Tag Archives: Norfolk Broads

24th Apr 2018 – Five Days of Spring, Day 4

Day 4 of five days of Spring Migration tours today. After three days up on the North Norfolk coast, we headed down to the Broads – not least because there were several good birds to see down there. It was thankfully less windy than yesterday but, after spitting on and off from late morning, it finally started to rain around 3pm, unusually around the time it was forecast!

It was a long drive down to the Broads this morning. A Pallid Harrier had been found on the coast between Horsey and Winterton yesterday and was reported to be still around today, so we headed straight over there first. We parked in the car park at Winterton and set off north through the dunes.

We could see four or five people standing on the top of a tall dune in the distance and we met one of the locals coming back who told us that was the best place to head for first, even though the bird had headed off north. As we made our way over the dunes, there were Wheatears everywhere, flying off in all directions ahead of us.

Wheatear

Wheatear – there were lots in the North Dunes today

When we got up onto the top of the tall dune, the message was the same as we had heard earlier – the Pallid Harrier had been seen flying off north and lost to view. Still, it had been back once or twice already, so this seemed like the best place to stand for now.

There were several dog walkers out this morning and one of them flushed a small group of Ring Ouzels, which flew off ahead of them and landed in the tops of a small group of scrubby trees down in the bottom of the dunes. We just got them in the scope before they were flushed again and flew off further north.

While we were all watching the Ring Ouzels, one of the group asked ‘what’s this bird over here?’. We turned around to see the Pallid Harrier a short distance away! It was chasing a Skylark over the dunes, twisting and turning. The Skylark got away and the Pallid Harrier turned towards the dune where we were standing and flew right past just below us. Wow!

Pallid Harrier 2

Pallid Harrier – came right past just below where we were standing

We could see the Pallid Harrier‘s pale collar, set off by the dark ‘boa’ just behind. It was much slimmer winged and more streamlined than a Hen Harrier too. It headed off south towards the car park, then turned and started to make its way back, along the seaward edge of the dunes. It came past us again, a bit more distant this time, and we watched as it disappeared away to the north. It was clearly doing a regular circuit of the dunes, between the beach car park and Horsey to the north.

Having enjoyed such fantastic views of the Pallid Harrier, we set off down into the dunes to try to get a better look at the Ring Ouzels now. There were more Wheatears here and a male Stonechat, which perched up obligingly in the top of a small tree next to the path.

Stonechat

Stonechat – this male perched up obligingly near the path

Before we even got to where we thought the Ring Ouzels had gone, we flushed one from a bramble clump ahead of us. It flew off over the crest of the dune calling. When we got to the top, we saw three Ring Ouzels fly again, from a ridge further over. They seemed to be very flighty today. We swung round in a wide arc to the north, to try to find somewhere to try to view them from a safe distance, but they were off again.

This time the Ring Ouzels, now four of them, flew across and landed in front of a large dune where some people were sitting looking for the Pallid Harrier. We made our way round to the back of the dune and crept up the side. When we looked over the edge we could see the Ring Ouzels on the next dune ridge over. They were feeding happily and we had a good look at them through the scope, several males and at least one female, before they dropped down the other side of the ridge out of view.

Ring Ouzel

Ring Ouzel – at least four of them showed very well from a discrete distance

As we walked up to join the others on the top of the dune, they alerted us to the fact that the Pallid Harrier was doing another pass behind us. We followed it as it disappeared off to the south again, down to the car park. A few minutes later, it was back and we watched as the Pallid Harrier headed off north low over the dunes. Great views again! We had been spoiled now, with the performance the Pallid Harrier had put on for us, so we decided to move on and see what else we could find.

Pallid Harrier 1

Pallid Harrier – we watched it do another couple of passes through the dunes

As we made our way back south through the dunes, there didn’t seem to be as many birds as on our way up earlier, particularly we didn’t see any more Wheatears. Probably they had all been flushed out of this part of the dunes by all the people walking through. There were lots of Skylarks singing and we did come across a smart male Yellowhammer perched in the top of a small tree.

We carried on south, over the road and on into the south dunes. As we got up to the first trees, we could see a small warbler flitting around in the bare branches and picking at the leaf buds which were just starting to open. It was a Lesser Whitethroat and we watched it for a couple of minutes as it worked its way through the branches. A Chiffchaff flew in and started singing from higher up in the same tree.

A little further on, we found a Willow Warbler and a Blackcap. The Willow Warbler was singing from time to time, a beautiful, sweet descending scale, and showed well in some low hawthorns. The Blackcap kept low in the brambles, subsinging.

Willow Warbler

Willow Warbler – we saw several in the south dunes

As we continued on south, there were more warblers in the trees and bushes. Another Lesser Whitethroat, another couple of Willow Warblers, another Blackcap. A Common Whitethroat started singing but disappeared off ahead of us.

There were not many birds moving today. We did see a small number of Swallows, but only about 4-5, heading north through the dunes, and next to nothing else. There were plenty of Linnets and a few Meadow Pipits in the dunes.

Linnet

Linnet – still quite common in the dunes

As we turned to head back, a male Stonechat was singing from the brambles in the middle of the Valley. A particularly bright, lemon-yellow breasted Willow Warbler was flitting around in one of the small oaks in the next clump of trees. We made our way slowly back to the car.

News had come through that the Black-winged Stilt, which had been found at Potter Heigham yesterday, was still present today. So we made our way over there next. When we got there, it was time for lunch. As we ate, a male Marsh Harrier was displaying high over our heads, calling.

Scanning the first pool we passed, we spotted a very smart drake Garganey out in the middle, so we stopped to have a look at it through the scope. There were lots of other ducks on here too – Mallard, Gadwall, Teal, Shoveler, Pochard and Tufted Duck. Plus both Little and Great Crested Grebes, both in breeding plumage.

We had just started to walk on when we received a phone call to say the Black-winged Stilt had just flown over our way. Sure enough, we found it on the next pool, quite close, down towards the front. We got it in the scope, noting its black mantle and black markings on the head, suggesting it is a male.

Black-winged Stilt

Black-winged Stilt – this lone male was very mobile around the pools today

The water levels are quite high here at the moment, so there are not that many places for it to feed and it appears to be very mobile. The Black-winged Stilt made its way along the edge of a flooded grassy island, then flew over to the next pool. We watched it on there for a few minutes before it was off again, and flew over to the pools at the back by the river.

From here we could see two more Garganey on the bank at the back of this pool. A flock of hirundines was hawking over the water, mainly Swallows and House Martins. One Common Swift was in with them.

We were told that a couple of Spoonbills had flown in and landed on one of the other pools, along the access track. We walked back there but couldn’t see them at first – they were not where they had been earlier. Then we picked them up, feeding with their heads down half hidden behind a line of reeds. Eventually they put their heads up briefly and we could just about see them properly.

There were lots more duck on these pools and a group of five Garganey were down towards the front. There were four smart drakes, with bold white stripes on their heads, and a single browner female. It is great to see groups of Garganey like this – a scene more like spring in the Mediterranean than the UK. There was also a single drake Pintail lingering here.

Garganey

Garganey – a flock of five, including four drakes

It was starting to rain now, but we wanted to see if we could find any Cranes. We headed back past the car park. A couple of Sedge Warblers were singing from the reeds and then we heard a Reed Warbler too – much more structured and rhythmical.

Continuing on, we came to an open area where we could scan a large expanse of grazing marsh. The first thing we set eyes on was a pair of Cranes over in the distance. We got them in the scope and there was no mistaking them. As it was raining harder now, we made our way back to the car. A Grasshopper Warbler reeled briefly from deep in the bushes out in the reeds.

