Tag Archives: Great White Egret

24th Mar 2019 – Brecks & Coast, Day 2

Day 2 of a weekend of Brecks & Coast Tours. We would spend the day up on the North Norfolk coast today, looking for lingering winter visitors and early spring migrants. It was another lovely sunny day, but cooler than yesterday in an increasingly gusty westerly breeze.

Our destination for the morning was Holkham. As we drove up along Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see a few ducks around the pools beside the road, mainly Shoveler and a few Wigeon. Three Little Egrets flew across as we parked and we could see a Grey Heron at the back of the grazing marsh as we got out.

There was a keen wind blowing across, so after donning an extra layer, we scanned the grass. There were lots of Curlew in the next field over and a Lapwing started singing nearby. A couple of distant Marsh Harriers and a Common Buzzard circled low over the marshes.

A small bird out in the short grass caught our eye. It was a Wheatear, a smart male with grey back and black bandit mask. A migrant stopped off here to feed on its way north. As we walked up towards the pines, we could see lots more small birds in the grass the other side. These were Meadow Pipits, there were at least 30 of them, again probably migrants which had broken their journey here. There were two Pied Wagtails too, but hard to tell whether these were migrants or local birds here.

It was a big high tide this morning and when there is standing water on the saltmarsh the Shorelarks can be elusive. So we planned to walk west first down to the hides. We hadn’t gone very far when we heard a Chiffchaff singing from the top of a hawthorn bush next to the path. It flew up into the first of the poplars and we stopped to look at it, the earliest of our returning breeding warblers.

Chiffchaff

Chiffchaff – singing from one of the poplars

Just at that moment, we received a message to say that five of the Shorelarks were out on the beach, so we turned round and headed straight out there to try to see them. As we walked east along the edge of the saltmarsh, there were not many birds, possibly due to the high tide or the number of people out walking their dogs. A small flock of 16 Pink-footed Geese flew west overhead, possibly birds heading off on their way back to Iceland for the breeding season.

As we got to the cordon, we had still not managed to find the Shorelarks. There were four Ringed Plovers out on the short vegetation the other side of the rope and a couple of Meadow Pipits. A Tawny Owl hooted from the pines, despite it being the middle of the morning. After scanning all around with no joy, we decided to make our way out to the beach. But there was still a lot of water on the sand over towards the dunes and it was too wet for anyone without wellies to cross, so we turned to head back.

As we walked back alongside the cordon fence, we looked out across the saltmarsh again and noticed two birds out the in the low vegetation over towards the pines. Shorelarks! We hurried round and it was good that we did. We all managed to get a good look at them in the scope, noting their yellow faces and black masks. Then two dog walkers set off right out across the middle of the saltmarsh, taking a short cut to the beach, and flushed them. The Shorelarks flew out over the dunes and appeared to drop down to the beach beyond.

Shorelark

Shorelark – we had good views in the scope before they were flushed

We were still standing on the path when we noticed four more people walking right through the middle of the saltmarsh. Presumably they had flushed another three Shorelarks, because we saw them flying round with a couple of Skylarks. They landed on the saltmarsh in front of us, but a bit further back than the earlier two. At least now, we could get some more prolonged views of them in the scope.

While we were watching the Shorelarks, a Red Kite drifted west along the pines behind us, then out across the saltmarsh to the dunes. As we started to walk back, we looked across to the dunes and saw another raptor out there. It wasn’t the Red Kite this time – it was a Hen Harrier. It was a ringtail and we could see the white square at the base of its tail as it quartered back and forth over the dunes, presumably trying to flush pipits from the grass.

Hen Harrier

Hen Harrier – a ringtail, quartering the dunes

After flying up and down through the dunes for a couple of minutes, the Hen Harrier continued on its way west. It cut across the saltmarsh at the Gap, before flying up and over the pines. We made our way back that way too. When we got back to Lady Anne’s Drive and had a quick stop to use the facilities at The Lookout café, we could see that the Meadow Pipits which had been out on the grass earlier had moved on.

As we resumed our earlier aborted walk west on the inland side of the pines, we stopped to admire a flock of tits in the trees. There were lots more Chiffchaffs singing in the trees further along the path – they had arrived in force now. With the air warming up, the Common Buzzards were circling up now calling.

Common Buzzard

Common Buzzard – circling up as the air warmed

We stopped for a quick look at Salts Hole. Three Tufted Ducks were busy diving over towards the back and a Little Grebe was doing the same in front of the reeds on the side. Scanning the grass out beyond, we spotted two Mistle Thrushes collecting nest material. Four Red Deer were out on the marshes just the other side of Meals House.

Other than the Chiffchaffs, there were not many other migrants or other signs of fresh arrivals until we got almost to the crosstracks. We could hear the cracking of the opening cones in the sunshine and we looked up into the pines to see several Bramblings feeding on the released seeds. There were a few Siskins in the trees too. They had presumably stopped off here for a last feed up before heading out over the North Sea. One or two of the Bramblings were singing their wheezing song too.

As we walked up towards Joe Jordan Hide we could already see a Great White Egret on the marshy edge of one of the pools in front. We had a better view from up in the hide.

Great White Egret

Great White Egret – on the marsh in front of Joe Jordan Hide

A Spoonbill dropped down to bathe in the water. Through the scope, we could see its yellow-tipped black spoon-shaped bill and its bushy nuchal crest, indicating it was a breeding adult. There are quite a few Spoonbills back now and we had expected a bit more activity from them today, but this was the only one we saw while we were sitting in the hide. After a good wash and brush up, it flew back up into the trees.

There were lots of Cormorants up in the trees too. Several Avocets were feeding up to their bellies in the deep pools. Occasionally a Marsh Harrier would drift across. There were lots of Greylag Geese out on the marshes and looking through them carefully, we could see two smaller geese in with them. They were Pink-footed Geese – when they looked up from feeding we could see their dark heads and smaller, mostly dark bills.

By the time we got back to Lady Anne’s Drive, we were feeling hungry so we stopped for an early lunch at The Lookout café. Afterwards, we headed along the coast to Titchwell for the afternoon.

A quick look at the feeders in front of the Visitor Centre at Titchwell revealed only  Chaffinches and a few tits. But round the other side a Brambling was feeding on the seeds with the Chaffinches and Goldfinches and a Greenfinch dropped in too. Out onto the main path, and a quick scan produced a Water Rail feeding down in the ditch.

Water Rail

Water Rail – still in the ditch by the main path

We had heard Mediterranean Gulls flying over the Visitor Centre, but once we got out of the trees we could see them flying in and out of the freshmarsh, heading inland to feed in the fields. Against the light, we could see their translucent white-tipped wings, very different from the Black-headed Gulls which were also flying in and out with them.

The Water Pipits have been mostly on the old pool on Thornham grazing marsh in the last week or so, but when we stopped to look for them we couldn’t see one at first. We tried a different angle from a bit further up and one of the group spotted something appear from behind the reeds down at the front. It was the Water Pipit.

Water Pipit

Water Pipit – out on the Thornham GM pool

With the vegetation growing up on the old pool here now, it was hard to see at times, but we all eventually had a good look at the Water Pipit through the scope. It is starting to moult into summer plumage now and was looking distinctly pink-tinged on the breast, with much reduced streaking.

While we were watching the Water Pipit, a large flock of Golden Plover flew over. They had probably been disturbed from the fields where they were feeding by something and were zooming round at speed, twisting and turning, their underparts flashing white in the sun as they banked. At one point, they came low over our heads and all we could hear was the whooshing of lots of beating wings. A little further on, several Common Pochard were diving in one of the reedbed channels.

In the Visitor Centre earlier, we had been told that some Bearded Tits had been showing well by the path today. With the breeze having picked up considerably, we didn’t fancy our chances but as we walked along the path we heard a couple of Bearded Tits calling to each other. Then we just glimpsed one as it flew across the small pool below the path and disappeared into the reeds at the back.

We stood to watch and a female Bearded Tit appeared low down in the reeds. It was hard to see in the vegetation at first, but then climbed up and perched in full view. When it turned side on, we could see its long tail. Then it flew towards us over the water and disappeared down behind the reeds in front.

That was great – it is always nice to actually see a perched Bearded Tit rather than just a long tail disappearing over the reeds – but the male is the big prize, with its powder blue-grey head and long black moustaches. Another Bearded Tit appeared working its way through the reeds at the back of the pool, low down just above the water, another female, and while we were looking at it we realised it was being followed by a male.

