Tag Archives: North Norfolk

4th Sept 2020 – Early Autumn Tour, Day 1

Day 1 of a three day, small group, socially-distanced Early Autumn Tour in Norfolk. It was mostly cloudy, with a fresh SW breeze, but warm and most importantly it stayed dry for us, a nice day to be out again.

We started the day at Wells. As soon as we got out of the minibus, we could see Spoonbills at the back of the pool off to the right. There were seven of them at first – five were standing together in the water, mostly asleep (which is what Spoonbills generally seem to spend most of their time doing!), but two were awake. One was walking round after the other bobbing its head up and down – one of this year’s juveniles still begging its parent relentlessly to be fed.

Spoonbills – there were 10 on the way back

There was lots of wildfowl on the same pool too, masses of Greylag Geese with a good number of Canada and Egyptian Geese thrown in too. This is not the time of year to admire ducks, with the drakes currently in their drab eclipse plumage, but there were plenty of Wigeon and Teal, plus a few Shoveler and a single Pintail right over at the back.

We could see a good selection of waders too, with particularly good numbers of Ruff. A small group of juvenile Ruff, in shades of tawny, brown and buff, were feeding on a muddy pool close to the track a bit further up, whereas the grey and white adults were further out in the middle.

Across the other side of the track, the pool is slowly drying out and a Green Sandpiper was feeding out in the middle of the wet mud. We got it in the scope and a Wood Sandpiper appeared alongside, giving us a nice comparison. We could see the latter’s better-marked white supercilium and the more prominent pale spotting on its upperparts.

Wood Sandpiper – feeding out on the wet mud to the west of the track

A few Pheasants were in the field next to where we had parked, which had recently been cultivated. A Stock Dove flew in and landed with the Woodpigeons, giving us a nice side by side comparison.

As we set off down the track, we met someone coming back the other way who told us they had seen a Spotted Redshank on the pool earlier. We stopped for another scan, but couldn’t see it anywhere. Another Green Sandpiper was now down with the juvenile Ruff much closer to us now. A Marsh Harrier was down in the grass at the back of the pool, which we got in the scopes as it had a quick fly around. The Spoonbills had multiplied too, up to ten now.

As we started walking again, the Spotted Redshank flew up from behind the vegetation at the far side, alerting us with its distinctive ringing ‘tchewitt’ call. It flew across the track ahead of us, showing off the ‘cigar’ of white up its back, and lack of white in the wing versus its commoner cousin. We could see it was a dusky grey juvenile as it dropped down behind the vegetation along the channel the other side. From further up, we could only just see it through the tall grass.

Continuing on past the pools, we came out into the area of open bushes beyond. There were lots of small birds flitting about here, with a nice selection of warblers including several Blackcaps, Common Whitethroats and one or two Lesser Whitethroats. A Reed Warbler called from the reeds behind us and another appeared in the bottom of the bushes.

We could hear Greenfinches and one or two Chaffinches calling and lots of Goldfinches which kept flying back and forth between the bushes. Round by the seawall, there were several Reed Buntings and Yellowhammers in with them too. One or two of the latter perched up on top long enough for us to get a better look at them.

Yellowhammer – there were several in the bushes beyond the pools

Peering over the reeds towards the westernmost pool, a Kingfisher shot past over the ditch in front of us in a flash of electric blue. We could see more waders on the pool here. A couple of Common Snipe were tucked under the vegetation on the bank at the back, and two Common Sandpipers were running around on the mud. A Greenshank was asleep in the far corner with yet another Green Sandpiper working its way along the bank beyond.

Lots of Black-headed Gulls were dropping in to the shallow water to drink and preen. Scanning across through them, we noticed one with pure white wing tips, not black like the Black-headed Gulls. When it turned round, we could see it had a heavier, brighter red bill too, and a more of a black bandit mask rather than a distinct black spot behind the eye. It was an adult Mediterranean Gull in non-breeding plumage, already having moulted out its summer black hood.

Mediterranean Gull – an adult in non-breeding plumage

From up on the seawall, we had a wider view of more of the pool. From here, we could get a better look at the plovers which had appeared from behind the grass at the back. Three Little Ringed Plovers were feeding on the mud alongside two Ringed Plovers, the latter distinctly larger, and bigger-headed with more distinct black and white rings round. There were three Dunlin with them too.

From up on the seawall, it was high tide out in the harbour. We could see a few Curlew, Redshanks and Oystercatchers roosting out in the vegetation on the saltmarsh. A Common Sandpiper flew over the water and landed on the support of an old bridge which has long since washed away. A couple of Common Buzzards circled high out towards the beach and drifted off west, and a distant Marsh Harrier was hunting the dunes.

There were a few hirundines on the move this morning, small groups making their way west, mainly Swallows and House Martins. A group of Swallows stopped to hawk over the grassy fields beyond the pools for a while. We picked up a couple of Common Swifts on their way west too. Most of them have already left us, and there are just a few stragglers still making their way off, reminding us that summer is over.

There had apparently been a Whinchat in the bushes earlier, but scanning from the seawall still didn’t reveal it, just more of the same warblers, finches and buntings which we had seen earlier. A couple of young Kestrels were feeding down in the grass in one of the fields.

We started to make our way back round. We climbed up onto the bank overlooking the pool west of the track to see if we could see the Spotted Redshank again, but it was looking nervous already as a skein of Greylags flew over honking noisily and it flew up calling, circled round over the mud and then disappeared further up behind the reeds.

Spotted Redshank – this dusky juvenile was feeding on the pools

As we continued back to the track, a Great White Egret flew over in front of us. We could see its long dagger-like yellow bill and long black legs and feet trailing behind, and we watched as it dropped down in the reeds at the back of the pool behind the Spoonbills.

Back at the minibus, we stopped quickly to scan the fields. A couple of small birds on the fence halfway across the field were Whinchats. We got the scopes on them and realised there were actually four of them, and they kept dropping down to the ground beyond before coming back up. We could see their pale peachy-orange breasts and well-marked pale superciliums. Migrants stopping off here to feed on their way south to spend the winter in Africa.

Our next destination was Cley. We stopped at the Visitor Centre car park to use the facilities and scan Pat’s Pool from the picnic area. Even though it was distant, we picked up a couple of juvenile Curlew Sandpiper from here. One was feeding in the shallow water with a couple of Dunlin, in and out of the roosting ducks and Lapwings. A larger flock of Dunlin were in the water beyond.

Most of the hides on the reserve remain closed still but Bishop Hide has finally been opened at least, so we decided to head down to try for a closer look. A Cetti’s Warbler shouted at us from the reeds as we walked along the Skirts path. When we turned onto the bridge across the ditch, a couple of people were photographing something down below, so we stopped to look. A Water Vole was busy munching on water lily leaves just a couple of metres away, completely unconcerned at all the attention it was attracting.

Water Vole – feeding just below the bridge on the way to Bishop Hide

Thankfully the hide was fairly empty, so masks on and no problem with social distancing to worry about. We couldn’t see any sign of the Curlew Sandpipers where they had been, although most of the Dunlin were now feeding behind the island where we couldn’t see them. There were lots of Lapwings, several Ruff and Black-tailed Godwits, and two Avocets still, all out in view.

We heard Bearded Tits calling a couple of times from the reeds in front of the hide, but they were keeping well hidden in the breeze today. Amongst the ducks scattered around, several Gadwall were a new addition to the list.

Thankfully, we didn’t have to wait too long for the Curlew Sandpipers to reappear, three of them now, all juveniles. They were busy feeding around the clumps of mud at the back of one of the lower islands. Through the scopes, we could see their longish, decurved bills, pale peachy washed breasts, clear white underparts and neat scaly brown upperparts. Noticeably different to the Dunlin, when you got your eye in.

Curlew Sandpiper – one of three juveniles on Pat’s Pool

Curlew Sandpipers breed way up in Central Siberia and winter in Africa. The adults migrate earlier and mostly take a more direct route overland, but many of the juveniles take a more coastal route which brings them to us at this time of year. Amazing to think of the journey these young birds were making, without any input from the adults.

Having had a good look at the Curlew Sandpipers, we decided to make our way back to the Visitor Centre for lunch. On the way back along the path, a tiny Harvest Mouse shot across in front of us and disappeared into the grass the other side.

After lunch, we drove the short distance along to Walsey Hills. A couple of stripy-headed juvenile Little Grebes were continually diving in the water on Snipe’s Marsh and two Green Sandpipers were feeding on the mud beyond, in front of the reeds. A Great Spotted Woodpecker was calling from over towards North Foreland Wood and we looked over at a dead tree on the front edge to see it perched towards the top.

Making our way up along the East Bank, another Little Grebe, an adult this time, was down on Don’s Pool. There were a few Dunlin on the Serpentine and a single Redshank, with a large group of Curlew mostly asleep in the grass beyond.

Suddenly the Curlew all took to the air, calling, and we turned to see a falcon chasing after a small wader in front of Arnold’s Marsh, a Hobby! The Hobby, a young bird and inexperienced, was shaken off by its target fairly quickly. It turned and came fast and low across the grass the other side of the Serpentine, and disappeared inland past us.

Hobby – chasing waders over Arnold’s, then turned and flew off inland

From the shelter overlooking Arnold’s Marsh, we could see lots more Dunlin out in the water. They were very nervous after the Hobby had been through and flew up and whirled round a couple of times. A flash of a white rump in amongst them alerted us to a Curlew Sandpiper and when they finally settled down we could see it through the scopes. Otherwise, there were more Curlew and Redshank here.

A large mob of Sandwich Terns were roosting and preening around a couple of the low shingle islands in the middle, and kept spooking and flying up noisily too. A single Common Tern was in with then initially before deciding to socially isolate on an island of its own. It won’t be long now before all the terns will be leaving us and heading south to warmer climes for the winter.

Sandwich Terns – a large mob were roosting on Arnold’s Marsh

Out at the beach, more Sandwich Terns were feeding offshore. We picked up a few very distant Gannets and one or two Cormorants, but couldn’t see anything else on the sea today. However, a small flock of fifteen Knot did fly past just offshore, presumably migrants just arriving, probably heading for the Wash.

Back at Snipe’s Marsh, a Common Sandpiper had now appeared with the Green Sandpipers. A Wryneck had been reported at Weybourne again this afternoon, but by the sounds of things was very elusive – we didn’t have time to try now, one for tomorrow perhaps. We decided to try instead for the Little Stint which had apparently been reported on North Scrape earlier.

There had been a few Wheatears and Whinchats around Eye Field earlier, but we couldn’t see any from the beach car park. As we walked along the beach towards North Scrape, we came across a couple of people staring into the weedy vegetation on the shingle. They told us that a Wheatear had been seen in here, but they couldn’t find it. It was actually out on the stones just a couple of metres from them! Very tame, we had a great view of it before it disappeared back into the vegetation.

Wheatear – feeding out on the shingle on the beach at Cley

Further on, we came across some Whinchats and another Wheatear along the Eye Field fence. They kept flying on a short distance ahead of us and by the end of the field we had amassed four Whinchats in total. They eventually moved over into the vegetation on the shingle and perched on the tops eyeing us as we passed.

Whinchat – one of four along the edge of Eye Field, giving us a hard stare

Some movement down in the vegetation on the shingle ahead of us caught our eye and we caught the back end of a family of Weasels as they scuttled into cover.

There was no sign of the Little Stint on North Scrape, but there were lots of Dunlin, a couple of Little Ringed Plovers, a single Greenshank down at the front and a lone Knot. While we were scanning the mud, we heard Whimbrel calling behind us and turned to see three flying in off the sea. They flew in over North Scrape, then turned and flew back out to the sea again, before flying back in once more.

It was time to start heading back now. We had seen a huge group of Red-legged Partridges in a stubble field way off inland as we were sitting at North Scrape – released en masse for shorting. Then as we walked back past Eye Field, a covey of Grey Partridge flew up from the grass close to the fence.

When we heard Whimbrel calling again, we looked over to see three flying in off the sea – hard to tell if they were new birds coming in or the same three we had seen earlier which had for some strange reason gone back out to sea. However, the two Gadwall we picked up coming in over the sea from some way out were certainly fresh arrivals, probably coming in from the continent for the winter.

Always great to see migration in action and a nice way to wrap up our first day.

8th Mar 2020 – Winter, Brecks & Goshawks, Day 3

Day 3 of our three day Winter, Brecks & Goshawks tour, our last day today. It was a rather blustery morning, with the winds dropping in the afternoon, and mostly dry and bright – we managed mostly to dodge the showers. We spent the day up on the North Norfolk coast.

Holkham was our destination for the morning. As we drove up along Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see lots of ducks out on the floods on the grazing marsh, mainly Wigeon, with a scattering of Shoveler, Teal and one or two Gadwall. We parked at the north end and as we walked up towards the pines, we stopped to admire a smart pair of Grey Partridge feeding very quietly right by the fence behind the parking attendants’ hut.

Grey Partridge

Grey Partridge – this pair was feeding by Lady Anne’s Drive

There was a blustery wind blowing, so we elected to go round to the hides first, rather than out onto the beach. As we walked west along the track on the inland side of the pines, there were a few tits calling in the trees. We stopped briefly at Salts Hole, where four Little Grebes were diving out on the water. A pair of Mistle Thrushes were out on the grass beyond.

Diverting up onto the boardwalk by Washington Hide, we spotted a Great White Egret out on the grazing marshes. Its large size was immediately apparent and through the scope we could see its long yellow bill. Way off in the distance, we could just make out a few White-fronted Geese over by the road, behind the hedge, but we hoped to see some closer from the next hide.

A Chiffchaff was calling in the bushes by the track the other side of Meals House – it would be nice to think it might be an early spring migrant, but it was just as likely an overwintering bird here.

The first thing we saw when we got into Joe Jordan Hide was the lone Spoonbill asleep down on the pool below the wood, bright white in the morning sunshine. It did wake up at one point and flash its spoon-shaped bill, revealing that it was an immature bird – it also lacked the shaggy crest of the breeding adults. It then hopped into the shelter of the rushes on the edge of the pool. It was the only one we saw here today, the others possibly hiding from the wind in the trees.

Spoonbill

Spoonbill – asleep on the pool from Joe Jordan Hide

There were two more Great White Egrets out on the grazing marshes from here, feeding together out in a particularly thick clump of rushes. It was amazing that such a large white bird could completely disappear in the vegetation at times.

There was no sign of the large flock of wintering White-fronted Geese on the old fort today. Most of the Greylags were sleeping out on the marshes and scanning carefully through we did manage to find six White-fronted Geese in with them. They didn’t hang around though, for no apparent reason waking up and flying off, presumably to find the rest of the flock.

Before everyone got too comfortable, we decided to move on. As we walked out earlier, a runner had mentioned there had been a Short-eared Owl out on the beach, so we thought we would check in case it was hunting along the north side of the pines. When we got out into the dunes, there was no sign of the owl, but we did find three Stonechats flitting around in the bushes, the single male singing quietly, and several song-flighting Meadow Pipits fluttering up and parachuting back down.

The large raft of several thousand Common Scoter which has been in the bay all winter was directly offshore from here today, so we stopped for a quick look through them. The tide was out so, despite them being not too far offshore, they were distant from the dunes and it was very choppy. We did manage to pick out a Velvet Scoter in with them, but it was impossible to get everyone onto it in the conditions. More surprisingly, a pair of Pintail and a drake Shoveler were in with the scoter flock too.

