Tag Archives: Pallid Harrier

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

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

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

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

Wheatear

Wheatear – there were lots in the North Dunes today

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

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

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

Pallid Harrier 2

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

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

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

Stonechat

Stonechat – this male perched up obligingly near the path

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

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

Ring Ouzel

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

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

Pallid Harrier 1

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

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

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

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

Willow Warbler

Willow Warbler – we saw several in the south dunes

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

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

Linnet

Linnet – still quite common in the dunes

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

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

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

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

Black-winged Stilt

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

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

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

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

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

Garganey

Garganey – a flock of five, including four drakes

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

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

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

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

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

Hirundines

Hirundines – gathered on the fence in the rain

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

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

5th Mar 2017 – Winter & Brecks, Day 3

Day 3 of a three day Winter & Brecks Tour, aiming to catch up with some of our wintering birds in North Norfolk, as well as the specialities of early spring in the Brecks, our final day. The weather forecast was not great again, with a band of heavy rain expected to move in quickly this morning and last for several hours, but as we have seen repeatedly over the last couple of days, it would be very foolish to rely on the forecast!

Having missed the Pallid Harrier over the last couple of days, the news that it was back early this morning was too tempting to miss. A quick visit by this correspondent on the way to collect the group confirmed where it was and soon we were all back watching this great bird.

img_1298Pallid Harrier – we finally caught up with the juvenile at New Holkham

It was nice and sunny first thing this morning in North Norfolk and excellent light. The Pallid Harrier was hunting over a more distant wheat field at first, flying low over the ground or down the hedge lines looking for food, trying to flush small birds or find small mammals. It was very narrow winged compared to the other harriers we had seen over the weekend, with a pointed ‘hand’, and an agile flight action.

Gradually the Pallid Harrier worked its way back towards us, at times disappearing behind a ridge. When it worked its way back along a hedge at one point, a Merlin appeared with it. The Merlin perched up on the hedge while the Pallid Harrier flew over the verge beside. The Merlin was probably looking for small birds flushed by the harrier, which it could chase after itself.

Finally the Pallid Harrier came in over a stubble field, just across from us. As it banked and turned, the morning sun caught on its underparts, which glowed orange, typical of a juvenile. Its upperparts were contrastingly dark brown, with a white square at the base of the tail and a pale creamy patch across the coverts. Through the scope, it was possible to see the Pallid Harrier‘s diagnostic pale collar and dark ‘boa’, the brown patches on the side of the neck behind the collar.

It flew back and forth over the stubble field for a while, allowing us all to get a great look at it, then the Pallid Harrier flew across to one side, had a quick stoop at an unsuspecting female Pheasant, and disappeared across the road. Wow!

It had been well worth the stop. Although we were intending to head back down to the Brecks this morning, this was just about on our way. As we finally got underway again and headed south, it started to rain. It was a bit earlier than expected, so it was good that we had been able to make the most of the early sunshine.

Our first stop in the Brecks was at Santon Downham. When we got out of the cars, yes it was raining, but it wasn’t exactly raining hard. The conditions were a long way from ideal, but we decided to give it a go and have a walk along the river. Our real target here was going to be Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, but that was going to be a real challenge to find now. As we walked along, a couple of Green Woodpeckers laughed at us from the trees. It didn’t sound like they thought much of our prospects! A sharp ‘kik’ call alerted us to the presence of a Great Spotted Woodpecker and we looked up to see it flying through the tops and landing high in a bare tree.

There were other birds along here too. A Crossbill flew over calling and landed in the top of a tall poplar. Through binoculars we could see that it was a red male and it then started singing, a jumbled mixture of call notes and quiet wheezes and trills, not much to write home about as birdsong goes but interesting to hear. A couple of Marsh Tits called from further back in the undergrowth. A Nuthatch was piping from somewhere in the trees too.

When we got to the Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers‘ favourite trees, all was quiet. We stood listening for a few minutes, and while we were standing there we turned to look across at the alders the other side. There was a lot of activity in the trees. A pair of Treecreepers were chasing each other round and round between the trunks. A couple of Siskins were swinging in the branches. There were several tits there too and a Nuthatch.

One of the group caught sight of a woodpecker and as we turned to look, a Great Spotted Woodpecker flicked across onto a tree. Then a much smaller bird appeared on the trunk of the tree behind. Rather than the bold white shoulder patches of the Great Spotted Woodpecker, it was densely barred with white on its black back and wings. It was a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker!

img_1302Lesser Spotted Woodpecker – barred with white on its back and wings

It was a female Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, lacking the red crown of the male. It was hard to get onto at first, as it kept flitting between trees, climbing up the trunks and sometimes disappearing round the back or behind other trees. With a bit of perseverance, we managed to get it in the scope and everyone had a great look at it. What an unexpected result!

When it disappeared deeper into the trees, we decided not to push our luck and headed back the way we had come. We stopped to look at a large flock of Siskins in the alders and found at least one Lesser Redpoll in with them. There were a few Bramblings in the trees too and a large flock of Redwings flew up from the meadows as we passed.

It stopped raining as we walked back, which was a most welcome surprise! It seemed like the band of rain had passed over much more quickly than expected and without raining as hard. It was still grey and damp though. We had a quick look up around the churchyard to see if we could find any Firecrests, but that was pushing our luck too far.

Before lunch, we had a quick drive over to Thetford, to the delights of a recycling centre on an industrial estate – there is nothing if not a variety in our choice of venues! This has been a very good spot for gulls in recent weeks. A Sunday is never the best day to look for them here, as the recycling centre is closed, although they often loaf around on the roofs anyway. Perhaps because of the earlier rain, there were very few today, just a few Lesser Black-backed and Herring Gulls, so we didn’t stop long.

Lakenheath Fen was our destination for the afternoon. We ate our lunch in the visitor centre, looking out at the feeders. A steady stream of birds came in and out – mainly Reed Buntings, Goldfinches and tits. One of the volunteers kindly drew our attention to a Water Rail which was lurking in the cut reeds below the balcony, before it scuttled back into cover.

6o0a9043Reed Bunting – a variety came in to feed by the visitor centre

It had started to brighten up from the west over lunch, so we set off to explore the reserve. It was still cool and damp as we walked down the path to New Fen. A Marsh Harrier was quartering over the reeds – it was a young bird and was carrying green wings tags on its wings. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts with scopes, we were unable to read the code, however it had most likely been ringed here.

There were several ducks on the water in front of the viewpoint, mainly Gadwall plus a few Mallard and Teal. Gadwall are one of the most under-rated of ducks, the male’s apparently grey plumage actually being a variety of different patterns – barring, scalloping, streaking – so we had a good look at one through the scope. A Common Snipe flew up and landed back down on the edge of the reeds briefly before scuttling back into cover. A Cetti’s Warbler sang half-heartedly from deep in the reeds.

img_1316Gadwall – the most under-rated of ducks

We pressed on west. There was no sign of any Common Cranes from Joist Fen viewpoint. A Cormorant was on a post, drying its wings. Several Marsh Harriers were quartering over the reeds. A Common Buzzard was standing on a fence post at the edge of the paddocks. There were still some dark clouds coming in on the brisk wind, so we waited while they passed over, even though it did nothing more than spit with rain for a few seconds. Once they were gone, we headed up to the river bank.

