Tag Archives: Mealy Redpoll

7th Mar 2019 – Brecks in the Breeze

Another Private Tour down in the Brecks today. It was a lovely bright sunny start, but it clouded over late morning and the drizzle arrived early afternoon. It was very windy too! With the forecast for deteriorating weather during the day, the main priority was to try to see Goshawks, so we set the itinerary accordingly.

It was still a bit early so we headed round to one of the forest rides first thing to see if we could find any singing Woodlarks. The clearing by the parking area was surprisingly quiet, despite the sunshine, as we got out of the van. A couple of male Yellowhammers appeared in the trees and started singing, but we couldn’t hear any Woodlarks.

Yellowhammer

Yellowhammer – singing in the trees this morning

As we walked down the ride, we could hear a Linnet singing in the oaks above the path. There were some Long-tailed Tits flitting around and a Coal Tit singing in the young pine plantation on the other side. A Green Woodpecker laughed somewhere off in the distance. We carried on to the next clearing, but there was no sign of any Woodlarks singing there either. With the first Common Buzzards circling up over the trees, we decided to head back to the van.

Parking in a spot overlooking the forest, we got out and scanned over the tree. There were more Common Buzzards up here, enjoying the strengthening wind, swooping at each other and hanging in the air with their legs dangling. There were Buzzards up pretty much constantly over the next hour or so we were there, with a minimum count of six in the air together.

Buzzard

Common Buzzard – one of at least six up today

It wasn’t long before the first Goshawk appeared. It was a long way off, but it was a good start. They were up pretty regularly too over the trees while we were watching. One Goshawk came up out of the pines much closer to us at one point. It looked like it might come over in our direction, but after hanging in the air for a few seconds it turned and caught the wind. It whisked away over the treetops flashing very pale white below in the sunshine and pale grey above as it turned.

 

Goshawk

Goshawk – one of 2-3 which came up this morning

The strength of the wind possibly made displaying a bit more difficult today. We did have one Goshawk up for some time trying to display. It flew across with its undertail coverts fluffed out and wrapped round its tail, making it look almost white-rumped. Between getting buffeted it did break into a quick burst or two of slow flapping display, with exaggerated deep wingbeats. A bit later we just caught one distant male Goshawk doing a quick rollercoaster display, before disappearing back down behind the pines.

A pair of Woodlarks flew across over our heads and disappeared over the field behind. A little later they flew back over calling, and we watched them drop down into the winter wheat field away to our right, where they promptly disappeared in the crop. There were a couple of Brown Hares in the field too and a pair of Red-legged Partridges.

Having seen several Goshawks, we decided to move on and try our luck elsewhere. On the way, we stopped to watch another pair of Brown Hares in the edge of a field by the road. They were initially standing tall facing each other and we thought they might start boxing, but by the time we had repositioned the van, one was lying down and appeared to be bathing in the dust while the other looked on.

Brown Hares

Brown Hares – one seemed to be dust bathing while the other looked

By the time we arrived at Santon Downham it was already quite late in the morning, but we thought we would have a walk down along the river to see what we could find. It was quite sheltered from the wind in the car park and we were lulled into a false sense of calm. There were very few birds around the garden with the feeders, but there was lots of disturbance here this morning with workmen clearing a hedge from one of the gardens across the road and shredding it very noisily on the verge.

When we got down to the river, we could hear a Grey Wagtail singing and from the start of the path we could see it perched on one of the pipes sticking out from the brickwork under the bridge. Unfortunately it didn’t stay long and flew off upstream. A short distance down along the path, a Kingfisher flew out from the bushes and across the river ahead of us but disappeared off over the other side. A pair of Little Grebes were busily diving in the water.

There were lots of Siskins flying back and forth overhead and one came down to drink by the path. We met someone walking back along the path who told us the Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers had been flying around in the trees a bit further up, so we hurried up there to see if we could see them. Unfortunately when we got there we met some other people who told us that the sightings had been much earlier and the birds had not been seen for at least an hour, after they flew off across the river. We stood and listened for a couple of minutes, but it had clouded over now and we it felt much cooler now. We could see the wind hitting the tops of the poplars which were swaying vigorously.

We continued on a little further downstream along the path. The creaking of the trees at one point sounded a little like a woodpecker drumming, but apart from the sound of the wind there was very little singing today. We turned to head back. A Sparrowhawk flew out of the trees and disappeared across the river.

We had not heard the Woodlarks singing, but we went back round via the clearing anyway to see if we could find them. We didn’t, but as we walked along the path by the railway, we could see small flocks of finches flying in from the pines the other side and dropping down through the bare trees above the ditch to drink. As they came back up, they perched in the top of the trees. There were lots of Chaffinches and quite a few Bramblings too, and we got a good look at a smart male Lesser Redpoll through the scope.

A Kestrel was hovering over the clearing, hanging in the wind. A Marsh Tit was singing in the bushes back by the road and we got a quick look at it picking about the moss-covered trunks. A Nuthatch was calling further back in the poplars. Back at the garden by the bridge, now that the noisy shredding was finished there were a few birds starting to return and we stopped to watch a couple of smart male Siskin on the feeders.

It was starting to spit with rain now, but we headed round to Brandon for lunch and thankfully the rain held off long enough so we could use the picnic tables. A hot drink was very welcome too, particularly as one of the group found the water in their thermos flask was now decidedly tepid!!

There was a steady stream of birds coming to the feeders by the picnic tables. As well as lots of Blue Tits, Great Tits and Long-tailed Tits, one or two Marsh Tits kept shooting in to grab a seed before dropping down into a small bush below to eat it. A female Brambling appeared in a small tree over by the wall behind us, and then a brighter male flew in and landed in the yew tree right next to us. It clearly wanted to land on the grass below the feeders but was more nervous than the Chaffinches which were coming down there.

Brambling

Brambling – came down to the feeders while we were having lunch

After lunch, it started to drizzle more heavily but we went down for a look at the lake anyway. Once again, there was no sign of any Mandarins but we heard a Firecrest singing again. It was deep in the bushes out of the rain at first and hard to see, but then flew out into the bare birches where we could get a good look at it. A second Firecrest flew out after it and the two of them chased through the branches.

While we were looking up at the Firecrests, we noticed some Redpolls in the birch tree too, feeding on the catkins. Two were small and brown Lesser Redpolls but the third was larger and noticeable paler, whiter below and greyer above, a Mealy Redpoll. Another Brambling was up in the tree with them.

Lynford Arboretum was our destination for the rest of the afternoon. We headed over to the larches first to see if the Crossbills were in there again, but we couldn’t find them today. There were lots of tits feeding in the trees and a Goldcrest flitting around in the lower branches.

Bramblings

Bramblings & Yellowhammer – feeding under the feeders

As we walked up towards the gate, we could see lots of Bramblings feeding out on the main track beyond and in the grass either side. We heard a Hawfinch calling in the trees behind us, but we couldn’t work out where it was before it went quiet. Then as we got to the gate, a cloud of birds flew up from the leaves under the trees. They looked to be mainly Bramblings, at least fifty of them.

