Tag Archives: Pale-bellied Brent Goose

16th Jan 2019 – A Big Day on the Coast

A Private Tour in North Norfolk today. It was to be a different day to normal, as we were planning to try to catch up with a selection of the scarcer winter visitors along the coast, as well as aiming to see as many different species as possible. We would need to cover quite a bit of ground, a bit of a whistle-stop tour of North Norfolk. After a grey start, it brightened up for a time during the morning, though it was rather breezy all day. We were forecast rain in the afternoon, and it arrived a bit earlier than forecast, but it didn’t stop us having a great – and very successful – day out.

It was an early start. As we drove up towards the coast, it was just getting light. We stopped off on the way, just in time to catch a Barn Owl out hunting still, before it went in to roost. An over-wintering Chiffchaff was calling from some trees nearby and the first Pink-footed Geese flew over, heading inland to feed.

barn owl

Barn Owl – one of the first birds we caught up with, early this morning

At our next stop, as we walked out beside the grazing marshes, the first bird we saw was another Barn Owl out hunting. It flew round over the field, disappeared over the bank, then came back again and did a couple more circuits before landing down in the grass. It stayed there for a minute, looking round, before flying off round the trees beyond. It was still early and rather cold here, and there didn’t seem to be many other birds awake yet. A Marsh Harrier quartered the grazing marshes.

We looped round to Cley and headed down to the beach. There has been a large flock of scoter on the sea here in recent days, but there was no sign of them this morning. While we were scanning, we noticed a flock of small birds fly up from the beach away to the east. Snow Buntings. We walked down along the shingle for a closer look.

The Snow Buntings were very flighty, flying up well before we got anywhere near, and heading further down the beach. Thankfully, as we got to where they had been feeding, they flew back in and landed on the shingle right in front of us. They were remarkably well camouflaged against the stones, but they were really close so we got a good really look at them. We counted at least 70 of them in the flock here today, although it was hard to get an accurate figure as they wouldn’t stop moving!

snow buntings 1

Snow Buntings – very well camouflaged on the shingle

While we were walking out for the Snow Buntings, we noticed a couple of gulls on the beach beyond. One was rather pale, and through the scope we could see it was the juvenile Glaucous Gull which has been hanging around here for a few days now. It has been feeding on dead seals washed up on the beach in last week’s storms, but this morning it was loafing. When we got down the beach, it was lying down on the beach, dozing. Still, we could see its very pale wing tips, much paler than the rest of the bird.

glaucous gull

Glaucous Gull – the juvenile was dozing on the beach first thing this morning

Looking out across North Scrape, there were several Shelducks scattered around the water. A small group of ducks closer to the front were all Pintail, busy upending in the shallows. As we turned to walk back, several groups of Brent Geese flew in, from the direction of the harbour where they had presumably roosted last night.

We stopped to have another scan of the sea when we got back to the beach car park. There was still no sign of the scoter flock, but we did pick up a Red-throated Diver on the water just offshore. A Guillemot flying past was a nice bonus too.

It was a very successful stop at Cley, but we had a busy day ahead and no time to explore the rest of the reserve today, so we moved on. We headed inland again next, to check out some farm buildings where there are sometimes Little Owls. It didn’t feel like a particularly good day to be looking for them – given the grey skies and wind – and they have not been very active recently anyway, but we thought we would have a quick look. Our luck was in. The first place we stopped, we spotted a Little Owl. It had found a sheltered spot, out of the wind, in the window of an old barn.

We moved on again, heading back across and down to the coast at Holkham. As we drove up along Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see more Pink-footed Geese out on the grazing marshes. There were lots of Wigeon out on the grass too, and a scattering of Teal around the pools.

Parking at the north end of the drive, we could see a large flock of Brent Geese feeding in the field next door. Most of them are Dark-bellied Brents, the regular form here which breeds in Siberia and spends the winter along the coast here. Looking through them carefully, we found one which was noticeably paler below, brighter white on the flanks and round under the belly. It was a Pale-bellied Brent, a scarce visitor here.

There was also a darker goose with them, with a more striking white collar than the others – one of the regular Black Brant hybrids, the result of a past pairing between a Black Brant (the third form of Brent Goose, which normally winters along the Pacific coasts) and one of our Dark-bellied Brents. They are regular here, with as many as three in the Wells / Holkham area, returning to the same fields each winter. A pitfall for the unwary, they are often misidentified as pure Black Brants.

black brant hybrid

Black Brant hybrid – one of the regular birds, with the Brents by the Drive

A careful scan around the field produced a Grey Partridge, over towards the back. We could see its orange face and the distinctive dark kidney mark on its belly through the scope. We were heading out for the beach, so we cut through the trees, which were quiet today.

Since Christmas, the Shorelarks have been more elusive and spend a lot of their time feeding in the taller saltmarsh vegetation where they can be hard to see. Thankfully, as we walked out towards the cordon, someone had already found them and a small group of people had gathered to watch them.

The Shorelarks were only a few metres out from the path, but were still very difficult to see, creeping around in the vegetation. Thankfully, one stopped to preen on a little tussock and we were able quickly to get it in the scope. We could see its bright yellow face and distinctive black mask. Once we had found one, we could see there were more around it. Probably there were all 26 here, but we could see no more then 3-4 at any time and at times it was hard to see any at all!

shorelark

Shorelark – hard to see in the taller vegetation on the saltmarsh

Continuing on to the cordon, a flock of small birds flew up from the edge of the sandy path ahead of us, and landed back down again. More Snow Buntings. There were eighteen here now (they were joined by another two when we walked back), the flock having declined since Christmas as some of the birds seem to have moved on. They are very obliging though, and let us walk right past them without flying off.

snow buntings 2

Snow Buntings – another 20 were at Holkham today

The sea at Holkham has been quiet in recent days, but we thought we would try our luck here, as we were doing so well. There were several Cormorants out on the sandbar just offshore, drying their wings. A few Oystercatchers were out there too, and a small flock of Sanderling whirled round and landed in with them.

Having set up the scope, we found it happened to be pointing right at a small party of Red-breasted Mergansers which were bobbing about on the water in front of the sandbar. Otherwise, the sea looked pretty empty on our first scan – just a single Common Scoter offshore.

On our next scan across, we spotted a diver quite close in, behind the breakers. We assumed it would be one of the two Great Northern Divers which we have seen here regularly in the last couple of weeks, but when it surfaced again from behind the waves we realised it was actually a Black-throated Diver. We could see the distinctive white patch on the rear flanks. A good bird to see here, the rarest of the three regular divers in Norfolk. Further down the beach, we then found a Great Northern Diver just offshore too. A three diver day – a rare treat indeed in this part of the world!

Back at the car, we made our way on west. We could see a lot of geese in one of the fields by the road, more than usual, so we pulled into a conveniently placed layby to check them out. A quick scan with binoculars revealed there were several Russian White-fronted Geese in with the regular Greylags and Egyptian Geese. Unfortunately, just at that moment a Marsh Harrier drifted across. The geese put their heads up and, as the harrier began to circle over them, they were off.

white-fronted geese

Russian White-fronted Geese – flushed by a Marsh Harrier as we pulled up

As we quickly got out of the car, we realised there were more White-fronted Geese out here – probably at least 120 in total. We watched as they all disappeared off over the grazing marshes towards the pines. The one thing we failed to find here was a Great White Egret, but rather than linger we figured we could have another quick look on our way back later.

A quick diversion down to the harbour at Brancaster Staithe added Black-tailed Godwit and Bar-tailed Godwit to the day’s list, as well as Little Egret. But there didn’t seem to be anything much else here, so we continued on to our next destination, Titchwell.

The feeders in front of the Visitor Centre were well-stocked but rather unusually devoid of birds when we arrived. There were a few Chaffinches, Goldfinches and a single Greenfinch on the feeders the other side, as well as Blue Tits and Great Tits for the list. We headed straight out onto the reserve, and a quick look in the ditch by the main path as we passed quickly revealed a Water Rail lurking in the water in the bottom.

water rail

Water Rail – lurking in the ditch by the main path

The sun was out as we walked along the path by the reedbed. It almost felt for a moment as if the forecast of rain later might be too pessimistic. The reedbed pool produced Gadwall and Tufted Duck, and we could see a single Grey Plover and a Curlew on Lavendar Marsh, but was otherwise fairly quiet, so we continued out to Parrinder Hide.

The Freshmarsh is very full of water at the moment, so there are not many places for waders here currently. There were a few Lapwings and a little group of Dunlin on the small remaining muddy island by the junction to the hide. Scanning through the ducks on the bigger, drier fenced-off island we were struck by the lack of Golden Plovers today – they must all have been feeding in the fields inland. Well, almost all, as we eventually found just a single one pretending to be a Wigeon.

There has been a Water Pipit regularly on this island, but it can be very elusive in the vegetation. Thankfully today, we found it pretty quickly, feeding on the spit on the front edge.

redshank

Common Redshank – on Volunteer Marsh as we passed

With not much else on here, we decided to head straight out to the beach. Apart from a few Redshanks and a couple of Grey Plover, there wasn’t much to see on Volunteer Marsh either. The now non-tidal ‘Tidal Pools’ are very full of water after last weeks high tides, which means there is very little island space left for roosting waders. There had apparently been some Knot on here earlier, but all we could find now was Oystercatchers and Bar-tailed Godwits, along with a small number of Dunlin and a couple more Grey Plovers.

