Tag Archives: Little Owl

18th Feb 2020 – Return of the Owls

An Owl Tour today. After yet more windy weather over the weekend, as Storm Dennis swept across the country, it was nice that conditions had improved today and we could get out looking for owls. The wind had dropped, although it got more blustery again through the day. It was dry and we even had some bright sunny periods through the morning.

After a prompt get away, we headed straight down to the marshes and before we even got out of the minibus we could see a Barn Owl out hunting over the grass by the road. It did a circuit of the field, round over the edge of the reeds and then disappeared round behind a hedge.

Barn Owl 1

Barn Owl – our second of the morning, perched on a post

Walking up onto the bank, we could see another Barn Owl on a fence post down on the marshes the other side. We got the scope on it, and could see it was scanning the long grass below intently. Then it took off, hovered, and dropped sharply down into the vegetation. When it came up again, we could see it had a vole in its bill, which it quickly transferred to its talons. It made a beeline back over the grass towards the trees beyond. At this time of day, Barn Owls are often robbed of their catch and it took evasive action as a Rook flew towards it, before disappearing with its prey back into the wood.

Looking back the other side, there were now two different Barn Owls hunting the fields there. We watched them for a few minutes, until they both disappeared, presumably heading in to roost. A Kestrel flew across and landed in the top of the hedge briefly, the main prey-stealing culprit here!

The other raptors were coming out too now. Two Red Kites drifted out of the trees and across the marshes. A Common Buzzard circled up inland and flew in towards us, mobbed by two Jackdaws. A couple of Marsh Harriers were quartering the marshes in the distance. There were other things to see here as well. A small flock of Curlews were feeding in the grass around a small flood which had appeared after all the recent rains. The local mob of teenage Mute Swans had gathered round it too. A Brown Hare ran across the grass. A Song Thrush was in full song back in the trees.

Barn Owl 2

Barn Owl – hunting in the morning sun

The Barn Owl we had seen catch a vole earlier now appeared out of the trees again, presumably having digested its earlier prey. With the low morning sunshine behind us, it was beautiful light as we watched it working its way methodically around the grazing marsh. It dropped down into the grass a couple of times, but didn’t catch anything more. Then it flew back and landed in the trees on the edge of the wood. It perched there for a while, sunning itself, and we watched it in the scope before it dropped down onto a fence post just below. Then it set off again, purposefully, along the edge of the grass, across the road, and then turned sharply and disappeared into the trees.

Presumably, the Barn Owl was heading into roost. It was good that we had managed an early start to catch them out hunting, as there was no sign of any of the three Barn Owls we had seen this morning. We decided to move on. We headed inland, parking on the edge of some fields before setting off down a footpath.

There were a few tits and Chaffinches in the trees, and one or two Robins in the hedges this morning. As we rounded the corner, two Mistle Thrushes flew out and off across the neighbouring field. A couple of Common Buzzards were hanging in the breeze in the sunshine.

As we got to the far side of the wood, we turned to look back along the edge. The Tawny Owl was there as usual, in a big hole in one of the trees. We got the scope on it and watched as it seemed to stare back out at us. After a while, it closed its eyes and went back to dozing. Tawny Owl may be the commonest of our regular owls but is also the most nocturnal, so it is always a privilege to see one like this in the daytime.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – roosting in its regular hole again

After enjoying watching the Tawny Owl for a while, we decided to move on. We headed inland to look for Little Owls next. Although the wind had dropped from recent days, there was still a rather brisk and fresh breeze, so we weren’t sure how many would be out enjoying the morning brightness today. At the first site we checked, there was no sign of any owls, but when we pulled up in a gateway overlooking the sheltered side of some barns, we could see a small round shape on the roof.

Once we got out of the minibus and set up the scope, we could see it was indeed a Little Owl, perched in a spot out of the wind and facing into the morning sun. A second Little Owl was just a few metres further down the roof, tucked in on the frame of one of the ventilation windows.

Little Owl

Little Owl – one of two, sunning itself on the roof of one of the barns

We had a look at some more barns, a little further up the road, but there were no more Little Owls out today. We were probably lucky to find the two we had seen, given the cool breeze. So we decided to switch our attention to the next owl on our target list – Short-eared Owl.

After the long drive over to the Wash, we stopped briefly to look at some Pink-footed Geese feeding in a strip of unharvested sugar beet in a field by the road down towards the beach at Snettisham. When we got out and up onto the seawall, the tide was out and a vast expanse of grey mud stretched all the way between Norfolk and Lincolnshire, visible in the distance.

When we got down towards Rotary Hide, we set up the scopes. With the tide out, most of the waders were very distant, but there was still a good scattering of Dunlin out on the mud closer to us and several Ringed Plover too. We could see a few Grey Plover and Knot plus one or two Turnstones with them, but despite having a good scan through the birds which were nearer to the shore there was no sign of the Little Stint which we have seen here on previous days. A couple of small groups of Golden Plover flew in and out. There were lots of Shelduck spread out over the mud too.

Our main target here was Short-eared Owl, so we made our way round to check-out the area where they normally like to roost. A Cetti’s Warbler was shouting periodically from the brambles as we passed. At the first set of bushes we scanned, we found one tucked in the brambles. It was dozing, and we couldn’t see its staring yellow eyes from here, but we all had a good look through the scope.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl – tucked into the brambles today

A bit further on, we stopped to scan again. We couldn’t find any other Short-eared Owls today, but we did have a different view of the first one again. Now it woke up and started preening, and we finally got a chance to see its distinctive yellow eyes, and even its short ‘ear’ tufts at one point.

There were not so many ducks on the pits at first today, but something seemed to spook lots of wildfowl from somewhere and lots flew in and landed on the water. As well as a good number of Wigeon, there were several Shoveler, one or two Gadwall and a few Tufted Ducks. We got the scope on a smart drake Goldeneye, admiring its green head, bold white cheek patch and eponymous bright golden-yellow eye. A Little Grebe was busy diving in the lee of one of the small rocky islets. When something spooked them, a large flock of noisy Greylag Geese flew in off the fields just inland.

On our way back, we stopped again to scan the mud out on the Wash. A Bar-tailed Godwit had now appeared, just beyond the channel, and there were a couple of Grey Plover and a Knot even closer, on the small pools just below us. A careful scan with the scope of the Dunlin failed to produce any sign of the Little Stint, and we were packing up when we looked away to the north and caught sight of a very small, paler wader out on the mud.

Putting the scope up again, we confirmed it was the elusive Little Stint. It was very mobile today though, in the freshening wind, and we had to keep relocating it as it got swept away several times when it took off. It was often in the company of one or two Dunlin or a Turnstone, when it certainly looked small, but it was when it ran past a Curlew that you could really appreciate just how tiny it was! One of probably just a handful of Little Stints wintering in the UK, it seems to like it here – what is probably the same bird has returned to the same area of mud for the last two winters at least. Come the spring, it will be heading off to the arctic to breed.

Grey Plover and Knot

Grey Plover & Knot – feeding on the mud on the edge of the Wash

We were heading to Titchwell to have lunch, but we took a small detour inland to Sedgeford. We were hoping to catch the Eastern Yellow Wagtail here, but there was no sign of it on its currently most favoured muck heap by the road. Another birder driving back from the other muck heap down the lane opposite told us it had not been seen down there either, for several hours at least. We stopped for a minute to watch several Brown Hares chasing round in the stubble field and then continued on our way. We had lots to pack in this afternoon and unfortunately had no time to wait to see if the wagtail might reappear later.

Titchwell was surprisingly busy for midweek and mid-winter, but the picnic tables were free when we arrived so we made good use of one for lunch and a welcome hot drink. We wouldn’t have time to explore the reserve whole today, but we had planned to have a quick look to see if we could see the Woodcock. One of the volunteers coming back to the Visitor Centre told us there was no sign of it now, so we diverted instead out onto the main path, where a Barn Owl had just been seen over the grazing meadow.

The Barn Owl was down in the long grass and rushes when we arrived but after a short wait it came up again. It seemed to be struggling in the freshening wind, and again dropped down into the vegetation for a while. When it came up again, it put on a much better show for us, eventually working its way down over the grass just beyond the fence. It landed briefly on one of the fence posts but was off again almost immediately and disappeared round towards the road.

Barn Owl 3

Barn Owl – hunting over the Thornham grazing meadow

Barn Owl 4

Barn Owl – put on a good show for us early this afternoon

A Common Buzzard was feeding on something further back in the field while we were watching the Barn Owl, so we got that in the scope too. A second Buzzard was on a fence post just behind and several Red-legged Partridges were in the grass closer to us. When the Barn Owl disappeared, we walked on round via Meadow Trail. A small group of Long-tailed Tits was feeding in the cut branches placed on the ground in the trees. We couldn’t find any sign of the Woodcock either now, so we decided to head back to the minibus and move on. The very tame Reeve’s Muntjac was chomping on the grass where the feeders used to be, behind the Visitor Centre.

Back at Holkham, we stopped to scan the grazing marshes. A large flock of Black-tailed Godwits was whirling round out in the middle as we got out of the minibus. There were several Spoonbills on the pools today. First we found two together, busily feeding with their heads down in the water, sweeping their bills from side to side as they walked round. Three more were much further back, way off towards the pines, but flew in to join them, and a sixth Spoonbill flew out of the trees and disappeared off east.

