Tag Archives: Hen Harrier

18th Nov 2017 – Early Winter Birding, Day 2

Day 2 of a three day long weekend of Early Winter Tours today. It was a nice, bright start to the morning and, although it clouded over later, it stayed largely dry until dark.

As we made our way east along the coast road, we thought we might stop for a better look at the Cattle Egrets. We were looking into the sun and the cows were huddled in one corner of the field, but there appeared to be white shapes in with them as we drove past. We parked in the layby just beyond and crossed the road. A flock of Fieldfares flew across the field, landing in the hedge close to where we parked and started tucking in to the berries. As we walked down along the path, we flushed a couple of Blackbirds and a Song Thrush from the bushes there. A Stock Dove flew out of the game cover as we passed.

When we got down to the corner overlooking the wet grazing marsh where the cows were, we couldn’t see any sign of the Cattle Egrets. The cows were on the edge of a ditch, so we wondered whether the egrets might be hiding at first. While we waited to see if they might emerge, we scanned the pools in the grass. There was a nice selection of ducks – Shelduck, Wigeon, Teal and a single female Pintail with them too. A scattering of Black-tailed Godwits were feeding around the muddy edge.

Marsh HarrierMarsh Harrier – flew over our heads early this morning

A flock of Long-tailed Tits came along the hedge past us, calling noisily. A Marsh Harrier circled up over the trees behind us before flying over our heads. A Yellowhammer flew over the road calling. And it quickly became clear that the Cattle Egrets weren’t there. We would be coming back this way later, so we decided not to linger and headed back to the car.

As we made our way on east past Cley, we could see a small flock of Brent Geese feeding on the grazing marsh by the entrance to Babcock Hide. There was nothing behind us, so we pulled up and had a quick look at them from the car. One immediately stood out – more contrasting than the regular Dark-bellied Brents, blacker bodied with a brighter white flank patch. It was the Black Brant. We managed to get a quick look at it before something spooked the geese and they all took off. They circled round and dropped down onto Watling Water, out of view.

Our next stop was at Weybourne. We decided to have a quick look at the beach first. There were a couple of groups of gulls on the shingle but nothing particularly interesting with them today – a mixture of Herring Gulls and Great Black-backed Gulls. A couple of Lesser Black-backed Gulls flew past together with a Great Black-backed Gull, giving a great side-by-side comparison.

There were several Turnstones down on the beach too, although they should perhaps have been better named Turn-fish today. A large number of small flatfish were washed up after last weekend’s storms and have been providing sustenance for the gulls and the Turnstones.

TurnstoneTurnstone – turning over a flatfish instead!

One of the group spotted a Great Crested Grebe flying past just offshore. It is quite an incongruous sight, but they winter quite commonly on the sea here. A single Ringed Plover flew past some way out too, presumably a fresh arrival coming in for the winter. Two Gannets circled way out on the horizon, catching the sun. A Rock Pipit flew west over the beach along with a Meadow Pipit. Otherwise there was not much happening out at sea this morning, so we decided to explore the fields instead.

As we walked up the hill on the edge of the grass beside the stubble, we flushed several Skylarks which flew round and landed again out in the field. A little group of Meadow Pipits flew up from the grass calling. Then up towards the top of the field, a large flock of Linnets flew up from the stubble and wheeled round before landing again. We had really come to look for Lapland Buntings, a few of which have been in the stubble here in recent days, but at first we couldn’t find any.

As we got up towards the old Coastguard Cottages, we could see more activity out in the middle of the field so we thought we would try walking up along the track towards the mill. We would not be looking into the sun from there too, as we had been from the cliff side. When we got to the field gate half way up the track, we stopped to scan and were instantly rewarded with a Lapland Bunting. Even better, it was out in an open area of bare mud, where we could get it in the scope. Great views – we couldn’t believe our luck! They are more often just seen flying round or skulking in the stubble.

Lapland BuntingLapland Bunting – showed very well on an area of bare mud

We watched the Lapland Bunting for some time. It was strikingly pale, off-white below and around the face. It appeared to be a male, with a ghosting of a black bib. It was feeding with a couple of Skylarks and Linnets. It would disappear into the furrows from time to time and then reappear somewhere different. At one point it looked like it might be bathing in a furrow with a couple of Meadow Pipits. Then a Weasel appeared. It ran across the field to the open muddy area and all the birds started to chase after it, mobbing it.

After the Weasel had been seen off, all the birds flew round and the Lapland Bunting circled over the open area again before heading out across the field. A second Lapland Bunting appeared from somewhere and followed it, the two of them then dropping down into the stubble out of view.

Our next destination was Kelling Water Meadow. As we walked up the lane, there were a few Blackbirds still in the hedges, arrivals from the continent for the winter stopping off here to refuel on the berries. Otherwise, there were just a few Chaffinches on the walk out until we got to where the thick hedges run out. Then a female Stonechat flew up from the grassy verge and landed in a hawthorn beside us.

StonechatStonechat – this female flew up from the verge beside us

There did not appear to be many birds on the pool here today. Three Teal were feeding at the back. One of the things we had hoped to see was the Spotted Redshank which has been lingering here for some months now, but all we could find was a single Common Redshank. A Curlew flew in calling and landed along the muddy edge, followed shortly after by a single Black-tailed Godwit.

The other species we wanted to see here was Jack Snipe, so we made our way round to the area they have been favouring. They are hard to see at the best of times – they sleep most of the day, hiding deep in the grass, beautifully camouflaged. The water level has increased here in recent days too, which also doesn’t help – it seems to have driven them into the thickest vegetation. When one of the group called out almost immediately to say he had found a bird with a long bill walking in the grass on the edge of the water, it seemed too good to be true. It was – a Common Snipe was feeding along the edge of the water. Still, nice to see.

We stood and scanned the grass for a couple of minutes. Then something caught the eye – the vaguest darker shape deep in the grass, and a golden yellow stripe at a different angle to the vegetation. Through the scope we could see it was indeed a Jack Snipe. It was asleep, but we could see its eye staring at us. It half woke at one point, and started to bob up and down a little, the distinctive action of a Jack Snipe.

Jack SnipeJack Snipe – hiding deep in the grass

After enjoying the Jack Snipe for a while, we set off back up the lane. About half way back, we heard Bullfinches calling and a smart pink male flew out of the hedge andup the track ahead of us. It landed in a small tree with some Chaffinches, before flying back towards us and landing in the back of the hedge. We could hear it calling plaintively and a second Bullfinch answering nearby. Then it disappeared round behind the hedge.

We wanted to try to get better views of the Black Brant so we headed back to Cley next. There were only twenty or so Brent Geese off the East Bank, where it had been reported after we had seen it earlier, but it was not with them now. So we headed round to Beach Road instead. There was a much bigger flock of Brent Geese on one of the grazing meadows by the road here and a couple of cars had stopped to look at them. We joined them and after a couple of seconds the Black Brant appeared at the back of the flock.

Black BrantBlack Brant – feeding with the Brent Geese by Beach Road early afternoon

Through the scope, we got a really good look at the Black Brant. The white flank patch was really striking in the sunshine, very different to the more muted patches on the Dark-bellied Brents. When the Black Brant lifted its neck, we could also see its much bolder white collar, complete below the chin.

While we were watching the Black Brant, a small flock of Starlings flew over the reserve towards us, and across the road just beyond us. One of them was strikingly pale brown, but unfortunately it appeared to be just a leucistic Starling rather than anything rarer. Our timing was fortunate, because after a few minutes all the Brent Geese took off and disappeared much further out to the south side of Eye Field to join an even larger flock of Brents already there.

We continued on along Beach Road to the car park at the end and climbed up onto the shingle to have a quick look at the sea. A Grey Seal was swimming past just off the beach. A Red-throated Diver was on the sea rather distant and was diving constantly which made it harder to see. The wind had picked up a little and the sea was rather choppy too. Another Red-throated Diver flew past, along with a couple of distant Guillemots and a single adult Gannet. It was time for lunch, so we ate in the beach shelter out of the fresh breeze.

After lunch, we headed round to the East Bank. There were a few more Brent Geese feeding on the grazing marsh here now, along with several larger flocks of Wigeon. We could see more ducks out on the Serpentine, but as we walked up towards them to have a closer look we noticed a little group of waders feeding on the mud at the north end. One was noticeably smaller than the others, so we hurried straight up there and sure enough it was a Little Stint in with a group of Dunlin.

Little StintLittle Stint – with a larger Dunlin in front

It has been a good year for Little Stints here, with a maximum count of over 40 juveniles earlier in the autumn. However, Little Stint is predominantly a passage migrant here and numbers dwindled through October, as birds moved on towards their wintering grounds around the Mediterranean or to Africa. Winter Little Stints are not unprecedented in Norfolk but are unusual, so it will be interesting to see if this one stays here now. It was a juvenile moulting to 1st winter plumage, still with quite a few retained juvenile scapulars.

As well as the Dunlin and Little Stint, there were a few Black-tailed Godwits feeding down in the water here. There was a nice selection of ducks on the Serpentine too. As well as all the Wigeon and Teal, there were several Shoveler, a small party of Gadwall and a few Pintail, the drakes of which are now looking very smart. Further back, several Cormorants were drying their wings on one of the islands on Pope’s Pool.

A Curlew was feeding on the brackish pools behind the shelter overlooking Arnold’s Marsh, but it was nice to get in the shelter out of the breeze. There didn’t seem to be much out here at first, apart from a number of Common Redshanks, but looking carefully around the edges we found several more Dunlin and three Grey Plover. A Little Egret was fishing on the pool just in front, shaking one foot at a time in the mud out in front of it, trying to flush out some food.

Little EgretLittle Egret – feeding on the pool on the front edge of Arnold’s Marsh

With the evenings drawing in early now and a couple more things we wanted to do yet, we headed back to the car. It turned out that the Cattle Egrets had moved and were in a different field today, which is why we hadn’t found them earlier. This was more than a little unusual – one of them has been coming to the same field just about daily since mid September!

However, we didn’t have any trouble finding the Cattle Egrets now we knew where they were hiding today. We parked outside the pub in Stiffkey and they were out in the field opposite, with the cows. We had a great view of them feeding around the cows hooves, picking at the grass.

Cattle EgretCattle Egret – one of the two still at Stiffkey, but in a different field today!

