Tag Archives: Long-tailed Duck

14th Jan 2018 – Norfolk Winter & Owls #3

Day 3 of a three day long weekend of tours today, our last day, and we were back exploring North Norfolk. It was another dull and cloudy day, but rather mild with very light winds and dry once again.

After meeting up this morning, we headed west before turning inland off the coast road. We hadn’t gone far when a ghostly shape flew across the road in front of us – a Barn Owl. It landed on a post by a gate, but flew off behind the hedge as we pulled up. We didn’t see it disappear across the field so we had a hunch it might have landed on another post further along, and as we looked round the hedge there was the Barn Owl. It flew again, across the grassy paddock, but landed on the fence the other side in full view.

Barn Owl

Barn Owl – finally, we had really good views of one this morning

The Barn Owl stayed standing on the post for some time – now we could get a really good look at it. Eventually it dropped down into the grass and appeared to catch something. It flew back up to the post briefly, and then disappeared off silently through the trees behind. There seem to be rather few Barn Owls out hunting in daylight hours at the moment, presumably because they are not struggling to hunt at night, so it was great to get one out during the morning.

Our first scheduled stop of the morning was at Thornham. There had been a couple of Waxwings here for the last few days, feeding on windfall apples in the orchards, and we were hoping to see them. Reports had suggested that they had flown off yesterday afternoon, but thankfully we received a message to say they were back this morning.

When we arrived, we found a couple of cars and several people with binoculars standing around in the car park not really looking anywhere. We decided to check the orchard the Waxwings had been favouring yesterday and were on our way over when we looked up into the tall tree by the entrance and there was a Waxwing! We got it in the scope and had a nice look at it.

Waxwings are very smart birds – from the punk crest to the delicate wing markings with red waxy tips to the wing coverts and yellow tip to the tail. It dropped down into the orchard and disappeared, presumably to feed, but a few minutes later it was back up again in another tree. This time it flew across and landed on top of a telegraph post on the other side of the car park.

Waxwing

Waxwing – perched for ages on a telegraph post in the car park

The Waxwing stayed on the top of the post for some time. There was no sign of the second bird which has been with it in recent days, so perhaps it was looking for it, or any other Waxwings which might be around. It meant we had a great opportunity to admire it. Eventually, the lone Waxwing flew over us calling and dropped back down into the orchard.

There were a few other birds here. A couple of Fieldfares were in the tall tree when we first located the Waxwing, and more appeared up from the orchard at one point, along with a few Redwings and a Song Thrush.

However, the other stars of the show were across the road, a huge flock of hundreds of Linnets on the wires across a weedy field. They kept flying down to feed, in flocks of several hundred at a time, before flying back up to the wires. Linnets used to be common farmland birds here but have declined substantially in recent years, so it is great to see such a large number and goes to show what can happen when food is left for them.

Linnets

Linnets – in their hundreds, lining up on the wires

It was just a short drive from here round to the harbour. As we drove down the road by the saltmarsh, we could see several people with telescopes pointing down into the vegetation. When we got out, we could see they were watching a flock of Twite. We got out of the car and had a look at them – we could see their orange breasts and yellow bills, which in winter set Twite apart from Linnets. We could also hear the nasal, twangy ‘tveet’ calls from which they get their name.

This is another species which used to be much more common here, but it is not the loss of habitat in Norfolk which is the problem, as they feed mostly out on saltmarsh. Twite are just winter visitors here, and these birds come from the Pennines where the breeding population of Twite has declined markedly in recent years. Thornham is one of the last regular wintering sites, and there are just 20-30 here these days.

Twite

Twite – we had great views of the flock right by the road today

It was proving to be a successful morning, so after admiring the Twite we made our way round to Titchwell next. As we made our way out onto the reserve, we had a quick look at the feeders by the visitor centre, but there were just a few Chaffinches, Goldfinches and the commoner tits here today.

Walking up the main path, we scanned the ditches either side carefully, looking for any movement. One of the group spotted something lurking down in the vegetation and sure enough it turned out to be the Water Rail. It scuttled away deeper in, but then worked its way back towards us and we had a nice view of it feeding in the rotting leaves down in the water.

Water Rail

Water Rail – feeding in the ditch by the main path again

Next stop was by the Thornham grazing meadow pool. At first it looked rather quiet here, but scanning carefully around the edges we found a Water Pipit creeping around on the mud on the edge of the reeds. We got it in the scope and everyone had a look at it – noting particularly its pale, off-white underparts neatly streaked with black – before it disappeared back into the reeds.

Out on the freshmarsh, the water level is still very high but there were fewer ducks than of late. There were still plenty of Shelduck and Teal, plus a few Gadwall. Several Common Pochard were lurking around the small island towards the back and a small group of Tufted Ducks were diving out in the middle of the water.

Teal

Teal – looking very smart now in breeding plumage

With the water level high, there are few waders on here at the moment, apart from a few Lapwings and Golden Plover. A little more of the top of the island by the junction with the path to Parrinder Hide was visible today. As well as the Lapwing on here, and a single Golden Plover, a small group of Knot had flown in to bathe, along with a few Dunlin.

The tide was out and the Volunteer Marsh was rather dry now.  We managed to get a Grey Plover in the scope, and could see a scattering of Curlew, Redshank, Knot and Dunlin out on the mud. We also had good views of a Black-tailed Godwit in the channel at the front by the main path.

Black-tailed Godwit

Black-tailed Godwit – showing well on the Volunteer Marsh

Out at the Tidal Pools, we found where all the ducks were hiding. There were lots of Shoveler out here today, all asleep with their bills tucked in, as well as more Teal. Several Wigeon were feeding on the islands of saltmarsh. There were about half a dozen Pintail here too, including some smart drakes, though they were busy feeding with their heads under water for much of the time. A few Little Grebes were diving out on the pools.

Eight Avocets were sleeping out on the end of one of the muddy spits, a slight increase on the five that we have seen here recently. Otherwise, there were not many other waders on the Tidal Pools today, just a few more Black-tailed Godwits and Redshanks.

Avocets

Avocets – eight were here today, sleeping on the Tidal Pools

Most of the interest at Titchwell today was out on the sea, so we hurried out to the beach. The tide was out, so everything was distant from the top of the beach, but we scanned from the dunes to see what we could see. There has been a little group of Long-tailed Ducks here for a while now, and we could see them diving close to the shore away to the west of us.

Scanning through the Goldeneye, we could see two much larger ducks, with a prominent wedge shaped head and bill – Common Eider. There are always several Common Scoter offshore here but it took us a bit of time to find the single Velvet Scoter. It was rather distant, but everyone had a look at it through the scope and managed to see the white in the wings which is one of the easiest ways to distinguish Velvet Scoter from Common Scoter. A small grebe offshore with clean black cap and white cheeks was a winter-plumaged Slavonian Grebe.

With the Long-tailed Ducks close inshore today, we decided to walk out across the sand towards Thornham Point to get a better views. With only very light winds today, it was pleasant out in the open on the sand. We stood on the shore opposite where the Long-tailed Ducks were feeding and had cracking views of them, swimming on the sea, diving for shellfish or preening. There were at least nine of them, including several stunning males. Close up, we could see the striking elongated central tail feathers on the drakes, from which they get their name.

Long-tailed Ducks

Long-tailed Ducks – great views just offshore today from down on the beach

After we had enjoyed a great look at the Long-tailed Ducks, they had a brief fly round for us, before landing back down on the water a little further out. There were several Common Scoter here too, close inshore, and from this range we could even see the yellow stripe down the top of the bill of the otherwise black drake.

Some of the other divers and grebes had apparently drifted off further west, so we walked down along the shore to Thornham Point. There were lots of waders out on the beach here, mainly Bar-tailed Godwits, walking round probing in the sand with their long, slightly upturned bills. There were a couple of Dunlin and Oystercatchers with the godwits and a few Sanderling and Turnstones flew past along the edge of the sea.

Bar-tailed Godwit

Bar-tailed Godwits – feeding out on the beach towards Thornham Point

As we arrived at Thornham Point, several people were just leaving. They had not seen the Black-necked Grebe which was supposedly down this end. We stopped to scan the sea, but it was hard to see the birds being so low down on beach, they were disappearing in the light swell despite the sea being fairly flat calm. They were also diving all the time. We did manage to find the Black-necked Grebe, briefly but we lost track of it again before everyone could get to see it.

It was getting late now, and we still hadn’t eaten. After a brisk walk back along the beach we headed straight back to the visitor centre for a rather late lunch.

After lunch, we made our way over to Snettisham. The light was already going by the time we arrived. Looking out across the Wash, there was a vast expanse of mud – it was not a big tide today, and the tide was just starting to come in. The waders were scattered widely across the mud, apart from a couple of big groups of Oystercatchers which were huddled up together. There were lots of ducks here too, especially Shelduck out on the water’s edge and Mallard gathered around the channels in the mud. We had a quick walk up along the tide line but there was no sign of the Shorelark here now today.

We had come here mainly looking for owls. There was no sign of any out hunting yet, but scanning the bushes carefully we found a Short-eared Owl roosting under bramble. A second Short-eared Owl was roosting in the brambles nearby. They were both still asleep, with their heads tucked down, but they did look round a couple of times so we could see them properly through the scope.

Short-eared Owl

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

Short-eared Owls can often be found out hunting in the late afternoon, so we stood here for a few minutes to see if they might wake up and start flying round, but they were obviously not hungry enough at moment. They are probably finding enough food at night.

We saw a few other birds here. There were several Goldeneye on the pits, as well as a couple of Little Egrets. Some Greylag were on the pits, but more were gathering noisily in the fields just inland, before going to roost. There is a large roost of Pink-footed Geese on the Wash off Snettisham, but there was no sign of any here yet.

It was starting to get dark so it was time to make our way back. As we did, we could see long lines of dots approaching in the sky. We watched and listened as thousands and thousands of Pink-footed Geese flew in from the fields and headed out towards the Wash, coming in to roost. We stayed for several minutes as more and more birds came over. It was stunning sight and a great way to end the three days.

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6th & 7th Jan 2017 – NW Norfolk in Winter

This was a Private Tour, over a day and a half, for a group based in NW Norfolk. It was to be a relaxed paced tour, enjoying some of the sights and sounds of the coast in winter.

Saturday 6th January

After an earlier than normal start, our first destination was Snettisham. It was a big high tide forecast for this morning, although not big enough to cover all the mud and force all the waders off the Wash. Still we hoped the thousands of waders forced in by the rising water might put on a good display for us.

As we arrived up on the seawall, the tide was already well in. A couple of swirling lines of waders overtook us on their way to the remaining mud in the far corner. We made our way quickly down towards Rotary Hide and then stopped to scan the water. There were lots of duck just offshore, bobbing on the tide, mainly Shelduck and Mallard closer in. Beyond them, we could see a couple of big rafts of Teal, which flew up and circled round before landing back in the water, along with a few Wigeon. Nearby, we found a handful of Pintail too, including some smart drakes sporting their elongated tail feathers.

