Tag Archives: Horsey

20th February 2016 – Cranes & Owls

Day 2 of another three day long weekend of tours today and we made our way down to the Norfolk Broads. It was meant to rain all afternoon, but once again it was not as bad as forecast. Although we had some drizzle on and off early afternoon, it cleared up again for the end of the day.

We started with a drive along the coast. There were a few Pink-footed Geese in the fields beside the road. We drove along slowly, scanning the favoured fields, and it wasn’t long before we found our first Cranes. A pair were feeding in a field, though they were hard to see behind a bank. We pulled into a convenient layby and walked back to where we could see them. We got a good view of them through the scope, especially when they put their heads up to look round.

While the rest of the group were all looking at them, we had a scan of the grazing meadows the other side of the road. The first thing we picked up was a Short-eared Owl. It was some way over, and hard to see the other side of two reed-fringed dikes until it flew up a little at the end of each hunting run. Scanning a little further over, we found another pair of Cranes, but these were even harder to see than the first pair, from here. We got them in the scope and it was just possible to make out a grey blob through the reeds.

We were back at the car and just packing up to leave when we saw that the Short-eared Owl had come out into the open, a little nearer to us. Now we could see it properly, flying up and down the edge of one of the fields, hunting on stiff wings with a distinctive rowing action, attention focused on the ground below. As we watched it, we could see it was working its way closer and closer to the road, so we leapt into the car and drove back – just in time to have it fly along the edge of the field near the road, right beside the car. Great stuff!

P1170623Short-eared Owl – hunting over the grazing meadows this morning

We watched the Short-eared Owl making its way round and round the field in  front of us. It landed at the back briefly, down on the grass. Then flew right towards us and landed on a post. Unfortunately it didn’t stay long – and by the time the group had finished looking at it through the scope it was off. It clearly didn’t want to pose for the cameras!

IMG_8067Short-eared Owl – down in the grass briefly

While we were distracted by the Short-eared Owl, one of the group noticed a Crane walk out of the dense rushes in the field behind. A quick scan with the scope confirmed that there were two Cranes out there. This was undoubtedly the same pair we had seen distantly earlier, but from this angle we had a much better view. For a bird which stands about a metre tall, they can be remarkably hard to see. While they were feeding in the thick rushes, they were all but invisible at times, but when they put their heads up or walked out into the more open grass, we had great views of them.

IMG_8084Cranes – our second pair of the day

When we looked back to the field, suddenly there were two Short-eared Owls out hunting. A couple of times they passed through the same field of view, but most of the time they kept apart, patrolling slowly round different parts of the field at different times, although often covering the same ground one after the other. It was quite a sight to be watching a pair of Cranes and have a Short-eared Owl fly through the foreground, or vice versa!

P1170635Short-eared Owl – two birds were patrolling the same meadow

IMG_8094Short-eared Owl photobombing a Crane – not a sight you see everyday!

It was a magical moment, watching the Cranes and Short-eared Owls. Eventually, we had to drag ourselves away and continue on. Further back along the road, we stopped again to look at a large flock of Pink-footed Geese. We had just got out of the car and a quick scan over the grass produced yet another two more Cranes.

IMG_8115Crane – one of our third pair of the day

They were feeding quietly out on the grass, walking about slowly and rooting around in the ground or picking at the surface, possibly looking for worms on the short turf. When the Cranes we had been watching earlier, back along the road, started calling, this pair responded, throwing their heads back, pointing skyward, and bugling in unison. Great to watch.

IMG_8131Cranes – calling in unison in response to the other pair

There were plenty of other birds here too. Lots of Lapwings out on the grass, all flying up whenever something spooked them. A huge flock of Golden Plover whirling round in the distance and a smaller number in the wet fields behind us. In with them, we also found a single Ruff and a couple of Dunlin. Several Marsh Harriers were quartering over the reeds.

Our next stop was down at Winterton. It being the Saturday of half term week, the beach was perhaps not surprisingly very busy – lots of people and even more dogs running about wildly. We walked north, hoping to get away from the worst of the commotion, stopping on our way to scan sea. There were loads of black Cormorants flying past or fishing out on the sea, and in amongst them flashes of white, a few Gannets circling offshore too. Scanning the sea with the scope, as well as the Cormorants, we found four smaller black shapes riding the waves, four Common Scoter diving offshore. There were good numbers of Red-throated Divers on the sea too, still in winter plumage with grey backs and bright white faces and underparts. We also picked up a single Guillemot on the sea briefly.

We hadn’t gone very far, when we spotted a couple of Snow Buntings dropping down into the dunes. We walked over and could see three Snow Buntings in a little clear area of sand and stones among the marram grass, but between us and them were also two Ringed Plover roosting. We decided to work our way round behind the dunes so as not to disturb them, but when we got round there was only one Snow Bunting left. Still, we had a good look at it in the scope, before it was flushed by a dog rampaging through the dunes and it flew away north calling.

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IMG_8149Snow Bunting – getting flushed repeatedly by dogs on the beach today

We walked on further up through dunes and eventually found more Snow Buntings on the beach, a nice group of about ten of them picking around on the shingle. They were not getting much peace here either, constantly getting flushed by walkers and dogs, whirling around in a flutter of white wing flashes, before landing again somewhere different. The waders were not having an easy time of it either. Four Sanderling were picking around high up the beach, on the edge of the dunes, trying to make their way down to the shore before getting flushed again. In the end, we left them to it and headed back to the car.

We meandered our way inland from here, scanning various favoured sites for more Cranes. At one particular pale we picked up three more Cranes but they were very distant, out on the grazing marshes. While we were trying to get everyone onto them, yet another two Cranes flew in over the field in front of car and dropped down away to join them.

P1170642Cranes – two flying in to join another three on the grazing marshes

Our next port of call was Strumpshaw Fen. A large flock of Siskins flew in noisily and began feeding in the alders around the car park. They were very jumpy and before long they were off again in a flurry away through the trees. A Goldcrest was feeding in the cut branches piled by the edge, and a Treecreeper was calling away in the wet woodland beyond.

After lunch, we walked out onto the reserve. A couple of Marsh Tits were hiding in the bushes around the feeders, calling noisily and showing themselves occasionally. The Reception Hide pool was busy with wildfowl. There were lots of Gadwall in particular, and we got a stunning male at the front in the scope. A much underrated duck, being shades of monochrome rather than gaudy colours, they are actually stunningly patterned when seen close up. Several more members of the Gadwall Appreciation Society were duly signed up!

IMG_8191Gadwall – a stunningly patterned drake when seen up close

There were also a good number of Pochard on here today, mostly drakes and mostly asleep, plus three Teal roosting half hidden in the cut reeds at the front, and a single pair of Shoveler. A Mute Swan swam out from behind the reeds accompanied by a Black Swan, the resident escapee. Several Marsh Harriers were quartering the reeds beyond, with a male and female engaged in a bout of talon-grappling.

As we walked out through the trees, a Song Thrush was in full song. We could hear both Nuthatch and Treecreeper calling, from the woods and a Great Spotted Woodpecker landed in the trees in front of us. Another smaller flock of Siskins were in the wet alders by the start of Sandy Wall.

