Tag Archives: Merlin

23rd Jan 2018 – A Winter’s Day

A Private Tour today, in North Norfolk, looking for some of our regular wintering species. It was forecast to rain this morning, and it certainly started cloudy with some drizzle, but thankfully that cleared very quickly and we even had some blue sky and sunshine by the afternoon. In the damp conditions first thing, we decided to head up to the west end of the coast, so we would have the option of the hides at Titchwell if need be.

As it was, when we got there the weather wasn’t too bad so we carried on along to Thornham first. As we drove down to the harbour, the tide was almost in and several waders were feeding of bathing on the strip of mud left along the edge of the main channel. We had great views of several Bar-tailed Godwits and a single Black-tailed Godwit side by side, a lovely comparison of these two easily confused species, plus a Curlew and a couple of Common Redshanks nearby.

As we got out of the car, we could see another wader out on the mud the other side of the road. It was noticeably paler than the Common Redshanks we had seen earlier, with a longer finer bill, a Spotted Redshank. Most head down to the Mediterranean or Africa for the winter from their Arctic breeding grounds, but a very small number stay the winter here. They often feed out in the muddy channels on the saltmarsh, and this one had probably been pushed out by the rising tide.

Spotted Redshank

Spotted Redshank – one of the small number which stay here for the winter

The Spotted Redshank swam across the pool and disappeared behind the old sluice, so we walked round there for a closer look. It was feeding around the edge of the pool, wading up to its belly in the water, sweeping its bill vigorously from side to side. It came out onto the muddy edge and a Common Redshank walked across behind it giving us a good opportunity to compare the two.

A Rock Pipit flew past us calling and dropped down onto the edge of the saltmarsh. It was rather windy this morning and the poor bird was struggling to avoid being blown away out on the mud. Still, we got a great look at it – dark, oily greenish-brown upperparts and dirty underneath with diffuse dark blotches. One to remember for later!

There was no immediate sign of the Twite around the car park, so we were planning to brave the wind and walk up along the seawall. Thankfully, just at that moment the Twite flew in towards us. It looked like they were hoping to go down to drink at the puddles in the car park, but a car was manoeuvring through the middle of them just at that moment, so they circled over but flew off and landed on the roof of the old coal barn. We had a distant look at them through the scope.

We were about to walk over to get a closer view, but with the car having gone, the Twite took off and flew straight towards us. We were right on the edge of the car park but stood very still and they landed straight down on the edge of the puddle just a couple of metres in front of us. We had a front row seat as they drank! We could see their yellow bills and burnt orange breasts. There were 17 of them, winter visitors to the saltmarsh here from the Pennines.

Twite

Twite – 17 came down to drink at the puddles right in front of us

Having seen the Twite so well, we decided against walking out along the seawall, and instead headed off inland to look for some farmland birds. We stopped on the edge of a field, where a cover strip had been sown beside a hedge. We could see lots of birds in the bushes and they were periodically flying in and out of the cover strip to feed. They were mostly Reed Buntings, but in with them we managed to find a couple of Tree Sparrows and one or two Yellowhammers too.

A little further on, we stopped again at another weedy field. At first, all seemed rather quiet, but then several Skylarks flushed from out in the grass and fluttered up singing. Then we noticed several Yellowhammers in the hedge further along, and we walked down for a closer look. We got a smart male in the scope and admired its bright yellow head and chestnut rump.

Yellowhammer

Yellowhammer – a bright male perched in the hedge

The Yellowhammers dropped back out into the middle of the field but after a couple of minutes a much bigger flock of buntings came up out of the vegetation. We hoped they might land in the hedge again, but unfortunately disappeared off over the road the other side.

We carried on along the road and hadn’t gone far before we started to flush dozens of finches from the hedges either side, just ahead of us. Most of them landed again a little further along, so we coasted slowly up to them. They were mostly Chaffinches and Goldfinches, but in with them were quite a few Bramblings too. We could make them out from their brighter orange breasts and whiter bellies as they tried to hide in the hedge as we passed.

Brambling

Brambling – a bright orange male, hiding in the hedge beside the car

It was great to see so many finches here. They are feeding in a large weedy field which has been sown with seed mix – a fine testament as to what can happen when food is made available for birds. We pulled up in a gateway to watch a Marsh Harrier work its way low along the edge of the field, it too looking to take advantage of the availability of food.

Our destination for the rest of the morning was Titchwell. A Coal Tit was singing from the trees as we got out of the car and a little flock of Long-tailed Tits was feeding in the sallows by the path to the visitor centre. A pair of Kestrels appeared to be displaying to each other around the trees, the male calling and fluttering around below the female. The feeders were rather quiet this morning, so we headed out onto the reserve.

We stopped by the old pool out on Thornham grazing marsh. It looked rather bleak at first, but scanning carefully, we found first a Pied Wagtail and then a Rock Pipit out in the middle. Neither was what we were really hoping for here, but then we noticed a paler bird just in front of them, a Water Pipit. It was very well camouflaged against the mud and hard to see unless it moved, but we all had a good look at it. Rather similar to the Rock Pipit we had seen so well earlier, but noticeably paler off white below, with finer blackish streaks, plus a more prominent pale supercilium and paler wing bars.

A single Marsh Harrier circled over the reeds at the back, and another couple were interacting at the back of the reedbed, the other side. There were a few ducks out on the saltmarsh – a nice little group of Wigeon, plus a pair of Shoveler and a couple of Teal. When they flushed and flew across to the freshmarsh, a couple of Common Snipe appeared up out of the vegetation too. A single Grey Plover was feeding on the edge of the Lavendar Marsh pool.

The water level on the freshmarsh is kept very high through the winter. This is good for diving ducks at the moment, with about thirty Common Pochard and a smaller number of Tufted Ducks in a raft over by the edge of the reeds. Unfortunately, it means there is not much else on here at the moment, apart from a few Teal and Shelduck and a couple of Gadwall.

Avocet numbers are slowly starting to creep up again, after their midwinter low, with twelve today sleeping on the small island which just pokes out above the water by the path to Parrinder Hide.

Avocet

Avocet – numbers are up slightly, with 12 now on the reserve

There were a few more waders on the Volunteer Marsh. Several Common Redshanks were feeding down at the front, with a couple of Ringed Plover and Dunlin around the edge of the muddy channels just behind. Two Black-tailed Godwits were hiding here too, along with singles of Curlew and Grey Plover further back. A small flock of Knot were feeding in the edge of one of the islands of vegetation out in the middle of the mud.

As we walked over the bank towards the Tidal Pools, a small party of Brent Geese took off from the saltmarsh and flew straight over our heads. They disappeared off towards the freshmarsh, presumably to drink and bathe.

Brent Geese

Brent Geese – flew over us, from the saltmarsh to the freshmarsh

The first thing we noticed on the Tidal Pools were the Little Grebes, three of them which were diving out on the water just beyond the bank. There were a few more duck on here too, and in particularly a little party of Pintail over towards the back corner, busy upending. We got them in the scope and had a look at them – smart ducks!

There were a few more waders on here too – some nice close godwits, both Black-tailed Godwits and Bar-tailed Godwits, which gave us another opportunity to look at the differences between the two species. The Bar-tailed Godwits are slightly smaller, shorter legged, with a bill which turns up slightly, and noticeably paler with streaks on their upperparts.

Ba-tailed Godwit

Bar-tailed Godwit – showing off its slightly upturned bill & barred tail

Several Oystercatchers were roosting on the spit at the back of the Tidal Pools, but most of the waders were out on the beach today, although they were flushed as we arrived by a Common Buzzard circling out over the dunes.

The real draw out here at the moment is the seaduck, and we found ourselves a sheltered spot in the lee of the dunes to see what we could see. A quick scan of the sea and we found several Long-tailed Ducks diving just offshore, including a number of smart drakes. They were sporting even longer tails than the drake Pintail we had just been looking at!

Long-tailed Duck

Long-tailed Duck – a smart drake, diving just offshore

There were several Common Scoter and a good number of Goldeneye on the sea too, which were relatively easy to see, despite all the ducks disappearing in the steady swell. The pair of Red-breasted Mergansers were harder for everyone to get onto, as they were diving constantly, as was the Red-throated Diver. The Guillemots were very hard to see on the water too, but several flew past including one right along the tide line, which was much easier to get onto.

After a productive session out at the beach, we beat a hasty retreat to the Visitor Centre for lunch. Afterwards, we made our way back to the car, with a Treecreeper in the sallows by the path a welcome bonus. Then we made our way back east along the coast to Holkham for the afternoon.

As we drove up Lady Anne’s Drive towards the pines, a Stonechat posed nicely on the fence beside the car. There were lots of Common Redshanks feeding around the pools in the grass, formed by the recent rain. On the other side, a big flock of Wigeon grazing by the fence were spooked by a passing Curlew and flew up whistling noisily.

Wigeon

Wigeon – a large flock was grazing beside Lady Anne’s Drive

Out first target here was the flock of Shorelarks which often feed out on the saltmarsh, so we headed straight out through the pines towards the beach. A flock of Linnets was flushed by a dog running around in the middle of the saltmarsh, and whirled round in a tight flock. We turned east and walked along the path below the dunes. We hadn’t gone far when we noticed a large group standing out on the edge of the saltmarsh and saw a flock of nine pale birds whirl round and land down again in front of them – the Shorelarks.

We joined the small crowd and set to admiring the Shorelarks as they scampered around on the saltmarsh just in front of us. The clouds cleared just at that moment and the sun appeared. Perfect timing, as the canary yellow faces of the Shorelarks shone in the low afternoon light. Great birds!

Shorelark

Shorelarks – several of the nine feeding out on the saltmarsh

Shorelarks are winter visitors in very small and variable numbers to the UK from Scandinavia. They have declined in recent years, and North Norfolk is now one of the only (fairly) reliable places to see them, so it is always a delight to spend some time watching a flock of Shorelarks here on the coast. They are always better to see in action, so the short video below gives a better sense of how lovely they are to watch!

As we made our way back through the trees, we heard a Goldcrest calling in the holm oaks and watched it flitting around in the dark leaves. A flock of Pink-footed Geese flew in calling and landed out on the grass to the west of Lady Anne’s Drive, so we stopped to have a look at them in the scope.

We had been intending to walk west to the hides this afternoon, but we received a tip that the White-fronted Geese were over the other side of the grazing marsh today, so we drove round there instead. We were soon watching a flock of at least 75 – they were hard to count as they were tucked down behind the trees, but this is the most we have seen here this year. Numbers have been lower than normal this winter, due to mild weather on the continent which means that many of the geese have stayed there.

Through the scope we could see the distinctive white surround to the base of the bill on the adult White-fronted Geese, from which they get their name, and their black belly bars.