We stood at the gate and watched for a while. The birds were very nervous, but gradually a few would start to come back down onto the ground. There were lots of Bramblings, which significantly outnumbered the Chaffinches, and several Yellowhammers. Then they would all spook and fly up into the trees again.

After this had happened a couple of times, we looked along the edge of the trees further back and noticed a Hawfinch on the ground. We got it in the scope, a grey-brown female, and one or two of the group got a look at it before something spooked everything again. Thankfully after a minute or so it dropped back down onto the ground again. This happened 3-4 times, but by the end everyone had got a good look at it. We could see its huge cherry stone-cracking bill.

Hawfinch

Hawfinch – too dull for photos today, this one taken here previously

Carrying on down towards the bridge, we had a quick look for the Tawny Owl but couldn’t see it in its usual roosting spot – it was very windy and wet up there today! There were lots of birds coming down to feed on the seed put out on the pillars at the bridge. They were mainly tits, including one or two Marsh Tits which gave us nice close views, plus several Chaffinches and Bramblings.

A streaky female Reed Bunting appeared first, on one of the pillars. Then a male flew in, already getting its black hood, quickly followed by a second male. We watched them feeding round the trees under the feeders.

Reed Bunting

Reed Bunting – one of the two males coming to the seed on the bridge

While we watched all the comings and goings of all the birds at the bridge, we scanned the trees above the pool just beyond. There have been Common Crossbills coming to drink here in recent days, but there was no sign of any here this afternoon. It was very wet now in the rain, and having had good views of a Hawfinch from the gate we opted against walking round the paddocks where which was more exposed to the wind. We decided to call it a day and head back.

When we got to the top of the hill, we heard Crossbills calling and looked over to see two fly out towards us over the Arboretum. They turned over the path and looked to be heading towards one of the isolated deciduous trees on the grassy hillside. We hurried up to where we could see where they had gone and there they were, perched in the top of one of the trees. We got them in the scope, the smart red male Crossbill first, and when it dropped down, we looked over at the grey-green female. It was windy in the tops, and after flying round and landing again a couple of times, the male flew off, followed by the female.

That was a nice way to end the day – despite the at times difficult weather, we had seen most of the Brecks specialities we had hoped to catch up with today. Time to head for home and dry.

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20th Dec 2018 – Two Winter Days, Day 1

Day 1 of a two day Private Tour in North Norfolk today. We were lucky with the weather today – dry with some bright spells and even some blue sky at times, albeit with a rather fresh southerly wind and cloudier in the afternoon.

Our first destination for the day was Holkham. As we drove up along Lady Anne’s Drive, a pair of Egyptian Geese were out on the grass in one of the fields and we could see several Teal and a larger group of Wigeon around the edges of the pools.

As we got out of the car, we could hear lots of Pink-footed Geese calling. As it is full moon in a couple of days time, they had possibly been feeding inland overnight rather than roosting here and were therefore in no hurry to head out to the fields again this morning.

The Pink-footed Geese were rather jumpy this morning. Something disturbed them, although we couldn’t see what it was, and about 10,000 birds took off and filled the skies. It was an impressive sight, and sound. A small number flew off over our heads, but most settled straight back down on the grass. A little group landed much closer and we got them in the scope. We could see their pink-legs and feet in the short grass, glowing in the morning sunlight, as well as their small, dark bills with a narrow band of pink.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese – there were thousands in the fields still this morning

A large white bird came up out of the reeds in the distance, in front of Washington Hide. A Great White Egret, it circled round but quickly dropped back down again behind the line of sallows. A very pale buzzard flew over, flashing a white base to the tail as it disappeared off towards the Park, but it was just the regular pale Common Buzzard which can usually be found hanging around here, rather than something rarer.

As we made our way up to the pines, a big flock of Lapwings flew up from the grazing marshes over towards Wells. There were lots Curlews out here too, on the fields beyond The Lookout café, although it is rather hard to see past the new building! Walking along the boardwalk through the trees, we flushed several Jays from the ground which flew up into the pines.

Out on the saltmarsh the other side, a small group of Brent Geese were feeding in the short vegetation. We stopped to look at them, all the regular Dark-bellied Brent Geese, here for the winter from their breeding grounds in Siberia. We could see a good number of stripy-backed juveniles in with the adults, suggesting it was a better breeding season in 2018 than it had been last year.

We walked east on the path on the edge of the saltmarsh. As the new cordoned off area came into view, we spotted a large flock of small birds whirling around out in the middle. They were Snow Buntings, we could see the white flashing in their wings as they turned, at least 60 of them. They landed back down on the open sand at the far end of the cordon, so we made our way over for a closer look.

When we got to the fence, we noticed some other birds moving about on the edge of the vegetation out in the middle, the Shorelarks, just what we were hoping to see here today. They were very well camouflaged, and hard to see until they moved, but through the scope we could see their yellow faces and black bandit masks. Smart birds!

Shorelarks

Shorelarks – there were at least 7 already out on the saltmarsh when we arrived

There were at least seven Shorelarks already here, possibly more hiding in the vegetation beyond. Scarce winter visitors here from Scandinavia, this is one of the best places in the country to see them.

The Snow Buntings were very flighty, as usual, and the next thing we knew they flew back over and landed on the sandy path ahead of us. They were feeding along the edge of the dunes, on the tideline, presumably looking for seedheads washed up from the saltmarsh. It looked like they might come straight past us, but then they were off again.

Once we had finished admiring the Shorelarks, we set off towards the beach. The Snow Buntings had landed again on the sand at the far end of the cordon and seemed completely unfazed by us walking past. We could see a variety of different shades, some much paler, whiter birds, some browner – a diverse mixture of ages and sexes, as well as birds from both the Scandinavian and Icelandic races.

Snow Buntings

Snow Bunting – just part of the big flock at Holkham at the moment

The tide was out, which meant there was quite a bit of beach between us and the sea. There were lots of gulls and Oystercatchers down by the sea, and several Cormorants drying their wings on the sandbar beyond. A large flock of Sanderlings whirled round on the shoreline off to the east.

Scanning the sea, we could see several Guillemots on the water, their white faces catching the light. A much larger bird was swimming just offshore beyond the sandbar, a Great Northern Diver. Similarly black above and white below, we could see its large dagger of a bill and black half collar.

There were a few ducks on the sea too, but they were a long way offshore today. We got a distant flock of Common Scoter in the scope, and could see the pale cheeks and dark caps of the females and young birds. One of the scoter flapped its wings and flashed a white panel, a Velvet Scoter, but it was impossible to pick out of the flock on the sea at that distance and unfortunately it didn’t repeat the wing-flap which singled it out from the others. A female Red-breasted Merganser much closer in was much easier to see.

There were several Great Crested Grebes on the sea too, black and white too but much longer-necked than the diver. Then we picked up two much smaller Slavonian Grebes just off the beach a long way off to the west around the bay. We had a look at them through the scope and thought about walking over to get a bit closer but it would probably have meant getting wet feet so thought better of it!