IMG_8181Siskins – lots were feeding in the alders today

The view from Fen Hide was quiet again. A couple of Coot were on the pool as usual and a pair of Shoveler dropped in briefly. We scanned the cut reeds carefully and found a Snipe asleep, extremely well camouflaged in among the dead reed stems.The more we scanned, the more we found – a second nearby, then another two further over. One woke up and walked back into cover, disappearing from sight completely – we wondered how many more might be out there lurking unseen. A Cetti’s Warbler called from the reeds. But there was no sign of the hoped for Bittern or Otter today.

IMG_8202Snipe – fantastically well camouflaged, asleep among the dead reed stems

We made our way back. A Kingfisher flashed away along the ditch beside the Sandy Wall, but did not linger long enough for rest of group to get onto it. A Water Rail squealed from deep in the reedbed.

The swans at Ludham which we have been enjoying through the winter seem to have departed already, an earlier than normal return towards their breeding sites. We decided to have a quick look at an alternative location to see if we could find any birds lingering there. As we drove along, there were lots of swans in the fields, but every herd we stopped to scan through seemed to be just Mute Swans. We were about to give up when we spotted two smaller birds with shorter necks in with some distant Mute Swans. We stopped the car in a convenient field entrance for a closer scan and found at least twenty Bewick’s Swans in with them. It was a bit misty with drizzle at this point, but at least these ones had decided to stay here a little longer so we could catch up with them!

IMG_8207Bewick’s Swans – we eventually located 20+ in with some Mute Swans

We finished the day at Stubb Mill. By the time we got to the car park at Hickling, the drizzle had stopped and it had even brightened up a fraction. On the walk out, we could hear the flock of Teal calling from the flood out on the grazing marshes and a large flock of Fieldfare flew over the fields. A single Redwing flew past as well.

There were not many Marsh Harriers present at first, only three or four out in the bushes, but through the late afternoon they slowly started to drift in. Then a ringtail Hen Harrier circled in high over the marshes in front of us, dropping away towards the reeds at the back. A little later we spotted another ringtail Hen Harrier coming in low from the back – though it could conceivably have been the same one coming back in after a fly round.

There are often Merlins here, but they can appear rather late to perch in the trees, or just zip through quickly. We got lucky today. First, one was perched up in the top of a rather distant bush. Then what we possibly a second darted round through the bushes in the front of the reeds and perched up nicely where we could get a great look at it through the scope. As the light started to fade, more Marsh Harriers arrived so that there were probably around twenty in tonight.

A distant Barn Owl was hunting right out the back of the reeds, despite the weather, and an early Tawny Owl hooted from behind us. A small number of Pink-footed Geese appeared to be feeding on the grazing marshes away to our left, flying up occasionally between the fields, but as dusk fell a much larger flock came up from that direction and flew off to roost. A Stonechat perched up on the brambles and a couple of Yellowhammer flew over calling. The usual Chinese Water Deer appeared out on the grass and a Stoat ran through the rushes in front of us, returning a few seconds later back the other way with something in its jaws.

One of the group was struggling with walking, so your correspondent went back to get the car. On the way back, three Cranes dropped silently over the road towards. Thankfully the rest of the group had not missed out, and had themselves seen nine more Cranes fly past the watchpoint, heading off to roost as the light faded.

What a great way to finish. That took us to a massive combined total of 23 Cranes for the day! A classic day in the Broads.

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12th February 2016 – Cranes, Swans & Owls

Day 1 of a three-day long weekend of tour today. We started with a trip down to the Norfolk Broads.

It was a gloriously crisp, frosty, sunny winter’s morning – perfect weather for owls to be out hunting. As we meandered along the coast road, a shape on a post caused us to stop and a quick look confirmed it was a Short-eared Owl. We had a good look at it from the shelter of the car, but when we tried to get the scope out it flew. Thankfully, it was just to start hunting, and it worked its way back and forth across the field.

P1160749Short-eared Owl – hunting by the coast road

It looked stunning in the morning light as it flew round on stiff wings, focused intently on the ground below. Then it flew back over and landed on one of the posts again.

IMG_6948Short-eared Owl – landed back on one of the posts

While we were watching the Short-eared Owl, another owl appeared over the same field, this time a Barn Owl. It was also hunting intently round and round over the rough grass. We didn’t know where to look. Across the other side of the road, a second Barn Owl appeared as well, a couple of fields over. It really was a good morning for owls! We could hear the distant sound of Cranes calling beyond.

P1160752Barn Owl – over the same field as the Short-eared Owl

Continuing along the coast road, we came across several groups of Pink-footed Geese in the roadside fields. We stopped to scan through them, in the hope that we might find something else in amongst them, but there was nothing with them today. Another field of winter wheat was full of Fieldfares instead, with a single Mistle Thrush in with them.

P1160701Pink-footed Geese – there were several flocks by the road today

We eventually stopped in a convenient layby to scan the fields. We immediately latched on to a pair of Cranes, but they were very distant. We could see them well enough through the scope, although they kept disappearing out of view behind some reeds. A good start, our first Cranes of the morning, but we would hope for some a bit nearer.

There were several Marsh Harriers circling over the reedbed and a Buzzard perched up in a bush catching the morning sun. There were lots of Lapwing out on the grazing meadows and a Turnstone in with them was a bit of a surprise. A flock of Golden Plover were in one of the fields across the road. A good number of Snipe were out in the fields as well this morning, presumably encouraged out to the damper patches in the short grass by the frost.

While we were scanning through all the waders, we were surprised to see two Red Deer stags walk out into the middle of one of the fields. They stood there for a while, steam coming from their nostrils. They seemed to be stranded on the wrong side of one of the ditches, and walked along beside it before finally running off back across the field.

IMG_6979Red Deer – 2 stags appeared in the fields

Our next stop was at Winterton. We parked by the beach and walked out onto the sand. There were lots of dog walkers out this morning, presumably taking advantage of the sunny start to the day. As we walked north along the beach, a couple of Ringed Plovers flew past going the other way. A Skylark was singing over the dunes.

The beach itself seemed very quiet today, apart from all the dogs, and there was no sign at first of the Snow Buntings. We got as far as their favourite area and just as we were wondering where they might be, they flew in, about 40 of them, flashing the white in their wings and twittering. They settled just long enough for us to get the scope on them and then they were flushed again. We saw where they had landed and this time we waited for all the dog walkers to go past before we approached. The Snow Buntings were picking around on the edge of the dunes, and we got a much better look at them, until they flew again, back the way they had come.

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IMG_7011Snow Buntings – very mobile today, with lots of disturbance on the beach

We made our way back along the beach and stopped to scan the sea. A small party of Gannets were circling offshore. There were also lots of Cormorants, flying past both ways or circling over the sea. As we looked through them, we started to see Red-throated Divers, first a single one, then a couple more, then some small groups. They were all flying north – we must have seen 40-50 go past in the short time we were looking out to sea. A smaller number of Guillemots went past us as well. Seabirds were clearly on the move today.

While we were looking out to sea, we could see some dark clouds in the sky heading our way. We were almost back when it started to rain, but thankfully it was only light. As we drove back inland, we passed through the middle of it and were much happier to be in the car!

We weaved our way inland looking for Cranes. It was hard scanning some of the more distant fields in the rain, but that didn’t matter when we finally got lucky and found a pair of Cranes not too far from the road. We parked in a layby and walked back to where we could see them. The rain had stopped now and they were busy preening at first, presumably having just got wet! Then the smaller female started preening and the male stood with his neck up, giving us a great view of his head pattern.

