Tag Archives: Hen Harrier

13th Feb 2019 – Winter Coast Hopping

A Private Tour today in North Norfolk. It was to be a relaxed day of birding and photography along the North Norfolk coast. The weather was kind to us – after a cloudy start, it brightened up late morning and was lovely and sunny in the afternoon. It was so warm, it almost felt like spring!

As we made our way east along the coast road, we spotted a Barn Owl hunting the verge ahead of us. There were trees either side beyond, so it turned and came back towards us, crossing the road right in front before disappearing over the hedge the other side. A pair of Grey Partridges flew across the road too.

Our first destination for the morning was Cley. As we parked at Walsey Hills and walked back to the East Bank, several small flocks of Brent Geese flew east and appeared to head inland.

The grazing marshes from the East Bank looked quiet at first, but on closer inspection we could see quite a few ducks. A flock of Wigeon were just in the process of walking back out from the Serpentine onto the grass to graze. We watched them all, walking in the same direction, heads down feeding. Small parties of Teal were flying round, landing on the pools. Several Gadwall were swimming on the Serpentine. Six Shelduck were on the island on Pope’s Pool then flew across to the grass. A Grey Heron was in the ditch at the back.

Wigeon

Wigeon – feeding on the grazing marshes from the East Bank

Three Marsh Harriers circled up over the reeds the other side. One of them landed in a bush, where we could get it in the scope. Another did a nice fly past, one of last year’s juveniles, dark chocolate brown with a pale head. From up by the main drain, we could hear Bearded Tits calling but despite scanning the edges of the reeds we couldn’t see them. They were presumably keeping well down in the reeds as usual.

Arnold’s Marsh had a good number of waders on it today, so we stopped in the shelter for a closer look. There were quite a few Dunlin scattered around the shallow water, and two Ringed Plover with them. A Grey Plover and two Turnstones were feeding on one of the gravel spits on one side. There were plenty of Redshanks and a few Curlews too. A Little Egret was walking around on the brackish pools just behind the shelter.

Over on the beach by sea pool, we could just make out a seal carcass on the shingle. The Glaucous Gull has been feeding on it recently but was not there today – we could see a  young Great Black-backed Gull there instead. From the other side of the shelter, we could see another seal carcass on the beach over towards North Scrape but we couldn’t see the Glaucous Gull at that one either. We spotted a couple of the locals coming back from the beach and they told us that the Glaucous Gull was currently on North Scrape so we decided to walk over there to try to see it.

Before we got to the screen where the hide used to be, we looked across to North Scrape and could see the Glaucous Gull standing in the water on the edge of one of the islands. We got the scope on it and watched it, busy preening. Presumably, after a messy morning feeding on one of the seals it had decided it needed a wash and a tidy up!

Looking out to the sea behind us, we spotted a small flock of Common Scoter flying past. They landed on the sea away to west in the distance. A couple of Red-throated Divers flew across too.

Continuing on to the screen overlooking North Scrape, we had a much closer view of the Glaucous Gull. It was a juvenile – pale biscuit coloured, with subtle slightly darker markings on the wings and back and very pale whitish wing tips. The heavy bill, perfect for tearing into seal carcasses, was pink with a clearly marked black tip. It has been here for over a month now and seems to be finding plenty of food.

Glaucous Gull

Glaucous Gull – on North Scrape this morning, busy preening

Otherwise, there were quite a few ducks on North Scrape. Most notably, there were at least 50 Pintail. We got two smart drakes, which had walked out onto one of the islands to preen, in the scope for a closer look. Out of the water, we could see their long pin-shaped tail feathers. Several Shoveler were asleep down towards the front and more Brent Geese flew in and landed out on the water.

There has been a flock of Snow Buntings along the beach here, so when we heard one calling we assumed there was a flock coming. Instead, there was just one Snow Bunting accompanying a flock of Goldfinches. The latter dropped down to feed out on the beach, while the Snow Bunting carried on.

As walked on west towards the beach car park at Cley, we found more Snow Buntings in the weedy vegetation at the top of the shingle. The Goldfinches joined them, but the latter were very jumpy and kept flying up, taking the Snow Buntings with them. Eventually, the Snow Buntings settled down to feed in the vegetation on their own and we could get a better look at them. There were a few Skylarks hiding in the grass here too.

Snow Bunting

Snow Bunting – a flock of about 20 was feeding in the vegetation on the beach

When we heard Pink-footed Geese calling, we looked across to see a huge flock dropping down onto Blakeney Freshes beyond the West Bank. The group stopped to try to photograph the Snow Buntings, and then walked on to the car park, where the van came round to pick them up.

From Cley, we drove back west. From the main road, we could see a flock of Brent Geese feeding in winter wheat east of Wells. There has been a Black Brant at times with the geese here, but there was nowhere to stop on this stretch. When we found somewhere to pull in and let the cars behind us pass, the geese were hidden from view in a dip in the field from here. There were a few more Brent Geese out on the saltmarsh in the middle of the harbour at Wells, but none on the old pitch and putt course today.

After a busy morning a break was called for now, so we stopped for an early lunch at the Victoria in Holkham. Then after lunch, we drove up to the top of Lady Anne’s Drive to park. The wardens were working out on the fields east of the Drive, so there wasn’t much out that side. There were lots of geese and Wigeon on the grazing marshes to the west though. Three Common Buzzards circled over, and all the ducks and Lapwing flushed and whirled round.

A small group of Pink-footed Geese were feeding close to the fence, so we stopped and got the scope on them for a closer look. A couple of Greylags were with them, giving us a nice comparison between the two species alongside each other. A few Brent Geese flew in and landed just the other side of the drive, but a Brown Hare which had probably been disturbed by the wardens ran across and flushed them before they could settle.

Pink-footed Geese_1

Pink-footed Geese – feeding on the grazing marshes by Lady Anne’s Drive

We made our way through the pines and out onto the saltmarsh, turning east along the path below the dunes. When we saw movement in the low vegetation we stopped for a look. There were lots of Rock Pipits, at least ten, feeding on the saltmarsh close to the path. We had really good views of them here, their underparts heavily blotched with dark and oily brown above, with a noticeable pale supercilium. These are Scandinavian Rock Pipits here for the winter. A flock of Linnets flew up from the back of the saltmarsh and whirled round.