Spoonbill

Spoonbills – two of six we saw today, feeding busily

For a very large and bright white bird, the Great White Egrets made themselves surprisingly harder to find today. We eventually found one, right back in front of the pines, down in a rushy ditch where it was hard to see until it put its head up. Then if flew up, with slow and heavy wingbeats and landed again behind a sparse line of reeds. All the while, there was a second Great White Egret much closer to us, but it had managed to hide itself completely in the rushes until it eventually walked into view.

There are still quite a few lingering (Russian) White-fronted Geese at Holkham, but there were none down on the grazing marshes today. They were feeding further back, on the grass in the middle of the old Iron Age fort, and we could just see a few of them over the rim of the grassy bank. We thought we might find another Barn Owl or two out hunting here, but there were none out this afternoon.

Our next stop was at Wells. There was no sign of the Rough-legged Buzzard on its usual bushes when we arrived. We got out of the minibus and set off down the track towards the bank and we hadn’t gone too far before the Rough-legged Buzzard flew back in. It looked like it would land straight away, but instead flew on, up over the fields towards the Freeman Street car park, flushing all the Brent Geese. It was strikingly pale and, as it turned, we could see its bright white tail with broad black terminal band. It even stopped to hover at one point, rather like an over-sized, slow-motion Kestrel!

Rough-legged Buzzard 1

Rough-legged Buzzard – flew in over the fields

After flying round for a few minutes, the Rough-legged Buzzard returned to its normal bushes and landed on the top of one of them. Now, we could get a better look at it through the scope – its very pale white head and neck contrasting with the dark blackish belly patch. It was hard to see its feathered legs though, through the leaves and branches.

Rough-legged Buzzard 2

Rough-legged Buzzard – eventually landed on one of its favourite bushes

We continued on to the bank and stopped to scan the marshes beyond. There were a few Pink-footed Geese out on the grass and we got them in the scope, noting their dark heads and delicate, mostly dark bills. A passing farmer in a truck seemed like he would have preferred to run us over, although unfortunately we had all stepped to the side to let him pass, and when he drove out across the fields in the distance, he flushed a lot more Pink-footed Geese from over towards the pines. This can be a good place for owls in the late afternoon, but we couldn’t see any here today. It had clouded over progressively though and was no rather grey and cool in the strengthening breeze.

We cut back inland for one last stop on our way back. As we walked down the footpath across the meadow, two more Red Kites and a Common Buzzard hung in the air above the hillside behind us. There was no sign of the regular Barn Owl here this evening – it wasn’t out hunting and we couldn’t see it around the box where it likes to roost either. We were rather later than normal though, so it was hard to tell whether it had already gone off further afield, or was in no hurry to come out tonight given the weather.

We had a quick listen in the trees, but there were no Tawny Owls hooting yet. It is increasingly late before it gets properly dark now, and with the wind and threat of rain approaching, we decided to call it a night and not hang on any longer. Having enjoyed such great views of the Tawny Owl earlier this morning, and four different Barn Owls out hunting,  not to mention the Little Owls and Short-eared Owl, we did not feel like we were short of owls today

18th Jan 2020 – 4-3-2-1 Owls!

An Owl Tour today. It was a beautiful, bright, sunny winter’s day, although there was a chill in the air and a rather fresh breeze blowing in the middle of the day.

We made our way down to the marshes first thing, to see if we could find a Barn Owl still out hunting. There was a lot of water on the fields after the recent rains, so much that the Environment Agency were pumping out one of the ditches to stop it from overflowing. Lots of birds were enjoying the water – a noisy mob of Black-headed Gulls were feeding round the edge of the pools and several Little Egrets were feeding on the wet edge of the field, along with a Grey Heron. The other side, the wet grass was full of Curlew, Lapwing and Starlings, busy feeding. A pair of Mute Swans flew in and landed on one of the pools.

The raptors were already circling up. A Kestrel flew across (maybe wondering where the Barn Owl was, so it could steal its catch!) and a couple of Marsh Harriers came up out of the reeds. One landed on a bare tree where we could get it in the scope. A Buzzard was on a bush behind us, before flying off to the wood beyond, and presumably the same one later circled above the trees. A Red Kite flew across in front of the wood, its red tail catching the morning light as it turned.

There was no sign of any Barn Owls – perhaps they had already gone in to roost, as the latter part of the night had probably been good for hunting, or perhaps they were avoiding the grazing marshes given all the water. We decided to move on and headed inland, parking on the edge of some fields before setting off down a footpath.

There were a few tits in the hedges as we walked down towards the wood, and a Jay flew across the track in front of us. A Pied Wagtail flew across and landed in the beet field next to us – just the one today. A little group of Chaffinches dropped down to feed on the weedy margin. Two Mistle Thrushes flew through the trees as we walked round the edge of the wood, before flying out again and dropping down in the middle of the field. There were a few Red-legged Partridges out in the field too and a Red Kite hung in the air over the hedge on the far side.

There were more tits in the trees above the path, including several Long-tailed Tits. We could hear a Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming and a Nuthatch piping loudly. When we got to the far side of the wood, we looked back along the edge. The Tawny Owl was there, in its usual spot, in a big hole in one of the trees. We got it in the scope and had a great view. It was a little bit more active today (just to scotch any rumours it might be stuffed!), looking round and even picking at its feet with its bill at one point.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – roosting in its usual hole

After watching the Tawny Owl for a while, we decided to head back. A flock of Goldfinches was feeding in the sunshine above the track now. Looking up, we could see they were feeding on buds on the branches.

We made our way further inland to look for Little Owls next. There was no sign of any at the first couple of places we looked, but at the next stop we spotted one hiding under the lip of the barn roof. We pulled up out of sight and walked back to where we could get it in the scope without disturbing it. It had chosen a sheltered spot, facing into the morning sun but out of the wind.

Little Owl

Little Owl – looking out from under the lip of the barn roof

Eventually the Little Owl was spooked by a passing farmworker and disappeared in under the roof. We walked back to the minibus. There were some more farm buildings across the field from here and we could see a small blob out on the roof in the sunshine. Through the scope, we could see that it was indeed a second Little Owl. There is a footpath which runs up the far end of the field, so we drove the short distance over there and started off up it.

There were several birds coming and going from the trees by the paddocks at the start of the footpath. As well as Starlings, we could see several Fieldfares so we got them in the scope when they landed in the top of one tree. A Redwing appeared in the top of another tree, before flying over to join the Fieldfares.

We had a quick walk up the footpath and stopped where we could see across to where the second Little Owl was perched on the roof. It was still there, out in full view, and through the scope we could see it was fluffed up, with its eyes closed, looking towards the morning sun, presumably enjoying the warmth of the rays.

Dropping back down to the coast, we made our way along to Holkham and parked at the top of Lady Anne’s Drive. There were lots of Wigeon feeding out on the grazing marshes and lots of Pink-footed Geese loafing on the second field back, just beyond the line of reeds and brambles. As we walked up towards the trees, a family party of Brent Geese flew in and landed just beyond the fence.

Brent Geese

Brent Geese – a family party landed right by Lady Anne’s Drive

We headed over to The Lookout Cafe to use the facilities quickly and some of the group, who had hurried on ahead, called back to say there was a Barn Owl. When we got there, it was perched on a post by the bank, but before we could get the scope on it, it was off again. We watched it hunting backwards and forwards over the reeds beyond the pool in front of The Lookout – although the building was in the way, so we had to dart round to the other side of it at one point! Then it stopped to hover and dropped down into the grass.

Some of the group, who had hurried inside, had not seen the Barn Owl, so when they came out we waited for it to reappear. A Stonechat kept flicking up and down from the brambles and posts on the bank. Presumably the Barn Owl had caught something, because it stayed down in the grass for some time, but finally it reappeared. Again, we had some stunning views of it flying round hunting, stopped to hover a couple of times.

Barn Owl 2

Barn Owl – out hunting behind The Lookout

Barn Owl 1

Barn Owl – stunning views in the late morning sun

Barn Owls will hunt during the day, but only tend to do so if they are hungry. Perhaps the wet and windy weather yesterday evening meant that this one needed to hunt. It was already late morning now, and it seemed to be showing no signs of wanting to head in to roost. We watched the Barn Owl for a while, until it stopped to hover and then dropped down into the grass again.

We wanted to see if we could find a Short-eared Owl here today, so we walked out through the dunes. It had been very calm all morning, but when we got out past the lee of the pines there was a very brisk west wind now. We scanned all the places we had seen the Short-eared Owl hunting in recent days, but couldn’t see it. We had gone as far as we wanted and decided to have one last scan from the top of the dunes. As we looked round, it came up from the grass just behind us.

The Short-eared Owl flew off downwind, with its distinctive stiff-winged rowing action and notably long, slim wings. It went some way, before turning and coming back towards us over the dunes, into the wind. We were hoping it would come back past us, but it got caught by the wind and gained height, before turning and disappearing over the pines. We hoped it might reappear, but it had either gone into the trees to roost or perhaps might have gone over the other side to try to find some shelter.

Short-eared Owl 1

Short-eared Owl – flushed from the dunes

We made our way back, cutting through the pines and walking down the track the other side out of the wind. There were lots of Pink-footed Geese out on the grazing marsh, along with a few carrot-billed Greylags and a pair of Egyptian Geese. At Salts Hole, there were several Little Grebes out on the water and a Weasel darted along the far bank.

We stopped for lunch back at The Lookout. There was no sign of the Barn Owl now, but the Stonechat was still just outside the window. As we made our way back to the minibus afterwards, a pair of Grey Partridges were busy preening in the grass just beyond the fence.