Bearded Tit

Bearded Tit – we enjoyed great views of a pair low down in the reeds

Some of the reeds around the pools here have just been cut, so the Bearded Tits were coming right out into the open. They were climbing up through the piles of cut reed and then dropping down to the water, climbing about in the cut reed stems and picking at the water surface. We had some fantastic views of them today! Eventually, the pair of Bearded Tits flew across and disappeared into the reeds below the bank too, so we decided to move on.

The water level on the Freshmarsh has dropped a little but is still fairly high, which means there are still not many exposed islands. Great for ducks! Several Teal were feeding in the shallower water just below the bank, including some smart drakes which we stopped to admire. A little further back, there were pairs of Shoveler scattered liberally about, mostly swimming in circles with their heads under the water and their long shovel bills hidden from view. There were a few Gadwall too and chattering flocks of Brent Geese were commuting back and forth from the saltmarsh the other side of the bank.

Avocet

Avocet – flying out to Thornham saltmarsh to feed

There are lots of Avocets back here now and several of those were flying in and out from the Thornham saltmarsh to feed too. Others were feeding up to their bellies in the deep water on the Freshmarsh. A small flock of Knot had flown in to rest in the shallower water by the small island by the junction to Parrinder Hide. We had a look at them through the scope, before they were off again, over the bank to Volunteer Marsh to feed.

A little further back, a flock of Black-tailed Godwits was also roosting. With their longer legs, they could rest in the slightly deeper water. Some of them are now starting to moult into breeding plumage and their were several smart rusty birds amongst the mostly grey-brown winter individuals in the group. Further back still, there were five Ruff around the pile of bricks which normally sits on one of the other islands, but which is still under water. Through the scope, we could see their scaly-patterned backs.

Continuing on to Parrinder Hide, we got the scope on a pair of Mediterranean Gulls in with all the Black-headed Gulls loafing around in front of the hide. It was great to see them on the ground together, so we could get a better look at the Mediterranean Gulls’ jet black heads with bright white eye rings, heavier and brighter red bills and bright white wing tips. There were lots more Mediterranean Gulls in with all the Black-headed Gulls on the fenced off ‘Avocet Island’ further back, which the gulls have now annexed as a breeding colony.

Mediterranean Gulls

Mediterranean Gulls – a pair of adults loafing on the Freshmarsh

Back on the main path, we stopped to scan the Volunteer Marsh. The tide was out now, but having been covered by water earlier it was obviously attractive to the Knot which were now feeding in and out of the patches of vegetation. A Curlew at the front managed to extract a long worm out of the mud and took it over to wash it in a rather muddy puddle! There were a couple of Redshanks down in the channel too.

Curlew

Curlew – probing for worms in the mud on Volunteer Marsh

The no longer tidal ‘Tidal Pools’ were very full of water now and rather devoid of any birds, so we continued straight on out to the beach. With it being a big tide, the water was a long way out now, so we walked down to the concrete blocks to scan the sea.

There were a couple of other people there who had just spotted a diver offshore. We managed to get it in the scope and confirmed it was actually a Black-throated Diver, the rarest of the three regular species off here. Otherwise, all we could find out on the sea were a few Great Crested Grebes but as well as being low tide it was very choppy now in the wind. Two brown female Eider flew past offshore.

It seemed like we might be better off looking for waders here and we really wanted to see Bar-tailed Godwit. With the water a long way out, there were just Oystercatchers feeding on the mussel beds, which were well above the tideline now. All the other waders were feeding out on the sand to the west, closer to the sea, so we walked down for a better loon.

We quickly found a couple of Turnstones and one or two Sanderling running along the shoreline. Then scanning along the water’s edge, we located our first Bar-tailed Godwit. It was still in non-breeding plumage, but through the scope we could see its distinctive dark-streaked upperparts, slightly upturned bill and comparatively short legs. Further over, there were more godwits, plus Grey Plovers and a little group of Dunlin feeding on the shore with some more Knot for comparison.

It was rather exposed and windy out on the beach, so we decided to walk back. We swung round via Meadow Trail to Patsy’s Reedbed on our way. There was no sign of any snipe down at the front today, which we were hoping to see, but there were one or two Marsh Harriers hanging in the breeze over the reeds.

Unfortunately it was time to call it a day now too. By the time we got back to the van, everyone was suitably tired out after a great couple of days birding. Time to head for home.

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3rd Mar 2019 – Brecks & Winter Birds, Day 3

Day 3 of a three day tour today, our last day. After two days down in the Brecks, we would spend the day up on the North Norfolk coast today, looking for some of our lingering winter visitors as well as one or two early spring arrivals. It was damp and drizzly for much of the day, but it didn’t stop us getting out and seeing lots of birds.

Our destination for the morning was Holkham. There were still quite a few Wigeon by Lady Anne’s Drive, but it looks like numbers are already starting to drop now as birds which have spent the winter here start heading back to Russia. The regular very pale Common Buzzard was perched on a bush out in the middle of the grazing marshes and six Marsh Harriers were hanging in the air over the reeds the other side.

We made our way straight through the pines and out onto the saltmarsh. A large flock of pipits circled over as we descended the boardwalk and we could hear both Meadow Pipits and Rock Pipits calling. Several of the Rock Pipits landed on the edge of the saltmarsh right by the path, where we could get a closer look at them. The Rock Pipits come here from Scandinavia for the winter. We could see some of them were moulting and getting slightly pink on the breast – they can begin to look increasingly like Water Pipits at this time of year, a pitfall for the unwary.

Rock Pipit

Scandinavian Rock Pipit – one of several out on the saltmarsh

As we walked on further east, we scanned the saltmarsh for any movement. We were almost at the cordon before we found the Shorelarks, well hidden in the taller vegetation. At first we could only see one or two when they moved, but as we got closer we could see there were at least 5-6. As we stood and watched them, more and more appeared, so that by the end we had counted a minimum of 12, but it was still hard to know exactly how many were really there.

Shorelarks

Shorelarks – still on the saltmarsh at Holkham

The Shorelarks are always one of the highlights of winter birding here on the coast, so we spent a bit of time watching them. They gradually worked their way closer to the path and we had a great look at them through the scope. Despite the grey weather, their yellow faces still really stood out when they lifted their heads. There were a few Linnets and Meadow Pipits feeding on the saltmarsh with them.

The latest forecast had been for it to be dry all morning, but at this point it started spitting with rain. It was only light, so we carried on out to the beach anyway. As we started scanning the sea, there didn’t look to be much out there today at first. There were a few Great Crested Grebes, and a lone female Common Scoter. Then one of group spotted diver quite close inshore – a Great Northern Diver. It was diving regularly and moving west steadily each time it resurfaced, but eventually we all got some good views of it between dives.

There were not many waders down on the beach today. Several Oystercatchers were standing along the shore, and two Sanderling were running in and out of the waves, at least until they were all flushed by someone walking a pack of dogs along the beach.

Making our way back to Lady Anne’s Drive, we decided to brave the drizzle and walked west along the path on the inland side of the pines. We hadn’t gone far before we heard a Chiffchaff calling in the trees. Along here, it is hard to tell whether this is a bird which has spent the winter here, or an early returning breeding bird. With the unseasonally warm weather at the end of February, Chiffchaffs have already returned very early in several places.

As we passed Salts Hole, we stopped for a quick look. A little group of Tufted Ducks was over on the edge of the reeds and one Little Grebe was still in the far corner. We could see a few geese out on the grazing meadows beyond and through the scope we could see there were several Pink-footed Geese with a pair of Greylags. Most of the Pink-footed Geese which spent the winter here have already left, on their way back north before they head back to Iceland for the breeding season, but a small number often linger here much later. There was a pair of Egyptian Geese out here too, and a Grey Heron.

A little further on, we stopped for another look out over the grazing marshes. We could see several Shelduck on the small pools out in the middle, and there were two drake Pintail in with them too, although for much of the time we could only see their elongated tail feathers sticking up as they upended. A Cetti’s Warbler sang from the reeds over in front of Washington Hide.

With the drizzle picking up a bit, we made our way quickly on to Joe Jordan Hide, to get out of the rain. It was quite busy in the hide (clearly lots of other people had the same idea to shelter in here!), but eventually we managed to sit down. A Great White Egret was feeding out on the grazing marshes off to the right of the hide.