It had been a very productive couple of hours at Holkham, and we still had an hour before we had to pick up someone else in Wells. We decided to pop into the woods there for a quick look to see if we could find any redpolls – they are very mobile and consequently very hit and miss, so they would either be there or not!

The Brent Geese were starting to gather on the old Pitch & Putt course along Beach Road as we drove past. As we walked into the woods, a couple of Little Grebes were on the edge of the reeds on the boating lake, with some Tufted Ducks over towards the back.

It was very quiet at first, as we made our way through the trees, just the odd Robin or Wren calling, and one or two Blackbirds. As we approached the Dell though, we could hear Redpolls calling quietly, and we looked up into the birches ahead of us to see several of them feeding on catkins in the tops. They were against the light here and hard to see clearly, but the more we looked the more we could see. There appeared to be at least fifty of them in total.

We walked quietly underneath them and up onto the dune the other side, where the light was better. From here, we could see they were mostly Mealy Redpolls (the Scandinavian race of Common Redpoll), and we had a good view of several through the scope, including one male with a lovely pinky-red wash on its breast. A smaller, browner one with them was a Lesser Redpoll.

The Redpolls were mobile, moving through the trees, and it was impossible to get a good look at all of them from any one point. They were busily feeding on the catkins and we could see showers of chaff falling like snow from the birches. We couldn’t see any sign of an Arctic Redpoll from here though, so we moved round again to get a different angle and try some other trees.

It took a bit of searching, but eventually we found a much paler Redpoll in with the others. Through the scope, as it moved, we could see it had a plain white rump and thick undertail coverts with a single narrow dark streak. It was the Arctic Redpoll we had been looking for. More specifically, it was a Coues’s Arctic Redpoll, the race we get most often here, also from Scandinavia but from further north than the Mealies. We all managed to get a good look at it before it moved back into the tops. Then suddenly the flock erupted from the trees and flew off.

Coues's Arctic Redpoll

Coues’s Arctic Redpoll – we eventually found one in with the Mealy Redpolls

We still had enough time to walk a quick loop around the far side of the Dell, but we couldn’t find any sign of a tit flock in here today. Then it was back up to Wells to pick up the other member of the group. After a quick break for lunch in the pub in Stiffkey, we carried on east along the coast road to Cley.

We didn’t have enough time to explore the reserve at Cley today, but we wanted to have a quick look at the sea. A Common Buzzard was perched on a post by the Beach Road, and another large flock of Brent Geese was feeding out in the Eye Field. From up on the shingle, it didn’t take long to find our target here – a Red-throated Diver. There were actually quite a few here, mostly a long way offshore, but we eventually got a decent view of one through the scope. There were several Guillemots offshore too.

As we made our way back along Beach Road, we looked across to see all the ducks flush off the reserve. A Marsh Harrier was flying over and had spooked them, surprisingly the first we had seen today. We headed round to Blakeney, and as we pulled up we noticed a male Stonechat on the brambles on the edge of the grazing marshes, right next to where we had parked.

Stonechat

Stonechat – feeding on the edge of the grazing marshes

We were hoping to catch a Barn Owl out here this afternoon, and as we stopped to look at the Stonechat, one flew across the grazing marsh right in front of us. A very good start! It headed off towards the seawall, so we walked round that way to see if we could find it again.

Despite the fact they don’t count, it is impossible not to admire some of the captive ducks and geese in the rather random wildfowl collection by Blakeney Harbour. The large gull on the platform here was also an oddity – with a darker mantle than a Herring Gull, but lighter than a Lesser Black-backed Gull, and odd pinky-yellow legs, it is a Lesser Black-backed x Herring Gull hybrid. It is a regular here, coming back each winter, to take advantage of the food put out for the ducks.

Lesser Black-backed x Herring Gull

Lesser Black-backed x Herring Gull hybrid – the regular bird at the duck bird

Out on the seawall, there was no further sign of the Barn Owl. A Curlew was feeding on the sand on the far side of the channel. Several Marsh Harriers were circling out over the reeds in the middle of the Freshes, gathering to roost, and a couple more were having a last patrol out over the saltmarsh. One Marsh Harrier landed in a bush, where we could get it in the scope.

Their high-pitched yelping calls announced a group of Pink-footed Geese coming up off the grazing marshes. We looked across to see several hundred more hiding out in the grass. As we walked out along the seawall, more and more of them took off and headed off inland.

Out over the saltmarsh, a flock of about twenty small birds flew up and circled round, their distinctive bouncy flight helping to identify them as Linnets. From the corner of the bank, we stopped to scan the open mud. There were lots of waders out here, a mixture of small Dunlin running around, larger Grey Plover and Redshank, and larger still Black-tailed Godwits and Curlew, all with different shaped bills and different feeding actions. There were lots of Shelduck too.

It was a great view as the sun set behind the clouds away to the south-west as we walked out, but with the shortest day tomorrow, the light started to go quickly now. We started to make our way back. As we looked across to the far side of the Freshes, we could see another Barn Owl hunting as it came up from behind the reeds. It was a long way off though.

We thought the Barn Owl might come round to our side, but it turned and went back the other way. As we stopped and watched it, we could hear Bearded Tits from the reeds nearby, although they typically kept themselves tucked well down out of the wind. It was time to call it a day, so we made our way back to the car. We had enjoyed a good day out today – let’s see what else tomorrow brings.

28th Oct 2018 – Autumn Weekend, Day 2

Day 2 of a weekend of Autumn Tours today. It was much better weather today – mostly bright, even sunny at times, though with one or two squally showers we mostly managed to miss and cold in the still blustery NE wind.

With the wind coming in off the continent overnight, we headed down to Wells Woods first, so see what it might have brought us. As we passed the boating lake, we could see several Little Grebes out on the water and one seemed to be laughing at us (their call sounds like mad laughter!).

Armed with a tip off about a vocal Yellow-browed Warbler a short distance along the track, we went to look for it. As we walked along, we could hear the teezing calls of Redwings and the chucking of Blackbirds in the bushes. A large flock of Redpolls, 40-50 strong, flew out of the birches by the boating lake and circled overhead. We could hear the Yellow-browed Warbler calling from deep in a large sallow clump as we approached, but it was immediately clear it would be a devil to see here.

Walking into the trees, round the back of the sallows, we flushed tons of Blackbirds and Redwings – there had clearly been a sizeable arrival of them overnight, birds arriving from the continent for the winter. There were Redpolls in the trees here too, and we watched several rich brown-toned Lesser Redpolls as they dropped out of the birches and into a large hawthorn in front of us.

Round by the Dell, we could hear tits calling in the trees – Blue, Great and Coal Tits, but surprisingly no Long-tailed Tits with them. There were Goldcrests everywhere here, flicking about in the trees, low down in the briars, in every bush. There had clearly been a big arrival of Goldcrests too – amazing to think that these tiny birds, weighing about the same as a 20p piece, can make it all the way across the North Sea.