Grey Partridge

Grey Partridge – a pair were right next to Lady Anne’s Drive

Having only had a short time with the Short-eared Owl in the dunes before it disappeared, we decided to make a quick dash over to Snettisham to see if we could see the ones there. We didn’t have much time once we got over there, so we headed straight round to where they roost. Scanning the brambles, we quickly found one Short-eared Owl perched in a little nook among the branches. We had a good look at it in the scope.

Short-eared Owl 2

Short-eared Owl – one of two roosting in the brambles again

A little further on, we found the second Short-eared Owl under its usual sparse bramble bush. It stood out more, with its sandy colouration, but was not moving and we were looking at it from the side so we couldn’t see its eyes today. On our way back round, there were a few ducks on the pits, including a smart drake Goldeneye which was diving constantly.

Back at the Wash, the tide was out now and most of the large flocks of waders were way out in the distance, on the water’s edge. There were a few birds closer to us on the mud – a Grey Plover and a couple of Redshank. A scattering of diminutive Dunlin were feeding on the mud just beyond the channel and a quick scan across with binoculars revealed an even smaller wader in with them. Through the scope, we could confirm it was the Little Stint which is wintering here.

Little Stint

Little Stint – out on the mud with the Dunlin again

Little Stints are very scarce winter visitors in the UK, being more common on passage, particularly in autumn on their way from their Arctic breeding grounds with most heading down to Africa for the winter. As we saw a Little Stint in almost exactly the same patch of mud regularly through last winter, we wonder whether this bird has come back for the second year in a row.

Back in the minibus, we made our way back across country, passing a couple of large flocks of Pink-footed Geese in the fields on our way. We stopped again at Wells and, as we disembarked, we didn’t know which way to look. A Barn Owl was hunting up and down the banks of the ditch in front of the layby, while the long-staying Rough-legged Buzzard was perched on its usual favoured bush beyond.

We watched the Barn Owl hunting, while we got the scope on the Rough-legged Buzzard. Eventually the Barn Owl flew off back across the field, and we turned our full attention to the Rough-legged Buzzard. We could see its very pale head, contrasting with its very dark, chocolate brown belly.

Rough-legged Buzzard

Rough-legged Buzzard – perched on its usual favoured bush

We decided to walk out along the track to the bank. The Rough-legged Buzzard had flown back and landed down in a ploughed field beyond, by the time we got out there, but shortly afterwards flew back in again. We had an even better view of it from here.

The first Barn Owl was now working its way up the edge of the paddocks across the road, but a second Barn Owl now appeared at the back of the field close to the buzzard and flew round the edge to hunt around the entrance to the car park. It was a paler bird, with whiter, unmarked flight feathers, presumably a male.

The Rough-legged Buzzard had another fly round, flashing its white tail with black terminal band, chasing a Common Buzzard off from the top of a bush by the old pitch & putt, taking over its perch. We had taken our eyes off them, but what was possibly the first Barn Owl again then started flying down along the bank towards us. It was getting closer when it stopped, turned, hovered, and dropped into the grass. It took some time to come up again, and when it did unfortunately flew back away from us – we were hoping it might come right past us.

Barn Owl 3

Barn Owl – one of at least two at Wells this afternoon

The sun was going down now and we had one last port of call. As we walked back to the minibus, the Rough-legged Buzzard flew back in to its favoured bush again. We drove inland and parked in some trees at the top of a footpath.

The Barn Owl which we often come to see emerging from its box in the evening had not been around the last few times we had looked for it. The good news today was that it was back. We had missed it coming out, but it was busy hunting the grassy bank beyond the gate. We had got out into the open along the footpath just in time to see it disappearing into the trees, but after a while it came out again. It weaved in and out of the edge of the trees several times, before disappearing deeper in through the wood.

It was time for the Tawny Owls to start hooting now, and as we walked back into the trees we could hear one hooting distantly. We heard it a couple more times, before it went quiet. It was a clear, bright evening and the light took some time to fade. The other Tawny Owls were slow to get going tonight and time was getting on, but after a smorgasbord of owls today, we didn’t worry too much about calling time. 4 Barn Owls, 3 Short-eared Owls, 2 Little Owls & 1 Tawny Owl (plus another hooting!).

12th Jan 2020 – Winter in Norfolk, Day 3

Day 3 of a three day Winter Tour in Norfolk today. The heavy rain cleared through overnight and it was dry again all day. After a cloudy start, the sun started to break through the clouds before we enjoyed a lovely bright afternoon, even if it was rather breezy again.

Part of the plan for this weekend was to look for some owls. Having seen Short-eared Owls and Barn Owls on Friday, we headed out to add to our owl list this morning. We drove inland and set off down a footpath. Two Mistle Thrushes flew up out of the neighbouring field and into wood.

When we got to the edge of the wood, we could hear Long-tailed Tits calling in the trees. A Goldcrest appeared above us, feeding in the outer branches of a pine tree, hovering to pick food from the needles. A Coal Tit flew out into the bare tree next to it. A little flock of finches was feeding in the edge of a harvested beet field alongside and flew up into the trees as we came out from behind the hedge. There were several Chaffinches and Goldfinches and at least one Greenfinch in with them too.

We walked on, round to the far side of the wood and looked back at the edge of the trees. The Tawny Owl was asleep in its hole. We got it in the scope and from time to time it moved its head or opened its eyes, enough to prove it wasn’t a cardboard cutout we had put there earlier!

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – roosting in its usual tree hole

We stood and watched the Tawny Owl for a while. A Stock Dove flew out from over the wood and across the field next to us. Then we had to tear ourselves away and walk back. There were lots of Pied Wagtails in the beet field now – we counted at least 40 together at one point, an impressive flock.

Moving on, we made our way further inland, looking for Little Owls. There were none on the first barns we checked, but at the second we could see a shape tucked under the lip of the roof, a Little Owl. We parked out of sight and walked back to where we could view it from a distance. It was in a spot sheltered from the wind, and it was looking out towards the morning sun, which just poked out from behind the clouds at times.

Little Owl

Little Owl – out of the wind, looking out towards the morning sun

Having all had a good look at the Little Owl, we moved on again and dropped back down to the coast. We made our way along to Holkham and parked at the top of Lady Anne’s Drive. There were lots of Wigeon feeding on the grazing marshes, some very close to the road, and looked stunning as the sun came out again. A few Teal were in amongst them, as well as a scattering of Lapwing, Curlew and Redshank. A single Fieldfare was out on the grass too.

Wigeon

Wigeon – feeding on the grazing marsh by Lady Anne’s Drive

We heard Pink-footed Geese calling and looked over to see a large flock come up from Quarles Marsh, over towards Wells. They flew towards us in several skeins, and we noticed there were some smaller geese in with them, Barnacle Geese. They came right overhead, at least a dozen.

Barnacle Geese

Barnacle Geese – flew over Lady Anne’s Drive with the Pinkfeet

The geese all whiffled down and landed on the grazing marshes the other side of the Drive. Most landed behind the first ditch, out of view behind the reeds and brambles, but a few of the Pink-footed Geese landed closer, on our side of all the vegetation. We had a good look at some of them in the scope, we could see their delicate dark bills with a narrow band of pink and their pink legs.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese – good views on the grazing marsh by Lady Anne’s Drive

As we walked up towards the pines, we could see a covey of Grey Partridges on the bank before the ditch on the far edge of the grass. We counted twelve together, looking rather like clods of earth.

After a quick stop in the Lookout Cafe, we made our way out to the beach. As we got to the bottom of the boardwalk, we could see some larks very distantly feeding on the edge of the dunes out to the west, but through the scope we could see they were Skylarks. A big flock of Linnets flew up from the saltmarsh over in that direction too, swirling round before dropping down again.

There was a lot of water on the saltmarsh, after a big tide overnight and lots of rain. We decided to walk east first. A flock of Brent Geese was feeding out in the middle and a quick scan through them revealed a slightly darker bird with a more noticeable white flank patch and collar than the others. It was the regular Black Brant x Dark-bellied Brent hybrid which returns here with the Brent flock each winter.

Black Brant hybrid

Black Brant hybrid – with the Brent Goose flock on the saltmarsh again

Two Rock Pipits flew in and landed on the edge of the saltmarsh in front of us, feeding for a minute or so before flying off again calling. There were a few people walking back from the cordon and they all said there was no sign of any Shorelarks there. We couldn’t see the Snow Buntings either when we got there. We walked all the way down to the far end and out onto the beach.

It was very windy out here. We tried to find some shelter in the edge of the dunes, although it was hard to find anywhere out of the wind, and stopped to scan the sea. A lone Sanderling flew down along the shoreline. When we turned round, the Snow Buntings flew in and landed in the cordon just behind us. They were very flighty today, and when they flew up again they landed next on the edge of the sand just behind us, a great view.

Snow Buntings 1

Snow Buntings – landed on the edge of the sand just behind us

Thousands of Common Scoter were out on the sea again, but they were a bit further out today and the sea was quite choppy, which with the wind made it impossible to pick out anything else in with them. We managed to find three Long-tailed Ducks, but they were thankfully much closer in. Even so, they were diving constantly and hard to see in swell, but eventually everyone got a look at them. There were several Red-breasted Mergansers too, plus a single Red-throated Diver on the sea and another flying past.

We were hoping the Common Scoter would fly, to give us a chance to find a Velvet Scoter in with them, but they were just riding out the waves, and not taking off today. We decided to start walking back, and have another look for the Shorelarks. The Snow Buntings were in the cordon still, probably about 90 of them, catching the low winter sun which had come out now. There was still no sign of the Shorelarks there though.