Having achieved all our targets here, we decided to head back towards North Norfolk and stop to see if we could find anything from the car on the way. We made our way up to Cromer and turned west along the coast road.

Our first detour was at West Runton where we had a quick look in the paddocks along the road down to the beach. A single Wheatear was perched on one of the fence posts, looking decidedly soggy. It was too wet to have a look at Beeston Bump now, so we continued on to Salthouse and drove up the Beach Road. A single Wheatear was out in the grass just north of the main drain.

Our last detour was at Cley, where once again we headed down along the road to the beach. We stopped at the bend and scanned out along the fence line. The first bird we set eyes on was a cracking male Whinchat, preening in the wet. A great bonus at the end of the day! There were also dozens of Swallows here too, perching on the fence or hawking low over the reeds, along with several Sand Martins and one or two House Martins.

Hirundines

Hirundines – gathered on the fence in the rain

We had a quick look at the sea from the beach shelter, but there was not much happening offshore. A couple of Sandwich Terns flew past calling.

We had enjoyed a great day out, despite the rain setting in later, and see a really good selection of birds. We decided to call time and head for home.

Advertisements

10th Feb 2018 – Winter, Broads & Brecks #2

Day 2 of a three day long weekend of tours, and it was down to the Norfolk Broads today. It was a lovely sunny start to the day, although it clouded over late morning and then tried to rain on and off in the afternoon. Thankfully the rain was only light, just spitting with drizzle at times, so it didn’t stop us getting out.

Our first destination saw us driving along the coast road past Horsey. We had hoped we might find some Cranes along here, particularly on a lovely bright morning, but there was no sign of any today. We found a convenient layby to park and stretch our legs. There were lots of Pink-footed Geese out on the grazing meadows but they were very jumpy, constantly flying up and landing again. A light aircraft flew round over the fields, possibly the source of some of the nervousness.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese – flying round, very nervous today

There were also lots of Lapwings and a few Fieldfares out on the grass. We could see several Marsh Harriers circling over the reeds behind us. A couple of large herds of Mute Swans were out in the fields. With all the disturbance, there were not as many birds out here as there often are, so we moved quickly on.

Our next stop was round at Ludham. As we climbed up onto the river bank, we could see a small group of swans out on the grazing marshes. A closer look with the scope confirmed there were six Whooper Swans with a similar number of Mute Swans. We could see the prominent yellow wedge running down the bills to a sharp point on the Whooper Swans, and they were not much smaller than the accompanying Mutes.

Whooper Swans

Whooper Swans – 4 of the 6 out on the grazing marshes again today

Three Stock Doves were out in the field next to the cow barn and a couple of Pied Wagtails were picking around the muddy farm yard. Scanning the grass, we could see lots of Lapwing and Golden Plover and several Chinese Water Deer too. Looking along the river, a pair of Gadwall were swimming with a few Coot. But there were no Cranes here today either. It was a lovely morning and the footpath along the river bank was very busy with dog walkers, which meant there was presumably too much disturbance. Were we destined to miss out on the Cranes everywhere today?

We moved on again and headed south. Looking out of the window as we were driving along the road, we finally found our first Cranes of the day, standing in the field where we had seen a big group the other day. At first we could only see five together, on the edge of the maize strip. Then we looked round behind us, just in time to see another 14 Cranes circling in the sky. They disappeared off towards the river, dropping down behind some trees. We didn’t see where they had come from but someone was shooting pigeons a couple of fields over, so may have flushed them.

Common Cranes 1

Common Cranes – this flock of 14 flew round and headed off towards the river

Looking back at the original group, more Cranes started to emerge from the maize strip. Scanning the surrounding fields, we also found another pair nearby. The more we looked, the more we found and by the end we had 15 Cranes together in the field, and there could easily have still been some hiding in the crop. It was quite a sight!

Common Cranes 2

Common Cranes – several of the 15 which were still left down in the fields

There was even some more action. At one point, six of the Cranes flew up and circled round. There was lots of bugling, the calls echoing across the fields. Two flew off, but four of the Cranes dropped back down with the others again. Great stuff!

Common Cranes 3

Common Cranes – six of the group flew round bugling

Having finally found some Cranes – and enjoyed cracking views of a really good number to boot (it is not often we see large flocks such as this here, a significant proportion of the total Broadland population!), we headed on, down to the Yare valley. As we walked down to the gate and scanned the marshes at Cantley, it was rather disappointing. There were almost no geese here today – just a single Egyptian Goose which doesn’t really count! Otherwise, all we could see were Rooks, Lapwings and a few Mute Swans.

Darker clouds were gathering to the south, so we didn’t hang around here too long and made our way back to the car. As we were loading up, we looked across to the nearby sugar beet processing factory and noticed a small shape on the side of the tall steaming chimney. It was a Peregrine. Presumably it had found somewhere to keep warm?

Peregrine

Peregrine – finding a warm spot on the chimney of Cantley Beet Factory

At this point it started to spit with rain. We decided it would be a good moment for an early lunch, so we made our way round to Strumpshaw Fen. As we walked out to the Reception Hide, we stopped to look at all the tits coming down to the feeders A Marsh Tit made several visits as we watched, mostly dropping down to the ground where some seed had been sprinkled. A Jay came up from the path too as we arrived, and a Siskin flew over calling.

Marsh Tit

Marsh Tit – making regular visits down to the ground below the feeders

Looking out across the Reception Hide pool, there were lots of Gadwall and Coot on the water today. A little group of Shoveler didn’t linger and a couple of flocks of Teal flew over without landing. The Black Swan was in hiding today. A couple of Marsh Harriers circled over the reeds. As well as providing a very welcome hot drink, the Reception Hide also gave us great views of a very well camouflaged Common Snipe feeding in the cut reeds in front.

After lunch, the rain had stopped, so we headed back out towards the coast. A quick detour off the Acle Straight towards Halvergate produced four Bewick’s Swans out on the grazing marshes. This is a traditional stop off point for swans heading back towards the continent in late winter, so can often be a good place to look late in the season, when the wintering birds have departed. We could see immediately that they were small and short-necked compared to the Mute and Whooper Swans we had seen earlier and through the scope we could see the more restricted, squared off yellow patch on their bills.

Bewick's Swans

Bewick’s Swans – these four were on the grazing marshes near Halvergate

Continuing on to Great Yarmouth, we quickly located the Glossy Ibis in its usual field at Bure Park. It was very busy feeding down in the wet grass, finding a few worms while we watched. A wet grassy park in Great Yarmouth in winter must be a far cry from the marshes of southern Spain, but it seemed to be doing OK with a few Moorhens and Black-headed Gulls for company.

Glossy Ibis

Glossy Ibis – feeding in the wet grassy fields in front of the car park

After a quick stop to catch up with the Glossy Ibis, we made our way on further south again, down to Waveney Forest. It was spitting with rain now but it was relatively sheltered from the wind in the trees. Looking out across Haddiscoe Island from ‘the mound’, it appeared rather desolate at first. The gates and posts where the Buzzards like to perch were conspicuously empty but scanning more carefully, we quickly found our target. The Rough-legged Buzzard was standing down in the grass today, out in the middle.

It was rather distant, and a bit misty now, but we could see the Rough-legged Buzzard’s pale crown and white spotting in the upperparts, contrasting with its black throat and upper breast and black patches either side of its belly. This is a returning adult, which comes back to these grazing marshes each winter, from its breeding grounds in the arctic.