There was a light mist this morning, but further out we could see a large flock of geese also swimming on the tide. They were Pink-footed Geese which had roosted here overnight. As we stood and watched, they started to take off, flying in towards the shore a few hundred at a time. As they approached us, they turned and started trying to gain height, presumably fearful we might be shooting at them with something other than cameras, before turning inland again further up the beach.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese – a few of the many flying over us early this morning

As the number of Pink-footed Geese flying over gradually dwindled, we turned our attention to the waders. Through the mist, we could see a dark slick smeared across the mud and through the scope we could see it was a massed throng of birds. The tide was still coming in and they were shifting gradually up ahead of the rising water. More birds were flying in to join them from further up the Wash, long lines of Oystercatchers and Knot.

Waders

Waders – the vast throng gathering in the mist this morning

We walked on, down to the grass opposite Shore Hide. From here we could see the waders more clearly. In the deeper water at the front, were the Oystercatchers and Bar-tailed Godwits. Behind them on the mud were the Knot, tightly packed in their tens of thousands, looking almost like a single amorphous mass. Behind those on the drier mud, we could see lots of Grey Plover with the diminutive Dunlin in amongst them, the birds here more widely spaced. At the back, towards the saltmarsh beyond, were the much larger Curlews.

The Oystercatchers started to peel off quite early, flying in towards us in small groups, piping noisily. Over our heads, they dropped down towards the pit behind to roost. In one group, we spotted a single Avocet in with them. The vast majority of the Avocets have gone south to warmer climes for the winter, but a small number hang on here right through, as long as it doesn’t get too cold.

Oystercatchers

Oystercatchers & Avocet – one hiding in with the others

A couple of times, the Knot all flushed, bursting into the air and wheeling around high over the water before settling back down onto the ever-shrinking area of mud. There didn’t seem to be any immediate reason to panic; though a Marsh Harrier was patrolling the saltmarsh some distance behind them. After one of the flushes, with the exposed mud fast diminishing, several long lines of Knot flew in past us and dropped down onto the pit behind to roost.

Knot 1

Knot – a long line, flying in off the Wash and down to the pit to roost

The tide had stopped rising and the waders all seemed to have settled down on the last semicircle of mud. We started to think that would be it, when suddenly everything erupted. We looked at the clouds of birds and in the middle of them spotted a Peregrine. It swept through the Knot as they took off, scattering them, before swooping up and turning for another stoop. A small wader peeled off from the flock and the Peregrine set off after it for a second before turning back to the throng again.

Knot 3

Knot 2

Knot – tens of thousands twisting and turning over the Wash

The flocks of Knot swirled and twisted, making some amazing patterns as they turned, flashing alternately grey and white. Then they started to gain height. The Peregrine flew up too, trying to get above them, but it had lost the element of surprise now and eventually gave up.

The Peregrine started to fly in towards us, away from the swirling flocks of waders, high over the water. As it got in over the saltmarsh, it started to fly down until it was skimming low over the ground as it came in over the grass. It accelerated as it flew in, up over the bank before it turned sharply and disappeared down into the pit where the waders were all roosting.

Presumably mass panic ensued, but it was a surprising few seconds before we saw anything. Perhaps they were just hidden from our view, behind the bank, but at first the few Oystercatchers we could see over the far side did not seem to react. Then a large flock of Knot burst over the bank and low over the grass right past us. All we could hear was the whoosh of thousands of pairs of wings beating. A second flock of Knot followed a second later, the same noise. What a sight!

Knot 4

Knot – thousands of birds flew right past us

The Oystercatchers were up too now, as were flocks of Lapwing and Golden Plover. Most of the waders headed out over the water again and circled as the Peregrine climbed into the sky again and flew off north, empty talonned. We could see it was a young bird, still a juvenile, so rather inexperienced.

We headed in to the hide now. Once the Peregrine had disappeared, many of the waders settled back down onto the pit. There were lots of Oystercatchers on the shingle banks around the south end of the pit and in one corner they were accompanied by some large and tightly packed groups of grey Knot.

Knot 5

Knot & Oystercatchers – packed into tight flocks to roost on the pit

Up the other end, there was a sizeable party of Redshank asleep on the tip of one of the spits. A single Ruff flew in and landed right in the middle of them – we could see its paler face and scallop-patterned back. There were also lots of Turnstone on the rocks out in the middle and a good number of Lapwing scattered all around.

There were plenty of ducks out on the water here too. Lots of Wigeon and Mallard, a few Shoveler and eventually we found a lone pair of Gadwall too, asleep on the bank at the back. There were diving ducks too, a liberal scattering of Tufted Ducks and a good number of Goldeneye. We got a couple of the male Goldeneye in the scope for a closer look – very smart ducks!

The geese on here were almost all Greylags, but a single Canada Goose was with them too. One of the group then spotted a much smaller Barnacle Goose, hiding in amongst the Greylags. We do get wild Barnacle Geese here sometimes, usually with the Pinkfeet, but given the company it was keeping this one was most likely a feral bird.

Barnacle Goose

Barnacle Goose – most likely a feral bird, associating with the local Greylags

It had felt quite mild here at the start of the day, despite the light mist and a patchy frost inland, but we noticed the wind in our faces on the walk back to the car. It had picked up while we were in the hide, and there was now a noticeable chill. A small flock of Fieldfares flew south over our heads, possibly cold-weather migrants arrived from the continent – we have seen a few along the coast in the past few days.

Round at Titchwell, we stopped at the visitor centre for a warming coffee. The feeders were just in the process of being filled, and as soon as they were they were covered in the usual selection of finches – Greenfinch, Goldfinch and Chaffinch. After the coffee break, we had a look in the ditches either side of the main path on our walk out onto the reserve. We couldn’t see any Water Rails at this point, but a Redwing flew in and landed in the trees in front of us before dropping down onto a post on the edge of the grazing marsh.

Redwing

Redwing – landed in the trees by the main path briefly

As we walked up along the main path, we could see a few people with telescopes gathered overlooking the grazing marsh pool. They were looking at a Rock Pipit out on the bare ground and as we set up the scope to get a better look at it, we noticed something else moving down at the front, much closer to us. A quick look through binoculars confirmed it was a Water Pipit, the bird we really wanted to see here.

We got the Water Pipit in the scope first and all had a really good look at it down on the mud. We then turned our attention back to the Rock Pipit which was still feeding a little further behind. It was really good to be able to compare these two similar species – the Water Pipit was noticeably much paler below, less dirty looking, and greyer above.

Water Pipit

Water Pipit – great views feeding at the front of the grazing marsh pool

Several Marsh Harriers were circling over the reedbed and a Cetti’s Warbler shouted at us from deep in the reeds. We stopped again to scan around the edges of Lavendar Marsh next. There were lots of Lapwing down in the vegetation and on closer inspection we found four Common Snipe in with them too, feeding in between them, probing vigorously in the mud with their long bills. They were very well camouflaged against the yellow and browns of the vegetation.

There is a lot of water on the freshmarsh at the moment, which the ducks seem to be enjoying. As well as the usual selection of dabbling ducks, particularly Teal and Wigeon, we found a smart pair of Pintail which we had a look at it in the scope. Further back, there were a few Common Pochard in with the larger raft of Tufted Ducks. Several Brent Geese flew in from the saltmarsh and landed out on the water.

Avocets

Avocets – the five that are currently hanging on here

With most of the islands under water, there are not many places for waders to rest here at the moment. Five Avocets were asleep on the small remnant of one of the islands by the path to Parrinder Hide, the brave souls which are hanging on here through the winter, and a couple of Snipe were feeding on there too. We wanted to have a quick look at the sea first, so we continued on up the main path.

There were more waders on Volunteer Marsh – several Ringed Plover, Grey Plover and Curlew. We had just stopped to look at them when we heard a Spotted Redshank call. We looked across to see it fly in and land in the channel at the far end of the marsh. We hurried up there and got it in scope – we could see its pale silvery grey upperparts spotted with white, paler than the Common Redshanks next to it, and its much longer, finer bill.

Spotted Redshank

Spotted Redshank – flew in and landed on Volunteer Marsh

It was cold in the wind out at the Tidal Pools, so we hurried straight on to the beach. Unfortunately the sea was rather choppy now that the wind had picked up and it was harder to see the ducks. The Common Scoter were easier to see, dark black and brown, contrasting against the water, but even they kept disappearing in the waves. Several Long-tailed Ducks were with them and were more difficult to pick out in the swell, despite being mostly white. Eventually everyone got their eye in and managed to see them.

There were a few Goldeneye out here too and we managed to find a single Red-throated Diver on the sea close enough in to see. The tide was still fairly high, so there was not so much to see on the beach today – lots of gulls, and a few Sanderling running in and out between them. It was rather cold and exposed out here today, so we beat a hasty retreat to somewhere warmer!

Back at the Parrinder Hide, with the sun shining now we were looking straight into the light. As well as all the ducks as before, we had a closer look at the Golden Plover and Lapwings which were roosting on the bits of the fenced off island which were not under water. A single Snipe was on the island too.

The light was better on the other side of Parrinder Hide, looking over the Volunteer Marsh. A close Bar-tailed Godwit gave us a good opportunity to look at it in detail. There was also a Grey Plover and two Knot in front of the hide, as well as the usual Redshanks. A small flock of Linnet flew across in front of us.

Bar-tailed Godwit

Bar-tailed Godwit – showing well in front of Parrinder Hide

It had been an action packed morning and we still hadn’t managed to stop for lunch, so we headed back towards the visitor centre. As we got into the trees, we scanned the ditches carefully again and this time we spotted a Water Rail just below the path. It was skulking underneath a tangle of branches, and hard to see until you knew exactly where it was. Eventually we all got good views of it feeding in the rotting leaves on the edge of the water.

Water Rail

Water Rail – skulking under a tangle of branches

We retired to the pub for a late lunch today. A nice opportunity to warm up over a plate of sandwiches. It was tempting not to venture out into the cold again but we did!

After lunch, we headed inland. We stopped by a cover strip sown on the edge of a field. The hedge alongside was full of birds, mainly Reed Buntings and Yellowhammers, which kept dropping down into the field to feed. A few Tree Sparrows were in with them, we could see their chestnut caps and black cheek spots. A nice bird to see – once a common countryside bird, just a few years ago, they are getting very scarce here now.

Carrying on inland, our next stop was at Roydon Common. The afternoon was already getting on, and the sun was starting to drop in the sky as we walked out across the heath. It was quiet at first as we made our way to the ridge, but we didn’t have to wait long. A Hen Harrier appeared up out of the vegetation in the bottom, a ringtail. It flew across, flashing the distinctive white square at the base of its tail, before landing again on the top of the heather.

Hen Harrier

Hen Harrier – a ringtail, out over the heather

We had a good look at the Hen Harrier in the scope while it perched for some time. Then it took off again and flew low out across the heath, possibly a late hunt for food, over to the far side where it dropped down again out of sight.

As we waited to see if it or another Hen Harrier would appear, we could see a band of dark clouds to the north. It looked like they might miss us at first, but we were just caught by the edge and a mercifully brief shower. It passed through quickly, but the light was really going now, so we decided to head for home.