Snow Buntings 2

Snow Buntings – feeding in the cordon as we walked back

We thought we would check out the saltmarsh west of the Gap, to see if the Shorelarks were there. On our way back, we bumped into one of the wardens who told us they had also been seen just east of the Gap this week. We out round to the dunes for a quick look there first, but there was no sign. We could see lots of water still in the Gap channel, and there was no way across without wellies. So while the group walked back round via the cordon again, the intrepid guide set off for a quick check of the saltmarsh the other side to save time. We arranged to meet back by the boardwalk.

When the group got back to the cordon, they found a couple of people watching the Shorelarks, which had flown back in. They had a good look at them through the scopes, but by the time their guide got over, the Shorelarks had flown off again. At least the most important people had seen them!

We walked back to the Lookout Cafe for lunch. Afterwards, we drove across to Holkham Park and walked in through the trees. There were lots of tits coming to the feeders by the houses, and we found a Marsh Tit and a Coal Tit in with them. We made our way down to the lake, starting at the northern end. There were lots of ducks on the water – Mallard, Gadwall and Shoveler, plus Tufted Duck and Pochard.

As we walked slowly down along the bank, we scanned the water, looking for the Black-necked Grebe. We could see a Great Crested Grebe and a Little Grebe, busy diving. A flock of Long-tailed Tits was feeding in the trees by the path. A Great White Egret flew across the lake further down.

We found the Black-necked Grebe in the middle of the lake. At first, we were looking into the sun, but we managed to get round to the other side of it, where the light was much better. It was diving constantly too, and we had to be quick to get it in the scopes. Eventually everyone got a good view of it, a small grebe with the dark on the head curling down onto the sides of the face behind the red eye. A Great Crested Grebe appeared in the same view at one point, much larger, with a much longer dagger-shaped bill.

Black-necked Grebe

Black-necked Grebe – photo taken a few days ago, when it was very close!

After watching the Black-necked Grebe for a while, we walked back through the middle of the Park. There were lots of Fallow Deer by the path which looked stunning in the afternoon sunshine. A Red Kite drifted over the edge of the trees. A Green Woodpecker was feeding out on the open grass with four Mistle Thrushes. When we got back to the gates, we found a Great Spotted Woodpecker now on the peanuts by the houses.

As we were getting everything back in the minibus, a Barn Owl flew across the road just beyond the car park and in through the trees behind. Out hunting already. As we drove east, another Barn Owl was hunting over the verge by the side of the road.

We parked at the top of Stiffkey Greenway and set up the scopes on the edge of the saltmarsh to scan. It was a lovely bright evening and the wind had even dropped now. There were several groups of Brent Geese, lots of Little Egrets, and a scattering of Curlews and Redshanks out there. A Marsh Harrier was hanging in the air away to the east. A Merlin appeared away to the west, perched on a low bush, preening out on the saltmarsh.

A distant ringtail Hen Harrier came up in front of East Hills. We watched it hunting, making the use of the last of the light, disappearing off towards Wells. A little later what was presumably the same bird came back the other way, a little bit closer to us this time. We had a couple more Merlin sightings, perched on different bushes – but it was hard to tell how many different birds were involved. A very distant Barn Owl was hunting out at East Hills and another flew across the road behind us.

Finally a grey male Hen Harrier appeared, also way out at East Hills. It flew up and down in front of the trees a few times before dropping into the vegetation. The light was starting to go now so we decided to call it a night. It had been another great day, to wrap up three very successful days out, great Norfolk winter birding.

5th Jan 2020 – Return of the Owls

An Owl Tour today, our first one of the New Year. It had originally been forecast to be bright but by the time we got to the day, it was dull and overcast. There were some spots of very light drizzle on and off, which were not even in the latest forecasts, but at least they were just while we were driving and it thankfully remained dry while we were out and about.

We were a bit later than planned getting away this morning. With mild weather recently, the Barn Owls are not especially hungry at the moment and are not out hunting much during daylight hours, so we would need to be lucky to catch one. We drove down to the grazing marshes and stopped to scan from the bank. One of the group shouted as they spotted a Barn Owl ghost across a gap in the hedge, but only a couple of people were looking the right way. We hoped it would swing back round, hunting, but it didn’t reappear. It looked to be heading off to roost.

We walked out along the seawall. A Brown Hare ran across the grass. A flock of Curlews flew over, coming in from the coast and heading inland to feed on the flooded meadows. Two Grey Herons chased each other out of a ditch. The Marsh Harriers were starting to circle up now, coming out of the reeds where they had roosted. A Red Kite drifted in over the reeds, and landed in a dead tree where we got it in the scope. A rather pale Common Buzzard was perched in the trees behind.

Red Kite

Red Kite – flew in and landed on a dead tree as it got light

As we walked back, we could see a pair of Egyptian Geese in the trees at the back of the grazing meadows. They look like they are getting ready to nest. Egyptian Geese often attempt to breed in the middle of winter – perhaps their body clocks have never adapted to the fact they are not in Africa any more!

We drove inland and parked on the edge of a field, before walking down along a footpath to a small wood. As we got to the trees, a Great Spotted Woodpecker was drumming and we could hear a Coal Tit singing. Despite the grey weather, it could almost have been early spring already.

Round on the other side, we looked along the edge to see a large hole in one of the trees. There, in the hole, a Tawny Owl was dozing. We got it in the scope and it almost looked like a cardboard cutout, until it blinked and then turned its head.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – roosting in a hole in a tree

Tawny Owl is the commonest owl in the UK, but is not often seen as they are strictly nocturnal. Most roost well hidden in ivy or evergreen trees, or hidden in holes, so it is always a special treat to see one in the daytime.

After admiring the Tawny Owl for a while, we walked back along the footpath. A Great Tit was singing now. A pair of Mistle Thrushes flew up from the field and disappeared back into the trees. A flock of Long-tailed Tits was making its way down the hedge.

It was time to look for Little Owls now, but the weather was not ideal. There was no sign of any on the first two groups of barns we stopped at, and it seemed like it might be a bit cold and grey. Then at our third stop, we spotted a small shape tucked under the edge of the roof, looking out. We parked out of sight, and walked round to where we could get it in the scope without disturbing it.

Little Owl

Little Owl – tucked in under the roof out of the weather

Eventually the Little Owl was disturbed by a passing tractor and disappeared in under the roof. As we drove back down to the coast, an untidy flock of Brent Geese was flying inland to feed. After a quick pit-stop in Wells, we drove west, over to the Wash coast at Snettisham. On our way, we passed several a couple of flocks of Pink-footed Geese feeding in the recently cut sugar beet fields.

From up on the seawall, there was still a huge expanse of exposed mud. The tide was coming in fast but it was not a big tide today, so the water would not push everything up towards the bank. As we made our way down, an enormous flock of Golden Plover several thousand strong flew up from out in the middle of the mud. The birds circled round before quickly dropping down again. As soon as they landed, they disappeared, remarkably well camouflaged against the mud.

Golden Plover

Golden Plover – the vast flock occasionally spooked and flew round

Carefully scanning the bushes as we walked along, we spotted a shape in the brambles. A Short-eared Owl roosting. It was very well camouflaged too, but once you knew where it was it was relatively easy to pick out. It was mostly asleep, but occasionally opened its eyes so you could see its yellow irises through the scope.

Short-eared Owl 1

Short-eared Owl – roosting in the brambles

We decided to push our luck, and tried scanning again a bit further up. There was a second Short-eared Owl, hiding under a rather sparse bramble bush, but it blended in well against the sandy, stony ground. A large flock of noisy Greylags flew over, honking and dropped down towards the pits.

Short-eared Owl 2

Short-eared Owl – a second bird, hiding under some brambles

We walked round to the causeway to scan the pits. There were several Goldeneye diving out on the water, including several smart drakes. Scattered round the edges and islands was a selection of Wigeon, Shoveler and a variety of conventional Mallard and domesticated Mallard intergrades. The pits here seem to attract different feral or escaped wildfowl, and in with the Greylags we found the rather odd looking Swan Goose hybrid. Several Little Grebes were on the water too.

Back on the seawall, a small flock of Pink-footed Geese flew over, coming in off the Wash. We stopped to scan the mud. A Grey Plover was on the edge of a small pool right down at the front, with a Bar-tailed Godwit and a Dunlin on the pools a little further back, just beyond the channel. Further back, the huge flock of Golden Plover looked like a darker smear on the mud until we got it in the scope and could see it was actually a mass of small golden lumps. There were lots of Lapwing too. The Knot were much further out, right over towards the waters edge. A huge black slick back towards the sailing club was a big roost of Oystercatchers.

Grey Plover

Grey Plover – feeding on the mud on the edge of the Wash

There were lots of Shelduck scattered out over the mud and some flocks of Mallard and Teal sleeping along the edge of the muddy channels. Further out, we found a small group of Pintail on the edge of the water. It was lunchtime now and, as it wasn’t cold, we stopped for lunch on the benches.

After lunch, with the days short at this time of year, time was getting on. We drove back east and stopped again on the outskirts of Wells. A quick scan and we picked up the Rough-legged Buzzard on a bush in the distance. It took off just after we got out of the minibus and flew across in front of the pines, stopping to hover a couple of times. Then it dropped down out of sight towards marshes beyond bank.