Our final destination for the day was at Warham Greens. As we walked up the track, we flushed several Blackbirds from the hedge. Then a small group of six Redwings flew out ahead of us too and circled round calling, before landing in the top of the hedge along the edge of one of the fields. A Common Buzzard was surveying the scene from the top of the roof of the old barn and as we walked past several Stock Doves flew out too.

From the end of the track, we stopped and scanned out across the saltmarsh. There were plenty of Little Egrets and Redshanks out in the grass, plus a few Golden Plover and Brent Geese. A Barn Owl flew through the hedge beside us and disappeared away along the edge of the saltmarsh, before landing in the bushes in the Pit.

A large flock of Fieldfares appeared over the hedge, and flew down to the Pit, landing in the tops of all the bushes and it the hedges either side. A little later, more Fieldfares appeared from over the hedge the other side of us, accompanied by a small group of Redwings. It was hard to tell, but perhaps all these thrushes had only just arrived from Scandinavia for the winter and were stopping to feed up here.

It didn’t take long to spot our first Hen Harrier, a cracking grey male which flew across the saltmarsh in front of us. It dropped down into the bushes and almost immediately we picked up a ringtail Hen Harrier which flew up and started quartering the saltmarsh further back. We saw at least 4 possibly 5 Hen Harriers this evening. Another two ringtails appeared together away in front of East Hills. Then a grey male, possibly the same as earlier having sneaked out unseen or possibly a different bird, flew in from the left. It is a real treat to see so many of them.

The light started to go, as a band of dark cloud arrived from the west. We had enjoyed lovely weather all day, which was very welcome, and thankfully only now did it start to spit lightly with rain. We decided to call it a night.

Pink-footed GeesePink-footed Geese – lines and lines of them flew out to roost at dusk

As we walked back up the track, there were several Grey Partridge calling from the fields. We could hear Pink-footed Geese too and looked up to see lines and lines of them in the sky, flying towards us. They were heading out to roost on the flats beyond the saltmarsh and it was really evocative as they flew over our heads. A great way to end the day.

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2nd Nov 2017 – Autumn meets Winter

A Late Autumn day tour today, in North Norfolk. It was a nice day, with high cloud but dry and mild and with light winds. A good day to be out birding. We met in Wells and headed east along the coast road.

On our way, as we passed Stiffkey, we had a quick look in the wet field beside the road just beyond the village. The cows were very close to the verge and there, with them, were not one but now two Cattle Egrets. There is nowhere to stop here but we managed to pull over where other cars could pass and wound down the windows for a closer look.

Cattle EgretCattle Egret – one of two at Stiffkey now

One of the two Cattle Egrets was standing right out in the open, and we got a good look at it through our binoculars – we could see its short yellowish bill. But it was spooked by another car passing us and flew further back. The second Cattle Egret managed to hide itself very successfully behind a cow at first, but eventually the cow moved out of the way and we could see that one well too, before it then flew further back into the field to join the first.

While we were watching the Cattle Egrets, a pipit flew up from the edge of the pool behind and circled over calling. We could hear a shrill, sharp call, though not as piercing as a Rock Pipit. It sounded like a Water Pipit – and helpfully was seen there again later by someone else at the site.

Our first destination proper for the day was Kelling. We parked in the village and walked up along the lane towards the beach. There were lots of Blackbirds and Chaffinches in the hedges, which flew off ahead of us as we made our way along. These were presumably mostly migrants, just arriving here for the winter.

A male Bullfinch flew out calling and landed briefly in the top of the next hedge over across the field. A Reed Bunting and a couple of Yellowhammers perched up in the top of a hawthorn with some of the Chaffinches, just long enough for us to get a good look at them. A Blackcap was not so obliging, flitting across the track and disappearing into the densest blackthorn.

When we got to a gap in the hedge, we stopped to scan the fields. A flock of about 30 Fieldfares was perched in the top of the bushes just across the field and we were able to get them in the scope, before they flew off west over the track ahead of us, chacking. They were followed by a group of Starlings. This was to be a theme of the day, with flocks of Starlings passing overhead west continually all day, birds arriving in from the continent for the winter.

There were other birds moving today too. Several Skylarks passed high overhead calling as we walked along the lane, seemingly on their way west. We heard Redpolls calling overhead too. In the hedge north of the copse, a Goldcrest was probably also a migrant arrived for the winter. When we got to the edge of the Quags, a female Stonechat was flycatching from the brambles and was joined by a couple of Meadow Pipits which flew up from the grass and stopped there to preen.

Looking across at the pool on the Water Meadow, a flock of about twenty Dunlin were busy feeding feverishly on the exposed mud along the near edge. A Common Redshank was with them. Further back, we found the Spotted Redshank weaving in and out of the rushes on the edge of the island. We got it in the scope and could immediately see how much paler it was than its commoner cousin, with a more strongly marked white supercilium and a longer, much finer bill.

Spotted RedshankSpotted Redshank – lingering for several weeks here now

The Spotted Redshank, a 1st winter bird with darker grey retained juvenile wing coverts and tertials, has been lingering here for several weeks now – it will be interesting to see how much longer it stays here. The Spotted Redshank walked past a Common Snipe which was also feeding on the edge of the island.

There were a couple of other Common Snipe round the muddy edges of the pool too, helpfully feeding out in the open. The Jack Snipe are considerably more skulking – that one would take a bit more effort! Two Black-tailed Godwits flew in and circled over the pool nervously. They eventually dropped down into the water briefly, but changed their minds and took off again, flying off west.

At that point we noticed a report of a Sabine’s Gull which had apparently flown west past Cromer about 20 minutes earlier. It was headed our way, so we made our way straight to the beach to see if we could catch up with it. It later transpired the Sabine’s Gull had turned back and then appeared off Cromer again, so we didn’t manage to see it. But we did pick up a handful of Little Gulls moving west offshore – including a couple of slightly closer adults flashing alternately pale grey above and black underwings as they flapped.

Red-throated DiverRed-throated Diver – there were several on the sea off Kelling today

There were a few Gannets offshore too, mostly distant today though in the rather calm conditions. Several Red-throated Divers were closer in, including one diving just off the beach, in winter plumage now, dusky grey and white, with a rather pale face. A small group of female or juvenile Eider flew west, big chunky ducks with heavy wedge-shaped bills. While we were scanning the sea, a party of eleven Snow Buntings flew east along the shore line past us, calling. We could see as they dropped down onto the beach halfway towards Weybourne, so we set off to see if we could get a closer look.

We found the Snow Buntings again as they flew round and landed on the shingle some way ahead of us still. We got them in the scope and marvelled at how well camouflaged they are against the stones. A couple of them were running around on a patch of sand and were much easier to see. They all started to run up the beach towards a small patch of low sand cliff, and appeared to be feeding there, which gave us an opportunity to get much closer.

Snow BuntingSnow Bunting – great views feeding along the edge of the beach

In the end, we had great close views of the Snow Buntings. There were some annual weeds growing at the top of the sand and the Snow Buntings were feeding on the plentiful seed, up on the top of the cliffs or looking for seed which had fallen off and landed down below. We could see the flock consisted of a mixture of paler Scandinavian birds (of the subspecies nivalis) and darker Icelandic Snow Buntings (insulae). After watching them for a while at close quarters, we left them busy feeding.

On our walk back to the Water Meadow, a female Stonechat was feeding on the brambles on the edge of the Quags, along with a Reed Bunting. We stopped by the pool to have a look for Jack Snipe. As we stood there, we could hear a Great Spotted Woodpecker call and we looked up to see it flying over our heads. There are no trees out here, so it landed on fence post instead, before continuing on its way west.

Jack Snipe are nowhere near as obliging as the Common Snipe, and spend a lot of their time skulking in the vegetation around the pool. They tend to be most active at dawn and dusk too and sleep for much of the day. After some very careful scanning, we just managed to spot a hint of a shape hidden deep in the grass. Getting the scope on it, we could see it was a Jack Snipe.

Jack SnipeJack Snipe – skulking in the grass by the Water Meadow

The Jack Snipe was asleep at first, brilliantly camouflaged in the tussocks of brown grass and rushes, and all but impossible to see unless you knew where it was. By changing our angle of view, we managed to build up a composite view of bits of it. Just occasionally it would wake for a couple of seconds and then sometimes it would start its characteristic bobbing motion, at which point it was marginally easier to find! It edged round a little and we found a spot from where we could see its face and bill through the vegetation.

While we were watching the Jack Snipe, the Spotted Redshank also put on a great performance for us, feeding up and down along the front edge of the pool, only a few metres away from us at times.

Eventually, we had to tear ourselves away and head back up the lane towards the car. We were halfway back when three small birds flew up from the weedy vegetation in the beck by the path. They were three Lesser Redpoll and they helpfully landed in the top of one of the low trees just behind us, waiting for us to move on so they could move back to where they were feeding. We could see they were small and quite dark brown-coloured.

Lesser RedpollLesser Redpoll – three were feeding in the lane on our walk back

There has been a Black Brant with the Dark-bellied Brent Geese at Cley for a couple of weeks now, so we decided to go on a wild goose chase before lunch! The geese had been reported on the grazing marshes off the East Bank this morning, but there was no sign of any here when we got round there. The flock also likes to feed in the Eye Field, so we decided to have a quick look there next and sure enough there were the Brent Geese.

Some of the Brent Geese were feeding on the grass right by the road, so we pulled up carefully in the car and opened the windows. One of the closest birds to us was the Black Brant! It’s brighter white flank patch, contrasting more with its darker blackish body plumage, meant it immediately stood out from the duller Dark-bellied Brent Geese. We had a really good look at it from the car.

Black BrantBlack Brant – feeding right next to the Beach Road at Cley

We then parked at the end of the road and had a look at the geese through the scope from the West Bank. We could see the Black Brant’s much better marked white collar, connecting under the chin and wrapping round a long way at the back too. Our regular wintering Dark-bellied Brents breed in northern Russia, with the Black Brant coming from for north-east Siberia or across the Pacific in NW North America. Occasionally Black Brants get lost and get in with the Dark-bellied Brents, at which point they may remain with them – this bird is probably a regular returnee, having been seen here for several winters now.

As we walked back to the car, a couple of Rock Pipits were chasing each other round the fishing boats and tractors on the edge of the beach. We headed back towards the visitor centre for lunch, but on the way back along the Beach Road one of the group spotted a wader flying over from the direction of the reserve. A Greenshank – it disappeared over the West Bank in the direction of Blakeney Harbour.

