Tag Archives: Great Northern Diver

16th Jan 2019 – A Big Day on the Coast

A Private Tour in North Norfolk today. It was to be a different day to normal, as we were planning to try to catch up with a selection of the scarcer winter visitors along the coast, as well as aiming to see as many different species as possible. We would need to cover quite a bit of ground, a bit of a whistle-stop tour of North Norfolk. After a grey start, it brightened up for a time during the morning, though it was rather breezy all day. We were forecast rain in the afternoon, and it arrived a bit earlier than forecast, but it didn’t stop us having a great – and very successful – day out.

It was an early start. As we drove up towards the coast, it was just getting light. We stopped off on the way, just in time to catch a Barn Owl out hunting still, before it went in to roost. An over-wintering Chiffchaff was calling from some trees nearby and the first Pink-footed Geese flew over, heading inland to feed.

barn owl

Barn Owl – one of the first birds we caught up with, early this morning

At our next stop, as we walked out beside the grazing marshes, the first bird we saw was another Barn Owl out hunting. It flew round over the field, disappeared over the bank, then came back again and did a couple more circuits before landing down in the grass. It stayed there for a minute, looking round, before flying off round the trees beyond. It was still early and rather cold here, and there didn’t seem to be many other birds awake yet. A Marsh Harrier quartered the grazing marshes.

We looped round to Cley and headed down to the beach. There has been a large flock of scoter on the sea here in recent days, but there was no sign of them this morning. While we were scanning, we noticed a flock of small birds fly up from the beach away to the east. Snow Buntings. We walked down along the shingle for a closer look.

The Snow Buntings were very flighty, flying up well before we got anywhere near, and heading further down the beach. Thankfully, as we got to where they had been feeding, they flew back in and landed on the shingle right in front of us. They were remarkably well camouflaged against the stones, but they were really close so we got a good really look at them. We counted at least 70 of them in the flock here today, although it was hard to get an accurate figure as they wouldn’t stop moving!

snow buntings 1

Snow Buntings – very well camouflaged on the shingle

While we were walking out for the Snow Buntings, we noticed a couple of gulls on the beach beyond. One was rather pale, and through the scope we could see it was the juvenile Glaucous Gull which has been hanging around here for a few days now. It has been feeding on dead seals washed up on the beach in last week’s storms, but this morning it was loafing. When we got down the beach, it was lying down on the beach, dozing. Still, we could see its very pale wing tips, much paler than the rest of the bird.

glaucous gull

Glaucous Gull – the juvenile was dozing on the beach first thing this morning

Looking out across North Scrape, there were several Shelducks scattered around the water. A small group of ducks closer to the front were all Pintail, busy upending in the shallows. As we turned to walk back, several groups of Brent Geese flew in, from the direction of the harbour where they had presumably roosted last night.

We stopped to have another scan of the sea when we got back to the beach car park. There was still no sign of the scoter flock, but we did pick up a Red-throated Diver on the water just offshore. A Guillemot flying past was a nice bonus too.

It was a very successful stop at Cley, but we had a busy day ahead and no time to explore the rest of the reserve today, so we moved on. We headed inland again next, to check out some farm buildings where there are sometimes Little Owls. It didn’t feel like a particularly good day to be looking for them – given the grey skies and wind – and they have not been very active recently anyway, but we thought we would have a quick look. Our luck was in. The first place we stopped, we spotted a Little Owl. It had found a sheltered spot, out of the wind, in the window of an old barn.

We moved on again, heading back across and down to the coast at Holkham. As we drove up along Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see more Pink-footed Geese out on the grazing marshes. There were lots of Wigeon out on the grass too, and a scattering of Teal around the pools.

Parking at the north end of the drive, we could see a large flock of Brent Geese feeding in the field next door. Most of them are Dark-bellied Brents, the regular form here which breeds in Siberia and spends the winter along the coast here. Looking through them carefully, we found one which was noticeably paler below, brighter white on the flanks and round under the belly. It was a Pale-bellied Brent, a scarce visitor here.

There was also a darker goose with them, with a more striking white collar than the others – one of the regular Black Brant hybrids, the result of a past pairing between a Black Brant (the third form of Brent Goose, which normally winters along the Pacific coasts) and one of our Dark-bellied Brents. They are regular here, with as many as three in the Wells / Holkham area, returning to the same fields each winter. A pitfall for the unwary, they are often misidentified as pure Black Brants.

black brant hybrid

Black Brant hybrid – one of the regular birds, with the Brents by the Drive

A careful scan around the field produced a Grey Partridge, over towards the back. We could see its orange face and the distinctive dark kidney mark on its belly through the scope. We were heading out for the beach, so we cut through the trees, which were quiet today.

Since Christmas, the Shorelarks have been more elusive and spend a lot of their time feeding in the taller saltmarsh vegetation where they can be hard to see. Thankfully, as we walked out towards the cordon, someone had already found them and a small group of people had gathered to watch them.

The Shorelarks were only a few metres out from the path, but were still very difficult to see, creeping around in the vegetation. Thankfully, one stopped to preen on a little tussock and we were able quickly to get it in the scope. We could see its bright yellow face and distinctive black mask. Once we had found one, we could see there were more around it. Probably there were all 26 here, but we could see no more then 3-4 at any time and at times it was hard to see any at all!

shorelark

Shorelark – hard to see in the taller vegetation on the saltmarsh

Continuing on to the cordon, a flock of small birds flew up from the edge of the sandy path ahead of us, and landed back down again. More Snow Buntings. There were eighteen here now (they were joined by another two when we walked back), the flock having declined since Christmas as some of the birds seem to have moved on. They are very obliging though, and let us walk right past them without flying off.

snow buntings 2

Snow Buntings – another 20 were at Holkham today

The sea at Holkham has been quiet in recent days, but we thought we would try our luck here, as we were doing so well. There were several Cormorants out on the sandbar just offshore, drying their wings. A few Oystercatchers were out there too, and a small flock of Sanderling whirled round and landed in with them.

Having set up the scope, we found it happened to be pointing right at a small party of Red-breasted Mergansers which were bobbing about on the water in front of the sandbar. Otherwise, the sea looked pretty empty on our first scan – just a single Common Scoter offshore.

On our next scan across, we spotted a diver quite close in, behind the breakers. We assumed it would be one of the two Great Northern Divers which we have seen here regularly in the last couple of weeks, but when it surfaced again from behind the waves we realised it was actually a Black-throated Diver. We could see the distinctive white patch on the rear flanks. A good bird to see here, the rarest of the three regular divers in Norfolk. Further down the beach, we then found a Great Northern Diver just offshore too. A three diver day – a rare treat indeed in this part of the world!

Back at the car, we made our way on west. We could see a lot of geese in one of the fields by the road, more than usual, so we pulled into a conveniently placed layby to check them out. A quick scan with binoculars revealed there were several Russian White-fronted Geese in with the regular Greylags and Egyptian Geese. Unfortunately, just at that moment a Marsh Harrier drifted across. The geese put their heads up and, as the harrier began to circle over them, they were off.

white-fronted geese

Russian White-fronted Geese – flushed by a Marsh Harrier as we pulled up

As we quickly got out of the car, we realised there were more White-fronted Geese out here – probably at least 120 in total. We watched as they all disappeared off over the grazing marshes towards the pines. The one thing we failed to find here was a Great White Egret, but rather than linger we figured we could have another quick look on our way back later.

A quick diversion down to the harbour at Brancaster Staithe added Black-tailed Godwit and Bar-tailed Godwit to the day’s list, as well as Little Egret. But there didn’t seem to be anything much else here, so we continued on to our next destination, Titchwell.

The feeders in front of the Visitor Centre were well-stocked but rather unusually devoid of birds when we arrived. There were a few Chaffinches, Goldfinches and a single Greenfinch on the feeders the other side, as well as Blue Tits and Great Tits for the list. We headed straight out onto the reserve, and a quick look in the ditch by the main path as we passed quickly revealed a Water Rail lurking in the water in the bottom.

water rail

Water Rail – lurking in the ditch by the main path

The sun was out as we walked along the path by the reedbed. It almost felt for a moment as if the forecast of rain later might be too pessimistic. The reedbed pool produced Gadwall and Tufted Duck, and we could see a single Grey Plover and a Curlew on Lavendar Marsh, but was otherwise fairly quiet, so we continued out to Parrinder Hide.

The Freshmarsh is very full of water at the moment, so there are not many places for waders here currently. There were a few Lapwings and a little group of Dunlin on the small remaining muddy island by the junction to the hide. Scanning through the ducks on the bigger, drier fenced-off island we were struck by the lack of Golden Plovers today – they must all have been feeding in the fields inland. Well, almost all, as we eventually found just a single one pretending to be a Wigeon.

There has been a Water Pipit regularly on this island, but it can be very elusive in the vegetation. Thankfully today, we found it pretty quickly, feeding on the spit on the front edge.

redshank

Common Redshank – on Volunteer Marsh as we passed

With not much else on here, we decided to head straight out to the beach. Apart from a few Redshanks and a couple of Grey Plover, there wasn’t much to see on Volunteer Marsh either. The now non-tidal ‘Tidal Pools’ are very full of water after last weeks high tides, which means there is very little island space left for roosting waders. There had apparently been some Knot on here earlier, but all we could find now was Oystercatchers and Bar-tailed Godwits, along with a small number of Dunlin and a couple more Grey Plovers.

