘poll’, with no brown tones on the underparts and bolder black streaks on the flanks – this was a Mealy Redpoll. Another bird hopped up from lower down in the hedge, and perched back on. It was less distinctive than the first from this angle, but still had a grey (rather than brown) face and looked a rather cold grey brown above with a distinctive pale rump streaked through with black – another Mealy Redpoll.

Unfortunately, they didn’t stop long and flew off strongly west over the field. Still, we couldn’t believe our luck that they should just drop in for us like that. We wanted to end the day at the raptor roost, but we still had a little time to play with, so we drove back to Cley and stopped at the Visitor Centre.

A Red-necked Grebe has been around the reserve for the last few days and was reported from Pat’s Pool today – supposedly visible from the Visitor Centre. We had a quick scan from the car park, but couldn’t see it anywhere around the open water. With the water levels very high, four Avocets were huddled together on the edge of one of the few remaining islands. We decided to pop into the Visitor Centre and get a hot drink to go and use the facilities quickly. While we were waiting, the Red-necked Grebe suddenly appeared close to the bank, wrestling with a small fish. It was distant, but we could see it clearly through the scope.

IMG_5402Red-necked Grebe – a record shot, on Pat’s Pool today

It disappeared again, then as we returned to the car we could see it further out on the water, diving. We got a better look at it from the car park and it quickly became clear why it was hiding close to the edge. It caught another fish and immediately a Black-headed Gull flew over and started to harass it. The Red-necked Grebe dived, but when it resurfaced half way to the bank, the gull was after it again. This happened three times, before the Red-necked Grebe got over to the bank and finally swallowed its catch.

We finished the day at Warham Greens. There was a nice flock of Linnets and Yellowhammers in the hedge of the walk down to the front, with the odd Reed Bunting in with them. When we arrived, one of the first birds we saw was a Barn Owl which was hunting up and down over the rough grass on the edge of the saltmarsh.

P1150355Barn Owl – hunting along the front at Warham Greens

We had really come for the raptors. A couple of Marsh Harriers were circling over the back of the saltmarsh and a single ringtail Hen Harrier drifted in from the east, further back. In the end we saw 2-3 ringtail Hen Harriers, one flying closer across the saltmarsh and away inland, presumably for some last hunting, and another perched preening out in front of us. Then we picked up a Peregrine standing on a sandbar out on the beach. We just needed a Merlin to complete the set here and a careful scan of the saltmarsh eventually produced its reward, with one perched on the top of a bush. Then we decided to head back.

What a day! Pallid Harrier, two Rough-legged Buzzards, Grey Phalarope, Great White Egret, Red-necked Grebe, Water Pipit, Mealy Redpoll, plus a host of other good raptors, waders, geese, ducks and farmland birds. There aren’t many places you could see all of those – welcome to Norfolk in winter.

18th January 2015 – The Varied Sights of NW Norfolk

Day 3 of the three day long weekend of tours today. There were several birds we wanted to catch up with and NW Norfolk seemed a good option for a selection of local specialities.

We stopped first at one of the Little Owl sites to see if we could catch up on something we had missed yesterday. Unfortunately, it was a foggy start to the day and the weather still wasn’t up to scratch for tempting the owls out (yet!). We didn’t linger long.

Our first stop proper was at Roydon Common. We had driven through patches of clear sunshine on our way, but the sun was struggling to burn off the fog completely here and it was cloudy and cold, with a crisp frost on the ground. We had come to look for the Great Grey Shrike which has taken up residence here for the winter, but at first we struggled to find it – perhaps it wasn’t enjoying the patchy fog either! Still, it was beautiful to be out – a flock of Redwings was feeding in the trees, several Stonechats were out on the Common, and a few Yellowhammers, Meadow Pipits and a small group of Siskin flew overhead calling. We stopped to watch a group of Roe Deer feeding out in the morning light and a Sparrowhawk sat up in the trees trying to warm itself in the few rays of sunshine.

Just when it seemed like the Great Grey Shrike was going to give us the runaround, it hopped up on a small birch tree in front of us. We had just got onto it when it took flight, and flew straight towards us, giving us a really close fly past. It landed up on the very top of a young oak tree, surveying the open expanse of the Common, then dropped down onto the fence line. We got great prolonged scope views of it. What a stunner – the black bandit mask, stout hooked bill, and striking monochrome plumage.

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IMG_2290Great Grey Shrike – finally gave itself up for us at Roydon Common

It dropped to the ground and disappeared for a couple of minutes. When it flew up it was clearly carrying some prey that it had just caught. It swept across the Common and dropped into thicket. It was only gone a minute before it flew up and perched right in the top of a dead birch nearby. Not enough time to eat whatever it was carrying, it had probably impaled it on a thorn it its larder – they are not called ‘butcher birds’ for nothing! It then flew straight back towards us and continued hunting further along the fence line. We left it to its work and headed back to the car.