White-fronted Geese

White-fronted Geese – we counted at least 75 here today

Great White Egrets are now a regular sight at Holkham and a pair bred here for the first time in 2017. They like to feed in the pools and ditches out on the grazing marshes. One was hiding round behind the trees when we arrived, but thankfully flew out and landed in the middle of the marshes where we could get a good look at it.

Great White Egret

Great White Egret – helpfully landed out in the middle of the grazing marsh

A Grey Heron flew across in front of us while we were scanning the marshes and a Marsh Harrier was quartering the grazing marshes over towards Meals House, flushing all the Wigeon and Lapwings. A striking pale Common Buzzard was perched in the top of one of the hawthorn bushes.

Having not had to walk out to the hides at Holkham this afternoon, we had an hour to spare now. We decided to drive back along the coast to try to catch up with a few raptors coming in to roost. When we arrived at the car park, we were told we had just missed a male Hen Harrier, but thankfully we were soon watching another, a ringtail, as it made its way slowly past long the back edge of the saltmarsh. Through the scope we could see the distinctive white patch at the base of its tail.

The Hen Harrier dropped down onto the saltmarsh, but when we next saw it a second ringtail was with it. We watched as the two of them tussled with each other, before dropping back down into the vegetation.

Then a Barn Owl appeared. It was distant at first, perched on a signpost along the edge of the saltmarsh from where we were standing. It started to make its way towards us, hunting the grassy bank below the trees, but then three boys appeared between us and the Barn Owl, playing noisily on the edge of the wood, and the owl turned back the other way. The boy’s mother called them in for tea, but it was just to late for us! A little group of Fieldfares flew over the trees tchacking loudly.

Finally, the male Hen Harrier reappeared. We watched as it made its way in from the east, high over the saltmarsh. It dropped down along the northern edge as it passed by in front of us, flushing a Merlin from the bushes below it. The Merlin flew off fast ahead of it, hugging the vegetation. As the male Hen Harrier headed in towards the roost, with the light fading, we decided to call it a day and head for home too.

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12th Oct 2017 – Autumn Extravaganza Day 1

Day 1 of a four day Autumn Tour today. It looks like we are set for some warmer weather, with southerly winds bringing mild air up from southern Europe by the weekend. It was already sunny today, and warm out of the slightly fresh SW wind. A lovely day to be out and about.

With the Red-necked Phalarope still lingering at Kelling, we headed straight round there first thing this morning. As we walked up the lane, there were lots of Blackbirds in the hedges, which flew off ahead of us. We flushed a couple of Song Thrushes and two Mistle Thrushes flew out of the bushes and away across the field towards Muckleburgh Hill too. It felt like a lot of migrants had come in overnight.

There were lots of Dunnocks along the lane too today, always hard to tell whether these are just local birds but it seemed like there were more than usual, so presumably some of these were migrants too. There were also finches feeding on the berries – Chaffinches, Greenfinches and Goldfinches in the hedges. A single Yellowhammer appeared with them briefly at one point. As we got to the copse, a couple of Siskin flew over calling and disappeared away to the west.

When we got down to the Water Meadow, we could see the Red-necked Phalarope straight away. It was hiding behind the island, so we set off towards the far corner, from where we would be able to see it. When we got to the cross track, we noticed a group of smaller waders feeding on the mud on the near edge of the water. There were three juvenile Curlew Sandpipers together with a couple of Dunlin, so we stopped for a closer look. We could see the Curlew Sandpipers were slightly larger, longer-legged and longer-billed, with cleaner, scaly upperparts and paler below.

Spotted RedshankSpotted Redshank – one of the two here, this photo taken a few days ago

A couple of Spotted Redshanks were feeding in the deeper water just behind the Curlew Sandpipers. One of the Spotted Redshanks was noticeably darker, a rather dusky bird, still pretty much in full juvenile plumage. The other Spotted Redshank was much paler, white below and paler grey above, but with the same dusky grey wings – another young bird which was already much more advanced on its way in its moult to 1st winter plumage.

At that point, the Red-necked Phalarope flew in to join them. It landed in the water by the Spotted Redshanks and started swimming in circles, stirring up the mud below and picking at the surface at anything which it managed to stir up. We had a great look at it through the scope, and then it started to work its way down to the front and along the edge of the vegetation just in front of us. The Red-necked Phalarope is still pretty much in full juvenile plumage, its dark upperparts with distinctive pale golden lines on the mantle and scapulars.

Red-necked PhalaropeRed-necked Phalarope – showed really well again today

There was a really nice selection of other waders on the Water Meadow today too. A couple of juvenile Ruff came down to join the Dunlin and Curlew Sandpipers at the front. Further back were a single Black-tailed Godwit, one Curlew and a lone Common Redshank. A Common Snipe was feeding unobtrusively on the front edge of the island and we looked across to the wet grass the other side and saw three more Common Snipe there too.

Continuing on round the Quags, a Reed Bunting perched up nicely in the brambles by the path. There was a good sized flock of Linnets feeding on the dried up pool out in the middle of the grass – occasionally they spooked and all flew around in a tight group. As we started to walk up the hillside behind the beach, a couple more small flocks of Linnets came west along the back of the beach, flying purposefully, so presumably migrants on the move. There were a few other birds moving today, most notably a couple of Rock Pipits which flew over us calling.

Looking towards the sea, we noticed a small falcon flying low and fast behind the bushes between us and the beach.  A Merlin! It continued out across the Quags, skimming just above the grass, at which point it flushed the big flock of Linnets. They all flew up in alarm and tried to climb up higher into the sky and the Merlin set off after them. We watched for several minutes as the Merlin swooped at them. It managed to separate one Linnet from the flock and the two of them towered higher into the sky, the Linnet trying to stay above the pursuing falcon. Whenever the Merlin dived at it, the Linnet just managed to evade it, but it was touch and go for a while before the Merlin finally gave up and flew on west. Exciting stuff!

At this point we noticed a message saying that four Common Cranes had just been seen flying west over Cley. This meant that they had probably already passed us by – most likely flying west along the ridge inland before dropping down to the coast as they usually do, rather than coming over us. We therefore were not expecting to see them as we raised our binoculars and scanned over the marshes to the east, but there they were. The Cranes were distant, but we could see their distinctive long-necked, long-legged silhouette through the scope as they turned. A real bonus!

A quick look out to sea, and we noticed a single Brent Goose flying past over the water, presumably just arriving back from Russia for the winter. Otherwise, there did not appear to be a lot moving out to sea today and it was quiet too past the gun emplacements, so we set off back down to the Water Meadow. We had heard a Stonechat earlier, and just caught a glimpse of it as it disappeared round behind the reeds, so it was nice to see a pair of them on the fence on the edge of the Quags on our way back past. A single Redpoll flew over calling and disappeared away to the west.

As we walked back past the Quags, we could hear a Bearded Tit calling. When we worked out where the sound was coming from, we could see it perched in the tops of the reeds, swaying in the breeze. From round on the cross track, we had a much better view – it was a female and it appeared to be on its own. It flew a short distance a couple of times and dropped down into the reeds, but each time quickly climbed back up to the tops and started calling.

Bearded TitBearded Tit – this lone female was down at the Quags today

The Bearded Tit appeared to be looking for more of its own kind. Some birds disperse away from their breeding reedbeds at this time of year, but they are more often seen in small groups. Eventually, after calling for a while to no avail, it took off, climbed into the sky and set off west.

We set off back up the lane. We heard the Yellowhammer calling again and, as we stopped to try to see it, a couple of Goldcrests came out of the same tree. We followed them up the lane, eventually getting a brief view of one at very close quarters in the hedge right next to us. A tit flock came down the lane the other way and we stopped to admire a couple of Long-tailed Tits. A Chiffchaff was feeding in the garden of the village school.

With the sun out, the raptors started to circle up. Two Common Buzzards appeared over Muckleburgh Hill and a third circled over our heads calling. It was quite warm along the lane now ,out of the wind. There were several butterflies out, Red Admirals, and dragonflies including lots of Common Darters and one or two Migrant Hawkers.

Common BuzzardCommon Buzzard – circled over the lane, calling

Our next destination was Cley, and before lunch we decided to have a look up along the East Bank. A Mute Swan and Coot on Don’s pool were additions to the day’s list, but the Aylesbury Duck with the Mallards did not count! Out on the grazing marshes the other side, we could see lots of Canada Geese loafing in the grass.

There were a few waders out on the grazing marshes and along the Serpentine too. We stopped for a closer look at a couple of Lapwing – stunning birds, particularly in the sunshine when their glossy green upperparts shone bronze and purple too. There were lots of Ruff – neat brown and buff juveniles, paler white and grey-brown adults, with males and females of very different sizes. A single Common Snipe was hard to see feeding in the wet grass until it ran across out in the open.

At the end of the Serpentine, a small flock of Black-tailed Godwits had gathered to feed, most up to their bellies in the water. The majority were in plain grey non-breeding plumage, but one still had extensive rusty feathering on its breast, the remainder of its summer attire.

RuffRuff – an adult and two juveniles

Several small skeins of Pink-footed Geese flew in from the east. We could hear their distinctive high-pitched yelping calls. There were a couple of Greylag Geese too – we could see their paler grey heads and large orange carrot bills.

There were more ducks out on the grazing marshes here. Most of the drakes are still in dull eclipse plumage, but increasingly some are starting to regain their smart breeding dress. The largest number were Wigeon, feeding out on the grass. There were quite a few Teal and Shoveler along the edges of the Serpentine too. Further back, we found first a female Pintail and then a couple of drakes which were starting to look smarter again. There were a few Gadwall sleeping in amongst the Canada Geese as well.

WigeonWigeon – there is a good number now out on the grazing marshes

A stop at the shelter overlooking Arnold’s Marsh gave us a chance to sit down and get out of the breeze. There were more waders on here – more Curlew, Black-tailed Godwits, Redshanks, Ruff and Dunlin. Scanning through a group of Dunlin, we found a much paler, whiter wader in with them – a lone Sanderling. It had probably just stopped off here briefly on its journey.

A couple of Ringed Plover were hiding in the saltmarsh in the middle – we could just see their black and white heads sticking out. Further over, we found two Grey (aka Black-bellied!) Plover on the islands and, right at the back, a big flock of Golden Plover hunkered down too.

When all the waders flushed, we couldn’t see the cause at first. A few minutes later a Peregrine appeared, just as everything had started to settle down, and spooked them all again. It chased round after a big flock of Black-tailed Godwits first, then seemed to head back towards Salthouse, before we picked it up again over the beach, chasing a Redshank. Like the Merlin we had seen earlier, the Peregrine chased after the Redshank relentlessly for several minutes, swerving, climbing, stooping at it repeatedly and passing within what looked like millimetres of it, before we eventually lost sight of them.