The sea has been very productive at Titchwell in recent weeks and was one of the main reasons for coming here today, but when we got to the dunes one of the reserve volunteers was just leaving and told us there wasn’t much out there. He wasn’t wrong. All we could see on the sea was a single Common Scoter. We could see some cloud building from the west, and it started to spit with rain, so we decided to cut our losses. On the walk back to the car, the raft of Common Pochard and Tufted Duck which hadn’t been on the Freshmarsh on our way out had now reappeared.

We did a quick loop inland via Choseley on our way to Thornham, but the hedges along the side of the road here were quiet again, as they had been at the weekend. We decided to stop for lunch at Thornham Harbour and try for the Twite. While we were eating, the Twite first flew up and landed on the fence by the old sluice gate, then flew in over the saltmarsh and over to the coal barn, where they landed on the roof. After a couple of minutes they flew back in past us and landed down by the puddles in the car park for a drink, where we finally got a good look at them.

twite

Twite – flew in and landed in the car park while we were having lunch

After lunch, we headed round to Holme. As we drove down the track towards the Firs, we could see a photographer with a long lens pointing it into one of the gardens, his car abandoned in the middle of the road with the door still open. As we passed, we looked across to see what he was trying to photograph and saw a Barn Owl on a pile of brash in the back garden. A couple of Mistle Thrushes were in one of the trees on the other side of the road.

When the seaduck are not at Titchwell, Holme can be a good place to look instead. As we got down to the beach, there didn’t seem to be much offshore at first, apart from a trawler being followed by a huge mob of hungry gulls. As we scanned across, we first found a few Great Crested Grebes out on the water. Then we picked up some Eider a bit further offshore, which helpfully started to fly in much closer after the trawler had passed, lots of females, several 1st winter drakes and one or two very smart adult drakes.

A paler bird caught the light a bit further out, on the sea away to the east. It didn’t look like a gull and when it surfaced again from behind the waves we could see it was a drake Long-tailed Duck, one of the birds we were hoping to see today.

There were more waders on the beach here, over towards Thornham Harbour, with a small group of Knot in with the Grey Plover and Dunlin. It had brightened up again while we were at Holme, but now we could see some very dark clouds heading our way. We got back to the car, just as it started to rain.

Our next destination was Snettisham. As we got out onto the seawall, the tide was well out. There was a big flock of Golden Plover out on the mud, and a large huddle of Oystercatchers on the beach away to the north. More waders scattered liberally around, mostly Bar-tailed Godwit, Grey Plover and Dunlin. But it was raining hard now and windy and exposed up here, so we couldn’t spend long standing and scanning without risking getting very wet.

We had come here mainly to try to see the Smew which has been at Snettisham on and off for several weeks now. It can disappear at times, but thankfully today it was on the first pit just south of the cross bank, diving with three drake Goldeneye. We had a quick look at it – it was a bit more sheltered on the inland side of the seawall – and then continued on down towards the hide.

smew

Smew – still at Snettisham on one of the pits today

The Short-eared Owl, which had gone missing at the weekend, was apparently back under its usual bramble bush yesterday, so we made our way round to see if we could see it. Sure enough, there it was. It looked a bit bedraggled in the rain, and we were in danger of becoming the same, so with our mission here accomplished we made a swift retreat. Still, it meant we had racked up three different owls on our travels today.

short-eared owl

Short-eared Owl – back under its usual bramble bush in the rain

Back in the car, we made our way back east inland. We made a quick stop by a field with a strip planted with seed mix. We were looking mainly for Yellowhammers, and could see lots of birds in the hedge right at the back. They were mainly Reed Buntings, but as we scanned through them we found several Yellowhammers in with them. Even in the gloomy conditions, the bright yellow males really stood out.

Then we spotted a Tree Sparrow too. It dropped straight down out of sight, but as we scanned back we found a second Tree Sparrow a bit further back which stayed put until we all got a look at it. We could see the black spot on its white cheek. Not a great view in the driving rain, but a real bonus and not one we were expecting to get today.

There were a few common farmland birds which we had missed on our way out, so we had a look to see if we could find them on the way back, cutting across back to the coast road at Holkham. But it was a bit of a struggle to find much in the rain now. A quick stop back at Holkham was more productive though. Having drawn a blank on Great White Egret this morning, we found four together out on the grazing marshes this afternoon. For what was not that long ago a rarity in the UK, four together is quite a sight (well, away from Somerset at least)!

We had planned to finish the day at one of the raptor roosts, but when we got there the conditions were really dreadful. It was getting dark, but the driving rain meant visibility was much worse than it should have otherwise been. We headed for shelter and were told by the two people already there that they had just seen a male Hen Harrier land out on the marshes. Unfortunately they couldn’t find it again now – they couldn’t even find the post it was next to at first!

Thankfully, as we scanned across trying to find it, we spotted a harrier fly up at the back of the saltmarsh. It was not the male, but it was a ringtail Hen Harrier. We could see the flash of the white square at the base of its tail. It landed again and we could just make it out, perched on the ground.

That was more than we thought we would see, given the conditions, so we decided to call it a day. When we got back to the warm and dry, we tallied up the day’s list. 100 species! Not bad at all for a mid-winter day, and even more so given the conditions this afternoon. It just goes to show…

 

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20th Dec 2018 – Two Winter Days, Day 1

Day 1 of a two day Private Tour in North Norfolk today. We were lucky with the weather today – dry with some bright spells and even some blue sky at times, albeit with a rather fresh southerly wind and cloudier in the afternoon.

Our first destination for the day was Holkham. As we drove up along Lady Anne’s Drive, a pair of Egyptian Geese were out on the grass in one of the fields and we could see several Teal and a larger group of Wigeon around the edges of the pools.

As we got out of the car, we could hear lots of Pink-footed Geese calling. As it is full moon in a couple of days time, they had possibly been feeding inland overnight rather than roosting here and were therefore in no hurry to head out to the fields again this morning.

The Pink-footed Geese were rather jumpy this morning. Something disturbed them, although we couldn’t see what it was, and about 10,000 birds took off and filled the skies. It was an impressive sight, and sound. A small number flew off over our heads, but most settled straight back down on the grass. A little group landed much closer and we got them in the scope. We could see their pink-legs and feet in the short grass, glowing in the morning sunlight, as well as their small, dark bills with a narrow band of pink.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese – there were thousands in the fields still this morning

A large white bird came up out of the reeds in the distance, in front of Washington Hide. A Great White Egret, it circled round but quickly dropped back down again behind the line of sallows. A very pale buzzard flew over, flashing a white base to the tail as it disappeared off towards the Park, but it was just the regular pale Common Buzzard which can usually be found hanging around here, rather than something rarer.

As we made our way up to the pines, a big flock of Lapwings flew up from the grazing marshes over towards Wells. There were lots Curlews out here too, on the fields beyond The Lookout café, although it is rather hard to see past the new building! Walking along the boardwalk through the trees, we flushed several Jays from the ground which flew up into the pines.

Out on the saltmarsh the other side, a small group of Brent Geese were feeding in the short vegetation. We stopped to look at them, all the regular Dark-bellied Brent Geese, here for the winter from their breeding grounds in Siberia. We could see a good number of stripy-backed juveniles in with the adults, suggesting it was a better breeding season in 2018 than it had been last year.

We walked east on the path on the edge of the saltmarsh. As the new cordoned off area came into view, we spotted a large flock of small birds whirling around out in the middle. They were Snow Buntings, we could see the white flashing in their wings as they turned, at least 60 of them. They landed back down on the open sand at the far end of the cordon, so we made our way over for a closer look.

When we got to the fence, we noticed some other birds moving about on the edge of the vegetation out in the middle, the Shorelarks, just what we were hoping to see here today. They were very well camouflaged, and hard to see until they moved, but through the scope we could see their yellow faces and black bandit masks. Smart birds!

Shorelarks

Shorelarks – there were at least 7 already out on the saltmarsh when we arrived

There were at least seven Shorelarks already here, possibly more hiding in the vegetation beyond. Scarce winter visitors here from Scandinavia, this is one of the best places in the country to see them.

The Snow Buntings were very flighty, as usual, and the next thing we knew they flew back over and landed on the sandy path ahead of us. They were feeding along the edge of the dunes, on the tideline, presumably looking for seedheads washed up from the saltmarsh. It looked like they might come straight past us, but then they were off again.

Once we had finished admiring the Shorelarks, we set off towards the beach. The Snow Buntings had landed again on the sand at the far end of the cordon and seemed completely unfazed by us walking past. We could see a variety of different shades, some much paler, whiter birds, some browner – a diverse mixture of ages and sexes, as well as birds from both the Scandinavian and Icelandic races.

Snow Buntings

Snow Bunting – just part of the big flock at Holkham at the moment

The tide was out, which meant there was quite a bit of beach between us and the sea. There were lots of gulls and Oystercatchers down by the sea, and several Cormorants drying their wings on the sandbar beyond. A large flock of Sanderlings whirled round on the shoreline off to the east.

Scanning the sea, we could see several Guillemots on the water, their white faces catching the light. A much larger bird was swimming just offshore beyond the sandbar, a Great Northern Diver. Similarly black above and white below, we could see its large dagger of a bill and black half collar.

There were a few ducks on the sea too, but they were a long way offshore today. We got a distant flock of Common Scoter in the scope, and could see the pale cheeks and dark caps of the females and young birds. One of the scoter flapped its wings and flashed a white panel, a Velvet Scoter, but it was impossible to pick out of the flock on the sea at that distance and unfortunately it didn’t repeat the wing-flap which singled it out from the others. A female Red-breasted Merganser much closer in was much easier to see.