Goldcrest

Goldcrest – there had clearly been a big arrival overnight

There is a more open area, with lots of hawthorns, which is normally good for thrushes when they have just come in, but it was disappointingly quiet today. With the bright weather, there were lots of people out walking in the woods this morning and lots of dogs running round, so perhaps they had all been flushed from here already.

Making our way back into the birches, we managed to locate a second Yellow-browed Warbler, even though it wasn’t calling. This time we got a good look at it, flitting around in the branches of the trees. We could see its striking pale supercilium and two pale wing bars.

Yellow-browed Warbler

Yellow-browed Warbler – we managed to get a good look at the second one this morning

Yellow-browed Warblers are very much an expected feature of autumn in here these days, but amazing to think these small birds make it all the way here from their breeding groups over towards the Urals, on their way south for the winter. There were a couple of Chiffchaffs in the trees here too.

Continuing on towards the drinking pool, the trees by the path here were also full of Goldcrests. But the bushes round the drinking pool itself were quiet. While we walked through, we did hear a Crossbill calling and looked up to see a nice red male flying over the tops of the pines, disappearing off east. Having only had brief views of them earlier, we decided to head back and see if we could get a better look at the Redpolls next. Several Siskins flew back and forth overhead calling on the way.

Approaching the Dell meadow, someone waved to call us over and told us that a Barn Owl had been hunting over the grass. We stood for a minute and looked, but there was no sign of it now. However, we did see a couple of people walk out of the trees at the far side, and stop to look up into the birches above them. We could see they were looking at a small group of Redpolls, so we walked over to join them.

Lesser Redpoll

Lesser Redpoll – small and rather rich brown in colouration

The five or six Redpolls closest to us, lower down in the front of the birch, were obvious Lesser Redpolls. They are smaller and darker, more richly coloured, tawny brown on the back with a brighter brown wash on the breast. The three Redpolls higher up were larger and paler. They were mostly facing us and we assumed at first they were all Mealy Redpolls, migrants from further north in Scandinavia.

One of the paler Redpolls was lurking deeper in the branches, so we concentrated on looking at the others first. Then the third bird turned and we could see it looked rather pale frosty above, buff and white-toned on the back rather than grey-brown. It also appeared to have a rather bright white wingbar too.

It climbed higher up and came out where we could get a better look at it. It was face on to us again, but it did look very pale, with more limited streaking on the flanks than the neighbouring Mealy Redpoll and with a pale creamy, chamois wash on the face and breast. It found a catkin to feed on and hung on it above us – we could see the white feathers underneath looked thick and densely padded and it had just a single, narrow dark streak in the middle of its undertail coverts.

Surely it was an Arctic Redpoll? We trained the scope on it, hoping it would turn and we might see the diagnostic white rump. It fed for a minute or two, hanging on the catkin, but then something spooked it and it disappeared into the trees. It looked good, but without seeing the rump, we just didn’t have enough to be 100% sure.

Arctic Redpoll

Coues’s Arctic Redpoll – it’s identity was confirmed the following day

We waited a while to see if the Redpolls would return to the birches where they had been feeding. We were rewarded with the Barn Owl, which reappeared, and started quartering the meadow in front of us. Great views in the sunshine! It landed in one of the trees for a few minutes, where we could get it in the scope, before resuming the hunt.

Barn Owl

Barn Owl – hunting over the Dell Meadow

The Barn Owl flew back into the trees and landed in an area of sparser birches. It seemed to be looking down into the grass below, looking for prey – an unusual place for a Barn Owl to hunt. Then it disappeared on through the trees.

A couple of Bramblings appeared in the tops of the birches, along with one or two Redwings. Two Lesser Redpolls chased through the trees and appeared to go down to drink, but there was no sign of any more Redpolls coming back to feed on the edge. We could still hear them feeding in the tops of the denser birches beyond, but apart from seeing the odd one or two at any time, they were impossible to get a good look at in here.

Postscript – it felt like that would be the end of the story, as we decided to move on. However, on Monday morning, after several hours chasing round after the Redpoll flock, we were able to confirm that there was indeed at least one Coues’s Arctic Redpoll in with them. A nice post-tour confirmation and a great late addition to the day’s list!

As we walked back to the car, the Barn Owl was still hunting, flying around between the trees where the wood is a bit more open. A pair of Bullfinches also perched up briefly in the hawthorns, piping to each other plaintively, before disappearing in.

From Wells, we headed west to Holme. As we got out of the car by the golf course, we could hear Redwings, Song Thrushes and Blackbirds calling in the trees. A Fieldfare tchacked noisily too and a steady stream of small flocks of Starlings flew overhead, on their way west. All fresh arrivals from the continent, coming in for the winter.

As we walked out over the golf course, it was very busy – lots of people, and lots of dogs, out enjoying the morning sunshine. We were hoping to find a small group of Shorelarks, which has been feeding on the beach here, but with so much disturbance, it didn’t look promising.

When we got up to the top of the beach, we stopped to scan the sea. A Great Crested Grebe was out on the water and a winter-plumage Red-throated Diver was diving as it made its way east just off the beach. There were lots of waders on the wet sand – Bar-tailed Godwits, Knot, Sanderling, Grey Plover and Turnstones. Two Ringed Plovers flew past.

There were some threatening dark clouds just offshore, although they looked like they might miss us. Just in case, we thought we should have a quick look for the Shorelarks now. As they had apparently been feeding that way yesterday, we set off east along the high tideline. As we walked past, several Rock Pipits and Skylarks came up from the saltmarsh just behind the beach. It started to spit with rain briefly, which at least had the advantage of encouraging most of the other people to head back in for cover!

We hadn’t gone too far before we found the Shorelarks, feeding on the top of the beach some distance ahead of us. They were heading away, but we stopped and had a quick look at them through the scope. We were planning to try to walk up a little closer, but before we had a chance they took off and flew towards us. They came right over us, calling softly, and landed on the beach back where we had just been. There were six of them – an extra two, as only four had been reported earlier.

Shorelark

Shorelark – there were six at Holme today

We walked back and found the Shorelarks feeding on the tideline in a sandy slack in the dunes. We got them in the scope, and had some good views. We could see their yellow faces and black bandit masks and collars. A walker came along the shoreline and flushed them, but the Shorelarks flew towards us and landed even closer, even better views. They fed here for a few minutes and they were off again. flying off along the beach behind us.

It was time for lunch, so we headed round to Titchwell and made use of the picnic tables, out of the wind. Afterwards, we headed out to explore the reserve. The feeders by the visitor centre held just a few Chaffinches and Goldfinches, but we could hear Bramblings calling in the alders by the main path. We looked up to see two Bramblings feeding above us. There was a tit flock working its way through the trees here too, but we couldn’t find anything different in with the tits.

The dried-up Thornham grazing marsh ‘pool’ was fairly devoid of life – just a single Redshank and a Pheasant. The reedbed pool held just a few Coots and Mallards today, so we continued quickly on to Island Hide. Just before we got to the access ramp, we looked down at the mud in the corner below the path and noticed a Grey Wagtail feeding on the edge of the water. They are not common here, so this was presumably a migrant stopping off on its way.