Rock Pipit

Rock Pipit – there were lots feeding on the saltmarsh close to the path

A small group of people had been watching the Shorelarks but were leaving as we arrived. They pointed out where they were, and when we got there it didn’t take us long to relocate them. They were a bit too distant for photographs, but we had a great view through the scope of their yellow faces and black masks. We could only see five at first, so we scanned around for the rest, hoping we might find some closer to the path. Unfortunately, when we found them, they were even further back. Still, Shorelarks are great birds to see and we stopped to admire them for a bit.

The Dartford Warbler is still lingering in the dunes here, so we decided to go to look for that and see if the Shorelarks might come closer later. It didn’t take long to find the Stonechat here, perched up on a curl of bramble stem above the sea buckthorn. True to form, while we were admiring the Stonechat, the Dartford Warbler flew in. It landed right on the top of the bushes for a couple of seconds, before dropping down into cover.

We continued watching the Stonechat, and after a while we saw the Dartford Warbler come up again in the sea buckthorn nearby. It didn’t come right out again, but we could see it creeping around in the branches, feeding on buckthorn berries.

Stonechat

Stonechat – feeding in the dunes below the pines

The Snow Buntings were in the cordoned off area of saltmarsh, but they were hiding in the taller vegetation today. At one point they flew round, at least 40 of them in the flock today, flashing the white in their wings, but landed in cover again. Having enjoyed great views of the Snow Buntings at Cley earlier, we didn’t stop to see them here.

When two people walked right across the middle of the saltmarsh, not surprisingly they flushed the Shorelarks. We heard them calling and turned to see them flying round. We could now see how many there were, still around 25 in the flock, which is the number that have been here on and off for most of the winter.

Most of the Shorelarks flew further back across the saltmarsh and landed out in the really thick vegetation where they would be impossible to see from the path. But three had obviously been separated from the rest and flew round again. We watched one land by the path back towards the Gap, where we had stopped to watch the Rock Pipits earlier. So we walked back and found two Shorelarks now feeding with the pipits.

Shorelark

Shorelark – close views of two by the path on our walk back

Approaching slowly on the path, we were able to get quite close to the Shorelarks and they gradually worked their way closer still, so we were able to enjoy great views of them and finally get some better photos. Their yellow faces positively shone in the low afternoon sunlight.

Eventually, we had to tear ourselves away and walked back to Lady Anne’s Drive. As we  drove on west, we had a quick look in at Brancaster Staithe. It was low tide now and there were a few waders scattered around. A small group of Oystercatchers was roosting down on the edge of the water, a Grey Plover was picking around on the shore in front, and several Bar-tailed Godwits were feeding on the exposed sandbar beyond.

Titchwell was our final destination for the day. We had a walk round the trails to look for Woodcock first. As we passed the Visitor Centre, there were not many birds on the feeders this afternoon. There was no sign of the regular Woodcock on Fen Trail, but with some helpful directions we were able to quickly locate the one on Meadow Trail. It was very well hidden, below a tangle of branches in the sallows. It took a bit of time, but eventually we found an angle through the scope where we could see its eye staring back at us.

Walking quietly along the main path back towards the Visitor Centre, scanning carefully we found a Water Rail in the ditch. While we were watching it, a second one walked into view along the ditch nearby. One was noticeably bulkier than the other, presumably a male and female. They worked their way quite quickly back along the ditch, not exactly together but not far apart, and the smaller of the two came out slightly more into the open. Then we lost sight of them and they had obviously turned back and disappeared into cover.

Water Rail

Water Rail – feeding in the ditch by the main path

There were some Long-tailed Tits in the trees above the ditch and when they started alarm calling, we realised there must be a raptor about. We couldn’t initially see it where we were in the trees, but a Sparrowhawk flew out over the grazing meadow and we watched it land on a post in the distance.

Further out along the path, we could hear a Cetti’s Warbler calling in the vegetation right by the path, but it remained typically elusive. A few Marsh Harriers were already in, circling over the back of the reeds or perched in the bushes.

As we walked out to the Freshmarsh, the first thing we noticed were the Avocets, 23 of them today. This is the most we’ve seen this year, with only 2-3 in recent weeks, suggesting they are starting to return to the coast already for the summer. They were flushed by a Marsh Harrier and flew round, flashing black and white. There were lots of Lapwings too, which landed back in the fenced off island, along with a small group of Golden Plover.

Avocets

Avocets – there were 23 back at Titchwell today

There were a few gulls dropping in to bathe, but otherwise with the water level on the Freshmarsh high for the winter, there were just a few ducks and geese. Unfortunately the light was starting to go now, particularly in the lee of the bank, but we watched a little group of Teal displaying on the water below us.

Teal

Teal – we watched a small group displaying on the edge of the Freshmarsh

There were more Marsh Harriers coming in all the time, to join the increasing number gathered over the back of the reedbed. We turned to see a harrier flying straight towards us low over the saltmarsh behind and realised it was a Hen Harrier. It was quite close when it turned and flashed the white square at the base of its tail. It worked its way north over the saltmarsh close to the path, flushing lots of pipits from the vegetation. Some last minute hunting before heading into roost.

The Hen Harrier was a nice way to end, and it was getting late now, so we started to walk back. As we looked out over the reedbed one last time, we could see loads of Marsh Harriers up now all together. A quick count totalled thirty in view at once – quite a sight!

There was one last bird to add to the list. On our drive back, we noticed a small bird perched on the corner of a barn, silhouetted against the last of the light. A Little Owl, coming out just as we were finishing for the day.

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9th Feb 2019 – Breezy in the Brecks

Day 2 of a three day long weekend of tours today. It was always going to be very windy again today, but it was supposed to be bright and sunny this morning, according to the forecast. Instead, it was cloudy and grey, not brightening up much until this afternoon, and the wind didn’t drop appreciably until the very end of the day. We spent the day today down in the Brecks.

There has been a Great Grey Shrike at Santon Downham recently, but it has been very erratic in its appearances. We thought we would try our luck and see if we could find it first thing, even though we were a little later than planned getting there this morning. As we walked in along the track, we heard the mournful song of a Woodlark and looked over to see it fluttering up from the ground over by the trees. It came right over our heads, and we could see its short tail and rounded wings, before it disappeared behind us.