It was more sheltered on the north side of the pines, so we decided to walk back through the dunes. It was a good call as it gave us the chance to scan the beach and saltmarsh on the way. We picked up a pair of Ringed Plovers roosting on the shingle, perhaps not for long given the number of dogs running round loose on the beach. Then we picked up five small birds flying round out on the saltmarsh in the distance. As they turned we could see they were fairly pale with contrasting black tails – Shorelarks!

We had a quick look at them from where we were – there was a spaniel running around out on the saltmarsh and heading in their direction and we worried they might fly off. Then we hurried over for a closer look. The Shorelarks were feeding in the low saltmarsh vegetation, but still remarkably hard to see until they lifted their heads. Then their canary yellow faces and black masks gave them away.

Shorelark

Shorelarks – two of the five which were feeding out on the saltmarsh

When the Shorelarks are not feeding in the cordoned-off area at the other end of the beach they can be hard to find, so it was great that we had bumped into them. By the end of this month, they will probably be off to their breeding grounds in Scandinavia.

Snow Buntings were on the target list for the day too, so we walked east to the cordon to see if we could find them there. Some people we passed had said they were on the beach at the far end, so we headed over there first. There was no sign of them on the beach and it was very windy and sand-blasted here. A quick scan of the sand bars produced a few Sanderling running around on the beach.

Another person further back on the inland side of the dunes waved to us, and as we started to walk over we realised he was watching a small group of Snow Buntings which were feeding between us in a sheltered gap in the dunes. We had a good look at them as they fed. There were six of them at first, but gradually they ran up and disappeared into the dunes.

Snow Buntings

Snow Buntings – six were feeding in the shelter of the dunes

It was then heads down for the walk back, into the wind. It was a relief to get to the Gap and the shelter of the pines. It was time for lunch now, so we took advantage of the Lookout Cafe to get a welcome hot drink and some food, and use the facilities.

The wind seemed to have eased a bit after lunch. It was bright and sunny now and we commented how there was no sign of any of the forecast showers – indeed the forecast had changed and was now not predicting any until mid afternoon. We set off west, but stopped where we had seen the White-fronted Geese very distantly from the other side early this morning.

There were lots of Greylags and Egyptian Geese in the field, and in with them were still at least 50 White-fronted Geese. We parked and got out, being careful not to spook them, and got them in the scope. We could see the white surround to the base of their bills and distinctive black belly bars.

White-fronted Geese

White-fronted Geese – there were at least 50 still in the field this afternoon

Thankfully, we had all had a chance to get a really good look at the White-fronted Geese when it started to spit with rain. How ironic, given the change to the forecast! We could see some dark clouds now out to the west, so we hopped back into the minibus and drove through a sharp shower and back out into the sunshine.

As we drove through Titchwell village, we noticed a Barn Owl hunting the grassy field by the road. We had just pulled up and were about to get out to watch it, when a young Common Gull which was flying over swooped down straight at it. The Barn Owl dropped sharply, clearly as surprised as we were at this act of unprovoked aggression! It then turned and made a zig-zagging beeline for the hedge, where it dropped down under the bushes in the bottom, looking round nervously. After convincing itself that the coast was clear, it flew out of the back of the hedge and straight into the back of the wood beyond.

Barn Owl

Barn Owl – hiding under the hedge after being attacked by a Common Gull

Carrying on past Titchwell, we stopped next at Thornham Harbour. There was no sign of any Twite around the old coal barn. A Black-tailed Godwit in the harbour channel was our first of the weekend and a Curlew was feeding on the saltmarsh opposite. With the wind having dropped, we decided to have a quick walk up to the corner of the seawall to see what we could see.

There were plenty of Common Redshank out in the muddy channels and one or two more Curlews. A small group of Linnets kept flying up from the vegetation in front of us and a Little Egret was on the edge of the saltmarsh just below the bank. Scanning further out in the harbour channel, we picked up a much paler wader. Through the scope, we could confirm it was a Spotted Redshank in silvery-grey non-breeding plumage. We could see the prominent white supercilium bridging the base of the bill, which was long and needle-fine at the tip.

Spotted Redshank

Spotted Redshank – in the harbour channel at Thornham again

Spotted Redshanks winter in very small numbers here – they are mainly passage migrants, passing through in spring and autumn. There have been two commuting between Thornham and Titchwell this winter, but they disappear into the tidal creeks and can be very hard to find at time. Looking further out, we could see a few Knot and Grey Plover on the tidal flats and a pair of Red-breasted Merganser in the outer channel through the sands.

We headed round to Titchwell next, to finish the afternoon. As we got out of the minibus and stopped to use the facilities, we heard the distinctive calls of Mediterranean Gulls and looked up to see a succession of birds flying in and out overhead.

Checking in at the Visitor Centre, there had been no sign of any Woodcock today but we were told that there were three Red-crested Pochard on Patsy’s Reedbed. We went that way first and quickly found them out on the water. The two drakes were already looking resplendent in the afternoon sun, but then they started displaying to the female, with their bright orange punk haircuts raised. One of the males was more successful, and we watched the pair mating while the second drake played gooseberry!

Red-crested Pochard

Red-crested Pochard – displaying and mating on Patsy’s Reedbed

Otherwise, there were not many other ducks on here today. Two or three Marsh Harriers were hanging in the air out over the reedbed or over towards Brancaster. A Chinese Water Deer appeared on the edge of the reeds briefly.

Back round on the main path, there were a few Common Pochards on the reedbed pool. A Cetti’s Warbler shouted from the bushes in the reeds. The water level on the freshmarsh is very high again and there was no sign of the shallow islands which had started to be exposed a couple of weeks ago.

There were lots of Avocets trying to find any shallow water in which to feed and most were gathered right in front of Island Hide, so we went in for a closer look. They were right up to their bellies in the water and either swimming or could just get their feet onto the bottom to kick themselves up to try to reach the mud with their bills.

Avocet

Avocet – trying to feed up to its belly in the deep water

There was very little else on the Freshmarsh apart from the gulls, which have taken over the large ‘Avocet Island’ again this year, where the Avocets are supposed to nest. We walked round to Parrinder Hide for a closer look at some Mediterranean Gulls. Another group of Avocets flew in over the saltmarsh, presumably feeding at the moment out in the harbour channels at low tide, and more were roosting in the water where one of the islands would normally have been.

Inside the fenced-off ‘Avocet Island’ we could see lots of gulls, mostly Black-headed Gulls, claiming the ground ahead of the breeding season. In with them we counted at least 40 Mediterranean Gulls, all adults coming into breeding plumage with white-speckled jet black hoods contrasting with bright white eyelids, bright red bills and white wing tips. It was good to compare the two species side by side.

Mediterranean Gull

Mediterranean Gull – there were at least 40 this afternoon on the Freshmarsh

Otherwise, all we could find here today was a single Knot which was roosting on one of the few taller bits of island which were above the water. There was no sign of the Water Pipit again, perhaps not a surprise with so little of the water’s edge exposed. We decided to head out towards the beach.

The tide was in now and with a bigger tide today, Volunteer Marsh was under water. As we walked past, we noticed a couple of little groups of Teal next to the path. The drakes were looking stunning in the afternoon sun and they were calling and displaying.

We walked out to the Tidal Pool to see if we could find some more waders. There were several godwits on here – mostly Black-tailed Godwits, with some starting to show some brighter rusty feathering as they begin to moult into breeding plumage.

Black-tailed Godwit

Black-tailed Godwit – starting to moult into breeding plumage

We managed to find a single Bar-tailed Godwit feeding on the edge of the mud – paler and more heavily streaked above that the Black-tailed Godwits – but surprisingly there were not more roosting here given the tide was in. On the spit where they normally gather there were just two Grey Plovers today. There were still quite a few Oystercatchers on the island, together with several Turnstones.

The tide was right in and there was next to no beach left. We had a quick scan of the sea, but all was quiet here – a lone seal and a single distant Great Crested Grebe. As we started to make our way back, a Skylark was dust bathing on the path. It was very confiding and seemed reluctant to stop what it was doing to make way and let us come past.

Unfortunately, we had to get back now, so those with longer journeys back could get away. As we made our way back east along the coast road, a Barn Owl was hunting where we had seen the one earlier, but this time a different paler bird.

 

 

18th Feb 2020 – Return of the Owls

An Owl Tour today. After yet more windy weather over the weekend, as Storm Dennis swept across the country, it was nice that conditions had improved today and we could get out looking for owls. The wind had dropped, although it got more blustery again through the day. It was dry and we even had some bright sunny periods through the morning.

After a prompt get away, we headed straight down to the marshes and before we even got out of the minibus we could see a Barn Owl out hunting over the grass by the road. It did a circuit of the field, round over the edge of the reeds and then disappeared round behind a hedge.

Barn Owl 1

Barn Owl – our second of the morning, perched on a post

Walking up onto the bank, we could see another Barn Owl on a fence post down on the marshes the other side. We got the scope on it, and could see it was scanning the long grass below intently. Then it took off, hovered, and dropped sharply down into the vegetation. When it came up again, we could see it had a vole in its bill, which it quickly transferred to its talons. It made a beeline back over the grass towards the trees beyond. At this time of day, Barn Owls are often robbed of their catch and it took evasive action as a Rook flew towards it, before disappearing with its prey back into the wood.

Looking back the other side, there were now two different Barn Owls hunting the fields there. We watched them for a few minutes, until they both disappeared, presumably heading in to roost. A Kestrel flew across and landed in the top of the hedge briefly, the main prey-stealing culprit here!

The other raptors were coming out too now. Two Red Kites drifted out of the trees and across the marshes. A Common Buzzard circled up inland and flew in towards us, mobbed by two Jackdaws. A couple of Marsh Harriers were quartering the marshes in the distance. There were other things to see here as well. A small flock of Curlews were feeding in the grass around a small flood which had appeared after all the recent rains. The local mob of teenage Mute Swans had gathered round it too. A Brown Hare ran across the grass. A Song Thrush was in full song back in the trees.

Barn Owl 2

Barn Owl – hunting in the morning sun

The Barn Owl we had seen catch a vole earlier now appeared out of the trees again, presumably having digested its earlier prey. With the low morning sunshine behind us, it was beautiful light as we watched it working its way methodically around the grazing marsh. It dropped down into the grass a couple of times, but didn’t catch anything more. Then it flew back and landed in the trees on the edge of the wood. It perched there for a while, sunning itself, and we watched it in the scope before it dropped down onto a fence post just below. Then it set off again, purposefully, along the edge of the grass, across the road, and then turned sharply and disappeared into the trees.

Presumably, the Barn Owl was heading into roost. It was good that we had managed an early start to catch them out hunting, as there was no sign of any of the three Barn Owls we had seen this morning. We decided to move on. We headed inland, parking on the edge of some fields before setting off down a footpath.

There were a few tits and Chaffinches in the trees, and one or two Robins in the hedges this morning. As we rounded the corner, two Mistle Thrushes flew out and off across the neighbouring field. A couple of Common Buzzards were hanging in the breeze in the sunshine.

As we got to the far side of the wood, we turned to look back along the edge. The Tawny Owl was there as usual, in a big hole in one of the trees. We got the scope on it and watched as it seemed to stare back out at us. After a while, it closed its eyes and went back to dozing. Tawny Owl may be the commonest of our regular owls but is also the most nocturnal, so it is always a privilege to see one like this in the daytime.

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl – roosting in its regular hole again

After enjoying watching the Tawny Owl for a while, we decided to move on. We headed inland to look for Little Owls next. Although the wind had dropped from recent days, there was still a rather brisk and fresh breeze, so we weren’t sure how many would be out enjoying the morning brightness today. At the first site we checked, there was no sign of any owls, but when we pulled up in a gateway overlooking the sheltered side of some barns, we could see a small round shape on the roof.

Once we got out of the minibus and set up the scope, we could see it was indeed a Little Owl, perched in a spot out of the wind and facing into the morning sun. A second Little Owl was just a few metres further down the roof, tucked in on the frame of one of the ventilation windows.

Little Owl

Little Owl – one of two, sunning itself on the roof of one of the barns

We had a look at some more barns, a little further up the road, but there were no more Little Owls out today. We were probably lucky to find the two we had seen, given the cool breeze. So we decided to switch our attention to the next owl on our target list – Short-eared Owl.

After the long drive over to the Wash, we stopped briefly to look at some Pink-footed Geese feeding in a strip of unharvested sugar beet in a field by the road down towards the beach at Snettisham. When we got out and up onto the seawall, the tide was out and a vast expanse of grey mud stretched all the way between Norfolk and Lincolnshire, visible in the distance.

When we got down towards Rotary Hide, we set up the scopes. With the tide out, most of the waders were very distant, but there was still a good scattering of Dunlin out on the mud closer to us and several Ringed Plover too. We could see a few Grey Plover and Knot plus one or two Turnstones with them, but despite having a good scan through the birds which were nearer to the shore there was no sign of the Little Stint which we have seen here on previous days. A couple of small groups of Golden Plover flew in and out. There were lots of Shelduck spread out over the mud too.

Our main target here was Short-eared Owl, so we made our way round to check-out the area where they normally like to roost. A Cetti’s Warbler was shouting periodically from the brambles as we passed. At the first set of bushes we scanned, we found one tucked in the brambles. It was dozing, and we couldn’t see its staring yellow eyes from here, but we all had a good look through the scope.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl – tucked into the brambles today

A bit further on, we stopped to scan again. We couldn’t find any other Short-eared Owls today, but we did have a different view of the first one again. Now it woke up and started preening, and we finally got a chance to see its distinctive yellow eyes, and even its short ‘ear’ tufts at one point.

There were not so many ducks on the pits at first today, but something seemed to spook lots of wildfowl from somewhere and lots flew in and landed on the water. As well as a good number of Wigeon, there were several Shoveler, one or two Gadwall and a few Tufted Ducks. We got the scope on a smart drake Goldeneye, admiring its green head, bold white cheek patch and eponymous bright golden-yellow eye. A Little Grebe was busy diving in the lee of one of the small rocky islets. When something spooked them, a large flock of noisy Greylag Geese flew in off the fields just inland.

On our way back, we stopped again to scan the mud out on the Wash. A Bar-tailed Godwit had now appeared, just beyond the channel, and there were a couple of Grey Plover and a Knot even closer, on the small pools just below us. A careful scan with the scope of the Dunlin failed to produce any sign of the Little Stint, and we were packing up when we looked away to the north and caught sight of a very small, paler wader out on the mud.

Putting the scope up again, we confirmed it was the elusive Little Stint. It was very mobile today though, in the freshening wind, and we had to keep relocating it as it got swept away several times when it took off. It was often in the company of one or two Dunlin or a Turnstone, when it certainly looked small, but it was when it ran past a Curlew that you could really appreciate just how tiny it was! One of probably just a handful of Little Stints wintering in the UK, it seems to like it here – what is probably the same bird has returned to the same area of mud for the last two winters at least. Come the spring, it will be heading off to the arctic to breed.