Out at the beach, the sea looked fairly quiet still. We picked up a single Great Crested Grebe out on the water and a Razorbill or two as well. Two or three Gannets were circling out in the distance and periodically plunging into the sea. There did not appear to be much moving offshore, with a couple of Ringed Plover flying in off the sea being the highlight.

Time was getting on now, so we set off back to the car. There were several Little Egrets on the brackish lagoons and one fishing right down the front of Arnold’s Marsh. We could hear more Bearded Tits calling out in the reedbed, but they were keeping well tucked down today out the wind. Then it was back to the Visitor Centre for a late lunch.

Little EgretLittle Egret – feeding on the front of Arnold’s Marsh

After lunch, we headed out to the hides in the middle of the reserve. As we walked out along the boardwalk, a pair of Stonechats were perched on the fence posts on the edge of the reedbed. They would periodically flycatch out over the reeds, hovering before flicking back to one of the posts.

From Dauke’s Hide, we could see there were lots of birds on Simmond’s Scrape today. It didn’t take long to find our first target. Scanning carefully around the islands, we found several Little Stints. On our first count we got to nine, then shortly afterwards we got up to thirteen. They were mostly quite widely scattered, but when all the small waders flushed from time to time, they would bunch up together for a while after they landed. By the end, we had managed to count at least 18 Little Stints on here today, an impressive number.

Little StintsLittle Stints – two of at least 18 on here today, all juveniles

We got some of the Little Stints in the scope and had a closer look at them. We could see they were small, particularly when one walked past a Dunlin, which in itself is not a big wader, at which point they looked tiny! They were all juveniles – we could see their pale mantle braces and split supercilium.

There were three Curlew Sandpipers on here too, again all juveniles. They were feeding separately, but occasionally one or other of them would fly in with one of the little groups of Dunlin and land on the front edge of the nearest island, where we could get a really good look at it.

Curlew SandpiperCurlew Sandpiper – a juvenile, in front of a juvenile Dunlin

In with the Little Stints on the drier mud in the middle of the islands, there were a few Ringed Plovers too. At one point, a lone Knot appeared at the back briefly, with a single Dunlin and one of the Curlew Sandpipers. Otherwise, the waders on here were mostly more Ruff, along with a few Lapwing and one or two Redshank. We could hear Greenshank calling from time to time, but did not manage to see one on either of the scrapes. A Common Snipe was more obliging, feeding for a while in the grass on the far side of the channel in front of the hide.

We had heard a couple of Cetti’s Warblers singing earlier today, but as is typical they were keeping well hidden. So when one started calling just outside the windows of the hide, we didn’t really expect to see it, but there it was on the edge of the reeds. Unfortunately, it did not stay very long and quickly darted back into the reeds before everyone could get a good look at it, before flying across the channel and disappearing into the vegetation the other side.

Cetti's WarblerCetti’s Warbler – perched just briefly in the reeds right outside the hide

The Water Rail put on a better performance. The next time we glanced over towards the reeds just outside the hide, we noticed something moving at the base out of the corner of our eye. A quick look confirmed it was a Water Rail. It was well hidden in the reeds at first, but gradually came out into the open, picking its way furtively in and out of the vegetation.

It worked its way towards us and soon the Water Rail was right out in the open just outside the hide window. Stunning views and so close we almost had to zoom out to take a photo! It was nervous, but stayed out in view for several minutes before finally deciding it preferred the shelter of the reeds.

Water RailWater Rail – stunning views right outside the window of the hide

A while later, the Water Rail crept out of the reeds again. This time it picked around for a few minutes, gradually working its way out into the open, before starting to swim out through the open, cut vegetation towards the channel. It obviously didn’t fancy swimming right across the open water, because it suddenly took off and flew over to the other side, dropping into the reeds and squealing as it did so.

There are lots of Pink-footed Geese at Cley at the moment, unusually so for this time of the year. There were several thousand loafing around on the islands at the back of Simmond’s Scrape, and on the grazing marshes beyond. Periodically groups would fly in and out – it is amazing to watch and listen to the skeins of Pinkfeet as they fly in to join the throng.

Pink-footed GeesePink-footed Geese – there were several thousand at Cley today

There had been no sign of any Marsh Harriers earlier today, but finally when the waders all scattered, we looked up to see a female flying past, over the scrape. We made our way to Avocet Hide next, and when just the small waders all took off again, we looked across to see a Sparrowhawk flying low over the grass at the back of the scrape, rounding off a very nice selection of raptors today.

We had hoped we might catch a few early gulls coming in to bathe on Whitwell Scrape before going to roost, although possibly given the sunny weather, birds would be slower to come in today. There were a few Lesser Black-backed Gulls dropping in and we could see a single young (1st calendar year) Common Gull and a Herring Gull in with the Black-headed Gulls.

Then it was time to make our way back. A few Collared Doves on the wires and a Stock Dove which flew off from the grazing marsh were the final additions to today’s list. We will see what tomorrow will bring!

21st May 2017 – Late Spring Birding, Day 3

Day 3 of a three day long weekend of tours today, our last day. It was lovely weather to be out and about – lots of sunshine and only patchy cloud, and a light SW breeze to keep the humidity down.

We started the day with a walk out over the grazing marshes at Burnham Overy. There were lots of warblers singing in the hedges, but they weren’t all making themselves easy to see today. A Blackcap was hiding in the bushes from where it we could hear its melodic song, and the Common Whitethroats were being unusually skulking this morning too. A Cetti’s Warbler typically shouted at us from deep in the undergrowth. A Chiffchaff was more amenable, working its way round the leaves in the tops of an oak tree, alternating looking for food and singing.

6O0A1627Chiffchaff – singing in the top of an oak tree by the path

There were plenty of Sedge Warblers along the path too, and even they were not posing quite as well as they normally do today. A Lesser Whitethroat stuck its head out of a hawthorn briefly, then flew round across the path and into another bush.

An approaching family party of Long-tailed Tits gave themselves away with lots of calling, and we stopped and watched them as they fed in the bushes next to us for a short while, the adults busy collecting food and the sooty faced juveniles begging noisily. As quickly as they arrived, they then departed across the path and away down the hedge line.

6O0A1655Long-tailed Tit – a juvenile enjoying the morning sun in the hedge

Stopping to scan the grazing marshes, we could see lots of geese out on the grass – with the winter geese now almost entirely departed, they were mainly Greylag Geese but also several Egyptian Geese with them. There were waders too, Avocets nesting round the little pools which had benefited from some overnight rain, plus a few Lapwings, Oystercatchers and a Redshank, all of which breed here.

Looking ahead, a large white shape in one of the deeper pools further along was a Spoonbill, feeding vigorously, head down, sweeping its bill from side to side as it walked round. We hurried along to where we were alongside it and had a fantastic view of it. It was an adult, with mustard wash across the breast, shaggy crest and, when it lifted its head occasionally, a yellow tip to its black bill.

6O0A1683Spoonbill – feeding in one of the shallow ponds by the path

Some video of the Spoonbill feeding is below:

Eventually, the Spoonbill walked up out of the pool and across the grass, descending into another pool a little further back, so we moved on. A Reed Warbler was singing from the feeds by the ditch as we got to the gate at the far end, and another two Reed Warblers were chasing each other round on the other side of the path. Finally, we found a Sedge Warbler performing as they should, perched high on some brambles, out in the open, singing away.

Climbing up onto the seawall, we could see across the harbour. The tide was out but there were not so many waders here now, with most of the birds which had spent the winter here having departed north for the breeding season. There were a few more Avocets and Redshanks out on the mud.

As we walked past the reedbed, we could hear a Reed Bunting singing and found it perched on the top of a bush right out in the middle of the reeds. We heard a Bearded Tit ping briefly, but we couldn’t see any sign of it. A Marsh Harrier quartered the reeds at the back.

Continuing on out along the seawall, there were several Linnets in the bushes on the edge of the saltmarsh. A Skylark flew in across the path and landed down on the grass. We managed to get it in the scope, just in time to see a small head appear out of the grass next to it, bill open, begging for food, one of its hungry brood. We could hear a Redshank alarm calling and looked over to see a pair on the grazing marsh not far from the fence. The male, much more heavily streaked with black below, was piping loudly from a tussock, while the plainer female fed quietly in the grass.

6O0A1721Redshank – the heavily marked male was piping loudly

The seawall is a great vantage point, so as we walked, we scanned the skies. A small falcon appeared from the direction of the dunes. It was a long way off, but as it turned and flew west over the boardwalk, we could see it was a Merlin. This is a winter visitor here in Norfolk, so this was a late one, which should soon be on its way back to the moors to breed. We watched as it disappeared off towards Scolt Head. A few minutes later, we picked up another falcon, this time a Hobby, circling over the grazing marshes, hawking for insects. In contrast to the Merlin, the Hobby is a summer visitor here.

We could see quite a number of Swifts in the sky too this morning. They seemed to be on the move today, with birds passing west, occasionally stopping to hawk for insects up and down the seawall. We were almost at the boardwalk when we heard a Yellow Wagtail call and looked across to see it flying over the grazing marshes. It didn’t stop unfortunately, but continued on west, over the seawall behind us and out across the saltmarsh. Another migrant on its way.

From the boardwalk, we walked east into the dunes. We quickly found our target, Wheatears.  One female was down on the short cropped grass, standing still by the entrance to a rabbit burrow. A second female was perched on a fence post a little further along, by the path. As a group of walkers came along the path towards us, this second Wheatear flicked along the line of posts towards us, before finally flying off back into the dunes beyond.

6O0A1705Wheatear – flushed from along the fence line by a group of walkers

It was nice to see the female Wheatears, but we really wanted to find a male. We walked a little further into the dunes, to an area favoured by Wheatears, and quickly found another two females. As we turned and started walking back, a male had appeared with the female from earlier, on the other side of the fence. It was a cracking bird – with a smart black bandit mask. When it turned, it was rich orangey on the throat and breast – a male Greenland Wheatear. The later migrants which pass through here are mostly of the Greenland race, and the males are more richly coloured below than the nominate form which breeds further south.

Given the sunny weather, there were not surprisingly good numbers of butterflies out in the dunes today. Wall Brown was the most numerous, but we also saw a couple of Small Copper and a single Small Heath. The Cinnabar Moths are also on the wing at the moment, brightly coloured day-flying moths, they are unpalatable to predators.

6O0A1713Cinnabar – a brightly coloured, and unpalatable, moth

We would not be able to explore the dunes fully today, so we made our way back to the boardwalk and had a quick look out at the beach. Being a sunny Sunday, there were quite a few people – and dogs – out on the sand. We could see a few Sandwich Terns and Little Terns offshore, but as the tide was out, they were quite distant. We turned to head back.

