Tag Archives: Lesser Redpoll

19th Dec 2017 – Border Crossing

Not a tour today, but a short expedition (with our cameras) over the border into Suffolk to catch up with a couple of good birds which have been showing well there in recent days. It was a glorious, sunny winter’s day – perfect weather to be out at this time of year, particularly after a few days in the office catching up on admin!

First stop was at Oulton Broad in Lowestoft. Just a couple of seconds after we pulled up in the car park, the Great Northern Diver surfaced. It was diving by the boats over the other side of the bridge at first, but quickly started to make its way towards us and then spent a few minutes just off the quay where we were standing. At one point, it was only about 5 metres away. These are stunning birds, normally seen at a distance out to sea, so it was great to see it so close.

Great Northern Diver 1

Great Northern Diver 2

Great Northern Diver 4

Great Northern Diver 3Great Northern Diver – showing very well at Oulton Broad

We watched the Great Northern Diver fishing for an hour or so. It disappeared round beyond some boats for a while, then made its way back to the water in front of the quay again. We didn’t see it catch very much for all its efforts. At one point it surfaced with what appeared to be a small shrimp. On previous days it has been seen catching crabs here.

Great Northern Diver 5Great Northern Diver – with what appears to be a small shrimp

Eventually the Great Northern Diver started to work its way out into the middle of Oulton Broad, resurfacing further away after each dive. We decided to continue on further into deepest Suffolk!

Our next stop was Hazlewood Common, on the edge of the Alde estuary on the outskirts of Aldeburgh. There has been a flock of Redpolls feeding in the weeds on an overgrown parsnip field here in recent weeks. As we walked down the track, a couple of Lesser Redpolls were hopping around on the ground where a photographer had been putting seed out to try to tempt them down.

We joined the small group of people standing on the edge of the field. Most of the Redpolls were feeding out in the field, but after a few minutes they flew up and circled round before landing in the hedge. It wasn’t long before we noticed a strikingly pale bird in the hedge with the others – it was the Arctic Redpoll we had come here to see.

Coues's Arctic Redpoll 1

Coues's Arctic Redpoll 2

Coues's Arctic Redpoll 3Coues’s Arctic Redpoll – strikingly pale compared to the Lesser Redpolls

We spent some time watching the Redpolls here. The birds would fly back down into the field to feed and they fly up again, sometimes up into the taller trees back towards the road, sometimes into the bushes further down, but most often into the hedge close to where we were standing.

Over the next hour or so, we were treated to some great close-up views of the Arctic Redpoll. At one point, it perched up in the top of the hedge preening, which gave us a chance to get a good look at its white rump with a large unstreaked section in the middle, one of the defining characteristics of Arctic Redpoll.

Coues's Arctic Redpoll 4

Coues's Arctic Redpoll 5Coues’s Arctic Redpoll – showing off its largely unstreaked white rump

Arctic Redpoll is divided into two subspecies, exilipes which breeds widely in northern Eurasia and North America and hornemanni which breeds in Greenland and neighbouring parts of Canada. This bird is an exilipes, also known as Coues’s Arctic Redpoll. Apparently, according to historians, it’s first name should properly be pronounced ‘cows’ after its namesake, Elliot Coues, a 19th century American army surgeon and ornithologist. This is the correct pronunciation according to his descendants, but there is even some question over how he would originally have pronounced his name! A similar issue arises in his native US over Coues white-tailed deer, which is still widely pronounced as in ‘coos’. We didn’t worry too much over the pronunciation, and just enjoyed the Redpolls!

As well as all the Arctic Redpoll, there were 20+ Lesser Redpolls and at least two Mealy Redpolls in the flock. Birds were coming and going though, and the flock was not always (or ever?) altogether. There were some nice Lesser Redpolls, including a couple of pink-breasted males.

Lesser Redpoll Suffolk 2017-12-19_2Lesser Redpoll – a smart pink-breasted male

Lesser Redpoll Suffolk 2017-12-19_3Lesser Redpoll – a more typical small, brown Lesser

The Mealy Redpolls did not pose for photos but we did at one point have all three (sub)species of Redpoll in the scope together, when they flew up to preen in the top of one of the tall trees, Coues’s Arctic Redpoll, Mealy Redpoll and Lesser Redpoll. A very interesting and useful opportunity for comparison.

Unfortunately, the days are short at this time of year and after a rather leisurely start this morning and a good session with both the Great Northern Diver and the Redpolls, the light was now starting to go. It was time to head for home.

4th Mar 2017 – Winter & Brecks, Day 2

Day 2 of a three day Winter & Brecks Tour, aiming to catch up with some of our wintering birds in North Norfolk, as well as the specialities of early spring in the Brecks. Saturday had been forecast to be the worst weather of the weekend but the forecast had seen a dramatic change during the day yesterday and was now forecast to be dry all day. We headed down to the Brecks to try our luck there today.

It was still drizzling when we met in North Norfolk, but dried up as we drove down and the sky started to brighten from the west. A couple of Red Kites circled over the road on the way, probably enjoying the improvement in the weather after the rain yesterday. As we got down to the Brecks and turned off the main road, we spotted a Barn Owl out hunting. It landed on a post and we pulled up nearby, at which point we noticed a second Barn Owl a few posts along.

6o0a8753Barn Owl – one of a pair drying out this morning

The Barn Owls seemed to be trying to dry themselves out, possibly after a wet night, perched on the posts with their wings held loosely. We watched them for a minute or so until they finally decided to resume hunting and flew off.

While we waited for the air to warm up, we went for a short walk into the forest first. We could hear a Goldcrest singing from the pines as we walked up a ride. When we came to a clearing, a Yellowhammer was singing from the top of a tall tree, where we could get it in the scope. A Common Buzzard flew across and landed on a telegraph post.