Sunday 7th January

The next morning, we met in Thornham again and this time headed east along the coast road to Holkham. It was a lovely morning, mostly clear with some patches of cloud, heading in to a beautiful sunrise. It was certainly nice in the car, but cold out of it in a blustery NE wind!

As we drove along the main road, we could see lots of geese in the fields alongside. We pulled up and had a quick scan – they were mostly Greylags, a few Pink-footed Geese too, and then we spotted two White-fronted Geese in with them. This was a species we were hoping to see here today, so we found somewhere to park off the road and walked back to look at them.

White-fronted Goose

White-fronted Goose – one of two by the road this morning

We had great views of the White-fronted Geese through the scope – we could see their black belly bars and the white surround to the base of their bills. We had a close look at the Pink-footed Geese and Greylags too. It was great to see the three species side by side, and get such good comparisons.

After watching the geese for a while, we continued on to Lady Anne’s Drive. As we turned off the main road, we could see several thrushes on the wet grass field next to the drive, so we pulled up for a look. There were several Fieldfares, possibly more fresh arrivals fleeing cold weather on the continent, and two Mistle Thrushes were with them. A little further along and four Grey Partridges were feeding on the edge of the drive, before running off into the field as we approached.

Grey Partridge

Grey Partridges – feeding beside Lady Anne’s Drive early morning

As we parked at the top end of the Drive, we could see three Brent Geese feeding very close to the fence, a nice chance to take a good look closely at our smallest geese, dark slate grey with a white half collar and paler streaked flanks. There were lots more Pink-footed Geese out on the grass and a single Egyptian Goose too.

We made our way out towards the beach first, through the pines before walking east along the edge of the saltmarsh. There were quite a few Skylarks tucked down in the saltmarsh vegetation, along with a couple of Rock Pipits and a Meadow Pipit flew off ahead of us calling.

Our target out here was Shorelark. There has been a flock of eight of them here, on and off, for the last few weeks, but there was no sign of them in their favoured spot when we arrived. We carried on east. As we got out of the lee of the trees, it was cold with the wind in our faces, so we headed across to the comparative shelter of the dunes, where we thought they might be hiding. There was still no sign of the Shorelarks along the high tide line here. We got almost to the beach huts at Wells, but it was exposed and windswept out on the beach beyond here, with lots of people too.

We started to walk back. We hadn’t gone far before we spotted another birder in the distance ahead of us stop and put up his scope. Scanning in front of him with binoculars, we could see eight tiny pale dots running around on the flats – the Shorelarks. We had a quick look through the scope, even though we couldn’t make out any detail at that distance but just in case they flew off, and then we hurried over.

Shorelarks

Shorelarks – five of the eight birds feeding out on the mudflats

When we got within range, we stopped and got the Shorelarks in the scope. We all had a good look at them, their bright yellow faces catching the sun and contrasting strongly with the black mask and bib. It was just in time – suddenly, for no reason, they took off and flew in the direction we had just come, landing back down on the tideline by the dunes in the distance.

Shorelark

Shorelark – flew past us and back down the beach

On the walk back, we stopped for a more leasurely look to admire the Skylarks and Rock Pipits on the saltmarsh. We got the scope on them, and looked at the differences between larks and pipits. When they spooked and suddenly all took off, we were amazed at how many had been hiding in the stunted vegetation – at least 40 Skylarks appeared from nowhere!

Once we got back to the pines, we caught some movement in the trees and looked across to see a Treecreeper scaling a trunk. It flew across to another tree and, in typical fashion, disappeared round the back! After we encircled the tree, it had nowhere to hide and it came out so we could get a good look at it.

Treecreeper

Treecreeper – scaling the trunk of a pine tree

There was more movement above the Treecreeper in the pines and we looked up to see two Goldcrests flitting around in the branches. Unfortunately, just at that moment, two people with a dog walked right in front of us, just where we were looking with our binoculars, and underneath the Goldcrests, flushing them up into the tops. Very helpful!

On the other side of the pines, we walked west along the track. It was nice in the sun here, sheltered from the wind. A pale Common Buzzard flew overhead and disappeared over the tops of the trees. We found a couple more tit flocks in the trees beside the path – Long-tailed Tits, Coal Tits, Blue Tits, and another Goldcrest flashing its golden yellow crown stripe in the sun.

We stopped for a couple of minutes by Salts Hole. Several Little Grebes were out on the water, diving. We watched their feathers puffed out when they were up and the surface and then how they flattened them just before they dived. There were also lots of Wigeon sleeping out on the pool here, the smart drakes with chestnut heads and a creamy yellow stripe up their foreheads looking like it had been painted on. A Marsh Harrier hunted over the grazing marsh behind.

Little Grebe

Little Grebe – several were diving out on Salts Hole

It was surprisingly warm in Washington Hide, the dark boards had obviously absorbed a lot of heat from the sun’s rays, a great place to rest for a few minutes. Unfortunately, we were looking straight into the sun, but the light catching the reeds in front of us was stunning. A Marsh Harrier was hanging in the breeze just beyond and a Common Buzzard was perched on bush behind that. As we were looking at it, a Red Kite was flushed from the grassy field behind by another Marsh Harrier. It landed again, and was mobbed by a third Marsh Harrier having a go at it.

Eventually, we had to tear ourselves away from the warmth of the hide and we made our way back to the car. When we got to Lady Anne’s Drive, a Red Kite was hanging in the wind over the grazing marsh in front of the car, possibly the same one we had just been watching.

We only had a half day out today, so we started to make our way back west. We arrived back in Thornham with a little bit of time to spare, so we made our way out to the Harbour. There was no sign of any Twite around the car park today, but it was very busy with lots of people out for a Sunday stroll. There was lots of disturbance – a couple of boys strangely decided to walk right out across the thick mud from the car park to the seawall – and in entirely unsuitable footwear!

Up on the seawall, it was exposed and very windy now. There were several Redshank scattered around the harbour channel and a lone Curlew was huddled up asleep, trying to shelter behind a spit of saltmarsh vegetation, out of the wind but catching the sun.

Curlew

Curlew – asleep in the sunshine, trying to shelter from the wind

We walked a short distance out along the seawall. A female Stonechat was working her way along the fence line on the edge of the grazing marsh below the bank, flying down to the ground and back up to perch on the next post along. This is another area the Twite often feed, but it was no quieter here – a dog ran down the bank and out onto the saltmarsh, chasing back and forth across the muddy channel trying to catch the Redshanks, which just flew off calling.

Unfortunately, we were out of time, so we turned and headed back to the car. We were almost back to the car park when we glanced across the saltmarsh to see a bright blue jewel sparkling on the mud the other side. It was a Kingfisher. It looked absolutely stunning in the sunshine, against the dark oily brown muddy bank on which it was perched. We stopped to admire it.

Kingfisher

Kingfisher – glowing in the winter sunshine

The Kingfisher was a fitting way to end the tour, one and a half days of great winter birding on the North Norfolk coast. Then it was off to the warmth of the pub for Sunday lunch.

4th Jan 2018 – New Year of Birds

A Private Tour today in North Norfolk. A different type of tour today, it was to be a whistlestop journey along the coast, from east to west, trying to pick up as many interesting birds as we could in the time available. The weather was not particularly amenable, with some light drizzle through the morning and then thickening cloud in the afternoon after a brief spell of blue sky around the middle of the day. Thankfully, it didn’t start to rain again until just after we had finished and we were on our way back.

Our first destination was Cromer. There has been a juvenile Iceland Gull on the golf course here for several days. We parked and walked back along the pavement, scanning the grass and it didn’t take long to find it, walking around on one of the fairways not far from the side of the road.

Iceland GullIceland Gull – showing very well on the fairway at Cromer Golf Course!

We had a good look at the Iceland Gull. We could see it was a rather delicate large gull with longish wings, pale biscuit colour overall, with paler wingtips. The eye was dark and the bill mostly so, with a hint of a paler base developing, confirming it as a juvenile.

Further along the edge of the road, we met a couple of people looking for some Redpolls which had been seen going into a weedy area by the edge of the golf course. When one of the greenkeepers drove past, they flew up and looked as if they might land in a large hawthorn bush. Unfortunately instead they disappeared round behind it. We waited a while to see if they might reappear, but after the greenkeepers had driven past a couple more times and nothing had come out we figured they must have gone somewhere else. With a busy schedule for the day, we headed off.

Our next stop was at Salthouse. We were hoping to see the flock of Snow Buntings here, but they have been very mobile, roaming up and down several miles of the shingle ridge, right up to the end of Blakeney Point, so we needed a bit of luck. Unfortunately, our luck was out – there was no sign of them in any of the places they have been favouring. It was not particularly pleasant standing up on the shingle in the drizzle, so we decided to carry on our way west rather than wait to see if they would reappear.

We did add a few other birds to the day’s list while we were at Salthouse. Scanning offshore, we picked up a couple of Guillemots out on the sea and a couple of Red-throated Divers flew past. A Skylark and a Meadow Pipit were feeding around one the small pools on the edge of the grazing marsh. A few Wigeon were scattered about the grass too and a drake Shoveler was on one of the pools below the shingle ridge. Several skeins of Pink-footed Geese flew overhead calling.

Pink-footed GeesePink-footed Geese – several skeins flew over us at Salthouse

After negotiating our way round an unscheduled road closure, we managed to get onto Lady Anne’s Drive at Holkham. A small covey of Grey Partridge were on the grass not far from the side of the drive. An Egyptian Goose flew past, flashing its bold white wing patches.

The Shorelarks out on the saltmarsh here had not been reported yesterday, but we thought it was worth a quick look anyway. As we walked through the pines, a birder coming back the other way told us there was no sign of them. We went out to look for ourselves anyway, but the best we could manage was a large flock of around 30 Skylarks. There was quite a lot of water on the saltmarsh today. It was still drizzling steadily, so we headed back to Lady Anne’s Drive.

As we walked back towards the car, a small group of Bullfinches flew up from the brambles beside the ditch and landed a little further along – we could see a couple of smart pink males and at least one female. A flock of about 100 Brent Geese had appeared on the grazing marsh by the car park while we were out on the saltmarsh. A quick look through them revealed that one was slightly darker than the others, with a slightly brighter white flank patch. It was the regular Black Brant hybrid which is often with the Dark-bellied Brent Geese here.

Black Brant hybridBlack Brant hybrid – second from left, with the Dark-bellied Brents

There were lots of Pink-footed Geese calling noisily, flying over and landing in the fields. We could see a few Marsh Harriers out over the grass and a Common Buzzard or two perched in the trees or flying round. As we drove back up Lady Anne’s Drive towards the main road, a Stonechat perched on the fence and kept dropping down to the ground to look for food.

StonechatStonechat – feeding from the fence beside Lady Anne’s Drive

A little further on and we stopped again to look at the grazing marshes. There was quite a bit of water on there today, after all the recent rain, and at first there didn’t seem to be much in the way of birdlife. But then we spotted a Great White Egret flying in from the east and it dropped down by the edge of one of the ditches. Even before it landed, we could see just how big it was and when it touched down we could see its long yellow bill.