The seawall was very busy now, as we walked back, with lots of people out for a stroll in the sun. A male Reed Bunting perched up nicely for us, singing in the bushes by the edge of the saltmarsh. We got a much improved view of it, compared to the one we had seen distantly out in the the reedbed earlier.

6O0A1718Reed Bunting – singing on the edge of the saltmarsh on the walk back

We stopped again by the reedbed to listen for Bearded Tits. We hoped we might at least hear one and perhaps see one whizzing over the tops of the reeds. A Bittern booming very distantly was a nice bonus while we listened. We heard snippets of Bearded Tits ‘pinging’ at first, but couldn’t see any. Then a male Bearded Tit appeared out in the middle of the reeds briefly, climbing up to the top of a stem, but dropping down again before everyone could get onto it.

We thought that might be the best of it, but we heard more ‘pinging’ closer to us and then another male Bearded Tit came zooming over the reeds towards us. Even better, it came right to the front of the reedbed and dropped down on the edge of grass just below the bank. This time we got a great look at it.

6O0A1731Bearded Tit – this male eventually came right out on the front of the reedbed

It was a real bonus to get such great views of a male Bearded Tit, so we headed back to the car well pleased with the morning’s birding. We made our way round to Holkham for lunch and surprisingly given the weather, Lady Anne’s Drive was not too busy and we were able to get a picnic table. A couple of Jackdaws were hopping over the other tables looking for crumbs. Two Spoonbills flew over while we were eating, heading back to the colony, presumably from the saltmarsh out beyond Wells. We finished our lunch with an ice cream from the van nearby – it felt just like summer in the sunshine!

After lunch, we had a quick walk out west on the inland side of the pines, up to the hides. There were still several warblers singing in the trees – a Blackcap or two, several Chiffchaffs and Common Whitethroats. We could hear more Long-tailed Tits calling from the pines. We managed to find a Coal Tit, up in the top of a tree, calling, where we could get it in the scope.

We were alerted to the presence of a Jay by various birds alarm calling, and it flew towards us and landed in a pine tree. It perched there for several minutes, preening and enjoying the sunshine, before dropping down to the ground and hunting around in the leaf little close by, giving us a great view.

6O0A1745Jay – sunning itself in a pine tree, on the way out to the hides

Up in the Joe Jordan Hide, there was a steady stream of Spoonbills coming & going. Several were bathing and preening on the edge of the pool in front of the hide, and a couple were still collecting nest material around the edge. When two Spoonbills flew up out of the trees, one looked quite a bit smaller than the other. As they banked, we could see that the smaller one had a very short bill. It was a juvenile, one of this years young, already fledged and presumably taking one of its first flights. They dropped back into the trees again.

There was lots of other activity here. Little Egrets were coming and going too, and a Grey Heron flew in as well. There were lots of Cormorants in the trees. A Marsh Harrier gave us a great close fly by, though it was too quick for the cameras – we were a bit slow in the after lunch lull! We could have sat here enjoying the view for longer, but we had one more destination we wanted to fit in this afternoon, so we packed up and walked back to the car.

We made our way back east and over to Stiffkey Fen. As we walked down along the footpath by the road, a Lesser Whitethroat was singing from the trees on the other side. A male Marsh Harrier circled up over the wood, calling. As we got across the road and onto the footpath by the river, we found a tree had come down across the path. Thankfully everyone was game to clamber over. With the two stiles here as well, it was a bit of an assault course to get to the Fen today!

Down along the edge of the river, there were more warblers singing – Chiffchaff, Blackcap and Common Whitethroat. From the reeds around the edge of the Fen, we could hear Sedge Warbler and Reed Warbler too. From up on the seawall, we could see the tide was in now. An Avocet was feeding along the edge of the flooded channel.

6O0A1778Avocet – feeding in the channel below the seawall

We stopped on the bank to scan the Fen. We had glimpsed a Little Ringed Plover on one of the islands on the walk out, but it wasn’t in the same place now. Thankfully, it didn’t take too long to find it, on one of the other islands. This is normally a good place for Black-tailed Godwits, but there was only one here today – not in full summer plumage, but this one did at least have some rusty feathering on the breast. The only other waders on here today were the Avocets.

Three Wigeon were feeding on the edge of one of the islands. They are common here in winter, but the vast majority have now left for Russia for the breeding season, leaving just these three behind. Otherwise the Fen was dominated by gulls – as well as the breeding Black-headed Gulls, we could see several Lesser Black-backed Gulls with the Herring Gulls, and a couple of young (1st summer) Common Gulls.

Walking down along the seawall, we could hear a Cuckoo singing in the distance. It seemed to be getting a little closer, so we had a scan of the trees on the far side of the Fen. The Cuckoo was perched on the edge of the last tree. We got the scope on it and could see it singing. Then we continued on round to have a look at the harbour.

IMG_4516Cuckoo – singing from the trees beyond the Fen

The harbour looked rather quiet at first, but as we scanned over the remaining mud, we found more birds. There were plenty of Oystercatchers, with a large group roosting on one of the spits ahead of the incoming tide. There are not so many other waders here now, but a careful scan revealed a few still. A little group of Ringed Plover were well camouflaged on the mud, until they moved. Three Dunlin were nearby, all sporting black belly patches now. A smart summer plumage Turnstone appeared on the mud too.

A small group of Brent Geese were feeding on the edge of the water, again late lingering winter visitors (most of the many Brent Geese which are here through the winter have long since departed). There are very few terns on Blakeney Point again this year, after the rat infestation last year caused most of them to decamp to Scolt Head instead. There were two Little Terns resting on the mud on the edge of the water. We got them in the scope and could see their black-tipped yellow bills and white foreheads.

As we started to make our way back, we could hear a Mediterranean Gull calling. Up on the seawall, we stopped to scan the Fen, and heard what we presumed was the same bird calling behind us, over the edge of the harbour. We looked round to see a 1st summer Mediterranean Gull flying across over the saltmarsh. It circled round, encountering some half-hearted aggression from a couple of the Black-headed Gulls, before flying in over the seawall to the Fen. When it dropped down onto one of the islands, we noticed there was another 1st summer Mediterranean Gull on there already.

6O0A1787Mediterranean Gull – a first summer which dropped in to Stiffkey Fen this afternoon

Unfortunately, it was now time to be heading back. On the way, there were several butterflies in the brambles, Peacocks and Red Admirals enjoying the afternoon sun. In the field by the layby, we could see two Red-legged Partridges and several Brown Hares hiding in the fast growing wheat.

6O0A1800Red Admiral – enjoying the afternoon sun on the brambles

It had been a very enjoyable day’s birding today, in the sunshine, to round off a very productive three days. We made our way back to Wells, to end the tour.

24th Feb 2017 – Wildfowl, Waders & Larks

A Winter Tour today in North Norfolk. After Storm Doris had blown through yesterday (thankfully, with no tours arranged!), bringing gusts of up to 81mph, it was a welcome return to calmer conditions today. It was mostly cloudy, but we did enjoy some nice sunnier intervals later in the afternoon.

Our first stop was at Holkham. As we drove up Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see large flocks of Wigeon still on the grazing marshes. It won’t be too long now before they will start to depart for their Russian breeding grounds.

6o0a7998Wigeon – still large flocks on the grazing marshes at Holkham

Most of the Pink-footed Geese have already departed on their way back north, although they will stop off in northern England or Scotland before continuing on their way to Iceland. However, there are still a few around and we managed to find a small party of Pink-footed Geese further over on the grazing marshes. A quick look through the scope, and we discovered there were a couple of White-fronted Geese with them too and a single Brent Goose.

Walking through the gap in the trees towards the beach, there were lots of small branches and leaves scattered over the path, the remnants of last night’s storm. We made our way east, along the path on the edge of the saltmarsh. Out in the vegetation, we could see a small group of Brent Geese and Shelduck. Most of the geese were Dark-bellied Brents, the commonest subspecies here in winter, they breed in northern Russia. There is also a regular Black Brant hybrid here, the returning progeny of a vagrant Black Brant which had paired up with a Dark-bellied Brent Goose many years ago, this hybrid now comes back every year to the same place.

img_0920Black Brant hybrid – the regular returning bird, still with the Brent flock at Holkham

It didn’t take long to find the Black Brant hybrid in with the small flock of Brents. It has a noticeably whiter flank patch and more extensive collar, as well as being a touch darker above and on the belly than the accompanying Dark-bellied Brent Geeese. However, it is not quite dark or contrasting enough to match a pure Black Brant. It is always an interesting bird to see here.

As we walked along, several Meadow Pipits flew up from the saltmarsh, but it wasn’t until we got to the east end that we found the Shorelarks, in their regular spot. They are currently feeding mostly in the slightly taller vegetation, so can be hard to see. Thankfully we were able to find them before some other birders walked right through the area they were hiding.

img_0906Shorelark – still 29+ here, feeding in the taller vegetation on the saltmarsh

We watched the Shorelarks for a while. At first, it looked like there were only 5-6 of them again, but gradually we spotted more creeping around in the sea lavendar seed heads. With their heads down, they were particularly hard to see, but occasionally a bright yellow face with black bandit mask would pop up out of the vegetation.

When a Common Buzzard drifted out from the pines and across the saltmarsh, the Shorelarks all took off and only at that stage could we see how many there really were. They landed on a slightly more open sandy ridge and a quick count suggested there were 29, although we could easily still have missed one or two. Then they scuttled quickly back into cover.

We walked over to the dunes and had a quick look at the sea. It was still rather rough after yesterday, and there didn’t appear to be a lot visible today. We did find a couple of Red-breasted Mergansers feeding in the breakers. There were also lots of Oystercatchers and gulls on the beach, feeding on shellfish washed up after the storm, and several Sanderling were running in and out of the waves between them.

As we made our way back to Lady Anne’s Drive, a small bird came zipping low across the saltmarsh and out towards the dunes. It was a Merlin. Often that is all you see of them, as they disappear off into the distance, but this one helpfully decided to land on a small Suaeda bush, where we could get a great look at it through the scope. It perched there for several minutes, before flying off over the dunes and away west over the beach. As we got back to the boardwalk, a Sparrowhawk was circling over the pines.

img_0932Merlin – perched up for us to get a great look at it

From Lady Anne’s Drive, we walked west on the inland side of the pines. A tree was down across the path and the wardens were in the process of clearing it with chainsaws. Despite the noise, we could hear Goldcrests and Long-tailed Tits in the trees. Further along, a Treecreeper was singing. Salts Hole held a Little Grebe, a pair of Tufted Ducks, plus a few Coot and Wigeon. A Jay flew across, over the back of the water.

As we approached Washington Hide, we saw a Spoonbill fly up briefly, which appeared to drop down again, possibly onto one of the pools. We had a scan of the grazing marshes from the boardwalk by the hide, but couldn’t see it from there. A Marsh Harrier circled up out of the reedbed. Then the Spoonbill flew up again and disappeared off further west.