It was mild today, so we were able still to sit outside and eat our lunch at the picnic tables overlooking the reserve at Cley. As we ate, a large skein of Pink-footed Geese about a thousand strong came up from the fields in the distance beyond North Foreland wood. They came along the edge of the ridge and as they got closer we could hear their distinctive high-pitched yelping calls. Almost at the car park, they turned towards the reserve and started to whiffle down, losing height rapidly, before landing on the scrapes. Quite a spectacle!

Pink-footed GeesePink-footed Geese – quite a sight, hundreds whiffling down towards the reserve

After lunch, we made our way round to Walsey Hills. A Yellow-browed Warbler had been reported here earlier and we thought we would like to try to get a look at it. A pair of Little Grebes were diving on the pool and we could hear a couple of Water Rails squealing from the reeds.

The Yellow-browed Warbler was frequenting the sallows at the back of Walsey Hills, a very dense area of cover. We headed out into the field at the back, where we could get a good look at the far edge of the trees. At first, all we could see were several tiny Goldcrests flitting around in the sallows. A flock of tits flew in from the wood and made their way through the trees. Then we heard the Yellow-browed Warbler call. We could just see it in the trees, but it disappeared behind a trunk and didn’t come out the other side. It was a good start, but we would like a better view.

After a few minutes, someone shouted to say the Yellow-browed Warbler was visible from the path through the trees, but by the time we got round there it had disappeared again. There was a better view of the trees from back out in the field and thankfully the Yellow-browed Warbler reappeared there after a couple of minutes. It never came out onto the edge, but we could see it flicking around in the leaves, noting its bright pale supercilium and wing bars. Amazing to think this tiny warbler had come all the way from the Urals, or even beyond!

We headed back across the road to the East Bank next. A Stock Dove flew up from the grazing marsh and disappeared off inland over the trees. We could hear Bearded Tits calling from the reeds behind Don’s Pool, but the most we could see of them was the occasional long-tailed shape darting across before diving back into cover.

WigeonWigeon – feeding out on the grazing marshes in good numbers now

There were good numbers of ducks out on the grazing marshes. More Wigeon have returned now and there were several good sized groups feeding down in the grass below the bank. There were plenty of Teal too, particularly around the Serpentine, where a more careful scan also revealed a few Pintail and Gadwall. There were a few waders here too, several Black-tailed Godwits feeding on the Serpentine and further back, on Pope’s Pool, we could see a little group of Dunlin and a few Redshank.

There were more waders on Arnold’s Marsh. Looking carefully through all the Dunlin on here we found a single diminutive Little Stint with them, running round on the edge of one of the shingle spits. There were also several Grey Plover, Curlew and a single Turnstone on here, plus more Black-tailed Godwits and Redshank. A big flock of Linnets whirled round repeatedly, before dropping back down onto the saltmarsh to feed.

CurlewCurlew – there were several on Arnold’s and around the brackish pools

We continued on to the beach to have another quick look out to sea. Although the wind had finally swung round to the north-west, it was still rather too light to blow anything inshore. A small flock of Ringed Plover flew past along the beach. Further out, a lone Common Scoter flew west, as did a single Brent Goose. We picked up a small group of six Shelduck flying in over the sea, presumably returning from the continent where they had gone to moult. Several Kittiwakes were circling distantly, feeding offshore.

As we made our way back along the East Bank, the sun was already going down. We stopped to watch a Little Egret feeding on the brackish pools in the evening light – shaking its feet ahead of it in the mud, trying to stir up fish or other invertebrates from the shallows. When it lifted its feet out of the water, we could see they were bright yellow, contrasting with its black legs.

Little EgretLittle Egret – feeding in the brackish pools

The light was already starting to fade but we still had time for one more quick stop on our way back west, at Stiffkey Greenway. The evenings draw in much earlier now, after the clocks have changed. As we pulled up into the car park, several small groups of Little Egrets were making their way west to roost.

We were hoping to catch up with some raptors to end the day. A distant Merlin appeared briefly against the sky, but we lost it as it dropped down against the saltmarsh again. A Peregrine was easier to see, standing out on the sand in the distance and a Common Buzzard perched in the top of the bushes at the back edge of the saltmarsh. We did manage to find a couple of Hen Harriers, but they were distant today. First a grey male appeared, way out in front of East Hills, but it almost immediately dropped down onto the saltmarsh out of view. Then a little later a ringtail appeared in the same area. It at least flew around for a while, but the light was really going now and it was very hard to get everyone onto against the dark of the trees.

With the evening drawing in, it was time to call it a day and head back to Wells. It had been a great day out, with some good birds, a nice mixture of late autumn migrants and winter visitors.

21st Feb 2017 – From Heath to Coast

A Private Tour today in North Norfolk. The brief was to avoid the main nature reserves on the coast. The forecast was for it to be “rather cloudy with outbreaks of light rain at first” according to the Met Office. How wrong it was! Instead, when we met up in the morning it was wall to wall blue sky and crisp sunshine. With weather like that, there was only one place to start the day.

As soon was got out of the car up on the Heath, we heard a Woodlark calling as it flew away. A dog was running across the cleared area nearby and had probably just flushed it. Still, it seemed an auspicious start. A Yellowhammer flew in and landed in the top of one of the bushes by the car park. A smart male, we got it in the scope and its yellow head was positively glowing in the morning light. Stunning!

6o0a7787Yellowhammer – a smart male glowing yellow in the morning sun

A couple more Yellowhammers dropped in to join it, another male and a duller female. While we were watching them, we heard the Woodlark calling again as it flew back in. We saw where it landed in the long grass and walked a little closer to where we could see it. Thankfully, it was standing up on a slightly taller tussock and it started to sing softly as it stood there. We got it in the scope and all had a good look at it.

When the Woodlark took off again, it flew straight towards us and gained height. Then it started singing as it came right overhead, hovering above us for a minute or so. The Woodlark‘s song is not full of the joys like a Skylark but slightly more melancholy. It is still a beautiful sound, a real delight to stand and listen to it on such a sunny morning, one of the real sounds of early spring on the heaths. As it hung overhead, we could see the Woodlark‘s comparatively short tail and broad rounded wings.

6o0a7796Woodlark – hovering over our heads this morning, singing

After a while, the Woodlark flew down and landed again at the back of the clearing. We were planning to be greedy and go over for another look at it, but we were distracted by another smart male Yellowhammer hopping around on the ground in front of us. While we were watching it, the Woodlark took off again, calling. A second Woodlark got up from the ground and followed it – clearly the male had been singing while the female was feeding quietly over the back of the clearing all along.

Sunny mornings on the Heath at this time of the year are a great time to look for Adders. Having emerged from hibernation, they like to bask in the sunshine and warm themselves. We walked round to an area where we can often find them, a slope angled towards the morning sun. Very quickly we spotted one close to the path, but despite the early hour of the morning it was surprisingly lively already and quickly slithered off into the undergrowth. As we walked round this quiet corner, we heard a Bullfinch calling and looked across to see a smart pink male picking at the buds in the top of a dense blackthorn thicket.

After such a successful start to the morning, we decided to turn our attention to Dartford Warblers next. They are resident on the heaths all year round, but harder to find when it is cloudy and cold. At this time of year, on sunny days, they are starting to sing again. Walking round through the centre of one of their regular territories, all seemed rather quiet at first. Then we heard a distinctive rasping call and looked across to see a small dark long-tailed bird dart across a clearing between two gorse bushes. Our first Dartford Warbler.

Repositioning ourselves to where it had flown, we could soon see the Dartford Warbler flitting between the gorse bushes. As we followed it, it soon became clear there were actually at least three Dartford Warblers in the same area. They can be hard birds to track, as they are constantly on the move, disappearing into the dense vegetation for periods and then, just when you think you have lost them, flying out again. Occasionally one would perch out in the open for a couple of seconds – we could see there was a male, darker slate blue grey above and richer burgundy below, a duller female, and a young bird, much browner above and paler below, one of the juveniles from last year.

6o0a7835Dartford Warbler – the male singing from the top of a gorse bush

The male Dartford Warbler started singing. We could hear the bursts of scratchy song. At one point, we thought there might be two males, as we heard different bursts of song coming from different places in quick succession. After following them for a while, and having all enjoyed good views, we left them to it and continued our circuit of the Heath. As we walked round, were accompanied by the song of Woodlarks and Yellowhammers.

It was a perfect day for finding Adders today. We bumped into one of the local birders who is a regular on the Heath and he showed us three Adders basking round the base of a birch tree. A larger, darker female was stretched out on her own. Nearby, what looked like one snake turned out to be two curled up together as they moved – a large, dark female, and a smaller, slimmer, paler silvery male. A little further on, we found another two Adders, curled up in a couple of bare patches on a south facing bank. We had a great look at them.

6o0a7846Adder – we found at least six out basking this morning in a brief look

We had a quick look round another Dartford Warbler territory the other side of the Heath, but it was quieter here. There has been a pair of Stonechats here and the warblers have been following them round, but we couldn’t find any sign of either in their favourite area. Having enjoyed such a great session with the Dartford Warblers earlier, we weren’t overly concerned.

While we were walking round, another pair of Woodlarks flew over. The male landed on a post, where we could get him in the scope, while the female dropped down to the ground to feed. We were just watching them, when a third Woodlark started singing just behind us. These three were almostly certainly different to the pair we had seen earlier, which would mean potentially three pairs of Woodlark here this morning. It had been a great morning on the Heath and we could easily have stayed here all day, but we had other things we wanted to do today, so we made our way back to the car.

Our next destination was Holkham. As we drove down along Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see a large flock of geese on one of the grazing meadows nearby, so we stopped for a closer look. We could see they were mostly Brent Geese, smaller and darker, but nearby were a few grey-brown Pink-footed Geese too. A lot of the Pink-footed Geese which have spent the winter here have already departed on their way back north, so it was nice to be able to get a good look at some. We could see their delicate mostly dark bills with a pink band around and, when one stood up in the grass, its pink legs.