We decided to walk out along the track to the bank. A small flock of Skylarks flew up from the stubble and a little further on a group of Pied Wagtails was feeding in there too, close to the path. They were presumably starting to gather already, before heading off to roost somewhere.

We could see the Rough-legged Buzzard again, perched on a bush in the distance. We got it in the scope now and everyone had a chance to have a good look at it, its pale head contrasting with its dark, blackish-brown belly. There had been a Short-eared Owl hunting here the last couple of afternoons, but there was no sign of it today. Perhaps it was a bit cold and grey, and after good hunting conditions on the previous days perhaps it was not hungry too.

Rough-legged Buzzard

Rough-legged Buzzard – perched on a bush

There were lots of Lapwing and Curlew out on Quarles Marsh. Two pairs of Gadwall swimming on the pool were an addition to the day’s list. A Kestrel was hovering over the bank just behind us.

The last stop of the day was back inland. We were hoping to catch a Barn Owl coming out of the box in which it usually roosts. We were a little later than planned by the time we got there, but we got ourselves into position, overlooking the box.

Three Red Kites circled up over the trees behind us, calling noisily and chasing each other round in the breeze. A large flock of Pied Wagtails flew in and circled over the reeds. They kept flying up and dropping down again, obviously looking to go to roost together but still nervous. More were arriving and we counted at least 65 in the air together at one point.

It was getting dark now and there was still no sign of the Barn Owl tonight. Had we missed it and it had gone off to hunt elsewhere already? Had something happened and it had roosted elsewhere? Or was it just not hungry enough to come out before dark tonight? Time may tell.

We walked up the footpath into the trees. We hadn’t gone far when we heard a Tawny Owl hooting. We stood and listened to it, such an evocative song. It was deep in the trees, so we couldn’t see it from the path. It hooted several times, but the neighbouring male didn’t answer tonight so after a while it fell silent. It was a nice way to end, so we decided it was time to call it a night.

20th Sept 2019 – Autumn Migration, Day 1

Day 1 of a three day Autumn Migration tour today. It was a glorious sunny day, warm with light SE winds. Lovely weather to be out and about, if a little too good for bringing in tired migrants!

Our first destination for the morning was Snettisham. As we drove across towards the Wash coast, we passed some old farm buildings beside the road. A shape in the frame of an old window caught our eye – a Little Owl looking out. It had been rather cool overnight and it had found a spot in the morning sun to warm itself. A nice start to the day.

Little Owl

Little Owl – sunning itself in the window of an old barn

A little further on, and a Red Kite flew up from beside the road together with a dark chocolate brown juvenile Marsh Harrier, presumably from some carrion nearby. They crossed the road low just in front of us. Just beyond, a Common Buzzard perched on a hedge was enjoying morning sun.

As we made our way down towards the Wash at Snettisham, there were several Little Egrets on the pits. There were three Common Gulls in with the Black-headed Gulls and, as ever, lots of Greylag Geese.

It was not one of the biggest high tides today, not enough to cover all the mud, but it was going to push a lot of the birds up towards the shore. When we got up onto the seawall, we could see the tide was already well in. The mud along the edge of the water was covered in birds – a dark slick of Oystercatchers and the bright grey/white of Knot in their thousands, catching the sunlight.

The Knot were all rather jumpy, occasionally flying up and swirling round out over the water. We could see what looked like clouds of smoke further out, over the middle of the Wash, but on closer inspection they were more Knot, tens of thousands of them. Something was obviously spooking them, but it meant we were treated to a great show!

Waders 1

Waders 2

Waders – swirling flocks of Knot and Oystercatchers out over the Wash

When the waders settled again, we had a closer look through the scope. In with all the Knot and Oystercatchers, we could see lots of Bar-tailed Godwits too. Higher up, on the drier mud, the Curlews were more sparsely scattered, still hundreds of them, mostly asleep on one leg with their long bills tucked in their backs.

Little groups of smaller waders were flying in and landing down along the near edge, on the mud in front of us. There were several Ringed Plovers and Turnstones, and one or two Knot with them, giving us  a closer look than the vast flocks further back. Looking further up the shore, we could see a small group of silvery-white Sanderling scurrying around on the sandy spit. A few Sandwich Terns flew back and forth calling, along with a single Common Tern.

Knot

Knot – we had a closer view of one or two feeding on the near shore

There were a few hirundines moving today, little groups of Swallows, but in the bright and sunny conditions many were going over high, particularly the House Martins. They are leaving us now, heading off south on their way to Africa for the winter.

While we were scanning the sky, we picked up a small flock of geese, very distant. They were flying high, very different from the local Greylags, smaller and shorter-necked too. They were heading our way and once they got within earshot, our thoughts were confirmed and they were Pink-footed Geese. Eventually they came right overhead, and out over the Wash. There were a few Brent Geese, freshly returned from Russia for the winter, and several Pintail out on the Wash too.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese – flew in high and dropped down towards the Wash

Further down along the seawall, we found two Greenshanks on the pit just north of the causeway. They were busy feeding, much paler, more elegant than the Common Redshank which was with them. A Common Sandpiper flew in and we watched it creeping along the far bank, in and out of the reeds on the edge. We could see the distinctive notch of white extending up between the grey breast and wings.

There were a few Wigeon on here too, our first of the tour. Looking down over the other pit, to the south, we were looking into the sun but we could see a Spoonbill roosting in with the Greylags and Cormorants out in the middle and what looked like two Spotted Redshanks next to it. They were distant from here and we were looking into the sun, so we decided to walk down to Shore Hide.

On our way, we scanned the Wash again. We could see some very distant Grey Plover with the remnants of their black summer bellies and a little group of Dunlin. Both additions to our wader list, although we would have better views of them later.

From Shore Hide, we had a much better view of the Spoonbill. It was mostly doing what Spoonbills seem to like doing best – sleeping! But it did wake up eventually, showing us its spoon-shaped bill. It was a juvenile, with a dull fleshy-coloured bill lacking the adult’s yellow tip. Then it suddenly flew off, down the pit and back out towards the Wash. The two Spotted Redshanks with it were also asleep, but another one a little further over with another group of geese on the next islands was awake, so we could see its distinctive long, needle-fine bill.

Spoonbill

Spoonbill – with two Spotted Redshanks, roosting on the Pit

With the tide not covering the mud, there were not the huge hordes of waders roosting on here today, although one of the islands further up was fairly packed with Common Redshanks and we could see more waders down at the south end. There were lots of geese, mainly Greylags, with several Canada Geese, including a mixed pair with four Canada x Greylag hybrid juveniles. There were a few Egyptian Geese too, and ducks including a few Gadwall, Teal, Shoveler and three Tufted Ducks. A couple of Little Grebes were busy diving.

Someone in the hide told us they had seen a Whinchat further down, so we decided to walk down to South Hide to have a look. We stopped to scan the bushes where it had been, but there was no sign of it at first. In the sunshine, we could see lots of raptors circling up – several Marsh Harriers, one or two Common Buzzards over, and a couple of Kestrels hovering. One of the Marsh Harriers flushed a Peregrine out on the saltmarsh, which flew round and landed on a post off in the distance.

Two large corvids flying in from the edge of the Wash immediately looked different, large-billed, heavy headed, with thick necks – two Ravens! They started to circle, and we could hear their kronking calls, before they gradually drifted off inland and we lost sight of them behind the trees. Ravens are still very scarce in Norfolk, so this was a very welcome bonus.

We found two Stonechats first, on the suaeda bushes out on the edge of the saltmarsh, then a Whinchat appeared with them. They kept dropping down into the vegetation out of view or over the far edge of the bushes where we couldn’t see them, but there seemed to be more Stonechats now, at least four. The Whinchat seemed to be favouring a larger dead elder bush which provided a good vantage point and just as it looked like a second Whinchat joined it, a Kestrel dropped down and landed in the bush flushing them. We had a nice view of the Kestrel in the scope though.

Round at South Hide, we could see the islands here were full of Black-tailed Godwits. Most of the adults are now in drab grey-brown non-breeding plumage but a few still had remnants of their brighter rusty feathers and several juveniles were also more brightly coloured too. Most of the Avocets have gone south now, but four were lingering with them, including a brown-backed juvenile which fed in the small pool down at the front. A Little Egret walked across below the hide, its yellow feet flashing in the sunshine.

After walking back to the minibus, we made our way round to Titchwell. We cut across inland, where we started to flush Jays from the hedgerows, flying along in front of us flashing their white rumps. There seemed to be lots of Jays on the move up here today, following the ridge.

Round at Titchwell, we stopped for lunch in the picnic area. We could hear a Great Spotted Woodpecker calling and had a brief glimpse of it flying through the tops of the trees. Afterwards we headed out onto the reserve. A family of Greenfinches was calling up in the birches above the feeders.

There were lots of Bearded Tits calling in the reeds from the main path, but they were keeping down today. A Cetti’s Warbler was singing, and also typically kept itself well hidden. There were lots of Common Pochard diving on the back of the Reedbed Pool, along with a couple of Tufted Ducks. Out on the saltmarsh opposite, a Curlew was very well camouflaged in the vegetation, more so than the Lapwings.

While we were standing by the reedbed, eleven Spoonbills flew up from the Freshmarsh beyond. It looked like they might head off south, but they turned over the reeds and flew straight towards us, coming right overhead, before heading out over the saltmarsh. They circled round and eventually landed, so we could get them in the scope. Mostly adults here, with yellow-tipped bills.