Rough-legged Buzzard

Rough-legged Buzzard – out in the mist on Haddiscoe Island

The cherry on the cake was duly provided when the Rough-legged Buzzard took off and flew low across the grass, flashing its distinctive white tail with a contrasting black terminal band. It turned into the wind and started hovering, like a giant Kestrel in slow motion. It repeated this several times – Rough-legged Buzzards are habitual hoverers when they hunt, unlike the more familiar Common Buzzard which will hover only occasionally. After hunting for a few minutes, the Rough-legged Buzzard flew back across and landed again down on the grass close to where it had been earlier.

We took that as our cue to leave. We weren’t sure whether we would make it out to Stubb Mill tonight, given the weather, but by the time we got to the car park at Hickling the rain had eased off again. We decided to give it a go. We took the direct route out today, along the road. Two Egyptian Geese were in one of the fields and four Cormorants flew over.

When we got to Stubb Mill, we immediately spotted two Cranes out on the grass. We had a good look at them through the scope, walking round, before they eventually flew round and dropped down in the reeds at the back. Shortly afterwards, someone spotted another pair, out in one of the meadows further over. And we could hear more Cranes bugling over towards the reserve – based on the noise, another two pairs at least.

Common Cranes 4

Common Crane – one of two pairs out at Stubb Mill this evening

We had already amassed quite a total of Cranes on our travels today. Then another five flew in, low over the grass in front of the watchpoint, and disappeared over towards the reserve. That took us to a massive 38 seen and several more Cranes heard today!

Common Cranes 5

Common Crane – another five flew in to roost at dusk

There were at least 5-6 Marsh Harriers in already, perched out in the bushes in the middle of the reeds or circling round overhead, but others were probably keeping down given the weather. Several more flew in while we were watching. A male Merlin shot across very low, only briefly breaking above the reeds, unfortunately too quickly for everyone to get onto it. A ghostly grey male Hen Harrier appeared in the distance, flying round above the bushes in the reeds where the Marsh Harriers were gathered for a couple of minutes, visible in the scope despite the gathering gloom.

Given the weather, the light was fading fast tonight. We had fared far better than we thought we might at Stubb Mill this evening, it was well worth coming out here. We decided to call it a night and head for home.

7th Feb 2018 – Wintry Broads

A Private Tour down in the Norfolk Broads today. After snow overnight, the wintry showers were supposed to die out through the morning and it was meant to brighten up. It never really happened that way, remaining mostly cloudy all day. but at least we were able to largely dodge the showers until late in the day. And it didn’t stop us seeing some good birds.

After meeting in Hickling, we headed round towards the coast. A slow drive stopping to scan some of the fields which the Cranes favour failed to yield the hoped for reward, but it was still cold and cloudy so they were probably hiding somewhere sheltered. We stopped in a convenient layby and got out to scan the fields.

There were a couple of large herds of Mute Swans here, on either side of the road, but nothing else with them. Further over, we could see a hundred or so Pink-footed Geese at the back of the grazing marshes, which were covered in Lapwing and Golden Plover. A Green Sandpiper called over towards the reeds, but we couldn’t see it. A Common Snipe flew up from the grass. We had a good look through the scope at one of the Fieldfares feeding among the molehills.

There were a few raptors too, starting to wake up. Three Marsh Harriers circled up out of the reeds and a Common Buzzard perched on the bank, trying to warm itself. A couple of Kestrels were perched on the wires.

Continuing on our way, we headed inland in search of more swans. As we parked at our next stop and got out of the car, we could see a little group of no more than half a dozen out on the grazing marshes. A quick look through the scope confirmed they were a mixture of Mute Swans together with a couple of Whooper Swans. There were a few more down out of view in a ditch, so we decided to walk round on the river bank to try to get a better look.

From up on the bank, we scanned the grazing marshes the other side of the river and immediately spotted a Common Crane out on the grass. A second Crane was nearby, but they were half hidden behind the reeds. We had to find a gap we could see over, but we eventually got a good look at one of the Cranes through the scope.

Common Crane 1

Common Crane – one of a pair, our first of the day

We could hear Bearded Tits calling from the reeds, but couldn’t see them. It was cold and there was a fresh breeze, so they were keeping well tucked down this morning. A Reed Bunting called and showed itself briefly. A Cetti’s Warbler was more typically elusive. However, we had great views of a Grey Wagtail which flew in and landed in a nearby farmyard, picking around the edge of a muddy puddle.

There was a better view across to the swans from up here and now we could see there were actually five Whooper Swans here. Through the scope, we could see the wedge-shaped yellow patch on their bills.

Whooper Swans

Whooper Swans – a small mixed group with Mute Swans

We could see a number of Chinese Water Deer out on the grass too, which once again was liberally sprinkled with Lapwings and Golden Plover. Suddenly all the birds erupted, taking to the air and whirling round. There are often Marsh Harriers here, but we couldn’t see any likely culprits until one of the group spotted a couple of raptors circling high over the marshes.

It was immediately clear there was a small bird of prey and a much larger one. The smaller bird was a Sparrowhawk, which was mobbing the bigger one, but it was only as the latter turned that we could see it was not one of the usual harriers or buzzards. It was another hawk, but a really huge one, a Goshawk.

Goshawk

Goshawk – a rare bird indeed in the Broads, a real surprise

Once all the group were on it, we had a closer look at the Goshawk. As it circled, we could see it was a young bird, born last year, rather brownish. As well as the huge size, we could see the distinctive long wings with bulging secondaries, broad-based and rounded tail and protruding head.

The Sparrohawk lost interest and flew off, while the Goshawk continued to circle and drift further away. At one point, it straightened up and flew a short distance, with deep, heavy wingbeats, very different from the fast bursts of flapping of the Sparrowhawk. While we do have Goshawks in Norfolk, they are very rare in the Broads, so this was a complete surprise.Young birds are very prone to wandering though and it was apparently a good breeding season for them in 2017. A real bonus for the day!

It was cold up on the river bank, so once the Goshawk had drifted away, we headed back to the car and a chance to warm up as we drove to our next stop. The stockman was just going in to feed the cattle in the barn next to where we had parked and as he did so he flushed out a Barn Owl, which flew across in front of us, over the bank, and disappeared down on the other side of the river.

We pulled up next on the edge of some overgrown fields, sown with a seed cover crop. Here we spotted a small group of finches fly up into an oak in the hedge and quickly got the scope on one, a smart male Brambling. Unfortunately, the birds flew again before everyone got onto it.

We spent a few minutes trying to get a better look at the finches. We walked up the footpath on the edge of the field and back again, but a lot of the birds were either in the trees above our heads or had flown off over the back of the field. We could hear the nasal call of more Bramblings and the hard calls of Linnets flying over, as well as plenty of Chaffinches and a few Goldfinches. Finally, they all flew across and landed in a tree on the edge of the field, where we could all get a good look at them.

Back in the car, we had another opportunity to warm up as we drove south. A quick glance out of the window though and we spotted some dark shapes in a field in the distance. We turned round and found a convenient place to stop. Once out of the car, we could see they were Cranes, and plenty of them!

Common Crane 2

Common Cranes – feeding in a cover strip on the edge of a field

The Cranes were hard to count. A few were standing around on the edge of the field, but more were feeding in the vegetation in a tall cover strip. Through the scope, we could see some of them ripping at the tall stems, but there were several more deep in the crop – we could just see bits of grey shapes moving around inside.