6o0a7850Pink-footed Geese – a few were still by Lady Anne’s Drive today

The vast majority of the Brent Geese here during the winter are Dark-bellied Brent Geese which breed up in arctic Russia. Occasionally, we get one of the other subspecies of Brent Goose in with the flocks, perhaps a Black Brant from NE Siberia or Alaska. In the past, some of these Black Brants have paired up and subsequently bred with one of the Dark-bellied Brents to produce hybrid young. One of these hybrids is a regular here at Holkham and a careful scan through the Brent flock revealed it. Subtly darker bodied than the others, it has a better marked white collar and more obvious whiter flank patch then the others.

img_0864Black Brant hybrid – a regular in with the Dark-bellied Brents at Holkham

While we were watching the geese, we could hear Lapwings starting to display on the fields behind us, giving their distinctive song. There were also still some big flocks of Wigeon grazing close to the road, whistling occasionally. Several Common Buzzards were enjoying the sunshine, circling up into the blue sky and even starting to display, swooping up and down. It was getting on for lunchtime already, so we decided to have an early lunch here before setting off to explore.

After lunch, we walked out onto the beach and made our way east alone the edge of the saltmarsh. At first there was no sign of the large flock of Shorelarks which has been feeding here for the last few weeks. We were told they had earlier been flushed by an errant dog running around there. We walked across for a look at the sea, in the hope that they might return. The tide was in and there was not so much activity here today – a few Great Crested Grebes and a single drake Goldeneye were all we could find riding out on the slightly choppy sea.

There were three birders eating their lunch in the dunes nearby, looking out through their scopes at the saltmarsh, so we walked back round to see if they had seen anything. Very helpfully, they got us on to six Shorelarks which were feeding half hidden in the taller vegetation out in the middle. We were looking into the sun from here, so we walked back round to the other side.

6o0a7902Shorelark – six were hiding in the taller vegetation on the saltmarsh

The Shorelarks were hard to see with their heads down while feeding, but occasionally one would look up and a bright yellow face would catch the sun. Then we could get a great look at them through the scope, admiring their black bandit masks and even occasionally get a glimpse of the black horns on the side of their heads. A Skylark was feeding nearby and a second flew in to join it, perhaps a male as it raised its crest and drew itself up erect, looking like it might be about to display to the first, before the two of them resumed feeding. As the Shorelarks gradually worked their way back deeper into the vegetation, we left them to it.

Back at :Lady Anne’s Drive, we made our way west along the path on the inland side of the pines. At this point it started to cloud over from the west. There were lots of Long-tailed Tits feeding high in the poplars as we passed. At Salts Hole, we stopped to watch a Little Grebe diving on the edge of the reeds. A couple of Mistle Thrush and a few Curlew were feeding on the grassy field beyond.

We had a quick scan from the raised boardwalk by Washington Hide. A Marsh Harrier circled up from the reeds. A Sparrowhawk flew past with something in its talons, trailing several long strands of grass with whatever prey it had grasped. Two Pintail flew in and landed on the pool, an adult drake with a long pin-shaped tail and a younger male without.

6o0a7917Spoonbills – 2 of the 4 circling round over the trees

As we approached Joe Jordan Hide, we got a glimpse through the trees of four white shapes taking off from the pool in front and through binoculars we could see they were Spoonbills. From up in the hide, we watched them circling round over the trees beyond, long white necks held outstretched in front. Eventually they landed again on the edge of the pool and started to preen before quickly going to sleep – which is what Spoonbills seem to like to do best! Two were adults and through the scope we could see their bushy nuchal crests flapping around in the breeze. When they did lift their heads we could see the yellow tips to their bills.

img_0889Spoonbills – the adults with bushy crests and yellow-tipped bills

There were lost of geese out on the grazing marshes all around, mostly White-fronted Geese. They were hard to count, as they kept flying round in small groups and landing in different places or dropping down out of view. Sitting in the hide, we could hear their yelping calls every time a party flew past, a constant backdrop to our visit. There were several hundreds here today, more than there seem to have been through much of the winter, perhaps boosted by other groups stopping off before departing back to their breeding grounds in Russia.

We got some of the White-fronted Geese in the scope, so we could see the white surround to the bill from which they get their name, and the black belly bars on the adults. At one point, a small group landed next to some Greylags and we could see the White-fronted Geese were notably smaller and darker overall, as well as having a smaller pink bill compared to the large orange carrot sported by the Greylags.

6o0a7924White-fronted Geese – their were large numbers at Holkham today

Scanning through the White-fronted Geese, we found a couple of smaller white-faced Barnacle Geese in with them. It would be nice to think that these also might be winter visitors from the arctic, but their status is complicated by feral populations, including in Holkham Park. There were also some Canada Geese here and several pairs of Egyptian Geese – a couple of more obviously feral geese species to round out the overall variety.

While we were looking through the geese, we noticed a large raptor flying low over the grassy ridge in the distance. It was clearly slimmer winged and tailed than the commoner Marsh Harriers and, as it turned, we could see a square white rump patch. It was a Hen Harrier, a ringtail. Unfortunately, it continued off away from us and it was not a great view, but a nice bird to see out hunting here nonetheless.

We had hoped we might see a Great White Egret here, but there was no sign at first. We were just thinking about leaving, when a large white shape walked out of some dense reeds on one side of the marshes. It was clearly huge, even with the naked eye, but through the scope we could see its long yellow bill. It was strutted across and went back into some deeper reeds, where it stood motionless fishing and it was surprisingly hard to see for such a large bird.

After a short while, the Great White Egret flew across and landed on the far side of one of the reedy ditches. Then a second Great White Egret flew out from nearby and chased after it, the two of them flying off together before eventually disappearing disappearing round behind the trees.

6o0a7954Great White Egret – a second flew in and chased off the first

Time was getting on now, so we decided to head back to the car. We still had time for one more stop on our journey back, so we turned off the coast road at Stiffkey Greenway on our way back east. Scanning the saltmarsh, we first picked up a Marsh Harrier working its way slowly along the grassy ridge at the back. It didn’t take us long to pick up our first Hen Harrier, a ringtail, hanging over the saltmarsh away to the west. We got it in the scope and got a good view of it, much better than the one we had seen earlier at Holkham. Even better, it then drifted back east and started hunting the saltmarsh out in front of us.

6o0a7986Hen Harrier – a ringtail hunting over the saltmarsh

At one point, as it quartered the saltmarsh, the Hen Harrier flushed a Merlin from the bushes below. Small and dark, it flew off swiftly low over the vegetation. It looked like it would disappear into the distance, but thankfully it landed on a dead branch and started preening, so we could all get a look at it through the scope.

As we looked out over the marshes, another ringtail Hen Harrier made its way in purposefully from the east and across in front of us. We were really hoping to see a male Hen Harrier, but they kept us waiting a bit this evening. We did get an early glimpse of one, but it disappeared down into the vegetation very distantly to the west and didn’t reappear. Eventually one flew in from the west towards us, at the back of the saltmarsh. It flew past a male Marsh Harrier, giving a nice comparison of size and shape, the Hen Harrier a ghostly grey apparition. When it flew up against the grey sky, it almost disappeared.

After quartering the saltmarsh for a while, the male Hen Harrier dropped down into the vegetation at the back. We saw it fly up again briefly and we could just see its pale head in the grass occasionally, but it was clearly in no rush to fly again. It was a nice way to end the day, watching the harriers, so with the light fading we decided to head for home.

4th Feb 2017 – Four Owls & More

An Owl Tour today. It was a nice start to the day, with a light frost and some sunshine first thing. It did cloud over during the day, but then the sun came out again late afternoon – good owling weather!

The day started with a drive round some grazing meadows which are regular hunting grounds for Barn Owls. With the bright start to the day, we thought this might have persuaded them to stay up, but it appeared they had gone in to roost already. We stopped for a short walk at one point, which did produce a nice selection of other birds. A Treecreeper feeding in an alder by the path, a flock of Long-tailed Tits moving quickly through the trees, Siskins flying over, a Little Egret and several Curlews feeding in a field.

6o0a6030Treecreeper – feeding in the alders by the path this morning

We decided to head off to look for Little Owls instead, in the hope we could still find one perched out enjoying the warmth after a frosty night. There was also a chance we might encounter a Barn Owl on our drive.

At the first set of barns we tried, we were in luck. Tucked up under the lip of the roof tiles was a Little Owl. We stopped some distance back along the road and got out of the car, so we could get it in the scope. We all had a good look at it, and with dog walkers going past without disturbing it, we decided to get a little closer. It stayed put, watching us, its feathers fluffed up.

img_0334Little Owl – watching us from under the lip of a roof

At one point the Little Owl hopped up and disappeared into the roof, under the tiles, but a few seconds later it came out again and resumed watching us. It seemed perfectly happy sitting out, despite the fact the sun had gone behind the clouds now. After a while, when it disappeared into the roof a second time, we decided to move on.

After our session with the Little Owl, the morning was getting on now, and it seemed less likely we would find a Barn Owl still perched out, particularly in the absence of the sun. Still, there is another complex of barns just a short distance from here and we thought it was worth a look anyway. It was lucky we did. As we pulled up in front, there were no owls perched around the barns but we looked up along the road to see a Barn Owl coming towards us, hunting the verges.

We hopped quickly out of the car, but it looked like the Barn Owl was heading directly in to roost, as it flew into the back of the barns. We were pleasantly surprised therefore when it flew straight through and out again on our side, where it landed on a wall right in front of us. Stunning views!

6o0a6100Barn Owl – landed on a wall right in front of us

The Barn Owl stood for a couple of minutes on the wall, looking round, seemingly unconcerned by our presence, before flying round and disappearing into one of the farm buildings to roost. We had got there just in the nick of time! While Barn Owls will regularly hunt during daylight hours if they need food, particularly at this time of year, they have not been doing it so regularly this winter. It may be because they are not hungry this year, possibly after rather mild and clement weather. To see one like this was therefore a real bonus.

That was a great way to start an Owl Tour – with such good views of Little Owl and Barn Owl already by this stage of the morning. As we stood reflecting on our fortune, a couple of Common Buzzards circled up out of a wood beyond and a Red Kite appeared over the field behind us. We decided to make our way back towards the coast.

As we drove through farmland, we saw several Brown Hares in the fields, reminding us that mad March is not far away now and ‘boxing’ season is almost upon us. We flushed several Bullfinches from the hedgerows as we passed, disappearing ahead of us with a flash of white rump. We did make one more stop on our way, at another regular site for Little Owls, but there was no sign of any here while we were there. We did see a couple of Stock Doves on the roof of one of the buildings. Given the great views of Little Owl we had already enjoyed, we weren’t too worried about not seeing another here and therefore didn’t linger long.