At Joe Jordan Hide, there didn’t seem to be as much activity as recent days at first. There was a scattering of commoner geese – Greylags, Canada Geese and Egyptian Geese – out on the grass. A small group of White-fronted Geese were feeding on the old fort, but as we sat and watched, a steady stream of small groups flew in and joined them, mostly from the other side of Decoy Wood.

6o0a8013White-fronted Geese – flying in to land on the grazing marshes

A juvenile Peregrine was standing by the edge of one of the pools further over, but took off just as we turned the scope onto it. It proceeded to have a go at most of the other birds in the vicinity, swooping down at ducks and geese, but didn’t really seem to know what it was doing. We also saw several more Marsh Harriers and Common Buzzards from here – it is often a good spot for raptors.

Finally, we managed to find the Spoonbill. It was right out across the other side of the grazing marshes and feeding in a small pool. With its head down, it was impossible to see, but just visible occasionally as it lifted its head up. Thankfully, after a while it flew out and landed on the open grass where we could get a slightly better look at it. It was a juvenile, lacking the yellow bill tip and bushy crest of the adults. There was no sign of the other three Spoonbills today, or any Great White Egrets from here.

Back at Lady Anne’s Drive, we stopped for lunch at the picnic tables over looking the grazing marshes. As well as the Wigeon still, there was a selection of waders out on the grassy pools, including Oystercatcher, Curlew and Redshank. A pair of Mistle Thrushes flew down out of the pines. After lunch, as we drove back towards the coast road, the Pink-footed Geese were now close to Lady Anne’s Drive so we stopped quickly for a better look.

6o0a8028Pink-footed Geese – nice views close to Lady Anne’s Drive after lunch

From the road, we pulled up to scan the other side of the marshes and quickly spotted a very tall white shape, a Great White Egret. We stopped and got the scope on it. Helpfully, there was a Grey Heron just next to it for comparison and we could see that the Great White Egret was as tall or even slightly taller! The long yellow-orange bill also really stood out.

img_0934Great White Egret – out on the grazing marshes at Holkham

Scanning across the marshes, we found a second Great White Egret, hiding in a reedy ditch. There were also lots more White-fronted Geese this side, which is why there were not so many visible from Joe Jordan Hide today. Amongst a flock of Lapwings and Starlings down on the wet grass, we found a little group of Ruff too.

As we made our way further west along the coast road, a shout from one of the group alerted us to a Barn Owl perched on a post right beside the road as we drove past. Never an easy place to stop, we managed to reverse back to it. It sat for a few seconds looking at us, but then flew a little further along as another car pulled up behind. Driving forwards very slowly, we were able to watch it only about 10 metres away from us. Stunning views! Eventually, the growing number of cars stopping to look seemed to spur it into action and it flew across the road and started hunting over the marshes.

6o0a8049Barn Owl – perched on a post right beside the road in the middle of the day

There has not been as much daytime Barn Owl activity this winter, which may reflect the generally mild and clement conditions we have enjoyed. It they are not hungry, then there is no need for them to hunt during the day. Presumably Storm Doris had made hunting very difficult yesterday and overnight, so this Barn Owl had come out to try to catch something during the day. We could see that it was ringed, but unfortunately couldn’t read the full number from photos. Many wild Barn Owls are ringed in the nest in North Norfolk.

After that unexpected bonus, we continued on to Titchwell, where we planned to spend the rest of the afternoon. The feeders round the visitor centre held a selection of the commoner finches and tits, but no sign of any Brambling today. The Water Rail put on a good show, feeding out in the open in the ditch by the main path, probing in the decaying leaves, seemingly unconcerned by the large lenses pointed at it.

6o0a8104Water Rail – still in the ditch by the path

The grazing meadow was rather quiet again but the reedbed pool did at least provide Common Pochard as an addition for the day’s list. The water levels on the freshmarsh have been slowly coming down and there was a nice selection of birds on here today.

The first thing that struck us when we arrived was the gulls. There were large numbers of Black-headed Gulls and Common Gulls loafing on the edges of the islands or in the shallow water. In with them were a few Herring Gulls and Lesser Black-backed Gulls. We had a scan through from Island Hide, but it was only from further up that a Mediterranean Gull was visible. It was an adult, with white wing tips and bright red bill, just moulting in to summer plumage, with white speckling still around the front of its jet black hood.

img_0949Mediterranean Gull – an adult moulting into summer plumage

There was still the usual variety of ducks on the freshmarsh. The Teal were looking particularly smart, in the afternoon sunshine, just below the path. Further over, we could see a selection of Wigeon, Gadwall, Shoveler and a pair of Pintail. A large flock of Brent Geese flew in from the saltmarsh towards Brancaster, calling noisily, and landed on the water to bathe and preen.

6o0a8122Teal – a smart drake in the sunshine

Wader numbers on the freshmarsh are increasing now, in particular the number of Avocets, as birds return north. There were also more Black-tailed Godwits today, though mostly sleeping in amongst the gulls. A small group of Dunlin included a single Knot for comparison. Singles of Grey Plover and Turnstone had presumably flown in from the beach ahead of high tide. The fenced off Avocet Island at the back was packed with Golden Plover and Lapwing, with more small flocks of Golden Plover dropping in to join them all the time.

6o0a8190Curlew – on the Volunteer Marsh

There were more waders on the Volunteer Marsh. As well as more Knot, Dunlin and Grey Plover, there were lots of Redshank and Curlew. A single Ringed Plover was a welcome addition to the day’s list. With high tide approaching, more waders were roosting on the Tidal Pools, particularly several Bar-tailed Godwits. This gave us a great opportunity to compare them to a couple of Black-tailed Godwits feeding nearby. Even without seeing their respective tails, the buffier tones, black streaked upperparts, shorter legs and upturned bill all quickly distinguish the Bar-tailed Godwits.

6o0a8144Avocet – on the Tidal Pools

There were also more Knot and Redshank on the Tidal Pools, and several Avcoets feeding, including one close to the path.

We wanted to have a look at the sea, but there was not as much activity out here as there has been in recent weeks. There was still a big swell running, after the storm yesterday, and several of the ducks appeared to be quiet a way offshore. Fortunately, there was a nice group of about twenty Velvet Scoters close in, diving for shellfish. Several were holding their wings loosely folded, revealing the white wing flash as a stripe on their flanks. The face pattern is rather variable, particularly at this time of year, but it was possible to see the distinctive white spot at the base of the bill on some.

Helpfully, there was also a female Common Scoter with them for comparison, with a very extensive pale cheek and dark cap, and no white wing flash. There were more Common and Velvet Scoters in a larger raft much further out. A female Goldeneye drifted past in front of them, but most of the other Goldeneyes were a long way offshore today. A Fulmar flew past too.

Back at the Tidal Pools, we stopped to look again at a group of roosting waders, particularly with Bar-tailed Godwit and Black-tailed Godwit side by side. But a scan further along revealed that a Spotted Redshank had flown in while we were out at the beach. We walked back and had great views of it feeding in the shallows not far from the path. With a Common Redshank nearby for comparison, we could see that the Spotted Redshank was noticeably paler, more silvery grey above and whiter below, with a longer and finer bill and a better marked, brighter white supercilium.

6o0a8170Spotted Redshank – had flown in to the Tidal Pools while we were on the beach

As we passed the freshmarsh on our way back, the Golden Plovers and Lapwings all spooked, They took off and whirled round in flocks overhead, the Golden Plovers particularly tight packed. We couldn’t see anything which might have alarmed them, although they had been jumpy all afternoon, and they quickly settled back down again.

6o0a8192Golden Plovers – whirling around over the freshmarsh

A quick look down along one of the reedy channels in the reedbed revealed a Kingfisher, perched up on a reed along the edge. We had a quick look at it through the scope, before another bird spooked it and it flew off across the reeds. We looked back to see a second Kingfisher had appeared, presumably having chased off the first. Then it was time to call it a day and head for home.

21st Feb 2017 – From Heath to Coast

A Private Tour today in North Norfolk. The brief was to avoid the main nature reserves on the coast. The forecast was for it to be “rather cloudy with outbreaks of light rain at first” according to the Met Office. How wrong it was! Instead, when we met up in the morning it was wall to wall blue sky and crisp sunshine. With weather like that, there was only one place to start the day.

As soon was got out of the car up on the Heath, we heard a Woodlark calling as it flew away. A dog was running across the cleared area nearby and had probably just flushed it. Still, it seemed an auspicious start. A Yellowhammer flew in and landed in the top of one of the bushes by the car park. A smart male, we got it in the scope and its yellow head was positively glowing in the morning light. Stunning!

6o0a7787Yellowhammer – a smart male glowing yellow in the morning sun

A couple more Yellowhammers dropped in to join it, another male and a duller female. While we were watching them, we heard the Woodlark calling again as it flew back in. We saw where it landed in the long grass and walked a little closer to where we could see it. Thankfully, it was standing up on a slightly taller tussock and it started to sing softly as it stood there. We got it in the scope and all had a good look at it.

When the Woodlark took off again, it flew straight towards us and gained height. Then it started singing as it came right overhead, hovering above us for a minute or so. The Woodlark‘s song is not full of the joys like a Skylark but slightly more melancholy. It is still a beautiful sound, a real delight to stand and listen to it on such a sunny morning, one of the real sounds of early spring on the heaths. As it hung overhead, we could see the Woodlark‘s comparatively short tail and broad rounded wings.

6o0a7796Woodlark – hovering over our heads this morning, singing

After a while, the Woodlark flew down and landed again at the back of the clearing. We were planning to be greedy and go over for another look at it, but we were distracted by another smart male Yellowhammer hopping around on the ground in front of us. While we were watching it, the Woodlark took off again, calling. A second Woodlark got up from the ground and followed it – clearly the male had been singing while the female was feeding quietly over the back of the clearing all along.

Sunny mornings on the Heath at this time of the year are a great time to look for Adders. Having emerged from hibernation, they like to bask in the sunshine and warm themselves. We walked round to an area where we can often find them, a slope angled towards the morning sun. Very quickly we spotted one close to the path, but despite the early hour of the morning it was surprisingly lively already and quickly slithered off into the undergrowth. As we walked round this quiet corner, we heard a Bullfinch calling and looked across to see a smart pink male picking at the buds in the top of a dense blackthorn thicket.

After such a successful start to the morning, we decided to turn our attention to Dartford Warblers next. They are resident on the heaths all year round, but harder to find when it is cloudy and cold. At this time of year, on sunny days, they are starting to sing again. Walking round through the centre of one of their regular territories, all seemed rather quiet at first. Then we heard a distinctive rasping call and looked across to see a small dark long-tailed bird dart across a clearing between two gorse bushes. Our first Dartford Warbler.

