Tag Archives: Hen Harrier

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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27th Feb 2019 – Has Spring Sprung?

A Private Tour today in North Norfolk. A glorious sunny day, unseasonably warm with temperatures up to 16C by the afternoon. With lots of birds singing now, it felt like spring had sprung! But it is not set to last, so we had a good day out trying to make the most of it.

There have been lots of birds on the sea in NW Norfolk in the last few days – divers, grebes, seaduck – so we decided to start the day up there to try to see some of them. On our way west along the coast road, we stopped to admire a Barn Owl which was dozing on a post, warming itself in the early sunshine.

Barn Owl

Barn Owl – enjoying the morning sun on a post by the road

The Barn Owl stared at us for a while, seemingly unhappy at being rudely awoken from its slumbers, then flew back across the field and landed on another post on the other side.

Our first scheduled stop of the morning was at Titchwell. As we walked down the path towards the Visitor Centre, a Chiffchaff was singing from somewhere deep in the sallows. They have started singing early this year, lulled into thinking spring is here already with all the recent warm weather. We could hear our first Mediterranean Gulls of the day flying over too.

The feeders had been taken down for refilling, so there were no birds coming in, but there was lots of chattering from high in the trees around the Visitor Centre. We heard a redpoll singing and looked up to find a Lesser Redpoll perched in the very top of one of the trees. There were quite a few redpolls here this morning and several Siskins too. They were very mobile, flying around in the trees. When a little group of redpolls came down into the bushes lower down, we picked up one or two Mealy Redpolls too.

There have been small numbers of finches on the move in the last week or so, birds starting to head back north after spending the winter further south. We would hear small numbers of Siskin in particular moving through the day.

Stopping to scan the Thornham grazing meadow, a distant Common Buzzard was down in the grass in the middle and another was even further off on a bush at the back. Looking down into the ditch below the path, a Water Rail was picking around in the leaves in the bottom. We stopped to watch it, and a second Water Rail ran across the path a bit further up, which we could then see down in the water in the bottom as we walked on.

Water Rail

Water Rail – one of two in the ditch this morning

A couple of Cetti’s Warblers were calling from the edges of the reedbed, but despite one being very close to the path typically it kept well hidden. A male Reed Bunting was more obliging, perched in one of the small bushes. Through the scope we could see that its black head was still partly obscured by brown fringing which it still gradually wearing of.

Several Marsh Harriers were up beyond the bank at the back, over Brancaster marsh. Then another Marsh Harrier appeared closer to us, up from the reedbed. It was a male and as it flew across we could see it was carrying a couple of pieces of reed in its talons. It dropped down again into the reeds, presumably busy building up a nesting platform.

The old pool on Thornham grazing marsh is now getting overgrown and hard to see anything, but a quick look across as we passed revealed a Redshank down on the pool at the front and a smaller birds picking round the edge nearby. It was a Water Pipit. We had a good look at it through the scope, before it worked its way further back into the vegetation and disappeared.

Water Pipit

Water Pipit – a nice surprise on the old pool on Thornham GM

The Water Pipit in recent days has mostly been seen feeding on the cut reed by the reedbed pool on the other side of the path, but they can be very difficult to see out here. There was one out here too, this morning. But it wasn’t until the first Water Pipit flew over from the Thornham side that we could see it. It flew across and chased off the new arrival, which returned across the path. What was possibly a third Water Pipit then flew up from the back and disappeared back over the reeds.

Several Common Snipe were also well hidden, roosting in the cut reeds. There were a few ducks out at the back of the reedbed pool – Common Pochard and Tufted Ducks. A Little Grebe was hiding behind the reeds on one of the small pools just below the path. A few Wigeon were feeding out on the saltmarsh behind us.

The Water Level on the Freshmarsh is still very high, although it has started to go down a touch and there was a little more mud exposed around the tallest of the islands. The Avocets were still roosting in the deeper water, with a good number now back here. On the small island by the junction with the path to Parrinder Hide, we could just see a small group of Knot busy bathing and preening on the mud at the back. A lone Golden Plover was standing with the Lapwings on the drier mud in the middle.