As we scanned across, we could see several more Cranes around the edge of the next field. An attempt to count them all got to 26 in total, but it is very possible there were more than that, given we struggled to see how many were deep in the cover strip. This is a very impressive flock by UK standards, a significant proportion of the Broadland total in one group, great to see.

Common Crane 3

Common Cranes – we counted at least 26 in the flock, a great sight

Unfortunately, it had started to spit with wintry rain now, so we didn’t linger as long as we might have done with the Cranes, but got back in the car and moved on.

Having not found any Bewick’s Swans earlier, we headed round to Halvergate next to see if we could find any here, another regular site for them. At first, we saw several groups of Mute Swans before we spotted four smaller birds on their own on the grazing marsh. Stopping in a convenient gateway, we got out to confirm they were four Bewick’s Swans.

Bewick's Swan

Bewick’s Swan – one of four at Halvergate today

Through the scope, we could see the smaller, squared off yellow patch on the bill of the Bewick’s Swans, very different from the more extensive, wedge shaped yellow on the Whooper Swans we had seen earlier. The Bewick’s Swans were also noticeably smaller and shorter-necked.

There was now a request to find somewhere warm to have lunch or a hot drink, so after an abortive attempt to visit the pub in Halvergate, which was closed, we headed back to Acle. The hot chocolate was especially welcome today!

After a break, we resumed our quest for more birds. There has been a Glossy Ibis on the outskirts of Great Yarmouth for the last week so, as it was just about on our way, we headed over to see if we could see it. There was no sign if it in its favourite wet field, just a few Moorhens. A Kingfisher zipped low across the grass and disappeared into a ditch, unfortunately too quickly for most of the group to get onto it.

Another birder was just leaving, and helpfully pointed us a little further along the road as he passed. There was the Glossy Ibis out on the back of the grass, with a few more Moorhens for company. It promptly went to sleep, but thankfully only for a couple of minutes before waking up, preening and resuming feeding in a flooded patch in the grass. Through the scope, we could see its long, downcurved bill.

Glossy Ibis

Glossy Ibis – showing off its long, curlew-like bill when it woke up

Glossy Ibises are still quite rare but increasingly regular visitors to the UK, with ringed birds seen here in recent years known to have originated from the expanding Spanish population.

Having enjoyed nice views of the Glossy Ibis, we set off on our way again. Our next destination was Waveney Forest. As we walked in through the trees, there were several Great Tits and a single Coal Tit coming to the feeders at the cottage. A Siskin flew over calling. Deeper in the trees, a Green Woodpecker called and flew across the path in front of us, up into the trees.

We made our way over to ‘the mound’ which overlooks Haddiscoe Island. The regular returning Rough-legged Buzzard has been here for a while now, and this is generally the best place to see it from. Scanning the posts and gates out on the Island, we could see several Common Buzzards and Kestrels. What looked like the Rough-legged Buzzard was unfortunately right over the far side of the island with its back to us, and even through the scope it was hard to make out much detail. We could see a pale off white crown and pale whitish spots in the mantle and scapulars. We waited a while to see if it would turn round, or even better fly, but it didn’t.

While we waited we did spot a group of about 15 Bearded Tits swinging in the tops of the reeds, feeding on the seedheads. The sun had come out and they had found a sheltered spot which was catching some warmth in the afternoon light. We had a great look at them through the scope, and could see the grey heads and black moustaches on the males.

It was time to move on again, before we got too cold. On our way back north, we stopped on the south shore of Breydon Water. It was about an hour and a half after high tide and the water was now starting to go out. There were thousands of birds gathered on the mud on the far side – ducks, waders and gulls.

Breydon Water

Breydon Water – thousands of ducks, waders and gulls were gathered on the mud

Through the scope, we could see the birds were neatly sorted into groups. Over to the right were mostly Lapwing and Golden Plover. In the middle, shining bright white in the afternoon sun, were loads of gulls, mainly Black-headed and Common Gulls. To the left, was more of a mixture, thousands of Wigeon with waders scattered through them including Black-tailed Godwits, Dunlin and on the end a number of Avocets. A Great Crested Grebe swam past.

It was already getting late by the time we left Breydon Water. Given the weather, we were not planning to spend too long at Stubb Mill this evening, but we thought we would try to call in for the last half hour. Unfortunately, as we drove back north we could see dark clouds gathering and by the time we got back to Hickling, it was starting to rain. We sat in the car for a couple of minutes trying to work out whether it would clear, before deciding to call it a day.

It was a wise call, as the rain turned to sleet on the short drive back to where we had started. But despite the weather at the end, we had enjoyed a very successful if rather chilly day today. Well worth going out for!

25th Jan 2018 – Cranes, Swans & Raptors

A Winter Tour today, down in the Norfolk Broads. It was a glorious, sunny winter’s day, with blue skies and mostly light winds. Perfect weather to be out birding!

Our first destination was Ludham. This is a regular wintering area for Bewick’s and Whooper Swans, and we hoped to catch up with some here this morning. Numbers are lower than normal this winter, with mild weather on the continent meaning the majority of the swans have opted to remain further east this year. Still, there are a few around to see.

As we parked and got out of the car, a Chinese Water Deer was feeding out on the grazing marsh opposite, the first of many of this increasingly widespread non-native deer we would see today. A flock of Fieldfare flew up ‘tchacking’ and landed behind some barns and a Redwing called from the trees before flying down and landing on a fence where we could get a good look at it in the scope. We would see lots of these winter thrushes on our travels today too.

Chinese Water Deer

Chinese Water Deer – the first of many we would see today

As we walked up onto the river bank, a Bearded Tit called from the reeds below us and we had a quick glimpse of it as it flew a short distance over the tops of the reeds before darting back in. It did the same thing a couple more times, but you had to be really quick to see it. Several Reed Buntings flew up from the reeds too.

Suddenly we picked up the sound of swans approaching, their honking calls getting steadily louder until we picked up a flock of about thirty birds flying in over the trees. It is a wonderful sound, to hear wild swans calling as they fly in, particularly on a bright sunny winter’s morning like today. They appeared to be all Bewick’s Swans – we could see the more restricted, squared-off yellow patches on their bills as they caught the light.

Bewick's Swans

Bewick’s Swans – flying in to the Levels this morning

The Bewick’s Swans circled over the Levels calling, before dropping down to the grass. There were a few Mute Swans scattered over the grazing meadows, but they dropped down to join a small group of feral white geese on the edge of a small pool. The Bewick’s Swans started feeding on the grass or bathing in the pool beyond.

Scanning carefully through the Bewick’s Swans, we noticed a larger bird with them, longer-necked, and with a long wedge-shaped yellow patch on its bill, which tapered to a finer point. It was a single Whooper Swan. It didn’t appear to have come in with the Bewick’s Swans, so perhaps it was in the pool when they arrived. It was good to see the two species side by side in the scope.

Whooper Swan

Whooper Swan – with the smaller Bewick’s Swans in the pool behind

We stood on the bank for a few minutes scanning the marshes. There were lots of Lapwings scattered about the damp grass, along with a smaller flock of Golden Plover which flushed from the field beyond and whirled round in a tight group. A smart male Marsh Harrier was hunting along the line of reeds at  the back of the grass.

With both the swans in the bag, we decided to head down to the coast next. The short drive over was fairly uneventful, but when we got down to the coast road we started to see more birds. A large herd of Mute Swans was feeding in the water-logged fields and there were loads of Lapwings and Golden Plover hiding in the young oilseed rape nearby.