Grey Wagtail

Grey Wagtail – feeding on the mud by Island Hide

From the shelter of Island Hide, we stopped to scan the Freshmarsh. A winter adult Ruff was feeding on the mud just outside the hide, next to an adult Dunlin still moulting out of breeding plumage, still sporting a rather spotty black belly patch. There were more Dunlin and Ruff on the islands further back.

Ruff

Ruff – an adult in non-breeding plumage

There were still five Avocets on here today. A small number normally try to stay through the winter, while most of the other decide to head south instead. There were a few Black-tailed Godwits too, mostly asleep on the islands. Two Golden Plover were tucked in on the edge of the vegetation but were spooked when all the ducks took off and flew off.

There are plenty of ducks on here now, mostly Wigeon and Teal, as more return from their northern breeding grounds . More of the drake Teal are emerging from eclipse now and regaining their smart breeding plumage. The drake Wigeon on average are a little behind them. The Brent Geese are returning too, as we saw yesterday, and small groups kept dropping in to the Freshmarsh to drink or bathe, from the saltmarsh beyond.

Teal

Teal – many of the drakes are getting back into their smart breeding plumage now

A sharp call alerted to an incoming pipit, but we were in the other part of the hide so didn’t see it come in. We eventually found it, feeding along the edge of the reeds to the side of the hide. Normally we might expect it to be a Water Pipit on here, but this was a Rock Pipit, rather oily brown above and heavily streaked and blotched below. A Water Rail put in a brief appearance next to it, but quickly disappeared back into the reeds. A Marsh Harrier circled over the reedbed.

The wind picked up as a squally shower came in off the sea. It mostly missed us, passing inland to the west, but it did rain for a few minutes. We sat it out in the hide. Once it had cleared through, we decided to head round towards Parrinder Hide for a change of scene, but once we got up onto the main path the wind had dropped a bit too and it looked OK ahead of us, so we continued straight out towards the beach.

As we walked past Volunteer Marsh, a couple of close Black-tailed Godwits were feeding in the channel just below the bank. There were more Redshanks on the mud in the wider channel at the far end, along with a single Grey Plover which we got in the scope.

When we got to the beach, the tide was out but we stopped on the edge of the dunes to scan the sea. We could see a line of Common Scoter flying way out in front of the wind turbines and a couple of juvenile Gannets making their way past, but otherwise the sea was quite choppy and we couldn’t see much out on the water.

There were lots of waders out on the mussel beds – mostly Oystercatchers, Curlew and godwits. A Marsh Harrier drifted along the shoreline and over the mussel beds, causing pandemonium and flushing waders. Even though the wind had dropped a bit, it was still breezy and cold out here, so we decided to head back to shelter.

We stopped in at Parrinder Hide. With the clocks having gone back last night, it was getting dark early today and the gulls were already gathering to roost. We had a good look through them, to see if anything different had come in, but all we could see were the usual Black-headed, Common, Lesser Black-backed, Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls.

A couple of geese walked across in front of the hide – a single Pink-footed Goose following a lone Greylag, giving a nice comparison. The Pink-footed Goose was one of the two injured birds, with a mangled wing, which has been here all year, though there was no sign of the second today. A flock of Golden Plovers, circled over calling and dropped down onto the mud amongst the ducks.

It was time to start heading back now. As we walked back along the path, a Cetti’s Warbler was practicing its song from the bushes in the reedbed, nice to hear them back as the population here was devastated by the cold weather earlier in the year. We had seen small flock of Starlings flying west all day, but now a huge flock of at least 1,000 birds came over and disappeared on west.

As we got back to the trees, there seemed to be a burst of activity as Blackbirds and thrushes started spiralling up out of the trees. They circled overhead, seemingly getting their bearings, before heading off into the gathering gloom. Having rested up here for the day, they were now looking to continue on their journey. An amazing thing to watch.

As we made our way back, there was one last surprise in store. A shape on the roof of a barn, silhouetted against the last of the light, caught our eye. A quick U-turn confirmed it was a Little Owl. We stopped and wound down the windows. It dropped into a roof vent but stayed perched half in where we could see it watching us. A lovely end to the day and en exciting Autumn weekend.

Little Owl

Little Owl – perched on a barn at dusk on our way back

19th Dec 2017 – Border Crossing

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

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

Great Northern Diver 1

Great Northern Diver 2

Great Northern Diver 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coues's Arctic Redpoll 1

Coues's Arctic Redpoll 2

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

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

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

Coues's Arctic Redpoll 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

18th Feb 2017 – Late Winter Birding, Day 2

Day 2 of a three day long weekend of Late Winter Birding tours today, and we spent the day in North Norfolk. It was forecast to be dull and cloudy all day, but thankfully we were treated to some long spells of sunshine, great winter weather to be out birding. There was still a bit of a chill in the brisk SW wind though – it is February after all!

As we made our way down towards the coast, a Red Kite circled lazily through the trees beside the road. We flushed a Common Buzzard out of the trees too, as we stopped, which flew away across the fields. A dead Brown Hare lay on the tarmac, which was obviously being eyed up by the local raptors. We watched as the Red Kite turned over the trees, twisting its tail like a rudder, before it too reluctantly drifted away, leaving behind its potential meal.

Our first destination was Holkham. There were lots of ducks on the pools alongside Lady Anne’s Drive – Wigeon, Shoveler and Teal. However, there were no Pink-footed Geese here today. Numbers of geese are now falling as the birds have started to make their way back north again after the winter.

Parking at the north end of the road, we made our way out through the pines and onto the saltmarsh. There were several birders making their way back along the sandy path who told us that our quarry was ahead. Shorelarks. The birds had been harried and chased around by a photographer, who was just leaving as we arrived, and they were rather skittish and unsettled initially.

They had been mostly keeping to the longer vegetation but when the Shorelarks were flushed by a loose dog and its associated walker, they flew round calling and landed on a more open area. We got them in the scope from a distance at first, and admired their canary yellow faces with black bandit masks, bright in the morning sunshine.

6o0a7241Shorelarks – their bright yellow faces catching the morning sun

6o0a7181Shorelarks – around 30 were still at Holkham this morning

The Shorelarks flew round again and settled near the path. We positioned ourselves nearby and waited patiently, rather than chasing in after them. Gradually, a small group, four of them, came out of the taller sea purslane towards us and started picking at the seedheads of the saltmarsh vegetation in front of us. We enjoyed some great close up views through the scope of them feeding. The poor Skylark singing its heart out in the sky high overhead was all but ignored until we realised that we could listen to one and watch the other, and enjoy both.

6o0a7266Shorelark – came to us as we waited patiently

The Shorelarks are winter visitors to the coast here, in very variable numbers. In recent years, only a very small number have typically made it here, but this winter has seen a resurgence. Early on in the winter, 70-80 were here at Holkham but they have now dispersed along the coast a little. Still, it was a real treat to see a flock of 30 here today.