Repositioning ourselves to where it had flown, we could soon see the Dartford Warbler flitting between the gorse bushes. As we followed it, it soon became clear there were actually at least three Dartford Warblers in the same area. They can be hard birds to track, as they are constantly on the move, disappearing into the dense vegetation for periods and then, just when you think you have lost them, flying out again. Occasionally one would perch out in the open for a couple of seconds – we could see there was a male, darker slate blue grey above and richer burgundy below, a duller female, and a young bird, much browner above and paler below, one of the juveniles from last year.

6o0a7835Dartford Warbler – the male singing from the top of a gorse bush

The male Dartford Warbler started singing. We could hear the bursts of scratchy song. At one point, we thought there might be two males, as we heard different bursts of song coming from different places in quick succession. After following them for a while, and having all enjoyed good views, we left them to it and continued our circuit of the Heath. As we walked round, were accompanied by the song of Woodlarks and Yellowhammers.

It was a perfect day for finding Adders today. We bumped into one of the local birders who is a regular on the Heath and he showed us three Adders basking round the base of a birch tree. A larger, darker female was stretched out on her own. Nearby, what looked like one snake turned out to be two curled up together as they moved – a large, dark female, and a smaller, slimmer, paler silvery male. A little further on, we found another two Adders, curled up in a couple of bare patches on a south facing bank. We had a great look at them.

6o0a7846Adder – we found at least six out basking this morning in a brief look

We had a quick look round another Dartford Warbler territory the other side of the Heath, but it was quieter here. There has been a pair of Stonechats here and the warblers have been following them round, but we couldn’t find any sign of either in their favourite area. Having enjoyed such a great session with the Dartford Warblers earlier, we weren’t overly concerned.

While we were walking round, another pair of Woodlarks flew over. The male landed on a post, where we could get him in the scope, while the female dropped down to the ground to feed. We were just watching them, when a third Woodlark started singing just behind us. These three were almostly certainly different to the pair we had seen earlier, which would mean potentially three pairs of Woodlark here this morning. It had been a great morning on the Heath and we could easily have stayed here all day, but we had other things we wanted to do today, so we made our way back to the car.

Our next destination was Holkham. As we drove down along Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see a large flock of geese on one of the grazing meadows nearby, so we stopped for a closer look. We could see they were mostly Brent Geese, smaller and darker, but nearby were a few grey-brown Pink-footed Geese too. A lot of the Pink-footed Geese which have spent the winter here have already departed on their way back north, so it was nice to be able to get a good look at some. We could see their delicate mostly dark bills with a pink band around and, when one stood up in the grass, its pink legs.

6o0a7850Pink-footed Geese – a few were still by Lady Anne’s Drive today

The vast majority of the Brent Geese here during the winter are Dark-bellied Brent Geese which breed up in arctic Russia. Occasionally, we get one of the other subspecies of Brent Goose in with the flocks, perhaps a Black Brant from NE Siberia or Alaska. In the past, some of these Black Brants have paired up and subsequently bred with one of the Dark-bellied Brents to produce hybrid young. One of these hybrids is a regular here at Holkham and a careful scan through the Brent flock revealed it. Subtly darker bodied than the others, it has a better marked white collar and more obvious whiter flank patch then the others.

img_0864Black Brant hybrid – a regular in with the Dark-bellied Brents at Holkham

While we were watching the geese, we could hear Lapwings starting to display on the fields behind us, giving their distinctive song. There were also still some big flocks of Wigeon grazing close to the road, whistling occasionally. Several Common Buzzards were enjoying the sunshine, circling up into the blue sky and even starting to display, swooping up and down. It was getting on for lunchtime already, so we decided to have an early lunch here before setting off to explore.

After lunch, we walked out onto the beach and made our way east alone the edge of the saltmarsh. At first there was no sign of the large flock of Shorelarks which has been feeding here for the last few weeks. We were told they had earlier been flushed by an errant dog running around there. We walked across for a look at the sea, in the hope that they might return. The tide was in and there was not so much activity here today – a few Great Crested Grebes and a single drake Goldeneye were all we could find riding out on the slightly choppy sea.

There were three birders eating their lunch in the dunes nearby, looking out through their scopes at the saltmarsh, so we walked back round to see if they had seen anything. Very helpfully, they got us on to six Shorelarks which were feeding half hidden in the taller vegetation out in the middle. We were looking into the sun from here, so we walked back round to the other side.

6o0a7902Shorelark – six were hiding in the taller vegetation on the saltmarsh

The Shorelarks were hard to see with their heads down while feeding, but occasionally one would look up and a bright yellow face would catch the sun. Then we could get a great look at them through the scope, admiring their black bandit masks and even occasionally get a glimpse of the black horns on the side of their heads. A Skylark was feeding nearby and a second flew in to join it, perhaps a male as it raised its crest and drew itself up erect, looking like it might be about to display to the first, before the two of them resumed feeding. As the Shorelarks gradually worked their way back deeper into the vegetation, we left them to it.

Back at :Lady Anne’s Drive, we made our way west along the path on the inland side of the pines. At this point it started to cloud over from the west. There were lots of Long-tailed Tits feeding high in the poplars as we passed. At Salts Hole, we stopped to watch a Little Grebe diving on the edge of the reeds. A couple of Mistle Thrush and a few Curlew were feeding on the grassy field beyond.

We had a quick scan from the raised boardwalk by Washington Hide. A Marsh Harrier circled up from the reeds. A Sparrowhawk flew past with something in its talons, trailing several long strands of grass with whatever prey it had grasped. Two Pintail flew in and landed on the pool, an adult drake with a long pin-shaped tail and a younger male without.

6o0a7917Spoonbills – 2 of the 4 circling round over the trees

As we approached Joe Jordan Hide, we got a glimpse through the trees of four white shapes taking off from the pool in front and through binoculars we could see they were Spoonbills. From up in the hide, we watched them circling round over the trees beyond, long white necks held outstretched in front. Eventually they landed again on the edge of the pool and started to preen before quickly going to sleep – which is what Spoonbills seem to like to do best! Two were adults and through the scope we could see their bushy nuchal crests flapping around in the breeze. When they did lift their heads we could see the yellow tips to their bills.

img_0889Spoonbills – the adults with bushy crests and yellow-tipped bills

There were lost of geese out on the grazing marshes all around, mostly White-fronted Geese. They were hard to count, as they kept flying round in small groups and landing in different places or dropping down out of view. Sitting in the hide, we could hear their yelping calls every time a party flew past, a constant backdrop to our visit. There were several hundreds here today, more than there seem to have been through much of the winter, perhaps boosted by other groups stopping off before departing back to their breeding grounds in Russia.

We got some of the White-fronted Geese in the scope, so we could see the white surround to the bill from which they get their name, and the black belly bars on the adults. At one point, a small group landed next to some Greylags and we could see the White-fronted Geese were notably smaller and darker overall, as well as having a smaller pink bill compared to the large orange carrot sported by the Greylags.

6o0a7924White-fronted Geese – their were large numbers at Holkham today

Scanning through the White-fronted Geese, we found a couple of smaller white-faced Barnacle Geese in with them. It would be nice to think that these also might be winter visitors from the arctic, but their status is complicated by feral populations, including in Holkham Park. There were also some Canada Geese here and several pairs of Egyptian Geese – a couple of more obviously feral geese species to round out the overall variety.

While we were looking through the geese, we noticed a large raptor flying low over the grassy ridge in the distance. It was clearly slimmer winged and tailed than the commoner Marsh Harriers and, as it turned, we could see a square white rump patch. It was a Hen Harrier, a ringtail. Unfortunately, it continued off away from us and it was not a great view, but a nice bird to see out hunting here nonetheless.

We had hoped we might see a Great White Egret here, but there was no sign at first. We were just thinking about leaving, when a large white shape walked out of some dense reeds on one side of the marshes. It was clearly huge, even with the naked eye, but through the scope we could see its long yellow bill. It was strutted across and went back into some deeper reeds, where it stood motionless fishing and it was surprisingly hard to see for such a large bird.

After a short while, the Great White Egret flew across and landed on the far side of one of the reedy ditches. Then a second Great White Egret flew out from nearby and chased after it, the two of them flying off together before eventually disappearing disappearing round behind the trees.

6o0a7954Great White Egret – a second flew in and chased off the first

Time was getting on now, so we decided to head back to the car. We still had time for one more stop on our journey back, so we turned off the coast road at Stiffkey Greenway on our way back east. Scanning the saltmarsh, we first picked up a Marsh Harrier working its way slowly along the grassy ridge at the back. It didn’t take us long to pick up our first Hen Harrier, a ringtail, hanging over the saltmarsh away to the west. We got it in the scope and got a good view of it, much better than the one we had seen earlier at Holkham. Even better, it then drifted back east and started hunting the saltmarsh out in front of us.

6o0a7986Hen Harrier – a ringtail hunting over the saltmarsh

At one point, as it quartered the saltmarsh, the Hen Harrier flushed a Merlin from the bushes below. Small and dark, it flew off swiftly low over the vegetation. It looked like it would disappear into the distance, but thankfully it landed on a dead branch and started preening, so we could all get a look at it through the scope.

As we looked out over the marshes, another ringtail Hen Harrier made its way in purposefully from the east and across in front of us. We were really hoping to see a male Hen Harrier, but they kept us waiting a bit this evening. We did get an early glimpse of one, but it disappeared down into the vegetation very distantly to the west and didn’t reappear. Eventually one flew in from the west towards us, at the back of the saltmarsh. It flew past a male Marsh Harrier, giving a nice comparison of size and shape, the Hen Harrier a ghostly grey apparition. When it flew up against the grey sky, it almost disappeared.

After quartering the saltmarsh for a while, the male Hen Harrier dropped down into the vegetation at the back. We saw it fly up again briefly and we could just see its pale head in the grass occasionally, but it was clearly in no rush to fly again. It was a nice way to end the day, watching the harriers, so with the light fading we decided to head for home.

21st Jan 2017 – Winter Birds & Owls, Day 2

Day 2 of a three day long weekend of Winter & Owl Tours, and we headed down to the Norfolk Broads today. It was frosty overnight and cloudy today, although it did brighten up a bit later on and there was no sign of any of the forecast patchy fog.

Our first stop was at Ludham. The field which had held all the swans last time we were down was looking comparatively empty today. There were six Bewick’s Swans here – we got them in the scope and could see the squared off yellow on the adults’ bills – but no sign of the rest of the big herd. The large flock of Egyptian Geese were still here though – about 30 today.