Spoonbills

Spoonbills – eleven flew right overhead, out to the saltmarsh

There were more Bearded Tits calling from the reeds on the edge of the Fresmarsh, but there was still no sign from the main path. We decided to have a look from Island Hide, and were immediately rewarded with two feeding down low along the edge of the reeds opposite the hide. We stopped to watch and realised their were several along the edge of the mud. We had good views of several males, with their powder blue-grey heads and black moustaches, and the browner females.

A Common Snipe was feeding further back, on the mud in front of the reeds, and a Water Rail put in a brief appearance before scuttling back into the reeds.

There was a good selection of waders on the Freshmarsh again today, still lots of Ruff and Dunlin. A single juvenile Little Stint was rather mobile, but we had a good look at it through the scope, feeding with a Dunlin at one point for a good comparison, the Little Stint noticeably smaller, shorter billed, cleaner white below. When it flew again, we lost track of it.

Ruff

Ruff – there were still plenty of the Freshmarsh today

There were quite a few Lapwings and Golden Plover asleep on the islands out in the middle. Two or three Ringed Plovers were running around on the drier mud, over towards the west bank path. A Little Ringed Plover flew in and landed on the mud on the edge of the reeds.

There were lots of gulls loafing on the islands too, mostly Black-headed Gulls but with a few Herring Gulls and Lesser Black-backed Gulls with them. At least four Mediterranean Gulls were initially well hidden in the Black-headed Gulls behind the low brick wall, but eventually came out and one adult even stood up on the bricks at one point which allowed everyone to get a better look at it.

A Great White Egret flew over and disappeared off towards Thornham. There were still two Spoonbills left on the Freshmarsh, and a couple more started to filter back from the saltmarsh. A Yellow Wagtail dropped in right in front of the hide and spent a couple of minutes running back and forth before flying off calling shrilly.

Yellow Wagtail

Yellow Wagtail – dropped in right in front of the hide

As we came out of the hide, we could hear a tit flock in the sallows just behind the hide, Long-tailed Tits and Blue Tits. From the ramp up to the west bank path, we had a great view of them feeding in the branches in the sunshine.

Long-tailed Tit

Long-tailed Tit – feeding in the sallows behind Island Hide

We decided to head out towards the beach. From up on the bank, we could now see a Spotted Redshank right in the back corner of the Freshmarsh. Continuing on, there were just a few Redshanks and Curlews on Volunteer Marsh and with the tide out now there was nothing on the Tidal Pools.

Scanning from the top of the beach, we could see a few very distant Great Crested Grebes on the sea but not much else. There were lots of waders on the mussel beds, so we walked down for a closer look. We had much better views of Bar-tailed Godwits from here, after the distant ones out on the Wash. One was bathing in a small pool on the beach just behind the mussel beds and we had a good look at it through the scope. At one point, a Black-tailed Godwit was in the same scope view, giving us a good comparison between them.

We realised that time was running out and we had to head back. We had a message to say there was a Wheatear on the Freshmarsh, so we stopped to have a look for it. The vegetation on Avocet Island is quite tall, although it is in the process of being strimmed. The Wheatear was probably feeding on the newly cut area, as it eventually showed itself on one of the fence posts, before it was chased off by a Pied Wagtail.

The Little Stint had reappeared again, so we had another good look at that. Then a single Pink-footed Goose flew in calling, and dropped down with the Greylags loafing on one of the closer islands. It wasn’t made to feel welcome! It found a spot on the edge of the other geese and settled down, possibly fresh in and needing a rest. It was a great view through the scope, the Pink-footed Goose smaller than the Greylags, darker headed, with a more delicate bill, mostly dark with a pink band in the middle.

We had to tear ourselves away, as some of the group had to be back, but still we weren’t finished. As we walked back towards the visitor centre, we glanced across to the sallows and noticed a small pale bird perched in the leaves in the sunshine. It was very plain faced, with a dark eye and pale eye ring, a Redstart. From the right angle, we could see its orange-red tail.

Redstart

Redstart – sunning itself in the sallows by the main path

Redstart is a migrant here, stopping off on its way south from Scandinavia in autumn, heading for Africa. It looked like this one might be fresh in, tired and enjoying a rest in the sun, as it was unconcerned at first by all the people walking past and us stopping to watch it. It was a great way to end our first day. Back in the car park, as we packed up, a little flock of Swallows flew over, more Autumn migrants on their way.

11th Sept 2019 – Two Autumn Days, Day 1

Day 1 of a two day Private Tour exploring the North Norfolk coast. It was a slightly damp and grey morning, with a series of brief drizzly showers, but it dried out and brightened up in the afternoon, when it was warm out of the rather blustery wind.

There was a request for Little Owls ahead of the tour. It is not the best time of year to look for them, and the weather wasn’t particularly encouraging either today, cool, cloudy and windy, so we didn’t hold out much hope. But we drove inland to try our luck. It turned out our luck was in – the first site we tried, we pulled up and scanned the roofs of the farm buildings and there was a Little Owl tucked in under the lip.

Little Owl

Little Owl – sheltering under the lip of the roof this morning

We parked the minibus where we couldn’t be seen and crept round to where we could get the scope on the Little Owl without disturbing it. It saw us instantly and stared at us for a minute, before realising that we weren’t a threat at this distance and turning its attention back to the roof. Looking at the other farm buildings further back, we realised that there was a second Little Owl out too, but it was even better hidden and was much harder to see.

There were a couple of Common Gulls with the Black-headed Gulls in the field across the road and a group of Rooks playing in the wind over the wood beyond. Two Common Buzzards were hanging in the breeze further back. It was a great way to start the day, with a Little Owl. We set off back towards the coast and cut across to Kelling for a walk.

There were lots of finches in the trees by the school – several Greenfinches were good to see, alongside the regular Chaffinches and Goldfinches. There was a little group of Blue Tits here too, and a Blackcap and a couple of Dunnocks in the hedge with them

As we walk up the lane, there were several Chiffchaffs calling in the hedges. A Swallow hawked up and down, passing within a couple of feet once or twice as it tried to find insects in the shelter of the banks either side. There were several Red-legged Partridge calling, released here in huge numbers for shooting, and one scuttled off ahead of us along the lane.

We stopped at the gate by the copse. There were several Teal down in the small pools in the wet grass, and a Green Sandpiper walking round bobbing its tail in the mud where the cows had churned up the ground. Six Common Snipe were well hidden nearby but we didn’t see the four which had been hidden behind the vegetation much closer to us until they flew and landed with the others further back.

Green Sandpiper 1

Green Sandpiper – feeding in the grass churned up by the cows

It had been cloudy up to now, but the showers started as we walked up to the pool, with a short sharp burst of drizzle. It quickly stopped, so we carried on. A young Stonechat appeared briefly on the brambles, but disappeared round the back before everyone had a chance to see it.

There were a few more ducks on the pool today, several Gadwall, lots of Teal, a few Shoveler, and one or two Wigeon. We quickly picked out the Garganey which was swimming across in front of the island. We got it in the scope and had a quick look at it before it reached the far side and disappeared into the grass.

One of the resident adult Egyptian Geese was shepherding round the two juveniles from this year, while another pair preened in the edge of the water. There were lots of gulls loafing around the pool again, mainly Black-headed Gulls but there was one juvenile Lesser Black-backed Gull with them, and a couple of Herring Gulls dropped in. A single Sand Martin was still hawking out over the water.

Carrying on down to the Quags, we couldn’t see any chats or any other birds in the brambles on the hillside, but it was rather windy out closer to the beach. We heard a Greenshank call behind us and picked up a very distant Wheatear on a fence post over towards Gramborough Hill. We were intending to walk up the path to the gun emplacements, but it started to rain again so we decided to head back.

By the time we got back to the pool, the rain had stopped. The Greenshank had obviously dropped into the pool behind us and flew up as we approached, circling round before flying off west, probably a freshly arrived migrant stopping off briefly. The Garganey reappeared but disappeared round the back of the island.

The Stonechat was back on the brambles as we turned the corner, staying long enough for everyone to see it this time. Back at the gate, several of the Common Snipe had returned closer again and didn’t fly off this time.

Common Snipe

Common Snipe – we saw at least ten today in the grass from the gate

Driving round to Cley next, we decided to stop for a coffee break in the Visitor Centre, to dry out and warm up. Afterwards, we walked out to the hides.

There were fewer waders on the scrape from Bishop Hide today, just a couple of Ruff and a scattering of Black-tailed Godwits. Two Avocets are still lingering here, but most of the birds which spent the summer here have left now. A single Green Sandpiper was feeding along the edge of the reeds right over the back. A little group of about 30 Dunlin was feeding in amongst the lumps of mud where the cows have churned up the scrape, hard to see until they flew round.

There were a few ducks asleep on the bank in front of the hide, several Teal and one or two Mallard, but the single Wigeon was busy feeding on the grass, a better view than the ones we had seen earlier. A Water Rail called from somewhere hidden in the reeds.

Wigeon

Wigeon – feeding on the grass in front of Bishop Hide

We walked round to the middle and into Dauke’s Hide next. A Green Sandpiper was feeding right down at the front as we walked in. A little group of Curlew were standing around at the back, until they flew off calling. There were a few more Black-tailed Godwits and two Ringed Plovers on the furthest island.

Green Sandpiper 2

Green Sandpiper – feeding in front of Dauke’s Hide

The two juvenile Spotted Redshanks were still here, feeding in and out of the short reeds at the back. We got them in the scope and could see their longer, needle-sharp bill and rather dusky grey plumage. One was feeding with a Common Redshank and the other with a Greenshank, giving us a great comparison of our three regular ‘shanks.