There were several Great Crested Grebes on the sea too, black and white too but much longer-necked than the diver. Then we picked up two much smaller Slavonian Grebes just off the beach a long way off to the west around the bay. We had a look at them through the scope and thought about walking over to get a bit closer but it would probably have meant getting wet feet so thought better of it!

It had been a very productive couple of hours at Holkham, and we still had an hour before we had to pick up someone else in Wells. We decided to pop into the woods there for a quick look to see if we could find any redpolls – they are very mobile and consequently very hit and miss, so they would either be there or not!

The Brent Geese were starting to gather on the old Pitch & Putt course along Beach Road as we drove past. As we walked into the woods, a couple of Little Grebes were on the edge of the reeds on the boating lake, with some Tufted Ducks over towards the back.

It was very quiet at first, as we made our way through the trees, just the odd Robin or Wren calling, and one or two Blackbirds. As we approached the Dell though, we could hear Redpolls calling quietly, and we looked up into the birches ahead of us to see several of them feeding on catkins in the tops. They were against the light here and hard to see clearly, but the more we looked the more we could see. There appeared to be at least fifty of them in total.

We walked quietly underneath them and up onto the dune the other side, where the light was better. From here, we could see they were mostly Mealy Redpolls (the Scandinavian race of Common Redpoll), and we had a good view of several through the scope, including one male with a lovely pinky-red wash on its breast. A smaller, browner one with them was a Lesser Redpoll.

The Redpolls were mobile, moving through the trees, and it was impossible to get a good look at all of them from any one point. They were busily feeding on the catkins and we could see showers of chaff falling like snow from the birches. We couldn’t see any sign of an Arctic Redpoll from here though, so we moved round again to get a different angle and try some other trees.

It took a bit of searching, but eventually we found a much paler Redpoll in with the others. Through the scope, as it moved, we could see it had a plain white rump and thick undertail coverts with a single narrow dark streak. It was the Arctic Redpoll we had been looking for. More specifically, it was a Coues’s Arctic Redpoll, the race we get most often here, also from Scandinavia but from further north than the Mealies. We all managed to get a good look at it before it moved back into the tops. Then suddenly the flock erupted from the trees and flew off.

Coues's Arctic Redpoll

Coues’s Arctic Redpoll – we eventually found one in with the Mealy Redpolls

We still had enough time to walk a quick loop around the far side of the Dell, but we couldn’t find any sign of a tit flock in here today. Then it was back up to Wells to pick up the other member of the group. After a quick break for lunch in the pub in Stiffkey, we carried on east along the coast road to Cley.

We didn’t have enough time to explore the reserve at Cley today, but we wanted to have a quick look at the sea. A Common Buzzard was perched on a post by the Beach Road, and another large flock of Brent Geese was feeding out in the Eye Field. From up on the shingle, it didn’t take long to find our target here – a Red-throated Diver. There were actually quite a few here, mostly a long way offshore, but we eventually got a decent view of one through the scope. There were several Guillemots offshore too.

As we made our way back along Beach Road, we looked across to see all the ducks flush off the reserve. A Marsh Harrier was flying over and had spooked them, surprisingly the first we had seen today. We headed round to Blakeney, and as we pulled up we noticed a male Stonechat on the brambles on the edge of the grazing marshes, right next to where we had parked.

Stonechat

Stonechat – feeding on the edge of the grazing marshes

We were hoping to catch a Barn Owl out here this afternoon, and as we stopped to look at the Stonechat, one flew across the grazing marsh right in front of us. A very good start! It headed off towards the seawall, so we walked round that way to see if we could find it again.

Despite the fact they don’t count, it is impossible not to admire some of the captive ducks and geese in the rather random wildfowl collection by Blakeney Harbour. The large gull on the platform here was also an oddity – with a darker mantle than a Herring Gull, but lighter than a Lesser Black-backed Gull, and odd pinky-yellow legs, it is a Lesser Black-backed x Herring Gull hybrid. It is a regular here, coming back each winter, to take advantage of the food put out for the ducks.

Lesser Black-backed x Herring Gull

Lesser Black-backed x Herring Gull hybrid – the regular bird at the duck bird

Out on the seawall, there was no further sign of the Barn Owl. A Curlew was feeding on the sand on the far side of the channel. Several Marsh Harriers were circling out over the reeds in the middle of the Freshes, gathering to roost, and a couple more were having a last patrol out over the saltmarsh. One Marsh Harrier landed in a bush, where we could get it in the scope.

Their high-pitched yelping calls announced a group of Pink-footed Geese coming up off the grazing marshes. We looked across to see several hundred more hiding out in the grass. As we walked out along the seawall, more and more of them took off and headed off inland.

Out over the saltmarsh, a flock of about twenty small birds flew up and circled round, their distinctive bouncy flight helping to identify them as Linnets. From the corner of the bank, we stopped to scan the open mud. There were lots of waders out here, a mixture of small Dunlin running around, larger Grey Plover and Redshank, and larger still Black-tailed Godwits and Curlew, all with different shaped bills and different feeding actions. There were lots of Shelduck too.

It was a great view as the sun set behind the clouds away to the south-west as we walked out, but with the shortest day tomorrow, the light started to go quickly now. We started to make our way back. As we looked across to the far side of the Freshes, we could see another Barn Owl hunting as it came up from behind the reeds. It was a long way off though.

We thought the Barn Owl might come round to our side, but it turned and went back the other way. As we stopped and watched it, we could hear Bearded Tits from the reeds nearby, although they typically kept themselves tucked well down out of the wind. It was time to call it a day, so we made our way back to the car. We had enjoyed a good day out today – let’s see what else tomorrow brings.

16th Nov 2019 – Autumn to Winter, Day 1

Day 1 of a three day long weekend of Early Winter Tours today. It still had a distinctly autumnal feel this morning, misty and grey first thing. The cloud gradually lifted a bit and even though it remained cloudy, it was dry and mild.

As we made our way east along the coast road, we could see a couple of large skeins of Pink-footed Geese flying in from the coast. They landed in a field by the road and through the hedge we could see thousands of them already packed in there. Unfortunately there was nowhere to pull in and we had someone else right behind us, so we couldn’t stop.

Our first destination for the morning was Blakeney. As we got out of the car by the harbour, it was rather misty further out across the saltmarsh. A lone Curlew was busy feeding down in the harbour channel. We stopped by the wildfowl collection briefly – amongst all the captive exotics there were lots of opportunists come to help themselves to all the seed put out, mostly Mallards and Black-headed Gulls.

Curlew

Curlew – feeding in the harbour channel at Blakeney

A gaggle of Brent Geese was feeding out on the saltmarsh in the middle of the harbour, so we got the scope on them for a closer look. There was a gathering of gulls next to them, again mainly Black-headed Gulls with one or two Common Gulls in amongst them. A couple of Lesser Black-backed Gulls were perched on the top of the masts of the yachts pulled up at the far end of the car park.

A slightly paler backed large gull was swimming down in the harbour channel. It was not pale enough for a Herring Gull, and too dark for a Lesser Black-backed Gull, with legs neither pink nor yellow, but a rather insipid fleshy colour. It is a regular here, and has been coming back for years, having found rich pickings on the seed in the wildfowl collection. It is a hybrid, probably Lesser Black-backed x Herring Gull.

Looking out across the grazing marshes, we could see three Marsh Harriers circling in the mist, slow to get going this morning. One perched in the top of a bush so we could look at it in the scope. A Common Buzzard flew over, heading for the trees over by the village. Then out over the saltmarsh, we spotted a Merlin hunting, flying across low and fast. We got several flashes of it as it darted back and forth and then it eventually landed, perched on a dead branch out in the middle.

The pools below the bank held a few Teal and one or two Redshank. A Little Grebe was busy diving on the largest of them. A Water Rail squealed from deep in the reeds and a couple of Reed Buntings flew up and across to the saltmarsh. A flock of Linnets was feeding out on the edge of the harbour, and whirled round from time to time.

A pipit flew in over the bank calling, and dropped down onto a small puddle in the cut grass on the edge of the Freshes. It was a Rock Pipit – come in from the salty side for a bathe. As it fed round the edge for a couple of minutes beforehand, we could see it was wearing a yellow colour ring and through the scope we could read the black letters. It is probably from Norway – the Rock Pipits which spend the winter out on the saltmarsh here are of the Scandinavian race, littoralis.

Rock Pipit

Rock Pipit – a colour-ringed bird, probably from Norway

Looking out into the harbour from the corner of the seawall, we could see lots of waders on the more open mud. Hundreds of small Dunlin were scurrying around busily, with a scattering of the larger Grey Plover standing or walking slowly around in amongst them. Two slightly larger and dumpier grey birds in with the Dunlin were two Knot. There were more Redshank and Curlew too. When something flushed lots of waders from further out in the harbour, a flock of Black-tailed Godwits circled round and we spotted three Common Snipe which came calling out of the mist.

This is a good site for Twite in the winter and there has been a group here for the last few days. As we stood scanning the harbour, they flew in and landed down by the path in the wet grass briefly. Unfortunately, just at that moment, two people decided to walk down the path and flushed them.