Next stop was at Flitcham. The sun was now doing its job and burning off the fog and cloud, and blue sky was starting to show itself. We stopped to admire the mass of finches and buntings feeding in a cover strip on the edge of a field. A big female Sparrowhawk swept through and a vast number of Chaffinches, Linnet, Yellowhammers and Reed Buntings erupted from the field and made for the safety of the nearby hedge. As we watched for a while, we started to pick out a few Bramblings amongst the finches, their white rumps giving them away as they flew between the crop and the hedge . Perched up, the orange breasts of the males positively glowed in the morning sun. Some buzzy chirping gave away the presence of a few Tree Sparrows also amongst the throng.

P1110032Brambling – a few were in amongst the finch flock at Flitcham

We headed for the hide. The reported Merlin which tempted us there turned out to be a young Sparrowhawk perched up in a tree. But the field at the back was full of Fieldfares and a few Redwings, as well as several Curlew. Lots of Teal were on the pond, along with a couple of Gadwall. Some careful scanning of the trees eventually produced a bird which we had hoped, but not expected, to see here. A Little Owl was (finally) basking in the sunshine!

IMG_2299Little Owl – hiding amongst the branches

From there, we headed up to the coast. We made a brief stop to admire a vast flock of over a thousand Pink-footed Geese in a field next to the road, but made it up to Holme just in time for lunch in the now glorious sunshine. We didn’t have to go far, across the golf course and just onto the beach, to find the Snow Buntings. A flock of around 40 were feeding on the edge of a small dune, but having been pushed to the end by a crowd of photographers, they flew out onto the saltmarsh with the Linnets. We watched them for a while and, after waiting patiently and at a discrete distance, they returned to where they had been, once the crowd had moved on, whirling round in a flurry of variably white-marked wings. Moving slowly, edging forward, we were able to get quite close without disturbing them. Cracking views!

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P1110075Snow Buntings – a lovely flock of 40 was on the beach at Holme

Having admired the Snow Buntings, we stopped to look at the waders on the pools on the beach. Three Knot were feeding amongst a larger group of Redshanks, a single Bar-tailed Godwit was nearby and several Grey Plover were on the sand.

From Holme, we made the short journey along the coast road to Thornham Harbour. We didn’t even need to get out of the car before we could see the flock of Twite which has been spending the winter here. They have become much scarcer in Norfolk in recent years, so it has been good this winter to spend more time watching them again. Superficially a ‘little brown job’, they are actually very pretty little finches up close. In the afternoon sun, their orange-toned breasts and yellow bills shone, and their constant chattering allowed us to enjoy their distinctive ‘tveeet’ calls from which they get their name. We also added Rock Pipit and Lesser Black-backed Gull to the weekend’s list here.

P1110082Twite – a flock of around 50 was in Thornham Harbour

The original plan had been to finish the day at Titchwell, which is always a great site to visit. However, given the fantastic late afternoon sunshine a quick straw poll amongst the group found everyone agreed on an alternative plan. It turned out to be a really good decision. A drive back along the coast and a short walk found us on the coast overlooking the saltmarsh and ready for action.

We had not been there long before a Short-eared Owl appeared, quartering the marsh. We have seen several over the long weekend (1-2 every afternoon!), and perhaps been rather spoiled for them, but this one was absolutely stunning in the low late afternoon sun. We couldn’t fail to appreciate it, and it flew back and forth in front of us for ages.

P1110086Short-eared Owl – we have seen a few, but stunning views this evening

There was so much to see. A group of Golden Plover wheeled overhead, the haunting calls of the Curlews out on the grass echoed around, flocks of chattering Brent Geese flew past, Little Egrets and Brown Hares ran around the saltmarsh. We didn’t know where to look – just standing there and enjoying the whole experience.

P1110089Brent Geese – over the saltmarsh in the evening sun

Next a male Hen Harrier drifted across the saltmarsh, a ghostly vision in pale grey, its black wingtips contrasting strongly in the sun. It dropped down out of view a couple of times, but kept coming up again, patrolling back and forth, further out along the edge of the beach now. Then a second male Hen Harrier appeared out to the west, it flew towards us and we got even better views of this one. Such stunning birds, one of them was rarely out of view. A shape on the top of a post turned out to be a Merlin sitting out on the marsh. Then the ringtail Hen Harriers appeared – while watching a first one flying in from a great distance, a second appeared much closer in front of us, the fourth Hen Harrier of the evening.

And in amongst them all, a Barn Owl appeared, hunting silently along the hedgerow to the east at first, then back and forth along the edge of the saltmarsh in front of us. At one point we had both Barn and Short-eared Owls quartering in front of us. What a fitting way to end the recent tours.

P1110084Evening on the saltmarsh – a great way to end the day