The sea has been very productive at Titchwell in recent weeks and was one of the main reasons for coming here today, but when we got to the dunes one of the reserve volunteers was just leaving and told us there wasn’t much out there. He wasn’t wrong. All we could see on the sea was a single Common Scoter. We could see some cloud building from the west, and it started to spit with rain, so we decided to cut our losses. On the walk back to the car, the raft of Common Pochard and Tufted Duck which hadn’t been on the Freshmarsh on our way out had now reappeared.

We did a quick loop inland via Choseley on our way to Thornham, but the hedges along the side of the road here were quiet again, as they had been at the weekend. We decided to stop for lunch at Thornham Harbour and try for the Twite. While we were eating, the Twite first flew up and landed on the fence by the old sluice gate, then flew in over the saltmarsh and over to the coal barn, where they landed on the roof. After a couple of minutes they flew back in past us and landed down by the puddles in the car park for a drink, where we finally got a good look at them.

twite

Twite – flew in and landed in the car park while we were having lunch

After lunch, we headed round to Holme. As we drove down the track towards the Firs, we could see a photographer with a long lens pointing it into one of the gardens, his car abandoned in the middle of the road with the door still open. As we passed, we looked across to see what he was trying to photograph and saw a Barn Owl on a pile of brash in the back garden. A couple of Mistle Thrushes were in one of the trees on the other side of the road.

When the seaduck are not at Titchwell, Holme can be a good place to look instead. As we got down to the beach, there didn’t seem to be much offshore at first, apart from a trawler being followed by a huge mob of hungry gulls. As we scanned across, we first found a few Great Crested Grebes out on the water. Then we picked up some Eider a bit further offshore, which helpfully started to fly in much closer after the trawler had passed, lots of females, several 1st winter drakes and one or two very smart adult drakes.

A paler bird caught the light a bit further out, on the sea away to the east. It didn’t look like a gull and when it surfaced again from behind the waves we could see it was a drake Long-tailed Duck, one of the birds we were hoping to see today.

There were more waders on the beach here, over towards Thornham Harbour, with a small group of Knot in with the Grey Plover and Dunlin. It had brightened up again while we were at Holme, but now we could see some very dark clouds heading our way. We got back to the car, just as it started to rain.

Our next destination was Snettisham. As we got out onto the seawall, the tide was well out. There was a big flock of Golden Plover out on the mud, and a large huddle of Oystercatchers on the beach away to the north. More waders scattered liberally around, mostly Bar-tailed Godwit, Grey Plover and Dunlin. But it was raining hard now and windy and exposed up here, so we couldn’t spend long standing and scanning without risking getting very wet.

We had come here mainly to try to see the Smew which has been at Snettisham on and off for several weeks now. It can disappear at times, but thankfully today it was on the first pit just south of the cross bank, diving with three drake Goldeneye. We had a quick look at it – it was a bit more sheltered on the inland side of the seawall – and then continued on down towards the hide.

smew

Smew – still at Snettisham on one of the pits today

The Short-eared Owl, which had gone missing at the weekend, was apparently back under its usual bramble bush yesterday, so we made our way round to see if we could see it. Sure enough, there it was. It looked a bit bedraggled in the rain, and we were in danger of becoming the same, so with our mission here accomplished we made a swift retreat. Still, it meant we had racked up three different owls on our travels today.

short-eared owl

Short-eared Owl – back under its usual bramble bush in the rain

Back in the car, we made our way back east inland. We made a quick stop by a field with a strip planted with seed mix. We were looking mainly for Yellowhammers, and could see lots of birds in the hedge right at the back. They were mainly Reed Buntings, but as we scanned through them we found several Yellowhammers in with them. Even in the gloomy conditions, the bright yellow males really stood out.

Then we spotted a Tree Sparrow too. It dropped straight down out of sight, but as we scanned back we found a second Tree Sparrow a bit further back which stayed put until we all got a look at it. We could see the black spot on its white cheek. Not a great view in the driving rain, but a real bonus and not one we were expecting to get today.

There were a few common farmland birds which we had missed on our way out, so we had a look to see if we could find them on the way back, cutting across back to the coast road at Holkham. But it was a bit of a struggle to find much in the rain now. A quick stop back at Holkham was more productive though. Having drawn a blank on Great White Egret this morning, we found four together out on the grazing marshes this afternoon. For what was not that long ago a rarity in the UK, four together is quite a sight (well, away from Somerset at least)!

We had planned to finish the day at one of the raptor roosts, but when we got there the conditions were really dreadful. It was getting dark, but the driving rain meant visibility was much worse than it should have otherwise been. We headed for shelter and were told by the two people already there that they had just seen a male Hen Harrier land out on the marshes. Unfortunately they couldn’t find it again now – they couldn’t even find the post it was next to at first!

Thankfully, as we scanned across trying to find it, we spotted a harrier fly up at the back of the saltmarsh. It was not the male, but it was a ringtail Hen Harrier. We could see the flash of the white square at the base of its tail. It landed again and we could just make it out, perched on the ground.

That was more than we thought we would see, given the conditions, so we decided to call it a day. When we got back to the warm and dry, we tallied up the day’s list. 100 species! Not bad at all for a mid-winter day, and even more so given the conditions this afternoon. It just goes to show…

 

21st Dec 2018 – Two Winter Days, Day 2

Day 2 of a two day Private Tour in North Norfolk today. As ever, the forecasters couldn’t make up their minds over the last few days what the weather would be doing today, but they had finished up typically pessimistic this morning. It was a damp, drizzly, grey and gloomy start, at which point it looked like they might be right, but then it dried up and brightened up and ended up being not too bad at all in the end.

We were heading west today, but on our way we made a quick stop at Holkham first. As we got out of the car, we could hear a pair of Egyptian Geese calling from the trees. We could hear lots of Pink-footed Geese too, and looked across to see a large flock fly up from the grazing marshes. They came straight over us and headed off inland. A steady succession of skeins flew over, but still more circled back round and landed down on the grazing marshes again. We could still see thousands of geese out on the grass.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese – thousands flying up from the grazing marshes again this morning

There were Greylag Geese too, a much smaller flock out in the field in front of us. We could see they were paler grey with a big orange carrot for a bill. Just beyond the hedge, through a gap, we spotted a group of about ten Russian White-fronted Geese. We all had a good look at them through the scope, noting the white surround to the base of their pink pills and their distinctive black belly bars. Then suddenly they took off for no apparent reason and we realised there had been a lot more hidden behind the hedge, about 55 in total. They flew off back over the grazing marshes.

A large white bird also out on the grazing marshes was a Great White Egret. It was obviously very tall and, through the scope, we could see its long yellow dagger of a bill. A Marsh Harrier was perched in a tree in front.

Great White Egret

Great White Egret – feeding out on the grazing marshes

By the time we got to Titchwell, it had at least stopped drizzling, although it was still very dull and grey. There were not many cars yet, so we had a quick look round the overflow car park. There were lots of finches in the bushes, feeding on the brambles, mainly Chaffinches and Goldfinches, but with several Greenfinches too. We heard a Bullfinch calling and a smart pink male flew out and across the car park, but disappeared straight into the bushes. We had a couple of brief views of it in the brambles but it would never stay still long enough to get it in the scope.

A flock of Long-tailed Tits came round through the car park, and as we made our way along the path towards the Visitor Centre what was presumably the same flock was calling in the sallows. A Goldcrest appeared in the bushes by the path ahead of us, and we stopped to watch it fluttering around in the branches. A second Goldcrest appeared above our heads, hovering around an ivy-covered trunk. We followed one of the Goldcrests almost all the way to the Visitor Centre.

There were a few more finches on the feeders in front of the Visitor Centre, but the ones the other side had been taken over by a Grey Squirrel. We had a quick look as we passed, but there was no sign of the Water Rail in the ditch, so we continued on out onto the reserve.

As we came out of the trees, several Lapwings and a small group of Golden Plover flew over, heading inland. When we got to the reedbed, we could see a much larger flock of Golden Plover and Lapwing circling over the Freshmarsh. We couldn’t see what had flushed them, possibly a Marsh Harrier, but they quickly landed back down again.

A Water Pipit came up calling from the cut reeds below the path ahead of us. It flew across the path and headed out over the dried up Thornham grazing marsh pool, from where a second Water Pipit flew up to join it. The two of them circled together briefly before the second bird dropped straight back down again, out of view. The first Water Pipit then flew back across the path and disappeared out over the Freshmarsh.

We stopped to look at a couple of Marsh Harriers circling over the back of the reedbed, and noticed four more were perched together in one of the dead trees. Then looking out across the Freshmarsh, four more harriers were hanging in the wind over the bank beyond, at the back of the Volunteer Marsh. One was noticeably smaller, and through the scope we could see the white square at the base of its tail. It was a Hen Harrier, a juvenile, noticeably rusty orange below, streaked darker.