Woodlark

Woodlark – flew over our heads singing first thing this morning

There was no sign of the Great Grey Shrike it is usual spot today – it was obviously going to be one of those days it spends elsewhere. We did see our first Marsh Tit of the day, down beside the river, its sneezing call alerting us to its arrival. A couple of Siskins flew over calling.

The surprise of the day was a ringtail Hen Harrier which flew down the valley over the trees, chased by two Carrion Crows. We were saw the crows first, and realised they were mobbing something. Rather than the expected Goshawk, it turned out to be a Hen Harrier, the first time we have ever seen one here. We watched it as it disappeared up and over the taller pines, much better views of the one we had seen distantly yesterday afternoon.

Hen Harrier

Hen Harrier – chased down the river valley by two Carrion Crows

Almost back to the road, and we could hear lots of finches twittering in the trees the other side of the river. We looked across to see several Bramblings in one of them just across from us. We got them in the scope and could see the brighter orange breast and shoulders, particularly on the male.

We could see more birds over in the gardens by the road that side, so we made our way round over the bridge. We stopped opposite the garden with all the feeders and watched for a while. A steady stream of tits came and went, and a Nuthatch popped in a couple of times. At first, there were just Chaffinches and Goldfinches, but then more Siskins started to arrive and a couple of Bramblings dropped in too. A Lesser Redpoll put in a brief appearance. And a Moorhen came in to pick around on the ground below too.

Siskin & Bramblings

Siskins & Bramblings – under the feeders with a Blackbird

As we walked back to the van, a couple of Bullfinches flew across the road and landed in the bushes nearby. It looked like it was starting to brighten up, so we decided to head over to look for Goshawks.

When we arrived at a good spot overlooking forest, we counted 15 Common Buzzards up in the air together and a Sparrowhawk with them. It seemed like a good sign, but the brighter interval hadn’t lasted and it had already clouded over again. Pretty quickly, the Buzzards dropped back down into the trees and it went rather quiet. It was very windy, and Goshawks like the wind, but it was rather cool and grey now which is less conducive to them putting on a good display.

Eventually, we spotted a very distant Goshawk – a good start. Then a closer one circled up and drifted across the road, but it quickly disappeared behind the trees. We could see all the Woodpigeons flush in the direction it had just headed.

Then a third Goshawk came up over the trees. It didn’t gain much height at first, and then dropped down again out of view, but when it reappeared it started trying to display. At first it was carried quickly downwind, then it turned into the wind and hung in air. We could see its white undertail coverts puffed out as it started to fly with exaggerated, deep wingbeats. It stayed up for some time too, so everyone could get a look at it through the scope.

Otherwise it was quiet here and with nowhere to shelter from the chilly wind, we retreated to the van and headed off to Thetford to look for a coffee. We swung round via the industrial estate first, to see if there were any gulls around the recycling centre, despite it being a Saturday. There were plenty of gulls, but before we could get there something spooked them and the majority flew off. A few eventually dropped back in on one of the other roofs, but there was nothing out of the ordinary with them – a few Black-headed Gulls, a handful of Herring Gulls and one or two Lesser Black-backed Gulls.

Gulls

Herring & Black-headed Gulls – we couldn’t find anything exciting with them today

The café on the industrial estate was closed, so we went across the road to try the retail park opposite. We had thought that Macdonalds might serve fast coffee as well as fast food, but it took ages to get served. We ended up spending longer getting coffee than we did looking through the gulls!

We headed back to St Helens for lunch. A couple of Mistle Thrushes were feeding on the grass in the meadows by the road. There were no Bramblings in the car park today, but a large flock did fly over while we were eating, disappeared over the pines the other side of the railway line.

Lynford was our destination for the afternoon. As we walked in along the track, we stopped to look at the feeders. The ground around the small pool under the trees was absolutely coated in Bramblings, at least 50 of them feeding in the leaves. An impressive sight!

Bramblings

Bramblings – at least 50 were on the ground by the feeders

Down at the bridge, someone had put food out on the pillars and several tits kept coming in to grab something to eat. We had great views of Marsh Tits here, down to just a few feet at times, plus Blue Tits, Great Tits, Coal Tits and Long-tailed Tits. We could hear Nuthatches calling in the trees nearby and several Siskins came down to drink below the bridge, perching in the trees in front of us before they did so.

Marsh Tit

Marsh Tit – coming to seed put out at the bridge

As we walked on along the edge of the paddocks, we could hear Hawfinches calling. Eventually one or two flew up into the tops of the hornbeams, where we could get them in the scope, but they were very mobile today and didn’t stay long. Possibly it was the blustery wind unsettling them today.

Four Hawfinches flew back and up into the tops of the pines beyond, where they joined some others which were already there. When they flew back down to the paddocks, there were at least seven now. Over the space of half an hour or so, we eventually all got quite good views of them.

Hawfinch

Hawfinch – there were at least 7 in the paddocks, but v mobile today

A flock of Redwings was feeding down on the ground under the trees in the paddocks too, and two Mistle Thrushes appeared on the grass as well.

Two raptors appeared over the trees. One was a Common Buzzard and the second was a similar size but a different shape. It was a Goshawk. We watched them circle up together, before the Goshawk drifted towards us, out above the paddocks, before it turned and flew slowly off south. This was a much better view than the ones we had seen this morning and a real bonus to get one here.

Goshawk

Goshawk – a nice bonus, much closer this afternoon

Having enjoyed good views of the Hawfinches, we decided to have a quick look around the lake. A pair of Gadwall and some Greylags and Canada Geese were all additions to the day’s list, but otherwise it was fairly quiet along here today.

There was not much more activity as we walked up through the arboretum. We did hear a couple of Goldcrests singing, and managed to see one flicking about on the edge of a tall fir tree. It did seem like the wind was still keeping everything down.

Past the car park, and we continued on up to the gravel pits. A Great Crested Grebe was out on the water in front of the hide and a couple of Cormorants were resting on the platform. There were lots of Tufted Ducks over towards the back, and we just spotted a pair of Goosander before they sailed out of view behind some trees. Not all the group had seen the Goosander, so we set off to walk further round to try a different angle.

On the way round, we had a quick look at the other pit. There were more Tufted Ducks on here and a single drake Goldeneye was with them. With a change of angle, we successfully got everyone on to the Goosander too. By the time we got back to the van, everyone was exhausted so we decided to head for home.