The forest itself was rather quiet – it was still rather cool, and damp from last night’s rain. There were a few Coal Tits and Blue Tits calling from the trees, as well as more Goldcrests. We heard a Marsh Tit too, from deep in the undergrowth, but it didn’t show itself. A steady succession of single Siskins flew over calling.

We could see some blue sky approaching, so we decided to head straight over to look for Goshawks. It was a wise move as, no sooner had we got on site, we were watching a juvenile Goshawk circle up out of the forest. Over the next hour and a half, we were treated to an amazing display of Goshawk activity. Rarely was there not at least one on view somewhere and there were at least five different birds present. At one point we had four Goshawks in the air at the same time!

6o0a8771-001Goshawk – one of the adults, displaying

The juvenile Goshawks led the charge at first. After the first one appeared, we then had two juveniles up together. We could see their orange-tinged underparts and darker brownish upperparts as they circled. The juveniles started displaying and a pair, the larger female and smaller male, flew up and down together for a time. A third juvenile appeared, paler below than the other two.

Eventually, the adult Goshawks joined in the show. They responded mainly with slow flapping display, flying across over the trees with exaggerated wing beats. One circled up with its white undertail coverts fluffed out, known as ‘tail flagging’. Just as we were about to leave, one of the adults gave us a full rollercoaster display, swooping upwards steeply, closing its wings at the top and then stooping down sharply before turning back up, in a series of undulations, gradually losing height until it disappeared behind the trees. It was great to watch.

There were lots of Common Buzzards circling up too, of various shades, including a particularly pale white one. On several occasions, one of the Goshawks would drift over to join the Buzzards in their thermal, giving us a great size comparison. Goshawks are big and powerful birds, females are larger than males and a large female is not much smaller than a Buzzard. At one point, a Sparrowhawk circled up from the trees too and was dwarfed by the Buzzards.

Perhaps it was the weather which caused their to be so much activity today. Certainly it was good conditions for Goshawks to be displaying, a bit of blue sky between the clouds and a little warmth from the sun at times. But coming after a couple of damp days, perhaps they were also relieved at the opportunity to get up and show off!

There were birds other than raptors here too. The highlight was a Woodlark. We heard it singing first, and then looked over to see it hovering up over the edge of a field. It flew round and landed in the top of a tree, where we could get a view of it through the scope. A large flock of Fieldfares flew up from the fields behind us and landed in the trees, chacking away. A Mistle Thrush was singing from the treetops the other side.

Eventually we decided to tear ourselves away from the Goshawks and go off to explore another part of the forest. There had been a Great Grey Shrike here last weekend, but it had not been seen all week. It is possibly the same bird which was seen a couple of miles away two weeks previously, so it may be covering a large area. Still, we thought it might be worth a look and there are normally other things to see here too.

At first it seemed rather quiet as we set off along a track. It had clouded over and the temperature had dropped again. There was no sign of the shrike where it had been seen before. However, we could hear Woodlarks and Redpolls calling, so we set off to look for them. We saw one of the Woodlarks drop down from the trees across the other side of a clearing, so we set off round towards it. When we got there, it was hiding in a rut at first, but then it flew up followed by a second Woodlark, as we approached. They landed further over.

6o0a8399Woodlark – one of the birds in the same clearing taken a few days ago

While we were chasing after the Woodlark, we had forgotten about the Redpolls, but the next thing we knew they were feeding in the trees right beside us.There were four at first. Looking at them now we could see they were Lesser Redpolls, quite rich brown toned birds with brown rumps. A nice bright male had a lovely pinky red wash over its breast, as well as the red ‘poll’ on its forehead. As we watched them feeding on the buds of the bare tree, we realised there were more in a thicker clump of trees a little further along and, when they eventually all flew off, there were at least fifteen of them here.

6o0a8830Lesser Redpoll – a male with pinky-red washed breast

The Woodlarks proved hard to see on the ground at first, but after we had finished watching the Redpolls, the male Woodlark flew across and landed on a tussock, where we could get a good look at it in the scope. As we walked back across the clearing, it flew up in front of us and gave us a nice burst of song as it fluttered overhead.

When we got back to the car, there were a couple of Treecreepers in the trees by the road. A Marsh Tit was feeding nearby and a Nuthatch was calling from a large oak tree. It was already lunchtime, so we drove round to Santon Downham for a break and something to eat. While we were there, we could hear a Marsh Tit singing from the trees.

After lunch, we drove round to Lynford Arboretum. As we walked in along the track, we could see a small cluster of photographers at the gate by the feeders. Apparently there had been a Hawfinch here earlier, right at the back, but it was not on view. However, there were several nice Bramblings down in the leaf litter, males with bright orange shoulders and breasts and varying shades of head between grey and black, plus browner females.

6o0a8862Brambling – a male, with its summer black head just beginning to appear

We could hear Hawfinch calling, a quiet ‘tic-tic’, from the trees, so we walked along to look the other side. There was no sign of it at first, but after a short while it appeared out in the grass on the edge of the trees. We were just watching it through the scope when it was flushed by a child riding round on a quad bike – he seemed to like riding round in front of all the birders and flushing the birds! The Hawfinch flew back into the trees, where we could hear it still calling.

Thankfully, the Hawfinch came out again after a few minutes and landed back on the grass the other side of the clearing. It was a smart male, rich chestnut brown around the head, with a contrasting grey collar. We had a great look at it through the scope as it hopped around on the ground. It seemed to be looking for sycamore keys – it kept picking up bits in its bill and when it found a key with a seed, would chomp on it with its huge bill until it got to the seed. The Hawfinch was accompanied by two Bramblings, which looked tiny by comparison, and a Song Thrush.

img_1186Hawfinch – this male was looking in the grass for sycamore keys

Here’s some video of the Hawfinch on the grass from a couple of days ago:

When the Hawfinch was flushed again, it flew up into the trees above the feeders. We walked back to the gate and, after a couple of minutes, could hear it calling from the holly trees a bit further along. When we walked over to see if we could see it, we could hear that it was singing. Hawfinch song itself is nothing much to write home about, a quiet jumble of sharp and grating calls, but it is still great to hear. We couldn’t see it and after a while it flew back to the tree tunnel, where it perched out of view in the trees calling, before flying off over the arboretum.