Grey Plover and Knot

Grey Plover & Knot – feeding on the mud on the edge of the Wash

We were heading to Titchwell to have lunch, but we took a small detour inland to Sedgeford. We were hoping to catch the Eastern Yellow Wagtail here, but there was no sign of it on its currently most favoured muck heap by the road. Another birder driving back from the other muck heap down the lane opposite told us it had not been seen down there either, for several hours at least. We stopped for a minute to watch several Brown Hares chasing round in the stubble field and then continued on our way. We had lots to pack in this afternoon and unfortunately had no time to wait to see if the wagtail might reappear later.

Titchwell was surprisingly busy for midweek and mid-winter, but the picnic tables were free when we arrived so we made good use of one for lunch and a welcome hot drink. We wouldn’t have time to explore the reserve whole today, but we had planned to have a quick look to see if we could see the Woodcock. One of the volunteers coming back to the Visitor Centre told us there was no sign of it now, so we diverted instead out onto the main path, where a Barn Owl had just been seen over the grazing meadow.

The Barn Owl was down in the long grass and rushes when we arrived but after a short wait it came up again. It seemed to be struggling in the freshening wind, and again dropped down into the vegetation for a while. When it came up again, it put on a much better show for us, eventually working its way down over the grass just beyond the fence. It landed briefly on one of the fence posts but was off again almost immediately and disappeared round towards the road.

Barn Owl 3

Barn Owl – hunting over the Thornham grazing meadow

Barn Owl 4

Barn Owl – put on a good show for us early this afternoon

A Common Buzzard was feeding on something further back in the field while we were watching the Barn Owl, so we got that in the scope too. A second Buzzard was on a fence post just behind and several Red-legged Partridges were in the grass closer to us. When the Barn Owl disappeared, we walked on round via Meadow Trail. A small group of Long-tailed Tits was feeding in the cut branches placed on the ground in the trees. We couldn’t find any sign of the Woodcock either now, so we decided to head back to the minibus and move on. The very tame Reeve’s Muntjac was chomping on the grass where the feeders used to be, behind the Visitor Centre.

Back at Holkham, we stopped to scan the grazing marshes. A large flock of Black-tailed Godwits was whirling round out in the middle as we got out of the minibus. There were several Spoonbills on the pools today. First we found two together, busily feeding with their heads down in the water, sweeping their bills from side to side as they walked round. Three more were much further back, way off towards the pines, but flew in to join them, and a sixth Spoonbill flew out of the trees and disappeared off east.

Spoonbill

Spoonbills – two of six we saw today, feeding busily

For a very large and bright white bird, the Great White Egrets made themselves surprisingly harder to find today. We eventually found one, right back in front of the pines, down in a rushy ditch where it was hard to see until it put its head up. Then if flew up, with slow and heavy wingbeats and landed again behind a sparse line of reeds. All the while, there was a second Great White Egret much closer to us, but it had managed to hide itself completely in the rushes until it eventually walked into view.

There are still quite a few lingering (Russian) White-fronted Geese at Holkham, but there were none down on the grazing marshes today. They were feeding further back, on the grass in the middle of the old Iron Age fort, and we could just see a few of them over the rim of the grassy bank. We thought we might find another Barn Owl or two out hunting here, but there were none out this afternoon.

Our next stop was at Wells. There was no sign of the Rough-legged Buzzard on its usual bushes when we arrived. We got out of the minibus and set off down the track towards the bank and we hadn’t gone too far before the Rough-legged Buzzard flew back in. It looked like it would land straight away, but instead flew on, up over the fields towards the Freeman Street car park, flushing all the Brent Geese. It was strikingly pale and, as it turned, we could see its bright white tail with broad black terminal band. It even stopped to hover at one point, rather like an over-sized, slow-motion Kestrel!

Rough-legged Buzzard 1

Rough-legged Buzzard – flew in over the fields

After flying round for a few minutes, the Rough-legged Buzzard returned to its normal bushes and landed on the top of one of them. Now, we could get a better look at it through the scope – its very pale white head and neck contrasting with the dark blackish belly patch. It was hard to see its feathered legs though, through the leaves and branches.

Rough-legged Buzzard 2

Rough-legged Buzzard – eventually landed on one of its favourite bushes

We continued on to the bank and stopped to scan the marshes beyond. There were a few Pink-footed Geese out on the grass and we got them in the scope, noting their dark heads and delicate, mostly dark bills. A passing farmer in a truck seemed like he would have preferred to run us over, although unfortunately we had all stepped to the side to let him pass, and when he drove out across the fields in the distance, he flushed a lot more Pink-footed Geese from over towards the pines. This can be a good place for owls in the late afternoon, but we couldn’t see any here today. It had clouded over progressively though and was no rather grey and cool in the strengthening breeze.

We cut back inland for one last stop on our way back. As we walked down the footpath across the meadow, two more Red Kites and a Common Buzzard hung in the air above the hillside behind us. There was no sign of the regular Barn Owl here this evening – it wasn’t out hunting and we couldn’t see it around the box where it likes to roost either. We were rather later than normal though, so it was hard to tell whether it had already gone off further afield, or was in no hurry to come out tonight given the weather.

We had a quick listen in the trees, but there were no Tawny Owls hooting yet. It is increasingly late before it gets properly dark now, and with the wind and threat of rain approaching, we decided to call it a night and not hang on any longer. Having enjoyed such great views of the Tawny Owl earlier this morning, and four different Barn Owls out hunting,  not to mention the Little Owls and Short-eared Owl, we did not feel like we were short of owls today

13th Feb 2020 – Lucky with the Weather

A Private Tour today, in North Norfolk. After the recent inclement weather, we were lucky (despite the date!) – the wind was light and it was mostly bright with sunny intervals, just the briefest of light drizzle as a shower passed to the south of us early afternoon, and a lovely end to the day. The forecast for today up until a couple of days ago had been for yet more wind and rain – fortunately, as is often the case, it couldn’t have been much more wrong!

After meeting up in Wells, we made our way to the edge of town. As we got out of the minibus, we could already see the Rough-legged Buzzard perched on the top of its usual bushes across the field. We got the scope straight on it, and admired its very pale head, contrasting with the dark blackish belly patch.

Rough-legged Buzzard

Rough-legged Buzzard – still perched on its usual bushes this morning

The Rough-legged Buzzard was quite active this morning, and kept taking off and flying round, flashing its white tail with black terminal bar. It never went far though, and kept returning to its perch on the bushes after a few seconds. It seemed to be mainly hunting down along the edge of the field just below where it was perched – dropping down into the grass at one point, and later stopping to hover there just a metre or so above the ground.

There were other raptors here too. We got a couple of darker Common Buzzards in the scope, very different from the Rough-legged Buzzard. Three or four different Marsh Harriers circled up, including a very dark juvenile, a pale-headed female and a grey-winged male. A Kestrel flew in and landed on the hedge.

A Barn Owl was still out, hunting along the grassy bank. It was a wet night last night, and after all the recent wind it was probably hungry and therefore out feeding during daylight hours. It would be the first of several we would see today.

There were lots of Lapwings around the flood in the ploughed field in front of us and a little group of Golden Plovers on the grass further back. A few Skylarks came up from the fields and a pair of Grey Partridge flew in and landed on the verge at the front of the nearest one.

Moving on, we stopped again at Holkham. A quick check of a field by the road revealed a Mistle Thrush feeding in amongst all the Egyptian Geese. A little further on, as we pulled up overlooking the grazing marshes, all the geese were in the air – we could see a couple of people walking around out in the middle. They gradually started to settle again, with mostly Greylags on the grass at first, although we picked out a more distant group of Barnacle Geese too. Most of the Pink-footed Geese seemed to disappear off over the park.

We could hear the distinctive yelping calls of White-fronted Geese and a couple of largish flocks of 30-60 flew back in but seemed reluctant to land again. Some came down behind the trees but eventually a small number dropped down onto the grazing marshes in view. We got three in the scope, noting their black belly bars and white surround to their pink bills.

White-fronted Geese

White-fronted Geese – eventually a few settled back down on the grazing marshes

There were lots of Lapwing and Curlew out on the grazing marshes too, and scanning one of the larger pools we found a small group of roosting Avocet, in with the Shoveler and Teal. More Avocet have been returning over the last week or so, having spent the winter further south. Spring is in the air!

A large white shape out on the grazing marshes was a Great White Egret. Through the scope, we could see its long, dagger-shaped, yellow bill. A second Great White Egret flew out from behind the trees and landed beyond the reeds at the back. A smaller white shape appeared in a field of taller grass and clumps of rushes – a Cattle Egret. Looking more carefully, we realised there were actually six Cattle Egrets there, as more flew up from further over and came in to join the first. We watched them actively running around between the clumps, catching frogs.

Great White Egret

Great White Egret – one of two on the grazing marshes this morning

News had come through now that the Eastern Yellow Wagtail had been seen again this morning over at Sedgeford, so we set off inland to try to see it. A Red Kite was hanging in the air over the road as we made our way there. As we pulled up on the verge just north of the village, we looked over to the muck heap in the edge of the field alongside to see three wagtails fly up and land on the top. In with the Pied Wagtails was the Eastern Yellow Wagtail.

We got out quietly and were watching the Eastern Yellow Wagtail as it started to feed on the side of the heap, but a lorry came thundering down the road and the wagtails all took off. We heard the Eastern Yellow Wagtail call several times, a raspy, grating call, very different from the typical call of ‘our’ Western Yellow Wagtail, as it flew over the road and out into the field the other side.

We crossed the road and could see the Eastern Yellow Wagtail out on the bare ground with the Pied Wagtails and several Meadow Pipits. Then something spooked them again, and the Eastern Yellow Wagtail flew up and disappeared. There were lots of other birds here – several Fieldfares feeding out in the field and a small covey of Red-legged Partridges walking down along the edge.

Several Yellowhammers were in the hedges and dropping down to the ground in the lane, including some very smart yellow-headed males. A large flock of Chaffinches was feeding along the edge of the field and in with them we could see 4-5 Bramblings. They have been in short supply this winter, so it was nice to catch up with some today.

We set off down the lane to see if the Eastern Yellow Wagtail was on the other muck heap further along, with all the Chaffinches, Bramblings and Yellowhammers flying down along the hedges either side, ahead of us. A large flock of Linnets was swirling round further along, but there was no sign of the wagtail, so we walked back.

When we got back to the first muck heap, by the road, the Eastern Yellow Wagtail was back. We had a great view of it now, as it fed on the sides of the heap and around the puddles at the base in the sunshine. It is a striking bird, with yellow underparts and a grey head with bold white supercilium. Having been found here originally just before Christmas, it looks like it may stay here through the winter now.

Eastern Yellow Wagtail

Eastern Yellow Wagtail – still feeding around its favoured muck heaps

We were heading for Titchwell next, but we called in at Thornham Harbour on our way. The water level in the harbour channel was still quite high and there were just a couple of Common Redshanks and a single Black-tailed Godwit here at the moment, with a flock of Brent Geese further out in the harbour. Three Rock Pipits flew in and landed in the vegetation just beyond the channel. There was no sign of the Twite, so we didn’t stop – we had plenty of other things we wanted to try to fit in this afternoon.

Round at Titchwell, there were loads of Goldfinches twittering in the tops of the trees in the car park. We decided to have a quick whisk round the reserve before a late lunch. We were told there was no sign of the Woodcock on Fen Trail, but we had a quick look on our way round anyway. We couldn’t find it now either, and there was no sign of any Water Rails in the ditches by the main path, so we set out onto the reserve. There were a few Common Pochard with the Gadwall on the reedbed pool and we heard a quick burst of Bearded Tits calling, but couldn’t see them.

There were not so many waders on the Freshmarsh today – a small group of Avocets asleep, and a Black-tailed Godwit asleep with them, and several pairs of Avocets busy feeding in the shallow water. There were lots of Teal around the edges of the water and several Shoveler busy shovelling, the drakes of both looking very smart now in their breeding plumage.

Teal

Teal – the drakes are looking very smart in full breeding plumage now

We were hoping to find a Water Pipit here, but at first all we could find were Rock Pipits. First one flew towards us from the direction of the reedbed, but carried on over our heads and dropped down on to the saltmarsh the other side of the bank. Then we looked across to see several small birds land on the pile of bricks in front of Parrinder Hide – but through the scope, we could see they were three Rock Pipits accompanied by a Reed Bunting, the former presumably having come in for a freshwater bath.

Scanning the cut reeds along the edge of the bank beyond the hide through the scope, we could see a small bird in the vegetation. At last, a Water Pipit! It was hard to see at this range, so we walked quickly round to Parrinder Hide, but by the time we got round there needless to say it had disappeared again. Thankfully, after a bit of scanning, we found it on Avocet Island, on the ground behind the fence.

The Water Pipit had obviously had a bathe, as it was now busy preening. The Rock Pipits had been bathing too, and a couple of them flew up and landed on the fence, in the same view. The Water Pipit was clearly much cleaner, white below, with finer black streaks, and less swarthy above, greyer headed with a clear white supercilium. The Water Pipit finished preening and flew up onto the fence too, before flying back over to the bank out to the east of the hide. We watched it back down in the cut reeds before it walked further back out of view.

Curlew

Curlew – feeding down at the front of Volunteer Marsh from the hide

Someone in the hide asked whether we had seen a Knot and was quite insistent there should be one on the Freshmarsh because it was on the recent sightings board! We pointed out that they only drop in here occasionally and are normally to be found on the saltmarsh or out on the beach. We popped into the other side of Parrinder Hide and just about the first bird we saw on the saltmarsh out on Volunteer Marsh was a Knot! It was with a Grey Plover nearby, and feeding down at the front was a muddy-faced Curlew. When we walked back out, we could see a small flock of Knot had now dropped into the Freshmarsh too, for a quick bathe.

Out at the Tidal Pool, one of the first birds we found was a Red-breasted Merganser. It was diving in the shallow water and seemed to be pulling at something or probing around one of the smaller islands. They are more commonly seen out on the sea than on here. A single pair of Pintail were fast asleep towards the back and a Little Grebe was dozing below the vegetation along the edge. A Water Rail swam out from the edge and we watched as it make its way straight across the deeper water in the middle. It came out and ran nervously across one of the low muddy islands before swimming across the last strip of water to the safety of the vegetated bank the other side.

There were not so many waders on here now – with the tide out, they were mostly feeding out on the beach. There were a few Common Redshanks, and it was nice to compare a single Bar-tailed Godwit on one of the small islands with a Black-tailed Godwit feeding in the water down at the front.

Black-tailed Godwit

Black-tailed Godwit – feeding down at the front of the Tidal Pool

There were a lot more Bar-tailed Godwits feeding out on the beach. A few Turnstones were feeding on the top of the mussel beds and several Dunlin were running around on the sand nearby. Scanning the sea, we could see a few Great Crested Grebes offshore. A couple of Eider and a small group of Goldeneye were rather distant today. We couldn’t immediately see much else out there today, so we walked back for lunch at the Visitor Centre. A Coal Tit coming into the feeders was an addition to the day’s list.

After lunch, we made our way back east along the coast road. On the way, we stopped to look at a small group of Pink-footed Geese in a field beside the road, the first we had seen on the ground today. We stopped again briefly at Holkham, overlooking the grazing marshes where we had stopped earlier. We were immediately rewarded with three Spoonbills on a small pool, just what we were hoping to find here. We watched them feeding, walking round quickly, sweeping their bills from side to side through the shallow water. The Spoonbills are starting to return already, ahead of the breeding season, having spent the winter down on the south coast.