As we drove in to Swaffham, we could see a large gathering of Starlings circling overhead. We decided to stop and watch them for a while. Numbers are hopefully now growing, as they have done for the last couple of years, but there were already several thousand, in a number of different groups which kept merging and splitting apart. It was great to stand and watch the flocks twisting and turning. A nice way to end the day.

Starlings

Starlings – numbers are starting to build again

8th Feb 2019 – Breezy in the Broads

Day 1 of a three day long weekend of tours today. It was forecast to be wet and windy today. It was certainly windy, but thankfully we saw next to no rain until we had finished for the day and were on our way back. We spent the day today down in the Norfolk Broads.

Our first stop was at Barton Broad. It wasn’t too windy as we walked down along the road to the boardwalk, although the debris from yesterday was scattered on the road, leaves and small branches. It was quite sheltered on the boardwalk and when we got to the platform at the end, the first thing we saw was a pair of Great Crested Grebes displaying just in front.

Great Crested Grebes

Great Crested Grebe – this pair was displaying in front of the platform

The Great Crested Grebes were facing each other, turning their heads alternately side to side. They didn’t get much beyond that though, swimming off separately before coming back and doing some more head turning.

Beyond the grebes, we could see quite a few ducks out on the Broad. In particular, there was a good number of Goldeneye on here again. Further back, a large raft of diving ducks were mostly Tufted Ducks, although a single drake Common Pochard was with them. We had really come to see the two female Scaup, and it didn’t take too long to find them, the thick white surround to their bills being particularly striking.

A Marsh Harrier flew down the far side of the Broad, above the trees, then cut across over the water in front of us and hung in the air over the near side. With our mission accomplished we set off back along the boardwalk. There were more tits in the alders here now, with both Great Tit and Coal Tit singing and a small flock of Long-tailed Tits once we were almost back to the road.

As we walked back towards the car park, a flock of small birds came out of the hedge and circled round over the field beyond. As they dropped down again into the stubble, against the background of the trees, we could see they were Yellowhammers. The wind was starting to pick up now and a few Redwings had been feeding in the shelter of the car park, under the cars, and flew off as we returned.

The plan was to head for Ludham next, to see if we could find some Bewick’s and Whooper Swans. As we were driving along the main road just past Horning, we spotted a large group of swans in a harvested sugar beet field. This was well beyond the normal range where we have seen the Ludham herd, so we assumed these would most likely be just Mute Swans until we pulled up and noticed they were not.

Whooper Swans

Whooper & Bewick’s Swans – a nice surprise in a beet field by the road

We managed to find somewhere to pull in off the road and had a closer look. There was a mixture of Bewick’s Swans and Whooper Swans, about thirty of each. It was nice to be able to see the two species side by side, in the same scope view. The Bewick’s Swans were noticeably smaller and shorter necked, with a smaller and more squared-off patch of yellow on the bill, compared to the long wedge of the Whooper Swans.

Bewick's Swans

Bewick’s Swans – smaller and with more restricted and squared-off yellow on the bill

Having enjoyed such great views of the swans by the road, the pressure was off at Ludham now. Still, we drove down to the river to see if we could find any Cranes. A large flock of Woodpigeons and Stock Doves flew up from around the barns as we got out of the van.

It was very windy up on the river bank, and it started to spit with rain. A large flock of Lapwings and Golden Plover flew up across the other side of the Levels, but we couldn’t see what had spooked them. Three large shapes were flying across in the distance, which we could see were Common Cranes, our first of the day. They crossed the river and looked for a second like they might turn in our direction, but instead flew off away from us.

There were a handful of Mute Swans feeding on the grass here, but we could see a very large herd of swans way off beyond St Benet’s Abbey. They were mostly hidden behind a line of reeds, but we got the scope on them and they appeared to be mostly Bewick’s Swans. Since we had enjoyed such good views of them earlier, we decided not to walk further along the bank. We turned and headed back to the shelter of the van.

We did drive round to St Benet’s Abbey, to see what we could find there. As we came down along the entrance road, several more Bewick’s Swans flew over, but went down out of view.

There were lots of Greylag Geese on the grass here, but when we pulled up to check a flock by the side of the track, we could see there were Russian White-fronted Geese with them. We found somewhere to pull over and got out for a closer look. There were actually at least 55 White-fronted Geese here, many asleep down in the grass, but some feeding so we could see their distinctive black belly bars. There was one Barnacle Goose here too – as ever, it is hard to tell whether individuals of this species are feral birds or wandering wild individuals.

White-fronted Geese

Russian White-fronted Geese – about 55 were on St Benet’s Levels

From St Benet’s, we had a quick drive round via the coast, to see if we could find any Cranes and any more flocks of geese. There was no sign of any Cranes today, but it was rather windy and exposed out here now. There were rather few geese visible too. We saw a couple of small flocks of Pink-footed Geese but they dropped out of view behind some tress. Six more Pink-footed Geese were in a winter wheat field by the road, but no sign of any large flocks today. The herd of swans here were all Mute Swans.

As we made our way inland, we finally managed to spot some Cranes on the ground. There were 12 of them together, standing in some winter wheat, but they were rather distant, several fields over. Still, we got them in the scope and had a better look at them.

Common Crane 1

Common Crane – we spotted a flock of 12 distantly across the fields

Three of the Cranes took off and flew back further away from us, before landing again in another field. Gradually, the others followed in small groups until only two were left. When they flew too, we watched them go and realised that the group had all landed closer to a small road some way off. We figured we might be able to drive round for a closer look.

Little did we realise how right we were. The Cranes had landed in another field right next to the minor road. Edging along slowly, and stopping regularly to allow them to get comfortable with our presence, we eventually found ourselves right alongside them. The birds were very relaxed as we watched them from the van, continuing to feed. We could see now there were ten adults and two browner juveniles. We could see the red on the crowns of some of the adults, even without a scope. Stunning views, a real treat and a privilege to see them like this.

Common Crane 2

Common Cranes – we drove round and found them feeding right next to the road

Common Crane 3

Common Cranes – they were mainly adults with two duller brown juveniles

Common Crane 4

Common Crane – what you would call ‘showing well’!

We watched the Cranes, spellbound, for a while. Then we decided to leave them in peace and drove slowly away.

It was time for lunch now, so we headed round to the RSPB reserve at Strumpshaw Fen. Huge thanks have to go to the warden, Ben, and his staff. Someone had called in sick and they didn’t have enough people to staff the reception, so they had just closed it up for the afternoon. But they very kindly switched on the hot water urn just for us, so we could get an extremely welcome hot drink.