Thankfully the Twite didn’t fly far and landed again in the low vegetation a little further along. We walked over and got great views of them in the scope, sixteen of them in total (although they are very well camouflaged even in the low vegetation and not easy to count!). We could see their yellow bills and orangey breasts. Three Skylarks were picking around in the low vegetation too.

Twite

Twite – there were 16 at Blakeney today

On the walk back to the car, we found a pair of Stonechats feeding in the reeds just below the seawall. We stopped to watch them, fluttering up from the tops, flycatching, before landing back and flicking their tails.

Continuing on east along the coast, our next stop was at Sheringham. We wanted to try to see the King Eider which has been lingering offshore here for a couple of weeks now. It has been favouring the water off the west end of the prom, so we started our search there. There were several Great Black-backed Gulls and Herring Gulls on the groynes below the cliffs and a 1st winter Caspian Gull flew past, heading west towards a couple of crab boats which were hauling up their pots away to the west, surrounded by gulls.

Looking out to sea, we could see lots of Starlings coming in over the water, in small groups or larger flocks of 50 or so, birds arriving from the continent for the winter. They seemed to be streaming in constantly. Several groups of Starlings came in right towards us and over the cliffs where we were standing. There were a few thrushes in with them, Redwings and Fieldfares. One or two Blackbirds came in low over the sea too.

We picked up a Woodcock coming in next. It seemed to head straight into the face of the cliffs, but a couple of seconds later it circled over the top and came along the path straight towards us. At the last minute it saw us, just before it crashed into us, panicked and went to land on the path just a couple of metres away, then changed its mind and flew up over the bank and off across the golf course. There was a great variety of migrants arriving this afternoon – this Woodcock had possibly come in all the way from Russia for the winter.

There was no sign of the King Eider on the sea off the lifeboat station, so we walked a little further west along the cliffs until we had a better view beyond. We stopped to scan and could see a few Gannets circling out over the water. A small group of Red-throated Divers flew past. There were a few ducks moving offshore too – a flock of Wigeon, then a line of Common Scoter with several Teal following behind – more migrants arriving for the winter.

Finally we spotted the King Eider, but it was a long way back to the east of where we were now. We had a quick look through the scope, but it was rather distant. So we walked back towards the prom to try to get a closer look. Unfortunately, by the time we got there, it had disappeared again. A crab boat had motored out to where it had just been.

There are normally one or two Purple Sandpipers which spend the winter here, so we decided to walk down along the prom to see if we could fine one, while keeping our eyes peeled for the King Eider. Half way along, we met a couple of other birders who had found the King Eider again, but it was now a lot further out. Apparently, it had moved offshore in response to the crab boat. It was also steadily drifting east. We had another look at it, but figured we might be able to get a better view from the east end.

We scanned the rocky sea defences as we made our way further. There were lots of Turnstones along the prom, perched on the wall, or feeding on chips thrown down onto the concrete for them. When we got to ‘the tank’, we looked over the railing and could see a Purple Sandpiper feeding with one of the Turnstones on the seaweed covered rocks below us.

Purple Sandpiper

Purple Sandpiper – feeding on the sea defences along the prom

Thankfully we had already enjoyed good views of the Purple Sandpiper, before something spooked all the birds along the prom – gulls, feral pigeons, waders, the lot. We couldn’t see any likely threat here, but the Turnstones flew off and took the Purple Sandpiper with them.

Finally, we got a good view of the King Eider from here. It is an immature male, still moulting out of eclipse plumage, but over the last couple of weeks it has been here it is gradually starting to look a bit brighter. We could see the bright orange frontal lobes at the base of the bill, between its regular dives to look for crabs.

King Eider

King Eider – the immature male was still off Sheringham

King Eider is a high arctic species, which is very rare this far south. They breed in arctic Russia and winter along the north Scandinavian coast. Presumably, once this bird completes its moult, it will make its way back north. But in the meantime, it seems to be finding plenty to eat here.

Back at the car, we stopped for lunch in one of the shelters on the top of the cliffs, overlooking the sea. Afterwards, we started to make our way back west.

When we got to Salthouse, we turned towards the beach. There were lots of Wigeon on the pools on the edge of the grazing marsh. We parked and walked up over the shingle until we could see the sea. A few Gannets drifted past offshore and one of the first birds we found on the sea was the Great Northern Diver which had been reported here earlier. We had a good look at it through the scope between dives – a big diver with a heavy bill and black half collar.

Great Northern Diver

Great Northern Diver – on the sea off Salthouse today

There were several Guillemots and Razorbills further out on the sea today, all busily diving too. A group of at least 18 Pied Wagtails were feeding further up the beach on the top of the shingle, fluttering about looking for insects on the stones.

As we made our way back to the car, we bumped into one of the locals who informed us that the Yellow-browed Warbler was showing well just the other side of Sarbury Hill. We found somewhere to park and walked along the footpath to where it had been. There were a couple of other people there watching it and after a minute or so it flew up into a sycamore in the hedge.

Yellow-browed Warbler

Yellow-browed Warbler – in a hedge along the footpath between Salthouse & Cley

The Yellow-browed Warbler was hard to see at first, flitting around in the back of the tree and occasionally disappearing down into some thicker hawthorns next to it, but eventually everyone got a good look at it. This is rather late for a Yellow-browed Warbler – they are regular now between mid September and the end of October, but few linger this long. Hopefully it will still find enough food to fuel up before continuing on its journey.

We headed round to Cley beach next, in the hope we might catch up with a Short-eared Owl here. Half way along Beach Road, we stopped to talk to a couple of people up on the West Bank looking out over the marshes beyond. They had just seen a Short-eared Owl, but it had gone down into the vegetation out along the start of Blakeney Point.

We continued on to the car park, intending to have a look out to sea from here while keeping one eye out for the owl. As we got out of the car, a large flock of Golden Plover whirled over the Eye Field, breaking up into smaller groups and joining up again, before drifting away. Their yelping calls alerted us to several skeins of Pink-footed Geese flying in from the west. We watched as they whiffled down onto the grazing marshes. Through the scope, we could see a flock of Brent Geese, a couple of Canada Geese and all the Pinkfeet in one view.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese – whiffling down to the grazing marshes

Turning our attention to the sea, a quick scan revealed three Velvet Scoters offshore. Through the scope, we could see the two white spots on their dark brown faces and the white in the wing forming a diagonal white stripe on their flanks. A female Common Scoter appeared with them and several Guillemots were offshore too.

With no sign of the Short-eared Owl reappearing, we decided to walk along the shingle to see if we could find the flock of Snow Buntings which had been along here earlier. We had just started walking away when we got a phone message to say the owl was up again and headed our way. We turned back, and had another scan which quickly revealed the Short-eared Owl perched on the top of a post, against the skyline.

One everyone had enjoyed a good look at the Short-eared Owl through the scope, it was off again hunting, flying with distinctive stiff wing beats. It disappeared round behind some gorse bushes and didn’t come out the other side so presumably had landed again. We could see several Marsh Harriers starting to gather over the marshes beyond, before going to roost.

It was getting dark fast now, not helped by the grey and overcast afternoon, but we decided to have a quick look for the Snow Buntings anyway. We got as far as the point where the vegetation is thickest on the top of the shingle, between the pill box and North Scrape, when we head a ‘crest calling and turned to see it fly right past us. It was either a Goldcrest or a Firecrest, though it sounded perhaps more like the latter, presumably fresh in off the sea. It circled round, but unfortunately we lost sight of it in the gloom as it dropped down into the vegetation. We had a quick look where it seemed to go down but there was no sign.

The light was clearly going now, so we decided to call it a day and head back to the car. With more birds arriving this evening, it will be interesting to see what tomorrow brings.

25th Apr 2018 – Five Days of Spring, Day 5

Day 5 of five days of Spring Migration tours today, our last day. It was mostly cloudy with some brighter intervals and we managed largely to avoid some scattered heavy showers in the afternoon. It was rather breezy again though, particularly in the afternoon.

Our first destination for the morning was Titchwell. It was still quite quiet in the car park when we arrived, so we had a walk round to see what was in the bushes. In the overflow car park, a Goldfinch came down to drink at a puddle out in the middle. Then we heard the plaintive piping of Bullfinches and looked over to see a lovely pink male perched in the elder on the corner. It flew across to the other side, followed by a second male Bullfinch which perched out in the open so we could get a good look at it.

There was nothing of note out in the paddocks beyond the car park, but two Common Swifts flew over, heading west. Two Mediterranean Gulls were calling and we picked them up heading south over the car park with a small group of Black-headed Gulls. We could hear a Chiffchaff singing in the sallows and saw some Long-tailed Tits as we walked up to the Visitor Centre. The Bramblings seem to have gone now and there were just lots of Chaffinches and Goldfinches on the feeders.

We headed round to Patsy’s Reedbed first. There were a couple of Blackcaps singing in the trees along Fen trail and the pool in front of Fen Hide had a couple of drake Common Pochard which flew off when they saw us, as well as two Greylags.

Common Pochard

Common Pochard – one of the two on the pool from Fen Hide first thing

A Reed Warbler was singing from the reeds just beyond the hide, and we could hear a couple of Sedge Warblers too, as we made our way to Patsy’s. But Patsy’s Reedbed itself was rather disappointing – just a very small number of ducks. A smart male Marsh Harrier flew round the dead trees further back.

A couple of Swallows flew through, but the one species which was moving in numbers this morning was Goldfinch – several small flocks flew past either side of us while we were here.