6o0a4076Egyptian Goose – part of the large flock still at Ludham

This is a good vantage point from which to scan the rest of the old airfield and we could see some more white shapes distantly away to the north. So we set off round to the other side for a closer look. Sure enough, we found the rest of the swans, though they were separated into two groups. We stopped by the first group which were feeding in a winter wheat field. There were 73 swans in total in this field – 13 Whooper Swans and 60 Bewick’s Swans. Another two pairs of Bewick’s Swans flew in calling and dropped down to join them.

6o0a4089Whooper & Bewick’s Swans – part of the herd between Ludham & Catfield

It is always nice to see the two species side by side. Next to the Bewick’s Swans, the Whooper Swans are much larger and longer necked. Their bills are also proportionately longer, and the yellow on the bill extends down towards the tip in a pointed wedge. In contrast, the Bewick’s Swans’ yellow is more restricted and squared off. There was also a lone Pink-footed Goose in the field with them.

6o0a4086Bewick’s & Whooper Swans – nicely showing the size & bill differences

Having had a good look at this group of swans, we drove a little further up the road and found a much larger herd. There was no easy place to stop here, but we managed a quick count – there were at least 108 birds in total, again a mixture of Whooper Swans and Bewick’s Swans, and predominantly the latter.

Our next target was to find some Cranes. We drove further into the Broads and stopped at a convenient vantage point from where we can see across an area where we know they like to feed. A quick scan of the marshes and we could see a single Crane some distance away, so we got out of the car and set up the scopes. Now there was no sign of it! For a bird which stands over a metre tall, they can be very hard to see and it had walked some distance along behind some reeds. As it walked back out, we could see there were two Cranes and then they took to the air and we could see there were actually four of them.

6o0a4099Cranes – a family party, two adults and two juveniles

The Cranes flew off behind some trees but a minute or so later they reappeared again. At the same time, another pair of Cranes appeared and flew over past them and disappeared from view. When the part of four landed back down on the marshes, we looked across to see yet another pair still down in the field beyond, making eight birds in total. Not a bad start to our Crane viewing!

We got the scopes on the party of four Cranes and could see there were two brighter adults and two duller grey juveniles, with less well-marked head patterns. We watched them walking around on the grass feeding.

img_0001Cranes – the family of four were feeding out on the marshes

After a helpful tip off from some locals that the Taiga Bean Geese were showing at Buckenham, we made our way straight over there next. After walking over the railway line, we stopped on the track and scanned the grazing marshes. Sure enough, we could see the six Taiga Bean Geese out in the grass towards their favoured corner. We had a look at them from here, through the scope, then quickly scanned the rest of the marshes.

There were a couple of Chinese Water Deer feeding out on the grass in front, so we stopped to have a good look at those. While we did so, we heard a Redpoll calling and watched it drop into a large bush overhanging one of the ditches. It had presumably come in to bathe or drink, because it quickly dropped down out of view. We walked round to the other side of the bush but couldn’t see it, then as we made our way back, three Redpolls flew off calling. Next, a single Siskin dropped in to the same bush but, more helpfully, it perched in the top for a few seconds so we could get a look at it. There were also two Redwings which flew in and landed in the tops of the trees the other side of the railway line.

We decided to walk down along the platform to try to get a closer look at the Taiga Bean Geese. Unfortunately, by this stage they had walked back further across the marshes, so were still not especially close. Still, when they put their heads up we could see the more extensive orange on their bills, compared to the Tundra Beans we had seen yesterday.

img_0009Taiga Bean Goose – 1 of the 6 still at Buckenham, helpfully with its head up

Back to the track, and we walked on down towards the river. There were not many Wigeon beside the track today – they were all much further out, across the back of the marshes. A smart adult Peregrine was perched out on a tussock, so had possibly flushed all the wildfowl from this side. The Common Snipe were also very nervous – at least thirty of them flew up from the marshes and circled round before dropping back down onto the edge of one of the channels in a tight flock.

There were lots more geese further over, towards the river, the majority being Pink-footed Geese. As we walked along, we periodically stopped to scan through them. In the first group nearest to us we found two White-fronted Geese. When they put their heads up we could see the white surround to their bills and their black belly bars. There were lots more White-fronted Geese scattered through the flocks of Pinkfeet further back too.

img_0046White-fronted Geese – two were with the nearest group of Pinkfeet

Out by the river, the pools were partly frozen and devoid of ducks. We had a quick look at the river itself from up on the bank, but all we could see were a few ducks, Mallard, Teal and Wigeon. In the field by the hide, a pair of Stonechats were feeding, perching on the taller dead seedheads. It was cold out on the marshes, exposed to the chill of the light wind, so we decided to head back. The Stonechats lead the way, and we met them again half way back.

6o0a4115Stonechat – a pair were feeding on the marshes at Buckenham

Strumpshaw Fen provided a sheltered picnic table for lunch, and the option of a hot drink from the visitor centre. The pool by Reception Hide was still largely frozen and most of the ducks were feeding in the small patch of open water by the reeds, or standing around on the ice. There were quite a few Gadwall, plus a handful of Teal and Shoveler, and the ubiquitous Mallards. The Black Swan had found somewhere quieter, a little further back.

6o0a4140Gadwall, Teal, Shoveler & Mallard – around the small area of open water

While we were eating lunch, we kept one eye on the feeders nearby. There was a steady stream of Blue Tits and Great Tits coming and going. Periodically a Marsh Tit would dart in, grab a sunflower heart, and dart back out to the bushes behind. A single Coal Tit popped in briefly too. Nearby, in the trees, a Lesser Redpoll appeared in the tops briefly. Some mournful piping calls alerted us to a smart male Bullfinch, which flew in and landed in a tree briefly, before flying off over towards the railway.

After lunch, we drove round via Halvergate. The four Cattle Egrets which were here at the start of January have now been reduced to one and even that only seems to visit here very occasionally. We had a quick look but couldn’t see it. Just a single Little Egret flew up from the grass and dropped down behind some reeds further over.

Haddiscoe Island is a great place for raptors and owls, so we wanted to have a look there next. There has been a Rough-legged Buzzard here this winter, but at first all we could find were a few Common Buzzards, including a stunningly pale one with very white underparts.

We could hear Bearded Tits calling so we stopped by the reeds and managed to find four feeding in the tops. Two males with powder blue heads and black moustaches and two browner females, we had a great view of them.

img_0054Bearded Tit – one of the males feeding in the reeds

There were lots of other raptors too. A Merlin had a dogfight with a pipit, climbing high into the air, the two birds jinking and swooping in unison, before the Merlin eventually lost interest. A little later, we found another, a smart male Merlin perched on a gatepost, with a Sparrowhawk on another gate nearby. A ghostly grey male Hen Harrier worked its way backwards and forwards over the grass. A Barn Owl flew up and down along the river banks.Time was running out, and we were about to leave when we finally found the Rough-legged Buzzard perched on a post out on Haddiscoe Island.

Our final destination for the day was Stubb Mill. Given the time we spent at Haddiscoe, we were later than we had hoped for getting back round there. On the way, we passed the area where we had seen the Cranes earlier just as the family of four took off to fly to roost. We could see them from the car as they flew over the trees parallel with us. We left them behind, but were stopped by some roadworks further along. Once we eventually got through the lights, we found the four Cranes had overtaken us and nearly flew over the car. On the walk out to the watchpoint, we were treated to the evocative sound of Cranes bugling beyond the trees. We were a bit late this evening, but thankfully, when we got there, it didn’t sound like we had missed anything yet.

There were already a few Marsh Harriers in to roost, perched out in the bushes in the reeds. A steady stream of more Marsh Harriers flew in to join them, coming in from all different directions. It didn’t take long for the first Hen Harrier to appear, another grey male, flying in through the bushes at the back, over the reeds. A short while later, a ringtail Hen Harrier flew in too, a little closer, along the front edge of the reeds. It was hotting up!

There were other birds here too. A flock of Fieldfares were hiding down in the grass behind the reeds until they flew up and all landed in a low hawthorn bush, where we could get them in the scope. A Tawny Owl hooted from the trees behind us. A Barn Owl flew in across the marshes and round behind the mill.

The two resident Cranes were hiding behind the reeds – we could just see the occasional head pop up for a second. Then we spotted another pair coming in to roost, flying in distantly to the east, over beyond Horsey Mill, before dropping down behind the bushes. It seemed like that might be it, until just when most people had started to leave, we heard Cranes calling away to the north. We scanned over in that direction and picked up a large flock flying in, twenty Cranes, all in the air together. It was quite a spectacle!

The Cranes were in two groups. Eleven of them appeared to drop down into the reeds, and three more peeled off from the other nine, which had been slightly ahead of them. These three turned back and seemed to go down towards where the eleven had gone. The final six Cranes carried on, flying steadily south and right past in front of the watchpoint. A great sight! As they flew over calling, the resident pair bugled back to them and finally emerged from where they had been hiding. That was a perfect way to end the day – 24 Cranes in total this evening, taking our total for the day to a whopping 32.

We walked back with flocks of White-fronted Geese and Pink-footed Geese heading off to roost and with the sound of more Cranes bugling still across the marshes.

7th Jan 2017 – Broads in the Mist

The first tour of 2017, and it was down to the Norfolk Broads today. It was a misty start and, contrary to the forecast, the mist never really lifted completely all day. But it was clear enough, pretty much dry throughout, not too cold – not a bad day to be out and about.

Our first stop was at Ludham. As we pulled up alongside the field which the swans have been favouring, the first thing we saw was a load of Egyptian Geese right beside the road, about 60 of them. Quite a sight!

6o0a3302Egyptian Geese – a few of the 60 that were in the fields at Ludham today

Through the mist, we could make out lots and lots of white shapes and through binoculars we could see they were the swans. Out of the car, we got them in the scope, fortuitously straight onto a view with a Bewick’s Swan and a Whooper Swan side by side in the foreground! One of the nice things about this herd of swans is that it is generally mixed, giving a great opportunity to compare the two species side by side. We could see the Whooper was noticeably larger and longer necked that the Bewick’s Swan and yellow on the bill of the Whooper Swan extends down towards the tip in a pointed wedge.

6o0a3299Whooper & Bewick’s Swans – in the mist this morning

A quick count revealed there were 123 swans of which 23 were Whooper Swans and 100 Bewick’s Swans. Numbers of Whoopers have been pretty static since the turn of the year, but the number of Bewick’s here has increased, perhaps with birds moving in from the continent in response to colder weather over there.

Across the other side of the road, a field of sugar beet had recently been harvested and loaded onto lorries to be taken away – although several large beet and a significant quantity of accompanying mud had been deposited into the road! A single Egyptian Goose was feeding on the beet tops which had been left behind out in the field and, after a quick scan, we found two more geese in the field over at the back. Through the scope, we could just make out their orange legs and orange-banded dark bill – they were Tundra Bean Geese. There are two subspecies of Bean Goose which regularly winter in the UK – Tundra and Taiga Bean Goose. A variable number of Tundra Bean Geese come over each winter and are more often found in with the large flocks of Pink-footed Geese.