Scanning the fields north of the river, we spotted a pair of Common Cranes some way over. We got them in the scope, and we could see they were two adults, with well-marked black and white heads and a red patch on the top. We presumed they were one of the two regular breeding pairs from the reserve.

img_1324Common Crane – one of the breeding pairs, in a field north of the river

While we were watching this pair, we could hear more Cranes bugling further over, which prompted the ones we were observing to respond. Then a second pair of Cranes flew in and landed right next to the first. This second pair started to display, duetting with their heads pointing skywards.This was all slightly perplexing, as it would be odd for the other resident pair to trespass in the other’s territory.

The original pair then took off and it looked like they would land again a couple of fields over, but instead they flushed a fifth Crane which took off too. Now we knew already from one of the wardens that one of the resident Crane pairs had just today been trying to kick their juvenile born last year out of their territory. In the last few days it had still been accompanying the two adults everywhere, but it had been seen on its own earlier. It quickly became clear that this was the juvenile we were seeing take off, chased by its parents.

These three Cranes flew off over the reserve and disappeared over the trees way to the south, and they were soon followed by the other pair. However, after a few seconds they came back and the three landed down in the edge of the reedbed. Through the scope, we could see it was the pair and the juvenile. Then the other pair flew over and they took off again.

All five Cranes flew up and landed on the river bank. At this stage, we were still assuming that we were watching the two resident pairs with the one remaining juvenile from 2016. However, while they were standing on the bank, another pair of Cranes walked up to join them, duetting as they did so. We could now see seven Cranes standing on the bank together, in a line!

img_1351Common Crane – seven birds in a line, on the river bank

The juvenile Crane was still with what we believed were its parents at this stage, but they were clearly not happy with it. The next thing we knew they started to chase after it. The poor juvenile scrambled down along the bank and back up the other side of the other two pairs of adults, where it was out of reach. It was all action  – it was like watching a Crane soap opera!

It was rather hard to keep track of them for a while. Different Cranes were bickering, two flew off down to the edge of the river beyond, but it seemed we were missing one of the adults and the juvenile. The next thing we knew, three Cranes took off again – one of the pairs and the juvenile. We wondered whether the juvenile was being chased at first, but by the end it was not clear whether it was just trying to follow its parents. The three flew round over the reserve, turned back to the river, and then came straight over and past us along the river. Stunning! They disappeared off east, beyond the poplars and were lost to view.

6o0a9122Common Cranes – two adults, followed by a juvenile

While we were watching the Cranes flying right past us, one of the group spotted a Great White Egret flying away along the river. All very confusing, we didn’t know where to look! After the Cranes had disappeared, we walked along the river to see if we could find it. A Little Egret flew off ahead of us and disappeared behind a bush. As we walked past, two egrets took off from behind it and we could see they were very different sizes. The Great White Egret dwarfed the Little Egret.

6o0a9143Great White Egret and Little Egret – one big, one much smaller

The two egrets landed out of view in a channel in the wet meadows north of the river. But almost immediately, a male Marsh Harrier flew right over, flushing all the ducks and the egrets. We got a good look at the Great White Egret as it flew slowly away.

There were some more dark clouds approaching, so we made our way back to Joist Fen Viewpoint and sheltered as a brief shower passed over. Then we walked back across the reserve, with the dark clouds moving away ahead of us, the low sun lighting up the trees in front, and a double rainbow across the sky. Quite a view!

It had been a great way to end the day, and draw a very exciting weekend to a close, watching all the action with the Cranes. We made our way back to Mundord where part of the group left to head off south, while the rest of us continued on to North Norfolk.

POSTSCRIPT – as we drove through Swaffham, we could see an enormous flock of Starlings already starting to gather – we had thought we might be heading back too early to catch them, now the nights are drawing out. We couldn’t resist stopping.

The number of Starlings here still seems to be growing – there were at least 20,000 the last time we came but it looked to be much more than that now. The sky was black with birds. They were mostly flying round in a loose flock at first, a vast cloud covering the sky, rather than making tight shapes. But it was mesmerising standing underneath them, even if we were in danger of being spattered! The flock was composed of different layers, circling in different directions, it was enough to make you feel dizzy. We just stood and watched in awe.

img_1367Starlings – a huge cloud over Swaffham

Gradually, as it started to get dark, the groups started to coalesce. The point before they actually go into roost is when the Starlings are at their most nervous. Now we started to see them making some shapes, swirling around. Finally, they started to drop into the trees. It was like someone had turned on a vacuum cleaner – the flocks circled lower and suddenly a stream of birds would drop like a stone and dive headlong into the bushes. It is amazing they don’t crash into each other.

The swirling flocks were remarkably quiet, apart from the hum from the beating of thousands wings, but once they get into the roost trees the Starlings start to chatter and their was a remarkable cacophony building as the sky emptied. Now it really was time to head for home.

19th February 2016 – Raven Mad!

 

Day 1 of another three day long weekend of tours today. We spent the day in North Norfolk, trying to catch up with a few of our local wintering specialities and lingering rarities. It was a glorious morning to be out – bright and crisp after a frost overnight, with big blue skies spread out above us. Even though it clouded over later in the afternoon, the forecast rain very kindly held off until after we had finished.

On our way down to the coast, a Barn Owl was out hunting over the grass beside the road, where the frost had melted. Our first stop was along the road at Holkham and the first bird we set eyes on there was another Barn Owl out hunting over the grazing marshes. There were several Marsh Harriers circling over the fields and a single one perched in the morning sun in a tree in front of us. Several Common Buzzards came out of the Park behind us and circled up into the sky.

Then a Peregrine appeared over Decoy Wood. It circled out over the pools, scattering all the masses of Wigeon, Teal and Shoveler, seemingly just for fun, then drifted back over the trees again. Next it dropped down towards the grass and had a go at an Egyptian Goose which happened to be flying past. It landed on one of the trees for a brief rest and then dropped down over the back.

IMG_7856White-fronted Geese – with a few Greylags for company

There were still a good number of White-fronted Geese out on the freshmarsh. Many of them were hidden behind the trees, which made it difficult to count them today, but several were out in the open where we could get a good look at them, admiring the white surround to the base of their bills and their black belly stripes. There were several much larger Greylag Geese with them, giving a good opportunity for comparison.

A lone Ruff was down on the grass by one of the small pools and there were lots of Lapwing there too. A small party of Black-tailed Godwits whirled round whenever one of the Marsh Harriers drifted over.

We made our way on westwards and stopped by the harbour at Burnham Overy Staithe. It was a wonderful day to be walking out along the seawall. The mud along the harbour channel was full of waders – Redshanks, Grey Plover, Dunlin. A group of Black-tailed Godwits were roosting on one of the sandbars, at least until they were flushed by a couple of dogs. Several are already starting to acquire the orange breast feathers of summer plumage. We couldn’t find a Knot with them on the way out, but remedied that later, on the way back.

IMG_7862Black-tailed Godwits – flushed from the sandbank in the harbour

All the Brent Geese which had been loafing around in the harbour were flushed by the dogs too and flew off out across the grazing meadows to feed. A couple of Red-breasted Merganser swam away, diving constantly, and later flew back to where they had been feeding, once the danger had passed.

