Tag Archives: Mealy Redpoll

19th Dec 2017 – Border Crossing

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

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

Great Northern Diver 1

Great Northern Diver 2

Great Northern Diver 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coues's Arctic Redpoll 1

Coues's Arctic Redpoll 2

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

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

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

Coues's Arctic Redpoll 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

21st January 2016 – Winter Rarity Hunting

A Private Tour today. The mission was somewhat different to normal tours – with a concerted effort to find some of the lingering rarities which are around North Norfolk at the moment, as well as catching up with some of our scarcer wintering species. It was going to be an all action day!

It dawned very frosty and with a bit of lingering fog, although the sun was already doing its best to burn that off. We met in Wells and, after a quick look in the harbour on the way which didn’t produce anything noteworthy today, we made our way along to Holkham where we pulled in just off the road to scan the grazing marshes below.

We quickly located a good selection of geese. A long line of birds on the frozen grass beyond the hedge revealed themselves to be mostly White-fronted Geese, with an obvious white blaze around the base of their all-pink bills and orange legs. In with them, was a small group of Pink-footed Geese, very dark-headed with pink legs and a small, mostly dark bill with a pink band around it. There were also plenty of Greylag Geese too, much larger and paler with a large orange carrot of a bill, and a pair of Egyptian Geese.

IMG_5352White-fronted Geese – out on the frozen grass at Holkham

We could hear Pink-footed Geese calling and see odd groups flying back and forth in front of the pines, but it was only when we moved so that we could see round past the hedge and look out further over on the freshmarsh, that we could see just how many were out there.  Thousands of birds were huddled together out on the grass and around the frozen pools. The Pink-footed Geese roost on the marshes here and would normally fly inland to feed during the day, but perhaps the lingering fog and frost had caused them to stay this morning. They were quite a sight!

A careful scan of the marshes and a white shape was just visible half-hidden in the reeds towards the back. When it put its neck up, we could see through the scope that it was the Great White Egret that has been hanging around here for several months. It was hard to see well in the reeds, but thankfully it flew, first to a small area of marsh nearby and then across and into the trees where it perched on a branch in full view.

IMG_5353Great White Egret – flew up into the trees where it was easier to see

That was a great way to start, then we carried on west along the coast. With the remains of the fog burning off slowly, we made another stop at Brancaster Staithe to have a quick look in the harbour. A smart drake Red-breasted Merganser and a pair of Goldeneye were diving in the harbour channel. A little posse of Brent Geese were chattering noisily from the water’s edge, before flying off over the saltmarsh to feed.

P1150205Brent Geese – gathering in the harbour channel

There was a nice selection of waders on view here too. A group of Bar-tailed Godwits and Oystercatchers were roosting on the edge of the water, with a Curlew standing head and shoulders above them. Nearby, a Black-tailed Godwit gave a good opportunity to go through the key differences from the Bar-taileds. A couple of Grey Plovers were higher up on the mud. Where someone had hauled up and washed a load of Brancaster mussels, two Turnstones were picking around in the debris. Down on the sandbars in the channel, we could see several Redshanks but a Greenshank unfortunately only flew up briefly as a Marsh Harrier passed overhead, before dropping down out of sight again.

IMG_5365Bar-tailed Godwits & Oystercatchers – roosting in the harbour

The sun was now starting to come through more strongly, burning off the mist, so we decided to have a drive round via Choseley to see if we could find the Rough-legged Buzzard. Driving along the lane, we spotted a harrier working its way low along a hedge beyond, into the sun from us. It looked slim-built so we tried to catch up with it. As it dropped ahead of us along the side of the road, we got a flash of a white rump patch and it landed briefly, before continuing its journey east across the fields. We could confirm it was a Hen Harrier, a ringtail, working the hedges.

Scanning the hedges all around, we could see our first Buzzard but it was clearly too dark, a Common Buzzard. Over the other side of the road, two more Common Buzzards were perched up in the morning sun, and away in the distance beyond we could see yet another. They were all out warming up in the sunshine, but try as we might we could not find a Rough-legged Buzzard doing the same. We drove round to the corner south of the drying barns, were a couple of cars were just leaving. When we asked what they had seen, we were told they had been watching the Rough-legged Buzzard and, even better, it was still in view. Unfortunately, a quick look confirmed it was actually another Common Buzzard, looking rather pale-breasted in the morning sunshine, but not like a Rough-legged Buzzard should. We had a quick and unsuccessful drive round some of the Rough-legged Buzzard’s other favourite haunts and then decided to move on.