Great White Egret

Great White Egret – out on the grazing marshes from Joe Jordan Hide

The first Spoonbills have already started to return to the breeding colony and we quickly located two out on the marshes, but they were way off in the distance and hard to see in the mist, heads down feeding in a ditch. Thankfully a bit later on one appeared much closer, and we had a better view of it in the scope. We could see its spoon-shaped bill when it lifted its head.

Spoonbill

Spoonbill – one of the first returning birds

A Marsh Harrier was perched in a bush out along one of the ditch lines and there were lots of Cormorants in the trees behind the old fort. Down on the pools we could see four Avocets feeding in the shallows and several Shoveler and Teal scattered around.

The pines had been fairly quiet on the way out but as we started to walk back we came across a mixed flock of tits. We had passed some swarms of gnats gathered over the path in the damp conditions earlier and now we watched as a couple of Long-tailed Tits flew out from a large bush on the verge and hovered right out over the middle of the path, trying to catch some of the gnats. They hovered for second or two before flying back into the bush but then came out to try again. Really interesting to watch, and not behaviour you see often. A Goldcrest was flitting around in the bush too.

We stopped for lunch in The Lookout café, out of the rain. After lunch, as we made our way back to the van, we could see lots of gulls swarming over the grazing marsh, and landing down on the grass. We heard the distinctive call of a Mediterranean Gull and looking through the flock could see at least four in with the Black-headed Gulls.

Our next stop was at Holme. We were hoping to see some birds on the sea here so we walked straight out to the beach, where we were sheltered from the wind by the pines. There were lots of Red-breasted Mergansers on the water and scanning through we could see a dark duck in with them. It was a Velvet Scoter. You could just make out a pale spot on its cheek, but it was not until it flew round that you could see the diagnostic white in its wings. A small group of dark-winged Common Scoter flew past just afterwards.

Otherwise, the sea here was fairly quiet, with just a few Great Crested Grebes and a single Guillemot offshore. A couple of small groups of Brent Geese flew past and more unusually we picked up a flock of six Pink-footed Geese coming in off the sea. They should really be going the other way now!

Walking through the dunes to Gore Point, it was windier out of the lee of the Firs, although at least the rain had eased off now. The tide was coming in and there were a few waders roosting on the beach, at first several small groups of Oystercatchers. Further along, out on the point, we got the scopes on a flock of Bar-tailed Godwits. There were several smaller grey Knot in with them, as well as a couple of Grey Plover and a single Dunlin. A lone Turnstone was feeding on the shoreline a bit further along.

Oystercatchers

Oystercatchers – there were a few waders roosting on the beach at Holme

The sea was noticeably more choppy on the far side of the point. Scanning the sea from the shelter of the dunes, we could see a distant group of Eiders out on the water. A closer Red-throated Diver was diving constantly but a single Great Northern Diver was a long way out too. A Gannet and a Fulmar flew past.

We had wanted to see the Long-tailed Ducks off here, but they proved rather hard to find and harder still to see. We eventually found a few in with a larger group of Red-breasted Mergansers, but they were quite distant and diving constantly. Out in the choppier water, when they did surface they looked not unlike the froth on the wave crests and they kept disappearing into the troughs.

It was already getting late now, but we drove back along the coast to Titchwell to finish the day. We wanted to at least walk out to Parrinder Hide to get a proper look at the Mediterranean Gulls, but it took some time to find a Water Rail first. We eventually found one when it walked back into the bottom of the ditch from the vegetation in the bank beyond. We got a good look at it then, as it walked along through the water.

Water Rail

Water Rail – eventually showed itself in the ditch

The rain may have eased but the wind had now picked up, and it was rather gusty this evening. The Marsh Harriers seemed to be enjoying it, with several up over the back of the reedbed as we walked out.

Three waders were on the pool out on Lavender Marsh. Two were the usual Common Redshanks, but as we glanced across the one asleep at the back looked rather pale. A quick look through the scope, confirmed it was slightly more silvery grey above, spotted with white, a touch lighter than the Common Redshank next to it. We could also just see tiny bit of pale supercilium, just visible where the bill was tucked into its back. It was a Spotted Redshank. They normally like to roost on the Tidal Pools, but it was perhaps a bit more sheltered on here this evening.

Spotted Redshank

Spotted Redshank – asleep on Lavender March with a Common Redshank

After we had all had a look at it through the scope, the Spotted Redshank woke up briefly and flashed its distinctive longer, needle-fine bill, just in case any of the group had any lingering doubts over its identity. A Grey Plover appeared from behind the vegetation at front.

The water level on the Freshmarsh is still fairly high – good for ducks, but not so good for waders. The Avocets which were on here were roosting on one of the only exposed small islands, by the corner of the path to Parrinder Hide.

Avocets

Avocets – roosting on one of the few exposed islands

As we headed straight down the path for the shelter of Parrinder Hide, we heard a Water Pipit call from the other side of the bank. When we got into the hide, we looked back along the edge of the water but there was no sign of it that way. A quick look out the other side of the hide and we found it feeding on the shore. We had a good look at it through the scope.

Having seen the closely related Rock Pipits this morning, it was interesting to contrast them with the Water Pipit this evening. The Water Pipit was noticeably whiter below, cleaner with more defined black streaks, with whiter wing bars and a whiter supercilium. It was also greyer above, not so oily olive-brown.

Water Pipit

Water Pipit – feeding along the water’s edge beyond the hide

The fenced off Avocet Island was chock full of gulls (perhaps it should be renamed ‘Gull Island’!). We had come to see Mediterranean Gulls and there were lots here, in with Black-headed Gulls. Several appeared to be paired up already and were even still displaying. It was a good opportunity to compare the two species – the Mediterranean Gulls with a blacker, more extensive hood, heavier red bill and pure white wing tips.

Mediterranean Gull

Mediterranean Gull – there are lots back now in with the Black-headed Gulls

There were more gulls coming in to roost, bobbing around on the open water in the middle. As well as all the smaller gulls, we could see several Herring Gulls, Lesser Black-backed Gulls and a few Great Black-backed Gulls. We had a look at a few adults of each of the three species and talked about the main differences between them. (we decided to leave the more confusing immatures to a later lesson!).

The Marsh Harriers were gathering over the reedbed beyond to roost. More were flying in all the time – one came in over the Volunteer Marsh and straight over Avocet Island, sending all the gulls up into the air. The Marsh Harriers seemed to be playing in the wind this evening and we counted a minimum of twenty all in the air at the same time.

With all the excitement over the gulls, we had not noticed the time and it was already getting late. Unfortunately it was time to call it a day, and wrap up what had been three very successful day’s birding, despite the weather.

18th Jan 2019 – Winter on the Coast

A Private Tour today in North Norfolk, a more relaxed day of birding and walking. After a sharp frost overnight, it was cold and cloudy all day, even if the sun did try to show itself through the clouds at times. But it was dry and the wind was light, which meant it was a nice day to be out.

Our fist destination for the morning was Cley. As we parked at the south end of the East Bank, a Marsh Harrier was quartering over the reeds in front of us. From up on the bank, we could see that the grazing marsh was largely frozen, apart from the middle of the Serpentine. There were lots of Wigeon feeding out in the grass, despite the fact it was very frosty still, and quite a few Teal dozing in the vegetation around the edge sof the Serpentine. A skein of Pink-footed Geese, the first of many seen today, flew over calling.

wigeon

Wigeon – feeding out on the frozen grazing marsh

A Marsh Harrier flew in over the grazing marshes, a female, mostly chocolate brown but with a pale creamy head, pale leading edge to the wing and a pale crescent on her breast. It spooked all the Wigeon and they flew up, whistling, and landed down on the open water on the Serpentine.

We flushed a small flock of Linnets and a single Meadow Pipit from the bank just before the main drain, from where they were feeding in the grass below the edge of the reeds. Looking out along the drain, we could see a Little Grebe towards the back. Another surfaced, and then another, until there were 5 Little Grebes all out on the water. Some movement down at the front then caught our eye, and we looked down to see a Water Rail swimming across the channel. It disappeared straight into the long grass on the far bank.

Continuing straight out to the beach, there was no sign at first of the juvenile Glaucous Gull which had been here for several days now. It has been feeding on several dead seals which have washed up on the beach, but we couldn’t see it next to any of them now. Then someone walking back up the beach told us it was currently down on the shoreline, so we walked over the shingle to where we could see the water’s edge.