Spotted Redshank

Spotted Redshank – one of the two lingering juveniles

Time was getting on now and we realised we would have to head back back for a late lunch. The weather had at least improved, and the sun was out now, so we found a sheltered spot out of the wind back at the Visitor Centre. After lunch, we drove round to Walsey Hills.

There were just a few Teal on Snipe’s Marsh today, but we found two Little Grebes on Don’s Pool once we got up onto the East Bank. The grazing marsh is looking very dry now, but there was a single Little Egret out on the edge of one of the deeper channels and a Grey Heron flew in. A Marsh Harrier flew back and forth over the reeds beyond, a rather dark male with just a small amount of grey in its upperwings.

Little Grebe

Little Grebe – one of two on Don’s Pool

The Serpentine was quieter too today. There were a couple of Dunlin feeding on the mud and a few Snipe along the north edge still. We continued on to Arnolds Marsh and got out of the breeze in the shelter.

Several Sandwich Terns were standing on one of the islands, until something spooked them and they flew off out towards the sea. The Cormorants were drying their wings at the back as usual. A group of Wigeon were out on the water. There were not so many Curlews here today – they had probably gone to find somewhere out of the wind – but still plenty of Redshanks. Three Ringed Plovers were running up and down the sand at the back.

Sandwich Terns

Sandwich Terns – loafing on the islands on Arnold’s Marsh

Out at the beach, two Gannets flew past offshore, a distant immature and an adult which flew in towards us before circling back further out. Two Wheatears on the shingle ridge to the east were flushed steadily towards us by two dog walkers. We could see their white rumps as they flew, before they circled back round behind the people and landed further back. Migrants stopping off on their way south.

Little Egret

Little Egret – there were several feeding on the brackish pools

It was time to head back now. There were several Little Egrets and a couple of Redshanks around the brackish pools as we passed. It had been a very productive first day and we were looking forward to what tomorrow might bring.

22nd-23rd July 2019 – Brecks, Coast & Nightjars

A two day Private Tour in Norfolk, we spent Monday in the Brecks before heading up to North Norfolk for an evening looking for owls and Nightjars. On Tuesday, we were out on the North Norfolk coast. The weather was sunny with mostly clear blue skies, and hot, although there was a keen and rather blustery wind on Monday which had died down the following day.

We met down in the Brecks. As it was already approaching mid-morning, we headed straight over to Weeting Heath to look for Stone Curlews before it got too hot. When we got into East Hide, there was no obvious sign of anything on view but a careful scan with the scope revealed a Stone Curlew hunkered down in the grass and flowers, looking rather like a clod of earth, but slightly paler than the clods around it. We had a look at it through the scope, and could see its yellow iris and black-tipped yellow bill as it turned its head.

Stone Curlew

Stone Curlew – in the flowers out on the heath from East Hide

Then another Stone Curlew stood up a little further over to the left. This was a much better view, and we watched it as it walked slowly over towards the first bird. Eventually, it settled down into the grass and disappeared again, so we took that as our cue to move on.

There had been a few tits and a Nuthatch high in the pines on our walk out, but on the way back to the car park we heard a Marsh Tit calling in the bushes ahead of us, its distinctive sneezing call. It flew towards us and landed in an elder right next to the path, just a few feet from us. So close, you didn’t even need binoculars!

From there, we made our way over to Lakenheath Fen. Having checked in at the Visitor Centre, we stopped briefly to look at the feeders. A few tits and Goldfinches were coming and going and a male Reed Bunting made several visits to the feeding table.

Reed Bunting

Reed Bunting – coming in to the feeders by the Visitor Centre

It was a bit too windy out along the main track for butterflies today, but still we saw lots of Red Admirals and a Comma landed on the brambles briefly. A couple of Brown Hawkers were hawking over the reeds and several Ruddy Darters were flying around and perching in the grass by the path. Most of the damselflies were hiding in the vegetation, but we did see one or two Azure Damselflies.

We stopped at the New Fen Viewpoint and looked out over the pool below. A Great Crested Grebe was still on its nest on the edge of the reeds, and what was presumably its partner appeared and swam out into the middle of the water. There were a couple of well-grown broods of Gadwall and some moulting Mallard at the back, along with several Coot and Moorhen. A Reed Warbler was feeding low down along the edge of the reeds at the back.

Great Crested Grebe

Great Crested Grebe – still on the nest in front of New Fen Viewpoint

Continuing on along the track towards Mere Hide, there were one or two Black-tailed Skimmers basking on the gravel which kept flying on ahead of us. We had a junior member of the group with us who could hear loud buzzing in the grass by the track, whereas the grown-ups couldn’t hear it above the wind. It was a Roesel’s Bush-cricket and following the noise, we eventually found several in the vegetation and watched one stridulating.

Roesel's Bush Cricket

Roesel’s Bush Cricket – there were lots in the grass, inaudible to the grown-ups!

From the hide, we could see a family of Little Grebes away to the left at the back of the open channel, an adult feeding two well-grown juveniles. A flock of five Little Egrets flew over towards, heading over towards Joist Fen. Several Four-spotted Chasers were flying around the edges of the water or perching on reed stems. Otherwise it was rather quiet here today, we we decided to continue on to Joist Fen.

As we sat on the benches looking out over Joist Fen, it was rather quiet here too at first. A few Marsh Harriers circled up from the reeds from time to time, a male with the silvery-grey panel it is upperwings, a female and one or two dark chocolate brown juveniles. A couple of Common Terns commuted back and forth from the pools out in the middle of the reeds.

One or two Reed Warblers flicked in and out on the edge of the reeds. We heard Bearded Tits calling several times, but they were mostly hidden behind the reeds down at the front of the pool, just below the viewpoint, until a juvenile flew back across the water and landed in the reeds at the back.

Then two Common Cranes appeared, flying across low over the reeds, before dropping down away from us into the reeds out in the middle out of sight. As well as the breeding pair which still has a youngster which has not yet fledged, there have been two different Cranes seen from time to time around the reserve recently. They were presumably the ones we saw, possibly returning juveniles from 2018 according to reserve staff. Several Little Egrets had already flown in and out and when a Great White Egret appeared. It came up out of the reeds, much larger, with slower wingbeats, and flew back away from us.

We had been hoping to see a Bittern here, and normally this is a good time to see them as they fly back and forth regularly with food for their young, but they have not been very active this summer. The reserve staff hope that there are still good numbers breeding, after a record count of eleven booming males in spring here, and think they may just be walking to find food due to the conditions.

It was nice sitting here in the sunshine with the breeze over the reeds, so we decided to wait some more. A Grey Heron came up and did a fly round. When it dropped down out of sight in the reeds again, it chased a second Grey Heron out. Finally, a Bittern put in an appearance, flying up out of the reeds over towards the river bank, across low over the tops, before dropping back in out in the middle. Success!

It was a long walk back to the Visitor Centre and was early afternoon already by the time we got back. We stopped for a cold drink and a snack to recover. With evening activities planned too, we didn’t have much time this afternoon, but we called in quickly at Lynford Arboretum. There was lots of activity around a tree laden with berries in the car park – several Blackbirds coming and going, and a family of Garden Warblers. We watched the adult feeding one of the juveniles up in the top.

As we walked down the path towards the bridge, a Siskin flew over calling. There were not many birds out in the heat of the afternoon, so we carried on down to the lake. Several Little Grebes out among the lilypads, including an adult feeding two juveniles. An Emperor Dragonfly was hawking over the water. Making our way back up towards the car park, we stopped to look at the feeders by the cottages and a Great Spotted Woodpecker flew out.

Little Grebe

Little Grebe – one of several on the lake at Lynford

On our way north, we stopped off again in the forest. We parked by a clearing and walked a short way out along a ride through the middle. A Yellowhammer was singing from the top of the pines on one side, and we found an Essex Skimmer in the grass (we could see the black tips to the underside of its antennae) but there was not much else here today so we carried on our way.

After a break to get checked in and get something to eat, we met again in the evening. First, we drove over to a site to look for Little Owls. As soon as we pulled up, we could see one of the adults perched on the roof of some old farm buildings. We watched from the minibus as it stood there staring at us, a great view.

Little Owl

Little Owl – one of the adults, hiding under the roof

As the adult Little Owl seemed fairly settled, we pulled a little further forwards and could see two paler grey, fluffier juvenile Little Owls on the same roof a little further down. They were more active, looking round, stretching their wings, running up under cover and back down into the open. We stayed and watched them for a short while, then headed down to the coast to look for Barn Owls.

We drove round through an area of meadows where the Barn Owls like to hunt, but there was no sign of any out yet. So we parked and walked down along the bank by the grazing marshes. Several Common Swifts were screaming around the rooftops of the village nearby – it won’t be long now before they are off, on their way south. A few House Martins circled in with them. A Grey Partridge was feeding in the grass on the edge of a ditch across the meadows.

Scanning from the bank, we picked up a very distant Barn Owl out over the back of the marshes, hunting. As we watched it, it seemed to be coming a bit closer, flying towards us, but then it turned and went back out into the middle. At least we had seen a Barn Owl. We turned to walk back to the minibus and another Barn Owl appeared from behind the reeds back towards the road. It was the regular all-white male, a stunning bird! It flew straight past us and disappeared round over the bank.

Barn Owl

Barn Owl – the all-white male flew past us over the reeds

It was time to get up to the heath for this evening’s main event now. As we walked out into the middle of the heath, we spotted a large bat flying over the tops of the pines, probably a Noctule.

