Day 1 of five days of Spring Migration tours today. It was a cloudy start, but brightened up in the afternoon – a lovely sunny and warm end to the day.
Our destination for the morning was Burnham Overy Dunes. A Marsh Harrier was calling away towards the village as we got out of the car. As we walked down along Whincover, we could hear a Lesser Whitethroat singing its distinctive rattle from deep in the blackthorn hedge. A Cetti’s Warbler shouted at us too, as we passed – good to hear one here as they have been very scarce in recent weeks, after the cold weather in March.
The cowman had been down and left the gate open, which meant we didn’t have to climb over the stile, and when he drove out into the field to the cows, he flushed a couple of Grey Partridge. They flew across a ditch towards us but despite seeing where they had landed they were hard to see in the long grass. The male spent more time with his neck up, looking around while the female fed – we could see his grey neck and orange face.
As we approached the next gate, we could hear the first Sedge Warbler singing, a mad concoction of scratches and rattles, with no real rhythm. There were several Sedge Warblers singing in the brambles and briars along this stretch, up to the seawall, but the first was the best performer, perched in the top of a bush right in front of us, flashing its orange gape as it sang.
There were a few Greylags and Egyptian Geese scattered around the grazing marshes, which look very good at the moment, with quite a bit of water still in the pools and flashes. Despite this, there do not appear to be many Lapwing out here currently, hopefully there are more yet to return to nest. There were a few Redshank too.
We could hear a Bittern booming rather intermittently from the reedbed, but it had stopped by the time we got up onto the seawall. There were Bearded Tits calling too, but they kept themselves mostly well down in the reeds. Occasionally, we could just see one whizzing over the tops before dropping back into cover.
A few Common Pochard and Tufted Duck were diving out on the pool in the middle of the reeds. There were one or two Wigeon here too, lingering birds which have not yet departed, on their way back to Russia for the breeding season.
There were a couple of Little Egrets around the pools and ditches out on the grazing marshes, another bird which was hit hard by the cold weather earlier in the year. Further back, we could see another, larger white bird with a long, snake-like neck. It was a Great White Egret. One of the best ways to distinguish them from Little Egret normally is bill colour (which is normally yellow-orange in Great White Egret), but in breeding condition the Great White Egret‘s bill darkens too. This bird had a nice dark bill – hopefully they will breed at Holkham again this year.
A smart male Wheatear was out in the middle of the grazing marsh too. We got it in the scope and had a good look at it. We could see it had brown feathering in the grey of the upperparts and a very rich, burnt orange wash to the throat and breast, suggesting it was a Greenland Wheatear.
A pair of Mediterranean Gulls flew in from the direction of the harbour. We could hear their distinctive calls before we could see them. As they flew past us, we could see their white wing tips and deep black hoods.
There was a small flock of Brent Geese feeding out on the saltmarsh. Most of them were Dark-bellied Brents, but there is often a Black Brant hybrid out here with them. So, when we got a glimpse of a brighter white flank patch, we assumed initially it would be that bird before it walked out of the vegetation. In addition to the bold and extensive flank patch, it had restricted white neck-side patches and appeared a shade or so lighter than the nearby Dark-bellied Brents. It looked most likely to be a Pale-bellied x Dark-bellied Brent intergrade, an interesting bird.
The tide was coming in out in the harbour. A large flock of waders whirled round and dropped down onto the saltmarsh. We could see three sizes of birds as they flew round – the larger Grey Plovers with variable black specking underneath and black armpits, plain grey Knot a size down, and then smaller Dunlin with them. They landed around some pools out on the saltmarsh, where we could get the Grey Plover and Knot in the scope, but the Dunlin disappeared into the vegetation.
When we got out to the boardwalk, we noticed a toad crossing in front of us. The dunes here are a very good site for Natterjack Toad and sure enough, when we got close enough we could see the distinctive pale yellow stripe down the middle of the back. It is not very common to see the Natterjacks here, as they are mostly nocturnal, so this was really great to come across out in the daytime.