Even though the male had flown off, we could still hear a Hawfinch calling from the trees the other side of the chicken pen. We walked up that way and it appeared right in the tops. It was a female, much duller grey brown compared to the male. Still, we got it in the scope and had a great look at it. Eventually, as a crowd started to gather below it, it flew back into the trees.

6o0a8897Hawfinch – a duller female in the trees

It was that time of the day when the Hawfinches start to gather to roost, so we made our way down towards the paddocks. There was lots of bird seed put out on the pillars of the bridge, and loads of birds coming down to feed on it. However, as we walked up to the bridge we could hear Crossbills calling from high in the poplars. We hurried on down the path the other side, just in time to see five Crossbills fly off south over the meadow beyond.

Back at the bridge, we spent some time watching the comings and goings at the bird seed. There was a succession of tits flying in, grabbing a beak-full, and darting back to the safety of the trees. As well as the usual Blue Tits, Great Tits and Long-tailed Tits, we had great views of Coal Tit and Marsh Tit. The latter in particular are always good to see up close.

6o0a8949Marsh Tit – feeding on the seed at the bridge

A couple of Nuthatches kept coming down to the seed too, as did a Reed Bunting and several Chaffinches. Lots of Siskins were feeding in the trees above and several came down to a muddy pool to drink. It was a hive of activity here.

6o0a8941Nuthatch – also coming to the seed at the bridge

We heard more Crossbills calling as they flew in. One landed in the alders briefly, before all three flew up into the tops of the poplars. We hurried down the path again, just in time to see them, two red males and a green/yellow female, chasing around in the branches before dropping down through the trees, presumably to drink.

While we waited for the Crossbills hopefully to reappear, we turned our attention to the paddocks. Scanning the tops of the trees beyond, we picked up a Hawfinch high in the top of a fir tree. A second Hawfinch was in another tree nearby. Then the first flew down towards the trees in the middle of the paddocks, where it landed. We walked further along the path, still with one eye back on the poplars, but the Hawfinch had dropped down towards the ground out of view.

It seemed like the Crossbills we had seen in the poplars were not going to come back up into the tops, but standing by the paddocks we heard more Crossbills calling from the pines nearby. We walked along to look for them and there was no sign of any movement in the trees initially, until we heard a cone dropping through one of the trees. That is a sure giveaway, the birds dropping the cones when they are finished extracting the seeds from them, and we quickly honed in on where they were.

To our surprise, the first Crossbill we set eyes on was a streaky juvenile. This is the first juvenile we have seen this year. Crossbills will breed in almost any month of the year, and will often have their first nesting attempt in January or even December. As we looked more closely at the tree, we could see there were actually two juveniles and two bright red males.

img_1229Crossbill – a streaky juvenile

The juvenile Crossbills were clambering around, picking at the cones and even pulling at the bark on the branches, still not able to feed themselves. The males were busy feeding, extracting seed from the cones. At one point, we watched as one of the males hopped over and fed one of the begging youngsters – regurgitating half digested seed for it. It was fascinating to watch.

img_1266Crossbill – a red male hanging on a cone, check out the distinctive crossed mandibles

We thought there might be a female nearby, but when they flew off there were just the four Crossbills together. As we walked back towards the bridge, we could hear Crossbills calling from the poplars and there were the two juveniles with one of the adult males. That might mean the female Crossbill is incubating a second clutch somewhere nearby, and the male has been left to care for the first brood until they are able to fend for themselves.

While we were watching the Crossbills, we heard several Hawfinches flying over towards the paddocks. We turned back to look over in that direction and could see a few Hawfinches in the tops of the trees beyond. At first, we could just see two or three in the very tops of a couple of pines, but on closer inspection we found more, with nine together in a lower deciduous tree. There were at least fifteen in total.

The number of Hawfinch here have dropped in recent weeks, from their peak at the start of the year, which may indicate that migrants which had spent the winter here, with our resident Hawfinches, have already left on their way back. Still, fifteen is a very respectable number – there aren’t many places in the UK where you can see a flock of that size these days. While we were watching them, we heard Mandarin calling and turned to see a pair flying away from us over the lake.

After a really great day in the Brecks, it was time to head for home now. As we drove back to North Norfolk,we drove through the area where we had looked for the Pallid Harrier yesterday. It had been showing all day today, since about 10am, but by the time we got back it was a bit too late in the day, and the sun was going down. We had a quick look for it, but it turned out that it had flown off about an hour earlier. Typical!

We did spot a Red Kite high in a tree right above the road, feeding on something. A Barn Owl flew across the road in front of us and along the verge, before flipping over the hedge. It was a perfect book end to the day – Red Kites and Barn Owls to start and finish.

3rd January 2016 – New Year Birding, Part 2

Day 2 of a 2 day Private Tour today. Once again, we planned to have a day of general birding along the North Norfolk coast. We met up in Wells and this time headed west along the coast.

By the road, on the north side of Holkham Park, we spotted a Barn Owl perched on a post. A nice start to the day, but we were slightly spoiled by the number we saw yesterday. A little further along, a white shape up in the trees was not another owl but a very pale Common Buzzard. This bird is often to be found here and frequently catches people out as it is so strikingly white below. Whilst Buzzards are normally rather brown, they can be very variable in appearance and paler birds seem to be increasingly seen.