It looked like the three Marsh Harriers were mobbing the Hen Harrier at first, but two drifted off and the Hen Harrier ended up tussling just with one juvenile Marsh Harrier, giving as good as it got. The two of them kept swooping at each other for ages – great to watch and giving us a good view of the Hen Harrier as they did so. At one point, a couple of Carrion Crows joined in too.

Avocet was a key target for the day. Most of them go south for the winter, but a few normally try to cling on here. From Island Hide, we quickly located the group of about 12 Avocets which are lingering here this year. Initially they were rowed up on the end of a long line of Lapwings, but then something spooked all the waders again, and everything took off. The Avocets landed back down with a small group of roosting Shelduck, where the tern island used to be.

Avocet

Avocets – there are still about 12 hanging on here for the winter

The water level on the Freshmarsh is now very high for the winter, and there are not many of the islands left exposed. Consequently, most of the waders are now feeding elsewhere. Apart from the roosting Avocets and the large flocks of Lapwing and Golden Plover, we managed to find just one Dunlin this morning.

The wildfowl are enjoying all the water. A small flock of Brent Geese had joined with the Greylags on the water in front of the reedbed. They had just dropped in for a wash and brush up before heading back out to the Thornham saltmarsh to feed. There are more diving ducks on here now, with a small raft of Tufted Ducks and Common Pochard next to the geese. The other regular winter ducks here – Wigeon, Teal and a few Shoveler – were mostly over towards the back of the Freshmarsh today.

Brent Goose

Brent Geese – flying back out to the saltmarsh to feed

It didn’t seem like the weather could make up its mind. It had been drizzling again briefly while we were in the hide, but now it seemed to be brightening up. So we decided to try our luck and walk out towards the beach. The tide was out and there was not much on Volunteer Marsh, just a rather tame Common Redshank in the channel just below the path.

The Hen Harrier was still playing with the Marsh Harrier over the bank at the far side. We stopped to watch them again, before the Hen Harrier disappeared behind the bank towards the beach. From the top of the bank, we could see the Hen Harrier hunting along the dunes beyond and when it landed in the top of a bush, we got it in the scope and had another good look at it.

The now non-tidal ‘Tidal Pools’ are very full of water at the moment, and the one remaining island is getting much smaller. It was fairly packed with roosting duck today – lots of Wigeon, Teal and several Shoveler. A wader appeared briefly on the corner from behind the vegetation, and we had a glimpse of a long, needle-fine bill and distinctive white supercilium. We walked further up for a better angle and our suspicions were confirmed, it was a Spotted Redshank.

Spotted Redshank

Spotted Redshank – roosting on the ‘Tidal Pools’

Out at the beach, we stopped first to scan the sea. One of the locals was just leaving and informed us that there had not been much of note out here today. We quickly found a small raft of Red-breasted Mergansers and a couple of Goldeneye just offshore. Four brown female Eider were close in, just beyond the mussel beds. Another drake Goldeneye flew in to join them, its green head with white cheek patch shining in a welcome burst of sunshine. An adult Mediterranean Gull flew past out to sea, but unfortunately it was too far out for everyone to get onto.

There was a nice selection of waders around the mussel beds, so we walked down the beach for a closer look. There were lots of Oystercatchers and a few Curlew and Grey Plover. Several pale, streaked Bar-tailed Godwits were feeding on the edge of the sand, and a Black-tailed Godwit was on the mussel bed nearby for comparison. A mixture of Sanderling, Dunlin and Turnstones were running around in between. Scanning carefully, we managed to find a small group of Knot too, and it was good to see them through the scope, feeding next to the Dunlin for comparison.

On our way back, we remembered we had not seen the drake Pintail on the Tidal Pools on our walk out. So we scanned again from the inner edge of the dunes, and from this angle we quickly found it fast asleep on the island with the other ducks. Not the best of views, but another one for the list. The Little Egret which was now feeding in the channel on the Volunteer Marsh right next to the path put on a much better show. We got a good look at its yellow feet.

Little Egret

Little Egret – showing off its yellow feet

The other bird we had not seen on the way out was the Water Rail, and that too we found on the way back. It was feeding just where we had looked earlier, in the ditch by the path, but was still hard to see down in the water underneath all the tree branches. With a bit of patience, it eventually showed very well though.

Water Rails are a bit like buses, and there was also a second one here now, in the ditch on the other side of the path. It was right out in the open when we first saw it, but as soon as it noticed us watching it, it scuttled remarkably swiftly across and squeezed through a small gap underneath the muddy bowl of a fallen tree, where it was well hidden.

Water Rail

Water Rail – one of two we saw on the walk back

It was lunchtime now, and we felt like we had earned it this morning, so we headed round to the White Horse in Holme for a very welcome quick bite of lunch and a chance to warm up in front of the fire. Afterwards, we drove back to Thornham Harbour.

It had clouded over again now and was feeling rather grey again. A Curlew flushed from the saltmarsh as we drove in, but otherwise it initially looked rather quiet here. A car load of photographers were huddled in their vehicle in the car park with their long lenses pointed out at an empty puddle, where there was a distinct lack of any Twite action.

We walked across the car park and down to the sluice just beyond. As we did so a flock of small birds flew up from the saltmarsh just in front of us. We could hear Goldfinch and Linnet and also the distinctive ‘tveeet’ calls of Twite (from which they get their name) as they circled round above us.

Twite

Twite – two of at least ten feeding on the edge of the harbour

After circling several times they landed back down on the edge of the saltmarsh and we got a good view through the scope as they perched up feeding on some of the taller seedheads. It was really good to see Twite and Linnet in the scope together, the former richer brown overall with an orangey breast and yellow bill.

There were at least ten Twite today and one of them was sporting a collection of colour-rings which identify it as an individual which was ringed in Derbyshire earlier in the year. The dwindling Pennine breeding population is the source of our declining winter population of Twite here in Norfolk.

Having admired the Twite, we got back in the car and headed on west. A large flock of Pink-footed Geese were feeding in a recently harvested sugar beet field close to the road so we stopped for a quick look. We were just scanning through when one of the group spotted something different in with them. It was a Pale-bellied Brent Goose. We found somewhere we could stop and got out for a better look through the scope.

Pale-bellied Brent Goose

Pale-bellied Brent Goose – feeding with Pink-footed Geese on harvested sugar beet

Pale-bellied Brent Goose is a different subspecies compared to our regular wintering Russian Dark-bellied Brents. They breed from Svalbard and Franz Josef Land, across through northern Greenland to Canada. Birds from eastern Canada migrate through Iceland to winter mainly in Ireland and it is probably in Iceland that lone or lost birds may join up with the flocks of Pink-footed Geese (it being better to be with them than travel alone!), which bring them to Norfolk in small numbers. While we were watching the geese, we noticed several Ruff feeding in the muddy field in amongst them.

Our final destination for the afternoon was Snettisham. With all the grey cloud again, the light was already starting to go. It didn’t help that today was the shortest day of the year! From up on the seawall, we could see several Goldeneye on the first pit.

The tide was coming in now but there was still a huge expanse of exposed mud. It was not due to be one the biggest tides today, and it was still a couple of hours to high tide, but the waders were already starting to gather. A large brown slick across the mud out in the middle on closer inspection was a huge flock of Golden Plover. Through the scope, we could also see quite a few Bar-tailed Godwits gathered just behind. More waders down on the water’s edge further back were mostly Knot. A big group of Oystercatchers were roosting on the edge of the beach away to the north.

We were hoping to see a Short-eared Owl here this afternoon, but it was damp and grey with a cool breeze and there was perhaps unsurprisingly no sign of any out hunting. Fortunately we did find one hunkered down under a bramble bush, where it had spent the day roosting. It was only half awake and looking towards us, and we could see the short tufts of feathers on the top of its head, its ‘ears’.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl – roosting under a bramble bush

There were lots of ducks and geese on the pits, mainly Greylags and Wigeon. A feral Barnacle Goose was standing on the grass just beyond. A large number of Cormorants had come in to roost on the islands.

It was starting to get dark now, but we could see two white shapes at the far end of the pit. The first was a Little Egret, but the second looked a bit bigger. Through the scope our suspicions were confirmed, it was a Spoonbill. The vast majority of the Spoonbills which were here in the summer have long since headed off south for the winter, with just one or two still remaining here, so this was a real bonus.

Back at the Wash, a large group of Knot had now gathered together in another dark slick spread across the mud, out in the middle. We had thought we might have a quick look at the pit from Rotary Hide, but just at that point something spooked all the waders. All the Golden Plover took off and started to whirl round in the air, and the Knot zoomed back and forth low over the mud, twisting and turning, flashing dark and light.

Golden Plover

Golden Plover – a huge flock gathered out on the Wash

Knot

Knot – twisting and turning low over the mud

It was a nice way to end our two days out, watching the huge flocks of waders whirling out over the Wash. We had hoped we might be able to catch the first of the geese coming in to roost from here, but it was still a bit early and unfortunately we had to get back to the village in time for a pick-up. While we were waiting in the car at the rendezvous point though, the skeins of Pink-footed Geese started to come over calling, thousands of them. One of the real sights and sounds of Norfolk in the winter and a very fitting finish.