A Barn Owl appeared over the grassy field next to us. We watched it flying round hunting, turning into the wind and doing a transect across over the grass, before flying back to the near edge and turning into the wind to do it again. It landed on a post for a rest, where we had a good look at it in the scope. Then when it started hunting again, we saw it drop sharply down into the tall grass. We could just see it seemed to be ‘mantling’ over something, with its wings open, and sure enough it came back up with  vole in its talons, landing on a post again briefly before flying off with it over the hedge. Looking out across the grazing marsh, we could see a second Barn Owl off in the distance.

Barn Owl 1

Barn Owl – hunting the field as we looked out over the grazing marshes

We stopped next at Lady Anne’s Drive. There is a lot of water still on the marshes here after the recent rains, and they were alive with ducks, particularly big numbers of Wigeon, which were looking very smart in the late afternoon sunshine.

Walking up towards the pines, a Grey Partridge was feeding on the grass just beyond the fence. It is quite tame, so we stopped to admire it. The larger covey which spent the winter here appears to have broken up now, with birds pairing up for the breeding season already. This male seems to be on its own. Looking over beyond The Lookout cafe as we walked towards the pines, we could see another Barn Owl in the distance, perched on a post.

Grey Partridge

Grey Partridge – this lone male was on the grass by the fence

It was a big high tide this morning and the saltmarsh was under water first thing, which was why we hadn’t ventured out onto the beach here earlier today. The Shorelarks hadn’t been seen for the last few days – they always tend to get more mobile when the saltmarsh is wet – and we figured our best chance would be later in the day, to give it a chance to dry out. But there was still quite a lot of standing water on the saltmarsh when we walked out through the pines and the people we met walking back confirmed there was no sign of them again this afternoon.

There were lots of other birds feeding on the saltmarsh as we walked out towards the cordon, lots of Skylarks, several Meadow Pipits and a few Rock Pipits, and a large flock of Linnets. There were just a few more Skylarks in the cordon so with reports of some Long-tailed Ducks just offshore, we continued on out to the beach.

It didn’t take long to find the three Long-tailed Ducks, feeding in the breakers just beyond the sand bar. They were diving constantly, but in the low afternoon light we had a great look at them when they surfaced. A small group of Common Scoter were just offshore too, including several drakes and they were so close we got a good look at the yellow stripe which runs down the front of their bills. A much larger slick of Common Scoter, thousands strong, was much further out, too far for us to be able to pick anything out in with them today.

There were lots of birds on the sandbar, lots of gulls, Cormorants and Oystercatchers, and running around in and out of their legs were several small silvery-grey Sanderlings. We still hadn’t seen the Snow Buntings, and we couldn’t see any sign of them out on the beach now, so we walked a little further along and spotted them as they flew up from behind the dunes by the gap at the far end of the cordon.

The Snow Buntings landed again and we stood on the edge of the dunes and watched as they came running along the tideline towards us. We had a great look at them until they got to the end of the line of washed-up vegetation and then they were off again. They whirled round in the air and looked like they would land again a bit further back, but then turned and headed off. We counted over 50 of them as they disappeared off towards Wells.

Snow Buntings

Snow Buntings – we eventually found the flock of 50+ on the edge of the beach

The late afternoon light was stunning now, out on the beach and it was a great view across the saltmarsh and dunes as we walked back towards the Gap. When we got back to The Lookout, we could see a couple of people looking intently out at the bank beyond and when we got so we could look down the line of the ditch, we could see a Barn Owl on a post.

We got the Barn Owl in the scope and had a look at it – and let a couple of young children who were watching it excitedly with their parents have a look through the scope too. Then it took off and flew straight towards us, landing on another post much closer still. Then yet another Barn Owl appeared on the fence further back – the wet weather last night had really brought them out in force this afternoon!

Barn Owl 2

Barn Owl – on a post by The Lookout as we made our way back

The light was starting to go now, so we made our way back to Wells. It had been a great day and we had been really lucky with the weather today.

 

8th Feb 2020 – Winter, Broads & Brecks, Day 2

Day 2 of our three-day Winter, Broads & Brecks tour today. It was a cloudy start, with some brighter intervals through the day, with a moderate SW wind. With one eye on the forecast for tomorrow, we decided to spend the day in North Norfolk today.

There had been no reports of the Waxwing yesterday at Salthouse, but we heard a suggestion it was possibly still there. We went to look anyway, first thing, but there was no sign of it in the churchyard, where it had been, and no berries left on its favoured hedge. We scanned the trees in the village, and found several Greenfinches and Starlings and House Sparrows in the hedge. Rather than waste any more time, not knowing if it was even still here, we decided to move on. We had a lot of other things we wanted to try to squeeze in today.

When we got to Wells, the Rough-legged Buzzard was perched more obligingly on its usual bush. We got out of the minibus an trained the scopes on it. We could see its very pale head, contrasting with its dark blackish belly patch.

Rough-legged Buzzard

Rough-legged Buzzard – perched on its usual bush this morning

There were lots of Lapwings and gulls in the ploughed field in front of the layby, including several different ages of Herring Gull which we took a closer look at (by popular request!). A Sparrowhawk flew past, flushing everything, and disappeared behind the hedge.

After having a good look at the Rough-legged Buzzard, we carried on round to Holkham, and parked at the top of Lady Anne’s Drive. There were lots of ducks around the pools out on the grazing marsh – lots of Wigeon, a few Shoveler and one or two Teal. As well as several Redshanks, there were two Ruff feeding out on the grass quite close to the fence, giving a good comparison. We could see the distinctive scaly appearance caused by the pale fringes to the upperparts feathers on the Ruff.

Ruff

Ruff – feeding out on the grazing marsh, with the Redshank

As we walked up towards The Lookout cafe, we could see several Grey Partridges feeding on the grass. A nice orange-faced male was very close to the fence, and as we walked up it stopped feeding and lifted its head up, showing off its dark, kidney-shaped belly patch. A second male was feeding with a duller, browner female a little further back.

Grey Partridge

Grey Partridge – showing off its dark belly patch

Scanning from the Lookout, while some of the group went inside to use the facilities, someone standing there mentioned that he had found what he thought was a Peregrine way out, down in the grass. Looking through his scope, it was indeed a Peregrine, an adult. We trained our scopes on it too – we could just see its head and shoulders, its dark cap extending down in a broad, rounded moustache. Two Rock Pipits flew in for a quick bathe on the pools before flying back out over the pines. We could see small numbers of Brent Geese dropping in further back too.

Heading out towards the beach, we met someone who had been out with us yesterday who told us that the Shorelarks were not in the cordon this morning. Armed with that knowledge, we thought we would check the saltmarsh west of the Gap first instead. As we walked out, several small flocks of Linnets flew over along with one or two Skylarks. But there were two dogs having a high old time, running backwards and forwards around over the whole saltmarsh that side, their owners miles away and oblivious, and needless to say there were no birds left there.

As we turned to walk across the Gap, we saw a large flock of Snow Buntings in the distance. They flew up from the saltmarsh off towards the cordon, over the dunes and dropped down towards the beach. A small group of Skylarks flew in and landed on the shingle, where we might have hoped the Shorelarks would drop in instead!

We walked through the back of the dunes the other side and cut through a gap to the beach. The first thing we saw was a large flock of scoter gathered like a black oil slick just offshore. There were hundreds of Common Scoter, lots of pale-cheeked browner females accompanied by a good number of plainer, blacker drakes. Looking with the scopes, we could see several Velvet Scoters in with them, but they were very hard to pick out, not helped by the fact that the flock was constantly on the move and diving.

Most of the Velvet Scoters were females or young males, but we did find one adult male with bright yellow edges to the bill and white tick mark surrounding the eye. Eventually everyone got onto at least one of the Velvet Scoters, though it took some time to get your eye in, despite the fact that this group was not far offshore. A larger group of Common Scoter was much further out – we didn’t even attempt to try to find the Velvet Scoters in that group! There were a few Red-breasted Mergansers mixed in with the scoters too.

When we finally took our attention off the rafts of seaduck, we noticed a large flock of Snow Buntings had appeared out on the sand. We got them in the scope, and counted 48 of them. They were flushed by two people walking along the beach and flew round, over the dunes behind us and then almost overhead, before landed again on the beach, much closer to us. We had a great view of them now.

Snow Buntings

Snow Buntings – we counted 48 out on the beach today

Further over, along the beach to the east of us, we could see lots of birds on the sandbank beyond the channel, presumably where there was less disturbance. Through the scopes, we could see several silvery-grey Sanderlings running in and out of the Oystercatchers and gulls. A few Cormorants were drying their wings further back.

When we walked along the beach and cut back in towards the cordon, we found that the Shorelarks had now reappeared. We scanned from up in the dunes first, and could see them feeding down on the saltmarsh inside the fence. They were much closer from round the other side, and we had a much better view of them. Their canary yellow faces caught the sunshine when they lifted their heads.

Shorelark

Shorelark – the five reappeared in the cordon this morning

We walked back, and stopped for lunch in The Lookout. As we made our way back to the minibus afterwards, a flock of Pink-footed Geese flew over and dropped down towards the grazing marshes out in the middle, the only ones we saw here today.

A little further on, we stopped to scan the grazing marshes again. The first thing we found was a group of White-fronted Geese out on the grass. As we scanned across, we counted at least fifty of them, the white surrounds to the base of their bills (the white ‘front’) showing clearly as they lifted their heads.

White-fronted Geese

White-fronted Geese – we counted at least 50 on the grazing marshes today

A Great White Egret feeding in one of the rushy pools stood out a mile off, being very large and very white. A second flew across over the back and landed beyond the reeds. When another white bird flew out from behind the trees, it immediately looked different, its head and neck held extended out in front as it flew. It was a Spoonbill – the first two birds have returned already for the summer just in the last couple of days, so it was great to see one today. Spring must be on its way! It landed on the largest of the pools, and we got it in the scope, watching it feeding, sweeping its bill from side to side as it walked round through the shallow water.

Spoonbill

Spoonbill – one of the first two birds to return here for the summer

Several Marsh Harriers were flying round over the grazing marshes and we picked out a Red Kite distantly over the trees too. Then a Hen Harrier appeared, a ringtail, smaller and lighter built and flashing the white square at the base of its tail. It flew low west over the grazing marsh, quartering and disappeared round behind the trees.

Back in the minibus, we drove west inland next, over to Sedgeford. As we pulled up, we could see three people looking intently at the muck heap right by the main road. We quickly got out and sure enough, the Eastern Yellow Wagtail was right there. If only it was always so easy! We watched it feeding on the mud around the base of the heap. It has been a bit more erratic in its appearances in the last few days, so it was great to find it so obliging.

Eastern Yellow Wagtail

Eastern Yellow Wagtail – still lingering by its favoured muck heaps

There were lots of gulls loafing in the ploughed field opposite. When a large group circled up and overhead, we looked up to see a Mediterranean Gull in with them, its white wingtips translucent against the blue sky. It was rather hard to pick out though, and despite looking through the flock out in the field, we couldn’t find another one with all the Black-headed, Common and Herring Gulls there. Thankfully, numbers are already starting to increase now and we would see some more later.

We made our way down to the coast at Thornham next. As we drove down the road to the harbour, we could see ten small birds circling over the narrow strip of saltmarsh right beside it – the Twite. They clearly wanted to come in to land, but there were too many people walking down the road and they wouldn’t settle. They circled round several times, then flew back to the old coal barn and landed on the roof. We piled out, and had a great view of them, the sunshine catching their yellow bills and burnt orange breasts.

Twite 2

Twite – flew round and landed on the roof of the old coal barn

When the Twite flew again, they dropped down and landed on the saltmarsh, to feed on the seed heads. Something spooked them again, and seven flew straight back up to the barn roof, but three Twite remained down on the saltmarsh. One perched up nicely and we could see it was sporting a set of coloured rings – this bird wintered at Thornham last winter too, and was originally ringed in Derbyshire in May 2018.

Twite 1

Twite – a colour-ringed bird, regular in winter here, originally ringed in Derbys in May’18

There were no different waders in the harbour channel, so we got back in the minibus and drove over to Titchwell next. A quick check in at the Visitor Centre confirmed that one of the Woodcock was in situ again, so we made our way straight round to look for it. A large crowd was gathered on the narrow boardwalk, and we had to wait a few minutes until we eventually got to a place where we could see it. It was then fill the frame views in the scope, albeit of just its head and the top of its body where it was hiding down amongst the moss covered branches.

Woodcock

Woodcock – hiding in the sallows close to the boardwalk

Continuing round, back to the main path, we had a quick look for Water Rails in the ditch. There was no sign of any, but we did see a Chiffchaff flitting around in the bushes just below the pass. As we walked on, a couple of Marsh Harriers were hanging in the air, up over the back of the reedbed. Several Common Pochard and Tufted Duck were in amongst the Greylags and Canada Geese on the reedbed pool.

Hundreds of Golden Plovers and Lapwings were whirling round over Freshmarsh, as we walked out, gradually landing back again. The water level has finally gone down now, and there are more islands exposed, much to the appreciation of the waders. the nearest ones were now covered in the Golden Plover. There were lots of Avocets too, with numbers steadily climbing again now with one eye on spring already, up to seventy today. A single Black-tailed Godwit was asleep in the middle of them.

Golden Plover

Golden Plover – gathered on the islands on the Freshmarsh

There were lots of gulls on here too – they seem to appreciate the shallower water. They were mostly Black-headed Gulls, but looking through them, we found several Mediterranean Gulls too. We got two adults in scope, one already getting some of its black hood. There were lots of Teal gathered round the edges of the Freshmarsh, with the drakes looking stunning now, particularly in the late afternoon sun.

We had a quick look in Parrinder Hide, but there was no sign of any Water Pipit around the islands or along the reedy edges below the bank, so we carried on out towards the beach. As we passed the Volunteer Marsh, we could see the tide was now comng in quickly. The small channel below the bank was filling fast, and the Redshanks had climbed up the bank beyond. Looking down the wider channel at the far side, we could see several Curlew, more Redshanks, a single Grey Plover and a couple of Knot.

The Tidal Pool has been really good for waders, since it has returned to being tidal again. We scanned the SE corner first, but there was no sign of any different shanks down there now. A little further along, there were two Black tailed Godwits feeding close to the path. The spit further back was full of roosting waders, mostly Bar-tailed Godwits mixed with a smaller number of Grey Plover, Knot and Dunlin. More were flying in all the time, coming in off beach to roost here over high tide. There were lots of Oystercatchers too, roosting higher up on the island, and a scattering of Turnstones along the far edge.

Bar-tailed Godwits

Bar-tailed Godwits – roosting on the Tidal Pool over high tide

Beyond waders, there were several Pintail, including several smart drakes, busy upending with the Mallards out on the water. We could see their long, pin-shaped central tail fathers. Four Little Grebes were hiding along the bank.

We had a quick look out at the sea. The tide was in now and the beach was covered. There were a few Goldeneye out on the water, closer in, and one or two Great Crested Grebes, but most of the birds were much further out. A drake Eider flew in and landed on the sea, and another group of eight flew past much further out, along the horizon. We picked out a distant Red-throated Diver too, but it dived before anyone could get onto it and we couldn’t relocate it.

As we started to walk back, we stopped to scan the far corner of the Tidal Pool again. This time we found a Spotted Redshank, tucked in on the edge of one of the small islands at the back, roosting.