P1140158Common Buzzard – a strikingly pale individual

We cut across inland towards Choseley. There have been up to three Rough-legged Buzzards in the general area and we had hoped to run into one of them, but we didn’t see any sign on our way there. We stopped to scan the fields at Choseley and picked up a more typically toned Common Buzzard perched on a hedge. There were lots of Brown Hares in the fields. Two Mistle Thrushes flew up onto the wires and when they dropped back down into the field they were joined by a couple of Song Thrushes.

We had a quick drive round to see if we could find a Rough-legged Buzzard in any of the other places they like to hang out, without success. When we got back to Choseley, one had flown across and landed in a pine copse in the distance. It was not a great view, half concealed in the trees, but as it preened itself we could see its white tail with black terminal band. With the weather forecast to deteriorate by the middle of the day, we decided not to hang around waiting to see if it would emerge again, and drove on down to Titchwell.

The overflow car park was already starting to fill up with cars and was consequently quite disturbed. We could hear Bullfinches calling as we walked round, but they flew off towards the back of Patsy’s Reedbed as we got there.

The feeders by the Visitor Centre were more productive. There were lots of Chaffinches, Greenfinches and Goldfinches flitting in and out and as we watched them, a Brambling appeared as well. It was rather nervous, but hung around long enough for us to get it in the scope. A grey-brown tit flew in, grabbed a seed and disappeared back into the bushes. Just enough time for us to see it was a Marsh Tit. It came in a second time and lingered a fraction longer. Then a Coal Tit flew in as well and helpfully perched for a few seconds in the bushes above the feeders.

IMG_4739Brambling – on the feeders by the Visitor Centre this morning

As we walked out towards the reserve, we scanned the ditches either side of the path, carefully looking for any movement. We were rewarded with a Water Rail, which scuttled across an open patch of water and then spent some time probing in the leaf litter in the dense tangle of branches under some bushes. It was remarkably well camouflaged and hard to see when it wasn’t moving, but we got a good look at it, noting its long bill, black-streaked brown upperparts and black and white barred flanks.

We stopped to scan the still drained grazing marsh pool, which looked rather devoid of life at first, apart from a solitary Teal in one of the deeper puddles at the front. Seeing some movement right over in the far corner, we turned the scope on it to see a couple of Rock Pipits out on the mud. As we scanned across, we could see there were at least three Water Pipits as well. It was great to see the two of them in the same scope view – the swarthy Rock Pipit with heavily streaked, dirty underparts compared to the cleaner Water Pipit with more restricted streaking on much whiter underparts and a more obvious whitish supercilium.

The freshmarsh is still flooded at the moment, so there were comparatively few waders out there again today. There were plenty of ducks though, and on one of the few small islands poking out of the water we picked out a little group of four Red-crested Pochards – two males and two females – asleep.

IMG_4741Red-crested Pochard – roosting on one of the few remaining islands

We decided to head straight out towards the beach and come back to the hides later, in case the weather turned. The Volunteer Marsh was fairly quiet, apart from a good number of Shelduck and a few Redshank. However, at the end of the channel by the path was a large flock of Teal. Several of the drakes were displaying, throwing their heads back and calling.

P1140169Teal – lots of the drakes were displaying today

There were more waders out on the Tidal Pools. One of the first we got onto when we arrived was a rather pale Redshank-sized bird feeding in the deep water at the back. We got it in the scope and we could see it had silvery-grey upperparts spotted with white and shining white underparts; its bill was longer than a Redshank with a needle-fine tip. It was a Spotted Redshank in winter plumage, one of a very small number that spend the winter here (the majority just pass through on migration).

IMG_4766Spotted Redshank – feeding in deep water at the back of the Tidal Pools

There seem to be rather fewer Black-tailed Godwits on the reserve at the moment, but several are still feeding out on the Tidal Pools – and as usual they were showing very well. We spent some time watching them, noting their long and very straight bills and plain grey upperparts. A little further along we found a couple of Bar-tailed Godwits as well – paler, with dark streaks on their upperparts and a slight upturn to the bill.

P1140205Black-tailed Godwit – showing very well on the Tidal Pools

We also found a small group of Knot, in plain grey winter plumage, a little larger and dumpier than a Dunlin with a shorter, straight black bill, grey-green legs. A Turnstone was on one of the sandbanks, much darker than the other waders, with a short bill and orange legs. A large group of Oystercatcher were roosting on one of the spits.

While we were looking through the waders, a rakish, streamlined duck appeared overhead. It was a redhead Goosander, with rusty head neatly demarcated from its white underparts, grey above with an obvious white panel in the wings. It circled a couple of times, appeared to head over to the freshmarsh before coming back – it seemed to think about landing on the Tidal Pools before disappearing away to the east. They just pass through along the coast here. Coming in now is perhaps a sign that it is getting colder on the continent.

There were a few other ducks out on the Tidal Pools. A female Goldeneye was diving constantly, in among the Little Grebes. It was a challenge to get her in the scope, but when we did we could see her golden-yellow eye. Three female Pintail were upending in the shallows whereas the smart drake was keeping to himself in the deeper water.

Out on the beach, the tide was in. It had started to drizzle lightly and the wind had picked up, but we found some shelter in front of the dunes. Out on the beach, a little group of silvery-grey and white Sanderling were running around like clockwork toys. A scan of the sea revealed a small flotilla of Common Scoter not far out. It was not the weather to be out on the beach so, before we got too cold, we decided to make our way back to the hides.

IMG_4769Avocet – a few of the 27 at Titchwell today, braving the winter here

From the shelter of the Parrinder Hide, we took the opportunity to have a better scan of the freshmarsh. There were a few waders clustered around the few remaining slivers of island. A grand total of 27 Avocets are still hanging on, having made the decision not to head south for the winter. They were mostly asleep. A Common Snipe ran across the island behind them and stood for a while on the edge of the vegetation where we could see it. A single Golden Plover was hiding in with the Lapwing and several Dunlin and Turnstones were running in and out of the roosting ducks.