After watching the Shorelarks for a while, we made our way over to the dunes and had a look out to sea. A drake Red-breasted Merganser we got in the scope was asleep but a drake Goldeneye was awake, its glossy green head catching the sunlight. Several Great Crested Grebes were mostly rather distant, but a winter plumage Red-throated Diver was diving just off the beach. Between dives, everyone eventually got a really good look at it through the scope.

After a great start to the morning, we made our way back to Lady Anne’s Drive. The lure of a hot drink at the coffee van proved too strong and we drank it by the picnic tables looking out over the marshes. There was a lot of action here. As well as all the Wigeon and Woodpigeons, a pair of Mistle Thrushes were feeding out on the grass, amongst the molehills. The sunshine had brought the raptors out and at least four Common Buzzards circled over us.We had failed to find any Pink-footed Geese on the grass by the drive earlier, but a flock of about 50 flew in from the west and landed on the marshes, though unfortunately behind a hedge where we couldn’t get a clear look at them.

6o0a7274Common Buzzard – several circled over Lady Anne’s Drive in the sunshine

Three large white shapes circled up out of the trees in the middle of the marshes. With their long necks held outstretched in front and long legs trailing behind, we could see they were Spoonbills. They dropped down into the trees, but a few minutes later were up and circling again. They repeated this a couple of times more. The UK’s only colony of Spoonbill breed here so these were early returning birds presumably checking out the colony. Spring is definitely in the air!

We made our way round to the other end of the freshmarsh, closer to the trees, and it wasn’t long before the Spoonbills were up and circling again. We had a much improved view of them from here. Even better, when they landed back in the trees at one point, one was in view so we managed to get it distantly in the scope. We could see the yellow tip to its black spoon-shaped bill, confirming that it was an adult Spoonbill.

6o0a7322Spoonbills – early returning birds checking out the colony

Another large white bird out in the middle of the freshmarsh was a Great White Egret. Even without binoculars, we could see it was huge, with a long neck. Through the scope we could see its long, dagger-shaped yellow bill. There were also three Ruff feeding out on the grass around one of the pools. Several Marsh Harriers and Common Buzzards circled in the sunshine or perched around in the trees.

6o0a7339Marsh Harrier – a female, circling above the marshes

The other highlight here was the geese. Scattered across the grass, mixed in with the Greylags, we could see lots of White-fronted Geese. Smaller and darker than the Greylags, through the scope we could see their more delicate pink bills with distinctive white surrounds to the bases. We could also see the distinctive black belly bars on the adult White-fronted Geese. They should be on their way back north soon, back to northern Russia where they breed.

img_0760White-fronted Geese – there were still a good number at Holkham today

From here, we also finally managed to find some Pink-footed Geese on the ground and in view. There were just two of them, but they were handily with a couple of Greylags for comparison. Again, the Pink-footed Geese were smaller and darker, particularly dark on the head and neck, with a more delicate dark bill. Through the scope we could see the pink legs and pink bank around the bill. There were also a couple of Egyptian Geese out on the grass, just to round off the goose selection nicely.

Leaving Holkham, we made our way west. Our next stop was at Brancaster Staithe, where the tide was on its way out. There was a nice selection of waders feeding around the harbour. We had a good look at some Bar-tailed Godwits, noting the dark streaks on their pale buff-coloured upperparts an the long but slightly uptilted bill.

6o0a7360Bar-tailed Godwit – showed well at Brancaster Staithe

Lots of Turnstones and several Oystercatchers were picking around the piles of discarded mussels on the shoreline. A couple of Grey Plovers were picking around on the mud, and a group of smaller Dunlin were feeding feverishly in the shallow water.

It was lunchtime when we arrived at Titchwell, so we made our way to the picnic area. We had been intending to sit at the picnic tables, but we didn’t get a chance! First of all, we heard a Goldcrest singing and walked over to see it flitting around in the bare sallows right by the path. There were lots of Goldfinches twittering high in the alders and then a pair of Siskin appeared with them. The male fed in the top of one of the trees in the sunshine for a minute or so, where we could get a good look at it.

Then one of the group spotted another bird in the top of the same alder. It was hanging on one of the outer branches, picking at the cones. It was much paler and browner, and when it turned to face us we could see that it had a small red patch on its forehead and a bright pinkish red wash across its breast. A Mealy Redpoll and a smart male too. When it climbed around reaching for the cones, we could see it had a distinctive pale whitish rump streaked with black.

6o0a7398Mealy Redpoll – feeding in one of the alders opposite the picnic area

After lunch, we headed out onto the reserve. We had a quick look at the feeders the other side of the visitor centre, but at first there were no birds. Gradually, they started to reappear – Chaffinches, Greenfinches, Goldfinches and tits. Finally a Brambling flew in and joined them. It was a female, with greyish head and a pale orange wash across the breast and shoulders contrasting with the white belly.

6o0a7430Brambling – a female on the feeders by the visitor centre

On the walk out along the main path, we had a quick look in the ditches either side but could not see a Water Rail – we resolved to have another look on the way back. The grazing meadow dry ‘pool’ was rather quiet again, but the reedbed pool the other side held a small group of Common Pochard, along with the regular Mallards and Coot. We stopped to have a look around the reeds. There had been a Bittern feeding in one of the channels yesterday, but there was no sign of it this afternoon. However, we did find a Kingfisher perched in the edge of the reeds.

The water level on the freshmarsh is still rather high, although a few small islands have started to reappear. This is continuing to prove popular with the wildfowl, and there were good numbers of Teal on here still today, as well as a selection of Shoveler, Gadwall and Wigeon. A large flock of Brent Geese flew in from over towards Brancaster and dropped in for a wash and a drink.

The number of Avocets is now starting to increase again. They were mostly sleeping by one of the smaller islands, until everything was spooked and they flew round flashing black and white as they twisted and turned. A small group of Knot and Dunlin were bathing on one of the other small islands. The larger fenced-off island was absolutely packed with Golden Plover and Lapwing.

6o0a7468Avocets – numbers are increasing again as birds return after the winter

The mud on the Volunteer Marsh is proving a more attractive feeding ground for waders and there was a nice selection on here again today. A lone Ringed Plover looked very smart in the scope, with the black and white rings around its head and neck. A Grey Plover was looking very pale in the sunshine. There were lots more Knot and Dunlin on here, plus a few Curlew and Black-tailed Godwit.

As we made our way over to the bank at the far side of the Volunteer Marsh, one of the group spotted a Water Rail scuttling into the vegetation right below the bank. We waited and eventually it showed itself again briefly. We thought it might work its way all the way along beneath us, but when it came to a more open area it stood lurking in the vegetation for a couple of minutes before thinking better of it and heading back in the better hidden direction from whence it came.