2nd Dec 2016 – Winter Wonders, Day 1

Day 1 of a three day long weekend of Winter Tours in North Norfolk today. It was a nice morning, cloudy with some brighter intervals, but the cloud thickened in the afternoon and brought some misty drizzle with it at times.

Our first stop was at Blakeney. As we set out towards the seawall, a small group of Brent Geese were feeding on the edge of the saltmarsh the other side of the harbour channel. The first half dozen were our regular Dark-bellied Brent Geese but a pair a few metres further on were more interesting. One of the pair was much paler on the flanks and belly. It was a Pale-bellied Brent Goose and it appeared to be paired with a male Dark-bellied Brent. It really stood out next to the Dark-bellieds.

6o0a0923Pale-bellied Brent Goose – this one is paired with a Dark-bellied Brent

Dark-bellied Brent Geese breed in arctic Russia and come here for the winter in large numbers. Pale-bellied Brent Geese breed from Svalbard across Greenland into the Canadian High Arctic. We regularly get a small number of Pale-bellied Brents in with our regular wintering flocks of Dark-bellied Brents.

While we were looking out over the saltmarsh beyond, suddenly lots of birds took to the air. A flock of Golden Plover whirled overhead. Low over the vegetation we picked up a Hen Harrier further back, quartering the marshes. A ringtail, it flashed its white rump patch as it flew away from us.

As we walked out past the harbour, a Rock Pipit flew across and landed on one of the small boats tied up on the water, where we could get it in the scope. We flushed several Meadow Pipits from the grassy banks of the seawall and a few Reed Buntings too. We heard the distinctive calls of a Lapland Bunting flying over, a dry rattle ‘t-t-t-t’ and a ringing ‘teu’, but it was long way out over the grazing marshes and we didn’t manage to find it.

There were various waders which flushed from the saltmarsh as we walked past, Curlews and Redshanks. A Little Egret was busy feeding in one of the channels. A group of Turnstone ran along a path ahead of a couple of dogs until they got too close and the Turnstone flew off towards the channel.

At the corner of the seawall, we stopped to look at a small flock of Dunlin on the edge of the harbour. A smart drake Goldeneye surfaced on the water just behind and then a raft of duck appeared in the channel. As well as a few more Goldeneye, there were several Red-breasted Mergansers with their spiky haircuts. While we were admiring them a rather nondescript brown duck bobbed up in their midst. It was a 1st winter female Scaup, normally difficult to find here in the winter but this appears to be a good year for them.

There were a few more waders here now too. A Ringed Plover and a Grey Plover, both picking at the surface with their short bills. An Oystercatcher too. The tide was starting to go out and more mud was beginning to appear. A little further along the seawall, where the harbour starts to open out, there were some bigger numbers of waders and sifting through them we found a small group of dumpy Knot and a couple of Black-tailed Godwits closer to us. The Bar-tailed Godwits were much further over.

We had seen a female Marsh Harrier earlier, on our walk out, flying over the reeds out in the middle of the Freshes. When all the Wigeon erupted from the grazing marshes, we turned to see a male Marsh Harrier flying towards us. It turned slightly and cut out across the saltmarsh, flying past us and flushing all the Brent Geese as it went.

6o0a0942Marsh Harrier – a smart, grey-winged male

There were a few Skylarks feeding on the short vegetation on the inland side of the seawall, which flushed as we approached. They circled round and landed again on the edge of an open area. A slightly smaller bird was with them now and through the scope we could confirm it was a Lapland Bunting. It was creeping around in the short grass at first and hard to see, but then it flew a short distance towards us and landed out in the open where we could get a great view of it through the scope.

img_9054Lapland Bunting – feeding with Skylarks below the seawall

The Skylarks were nervous and kept flying round. The Lapland Bunting also flew around a couple of times and landed back on the short grass. Then suddenly it was off, calling as it went.

Lapland Buntings can be very hard to find out in the open, so this was a great way to cap off our walk here. As we started to walk back, we could see five or six small birds perched on the fence and a closer look confirmed there were five Twite.They had obviously been bathing in the puddles by the path and were now busy preening. We got them in the scope and could see their yellow bills and burnt orange faces.

img_9074Twite – five were preening on the fence after having a bathe

The sixth bird was a single Linnet which perched on the fence near the Twite for comparison for a few seconds. We could see it had a grey bill and was not as brightly coloured on the face as the Twite.

Back to the car, and we made our way further east to Salthouse. We parked at the end of Beach Road and walked east along the edge of the shingle towards Gramborough Hill. Local photographers have been putting seed out for the Snow Buntings here, so when a small group of buntings appeared from around the back of the Hill, we initially thought they would be the Snow Buntings. They headed south, inland across the grazing marshes, which would be an odd direction for Snow Buntings to go and when they turned and dropped down, with the fields behind them, we could see they were actually more Lapland Buntings.

There were at least 15 Lapland Buntings in the flock, a very good number, but they kept on going and we lost sight of them as they flew off west. We weren’t finished though, and yet another lone Lapland Bunting circled over the grazing marshes calling a few minutes later before dropping down into the grass out in the middle.

The day’s delivery of seed had just been put out for the Snow Buntings and we didn’t have to wait long before they flew back in to enjoy it. They landed on the top of the shingle ridge first, where they had a good vantage point to check for any danger, before running down the slope to where the food was waiting for them. There were at least forty of them here today, although not all of them came down to feed.

6o0a1033Snow Buntings – coming down to feed on feed put out on the shingle ridge

The Snow Buntings can be quite tame and we had great close views of them when they came down to the food. Looking at the flock, we could see a variety of different looking birds, some much paler ones amongst a mass of darker, browner ones. We get two different races here in the winter from different breeding areas. The duller ones are predominantly female Snow Buntings of the Icelandic race, insulae, whereas the paler ones are from Scandinavia, of the race nivalis.

6o0a1017Snow Bunting – of the Scandinavian race, nivalis

Regardless of where they come from, the Snow Buntings are always great to watch. Along with Lapland Buntings, they are our two sought after winter buntings, so we had enjoyed a very successful morning getting such great views of both species.

We walked back over Gramborough and along the remains of the now flattened shingle ridge. The sea looked fairly quiet but we did see a loose groups of six Red-throated Divers flying past distantly. Another Red-throated Diver was on the sea, along with a single Guillemot, but both were hard to see out in the swell and diving constantly. A couple of Grey Seals surfaced just offshore and were much more obliging – they seemed to come in to investigate a couple of fishermen down on the beach. Back to the car and a very obliging group of Turnstones had flown in to feed on some food put out for them. We watched them feverishly turning the stones over – they had a lot to choose from here!

6o0a1092Turnstone – very tame, feeding by the Beach Road at Salthouse

It was already time for lunch, but we still wanted to make one last stop at the Iron Road before heading back to the visitor centre at Cley. Rather than have lunch here, the group decided on a late lunch back at the visitor centre, so we set off straight away to see what we could find. The water level on the pool by Iron Road has gone down nicely and there was a good flock of Dunlin on here today. However, apart from a Redshank, we couldn’t immediately see anything else. With time pressing, we headed out along Attenborough’s Walk.

There were four Pink-footed Geese on the grazing marshes close to the path, which flew off as we passed. A little further along, we could see a large flock of Brent Geese. The vast majority were Dark-bellied Brents, as we would expect here, but a quick look at them and we found our second Pale-bellied Brent Goose of the day, right at the front of the flock.

6o0a1163Pale-bellied Brent Goose – with Dark-bellied Brent behind for comparison

There were lots of Dunlin right in front of Babcock Hide but they were very nervous and kept flying round. A single Common Snipe, feeding on one of the islands nearby, took fright when they did so and landed much further back, out of sight in some taller vegetation. A single Ruff (or, more accurately, a female Reeve) was picking around on one of the islands further back, in amongst a large flock of sleeping Teal. Two Black-tailed Godwits were feeding up to their bellies in the deeper water.

6o0a1145Dunlin – one of several feeding right in front of Babcock Hide

At first all we could see were dabbling ducks out on the water, but then one of group picked up a Long-tailed Duck which emerged from behind one of the reed islands in the deep water right at the back. It was diving constantly, but when it surfaced we could get a good look at it through the scope. We could see its white face with large dark brown cheek patch. Long-tailed Ducks are mostly found out on the sea in winter, where they dive for shellfish. Occasionally one may wander to an inland water for a short time, especially after gales. This one is unusual in that it has been on this small pool for over a month now. It must be finding something good to eat here!

We didn’t linger too long in Babcock Hide, and stopped only briefly on the walk back to the car to admire a pair of Stonechats on the fence. We made our way quickly back to the visitor centre for a late lunch. As it was so mild, we decided we would eat outside on the picnic tables, but we were only half way through when the weather turned. Some low cloud blew in and brought with it some misty drizzle, so we retreated to the car.

After lunch, we drove back west along the coast road to Stiffkey. We wanted to finish the day at the harrier roost, but with the weather having deteriorated we thought it best to watch from here today. When we arrived, we were told we had already missed a ringtail Hen Harrier and a Merlin – it seemed bird may have come in early tonight given the conditions.