Having taken our fill of the swans, we set off again and made our way south. On the way, we came across a huge flock of geese in another large recently cut sugar beet field by the side of the road. Unfortunately, there was nowhere to stop and lots of traffic but we marveled at them as we drove past. Most of the flock was comprised of thousands of Pink-footed Geese. We could also make out three swans with them, more Whooper Swans. Quite a sight!

We had hoped to pick up a few Cranes in the fields on our travels, but it was still too misty to see far from the roads. We decided to head for Halvergate. There have been four Cattle Egrets here since before Christmas, which we hoped to catch up with. There was no sign of them at first. We could see several cows out on the grazing marshes, so we walked along the road to where we could get a better view to see if anything was with them.

One of the group noticed something swimming in the ditch next to the road, but it disappeared into the near bank. Then something else appeared on the far bank, a Weasel. We walked up to where it had been and there was no sign of it at first. But then suddenly it appeared again out of the grass and ran out across a wooden cattle bridge. We had great views of it as it ran in and out of the wooden sleepers on the bridge, then ran back along the far bank of the ditch, looking for something to eat.

6o0a3306Weasel – ran up and down the river bank in front of us

A white shape appeared out of the rushes on the bank of one of the ditches further back and flew out to join the cows, landing in among their feet. It was one of the Cattle Egret. It was darting in and out of the cows’ legs, and the cattle helpfully then walked out of the rushes and onto the shorter grass, bringing the Cattle Egret with them. We got a great look at it through the scope.

img_9704Cattle Egret – 1 of the 4 birds at Halvergate showed very well

Cattle Egret is a species which has been spreading north out of its historic core range in Spain and Portugal. It has yet to properly colonise the UK, like the Little Egret has done, although it did breed in Somerset in 2008. It is prone to irruptions and this winter a large number have arrived into the UK again. Hopefully, some might stay to breed again in this country again in 2017!

While we were watching the Cattle Egret, there were a few other birds around the marshes here. A Grey Heron was showing well in the same field as the cows, and a pair of Stonechats was feeding in among the cattle too, perching up on the taller dead thistles between dropping down to the ground after insects churned up in the mud.

Visibility improved while we were at Halvergate and, driving round to Cantley next, the sun appeared finally to be breaking through. Could it burn off the mist? Unfortunately it was short-lived, and by the time we got to Cantley Marshes the mist had descended again. There were no geese immediately visible directly in front of the gate, where they have been feeding recently. However, we could see quite a number of Marsh Harriers all standing out in the grass. There were at least five of them and they kept flying round from time to time before landing again. When one of them landed closer, we could see it was carrying green wing tags and through the scope we could see it had the code ‘VC’. Checking later, we found that it had been tagged as a nestling at Hardley in the Norfolk Broads in July 2016, so she hadn’t ventured too far afield.

Scanning further round, we could see lots of Pink-footed Geese out to the left of us. We could see their dark heads and necks and small, dark bills with a variable pink band. One of them was carrying a grey neck collar with the code ‘N29’. Checking online later, we could see that this goose was ringed in Denmark in March 2009. It was seen in Denmark again in September-December 2009, before moving over to Buckenham Marshes in Norfolk in January 2010.In subsequent winters, it has been seen in Lancashire, Scotland and even the Netherlands, but has also regularly been seen in Norfolk and particularly at Buckenham and Cantley. Interesting stuff, showing the benefit of colour marking birds in tracking their subsequent movements.

Eventually we found the White-fronted Geese too, out to the right, along the railway line. There was still quite a bit of mist and they were rather distant, which made them harder to see. We could just see their white fronts when they lifted their heads – the white surround to the base of the adults’ bills. There were also two Ruff out in the grass, one of which was sporting a rather striking pure white head which made it easier to see (the males are rather variable in winter, much as they are in breeding plumage). However, we couldn’t see any sign of any Taiga Bean Geese here today.

When several birds started alarm calling behind us, we turned to see a young Peregrine disappearing off over the houses. A couple of seconds later, it flew back towards us and off along the railway towards Buckenham. The next time we herd the birds getting upset, we turned to see an adult Peregrine flying low across the grazing marshes. It flushed a Common Snipe and chased it half-heartedly. Then a second adult Peregrine flew in behind it, and had a quick go at a passing Lapwing. Both adult Peregrines then flew across the grass and landed on a gate, where we could see them perched distantly, clearly the resident local pair.

We made our way round to Buckenham Marshes next, just a short distance as the Peregrine or Pink-footed Goose flies, but a rather more circuitous drive. We walked out over the railway again and down the rough track across the marshes. There is a particular area of the marshes which is favoured by the Taiga Bean Geese when they are here, and a quick glance across revealed a small party of geese in the distance. Through the scope and through the mist we could just make out that they were indeed the Taiga Bean Geese, but they didn’t help matters by disappearing into some taller vegetation.

Thinking we would have another look for them on the way back, we carried on down the track. There were some nice groups of Wigeon feeding on the grass close to the path, giving us a great opportunity to get a close look at them. The drakes are looking especially smart now, with their rusty brown heads and creamy yellow foreheads, looking like someone has attacked them with a paintbrush.

6o0a3326Wigeon – a drake showing the creamy yellow stripe up its forehead

A smart Common Snipe posed nicely for us next to one of the small wet pools out in the grass. Several Meadow Pipits flew back and forth across the track and one settled briefly on the mud for us to look at it. A couple of Little Egrets chased each other up and down one of the ditches. A single adult Peregrine was preening on one of the many wooden gates out on the marshes, and this one was much closer than the pair we had seen earlier at Cantley, giving us a great view of it through the scope.

img_9710Peregrine – this adult posed nicely for us at Buckenham

Up towards the river bank, the pools held a few more ducks. Among the many Teal, we managed to find a few Shoveler. On one of the small islands, two small waders were running around in among the Teal, a couple of Dunlin. There were lots of Lapwing around the marshes too.

Walking back towards the railway crossing, we could not see any sign of the Taiga Bean Geese. However, we could get rather closer to where we had earlier seen them by walking down the railway platform. When we got to the end, there they were out on the grazing marsh, around 20 Taiga Bean Geese. We had a much better view of them from here, despite the lingering mist. We could see the more extensive orange on their bills compared to the Tundra Bean Geese we had seen earlier this morning. A very small number of Taiga Bean Geese winter regularly in the UK, from the declining breeding population in Sweden, but they are very faithful to only two sites, one group here in Norfolk and one at Slamannan in Scotland.

img_9721Taiga Bean Geese – about 20 were at Buckenham today

It was getting on for lunchtime, so we headed round to Strumpshaw Fen. We ate our lunch overlooking the pool in front of reception hide. There was a good number of Gadwall and Coot out on the water, plus a few Shoveler and a single Cormorant drying its wings on a post. More Cormorants were standing in the dead trees in the distance, over towards the river, and four or five Marsh Harriers circled over the reeds.

The resident escaped Black Swan was also standing on the edge of the pool, a reminder of home for the Australian contingent in the group today! A Cetti’s Warbler sang briefly and was then to be heard calling in the reeds. More obliging was the very smart Kingfisher which perched on a curved reed stem out in full view in front of us.

img_9728Kingfisher – posed very nicely for us at Strumpshaw Fen over lunch

Once we had finished eating, we turned our attention to the feeders behind us. There were  lots of Blue Tits and Great Tits coming in and out all the time. It didn’t take long before our attention was rewarded with a single Marsh Tit. Several times it darted in, grabbed a seed and disappeared back into the trees behind to eat it, before flying across to the woods beyond.

We drove round via Ranworth next, and had a quick look at Malthouse Broad. On a tour to the Broads, it is always nice to see a proper broad! On the lawn on the edge of the moorings, a tame Pink-footed Goose was feeding with three Greylag Geese. It was an odd place to see one, but great to see it up front and in close comparison with the Greylags. The Pink-footed Goose appeared to have an injured wing, which would probably explain why it was here.

6o0a3352Pink-footed Goose – this apparently injured bird was feeding with the local Greylags

There were lots of Tufted Ducks and Coot out on the water. A single Little Grebe was hiding at the back of the broad, under the overhanging trees. Unfortunately there was no sign of the Ferruginous Duck which had been here for a couple of days, though by all accounts it was very tame so was best described as of ‘uncertain origin’!!

At this point the mist appeared to start rolling in again, so we decided to head back to look for Cranes in case visibility deteriorated much further again. At our first stop, we could only see a lone Grey Heron initially. Then we noticed two large, pale grey shapes in the distance. Through scope, we could just see they were two Cranes, walking about half obscured behind the reeds. It was hard for everyone to get onto them, given the combination of vegetation and mist. We figured we might be able to see them better from further along road.

img_9742Crane – one of a pair we found in the fields today

After a short drive, we managed to pull off the road and got out. The Cranes were much easier to see from here and the whole group got good views of them through the scope. Such huge and majestic birds, it is great to see them wild in the Norfolk countryside. After watching them feeding happily for some time, they suddenly took off and circled round, their long necks held out in front and long trailing legs behind, before dropping back down behind some trees out of view. Great stuff!

It was then time to head back to Hickling for the last of the afternoon’s activities. As we walked out past Stubb Mill, a single Goldcrest was flicking around in the bushes.

From the watchpoint, one of the resident pair of Cranes was visible on arrival, standing behind the reeds. We watched it walking up and down, before it disappeared from view behind the vegetation. Sometime later, it appeared again with its partner in tow.

There were lots of finches around the mill bushes – Chaffinches, Linnets, a Greenfinch. While we were standing watching the comings and goings over the marshes a small flock of Bramblings flew in. Most of them dropped down to the path below, presumably to drink, but one perched up nicely for us in the top of one of the bushes. Through the scope, we could see its bright orange shoulders. A flock of Fieldfares also perched up in the trees just behind. An extended family of Long-tailed Tits appeared in the trees from our left and made their way back and forth through the bushes right in front of the watchpoint.

A steady trickle of harriers flew in to roost. Most of them were Marsh Harriers, at least 30 today. They flew in from all directions, and several of them perched up in the bushes in the reeds. We also saw two male Hen Harriers, both smart grey males, though they were a little distant this evening. They both came in from the south and flew steadily in over the reeds towards the gathering of Marsh Harriers. A Merlin was more obliging, and perched up in the bushes on the near edge of the reeds so we could get it in the scope. We had hoped for more Cranes to fly in at dusk, but the mist descended and visibility deteriorated again.

We had seen all we wanted to see, so we decided to call it a night. A Tawny Owl hooted briefly from the bushes by the mill and, on the walk back, we could hear a second Tawny Owl calling and a third hooting back in the car park. A nice way to end a very enjoyable – and successful – winter’s day in the Broads.