We stopped again in Parrinder Hide. We could see the Marsh Harriers gathering out over the reedbed. A distant Barn Owl appeared, flying through the back of the reedbed and disappearing round towards the church. A few Pied Wagtails started to drop in to the islands ahead of going to roost in the reedbed. A Water Pipit appeared too, perched on the fence. We got it in the scope, before it flew further along to a post, but it didn’t linger and then flew off shortly after.

The light was starting to go now, so we walked back. There was a stunning moon, rsiing over the bank at the back, and we stopped for a quick look at it in the scope. It is not just the birds which are worth stopping to look at! The Marsh Harriers were still coming in, and we counted at least 15 in the air together as we passed the reedbed. Lots of Little Egrets were coming in to roost too. A Barn Owl was perched on a post at the back, before taking off and flying over the bank.

It was time to head for home. We had enjoyed a really productive day and made the most of the good weather ahead of tomorrow.

16th Jan 2020 – An Early Wash

A Private Tour today. The plan was to head up to the Wash before dawn, to watch the Pink-footed Geese flying inland to feed at first light and then the gathering of waders ahead of the rising tide, before finished the day with a walk around Titchwell. While there was a chill to the brisk southerly wind, it was a lovely day with hazy cloud and sunny intervals, before clouding over later.

We got out to the coast at Snettisham before dawn, the sky just beginning to take on a dull orange glow away to the east by the time we arrived. We were then treated to a beautiful sunrise in shades of red, orange, pink and purple.

Sunrise

Sunrise – over the pits at Snettisham

As the light improved, we could hear the yelping calls of the Pink-footed Geese out on the Wash growing restless and gradually we could make out clusters of dark shapes standing out on the mud. Then the first small groups started to take off, flying in over the bank, over our heads, and heading off inland, into the pink-tinged sky of the sunrise. As they gained height over the bank, they formed into skeins, different shapes, ‘v’s, ‘w’s and various other unimagined letters. A larger flock, about a thousand strong, came up from the edge of the saltmarsh further round to the left, and headed off south east.

Gradually, as the sun started to rise, we could see more clearly out across the Wash. Scanning the mud, there seemed to be slightly fewer geese than normal roosting directly off the southern pit this morning. We could just make out several thousand Pink-footed Geese roosting on the mud a bit further to the north of us. When they finally took to the air, they headed off north east, presumably to a feeding ground they had been in previously.

There were still more Pink-footed Geese out in front of us, and they came off in a series of waves, a few hundred at a time, and over our heads calling. We watched them disappearing off into the sunrise.

Pink-footed Geese 1

Pink-footed Geese – flying inland from the Wash at dawn

Gradually, the number of geese remaining out on the mud declined. It was not high tide yet, but the waders were already gathering. It would not be a big enough tide to get all the waders off the Wash, but it should still push them all closer in today. A large black mob of Oystercatchers had already gathered further up, on the spit opposite the sailing club, and hundreds of Bar-tailed Godwits were shuffling nervously along the water’s edge in front. We could see some huge flocks of Knot further out in front of us, along the edge of the mud.

A flock of Dunlin flew in and landed on the mud closer to us, with two Ringed Plovers in with them. The Curlews were already lined up on the drier ground, over by the saltmarsh, as if they knew what was coming. The mud was liberally scattered with Shelducks and as we looked out, several small flocks of Brent Geese came in over the mud and landed down on the edge of the channel.

It was still cool out on the edge of the Wash, with the sun not yet high enough to warm things up. With some time before high tide, we decided to have a look in the hides and warm up. Scanning the pit from Rotary Hide, we could see several Goldeneye down on the water, the smart drakes black and white. There were plenty of Wigeon and several groups of Gadwall on the water too, and lots of Greylags all round the pit, accompanied by a single Canada Goose. The Lapwings were hunkered down on the various islands.

Several large flocks of ducks flew in from out left, along with a couple more little groups of Goldeneye, and splashed down onto the water. It looked like they had been spooked from the other pits. Shortly after, we found out why when a young Peregrine shot in along the near edge of the pit and past us right in front of the hide windows!

Down at Shore Hide, we could see more ducks and several more Little Grebes, along with a single Great Crested Grebe. The Lapwings were very nervous now, not surprisingly with a Peregrine around, and kept flying up from the islands. Two Turnstones flew up with them. There were not many birds down at the south end of the pits at the moment, possibly due to ongoing disturbance from the new hide construction, which finally appears to be making progress again.

The sun was up properly now, shining through hazy clouds, and the light was much better. We decided to head out again to look for Short-eared Owls. The tide had come up a lot since we had been in the hides, and the waders flocks were growing. Most of the Oystercatchers had now left the point in front of the sailing club, and were spread in a big black slick across the middle of the mud.

Oystercatchers

Oystercatchers – gathering on the mud ahead of the rising tide

Most of the other waders – Knot, Bar-tailed Godwits, Dunlin and Grey Plovers – were all getting pushed up by the rising tide, occasionally flying up in huge flocks, twisting and turning low over the mud, flashing grey and white, before landing back down higher up ahead of the ever encroaching water.

Waders

Waders – pushed in by the rising tide

As we walked round, we flushed a couple of pairs of Grey Partridges (or the same pair several times), which flew off calling noisily. Scanning the bushes, it didn’t take long to find the first Short-eared Owl, tucked in the bare branches of the brambles, hunched up, dozing. We had a look at it in the scope. A little further on, we found the second one, under the same sparse bramble bush which it seems to favour again at the moment.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl – roosting under its usual bramble bush

Looking back out actross the Wash, the tide was just about at its highest point now, the waders all concentrated on the last arc of mud extending out around the edges of the saltmarsh. They were still shifting a little, small groups occasionally flying up and dropping down again further up away from the water, but the movement of the birds gradually subsided as the rising waters reached their peak.

We decided to move on. As we drove back up Beach Road, we noticed thousands of Pink-footed Geese in a recently harvested beet field right alongside. We found a convenient layby to stop in, and got out carefully to scan through them, being careful not to spook them. So this is where all the Pink-footed Geese we had seen flying off north-east from the Wash earlier were heading!

Pink-footed Geese 2

Pink-footed Geese – several thousands in a recently harvested beet field

We had a good look at the Pink-footed Geese in the scope. Having watched thousands flying overhead this morning, it was great to see some now on the ground and admire the detail, the delicate dark bills with variable pink markings. There were quite a few Greylags in with them, presumably local feral birds, bigger, paler, with large orange carrots for bills. There were several Canada Geese too, and at least three odd-looking Greylag x Canada Goose hybrids with them.

Looking through carefully, we found several White-fronted Geese too. The white surrounds to the base of their bills and black belly bars stood out when they lifted their heads. We counted at least eight, scattered widely through the flock in singles of small groups.

White-fronted Goose

White-fronted Goose – at least eight were in with the Pink-footed Geese

A little further up, at the end of the flock, two Mistle Thrushes were out in a bulb field, standing tall, with their black-spotted pale breasts catching the low morning sun. A little flock of Linnets dropped down into the weedy strip at the edge. Several Red-legged Partridges were hiding behind tufts of vegetation out in the middle. A Red Kite hung in the air over the edge of the marshes beyond. Two Marsh Harriers came in and over the stubble field the other side.

We made our way round to Titchwell next. After our early start, it would not be long before we would be needing lunch, so we decided on a quick walk round to Patsy’s Reedbed first. The roosting Woodcock round the back here has been one of the highlights of the last couple of weeks, so we went straight there.

A small crowd of long lenses had gathered again, but after a couple of minutes we took our turn and got the Woodcock in the scope. It was amazingly well camouflaged down against the leaves, and knowing that was probably why it felt so relaxed roosting in full view from the path – if you find the right angle. It woke up briefly at one point and looked round, flashing its long bill.

Woodcock

Woodcock – roosting in its usual spot again today

Continuing on to Patsy’s, a Cetti’s Warbler was singing out in the reedbed. From the screed, we looked across to see several Marsh Harriers hanging in the air over the reeds. There were not so many ducks on here today – a scattering of Gadwall, Mallard, Teal and a few Coot. A careful scan revealed two Snipe asleep down along the edge of the cut reeds, remarkably well camouflaged in the browns and yellows of the vegetation.

Then it was back to the Visitor Centre for lunch and a welcome hot drink. Afterwards, we headed out along the main path. Scanning the ditches either side, as we walked through the trees, we spotted the Water Rail down in the water. We watched as it probed in the mud along the bank as it worked its way along the edge of the ditch.

Water Rail

Water Rail – feeding down in the ditch below the main path

The disaster has been averted and the water level on the Freshmarsh has dropped a fraction, but there is till a lot of water on there. Good for ducks! We could see lots of Tufted Ducks and a few Common Pochard with all the dabbling ducks on the edge of the reeds on the southern side.

Most of the Teal were roosting along the other shore, either side of Parrinder Hide. When we got up there, we had a close look at them through the scope, the drakes looking stunning at the moment, intricately patterned when you can see the feather detail.

Teal

Teal – sleeping around the edge of the Freshmarsh

As we walked on past Volunteer Marsh, a Rock Pipit flew in calling and dropped down on the mud below the path briefly, before flying again and disappearing round behind the concrete bunker on Parrinder bank. There were a couple of Redshanks in the channel down below the bank and a Curlew came out of the saltmarsh to pull a worm out of the mud there too.

There were more birds at the far end of Volunteer Marsh, along the wider channel which extends back away from the path. A Little Egret was down in the water in the bottom. Two Grey Plover were feeding on the mud. A single Knot walked up out of the channel to the reeds along the edge.

Grey Plover

Grey Plover – two were on the mud by the channel

Over to the Tidal Pool, we couldn’t see any sign of the Spotted Redshanks which had been here earlier. There were several more Common Redshanks though, plus a scattering of both Bar-tailed Godwits and Black-tailed Godwits. We got one of each of the latter which were feeding together on the edge of one of the islands in the scope. A good comparison opportunity. A single Ringed Plover was on the sand at the back.

A little further up, there were more waders roosting on the long spit. More Bar-tailed Godwits and Knot, and a couple of Turnstone in with them. On the end of the spit, eight Avocets were sleeping, a few hardy individuals which have opted to stay here rather than head further south for the winter.

Avocets

Avocets – there were eight on the Tidal Pool today

A pair of Pintail were busy upending out in the deeper water. Through the scope, we could see the long, pin-shaped tail feathers of the smart drake.

Out at the beach, the tide was still just going out, and had not yet exposed the mussel beds. We scanned the sea, finding a few Red-breasted Mergansers, and a single Goldeneye offshore. Two Eider were very distant and too hard for anyone to get onto. A couple of Great Crested Grebes were easier to see.

A good number of Bar-tailed Godwits were down feeding down on the beach, where the waves were breaking on the sand. A Sanderling flew along the shoreline, possibly looking for others. It eventually landed away towards Brancaster, but only very briefly and it was off again before we could even get the scope on it. A small group of Knot had landed on the beach too, but didn’t stay long and flew back towards the Tidal Pool, possibly having realised it was still a bit early to come out.

It was time for us to head back, into the freshening breese. As we got to the Tidal Pool, a Great Black-backed Gull flew over and spooked all the waders from behind the suaeda. They all flew round and we spotted a Spotted Redshank in with them. It landed out in the shallow water in front of the spit and we had a good look at it in the scope, paler than the Common Redshanks, with a longer, finer bill. Then it started feeding, sweeping its bill vigorously from side to side in the water as it walked round.

We had a quick stop at the Freshmarsh to admire the Teal again, now with the low winter sunshine showing them off even better. A small group of Brent Geese had dropped in too, but flew off as we arrived.

Back to the trees, there were lots of Chaffinches on the path. A flock of tits was working its way through, with several Long-tailed Tits down in the bushes just above the ditch. A Chiffchaff was with them, and it flew out into the edge of one of the bare bushes right in front of us, pumping its tail as it flitted around in the branches. Another bird which has stayed put rather than head off further south. Then it was back to the car park.

It had been another lovely day out. As we drove back, it started to spit with rain. Perfect timing!

15th Jan 2020 – More than just a Lark

A Private Tour today in North Norfolk. We had a particular list of things we wanted to see, so we would be very focused about what we did and where we went. The weather gods looked favourably on us again – after very heavy rain and high winds overnight, it was much calmer by morning, dry but cloudy initially, and then the skies cleared and we had some gorgeous winter sunshine in the afternoon. Lovely!

As we drove west along the coast road, we noticed a large flock of geese feeding in a grassy field and pulled up in a layby next to it. White-fronted Goose was on the target list for the day, and this is a field they sometimes like to feed in. Sure enough, that is just what they were. We got out quietly and set up the scope behind the minibus so as not to risk disturbing them.

White-fronted Geese

White-fronted Geese – 150 were feeding in a field by the coast road

We could see the adult White-fronted Geese with the white surrounds to their bills and black belly bars like fingerprints. There were several plainer juveniles with them too. We counted 120 when we arrived, and several more small groups flew in to join them as we watched. By the time we left, there were at least 150 feeding on the grass. There were a few Egyptian Geese in the field too, plus a pair of Mistle Thrushes and a couple of Brown Hares.

Our next destination was Sedgeford, to look for the Eastern Yellow Wagtail. As we arrived, there were only a few cars today – the crowds have started to dissipate now it has been around for several weeks. We could see a couple of people further down the track, by its favoured muck heap, but they were looking round and it seemed pretty clear they were not looking at the bird. It often starts the day out in the field, so we stopped on the corner to scan.

A large flock of Fieldfares was feeding out in the middle of the field, accompanied by a mob of Starlings. A small covey of Red-legged Partridges was in the far corner and a mixed group of Linnets and Chaffinches landed on the edge of the cover strip along the edge. A Pied Wagtail flew in and landed down in front of us, but unfortunately had not brought its rarer cousin with it.

When a big flock of Meadow Pipits landed out in the field, we scanned across through them and there was the Eastern Yellow Wagtail with a couple more Pied Wagtails. We quickly got the scope on it and had a good look as it walked across between the furrows, before the flock took off and the wagtail disappeared.

The Pied Wagtails had flown off down the field, in the general direction of the muck heap, so we thought we would walk down the lane and see if the Eastern Yellow Wagtail had gone that way too. We hadn’t gone very far, and were just talking about its distinctive rasping call, when we heard it just behind the hedge. We called to some people who had just arrived and were still standing on the corner by the road, and by the time we got back to them they had found the Eastern Yellow Wagtail feeding along the edge of the field.

Eastern Yellow Wagtail

Eastern Yellow Wagtail – feeding on the edge of the field this morning

The Eastern Yellow Wagtail was a bit closer now, and more settled, feeding on its own. We had a much longer look at it through the scope, with its grey head, bright white supercilium and yellow underparts. It gradually worked its way further away from us before flying off down the field.

A steady stream of Pink-footed Geese had been landing in a field away to the south, in the distance, while we were looking for the wagtail. Now we turned our attention to those. They were a long way off, but through the scope we found a single White-fronted Goose with them. Then someone else found two Barnacle Geese too.

We were just working our way steadily through the rest of the flock when something spooked them. The Pink-footed Geese all took to the air. It was quite a sight – a flock of several thousand geese taking off. Half of them flew off, while the other half landed back down in the field, although some were out of sight now beyond a ridge. We couldn’t see anything else of interest with those that were still visible, so we decided to move on. As we were walking back to the minibus, something spook them again and all the geese took off once more.