There were plenty of wildfowl. Lots of Teal were roosting around the edges, along with a smattering of Wigeon. There was a good number of Shoveler and in amongst them a few Gadwall and more Pintail. A handful of Brent Geese flew in to bathe and preen, vastly outnumbered today by lots of very noisy Greylags. Another Water Pipit dropped in very briefly for a bath, on the near edge below the hide.

IMG_4775Brent Goose – a small number were bathing on the freshmarsh

Having warmed up, we made a quick dash back to the shelter of the trees, diverting round via the Meadow Trail towards the Visitor Centre. The bushes here were quiet today, apart from a Song Thrush singing from the trees. While we stopped to get a hot drink, we had another scan of the feeders. A single Lesser Redpoll flew in to feed. Walking back to the car park, a couple of Chiffchaffs were flitting around below the bushes by the path. More commonly a summer visitor, a few increasingly spend the winter, though these are probably birds escaping south from Scandinavia rather than ones reared here.

IMG_4803Lesser Redpoll – on the feeders in front of the Visitor Centre

While we ate a late lunch, the rain started to fall properly, just as it had unfortunately been forecast to do. At least we had made the most of the morning. After lunch, we made our way back east along the coast.

We stopped at Brancaster Staithe to scan the harbour from the comfort of the car. In the channel right in front of us, a large group of eleven Red-breasted Mergansers were feeding, diving non-stop. In with them was a very pale, winter plumage Great Crested Grebe.

P1140257Red-breasted Mergansers – a group of 11 were off Brancaster Staithe

There was also a good selection of waders to look at. A Ringed Plover and a Grey Plover were both new ones for the day. We could see a few scattered Bar-tailed Godwits but when they took off and flew round together there were seventeen of them, along with a similar number of Dunlin. Several Turnstones were running around the car park between the cars.

We carried on east to Holkham, scanning the marshes on the way, and stopped on Lady Anne’s Drive. Lots of Brent Geese were feeding in the fields, along with a small group of Pink-footed Geese. The original plan had been to have a look in the pines this afternoon, with a particular request to see a Goldcrest. While there had been one with the Chiffchaffs at Titchwell, it had moved through too quickly for everyone to get onto it. The afternoon was already getting on by now, so with nothing to lose, we decided to brave the rain and go for a walk.

The trees were rather quiet at first, and we were almost to Salts Hole when we heard some tits calling from the trees. Working our way in, we came across a little group of Long-tailed Tits feeding low down in a bare tangle of brambles. The tits are often in mixed groups with other birds at this time of year, so we had hoped that something else might come out to join them, but as the Long-tailed Tits moved through it appeared that they were alone. Back on the main path, we could hear a Goldcrest and Treecreeper calling, but we couldn’t locate them in the rain and wind.

Salts Hole itself held a single female Goldeneye and at least four Little Grebes, all diving constantly. We carried on a little further and could hear more Goldcrests calling in the holm oaks but again could not get onto them. Further along the path was very exposed to the wind so, with the light failing fast, we decided to head back. A short way along, we heard more crests calling and stopped to listen. Eventually we saw three birds chasing each other across the path, silhouetted against the sky. One was still in the bushes above the path and we tried hard to get a better look at it. It was right above our heads and started calling – it was a Firecrest! Unfortunately, it was now just too dark to see it properly, particularly as it wouldn’t come out of the holm oaks.

We decided to call it a day and walked back towards the car. As we did, we could hear the Pink-footed Geese flying in to roost, a cacophony of yelping as thousands of geese flew in from the fields inland and whiffled down onto the grazing marshes for the night. There were several waves which arrived and once we got out of the trees we could see yet more geese dropping out of the sky through the gathering gloom and rain. We could just see a vast horde spread across the grass through the gaps in the hedges.

It had been a great couple of days out, but this seemed like a fitting way to end so we headed for home.

10th October 2015 – When the East Wind blows

The second day of a long weekend of Autumn tours today. With the wind in the east, we had hopes that there might be some fresh migrants in from the continent. We drove round to Holkham and parked at Lady Anne’s Drive to explore the woods.

The walk west along the inner edge of the pines was quiet at first. There were a few tits in the trees, but it was cool in the east wind this morning. Salts Hole had several Little Grebes as usual – at least 5 today. We could hear them, like slightly maniacal laughter, as we walked along the path. The calls of the Pink-footed Geese also provided a near constant soundtrack.

P1110173Little Grebe – at least 5 on Salts Hole today

At Washington Hide, we climbed up the boardwalk to look in the sycamores. The wind was catching the trees on the far side of the gap, and there was consequently little activity there today. As we turned back towards the hide, we could see a large white shape out on the water below – the Great White Egret. It has been around for about a month and a half now, but it was still nice to see it out in the open on the pool today.

IMG_1829Great White Egret – on the pool in front of Washington Hide again

We could hear Long-tailed Tits calling further along, as we watched the Great White Egret. We thought they might come our way, but the trees along the edge of the path were obviously more sheltered, so we walked back down and along to where they were feeding. We watched them for a while, hoping we might find something different with the flock – but as well as the Long-tailed Tits, it was just the usual Blue, Great and Coal Tits, Goldcrests and Treecreepers.

After the flock had passed through, we continued west, exploring all the most likely areas. In the trees behind Meals House, we came across another tit flock. The sycamores here look ideal feeding grounds for a lost visitor from the east, but it was not to be today. The main recurring theme along the trees was Goldcrest – there seemed to be a lot in here today, with the resident birds presumably joined by migrants from the continent. A few Siskin and Redpoll flew over the pines, calling.

Treecreeper Wells 2015-10-06_1Treecreeper – here’s one from Wells Woods the other day

We were past the crosstracks when we heard a Yellow-browed Warbler calling loudly from the sallows ahead of us. It was on the far side, where it was sunny, at first but eventually made its way through and we could see it flicking around amongst the leaves. Then suddenly it took off and disappeared west. We could hear it calling again, some way further along the path.