We stopped on the seawall to have a closer look at some Pink-footed Geese. Most of them seem to have departed already, on their way further north where they will stop a while before continuing on to Iceland. However, there are still groups hanging around so we wanted to take this opportunity to have a proper look.

At this point, our attention was drawn to a black bird circling low over the edge of the dunes. It is always hard to judge the size of a lone bird, but it looked big, really big. There was also something about the way it was flying, circling effortlessly. We swung the scope round onto it quickly and could see a huge black bill, thick neck, with shaggy feathering at the throat and what seemed to be a longish wedge-shaped tail – a Raven!

P1170375Raven – one of a pair in the dunes today, a properly rare bird in Norfolk!

In some parts of the country, a Raven would not create much excitement, but they are still really rare in Norfolk. So much so, that this was the first Raven that your correspondent has ever seen in his home county! They have been spreading across the country and records here have been increasing in the last couple of years, but it is still a great bird to see here.

It was joined by a second and the two Ravens circled slowly along the dunes towards Holkham Pines. At this point, two Carrion Crows set off after them and started to mob them – the Crows were tiny by comparison. One of the Ravens started to circle out over the grazing marshes towards us, and we could now hear the deep, hoarse ‘kronk’ call. It got nearer and nearer and looked like it would come straight to us before it swung away again towards Holkham Park. Great stuff!

With a spring in our step, we carried on out towards the dunes, and turned west along the beach towards Gun Hill. We had come to look for the Shore Larks, so we looked carefully all the way along the high tide line where they like to feed. We couldn’t find them. There were a few Ringed Plovers on the beach and several Sanderlings with the Oystercatchers down by the channel.

At the end of the dunes, opposite Scolt Head island, there was no sign of the Shore Larks on the piles of seaweed and other dead vegetation where they like to feed. A small group of Goldeneye took off from the channel as we approached. We had a good look round the edge of the dunes on the inland side as well, without any joy. It seemed like we were out of luck – the Shore Larks had apparently been present earlier in the morning but had obviously been disturbed and flown off.

IMG_7865Red-breasted Merganser – in the harbour channel opposite Gun Hill

We started the long march back, stopping to admire a little party of Red-breasted Mergansers in the harbour channel, including a smart drake this time. We walked out onto the beach to check the lines of debris washed up by the tide. We had just given up and decided to move on when three small birds flew along the edge of the dunes towards us – the Shore Larks!

They carried on past us, along the beach the way we had just walked, and appeared to land. It was too much to resist, so we walked back up the beach again to try to see them. There were two walkers with a dog ahead of us, the latter scampering along the high tide line, and we had to race to catch them up. They very kindly agreed to get their dog under control, almost too late as it flushed the Shore Larks before they could call it back (apparently the dog was deaf, which didn’t help!).  Thankfully they landed again a few metres further on and the dog was duly restrained. We all had a good look at the Shore Larks in the scope – including the dog owners.

IMG_7932-001Shore Lark – the three eventually flew back in just as we were giving up

The Shore Larks were feeding very quietly around the piles of dead vegetation on the edge of the beach, working their way slowly along. We admired their bright yellow faces with black masks. Then we noticed another dog walker coming back along the beach and, despite being spoken to by someone watching the Shore Larks from opposite us, he carried straight on with his dogs and the Shore Larks flew off again back down the beach.

Having had great views of them now, we decided to call it a day and walk back. On our way, we came across the Shore Larks further down the beach, hiding in amongst the stones. They were obviously waiting for their favoured feeding area to be left undisturbed as, after a few minutes, they flew back again to where they had been feeding. We left them in peace – though for how long they might be able to enjoy that we could not say.

IMG_7875Shore Lark – constantly getting disturbed today

We stopped to admire the Golden Plovers on the open grass below the dunes again. There were loads of them – probably at least 1,000 – mostly standing still head into the breeze. Then we made our way back to the car.

We were running a bit later than planned, after we had finally caught up with the Shore Larks. We made our way on further west to Brancaster Staithe. Before we even got out of the car, we could see the Red-necked Grebe in its favoured place, further up the channel. It was diving regularly, but we got it in the scope and had a good look at it.

IMG_7981Red-necked Grebe – in Brancaster Staithe harbour channel again

There was a female Goldeneye diving nearby and a Little Grebe too for good measure. The tide was still pretty low, and surprisingly there were no Bar-tailed Godwits here today. However, there were several Black-tailed Godwits, plus lots of Dunlin, Turnstone and Oystercatcher.

After an action packed morning, we had a late lunch at Titchwell before a quick look round as much of the reserve as we could manage in the time available. The feeders by the visitor centre were busy with birds as usual – lots of Chaffinches, several Goldfinches, and a few Greenfinches – although several were already empty. A single female Brambling was struggling to find a feeder port with any food left!

IMG_7992Brambling – just one female today, while we were looking

Out from the main path, the Water Rail was hiding in the shadows under the brambles on the far bank of the ditch. Eventually it came out a little more into the open, probing round in the rotting leaves for something to eat.

P1170458Water Rail – in the ditch, as usual

The first bird we saw on the dried out grazing meadow ‘pool’ was a Water Pipit, quite close to the path down at the front. It was looking particularly clean, bright white below in the sunshine today. A couple of Rock Pipits nearby were noticeably swarthy by comparison. Further over, towards the back, a second Water Pipit appeared with yet more Rock Pipits. The raft of Pochard and Tufted Duck was still on the reedbed pool.

The water level on the freshmarsh is still low for management work. There is a reasonable number of waders on here, particularly Dunlin, plus about 40 Avocet and several Black-tailed Godwit. A hundred or so Golden Plover were on one of the drier islands, along with a scattering of Lapwing.

P1170522Black-tailed Godwit – always good to see up close at Titchwell

Most of the Teal are still over the back of the freshmarsh, around the remaining deeper water, but a few were close to the main path where we could get a better look at them. The drakes are looking particularly smart at the moment. Other than that, there were a few Gadwall and Mallard and a handful of Wigeon scattered around.

P1170508Teal – a smart drake

The Volunteer Marsh held a couple of Knot and a little group of Ringed Plover, as well as the usual Curlew, Redshank and Grey Plover. The brightest Ringed Plover, presumably a spring male, was very aggressive in chasing the others off.

IMG_8008Ringed Plover – a bright spring bird

A few Black-tailed Godwit and a single Avocet were down in the deeper channel by the path. At the back, we finally found our first Bar-tailed Godwit of the day, but we got better views of them around the Tidal Pools. Again, we had a discussion about how to separate the two similar Godwit species.

IMG_8009Bar-tailed Godwit – there were a few round the Tidal Pools today

We just had time to admire the Pintail, swimming around on the Tidal Pools. We got a cracking drake in the scope for a quick close-up. Then it was time to make our way back – we had somewhere else we needed to be!

IMG_8023Pintail – one of the drakes on the Tidal Pools

We drove across inland and managed to just about find a space this evening in the car park at Roydon Common. As we arrived, the news came through that the Pallid Harrier had already flown in to the heath ahead of going to roost. We quickened our step one last time and made our way across to the ridge.