Great White EgretGreat White Egret – flew in and landed out on the grazing marsh

This is often a good place to see geese, but there didn’t seem to be too many out here today. There were a few Greylags, but more of them seemed to be in the fields by the road today. A careful scan eventually brought its reward – first a little group of Pink-footed Geese and then, just beside them, a pair of White-fronted Geese, the one we were really looking for here. We could see their distinctive dark belly stripes and, when they raised their heads, the white surround to their bills.

Looking out to the west, we also spotted a single Red Kite circling out over the grazing marshes. Then it was time to carry on our way west. We got as far as Titchwell on the coast road and turned in land. As we headed up the road towards Choseley, a couple of Red-legged Partridges were in the fields, but the area around the drying barns was very busy and there were no birds here today.

It was starting to brighten up nicely now. Continuing on inland, we came across a huge flock of finches in the hedge beside the road. We stopped the car and got out for a closer look – there were lots of Chaffinches, Goldfinches and Linnets. A couple of Greenfinches perched unobtrusively in the bushes. Looking carefully threw the throng, we eventually found a couple of Bramblings with them too.

A little further on, we spotted several Yellowhammers dropping down into the middle a field. They had disappeared out of view, so we decided to have another look here on our way back. The last field we checked seemed to have many more birds – there were lots of Reed Buntings and Yellowhammers in the hedge which kept dropping down into the cover strip below. We could hear Tree Sparrows calling and it wasn’t long before one appeared in the hedge too.

As we got back into the car, an approaching tractor driving down the road flushed a Sparrowhawk from the hedge and it flew straight towards us and landed in the trees right next to us. Needless to say, as we opened the window and raised the camera, it was off! We were on a roll now, and back to the first field where we had seen the Yellowhammers land earlier and we arrived just in time to see several birds fly up out of the crop. Two larger birds flew across and landed in the top of the hedge on the far side – two Corn Buntings, the bird we had hoped to see here. While we were watching the Corn Buntings in the scope, we spotted a couple of Stock Doves flying over too.

Black-tailed GodwitBlack-tailed Godwit – feeding in Thornham Harbour

It had clouded over again when we arrived in the car park at Thornham Harbour. We met one of the local wildlife photographers just packing up to leave and he told us he had just been watching the Twite on the edge of the saltmarsh immediately beyond the car park so we hurried straight over. We couldn’t see them at first as they were hiding down in the vegetation on the other side of the channel. There were a couple of Redshank and a single Black-tailed Godwit out on the mud.

We were just scanning for the Twite when they flew up out of the vegetation and straight towards us. They circled over and landed down by the puddles in the car park just behind us. We had a great look at them as they drank, there were about 20 of them in total. We could see their orange faces and yellow bills. They didn’t stay there too long though and the next thing we knew they were off again, out across the saltmarsh.

TwiteTwite – came down to the puddles in the car park to drink

After the Twite had flown off, a Rock Pipit flew past us and landed on a post just in front of us. They are fairly common winter visitors to the saltmarshes along the coast, Scandinavian Rock Pipits rather than our British ones which favour rocky coasts.

Rock PipitRock Pipit – landed on a post just in front of us

Having seen the Twite, our main target here, so quickly we made our way straight round to Titchwell next. After a quick bite to eat, we headed out to explore the reserve.

The main birds we wanted to see here today were out at the sea, so with the wind starting to pick up a bit, we made our way fairly quickly in that direction. A quick look in the ditches by the path failed to produce the hoped for Water Rail. Thornham grazing marsh and the reedbed pool looked rather quiet, although a Cetti’s Warbler shouted to us from deep in the reeds. A single Common Snipe was out on Lavendar Marsh, along with lots of Lapwing.

The water level on the freshmarsh is very high now and there are not many places for waders here. The tiny remnant of the island by the junction to Parrinder Hide had about twenty Ruff huddled round it, along with 5 Avocet which have decided to try to slug it out here rather than head south for the winter. There were a few more Lapwing too. Further out, the top of Avocet Island still protruded from the water and was fairly covered in Golden Plovers.

There were lots of duck out on the freshmarsh, enjoying all the water. As well as the usual Teal, Wigeon and Mallard, Gadwall was a welcome addition to the day’s list here. It was really nice to see quite a few Pintail too, including several very smart drakes. There was a raft of diving ducks around the taller island over towards the back – several Common Pochard and a couple of Tufted Ducks – but we couldn’t see the Red-crested Pochard which had been reported earlier. A big flock of Brent Geese flew in from the saltmarsh out towards Brancaster and landed out on the water to bathe & preen.

There were more waders on the mud on Volunteer Marsh. From the main path, we could see several Ringed Plover and a Grey Plover, as well as a number of Redshanks and a Curlew or two. There were more waders down along the muddy channel which runs away beside the bank at the far end, including several Black-tailed Godwits, but no sign of the Spotted Redshank that had been reported here earlier. With the tide out now, it could easily have been hiding in the bottom of the channel somewhere.

Ringed PloverRinged Plover – one of several on the Volunteer Marsh

A single Dunlin with all the Black-tailed Godwits roosting on the Tidal Pools was the only bird of note, but we didn’t really stop to look here. Then it was on to the beach. We got ourselves into the shelter of the dunes and started to scan. There was an excellent variety of birds out here today.

Just about the first birds we found out on the sea were the Long-tailed Ducks. There were about 12 of them, diving just offshore, including some very smart long-tailed drakes. Also just offshore, we could see a few Common Scoter and Goldeneye. We picked up a drake Red-breasted Merganser on the sea too, before a group of about eight more flew in. A single female Eider rounded off the great selection of seaduck.

There had been a Great Northern Diver off here earlier, but that took a little longer to find, mainly because it was diving constantly. Eventually we got that in the scope too. A distant Great Crested Grebe was another addition to the list. While we were looking at all the birds on the sea, we kept one eye on what was flying past. A small gull, flashing alternately pale silvery grey/white upperparts and black underwings was an adult Little Gull, closely followed by two more. Several have been lingering offshore here in recent days.

There were lots of waders out on the beach too. Scanning through them carefully produced several Bar-tailed Godwit, Knot, Grey Plovers, Turnstone and Oystercatchers. Unusually, a single Sanderling took a bit of finding amongst all the Dunlin out on the sand today.

Having done so well out on the beach, we started to make our way back at a more leisurely pace. Scanning carefully around the Tidal Pools, we finally located two Spotted Redshanks. They were asleep, tucked down behind one of the islands, but one woke up long enough to flash its long, needle fine bill and more prominent pale supercilium than the regular Common Redshanks.

We stopped in at Parrinder Hide on the way back. There was still no sign of the Red-crested Pochard, nor any Water Pipit around the remnants of the islands, but there was a single Goldeneye diving out on the water. The Golden Plover were very nervous, flying up continually, whirling round calling plaintively, before landing down again.

Golden PloverGolden Plover – periodically whirling round nervously over the freshmarsh

It was starting to get dark now, so we continued on our way back towards the car. We stopped briefly by the reedbed where the Marsh Harriers were gathering to roost. We counted 18 all in the air together at one point. Then it was time to head for home.

We had missed a few birds today – not a surprise given the weather and the fact that we didn’t have time to stop and wait for things to appear – but even so we had managed to see some very good ones. And, when we added up the total at the end of the day we had amassed a very respectable 97 species (96 seen, and the Cetti’s Warbler which we had just heard). A good way to start the year!

22nd Nov 2017 – Winter Specials

A Private Tour today. Rather than a general day of birding, we had a list of target species which we would be looking for, as well as trying to see various other birds on the way. It was a dry day, bright at times, but with a very blustery SW wind which at least had the benefit of being rather mild. A daytime peak of 15.5C is warm for this time of year, though it didn’t always feel like it in the wind!

Our first target was Lapland Bunting. There have been a few in recent weeks in the fields along the coastal cliffs at Weybourne, so we headed over there to start the day. As we walked down the lane, there were a couple of Blackbirds and Robins in the sparse hedges, possibly recent arrivals from the continent for the winter. There had apparently been one or two Lapland Buntings in the clifftop grass earlier, but there were several dogwalkers strolling up and down there now, so we concentrated on the field instead.

Most of the birds were hard to see out in the stubble in the middle of the field at first, and all we saw was occasional groups of birds flying round before landing back down out of view, mainly Skylarks and Meadow Pipits. Then the first Lapland Bunting appeared with a group of Skylarks. It was very hard to get onto in flight though and landed back down out in the middle. The birds were very skittish in the wind and we were treated to several more brief flight views of Lapland Buntings over the next few minutes as we waited. We could just hear their distinctive flight calls as they flew round, over the wind.

When an RAF jet came low overhead, all the birds flushed from the middle of the field and it was amazing how many were out there. There were lots of Linnets, in one or two large flocks, plus more Skylarks than we might have thought, watching from the side of the field.

There is a more open area of bare mud close to the side of the field and gradually birds started to land on or around it. Meadow Pipits and Skylarks at first, but then two Yellowhammers flew in too, catching the morning sun. Eventually a Lapland Bunting dropped in, landing in the stubble just beyond the bare patch. We got it in the scope and could just see it creeping around in the stubble, noticeably different from all the other birds we had seen here.

Unfortunately, not all the group managed to see the Lapland Bunting before it flew off again. There were a few other birds to see here too though, particularly a large flock of Pink-footed Geese which must have been feeding or loafing in the fields over towards Sheringham Park. When they were disturbed by one of the passes by the RAF jet, they all flew up calling.

Pink-footed Geese 1Pink-footed Geese – flushed from the fields towards Sheringham Park

One of the Lapland Buntings appeared to land further over, along the other edge of the field, so we walked round to see if we could pick it up from that side. Unfortunately, as we got round there, a dogwalker walked up along the grassy strip on the edge of the field. They then proceeded to walk out into the field along the edge of the stubble, and all the birds flushed and landed back down in the middle.

We made our way back to the gate where we had been earlier and fortunately, some of the birds started to drift back towards that corner. Another Lapland Bunting dropped down into the stubble behind the bare patch and again we managed to get it in the scope, where it was possible to see it creeping around in the stubble. Then a tractor drove up the lane with a flail, to cut the margins of the field. The driver stopped to open the gate and asked us what we were looking at, then very kindly offering to start on the far side of the field so as to minimise the disturbance. We figured this would be a good moment to move on.

Our next stop was at Kelling. There were not many birds in the lane this morning, just a few Blackbirds and Chaffinches, so we walked straight down to the Water Meadow. There were a few birds around the pool – a handful of Teal feeding along the back edge and several Black-tailed Godwits out in the middle, probing into the water with their long bills.

The Spotted Redshank was on the edge of the vegetation on the north edge, where it likes to feed. We stopped for a quick look from the other side, then made our way round for a closer look. Unfortunately, before we could get there, something spooked it and it flew further out and landed on the muddy edge. A juvenile Ruff flew in to join it and a Common Redshank too.