As we got into the dunes, there were three people ahead of us who flushed several Wheatears from the grass. We saw them fly round, flashing their white rumps, before landing on the top of the dune ridge beyond. One female Wheatear then flew back and landed on the path in front of us, before flying up and over the fence.
They had probably also just flushed a Whimbrel, because it flew back in shortly after and landed down on the short grass where it walked around for a minute or so allowing us to get a good look at it. It was clearly smaller than a Curlew, and slimmer in build, with a shorter bill and a more boldly marked, stripy head pattern. Then it flew again, further back, up into the dunes.
There were reports of a couple of Ring Ouzels in the dunes this morning, a regular but scarce migrant through here on its way to the breeding grounds in Scandinavia, so we went looking for them. We walked quite quickly east, up towards the end of the pines, scanning the dunes and the bushes south of the fence, but there was no sign at first. They can be very mobile and when we got almost to the pines, we stopped to scan again.
A Bittern was booming out in the middle of the grazing marsh. It was probably the same one we had heard earlier, but the sound seemed to be coming from closer to us now. A flock of eight Redpoll flew west overhead calling. A little later another single bird flew over us the other way, towards the pines, which looked to be a Mealy Redpoll. A few seconds later it came back west again. They are probably birds which have spent the winter in the UK and are now looking to head back to Scandinavia.
From up in the dunes, we looked back and saw a male Ring Ouzel perched in the brambles some distance away, on the south side of the fence. Unfortunately, before we could get the scope on it, it had flown again, up into the dunes, followed by a second Ring Ouzel. We walked quickly back through the middle of the dunes and saw one flying further away in the distance. Then another flew up from behind a bush ahead of us and disappeared round the back of a large dune.
We followed the Ring Ouzels round the dunes again, but there were several people the other side and the birds were on the move again. They really were extremely flighty today. We had another brief view of one perched in a pine tree, before they shot back over the dunes once more. We decided to leave them in peace.
There were a few Swallows on the move now, several singles and pairs, but they flew past us heading east. Most birds on the move along the coast head west, so they were going the wrong way! Five Carrion Crows came in over the dunes from the direction of the sea, heading east too.
We passed the boardwalk and continued on west towards Gun Hill. There were lots of Linnets and Meadow Pipits out here, and a male Stonechat singing, but no sign of any migrants on the ground. Several of the Swallows had obviously changed their minds and came back west past us.
Their scratchy ‘kerrick’ calls alerted us to several Sandwich Terns flying past offshore. We had a quick look down on the beach, where a couple of pairs of Ringed Plover were down on the stones behind the rope fence. Someone was flying a drone over the channel between Gun Hill and Scolt Head, which flushed all the Oystercatchers and a large group of Sanderling from the shore.
There was a large school group out in the dunes today, and we could hear them coming out towards Gun Hill. We had a quick look out in the harbour, as they walked past, then headed back away from all the noise. As we got back to the boardwalk, a Natterjack Toad was walking across the path, in the opposite direction to the one we had seen earlier. We couldn’t immediately tell if it was the same one we had seen two hours earlier, but photos confirmed it was a second Natterjack. They are like buses – you wait ages for one Natterjack Toad and then two come along at once!!
We walked quickly back along the seawall and down onto the Whincover track. A Little Egret was feeding on one of the pools nearby and, as we rounded a couple of bushes, we could see a Spoonbill preening just behind.
We stopped to get the Spoonbill in the scope and could see its shaggy nuchal crest, yellow-tipped black bill and mustard wash on the breast, all marking it out as a breeding adult. When it took off, we thought it was about to fly off but the Spoonbill then landed on another pool right next to the track!
The Spoonbill stood for a minute or so here, looking at us, then started to feed in the pool. With its bill down in the water, it swept it rapidly from side to side as it walked round. It seemed to be very successful here – every few seconds it would flick its head back as it caught something.