There wasn’t much singing in the sallows as we made our way round via Meadow Trail to the main path. What we did find when we got there, in the grass on the bank, was our first damselfly of the year – a Large Red Damselfly.

Large Red Damselfly

Large Red Damselfly – our first damselfly of the year

We stopped to scan the dried up pool on Thornham grazing marsh. There didn’t appear to be a lot on here at first, but then we spotted a couple of wagtails down towards the back corner. Their silvery grey backs identified them as White Wagtails, rather than Pied Wagtails, continental migrants stopped off here to feed.

Another Reed Warbler was singing on the other side of the path, and a Sedge Warbler perched up nicely in one of the larger clumps of brambles, where we could get it in the scope. We could hear Bearded Tits calling periodically and saw a couple zipping off over the top of the reeds.

Sedge Warbler

Sedge Warbler – singing in the brambles in the reedbed

The large reedbed pool held several Greylags and a few Common Pochard were diving in amongst them. A single Great Crested Grebe was on the water over to one side. We could hear a Little Grebe too, laughing at us from somewhere out of view. Then one of the group spotted another duck swimming towards us along the channel at the front. When it emerged from behind the vegetation, we could see it was a smart drake Red-crested Pochard.

It was rather windy up on the bank, so we headed down to the shelter of Island Hide to scan the freshmarsh. The first thing which struck us when we got in there was the enormous number of Sandwich Terns. We counted almost 300 just on the first couple of islands – the peak count today was over 700! Several pairs were displaying and one pair was mating.

Sandwich Terns

Sandwich Terns – there were over 700 on the Freshmarsh today

It is very unusual to see large numbers of Sandwich Terns here. They do breed in very significant numbers not far away, on Scolt Head. It appears that something has disturbed them from Scolt and they have come in to the Freshmarsh, attracted by the large breeding colony of gulls. It will be interesting to see if any Sandwich Terns stay to breed, or if they all eventually return to Scolt. In the meantime, it is certainly an impressive spectacle!

The fenced-off ‘Avocet Island’ has been almost completely taken over by gulls, predominantly Black-headed Gulls but with a very significant number of Mediterranean Gulls too. We could hear the distinctive calls of the latter regularly, as they flew in and out of the colony.

Mediterranean Gull

Mediterranean Gull – there are large numbers in with the Black-headed Gulls

It was only when we had a good look through the birds on the island that we could see just how many Mediterranean Gulls there were. Apparently, there may be around 50 pairs this year, a significant increase over the nine or so in 2017.

There are not many Avocets on the freshmarsh at the moment, but there were lots of Black-tailed Godwits, well over 200 at the moment. Many of them are now coming into full breeding plumage, bright rusty-coloured, ahead of their journey back up to Iceland for the breeding season.

Black-tailed Godwit

Black-tailed Godwit – moulting into bright rusty breeding plumage

There were a few other waders on here too. A scattering of Ruff around the muddy islands included one deep rusty male, already getting its breeding plumage but still lacking its ruff. A lone Grey Plover was on one of the islands too, but flew over to join the godwits, as did a small group of about a dozen Knot which flew in from the beach.

There are not so many ducks on here now – mainly a few lingering Teal and a few pairs of Shoveler. We couldn’t see the Garganey, which was on here yesterday, from this side. There are still plenty of Brent Geese, yet to head off back to Siberia for the breeding season. They were commuting between the saltmarsh to feed and the freshmarsh to bathe and preen.

Brent Goose

Brent Geese – there are still good numbers lingering here

Back on the main path, we headed out towards the beach. There was very little on the Volunteer Marsh today and the ‘Tidal’ Pools are no longer tidal and remain completely flooded with seawater. We carried on past them to have a look at the sea.

The tide was already coming in and not much of the mussel beds remained exposed. We could see a few Bar-tailed Godwits out on the water’s edge, along with a couple of Turnstone. As usual, there were plenty of Oystercatcher too. As we stood in the lee of the dunes to scan the sea, a couple of small flocks of little waders flew past, groups of Ringed Plover and Dunlin.

At first, all we could see on the sea were Common Scoter – a couple of smaller groups closer in and a larger raft further back. Then we picked up a diver not too far out. It was diving continually and hard to see but when it surfaced and turned we could see it was a Great Northern Diver, a good bird to see here. We could see its large size, heavy bill and dark half-collar.

However, that wasn’t the best bird we would have out here today. While we were trying to get everyone onto the diver, three smaller birds appeared even closer in, off the concrete blocks. Through the scope we could see they were Black-necked Grebes, all three of them in cracking full breeding plumage. They had been seen yesterday, but we had assumed they would most likely have moved on already, so it was great to see them.

Black-necked Grebes

Black-necked Grebes – 2 of the 3 diving offshore today

Black-necked Grebes are scarce here and it is very unusual to see them in breeding plumage at the best of times, so to see three together, and on the sea, is highly unusual. They looked stunning as their golden yellow face plumes caught the light.

We had hoped perhaps to find some more terns offshore, but there were just small numbers of Sandwich Terns flying back and forth. We decided to head back. On the way, we called in at Parrinder Hide.

There has been one or more Garganey here for several days now. We couldn’t see it from Island Hide earlier and we couldn’t see one at first from Parrinder Hide either, although we were told it had been seen on the Freshmarsh earlier. We had at least seen several very well yesterday, down in the Broads. There was a single Pink-footed Goose just outside the hide, with a broken wing which has clearly prevented it from migrating back to Iceland for the breeding season with the others.

There were several Teal asleep in the cut reeds along the base of the bank out from the hide. As we scanned through, we just noticed another shape in the reeds and, through the scope, we could just see a pale stripe across the head. It was a drake Garganey. It was almost impossible to see if you didn’t know where it was. A pair of Greylag walked past and moved the Teal, but unfortunately the Garganey remained where it was, fast asleep.

Garganey

Garganey – asleep in the cut reeds out from Parrinder Hide

We made our way back to the picnic area for lunch. There were a few butterflies out here – Green-veined White and a single Holly Blue.

After lunch, we headed up towards Choseley. There had been a couple of brief Dotterel elsewhere in the county in the last couple of days, and this is a traditional stopover site for them, so we thought it might be worth a quick look just in case one had already dropped in here.

Yellowhammer

Yellowhammer – up at Choseley this afternoon

Most of the fields on the drive up did not look suitable, so we stopped at Choseley Drying Barns to scan. A Yellowhammer perched up nicely in one of the trees by the footpath.

There were lots of Brown Hares out in the wheat fields. Many were hunkered down out of the wind, but several were running round, chasing each other, and we even saw a quick bout of boxing.

Brown Hares

Brown Hares – chasing each other round and boxing

Dropping down the other side, there were a few Red-legged Partridge in the fields. We stopped an found a flock of Linnets which flew up into a hedge, with a Lesser Whitethroat nearby. A lone Wheatear was very distant, high on the ridge in a stony ploughed field.

As we drove on, we spotted a Corn Bunting fly out of a hedge ahead of us. It went back in behind us, so we stopped and walked back to try to see it. Unfortunately, as we tried to get round behind it, it flew off across the field the other way.

We decided to move on and head along to Holkham for the remainder of the afternoon. As we drove up along Lady Anne’s Drive, we stopped to scan the cows. Two Yellow Wagtails flew past them and across the Drive ahead of us. A Little Egret flew over and then, as we got out of the car, a Spoonbill went over our heads, heading back west towards the colony.

Spoonbill

Spoonbill – flew over Lady Anne’s Drive, just as we arrived

The wind had picked up quite a bit now, and it was rather quiet in the trees as we walked west through the pines. We could hear Chiffchaff and a Coal Tit singing. Salts Hole held just a few Tufted Duck today.

At Washington Hide, we could hear Sedge Warbler singing from the reeds. We headed through the trees towards the beach. We stopped here to scan the sea, but it was rather choppy in the wind now. We could see a few distant Sandwich Terns and a Common Scoter way out, flying past. There were still one or two Swallows on the move, flying west.

We made our way round to Joe Jordan Hide. A couple of Reed Warblers singing from the reeds along here were presumably reasonably fresh arrivals. There were some rather dark clouds approaching from the west, so we felt the need to find some shelter, just in case. One of the wardens had driven out across the grazing marshes, so their was a bit of disturbance. However, there was still a steady succession of Spoonbills coming and going, with two busy feeding on the pools out to the right of the hide.

There were plenty of Greylags out on the grazing marshes, and we eventually found two Pink-footed Geese too, right out on the grass in the distance today. They are likely to be sick or injured birds which are unable to return to Iceland to breed, and we could see that one of them had a broken wing.

The rain largely passed through to the south of us, but we did had a very short burst of not too heavy rain. Once it cleared through, we started to make our way back. A quick look in the trees around the crosstracks failed to produce anything more exciting than a couple of Long-tailed Tits and a Coal Tit.

Almost back to Lady Anne’s Drive, we ran into another little flurry of activity in the trees. A couple of Long-tailed Tits were flitting around and two Treecreepers appeared briefly nearby. We could hear a Willow Warbler and a Chiffchaff singing and see a Blackcap in the hawthorns.

Back to the car and it was time to call it a day. It had been a very exciting five days with a good group and lots of good birds, a nice selection of spring migrants, and even quite a bit of non-avian interest. Spring migration in Norfolk at its best!