The Pallid Harrier was down in the grass when we arrived but promptly took off for a fly round. We had it in the same scope view as a ringtail Hen Harrier, the two having a quick go at each other. The Hen Harrier was noticeably bigger and heavier, with broader wings with more obviously rounded tips. It was great to see the two species together.

IMG_8044Pallid Harrier – still roosting at Roydon Common today

The Pallid Harrier circled up high into the sky this evening, and spent some time flying back and forth way up above the trees. When it came down, against the background of the birches, we could see its pale collar better, and the contrasting dark neck patch, the ‘boa’. It landed a couple of times and we could see it half hidden in the grass the first time.

A second ringtail Hen Harrier flew in as well, but dropped down pretty quickly into the grass. It was rather cloudy now and there were just a couple of spots of rain. When the Pallid Harrier dropped down to the ground again, we decided to call it a day and head for home.

A short video clip of the Pallid Harrier in action from today is below:

 

13th February 2016 – Winter Birding

Day 2 of a three-day long weekend of tours today. We spent the day in North Norfolk, trying to catch up with a few of our speciality wintering birds and several long-staying rarities. It was cold and rather windy today, with an east wind off the continent, but it stayed dry all day (earlier in the week, it was forecast to rain all day today!).

We started down at Blakeney. It was rather windy and exposed up on the seawall. We scanned the harbour as we walked out. The tide was almost in and a little roost of waders was lined up on one of the spits. There was a large group of Oystercatchers which were mostly asleep. In front of them, the Dunlin were still busy feeding on the small area of remaining mud. We got them in the scope and found a single Knot in with them. A Grey Plover emerged from the muddy channel nearby. A smart drake Goldeneye was out on the water in front of Halfway House, but diving constantly.

As we came round the corner and up to the gate, a couple of Skylarks flew up from the grass and landed again immediately on the edge of the mud, just a little further along from where we were and close to the path. The Lapland Buntings here often associate with the Skylarks, so we made straight for them. We were in luck – a Lapland Bunting was creeping through the grass beside them. We got it in the scope and had a good look at it, before it disappeared further back into the vegetation.

We walked on a little further and could see a Lapland Bunting in the grass. But as we looked at it, we could see that this was a different bird, more strongly marked with black on the underparts.It gradually worked its way towards us and came out onto the mud. It was still sticking to the few tufts of vegetation or running quickly between them – it did not like to be out in the open. We watched it creeping up and through the dried weed stems, looking for seeds. Stunning views of what can be such a secretive species!

IMG_7384

IMG_7352

IMG_7255Lapland Bunting – creeping about in the vegetation

While we were watching the Lapland Buntings, a little group of seven Twite were out among the tufts of vegetation a little further over. We got them in the scope and had a quick look at them, before they flew off. Three Rock Pipits were feeding round the edge of one of the small pools.

A second Lapland Bunting flew over calling, a dry rattle and a sharp ‘teu’, and the one we had been watching flew up to join it. The two of them raced over towards the gate and dropped down into the grass. We decided that would be a good moment to walk back, and when we got to the gate, some people were watching a Lapland Bunting down in the grass with three Skylarks there.

That was a great start to the day. As we walked back, the tide was now very high and various birds forced out of the saltmarsh were feeding around the Suaeda bushes by the path – a pair of Stonechats, Reed Buntings and Rock Pipits.

P1160880Fallow Deer – a large herd live in Holkham Park

Our next destination was Holkham Park. We parked outside the gate and walked in through the trees. The large herd of Fallow Deer which live in the Park were feeding in the trees close to the path. We got quite close to them before they finally started to run back away from us. We made our way down to the lake.

Several people were watching the female Ferruginous Duck when we arrived, but it was standing preening, half hidden in all the vegetation along the far bank. We managed to get an OK look at it. The stunning male Ferruginous x Pochard hybrid was close by, asleep on one of the branches of a fallen tree lying in the water. It woke up briefly, but swam in deeper underneath the tree and promptly went back to sleep.

IMG_7425Ferruginous Duck x Pochard hybrid – mostly asleep under the fallen tree

Ferruginous Duck is very common in captivity. Birds routinely escape from wildfowl collections and it is always very difficult to say for certain where odd ducks in an apparently wild state have come from. However, turning up with a hybrid in tow arguably does not aid the credentials of this Ferruginous Duck!

While we were watching the ducks, a shout went up and we turned round to see a Barn Owl flying through the trees not far behind us. Even better it landed on an old tree stump where we could get fantastic close-up views of it. Always a delight to see, it perched for some time, looking round, before flying a short distance and landing again in a tree. It seemed to be performing for the crowd and for a while all the big lenses were trained on it, rather than the ducks.

IMG_7416-001Barn Owl – simply stunning!

When the Barn Owl eventually flew off, we made our way down to the north end of the lake, where more Tufted Ducks were out on the water in the more sheltered corner. In with them were the two 1st winter drake Scaup, their grey backs immediately distinguishing them from their commoner cousins. They were preening when we found them, but as soon as they finished they promptly went to sleep. It was obviously bedtime for all the ducks on the lake!

IMG_7435Scaup – one of the 1st winter drakes, preening before bedtime

We walked back along the side of the lake the way we had come and when we got back to where the Ferruginous Duck was we could see it was now awake and swimming out on the water. This was a much better view.

IMG_7451Ferruginous Duck – the female of uncertain origin still on the lake

Then we made our way back through the trees towards the gate. It was mostly rather quiet in here today, but we did hear a Goldcrest and see a Nuthatch in the top of an oak tree. We made a quick stop down on the coast road at Holkham, to scan the grazing marshes. There were a lot of White-fronted Geese out there today, at least 200, the most we have seen here for a while. Then we carried on our way west.

IMG_7479White-fronted Geese – at least 200 on the freshmarsh today

Our next stop was  at Brancaster Staithe. The tide was quiet high still and the water very choppy in the wind, but a quick scan located the Red-necked Grebe diving out in the channel. We got it in the scope and watched as it came a little closer, diving all the time.

IMG_7528Red-necked Grebe – still in the harbour at Brancaster Staithe

That was all nice and easy today, so we quickly turned our attention to the waders. There were several close Bar-tailed Godwits along the shoreline in front of us and a couple of Turnstones running around in the car park. Further over, more Turnstones and several Oystercatchers were picking over the piles of mussels left behind when the catch was brought in and sorted. Eventually, we retreated to the car out of the wind and as we drove out of the car park, we turned to see a group of Black-tailed Godwits feeding in one of the channels.

IMG_7504Bar-tailed Godwit – in the harbour at Brancaster Staithe

The day was getting on, but we had a quick swing round via Choseley before lunch. It was very windy and exposed now up on the ridge, and it was no real surprise that we couldn’t find a sign of any of the Rough-legged Buzzards in any of their favourite trees. In contrast, a couple of the local Common Buzzards were hanging in the air, enjoying the breeze.

After a quick late lunch at Titchwell, we walked out onto the reserve. We did not have time to explore the whole reserve today, so it was only going to be a swift visit, but we had a few particular things we wanted to try to see. In front of the visitor centre, there were lots of finches – Chaffinches, Greenfinches and Goldfinches – squabbling over the feeders. A single Lesser Redpoll did well to find a spare port on a feeder and fend off the others for a while. A Coal Tit zipped in, grabbed a seed, and disappeared back into the trees.