As we stood and scanned the saltmarsh, a Brambling flew over calling and headed inland over the campsite. Looking away to the west, we picked up a distant grey male Hen Harrier flying low over the vegetation. Unfortunately, it dropped quickly down out of view, before everyone could get onto it. Then a second grey male appeared over in the same area, but it was even less obliging. The Hen Harriers were flying straight into the roost this evening, without flying round, probably due to the mist. Even when it temporarily brightened up a little, there was no sign of a pick-up in Hen Harrier activity.

The light was starting to go and we were just thinking our luck had run out when a large bird flew in from the fields behind us, just a short distance to our left. It was a ringtail Hen Harrier and we could see its white rump patch as it flew out across the saltmarsh, before disappearing out into the mist. That was a great way to end, so we called it a day and headed for home.

 

 

11th Nov 2016 – Autumn Meets Winter, Day 1

Day 1 of a 3 day long weekend of tours today. The middle of November traditionally marks the time when autumn starts to merge into winter, at least as far as the migration season is concerned. However, there are sill birds on the move, arriving here for the winter, and there is still the odd lingering migrant yet to move on. It was a gloriously sunny day today, even warm at times, a perfect day to get out and see some of those birds.

We started at Burnham Overy Staithe. As we climbed up onto the seawall,a small bird flew past us and into the bushes below. It was a Chiffchaff. Presumably a late migrant, it seemed to be in a hurry to be on its way and disappeared off down the line of bushes in a series of long flights. A Common Buzzard perched in a large bush out on the grazing meadows, enjoying the morning sunshine.

img_8390Fieldfare – in the bushes by the seawall at Burnham Overy Staithe

There were lots of Blackbirds in the hawthorns below the seawall, presumably winter migrants arrived from the continent and stopped to refuel on berries. As we walked along, we heard first the tchacking of a Fieldfare, which we found perched in the top in the sunshine, and then the teezing of several Redwings, most of which were less obliging. A Song Thrush completed the set.

6o0a8480Redwing – several were also feeding in the bushes below the seawall

Looking out over the other side, in the harbour, we stopped to look through the waders. The tide was out, so there was lots of exposed mud. First we picked up a Grey Plover with a lone Ringed Plover over on the far bank. Then several more Ringed Plovers appeared, and started to bathe in the shallow water, with a Redshank conveniently close by for size comparison. A little further along, at the bend in the seawall, we could see a good sized flock of Dunlin out on the larger mudflats, feeding feverishly.

As we walked past, we flushed a Little Egret from the near edge of the harbour channel, and it flew out to the mud, flashing its yellow feet as it went. In the channel, we found four Little Grebes together. They proceeded to haul themselves out onto the far bank – always off to see Little Grebes on dry land, they look so ungainly.

6o0a8448Little Egret – with bright yellow feet

Several Rock Pipits had flown around calling, but typically dropped down out of view. Finally one dropped down in front of us and perched nicely on a pile of rocks, appropriately enough! Through the scope, we could see its plain, oily brown upperparts and the dirty ground colour to its black-streaked underparts. We get a lot of Scandinavian Rock Pipits, of the subspecies littoralis, coming to Norfolk for the winter, but we don’t have any British petrosus breeding here.

img_8392Rock Pipit – eventually one perched up nicely for us on a pile of rocks

There were lots of Wigeon out on the grazing marshes. As we stopped to have a look at them in the scope, we could hear them whistling – a real sound of winter on the marshes here. There were plenty of geese too. We were looking straight into the sun on the walk about but we could still see lots of Brent Geese, Pink-footed Geese and Greylags. In with them were 12 Barnacle Geese, presumably feral birds from Holkham Park.

As we passed the reedbed, we could hear Bearded Tits calling but, despite the lack of wind, they were not to be seen. A Cetti’s Warbler shouted at us, but was similarly elusive. At least the Reed Buntings were slightly easier to see. A Marsh Harrier perched in one of the bushes at the back of the reeds and another one or two flew backwards and forwards across the channel to and from the saltmarsh beyond.

There were lots of Starlings on the move today, little flocks passing west overhead constantly on the walk out. Some were not flying so directly as they sometimes do, instead taking advantage of the warm conditions to try to catch flies on the way. A small flock of Golden Plover flew over calling and dropped down on the grass by the dunes. When we got there, we got them in the scope and found a little covey of six Grey Partridges with them!

When we got to the dunes, we turned left and walked out towards Gun Hill. The Isabelline Wheatear was still present earlier in the morning – it has been here for three weeks now – but had not been seen for over an hour when we arrived. Could it have taken advantage of the sunny weather finally to continue its journey? We decided to have a walk round the dunes to see if we could find it.

There was no sign of it where it had been feeding for the past couple of weeks. From the northern edge of the dunes, we stopped to look out towards the sea. We could see lines of wildfowl flying in, migrants arriving for the winter. There were several groups of Brent Geese and a larger flock of Wigeon coming in. A line of around twenty Eider flying west over the sea was a nice bonus, particularly as it included a couple of smart drakes.

There were lots of waders down on the beach. There were plenty of Oystercatcher and a few Sanderling out on the sand. Down around the tidal channel, we found a little mixed flock of Knot and Dunlin – a nice opportunity to compare their relative sizes. Several Turnstones had gathered for a bath.

Out at the point, looking out towards Scolt Head, we picked up two Red Kites circling out over the saltmarsh. They seemed too concerned with swooping at each other to worry about the Marsh Harrier which was trying to have a go at them. There were a few people standing on the top of Gun Hill looking for the Isabelline Wheatear, and as we turned to walk back one of the locals started waving to us. It had reappeared!

img_8405Isabelline Wheatear – looking very sandy in the sun

We stopped to scan in the direction they were all looking and there was the Isabelline Wheatear on the edge of the saltmarsh. It looked particularly pale and sandy in the sunshine. It flitted around the bushes for a few seconds and then disappeared off behind the Suaeda. It was proving very mobile because, by the time we got over to the others, it had flown again to the other side of Gun Hill. We had some nice views of it on the grass and back down to the edge of the saltmarsh again before suddenly it was off again. It flew  off up over Gun Hill and disappeared.

It was around this time that we heard trilling and looked up to see a Waxwing heading towards us.  It flew over our heads and carried on west, unfortunately without stopping.

Having had good views of the Isabelline Wheatear, we decided to walk round onto the beach and head back along the tideline to see what we could find. We didn’t find any Snow Buntings today, but we did come across the Isabelline Wheatear again. The reason we couldn’t find it earlier in the dunes was because it was now out on the beach! There were lots of flies buzzing around the high tide line, and it was busy catching them. Chasing up and down the beach, occasionally flying up after a fly.

img_8451Isabelline Wheatear – catching flies out on the beach today

We watched it for a while, but in the end had to tear ourselves away and head back, taking a detour via the base of the dunes to avoid disturbing it. We walked quickly back along the seawall, stopping briefly to watch a large flock of Linnets and Goldfinches whirling around over the saltmarsh. When they landed, we could see several Golden Plover out there too, surprisingly well camouflaged, despite the bright golden-spangled upperparts we could see through the scope.

The light was better on the walk back, so we stopped at the corner to look at the geese again. This time, we found four White-fronted Geese in with the Pinkfeet. One had its head up for a while, so we could see its pink bill surrounded at the base with white, but then they all went to sleep. Then it was back for lunch, led along the seawall by a pair of Stonechats which flew ahead of us. We ate our lunch sat on the benches looking out over the saltmarsh back towards Gun Hill – a stunning view!

6o0a8464Stonechat – a pair led us back along the seawall

After lunch, we drove back round to Holkham. There were lots of Pink-footed Geese out on the grazing marshes east of Lady Anne’s Drive. While most were distant, a little group of about a dozen were right next to the road, so we stopped for a close look. We could see their pink legs and delicate dark bills with encircled with a pink band.

6o0a8494Pink-footed Goose – showing very well close to Lady Anne’s Drive

As we walked through the pines, we could hear Goldcrests calling high up in the pines. A Jay flew across and started scolding from the trees the other side. Out on the saltmarsh, a large flock of Linnets was whirling round, reluctant to settle.

A little further along, we came across a small group of Brent Geese. Looking through them,  we quickly found the Black Brant x Dark-bellied Brent hybrid which is regular here. It is not as dark or contrasting as a pure Black Brant but is still subtly darker bodied, with a slightly bolder flank patch and more obvious though not complete collar. In with them too was a single Pale-bellied Brent Goose. When it turned, we could see the bold wing stripes which meant it was a juvenile. Along with several or our regular Russian Dark-bellied Brents, that meant we had 2 1/2 subspecies of Brent Goose in one very small flock!

img_8457Black Brant hybrid – out on the saltmarsh at Holkham

At the eastern end of the saltmarsh, we found the Shore Larks in their usual place. We could see several of them flying around before we got there, but when we got closer we noticed there were lots more still down on the ground. There was a mass of bright yellow faces, shining beautifully in the late afternoon sunshine. Shore Larks are always stunning birds, but it was fantastic to watch so many of them in such great light, a real treat.