IMG_7046Crane – we finally found a pair not too far from the road

We made our way over to Strumpshaw Fen next, in the hope that the frosty weather might have tempted something out of the reeds. The pool by Reception Hide was still half frozen, and all the ducks were out in the middle – Gadwall, Teal, Mallard and Shoveler – plus a lot of Coots and the resident Black Swan, asleep.

P1160784Stumpshaw Fen – the Reception Hide pool was half frozen still

The walk out through the trees was rather quiet, although we did come across a flock of rather flightly Siskin in the alders. There was not much life from Fen Hide either, apart from a single Coot and a rather noisy Carrion Crow. We heard some Bearded Tits calling and a male flew across and landed in the top of the reeds briefly, before dropping down out of sight. A Cetti’s Warbler called from the reeds in front of us, but did not show itself. There was no sign of the hoped-for Bittern, so we decided to move on.

The walk back was a little more productive. Three Bullfinches flew out of the brambles as we approached, flashing their white rumps as they went. A Marsh Tit was picking about in the bushes. A Treecreeper or two were climbing up the trees and a Goldcrest was in the conifers. A couple of Song Thrushes were feasting on ivy berries.

We had enough time for one more site before we needed to be making our way back north, and it was a choice between Buckenham or Cantley. As the former was distinctly quiet and all the geese were at the latter during the week, we headed for Cantley. Unfortunately, the geese were not there today – apart from a few Canada Geese – so we moved swiftly on.

Our next stop was back up at Ludham. The swans were in their usual place, or at least some of them were. Numbers were well down on earlier in the week, particularly of Bewick’s Swans. We could only see 8 Bewick’s Swans today (compared with c65 on Tuesday) with less than 40 Whooper Swans. Bewick’s Swans have been on the move across the county this week, with small groups seen flying towards the coast, so it is possible that a number of them have gone back to the continent already.

IMG_7062Bewick’s Swans – only 8 today, in with the Whoopers

Still it was nice to see them side by side, the Bewick’s Swans noticeably smaller in direct comparison. We also admired their bill patterns, with the yellow squared off on Bewick’s Swan compared to the longer, pointed extension of yellow down the bill on Whooper Swan.

IMG_7065Whooper Swan – still up to 40 today

Our final stop of the day was at Hickling Broad, where we parked and walked out to Stubb Mill. The walk itself was quiet at first, until we got almost to the mill, when a Short-eared Owl appeared from round the trees. We thought it would do its usual and disappear back round in front of the mill, but today it flew straight towards us and started hunting backwards and forwards over the wet grassland in front of us. Cracking stuff!

P1160837Short-eared Owl – hunting around the back of Stubb Mill

Round at the watchpoint, there was no sign of the two regular Cranes when we arrived. We contented ourselves with watching the Marsh Harriers out in the trees in the reedbed. A ringtail Hen Harrier came in through the trees at the back, but it was a little distant. Two Red Deer, hinds this time, were feeding out on the grass and a third appeared through the reeds further over. A couple of Chinese Water Deer came out of the ditches to graze.

The Short-eared Owl appeared again, this time out in front of the watchpoint. It was hunting at the back of the grazing meadows at first, until suddenly it appeared in the top of one of the bushes quite close to us. We got it in the scope and got some stunning views of it as it looked around. We could really see its bright yellow iris. It stayed in the same place for an age – every time we looked back, it was still perched in the bush. A Barn Owl was also out hunting, at the back of the fields.

IMG_7091Short-eared Owl – perched in one of the bushes in front of the watchpoint

While we were watching the Short-eared Owl, three Cranes appeared overhead, flying past. We didn’t know which way to look! They called as they flew. Then another pair of Cranes flew in from the back and dropped down into the reeds.

P1160865Cranes – flew past the watchpoint calling

While we were watching the pair of Cranes, another ringtail Hen Harrier flew across the scope view in the foreground. This one was much closer than the one we had seen earlier and we got a much better look at it, flashing its square white rump patch as it went. Finally the normally resident pair of Cranes flew in from the left (taking the total to 11 Cranes for the day) and across in front of us, as the light started to fade. They were calling all the way, as they dropped down onto the ground, a beautiful sound and a fitting way to end the day.

9th February 2016 – Calling Cranes

A Private Tour for the day down to the Broads today. It was a glorious day to be out – the wind was light and after high cloud in the morning, we were treated to a wonderfully clear, sunny winter’s afternoon.

Our first target was Cranes. We set off along the coast road, checking out various of their regular spots. At first, all seemed quiet, but little did we know what was around the next corner. Scanning the sky, two large birds appeared way off in the distance but heading straight towards us, a pair of Cranes. We pulled off into a convenient layby and watched them as they flew in, turning north across in front of us before circling low over the trees.

P1160478Cranes – we watched our first of the morning fly in

They were clearly trying to land, but took a couple of attempts to do so, circling up again in between. Eventually the two Cranes dropped down out of view behind the trees. A great start to the morning. Over the other side of the road, small groups of Pink-footed Geese were flying in and landing on the meadows. Ahead of us on the wires, a Fieldfare perched precariously.

P1160491Fieldfare – perched on the wires above the road

We drove on a little further and pulled in again off the road. A couple of Marsh Harriers were circling over the reedbed behind and a Barn Owl was perched on a distant fence post. The grazing meadows looked rather quiet at first, apart from a liberal scattering of Lapwings, but a careful scan revealed more Cranes. This time, a pair were standing out on the grass, busy preening. We got them in the scope this time and had a really good look at them – noting the red crown patch particularly on the larger of the two birds, the male.

IMG_6865Cranes – our second pair of the day, preening in a field

A helicopter flew overhead and the Cranes seemed to take little notice as it did so. It did spook all the Pink-footed Geese which then took flight from the fields beyond. The Cranes seemed to be more concerned with the actions of the geese, and now raised their heads and looked round to see what was happening.

P1160492Pink-footed Geese – spooked by a passing helicopter

Out at the back of the meadows, we picked up a ringtail Hen Harrier out hunting. It was flying round and repeatedly dropping down onto the ground. We managed to get it in the scope, before it flew off strongly and over behind a hedge, pursued by a couple of Crows.

While we were watching the Hen Harrier, another pair of Cranes appeared over the meadows flying straight towards us. We had to check at first, but the other pair were still standing on the grass. They flew steadily in our direction, across the road a short distance back the way we had just come, and dropped down out of view behind the trees. An amazing start to the day – three pairs of Cranes in such a small area.

P1160500Cranes – our third pair of the morning, flew across the road

By this time, we figured that we deserved a coffee break, so we drove back to where we could park. We were within earshot of where we had seen the two pairs of Cranes land earlier and we could hear them bugling to each other – quite a way to spend your morning break, listening to the sound of calling Cranes!

After such a successful start to the morning, and being so spoilt with Cranes (or so we thought!), we decided to head off and do something different. We made our way along to Winterton and parked by the beach. Snow Bunting had been mentioned as a bird on the wish list to see, so a walk along the beach here made sense. It was nice to get out for a bracing stroll along the sand.

There were lots of dog walkers out on the beach and we had to get past them before we found the Snow Buntings. Eleven flew down the beach towards us and landed on the shingle behind us, where we had just walked. We made our way back and got the scope on them, but just as the dogs caught us up and they flew again. Thankfully the Snow Buntings landed up on the ridge further out on the beach and watched from there as the dogs passed. Once the danger was gone, we got much better views as they picked about for seeds on the stones.