We stopped in a convenient layby and got out to scan the fields. A few hundred Pink-footed Geese flew in and landed out on a grassy field opposite, with smaller groups flying in every few minutes to join them. A Red Kite circled lazily overhead and a Sparrowhawk zipped low and fast across the stubble field behind us. This is often a very good area for Common Cranes, but there were none visible feeding out in the fields here this morning.

Common Cranes 1

Common Cranes – flying round over us, bugling

Then, turning to look behind us, we noticed two huge birds flying over the trees, long necks stretched out in front and long legs trailing behind, a pair of Cranes. At first it looked like they would drop back down behind the trees, but then they turned and flew straight towards us, turning in front of us and gliding across the road. A great view and wonderful to listen to these majestic birds, their loud bugling calls are a real sound of the Broads at this time of year.

The Cranes headed out towards the coast and dropped down out of view in the distance, but a few seconds later they reappeared flying back towards us. They appeared to land on the other side of the road, a short way further north behind some reeds, so we started to pack up, intending to drive along to try to see them there. But as we turned we noticed another pair of Cranes had circled up right behind us. They started bugling too and we watched as they dropped away behind some trees.

It was all action – we didn’t know where to look! The Cranes in the Broads are getting territorial again now, reclaiming their grounds, and we appeared to be in the middle of a territorial dispute between two rival pairs. The first pair of Cranes took off again and flew back across the road, heading for the area where the second pair had just landed, with both pairs bugling. But as they approached the trees they gained height and turned away, back in the direction they had originally come from.

Common Cranes 2

Common Cranes – two pairs were flying round bugling

It is one of the great sights and sounds of the Norfolk Broads at this time of the year – watching and listening to the Cranes. These birds are part of a population which re-established itself naturally, with the first birds arriving probably as wanderers from the continent right here in 1979. They first bred successfully in 1982, after an absence from the UK of around 400 years, and have grown steadily in number since the 1990s, spreading to other parts of the country. They are not part of the ‘Great Crane Project’ which released large quantities of captive-raised Cranes onto the Somerset Levels.

After being treated to a magnificent display from the Cranes, we popped in at Waxham next. There had been a Hume’s Warbler here for several weeks and, with such good weather, we thought it worth a quick look to see if it is still hiding somewhere. We didn’t spend very long here, but there was no immediate sign of it and the trees were otherwise pretty quiet, as was the sea, so we moved swiftly on.

Our next destination was the Yare Valley. We stopped at Cantley and walked down to scan the grazing marshes. There were good numbers of Pink-footed Geese out on the grass and with careful scanning we found a small number of White-fronted Geese too, though they were mostly keeping down in the low-lying wetter patches. There was no sign of any Taiga Bean Geese here today – these birds seem to have deserted the Yare Valley already this year, having not been seen here since the very start of January.

There were lots of waders out on the grass too, mainly Lapwing. Scanning carefully through them, we found a small number of Ruff too, though they were rather distant and hard to see from here. The waders were rather jumpy anyway, but when they all took off in unison we scanned the sky and quickly found the cause – a Peregrine. It was some way off, over towards the river, and it quickly lost interest and powered off towards Buckenham.

Peregrine

Peregrine – flew past right over our heads

As well as being distant, that Peregrine was hard to see in the melee of birds which it had successfully induced. Thankfully, just a minute or so later, either that Peregrine or possibly a different appeared right over our heads, flying off towards the nearby beet factory. A much better view! We also had a good look at a female Marsh Harrier from here, standing down in the grass.

It was time for lunch, so we headed round to Strumpshaw Fen to make use of the facilities. A Mistle Thrush was singing from the top of the trees by Reception Hide, another sign that spring is on its way! With only peanuts and niger seed feeders out here at the moment, the Marsh Tits seem to have lost interest and didn’t come in today, just a steady succession of Blue and Great Tits while we ate.

There were not so many ducks on the pool here today – a few Gadwall and Mallard. The Coot were starting to squabble and fight and the resident feral Black Swan was preening itself right in front of the screen. A Marsh Harrier or two quartered the reedbed beyond periodically.

After lunch, we headed round to nearby Buckenham Marshes. It was a lovely sunny afternoon to walk out here, down towards the river, but at first sight it appeared rather quiet. The only geese on view were the local Canada Geese and feral flock of Barnacle Geese. The latter are very smart bird and got a deserved look through the scope. A handful of Greylags were asleep over the other side.

Barnacle Geese

Barnacle Geese – several of the feral flock at Buckenham

On closer inspection, there were lots of Lapwing out on the grass and when they flew round at one point we noticed a good number of Ruff with them too. They landed closer to us and we managed to get a better look at them than the ones we had seen at Cantley earlier. Two much smaller Dunlin flew in land landed on a pool in the grass too.

As we got out towards the river, we found the ducks. Several Shoveler were swimming around in one of the drainage ditches, along with a couple of Wigeon and a few sleeping Teal on the bank. Further along, we could see several hundred Wigeon asleep on the main pool, with a scattering of the other two species mixed in.

Numbers of Wigeon in Norfolk appear to be down this winter too, with many of these remaining on the continent like the swans this year. We did however get a really good look at some which were feeding right next to the path as we walked out – smart ducks!

Wigeon

Wigeon – good views by the path out towards the river

There was nothing much happening down at the river, so we decided to head quickly back to the car and move on.

The last few winters, there has been an adult Rough-legged Buzzard which returns each year to Haddiscoe Island. There was no sign of it at the end of last year, but in the last few days it has reappeared. We headed down to a suitable vantage point overlooking the area it favours and scanned the posts and gates where it likes to stand.

It didn’t take long to find it. The Rough-legged Buzzard was perched on a post out in the middle. It was rather distant and face on to us at first, but we could see its rather blackish throat and upper breast, contrasting with a whitish top to the head, and black patches on either side of its belly, set off by a bold whitish band across the lower breast and down through the middle.

Rough-legged Buzzard

Rough-legged Buzzard – the returning adult on Haddiscoe Island

The Rough-legged Buzzard then helpfully turned round and we could see the pale top to the head and liberal white speckling to the dark upperparts. At one point, it preened and we got a quick flash of the white base to its tail. Unfortunately, we were looking elsewhere when it moved to another post!

There were several Common Buzzards here too, giving us an opportunity to compare the two species. A nice pale one had extensive off-white head and underparts, lacking the contrasting dark patches underneath of the Rough-legged Buzzard. A more typical darker Common Buzzard had noticeably rich brown on breast and belly in the sunlight, not the blackish colour of the Rough-legged Buzzard.

A female Marsh Harrier passed by just in front of us and there were several Kestrels out on the posts in the middle of the island too. But we were probably still a bit too early today for any owls and we had a long journey to get back for our last stop of the day.

As we walked out along the track towards Stubb Mill, several more Redwings and Fieldfares flew out of the hedges calling, a real theme of the day. A small flock of Linnets perched in the top of a tree in the afternoon sunlight. We heard the dulcet tones of a quad bike heading out over the marshes and saw a pair of Cranes fly up. The landowner was heading out to put some feed down on his duck flight pond. The Cranes circled round and appeared to go down in front of the raptor watchpoint the other side of the old mill, so we hurried round to try to see them.

The watchpoint was unbelievably busy this evening, the busiest we have ever seen it – probably everyone was out because of the good weather. They had all spread themselves out along the bank (even leaving space for a stool to sit on), and not left anywhere for the late arrivals like us to stand, so we made ourselves rather unpopular by asking people to shuffle along and make some room. There was plenty of space for everyone, but the process involved a surprising amount of grumbling from sections of the crowd! Our apologies if we upset anyone unduly!!