We followed it and found the Yellow-browed Warbler feeding in the top of a young oak tree by the path. It was not hard to relocate, because it was calling so often! It took off again and flew high west, dropping down again further along. It did this several times before it landed in a thicker group of sallows where a lone Chiffchaff was calling. We could see the Chiffchaff feeding around some ivy, and the Yellow-browed Warbler appeared next to it. At this point, the latter stopped calling and appeared to settle down to feed in the sallows, at which point we lost sight of it. There had been a Yellow-browed Warbler in the same area earlier in the week, but the way this bird was behaving, it was tempting to think it might be a fresh arrival.

We carried on west to the end of the pines and walked out onto the edge of the dunes. We had met a couple of other birders along the path, and the news from the dunes was that they had not seen anything of note out there. We had hoped to catch up with the Ring Ouzels which had been around the bushes here, but we learnt later that Holkham staff had been working there yesterday – presumably the birds had moved on. Even when one of the wardens drove through the area, nothing of note came out. We did see a couple of male Blackcaps feeding in the brambles.

News came through that someone had seen a Red-breasted Flycatcher back at Washington Hide, so we decided to make our way back there to try to see it. Unfortunately, it turned out that it had only been seen briefly and had disappeared across the path and out into the bushes on the National Nature Reserve. We had a look round some likely spots, in case it had made its way back to the trees, but it was not seen again. We did hear another Yellow-browed Warbler calling from the trees near Salts Hole.

It was time to head back to the car for lunch, and afterwards we made our way back east. Having spent the morning scouring the tit flocks in the woods, a bit of water with waders and wildfowl seemed like a good way to spend the afternoon. However, as we walked along the path to Stiffkey Fen, we could hear yet more Long-tailed Tits and Goldcrests calling!

Stiffkey Fen itself has been very full of water for the last couple of months, despite all the money invested in new sluices. It has proven popular with the vast horde of Greylag Geese and associated white farmyard geese though. There have been the odd few Pintail on here recently and the same was true today. The drakes are now starting to emerge from eclipse plumage and a couple had the beginnings of the chocolate brown head and white neck pattern. There were lots of Pintail on here today – we counted at least 95 hiding amongst the Greylags, a very respectable total. There were also several Wigeon and Teal, with a couple of Gadwall and a Shoveler in with them.

IMG_1839Pintail – the drakes are starting to emerge from eclipse now

With the water levels so high, waders are thin on the ground (not that there is really any ground left to be thin on!). There were still a few Lapwing roosting, standing almost up to their bellies in water. A couple of Redshank dropped in. A single juvenile Ruff was on the tiny remains of one of the islands, where the vegetation was still showing above the flood.

There were more waders out on the other side of the seawall. A couple of Redshank and a Curlew were feeding in the muddy channel, with more Redshank and a couple of winter plumaged Grey Plover on the wider expanse of mud further along. We walked round to the corner to scan the harbour. There were lots of Oystercatcher as usual, but a lot more small waders out here today as well. These included a liberal scattering of dumpy grey Knot, some little groups of smaller, darker Dunlin, and further over on the edge of the water, as least 20 sparkling silvery Sanderling. A few Turnstone were grubbing around among the cockles and other shells.

There were plenty of Brent Geese out in the harbour. When the birds return from Russia, they like to feed out on the saltmarshes on Eel Grass at first, turning increasingly to grazing pasture and winter wheat fields only as the winter progresses. We could see lines of Brent Geese flying in over the sea, out beyond Blakeney Point, presumably more birds returning for the winter. As they got past the Point, several of them turned into the wind, and flew in to the harbour to join the others already out there. While we were enjoying the spectacle out in the harbour, a Kingfisher sped past, changing its mind and turning round on the edge of the mudflats, flying back in along the channel.

P1110185Comma – enjoying the late afternoon sunshine

As we walked back along the path beside the Fen, the sun came out and it was suddenly quite warm out of the fresh east wind. We had not seen so many insects today, but there were more now. A bright orange Comma butterfly was feeding on the overripe blackberries and a couple of Common Darter dragonflies were basking on the wooden post by the stile.

P1110196Common Darter – basking on one of the wooden posts

We had time for one last stop so pulled in at the start of the middle track at Warham Greens and made our way down towards the front. A Common Buzzard looked slightly out of place sat on top of the barn roof on the way down. More in keeping, certainly with the day’s activity, was the flock of Long-tailed Tits which made its way down the path ahead of us and the Goldcrests calling from the hedges. It was nice walking quietly along the track until we found ourselves pursued along the path by a huge convoy of vehicles. It was a disparate birding group – some cars were left scattered in the gateways, others continued gingerly to the end of the rutted track – which them gathered en masse only just beyond the gate at the end.

We made our way past them, and down to the pit. We had hoped their might be some late migrants, but the bushes were largely quiet. There were a few Chaffinches and Goldfinches. However, the highlight was when a single Lesser Redpoll flew in and landed in the trees with them briefly.

There was more activity out on the saltmarsh – lots of Little Egrets, flocks of Golden Plover and Curlew. A couple of Marsh Harriers were tussling out towards East Hills. Then the ringtail Hen Harrier appeared again, flying in low over the saltmarsh from the direction of Wells. We watched it as it worked its way towards us, flashing the white square at the base of its uppertail. It came right across in front of us, swooping a couple of times at something unseen amongst the Suaeda bushes, before dropping down onto the saltmarsh out of view. It seemed like a great way to end the day, so with the light fading we made our way back past the now dwindling crowd and up the path passed their abandoned vehicles.