IMG_6881Snow Bunting – looking for seeds out on the beach

Several of the Snow Buntings settled down for a rest, tucking themselves down in little depressions in the shingle so that only their heads were showing. At this point they were remarkably well camouflaged, shades of brown, russet, grey and off white matching the colours of the stones. It was only because we knew where they were that we could see them.

IMG_6878Snow Bunting – very well camouflaged among the stones

A couple of Skylarks were picking about on the beach as well, among the sandier places on the edge of the dunes. Two Sanderlings appeared on the ridge and a Ringed Plover flew along ahead of us. There were lots of Cormorants flying past offshore, presumably commuting between their fishing grounds and the favoured roosting place on Scroby Sands further south. A distant Gannet flew past casually, overtaken by the Cormorants. A Red-throated Diver in winter plumage was on the sea just offshore, drifting with the tide.

IMG_6903Ringed Plover – on the beach at Winterton

We meandered our way inland through Crane country from here. Scanning some favoured meadows revealed another three Cranes, but they were rather distant. It was a challenge to pick them out, as they were working their way through a deep bed of rushes. The road was busy and there was nowhere convenient to stop. Having done so well for Cranes already this morning, we had a quick look through binoculars from the car and moved on.

Little did we realise what might be around the next corner. It is always worth keeping your eyes peeled on the fields around here and a shout from the eagle-eyed spotter on the passenger side went up as we almost drove past another pair of Cranes. They were tucked down in the corner of a field right next to the road, behind a hedge! A quick u-turn in a convenient gateway and we drove back slowly past on the other side of the road. We carried on a little further past them, where we thought we wouldn’t disturb them and stayed in the car.

P1160526Crane – we surprised a pair in a field right next to the road

The two Cranes were clearly a little nervous and walked slowly out into the middle of the field, treating us to fantastic close-up views as they did so. Unfortunately, there was a lot of traffic on the road and a large lorry went past at that moment which spooked them. They took off – necks down, walking at first, then running with huge wings beating to get them airborne – and dropped down again a little further over. Wow! What a treat to see Cranes like that. And that took us to a total of 11 for the day!

We made our way over to Strumpshaw Fen for lunch. We had a couple of different options for the early afternoon, but the choice was made to walk out onto the reserve here. There were lots of ducks on the area of open water in front of Reception Hide – Gadwall, Teal, Mallard and Shoveler. And a good number of Coots. A Marsh Harrier circled over the trees out in the middle of the reedbed.

P1160545Shoveler – catching the winter sun at Strumpshaw Fen

As we walked through the trees, we could hear a Song Thrush singing ahead of us. Such a beautiful song and so sad that it is a species in decline, but we are still blessed with a number here. A little party of Siskins were feeding in the alders above our heads, hanging upside down to pick at the cones for the seeds.

P1160554Siskin – feeding in the alders above the path

As we walked out along Sandy Wall, we could hear a Marsh Tit calling and just caught a couple of glimpses of it as it disappeared away through the trees. It was really beautiful in the crisp afternoon sun, with the light catching the reeds as they rustled in the light winds. We sat in Fen Hide for a short while, but it was rather quiet here again today, so we didn’t linger too long. We didn’t have time to explore the whole of the reserve, so we made our way slowly back. The Song Thrush was still singing from the trees and this time the Marsh Tits gave themselves up properly – a pair picking about in the oak trees above the path.

Our next appointment was with the swans, so we made our way back north through the Broads to Ludham. Thankfully, they are still in their usual fields at the moment. Most of the Whooper Swans were in a separate group, picking at the remains of the sugar beet tops in the field which was harvested some time ago and very close to the road. There are still around 40 here at the moment. A tractor was in the process of ploughing the field, pursued by a throng of Black-headed Gulls, so the Whooper Swans were probably making the most of the sugar beet remains while they still can. We had a good look at them from the car as we drove past towards our usual parking spot.

P1160604Whooper Swans – feeding on the remains of the sugar beet tops

The Bewick’s Swans were out in the winter wheat next door, and a lot of them asleep again this afternoon. Six of them were very close, so we pulled up and got out very slowly and quietly, giving them a chance to walk away slowly to a safe distance, back towards the main herd. They settled down again and we got a really good look at them through the scope.

IMG_6911Bewick’s Swan – two white adults and a greyer juvenile

There were two Whooper Swans feeding in with the Bewick’s Swans, which gave us a great opportunity to compare the two species side by side. The Whooper Swans were noticeably bigger and with more yellow on the longer bill, extending further down in a wedge shape.

Our final stop of the day was at Hickling Broad. We parked in the car park and set off towards Stubb Mill for the harrier roost. A Barn Owl was hunting around the meadow behind the visitor centre, perching on the fence posts in the late afternoon sunshine.

IMG_6926Barn Owl – hunting around the meadows at Hickling Broad

A large flock of Fieldfares were feeding further along the path ahead of us. Some of them were looking particularly bright yellow-orange breasted as they caught the light. Something spooked them and they all flew up into the trees, ‘tchacking’ as they went. As we turned the corner at Stubb Mill, another Barn Owl flew across right in front of us and disappeared out towards the grazing meadows.

There were only about 5-6 Marsh Harriers around the trees when we arrived, but a steady trickle continued to arrive while we were there. There were probably close to 20 by the time we left, with more still arriving, but numbers have started to drop now as the birds start to head off back to their breeding territories. A ringtail Hen Harrier came through low over the meadows in front of us, flashing the white square at the base of its tail as it did so.

A Short-eared Owl flew in from the back and landed on a woodpile in the low sunshine. It perched there preening for the rest of the time we were there – it had obviously enjoyed a successful afternoon’s hunting already. A second Short-eared Owl circled up very distantly over the back of the trees. There were more Barn Owls too – it was hard to know how many we saw altogether here this evening. One was hunting along the field edge behind us and another far off over the reeds in front.

A Chinese Water Deer appeared out in the grass and we got it in the scope. Then it ran across in front of us, before dropping down into one of the ditches, flashing its tusks as it went past. A couple of Red Deer were grazing further over again, and at one point we could see them in the same view as the Short-eared Owl!

A Wildlife Trust van had driven across the marshes as we walked out and there were several people walking around behind Stubb Mill by the time we got there. The two resident Cranes had flown off before we arrived – presumably flushed by all the people and activity. We weren’t too concerned today, as we had enjoyed so many and such good views of Cranes this morning. However, we could hear a number of Cranes bugling from away behind the wood while we stood scanning the marshes – there is a lot of vocal activity from all the Cranes now. It was a lovely evocative way to end the day, listening to Cranes calling as we admired the traditional Broadland landscape.

P1160630The view from Stubb Mill in the afternoon sun

6th February 2016 – Back to the Broads

Day 2 of a long weekend of tours and today it was off down to the Broads. The weather forecast throughout the last week had foretold heavy rain all day today. Thankfully the Met Office can be relied upon for one thing… to get it wrong! We barely saw a drop of rain – it was cloudy and rather windy, but mercifully dry.

We started with a drive along the coast road from Sea Palling. We hadn’t gone very far when we spotted our first Cranes of the day. They were in a field some distance from the road, but unfortunately we had nowhere to stop. We pulled into a convenient layby and walked back with the scopes to the spot from where we could see them, but even though we were several fields away they started to look nervous. We just had time to get a look at them in the scope before they took off and dropped down a little further over, out of view.