IMG_7537Lesser Redpoll – on the feeders in front of the visitor centre

Round at the feeders the other side, there was even more variety. A female Brambling was in the bushes behind and kept dropping down onto the feeders briefly, before flying back up. Further up above it, a male Brambling perched in the same bush briefly but promptly flew off. Then a second, even duller female Brambling appeared instead.

IMG_7569Brambling – a female, coming in to the feeders

A smart male Siskin flew in as well and took up position on one of the feeders. It was joined by one of the Bramblings on the other side, until a large Woodpigeon flew in and scared them off.

IMG_7577Siskin – with Brambling on the other side

Out on the main path, a quick scan revealed the Water Rail in its usual place in the ditch. It was out in full view today, rooting about in the rotting leaves on the far bank. Giving great views.

P1160957Water Rail – in the ditch by the main path

It was very windy out on the main path, once we got out of the trees. It was therefore perhaps no surprise to find the dried-up grazing marsh ‘pool’ was devoid of life, save for a single Lapwing. Even though the water level on the freshmarsh has risen a little, there are still not many birds on there at the moment. There were plenty of Teal and a few Gadwall over by the reeds and more Teal over in the deeper water at the back. In amongst them, we could see several Pintail.

P1170029Avocet – around 40 on the reserve at the moment

Around 40 Avocets were also over the back, a good number for this stage of the winter, along with several small ‘flings’ of Dunlin. There were more waders out on the Volunteer Marsh. A couple of Ringed Plovers were chased off relentlessly by the Grey Plovers. There were also lots of Redshank, plus a few Curlew and Black-tailed Godwits.

IMG_7596Ringed Plover – chased off by the Grey Plovers

The Tidal Pools have been very productive recently, but were rather quiet today, perhaps because of the blustery wind. The Pintail were all on the freshmarsh and there were few other duck. A single female Goldeneye was diving out in the far corner and only one Little Grebe came out of hiding today.

The tide was out on the beach and there were plenty of waders out around the shellfish beds. We really wanted to catch up with some seaduck today, but it was not really the weather for it, as the wind had whipped up a bit of swell. We found the flock of Common Scoter, but it was just too windy to see for sure if there was anything else in with them and they singularly refused to flap their wings or fly. Most of the Red-breasted Mergansers were over towards Brancaster, but a pair flew over us and down across the beach, landing just offshore, where we could get a better look at them. We decided to beat a retreat.

Back at the grazing meadow ‘pool’, all again seemed deserted at first, there were not even any Rock Pipits out there today. As we got to the gap in the reeds at the front, a shape moved on the edge of the small pool just beyond and a quick look confirmed it was a Water Pipit. We got it in the scope and had a good look at it, before it walked back out of view behind the reeds. It had found the one sheltered spot out of the wind – we were lucky that it happened to come out into the open as we were passing.

Beyond the rushes, out over the grazing meadow itself, the Barn Owl was already out hunting, despite the wind, flying back and forth over the grass. As we got back almost to the junction for the visitor centre, we could see it perched on a fence post. We had a quick look at it through the scope, but we had perhaps been a bit spoiled by the performance earlier as the level of interest was not as high this afternoon!

IMG_7611Barn Owl – our second of the day, at Titchwell

Time was really pressing now, as we had somewhere else we needed to be, but we had a quick swing round via Choseley just in case, which not surprisingly proved fruitless. Then we cut across country to Roydon Common. It was almost 4pm when we got there and there was nowhere to park – there were an unbelievable number of cars there this evening. We found somewhere we could get off the road and walked back to the car park. Several people were scanning from beside the cars and kindly confirmed the Pallid Harrier was already in and perched on a post. A quick look through a kind person’s scope there, and then we decided to make our way quickly out along the path to where we could get a closer look.

IMG_7630Pallid Harrier – perched on a post when we arrived

It was the right decision. We got a much better look at the Pallid Harrier from here, just in time before it took off and flew round, before turning and heading straight for us. It turned away and came round behind us, working along the fenceline on the ridge, dropping down to the ground before climbing back up with something in its talons. Whatever it was, it was not to its liking as it was promptly dropped again. It worked its way over towards the entrance track, hanging in the air for a while, before swinging away and dropping down out of view.

We waited a while and then noticed that the Pallid Harrier was back up again, flying around the trees. Finally it turned and came straight towards us, flying along the ridge just behind us. Great stuff! It dropped back down across the heather and landed again on the same perch it had been on earlier.

P1170071Pallid Harrier – fantastic flight views this evening

Over the next half an hour, we watched it flying round. The Hen Harriers were starting to gather now too, and we had 3-4 ringtails also circling out over the grass. It was fantastic to see the two species side by side, noting the small size and slim falcon-like wings of the Pallid Harrier. At one point we had a Hen Harrier on one post and the Pallid Harrier on another, only a short distance away. Then the Pallid Harrier did another circuit of the heath, coming towards us again, giving us a great flypast low over the grass just at the bottom of the heather bank in front of us. Cracking stuff! And with the light starting to fade, that seemed like the perfect point to call it a day. What a day it had been!

3rd February 2016 – Winter Rarities, Day 1

Day 1 of a two day Private Tour today, and the plan was to look for some of the rarities and scarce winter birds which are around North Norfolk at the moment. We had a ‘wish list’ for the two days, so we would try to see as many of those as possible.

We started at Choseley, with the target to try to find one of the Rough-legged Buzzards which is spending the winter here. It didn’t take us very long today, as we had only just driven a short distance scanning the trees and hedges when one circled across the road almost overhead!

P1160197Rough-legged Buzzard – first, one circled over the road this morning

We leapt out of the car and watched the Rough-legged Buzzard circle lazily away to the east. From underneath, we could see the black belly patch and black-tipped white tail. We drove round to the other side to see if might have landed in one of its favourite trees, only to find it hovering over the hillside and then drifting back towards where we had just been. Back in the car and back round again, we pulled into a layby and scanned the hedge and there were not one but two Rough-legged Buzzards in the same tree!

IMG_6064Rough-legged Buzzard – then one of the two in a tree

We watched the Rough-legged Buzzards for some time. One flew along the hedge and landed in another tree, then the second flew and forced it off its perch. The first then landed in a tree further along still and after a few moments the second came to join it. Finally the two of them drifted off back east towards the trees. It was an excellent way to start the day and great views.

Next, we stopped in an area of farmland where there are some nice overgrown weedy fields and unkempt hedges. Skylarks were singing and a Barn Owl was hunting out over the long grass. A tight flock of Linnets was whirling over the field and further along in the hedge we could see several Yellowhammers. A van came along the road and appeared to flush them all, but after they landed again we could hear a Corn Bunting singing distantly. As that was the bird we really wanted to see, we walked down along the road towards where they were.

They were hard to find at first. Lots of Yellowhammers came out of the hedges either side as we walked along, and dropped down into the weedy field beyond. When a farmer came along the road and drove into one of the fields, right by the hedge where most of the Yellowhammers had been, we thought that would be the end of it. But when we got further along, past where he was working, we could see all the birds gathered in the hedge on the other side of the field. Even better, perched in one of the small trees we could see five larger shapes. A quick look through the scope confirmed that they were Corn Buntings and we had a good look at them before they flew off.