When we eventually got a space to stand and set up the scope, we discovered there were two pairs of Cranes on view out on the grass this evening. We had a nice view of them on the ground, to compliment the ones we had seen flying round earlier.  Striking birds, with their long black and white necks and bustle of feathers over the tail.

Common Cranes 3

Common Cranes – one of the two pairs in front of the watchpoint this evening

When the quad bike returned, the landowner got off and came over for a chat with us about the birds and what else we had seen. We watched as several Shelduck flew in and dropped down behind the reeds to the duck pond to feed on the newly delivered grain. They were followed shortly after by one of the pairs of Cranes, the one which had left there earlier and which flew back to take advantage of the food provided.

There were raptors too. A steady stream of Marsh Harriers flew in from all directions and out to the reedbed to roost. We could see several perched in the bushes in the distance, getting ready to go in. A ringtail Hen Harrier flew in along the back of the grazing marshes and, a little later, we spotted a ghostly grey male Hen Harrier in the distance, weaving in and out of the bushes out where they roost.

There was more Crane action as birds started to fly in to roost. First a pair flew across slowly in front of us, then another pair came in over the trees just behind the watchpoint. It is always a great way to end the day, watching the Cranes flying in,  listening to them bugling and others answering from the marshes.

Common Cranes 4

Common Crane – one of the pairs, flying in at dusk

A Tawny Owl hooted from the trees by the old mill, which was the cue for us to start thinking about heading back. As we walked back, another group of eight Cranes came in over the trees, over the road, and dropped down towards the marshes beyond. It was quite a sight, against the last of the pink and orange sunset. As we got back to the car park, a Woodcock shot over, heading out to feed on the marshes. It was time for us to head for home.

10th June 2017 – Broads Birds, Butterflies & More

A private group tour today down in the Norfolk Broads. It was to be a day spent looking for birds, butterflies and dragonflies plus the odd orchid or two, a nice mixture of general wildlife. The day started cloudy but brightened up nicely and was bright and sunny with blue skies in the afternoon, even if the wind did pick up during the day again.

Our first destination was Potter Heigham. We were particularly hoping to see the Black-winged Stilts which have nested here, but it is possible to see a very good variety of different species here at the moment. As we made our way down along the access road, two Spoonbills were on one of the pools, the first of quite a few we would see here.

As we climbed up onto the bank, we could hear a couple of Reed Warblers singing. We eventually got a good look at one through the scope, perched up in the reeds. Along the river bank, there were a couple of Sedge Warblers singing too, which gave us a great opportunity to listen to the differences between them. One Sedge Warbler showed very nicely in front of us, so we could see its striking off white supercilium, very different from the plain face of the Reed Warbler. A Cetti’s Warbler shouted at us from deep in the bushes but typically didn’t show itself.

Sedge WarblerSedge Warbler – singing from the reeds just ahead of us

Walking round the reeds, we could hear Bearded Tits calling. It seemed unlikely we would see one perched up today, with a fresh breeze blowing, but we had a good look each time called nonetheless. Then two tawny brown long-tailed shapes flicked up into the top of the reeds and stayed there just long enough for us all to get a quick look at them. A pair of Bearded Tits. The male was closest to us and slightly higher up the reeds, so we could see its powder blue head and black moustache.

There were a few hairy Garden Tiger moth caterpillars on the path again this morning – we had to keep one eye on the ground to avoid standing on them. A little later, we saw a Jackdaw on a post trying to eat one. It clearly did not want to eat the hairs, so was trying to pull it apart but appeared to be struggling.

We walked quickly round to where the Black-winged Stilts have been and immediately located one standing in the shallow water on the edge of one of the islands. We got it in the scope and had a look at it. However, it was immediately clear this was not one of the pair, but instead a lone male which has been hanging around the site too, with a black (rather than brown-tinged) mantle but lacking the black on the head of the breeding male. Still, it was a smart bird and a great start.

Black-winged StiltBlack-winged Stilt – we found the lone male first this morning

Just a short walk further along, we found the pair of Black-winged Stilts on a muddy island. At first, the female was looking after the chicks and the male was feeding nearby, before they switched roles and the male took over parenting duties. Black-winged Stilts are not particularly attentive parents, and the tiny juveniles, less than 3 days old were left to wander round the island and feed for themselves. They were quite hard to see in the cut reed stems but looking carefully through the scope, we got a good look at them.

Black-winged StiltsBlack-winged Stilts – the male standing guard, with 2 of the 4 juvs nearby (circled)

The adult Black-winged Stilts would fly up occasionally if a potential predator was detected coming overhead, a Marsh Harrier or a Lesser Black-backed Gull for instance. The Marsh Harriers made several passes over the pools and at one point a female surprised a couple of Coots in the water as it came low over a line of reeds. It looked like it was going to dive after one and hovered over the water for a second, but the Coots saw it at the last minute and managed to escape.

Marsh HarrierMarsh Harrier – thinking about attacking a Coot

While we were busy watching the Black-winged Stilts, a shout from a small group of birders further along the path alerted us to a bird flying across in the distance. We thought it was going to be a Bittern at first, but looked up to see it was a Night Heron. There has been a young (1st summer) Night Heron here for the past couple of days, but it had only been seen at dusk as it emerges from the trees where it roosts during the day. It was therefore a nice surprise to see it during the day. We watched as it dropped away from us over the trees.

On the next pool along, we found three Spoonbills. They were doing what Spoonbills like to do best – sleeping! Occasionally, one would wake up long enough to flash its spoon shaped bill. We stood here for a while, and gradually more Spoonbills flew in from the direction of Hickling Broad, in small groups, and landed with them. Eventually we got up to twelve Spoonbills all together, but later as we walked back to the car, another one flew in so there were possibly 13 today in total.

SpoonbillsSpoonbills – another five flying in to the pools at Potter Heigham

All the Spoonbills all appeared to be immature birds, some in their first summer with still extensively fleshy-coloured bills, but others older with yellow-tipped black bills. However, all lacked the full crest of a summer adult and the yellow-brown wash on the breast, or had black in the tips of their wings, which indicated they were still not mature. There were lots of Little Egrets here too, plus a couple of Grey Herons.

Black-winged Stilts and Night Herons are both more southerly European species which have overshot on their way north in the spring. Together with all the Spoonbills and Little Egrets, it gave a real Mediterranean feel to the birding at Potter Heigham this morning. All of which is presumably an indication of our changing climate.

There were not many other waders here this morning, apart from the breeding birds. A lone Ruff was the only wader which doesn’t breed here. As well as the Black-winged Stilts, there were plenty of breeding Avocets, plus Lapwings and a few Redshanks. A few Common Terns were nesting too and flying in and out. We also saw both Great Crested Grebe and Little Grebe on the pools here.

We had been hoping to see one the Garganey which have been lingering here this summer but all our scanning failed to locate one on our way round. There were plenty of other ducks – a single Wigeon, a few Teal and Shoveler, lots of Gadwall and a few Tufted Ducks. A female Common Pochard had a couple of ducklings following her. There were plenty of geese too – Greylags, Canada Geese and a couple of Egyptian Geese. As we turned to walk back, we spotted a drake Garganey flying in and it landed on the island with the Spoonbills. We got a nice look at it through the scopes before it went to sleep.