P1160371Pink-footed Geese – one of several small groups this morning

We carried on along the road, scanning the fields. We came across a couple of small groups of Pink-footed Geese in the grazing meadows. Further along, south of Horsey Mill, we pulled over and got out for a good look round. There was an even bigger flock of Pink-footed Geese here – at least until the farmer arrived. He seemed to object to the Mute Swans in the fields across the road, and shot into the air scaring everything off apart from one stubborn Mute Swan.

P1160379Pink-footed Geese – scared off by one of the local farmers

Before the farmer arrived, there was actually quite a nice selection of birds to look at. There were large numbers of Lapwing out on the grass and a smaller flock of Golden Plover. On the flooded field the other side of the road, we were rather surprised to see a small group of five Knot. Several Marsh Harriers were circling over the reeds behind, and two of them started diving at each other. But we couldn’t find any more Cranes here.

We decided to move on and drove round to Ludham Airfield. Once again, we could see the swans before we left the main road, a white smear across the fields from a distance. We drove round and positioned ourselves where we wouldn’t disturb them as we got out of the car to look at them through the scopes.

IMG_6486Bewick’s Swan – there were at least 85 today

The swans were in two groups today, with most of the Bewick’s Swans sat down in the middle of the winter wheat, whereas most of the Whooper Swans were over on the edge of the field. It was as if they had fallen out with each other and were now not speaking! On closer examination, we did find a small group of four Bewick’s Swans closer to the Whoopers and three Whooper Swans sleeping in with the Bewick’s, so there were obviously a few swans which couldn’t pick sides.

IMG_6496Whooper Swans – over 40 today, mostly on the edge of the field

Despite their attempt at separating by species, we could still get a good comparison between the two – the Whooper Swans noticeably larger, longer necked and longer billed, and with the yellow coming down the bill into a point, unlike the more squared off yellow on the Bewick’s Swans’ bills. There were at least 85 Bewick’s Swans here today, a little down on recent counts, but over 40 Whooper Swans still.

We decided to head down to Great Yarmouth next to look for some gulls. We stopped briefly on the way to see if there was anything on Rollesby or Ormesby Broads. It was pretty rough out in the middle – there were just a few Coots and Tufted Ducks. A Great Crested Grebe swam out from close in to the bank as we pulled up and a very white-headed Cormorant dropped down from a post into the water and swam past. A Grey Heron crept out of the reeds to the water’s edge.

We had wanted to see the Glaucous Gull at Great Yarmouth, but there was not a sign of it today around any of its usual haunts. It seems to have a nasty habit of going missing at times. We had to content ourselves with going to see the Mediterranean Gulls on the beach instead.

IMG_6502Mediterranean Gull – a colour-ringed adult in winter plumage

There were only three Mediterranean Gulls on the beach when we arrived and they promptly flew off. Someone else was obviously feeding them elsewhere. Quickly deploying some choice sliced white bread, they soon came back and brought a few of their friends with them. They were mostly winter adults, but a couple of 2nd winters arrived too. After squabbling over the bread, they all settled on the beach so we could get a good look at them. A crafty Starling came along and ran around our feet after the crumbs.

P1160407Starling – came round our feet for the crumbs

We had a quick look out to sea. There is a large sandbank offshore called Scroby Sands and we could see a large number of seals pulled out of the water. At one end, a black mass on the sand was a big flock of Cormorants – there can be a huge number of them out here. A few Kittiwakes were struggling past into the wind.

From there, we drove inland and down to Strumpshaw Fen. As we got out of the car, we could hear the twittering of Siskins and looked up to see lots of them in the alders. A noisy flock of Long-tailed Tits came through the car park. The reserve itself seemed to be very quiet again, so we just ate our lunch and moved on.

The grazing marshes at Buckenham seemed to be strangely deserted today. There were very few geese – just a few Canada Geese and an odd-looking Canada x Greylag Goose hybrid – but that is not necessarily unusual. However, there were also very few ducks and a distinct shortage of Lapwings and Golden Plover. Presumably, something had disturbed everything off here today. A Chinese Water Deer provided a brief distraction.

IMG_6541Chinese Water Deer – on the grazing marshes at Buckenham

Given the lack of birds, we decided not to walk out at Buckenham, but went round to Cantley instead. At least we found the geese here. There was a big flock of Pink-footed Geese over towards the river. We got the scopes on them and, scanning carefully, we started to find a few White-fronted Geese in with them. There were probably quite a few there, because the more we scanned, the more we found.

As we were looking through the geese, we found something different on the ground in the middle of them – a Peregrine. The geese seemed particularly unconcerned, and more flew in and landed all around it. The Peregrine was hopping about in the grass and perching up on tussocks. Eventually it took off and swept round over the marshes a couple of times, flushing the Lapwings and Golden Plover, before flying straight towards us and then turning off towards Cantley Beet Factory.

P1160458Peregrine – flew past us after standing in with the geese

The afternoon was getting on, and we wanted to get to Stubb Mill in good time for the roost, so we started to make our way back north. We tried various more sites where Cranes are regularly to be found, but there was no sign of any anywhere today. Perhaps they were put off by the wind, which had become very gusty by this stage.

Our timing was right today though. As we walked out towards the Stubb Mill watchpoint from the car park at Hickling Broad, first two Cranes flew over the marshes, and dropped down towards Heigham Holmes. We could see their long necks and long trailing feet. Then we turned to see a ringtail Hen Harrier coming low across the grass in front of the reeds, right in front of us – a great view. It flushed a few Snipe and a big flock of Teal as it went, before turning and working its way back over the reeds. Even better, the sky just brightened a little as we arrived.

There were not so many Marsh Harriers over the reeds and bushes this evening. It was hard to tell how many were already in, or whether they were planning to arrive late due to the wind. There were around 6-8 flying around over the trees at any one time, and a few more trickled in while we were waiting. However, we were treated to a good display from the Hen Harriers. First, another ringtail flew south past the assembled crowd, low over the grazing marshes just in front. Later on, another ringtail flew in from the east.

There was no sign of any Cranes from the watchpoint when we arrived there. Then suddenly the resident pair, which is usually always around, flew in from the reeds at the back and dropped down onto the grass where they should have been. They had obviously been hiding – possibly due to the wind. Where they landed they were out of view at first, but eventually walked out to where we could see them and a little later flew across and landed in the open. Much better!

IMG_6585Cranes – the resident pair finally came out of hiding

There was another Chinese Water Deer out on the marshes, but suddenly we spotted two larger deer further back. A couple of Red Deer were grazing on the grass. At one point, the two Cranes walked out in front of the two Red Deer – not a combination you see every day.

While we were watching them, someone shouted and three more Cranes flew over from the north. They came in slowly over the trees, up in the sky at first – helpfully where we could see them well – before dropping down below treetop level and disappearing from view towards Horsey Mere. That took us to a total of nine Cranes for the day!

IMG_6579-001Cranes – these three flew across, in front of the watchpoint

The light was starting to fade and we had enjoyed a very productive session at Stubb Mill, so we decided to head back. As we turned to go, we could hear the Cranes bugling out across the marshes, a fitting way to end the day.

P1160474Stubb Mill Watchpoint – the view across the marshes to the ruined mill

29th January 2016 – Breezy Broads

Day 1 of a long weekend of tours today, and it was down to the Norfolk Broads. We were ready for anything – Storm Gertrude was on its way and it was forecast to be rather windy!