There were a few ducks on the Reception Hide pool, Gadwall, Shoveler and Mallard, but there was no sign of the resident Black Swan today. It was probably hiding somewhere out of the wind, which had increased steadily through the morning. There were plenty of Coot too and when they all suddenly raced across the water and onto the cut reeds at the front, we thought something might have spooked them, but we couldn’t see what it was.

Possibly also due to the wind, there were fewer tits than normal coming down to the feeders today too. A steady stream of Great Tits came in and out, but no sign of any Marsh Tits today.

After lunch, we headed round to Buckenham. As we crossed the railway line, we could see some geese on the right of the path. Looking closer, we found there were seven Russian White-fronted Geese in with the Greylags. There were lots of Pink-footed Geese on the other side of the path, tucked up in the far corner by the railway. Several small groups flew round and landed much closer to the path where we could finally get a good look at them.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese – flew in and landed closer to the path

The Wigeon were rather nervous today, possibly due to the wind. There are normally several small groups right by the path, but they were all out in the middle. There were plenty of Lapwing out on the marshes too, and scanning through them carefully we found a couple of Ruff in with them. We could see several Chinese Water Deer out on the marshes as well.

Chinese Water Deer

Chinese Water Deer – there were several on the marshes at Buckenham

It was rather exposed out here in the wind, so we made our way up to the hide by the river bank. We could see lots of ducks on here, mainly Teal, but also a few Shoveler and a couple of Shelduck. Something spooked all the Wigeon from the grazing marshes the other side of the track and they flew in, calling noisily. A quick count suggested at least 1,000 were here.

A single Lesser Black-backed Gull was loafing on the water on the further pool. We couldn’t see any other waders out here today though, and despite scanning the margins of the pools very carefully we couldn’t find any Snipe.

Wigeon

Wigeon – over 1,000 flew in from the grass and landed on the pools

It was grey and windy but miraculously still dry this afternoon. We wanted to have a look at the watchpoint at Stubb Mill while the weather held, so we headed round there next. As we walked down the track from the car park, several Marsh Harriers were already circling over the reeds.

We noticed another bird come up from the reeds. It seemed to struggle in the wind at first, almost appearing to be hovering, before it turned and started to fly across over the reedbed. It was a Bittern! Unfortunately, it was hard to see in the gloom, low over the reeds, before it disappeared behind some bushes.

When we arrived at the watchpoint, the small huddle of hardy people already there pointed out three Cranes at the back of the marsh. We had a look at them through the scope – another family party, two adults and a juvenile.

A small flock of Fieldfares flew over and landed first out on the grass in front of the watchpoint, then in one of the small hawthorns. A group of Long-tailed Tits worked their way through the bushes in front of us too. A Red Deer appeared out on the grass, followed shortly after by a second. They spent most of the time sheltering behind a large patch of brambles, out of the wind.

More Marsh Harriers drifted in and we could see a few already in the bushes over by the old ruined mill. When they flew up and circled round in a group, we counted at least 25 in the air together. A Hen Harrier appeared with them, a ringtail. It kept low, flying in and out of the bushes, but it reappeared several times while we were there, so in the end everyone had a chance to get a look at it through the scope.

Having had some unbeatable views of the Cranes earlier, and with the rather cold and windy weather, we didn’t fancy staying until dark tonight to see more Cranes come in to roost. An advance party went to get the van, while the others waited a the Watchpoint to be picked up. A Tawny Owl hooted from the trees by the mill. Time to head for home.

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.

13th Jan 2019 – Midwinter Birding, Day 3

Day 3 of a three day Winter Tour today, our last day. Having explored the North Norfolk coast to the east yesterday, we were heading west today. It was a very windy day today, and mostly cloudy although we thankfully managed to almost all of the showers.

We made a quick visit to Wells Harbour first thing. There has been a Glaucous Gull around the Wells / Holkham area the last few days and, although the seal pup carcass it had been feeding on is now all gone, we thought there was an outside chance it might be roosting with the other gulls in the harbour still. Unfortunately, there was no sign of the Glaucous Gull, but we did see a Guillemot diving among the boats in the outer dock, along with a couple of Little Grebes.

We had a quick look out on the sandbanks in the harbour, and could see a good number of waders feeding out there. They were mostly Oystercatchers, but we found a few Curlews and a single Bar-tailed Godwit feeding along the edge of the channel and two more distant Grey Plovers, up on the mudflats beyond.

A pair of Red-breasted Mergansers were diving on the far side of the channel, moving quickly with the tide but hard to see in the choppy water. When they got to the tip of the sandspit, they hauled themselves out onto the point where they were a bit easier to see. Another pair of Red-breasted Mergansers swam across the channel much further out.

red-breasted mergansers

Red-breasted Mergansers – this pair were in the harbour channel

As we carried on our way west, we turned inland and had a quick drive round some of the minor roads through Choseley. There had been a Rough-legged Buzzard seen here a couple of times over the last few days, but there was no obvious sign of it where it had been.

The hedges along the roadsides were rather quiet today. We found a small flock of Chaffinches and Goldfinches, and four Skylarks fluttering up over a grassy meadow by the road. A cover strip planted by a thick hedge held lots of Reed Buntings and a couple of Yellowhammers, which were nice to see, but even here there were not as many birds as usual. Perhaps it was due to the wind? A Fieldfare in the top of a tree across the road was calling.