The Spotted Redshank and the Common Redshank fed together on the edge of the water for a few minutes, given us a great side by side comparison in the scope. The Spotted Redshank was a little bigger, longer legged and noticeably paler, more silvery grey above and whiter below. We could also see its much longer, finer bill. The Spotted Redshank is a first winter, we could see its darker wing coverts and tertials. It has been lingering here for several weeks now and looks like it may stay for the winter.

Spotted RedshankSpotted Redshank – lingering on the pool at Kelling Water Meadow

Then the Spotted Redshank went to sleep on the edge of the water. We had a quick look for any Jack Snipe around the edge of the pool, but the water level has risen here after the recent rain. The area where they had been roosting is now rather wet and none have been seen since last weekend. We decided not to linger here and moved on.

As we wound our way west along the coast road, we came across a field chock full of Pink-footed Geese. The sugar beet here was harvested a couple of weeks ago now, but still the geese are coming in to feed on the tops left behind by the harvester. We found a convenient layby to pull in for a closer look and there were well over a thousand geese in view and more out of sight in the field. We could see the pink legs and feet on the closest birds as they picked around in the field beside us, as well as their dark heads and delicate bills with a pink band.

Pink-footed Geese 2Pink-footed Geese – feeding in the harvested field by the coast road

With a little bit of time still before lunch, we headed round to Cley. There has been a Black Brant with the Dark-bellied Brent Geese here for several weeks now and in recent days it has been feeding in the Eye Field. As we drove up the Beach Road, we could see lots of Brent Geese feeding out in the grass, but even as we pulled up, small groups were flying off towards the reserve, presumably for a drink and a bathe.

Apparently, the Black Brant had been seen here earlier but there was no sign of it now. We had a good look through at the Dark-bellied Brent Geese. Just behind them, a large flock of Golden Plover were catching the sunshine.

Brent GeeseBrent Geese & Golden Plover – in the Eye Field

With the likelihood that the geese which had flown onto the reserve would return to resume feeding later, we decided to go off and have something to eat ourselves, before coming back for another look. It was rather breezy round at the visitor centre, but we still managed to make use of the picnic tables, as well as enjoying a hot drink from the cafe.

A few Ruff flew up from the reserve and headed off inland over the car park to feed in the fields inland. Something flushed all the Golden Plover from the Eye Field. We could see them whirling around in the distance, before they too flew over us in a series of small groups and headed off inland.

After lunch, we made our way back round to the Eye Field. This time, we quickly located the Black Brant feeding in amongst all the regular Dark-bellied Brent Geese. In the early afternoon sun, its more solid and cleaner white flank patch really stood out compared to the more muted flank patches on the other geese. Through the scope, we could also see its darker body plumage and more strongly marked white neck collar, complete under the chin and extending further round the sides towards the back of the neck.

Black BrantBlack Brant – with the Dark-bellied Brent Geese in the Eye Field

The wind was really quite gusty now. A Stonechat appeared close by, landing on the top a gorse bush just the other side of the West Bank from the Beach Road. A male, with a black face, it struggled to remain there in the wind.

StonechatStonechat – struggled to perch on the gorse in the wind

There did not appear to be much out on the reserve today, so we continued on our way west. White-fronted Goose was a particular target for the day, so we headed over to Holkham next. There are still only a very few White-fronted Geese in for the winter here yet, but we parked up overlooking the grazing marshes and started to scan.

At first, all we could see were lots of Greylag Geese down on the grazing marshes in front of us. There were a few Egyptian Geese in with them too. Thankfully it didn’t take us too long to find some White-fronted Geese, although they were a little further over today and tucked in beyond some trees.

Initially, we located a family group of four White-fronted Geese which we got in the scope. We could see the white surround to the base of the bills of the adults catching the sun. They were in the longer grass and mostly sitting down though, so it was hard to see any other details. Fortunately, we then found another pair further round and repositioning ourselves we could get a clear view. These White-fronted Geese were on shorter grass and we could see their distinctive black belly bars.

Red KiteRed Kite – catching the afternoon sun

There was a nice selection of raptors out at Holkham this afternoon too. As usual, we could see several Marsh Harriers and Common Buzzards. A single Red Kite flew low over the freshmarsh, landing down on the grass for a few minutes before flying off towards the Park. It really shone rusty red in the afternoon sun. A Kestrel flew in and landed in the tree in front of us. The Sparrowhawk was slightly less obliging, flying up out of the same trees just as the gusty wind blew a blizzard of beech leaves out of the park and over the fields. It was hard to work out which was Sparrowhawk and which was leaf!

There is usually at least one Great White Egret on view here, but we couldn’t see one at first today. One of the wardens had just done the rounds and was leaving as we arrived, so we wondered whether they had flown off. Fortunately, as we were standing admiring the geese, a Great White Egret appeared up over the trees out in the middle and flew out over the freshmarsh towards us. It landed down by one of the wet ditches, where we could get it in the scope.

Great White EgretGreat White Egret – flew in and landed out on the freshmarsh

With the White-fronted Geese safely in the bag, we carried on west. Our next stop was at Brancaster Staithe. This is often a good place to find waders and from the warmth of the car we could see Ringed Plover and Grey Plover, Bar-tailed and Black-tailed Godwits, Curlew and Redshank. Several Oystercatchers were picking over the discarded mussels and the Turnstones were running in and out of the cars. Further out, a Greenshank was feeding up to its belly in the water in the harbour channel.

While the waders were nice, we had really come here to see the Long-tailed Duck which has been feeding in the channel here in recent days. It was low tide now, so there wasn’t much water left, but we did eventually spot the Long-tailed Duck diving a little further out in the harbour, in the deeper part of the channel just behind a muddy bank. Thankfully it then came a little closer, swimming up the channel at first, before half waddling over a submerged sand bar, and then starting to dive again.

Long-tailed DuckLong-tailed Duck – the 1st winter drake still in the harbour

We had a good look at the Long-tailed Duck, though it was tricky to photograph because it was diving all the time. It could stay under for some time and then resurface some distance away. It was a first winter drake, rather pale around the head and with a scattering of white feathers in its black upperparts.

It had clouded over now and the light was already starting to fade when we finally got to Titchwell. Our main target here was Yellow-legged Gull, so we hurried out to the freshmarsh. There were already a few Marsh Harriers starting to gather over the reeds either side of the path.

We had been told that an adult Yellow-legged Gull was on the island in front of Island Hide, so we headed straight in there first. When we opened the shutters, we were greeted by the sight of hundreds and hundreds of gulls. They were mainly Black-headed Gulls but, even so, they would take a bit of searching through. There was a line of larger gulls on the island where the Yellow-legged Gull had been earlier, but as we searched through we couldn’t find it. There were just Herring Gulls, a couple of Lesser Black-backed Gulls and Great Black-backed Gulls there now.

No need to panic! We opened the shutters on the other side of the hide and started to work our way methodically through the massed throng. Thankfully, it didn’t take long to find the Yellow-legged Gull. It was quite close, on the near edge of one the islands behind a load of Black-headed Gulls. We got it in the scope and had a good look at it. It was standing in shallow water, so we could see the top halves of its bright custard yellow legs. Its mantle was a shade darker than the Black-headed Gulls around it and it had a clean white head with only limited dark streaking around the eye, very different from most of the other large gulls.

Yellow-legged GullYellow-legged Gull – one of the adults on the freshmarsh at dusk

When the Yellow-legged Gull sat down in the water and went to sleep, we continued to scan through the gulls. The only other gull of note we found was a second Yellow-legged Gull a bit further back – two for the price of one! There was also a nice selection of wildfowl here for the day’s list, including Greylag Goose, Gadwall, Teal, Shoveler, Shelduck and Wigeon.

With the light going now, we decided to head for home. As we walked back up the main path, we looked out across the reedbed and noticed there were loads of Marsh Harriers all in the air. We stopped for a quick count – 32 all together. It was quite a sight. Another, the 33rd, was still flying in over the reeds the other side of the path. It was a nice end to the day to see them all circling round in the wind, as we walked back towards the car.

19th Nov 2017 – Early Winter Birding, Day 3

Day 3 of a long weekend of Early Winter Tours today, our last day. It was another frosty start and another glorious, clear, sunny day. There was a light but fresh westerly breeze in the morning but that dropped by the afternoon. Another great day to be out birding!

Today we headed out in the other direction, west along the coast road. As we passed Holkham we could see lots of Pink-footed Geese in the grazing meadows beyond Lady Anne’s Drive. A small group was close to the road, so we pulled up by a convenient gap in the hedge for a closer look. We could see their small bills, mostly dark but for a narrow pink band, and their dark heads.

Pink-footed GoosePink-footed Goose – a group was right by the coast road as we passed by

A little further on, we stopped to have a look out across the freshmarsh. A large white shape flew across the front edge of one of the pool and landed in the rushes. Even at that distance, it was clearly a big heron and could only be a Great White Egret. Through the scope we could see its long, yellow dagger of a bill. A Grey Heron appeared next to it and was not much smaller – a nice size comparison. Then a second Great White Egret appeared on the front edge of the trees out in the middle.

There were a few geese out on this end of the freshmarsh today, mostly Greylags but with a few small groups of pairs of Egyptian Geese scattered among them too. Looking through them carefully, we managed to find a group of three White-fronted Geese in with the Greylags down at the front of the grass. Through the scope, we could see the white-surround to the base of their pink bills. When something flushed the geese and they resettled, more White-fronted Geese had appeared – there was now a tight group of at least thirteen together a little further out.

White-fronted GeeseWhite-fronted Geese – at least 13 were at Holkham today

A handful of Pink-footed Geese out on the freshmarsh here too included a single bird bearing a silvery grey neck collar. We could just read the lettering ‘VLS’ through the scope. It will be interesting to hear back where it has been seen before. There still don’t seem to be so many Wigeon here, but we could still see several flocks over in the distance around the pools to the east. It seems like it has still been rather mild on the continent and numbers of some wildfowl are still rather low. More should arrive in the coming weeks.

A nice selection of raptors put on a show for us this morning. A Red Kite drifted in from over the Park behind us and dropped down towards the grazing marshes. It appeared to land on the grass behind the trees and a Marsh Harrier flew straight in after it. The Red Kite promptly reappeared the other side of the trees, presumably seen off from whatever it had found. Its rusty red tail and underparts positively shone in the morning sun as it banked and turned.

A couple of Common Buzzards were perched out in various trees and bushes. One was a fairly conventional brown bird, but the other was strikingly pale, white below and around the head. As the air started to warm a little, more Marsh Harriers and Buzzards appeared in the air. A Sparrowhawk flew in along the line of the hedge below us amd chased out a second one. The two Sparrowhawks then landed in a tree where we could get them in the scope. A Kestrel was perched on the scaffold tower in the distance.

Continuing on our way west, we stopped again at Brancaster Staithe. A Long-tailed Duck had been reported for the last couple of days in the harbour channel here and it didn’t take us long to find it. It was diving further out in the channel, among the boats at first, but then swam up the channel past us and disappeared into the mouth of one of the muddy creeks.

There were lots of waders around the muddy edges of the creek. Several Bar-tailed Godwits gave us a great opportunity for closer inspection and a discussion of some of the differences between the two godwit species in non-breeding plumage. We could hear a Greenshank calling and quickly located it on the far bank in the sunshine, before a second Greenshank flew in and joined it.