Down at Cley, there had been a Glaucous Gull in the meadows along Beach Road for the last couple of days. As we drove down towards the beach, there was no sign of it, just a first winter Great Black-backed Gull where it had been. We turned round in the car park at the end, noting the way the recent storm surge had pushed the shingle further into the parking area and beach shelter. As we drove back up the road a large pale shape appeared from the other side of the West Bank and flew over the road in front of us. It was the Glaucous Gull, right on cue.

The Glaucous Gull landed down on the grass, beside the Great Black-backed Gull. We found a convenient place to park and got out. The Glaucous Gull was completely unconcerned at our presence, and soon another couple of cars had joined us. We had great close-up views of it – a juvenile, pale biscuit coloured with paler wing tips and a distinctive pink-based, black-tipped bill.

6o0a6164Glaoucous Gull – this juvenile showed very well by Beach Road

A big bruiser of a gull, Glaucous Gulls breed in the arctic. Several were blown south by strong northerly winds earlier in January and continue to delight the crowds here. This particular Glaucous Gull has apparently been feeding on the carcass of a dead seal, washed up after the floods. We decided to leave the gathering crowds and move on.

Round at the other side of Cley, we headed out for a walk along the East Bank. There were lots of Blackbirds alarm calling in North Foreland wood, but we couldn’t see what they were agitated by. A Grey Heron flew up out of the trees circled round and landed in the tops, and that seemed to calm them somewhat.

There were not so many ducks out on Pope’s Marsh and the Serpentine today, but still there was a nice selection. A smart drake Pintail woke up and swam out onto the water just to show off its long tail to us! Several Shoveler were asleep as were most of the Teal, but a couple of drakes were swimming around at the front of the Serpentine. But there was no sign of the Smew in with them today. A female Marsh Harrier circled round over the reedbed in front of us. We could hear Bearded Tits calling, and glimpsed them several times as they flew quickly over the tops of the reeds, but they didn’t come down to the ditch to bathe or drink today.

6o0a6168Marsh Harrier – a female, quartering over the reedbed

Arnold’s Marsh was full of waders. They were mostly Dunlin and Redshank, but we managed to find a couple of Ringed Plover in with them too. Over at the back, we could see lots of Gadwall and several Shelduck. A quick look at the sea produced a handful of Red-throated Divers and a Guillemot out on the water. As it was nearing lunchtime, we made our way back to the car. As we got back to the car park, a Tawny Owl hooted from North Foreland Wood. A nice surprise, though it is not that unusual to hear them hooting in the middle of the day sometimes.

We stopped for lunch at the Visitor Centre. We had a quick scan of the pools from the car park when we arrived, but could not see anything out of the ordinary. Some Black-tailed Godwits feeding on Simmond’s Scrape were a nice addition to the day’s list. However, while we were eating, one of the helpful staff from the Cley Spy shop next to the visitor centre came out and shouted across to us. The redhead Smew had appeared on Pat’s Pool – and he had spotted it from his vantage point higher up above us. We had a good look at it through the scope, swimming out on the water amongst the Shelduck. Then as quickly as it had appeared, the Smew disappeared from view again. A real bonus, with many thanks to Cley Spy staff!

After lunch, we made our way further east. We made a quick stop at the Iron Road to admire the large flock of Russian Dark-bellied Brent Geese feeding on the grazing marsh by Attenborough’s Walk. A Ruff was nearby on the wet grass, at least until it flew off, but not before we had a look at it through the scope.

6o0a6193Brent Geese – feeding on the grazing meadows at Salthouse

There has been a large flock of Pink-footed Geese feeding in a harvested sugar beet field at Weybourne for several weeks now. When we pulled up, we were glad to see there was still a good number here today, although possibly down a touch in total, but perhaps still a thousand or more. The Pink-footed Geese are characterised by their pink legs and feet, plus the pink band around their otherwise mostly dark bill. They come here in the winter in their thousands from Iceland, particularly to feed on the tops and bits of beet left over after the sugar beet has been harvested.

A quick scan through them revealed a couple of pairs of day-glo orange legs, a pair of Tundra Bean Geese. They are superficially very similar to the Pink-footed Geese, but the Tundra Bean Geese have bright orange legs and feet and an orange bank around the bill. We had a look at them in the scope, a great opportunity to compare side by side with the Pinkfeet. A careful scan of the flock also revealed another three Tundra Bean Geese further over, towards the back of the field.

img_0369Tundra Bean Goose – in with a large flock of Pink-footed Geese

Tundra Bean Geese breed on the arctic tundra and winter mostly on the continent. We are at the western edge of the wintering range and get a variable number of them each year in with the bigger flocks of Pinkfeet. This has been a great winter for them, and they are always nice birds to see in the huge flocks of geese.

While we were watching the geese, all the Woodpigeons suddenly erupted from a neighbouring field. We looked up to see a Peregrine flying steadily across the field in front of us. All the geese looked distinctly unconcerned! The Peregrine flew down towards the cliffs, but then turned and came back past again. It was staring down intently and obviously thought it was on to something because it made another pass across the field and back again, before disappearing inland.

6o0a6224Peregrine – made several passes over the field in front of us

With one eye on the clock, it was getting on towards owl time again, so we made our way back along the coast to Blakeney. At the duckpond, the regular presumed hybrid Herring x Lesser Black-backed Gull was standing around waiting for feeding time. Darker backed than a Herring Gull, it is not as dark as a Lesser Black-backed Gull and its legs are an intermediate colour, neither pink nor yellow. It is a regular source of confusion for the unwary!

6o0a6243Presumed hybrid Herring x Lesser Black-backed Gull – often at the duckpond

As we walked out along the seawall, one of the group asked if there was any chance of seeing some Bearded Tits, having missed them at Cley earlier. We don’t often see them here but, just by coincidence as we were walking along, another birder called to us to say he was watching a group of Bearded Tits just a short distance further ahead of us. We were soon watching them too through the scope, feeding on the tops of the reeds, swinging around and clambering about in the stems.

img_0385Bearded Tit – a male feeding in the reeds

There were three Bearded Tits at first, two males with powder blue heads and black moustaches and a paler female. Then we heard calling and another pair flew in to join them. Great to watch! There were also a couple of Little Grebes and a Tufted Duck on the larger pool at Blakeney Barnett and a couple of Water Rails squealed unseen from the reeds.

Further along, we stopped at the corner and scanned the harbour. The tide was out and there were lots of waders on the mud. Amongst the masses of Dunlin on the near edge of the channel, we found a few Grey Plover and a single Knot. There were quite a few Black-tailed Godwits close to, but the Bar-tailed Godwits were further over, in the bottom of the Pit.

As the sun started to drop towards the west, it came out below the clouds and we were treated to some glorious winter afternoon light. Perhaps this would tempt the owls out early this afternoon? As we stood and scanned , we could see a Marsh Harrier perched on a bush out in the reeds. Another Marsh Harrier perched out on the saltmarsh the other side was bearing green wing tags but was unfortunately too far away to read the code. A Common Buzzard was perched on a bush nearby. Then we picked up a Barn Owl. It was a long distance away, across the other side of the Freshes, but we could see it as it flew up over the reeds and it seemed to be working its way round to our side.

While we were trying to keep tabs on the Barn Owl, we caught sight of another pale bird way off in the distance, flying low over the reeds. It was a male Hen Harrier. Thankfully it made its way steadily towards us, hunting low over the grass. It crossed the path ahead of us and did a circuit of the saltmarsh before cutting back and out across the Freshes again. It looked truly stunning in the afternoon sun, occasionally jinking from side to side and even flipping over at one point! Such a shame these magnificent creatures are still persecuted, such a delight to watch.

6o0a6268Hen Harrier – a stunning male hunting in the afternoon sun

After watching bewitched by the Hen Harrier for several minuted, when we looked back towards where the Barn Owl had been we couldn’t see any sign of it any more. However, while we were scanning we caught a half glimpse of a shape disappearing behind a bank low over the grass in the distance. It was a Short-eared Owl.

We walked quickly round to the other side to look for it and although there was no sign of it hunting one of the group quickly spotted the Short-eared Owl perched on a post. We just had enough time to get it in the scope and everyone had a quick look at it before it was flushed by some walkers on the bank ahead of us. It flew across the Glaven channel and started hunting along the edge of Blakeney Point. We watched it flying up and down, the distinctive rowing flight action on stiff wings, dropping down into the grass occasionally.

Time was getting on now. We had a long walk to get back to the car and an appointment with some Tawny Owls to keep. So we left the Short-eared Owl to its hunting and made our way back. We got to the woods just in time for the start of the evening’s activities, with a Tawny Owl hooting already just as we got out of the car, the earliest riser of the three regular hooting males here. We made our way round to the area where one the males has been roosting. After a short wait, we got a quick hoot from him, alerting us to where it was hiding. It had moved roosts again, back to where it had been a couple of weeks ago, high in the top of an ivy-covered tree. After a couple of minutes it flew out and landed on a bare branch briefly, before dropping back through the trees.

The Tawny Owl flew towards the other area where it likes to roost and it wasn’t long before we heard it hooting again. This time we managed to get it in the scope, although it was silhouetted against the last of the afternoon’s light. When it flew again – a surprisingly big and heavy owl on broad rounded wings – it landed much closer to us in the top of a tree, where we could see it perched. It then flew across in front of us and over the path, disappearing into the trees the other side. That might have been it, but a quick whistle and it flew back across the path again, perched up briefly, before dropping back away through the trees.

The light was fading fast now but, as we walked back to the car, we were serenaded by three different Tawny Owls hooting all around us. A great way to end a very successful Owl Tour.

21st Jan 2017 – Winter Birds & Owls, Day 2

Day 2 of a three day long weekend of Winter & Owl Tours, and we headed down to the Norfolk Broads today. It was frosty overnight and cloudy today, although it did brighten up a bit later on and there was no sign of any of the forecast patchy fog.

Our first stop was at Ludham. The field which had held all the swans last time we were down was looking comparatively empty today. There were six Bewick’s Swans here – we got them in the scope and could see the squared off yellow on the adults’ bills – but no sign of the rest of the big herd. The large flock of Egyptian Geese were still here though – about 30 today.

6o0a4076Egyptian Goose – part of the large flock still at Ludham

This is a good vantage point from which to scan the rest of the old airfield and we could see some more white shapes distantly away to the north. So we set off round to the other side for a closer look. Sure enough, we found the rest of the swans, though they were separated into two groups. We stopped by the first group which were feeding in a winter wheat field. There were 73 swans in total in this field – 13 Whooper Swans and 60 Bewick’s Swans. Another two pairs of Bewick’s Swans flew in calling and dropped down to join them.