We didn’t have long to wait before we heard the first Nightjar of the evening calling. It sounded like it was flying round in the trees at first, but then it came out over the edge of the heath, circling round a few times in front of the trees. Then it turned and came right past us, heading out into the middle. A male, we could see its white wing patches as it came past. It dropped down out of view and started churring.

Another Nightjar called from trees. It too flew round like the other had done earlier. It landed briefly on a branch, one of its favourite churring posts, and we got it in scope, but it didn’t stay long. It flew round past us and out into the middle of the heath too,another male. We stood and listened to the churring and from time to time could see one flying round, hawking for insects.

Then one of the male Nightjars flew back in low over the heath and came back right past us, another good view. It flew up into an oak tree quite close to where we were standing and started churring. Great to hear up close. Unfortunately it was obscured by leaves where we were standing and as we tried to walk round to the other side to see if we could see it, it dropped out of the tree and flew back out into middle again.

After a long day, it was time to call it a night. We could hear another Nightjar churring as we walked back to the minibus, and a Tawny Owl hooting away in the distance. It was time for bed.

After our late night last night, we had a more relaxed start to the morning today. After  we met up, we headed down to Wells. As we parked, we could already see the Spoonbills. There were at least six, tucked in the grass, asleep. There were several Little Egrets with them too and hard to tell what some of the white shapes were from here, further over hidden by the vegetation.

After a while, two of the Spoonbills woke up. One was one of this year’s juveniles, from the breeding colony at Holkham. When they want to be fed they are relentless, and we watched the juvenile as it walked over towards the adult and started begging, bobbing its head up and down and flapping its wings. The adult tried walking away, but the juvenile followed. After a while, the adult tried flying away but the juvenile just flew after it and carried on begging when it landed. In the end, the adult gave in.

Spoonbills

Spoonbills – sleeping on one of the islands

There were a few waders on the pools here too. We could see a distant Greenshank roosting on the back of one pool, but then found another feeding close to the track on the other side. A Green Sandpiper appeared from behind one of the islands too. A large flock of Black-tailed Godwits was out in the middle and there were still plenty of Lapwings, presumably the local breeding birds. There is just one pair of Avocets left here now though. Most have finished breeding and moved off elsewhere to moult, but these ones still have a cute, half-grown fluffy juvenile. Moulting will have to wait until family duties have finished!

Greenshank

Greenshank – one of two here this morning

We watched a lovely grey male Marsh Harrier circling over the fields beyond the pools. Then a female appeared and flew in over the pools and past us.

Marsh Harrier

Marsh Harrier – flew inland over the pools

There were several Reed Buntings along the track, and Linnets and Goldfinches in the bushes, along with a few House Sparrows. When we heard a Sedge Warbler calling, we turned and could see it climbing around in the base of a large hawthorn by the edge of the ditch behind us.

We moved on from here, driving west along the coast road all the way to Holme. It was hot already, but there was a nice breeze coming in off the sea as we walked out through the dunes. A big dragonfly flew past – an emperor, but with a dark abdomen with a bright blue segment at the base. A Lesser Emperor! It disappeared straight off east through the dunes, presumably fresh in. There were hirundines on the move too today, little groups of Swallows and Sand Martins heading along the coast.

As we walked out towards the beach, we could hear Sandwich Terns calling, from the shore we could see a steady stream flying past. They were heading back to the breeding colony at Scolt, most carrying fish for their young which they had presumably caught in the Wash. Some of them came past us very close, so we could clearly see the yellow tip to their black bills (despite them being full of fish!). A couple of orange-red billed Common Terns came past too.

Sandwich Tern

Sandwich Tern – flying back to the breeding colony with fish

There were a couple of Little Terns diving just off the beach at the point away to our west, so we walked along to try to get a closer view. There were two at first, then four. They drifted off west, and when they came back again there were at least ten. We had great views of them fishing just offshore. As well as the small size, we could see their black-tipped yellow bills and white foreheads.

Little Tern

Little Tern – there were at least ten fishing offshore

There was a single Bar-tailed Godwit on the point and several Ringed Plovers higher up on the beach. A flock of waders flew in and landed on the point. We got them in the scope and could see they were mostly Sanderling, at least 150 of them, with the majority still largely in dark breeding plumage. Very different from the silvery grey and white ones we see in the winter. There were around ten Dunlin in with them, the black bellies of their breeding plumage immediately identifying them.

Sanderling

Sanderling – at least 150 flew in to roost on the point

Looking away to the west, towards the mouth of the Wash, we watched as a huge flock of birds flew up. They were largely Knot, probably at least 2,500 of them. It was amazing to watch as they whirled round out over the sea, presumably having been spooked from where they were roosting over high tide. Some flew over our way and past over the sea, and we could see they were also mostly still in their rusty breeding plumage.

Knot

Knot – part of the flock which whirled out over the sea

It was very pleasant out on the beach today, particularly with so much to see, and our junior correspondent even went for a paddle. Eventually, it was time to walk back and get some lunch. We drove round to the village to the White Horse for a cold drink and a sandwich. Then it was on to Titchwell for the rest of the afternoon.

Making out way out onto the reserve, we stopped first at the reedbed pool where a Great White Egret was lurking in the reeds on one side. Through the scope, we could see its long snake-like neck and dagger-shaped yellow bill. There were several ducks on here, Common Pochard and Tufted Duck being new for the trip list, and two Great Crested Grebes, one adult and a juvenile.

Great White Egret

Great White Egret – hiding in the reeds on the reedbed pool on our way out

We particularly wanted to see the Semipalmated Sandpiper which had been here for a few days now, so we decided to head straight out towards the Tidal Pools which was where it had been seen todat.

On the way, we spotted at least six Spoonbills on the island at the back of the Freshmarsh. A smart Black-tailed Godwit was feeding at the front on the mud, and as we walked along the bank more flew up and headed out west, flashing their distinctive black and white wings. Several Ruff were also feeding on the mud below the bank, bewildering in their variation with no two looking the same and all looking patchy, at different stages of moult.

Ruff

Ruff – a moulting male, no two look the same at this time of year

We stopped briefly to look at an adult Mediterranean Gull roosting in with the Black-headed Gulls on one the islands, one of the other birds we had hoped to catch up with here today. We could see its brighter, heavier red bill, blacker hood, and white wing tips, compared to the neighbouring Black-headed Gulls.

Pressing on to the Tidal Pools, when we got there the Semipalmated Sandpiper had just been chased off by Turnstones and walked into the vegetation out of view. We had a look at the Turnstones, still mostly in their bright breeding plumage. There was also a small group of Dunlin, feeding on the edge of the island, plus Redshanks and Oystercatchers roosting.

The Semipalmated Sandpiper did walk out for a couple of seconds but went back in before we could all get a look at it. At least it was still there. We didn’t have too long this afternoon though, so we decided to walk back to Parrinder Hide and come back again later. A friend who was still waiting promised to let us know if it reappeared.

The Great White Egret was now on the Freshmarsh, preening out on one of the islands amongst all the gulls, looking oddly out of place. A single orange Knot in breeding plumage was feeding nearby, so we could get this one in the scope and have a better look at it than the ones which had flown past earlier.

From the hide, we could really appreciate just how many Avocets there are on the Freshmarsh now, with over 600 counted in the last day or so. They gather here to moult at this time of the year, so some of these birds may have come from very different places. They were mostly sleeping on the islands. We also had a nice close view of a Black-tailed Godwit still in breeding plumage in front of the hide, where we could clearly see the rusty colour of the head extending down to the breast and then barred with black on a white belly.

Avocets

Avocets – numbers soar, as birds come here to moult

Several juvenile Pied Wagtails were flitting around in front of the hide and out on the short grassy islands. A juvenile Yellow Wagtail was in with them, browner above and creamy yellow below. Some of the Spoonbills were awake now, and we watched a couple of juveniles practicing feeding, sweeping their bills from side to side in the shallow water. We could see there were more Mediterranean Gulls here, in with Black-headed Gulls. A good opportunity to practice newly-learnt Mediterranean Gull identification and pick them out!

The phone buzzed, as a message arrived to say that the Semipalmated Sandpiper had come out, so we walked quickly back to the Tidal Pools. By the time we got there, it had of course disappeared back into the vegetation again but after scanning for a minute or so, we found it standing in a patch of short samphire. It was rather tucked in at first, but then put its head up, looking round. Then suddenly all the waders took off and headed straight out towards the beach. The Semipalmated Sandpiper appeared to go down with them.

We walked up onto the dunes and scanned the beach from the top. The tide was just going out and the mussel beds were only starting to be exposed in a few places. Thankfully it meant there weren’t too may places to hide and we quickly relocated the Semipalmated Sandpiper with a Dunlin feeding down on the shore. It was distant from here, so we walked down for a closer view, and had a really good view of it from the beach.

Semipalmated Sandpiper

Semipalmated Sandpiper – finally showed well, out on the beach

Semipalmated Sandpiper is a rare visitor here from North America, closely related to our Little Stint. It is more often seen on the west coast, and particularly unusual here in Norfolk. It gets its name from the small amount of webbing between the base of its toes, which is not shown by our stints.

It was a nice way to end our two days. After seeing a good variety of our breeding bids, as well as a selection of returning passage waders, we got to round it off with a proper rarity. Unfortunately we had to get back as there was a train to catch. It had been a very enjoyable couple of summer days out.