Bar-tailed GodwitBar-tailed Godwit – close views at Brancaster Staithe this morning

There were also a few Dunlin down with the Bar-tailed Godwits and a Ringed Plover on the near edge. Further over, we could see a couple of Grey Plover and Curlew too. Several Turnstone were practically running around our feet until they spotted a Common Gull dropping a mussel, shattering it and then starting to pick it apart. They gathered round, waiting to pick off the scraps.

There were a few Brent Geese feeding round the harbour too, plus a scattering of Wigeon. A little group of Teal gathered down along the near edge of the harbour ramp looked stunning in the morning sunshine.

When the Long-tailed Duck reappeared, it was initially hard to follow. It was diving constantly and made its way even further up the channel away from us. But the tide was going out and it quickly turned back, swimming back down channel and straight past us, giving us a great close view as it went past. It was a first winter drake, rather pale around the head and with some pale feathering in the upperparts.

Long-tailed DuckLong-tailed Duck – in the harbour channel at Brancaster Staithe

As the Long-tailed Duck swam back out into the open water downstream, we decided to move on. We made our way west to Thornham Harbour next. As we got out of the car, we saw a flock of small finches drop down towards the saltmarsh beyond the car park. We would come to those in a minute, but first we had a quick look in the harbour channel. There were a few waders down on the mud – Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwit and Common Redshank – but no sign of any Spotted Redshank here.

From up on the seawall, we quickly located the flock of small finches down on the saltmarsh and sure enough they were the Twite which we were looking for. They were feeding on the dry seedheads but were rather nervous as usual and kept flying up and circling round over the harbour before landing back down on the edge of the saltmarsh right in front of us again, back where they had started. We had a great look at them through the scope – their rich orangey-brown-toned breasts and bright yellow bills catching the sun when they perched up on the taller seedheads.

TwiteTwite – around twenty were feeding on the saltmarsh vegetation

There are around twenty Twite here at the moment. This is a traditional wintering spot for the species, although numbers have declined markedly in recent years as the breeding population in the Pennines has declined, which is where most of our wintering Twite come from. There are always a few colour-ringed birds in with them, which help to confirm their origins.

Looking out across the harbour, we could see large flocks of Wigeon and Brent Geese in the distance. A single Red-breasted Merganser was just visible way out in a chink of open water where the harbour channel curved towards the sea, before it swam behind one of the sandbanks out of view. A Curlew was catching the sun down in the muddy channel just below the bank.

CurlewCurlew – warming itself in the morning sun

Continuing on out along the seawall, there were lots of Skylarks on either side, over the grazing meadows and the saltmarsh. A couple of Reed Buntings flew in and landed down amongst the Suaeda bushes just below the bank. A single Common Snipe flew in and landed out in the grass briefly, before heading back out across the saltmarsh. The Twite flew over our heads calling and landed down by a pool out on the grazing marsh for a quick drink, before flying back towards the harbour again.

We stopped for a quick look out across Broadwater. A Little Grebe and a few Coot were both new birds for the day, but otherwise there were just a few dabbling ducks around the reedy margins – mainly Mallard, Teal and Shoveler. In the grazing meadow beyond, a party of Brent Geese had flown in to join the local Greylags feeding on the grass.

Climbing up into the dunes, we had a look out to sea. The Common Scoter were very distant today and very spread out – we could just make out hundreds of tiny dark specks riding the waves out towards the horizon. A pair of Red-breasted Merganser flew in and landed behind the breakers. Otherwise, there was not much visible out on the sea today – just a couple of Great Crested Grebes.

When we got back to the harbour, we had another quick look in the harbour channel. A couple of Rock Pipits were chasing each other around on the mud and up onto the boats moored along the wooden jetties. There was still no sign of any Spotted Redshanks though, until we had started to leave and we spotted one further up the channel from the car. We got out and got the scope on it – we could see its long, needle-fine bill. It was also noticeably paler than the Common Redshank on the mud behind it. The Spotted Redshank was feeding in the water at first, sweeping its bill quickly from side to side, before it climbed out onto a line of rocks and stood where we could see its red legs.

With a bit of time still before lunch, we headed inland for a drive round to see if we could find any flocks of finches and buntings in the fields. We did find a lot of Blackbirds and thrushes feeding on the berries in the more overgrown hedges – including several Redwings and a couple of Fieldfares too.

A little further on, we came across a large flock of finches, coming down to drink in the puddles around a farm gateway. They were mostly Chaffinches, plus a few Goldfinches and one or two Greenfinches, but a smart male Brambling flew up too and landed in the hedge just in front of us. We could see its orange breast and shoulders, and its white rump as it eventually flew away ahead of us down the line of the hedge.

Dropping back down via Choseley, we passed a large mixed flock of Linnets and Goldfinches feeding in a strip of wild bird seed mix sown along the margin of a field. There was very little around the drying barns though – just a handful of House Sparrows feeding on some seed scattered in the layby. A group of Golden Plover was feeding in a winter wheat field along with some Lapwings further down.

As we got out of the car in the car park at Titchwell, a single Chiffchaff was feeding in the sunshine in the yellow autumn leaves of a sycamore. We stopped for lunch in the picnic area, and quickly picked out one of the Mealy Redpolls here, feeding up in the alders with the Goldfinches. We had a chat about the changing taxonomy of the Redpoll complex over lunch – the treatment of these birds is currently in a state of flux, to say the least! A flock of Long-tailed Tits passing through, along with a Goldcrest provided a welcome distraction.

Mealy RedpollMealy Redpoll – feeding up in the alders above the picnic area

After lunch, we headed out to explore the reserve. The feeders around the visitor centre were looking rather empty this afternoon. A Coal Tit was a welcome addition to the day’s list, but otherwise there were just a few Chaffinches and Blue and Great Tits. We could hear a couple of Siskin calling from somewhere high in the willows.

A careful scan of the ditches along the path provided a Water Rail feeding quietly down in the wet leaves in the bottom. Unfortunately, as more people gathered around us and started chatting noisily, it scuttled back into cover, although we could still see it feeding under the branches of an overhanging tree.

Water RailWater Rail – feeding down in the ditch below the path

There were just a few Mallard and a single Little Grebe out on the reedbed pool and we couldn’t see any activity on the dried up grazing meadow ‘pool’, so we headed straight out to the freshmarsh. A couple of Cetti’s Warblers sang from the bushes out in the reeds as we passed. A Kestrel was perched on the concrete bunker out on the saltmarsh and as we looked at it through the scope a Kingfisher appeared briefly, hovering behind.

There were lots of birds out on the freshmarsh, particularly ducks here for the winter. There are plenty of Wigeon here now and lots of Teal. We got a smart drake Gadwall in the scope and admired the subtle patterning of its plumage. There were a few Shoveler and Shelduck out there too.

TealTeal – good numbers on the freshmarsh for the winter now

A small gathering of gulls around one of the small islands were mostly Black-headed and Herring Gulls, but we did find an adult Yellow-legged Gull in with them. Unfortunately it was swimming on the water and it was impossible to see its custard yellow legs!

There was not a great variety of waders on view, but we could see a good number of Ruff here. One of the Ruff was still in full juvenile plumage, much darker than the others. It was also a female and noticeably smaller than the paler winter adult male it was next to. There were also a few Dunlin out on the mud amongst all the ducks.

There was a better selection of waders out on the Volunteer Marsh today. From the corner by the path to Parrinder Hide we stopped to scan. We could see Bar-tailed Godwit, Curlew, Dunlin, Grey Plover and Redshank. A Ringed Plover was feeding on the mud just the other side of the channel, with three more further back. A single Knot was picking around the islands of vegetation out in the middle.

Ringed PloverRinged Plover – there were several on Volunteer Marsh today

There were a few Black-tailed Godwits along the tidal channel at the far side of the Volunteer Marsh, including one on the mud just below the path which gave us a good opportunity to have a closer look at it, reminding ourselves of the differences from the Bar-tailed Godwits we had seen earlier. Most of the Avocets have departed for the winter, but we did find one lonely individual roosting on the spit out on the tidal pools. Otherwise, a single drake Pintail and a Little Grebe were the only other birds of note on here today.

The tide was already on its way in when we got out to the beach. We could see lots of Oystercatchers still down on the bits of the mussel beds which had not yet been covered by the water. We got a Sanderling in the scope, running around on the edge of the sea, dwarfed by an Oystercatcher next to it. The waders were starting to gather ahead of the rising tide and a large flock of forty or so Sanderling then flew in from the west, along with a big party of Bar-tailed Godwits.

Out on the sea, we found a Common Scoter close in, riding the waves just behind the breakers – a better view than the distant dots we had seen earlier! But other than a few more Common Scoter, we couldn’t see anything else on the sea today. There were lots of gulls out on the beach, feeding on razor shells washed up along the tide line, but a quick scan through them failed to locate anything other than the regular species.

We stopped in at Parrinder Hide on our way back. There were more gulls arriving all the time, coming in before roost – Herring Gulls, Lesser Black-backed Gulls and Black-headed Gulls. We found the Yellow-legged Gull again, asleep now, but at least we could see half its custard yellow legs above the water now.

There were a few more waders gathering too. There was already a little party of Golden Plover on the edge of one of the islands in front of the hide. As we sat and watched, every few minutes another small group would drop in and join them, calling plaintively as they flew in from the fields inland where they had been feeding. A single Knot had appeared on the edge of the gathered Black-headed Gulls and a flock of Turnstone flew in from the beach. There were a few more Black-tailed Godwits on here too now and the Ruff had gathered together into a tighter flock ready to roost.

Golden PloverGolden Plovers – gathering on the freshmarsh at dusk

The light was starting to go fast now – the evenings draw in quickly at this time of year. As we made our way back towards the visitor centre, we stopped on the path opposite the reedbed. The Marsh Harriers were gathering to roost over the reeds, and we counted at least 11 before we left, flying round and perched in the bushes. A twelfth then flew in overhead from the direction of Thornham as we walked on.

It was getting dark as we drove back towards Holkham. As we drove along the north side of the park, we could see lines and lines of geese flying overhead in the gathering gloom, thousands of Pink-footed Geese dropping down to the freshmarsh to roost. A typical Norfolk sight at this time of year and a nice way to end the day – and an action-packed three days of early winter birding.

7th Apr 2017 – Signs of Spring

A Private Tour in North Norfolk today. It was nice and dry all day, but a bit cloudy and cool in the W/NW breeze. That seemed to keep a cap on migration, although we still managed to see a nice selection of birds on the move and some early returning summer visitors.

Starting from Wells, we headed west along the coast. Our first stop was at Holkham where we were immediately watching Spoonbills in the tops of the trees. There were two in view at first, one looked to be trying to gather sticks, pulling at thin branches, presumably busy nestbuilding. Periodically they would fly round and drop back into the trees out of view, with the same or another then coming back up into the tops. When perched high in the trees, through the scope we could see their spoon-shaped bills. There were lots of Cormorants in the trees too.