Sure enough, the Glaucous Gull was down on the edge of the beach. We watched it in the scope, walking in front of where the waves were breaking and seemingly picking things up from the stones. It had been rather stormy here yesterday, and there was probably a lot of things to eat washed up as a consequence. Through the scope, we could see its distinctive pale wingtips and its huge bill, pale pink with a ‘dipped-in-ink’ black tip.

glaucous gull

Glaucous Gull – the juvenile was on the beach again today (photo taken yesterday)

The Glaucous Gull spotted a raucous gathering of more gulls further up the beach, hovering over the breakers. It took off, giving us a good look at its pale primaries, and flew over to join them. It obviously didn’t find anything there to its liking, as it then continued further on and landed out on the sea.

There has been a flock of Snow Buntings along the beach here in recent days, so we walked up towards the beach car park at Cley to look for them. Three Pintail were fast asleep on one of the islands on North Scrape, as we passed. They didn’t even wake up when a large flock of noisy Brent Geese flew in and landed all around them. But when we got to the weedy vegetation on the top of the beach where the Snow Buntings have often been feeding, there was no sign of them. There was a large flock of Goldfinches here, and periodically several Skylarks would fly up out of the longer grass.

We stopped to watch the Glaucous Gull again for a few minutes. It flew in off the sea, hovered over the shoreline and dropped down to pick something up off beach, then flew back out to the water. It had obviously had enough of eating dead seal for the last few days, and was enjoying a bot of variety in its diet this morning. Two Guillemots flew west close inshore, but we couldn’t see much else out on the water today.

We decided to walk back to the East Bank. A Little Egret was feeding on the brackish pools by the path as we passed. We watched it trying to disturb fish by jiggling its foot in the mud ahead of it, looking to see if anything came out.

little egret

Little Egret – fishing on the brackish pools

From the shelter on the East Bank, we could see a selection of waders out on Arnold’s Marsh. A small group of Black-tailed Godwits were standing in the shallow water over on one side. There were several Curlews and Redshank scattered around and a single Turnstone on the stony island at the back. We could also see some Gadwall right over in the back corner, but they were too far away to appreciate from here.

Someone very kindly came in to tell us that the Snow Buntings had reappeared, just at the top of the East Bank. We walked back up to the beach, but there was no sign of them there again. Apparently they had flown off east. At that point a Marsh Harrier came over from the direction of Sea Pool towards the back corner of Arnold’s and we saw the Snow Buntings fly up from the shingle. We walked down that way for a closer look.

There was a large flock of Snow Buntings here, at least 50 birds today. They were very skittish, and kept flying round, in a flurry of white wings. After coming up and landing again a couple of times on the shingle beyond the fence, they flew straight towards us, and landed much closer on the bottom of the old shingle ridge. We had a great view of them here, but they didn’t stop long. Suddenly they were off again, over the ridge towards the beach, then back and off east over Sea Pool.

snow buntings

Snow Buntings – flew in and landed in front of us, before disappearing off east

We were much closer to the Gadwall now, so we trained the scope on a sleeping drake. From here we could really appreciate the intricacy of its plumage, not just plain old grey but a variety of different patterns, barred and scalloped. The connoisseurs’ duck!

Avocet was a target for the day, so we headed back to the Visitor Centre and walked out to Bishop Hide. The scrape was still partly frozen, and there didn’t seem to be much to see out here today. But we did find five Avocets asleep in the water in front of one of the small islands, so our mission was accomplished. A few Lapwings and Black-tailed Godwits were on the mud behind.

avocets

Avocet – still 5 on Pat’s Pool today

Holkham was our destination for the afternoon. As we drove up along Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see lots of Wigeon out on the grazing marsh to the west. A big flock of Brent Geese was feeding on the grass the other side, but they were rather more distant today.

It was time for lunch, so we called in at ‘The Lookout’ café for a welcome hot drink. Looking through the wooden slats, we could just see lots of Pink-footed Geese covering the grazing marshes beyond, although it was a better view of them from outside, without having to look through the slats.

pink-footed geese

Pink-footed Geese – there were lots on the grazing marsh from ‘The Lookout’ café

After lunch, we popped quickly back to the car to get the scope and drop off our bags. On our way, we noticed several Grey Partridges out on the grazing marsh, quite close to the edge, so we stopped for a closer look. We could see their orange faces, very different from the black-and-white pattern on a Red-legged Partridge.

grey partridge

Grey Partridge – a small covey was on the grazing marsh by Lady Anne’s Drive

We made our way out towards the beach next, through the pines and then east on the path on the edge of the saltmarsh. A flock of Linnets flew up in front of the dunes, and bounced around as if they were attached to something by elastic.

We could see some people further over, by the cordon, looking through their scopes. We hadn’t got to them when the Shorelarks took off, flew past us low over the saltmarsh and disappeared off west. We watched them almost to the Gap, when thankfully they turned and flew back, landing back over just before the path to the beach before the cordon.

When we got over to the beach path, we quickly found the Shorelarks out on the saltmarsh. They were tricky to see though, hidden down in the taller vegetation here. Eventually we got a good look at them as they came out into some slightly shorter grass.

When we heard Long-tailed Tits calling from over towards the pines, we looked over to see birds moving about in the buckthorn in the low dunes in front of the trees. We could see the tits moving through further back, but then we noticed a female Stonechat perched on one of the bushes. Looking through the scope, one of the group saw a small bird moving in the buckthorn below it. It was grey and brown, a Dunnock perhaps? Then they said it had a long tail – it couldn’t be, could it? Then suddenly a Dartford Warbler hopped out right beside the Stonechat.

This is not an area where you would routinely expect to find a Dartford Warbler. However, the young ones disperse from the heaths on which they breed and can then very rarely be found along the coast. They often follow Stonechats around on heaths, so that was what this Dartford Warbler was now doing here instead. A great bird to find here.

We watched the Dartford Warbler for a while. It kept disappearing down into the buckthorn and we lost sight of it, but if we followed the Stonechat then the Dartford Warbler would eventually appear in the bush underneath it again. Eventually everyone got a good look at it and by the end a few other people had joined us to watch it too.

In the meantime, while we had been looking the other way, the Shorelarks had worked their way through the saltmarsh straight towards us. We turned round to see they were now very close, just behind us. We didn’t know which way to look – Dartford Warbler or Shorelarks, a very rare choice to have to make! The Shorelarks don’t often come quite so close here – they were possibly affronted that we were paying them so little attention! So we had to tear ourselves away from watching the Dartford Warbler and make sure we admired the Shorelarks too.

shorelark

Shorelark – walked right up behind us while we were looking the other way!

Eventually we lost sight of the Dartford Warbler and the Shorelarks went back further out on the saltmarsh again. We decided to continue on out to the beach. As we got through the dunes, we could see a large flock of ducks just offshore. They were not seaducks though, but Wigeon, presumably disturbed from the grazing marshes and seeking sanctuary out here temporarily. The sea looked fairly calm, but there was a surprisingly big swell here, and they kept disappearing from view.

We had been told that a Red-necked Grebe had been offshore earlier, and it suddenly appeared just behind the flock of Wigeon. Otherwise, there was not much offshore here today – a few Cormorants flying back and forth, a couple of small groups of Common Scoter past and a Red-throated Diver which flew off west. The tide was in, but there were still a few Oystercatchers on the beach.

It had been a very successful walk out to the Bay, so we made our way back to the car. Time was getting on now, but we had a quick look out at the grazing marshes at the other side of Holkham. The first thing we noticed as a large white shape over in the far corner. It was a Great White Egret and through the scope we could see its long, yellow, dagger-like bill.

great white egret

Great White Egret – one of two on the grazing marsh this afternoon

There were some Greylag Geese over by the Great White Egret. Big and rather pale grey, we could see their large, orange carrot-like bills. As we scanned across the grazing marsh, we then spotted lots of White-fronted Geese too. Much smaller and darker than the Greylags, we could see the white surround to the base of their bills, from which they get their name, and the distinctive black belly bars on the adults.

white-fronted geese

Russian White-fronted Geese – we counted around 90 here today

Further round still, we spotted yet another Great White Egret, half hidden through the trees in front of us.

It was getting late now, and the light was already starting to go. By the time we got to Stiffkey, we thought we might have missed the Hen Harriers coming in to roost. But when we arrived we were told there had not been much activity so far tonight – it seemed like they were late coming in, possibly making the best of a good evening for some late hunting, particularly after the sleet and snow showers yesterday afternoon.