Eventually we had to tear ourselves away from watching the Spoonbill. Nearby, another Whimbrel was feeding on the edge of the grazing marsh, right by the path. We had a good look at it through the scope and could see its pale central crown strips.
A large flock of geese appeared in the sky out over the harbour, flying in towards the grazing marsh. As they got nearer, we could see they were predominantly Pink-footed Geese, about 95 of them. They had been seen about an hour earlier flying over Titchwell and then Burnham Deepdale, so had obviously stopped off somewhere. Most of the Pink-footed Geese which spent the winter here have long since departed, so it was very odd to see such a large flock here now. Where might they have come from?
When the Pink-footed Geese got closer, we could see there were actually two Barnacle Geese with them too. There is a feral group of Barnacle Geese in Holkham Park, but it is possible these two had come from further afield, the way they flew in with the Pink-footed Geese. Perhaps they were even genuine wild birds, looking to head back north.
As we stopped to listen to the Lesser Whitethroat singing again, we heard a shrill call from the other side of the hedge – a Yellow Wagtail. The cows were tucked in the other side, behind the thick vegetation, where we couldn’t see them, but helpfully they started to move out into the middle. As they did, it didn’t take long to see the Yellow Wagtails, three of them, feeding amongst the cows’ hooves. It always looks to be a miracle they don’t get trodden on! There was a very smart male, bright yellow, with two slightly duller females.
We ate our lunch at Burnham Overy Staithe, looking out over the harbour. It was lovely and warm now with the sun out. There were a few more butterflies out now – Holly Blue and Orange Tip, to add to the Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock we had seen earlier. After lunch, we headed over to Burnham Norton.
The track out to the seawall was rather muddy, but we picked our way round. There were a few ducks out on the grazing marsh – a few Teal in with the Mallards and Common Pochards in the ditches. There were four more Pink-footed Geese out with the Greylags here, these perhaps more likely to be sick or injured birds which will be unable to make the journey back to Iceland to breed. A pair of Lapwing was displaying out over the grass, tumbling and twisting in the sky.
There were more warblers singing here – another Lesser Whitethroat in the hedge, a Willow Warbler in the sallows, and several Sedge Warblers in the brambles. As we approached the corner of the seawall, we could hear a more rhythmic song than the Sedge Warbler’s. It was a Reed Warbler, the first we have heard this year. It was keeping well tucked down in the reeds, as was a second Reed Warbler which then started singing the other side of the path. We could just see this second one moving about in the vegetation.
When we stopped to admire a couple of Avocets feeding in the muddy channel below the seawall with a couple of Oystercatchers, one of the group spotted another Spoonbill out on a pool in the saltmarsh. After a minute or so, it took off and flew past us, heading off out across the grazing marsh.
There were some cows out in the middle of the grazing marsh and, scanning carefully with the scope we could see several Yellow Wagtails down in the grass amongst them. There were three more Wheatears along the fence line just in front of them. They were all a bit distant from here, so we thought we would try to make our way round via the middle path to get a closer look.
The freshwater pools by the seawall held a few waders – several Black-tailed Godwits and Redshank, along with the usual Lapwings and Avocets. The ducks included another lingering pair of Wigeon.
The path across the middle of the grazing marshes was not too wet, and we stopped to scan the wagtails again when we got to the cows. We could see at least six Yellow Wagtails here now, feeding in the grass among their hooves, although we had a good scan just in case there were any other wagtails with them. When we got back to the car, a couple of House Martins overhead were a nice addition to the day’s list.
With a little bit of time still before we were due to finish for the day, we headed inland to an area of farmland. There were several Skylarks singing as we got out of the car and a scattering of Linnets in the roughly cultivated fields. We could see a couple of pairs of Red-legged Partridge out in the middle and we flushed two pairs of Grey Partridge from beside the road.
There were at least three Wheatears in the fields here too, despite us being some way from the coast. This is always a popular spot for them. A very pale Common Buzzard circled overhead.
Then it was time for us to make our way back, after an action-packed first day. More tomorrow!