Another large white shape appeared out of one of the ditches further over, a Great White Egret. It quickly took off and flew across in front of us, landing down out of view again. In flight, we could see its large size, and heavy flight on long broad bowed wings. A short while later, it flew again and disappeared down behind some reeds further west.

Despite the cool temperature, there was plenty of raptor activity. A shrill call above alerted us to the presence of a displaying Marsh Harrier. We watched as it tumbled down out of the sky and dropped into the reeds. A female Marsh Harrier appeared out of the reeds away to our left and flew up into a tree. When we got it in the scope, we could see a Common Buzzard in the tree behind, perched waiting for the air to warm up a bit. The female Marsh Harrier then dropped down to the ground in front of the reeds and flushed a second male Marsh Harrier out of the grass, presumably a pair.

IMG_3089Marsh Harrier – the female perched in a tree

Most of the geese down on the grazing marshes are Greylags now, with the majority of the winter geese having departed north already, en route to their breeding grounds. Scattered among them, we found a few Egyptian Geese, a Canada Goose and a single Pink-footed Goose. The latter appeared to have an injured wing – a few sick or injured Pink-footed Geese remain year round at Holkham, normally birds which have been shot and wounded and are unable to complete the journey back to Iceland.

A larger group of geese were feeding on the grass on the fort. Through the scope we could see that they were mostly Pink-footed Geese too, about 30-40 of them. These are just the laggards, with no excuse for not heading off, they are just awaiting suitable conditions to make the journey.

Our next stop was at Titchwell. A couple of Chiffchaffs and a Blackcap were singing from the trees around the car park, our earliest returning summer warblers. The tame local Robins came straight over to the car as we got out, hoping for a very early lunch! Round at the visitor centre, the winter finches appear to have departed now, but we still managed to add Chaffinch, Goldfinch and Greenfinch to the day’s list, at the feeders.

6O0A4431Common Pochard – a pair in the pools by the main path

As we walked out along the main path, the dried up grazing meadow ‘pool’ appeared deserted. On the other side, a pair of Common Pochard were feeding around one of the small pools by the path, the male closely shepherding the female. Looking around the larger reedbed pool, we could see three Red-crested Pochard lurking on the edge of the reeds. Through the scope, we could see the coral red bills of the two drake, and their orange punk hairstyles.

We could hear Bearded Tits calling from the reeds nearby, but they were hard to see today. Given the chill in the breeze, they were keeping low. Occasionally, one would climb up a reed stem briefly, before dropping back into cover, and eventually we all managed to get a look at one. We decided to have another look on the way back, hoping it might have warmed up a little.

As we waited for the Bearded Tits to show themselves, we were aware of several little groups of finches flying west. They were Linnets and Goldfinches, on their way north, following the coast round. A couple of little groups of Meadow Pipit flew over too. Great to see migration in action, despite the cooler weather.

The water levels of the Freshmarsh are still quite high at the moment, which means that not much mud is exposed. Consequently, there were few waders on here today, and rather more ducks. Several Teal were feeding along the edge by the path, the drakes looking very fine at the moment. There were also good numbers of Shoveler and a few Shelduck out on the water.

6O0A4496Teal – the drakes are looking very smart now

The waders were mainly represented by Avocets. A few were sleeping out in the shallow water around one of the submerged islands in the middle, but others were feeding, either up to their bellies in the deeper water or around the edge. It was clear that many were already paired up, the birds out feeding mostly in twos.

6O0A4459Avocets – many are paired up already

There were a few Black-tailed Godwits out on the Freshmarsh, but by the time we got to Parrinder Hide they had flown off. A quick scan of the lower islands which were not underwater revealed a single Little Ringed Plover, but unfortunately that flew off over the bank before we could all get a look at it through the scope. Little Ringed Plovers are summer visitors, so this was another early returning bird. The Ruff were more amenable, with several feeding in the grass on the fenced off island, among the Black-headed Gulls.

From the hide, we could see a few lingering Wigeon around the islands. Most appear to have departed already, on their way back to Russia to breed. A pair of Gadwall were feeding just outside the hide and another pair of Red-crested Pochard were sleeping further out. A couple of Meadow Pipits dropped in along the edge for a quick feed and drink, possibly more migrants stopping off briefly on their way.

6O0A4466Gadwall – a pair feeding out from Parrinder Hide

The Volunteer Marsh was mostly quiet – with small tides at the moment, the surface was mainly dry. Only around the lower lying channel around the far edge did we find a few Redshanks, a couple of Curlew and a single Grey Plover which was very well camouflaged against the mud.

There were more waders out on the Tidal Pools. The Black-tailed Godwits were on here feeding in the shallower water, several now getting into their brighter orange summer plumage. More Avocets were sleeping on the spit towards the back and in with them we found two smaller, pale grey Knot, also asleep.

IMG_3099Black-tailed Godwit – now moulting into orange summer plumage

A pair of Shoveler were asleep right by the path, and the drake helpfully awoke briefly as we walked past and flashed its enormous bill, having a quick yawn, before going back to sleep. Yet another two Red-crested Pochard were asleep on the island here – there seem to be a lot of them back here now.

6O0A4478Shoveler – a pair, the drake showing off its enormous bill

Out on the beach, we could see a long oil slick of black ducks out the sea, Common Scoters. Through the scope we could see the black drakes and the browner females. There were still several hundred offshore here today, some closer in but a larger raft a bit further out. In with the closer ones, we could see several Long-tailed Ducks, including one or two handsome drakes. It was nice to see several of these winter visitors still lingering, it has been a good winter for them here, though presumably they should also soon be departing north. Scanning through the Common Scoter we counted at least 35 Long-tailed Ducks still here today.

IMG_3125Long-tailed Ducks – at least 35 were still on the sea today

Also out on the sea, we found a few Great Crested Grebes still. There were quite a few gulls offshore, particularly hassling the larger raft of Common Scoter. Three paler, slimmer winged birds which flew past closer inshore were Sandwich Terns, early returning birds back for the breeding season.

Down on the mussel beds, there were lots of Oystercatchers. A closer look also revealed a small party of Knot and a good number of Turnstone hidden in the seaweed. Further along the beach towards Brancaster, there were still a few Bar-tailed Godwits in with the other waders, but numbers of there have declined now as we get into spring.

It was a bit fresh out on the beach, so we decided to make our way back. As we turned to leave the beach, a large group of Brent Geese flew in over the beach and headed towards the reserve. When we got back to the Freshmarsh, they were all out on the water, chattering to each other. Yet more lingering winter visitors, they should soon be on their way back to Russia to breed.

6O0A4487Brent Geese – flew in to the Freshmarsh from the beach

A stop to scan the Freshmarsh, revealed not one but three Little Ringed Plovers now out on the islands. We got one in the scope and had a look at it. As we were scanning through the gulls, we picked up two paler birds flying in over the bank from the direction of Brancaster. A pair of Mediterranean Gulls, they dropped down into the fenced off island amongst the Black-headed Gulls and started displaying. Through the scope, we could see the Mediterranean Gulls’ more extensive, jet black hoods and white wing tips.

We stopped for a rest on the bench back by the reedbed, but at first their was no sound of any Bearded Tits. Then we spotted one flying across one of the reedy channels, and then back again. A closer look revealed a pair of them feeding in the reeds along the edge. We even managed to get the male in the scope briefly.

A quick scan of the grazing meadow ‘pool’ on the way back revealed a single wagtail out on the dry mud. It was noticeably paler than the Pied Wagtails we had seen earlier, with a silvery grey back contrasting with its black cap, a White Wagtail. White Wagtails are passage migrants through here, on their way north to Iceland or Scandinavia, a nice bird to see.

After a late lunch back at the visitor centre, with a welcome hot drink to warm us up, we started to make our way back east. We called in briefly at Brancaster Staithe, but there was a lot of disturbance here today. That didn’t seem to deter the Turnstones which were still running around in and out of the cars.

6O0A4512Turnstone – running around the car park, despite the disutrbance today

Our next stop was at Burnham Norton. There has been a Green-winged Teal here for several days now and another couple of local birders quickly located it for us half hidden in a small pool out on the grazing meadow, while we were admiring a Mistle Thrush out on the short grass. From round on the bank the other side, with a bit mroe elevation, we had a great view of the Green-winged Teal.

The North American cousin of our (Eurasian) Teal, Green-winged Teal differs principally in having a bold white vertical stripe on the foreflank and lacking the white horizontal stripe above the flanks which our Teal shows. Helpfully, there was even a drake Teal nearby for comparison!

IMG_3179Green-winged Teal – a drake, showing off its bold white vertical flank stripe

There was lots of other avian action here while we were watching the Green-winged Teal. Two Swallows flew west, the first we have seen in Norfolk this year. A Sedge Warbler was singing away from the reeds behind us, another early returning summer visitor. A drake Garganey flew up from one of the ditches, but unfortunately dropped down again out of view before anyone could get onto it. We had a look along the ditch where it landed, but we couldn’t see it in there in the open water and it had probably disappeared into the reeds.

The Marsh Harriers provided another highlight. We could hear one calling and looked up to see a male displaying high overhead, swooping and tumbling. It gradually lost height and dropped down steeply into the reeds. The next thing we knew a second male Marsh Harrier appeared and the two of them proceeded to chase each other round over the reedbed, while a female circled nearby.

6O0A4582Marsh Harriers – two grey-winged males, chasing each other round the reedbed

We made our way inland, through farmland, back to Wells. A couple of Red Kites circled over the fields and we also saw a few Kestrels on the way, our first of the day. A brief stop produced a couple of Brown Hares in a field and several Red-legged Partridges to add to the day’s list. Then it was time to head for home. Despite the cool weather, we had seen several reassuring signs today that spring is here, with several warblers back and singing, and birds on the move.

 

27th Feb 2017 – Seaducks, Divers & Grebes

A Private Tour in North Norfolk today. The request was particularly to look for seaducks, divers and grebes, but there would be time for other birds too. It was cloudy but bright in the morning, but heavy showers were forecast for the afternoon. As it was the weather gods were smiling on us – we sat out one brief shower in the hide at Titchwell and didn’t see another until we were back in the car at the end of the day.

With the target to see some birds on the sea, we started the day at Thornham Harbour with a walk out towards Holme Dunes. As we parked the car, a lone Brent Goose was feeding on the saltmarsh by the road close by. It looked up briefly, but seemed disinterested in our presence.

6o0a8198Brent Goose – feeding in the harbour at Thornham

The tide was just going out and the tidal channel was still full of water. From up on the seawall, we could see a few waders on the areas of open mud – Curlew, Grey Plover and Bar-tailed Godwit, as well as several Redshank. The Twite have been rather elusive here this winter, tending to come and go, so it was no surprise that two small birds feeding down on the edge of the saltmarsh were a pair of Linnet.

6o0a8206Curlew – several were feeding on the mud in the harbour

Looking out across the harbour towards the sea, we could see a few ducks diving in the deeper part of the channel in the distance. Through the scope, we could see there were several Red-breasted Mergansers and a couple of female Goldeneye. A Great Crested Grebe was just offshore beyond.