IMG_1858Hen Harrier – the ringtail was quartering the saltmarsh again at dusk

4th October 2015 – Titchwell & Beyond

Day 3 of a long weekend of tours today, our last day. It was a cloudy and misty start again, but brightened up through the morning. It was not as warm as recent days in a light north wind, but still very pleasant to be out. We wanted to head west this morning, with Titchwell as our main destination for the day.

It was still rather quiet when we arrived, so we went to explore the overflow car park before the crowds appeared. There were several Song Thrushes around the bushes and a couple of Blackcaps dived for cover in the brambles as we walked through. Chaffinches are much more in evidence now, with birds arriving from the continent for the winter. A Grey Wagtail flew overhead calling. As we turned to walk towards the reserve, we looked up to see four Grey Herons flying west.

P1100931Siskin – we came across a flock feeding in the alders by the path

We had heard Siskins calling over the car park, but as we walked out onto the reserve we could hear some more in the alders by the path. With all the leaves still on the trees, they were hard to see but eventually we got great views of several of them, one in particular hanging upside down and feeding on the alder cones. As we were about to move on, one Siskin even perched up nicely for us in a dead tree. We had heard a Redpoll or two calling overhead as well, but a little further along three dropped down into one of the small sallows in the edge of the reedbed. We could just see one, a tawny brown Lesser Redpoll, in amongst the leaves, before they all flew off.

There was a big flock of tits which came through the sallows on the edge of the reedbed as well – Long-tailed, Blue and Great Tits plus a couple of Goldcrests and a single Chiffchaff. We had heard several Cetti’s Warblers singing loudly from deep in the undergrowth on our walk out, but they were impossible to see as usual. However, when two Blue Tits dropped into one of the sallows the resident Cetti’s Warbler seemed to take objection and hopped up next to them singing. A great, if somewhat brief, view.

As we walked towards the grazing meadow pool, a couple of Bearded Tits flew up from the reedbed, across the path and dropped down into the reeds the other side. We heard lots of Bearded Tits again today, and saw several zooming around over the reeds. We did get lucky with one male Bearded Tit which worked its way up to the top of a reed stem and perched out in full view for a couple of seconds before flying off.

The grazing meadow pool itself was rather quiet again, as it has been since it was drained last winter – a few Lapwings, a couple of Redshank and a single Dunlin. We were about to move on when a Water Rail suddenly ran out onto the mud in the middle. It seemed to realise belatedly that it was out in the open and froze, not knowing which way to run. It darted one way, then the other, then made for the channel along the side. But rather than run across into the reeds, it made its way right along the edge of the mud towards us. Head on, we could see how narrow-bodied it was, perfect for squeezing through among the reeds. The usual raft of Common Pochard and Tufted Duck was on the reedbed pool, plus a few Mallard.

IMG_1516Teal – some of the drakes are moulting out of eclipse

There were lots of ducks out on the freshmarsh from Island Hide. A few of the drake Teal are now coming out of eclipse and starting to show the smart green and rusty head pattern of breeding plumage. We picked out a few Shoveler and Gadwall among the throng. The Wigeon were over the back around the islands. A large gaggle of Greylag Geese flew in and took over one of the islands. A little later, a small flock of Brent Geese flew in to bathe and preen.

It was high tide, so many of the waders had come in from the beach to roost on the freshmarsh. There was a big mixed flock of Bar-tailed Godwits and Knot, either preening or asleep. A few Black-tailed Godwits were feeding in the deep water behind, along with a few Ruff. There are not many Avocets left here now – we could only see five today. Small wader numbers are also very much reduced with only a handful of Dunlin and a single Ringed Plover on the freshmarsh today. There was a larger flock of Golden Plover – as usual very jumpy and taking flight at the slightest provocation – and Lapwing.

We decided to head round to Parrinder Hide and were just on our way back up the slope to the main path when another Water Rail appeared on the edge of the reeds by Island Hide. We got it in the scope and got a great view of it – our second of the day, and again feeding very obligingly out in the open.

IMG_1524Water Rail – appeared out of the reeds near Island Hide

A little further along the path, a scan of the muddy islands on the edge of the freshmarsh revealed a Common Snipe hiding among the dead docks, preening. It was tricky to pick out at first, but eventually walked out of the vegetation to where we could get a better look at it.

IMG_1542Common Snipe – showing well eventually from the main path

A Chinese Water Deer was feeding on the saltmarsh the other side of the seawall. This is the same tatty individual we have been seeing on and off all year, with ragged ears and a big bald patch on its back. It still doesn’t look in very good condition, possibly affected by mange, but at least it doesn’t seem to have worsened recently.

P1100941Chinese Water Deer – the tatty individual was out on the saltmarsh again

From Parrinder Hide, we could see a small group of waders sleeping in the far corner of the freshmarsh. Through the scope, we could see that there were several Greenshank and a couple of Spotted Redshank as well. They all had their bills tucked in but we could just about see their legs.

With the tide high, the Volunteer Marsh was under water again today, so we decided to head out towards the beach. However, from the main path we could see a Curlew attempting to cross between islands where the vegetation was still exposed. It appeared to be swimming across the deepest water! We then had great views of it through the scope as it fed at its destination.

IMG_1549Curlew – swimming between islands on the flooded Volunteer Marsh

There were a lot more waders on the tidal pools again. As usual, a (the?) Black-tailed Godwit was feeding close to the path providing great close-ups.

P1100956Black-tailed Godwit – showing well on the tidal pools

Out at the back, a Spotted Redshank was sleeping beside a Common Redshank – very hard to tell apart without seeing their bills, but the former was slightly bigger with a paler breast and face. There are always quite a few Common Redshank feeding out here. A couple of Greenshank flew over calling, towards the beach.

IMG_1598Grey Plover – there were several roosting on the tidal pools over high tide

There were a couple of Grey Plover feeding around the muddy edges of the islands near the path, giving us great views. Nearby, a Ringed Plover was very well camouflaged on the mud.