We had a particular request to try for the Pallid Harrier today, which has been gracing various sites around Norfolk since we first saw it back in mid-November. In recent weeks it has been seen inland, around the village of Flitcham, but it typically only makes intermittent flights over the fields here, before disappearing off to hunt elsewhere.

We arrived and stationed ourselves at one end of the fields where a small group were scanning the thick hedge and cover strip in front. There were lots of Chaffinches flying up and down from the field to the hedge and in with them we could see a few Bramblings. Three Yellowhammers flew into the hedge as well and perched up so we could get them in the scope. We could hear Tree Sparrows calling as well. The Pallid Harrier had made a pass over the stubble field here about twenty minutes before we arrived, so we waited hopefully for it to return.

Thankfully we hadn’t been waiting very long when we got a surprise. There were others looking out over the fields a short way further along the road, but they hadn’t shouted anything across to us. It was only when a minibus pulled up alongside that we were kindly informed that the Pallid Harrier was actually being watched in a tree over there! We hastened down and sure enough, there it stood. We got a great look at it in the scope.

IMG_5369Pallid Harrier – perched up in a tree at Flitcham

We were just making our way a little further along to join the crowd there for a closer view when it became clear it had taken off – apparently, someone had got a little too enthusiastic and had tried to go into the field, so scaring it off. Very helpful! It disappeared off over the fields beyond, so we had a quick look to see if it would loop round and do a circuit over the stubble again, but there was no sign of it. We had a number of other things we wanted to see today, and with our main target here achieved, we decided to move on.

As we walked along the road, we could hear Tree Sparrows calling again and when all the finches flew up into the hedge from the weedy strip beyond, we got a good view of a Tree Sparrow right in front of us. Historically a common farmland bird here, they are now getting very scarce and it is always nice to catch up with them. There were also lots of Bramblings in the hedge here too.

P1150210Brambling – lots were in the hedges at Flitcham

We made our way back towards the coast, and dropped down towards Titchwell via Choseley. We pulled up to talk to another birder in the layby where we had been earlier and were told the Rough-legged Buzzard had been reported again about half an hour earlier. A quick scan and there it was, perched in a tree in the distance. It really stood out with its striking pale head and contrasting black belly patch, very unlike the Common Buzzards we had seen earlier.

IMG_5375Rough-legged Buzzard – flashing its black-banded white tail in flight

We had a quick look through the scope, then drove round to get a better look. The Rough-legged Buzzard was still perched in the tree across the field in front of us, watching us. Then suddenly it dropped down and flew a short distance across the field, flashing its distinctive mostly white tail as it did so, before flying up into another tree. When it landed we could see why – it had joined another Rough-legged Buzzard which was already sitting there. Two Rough-legged Buzzards for the price of one! We had a fantastic view of them in the scope. In the end we had to tear ourselves away.

IMG_5389Rough-legged Buzzards – two sat in a tree together!

We had originally thought we might have a look at Titchwell, but a discussion about some of the other good birds along the coast led to a change of plan. With our luck running, we had seen most of the birds we had hoped to catch up with quite quickly, so we had time to play with. We hopped in the car and headed back east, all the way to Cley.

There has been a Grey Phalarope in the area for several days now and it had been showing this morning from the new Babcock Hide on what used to be Pope’s Marsh. We made our way out to the hide and as soon as we got in there, we could see everyone looking at the mud below. There was the Grey Phalarope, right in front of the hide. Stunning views!

P1150282Grey Phalarope – right in front of Babcock Hide

Grey Phalaropes are more often to be seen swimming, twirling in circles to stir up the water and picking for food brought to the surface, or even out on the sea. They are mostly pelagic in the winter, surviving out in the Atlantic, generally only forced in by adverse weather. This one had presumably been blown inshore by the storms we had last week, and had come in to feed up on the marshes.

The water levels have gone down on Watling Water, the new pool in front of Babacock Hide, for the first time. There was a great selection of other waders out on the exposed mud. There were lots of Dunlin, with three larger Knot in with them, down by the water’s edge – a good chance to see the two alongside. A good number of Ruff were feeding higher up the mud, along with a few Redshank. Around the edges of the islands, we could see a few Snipe, well camouflaged against the reeds.