6o0a4089Whooper & Bewick’s Swans – part of the herd between Ludham & Catfield

It is always nice to see the two species side by side. Next to the Bewick’s Swans, the Whooper Swans are much larger and longer necked. Their bills are also proportionately longer, and the yellow on the bill extends down towards the tip in a pointed wedge. In contrast, the Bewick’s Swans’ yellow is more restricted and squared off. There was also a lone Pink-footed Goose in the field with them.

6o0a4086Bewick’s & Whooper Swans – nicely showing the size & bill differences

Having had a good look at this group of swans, we drove a little further up the road and found a much larger herd. There was no easy place to stop here, but we managed a quick count – there were at least 108 birds in total, again a mixture of Whooper Swans and Bewick’s Swans, and predominantly the latter.

Our next target was to find some Cranes. We drove further into the Broads and stopped at a convenient vantage point from where we can see across an area where we know they like to feed. A quick scan of the marshes and we could see a single Crane some distance away, so we got out of the car and set up the scopes. Now there was no sign of it! For a bird which stands over a metre tall, they can be very hard to see and it had walked some distance along behind some reeds. As it walked back out, we could see there were two Cranes and then they took to the air and we could see there were actually four of them.

6o0a4099Cranes – a family party, two adults and two juveniles

The Cranes flew off behind some trees but a minute or so later they reappeared again. At the same time, another pair of Cranes appeared and flew over past them and disappeared from view. When the part of four landed back down on the marshes, we looked across to see yet another pair still down in the field beyond, making eight birds in total. Not a bad start to our Crane viewing!

We got the scopes on the party of four Cranes and could see there were two brighter adults and two duller grey juveniles, with less well-marked head patterns. We watched them walking around on the grass feeding.

img_0001Cranes – the family of four were feeding out on the marshes

After a helpful tip off from some locals that the Taiga Bean Geese were showing at Buckenham, we made our way straight over there next. After walking over the railway line, we stopped on the track and scanned the grazing marshes. Sure enough, we could see the six Taiga Bean Geese out in the grass towards their favoured corner. We had a look at them from here, through the scope, then quickly scanned the rest of the marshes.

There were a couple of Chinese Water Deer feeding out on the grass in front, so we stopped to have a good look at those. While we did so, we heard a Redpoll calling and watched it drop into a large bush overhanging one of the ditches. It had presumably come in to bathe or drink, because it quickly dropped down out of view. We walked round to the other side of the bush but couldn’t see it, then as we made our way back, three Redpolls flew off calling. Next, a single Siskin dropped in to the same bush but, more helpfully, it perched in the top for a few seconds so we could get a look at it. There were also two Redwings which flew in and landed in the tops of the trees the other side of the railway line.

We decided to walk down along the platform to try to get a closer look at the Taiga Bean Geese. Unfortunately, by this stage they had walked back further across the marshes, so were still not especially close. Still, when they put their heads up we could see the more extensive orange on their bills, compared to the Tundra Beans we had seen yesterday.

img_0009Taiga Bean Goose – 1 of the 6 still at Buckenham, helpfully with its head up

Back to the track, and we walked on down towards the river. There were not many Wigeon beside the track today – they were all much further out, across the back of the marshes. A smart adult Peregrine was perched out on a tussock, so had possibly flushed all the wildfowl from this side. The Common Snipe were also very nervous – at least thirty of them flew up from the marshes and circled round before dropping back down onto the edge of one of the channels in a tight flock.

There were lots more geese further over, towards the river, the majority being Pink-footed Geese. As we walked along, we periodically stopped to scan through them. In the first group nearest to us we found two White-fronted Geese. When they put their heads up we could see the white surround to their bills and their black belly bars. There were lots more White-fronted Geese scattered through the flocks of Pinkfeet further back too.

img_0046White-fronted Geese – two were with the nearest group of Pinkfeet

Out by the river, the pools were partly frozen and devoid of ducks. We had a quick look at the river itself from up on the bank, but all we could see were a few ducks, Mallard, Teal and Wigeon. In the field by the hide, a pair of Stonechats were feeding, perching on the taller dead seedheads. It was cold out on the marshes, exposed to the chill of the light wind, so we decided to head back. The Stonechats lead the way, and we met them again half way back.

6o0a4115Stonechat – a pair were feeding on the marshes at Buckenham

Strumpshaw Fen provided a sheltered picnic table for lunch, and the option of a hot drink from the visitor centre. The pool by Reception Hide was still largely frozen and most of the ducks were feeding in the small patch of open water by the reeds, or standing around on the ice. There were quite a few Gadwall, plus a handful of Teal and Shoveler, and the ubiquitous Mallards. The Black Swan had found somewhere quieter, a little further back.

6o0a4140Gadwall, Teal, Shoveler & Mallard – around the small area of open water

While we were eating lunch, we kept one eye on the feeders nearby. There was a steady stream of Blue Tits and Great Tits coming and going. Periodically a Marsh Tit would dart in, grab a sunflower heart, and dart back out to the bushes behind. A single Coal Tit popped in briefly too. Nearby, in the trees, a Lesser Redpoll appeared in the tops briefly. Some mournful piping calls alerted us to a smart male Bullfinch, which flew in and landed in a tree briefly, before flying off over towards the railway.

After lunch, we drove round via Halvergate. The four Cattle Egrets which were here at the start of January have now been reduced to one and even that only seems to visit here very occasionally. We had a quick look but couldn’t see it. Just a single Little Egret flew up from the grass and dropped down behind some reeds further over.

Haddiscoe Island is a great place for raptors and owls, so we wanted to have a look there next. There has been a Rough-legged Buzzard here this winter, but at first all we could find were a few Common Buzzards, including a stunningly pale one with very white underparts.

We could hear Bearded Tits calling so we stopped by the reeds and managed to find four feeding in the tops. Two males with powder blue heads and black moustaches and two browner females, we had a great view of them.

img_0054Bearded Tit – one of the males feeding in the reeds

There were lots of other raptors too. A Merlin had a dogfight with a pipit, climbing high into the air, the two birds jinking and swooping in unison, before the Merlin eventually lost interest. A little later, we found another, a smart male Merlin perched on a gatepost, with a Sparrowhawk on another gate nearby. A ghostly grey male Hen Harrier worked its way backwards and forwards over the grass. A Barn Owl flew up and down along the river banks.Time was running out, and we were about to leave when we finally found the Rough-legged Buzzard perched on a post out on Haddiscoe Island.

Our final destination for the day was Stubb Mill. Given the time we spent at Haddiscoe, we were later than we had hoped for getting back round there. On the way, we passed the area where we had seen the Cranes earlier just as the family of four took off to fly to roost. We could see them from the car as they flew over the trees parallel with us. We left them behind, but were stopped by some roadworks further along. Once we eventually got through the lights, we found the four Cranes had overtaken us and nearly flew over the car. On the walk out to the watchpoint, we were treated to the evocative sound of Cranes bugling beyond the trees. We were a bit late this evening, but thankfully, when we got there, it didn’t sound like we had missed anything yet.

There were already a few Marsh Harriers in to roost, perched out in the bushes in the reeds. A steady stream of more Marsh Harriers flew in to join them, coming in from all different directions. It didn’t take long for the first Hen Harrier to appear, another grey male, flying in through the bushes at the back, over the reeds. A short while later, a ringtail Hen Harrier flew in too, a little closer, along the front edge of the reeds. It was hotting up!

There were other birds here too. A flock of Fieldfares were hiding down in the grass behind the reeds until they flew up and all landed in a low hawthorn bush, where we could get them in the scope. A Tawny Owl hooted from the trees behind us. A Barn Owl flew in across the marshes and round behind the mill.

The two resident Cranes were hiding behind the reeds – we could just see the occasional head pop up for a second. Then we spotted another pair coming in to roost, flying in distantly to the east, over beyond Horsey Mill, before dropping down behind the bushes. It seemed like that might be it, until just when most people had started to leave, we heard Cranes calling away to the north. We scanned over in that direction and picked up a large flock flying in, twenty Cranes, all in the air together. It was quite a spectacle!

The Cranes were in two groups. Eleven of them appeared to drop down into the reeds, and three more peeled off from the other nine, which had been slightly ahead of them. These three turned back and seemed to go down towards where the eleven had gone. The final six Cranes carried on, flying steadily south and right past in front of the watchpoint. A great sight! As they flew over calling, the resident pair bugled back to them and finally emerged from where they had been hiding. That was a perfect way to end the day – 24 Cranes in total this evening, taking our total for the day to a whopping 32.

We walked back with flocks of White-fronted Geese and Pink-footed Geese heading off to roost and with the sound of more Cranes bugling still across the marshes.

7th Jan 2017 – Broads in the Mist

The first tour of 2017, and it was down to the Norfolk Broads today. It was a misty start and, contrary to the forecast, the mist never really lifted completely all day. But it was clear enough, pretty much dry throughout, not too cold – not a bad day to be out and about.

Our first stop was at Ludham. As we pulled up alongside the field which the swans have been favouring, the first thing we saw was a load of Egyptian Geese right beside the road, about 60 of them. Quite a sight!

6o0a3302Egyptian Geese – a few of the 60 that were in the fields at Ludham today

Through the mist, we could make out lots and lots of white shapes and through binoculars we could see they were the swans. Out of the car, we got them in the scope, fortuitously straight onto a view with a Bewick’s Swan and a Whooper Swan side by side in the foreground! One of the nice things about this herd of swans is that it is generally mixed, giving a great opportunity to compare the two species side by side. We could see the Whooper was noticeably larger and longer necked that the Bewick’s Swan and yellow on the bill of the Whooper Swan extends down towards the tip in a pointed wedge.

6o0a3299Whooper & Bewick’s Swans – in the mist this morning

A quick count revealed there were 123 swans of which 23 were Whooper Swans and 100 Bewick’s Swans. Numbers of Whoopers have been pretty static since the turn of the year, but the number of Bewick’s here has increased, perhaps with birds moving in from the continent in response to colder weather over there.

Across the other side of the road, a field of sugar beet had recently been harvested and loaded onto lorries to be taken away – although several large beet and a significant quantity of accompanying mud had been deposited into the road! A single Egyptian Goose was feeding on the beet tops which had been left behind out in the field and, after a quick scan, we found two more geese in the field over at the back. Through the scope, we could just make out their orange legs and orange-banded dark bill – they were Tundra Bean Geese. There are two subspecies of Bean Goose which regularly winter in the UK – Tundra and Taiga Bean Goose. A variable number of Tundra Bean Geese come over each winter and are more often found in with the large flocks of Pink-footed Geese.