6o0a8521

They were feeding in the slightly taller vegetation today, picking seeds from the dried seedheads of the saltmarsh flowers. Several of the Shore Larks were hidden from view, which made it harder to get an accurate count, but there were at least 65 today and very probably a few more that we missed. After years of declining numbers it is great to see so many back again this year. While we were watching the Shore Larks, a Tawny Owl started hooting from the pines beyond, a reminder that days are short now.

Out at the beach, the tide was in. There was a surprising amount of swell, given how little wind there was today, which meant we had to climb up into the dunes to get a higher vantage point. Even from there, the ducks kept disappearing in the waves. We did manage to find a couple of Long-tailed Ducks which were not too far out. The large flocks of Common Scoter were more distant but little groups kept flying around and a flash of white in the wing alerted us to two Velvet Scoters in with one of them. They landed on the sea and we could see them in the scope before they started diving and disappeared into the larger flock.

We could see several Great Crested Grebes on the sea too. A little flock of Cormorants flew overhead, heading in to roost. Then it started to get a little misty and, with the light fading, became increasingly difficult to pick out anything different. We decided to head back to the other side of the pines.

Lots of Pink-footed Geese could be heard calling as we walked back through the pines. There was a lovely view across the marshes, with low-lying mist enveloping the bases of the hedges and trees. We watched and waited for a while, with several smaller groups of geese flying in and whiffling down. Then we picked up some bigger skeins in the distance and several thousand flew in together, in a cacophony of yelping calls. Perhaps put off by the mist, several groups flew straight over, perhaps heading out to roost on the flats instead. Many of the others did drop down and disappear into the mist.

6o0a8536Pink-footed Geese – dropping down in the mist to roost

It is quite a sight and sound to watch the Pink-footed Geese coming in to roost on a winter’s evening. Then, with the light fading, we headed for home.

5th Nov 2016 – Late Autumn Birding, Day 2

Day 2 of a 3 day long weekend of tours today. It was cloudy and increasingly blustery today, with winds gusting to 47mph this afternoon, so we spent the day dodging the showers. Still, it was surprising how much we saw despite the weather.

As we drove east along the coast road this morning, we flushed lots of Blackbirds and Chaffinches from the sides of the road. Our first destination was Blakeney, for a quick walk out around the Freshes before the wind picked up later. A couple of Brent Geese were feeding on the edge of the harbour channel just across from the car park but we could immediately see that one was much paler than the other. A closer look confirmed, one was a Pale-bellied Brent and the other a Dark-bellied Brent Goose.

6o0a7350Pale-bellied and Dark-bellied Brent Geese – a nice comparison

Dark-bellied is the regular form of Brent Goose which winters in large numbers here. This subspecies breeds in arctic Russia. Pale-bellied Brent Geese breed from Svalbard west across arctic Canada and winter mainly on the west coast of Scotland and in Ireland. We normally get a handful of Pale-bellied in with the flocks of Dark-bellied Brents here each winter and they occasionally form mixed pairs. Today was a great opportunity to see them side by side.

While we were watching the Brent Geese, we heard a Kingfisher call and looked across the channel to see two Kingfishers chasing each other low over the water. They flew over to our side of the channel and disappeared over the bank towards the Freshes. A little later we saw one of the zip back low across the reeds towards the wildfowl collection. A Marsh Harrier was quartering over the reeds a little further along.

Further along the seawall, as we got almost to the corner, we turned to look at the Freshes just in time to glimpse a dumpy bird dropping down into the grass on the edge of a flooded depression. We had a pretty good idea what it was, but we couldn’t see it from the seawall or from the path the other side. As we approached for a closer look, a Jack Snipe flew up and shot off towards the harbour – just what we had suspected. In flight, we could really see the small size and the shorter bill compared to a Common Snipe.

We continued on along the north side of the Freshes bank. There were lots of Skylarks down in the short weedy vegetation beyond the fence. A flock of Linnets flew in and dropped down there too briefly. A Rock Pipit flew over calling and landed on the fence, where we could get a good look at it through the scope. Reed Buntings occasionally flew up from the bushes but quickly disappeared back down again. A female Stonechat worked its way along the fence, dropping down onto the side of the bank periodically to look for food.

6o0a7371Stonechat – this lone female was working its way along the fence line

It is very exposed to the elements out on the seawall here. The wind was now starting to pick up and we could see dark clouds coming in towards us over the sea, so we decided to head back to the car. We had a quick look at the wildfowl in the Blakeney collection – none of which were allowed on the bird list for the day of course! We were just settled back in the warmth of the car when we saw two Peregrines over the edge of Friary Hills. A larger adult Peregrine, presumably a female, was chasing a smaller male juvenile – they swooped low over the grass before disappearing behind a hedge, coming out the other side and zooming off over the houses.

With the deterioration in the weather, we decided to head inland to get some respite. There have been some Waxwings in Holt for the last couple of days and as we turned into the road where they have most often been seen we could immediately see several photographers with long lenses pointed up into the trees. Even before we stopped, we could see Waxwings, and we could hear them calling as we got out of the car.

6o0a7387Waxwing – there were at least 20 in Holt today

There were at least 20 Waxwings, but they were hard to count as they were feeding in several different trees, and frequently flying round in small groups or singles. The bulk of the group seemed to keep returning to the top of a large chestnut tree, where they were hard to see among the leaves. From there, they would drop down into several smaller rowans, where they would proceed to wolf down the red berries, much to the annoyance of the local Blackbirds! There was also an apple tree in one of the front gardens by the road, and several of the Waxwings kept coming down to attack the apples, clinging on to them and biting away at the flesh where they had been half eaten already.

6o0a7454Waxwing – feeding on apples, as well as rowan berries

Having feasted ourselves, on such excellent views of such gorgeous looking birds, when the Waxwings flew off and disappeared round behind the buildings, we decided to move on. Our next stop was at Sheringham, where we went for a walk along the sea front.We thought we might pick up some seabirds on our way, but at first it seemed a little quiet, apart from hordes of Turnstones around the fishing boats which had been hauled up the slipway.

6o0a7525Turnstone – lots along the prom at Sheringham

There was no sign of any Purple Sandpipers on their usual favourite rocks below the pub, but when we got to the shelter at the east end of the prom, we could see first one and then two Purple Sandpipers distantly out on the sea defences.

We stopped to talk to another couple of local birders who told us that the movement of seabirds was just picking up, after the wind had strengthened. A line of Common Scoter flew past with a single Tufted Duck in amongst them. A steady stream of Gannets tacked across the wind, heading east offshore, both white adults and dark grey-brown juveniles. There were little groups of Guillemots zooming across and a couple of Red-throated Divers went past too.Then a few Great Skuas started to pass by – in the half hour we stood there sheltering from the wind, we saw about ten – but they were all rather distant and hard to get everyone onto. A single juvenile Pomarine Skua was even further offshore.

As a particularly fierce squall blew in off the sea, we took shelter until it passed. Perhaps prompted by a Sanderling which came in with them, the two Purple Sandpipers took off and flew towards us, passing by and heading back to the rocks below the pub. We waited until the rain had stopped and decided to walk back to look for them. Unfortunately, by that stage they had disappeared again. We did find a couple of Ringed Plovers which had probably stopped off with the Turnstones to sit out the wind.

6o0a7527Ringed Plover – stopped off with the Turnstones on the slipway

After lunch and a welcome hot drink back along the coast road at Cley, we drove round to Iron Road and headed down along Attenborough’s Way. There was a nice flock of Brent Geese out on the grazing meadows (all Dark-bellieds), and as well as the plain backed adults we could see quite a few stripe-backed juveniles. Hopefully, as the Brent Goose numbers increase over the coming weeks, it will prove to have been a good breeding season for them this year.

6o0a7537Brent Geese – adults & juveniles on the grazing marshes

Round at Babcock Hide, the wind was now whistling across the marshes. A little flock of Dunlin were feeding down at the front of the scrape below the hide, but they were very skittish and kept whirling round before dropping back down again. A pair of Redshank were defending their feeding territory in front of the hide, chasing off any others which tried to land there.

First one Black-tailed Godwit dropped in, then another five, stopping to feed for a few minutes before flying off again, flashing their boldly marked black and white wings. A couple of little groups of Lapwing flew in from the east and stopped to rest for a minute or two on the islands.

None of the waders would settle, in part because there were a couple of Marsh Harriers about. First, a dark juvenile flew across the reeds at the back of the pool, and drifted off towards Salthouse. Then a young male Marsh Harrier, with paler underwings and small patches of paler grey emerging on its upperwings, did the same. As they came over the grazing marshes, all the Wigeon shot out into the middle of the water from the banks. There were a few Teal and Mallard with them and three Shoveler appeared from behind the reeds too.

When a particularly dark cloud had passed over, we returned to the car and drove back round to the main part of the reserve. Just as we set out to walk to the hides, it started to rain so we hurried out along the boardwalk – thankfully it was only light rain and we got out there without getting wet.

There were several Shelduck out on Pat’s Pool and  huddle of gulls out beyond the first island. A few Teal were out on one of the further islands, but there were not many waders – three Dunlin at the back and a couple of Black-tailed Godwits roosting in with the gulls. Simmond’s Scrape held more wildfowl – a larger flock of Wigeon, a good number of Teal and a huddle of around 20 Pintail asleep behind one of the islands. Presumably the waders had gone elsewhere in search of food and shelter. A Common Snipe was feeding on the bank outside Dauke’s Hide but flew across and landed down behind the grass in front of Teal Hide where we couldn’t see it.