There were several Pied Wagtails around the drier margins of the mud, along with a number of Meadow Pipits. Then, from behind one of the islands, a Water Pipit appeared with them. Larger than the Meadow Pipits, greyer brown and less streaked above and plainer, whiter below.

IMG_5399Water Pipit – feeding around the edge of Watling Water

Having seen what we wanted to see so quickly, and so well, we had time to try something else. We drove further along the coast to Weybourne to look for the flock of Redpolls which has been feeding in the fields here for some weeks now. However, the field was harvested a week or so back and when we arrived the few remaining weeds were quiet. We walked up and down the road briefly, but all we could find was a Grey Wagtail which flew up and landed on the wires above briefly. It seemed like our luck had finally run out.

We were just packing up to leave when a flock of about 20 small finches flew in and circled overhead, before dropping down and landing in the hedge nearby. They were Redpolls and we could just see around half of them perched in the top. They were mostly face on to us and several were clearly rather brown around the cheeks and even washed onto the upper breast, Lesser Redpolls. One was clearly different, very frosty around the cheeks and breast, contrasting strongly with the black chin and red ‘poll’, with no brown tones on the underparts and bolder black streaks on the flanks – this was a Mealy Redpoll. Another bird hopped up from lower down in the hedge, and perched back on. It was less distinctive than the first from this angle, but still had a grey (rather than brown) face and looked a rather cold grey brown above with a distinctive pale rump streaked through with black – another Mealy Redpoll.

Unfortunately, they didn’t stop long and flew off strongly west over the field. Still, we couldn’t believe our luck that they should just drop in for us like that. We wanted to end the day at the raptor roost, but we still had a little time to play with, so we drove back to Cley and stopped at the Visitor Centre.

A Red-necked Grebe has been around the reserve for the last few days and was reported from Pat’s Pool today – supposedly visible from the Visitor Centre. We had a quick scan from the car park, but couldn’t see it anywhere around the open water. With the water levels very high, four Avocets were huddled together on the edge of one of the few remaining islands. We decided to pop into the Visitor Centre and get a hot drink to go and use the facilities quickly. While we were waiting, the Red-necked Grebe suddenly appeared close to the bank, wrestling with a small fish. It was distant, but we could see it clearly through the scope.

IMG_5402Red-necked Grebe – a record shot, on Pat’s Pool today

It disappeared again, then as we returned to the car we could see it further out on the water, diving. We got a better look at it from the car park and it quickly became clear why it was hiding close to the edge. It caught another fish and immediately a Black-headed Gull flew over and started to harass it. The Red-necked Grebe dived, but when it resurfaced half way to the bank, the gull was after it again. This happened three times, before the Red-necked Grebe got over to the bank and finally swallowed its catch.

We finished the day at Warham Greens. There was a nice flock of Linnets and Yellowhammers in the hedge of the walk down to the front, with the odd Reed Bunting in with them. When we arrived, one of the first birds we saw was a Barn Owl which was hunting up and down over the rough grass on the edge of the saltmarsh.

P1150355Barn Owl – hunting along the front at Warham Greens

We had really come for the raptors. A couple of Marsh Harriers were circling over the back of the saltmarsh and a single ringtail Hen Harrier drifted in from the east, further back. In the end we saw 2-3 ringtail Hen Harriers, one flying closer across the saltmarsh and away inland, presumably for some last hunting, and another perched preening out in front of us. Then we picked up a Peregrine standing on a sandbar out on the beach. We just needed a Merlin to complete the set here and a careful scan of the saltmarsh eventually produced its reward, with one perched on the top of a bush. Then we decided to head back.

What a day! Pallid Harrier, two Rough-legged Buzzards, Grey Phalarope, Great White Egret, Red-necked Grebe, Water Pipit, Mealy Redpoll, plus a host of other good raptors, waders, geese, ducks and farmland birds. There aren’t many places you could see all of those – welcome to Norfolk in winter.

10th January 2016 – Bunting Bonanza

Day 3 of a long weekend of tours today, and we headed the other way up to the eastern side of the North Norfolk coast. It was a slightly cloudy start to the day, but quickly brightened up to glorious winter sunshine.