The Woodcock at Titchwell has been performing outstandingly for a steady stream of admirers in recent days. While it was not specifically on the target list for the day, we couldn’t not call in as we were within easy reach. We walked straight round to Meadow Trail and found a small group already gathered, and eventually as people moved on we were able to get the scope on it. It wasn’t where we had seen it recently, but thankfully had only moved about three feet to the left! Stunning!

Woodcock

Woodcock – still delighting the crowds

There were lots of other things we hoped to do today, so we elected not to go further out onto the reserve today – unfortunately, with days short at this time of year, we would not have enough time. We made our way back to the minibus, and turned back east along the coast road to Holkham.

As we drove up along Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see the grazing marshes were full of water after last night’s rain. There were loads of birds. Lots of ducks, mainly Wigeon and a few Teal. And lots of Black-headed Gulls and Common Gulls, presumably attracted by the prospect of worms forced up by the water. It is looking really good for wildlife here at the moment. We parked at the top and walked up towards the pines. A covey of Grey Partridges was very well camouflaged on the edge of the ditch, looking across the grass.

When we got out onto the edge of the saltmarsh, we could see that it was very wet today too, after a big high tide this morning. The Shorelarks have been very mobile and elusive at times this week, with their favoured cordon being wet at times. Shorelark was a particular target for the day, so we figured we may have to search them out. Rather than head towards the cordon first, we decided to try the opposite direction.

We walked round on the dry path along the edge of the dunes, and as we started to pick our way round the puddles and flooded channels on the path out across the saltmarsh we met two other birders coming back the other way. They confirmed what we had hoped – the Shorelarks were just ahead of us. When we got out to the middle, we could see them, feeding with about twenty Skylarks on the other side.

We followed the Shorelarks for a while, keeping a discrete distance so as not to disturb them. The Skylarks flew off, but the Shorelarks continued to pick their way round the edge of the saltmarsh. With patience, we had some great views of them, feeding on the small seedheads, chasing each other, stopping to stretch and preen.

Shorelark

Shorelark – we found the five of them out on the edge of the saltmash

After enjoying our fill of the Shorelarks, we left them in peace. They could have been one of the hardest of today’s target species to find, so it was great to get them in the bag. Snow Bunting was the next one we wanted to find, and they have remained more faithful to the cordon area, despite the high tides, so we headed round there next.

A Rock Pipit flew across calling, a sharper call than a Meadow Pipit, and landed briefly on the saltmarsh, before flying off again. We flushed a small flock of Linnets ahead of us too. A small flock of Brent Geese was feeding out in the middle as we made our way east from the Gap, but they were up to their bellies in the vegetation and it was hard to see anything different in with them. Looking up to the sky, we could now see the trailing edge of the weather front approaching and blue sky beyond.

When we got to the cordon, we could see a large flock of Snow Buntings down at the far end, on the edge of the dunes. We couldn’t get out to the beach on the west side of the cordon, as there was still too much water in the channel, so we walked down to the east end and out that way. By the time we got down there, the Snow Buntings were now out in the middle of the cordon, so we had a quick look at them in the scope, before carrying on to the beach.

We could see several thousand Common Scoter in a couple of rafts out on the sea. Most of them were quite a long way out again today, too far to make out if there were any Velvet Scoters in with them. Another smaller group of Common Scoter closer in had just a single Great Crested Grebe with them. There were a few Red-breasted Mergansers on the sea too, including one drake quite close inshore. After a bit of scanning, we finally found a single Long-tailed Duck as well, another one we were hoping to find today. A couple of Red-throated Divers flew past, very distantly offshore. Five Pintail flying past out to sea were more of a surprise.

The sun came out now, and the Snow Buntings flew round behind us calling. We turned to see them land on the beach very close to us. They were rather skittish, and quickly took off again, flying round past us, before settling once more. We watched as they picked their way over the shells on the sand. They stopped in little groups and seemed to be arguing with each other. We hadn’t realised what they were doing until we got back and looked at the photos – they were drinking rainwater from small upturned cockle shells on the beach!

Snow Buntings

Snow Buntings – drinking rainwater from shells on the beach

It was great watching the Snow Buntings in the sunshine, so when they flew off again and over our heads before disappearing off down the beach, we decided to head back. The flock of Brent Geese on the saltmarsh had now come a bit closer and we could pick out the Black Brant hybrid which is almost always with them – with a more obvious white flank patch and white collar than the others. A Short-eared Owl was hunting the dunes too, off in the distance.

After a quick stop to use the facilities in the Lookout, we walked back towards Lady Anne’s Drive. The Grey Partridges were now right on the corner of the grazing marsh, just below the path, so we stopped to admire them.

Grey Partridge

Grey Partridge – the covey was close to the path on our way back

We stopped for lunch in the sunshine in the car park up at Holkham Park and afterwards walked in through the gates. There were a few Jays flying back and forth as we headed down towards the lake and a couple of groups of Fallow Deer in the trees.

When we got to the lake, we found plenty of Tufted Ducks and several Common Pochard. We walked down along the edge and quickly came across the Black-necked Grebe, which is what we had come primarily to see. We followed it for a while, as it dived continually, surfacing each time in a completely different place.

Black-necked Grebe

Black-necked Grebe – still on the lake in the Park today

After watching the Black-necked Grebe for a while, we walked on down towards the hall, before turning and heading back towards the monument out across the open grass. There were lots of Fallow Deer feeding out on the grass, including quite a few grazing the outfield of the cricket pitch. They looked very smart in the low afternoon sun.

Fallow Deer

Fallow Deer – feeding out on the grass in the Park

A couple of Common Buzzards were hanging in the air above the trees as we got back to the monument. A Great Spotted Woodpecker was hanging on the bag of peanuts as we got back to the houses by the gate. We still had a bit of spare time to play with, so we decided to see if we could catch up with some egrets. As we made our way west, a Red Kite was hanging in the air over the fields.

There were a few people looking out across the grazing marshes from the layby at Burnham Overy. They had seen a couple of Cattle Egrets and a Great White Egret, but none of them were visible now. Two White-fronted Geese were out in the field in front with a small group of Pinkfeet. We walked down along the verge and looked out towards the seawall. A Cattle Egret flew up but immediately dropped down again behind some thick reeds and brambles. It seemed for a minute like we might be frustrated.

Then we looked back towards the dunes to see a Great White Egret fly round. When it landed on the back edge of the furthest pool, we got it in the scope. It was a long way off and behind the reeds at first, but when it came out we could see its long yellow bill and long neck. When we turned our attention back to the grazing marsh below the seawall, the Cattle Egrets had reappeared – we could see seven of them out on the grass now.

We still had one thing we wanted to do, so we made our way back east and walked down the track to the edge of the saltmarsh. There were several Brown Hares in the fields, with three chasing each other round.

We had the roost to ourselves this evening. We didn’t have to wait long before the first Hen Harrier appeared, a ringtail. We watched it hunting, as it made its way further west until we lost sight of it. Then a smart grey male Hen Harrier flew in from the other direction. We watched as it flew low over the middle of the saltmarsh, before flying back to the far edge and then coming back in the opposite direction.

There were quite a few small groups of Brent Geese scattered around the saltmarsh. One of the groups contained a noticeably paler bird, a Pale-bellied Brent Goose with a creamy white belly. There were several groups of Golden Plover too, and one of them whirled round at one point, alternating white and gold as they turned in the low sunshine.

A Merlin came in high from the fields, away to our left. It dropped down and shot low over the ground before landing on a bush out in the middle of the saltmarsh. There was still some low sunlight and it was perfectly illuminated in the scope. While we were watching it, what was presumably the same male Hen Harrier ghosted across in front of it. And then we looked away to the west to see a second male hunting further back.

We could see the flocks of Knot swirling round over the beach beyond – perhaps the Peregrines were still out there hunting? A couple of hundred Pink-footed Geese were already sleeping out on the flats. A scan with the scope picked up a very distant Barn Owl hunting over in front of East Hills.

We were about to call it a day, when a Merlin suddenly shot up into the sky right in front of us. It was chasing a Meadow Pipit and we watched the two of them climb higher and higher, the pipit desperately trying to stay above the falcon. There followed an amazing dogfight for several minutes, the pipit twisting and turning, the Merlin very nearly catching it on a couple of occasions, but the pipit just managing to take evasive action at the last second, dropping suddenly, then turning up as the Merlin stooped and overshot. Eventually the two of them chased down into the bushes off to our right – we didn’t get to learn the ending, but it was exciting to watch.

If that wasn’t enough, two Hen Harriers then circled back in high over the middle of the saltmarsh, a male accompanied by a ringtail, the latter noticeably bigger, a female. We followed the male as he lost height and returned to hunting, disappearing off east.

The light was starting to go now and we couldn’t have hoped for a better end to the day. What a great day it had been too. It was time to head for home.

10th Jan 2020 – Winter in Norfolk, Day 1

Day 1 of a three day Winter Tour in Norfolk today. It was very wet overnight, but the rain passed through by morning and the cloud gradually broke to leave a day of blue skies and winter sunshine. Great weather for winter birding!

As we drove west this morning, we could see lots of White-fronted Geese in a field by the road at Holkham but unfortunately there was nowhere to stop and we had several cars behind us. A little further on, a Barn Owl was hunting over a grassy meadow next to the road, and it turned to cross right in front of us. Thankfully we were already going slowly, as we only narrowly avoided it and it saw us at the last minute.

A large flock of Pink-footed Geese was flushed from a potato field by the farmer just before Burnham Overy as we approached and flew over the road ahead of us. We turned inland in the village, and just beyond we found a small mixed flock of Greylags and Pink-footed Geese in a muddy field by the road. It was quieter here, and we could pull up to have a quick look from the minibus. It was a good chance to see the two species side by side.

Pink-footed Goose

Pink-footed Goose – we found a small mixed flock with Greylags by the road

Our first stop of the morning was at Sedgeford. There were a few cars already parked along the verge and as we got out of the minibus we were told the Eastern Yellow Wagtail had been seen earlier by its favoured muck heap down along the track opposite. But when we got to the small group of birders gathered there, they seemed to be unsure whether it had been seen or where it had gone.

It normally flies in here eventually, so we stopped to wait. There were several Brown Hares in the field opposite and a large gathering of Common Gulls feeding up on the ridge. A Yellowhammer came over calling. A Sparrowhawk flew along the hedge line at the far end. We could see lots of Fieldfares in the field back towards the road, but they flew back and disappeared behind the ridge back towards where we were parked.

We had a lot to try to do today and we figured we could always call in to try for the wagtail again on our way back later, so we walked back towards the road to have a look for the Fieldfares. When we got back there, we discovered that the Eastern Yellow Wagtail had earlier flown in with a couple of Pied Wagtails and landed in the field right next to where everyone was parked. A couple of people had been watching it while everyone else was standing down the track by the muck heap. But the birds had flown off again and although the two Pied Wagtails had returned, their rarer cousin had disappeared again.

We could see the Fieldfares out in the field, so got those in the scopes, feeding with a rather jumpy flock of Starlings. There were several Red-legged Partridges behind and a flock of Linnets and Goldfinches in the set aside strip along the field margin. A Bullfinch flew over calling and landed in the hedge, where we got it in the scope, a very smart pink male.

Knowing that the Eastern Yellow Wagtail was around now, we decided to walk back to the muck heap, hoping that it would now fly back in there. We were just walking up when we heard it call and it landed in the edge of the field right next to where everyone was standing. We had great views of it now, as it picked around on the bare mud – well worth the wait!

Eastern Yellow Wagtail

Eastern Yellow Wagtail – eventually flew in to its favoured muck heap

Eventually the Eastern Yellow Wagtail flew up calling – the diagnostic rasping call, very unlike our regular Western Yellow Wagtails and more like a Citrine Wagtail – and dropped down onto the muck heap. We took this as a cue to move on.

Our next stop was at Snettisham. There were a few Goldeneye and Little Grebes on the pits on the way in. When we got up onto the seawall, the tide was out – high tide was in the early hours this morning. We were not here mainly for the waders today though, our target was Short-eared Owl. As we made our way round, we scanned the brambles and quickly found one hidden in some long grass – it was hard to see, but eventually everyone managed to get onto it.

We decided to push our luck again, and walked on a little further. There was a second Short-eared Owl, hiding in the same place we had seen it last week, under a rather sparse bramble bush. Even better, we looked back at the first Short-eared Owl and with the change of angle we now found we were looking straight at it out in the open. We had a great view of it through the scope.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl – one of two again this morning

Scanning the main pit, we could see a good selection of wildfowl – more Goldeneye, Tufted Ducks, several Wigeon and a few Gadwall and Shoveler. The Swan Goose hybrid was in with the Greylag Geese again. A flock of a few hundred Pink-footed Geese came up from the Wash and flew over calling noisily.

Turning our attention to the Wash, most of the Knot and Bar-tailed Godwits were way off in the distance, but we could see quite a few Dunlin out on the mud quite close in despite the fact that the tide was out. We decided to have a quick look through the Dunlin, pointing out that we had seen a Little Stint here with them several times last winter, when the very next bird we saw was… a Little Stint! What a coincidence!

The Little Stint was feeding with the Dunlin, and was much smaller when they were seen side by side, with a shorter, finer bill. They are mainly passage migrants here, and rare in winter. It was in exactly the same area we had seen the Little Stint last year, so perhaps it it is the same bird come back here for a second winter.

Little Stint

Little Stint – feeding on the edge of the Wash with Dunlin

There were one or two Grey Plover quite close in too. With the sun now coming out, we could see a large flock of Golden Plover out on the mud, packed tightly together in a long line, shining in the low winter’s light. There were lots of Lapwing too, darker, and scattered more liberally over the mud.

We had lots we wanted to do today, so we moved on. We called in for a quick stop at Thornham Harbour, but we were told the Twite which had been there earlier had disappeared. There were quite a few people there and there were not many waders in the harbour channel either – a couple of Redshank and Curlew, and a single Oystercatcher. A couple of Brent Geese were out across the saltmarsh towards the beach.

We walked up to the old sluice and had just stopped to scan the saltmarsh when we heard the distinctive nasal twang of a Twite calling back behind us, somewhere beyond the car park. We turned to see a small group of birds perched on the vegetation on the far side of the harbour channel but before we could get back they had taken off. They landed back down on the saltmarsh a bit further back, disappearing out of view.

We stood and scanned for a bit. A couple of Rock Pipits flew over. A few Linnets flew in and out and when a larger flock flew over, we heard Twite calling again. Two birds landed on the cross bar of one of the wooden jetties on the edge of the harbour and conveniently they were a Twite and a Linnet next to each other – another great comparison.

Twite

Twite – one showed well with Linnets around the Harbour

We had a good look at them through the scope before the Twite flew down and landed on the other side of the channel directly opposite us. We could see its yellow bill and its burnt orange breast caught the sun. It seemed to be on its own and when the Linnets flew up again, the Twite flew back over to join them. One was enough – we decided to head round to Titchwell for lunch.

After lunch, we headed straight round to Meadow Trail. We were told the Woodcock was in its usual spot and when we got there we didn’t have to look for it – a crowd was gathered there and lots of long lenses were pointed in its direction. Thankfully the throng quickly dwindled so we could find a spot where we could all admire it. It was not far from the boardwalk and clearly relying on its cryptically patterned plumage for camouflage, probably convinced that we couldn’t see it.