A couple more Marsh Harriers quartered the reedbed beyond the scrapes this side. The light was starting to fade already and they were presumably gathering before going to roost. Several Pied Wagtails flew past while we watched, some of them dropping in to the islands briefly, before continuing on their way heading off to roost.

6o0a7562Marsh Harrier – gathering over the reeds before going to roost

Turning our attention to the gulls, we could immediately see a good selection of different species – Lesser and Great Black-backed Gulls, Herring Gulls and Black-headed Gulls. One of the herring gull-types looked different – it was very white-headed, whereas Herring Gulls typically have lots of grey blotches around the head at this time of year. Against the white head, the beady black eye really stood out – the nearby Herring Gulls instead showing a very pale iris. It was  an adult Caspian Gull.

img_8262Caspian Gull – this adult was hunkered down against the wind on Pat’s Pool

The Caspian Gull was hunkered down against the wind and didn’t initially look as long-billed and long-faced as they usually do. It kept returning to a little patch of cut rushes, behind which it tried to crouch down and shelter. However, the mantle was noticeably half a shade darker than the nearby Herring Gulls. Eventually, the Caspian Gull walked up onto the island and started preening, and now finally we could see the distinctive long head and bill.

Cley in the late evening is normally a good place to see different gulls gathering before they go to roost, but the Caspian Gulls often come in very late, just as it is getting dark, so we were lucky this one had arrived nice and early today. When some of the gulls flew across to Simmond’s Scrape, we turned to look there and found an adult Yellow-legged Gull to add to the day’s gull list. It was with a Lesser and a Great Black-backed Gull, giving a good comparison in mantle tone – it was noticeably much darker grey than the Herring Gulls but paler and less slatey than the Lesser Black-backeds.

At first, the Yellow-legged Gull was up to its belly in the water but eventually it climbed out onto the mud and we could finally see its deep yellow legs. The light was starting to fade now, and consequently they might not have appeared as bright to the unitiated as they otherwise would have done. It was time to call it a day, but it had been a nice way to end with such a good selection of gulls gathering.

20th November 2015 – The Calm Before The Storm

The first of two days of tours based in North Norfolk. The weather forecast was cloudy and breezy with the chance of wintry showers later on – it was mostly right today for once, but we were surprised to find some pleasant sunshine at times this morning.

We met in Wells and spent a brief moment looking at the harbour. There were some large groups of Brent Geese out on the saltmarsh or flying across to the main channel to bathe. One lone Brent Goose was swimming around in the water just in front of us, which gave us chance for a good look up close. It was one of our regular Dark-bellied Brent Geese, which come in from Russia to spend the winter here in good numbers.

IMG_3018Brent Goose – a regular Dark-bellied bird in the harbour this morning

There were several Marsh Harriers quartering out over the saltmarsh too. A few Little Egrets were fishing along the channel and a nice selection of waders were along the muddy edges – plenty of Redshank, a few Curlew, a Lapwing and a smart Grey Plover.

IMG_3025Grey Plover – feeding on the mud in Wells Harbour

We made our way east along the coast to Cley, which was our first proper destination for the morning. We had a quick look at the fields along Beach Road, but there was no sign of the flock of Brent Geese along there yet today. So we headed onto the reserve instead.

A Cetti’s Warbler sang half-heartedly from the bushes but wouldn’t how itself. Along the path to Bishop Hide, we could hear Bearded Tits calling. We thought it was a bit too windy to see them perched out on the tops, but we managed to find a female feeding on a seed head, though it wasn’t easy to see through the reed stems even in the scope.

As we walked out to the hide, a Merlin whisked past and powered away inland along the hedgeline. A little while later, from the hide, we saw a second Merlin chasing what was presumably a Meadow Pipit over towards the beach. They towered high into the sky, the pipit at first climbing steeply, then swerving wildly as the Merlin dived at it repeatedly, at times missing it by fractions. Finally the pipit dropped vertically towards the cover of the beach. The Merlin, presumably realising it might be about to lose its target, plunged down after it, and we lost sight of them behind the reeds.

The Marsh Harriers put on a good display too. There were at least six of them up at one point. One of the resident females perched nicely in the top of one of the bushes in the reedbed in the morning sun, so we could get her in the scope. Later, she quartered over the reeds right in front of the hide.

P1120664Marsh Harrier – this female flew right past the hide

There was a good selection of other birds out on Pat’s Pool. A small party of Dunlin were feeding feverishly on the mud round the edges of the islands. Further over, a group of Black-tailed Godwit were mostly asleep. Five hardy Avocets were easy to overlook, also asleep amongst the gulls – most of them have gone south for the winter, but a few choose to hang on here.

There are lots of ducks in now for the winter. A good number of Wigeon were grazing on the islands. There were fewer Teal out on the water here than in recent days, but a group of four smart drakes were quite close. Four Shoveler were asleep further over. But the prize for the smartest of all goes to the pair of Pintail – although the male was still not in full breeding plumage, with a few brown feathers still to be moulted and his long pin-shaped tail feathers a bit shorter than full length.

IMG_3033Pintail – this pair were on Pat’s Pool this morning

As we walked out of the hide, a male Stonechat was perched briefly on a dead stem by the reed screen but flew off as soon as it saw us. There are a few around the reserve at the moment and, when we got to the start of the East Bank, we found another pair along the edge of the path below. The male disappeared off along the reedy channel, but the female stayed put and spent some time flycatching from the bushes.

IMG_3052Stonechat – this female was one of several around Cley today

We could hear more Bearded Tits calling here but couldn’t see any at first. Again, it seemed unlikely they would come out given the wind. But then we spotted some movement along the mud at the bottom of the reeds opposite and realised there was a group of Bearded Tits feeding there. They didn’t hang around, and quickly disappeared out of view, but thankfully a few more followed along behind and we managed to get a cracking male in the scope. A Water Pipit was more elusive. It flew up calling from the mud as we first got up onto the bank and disappeared behind some reeds. It had found a sheltered spot and we only had another quick glimpse of it as it disappeared round a corner of the mud further along.

There were lots more ducks and a few Brent Geese on Pope’s Marsh. Scanning through them, the one addition to the day’s list we managed was a single Common Snipe feeding in the wet grass. Out on Arnold’s Marsh, we could see another big group of Dunlin and more Redshank, with a single Ringed Plover and Turnstone on one of the islands.

As we walked out towards the beach, a small falcon came flying towards us chasing something. As it got alongside us, we could see it was a Kestrel and it was chasing an exhausted Blackbird. The Blackbird dived into the reeds and the Kestrel hovered briefly overhead, before flying off. Out here, we assumed the Blackbird had probably just arrived in over the North Sea, coming here for the winter from Northern Europe. This was confirmed by what we saw on the beach. We were looking out to sea when we spotted another five Blackbirds battling in low over the waves into the wind – they made it safely in and over the beach.

It was windy out on the beach and the sea had quite a swell, but there was quite a lot of activity out there. A few Guillemots and Razorbills were riding out the waves offshore and more auks were whirring past over the waves left and right in ones and twos. Several Gannets were fishing offshore, folding back their wings and plunging into the water, both slate-grey juveniles and adults with black-tipped white wings. While we were watching one Gannet fly past, we spotted a Red-throated Diver riding the surf below it. Further out, a melee of gulls contained three darker shapes and a look through the scope revealed three Great Skuas harrying them.

There were a few ducks and geese battling in over the sea, presumably fresh in from the continent – a little party of four Teal, a pair of Gadwall, a couple of Brent Geese. However, the highlight was a single young Velvet Scoter which flew past, flashing white trailing edges to its wings and two bright white face spots as it went.

We were on our way back along the East Bank when we saw a large flock of Brent Geese come overhead and disappear off east, before circling back round and dropping down behind Walsey  Hills. We took a short detour along the road and down the footpath up to the fields behind there. We couldn’t see the Brent Geese at first, although a very noisy group of Pink-footed Geese were in the field further over behind the wood.

We climbed up to the top of the hill to get a better look and could see a few Brent Geese feeding on the winter wheat, but nothing like the number we had seen fly in. The ground here undulates and it was quickly clear that the flock had managed to hide themselves in a dip in the ground! We walked back down and then further along the footpath and the rest of the flock magically appeared. Even better, there on the front edge was our target – a Black Brant. Its brighter white flank patch positively glowed in the sunshine and we could see its better marked white collar when it raised its head.

IMG_3060Black Brant – the whiter collar and flanks give it away

We were edging our way along the path trying not to flush the flock. The birds had seen us, but seemed to start to settle. Then suddenly they panicked and all took to the air. The Black Brant came right over our heads, but also in the flock we saw another Brent Goose with a much paler belly than any of the others – a Pale-bellied Brent Goose. We thought at first we might actually have disturbed the geese, but then a man appeared over the hill, a walker coming along another footpath which ran right through the field where the geese were feeding. Typical timing! It would have been great to get a better view of all the subspecies of Brent Goose together.