Our first destination proper for the morning was Snettisham. As we made our way down towards the Wash, we stopped to look at a smart drake Goldeneye on one of the gravel pits – the first of many we would see here! Three Tufted Ducks were on the pits too, an addition to the weekend’s list.

goldeneye

Goldeneye – there were several on the pits at Snettisham

Up on the seawall, it was just a little before high tide but it was not going to be a big tide today so a large expanse of mud would remain uncovered. Several thousand Golden Plover were gathered in a huge flock on the mud, and a big black smear on the beach to the north was a large roosting flock of Oystercatchers. When we turned the scope to look towards them, we could see a small group of eight Pintail on the edge of the water too.

golden plover 1

Golden Plover – several thousand were resting out on the Wash

There were more waders down along the edge of the channel below us. Here we could see several Knot, Bar-tailed Godwit and Dunlin. We were just having a closer look at them in the scope when suddenly everything spooked. The waders all took off and the huge flock of Golden Plover whirled round in the sky out over the mud. A Sparrowhawk flew in over the seawall, and disappeared off inland – that was why! A Red Kite drifted south just inland of the Pits too, but didn’t cause the same sort of commotion.

golden plover 2

Golden Plover – swirled round when a Sparrowhawk flew over

Continuing on down towards Rotary hide, we could see the Smew on the pit north of the causeway with a small group of Goldeneye. It was diving periodically, but helpfully also staying up for long periods today so we could get a really good look at it through the scope. It is a ‘redhead’, a term which includes both adult female Smew and first winter birds which are rather similar. We could see its rusty cap and white cheeks.

smew

Smew – the ‘redhead’ still on the pits

The Goldeneye were mostly drakes, with one female. The female appeared to be paired up already and when one of the other drakes started displaying, swimming around with its head up, the drake from the pair swam after it, with its head held down close to the water, neck outstretched. There were lots of other birds on the pits. Lots of Wigeon and Greylag Geese, together with smaller numbers of Shoveler. A couple of Little Grebes were busily diving here too.

We had a walk round to look for the Short-eared Owl which normally roosts here, but strangely there was no sign of it in its usual spot today. There is lots of disturbance at the south end of the Pit at the moment, as contractors have begun work on the foundations of the new hide, so perhaps all the commotion has disturbed the owl. It began to drizzle very lightly at this point, so with all the disturbance we decided against walking all the way round the Pit and headed back to the car. Thankfully the drizzle quickly cleared.

Our next stop was at Thornham Harbour. It was very exposed out on the open saltmarsh in the wind. Several people with binoculars and cameras were milling around in the car park. The tide was still high in the harbour channel, but there was a bit of exposed mud by the sluice, where a couple of Redshank and a Curlew were feeding. We managed to get a good look at a Black-tailed Godwit feeding down on the mud here too.

We were about to walk up onto the seawall when we noticed some movement down in the vegetation on the edge of the saltmarsh below. We looked down to see a Goldfinch and a Twite feeding together. The more we looked, the more Twite we could see, but they were perfectly camouflaged and mostly hidden in the dead vegetation.

With a bit of patience, one or two of the Twite emerged to feed on some stems where we could see them, and we got a good look at them through the scope. We could see their orange breasts and distinctive yellow bills. Three of the flock were colour-ringed – showing these are birds which breed in the Pennines and come here for the winter.

Suddenly for no reason the Twite flew up and out across the harbour. Now we could see there were 14 of them in total. They circled round and landed on the roof of the old coal barn, where we could just see them through the scope on the tiles. Then after a few minutes they came back again, flying round in front of us, before they landed on the top of some seedheads right by the path just below us. Great views! Then they flew back down to where they had been feeding before, below the bank out of the wind, and mostly disappeared again.

twite

Twite – the flock of 14 was feeding in the harbour again

It was time for lunch now, so we made our way round to Titchwell. A Robin was perched in the tree by the car as we got out, and as we looked over at it one of the group spotted something look out round the back of one of the trees beyond. It was a Woodcock, but unfortunately it immediately disappeared back behind the tree before anyone else could see it and despite looking from various angles it didn’t reappear.

We made good use of the picnic tables by the Visitor Centre for lunch. There were lots of birds on the feeders – Chaffinches, Goldfinches and Greenfinches, plus a few tits too – Blue and Great Tit, Coal Tit and Long-tailed Tit. A Brambling appeared briefly on the ground with the Chaffinches, but unfortunately it was behind a tree from where we were sitting and flew back into cover. Thankfully it reappeared after a couple of minutes and we had good views of it, on the ground, in the bushes, and then up onto one of the feeders. Bramblings have been rather scarce here so far this winter, so this was a good one to see.

brambling

Brambling – on the feeders by the Visitor Centre

After lunch, we headed out onto the reserve. Scanning the ditch by the path as we went, we quickly located a Water Rail. It was well hidden under a tangle of branches at first, though the ripples in the water gave its location away. Eventually it came out more into the open where we could get a really good look at it. A few metres further on, we then spotted another Water Rail in the ditch on the other side of the path – two for the price of one!

water rail

Water Rail – one of two in the ditch by the path today

We had a quick look on Thornham grazing marsh where the drained pool is now getting very overgrown. We could hear Bearded Tits ‘pinging’ from the reeds but they were keeping tucked well down out of the wind today – not an ideal day to look for them! Four Marsh Harriers were already hanging in the air over the reedbed the other side – at least they appeared to be enjoying the wind. A large flock of Brent Geese flew in chattering, and landed on Freshmarsh.

The water level on the Freshmarsh is high for the winter at the moment. There were a few ducks on here – mostly Teal, plus a few Shoveler and Shelduck – but otherwise it looked fairly empty. A handful of Lapwings were roosting on the one remaining small island close to the path.

We made our way round to Parrinder Hide, where we could get out of the wind. Looking into the larger fenced-off island, we eventually found the Water Pipit. It was tricky to see, feeding down in the cut vegetation, but eventually we all got a good look at it. Two Skylarks were creeping around on there too. And there were several Golden Plover and a few Wigeon on the island as well.

On our way out to the beach, we had a quick look over the wall where a Grey Plover was feeding on Volunteer Marsh the other side. There were more waders along the channel at the far side, looking out from the main path – Black-tailed Godwits, Curlews, Redshanks and several more Grey Plover. We got one in Grey Plover in the scope for a closer look. A Little Egret was feeding down in the muddy channel too.

little egret

Little Egret – on the Volunteer Marsh

There didn’t seem to be much on the no-longer-tidal ‘Tidal Pools’ – they are very full of water at the moment after recent big tides, and the water doesn’t drain off any more. There were a few more ducks on here, including four Pintails. We watched one pair feeding out on the water, upending, the drake showing off his long tail.

Out at the beach, the tide was still just going out. The first thing we saw was two female Common Eider on the beach, shortly after joined by a third which flew in and landed with them. The mussel beds were still covered by the sea, but there were plenty of Oystercatchers, Bar-tailed Godwits and Sanderling down on the sand. More Bar-tailed Godwits were flying in, presumably coming out of their roost sites on the falling tide, and a flock of Knot flew past just offshore.