4th Jan 2018 – New Year of Birds

A Private Tour today in North Norfolk. A different type of tour today, it was to be a whistlestop journey along the coast, from east to west, trying to pick up as many interesting birds as we could in the time available. The weather was not particularly amenable, with some light drizzle through the morning and then thickening cloud in the afternoon after a brief spell of blue sky around the middle of the day. Thankfully, it didn’t start to rain again until just after we had finished and we were on our way back.

Our first destination was Cromer. There has been a juvenile Iceland Gull on the golf course here for several days. We parked and walked back along the pavement, scanning the grass and it didn’t take long to find it, walking around on one of the fairways not far from the side of the road.

Iceland GullIceland Gull – showing very well on the fairway at Cromer Golf Course!

We had a good look at the Iceland Gull. We could see it was a rather delicate large gull with longish wings, pale biscuit colour overall, with paler wingtips. The eye was dark and the bill mostly so, with a hint of a paler base developing, confirming it as a juvenile.

Further along the edge of the road, we met a couple of people looking for some Redpolls which had been seen going into a weedy area by the edge of the golf course. When one of the greenkeepers drove past, they flew up and looked as if they might land in a large hawthorn bush. Unfortunately instead they disappeared round behind it. We waited a while to see if they might reappear, but after the greenkeepers had driven past a couple more times and nothing had come out we figured they must have gone somewhere else. With a busy schedule for the day, we headed off.

Our next stop was at Salthouse. We were hoping to see the flock of Snow Buntings here, but they have been very mobile, roaming up and down several miles of the shingle ridge, right up to the end of Blakeney Point, so we needed a bit of luck. Unfortunately, our luck was out – there was no sign of them in any of the places they have been favouring. It was not particularly pleasant standing up on the shingle in the drizzle, so we decided to carry on our way west rather than wait to see if they would reappear.

We did add a few other birds to the day’s list while we were at Salthouse. Scanning offshore, we picked up a couple of Guillemots out on the sea and a couple of Red-throated Divers flew past. A Skylark and a Meadow Pipit were feeding around one the small pools on the edge of the grazing marsh. A few Wigeon were scattered about the grass too and a drake Shoveler was on one of the pools below the shingle ridge. Several skeins of Pink-footed Geese flew overhead calling.

Pink-footed GeesePink-footed Geese – several skeins flew over us at Salthouse

After negotiating our way round an unscheduled road closure, we managed to get onto Lady Anne’s Drive at Holkham. A small covey of Grey Partridge were on the grass not far from the side of the drive. An Egyptian Goose flew past, flashing its bold white wing patches.

The Shorelarks out on the saltmarsh here had not been reported yesterday, but we thought it was worth a quick look anyway. As we walked through the pines, a birder coming back the other way told us there was no sign of them. We went out to look for ourselves anyway, but the best we could manage was a large flock of around 30 Skylarks. There was quite a lot of water on the saltmarsh today. It was still drizzling steadily, so we headed back to Lady Anne’s Drive.

As we walked back towards the car, a small group of Bullfinches flew up from the brambles beside the ditch and landed a little further along – we could see a couple of smart pink males and at least one female. A flock of about 100 Brent Geese had appeared on the grazing marsh by the car park while we were out on the saltmarsh. A quick look through them revealed that one was slightly darker than the others, with a slightly brighter white flank patch. It was the regular Black Brant hybrid which is often with the Dark-bellied Brent Geese here.

Black Brant hybridBlack Brant hybrid – second from left, with the Dark-bellied Brents

There were lots of Pink-footed Geese calling noisily, flying over and landing in the fields. We could see a few Marsh Harriers out over the grass and a Common Buzzard or two perched in the trees or flying round. As we drove back up Lady Anne’s Drive towards the main road, a Stonechat perched on the fence and kept dropping down to the ground to look for food.

StonechatStonechat – feeding from the fence beside Lady Anne’s Drive

A little further on and we stopped again to look at the grazing marshes. There was quite a bit of water on there today, after all the recent rain, and at first there didn’t seem to be much in the way of birdlife. But then we spotted a Great White Egret flying in from the east and it dropped down by the edge of one of the ditches. Even before it landed, we could see just how big it was and when it touched down we could see its long yellow bill.

Great White EgretGreat White Egret – flew in and landed out on the grazing marsh

This is often a good place to see geese, but there didn’t seem to be too many out here today. There were a few Greylags, but more of them seemed to be in the fields by the road today. A careful scan eventually brought its reward – first a little group of Pink-footed Geese and then, just beside them, a pair of White-fronted Geese, the one we were really looking for here. We could see their distinctive dark belly stripes and, when they raised their heads, the white surround to their bills.

Looking out to the west, we also spotted a single Red Kite circling out over the grazing marshes. Then it was time to carry on our way west. We got as far as Titchwell on the coast road and turned in land. As we headed up the road towards Choseley, a couple of Red-legged Partridges were in the fields, but the area around the drying barns was very busy and there were no birds here today.

It was starting to brighten up nicely now. Continuing on inland, we came across a huge flock of finches in the hedge beside the road. We stopped the car and got out for a closer look – there were lots of Chaffinches, Goldfinches and Linnets. A couple of Greenfinches perched unobtrusively in the bushes. Looking carefully threw the throng, we eventually found a couple of Bramblings with them too.

A little further on, we spotted several Yellowhammers dropping down into the middle a field. They had disappeared out of view, so we decided to have another look here on our way back. The last field we checked seemed to have many more birds – there were lots of Reed Buntings and Yellowhammers in the hedge which kept dropping down into the cover strip below. We could hear Tree Sparrows calling and it wasn’t long before one appeared in the hedge too.

As we got back into the car, an approaching tractor driving down the road flushed a Sparrowhawk from the hedge and it flew straight towards us and landed in the trees right next to us. Needless to say, as we opened the window and raised the camera, it was off! We were on a roll now, and back to the first field where we had seen the Yellowhammers land earlier and we arrived just in time to see several birds fly up out of the crop. Two larger birds flew across and landed in the top of the hedge on the far side – two Corn Buntings, the bird we had hoped to see here. While we were watching the Corn Buntings in the scope, we spotted a couple of Stock Doves flying over too.

Black-tailed GodwitBlack-tailed Godwit – feeding in Thornham Harbour

It had clouded over again when we arrived in the car park at Thornham Harbour. We met one of the local wildlife photographers just packing up to leave and he told us he had just been watching the Twite on the edge of the saltmarsh immediately beyond the car park so we hurried straight over. We couldn’t see them at first as they were hiding down in the vegetation on the other side of the channel. There were a couple of Redshank and a single Black-tailed Godwit out on the mud.

We were just scanning for the Twite when they flew up out of the vegetation and straight towards us. They circled over and landed down by the puddles in the car park just behind us. We had a great look at them as they drank, there were about 20 of them in total. We could see their orange faces and yellow bills. They didn’t stay there too long though and the next thing we knew they were off again, out across the saltmarsh.

TwiteTwite – came down to the puddles in the car park to drink

After the Twite had flown off, a Rock Pipit flew past us and landed on a post just in front of us. They are fairly common winter visitors to the saltmarshes along the coast, Scandinavian Rock Pipits rather than our British ones which favour rocky coasts.

Rock PipitRock Pipit – landed on a post just in front of us

Having seen the Twite, our main target here, so quickly we made our way straight round to Titchwell next. After a quick bite to eat, we headed out to explore the reserve.

The main birds we wanted to see here today were out at the sea, so with the wind starting to pick up a bit, we made our way fairly quickly in that direction. A quick look in the ditches by the path failed to produce the hoped for Water Rail. Thornham grazing marsh and the reedbed pool looked rather quiet, although a Cetti’s Warbler shouted to us from deep in the reeds. A single Common Snipe was out on Lavendar Marsh, along with lots of Lapwing.

The water level on the freshmarsh is very high now and there are not many places for waders here. The tiny remnant of the island by the junction to Parrinder Hide had about twenty Ruff huddled round it, along with 5 Avocet which have decided to try to slug it out here rather than head south for the winter. There were a few more Lapwing too. Further out, the top of Avocet Island still protruded from the water and was fairly covered in Golden Plovers.

There were lots of duck out on the freshmarsh, enjoying all the water. As well as the usual Teal, Wigeon and Mallard, Gadwall was a welcome addition to the day’s list here. It was really nice to see quite a few Pintail too, including several very smart drakes. There was a raft of diving ducks around the taller island over towards the back – several Common Pochard and a couple of Tufted Ducks – but we couldn’t see the Red-crested Pochard which had been reported earlier. A big flock of Brent Geese flew in from the saltmarsh out towards Brancaster and landed out on the water to bathe & preen.

There were more waders on the mud on Volunteer Marsh. From the main path, we could see several Ringed Plover and a Grey Plover, as well as a number of Redshanks and a Curlew or two. There were more waders down along the muddy channel which runs away beside the bank at the far end, including several Black-tailed Godwits, but no sign of the Spotted Redshank that had been reported here earlier. With the tide out now, it could easily have been hiding in the bottom of the channel somewhere.

Ringed PloverRinged Plover – one of several on the Volunteer Marsh

A single Dunlin with all the Black-tailed Godwits roosting on the Tidal Pools was the only bird of note, but we didn’t really stop to look here. Then it was on to the beach. We got ourselves into the shelter of the dunes and started to scan. There was an excellent variety of birds out here today.

Just about the first birds we found out on the sea were the Long-tailed Ducks. There were about 12 of them, diving just offshore, including some very smart long-tailed drakes. Also just offshore, we could see a few Common Scoter and Goldeneye. We picked up a drake Red-breasted Merganser on the sea too, before a group of about eight more flew in. A single female Eider rounded off the great selection of seaduck.