We made our way back to the Visitor Centre for lunch. No sooner had we arrived than the Brent Goose flock flew in overhead from the fields behind and dropped down onto the reserve. We could see the Black Brant and the Pale-bellied Brent Goose in with them. While we were eating our sandwiches a Peregrine flew off the reserve and inland, carrying its own lunch! It had clearly just caught some unsuspecting bird out over the reserve.

After lunch, we had thought we might go out onto the new part of the reserve, ‘Salthouse Marshes’. We drove along to Iron Road, but the wind had picked up and was whistling across and there were people pounding in new fenceposts out along the track past Babcock Hide. We could see there were very few birds in front of the hide today. There were a few Ruff in with the Lapwing on the marshes by Iron Road though.

We drove back to Cley and down Beach Road again, as we had first thing this morning. While we were having lunch, it had looked like some of the Brent Geese had headed this way. Sure enough, about half way down Beach Road, we spotted a small flock of about 30 Brent Geese out on the grazing marshes. We pulled into the side and scanned with binoculars and once again the Black Brant immediately stood out from the throng, so we parked up and got the scope out. There was the Black Brant but, even better, there was the Pale-bellied Brent as well – the three (main?) subspecies of Brent Goose together in one small flock. What a treat!

IMG_3066Brent Geese – 3 subspecies togther: Black Brant, Pale- & Dark-bellied

Brent Geese of the various forms are found breeding all around the arctic, with Dark-bellied Brents breeding in central and west Siberia, Pale-bellied Brents breeding in Franz Josef Land, Svalbard, Greenland and the Canadian high arctic and Black Brants breeding in NE Canada, Alaska and far eastern Siberia. Dark-bellied Brent Geese winter commonly here – an estimated half the population winters in southern England. Black Brants are rare stragglers which should winter along the coasts of the Pacific.

A few Golden Plover were in the same field as the geese, but were very nervous and after circling around a couple of times and landing again, they flew off. After enjoying the geese, we drove on to the beach car park to turn around. An even larger flock of Golden Plover had now gathered in the Eye Field, hunched down in the grass face on into the wind. Their gold-spangled backs shone in the sunshine.

Next, we drove back west past Wells to Holkham. As we did so, we could see some very dark clouds being pushed past on the gusty wind. It was clearly raining hard out over the sea. When we got to Lady Anne’s Drive, we could see we were just about to catch the back edge of it. Rather than walk out to Washington Hide immediately , we decided to drive a little further west and scan the marshes.

We were pleased we did. Our first stop only yielded a few Greylags and a couple more Pink-footed Geese. However, on our next scan a tall white shape was apparent on the edge of one of the ditches – a Great White Egret. This bird has been present here since the end of August, but can be very elusive, particularly in the last few weeks, so it was great to catch up with it again today.

IMG_3077Great White Egret – in one of the ditches out on the grazing marsh

The Great White Egret flew across and landed on the grass next to a Grey Heron, a great side-by-side comparison. If anything, it was actually a little larger than the heron! The Grey Herons seemed to object to its presence and actually chased it off a couple of times, but it seemed to like the area and kept returning to the ditches here.

We had hoped to see some White-fronted Geese from here – that was the main reason for coming this way, and the egret was a surprise bonus. We were not disappointed as there were at least 30 scattered across the grass in front of the Great White Egret, once we had taken our eyes off it. Most of the White-fronted Geese were adults, with white blaze around the base of the bill and black belly bars, but there were also several plainer juveniles which lacked these diagnostic features. Nearby, a lone Barnacle Goose was accompanied by a rather odd looking hybrid – local feral geese.

IMG_3084White-fronted Geese – we could see at least 30 here today

The clouds moved through quickly and the skies cleared again while we were scanning the marshes, so we drove back down to Lady Anne’s Drive, stopping on the way to admire a little group of Pink-footed Geese in the field nearby. It was great to be able to look at them up close, and see the differences from all the other geese we had seen through the day.

IMG_3100Pink-footed Geese – nice close-up views along Lady Anne’s Drive

We set off to walk west along the edge of the pines to Washington Hide. However, we hadn’t gone very far before we heard the yelping of Pink-footed Geese behind us and turned to see several hundred flying in from the fields. They turned and dropped down onto the grazing marshes where we had been watching the others earlier. Just before we got to the pines, we heard a Chiffchaff calling and could just see it flicking around in the low brambles. Most of the Chiffchaffs have departed south for the winter, but in mild years there is often one or two which lingers in the pines.

We were just past Salts Hole when we heard Long-tailed Tits calling from the trees. We stopped to look at them and realised there were a few Goldcrests with them. Then a sharper call alerted us to the presence of a Firecrest as well, in fact two Firecrests. They were in the trees south of the track, looking towards the evening sky and the sun had already set, which meant it was harder to make them out clearly. Then they flew across and landed in a Holm Oak the other side of the track. They only stopped in there briefly, but this time we could see one of them more clearly. The male Firecrest flashed his orange crown stripe before disappearing back towards the pines.

We continued on to Washington Hide and could already see quite a few Pink-footed Geese already out on the grass. Unfortunately, the clouds were building once more and the light was starting to fade fast now. We decided to call it a day and make our way home. And a very nice day it had been, too!

P1120702Sunset – over Salts Hole at Holkham

16th December 2014 – Photographing Geese

A private tour again today. The request was to spend the day watching and photographing geese. There is no shortage of geese in Norfolk in the winter! Getting up close to them can sometimes be more of a challenge.

We went first to Salthouse, which was a convenient pale to start the day. This has been a good place for Brent Geese in recent weeks, and we were not disappointed. A large group of Dark-bellied Brent Geese was feeding on the grazing marsh by the Iron Road. A quick scan through them revealed the Black Brant which has been present for the last few weeks, though roaming up and down the coast and elusive at times. It’s much darker – almost black – body plumage and extensive white flank patch and collar meant it stood out obviously from the rest.

P1100364Black Brant – this very striking bird stood out amongst the Dark-bellieds

P1100359Black Brant – the white collar is extensive, across the neck under the chin

Also in the same flock was a single Pale-bellied Brent Goose. Whereas our regular Dark-bellieds come from Russia, and Black Brant from North America or Eastern Siberia, we get a few Pale-bellieds from Svalbard, Franz Josef Land or Canada every winter. It was  a great opportunity to compare three subspecies of Brent Goose in a single flock.

P1100384Pale-bellied Brent Goose – the near-white belly is obvious here

We spent some time watching the geese and particularly the Pale-bellied Brent Goose. Even though it was in the middle of a vast throng, it was clear that this bird had three juveniles accompanying it. It was also paired to a male Dark-bellied Brent Goose – a mixed pair, and the young birds appear to be hybrids between the two subspecies. This pairing is very rarely reported, given that the populations are typically geographically separated, but this pair has been returning for a couple of years now. It was particularly interesting to look at the young hybrids.

P1100380Pale-bellied & Dark-bellied Brent Goose pair & hybrid young

P1100339Pale-bellied Brent Goose – can you tell the 3 hybrid young from the others?

Also amongst the Brents was a small group of Pink-footed Geese. They were mostly in the longer grass and hard to see but one bird glimpsed occasionally appeared to have a neck collar. Eventually, it came out into view and we could read the letters on the grey collar – ‘THS’. A quick check back at base later revealed that I had actually seen this bird two years ago, nearby at Kelling! It was ringed as an adult male at Loch of Lintrathen in Angus on 16th December 2007, and had been seen in Norfolk over the winter of 2010/11 and in December 2012 at least.

IMG_2057Neck-collared Pink-footed Goose – I had seen ‘THS’ at Kelling in Dec’12!

From there, we moved on to Holkham. Most of the Pink-footed Geese spend the days feeding inland, on discarded sugar beet tops in recently harvested fields. A few remain at Holkham, loafing around on the grazing marshes. By carefully positioning the car, we were able to get close to a view and get some great photos.

P1100397

P1100457

P1100466Pink-footed Geese – great photographic opportunities at Holkham

There were fewer geese at the west end of Holkham, and most of those present appeared to be Greylags. However, a closer look through the geese revealed several White-fronted Geese hiding in the deeper vegetation out on the grazing marshes.

The days are short in the middle of winter, and the only other thing required today was a quick visit to see Snettisham. It seemed like a nice way to round off the day. Out on the Wash, there were enormous quantities of waders. Lots of Golden & Grey Plover, Lapwing, Oystercatcher, Knot, Sanderling, Dunlin, Bar-tailed Godwit, Curlew, Redshank & Turnstone. It was great to watch the swirling flocks. The Golden Plover were quick to take flight. However, whenever a raptor flew over, all the other birds took to the air. The odd Marsh Harrier flew over, but two young Peregrines spent some time chasing fruitlessly after various waders, putting them all up.

On the pits, amongst the feral Greylags, were lots of ducks – mostly Wigeon and Mallard, but a few Gadwall, Tufted Duck and also several Goldeneye. There were a number of Little Grebes and amongst them a single Black-necked Grebe – quite a rare bird in Norfolk and a nice one for the list. As the sun started to go down, we walked back to the car – fittingly, the backdrop was provided by the Pink-footed Geese flying out onto the Wash to roost.