We headed along the coast to Blakeney first and walked out along the seawall, with the Freshes on one side and the harbour on the other. There were lots of Brent Geese feeding along the edge of the harbour channel. A large flock of Linnets was whirling round, before dropping down onto the edge of the saltmarsh. A pair of Stonchats perched up on the top of the vegetation on the edge of the Freshes.

We stopped overlooking the harbour. The tide had gone out quickly, but we could still see a pair of Red-breasted Mergansers in the channel. Out on the mudflats were lots of waders – lots of Oystercatchers, Bar-tailed Godwits, Dunlins, Grey Plovers and Redshanks, plus a couple of Turnstones.

We had really come to look for the Lapland Buntings. There have been a handful here on and off since mid December, but they seem to roam over quite an area. There were a few people standing forlornly by the fence, but we walked on a little further to an area where we have seen them before. It was rather windy up on the seawall this morning, which made viewing difficult at times.

There were several Rock Pipits feeding around the wheel ruts through the mud. Then a group of Skylarks flew up from nearby, and in amongst them was at least one Lapland Bunting – unfortunately, they all promptly dropped down into the long grass. Then another group of Skylarks flew towards us from further along the path and we could see at least two more Lapland Buntings. They dropped down briefly in the open, but before we could get them in the scope, they took off again and disappeared into the long grass as well.

Lapland Bunting Blakeney 2015-12-21Lapland Bunting – taken at Blakeney a couple of weeks ago

The same thing happened a couple more times – we got some good views of the Lapland Buntings in flight, but they would not settle in view. Then finally, a small group of Skylarks made their way out onto the edge of the mud, taking a single Lapland Bunting with them. We got a good look at it as it hopped about in and out of the wheel ruts. That seemed like a good moment to move on and try our luck elsewhere.

We made our way along to Cley and headed out along the East Bank. A Little Egret was feeding along a reedy channel by the new pools, having found somewhere out of the wind. A couple of Marsh Harriers were quartering over the reedbed. Several Reed Buntings were perched up in the bushes in the reeds. A single Black-tailed Godwit was hiding in the grass by the Serpentine, and on close examination it appeared to be sporting the first signs of summer plumage – some orange feathers on the breast and the start of the black belly bars.

IMG_4995Black-tailed Godwit – starting to show a bit of orange on the breast

There were not as many ducks (or waders) as usual out on the grazing marshes beyond the Serpentine today – a couple of smallish groups of Wigeon and a pair of Gadwall. They had either moved elsewhere or something had possibly just flushed them all. As we walked further along the East Bank, more ducks started to fly back in. At first just a couple of Shoveler, but then a couple of waves of them.

Then the Pintail appeared as well, circling over the flooded Serpentine. We could see the long pin-shaped tail feathers of the drakes as they flew in. None of the ducks seemed to want to land, and most of the Pintail in the end dropped down over the back towards Arnold’s Marsh. Presumably something had spooked them.

P1140704Pintail – circled over the Serpentine, but didn’t want to land again

We got almost to the beach and turned right on the inside of the shingle ridge. We had really come to look for the Snow Buntings, which had been reported a couple of days ago here. However, they can wander quite widely up and down the beach, so it was by no means certain we would find them here. It seemed quite quiet as we walked along. There was only one other person in sight, and as we passed them they very helpfully told us exactly where the Snow Buntings were ahead of us. When we got there, sure enough there they were.

The Snow Buntings whirled round as we approached and dropped down out of view on the shingle. We carefully worked our way round and could see them shuffling around on the stones. We had a look at them through the scope, but then they took off again and whirled round once more. Rather than flying off, they landed even closer to us and we had a great view of them.

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IMG_5002Snow Bunting – around 30 today were along the beach at Cley

There were around 30 Snow Buntings today. They were rather nervous and kept flying round, particularly when the Redshanks on Arnold’s Marsh started alarming. Each time, they landed again, sometimes closer, sometimes further over. It was great to watch them – and listen to their twittering calls. Then suddenly they took off again for no apparent reason and flew off back towards the East Bank.

We climbed up and dropped down onto the beach, into the lee of the remains of the shingle ridge. The sea looked quiet at first, but we spent a bit of time scanning and it yielded its rewards. We picked up several Red-throated Divers, their white faces in winter plumage really catching the sun. Then a Guillemot appeared, drifting west on the tide. Then we found a small group of Common Scoter diving just offshore – mostly females, but in amongst them was a single young drake.