As we walked along the seawall, there were Skylarks singing over the grazing meadows behind us. A couple of Reed Buntings flew out from one of the bushes below the bank, as did a Wren. When two more small birds flitted across the saltmarsh below us, we expected those to be Linnets again, but a quick look revealed they were Twite. Through the scope, we could see their yellow bills and orange-washed breasts. They fed for a time in the vegetation on the edge of the mud, before eventually disappearing off back into the saltmarsh.

img_0953Twite – we found a pair on the saltmarsh on our walk out

Six geese flying in from the east over the harbour were Pink-footed Geese. We heard them calling and watched as they dropped down towards the grazing marshes to the west. Looking across, we could see a large flock of geese already down on the grass. Through the scope, we could see that the vast majority were Pink-footed Geese too. But then a head came up with a distinctive white surround to the base of the bill – two White-fronted Geese were hiding in with the Pinkfeet.

A shrill call high overhead alerted us to a displaying Marsh Harrier, a male, flying up and down with exaggerated, flappy wingbeats. Two more Marsh Harriers, females, flew in over the saltmarsh and, behind us, another two circled up over the grazing marshes. The bright conditions were obviously encouraging a burst of Marsh Harrier display activity this morning.

6o0a8240Marsh Harrier – this male was displaying overhead

A quick look out across Broadwater from the edge of the dunes added Tufted Duck and Common Pochard to the day’s list. A few Mallard and a pair of Shoveler were lurking in the reeds. A few Greylag Geese and a big flock of Curlew were in the fields beyond.

From the top of the dunes, we set ourselves up to scan the sea. Almost the first bird we set eyes on was a Great Northern Diver. It was not far offshore, but diving regularly and drifting east. It was clearly big and we got it in the scope and could see the contrast between the blackish upperparts and white throat and breast, with a black half collar.

Scanning the sea, we could see several Red-breasted Mergansers out on the water. Five large, heavy ducks flying in from the east were Eider – three all dark females and two 1st winter drakes, with contrasting white breasts. They landed on the sea further out where we could see them distantly. A little later, we looked back and found two smart drake Eider in the same area. There were a couple of Common Scoter out here too today, a blackish drake and a pale-cheeked female.

The Long-tailed Ducks have become more elusive in recent days. It is possible they have already started to move back north, although they may just have moved further offshore. Fortunately a few obliged us by flying in this morning. First, we picked up a lone Long-tailed Duck flying in from way out to sea, but it turned east and eventually landed some way away, off Thornham Point. We could just make it out through the scope. Then a pair flew in and landed out beyond the Red-breasted Mergansers. They were still distant, but we could see there was a smart male and browner female. The fourth Long-tailed Duck, a female, was even more obliging, and landed with the mergansers where we could get a much better view of it. To round out the total, a fifth flew past a little later.

While we were looking through the ducks, we picked up a Slavonian Grebe on the sea. It was clearly small, next to the Red-breasted Mergansers. It had a flat crown, white cheeks and a neatly defined black cap. Red-throated Diver is the most regular diver species here and we found one or two out on the sea. Black-throated Diver is the rarest so it was a bonus to find one just as we were about to call it a day. We were alerted to it by a flash of its white flank patch as it dived. It was rather distant, but when it surfaced again we could also see its very contrasting black and white colouration, and sleeker, slimmer structure compared to the Great Northern Diver we had seen earlier.

After such a fantastically productive morning here, we decided to head back to the car. Three species of diver and an excellent selection of seaduck was a great return for our efforts. A Little Grebe on Broadwater on the way back made it three species of grebe for the site today too!

As we walked back along the seawall, we could hear Twite calling. We assumed it would just be the pair we had seen earlier, but a flock of around 25 Twite flew up from the saltmarsh and across the path in front of us. A couple of males flashed bright pink rumps as they flew past. They dropped down by a pool on the grazing marsh for a quick drink, before flying back to the saltmarsh again. We had another good look at them through the scope.

6o0a8254Twite – a flock of about 25 had appeared on the walk back

There had been a Glaucous Gull reported by some pig fields inland from here yesterday, so we decided to have a quick drive round to see if we could find it. We did find a large flock of gulls loafing in a field by an irrigation reservoir, but all we could see there were Black-headed, Common and Herring Gulls. There didn’t appear to be many gulls around the pig fields today.

The buntings were more obliging. There has been a big flock of Yellowhammers here through the winter and there must have been at least 60 here still today. Several were bathing in a puddle as we arrived, including some stunningly yellow males. They were rather flighty, constantly flying between the hedges and the field the other side. However, when they perched up in the hedge we could get a good look at them.

6o0a8275Yellowhammer – at least 60 in the flock today

As well as the Yellowhammers, there have been good numbers of Corn Bunting here and there were still at least 6 here today.We could hear one singing when we got out of the car, the song often compared to jangling keys, but we couldn’t see it through the hedge. Then one flew over as we walked along the road, we were alerted to it by its distinctive liquid ‘pit’ call. Finally we managed to get three in the scope, perched up together in the top of a small tree. They are getting so scarce now, it is always a delight to see Corn Buntings.

There were other things to see here too. There were several Reed Buntings in with the Yellowhammers and Corn Buntings. A pair of Stock Doves were feeding in a recently sown field, much more delicate birds then the similarly grey Woodpigeon. A couple of Red Kites hung in the air over a nearby wood. When a Kestrel flew over the field, all the Yellowhammers and Corn Buntings scattered.

Our destination for the afternoon was Titchwell. After lunch by the visitor centre and a welcome hot drink, we made had a look at the feeders. There were a few Greenfinches with the Chaffinches and Goldfinches, but the highlight was a couple of female Bramblings which dropped in to join them. The Water Rail was in the ditch by the main path as usual, but was lurking under a tangle of vegetation bathing today.

6o0a8282Water Rail – lurking under a tangle of vegetation bathing

The dried out grazing meadow ‘pool’ looked devoid of life at first. We repositioned ourselves further along the path, so we could see round behind the reeds at the front. At that point, one of the group spotted a bird right down at the front – the Water Pipit we had been looking for. We had a great view of it through the scope, noting its white underparts neatly streaked with black, and well-marked white supercilium.

img_1011Water Pipit – showed very well on the grazing meadow ‘pool’

A single Great Crested Grebe was at the back of the reedbed pool, asleep amongst the ducks. While we were scanning around the edges of the pool, a small wader flicked up and dropped down on a patch of cut reed at the front. We had a very restricted view, with a line of reeds in front. Looking through with the scope we managed to see there was a Common Snipe feeding there, but the bird we had just seen fly in was smaller than that. Then, just behind it, we caught sight of a Jack Snipe.

The Jack Snipe flew across the water at the front and landed on another patch of cut reed the other side, out of view. By walking a little further along the path and looking back, we were able to find it again, though we still had to look through the reeds in the front. It was very well camouflaged, with its bright golden mantle stripes in amongst the reed stems, but the Jack Snipe was feeding with its distinctive bobbing action. Great to watch!

We could see dark clouds approaching from the west, so we made our way quickly round to Parrinder Hide to scan the Freshmarsh from there. As we walked round, a huge flock of Golden Plover flew up from the fenced off island and most of them seemed to drift off inland. We got into the hide just in time, as a squally shower blew in.

There is still a good variety of ducks on the Freshmarsh at the moment – Wigeon, Gadwall, Teal and Shoveler. The birds huddled up against the rain. There were also good numbers of gulls again, but we couldn’t find anything other than Black-headed Gull, Common Gull and Herring Gull on here today.

6o0a8324Teal – a smart drake, huddled up facing into the rain

There were lots of Redshank in particular on the Freshmarsh today. Perhaps they had been flushed off the Volunteer Marsh by something? Several Knot flew in too and landed in with the gulls. A noisy little group of Oystercatcher were gathered in a circle giving a piping display. There were also lots of Avocet on here – numbers are continuing to increase as birds return after the winter. A colour-ringed Black-tailed Godwit stood pointing into the rain.

img_1018Black-tailed Godwit – a colour-ringed bird in the rain

Thankfully the rain blew through quickly. Once it stopped, we made our way round to the other side of Parrinder Hide, overlooking the Volunteer Marsh. There were several Knot, Grey Plover and Curlew on the mud in front of the hide when we walked in, but almost immediately something flushed all the birds and the waders all flew off. The Redshanks had gone over to join the others on the Freshmarsh – we could see them all busy bathing and preening from the window at the back of the hide.

As it was starting to brighten up again, we decided to make a bid for the beach. From round on the main path, we stopped to watch a couple of Knot and a couple of Dunlin which dropped back in together on the mud, a nice chance to compare the two species.

6o0a8332Shoveler – several were out on the Tidal Pools

The Pintail were all out on the Tidal Pools today, along with more Shoveler and Mallard. There were also a few waders on here, in particular several Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwits. This provided a good opportunity to compare the two species – the Bar-tailed Godwit being obviously smaller, shorter-legged and with paler, buffier upperparts streaked with dark.

The tide was coming in again out at the beach. Large groups of Oystercatcher and Bar-tailed Godwit were gathered along the shoreline. There was quite a lot of seaweed scattered across the sand today and we could see several silvery Sanderling feeding in amongst it.

There was a flock of Scoter further offshore and through the scope we could see they were mostly Velvet Scoter with a smaller number of Common Scoter in with them. Even better, a single Velvet Scoter was much closer in and we could see the distinctive twin smaller white spots on its face. A couple of Common Scoter were closer in too, and when it turned head on, we could see the yellow stripe down the top of the bill on the drake. Otherwise, the sea here was much quieter than it had been at Holme this morning – just a few Red-breasted Merganser and Goldeneye. Still, Velvet Scoter was a nice bird to round out the set of our seaduck for the day.

As we made our way back along the main path, we stopped for another look at the Jack Snipe. There were now two Common Snipe on the same side of the pool as the Jack Snipe, we could see their pale central crown stripes. The Common Snipe were out in the middle of the patch of cut reed, but typically the Jack Snipe was more secretive, still keeping nearer to cover at the edge of the tall reeds. However, it had worked its way out to the edge of a little puddle where we could see it better, its shorter bill and dark central crown.

img_1043Jack Snipe – feeding on the edge of the reedbed pool

On the way back, we cut round via Meadow Trail and out to Patsy’s Reedbed. The water level is being kept high on here this year – attractive for the Tufted Ducks, Common Pochard and Coot which were all diving on here. Several Marsh Harriers were starting to gather over the reedbed, ahead of going to roost. A Cetti’s Warbler sand from the bushes.

The afternoon was getting on and it was starting to get dark, but when we turned to look behind us we could see another bank of dark clouds approaching from the west, so we decided to make our way back. We had heard Bullfinches calling on the way out and seen a couple of shapes disappearing off into the bushes. On the way back, they were more helpfully feeding in the top of a small tree, picking at the buds. The three females were perched in full view, while the pink male lurked a little further back. A couple of Jays called noisily from the sallows and we flushed a Muntjac from beside the boardwalk, which scuttled off into the undergrowth.

We got back to the car just in time, as a wintry shower blew through. We had been remarkably lucky with the weather today and we didn’t mind a bit of rain now we were on our way home.