P1160204Brent Goose – a few hang around in Thornham Harbour

With our second target in the bag, we headed down to Thornham Harbour. The usual little gaggle of Brent Geese were hanging around at the end, but there was no sign of the Twite at first. We decided to walk out along the seawall to look further down towards Holme. When we had got half way along the bank, the flock of Twite flew over our heads and landed back in the harbour, from where we had just come. We decided to carry on and try for a better look on the way back.

As we walked out towards the dunes, we could hear Pink-footed Geese in the distance behind us. We turned to see lines upon lines of them heading our way, there must have been at least 3,000 of them. They gradually lost height and started whiffling down into the grazing marshes between us and Holme, landing on the grass – it was a fantastic sight and sound.

P1160217Pink-footed Geese – several thousand came into the fields at Holme

A little further along and a tight flock of small birds came hurtling in over the saltmarsh, over the bank and down towards Broad Water. They were Teal and just behind them we could see why – a Peregrine was after them. The ducks crashed down into the water and the Peregrine had to fly off empty-taloned.

The other bird we wanted to see here was Shore Lark. So we walked on out to the beach, stopping briefly to scan the sea from the dunes, before making our way round to the end of the dunes, which is the area they favour. We had only just got out of the dunes when the three Shore Larks flew up from the high tide line just ahead of us. They had obviously been tucked down amongst the piles of dead seaweed and other detritus, had probably crouched down as another group of people had walked ahead of us, then taken off when we approached.

We had hoped the Shore Larks would fly out to their favoured spot, but they turned and headed inland, disappearing behind the dunes. We carried on anyway, just in case they had doubled back but there was no sign of them and they didn’t return while we stood and scanned the beach. There were lots of waders out on the sand – Dunlin, Turnstone and Grey Plover, plus a group of roosting Bar-tailed Godwits around one of the damper pools.

We had also hoped we might find some interesting seaduck out here today, but it was windy this morning and there was quite a swell. Still, we walked back and along as far as the firs, scanning the sea. Most of the ducks were a long way out to sea. We could see a huge flock of Common Scoter, hundreds or even a thousand strong, which peeled up off the sea out in the middle, midway between us and the Lincolnshire coast, and circled round before landing again. There were a number Red-breasted Mergansers diving closer in and several Great Crested Grebes. A few Red-throated Divers flew east and a Fulmar went west, presumably heading for the cliffs at Hunstanton.

On our way back, the Twite were more obliging. We had just made it to the first bend in the seawall when they flew up from the saltmarsh below, a flock of around 30 of them. They flew off towards the harbour and looked like they might go down way over in the middle, but changed their minds and turned back. Eventually, they dropped back down where they had come from. This time we could get a good look at them in the scope, admiring their orange faces and breasts and yellow bills.

IMG_6115Twite – about 30 were around Thornham Harbour again

On our way back to the car, we stopped to admire a single Knot feeding in the mud, right beside the path. Then, as time was getting on, we headed round to Titchwell for lunch.

IMG_6151Knot – feeding in the mud at Thornham Harbour

We really wanted to see if we could find some seaduck at Titchwell today, rather than explore the reserve, and we didn’t have much time available. Still, we tried to pick up many of the regular birds here as we went along. The feeders around the visitor centre were chock full of finches as usual, and it didn’t take long to find a smart male Brambling amongst them.

IMG_6174Brambling – a male on the feeders at Titchwell

We stopped at the grazing meadow pool for a quick scan, but it looked rather quiet this afternoon. There were a couple of Rock Pipits but no sign of the Water Pipit with them. Other than a few Lapwing and a single Redshank, that was it out there today. A Kingfisher flashed over the reeds at the front and disappeared down into the channel on the saltmarsh.

The water level on the freshmarsh has gone well down now, and most of the birds were right out around the remaining water at the back. There were still a few Avocet and a small number of Black-tailed Godwit. A large flock of Dunlin did seem to be making the most of all the mud. A few Lapwing were feeding round the edges.

P1160247Lapwing – on the muddy edge of the freshmarsh

Duck numbers are now well down. There were still quite a few Teal, but nowhere near the number there has been, plus a small group of Mallard and a couple of Shoveler. We didn’t hang around here today, but moved quickly on to the Volunteer Marsh. There were all the usual waders on here – Curlew, Redshank and Grey Plover, plus a couple of Ringed Plovers as well.

IMG_6199Ringed Plover – a couple were on the Volunteer Marsh

There was no sign of the Spotted Redshank on the Tidal Pools again today, but there were several Bar-tailed Godwit here. We did enjoy good views of three Goldeneye, including a smart drake. We also spent some time admiring the Pintail which were all on here today, all eleven of them.

IMG_6200Goldeneye – this drake and two females were on the Tidal Pools

Our next stop was the beach and the tide was in, so there were not may waders out here today. We set ourselves to scan the sea. Once again it was very choppy, which didn’t make it easy. There were several Red-breasted Mergansers, but the flock of Common Scoter, while not as far offshore as the ones we had seen earlier, were still rather distant. We had hoped to see if there were any Velvet Scoter with them again today, but it was hard enough to see them in the waves and they were just that bit too distant.

P1160263Black-tailed Godwit – by the path on the Tidal Pools

We made our way quickly back. A Black-tailed Godwit flew in and landed right by the path on the Tidal Pools. Back at the grazing meadow pool, there was no sign of any pipits now out on the mud, but a call behind us alerted us to one heading our way. It flew in high over the main reedbed, over the path and out towards Thornham over the mud, then turned and flew straight back to the reedbed before dropping down out in the middle of the reeds. When it came overhead, we could see it was very white underneath and relatively unstreaked – it was the Water Pipit, but it was not playing ball today.

Our final destination of the day was to be Roydon Common for the harrier roost, but we still had a little time to play with. It was a straight choice between going to see the Red-necked Grebe at Brancaster or go for another try looking at the sea at Holme. The choice was for the latter, so we drove back west along the coast road and set off across the golf course.

The sea didn’t look any more amenable here and the first couple of scans revealed nothing new – a few Great Crested Grebes and Red-breasted Mergansers. Out in the distance, a couple of auks whirred past. Then another scan revealed a pale duck out on the water which caught the afternoon sun. It was a Long-tailed Duck, but it was a long way out, drifting fast with the tide and diving. It was all but impossible to see and as soon as we found it, it was lost again. Unfortunately, we just couldn’t find it again to get everyone onto it. We had a date with some harriers and we had to tear ourselves away.

We arrived at Roydon Common in good time, and there was already quite a crowd assembled. The Pallid Harrier had arrived for the last couple of nights around 3.30pm. A Marsh Harrier was out over the heath, quartering back and forth. A ringtail Hen Harrier was already in when we arrived and eventually got up and did a fly round. The clock ticked on, and still there was no sign of the Pallid Harrier. It was a lovely evening, with clear skies as the sun dipped down behind us.