We stood and scanned for a while. Lots of Little Egrets flew past, heading off to roost, and we could hear the plaintive calls of Curlews out on the saltmarsh.  A very distant Hen Harrier, a ringtail, did fly in away to the west but it was impossible to see in the gathering gloom, low against the dark vegetation.

Looking west as the light faded, a huge flock of several thousand Pink-footed Geese came in from the fields, and headed out across the saltmarsh, dropping down to roost on the flats beyond. It was quite a sight, one of the real sights of a day birding on the North Norfolk coast in the winter, and a nice way to end the day.

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…

 

12th Jan 2019 – Midwinter Birding, Day 2

Day 2 of a three day Winter Tour today, and we spent the day in North Norfolk. It was a rather windy day today, mostly cloudy and grey, but dry and mild.

Our first destination for the morning was Holkham. As we drove up along Lady Anne’s Drive we could see some Pink-footed Geese in the field by the road, so we stopped for a closer look. We could see their pink legs, even if their feet were hidden in the grass, as well as the pink band around their bills, rather like the orange of the Tundra Bean Geese we had seen yesterday. Thousands more Pink-footed Geese came up off the marshes the other side of the Drive, in several waves with a cacophony of yelping calls, and headed off inland to feed.

pink-footed geese

Pink-footed Geese – we got a closer look at some at Holkham today

There were a couple of Egyptian Geese out on the grazing marshes too, and a large flock of Wigeon. We carried on to the north end where we parked and headed through the pines. A tit flock was working its way across the gap as we walked along the boardwalk and we stopped to watch. As well as the Long-tailed Tits and Blue Tits, a pair of Coal Tits were chasing each other round and round the trees and a Treecreeper climbed up a pine trunk in front of us.

When we got out onto the saltmarsh, we walked east on the path. Three people ahead of us stopped, pointing, and put up their scopes. We had a good idea what they had seen and, sure enough, when we got over to them, they were watching the Shorelarks. They are feeding in the taller vegetation at the moment, not in the cordon, and can be very hard to see. Eventually we saw some movement and managed to get the scope on them.

Every now and then, one of the Shorelarks would stop and put its head up, at which point we could see its distinctive yellow face with black mask. Then it would put its head down again and resume feeding, at which point it would disappear. They were moving all the time. Eventually, one or two came out more into the open and everyone got a good view through the scope.

shorelark

Shorelark – harder to see out in the taller vegetation on the saltmarsh today

Watching them creeping around in the vegetation, you could have been forgiven for thinking there were only around five or six Shorelarks there. But when something disturbed them and they all flew, we realised there were actually 26!

We could see another flock of small birds whirl round from time to time over at the far end of the cordon, so we carried on along to there. They were Snow Buntings, and when we arrived they were feeding on the sand along the edge of the water at the very back of the cordon. We had a look at them in the scope, after which they very helpfully flew round again and landed much closer to us, where we had much better views.

We counted twenty-two Snow Buntings today. Looking closely, we could see there was a variety of different coloured birds in the flock, some paler than others, with much more white in the wings as they flew up. Others were much darker, browner. The juveniles are darker and the adults paler, and the males are whiter than the females, but there are also two different races which mix here in the winter, with Snow Buntings from Scandinavia paler than those from Iceland. Lots of scope for variation!

snow buntings

Snow Buntings – feeding on the edge of the cordon on our way back

Continuing on out onto the beach, the tide was in and the sea was rather choppy. We couldn’t see a lot out on the water today. A single Common Scoter was rather distant, and a Red-breasted Merganser and a couple of Red-throated Divers flew past. We stopped for a bit and admired the beach, before making our way back. The Snow Buntings were feeding now on the near edge of the cordon and were unconcerned as we walked past a few feet away.

Back at Lady Anne’s Drive, we stopped at The Lookout café to use the facilities. Several flocks of Brent Geese flew in and landed out on the grazing marshes below, and we could see a group of Curlews in field behind. But the highlight was a little covey of Grey Partridges feeding down in the grass just below us. It was great to get such close views of this often rather elusive species.

grey partridge

Grey Partridges – very obliging, feeding on the edge of the grazing marsh

Looking out across the marshes on the other side of the Drive, we stopped to look at a very pale Common Buzzard perched up in the bushes (which is very often mistaken for a Rough-legged Buzzard!). A Great White Egret appeared on the edge of a reedy ditch – we could see its long, dagger-shaped yellow bill – and a Grey Heron was sheltering from the wind behind some brambles.

We had a quick look at the old pitch-and-putt course along the Beach Road at Wells, but there had been a lot of disturbance earlier from a helicopter over the town and there were very few geese here today. We did find more of the flock of Brent Geese in a winter wheat field just east of Wells, but they had typically found the one spot in the field where we couldn’t see most of them hidden behind a ridge.

Cold and windy is not good weather for owls, but we diverted inland to see if we could find a Little Owl on our way east. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was no sign of any today. We did find a nice field full of Lapwings, which also included several Golden Plover and four Brown Hares.

Back down on the coast at Cley, we had a drive up along Beach Road. There was another big flock of Brent Geese here, which were slightly more obliging out on the grass. There had been a Pale-bellied Brent reported in with the regular Dark-bellied Brents earlier but there was no sign of it now.

We continued on down to the beach car park, where a flock of Pintail and several groups of Wigeon flew over as we got out of the car. We could see a large flock of Common Scoter offshore, which were constantly flying up in small groups, leapfrogging to the front of the flock and landing again, before diving to feed. Every now and then, we got a flash of a white panel in the wing of some of the otherwise very dark, blackish ducks. These were Velvet Scoter and apparently there had been sixteen of them in total when the whole flock had taken off earlier, though we could only see five or six at a time.

Scanning the rest of the sea, we found several Red-throated Divers, a Great Crested Grebe and a Guillemot all out on the water. There were quite a few people looking at the sea from here, as there was a ‘Bird Race’ taking place at Cley today. Apparently there had been a Glaucous Gull on the sea earlier, which we had hoped to catch up with, but we were told it had flown off west some time before we arrived.

We stopped for lunch in the beach shelter, out of the wind, and afterwards we headed round to the Cley Visitor Centre. We didn’t want to go out onto the reserve today, but we had a quick look out at Pat’s Pool from the terrace. Most of the Avocets leave Norfolk for the winter, but seventeen are currently hanging on here and we could see them feeding out in the water. There were also several Black-tailed Godwits out here and the usual selection of ducks, including a pair of Gadwall, and lots of Black-headed and a few Great Black-backed Gulls.

avocets

Avocets – 17 are hanging on for the winter at Cley

On the board at the Visitor Centre, there had been a Glaucous Gull feeding on a dead seal pup at Salthouse earlier, as well as several sightings around Cley, although it was difficult to tell whether one or two birds were involved. We had a quick look at the beach at Salthouse just in case, but as we got to the top of the shingle we could see only a young Great Black-backed Gull feeding on the seal carcass and no sign of the Glaucous Gull. Perhaps it was the one we had missed past Cley earlier.

We continued east along the coast to Sheringham. Down on the prom, we quickly located one of the Purple Sandpipers, feeding on the rocky sea defences below. We had a great view of it as it fed on the algae growing on the rocks.

purple sandpiper

Purple Sandpiper – feeding on the sea defences at Sheringham

The Purple Sandpiper was on its own today, so we walked back to the ‘tank’, where several Turnstones were feeding on the rocks and more were bathing in a pool below the freshwater outflow on the beach. There were lots of gulls gathering offshore now, mostly Black-headed and Common Gulls. The tide hadn’t gone out far yet and there were just a couple of groups on the beach. There were a few more Herring Gulls here, but nothing different in with them.

The plan was to spend the last part of the day looking for owls, so we headed back to the car and made our way inland. When we arrived, there was no sign of the Barn Owl out hunting yet. We walked down along the footpath, but it was still all quiet around the owl box too. The Barn Owl was late tonight – possibly put off by the wind.