The walk back was not without birds either – as well as all the things we had seen on the way out, just as we got back towards the car park we could hear a Bearded Tit calling. Unfortunately, it was rather too windy out here to look for Bearded Tits today, and we had to content ourselves with hearing one.

We could see a large flock of Brent Geese distantly in the Eye Field from the East Bank, as well as a line of Golden Plover shining in the sunlight. So we drove round there next for a closer look. We had just pulled up on Beach Road and started to scan through them when all the Golden Plover took off and made for the reserve. It took a few seconds for the Brent Geese to respond similarly, but the next thing we knew they were in the air too. Then we realised why – a Peregrine came shooting low over Beach Road and out across the Eye Field, before towering up and away beyond.

IMG_5024Brent Goose – there were plenty in the Eye Field, before the Peregrine!

We decided to break for lunch and sat in the sun in the beach shelter down at the car park. While we ate, a few of the Brent Geese started to drift back to the Eye Field and we could hear the growing throng over the traffic. Once we had finished, we walked up onto the West Bank for a closer look, but there were not the number of Brent Geese there had been and nothing of interest among the ones which had returned.

After lunch, we made our way further east still. On the way, our attention was drawn by a small group of dark looking geese in a grassy field at Salthouse. We pulled up briefly and could see they were nine White-fronted Geese. They looked quite smart in the sun and we could clearly see the black belly bars on the adults.

P1140711White-fronted Geese – nine were by the road at Salthouse this afternoon

Our next destination was Weybourne. There has been a large flock of Redpolls in the weedy corner of a sugar beet field here in recent weeks – of two different species, at least as far as current Redpoll taxonomics defines them. We found them pretty quickly, but they were very flighty, constantly dropping down into the tall weedy growth to feed, before flying up again to land on the overhead wires or into the trees. While we were waiting to get better views of them, we had to content ourselves with a couple of Bramblings amongst the Chaffinches.

IMG_5030Lesser Redpoll – feeding in the weedy field at Weybourne

Most of them appeared to be Lesser Redpolls, but the more we looked the more we started to see the odd one or two which looked different – paler faced, more frosty looking. One or two of these at least looked good for Mealy Redpolls, but it was very hard to nail most of them for sure, as they just wouldn’t sit still for more than a second. Finally, one remained behind in the trees, preening, so we could get the scope onto it. It had quite a paler face than the rather brown-fronted Lesser Redpolls, but what really set it apart was the rump – heavy black streaking against a very white background.

IMG_5037Mealy Redpoll – this one eventually perched up in the trees preening

By the time we had secured good views of the Redpolls, it was time to be making our way back west. We wanted to finish the day at the harrier roost at Warham Greens – it was such a beautiful evening for it, especially now the wind had dropped. We parked up at the start of the track and walked down. There was a large flock of Linnets in a weedy field alongside and in amongst them we could see a few Yellowhammers when they all flew round.

It was all action from the second we arrived at the end of the track. A Merlin had just flown in and landed on one of the posts on the saltmarsh. We got it in the scope and had a good look at it – it then remained on its post for the rest of the evening! A ringtail Hen Harrier had just gone through and we picked it up over the marshes away to the east. Moments later, a second ringtail Hen Harrier appeared out to the west. Then a smart grey male Hen Harrier flew past and disappeared off towards Wells.

It was hard to tell exactly how many Hen Harriers there were this evening – at least two ringtails and one grey male, but possibly more. There were also at least three Merlins as well in the end – in addition to the one on its post, another was flying around the male Hen Harrier out to the west and a third flew in from behind us late on and landed on a bush.

There were also a few Barn Owls out hunting over the saltmarsh – at least two and possibly three. A closer one at first, not far out from the landward side but out to the west, then later two at the same time over the grass in front of East Hills. The Barn Owls were out hunting in good time, but unfortunately the same could not be said for the Short-eared Owl. It left it to the very last minute to appear and unfortunately was nigh on impossible for everyone to get onto it against the vegetation in the failing light, flying around low at the back of the saltmarsh.

We walked back up the track listening to Grey Partridges calling all around us. We even managed to get a few in the scope in the gathering gloom! It was a great way to end the weekend down at the roost. It had been another action packed few days with a great list of birds to show for it.

P1140736Brent Geese – over the saltmarsh at Warham at dusk