There was not much out on the sea this afternoon. Scanning over the water, we found a single Common Scoter and a pair of Red-breasted Merganser. When a squall appeared out over the mouth of the Wash, we could just see one or two Little Gulls way out on the front edge of it. As the squall passed over the sea, three Little Gulls came past much closer. As they dipped down to the water, we could see the black underwings of the adults.

The light was starting to go now, so we made our way back to the Freshmarsh. We were planning to watch all the birds coming in to roost here this evening. As we stood on the bank, we could already see lots of Marsh Harriers whirling around over the reedbed. More and more came up into the air, until we counted over 40 in the sky together, quite an impressive sight!

There were a few gulls in already, bobbing on the water, but none seemed to be coming in from the fields yet, waiting perhaps due to the wind. An Avocet had now appeared on the small island close to the path, sheltering behind the far edge with the gulls. The wind seemed to pick up again now and we looked round behind us to see a patch of threatening cloud coming in from west, so we retreated to the shelter of Parrinder Hide again.

We continued to watch the Marsh Harriers from the hide, and after a while a ringtail Hen Harrier appeared in with them. It whisked through very quickly though, away over the bank towards Brancaster. We waited to see if it would return and then two ringtail Hen Harriers appeared again, in with the Marsh Harriers. All the birds were very active, flying back and forth over the reeds, in and out of the bushes, occasionally breaking the skyline. The light was really going now, but we could see the pale underside of the Hen Harriers flashing as they turned, and the distinctive white square at the base of their tail on the upperside.

The trees behind the harriers were filling up with Little Egrets, coming in to roost too. As it started to get dark, the gulls finally started to fly in from the fields, but it was getting too dark to see clearly now. It was time to head for us to head for home.

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.

12th Dec 2018 – Spectacular Geese

A Private ‘Goose Spectacular’ Tour today, an early start up on the Wash to watch the amazing sight of tens of thousands of Pink-footed Geese leaving their roost and flying inland to feed at dawn. It was a fabulous day too, once the sun came up, with mostly blue sky and sunshine and just a very light easterly breeze.

As we arrived on the seawall, it was still dark but the sky to the east was just beginning to lighten. As we got out of the car and started to don our coats, we could hear thousands of Pink-footed Geese calling out on the Wash. Soon after, the first skeins, the early risers, flew in over us, hard to see in the gloom but we could make out their silhouettes and hear them calling.

As the sun started to come up we were treated to an amazing sunrise. At first the horizon glowed, yellow and orange. There was cloud still out over the Wash which extended slightly inland from us, but to the east the sky was clear. The cloud started off black, contrasting with the dark blue sky, but gradually the light started to catch the edges of the clouds and turned them shades of pink and red, all reflected in the water of the old gravel pit below. Stunning! The sunrise alone was worth getting up early for.

Sunrise

Snettisham – the sunrise alone was worth getting up early for

More waves of Pink-footed Geese came in overhead. They were still all but impossible still to see as they took off from the Wash, in the dark to the west of us, and against the dark brown mud, but as they came into the paler sky above the seawall we could make them out more clearly, in a series of ‘v’ formations, hundreds at a time. We could hear their high-pitched yelping calls.

Pink-footed Geese 1

Pink-footed Geese – an early skein, against the dark grey sky

As the skies continued to lighten, we could see the skeins of geese taking off from the mud now. The waves started to get bigger, thousands of birds at a time, taking off in a rising cacophony of noise.

Pink-footed Geese 2

Pink-footed Geese – thousands taking off from the mud

Pink-footed Geese 3

Pink-footed Geese – flying over us in huge waves

Pink-footed Geese 4

Pink-footed Geese – flying in to the sunrise

With a bit more light now, we could get some of the Pink-footed Geese in the scope, where they were roosting. Even though quite a few had already left, as we scanned across we could still see thousands upon thousands standing out on the mud, like a vast dark smear.

Pink-footed Geese 5

Pink-footed Geese – roosting on the mudflats, out on the Wash

There were several much smaller gaggles of Greylag Geese much closer in, on the near edge of the Wash. They were noticeably paler than the Pink-footed Geese, with large orange carrots for bills. As they took off and flew much lower over the seawall, their calls were much deeper, very different than the Pinkfeet. Coming from much further out, the Pink-footed Geese had more time to gain height out over the Wash before they got to us.

For well over an hour, the Pink-footed Geese kept coming. Each time a huge wave took off and flew in over us, heading off inland, we looked back out to the Wash and could still see thousands and thousands still on the mud. Still they kept coming.

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Pink-footed Geese – another wave taking off from the Wash

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Pink-footed Geese – flying in over the seawall

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Pink-footed Geese – heading off inland to feed

Eventually, gradually, the number of Pink-footed Geese left out on the mud started to dwindle. There are around 30,000 Pink-footed Geese roosting here at the moment, an impressive number and amazing to watch them like this, heading inland to feed. Finally, just a few hundred stragglers were left, so we turned our attention to the other birds.

We could hear Curlews calling while we were watching the geese, and several large flocks flew in from the Wash too, though nothing like on the scale of the Pinkfeet. There were gulls which had roosted out on the safety of the mudflats as well, which flew off inland as the day dawned, in long silvery-white lines catching the early light.

The Wash is also famous for its waders. It was almost high tide now, but not a big enough tide to cover all the mud and push the waders off today. We looked across to the water’s edge and could see some large gatherings of Knot, Bar-tailed Godwits and Oystercatchers. There were ducks too, mainly Shelduck, Mallard and Teal, but with a few Pintail out on the water.

There had been a light frost overnight and there was still a chill in the air, waiting for the sun to rise fully. We decided to go for a walk to warm up, and have a look in the hides overlooking the pit. There were lots of ducks around the islands and margins, mostly Wigeon, but with smaller numbers of Teal, Shoveler and Mallard.

Wigeon

Wigeon – roosting on one of the islands on the pit

A few Tufted Ducks and Goldeneye were busy diving out in the middle, along with several Little Grebes, one of which helpfully surfaced just below the hide at one point. A large mob of noisy Greylags, birds which had flown in from the mud earlier, were arguing amongst themselves. The waders were mostly out on the Wash today, and there were just a few Lapwing scattered around the islands on the pit.