We walked on a little further and scanned the meadows in case one of the other owls was out here, but there was no sign of anything here either. Then when we turned round, the Barn Owl had appeared on the front of the box. It still looked very sleepy, and perched on the platform hunched up with its eyes closed. It was in no hurry to head out hunting tonight.

barn owl 1

Barn Owl – dozing on the platform on the front of the box

A Tawny Owl hooted from the wood at the top of the hill and we were just thinking we would have to leave and head off into the trees. Finally the Barn Owl took off, flying back to the sheltered corner of the meadow out of the wind, where it landed on a post. We walked back and watched it flying round hunting – great to watch. When it flew across the path and up the hill, it caught the wind, and we watched it getting buffeted as it turned and tried to come back down. It landed on a post again, then disappeared into the trees, presumably to try to find somewhere more sheltered.

barn owl 2

Barn Owl – finally started to hunt as the light faded

We walked into the trees. It was very windy here and the ivy-covered tree where the Tawny Owl likes to roost was swaying from side to side. As we stood and waited, waves of Pink-footed Geese flew over the trees calling, heading up to the coast to roost. We could see them silhouetted against the last of the light.

The Tawny Owl didn’t hoot before it emerged tonight, as it normally does. Instead, we heard a quiet bubbling call, then it dropped out of the thickest ivy, but landed out of view in the ivy again the same tree. We waited for a few minutes then silently it took off and flew away through the trees. We watched it as it headed off towards an area where it normally likes to perch and hoot for a while. We walked further, along the path, but there was no hooting at all from it this evening, and the trees were all quiet tonight. Perhaps it was just too windy now.

It was getting rather dark in the trees now so we decided to call it a night. As we walked along the path through the edge of the wood, the Barn Owl appeared ahead of us in the gloom, flying down the path. Presumably it was trying its luck in the shelter of the trees.

6th Jan 2019 – Looking for Owls

The first tour of the new year was an Owl Tour today in North Norfolk. It was a largely grey and gloomy day, even if the sun did threaten to show itself a couple of times, but it was reasonably mild (for the time of year) and with lighter winds than the last couple of days. Not too bad a day for owling!

With the recent clement weather, the local Barn Owls appear to be finding plenty of food at the moment and are not having to work too hard during daylight hours. Still, with an early start, we hoped to catch one out hunting first thing this morning. We made our way straight over to a regular site where one has been seen the last few mornings, but when we arrived there was no immediate sign of it. It wasn’t immediately clear whether it had gone in to roost early today, or was still out somewhere, so we decided to have a walk out along the bank and keep our eyes open.

There were lots of other things to look at here. A Brown Hare was surprising hard to see in the grass until it started running. We could see the black tips to its long ears. Several groups of Brent Geese flew back and forth in untidy flocks, presumably just emerging from their roost out on the saltmarsh. A small party landed down on the grass with a couple of the local Canada Geese where we could get a good look at them.

There were several Marsh Harriers patrolling over the reeds and one of last year’s juveniles landed first on a post and then on a bush so we could get it in the scope, it’s pale head contrasting with its rather uniform chocolate brown body. A couple of Little Egrets flew in, presumably also fresh from their roost site, and landed on the saltmarsh, where two Grey Herons had already taken up position.

little egret

Little Egrets – these two flew in, presumably straight from their roost

It gradually became clear that the Barn Owl was not going to put in an appearance – it had obviously decided to turn in earlier than it has been doing recently. We decided to move on and try our luck elsewhere. As we walked back to the car, a large flock of Meadow Pipits flew up from the grass and circled round over our heads calling.

It was not particularly auspicious weather for Little Owls, grey and chilly still. Any early hints that the sun might poke a hole through the clouds had faded. Still, we headed inland to have a look. As we pulled up on a concrete pad by the road to scan some barns, something flew up from the muddy puddles in the middle of it. It flashed blackish and white and flew round with flicking wingbeats. It was a Green Sandpiper, a very scarce winter visitor here. Unfortunately it landed again out of view, but it was a very nice bird to see.

At the next set of barns where there are sometimes Little Owls, another quick look failed to find any sign too, but at our third stop we had more luck. Looking across to some distant farm buildings, we couldn’t see one on the roof where they like to sit, but as we scanned across between the barns we could see a lump on top of a pile of wooden pallets. Through the scope, we could see it was a Little Owl.

A footpath runs round behind the barns, so we decided to walk up along it for a closer look. On our way, we stopped to look at a covey of partridges huddled up on the edge of a small copse and their distinctive kidney-shaped dark belly patches identified them as Grey Partridges, much the rarer of our two partridge species. A couple of Yellowhammers flew up out of a cover strip next to the path as we passed and flew off calling.

little owl

Little Owl – hiding in a stack of wooden pallets

From the footpath, we had a much better view of the Little Owl. It started off facing away from us, so we could see the false eyes on the back of its head, but then it turned to look in our direction and we could see its yellow irises. After a while, it dropped down from the top of the pallets to a spot in between the slats, where we could still see its head and shoulders. It seemed fairly happy with the unusual spot it had chosen to perch in today and appeared to be dozing, with eyes half closed. A large covey of Red-legged Partridges then appeared on the barn roof, where we would normally expect to see the Little Owl!

Back in the car, we meandered our way west. We were ultimately heading for the Wash, but we took an inland route. We did look briefly in passing at a several more Little Owl sites, but we had probably been lucky with the one we had found today. One of the sites where we have seen them in the past is now a building site, as the barns here are being developed into holiday cottages. Unfortunately this is an ever increasing problem, as fewer and fewer old farm buildings are left for wildlife.

We did see a few more different birds on the way, even if the fields were rather quiet today. A Bullfinch flashed out of the hedge ahead of us, flashing its square white rump. Three Red Kites circled lazily over the road. We flushed a Fieldfare out of a berry-laden hawthorn as we passed by.

red kite

Red Kite – one of three which circled over the road in front of us

As we made our way along the path out to the reserve at Snettisham. we stopped to watch a pair of Goldeneye on one of the pits. The female had her neck stretched out in front and held low to the water, possibly in display, although the male next to her seemed to show little interest. A couple of Little Grebes were busy diving a little further on.

Up on the seawall, it was now low tide and a vast landscape of grey mud stretched away ahead of us. With the grey sky above, the whole landscape looked rather uniform. A slightly darker smear across the mud, which could easily be mistaken for part of the grey background, was actually a huge flock of thousands of Golden Plover. Through the scope we could finally make out the golden colour to their upperparts.

golden plover

Golden Plover – a flock of thousands blended in seamlessly with the grey mud

A long line of Teal continued on from the end of the Golden Plover flock and there were lots of Shelducks scattered more liberally and sparsely all over the mud. Scattered groups of Lapwings mostly had their backs to us and looked very dark. Most of the other waders would obviously be out on the waters edge, which was too far off to see today, but we did manage to find a tight group of Knot feeding in the middle distance, much more active, busy than the plovers.

We had a quick look at the north end of the Pits from the causeway. In amongst a noisy gaggle of Greylag Geese and Wigeon, we stopped to look at three more Goldeneye and a different duck surfaced in with them. Small, with a distinctive rusty cap and white sides to the face, it was a ‘redhead’ Smew (a female or first winter male). A scarce winter visitor from northern Europe, this bird has been here for a few weeks now but it very erratic on the Pits, presumably feeding much of the time out on the Wash or on the fishing lakes. Another nice bonus for the day’s list. We watched it for a while as it fed, diving repeatedly.

smew

Smew – a ‘redhead’ feeding on the Pit from the causeway

Our real target here was Short-eared Owl. In the middle of the day, we would be lucky to find one out hunting so instead we went to see if we could find one roosting. It didn’t take long to find it, roosting under its usual bramble bush. It was hunched up in the vegetation and almost like it could be stuffed, until it thankfully moved its head just to dispel that suggestion! It looked over towards us and we could see its yellow irises for  second before it went back to dozing.

short-eared owl

Short-eared Owl – roosting under its usual bramble bush

We had a walk round the southern pit to check out the rough grassland surrounding it, but there were no owls out. A feral Barnacle Goose was standing all on its own on the bank. We stopped briefly in South Hide to look at the other end of the Pit, which contained a good number of sleeping Wigeon. We could hear the occasional whistle from them. A couple of Shoveler were tucked up in with them.

A little group of pipits flew up from the bank and in amongst the softer ‘seep, seep’ calls of the Meadow Pipits we could hear the sharper ‘wheest’ call of a Rock Pipit. The latter flew down and appropriately landed on a rock! Then a Meadow Pipit landed on the edge of the water in front of the hide and after picking around on the bank for a minute flew over to join the Rock Pipit, giving us a really nice comparison of the two species together.

It was lunchtime already, so we made our way back to the car for something to eat. As we made our way back along we turned onto a minor road and spotted a commotion on the tarmac right in front. It was a Stoat and it was engaged in a wrestling match with a rather large Brown Rat! The two of them twisted and turned, both seemed to be battling to stay on top.