We started with a drive along the coast south of Sea Palling, scanning the fields for Cranes as we went. A large flock of Pink-footed Geese circled over the trees inland and dropped down out of view. Otherwise it seemed rather quiet here, with many birds presumably hunkered down out of the wind. South of Horsey Mill, we pulled over and got out of the car – getting knocked sideways by the wind in the process (we later discovered it was gusting to 52+mph!). There was a small herd of Mute Swans in the fields here, but not much else – this area is normally alive with birds but there were very few today. A Kingfisher skimmed away from us along a ditch, low over the water, flashing electric blue as it went.

We turned around and headed back towards the Mill, and this time picked up two Cranes. They were tucked down in a wet meadow behind a hedge and initially obscured almost completely from view. Only by repositioning ourselves so we were looking through a gap in the hedge could we see them properly, feeding mostly with heads down but occasionally raising their necks up to look around. Surprisingly hard to see for a bird which stands around a metre tall!

IMG_5683Cranes – a record shot, it was hard to keep the tripod steady in the wind!

That was a good start, but it was clear we needed to try to keep out of the wind as much as possible. We decided to drive inland to look for the wild swans next. We didn’t have to look very hard – before we had even left the main road we could see the smear of white across the field in the distance. We drove round to where they were and found they were actually too close to the road – we didn’t want to get out and disturb them. So we made our way down a track until we were far enough away and only then got out.

IMG_5689Bewick’s & Whooper Swans – at least 160 today

We could immediately see that there were both Bewick’s and Whooper Swans there, as usual here. The subtle difference in size and shape is noticeable from a distance and, through the scope particularly, we could see the differences in bill pattern too. The Whooper Swans have a longer bill with a large area of yellow extending down towards the tip in a point, whereas the yellow on the smaller bill of a Bewick’s Swan is more squared-off. It is always great to see the two species side by side like this, to really appreciate the differences.

IMG_5701Whooper & Bewick’s Swans – showing the size and bill differences well

We did a quick count of the herd – there were at least 160, possibly 170 swans in total today. It was too windy to spend too long trying to work out how many of each though, but there have been only 20-25 Whooper Swans for most of the winter and the remainder have been Bewick’s Swans.

Again, we wanted to try to keep out of the worst of the wind, so we made our way down to Great Yarmouth. There has been a juvenile Glaucous Gull hanging around close to the seafront for a week or two. It is a slightly incongruous setting for an arctic gull, in amongst the seaside hotels and tourist attractions shuttered for the winter. We couldn’t find it at first around any of its favourite haunts. We amused ourselves watching a Common Gull doing a ‘rain dance’ on the grass, stomping its feet rapidly up and down on the spot, trying to tempt the worms into thinking it’s raining.

P1150575Common Gull – doing a ‘rain dance’

We didn’t think the Glaucous Gull was around and were just getting into the car to leave when it suddenly appeared overhead with all the Black-headed Gulls. We got a good look at it as it circled over the road, before drifting over the houses towards the playing fields. However, round at the playing fields there was no sign of it. A quick visit to the corner shop was called for and a few minutes later, after the strategic deployment of half a loaf of sliced white, it reappeared with a large throng of other gulls.

P1150606Glaucous Gull – tempted in with some bread

The Glaucous Gull flew around just overhead, giving us some stunning views. Rather plain, mealy, biscuit coloured all over its body, apart from its wing tips which are plain off-white, lighter than the rest of its wings. It kept swooping down with the hordes for a bit, before landing a short distance away on the grass. Its huge size was now obvious, much bigger than the local Herring Gulls, and it was sporting a massive bill, pinkish at the base with a contrasting black tip. It stood there for a few minutes before deciding it had had enough and there wasn’t going to be any more bread, so flew off.

P1150645Glaucous Gull – big and pale, with a massive two-tone bill

We still had half a loaf left, so we made our way a little further along the seafront and walked out onto the beach opposite all the amusement arcades, between the two piers. Further along the beach, a huddle of smaller gulls were braving the wind and as soon as we walked onto the prom they realised what was about to happen and flew to the beach in front of us. We kept them waiting for a bit while we had a good look at them.

They were mainly Mediterranean Gulls, at least ten of them. This is a well-known spot for them in winter and there are often a lot more than this – the rest must have been hiding from the wind somewhere. They were mostly adults with pure white wing tips, but in amongst them were a couple of 2nd winters, with paler bills and black spots in their wings. Only once we had enjoyed a really good look at them did they get the bread.

IMG_5703Mediterranean Gull – an adult starting to get its black summer hood

IMG_5712Mediterranean Gull – a 2nd winter

While we had been feeding the gulls, news had come through of a Green-winged Teal at Ranworth Broad. It seemed like their might be some shelter from the wind there, so we decided to drive over there to try to see it. We parked in the village and had our lunch overlooking Malthouse Broad. There were lots of Tufted Duck and Coot out on the water, along with a couple of Great Crested Grebes. Several of the Coot came out to feed on the grass in front of us.

P1150679Coot – feeding on the grass at lunchtime

A flock of Long-tailed Tits had passed us a couple of times while we were eating, and once we had finished we looked up into the alders nearby to see if we could see anything else with them. Feeding on the cones, we could see several Goldfinches and with them a few Siskin. We had a good look at one of the latter in the scope. A Treecreeper came to the front of the trees as well and proceeded to climb up one in front of us.

IMG_5756Siskin – in the alders by the car park

We walked round and out to Ranworth Broad itself along the boardwalk. It was only when we got out there that we realised the scale of the task. A small crowd had gathered but they had lost sight of the Green-winged Teal in a vast flock of ducks out on the water towards the back of the Broad. There were hundreds and hundreds of birds – mainly Wigeon and Teal, with a smaller number of Shoveler and a few Gadwall and Pintail. Even worse, they were all constantly on the move, swimming around or just drifting in the wind.

Green-winged Teal is the American cousin of our (Eurasian) Teal and it looks very similar, apart mainly from a bold white vertical stripe on the sides of the drake’s breast. We eventually found it again, but it was an impossible task to get all the group onto it. As soon as somebody else took over the scope, it had drifted or swum out of view again and had to be refound. After trying in vain for some time, in the end we had to give it up.

We walked back along the boardwalk, where a Marsh Tit was calling from the trees. A Goldcrest was singing and more Siskins were in the alders over the road.

We wanted to get back in time for the raptor roost at Stubb Mill, so we started to make our way round there. We stopped off several times to look for Cranes, but we couldn’t find any more at any of their favoured sites this afternoon. A tractor was ploughing a field beside the road, pursued by a mass of gulls. Nearby, a Common Buzzard was perched on a large clod of earth, watching, mobbed by a couple of Carrion Crows.

Out at Stubb Mill, we immediately spotted the two Cranes which are regular here, in pretty much their usual spot. They spent most of the time we were there standing behind the reeds, with their necks up, looking round. Unfortunately, only when the light started to fade and it was too dull for photos did they fly round and land directly in front of the viewpoint. Still, it was a great flight view.

IMG_5771Crane – the usual two suspects at Stubb Mill

There were lots of Marsh Harriers already flying in and out among the trees in the reeds when we arrived. They didn’t seem to want to settle in the trees today, possibly due to the wind. At one point, they all circled up high into the air – we could see around 50 Marsh Harriers all up in the sky together. A stunning spectacle. Still they kept on coming, and there must have been at least 60 Marsh Harriers in the roost by the time we left.