As we walked round towards South Hide, we stopped at the corner to scan the saltmarsh. A Common Buzzard was perched on a post in the distance and several Marsh Harriers circled up, with four together at one point. Then a smaller harrier appeared, over in the corner, and as it turned we could see it was paler below with a distinctive white square patch at base of tail – a Hen Harrier. We watched it circle for a while before landing down in the vegetation, from where a passing Marsh Harrier stopped to flush it again, the two of them then circling together briefly providing a nice comparison.

It was quiet at the southern end of the pit today. A Little Egret was busy fishing in the pool just below South Hide. We watched as it walked round, stopping regularly and jiggling one foot in the water in front of it to see if it could flush out any prey from the mud.

Little Egret

Little Egret – fishing in the pool below South Hide

We walked back on the path around the other side of the pit. It was rather quiet, although a Ruff flying past was a nice bonus for here. We were hoping perhaps to find an owl still out hunting but it looked like they had all gone to roost. However, we did find a Short-eared Owl roosting under bramble bush. It was very well sheltered from disturbance and looking out to the morning sun for a bit of warmth.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl – roosting under a bramble bush

Then it was back round to the car for a welcome coffee break. Looking out across the Wash, a huge flock of thousands of Knot had gathered to roost out on the middle of the mud over high tide, and were shining in the morning sun.

Knot

Knot – roosting on the mud in a large flock over high tide

After coffee, we made our way round via Hunstanton and up to the north coast, where we popped in to Thornham Harbour to see what we could find. A Black-tailed Godwit and a Curlew were feeding in the channel by the Coal Barn when we arrived, and more waders were in the harbour channel beyond the sluice – several Redshanks, a couple more Curlew, a Bar-tailed Godwit with two Black-tailed Godwits, a Grey Plover and a single Ringed Plover.

Climbing up onto the seawall, a flock of Goldfinches were feeding in the vegetation on the edge of the saltmarsh below the bank. We could see several Linnets with them and then spotted a Twite too. It was colour-ringed – a bird ringed in Derbyshire in May of this year. When something spooked them and all the finches flew up, we realised there were actually five Twite, the others having been hidden from view. They all circled round several times and eventually three of the Twite landed on a wooden post just across the harbour, where we had a lovely view of them through the scope in the sunshine.

Suddenly we heard lots of Pink-footed Geese calling in the distance, and we turned to see a large flock of several thousand come up from the fields inland, beyond the trees. They were presumably birds we had seen flying out from the roost at the Wash earlier. Some circled round and disappeared back down behind the trees, but others flew over towards the grazing marshes at Holme. This is an area they often like to loaf when they are not feeding and we had hoped to find some closer, on the ground today, so we could get a better look at them.

About half of the Pink-footed Geese seemed to drop down in the fields further back, but the rest looked to be landing closer to the bank, so walked along to the next corner of the seawall to see if we could get a look at them. When we got there, we found they were mostly hidden behind a fence, but we could see a few through a gap in the vegetation and got a fairly good look at them in the scope.

There were other birds here to look at too though. Several Skylarks flew up from the grazing meadows and a little group of Meadow Pipits landed in the top of a small bush. A female Stonechat appeared on the edge of the saltmarsh the other side. We could hear Bearded Tits calling from the reeds below the bank. There were lots of Golden Plover and Curlew in the field nearest to us.

Pink-footed Geese 10

Pink-footed Geese – coming in to land on the grazing marshes at Holme

Something flushed the rest of the Pink-footed Geese again from the fields inland, and they flew in to join the rest on the grazing marshes. Most landed out of view again but this time some landed in the field in front of the fence, closer to us. We could see their pink legs and feet catching the light in the sunshine as they came in to land, and we had a better view of them through the scope down in the grass.

As we made our way back to the car, we came across some other birders in the car park. The Twite had come in to bathe in the puddles there. We stopped to watch them too – we could see their yellow bills and orange breasts as they flapped and splashed.

Twite

Twite – bathing in the puddles as we walked back to the car park

Our next stop was at Titchwell. There were a few finches and tits on the feeders by the visitor centre as we passed. We then stopped to watch a Water Rail which was feeding in the ditch just below the main path. These are normally very secretive birds but there is often one which can be found here in winter, with a bit of searching. We watched as it rooted around in the rotting leaves in the bottom of the ditch. It was very well camouflaged but we could see the leaves flying.

Water Rail

Water Rail – in the ditch below the main path

There were three Marsh Harriers circling over the back of the reedbed and a small group of Gadwall at the back of the reedbed pool as we walked out.

The water levels on the Freshmarsh are coming up fast now, as they are raised for the winter. Consequently, there are not so many waders. At least 16 Avocets are still clinging on for the winter and were roosting on one of the few remaining islands. The wildfowl doesn’t mind the increased water though. A gaggle of Brent Geese were swimming on the edge of the reeds, chattering noisily. The ducks like it too – there were plenty of Shelduck, Wigeon and Teal, and a few Shoveler.

We called in briefly at Parrinder Hide. In the middle of the day with the sun shining, we were looking straight into the light from here but we wanted to check quickly whether there was anything else on the islands in front of the hide. Several Dunlin were picking around on the wet mud, but not much else different here today.

The Volunteer Marsh in front of the other half of Parrinder Hide was rather quiet, apart from a few Shelducks and Curlews. Back on the main path, another Curlew and a Redshank were feeding in the channel below the bank.

The non-tidal ‘Tidal Pools’ are very full of water at the moment. The ducks were all tightly packed in on the last bit of remaining island, and a careful scan revealed a drake Pintail asleep among the Wigeon. Otherwise, there were not many waders here, just a few more Black-tailed Godwits and Redshanks.

With the sun at our backs, it was glorious out on the beach. The tide was still just going out, and the mussel beds were still covered. The Oystercatchers were still roosting on the sand and looked great in the light. Several Turnstones and Sanderlings were running in and out between them. Several Bar-tailed Godwits were probing in the sand on the shoreline, with another having a bathe in a pool at the bottom of the beach.

Waders

Oystercatchers – roosting on the beach, with Sanderling and Turnstones

In the light winds the sea was calm. We had a quick scan but the birds were a long way out today. A distant couple of Great Crested Grebes caught the light and a Goldeneye was diving offshore.

After stopping to admire the view from the beach, it was time to head back. It had been an early start this morning. Two Egyptian Geese out on the Thornham grazing meadow rounded out the goose list for the day. Three Wrens chasing around the undergrowth just past the Visitor Centre and a Red Kite over the fields on the way home were the final additions to the overall tally on a very enjoyable day out.