They writhed across the road and dropped into the shallow gully on the side, so that we could pull up right alongside, just a couple of feet from them. It looked to be a pretty even contest, and after a while the Stoat gave up and disappeared up the bank behind. The Rat paused for a while to recover and then perhaps unwisely went up the bank too.

On our way back east, we stopped in an area of farmland to look at a hedge full of small birds which were flying in and out of a neighbouring cover strip. They were mostly Reed Buntings, but with several Yellowhammers mixed in with them. The birds were flying in and out of the crop all the time, so it was hard to keep up at times. There were a lot more birds down in the vegetation than we could see, as suddenly a large flock of Linnets flew up, circled round, and dropped back in.

Back on the main coast road, as we passed Holkham we could see a huge wave of thousands of Pink-footed Geese coming up off the marshes. We stopped for a look and noticed a long white neck poking out of a ditch out in the grass. It was a Great White Egret – through the scope, we could see its long dagger-shaped bill. A second Great White Egret was feeding on a pool further over.

great white egret

Great White Egret – in a ditch out on the grazing marshes

The Pink-footed Geese disappeared inland over the Park, but there were still lots of geese down on the marshes. In amongst the more numerous Greylags, we found a large party of Russian White-fronted Geese. Through the scope we could see the white feathering surrounding the base of their bills and their distinctive black belly barring. A Goldcrest was singing in the pines nearby.

white-fronted geese

Russian White-fronted Geese – feeding out on the grazing marshes

We had hoped to have a bit more time here, to have a look for hunting Short-eared Owls, but time was getting on and we had an appointment with another owl which we had to keep. We managed to stop for a minute at Wells to watch another huge wave of Pink-footed Geese which were flying in from the fields inland. It was too early for them to head in to roost, so presumably they had just been disturbed from the fields where they had been feeding.

The Barn Owl was not out hunting yet when we arrived. We stood at the gate for a minute and scanned the meadows, then we walked down along the path to where we could see the entrance to the owl box. There was the Barn Owl, perched on the platform on the front of the box – prefect timing! It had just woken up and was trying to work out whether to head out hunting. It still looked sleepy, perched there hunched up with its eyes half closed.

barn owl 1

Barn Owl – just waking up before heading out to hunt

Over the next five minutes or so, the Barn Owl gradually got a bit more active, looking round and opening its eyes. Then silently it dropped from the platform and flew out over the meadow. We were treated to a great display over the next twenty minutes as it hunted. At first it flew round over the long grass, once or twice dropping down after something but coming up empty-taloned.

Then it headed over to the edge of the meadow and landed on a post, where it perched looking down into the grass below. Another great look through the scope. The Tawny Owls were already hooting in the trees beyond now – our next appointment – but we still had a few minutes before they would emerge. The Barn Owl moved around between several different posts before resuming hunting more actively, flying round over the meadow again. As if to bid us farewell, it did one last close fly past, flying across silently right in front of us, even stopping to hover for a second, before heading off. Great to watch!

barn owl 2

Barn Owl – a last fly-past before heading off for the evening

The light was starting to go now, so we headed into the wood. We positioned ourselves where we could see a group of trees clad in dense ivy and waited. We could hear more Pink-footed Geese calling and looked out of the trees to see a series of skeins totalling several thousand birds heading off to roost over the hill beyond.

The Tawny Owl dropped out of the back of the trees unseen tonight – suddenly we could hear it hooting further back in the wood. We followed the path in deeper, but despite hearing it hooting still we couldn’t see it through the branches. We changed position again to try a different angle and then suddenly it flew across the path above our heads, with a sweep of its broad, rounded wings silhouetted against the sky.

It landed, but unfortunately chose the top of a tree covered in ivy where we couldn’t see it. Then it quickly flew back into the wood as we moved to try to get an angle. It was getting dark now, and we could still hear the Tawny Owl hooting from the trees as we walked back to the car. A Woodcock zoomed over the tops of the trees above us in the gloom. Then it was time to call it a night.

21st Dec 2018 – Two Winter Days, Day 2

Day 2 of a two day Private Tour in North Norfolk today. As ever, the forecasters couldn’t make up their minds over the last few days what the weather would be doing today, but they had finished up typically pessimistic this morning. It was a damp, drizzly, grey and gloomy start, at which point it looked like they might be right, but then it dried up and brightened up and ended up being not too bad at all in the end.

We were heading west today, but on our way we made a quick stop at Holkham first. As we got out of the car, we could hear a pair of Egyptian Geese calling from the trees. We could hear lots of Pink-footed Geese too, and looked across to see a large flock fly up from the grazing marshes. They came straight over us and headed off inland. A steady succession of skeins flew over, but still more circled back round and landed down on the grazing marshes again. We could still see thousands of geese out on the grass.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese – thousands flying up from the grazing marshes again this morning

There were Greylag Geese too, a much smaller flock out in the field in front of us. We could see they were paler grey with a big orange carrot for a bill. Just beyond the hedge, through a gap, we spotted a group of about ten Russian White-fronted Geese. We all had a good look at them through the scope, noting the white surround to the base of their pink pills and their distinctive black belly bars. Then suddenly they took off for no apparent reason and we realised there had been a lot more hidden behind the hedge, about 55 in total. They flew off back over the grazing marshes.

A large white bird also out on the grazing marshes was a Great White Egret. It was obviously very tall and, through the scope, we could see its long yellow dagger of a bill. A Marsh Harrier was perched in a tree in front.

Great White Egret

Great White Egret – feeding out on the grazing marshes

By the time we got to Titchwell, it had at least stopped drizzling, although it was still very dull and grey. There were not many cars yet, so we had a quick look round the overflow car park. There were lots of finches in the bushes, feeding on the brambles, mainly Chaffinches and Goldfinches, but with several Greenfinches too. We heard a Bullfinch calling and a smart pink male flew out and across the car park, but disappeared straight into the bushes. We had a couple of brief views of it in the brambles but it would never stay still long enough to get it in the scope.

A flock of Long-tailed Tits came round through the car park, and as we made our way along the path towards the Visitor Centre what was presumably the same flock was calling in the sallows. A Goldcrest appeared in the bushes by the path ahead of us, and we stopped to watch it fluttering around in the branches. A second Goldcrest appeared above our heads, hovering around an ivy-covered trunk. We followed one of the Goldcrests almost all the way to the Visitor Centre.

There were a few more finches on the feeders in front of the Visitor Centre, but the ones the other side had been taken over by a Grey Squirrel. We had a quick look as we passed, but there was no sign of the Water Rail in the ditch, so we continued on out onto the reserve.

As we came out of the trees, several Lapwings and a small group of Golden Plover flew over, heading inland. When we got to the reedbed, we could see a much larger flock of Golden Plover and Lapwing circling over the Freshmarsh. We couldn’t see what had flushed them, possibly a Marsh Harrier, but they quickly landed back down again.

A Water Pipit came up calling from the cut reeds below the path ahead of us. It flew across the path and headed out over the dried up Thornham grazing marsh pool, from where a second Water Pipit flew up to join it. The two of them circled together briefly before the second bird dropped straight back down again, out of view. The first Water Pipit then flew back across the path and disappeared out over the Freshmarsh.

We stopped to look at a couple of Marsh Harriers circling over the back of the reedbed, and noticed four more were perched together in one of the dead trees. Then looking out across the Freshmarsh, four more harriers were hanging in the wind over the bank beyond, at the back of the Volunteer Marsh. One was noticeably smaller, and through the scope we could see the white square at the base of its tail. It was a Hen Harrier, a juvenile, noticeably rusty orange below, streaked darker.

It looked like the three Marsh Harriers were mobbing the Hen Harrier at first, but two drifted off and the Hen Harrier ended up tussling just with one juvenile Marsh Harrier, giving as good as it got. The two of them kept swooping at each other for ages – great to watch and giving us a good view of the Hen Harrier as they did so. At one point, a couple of Carrion Crows joined in too.

Avocet was a key target for the day. Most of them go south for the winter, but a few normally try to cling on here. From Island Hide, we quickly located the group of about 12 Avocets which are lingering here this year. Initially they were rowed up on the end of a long line of Lapwings, but then something spooked all the waders again, and everything took off. The Avocets landed back down with a small group of roosting Shelduck, where the tern island used to be.