P1150709Marsh Harriers – about 50 were in the sky together this evening

We didn’t see the Hen Harriers come in this evening, but the next thing we knew there were two ringtails flying around the ruined mill with the Marsh Harriers. We got them in the scope and you could just make out the white square at the base of their tails and they circled round.

Then the dark clouds rolled in, just as the wind seemed to ease a little and we lost the best of the light. We had already seen what we had come to see, so we decided to call it a day and head for home.

21st February 2015 – Back to the Broads

Day 2 of a long weekend of tours today. We headed down to the Broads for the day, to look for some of the local specialities.

We started off on a search for the Cranes. It didn’t take us long. There was no sign of any around the first of the favoured fields we visited, but a short drive further and a glance out of the side window revealed two large birds flying past in the opposite direction – unmistakeable with long necks held outstretched in front and long legs trailing behind – two Common (or Eurasian) Cranes. We turned round and followed them and they dropped towards the area we had just been searching. As most of us were watching the two, one member of the party announced “there’s four”. A quick scan showed he was right – but there were actually six. We watched them all dropping down to the fields, but unfortunately they landed out of view. Still, a great start with six Cranes already.

P1110900Cranes – these two flew past the car first thing this morning

Round at Horsey, we stopped to admire a couple of short-cropped grass fields which were positively chock full of birds. There were lots of Golden Plover, Lapwings, Fieldfares and Starlings. A couple of Common Buzzards sat around on the neighbouring bushes and fenceposts in the morning sun, occasionally flapping across the field lazily. The throng seemed to ignore them completely. Then suddenly, the whole lot took to the air, separating instantly into species flocks – the Golden Plover whirling high in the air in an amorphous group, changing shape all the time; the Lapwings flapping off more sedately below; and the Fieldfares flying away strongly calling as they went, leaving a few bemused birds in the field left wondering what the commotion was all about. Then we spotted the culprit, as a Sparrowhawk swept low over the road and away across the fields the other side.

P1110902Golden Plover – part of the flock that took fright and whirled round

Most of the Pink-footed Geese appear to have departed north already, but there were still a hundred or so out on the grass. Scanning through the flock, a couple of heads appeared from a dip in the ground behind and their white foreheads caught the sun. A small group of White-fronted Geese still lingering and taking advantage of the company of the Pinkfeet.

While we were admiring the array of birds spread out in front of us, another Crane appeared in the sky at the back of the field. As it flew past us, we could see that one of its legs was dangling below, not held out straight as it should be. We had seen this injured bird near here back in mid-January (and it had apparently been present in the area for a couple of weeks before that). Then, it appeared to be struggling on the ground, but today it landed in the distance and appeared to be a little more steady on its feet. Sad to see it still suffering, but good that it appears to be surviving and possibly even adapting to its injury.

From there, we headed inland towards Ludham. The wild swans used to winter in the fields on the coast, but these days they favour a different area. We drove straight out onto the levels and had not gone far when we spotted a line of swans – mostly Bewick’s Swans with several Mute Swans as well. A quick scan revealed four birds with the Bewick’s which were larger, with more yellow on the bill. Looking through the scope confirmed they were four Whooper Swans – nice to see them still here, and to be able to compare the two species side by side. A little further on, a small, low-slung shape ran across the road – a Weasel. We pulled up alongside it and watched it darting around in the grass right beside the car, before it realised we were there and shot off into the trees.

IMG_2812Bewick’s Swans – around 44 still on St Benet’s levels today

IMG_2808Whooper Swans – just 4 still lurking in amongst the Bewick’s

Next stop was over in the Yare valley, but the journey there takes us through more Crane country. Out of the corner of an eye, as we were driving past, an odd shape amongst the clods of ploughed earth and maize stubble caught the attention. A quick turn into a conveniently positioned gateway and we were able to scan the field. Surely it had just been another large lump of ploughed soil? No, our initial suspicions were confirmed, it was the tail of another Crane feeding head down! We positioned ourselves carefully amongst some farm buildings and had a great views of it in the scope, especially once it finally lifted its head up. It seemed fairly unconcerned by our presence, and we left it feeding by itself.

IMG_2825Crane – the bushy black tail caught our attention as we drove past…

IMG_2819Crane – … but we got much better views when it lifted its head

Down at Buckenham Marshes, we walked out to the riverbank. There were lots of ducks – mostly Wigeon, some of them proving very tame and performing for the cameras, but amongst them a smattering of Shoveler, Teal and Gadwall. A small group of Tufted Ducks was swimming in one of the flooded channels. Several Shelduck were out on the grazing marshes, but the only geese we could find today were Canada and Greylag Geese.

P1110912Wigeon – performed for the cameras

There are usually large flocks of Golden Plover and Lapwing out on the grass, but today when they spooked they seemed to do so with added urgency, swirling round in a frenzy. Everything took off at once – waders, ducks, geese. Looking through the swirling flocks, we could see why – an adult Peregrine was scything through, repeatedly turning and going back through the middle of the horde. Suddenly it slammed into something, possibly a Teal, but it couldn’t hold onto it and the victim appeared to drop like a stone straight into one of the flooded ditches. The Peregrine circled overhead, but seemed resigned to having lost its prey and dropped down onto a gatepost nearby to reflect on its misfortune.

IMG_2828Peregrine – hunting at Buckenham Marshes

While the Peregrine was busy putting everything up, we could see there were more waders over on some flooded flashes out on the grass by the old windpump. We walked along the bank and through our scopes we could see a nice group of Ruff, including a couple of very white-headed males, plus a good flock of Dunlin running around amongst the Starlings and, over at the back,  twenty or so Black-tailed Godwits.

We stopped at Strumpshaw Fen for lunch. The car park was very full again, but that didn’t put off the Marsh Tits and Long-tailed Tits around the bushes. A quick visit to Reception Hide confirmed that the reserve was very quiet again bird-wise, and with staff worries about flooding along the river on the rapidly approaching high tide, we decided to move on.

Down at Halvergate, the Rough-legged Buzzard was rather annoyingly not on its usual line of fenceposts – it had taken off and was hovering further out over the grazing marshes. It landed on a gatepost in the distance, and stood there for some time, showing no inclination to move. So we decided to leave it for a short while and explore further out across the levels. Just down the road, a stop to scan the marshes produced another flock of 43 Bewick’s Swans, a single Chinese Water Deer and a noisy flock of Fieldfares which wanted to land back in the hawthorns beside us but wouldn’t settle while we were standing there.

IMG_2834Bewick’s Swans – a tight group of 43 was still at Halvergate today

Further out on the levels, we stopped and went for a walk. As soon as we got out of the car, a Barn Owl ghosted towards us, spotting us at the last minute and wheeled away over the fields. A ringtail Hen Harrier appeared over a bank, but turned and dropped down just out of view. We had just positioned ourselves to be able to see it through the reeds, standing on the ground, when it took off again and continued quartering out across the marshes. But it was a great view as it went, and it appeared to be a young bird with yellow-tinged streaked underparts and dark under-secondaries. Then the Short-eared Owls started to appear, first one, then  a second, then a third, all out hunting over the fields, though unfortunately all rather distant. Still, it is a magical place and we eventually had to tear ourselves away.

Back where we had been earlier, the Rough-legged Buzzard had finally decided to return to its usual fenceposts so we stopped again for another look. We had a much better view of it now, noting it’s dark-streaked but very pale head and its strikingly blackish belly patch as it stood facing us. It took off and flew a couple of times, just a short distance between posts, flashing its bright white tail base as it turned to land each time. There was another Barn Owl out hunting here now, but no sign yet of the hoped for closer Short-eared. We were already running out of time to get back to the roost at Stubb Mill, so unfortunately we had to drag ourselves away again.