IMG_1609Ringed Plover – hiding on one of the muddy islands

Further over, we could see more waders roosting here over high tide on the beach. A flock of sleeping Oystercatcher were at the back. In front of them, on the spit of an island, was a mixed group of Grey Plover, Knot, Dunlin and Turnstone, together with a couple of Redshank. It was great to see them all side by side and get a real appreciation of the relative sizes of all the different species.

Out on the beach, the sea was very calm. In principle, this is great for seeing the birds, as there are few waves for them to hide behind, but unfortunately they can be further out in these conditions. We did manage to find a distant Red-throated Diver on the sea, as well as several Great Crested Grebes. Four redhead Red-breasted Mergansers were diving offshore until they took off and flew away to the west. A Red-necked Grebe was too distant to get anyone onto – initially flying past next to a much larger Cormorant, it landed on the sea so far out it was impossible to see. A single slatey-grey juvenile Gannet flew past. With the tide in, there were no waders out here today.

We started to walk back in good time for lunch. Little did we know the excitement that lay in store to distract us on the way back! As we came off the beach, we could see a helicopter circling over – it appeared to be over the freshmarsh, and turned inland to land over by the village. Needless to say, all the birds scattered and the resulting pandemonium saw many of the roosting waders from the tidal pools flee as well.

We had got as far as the Volunteer Marsh when we spotted yet another Water Rail out in the open, our third of the day – what had got into them today? It was feeding along the muddy channel by the reeds. We had stopped to watch it, when a flock of small waders dropped in further back, presumably having been flushed by the helicopter. They were mostly Dunlin and started to feed feverishly on the exposed mud. Carefully scanning through, one of them was slightly larger, longer-winged, longer-legged and longer-billed. It was a juvenile Curlew Sandpiper.

IMG_1679Curlew Sandpiper – this juvenile dropped into the Volunteer Marsh

It was very hard to get everyone onto the Curlew Sandpiper at first. It was over towards the back and in amongst the mob of Dunlin. Then, very obligingly, it flew down towards the front and started to feed up on the exposed mud on its own. Cracking views!

That delayed our return for a while, as we admired the Curlew Sandpiper. Then we hurried on back along the path. An adult Mediterrean Gull flew over, flashing its pure white wingtips (lacking the black spots of the 2nd winter we had seen yesterday). Two Pink-footed Geese were a surprise addition to the reedbed pool on the way back. Looking up, we could see a ‘v’ of birds flying slowly west – a flock of 11 Grey Herons! After the birds we had seen earlier this morning, there were obviously quite a few Grey Herons on the move today.

We were alongside the reedbed when we heard something crashing about in the reeds right below the path. All we could see at first was the reeds thrashing from side to side, which at least allowed us to track it as it moved through them. When it got to one of the pools we finally got to see what it was – as we suspected, an Otter swam out and across the open water.

P1100988Otter – in the reeds right below the path in the middle of the day

We followed the Otter for a while, but most of the time it kept to the reeds. We did get another quick view of it as it swam across the edge of one of the other pools further back. Then it really was time to head back for a rather later than planned lunch.

Afterwards, we headed back out to Patsy’s Reedbed and the Autumn Trail. We were just past the visitor centre, at the very start of Fen Trail, when we heard a single call of a Yellow-browed Warbler. It was very hard to see in the tops of the trees, mostly obscured by leaves. Then it dropped down out of the back and out of view. We were almost at Fen Hide when we heard a second Yellow-browed Warbler – and this one called constantly for several seconds. Unfortunately, we had just got to the place in the trees where it was calling when it fell silent. Typical! We did see it flick up briefly out of the sallows but it flew off out of view.

Round at Patsy’s Reedbed, there were lots of ducks loafing around – Mallard, Teal, Wigeon, Shoveler, Tufted Duck and Pochard. But pride of place went to a very smart pair of Gadwall – the most underrated of our ducks. The drake was already out of eclipse and looking very smart in greys, browns and black.

IMG_1691Gadwall – a very smart pair of ducks

A skein of Pink-footed Geese flew west calling. A little later a skein flew east – possibly the same birds, having turned back at the corner of the Wash along the coast. Several more skeins came over this afternoon – yet more Pink-footed Geese presumably arriving from Iceland for the winter already.

P1100994Pink-footed Geese – one of the skeins that flew over this afternoon

We had a quick look along the Autumn Trail. Apart from several dragonflies enjoying the autumn sunshine – Migrant Hawkers and Common Darters – it was quiet. A smart male Kestrel perched up in the tops of the dead trees. We wanted to have a quick look at Choseley, so we headed back to the car. We stopped briefly by the feeders in front of the visitor centre to add both Coal Tit and Marsh Tit to the day’s list – both dropping down repeatedly but briefly to grab a morsel before flying to cover to consume it.

Once again, there were not many birds around the drying barns, aside from a few Collared Doves. A little further along, we stopped at one of the field entrances and down in the stubble were at least seven Brown Hares. They sat in the sun, with their black-tipped ears raised.

P1100995Brown Hare – several were in the fields up around Choseley

There were lots of Red-legged Partridges around the fields today and plenty in the roads too, running along in front of the car and refusing to get out of the way. Presumably most of them have been hand-reared and released ready for the shooting season. Amongst them, we found a few Grey Partridge as well. The Grey Partridges can be more wary, but as these were running around with the Red-leggeds, perhaps some have been released here for shooting as well.

P1110023Grey Partridges – we found several with the more common Red-leggeds

As we made our way round the back, we came across a flock of Pink-footed Geese dropping down into the fields. Some of them landed in a stubble field by the road, but they hadn’t settled and as we pulled up they raised their heads looking nervous and took off.

P1110032Pink-footed Geese – in the stubble fields inland from the coast

It had certainly been an action-packed final day. With that, we dropped back to the coast road and headed for home.