Avocets

Avocets – more are back now, roosting out on the Freshmarsh

Some people returning from the beach told us there were a couple of Black-throated Divers offshore, so we decided to head straight out there. We had a quick look at the Volunteer Marsh on our way past. It looked pretty empty at first, apart from a few Redshanks, until a flock of Knot appeared from out of the vegetation and whirled round before flying back out towards the beach. There were more waders along the channel at the far end, more Redshanks, several Curlews, one or two Black-tailed Godwits and a little group of six Dunlin.

With the tide coming in, more waders were roosting on the non-tidal ‘Tidal Pools’. The water level has dropped here a little in the warm weather and there is a bit more space for them on here at the moment. There were several more little groups of Knot, with a few Bar-tailed Godwits and Grey Plover standing with them. A few diminutive Dunlin were running round the mud next to them.

By the time we got out to the beach, the Black-throated Divers had drifted east towards Scolt and further out. It was also very hazy offshore, but we managed to get one of the divers in the scope and get a good look at it – we could see the distinctive white flank patch. Several Great Crested Grebes and a single Razorbill were closer in, but everything else was rather distant. There were a few Red-breasted Mergansers and Goldeneye and three Eider flew past in the distance.

High tide was not until midday today, so we decided to make our way slowly back and head round to Holme to see if there was any more to see on the sea there. We called in at Parrinder Hide to admire the Mediterranean Gulls. Numbers are growing steadily now and it will be interesting to see how many pairs breed in 2019, after the big increase in pairs last year. We could see several pairs displaying in with the more numerous Black-headed Gulls on the fenced off Avocet Island, and we got a couple in the scope to look at the differences between the two species.

Mediterranean Gulls

Mediterranean Gulls – displaying on Avocet Island in with the Black-headed Gulls

There were a few ducks still on the Freshmarsh. A good number of Teal were sleeping along the edge of the bank either side of the hide. Several pairs of Gadwall were roosting on the smaller islands along with a few Shoveler.

As we came out of the hide, we could hear a Marsh Harrier calling high above. We could just see it way up in the blue sky. It was flapping steadily and calling at first, but as it got back over towards the reedbed it started to tumble and twist, skydancing. A couple of Common Buzzards appeared in the sky too, circling over the path before drifting off west, possibly birds on the move.

We cut across by Meadow Trail, where there was no sign of the Woodcock now, round to Patsy’s Reedbed. There were not so many ducks on here today – just a few Gadwall, Common Pochard and Tufted Duck. Several Common Snipe were hiding in the cut reeds along the edge. Two or three Marsh Harrier circled up over the reedbed, and one drifted closer over the back of the pool.

Marsh Harrier

Marsh Harrier – circled over the back of Patsy’s Reedbed

The highlight here though was the Bearded Tit. We could hear two birds pinging, one in the reeds in front of the right of the viewpoint and a second back on the edge of the reeds on the left of the pool. That second Bearded Tit worked its way closer along the edge of the pool and then perched up for a few seconds in full view – a smart male with powder blue-grey head black moustache. It zipped across the open water and disappeared into the reeds where the first bird had been calling, at which point both then went quiet.

Back to the Visitor Centre and after stopping to get a quick cup of tea, we headed round to Holme. It was lunchtime now, so we walked out to the beach with our food and scanned the sea while we ate. A Red Kite circled over the pines and drifted out over the beach, perhaps another raptor on the move taking advantage of the warm weather.

There were more birds on the sea off The Firs, but it was very hazy here too. The highlight was a Red-necked Grebe, which at one point swam up to join a small group of Great Crested Grebes, giving us a great comparison. There were lots more Red-breasted Mergansers off here and several more Eiders too. We still hadn’t found the Long-tailed Ducks, so once we had finished eating we decided to walk up through the dunes to Gore Point to try our luck there.

Another Marsh Harrier was calling from high over the grazing marshes, and we looked across to see several geese out on the grass. They were mostly Greylags but there were a small number of Pink-footed Geese still here too, smaller, darker-headed and darker-billed. Most of the winter’s Pink-footed Geese have already departed on their way back north, but a few are still lingering along the coast. The Brent Geese stay here a little longer and there was a tight flock out on the grazing marshes and several smaller groups flying in and out from the beach.