IMG_2845Rough-legged Buzzard – back on one of its usual fenceposts

We arrived at Stubb Mill a bit later than planned, after our distraction at Halvergate. It had looked like we might get away with our slightly tardy arrival, but the beautiful winter sunshine we had enjoyed most of the day just failed us at the last, as a patch of dark cloud on the horizon moved in front of the setting sun. The watchpoint was unbelievably busy today, and we were lucky that a few people had started to drift off for an early bath which left a space for us to stand.

P1110919Stubb Mill – the approach to the watchpoint

Several Marsh Harriers were already in, perched up in the bushes or circling over the reeds. As we scanned the marshes ahead of us, we could see more birds drifting in, in ones and twos. There were probably close to thirty at the roost again tonight. Another Barn Owl was out hunting over the grass in front of us. A Stonechat on the bushes was a new bird for the day’s list. Then a ringtail Hen Harrier appeared, coming in fast and low at the back of the grazing marsh ahead of us. The male was less accommodating today, and we just glimpsed him briefly tonight flying round amongst the bushes in the distance – he had clearly sneaked into the roost via a different route! A small falcon perched up in the bushes was most likely a Merlin, but it was getting hard to see clearly by that stage.

As the light faded we could hear Cranes constantly bugling away to the north, much more noisy than they have been in recent weeks. Each time, it seemed like they had to be on their way, but the big group didn’t appear before it was getting a bit too gloomy. Two birds did come over – coming from the other direction, they were probably the pair which regularly feeds out from the watchpoint, and they gave us a good flypast before they dropped down into the reeds across the marshes. It seemed like a good way to bookend the day – a mirror of the start, watching two Cranes flying past. We headed back to the car, with a glorious sunset fading in the sky.

P1110924Sunset – the stunning sky as we walked back this evening

16th January 2015 – Broads Bonanza

The first day of a 3 day long weekend of tours today. We headed down to the Broads to catch up on a few of the local specialities. We picked up a couple of participants on the way, in Aylsham, and were rewarded with a Barn Owl hunting down by the river. A good start to the day.

The first stop proper was at Ludham. We could already see the swans from a good mile away. One collective noun for them is a “whiteness of swans” and this seemed particularly apt as 200 large white birds in a flat open landscape really stand out! We stopped nearby and spent some time studying them in the scopes. The majority (175+) were Bewick’s Swans and amongst them were a smaller number (25+) of Whooper Swans. It is always great to be able to see them side-by-side, to see the differences in size and structure, and the pattern of yellow on their respective bills.

P1100961IMG_2269Bewick’s & Whooper Swans – a herd of around 200 was at Ludham today

From there we moved on to Horsey. A drive along the coast road quickly yielded our next target – a pair of Common Cranes in their ‘usual’ field close to the road. We pulled over and watched them feeding for a while before they suddenly took flight and dropped down over a bank of reeds. Fantastic views! While we were still standing there, yet another Crane flew over. Unfortunately this one seemed to be injured – one of its legs was dangling beneath. It landed on the other side of the road and, whilst still able to move about and probably feed, it was clearly unsteady and would frequently raise its wings to steady itself. Such a great shame to see such a majestic bird in this state.

P1100966Common Cranes – these two were feeding close to the road

P1100969P1100973Common Crane – this poor bird unfortunately appeared to have an injured leg

With Cranes all around, we spent some time surveying the surrounding fields. Lots of Lapwing, Golden Plover, Fieldfare, Starling and even a Common Buzzard were out on the open grass. There were also quite a few Pink-footed Geese on view, but the bulk of the flock today were feeding further away. As we left and drove on up the road, we could see all three Cranes, two on one side and the injured bird on the other.

P1100981P1100985Grey Seals – the rookery at Horsey has had a record year

We stopped further on at Horsey Corner and walked behind the dunes out to the viewpoint for the Grey Seals. The rookery here has had another successful breeding season, with over 800 pups now recorded. Numbers have now dropped from the peak in November/December, but there were still a few pups out on the sand, as well as a selection of adults loafing on the beach.

While we there, we spent a while scanning the sea, which produced a couple of Red-throated Divers and a Great Crested Grebe for the day’s list, as well as a single Sanderling running along the beach and plenty of gulls taking advantage of the remains of those pups which didn’t make it to sea. Both on the walk out, and the way back, we were accompanied for part of the journey by a pair of Stonechats perching along the fence posts in front of us.

P1100977Stonechat – a pair was along the fence at Horsey

Due to roadworks, we had been forced to drive round via Hemsby to get to and from Horsey today. This should have been to our advantage, as several Tundra Bean Geese have been in with Pink-footed Geese at Hemsby recently. Unfortunately a metal detecting enthusiast had chosen today to prospect the fields they had been in, so the geese had moved on. So did we – we headed round to Strumpshaw for lunch. While we ate, we enjoyed a good selection of tits coming to the feeders, including a couple of Marsh Tits.

The Taiga Bean Geese which normally winter in the Yare Valley have been feeding somewhere other than their regular sites this year. With 7 reported from Cantley Marshes this morning, it seemed worth a look. However, in keeping with recent form they were nowhere to be found, so we moved swiftly on.

IMG_2274IMG_2275Rough-legged Buzzard – put on a good display this afternoon

A short drive to Halvergate and no sooner had we got out of the car than we were wondering where to look. On one side of the road, a Short-eared Owl was hunting back and forth across the grazing marshes. On the other,  the Rough-legged Buzzard was sat on a fence post. What a dilemma! We watched the Short-eared Owl for a while, as it was putting on by far and away the best performance initially. It looked stunning in the late afternoon sun.

Finally, as if in recognition of the fact that its lack of activity was costing it the attention it deserved, the Rough-legged Buzzard took to the air and spent a while hunting, hovering over the marshes. Through the scope, we could get a great look at its black-banded white tail and white underparts with contrasting black belly and carpal patches. At one point, it was even pursued by a second Short-eared Owl.

P1100988Short-eared Owl – 2 were hunting at Halvergate this afternoon

With the afternoon drawing on, we made for Hickling and walked out to Stubb Mill for the evening roost. The Marsh Harriers were already starting to gather and yet another two Common Cranes were feeding out across the marshes. As we scanned the fields, a steady stream of Marsh Harriers were drifting in to roost (we counted at least 30) and eventually we managed to pick up our first ringtail Hen Harrier briefly. Then a male Hen Harrier appeared, an ghostly apparition in pale grey, it flew in and dropped down behind the reeds. Then another ringtail appeared and spent some time circling over the reeds. A Merlin shot through, all too briefly before anyone could get onto it. A Kingfisher flew round in front of us and dropped into the ditch behind – it perched up on the bank for a while where we could get it in the scope. A Chinese Water Deer walked across the marsh.

However the day undoubtedly belonged to the Cranes. After the three we had seen so well earlier, it seemed like we couldn’t hope for better, but as the light faded a flock (herd?) of 8 flew lazily across in front of the watchpoint – quite a sight. Thinking that was a fitting end to the day, we set off back to the car. But as we walked yet three more Cranes appeared over the trees and, as we stood silently on the road they flew right over our heads and off over to Hickling Broad to roost. Simply awesome.