Woodcock

Woodcock – showing very well by the boardwalk, despite the crowds

We moved on, to create space for the next Woodcock admirers, and headed round to the main path. We could see a Marsh Harrier out beyond the reedbed and lots of Greylags and a couple of Mute Swans on the reedbed pool. The Freshmarsh is still full of water, although with the sluice apparently now repaired, the water level has started to drop. There were lots of ducks on there, including a single drake Goldeneye.

Time was running short, so we continued straight out to the Tidal Pool. A single Spotted Redshank was feeding up to its belly in the far corner – through the scope, we could see its long bill and bright supercilium as it lifted its head. A Bar-tailed Godwit walked across in front of it. A Turnstone was picking around on one of the islands next to a couple of Black-tailed Godwits.

A little further up, we stopped to look at all the Bar-tailed Godwits roosting on the spit. There were several Grey Plovers in with them and scanning with the scope we found a couple of Knot too. There were a few ducks out on the water and, in with all the Mallard, we could see five Pintail. We got a pair in the scope and the drake looked especially stunning in the low afternoon sunlight. As it upended, we could see its long, pin-shaped tail.

We had one more thing we wanted to do today, so we needed to head back. We had to make a brief stop as we passed the Freshmarsh to train the scope on one of the drake Teal on the bank. Again the light was perfect and the plumage detail through the scope was exquisite.

Teal

Teal – looking stunning in the low afternoon light

Titchwell had one more gift to give us today. As we got back into the trees, we looked down into the ditch beside the path to see a Water Rail picking along the far bank of the water in the bottom. A Chiffchaff was calling in the bushes in the car park as we made our way round to the minibus.

Our last stop of the day was back at Wells. As we got out of the minibus, a Short-eared Owl was down in the grass on the edge of the ditch a short way down the track. We got it in the scope and could see its yellow eyes as it looked round. We didn’t know which was to look, as the Rough-legged Buzzard was on its usual bush off towards the bank in the other direction. We got the scopes set up, some on each, and everyone moved between them admiring the two birds.

Rough-legged Buzzard

Rough-legged Buzzard – still perched on its usual favoured bush

The Short-eared Owl took off and flew a bit further back, landing back down in the grass again. Then we looked over to the bank by the Rough-legged Buzzard to see a Barn Owl appear. It dropped down to the ground on the bank and came up again with a vole in its talons, disappearing with it into the bushes where the Rough-legged Buzzard was still perched.

A Common Buzzard had now landed in the grass where the Short-eared Owl had been and the latter had taken offence. We watched as it flew up repeatedly, before swooping down at the Buzzard, pulling up at the last minute. The Buzzard eventually decided it had had enough, flying off with the Short-eared Owl in pursuit, before the owl turned back and circled up and over the bank.

There was a stunning moonrise this evening – it is a full moon tonight, a ‘wolf moon’, the first full moon of the New Year. We decided to walk down the track to the bank to admire it. A Grey Heron was motionless at the back of the first flood, looking rather like a wooden post in the gloom. As we passed one of the grassy fields, two small birds circled over and dropped in – two Water Pipits. Unfortunately they immediately disappeared into the long grass.

From up on the bank, we got the scope on the Rough-legged Buzzard. With the change in angle, we were now looking at it back on, and could see the white base to its tail. We looked away and it took off – we watched it fly off towards the pines, presumably heading off to roost, longer, slimmer-winged and longer-tailed than a Common Buzzard.

Wolf Moon

Wolf Moon – the first full moon of the New Year tonight

We took that as our cue to head for home too. As we walked back, with the full moon away to our left and the last yellow light of the sunset illuminating the sky away to our right, the Short-eared Owl was still hunting over the grassy field beside the track and a Grey Partridge was calling in the stubble the other side. A great way to wrap up our first day.

4th Jan 2020 – New Year Birding

A Private Tour today in North Norfolk, to start off the New Year. The aim would be to try to catch up with some of our lingering winter rarities and scarcities, along with as many other species as possible in between. It would require a quickfire series of stops up and down the coast. At least the weather gods were shining on us today – it was dry, bright and sunny at times.

As we drove west, a Barn Owl was still out hunting over a field beside the road – always a good start to the day. We headed straight across to NW Norfolk and parked on the verge just north of Sedgeford.

There was already a small crowd gathered and, even better, they were already watching the Eastern Yellow Wagtail. It was feeding out in the middle of the field with a couple of Pied Wagtails, and we got the scopes straight on it. It was a bit distant, but we all had a quick look at it before it took off. We watched it fly across the field and it seemed to be heading for its favoured muck heap, on the concrete pad further down the track, so we walked down to see if we could find it there.

There was no sign of the wagtail at the muck heap, so we scanned the field from here to see if had landed somewhere down this end. There were lots of Fieldfares feeding out in the middle and a flock of Linnets around some tufts of vegetation. A single Pink-footed Goose looked a bit lonely and one Pied Wagtail along the edge of the field had not brought any friends with it. A flash of yellow further down turned out to be several Yellowhammers which were flying in and out of the hedge, down to feed on the field margin.

Then someone spotted the Eastern Yellow Wagtail again, very distantly back on another muck heap in the field by the main road. We walked back up the track, but by the time we got back there it had disappeared round the rear, out of view. When the two Pied Wagtails it was with took off, the Eastern Yellow Wagtail flew too. We watched it fly down over the track and drop towards the muck heap where we had just been looking. It was really giving us the run around!

Back down the track, and as we approached the concrete pad again, we heard it call and noticed it feeding on the edge of the field right in front of us. It flew up calling – a distinctive buzzy ‘dzzzeep’ – across the track and landed again on the concrete pad, where it started feeding around the puddles. Now we had a great view of it through the scope.

Eastern Yellow Wagtail

Eastern Yellow Wagtail – the first confirmed record for Norfolk

Eastern Yellow Wagtail is (logically!) the eastern counterpart to our Western Yellow Wagtail. They were all historically treated as a series of subspecies, but the eastern ones have a noticeably more buzzy call than the western ones and have consistent differences in DNA which are sufficient to see it elevated to full species status. It was therefore good that we heard it call.

This particular bird is unusually bright – most of the Eastern Yellow Wagtails which are identified in the UK are plain grey and white first winters. The grey head and white supercilium identify it as belonging to the subspecies ‘tschutschensis’, which breeds across eastern Siberia across to western Alaska, wintering mainly in SE Asia. It is a long way from home. And it is the first confirmed record for Norfolk (although several have been suspected in the past).

We decided to move on, and headed further south down to Fring. There had been a large flock of Pink-footed Geese feeding on a recently harvested sugar beet field just south of the village for the last couple of days. There were still quite a few there today – perhaps less than there had been, although more birds were arriving as we stood and started to scan through the huge throng.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese – thousands were feeding in a harvested sugar beet field

We could only see part of the flock from the top of the field, but we managed to find a single Barnacle Goose in with them. We had hoped to find the presumed Grey-bellied Brant or one or two Tundra Bean Geese which have been seen here recently. We found a couple of birds with orange legs, which would often indicate a Bean Goose, but these were just orange-legged Pink-footed Geese, a variant which is found in small numbers within the wintering flocks here. A Red Kite hung in the air over the woods beyond.

Some people were viewing the flock from the minor road the other side of the field and would have a better view of the whole flock, so we drove round. But it was looking into the sun from here and there was nowhere to park. We asked whether they had seen anything, but they seemed to have not seen anything more than we had. As we drove back through Fring and up towards Docking, a Grey Partridge was in the field right next to the road.

Grey Partridge

Grey Partridge – right next to the road, as we drove up to the coast

Winding our way up to the coast, we stopped next at Thornham. We had hoped to have a quick look for the Twite here, but we were told they had flown off over the seawall and out onto the grazing marsh beyond a little earlier. We walked round and up onto the bank, but there was no sign of them.

There was a nice selection of waders out in the harbour. Several Common Redshank and Curlew were feeding in the muddy channels closer to the path. Further out, on the flats, there were lots of Grey Plover and a few Oystercatchers. In the main harbour channel we could see little groups of Bar-tailed Godwit, Dunlin and Knot, and some Turnstone feeding along the edge of the water.

Curlew

Curlew – there were several feeding around the harbour

As we walked out along the seawall, we caught a glimpse of a small flock of finches which were feeding on the edge of the saltmarsh. There seemed to be about ten of them (which was the right number for the Twite), but when we got closer we realised it was actually a much larger flock and they were Linnets. A Stonechat was perched on some low vegetation just behind them. Scanning the grazing marshes the other side, we found a good number of Golden Plover roosting in the grass.

At this point, a message came through to say the Waxwing, first seen yesterday, was still at Holme. It was not far, we could see the bird observatory from where we were standing, so we walked straight over. Unfortunately, it turned out that the Waxwing had actually been seen earlier in the morning and had then flown off into the trees. There was no sign now – it later turned out it had flown off all the way to the village. There were a couple of Greenfinches feeding in the rosehips and a selection of tits and a couple of Goldcrests in the pines.

We decided not to hang around and walked back to Thornham Harbour. On the way, a Sparrowhawk flew in low from the saltmarsh and over the bank in front of us. There was still no sign of any Twite on the way back, so we headed round to Titchwell.

The car park at Titchwell was very busy – the reserve is getting so popular, the RSPB needs to make a bigger one! There had been a Woodcock earlier along Meadow Trail, but we couldn’t find it now. It had moved from where it had been, so perhaps it had been disturbed by the passage of people along the path.

When we got out to the Freshmarsh, we found that it was completely flooded with water. Although the water level is always high at this time of year, apparently there has been a problem with the sluice which means there is no way to let water off. The recent rain had topped it up. There were just a few ducks on here today, lots of Teal around the margins, and a group of Mallard and Gadwall tucked in along the edge of the reeds.

As we walked past Volunteer Marsh, a couple of Redshank were feeding in the channel below the path, but there were more waders in the muddy channel along the far side,  a few Grey Plovers, Curlews, more Redshank and a couple of Knot.

We were more interested in the waders on the Tidal Pools, which are now tidal again and consequently attracting many more birds. A quick scan revealed two Greenshank roosting towards the back. A Spotted Redshank was busy feeding along the edge, sweeping its bill quickly from side to side in the water. There were a couple of Ringed Plovers right at back, as well as one or two Bar-tailed Godwits. A larger group of Bar-tailed Godwits was roosting on the spit a little further up, along with a lone, hardy Avocet on the end.

There were several ducks out on the water here, mainly Mallard and Shoveler. A small group of Pintail was busily upending in with them, including a couple of smart drakes. There are several Little Grebes on here now, enjoying the new, reduced water levels.

Pintail

Pintail – busily upending on the Tidal Pools

Out at the beach, the tide was in. So there weren’t many waders – just a couple of Sanderling along the shoreline. The sea was rather choppy today. We had a quick scan, and picked up a very distant group of Eider, the white males occasionally catching the light as they bobbed up on the waves. Otherwise, there were several Goldeneye, lots of Great Crested Grebes and a couple of Red-throated Divers which flew past.

As we walked quickly back, we could see a small crowd gathered on the path in the trees. A Water Rail was feeding down in the ditch just below the path. We tried out luck again and cut round via Meadow Trail back to the Vistor Centre, but there was still no further sign of the Woodcock.

Water Rail

Water Rail – feeding in the ditch below the main path

The presumed Grey-bellied Brant had appeared at Choseley in with a big feeding flock of Pink-footed Geese just after we arrived at Titchwell, but by the time we got up there next, all the geese had been flushed by two low-flying helicopters. A few Pink-footed Geese had landed back in the field, but we could see thousands more in the skies beyond, over towards Docking. They appeared to be heading off towards Fring (and sure enough, the Grey-bellied Brant was seen again there later).

We headed back east. A quick stop at the layby at Burnham Overy Staithe produced a distant Great White Egret out on the grazing marshes and several Black-tailed Godwits. A large flock of Golden Plover flew up and circled round in a tight group. A big group of Barnacle Geese flew round too and landed back down on the grass behind the reeds.

Another quick stop further on at Holkham got us a couple of White-fronted Geese on the grazing marshes here, along with a pair of Canada Geese (another one for the day’s list!). There were two more Great White Egrets here too.

The coast was very busy again today. When we got to Wells, there was nowhere to park at the layby. We had a quick scan from the minibus and could see the Rough-legged Buzzard on one of its favoured bushes. So we hopped out, and got it the in scope quickly. We could see its very pale head contrasting with its dark, blackish-brown belly.

Rough-legged Buzzard

Rough-legged Buzzard – was on one of its favoured bushes again today

Back to Holkham, and we managed to park on Lady Anne’s Drive, despite it being very busy again. There were lots of Wigeon feeding out on the grazing marshes. A large flock of Brent Geese flew in and landed but were spooked again almost immediately. Several Ruff appeared in the grass with them when they landed too.

Out through the pines and we walked quickly east to the cordon. There were a few people gathered by the rope who got us straight onto the Shorelarks. They were well hidden today, feeding in the denser, taller vegetation. We couldn’t see how many there were, but a head would come up occasionally and we could see a bright yellow face with black mask. A large flock of Snow Buntings was feeding on the shorter vegetation further back in the cordon beyond.

Shorelark

Shorelarks – in the cordon at Holkham again today (photo taken on 1st!)

Continuing on up onto the dunes, we scanned the sea. The ducks were further out today, the sea was very choppy here too, but we could see a large black slick of about 4,000 scoter. They were mainly Common Scoter, and it was hard initially to see anything else in with them today. Thankfully they started to take off. They only flew a short distance in several groups, but as the flocks took off we could see several birds with white in their wings. We counted at least 6 Velvet Scoters in this way. There were several Red-breasted Mergansers offshore here too.

It was a bit of  a whistestop visit to Holkham today, as we were running out of time. As we hurried back to Lady Anne’s Drive, a Rock Pipit flew over the saltmarsh calling. We wanted to squeeze in one last stop this afternoon, but the days are short at this time of year and we were already a little later than planned. We drove straight round to Warham Greens and walked quickly down to the edge of the saltmarsh. There was an unusually large crowd here today too, but we managed to find a spot to stand and put up our scopes.

A grey male Hen Harrier was already perched out on the saltmarsh – we could see it in the scope. A ringtail Hen Harrier flew east just beyond it and a short while later, either the same or another ringtail flew back west closer in. We watched as it headed out towards East Hills, making the most of the fading light for a last bit of hunting.

A Merlin flew in low and fast and landed out on the back of saltmarsh. They are so small, with the light fading it was hard to pick up when it was stationary, perched down on a low bush. We managed to get that in the scope too. Another ringtail Hen Harrier came up from the ground – this one definitely different, as the other one was still off towards Wells.

There had been a Short-eared Owl seen before we arrived, but it had dropped down onto the ground out of view. Thankfully it reappeared just as the light was going, and flew round over the saltmarsh before landing on a bush.

The Short-eared Owl made for a nice set of birds at the roost today. Unfortunately, with a long journey ahead, we had to call it a day and head back now.

19th & 20th Dec 2019 – Two Days of Winter Birding

A two day Private Tour in North Norfolk looking to catch up with some of our regular and scarcer winter visitors. We were very lucky with the weather on Thursday, when it was dry with some unforecast dry intervals. On Friday, although we didn’t get anything like as bad as the Met Office yellow warning for heavy rain in the morning implied, it did drizzle on and off and ironically got slightly worse into the afternoon. It didn’t stop us though, and we got out and saw some great birds on both days.