Having taken our fill of the swans, we set off again and made our way south. On the way, we came across a huge flock of geese in another large recently cut sugar beet field by the side of the road. Unfortunately, there was nowhere to stop and lots of traffic but we marveled at them as we drove past. Most of the flock was comprised of thousands of Pink-footed Geese. We could also make out three swans with them, more Whooper Swans. Quite a sight!

We had hoped to pick up a few Cranes in the fields on our travels, but it was still too misty to see far from the roads. We decided to head for Halvergate. There have been four Cattle Egrets here since before Christmas, which we hoped to catch up with. There was no sign of them at first. We could see several cows out on the grazing marshes, so we walked along the road to where we could get a better view to see if anything was with them.

One of the group noticed something swimming in the ditch next to the road, but it disappeared into the near bank. Then something else appeared on the far bank, a Weasel. We walked up to where it had been and there was no sign of it at first. But then suddenly it appeared again out of the grass and ran out across a wooden cattle bridge. We had great views of it as it ran in and out of the wooden sleepers on the bridge, then ran back along the far bank of the ditch, looking for something to eat.

6o0a3306Weasel – ran up and down the river bank in front of us

A white shape appeared out of the rushes on the bank of one of the ditches further back and flew out to join the cows, landing in among their feet. It was one of the Cattle Egret. It was darting in and out of the cows’ legs, and the cattle helpfully then walked out of the rushes and onto the shorter grass, bringing the Cattle Egret with them. We got a great look at it through the scope.

img_9704Cattle Egret – 1 of the 4 birds at Halvergate showed very well

Cattle Egret is a species which has been spreading north out of its historic core range in Spain and Portugal. It has yet to properly colonise the UK, like the Little Egret has done, although it did breed in Somerset in 2008. It is prone to irruptions and this winter a large number have arrived into the UK again. Hopefully, some might stay to breed again in this country again in 2017!

While we were watching the Cattle Egret, there were a few other birds around the marshes here. A Grey Heron was showing well in the same field as the cows, and a pair of Stonechats was feeding in among the cattle too, perching up on the taller dead thistles between dropping down to the ground after insects churned up in the mud.

Visibility improved while we were at Halvergate and, driving round to Cantley next, the sun appeared finally to be breaking through. Could it burn off the mist? Unfortunately it was short-lived, and by the time we got to Cantley Marshes the mist had descended again. There were no geese immediately visible directly in front of the gate, where they have been feeding recently. However, we could see quite a number of Marsh Harriers all standing out in the grass. There were at least five of them and they kept flying round from time to time before landing again. When one of them landed closer, we could see it was carrying green wing tags and through the scope we could see it had the code ‘VC’. Checking later, we found that it had been tagged as a nestling at Hardley in the Norfolk Broads in July 2016, so she hadn’t ventured too far afield.

Scanning further round, we could see lots of Pink-footed Geese out to the left of us. We could see their dark heads and necks and small, dark bills with a variable pink band. One of them was carrying a grey neck collar with the code ‘N29’. Checking online later, we could see that this goose was ringed in Denmark in March 2009. It was seen in Denmark again in September-December 2009, before moving over to Buckenham Marshes in Norfolk in January 2010.In subsequent winters, it has been seen in Lancashire, Scotland and even the Netherlands, but has also regularly been seen in Norfolk and particularly at Buckenham and Cantley. Interesting stuff, showing the benefit of colour marking birds in tracking their subsequent movements.

Eventually we found the White-fronted Geese too, out to the right, along the railway line. There was still quite a bit of mist and they were rather distant, which made them harder to see. We could just see their white fronts when they lifted their heads – the white surround to the base of the adults’ bills. There were also two Ruff out in the grass, one of which was sporting a rather striking pure white head which made it easier to see (the males are rather variable in winter, much as they are in breeding plumage). However, we couldn’t see any sign of any Taiga Bean Geese here today.

When several birds started alarm calling behind us, we turned to see a young Peregrine disappearing off over the houses. A couple of seconds later, it flew back towards us and off along the railway towards Buckenham. The next time we herd the birds getting upset, we turned to see an adult Peregrine flying low across the grazing marshes. It flushed a Common Snipe and chased it half-heartedly. Then a second adult Peregrine flew in behind it, and had a quick go at a passing Lapwing. Both adult Peregrines then flew across the grass and landed on a gate, where we could see them perched distantly, clearly the resident local pair.

We made our way round to Buckenham Marshes next, just a short distance as the Peregrine or Pink-footed Goose flies, but a rather more circuitous drive. We walked out over the railway again and down the rough track across the marshes. There is a particular area of the marshes which is favoured by the Taiga Bean Geese when they are here, and a quick glance across revealed a small party of geese in the distance. Through the scope and through the mist we could just make out that they were indeed the Taiga Bean Geese, but they didn’t help matters by disappearing into some taller vegetation.

Thinking we would have another look for them on the way back, we carried on down the track. There were some nice groups of Wigeon feeding on the grass close to the path, giving us a great opportunity to get a close look at them. The drakes are looking especially smart now, with their rusty brown heads and creamy yellow foreheads, looking like someone has attacked them with a paintbrush.

6o0a3326Wigeon – a drake showing the creamy yellow stripe up its forehead

A smart Common Snipe posed nicely for us next to one of the small wet pools out in the grass. Several Meadow Pipits flew back and forth across the track and one settled briefly on the mud for us to look at it. A couple of Little Egrets chased each other up and down one of the ditches. A single adult Peregrine was preening on one of the many wooden gates out on the marshes, and this one was much closer than the pair we had seen earlier at Cantley, giving us a great view of it through the scope.

img_9710Peregrine – this adult posed nicely for us at Buckenham

Up towards the river bank, the pools held a few more ducks. Among the many Teal, we managed to find a few Shoveler. On one of the small islands, two small waders were running around in among the Teal, a couple of Dunlin. There were lots of Lapwing around the marshes too.

Walking back towards the railway crossing, we could not see any sign of the Taiga Bean Geese. However, we could get rather closer to where we had earlier seen them by walking down the railway platform. When we got to the end, there they were out on the grazing marsh, around 20 Taiga Bean Geese. We had a much better view of them from here, despite the lingering mist. We could see the more extensive orange on their bills compared to the Tundra Bean Geese we had seen earlier this morning. A very small number of Taiga Bean Geese winter regularly in the UK, from the declining breeding population in Sweden, but they are very faithful to only two sites, one group here in Norfolk and one at Slamannan in Scotland.

img_9721Taiga Bean Geese – about 20 were at Buckenham today

It was getting on for lunchtime, so we headed round to Strumpshaw Fen. We ate our lunch overlooking the pool in front of reception hide. There was a good number of Gadwall and Coot out on the water, plus a few Shoveler and a single Cormorant drying its wings on a post. More Cormorants were standing in the dead trees in the distance, over towards the river, and four or five Marsh Harriers circled over the reeds.

The resident escaped Black Swan was also standing on the edge of the pool, a reminder of home for the Australian contingent in the group today! A Cetti’s Warbler sang briefly and was then to be heard calling in the reeds. More obliging was the very smart Kingfisher which perched on a curved reed stem out in full view in front of us.

img_9728Kingfisher – posed very nicely for us at Strumpshaw Fen over lunch

Once we had finished eating, we turned our attention to the feeders behind us. There were  lots of Blue Tits and Great Tits coming in and out all the time. It didn’t take long before our attention was rewarded with a single Marsh Tit. Several times it darted in, grabbed a seed and disappeared back into the trees behind to eat it, before flying across to the woods beyond.

We drove round via Ranworth next, and had a quick look at Malthouse Broad. On a tour to the Broads, it is always nice to see a proper broad! On the lawn on the edge of the moorings, a tame Pink-footed Goose was feeding with three Greylag Geese. It was an odd place to see one, but great to see it up front and in close comparison with the Greylags. The Pink-footed Goose appeared to have an injured wing, which would probably explain why it was here.

6o0a3352Pink-footed Goose – this apparently injured bird was feeding with the local Greylags

There were lots of Tufted Ducks and Coot out on the water. A single Little Grebe was hiding at the back of the broad, under the overhanging trees. Unfortunately there was no sign of the Ferruginous Duck which had been here for a couple of days, though by all accounts it was very tame so was best described as of ‘uncertain origin’!!

At this point the mist appeared to start rolling in again, so we decided to head back to look for Cranes in case visibility deteriorated much further again. At our first stop, we could only see a lone Grey Heron initially. Then we noticed two large, pale grey shapes in the distance. Through scope, we could just see they were two Cranes, walking about half obscured behind the reeds. It was hard for everyone to get onto them, given the combination of vegetation and mist. We figured we might be able to see them better from further along road.

img_9742Crane – one of a pair we found in the fields today

After a short drive, we managed to pull off the road and got out. The Cranes were much easier to see from here and the whole group got good views of them through the scope. Such huge and majestic birds, it is great to see them wild in the Norfolk countryside. After watching them feeding happily for some time, they suddenly took off and circled round, their long necks held out in front and long trailing legs behind, before dropping back down behind some trees out of view. Great stuff!

It was then time to head back to Hickling for the last of the afternoon’s activities. As we walked out past Stubb Mill, a single Goldcrest was flicking around in the bushes.

From the watchpoint, one of the resident pair of Cranes was visible on arrival, standing behind the reeds. We watched it walking up and down, before it disappeared from view behind the vegetation. Sometime later, it appeared again with its partner in tow.

There were lots of finches around the mill bushes – Chaffinches, Linnets, a Greenfinch. While we were standing watching the comings and goings over the marshes a small flock of Bramblings flew in. Most of them dropped down to the path below, presumably to drink, but one perched up nicely for us in the top of one of the bushes. Through the scope, we could see its bright orange shoulders. A flock of Fieldfares also perched up in the trees just behind. An extended family of Long-tailed Tits appeared in the trees from our left and made their way back and forth through the bushes right in front of the watchpoint.