GarganeyGarganey – flew in and landed between the Spoonbills

The Norfolk Hawker is one of the rarer UK dragonflies, largely restricted in its distribution to the Norfolk Broads and neighbouring parts of Suffolk. So it was great to see one flying up and down the river bank here. It landed briefly, but tucked itself down in the vegetation out of the wind. In the end, we would see quite a few of them today, but this was the only one which stopped long enough for us to get a close look at it.

Norfolk HawkerNorfolk Hawker – landed in the vegetation along the river bank

Back at the car, we had a quick a quick look amongst the cattle on the approach road to see if we could see the Cattle Egret which has been here on and off for a few days, but there was no sign of it. There are lots of cows on the marshes all round here, and it seems possible this bird wanders further afield during the day, as it appears to be seen here mostly early and later in the day.

With an hour or so to spare before lunch, we had a quick walk out from Potter Heigham church and along Weaver’s Way. We could hear a Yellowhammer singing from the hedge further along the road, as we turned off along the footpath. There were lots of dragonflies here, hunting in the shelter of the hedges or basking on the bare ground out of the wind. We saw our first Black-tailed Skimmers and Four-Spotted Chasers of the day.

Walking through the wood, we could hear Blackcap and Willow Warbler singing from the trees. Lots of Azure Damselflies were flying around the edge of the ditch on the far side. Another Norfolk Hawker was hawking up and down along the edge of the footpath along the bank. A Hairy Dragonfly perched up nicely for us, hanging on the leaf of a reed stem at the edge of the path, despite the wind.

Hairy DragonflyHairy Dragonfly – the distinctive hairs on the thorax just visible

We had a quick look out over Hickling Broad, which revealed only a few Mute Swans in the distance and a single pair of Great Crested Grebe. Rush Hill Scrape looked similarly rather quiet today. A Marsh Harrier quartered over the reeds.

We had come here hoping to see our first Swallowtail butterfly of the day, as we figured this part of the reedbed might be more sheltered from the wind. There were very few butterflies at first along the path, until we found a couple of Small Tortoiseshells feeding on the brambles. We continued on past Rush Hill Scrape and finally found a Swallowtail. It flew in and landed on the brambles close to us, feeding on the flowers. It was keeping well down out of the wind, which hampered the photographic efforts, but we all got a great look at it.

Swallowtail 1Swallowtail – our first of the day, feeding on bramble flowers

Swallowtails are restricted in the UK to the Norfolk Broads and with only a short flight season from May to early July, this is the only time and place to see them. A must see at this time of year! With that one in the bag, we headed back to the car and round to Hickling village for a pub lunch.

After lunch, we made our way over to Upton Fen. This is a particularly good site for dragonflies but we were also hoping to see some orchids. We quickly started to find lots of purple Southern Marsh Orchids and paler Common Spotted Orchids, with their distinctive leaf spots. But there are also some confusing hybrids here – these two species readily mix – so we didn’t stop and look too closely!

Southern Marsh OrchidSouthern Marsh Orchid – common around the Fen

This site is known as one of the few places in the UK where you can see the very rare Fen Orchid. Most of the area where these flowers are found is now fenced off, but we eventually located a single Fen Orchid outside the fence. They are very small and not especially striking orchids at the best of times, but this was not a particularly good example either. The non-orchid enthusiasts in the group were perhaps a little underwhelmed and more impressed with the commoner orchids here!

Fen OrchidFen Orchid – not the best example of this rare species

It was bright and sunny now, and warm, so there was not much bird activity. We heard the occasional Blackcap, Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler singing in the trees. We thought we could hear a Grasshopper Warbler reeling in the distance, but it was very hard to hear over the wind rustling the leaves on the trees. We made our way along a path towards it and eventually got to spot where we could hear its distinctive song. But the path ran out and it was presumably keeping low down out of the wind, so we couldn’t get near enough to even try to see it.

There were several Swifts hawking low over the open Fen, trying to find insects out of the wind. A Hobby made a quick pass up and down over the edge of the trees. When we got out of the trees and onto the marshes beyond, we could see a could of Marsh Harriers quartering. Then we turned to head back, with a Stock Dove on the wires the most notable bird on the way.

Much of the Fen was rather quiet today, as far as dragonflies were concerned, perhaps because of the wind. We did see a few more Norfolk Hawkers on our travels. However, the highlight was a single Brown Hawker on the walk back along a sheltered path between lines of trees, its golden brown wings glowing in the afternoon sun.

We finished off the day with a quick visit to How Hill on our way back. We were hoping to get better photos of Swallowtails here, but the highlight was probably a Hobby which was hawking over the trees and marshes by the river, passing right over our heads at one point.

HobbyHobby – great views of this one hunting at How Hill this afternoon

There were just a few butterflies on the brambles here at first, several Small Tortoiseshells and a single Large Skipper, which was a new one for the day. A pair of Banded Demoiselles perched in the nettles added to our damselfly list. We had almost got to the end of the path when we spotted two Swallowtails. It was rather windy here and they were very mobile, but eventually came and gave us great close views.

Swallowtail 2Swallowtail – we saw two more at How Hill this afternoon

It was a fitting way to end a day in the Broads with this iconic Broadland species, so we made our way back to the car.

 

17th Feb 2017 – Late Winter Birding, Day 1

Day 1 of a three day long weekend of Late Winter Birding tours today, and we made our way down to the Norfolk Broads. It was forecast to be mostly cloudy with some brighter intervals, but it turned out to be bright and sunny for most of the day, an unexpected bonus.

Our first stop was at Hickling Broad. The walk down the track was rather quiet at first. Out on the marshes, we could see a Little Egret on a pool. A line of Eurasian Teal were asleep round the edge, while some noisy Mallard came out of the rushes nearby. We had a quick look in on Bittern Hide, but there was not much to see from here today so we didn’t linger.

Back on the track, we could hear a Marsh Harrier calling high overhead. Scanning the sky, we eventually spotted one, and then another. The more we looked, the more we managed to find, there were soon Marsh Harriers everywhere. A young bird, still overall dark brown apart from a paler head, flew past lower down. Even better, a smart pale male was displaying to a nearby female way up in the sky, ‘skydancing’ – tumbling and rolling, gradually losing height. It was great to watch.

6o0a7018Marsh Harrier – some were displaying, ‘skydancing’, today

We made our way round on the bank beside the Broad, with the sound of Marsh Harriers calling overhead accompanying us all the way. By the observation tower, we heard a deep sound like a foghorn from the reeds and stopped for a listen. A Bittern was booming nearby, but from deep in the reedbed. Unfortunately it didn’t fly up for us to see, but it was great to hear, the first we have heard this year. With Marsh Harriers displaying and Bittern booming, spring was most definitely in the air at Hickling this morning!

Hickling Broad itself looked rather empty. We did stop for a quick look, which revealed a Great Crested Grebe and a distant raft of Tufted Duck, plus a few Mute Swans and Cormorants. As we walked through the trees, we could hear a Green Woodpecker yaffling and several Jays scolding calls in the wood. A Water Rail squealed from the rushes.

We were almost back to the car park when we stopped to listen to a Reed Bunting singing in a small sapling in the reeds. Back a short distance along the path, the way we had come, several Bearded Tits started calling. We walked back and could hear them either side of the path. A male hopped up briefly into the base of a small birch tree, but dropped down again quickly before zooming across the path in front of us and disappearing into the reeds the other side.