P1160277Roydon Common – it was a lovely evening out on the heath

A second Hen Harrier flew in and dropped down into the grass. Still we waited. There were some nervous glances around the crowd now. The sun dipped below the horizon and a third and then a fourth Hen Harrier came in. By now, the light was just starting to fade a little and gradually the crowd started to leave. Eventually there were only about half a dozen of us left. However, harriers can come very late into roost, particularly on such a fine and calm evening, where they might choose to carry on hunting until the last moment. We were also still down on the usual count of Hen Harriers here, so we figured there must be more to come. We decided to stay.

It paid off. Suddenly the Pallid Harrier appeared – we could immediately see its comparatively small size and the dark patch or ‘boa’ really stood out on the side of its neck in the late evening light, and we could see the pale collar too. It circled round and the Hen Harriers started to get up for a last fly round as well. It was great to see the two species side by side – the Pallid Harrier smaller, slimmer with much more pointed wings and more buoyant flight.

Then even better, a Marsh Harrier appeared in the same view – the Pallid Harrier was the sandwich filling between the Marsh and a Hen Harrier! The Pallid and the Hen Harrier took it in turns to swoop down at the Marsh Harrier, before turning away in opposite directions.

It was a great way to end the day – a magical place, and well worth the wait!

31st January 2016 – Raptor Quest

Day 3 of a long weekend of tours today, our last day, and a day of general birding along the coast. We were trying to catch up with a few of the good birds around Norfolk at the moment which we hadn’t seen yet this weekend. Depending which weather forecast you looked at, it was either going to rain all day or just some heavy rain around the middle of the day. As it was, it did neither and was a lot better than expected. A bonus! We met in Wells and made our way west along the coast road.

We hadn’t gone far when we made our first impromptu stop. A Barn Owl was hunting over a field beside the road, head down, focused intently on the ground below. We watched it for a minute or so, flying round, before it disappeared out of view behind a hedge.

One a short distance further along the road, we had to make another stop for another Barn Owl, this one perched on a post. Despite our best efforts, it flew off just as we got out and circled round the field hunting. It then had second thoughts and came back to perch on the post again, just so we could have a good look at it! Then it was off hunting over the grass once more. Two Barn Owls – a great way to start the day.

P1150959Barn Owl – our second of the morning

Brancaster Staithe is always a nice place to stop, with a good selection of waders in the harbour and normally a few Red-breasted Mergansers in the channel. There had been a Red-necked Grebe here for much of December, going missing for a fortnight before reappearing again for a week in mid January. It had not been seen since 15th January, so we weren’t expecting to see it, but we had a good scan of the harbour just in case. We had to content ourselves with several smart Red-breasted Mergansers this morning.

IMG_5782Red-breasted Merganser – showing off his spiky punk haircut

The tide was coming in, already quite high, and there were several Bar-tailed Godwits and Dunlin feeding along the water’s edge by the car park. A Turnstone ran in front of the car across the stones. Further over were on a sandbank were several Grey Plover and Ringed Plover. A pile of debris on the shore were the mussels had been brought in and washed was being picked over by a little posse of Oystercatchers and more Turnstones.

P1150964Bar-tailed Godwits & Dunlin – by the car park at Brancaster Staithe

Having had a good look round, we decided to press on, cutting inland towards Docking. We stopped to scan some trees in the hope of finding the Rough-legged Buzzard on one of its favourite perches. We couldn’t see it, but while we were watching a flock of Chaffinches and Yellowhammer feeding on the edge of a field, a ghostly grey shape appeared over a cover strip the other side. A stunning male Hen Harrier, it was hunting low over the ground and against the dark trees in the background we could see the black wing tips contrasting with the silvery grey upperparts. It got to the back of the field and dropped down over the ridge the other side out of view.

We hopped in the car and drove round, in the hope that we might be able to find it again, but it was gone. So we carried on along the road, scanning the trees and hedges. At only our second stop, we found the Rough-legged Buzzard. It was perched on the top of a hedge – its very white head stood out a mile off. We got it in the scope for a closer look – we could even see the feathered tarsi (bottom half of its legs) from which it gets its name.

IMG_5806Rough-legged Buzzard – around Choseley again today

The Rough-legged Buzzard dropped down to the ground and appeared to land, but shortly after we picked it up again flying low along the hedge line, before swooping up to land in one of its favourite trees. It was round the other side of the tree, out of view from here, so we drove back round to where we had been looking earlier. We were much closer, but the view wasn’t much better from here – we could see its head and shoulders above the branches. It perched for a while, before dropping down out of the tree and flying off – we were treated to great flight views as it did so, flashing its mostly white tail with just a black terminal band. Great stuff.

A little further along the road we stopped again to count the Brown Hares. There were at least ten in one field and another four in a smaller field next door. Most of them were hunkered down, but a couple were sitting up feeding. At one point they had a half-hearted chase, before resuming what they were doing. It was probably a bit too cold and damp to expect much boxing today.

We made a quick detour round by an area where we had seen Corn Buntings in the past few weeks. They had been a little erratic more recently, so we weren’t expecting much. As we drove along the road, we could see a large flock of Linnets circling over the field. Then a little group of Skylarks got up as well. The next thing we know a flock of buntings flew across the road in front of us and landed in the hedge the other side. We pulled into a convenient gateway and got out to have a closer look. We could see there were several Yellowhammers, but at least one had looked bulkier as they flew in.

Unfortunately, before we could get a good look at them, first a Sparrowhawk flew across the road carrying some poor unsuspecting victim – probably why everything had flown out of the field in the first place – and then a very helpful soul came bombing along the road in his Land Rover and hooted his horn at us. That was the end of the buntings, as they all burst into the air. We could hear Corn Bunting calling and saw at least one as they erupted and flew off. After a short while, the Yellowhammers started to return to the field but the only Corn Bunting we saw flew over calling, a liquid ‘ptt, ptt’, and disappeared over the horizon. We scanned the hedges as we went on, but all we could find was a large flock of Chaffinches and Linnets, although we did glimpse a Brambling briefly with them.

We made our way down to Thornham Harbour next. We didn’t see anything as we drove in, so we walked down to the edge of the creek. A Rock Pipit flew off from the edge as we approached. A Spotted Redshank called a couple of times as it flew over, but we couldn’t get onto it. Then one of the group spotted the Twite behind us, landing in the vegetation by the side of the road. We made our way back towards them and had just set up the scope for a closer look when another helpful soul, our second of the morning, came down along the rutted harbour road at high speed in his shiny Range Rover and the Twite were off again.

IMG_5821Twite – 25-30 were at Thornham Harbour again today

The Twite landed over on the seawall, so we set off round to try again. They were rather jumpy at first and wouldn’t settle, but eventually landed down on the saltmarsh below us and resumed feeding. This time we could get them in the scope and have a proper look at them, before they made their way back to the place from which they had been flushed earlier.

The cloud was now starting to thicken and it began to spit with rain. With heavy rain forecast, we thought we would spend the middle of the day at Titchwell, with the benefit of some hides to shelter in if need be. Unusually for mid-morning on a Sunday, there were spaces in the main car park. We set out towards the visitor centre, stopping to watch a Goldcrest in the tangled branches on the way.