There had been a Great Northern Diver off here earlier, but that took a little longer to find, mainly because it was diving constantly. Eventually we got that in the scope too. A distant Great Crested Grebe was another addition to the list. While we were looking at all the birds on the sea, we kept one eye on what was flying past. A small gull, flashing alternately pale silvery grey/white upperparts and black underwings was an adult Little Gull, closely followed by two more. Several have been lingering offshore here in recent days.

There were lots of waders out on the beach too. Scanning through them carefully produced several Bar-tailed Godwit, Knot, Grey Plovers, Turnstone and Oystercatchers. Unusually, a single Sanderling took a bit of finding amongst all the Dunlin out on the sand today.

Having done so well out on the beach, we started to make our way back at a more leisurely pace. Scanning carefully around the Tidal Pools, we finally located two Spotted Redshanks. They were asleep, tucked down behind one of the islands, but one woke up long enough to flash its long, needle fine bill and more prominent pale supercilium than the regular Common Redshanks.

We stopped in at Parrinder Hide on the way back. There was still no sign of the Red-crested Pochard, nor any Water Pipit around the remnants of the islands, but there was a single Goldeneye diving out on the water. The Golden Plover were very nervous, flying up continually, whirling round calling plaintively, before landing down again.

Golden PloverGolden Plover – periodically whirling round nervously over the freshmarsh

It was starting to get dark now, so we continued on our way back towards the car. We stopped briefly by the reedbed where the Marsh Harriers were gathering to roost. We counted 18 all in the air together at one point. Then it was time to head for home.

We had missed a few birds today – not a surprise given the weather and the fact that we didn’t have time to stop and wait for things to appear – but even so we had managed to see some very good ones. And, when we added up the total at the end of the day we had amassed a very respectable 97 species (96 seen, and the Cetti’s Warbler which we had just heard). A good way to start the year!

19th Dec 2017 – Border Crossing

Not a tour today, but a short expedition (with our cameras) over the border into Suffolk to catch up with a couple of good birds which have been showing well there in recent days. It was a glorious, sunny winter’s day – perfect weather to be out at this time of year, particularly after a few days in the office catching up on admin!

First stop was at Oulton Broad in Lowestoft. Just a couple of seconds after we pulled up in the car park, the Great Northern Diver surfaced. It was diving by the boats over the other side of the bridge at first, but quickly started to make its way towards us and then spent a few minutes just off the quay where we were standing. At one point, it was only about 5 metres away. These are stunning birds, normally seen at a distance out to sea, so it was great to see it so close.

Great Northern Diver 1

Great Northern Diver 2

Great Northern Diver 4

Great Northern Diver 3Great Northern Diver – showing very well at Oulton Broad

We watched the Great Northern Diver fishing for an hour or so. It disappeared round beyond some boats for a while, then made its way back to the water in front of the quay again. We didn’t see it catch very much for all its efforts. At one point it surfaced with what appeared to be a small shrimp. On previous days it has been seen catching crabs here.

Great Northern Diver 5Great Northern Diver – with what appears to be a small shrimp

Eventually the Great Northern Diver started to work its way out into the middle of Oulton Broad, resurfacing further away after each dive. We decided to continue on further into deepest Suffolk!

Our next stop was Hazlewood Common, on the edge of the Alde estuary on the outskirts of Aldeburgh. There has been a flock of Redpolls feeding in the weeds on an overgrown parsnip field here in recent weeks. As we walked down the track, a couple of Lesser Redpolls were hopping around on the ground where a photographer had been putting seed out to try to tempt them down.

We joined the small group of people standing on the edge of the field. Most of the Redpolls were feeding out in the field, but after a few minutes they flew up and circled round before landing in the hedge. It wasn’t long before we noticed a strikingly pale bird in the hedge with the others – it was the Arctic Redpoll we had come here to see.

Coues's Arctic Redpoll 1

Coues's Arctic Redpoll 2

Coues's Arctic Redpoll 3Coues’s Arctic Redpoll – strikingly pale compared to the Lesser Redpolls

We spent some time watching the Redpolls here. The birds would fly back down into the field to feed and they fly up again, sometimes up into the taller trees back towards the road, sometimes into the bushes further down, but most often into the hedge close to where we were standing.

Over the next hour or so, we were treated to some great close-up views of the Arctic Redpoll. At one point, it perched up in the top of the hedge preening, which gave us a chance to get a good look at its white rump with a large unstreaked section in the middle, one of the defining characteristics of Arctic Redpoll.

Coues's Arctic Redpoll 4

Coues's Arctic Redpoll 5Coues’s Arctic Redpoll – showing off its largely unstreaked white rump

Arctic Redpoll is divided into two subspecies, exilipes which breeds widely in northern Eurasia and North America and hornemanni which breeds in Greenland and neighbouring parts of Canada. This bird is an exilipes, also known as Coues’s Arctic Redpoll. Apparently, according to historians, it’s first name should properly be pronounced ‘cows’ after its namesake, Elliot Coues, a 19th century American army surgeon and ornithologist. This is the correct pronunciation according to his descendants, but there is even some question over how he would originally have pronounced his name! A similar issue arises in his native US over Coues white-tailed deer, which is still widely pronounced as in ‘coos’. We didn’t worry too much over the pronunciation, and just enjoyed the Redpolls!

As well as all the Arctic Redpoll, there were 20+ Lesser Redpolls and at least two Mealy Redpolls in the flock. Birds were coming and going though, and the flock was not always (or ever?) altogether. There were some nice Lesser Redpolls, including a couple of pink-breasted males.

Lesser Redpoll Suffolk 2017-12-19_2Lesser Redpoll – a smart pink-breasted male

Lesser Redpoll Suffolk 2017-12-19_3Lesser Redpoll – a more typical small, brown Lesser

The Mealy Redpolls did not pose for photos but we did at one point have all three (sub)species of Redpoll in the scope together, when they flew up to preen in the top of one of the tall trees, Coues’s Arctic Redpoll, Mealy Redpoll and Lesser Redpoll. A very interesting and useful opportunity for comparison.

Unfortunately, the days are short at this time of year and after a rather leisurely start this morning and a good session with both the Great Northern Diver and the Redpolls, the light was now starting to go. It was time to head for home.

27th Feb 2017 – Seaducks, Divers & Grebes

A Private Tour in North Norfolk today. The request was particularly to look for seaducks, divers and grebes, but there would be time for other birds too. It was cloudy but bright in the morning, but heavy showers were forecast for the afternoon. As it was the weather gods were smiling on us – we sat out one brief shower in the hide at Titchwell and didn’t see another until we were back in the car at the end of the day.

With the target to see some birds on the sea, we started the day at Thornham Harbour with a walk out towards Holme Dunes. As we parked the car, a lone Brent Goose was feeding on the saltmarsh by the road close by. It looked up briefly, but seemed disinterested in our presence.

6o0a8198Brent Goose – feeding in the harbour at Thornham

The tide was just going out and the tidal channel was still full of water. From up on the seawall, we could see a few waders on the areas of open mud – Curlew, Grey Plover and Bar-tailed Godwit, as well as several Redshank. The Twite have been rather elusive here this winter, tending to come and go, so it was no surprise that two small birds feeding down on the edge of the saltmarsh were a pair of Linnet.

6o0a8206Curlew – several were feeding on the mud in the harbour

Looking out across the harbour towards the sea, we could see a few ducks diving in the deeper part of the channel in the distance. Through the scope, we could see there were several Red-breasted Mergansers and a couple of female Goldeneye. A Great Crested Grebe was just offshore beyond.

As we walked along the seawall, there were Skylarks singing over the grazing meadows behind us. A couple of Reed Buntings flew out from one of the bushes below the bank, as did a Wren. When two more small birds flitted across the saltmarsh below us, we expected those to be Linnets again, but a quick look revealed they were Twite. Through the scope, we could see their yellow bills and orange-washed breasts. They fed for a time in the vegetation on the edge of the mud, before eventually disappearing off back into the saltmarsh.

img_0953Twite – we found a pair on the saltmarsh on our walk out

Six geese flying in from the east over the harbour were Pink-footed Geese. We heard them calling and watched as they dropped down towards the grazing marshes to the west. Looking across, we could see a large flock of geese already down on the grass. Through the scope, we could see that the vast majority were Pink-footed Geese too. But then a head came up with a distinctive white surround to the base of the bill – two White-fronted Geese were hiding in with the Pinkfeet.

A shrill call high overhead alerted us to a displaying Marsh Harrier, a male, flying up and down with exaggerated, flappy wingbeats. Two more Marsh Harriers, females, flew in over the saltmarsh and, behind us, another two circled up over the grazing marshes. The bright conditions were obviously encouraging a burst of Marsh Harrier display activity this morning.

6o0a8240Marsh Harrier – this male was displaying overhead

A quick look out across Broadwater from the edge of the dunes added Tufted Duck and Common Pochard to the day’s list. A few Mallard and a pair of Shoveler were lurking in the reeds. A few Greylag Geese and a big flock of Curlew were in the fields beyond.

From the top of the dunes, we set ourselves up to scan the sea. Almost the first bird we set eyes on was a Great Northern Diver. It was not far offshore, but diving regularly and drifting east. It was clearly big and we got it in the scope and could see the contrast between the blackish upperparts and white throat and breast, with a black half collar.