Hickling Broad can be a good place to see Cranes and we had hoped we might at least see some flying over or hear them calling today, but it was not to be. So we decided to drive round via some other good Crane sites to see if we could find any there. The first couple of places we tried drew a blank but at the next stop, we spotted a pair of Cranes distantly out on the marshes. We got out and got them in the scope.

img_0638Common Crane – a pair out on the marshes

For such enormous birds, Cranes can be remarkably hard to find. But while we were watching the first pair, we noticed two more Cranes walk out from behind a strawstack. They were quite a bit closer, but we didn’t have a good angle on them from here, so we drove a little further down the road and stopped again.

The second pair of Cranes had now stopped and were preening out in a rough field. As if that wasn’t enough, we looked back towards the first pair and from here we could see a third pair of Cranes walking straight towards them. They had their bustles fluffed up and looked like they might be calling. The first pair quickly got the message and flew off out of sight, but the third pair then set off after them, calling as they flew.

img_0646Common Crane – we found 3 pairs out on the marshes

A short while later, one of the Crane pairs flew back in and landed again and the next thing we knew the other pair was walking towards them. They were separated by a reed lined ditch and the two males seemed to face off to each other across the ditch, they seemed to be calling but we couldn’t hear them. It is that time of the year when the pairs of Cranes are starting to re-establish their territorial boundaries ahead of the breeding season.

After watching the Cranes for a while, we made our way round to Strumpshaw Fen. We didn’t have time to explore the reserve today, but we did stop for a quick look at the pool in front of Reception Hide. The Black Swan is still in residence, and was asleep at first. When it woke up it started calling, although it was giving a strange note which confused several members of the group into thinking it was a Bittern booming at first!

6o0a7039Black Swan – the feral bird still resident on the Reception Hide pool

There were lots of Gadwall out on the pool, along with good numbers of Mallard and Coot. A single drake Shoveler was asleep on the edge of the water. Suddenly the horde of Greylags loafing around on the area of cut reed took fright and most of the ducks took off. We raced back to the viewing screen, as a shout of ‘otter’ came from inside the centre, but unfortunately it was nowhere to be seen.

6o0a7045Gadwall – there were lots on the pool, until all the ducks were flushed

It was nice and sunny, so we had our lunch outside on the picnic tables. While we ate, we kept our eyes on the feeders nearby. A steady stream of Blue Tits and Great Tits came in to eat the seeds and eventually a Marsh Tit sneaked in too, darting in and grabbing a sunflower heart, before disappearing back into the bushes. It did this a second time but then didn’t come back again. A Coal Tit was singing from the trees nearby and a male Siskin was too. We managed to get a quick look at him, before he flew off closely followed by a female Siskin too.

After lunch, we made our way east. Most of the wild swans which have spent the winter in the Broads seem to depart in early February, but there are still some large herds of Mute Swans around. We stopped to look at one on the way and after a careful scan through we managed to find the two lingering Bewick’s Swans with them. They were noticeably much smaller and shorter necked compared to the Mute Swans. We could also see the triangular bills of the Bewick’s Swans with the squared off yellow patch at the base.

img_0672Bewick’s Swans – these two have been lingering with a herd of Mute Swans

From here it was just a short drive round via Great Yarmouth to Burgh Castle. The impressive roman fort here provides a great location from which to scan the marshes of Haddiscoe Island. It didn’t take too long to find the Rough-legged Buzzard on one of its usual posts, aided by the fact it was being mobbed by two Short-eared Owls at the time! It was very distant at first, but after a while it took off and flew round, coming a little closer. It landed on another gatepost for a few seconds before flying back round to where it had started again. At least it flashed its distinctive mostly white tail as it flew.

Scanning the island, we found another Short-eared Owl much closer to us. We watched it quartering the grass below us, flying round on distinctive stiff wings. A fourth Short-eared Owl appeared a little further back. While we were watching the Short-eared Owls, a Barn Owl made several passes back and forth over the reeds in front of us. When one of the group spotted an owl just behind the bushes on the near side of the river, it was assumed it would be a Barn Owl, but when we all got onto it it turned out to be a Short-eared Owl. Unfortunately, it flew quickly over the hedge and disappeared inland behind the fort.

There were a few ducks and waders gathered down on the muddy edge of the river channel in front of the fort. We could see three Shelduck along with a few Wigeon and Teal. There were quite a few Redshanks roosting but two of them looked rather paler. Through the scope, we could see that they were actually Spotted Redshanks, much whiter below and more silvery grey above than the nearby darker Common Redshanks.

One of the group had asked earlier in the car about how to identify Common Gull from Black-headed Gull and, conveniently, when two gulls landed close to us on the grass of the fort we could see that there was one of each. It was a good opportunity to see them side by side, the Black-headed Gull having reddish bill and legs and the Common Gull‘s being yellowish. The Common Gull also lacked the black spot on the head of the winter Black-headed Gull and had a darker grey back and more extensive black wingtips.

6o0a7086Common Gull – landed next to us with a Black-headed Gull for comparison

The Common Gull flew off a bit further across the grass but the Black-headed Gull remained just behind us. When we turned around to look at it again, we could see it was treading feverishly up and down on the spot. The sound of the fast footsteps is meant to resemble rain falling and bring worms and other invertebrates to the surface. It seemed to be working as the Black-headed Gull picked up several worms in the short time we were watching it doing its rain dance.

On our way back round, we stopped off on the south side of Breydon Water. There had been a large flock of Tundra Bean Geese on the grazing fields here for the last couple of days. They had not been seen this morning, but had apparently reappeared this afternoon, so we thought it was worth looking in. Unfortunately, they had already flown off again by the time we got there.

Breydon Water is a large tidal estuary and generally holds a wide selection of ducks and waders. Today was no exception, and we could see a huge throng from up on the South Wall. Scanning through the waders, there were good numbers of Avocet, Curlew, Black-tailed Godwit and Dunlin, as well as masses of Lapwing and Golden Plover. The duck included some smart looking Pintail, along with good numbers of Wigeon and Teal.

6o0a7092Breydon Water – huge numbers of waders, ducks and gulls gathered on the mud

We were just working our way through the birds to see what was there when suddenly all the waders erupted. We couldn’t see what had flushed them, possibly one of the local Peregrines, but the air was filled with vast swarms of whirling waders. Most of them were Golden Plover and Lapwing – recent counts here have numbered about 7,000 and 8,000 of each, respectively! It was quite a sight to watch them all in the sky.

6o0a7094

6o0a7107

6o0a7115

6o0a7113Waders – the whirling flocks over Breydon Water

As is the spectacle of the whirling wader flocks was not enough, we looked through beyond them and could see a large flock of Starlings in the sky, over the grazing marshes the other side of Breydon. The flock started to disperse, then suddenly coalesced again, swirling down towards the ground to be met by another flock of Starlings coming up from the ground below. As well as the mini Wader Spectacular, we had a mini murmuration too!

The sun was already going down fast now and we were running out of time. We still wanted to have a quick look in at Stubb Mill on the way home, so we made our way quickly round there. As we were walking up to the watchpoint, we heard someone call out ‘Cranes‘ and we looked across to see two Cranes flying in over the reeds. They flew across in front of us and disappeared round behind the bushes beyond. Not long after, a second pair of Cranes did exactly the same.

6o0a7126Common Crane – a pair flying in to roost in the mist at dusk

Unfortunately, some mist was starting to build over the ground when we arrived and it rapidly thickened which made it hard to see over to the raptor roost. We could see a few Marsh Harriers flying around and a few more made their way in high as we watched. However, with visibility deteriorating and the light fading, we decided to call it a day. As we drove back from the reserve towards the village, a Chinese Water Deer bounded across the road in front of us and a Barn Owl flew alongside the car, leading the way 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.