We met this morning at Titchwell. The walk from the car park was fairly quiet but a large flock of Goldfinches flew over as we got to the Visitor Centre. We decided to head straight out down the main path, but scanning the ditches failed to produce a Water Rail. As we got out of the trees, a Water Pipit flew over calling and dropped down on to the former pool out on Thornham grazing marsh. We had a quick scan from further up, but there is too much vegetation on here now, and it had disappeared out of view.

A Marsh Harrier was circling out over the reedbed the other side, a female, so we stopped to watch it. Another was perched in the dead trees at the back and a third, this time a male, drifted over towards the path. We got a good look at it, a rather dark male, with patchy grey in the outerwing. A Cetti’s Warbler called from somewhere deep in the reeds and a second bird was singing half-heartedly a little further along.

Marsh Harrier

Marsh Harrier – a darker male, circled over the reedbed

A flock of Lapwings came in high over the saltmarsh and a short while later we spotted another small group coming high over the Freshmarsh. They were probably on the move, fresh arrivals from the continent coming in for the winter.

The water level on the Freshmarsh is very high now, and there are next to no islands still exposed. At least the wildfowl seem to appreciate it – there were quite a few ducks, including lots of Teal. We stopped to admire some of the smart drakes, in their finest breeding plumage now, with bright green and chestnut heads and creamy yellow patches under their tails. Several small groups of Brent Geese flew in from where they had been feeding, out on the saltmarsh.

Brent Goose

Brent Goose – several small flocks flew in from the saltmarsh

The weather was surprisingly good, much better than forecast, with some bright patches in the sky, so we decided to head straight out towards the beach first. We had just walked over the bank towards the Volunteer March, when we heard a Water Pipit calling behind us. We turned to see it circle round and drop down in the near corner of the Freshmarsh.

So we walked back over the bank, and found the Water Pipit feeding on the flotsam on the edge of the water, just below the Parrinder Bank. We had a great look at it through the scope, very clean white below with well-marked black streaks, and a clean white supercilium. Very different from the more familiar and rather swarthy Rock Pipit, two of which flew over the saltmarsh the other side, calling.

Water Pipit

Water Pipit – feeding on the flotsam on the edge of the Freshmarsh

Even though the tide was in, it was not a particularly big tide today and there was still a good selection of waders on the Volunteer Marsh. There were one or two Common Redshanks in the channel below the main path and more birds at the far end, where the channel turns and heads away from the path.

We stopped to admire a smart Grey Plover in the scope. A couple of Knot were feeding nearby and a Dunlin flew in to join them, giving us a nice comparison of the three species side by side. Looking down the sides of the muddy channel, we could see one or two Curlew and more Redshank. Several more Knot were feeding in the taller vegetation out in the middle of the marsh, making them very hard to see.

Grey Plover

Grey Plover – one of several waders feeding on the mud on Volunteer Marsh

The Tidal Pool is now tidal again, with lots of exposed mud and islands, which means it is now a lot more productive. There was a nice selection of waders on here today. First up, we found a small roosting group of shanks – two Greenshanks, slightly larger and paler, very white below, together with two Spotted Redshanks. The latter were asleep, so we couldn’t get a look at their bills, but we could see the extensive white spotting on the wings and upperparts.

There were several Bar-tailed Godwits feeding on the small islands – and it was good to get a proper look at them through the scope. The spit at the back was packed with Knot and more sleeping Bar-tailed Godwits, and a mob of Oystercatchers were roosting on the island nearby.

A single Red-breasted Merganser was diving out in the middle of the water, unusual to see on here, amongst the several Pintails which were busy upending. We got the scope on the Pintails for a closer look – the drakes looking very smart now, in full breeding plumage, with their long, pin-like tails. There are more Little Grebes on here too now, including one which had climbed out onto one of the islands for a preen.

Little Grebe

Little Grebe – one of several on the Tidal Pools, not often seen out of the water

Continuing on to the beach, the tide was in. Apparently a couple of trawlers had just gone through and flushed most of the ducks. Those that were still here were a long way out. Scanning carefully,  we found four drake Long-tailed Ducks, but they were very distant, and we could only see them when they flapped. There were lots more Red-breasted Merganser on the sea, off towards Scolt, including some smart drakes. And several Great Crested Grebes.

A Goldeneye flew in from the east. While we were watching it, another drake Long-tailed Duck flew past the other way, coming in from the direction of Thornham Point. The Goldeneye turned to follow it, and they both flew past us close inshore. It was a much better look at the Long-tailed Duck than the ones on the sea in the distance. As it flew past beyond the concrete blocks it looked for a second like it might land, but then it turned and flew back out towards the windfarm.

On our way back, we called in to Parrinder Hide. All the ducks were getting spooked by Marsh Harriers flying over the bank, so there were none close to the hide now. We did see more Water Pipits – probably at least two now. And there were several Lapwings on the one island which remains out above the water. Continuing on, we stopped by Island Hide to watch a pair of Reed Buntings which were feeding on the path. They flew up into the trees and perched there, flicking their tails and flashing their white outer tail feathers.

Reed Bunting

Reed Bunting – feeding on the path to Island Hide

When we got back to the tree, there seemed to be lots of birds feeding along the path. There were several Chaffinches on the ground and tits in the bushes beside the path. As we stopped to look, someone called us over to say they had found one of the Water Rails down in the ditch. It was busy feeding, digging around in the wet leaves, and well hidden under the tangles of branches. There was a Chiffchaff in the bushes here too, and as we got back almost to the Visitor Centre, we stopped to watch a Goldcrest flitting around right beside us.

Water Rail

Water Rail – feeding under the tangle of branches in the ditch

We had a break for lunch today – back at the Jolly Sailors in Brancaster Staithe. Afterwards, we drove further east along the coast to Warham.

It was fairly quiet as we walked up along the track. There were a few Blackbirds which flew out of the hedge ahead of us, and a Kestrel perched on the corner of the old barn. As we got to the end, a flock of Long-tailed Tits was working its way through the tops of the trees, and several Yellowhammers flew over calling.

We could hear the unmistakable sound of Pink-footed Geese approaching, and looked up to see several skeins flying in overhead from the fields. We watched them head out across the saltmarsh and drop down to roost on the flats beyond. From out on the coastal path, we could see a long line of Pink-footed Geese on the mud in the distance.

There were three Marsh Harriers way out over the beach when we arrived. Thankfully it wasn’t long before a Hen Harrier appeared too, a very smart grey male. It was a bit closer too, hunting back and forth over the back of the saltmarsh. We had a good view of it in the scope. Otherwise, there were several Little Egrets and Curlews out on the saltmarsh, plus a small group of Golden Plover and a well camouflaged Brown Hare.

We had a brief glimpse of a Merlin, too quick for everyone to get onto as it disappeared straight into some bushes. While we were scanning to see if we could find it again, what was presumably the same male Hen Harrier appeared, further over now, close to where the Merlin had been, but it too dropped down out of view.

Eventually the Merlin came out again, and we watched as it flew across fast and low over the saltmarsh. It was about to land on the top of a bush, but suddenly set off again instead, in pursuit of small group of Meadow Pipits. The Merlin chased one of the pipits higher and higher into the sky, both of them circling round and round. Then the Meadow Pipit dropped down vertically, with the Merlin in pursuit, before the two of them towered up again.

For a minute or so, the Merlin and the Meadow Pipit twisted and turned, up and down. Then suddenly the male Hen Harrier appeared below them, and as we watched it came up and grabbed the Meadow Pipit which the Merlin was chasing. Amazing! The Hen Harrier dropped down into the bushes with its prey and the Merlin disappeared off too, with nothing to show for its efforts.

It was a great display. The light was starting to go now, so we decided it was time to head for home.

We met again the following morning in Wells. The weather was not great – it was drizzling steadily – but at least there was no sign of the threatened yellow weather warning for heavy rain that the Met Office had belatedly decided we were going to get. At least they are reliably wrong with their forecasts!

We made our way down to the edge of the town, and pulled up in a gateway overlooking some fields. There were lots of Golden Plover huddled next to a flood in one of the fields, looking convincingly like clods of earth on first glance, and more Lapwings in another ploughed field beyond. A male Marsh Harrier came slowly past, hunting, and a rather dark Common Buzzard was perched on a post further back.

Scanning further across, we quickly found the Rough-legged Buzzard we had come to see, perched on the top of a bush back towards the car park. We had a quick look through the scope from here, just in case it decided to fly off. It was back on to us, but we could see its very pale head and just make out the white base to the tail visible between its folded wings. Then we drove round to the car park for a closer look.

From the edge of the car park, we got the Rough-legged Buzzard in the scope. It was a great view from here – we could see the distinctive blackish belly patch, contrasting with the pale head. Then it took off, flashing its black carpal patches, and flew round the back of the bushes out of sight.

Rough-legged Buzzard

Rough-legged Buzzard – the juvenile at Wells showed very well in the rain

We had been talking earlier about winter thrushes, so when we heard a Fieldfare call, we walked over towards the football pitch to see if we could find it. There was no sign of it at first, just a few Brent Geese flying round, then two thrushes flew up and landed on top of a tree at the back of the pitch. One was smaller than the other, a Redwing and Fieldfare side by side, a good comparison in the scope. We had also hoped we might find the Rough-legged Buzzard hunting round this side but we couldn’t see it from here.

Walking back round to where we had seen it earlier, we found the Rough-legged Buzzard back on the same bushes. We couldn’t resist another look through the scope, and we watched as it regurgitated a pellet, the indigestible remains of what it had been eating.

We could hear a Mistle Thrush singing behind us, so we turned to see two distantly on the wires over towards the town. A Meadow Pipit flew up and landed on some wires too, this time a bit closer. There were several Chaffinches in the hedge, and a Greenfinch landed in the top of a taller tree, where we could hear it calling. Eventually the Rough-legged Buzzard took off again and flew round out of sight once more, so we decided to move on.

Our next stop was round at Holkham. As we drove up along Lady Anne’s Drive, we stopped to admire a covey of Grey Partridge right next to the fence. They were rather damp, but it was a good view of them from the minibus.

Grey Partridge

Grey Partridge – one of two coveys by Lady Anne’s Drive

We parked at the top of the Drive. After all the recent rain, there is a lot of water on the grazing marshes now. There were lots of Wigeon feeding out on the grass, with a few Teal, Shoveler and Mallard scattered round too. However, all we could find was just one distant Pink-footed Goose, which we got in the scope. There were several Redshank and a few Curlew out on the wet grass too.

Wigeon

Wigeon – there were lots feeding on the flooded grazing marshes

As it was still just drizzling, still no sign of the forecast heavy rain, we decided to brave the weather and walk out onto the saltmarsh. As we walked down the boardwalk the other side of the pines, we spotted a large flock of Brent Geese out in the middle feeding. More Brent Geese flew over from behind us and dropped down to join them. We walked over for a closer look.

One of the geese on the front of the feeding flock stood out – it was a little darker than the others, with a slightly more obvious white flank patch and extensive white collar. It is a Black Brant hybrid, a regular returning bird which has been coming back to exactly the same spot with the same flock of Brent Geese each winter for several years. Looking through the flock more carefully, we found a Pale-bellied Brent Goose too. The vast majority of our wintering Brent Geese are Dark-bellied Brents, which breed up in Central Siberia. The Pale-bellied Brent immediately stood out, with its much paler flanks and belly. A very interesting and instructive flock of geese!

Black Brant hybrid

Black Brant hybrid – with the regular flock of Dark-bellied Brents

We carried on along the path on the edge of the saltmarsh, out to the cordon. There was no sign of any Shorelarks here today, but it was quite wet, with lots of standing water. There are also only five so far this winter and they have been very mobile. We did find a nice flock of Snow Buntings though, feeding on the edge of the saltmarsh at the far end of the cordon. They were surprisingly hard to see until they flew up, flashing the white in their wings. There were about 50 Snow Buntings in total, some much paler than others, a mix of Scandinavian and Icelandic birds.

Continuing out onto the beach, we could see several Red-throated Divers just offshore, fishing just behind the breakers. We had some very good views of them in the scope – paler adults with their white faces and beady eyes, and a darker juvenile with duskier cheeks. We could see their distinctive upturned bills. A very pale, winter plumaged Great Crested Grebe was diving nearby.

Further out, we could see some very large rafts of Common Scoter, looking like long oily slicks until you looked through binoculars. A couple of Eider were out on the sea too, and several Red-breasted Mergansers including some smart spiky-haircutted drakes. Two distant Long-tailed Ducks flew across away to our left, but we lost sight of them round behind the dunes. Otherwise, there were surprisingly large numbers of Wigeon on the sea today, closer in, presumably having been flushed off the grazing marshes and sought the safety of the water out here.

We had planned to walk back along the beach, but it started to rain more heavily now so we decided to walk straight back to the minibus instead. It was already after midday by the time we got back (the forecast ironically had suggested the rain would ease in the afternoon!), so we drove round to Burnham Overy Staithe for lunch. On our way there, we could see large number of Pink-footed Geese in a potato field just beside the road, but there was nowhere to pull in for a closer look. It was nice to get in the warmth of The Hero and take the opportunity to dry out a little.

After lunch, we had a quick walk out along the seawall. The rain had eased off again, but it was still very grey and damp. The tide was in, and a single female Red-breasted Merganser was diving in the channel. A lone Common Scoter had walked up onto the shingle bank further back towards the dunes.

There had been Cattle Egrets out here still in the last couple of days, but there was no sign of any cattle now – they must have just been taken in. There were plenty of Little Egrets enjoying the many wet puddles in the fields.

There were lots more Wigeon out on the grazing marshes here. We had a nice view of a small group of Pink-footed Geese and Greylags together, feeding on the grass just below the bank. A good comparison and our best look at some Pinkfeet. A big flock of Brent Geese flew up from out on the saltmarsh over towards the dunes.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese – feeding on the grazing marsh with the Greylags

We stopped to scan from the corner of the seawall. There were about a dozen Barnacle Geese out here, very smart looking little geese, but most likely feral birds from Holkham. There were loads of waders out on the flooded grazing marsh too, Redshanks and Curlews, several little groups of diminutive Dunlin, lots of Lapwings, and a large flock of Golden Plover further out. It looked like it might be about to rain again, so we set off back to find the shelter of the minibus.

On our way back east, we stopped again at Holkham. There were not many geese feeding on the grazing marshes today – a few Greylags and a pair of Canada Geese with them. But scanning carefully, we eventually managed to find a small group of White-fronted Geese over at the back, in the mist. We could see their white fronts through the scope, when they lifted their heads.

We still had a small amount of time before we were due to finish, but we didn’t fancy venturing out in the rain again. We popped in for a quick look at the pools east of Wells, where we could have a scan from the bus. There was a single Little Egret out on one of the pools, but no sign of any other egrets here today. There was plenty of of water here, but it was rather quiet today. Something seemed to have been spooking the birds – the Teal were all in the grass and very flighty. The Lapwings were very jumpy too, and everything took off and flew round. Presumably a raptor had just been through.

It was time to call it a day now and head back to dry out properly. It had been a very enjoyable few days, despite the weather today, with a great selection of some of our finest winter birds.