A steady trickle of harriers flew in to roost. Most of them were Marsh Harriers, at least 30 today. They flew in from all directions, and several of them perched up in the bushes in the reeds. We also saw two male Hen Harriers, both smart grey males, though they were a little distant this evening. They both came in from the south and flew steadily in over the reeds towards the gathering of Marsh Harriers. A Merlin was more obliging, and perched up in the bushes on the near edge of the reeds so we could get it in the scope. We had hoped for more Cranes to fly in at dusk, but the mist descended and visibility deteriorated again.

We had seen all we wanted to see, so we decided to call it a night. A Tawny Owl hooted briefly from the bushes by the mill and, on the walk back, we could hear a second Tawny Owl calling and a third hooting back in the car park. A nice way to end a very enjoyable – and successful – winter’s day in the Broads.

2nd Dec 2016 – Winter Wonders, Day 1

Day 1 of a three day long weekend of Winter Tours in North Norfolk today. It was a nice morning, cloudy with some brighter intervals, but the cloud thickened in the afternoon and brought some misty drizzle with it at times.

Our first stop was at Blakeney. As we set out towards the seawall, a small group of Brent Geese were feeding on the edge of the saltmarsh the other side of the harbour channel. The first half dozen were our regular Dark-bellied Brent Geese but a pair a few metres further on were more interesting. One of the pair was much paler on the flanks and belly. It was a Pale-bellied Brent Goose and it appeared to be paired with a male Dark-bellied Brent. It really stood out next to the Dark-bellieds.

6o0a0923Pale-bellied Brent Goose – this one is paired with a Dark-bellied Brent

Dark-bellied Brent Geese breed in arctic Russia and come here for the winter in large numbers. Pale-bellied Brent Geese breed from Svalbard across Greenland into the Canadian High Arctic. We regularly get a small number of Pale-bellied Brents in with our regular wintering flocks of Dark-bellied Brents.

While we were looking out over the saltmarsh beyond, suddenly lots of birds took to the air. A flock of Golden Plover whirled overhead. Low over the vegetation we picked up a Hen Harrier further back, quartering the marshes. A ringtail, it flashed its white rump patch as it flew away from us.

As we walked out past the harbour, a Rock Pipit flew across and landed on one of the small boats tied up on the water, where we could get it in the scope. We flushed several Meadow Pipits from the grassy banks of the seawall and a few Reed Buntings too. We heard the distinctive calls of a Lapland Bunting flying over, a dry rattle ‘t-t-t-t’ and a ringing ‘teu’, but it was long way out over the grazing marshes and we didn’t manage to find it.

There were various waders which flushed from the saltmarsh as we walked past, Curlews and Redshanks. A Little Egret was busy feeding in one of the channels. A group of Turnstone ran along a path ahead of a couple of dogs until they got too close and the Turnstone flew off towards the channel.

At the corner of the seawall, we stopped to look at a small flock of Dunlin on the edge of the harbour. A smart drake Goldeneye surfaced on the water just behind and then a raft of duck appeared in the channel. As well as a few more Goldeneye, there were several Red-breasted Mergansers with their spiky haircuts. While we were admiring them a rather nondescript brown duck bobbed up in their midst. It was a 1st winter female Scaup, normally difficult to find here in the winter but this appears to be a good year for them.

There were a few more waders here now too. A Ringed Plover and a Grey Plover, both picking at the surface with their short bills. An Oystercatcher too. The tide was starting to go out and more mud was beginning to appear. A little further along the seawall, where the harbour starts to open out, there were some bigger numbers of waders and sifting through them we found a small group of dumpy Knot and a couple of Black-tailed Godwits closer to us. The Bar-tailed Godwits were much further over.

We had seen a female Marsh Harrier earlier, on our walk out, flying over the reeds out in the middle of the Freshes. When all the Wigeon erupted from the grazing marshes, we turned to see a male Marsh Harrier flying towards us. It turned slightly and cut out across the saltmarsh, flying past us and flushing all the Brent Geese as it went.

6o0a0942Marsh Harrier – a smart, grey-winged male

There were a few Skylarks feeding on the short vegetation on the inland side of the seawall, which flushed as we approached. They circled round and landed again on the edge of an open area. A slightly smaller bird was with them now and through the scope we could confirm it was a Lapland Bunting. It was creeping around in the short grass at first and hard to see, but then it flew a short distance towards us and landed out in the open where we could get a great view of it through the scope.

img_9054Lapland Bunting – feeding with Skylarks below the seawall

The Skylarks were nervous and kept flying round. The Lapland Bunting also flew around a couple of times and landed back on the short grass. Then suddenly it was off, calling as it went.

Lapland Buntings can be very hard to find out in the open, so this was a great way to cap off our walk here. As we started to walk back, we could see five or six small birds perched on the fence and a closer look confirmed there were five Twite.They had obviously been bathing in the puddles by the path and were now busy preening. We got them in the scope and could see their yellow bills and burnt orange faces.

img_9074Twite – five were preening on the fence after having a bathe

The sixth bird was a single Linnet which perched on the fence near the Twite for comparison for a few seconds. We could see it had a grey bill and was not as brightly coloured on the face as the Twite.

Back to the car, and we made our way further east to Salthouse. We parked at the end of Beach Road and walked east along the edge of the shingle towards Gramborough Hill. Local photographers have been putting seed out for the Snow Buntings here, so when a small group of buntings appeared from around the back of the Hill, we initially thought they would be the Snow Buntings. They headed south, inland across the grazing marshes, which would be an odd direction for Snow Buntings to go and when they turned and dropped down, with the fields behind them, we could see they were actually more Lapland Buntings.

There were at least 15 Lapland Buntings in the flock, a very good number, but they kept on going and we lost sight of them as they flew off west. We weren’t finished though, and yet another lone Lapland Bunting circled over the grazing marshes calling a few minutes later before dropping down into the grass out in the middle.

The day’s delivery of seed had just been put out for the Snow Buntings and we didn’t have to wait long before they flew back in to enjoy it. They landed on the top of the shingle ridge first, where they had a good vantage point to check for any danger, before running down the slope to where the food was waiting for them. There were at least forty of them here today, although not all of them came down to feed.

6o0a1033Snow Buntings – coming down to feed on feed put out on the shingle ridge

The Snow Buntings can be quite tame and we had great close views of them when they came down to the food. Looking at the flock, we could see a variety of different looking birds, some much paler ones amongst a mass of darker, browner ones. We get two different races here in the winter from different breeding areas. The duller ones are predominantly female Snow Buntings of the Icelandic race, insulae, whereas the paler ones are from Scandinavia, of the race nivalis.

6o0a1017Snow Bunting – of the Scandinavian race, nivalis

Regardless of where they come from, the Snow Buntings are always great to watch. Along with Lapland Buntings, they are our two sought after winter buntings, so we had enjoyed a very successful morning getting such great views of both species.

We walked back over Gramborough and along the remains of the now flattened shingle ridge. The sea looked fairly quiet but we did see a loose groups of six Red-throated Divers flying past distantly. Another Red-throated Diver was on the sea, along with a single Guillemot, but both were hard to see out in the swell and diving constantly. A couple of Grey Seals surfaced just offshore and were much more obliging – they seemed to come in to investigate a couple of fishermen down on the beach. Back to the car and a very obliging group of Turnstones had flown in to feed on some food put out for them. We watched them feverishly turning the stones over – they had a lot to choose from here!

6o0a1092Turnstone – very tame, feeding by the Beach Road at Salthouse

It was already time for lunch, but we still wanted to make one last stop at the Iron Road before heading back to the visitor centre at Cley. Rather than have lunch here, the group decided on a late lunch back at the visitor centre, so we set off straight away to see what we could find. The water level on the pool by Iron Road has gone down nicely and there was a good flock of Dunlin on here today. However, apart from a Redshank, we couldn’t immediately see anything else. With time pressing, we headed out along Attenborough’s Walk.

There were four Pink-footed Geese on the grazing marshes close to the path, which flew off as we passed. A little further along, we could see a large flock of Brent Geese. The vast majority were Dark-bellied Brents, as we would expect here, but a quick look at them and we found our second Pale-bellied Brent Goose of the day, right at the front of the flock.

6o0a1163Pale-bellied Brent Goose – with Dark-bellied Brent behind for comparison

There were lots of Dunlin right in front of Babcock Hide but they were very nervous and kept flying round. A single Common Snipe, feeding on one of the islands nearby, took fright when they did so and landed much further back, out of sight in some taller vegetation. A single Ruff (or, more accurately, a female Reeve) was picking around on one of the islands further back, in amongst a large flock of sleeping Teal. Two Black-tailed Godwits were feeding up to their bellies in the deeper water.

6o0a1145Dunlin – one of several feeding right in front of Babcock Hide

At first all we could see were dabbling ducks out on the water, but then one of group picked up a Long-tailed Duck which emerged from behind one of the reed islands in the deep water right at the back. It was diving constantly, but when it surfaced we could get a good look at it through the scope. We could see its white face with large dark brown cheek patch. Long-tailed Ducks are mostly found out on the sea in winter, where they dive for shellfish. Occasionally one may wander to an inland water for a short time, especially after gales. This one is unusual in that it has been on this small pool for over a month now. It must be finding something good to eat here!

We didn’t linger too long in Babcock Hide, and stopped only briefly on the walk back to the car to admire a pair of Stonechats on the fence. We made our way quickly back to the visitor centre for a late lunch. As it was so mild, we decided we would eat outside on the picnic tables, but we were only half way through when the weather turned. Some low cloud blew in and brought with it some misty drizzle, so we retreated to the car.

After lunch, we drove back west along the coast road to Stiffkey. We wanted to finish the day at the harrier roost, but with the weather having deteriorated we thought it best to watch from here today. When we arrived, we were told we had already missed a ringtail Hen Harrier and a Merlin – it seemed bird may have come in early tonight given the conditions.

As we stood and scanned the saltmarsh, a Brambling flew over calling and headed inland over the campsite. Looking away to the west, we picked up a distant grey male Hen Harrier flying low over the vegetation. Unfortunately, it dropped quickly down out of view, before everyone could get onto it. Then a second grey male appeared over in the same area, but it was even less obliging. The Hen Harriers were flying straight into the roost this evening, without flying round, probably due to the mist. Even when it temporarily brightened up a little, there was no sign of a pick-up in Hen Harrier activity.

The light was starting to go and we were just thinking our luck had run out when a large bird flew in from the fields behind us, just a short distance to our left. It was a ringtail Hen Harrier and we could see its white rump patch as it flew out across the saltmarsh, before disappearing out into the mist. That was a great way to end, so we called it a day and headed for home.