6o0a7478Water Rail – lurking in the bushes on the edge of the Volunteer Marsh

Out at the Tidal Pools, there were a couple of nice close Black-tailed Godwits. Conveniently, a Bar-tailed Godwit was also nearby, giving us a chance to compare the two. We could see the buffier upperparts of the latter, extensively streaked with black, compared to the plainer, duller grey Black-tailed Godwit. The Bar-tailed Godwit was also noticeably smaller and shorter legged, with a distinct upturn to its bill compared to the straighter billed Black-tailed Godwit.

6o0a7489Black-tailed Godwit – showing very well on the Tidal Pools

Next stop was the beach. As soon as we came through the dunes, we could see a huge raft of scoter out on the sea, several thousands strong. It looked like a massive black oil slick across the water. Periodically, parts of the raft would take off and fly a short distance and in flight we could see that the vast majority of these birds had all black wings, making them Common Scoter.

Closer in, we could see some smaller rafts of scoter and through the scope we could see they were made up of a nice mixture of Common Scoter and Velvet Scoter, including at least 30 of the latter. Several of the Velvet Scoter were conveniently holding their wings loosely folded, which meant that we could see the white wing patch as a white stripe across their sides. Others had more distinctive twin white spots on their faces, very different from the pale cheeks of the female Common Scoter.

Two Long-tailed Duck flew across and landed on the sea next to one of the closer scoter rafts. We managed to get them in the scope, but they were hard to see against the water, which was also a bit choppier now than it had been this morning. While we were trying to get everyone to get a look at them, they flew again and disappeared.

It is very mild at the moment for February, but out of the sun in the lee of the dunes, and with the chill in the wind, several of the group were getting cold. With the sun already starting to sink in the sky, we decided to call it a day and make our way back.

There were still some more things to see. Scanning along the channel on the north edge of the Volunteer Marsh, a much paler wader caught our eye. It was a Spotted Redshank in silvery grey and white winter plumage. It walked across the mud and dropped down into the deep channel in the middle. Thankfully we picked it up again walking towards us in the channel and then it climbed out again onto the mud.

As we walked past the freshmarsh, all the waders took flight. They seemed to be especially jumpy this afternoon. We stood and watched the Golden Plover and Lapwing wheeling in the sky over the water, and then a large group of Golden Plover flew towards us and right overhead – we could hear the beating of their wings.

We had failed to find the Water Rail in the ditch by the path on the way out, but on our way back it was feeding down in the bottom, under an overhanging tree. We got a good look at it through the branches, probing around in the rotting leaves. A nice way to end the day, then it was back to the car and time to head for home.

22nd Jan 2017 – Winter Birds & Owls, Day 3

Day 2 of a three day long weekend of Winter & Owl Tours, our final day. Once again, it was a frosty start and then a gloriously sunny winter’s day, great weather for being out. We headed up to north-west Norfolk today.

Our first destination was Titchwell, but on the way there we spotted a large flock of Brent Geese in a field beside the road. The winter wheat was coated with frost and they were huddled together in a tight group. We stopped for a quick look – they looked quite smart in the early sunshine.

6o0a4152Brent Geese – huddled together in a tight flock on a frosty morning

The car park at Titchwell wasn’t too full yet. A couple of Long-tailed Tits appeared on the sunny edge of the trees opposite as we parked up. Then we made our way down to the visitor centre. There were not too may birds on the feeders yet, a few tits and a Goldfinch or two, but more action below where several Moorhens, Blackbirds, Dunnocks and Chaffinches were tidying up the spillage.

There were a few birds up in the alders nearby, mostly Goldfinches. But a careful look through revealed a Redpoll. It was quickly joined by three more. We got them in the scope and confirmed they were Mealy Redpolls, quite pale around the face, grey brown above with prominent pale lines down the middle of their mantles and, when they hung upside down and parted their wings, we could see the pale ground colour to their rumps. One was a smart male, with a lovely pink wash on its breast, in addition to the darker red poll on the front of its head.

img_0081Mealy Redpoll – four were feeding in the alders by the visitor centre

img_0098Mealy Redpoll – one of the four was a very smart pink-breasted male

When the Mealy Redpolls flew back away from us through the trees, we set off onto the reserve. A careful look in the ditch by the path revealed a Water Rail. We watched it for a while, digging in the leaf litter on the side before running further along in the water in the bottom. While we were standing there, a Sparrowhawk zoomed low through the trees only a few metres in front of us.

6o0a4234Water Rail – in the ditch by the main path

As we came out of the trees, the reserve was quite a picture, with the low winter sun catching on the tops of the reeds. A quick stop by the now dry again Thornham grazing marsh pool revealed a single Water Pipit feeding out on the mud. We had a good look at it before it wandered over to one side and disappeared into the rushes.

On the other side of the path, the reedbed pool was almost completely frozen. A pair of Mute Swans had managed to crack through the ice and created a small pool for themselves right in the middle. A Marsh Harrier circled up out of the reeds at the back. We heard a Cetti’s Warbler sing half-heartedly from the brambles in the reedbed and looked across just in time to see it fly down and disappear into the reeds.

The freshmarsh was also almost completely frozen. A Little Grebe was diving in the one area of open water around the tallest island over in the back corner. It was surrounded by ducks – Mallard, Gadwall and Teal – also trying to feed. More ducks were standing around in groups on the ice, sleeping.

A large flock of waders flew up from the fenced off island. We could hear Golden Plover calling and a couple of smaller groups broke away from the larger numbers of Lapwing and headed off inland. With the water levels still very high on here, there were not very many islands left poking out of the ice. A small muddy remnant over towards Parrinder Hide held three Ringed Plover, as well as a few Lapwing and a lone Golden Plover. Otherwise, that was about it for waders on here today, not a surprise given the ice.

6o0a4170Bar-tailed Godwit – our first of the day, on the Volunteer Marsh

There was more to see on the Volunteer Marsh, though that too was fairly icy today, despite the salinity of the water on there these days. A Bar-tailed Godwit seemed to be finding plenty of food in the mud, despite it sliding around on the ice. A couple of Knot down on the edge of the channel below the path were joined by two Dunlin, giving us a nice opportunity to compare them side by side. There were also a couple of Grey Plover and several Redshanks on here.

6o0a4184Knot – one of two along the edge of Volunteer Marsh today

More birds were hiding out on the Tidal Pools, which had not frozen. The Avocets had come on here from the freshmarsh, about 13 of them braving out the winter in Norfolk, and they were sleeping on the spit at the back. There were also more godwits on here, as well as a few more Bar-tailed Godwits there were a couple of close Black-tailed Godwits too, always good to get a chance to compare these two very similar species.

There were more duck on here than usual, lots of roosting Teal and Shoveler around the edges. Over towards the back, we could see several Pintail asleep too. The Little Grebes are always on here in the winter, but they were very close to the path today. We watched them diving, puffing out their feathers when they surfaced and then flattening them down again just before going back underwater.