Brent Geese

Brent Geese – flying past as we walked up to Gore Point

There were a lot more birds on the sea off Gore Point, and it didn’t take long to find the Long-tailed Ducks. They were diving regularly and hard to count, but eventually we got to a total of 21 together. The long tails of the drakes were hard to see when they were diving but when they stopped a couple of the drakes appeared to be displaying, swimming after a female with their tails cocked in the air.

There were even more Red-breasted Mergansers here – there seemed to be a very good number of them today, though they were too spread out to count easily. A distant Velvet Scoter appeared too briefly, but disappeared again when we took our eyes off it. A single Great Northern Diver was very distant, but a closer Slavonian Grebe then appeared. A Fulmar flew past low over the water. Non-avian interest included a Harbour Porpoise which rested at the surface for a few seconds before diving again.

Having walked up to Gore Point, we were a little later than planned leaving Holme which meant we could only enjoy a brief visit to Holkham on our way back east. There were lots of Wigeon still out on the grazing marshes by Lady Anne’s Drive as we parked, but not so many geese here now.

Out through the pines, we walked east on the edge of the saltmarsh. As we got closer to the cordon, we could see lots of pipits out in vegetation. A closer look revealed they were a mixture of Scandinavian Rock Pipits and Meadow Pipits. It was interesting to compare the two side by side, and also to compare and contrast the Rock Pipits with the closely related Water Pipit which we had seen earlier. There were a few Skylarks here too and one or two were singing in the sunshine.

There were a few people watching the Shorelarks already. They were quite a long way back in the taller vegetation before the cordon again, and a couple of people couldn’t resist the temptation to walk out onto the saltmarsh to get closer. We stood on the path and admired them through the scope. It was lovely afternoon light now and their bright yellow faces glowed in the sunshine when they lifted their heads.

Shorelark 1

Shorelarks – still out on the saltmarsh

The best strategy with the Shorelarks is to wait and let them come to you, and we could see they were gradually working their way towards the path further along. We walked up and watched them, busily picking around and creeping through the vegetation. We carried on a little further to see if the Dartford Warbler was still around, despite the fact it has not been reported here for a week or two. There was no sign of it and no sign of the Stonechat which has previously helped to tempt it out of the dense buckthorn, so we didn’t linger here.

Shorelark 2

Shorelarks – great views when they worked their way closer to the path

When we returned to the Shorelarks, they were very close to the path now and walking very slowly we were able to position ourselves without disturbing them. It was a great view of them from here. We tried to count them – there were at least 10 in the closer group, but there were still some further back on the saltmarsh which were mostly hidden. We still had one last thing we wanted to try to do today, so we eventually had to tear ourselves away

Continuing on along the coast, we parked and made our way down a track towards the saltmarsh. A male Marsh Harrier was still out hunting and crossed the track ahead of us. A few Chaffinches and tits flew in and out of the hedges ahead of us. We could hear a couple of Yellowhammers singing and had nice views of one of the males perched in the top of the hedge, bright yellow in the evening sun.

Yellowhammer

Yellowhammer – one of two males singing in the hedge

As we got down to the edge of the saltmarsh, a Barn Owl flew past across the grass in front of us. A nice start! A Peregrine was perched out on one of the sandbanks in the distance, but it was a long way off and little more than a blob in the misty haze even through the scope. A Marsh Harrier was quartering the back of the saltmarsh and a couple of late Common Buzzards circled over the edge of the field behind us calling.

Then a Hen Harrier appeared, a ringtail, flying in across the back of the saltmarsh. It was a long way off, but through the scope we could see the white square at the base of its tail. Shortly after, a second ringtail flew in a bit closer. It landed down in the vegetation for a few minutes and when it flew up again it came across and flushed the first Hen Harrier from where it was hiding. We saw the two of them several times over the next 15 minutes or so.

We really wanted to see a Merlin here, but they were a bit elusive this evening. Eventually the one other person down here with us spotted one, right at the back of the saltmarsh, perched on the top of a small bush. It was a long way off, but we could see what it was through the scope.

That was a great way to end, so with the light starting to go now we walked back up the track. There were loads of Brown Hares out in the fields here now. We stopped to listen to a couple of Grey Partridge calling from the next field over, which were then accompanied by a Red-legged Partridge calling too. Then it was time to head for home.

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.

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.