Avocet

Avocets – there are still about 12 hanging on here for the winter

The water level on the Freshmarsh is now very high for the winter, and there are not many of the islands left exposed. Consequently, most of the waders are now feeding elsewhere. Apart from the roosting Avocets and the large flocks of Lapwing and Golden Plover, we managed to find just one Dunlin this morning.

The wildfowl are enjoying all the water. A small flock of Brent Geese had joined with the Greylags on the water in front of the reedbed. They had just dropped in for a wash and brush up before heading back out to the Thornham saltmarsh to feed. There are more diving ducks on here now, with a small raft of Tufted Ducks and Common Pochard next to the geese. The other regular winter ducks here – Wigeon, Teal and a few Shoveler – were mostly over towards the back of the Freshmarsh today.

Brent Goose

Brent Geese – flying back out to the saltmarsh to feed

It didn’t seem like the weather could make up its mind. It had been drizzling again briefly while we were in the hide, but now it seemed to be brightening up. So we decided to try our luck and walk out towards the beach. The tide was out and there was not much on Volunteer Marsh, just a rather tame Common Redshank in the channel just below the path.

The Hen Harrier was still playing with the Marsh Harrier over the bank at the far side. We stopped to watch them again, before the Hen Harrier disappeared behind the bank towards the beach. From the top of the bank, we could see the Hen Harrier hunting along the dunes beyond and when it landed in the top of a bush, we got it in the scope and had another good look at it.

The now non-tidal ‘Tidal Pools’ are very full of water at the moment, and the one remaining island is getting much smaller. It was fairly packed with roosting duck today – lots of Wigeon, Teal and several Shoveler. A wader appeared briefly on the corner from behind the vegetation, and we had a glimpse of a long, needle-fine bill and distinctive white supercilium. We walked further up for a better angle and our suspicions were confirmed, it was a Spotted Redshank.

Spotted Redshank

Spotted Redshank – roosting on the ‘Tidal Pools’

Out at the beach, we stopped first to scan the sea. One of the locals was just leaving and informed us that there had not been much of note out here today. We quickly found a small raft of Red-breasted Mergansers and a couple of Goldeneye just offshore. Four brown female Eider were close in, just beyond the mussel beds. Another drake Goldeneye flew in to join them, its green head with white cheek patch shining in a welcome burst of sunshine. An adult Mediterranean Gull flew past out to sea, but unfortunately it was too far out for everyone to get onto.

There was a nice selection of waders around the mussel beds, so we walked down the beach for a closer look. There were lots of Oystercatchers and a few Curlew and Grey Plover. Several pale, streaked Bar-tailed Godwits were feeding on the edge of the sand, and a Black-tailed Godwit was on the mussel bed nearby for comparison. A mixture of Sanderling, Dunlin and Turnstones were running around in between. Scanning carefully, we managed to find a small group of Knot too, and it was good to see them through the scope, feeding next to the Dunlin for comparison.

On our way back, we remembered we had not seen the drake Pintail on the Tidal Pools on our walk out. So we scanned again from the inner edge of the dunes, and from this angle we quickly found it fast asleep on the island with the other ducks. Not the best of views, but another one for the list. The Little Egret which was now feeding in the channel on the Volunteer Marsh right next to the path put on a much better show. We got a good look at its yellow feet.

Little Egret

Little Egret – showing off its yellow feet

The other bird we had not seen on the way out was the Water Rail, and that too we found on the way back. It was feeding just where we had looked earlier, in the ditch by the path, but was still hard to see down in the water underneath all the tree branches. With a bit of patience, it eventually showed very well though.

Water Rails are a bit like buses, and there was also a second one here now, in the ditch on the other side of the path. It was right out in the open when we first saw it, but as soon as it noticed us watching it, it scuttled remarkably swiftly across and squeezed through a small gap underneath the muddy bowl of a fallen tree, where it was well hidden.

Water Rail

Water Rail – one of two we saw on the walk back

It was lunchtime now, and we felt like we had earned it this morning, so we headed round to the White Horse in Holme for a very welcome quick bite of lunch and a chance to warm up in front of the fire. Afterwards, we drove back to Thornham Harbour.

It had clouded over again now and was feeling rather grey again. A Curlew flushed from the saltmarsh as we drove in, but otherwise it initially looked rather quiet here. A car load of photographers were huddled in their vehicle in the car park with their long lenses pointed out at an empty puddle, where there was a distinct lack of any Twite action.

We walked across the car park and down to the sluice just beyond. As we did so a flock of small birds flew up from the saltmarsh just in front of us. We could hear Goldfinch and Linnet and also the distinctive ‘tveeet’ calls of Twite (from which they get their name) as they circled round above us.

Twite

Twite – two of at least ten feeding on the edge of the harbour

After circling several times they landed back down on the edge of the saltmarsh and we got a good view through the scope as they perched up feeding on some of the taller seedheads. It was really good to see Twite and Linnet in the scope together, the former richer brown overall with an orangey breast and yellow bill.

There were at least ten Twite today and one of them was sporting a collection of colour-rings which identify it as an individual which was ringed in Derbyshire earlier in the year. The dwindling Pennine breeding population is the source of our declining winter population of Twite here in Norfolk.

Having admired the Twite, we got back in the car and headed on west. A large flock of Pink-footed Geese were feeding in a recently harvested sugar beet field close to the road so we stopped for a quick look. We were just scanning through when one of the group spotted something different in with them. It was a Pale-bellied Brent Goose. We found somewhere we could stop and got out for a better look through the scope.

Pale-bellied Brent Goose

Pale-bellied Brent Goose – feeding with Pink-footed Geese on harvested sugar beet

Pale-bellied Brent Goose is a different subspecies compared to our regular wintering Russian Dark-bellied Brents. They breed from Svalbard and Franz Josef Land, across through northern Greenland to Canada. Birds from eastern Canada migrate through Iceland to winter mainly in Ireland and it is probably in Iceland that lone or lost birds may join up with the flocks of Pink-footed Geese (it being better to be with them than travel alone!), which bring them to Norfolk in small numbers. While we were watching the geese, we noticed several Ruff feeding in the muddy field in amongst them.

Our final destination for the afternoon was Snettisham. With all the grey cloud again, the light was already starting to go. It didn’t help that today was the shortest day of the year! From up on the seawall, we could see several Goldeneye on the first pit.

The tide was coming in now but there was still a huge expanse of exposed mud. It was not due to be one the biggest tides today, and it was still a couple of hours to high tide, but the waders were already starting to gather. A large brown slick across the mud out in the middle on closer inspection was a huge flock of Golden Plover. Through the scope, we could also see quite a few Bar-tailed Godwits gathered just behind. More waders down on the water’s edge further back were mostly Knot. A big group of Oystercatchers were roosting on the edge of the beach away to the north.

We were hoping to see a Short-eared Owl here this afternoon, but it was damp and grey with a cool breeze and there was perhaps unsurprisingly no sign of any out hunting. Fortunately we did find one hunkered down under a bramble bush, where it had spent the day roosting. It was only half awake and looking towards us, and we could see the short tufts of feathers on the top of its head, its ‘ears’.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl – roosting under a bramble bush

There were lots of ducks and geese on the pits, mainly Greylags and Wigeon. A feral Barnacle Goose was standing on the grass just beyond. A large number of Cormorants had come in to roost on the islands.

It was starting to get dark now, but we could see two white shapes at the far end of the pit. The first was a Little Egret, but the second looked a bit bigger. Through the scope our suspicions were confirmed, it was a Spoonbill. The vast majority of the Spoonbills which were here in the summer have long since headed off south for the winter, with just one or two still remaining here, so this was a real bonus.

Back at the Wash, a large group of Knot had now gathered together in another dark slick spread across the mud, out in the middle. We had thought we might have a quick look at the pit from Rotary Hide, but just at that point something spooked all the waders. All the Golden Plover took off and started to whirl round in the air, and the Knot zoomed back and forth low over the mud, twisting and turning, flashing dark and light.

Golden Plover

Golden Plover – a huge flock gathered out on the Wash

Knot

Knot – twisting and turning low over the mud

It was a nice way to end our two days out, watching the huge flocks of waders whirling out over the Wash. We had hoped we might be able to catch the first of the geese coming in to roost from here, but it was still a bit early and unfortunately we had to get back to the village in time for a pick-up. While we were waiting in the car at the rendezvous point though, the skeins of Pink-footed Geese started to come over calling, thousands of them. One of the real sights and sounds of Norfolk in the winter and a very fitting finish.