6o0a4197Little Grebe – diving close to the main path on the Tidal Pools

Our main targets here today were out at the sea. We stood up in the dunes with the sun on our backs and scanned the water. There have been good numbers of sea duck here in recent weeks and counts have continued to climb in the last few days. They were a little distant today, but we were not disappointed. The first thing we saw were the Long-tailed Ducks. They were hard to count, as birds were diving constantly, but there were at least 100 all together in one enormous raft, probably more. In recent years, numbers of wintering Long-tailed Duck in Norfolk have been quite low, so to see this many together is a real treat.

Further out we could see a huge raft of scoter. They would be predominantly Common Scoter, but they were too far off to sort through properly. Thankfully, there was a long line of much closer birds. Again, they were mainly Common Scoter but looking through them carefully, we could see a good number of Velvet Scoter with them too. The female Common Scoter have extensive pale cheeks, but the female Velvet Scoter have two smaller white dots on their faces. On some, you could also see the white wing flash on the Velvet Scoter and one helpfully flew past, showing off the white patch in the wing perfectly.

In with the closer group of scoter was a single Scaup. It was a first winter drake, its upperparts now quite extensively grey as it gradually moults out of its brown juvenile plumage. We could also see a few Goldeneye scattered over the sea. Four Common Pochard flew round out over the rafts of seaduck, presumably looking for somewhere to go, with so much water inland frozen over.

There were plenty of Great Crested Grebe out on the water, but one of the reserve volunteers picked up a couple of smaller grebes with them, two Slavonian Grebes. We had hoped to see some divers too, but they were all rather distant. There were a few Red-throated Divers moving again, but eventually we located a single Black-throated Diver on the sea. Even if it was a long way off, we could see the distinctive white rear flank patch between dives.

That seemed like a great selection of birds for the sea, so we decided to make our way back. As we passed the Volunteer Marsh, a Kingfisher whizzed in from the saltmarsh and disappeared away over the mud, too fast for everyone to get onto. Thankfully, as we were almost back to the grazing marsh pool, another Kingfisher flew right past us and dropped down into one of the channels on the saltmarsh. Again, they were probably looking for places to feed with much of the fresh water frozen over.

There was a small crowd on the main path staring out at the saltmarsh, so we stopped to look. Down in the grass, we could see a Jack Snipe. They have a very distinctive feeding action – bobbing up and down all the time, as if their legs are on springs – so we knew immediately what it was. Through the scope, we had a great view of it.

img_0122Jack Snipe – feeding out on the edge of the saltmarsh

Then it was back to the car, stopping briefly to admire another Water Rail on the other side of the path to the one we had seen earlier this morning. There were also two Muntjac under the sallows and while we were looking at them, yet another Water Rail scurried past.

It was already lunchtime, but we decided to drive the short distance to Thornham Harbour and eat there. We couldn’t find any sign of the Twite around the harbour, but it was perhaps not a surprise as it was unusually busy here today, with lots of people out for a walk in the winter sunshine. We did hear a Spotted Redshank calling and turned in time to see it fly round over the saltmarsh and drop down out of view. Another Kingfisher was perched on a mud bank out along the edge of the harbour, glowing electric blue in the sun.

After lunch, we walked out along the bank towards Holme. When we got out to the dunes where we could look out over Broadwater, we were not surprised to find that it was mostly frozen. A few ducks, mostly Mallard and Gadwall, were sleeping around the edge of the reeds. There were more ducks further over, but the light was not so good from here – we were looking into the sun. Still, we could see a nice selection, including a few Tufted Ducks and Common Pochard. But there was no sign of the Ferruginous Duck from here, so we decided to walk round to the other side of Broadwater for a better look.

From round on the boardwalk by the NOA Car Park Hide, it didn’t take us long to find the Ferruginous Duck. It was asleep at first, over by the edge with all the other ducks, but we could see its distinctive rust-coloured body plumage and bright white undertail. Even with its head tucked in while sleeping, it would open its eye occasionally and we could see the white iris. Then it was disturbed by one of the Mallards and woke up, swimming out into the middle of the water to join the local Tufted Ducks. It didn’t stay there long and promptly swam back to the bank and went back to sleep.

img_0152Ferruginous Duck – woke up and swam out into the middle with the Tufted Ducks

Ferruginous Duck is a very scarce visitor to the UK, from southern Europe and further east. However, it is also a very common duck in captivity, and it is always hard to tell whether the ones which turn up here have come from the wild population or escaped from someone’s collection. Still, it is an interesting bird to see.

While we were watching the Ferruginous Duck, we could hear a Fieldfare calling. We looked round to see it perched in the top of a bush by the car park. We got it in the scope and had a look at it, but as soon as the camera came out, a Magpie hopped up through the bush and flushed it. It was a shame, as it looked very smart in the winter sunshine.

We walked back to the beach and stopped for a quick scan of the sea. One of the first birds we set eyes on was a Black-throated Diver. It was much closer than the one we had seen earlier at Titchwell. It was still hard to get everyone onto, as it was diving constantly, but we all got a really good look at it in the end. There was another first winter male Scaup off Holme too. We could also see quite a few Red-breasted Mergansers out on the water and a small group of Eider. A close-in Guillemot was nice to see too.

There were a few seals out to sea as usual. We could see a crowd gathered further along the beach to the east, on the edge of the water, but only when they moved round could we see that they had been surrounding a Grey Seal pup. We walked over and the crowd had largely dispersed as we arrived. The pup seemed to be breathing heavily and had shown no signs of moving when everyone had been so close to it, so we messaged one of the reserve wardens about it, just in case.

6o0a4240Grey Seal pup – on the beach at Holme

We left the seal pup on the beach and made our way back up through the dunes and along the seawall back to Thornham Harbour. There was still not sign of the Twite, but we did see a Greenshank in the harbour and a Stonechat perched on a bush by the seawall. Out across the grazing marshes, a Sparrowhawk was perched on a post in the distance.

The sun was already starting to sink in the sky and the temperature was dropping again. We made our way inland and started to drive round the farmland inland. We could see lots of Yellowhammers flying round in the hedges and so we pulled up in a convenient layby. In the small tree in the hedge nearby, we could see a single Corn Bunting – it was immediately obvious, given its much larger size. Then all the buntings flew and disappeared across the field behind the hedge.

We carried on our drive and eventually came to another place where lots of birds have been feeding in a plot planted with wild bird seed cover. The hedge beside the field was full of birds, masses of Reed Buntings and a good number of Yellowhammers too. We could hear Tree Sparrows calling and looked along the hedge to see several perched up with all the buntings, we counted at least eight there and at least another two calling in the hedge behind us. Tree Sparrows are an increasingly rare bird in southern Britain, so it was great to see them still clinging on here.

img_0160Buntings – the hedge was full of Reed Buntings and Yellowhammers

The birds in the hedge would gradually thin out, as they flew down into the field to feed. Then, periodically something would spook them and the field would erupt and everything would fly back to the hedge. When it did, we could see there were lots of Chaffinches here too, but they would fly up into the tops of the trees rather than into the hedge with the buntings.

It was great to watch all these birds – bringing back memories of how winter flocks in farmland used to be everywhere. But the light was starting to fade now as the sun began to set, so it was time to head for home, after a fantastic three days of winter birding.