Scanning the sea, we could see several Red-breasted Mergansers out on the water. Five large, heavy ducks flying in from the east were Eider – three all dark females and two 1st winter drakes, with contrasting white breasts. They landed on the sea further out where we could see them distantly. A little later, we looked back and found two smart drake Eider in the same area. There were a couple of Common Scoter out here too today, a blackish drake and a pale-cheeked female.

The Long-tailed Ducks have become more elusive in recent days. It is possible they have already started to move back north, although they may just have moved further offshore. Fortunately a few obliged us by flying in this morning. First, we picked up a lone Long-tailed Duck flying in from way out to sea, but it turned east and eventually landed some way away, off Thornham Point. We could just make it out through the scope. Then a pair flew in and landed out beyond the Red-breasted Mergansers. They were still distant, but we could see there was a smart male and browner female. The fourth Long-tailed Duck, a female, was even more obliging, and landed with the mergansers where we could get a much better view of it. To round out the total, a fifth flew past a little later.

While we were looking through the ducks, we picked up a Slavonian Grebe on the sea. It was clearly small, next to the Red-breasted Mergansers. It had a flat crown, white cheeks and a neatly defined black cap. Red-throated Diver is the most regular diver species here and we found one or two out on the sea. Black-throated Diver is the rarest so it was a bonus to find one just as we were about to call it a day. We were alerted to it by a flash of its white flank patch as it dived. It was rather distant, but when it surfaced again we could also see its very contrasting black and white colouration, and sleeker, slimmer structure compared to the Great Northern Diver we had seen earlier.

After such a fantastically productive morning here, we decided to head back to the car. Three species of diver and an excellent selection of seaduck was a great return for our efforts. A Little Grebe on Broadwater on the way back made it three species of grebe for the site today too!

As we walked back along the seawall, we could hear Twite calling. We assumed it would just be the pair we had seen earlier, but a flock of around 25 Twite flew up from the saltmarsh and across the path in front of us. A couple of males flashed bright pink rumps as they flew past. They dropped down by a pool on the grazing marsh for a quick drink, before flying back to the saltmarsh again. We had another good look at them through the scope.

6o0a8254Twite – a flock of about 25 had appeared on the walk back

There had been a Glaucous Gull reported by some pig fields inland from here yesterday, so we decided to have a quick drive round to see if we could find it. We did find a large flock of gulls loafing in a field by an irrigation reservoir, but all we could see there were Black-headed, Common and Herring Gulls. There didn’t appear to be many gulls around the pig fields today.

The buntings were more obliging. There has been a big flock of Yellowhammers here through the winter and there must have been at least 60 here still today. Several were bathing in a puddle as we arrived, including some stunningly yellow males. They were rather flighty, constantly flying between the hedges and the field the other side. However, when they perched up in the hedge we could get a good look at them.

6o0a8275Yellowhammer – at least 60 in the flock today

As well as the Yellowhammers, there have been good numbers of Corn Bunting here and there were still at least 6 here today.We could hear one singing when we got out of the car, the song often compared to jangling keys, but we couldn’t see it through the hedge. Then one flew over as we walked along the road, we were alerted to it by its distinctive liquid ‘pit’ call. Finally we managed to get three in the scope, perched up together in the top of a small tree. They are getting so scarce now, it is always a delight to see Corn Buntings.

There were other things to see here too. There were several Reed Buntings in with the Yellowhammers and Corn Buntings. A pair of Stock Doves were feeding in a recently sown field, much more delicate birds then the similarly grey Woodpigeon. A couple of Red Kites hung in the air over a nearby wood. When a Kestrel flew over the field, all the Yellowhammers and Corn Buntings scattered.

Our destination for the afternoon was Titchwell. After lunch by the visitor centre and a welcome hot drink, we made had a look at the feeders. There were a few Greenfinches with the Chaffinches and Goldfinches, but the highlight was a couple of female Bramblings which dropped in to join them. The Water Rail was in the ditch by the main path as usual, but was lurking under a tangle of vegetation bathing today.

6o0a8282Water Rail – lurking under a tangle of vegetation bathing

The dried out grazing meadow ‘pool’ looked devoid of life at first. We repositioned ourselves further along the path, so we could see round behind the reeds at the front. At that point, one of the group spotted a bird right down at the front – the Water Pipit we had been looking for. We had a great view of it through the scope, noting its white underparts neatly streaked with black, and well-marked white supercilium.

img_1011Water Pipit – showed very well on the grazing meadow ‘pool’

A single Great Crested Grebe was at the back of the reedbed pool, asleep amongst the ducks. While we were scanning around the edges of the pool, a small wader flicked up and dropped down on a patch of cut reed at the front. We had a very restricted view, with a line of reeds in front. Looking through with the scope we managed to see there was a Common Snipe feeding there, but the bird we had just seen fly in was smaller than that. Then, just behind it, we caught sight of a Jack Snipe.

The Jack Snipe flew across the water at the front and landed on another patch of cut reed the other side, out of view. By walking a little further along the path and looking back, we were able to find it again, though we still had to look through the reeds in the front. It was very well camouflaged, with its bright golden mantle stripes in amongst the reed stems, but the Jack Snipe was feeding with its distinctive bobbing action. Great to watch!

We could see dark clouds approaching from the west, so we made our way quickly round to Parrinder Hide to scan the Freshmarsh from there. As we walked round, a huge flock of Golden Plover flew up from the fenced off island and most of them seemed to drift off inland. We got into the hide just in time, as a squally shower blew in.

There is still a good variety of ducks on the Freshmarsh at the moment – Wigeon, Gadwall, Teal and Shoveler. The birds huddled up against the rain. There were also good numbers of gulls again, but we couldn’t find anything other than Black-headed Gull, Common Gull and Herring Gull on here today.

6o0a8324Teal – a smart drake, huddled up facing into the rain

There were lots of Redshank in particular on the Freshmarsh today. Perhaps they had been flushed off the Volunteer Marsh by something? Several Knot flew in too and landed in with the gulls. A noisy little group of Oystercatcher were gathered in a circle giving a piping display. There were also lots of Avocet on here – numbers are continuing to increase as birds return after the winter. A colour-ringed Black-tailed Godwit stood pointing into the rain.

img_1018Black-tailed Godwit – a colour-ringed bird in the rain

Thankfully the rain blew through quickly. Once it stopped, we made our way round to the other side of Parrinder Hide, overlooking the Volunteer Marsh. There were several Knot, Grey Plover and Curlew on the mud in front of the hide when we walked in, but almost immediately something flushed all the birds and the waders all flew off. The Redshanks had gone over to join the others on the Freshmarsh – we could see them all busy bathing and preening from the window at the back of the hide.

As it was starting to brighten up again, we decided to make a bid for the beach. From round on the main path, we stopped to watch a couple of Knot and a couple of Dunlin which dropped back in together on the mud, a nice chance to compare the two species.

6o0a8332Shoveler – several were out on the Tidal Pools

The Pintail were all out on the Tidal Pools today, along with more Shoveler and Mallard. There were also a few waders on here, in particular several Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwits. This provided a good opportunity to compare the two species – the Bar-tailed Godwit being obviously smaller, shorter-legged and with paler, buffier upperparts streaked with dark.

The tide was coming in again out at the beach. Large groups of Oystercatcher and Bar-tailed Godwit were gathered along the shoreline. There was quite a lot of seaweed scattered across the sand today and we could see several silvery Sanderling feeding in amongst it.

There was a flock of Scoter further offshore and through the scope we could see they were mostly Velvet Scoter with a smaller number of Common Scoter in with them. Even better, a single Velvet Scoter was much closer in and we could see the distinctive twin smaller white spots on its face. A couple of Common Scoter were closer in too, and when it turned head on, we could see the yellow stripe down the top of the bill on the drake. Otherwise, the sea here was much quieter than it had been at Holme this morning – just a few Red-breasted Merganser and Goldeneye. Still, Velvet Scoter was a nice bird to round out the set of our seaduck for the day.

As we made our way back along the main path, we stopped for another look at the Jack Snipe. There were now two Common Snipe on the same side of the pool as the Jack Snipe, we could see their pale central crown stripes. The Common Snipe were out in the middle of the patch of cut reed, but typically the Jack Snipe was more secretive, still keeping nearer to cover at the edge of the tall reeds. However, it had worked its way out to the edge of a little puddle where we could see it better, its shorter bill and dark central crown.

img_1043Jack Snipe – feeding on the edge of the reedbed pool

On the way back, we cut round via Meadow Trail and out to Patsy’s Reedbed. The water level is being kept high on here this year – attractive for the Tufted Ducks, Common Pochard and Coot which were all diving on here. Several Marsh Harriers were starting to gather over the reedbed, ahead of going to roost. A Cetti’s Warbler sand from the bushes.

The afternoon was getting on and it was starting to get dark, but when we turned to look behind us we could see another bank of dark clouds approaching from the west, so we decided to make our way back. We had heard Bullfinches calling on the way out and seen a couple of shapes disappearing off into the bushes. On the way back, they were more helpfully feeding in the top of a small tree, picking at the buds. The three females were perched in full view, while the pink male lurked a little further back. A couple of Jays called noisily from the sallows and we flushed a Muntjac from beside the boardwalk, which scuttled off into the undergrowth.

We got back to the car just in time, as a wintry shower blew through. We had been remarkably lucky with the weather today and we didn’t mind a bit of rain now we were on our way home.