The feeders in front of the visitor centre were a hive of activity – Chaffinches, Greenfinches, Goldfinches and tits. A male Brambling flew off before everyone could see it and a Marsh Tit came in and out too quickly as well. A Coal Tit was more obliging. However, we were more successful round at the feeders the other side. There were several Bramblings here – at least three males and two plainer females which we saw simultaneously, so probably a few more. The males are starting to look particularly smart, bright orange breast and shoulders and increasingly black heads as the pale tips to the feathers wear off through the winter. The Marsh Tit was also more obliging on this side, though still darting in, grabbing a seed, and flying back into the bushes to eat it.

IMG_5845Brambling – a smart male, with an increasingly black head

IMG_5856Brambling – another male, this one with a paler head still

Unusually, there was no sign of a Water Rail in the ditches on the way out onto the reserve – there was always the way back to have another look. We stopped at the drained grazing marsh ‘pool’, and once again it was covered in Rock Pipits, at least 20 out on the mud. It took a bit of scanning, but eventually we found the Water Pipit nearby – it was remarkably well camouflaged against the grey brown mud. Compared to the Rock Pipits, the Water Pipit was much cleaner white below, with the heavy streaking more restricted to the breast.

IMG_5864Water Pipit – well camouflaged against the mud

It was starting to drizzle a little harder now, so we made for the shelter of Island Hide. It was a bit of a surprise to see just how far the water levels have fallen on here in recent days. There was a lot of exposed mud, but the waders don’t seem to have read the script and there were precious few taking advantage of it. A lone Redshank was out in the middle.

P1150992Freshmarsh – a lone Redshank on acres of mud

Further over, towards the back, the Avocets were at least enjoying it. They have often been asleep in recent weeks, but today they were all wide awake and feeding, sweeping their bills side to side through the shallow water. Over towards the Parrinder Hide, a couple of Black-tailed Godwits were feeding in a deeper pool.

There were not so many ducks on here today. A pair of Teal were feeding in the muddy channel below the hide, and lots more Teal were over towards the back on the open water. With them were a few Shoveler and Gadwall. A number of Brent Geese were also swimming around at the back.

P1150987Teal – a pair were feeding in the mud below Island Hide

We decided to carry on out towards the beach. We were scanning from the main path when we noticed a Merlin in the air, beyond the back of the freshmarsh out towards Brancaster. We could see it was chasing a small bird – it looked like a pipit. The pipit was desperately trying to get away – climbing higher in the sky, constantly changing direction – and all the while the Merlin was stooping at it, then towering back up above it to stoop again. The two of them went high into the sky, before dropping back down sharply again, at which point we lost sight of them behind the bank. History does not relate what befell the pipit!

We stopped to have a look at Volunteer Marsh. There were several Grey Plover quite close to the main path on the mud. A Ringed Plover was there as well. A single Knot was standing on the edge of one of the channels. We were just getting the scope on it when all the waders took off – we couldn’t see what had spooked them.

IMG_5877Grey Plover – there were several on the Volunteer Marsh

Out at the Tidal Pools, we could see several Little Grebes and several Goldeneye, all diving in the shallow water. A Cormorant was wrestling with a large eel which it had caught. The eel wrapped itself round the Cormorant’s neck, and the Cormorant kept plunging the eel into the water. At one point it even tossed it into the air and caught it again. Eventually, it worked it round so it had hold of it by its head and it managed to swallow it with a bit of effort. We could see the Cormorant‘s distended crop afterwards. When we came back from the beach it was standing on one of the islands, probably attempting to digest its huge meal!

We couldn’t find the Spotted Redshank here today, but in its place was a single Greenshank, in with the Common Redshank. There were several Bar-tailed Godwits on here and, further out by the beach, a single Black-tailed Godwit. It was now starting to drizzle harder, so we made our way out to the beach.

IMG_5872Black-tailed Godwit – on the tidal pools behind the beach

Out on the beach, the tide was now in. As a consequence, there were not so many waders as usual – just a few Oystercatchers, Bar-tailed Godwits and Sanderling. We would normally have had a good look at the sea, but the drizzle had turned to mist and we couldn’t see very far offshore at all. A couple of Common Scoters were helpfully just offshore behind the breakers, but that was all we could see. At least it gave us a good excuse to head back.

Almost back to the visitor centre, we had another good look in the ditches either side of the path. This time we found the Water Rail, lurking underneath a mass of branches over the water, preening. It was really hard to see until eventually it finished preening and came out onto the far bank, probing in amongst the rotting leaves.

P1160103Water Rail – in the ditch by the main path again

While we were having lunch, it stopped drizzling and started to brighten up. At the same time, some news came through – the Red-necked Grebe had reappeared, just where we had been earlier this morning. This bird is nothing if not erratic! We couldn’t let it get away with that, so after we had finished eating we made a quick detour back there. Sure enough, there it was bobbing about on the water, diving occasionally. It swam towards us and it was clear the Red-necked Grebe wanted to come past us along the channel, so we stood close to the car where we would frighten it less. It kept diving and surfacing again much closer and then it bobbed up right in front of us. Cracking views.

IMG_5906Red-necked Grebe – came right past us in the harbour channel

It surfaced a couple of times right in front, then the Red-necked Grebe swam up the channel away from us.  We had planned to go to Flitcham this afternoon, but going back for the Red-necked Grebe had cost us time. At least with the weather improving, we thought the Pallid Harrier might be out hunting now. As it turned out, it had been there earlier but had flown off when the rain stopped. At least we hadn’t hurried over there and not seen the grebe as well, because we would have missed it anyway.

We had a good scan of the fields. Another Merlin was up in the sky some way away, hunting in exactly the same way as the one we had seen earlier, chasing some unlucky small bird. Once again, we did not see the outcome as they both dropped down out of view.

The hedges here are alive with finches – Chaffinches, Bramblings, Goldfinches – as a consequence of the cover strips and wild bird seed mix strips which have been sown around the edges of the fields and the over-wintered stubbles in various fields. This is how farms used to be, but modern agriculture and flocks of seed-eating birds seem to be incompatible unless food is specifically sown for them. In with the finches, we found several Tree Sparrows. This is one a the few remaining regular spots for them in Norfolk, a bird which used to be common. Again, a sad reflection of the impact of modern agriculture on our wildlife.

IMG_5925Tree Sparrow – in the hedge, with a Brambling bottom left

Although we had missed the Pallid Harrier at Flitcham, we still had one last card to play. While it has often been at Flitcham on and off during the day since mid December, it has not been known where it has been roosting. Last night it was seen going in to roost with Hen Harriers at nearby Roydon Common. So tonight, we decided to see if we could find it there. Several other people had the same idea, and left Flitcham before us.

We had just arrived at Roydon when we received a phone call from one of them to say the Pallid Harrier was there. We quickened our pace and got out to join them. It was a bit misty and drizzley again at first, although we could see the bird perched down in the grass. Then the sky cleared again and we got a better view – we could even see its collar now.

The Pallid Harrier then took off and flew round for a while – we admired its slim wings and pointed ‘hand’, giving it a rather falcon-like silhouette. We lost it, probably down on the ground, then the next harrier we saw was a ringtail Hen Harrier circling round. The Hen Harriers were starting to arrive, and we saw at least another two ringtails come in over the trees and drop down onto the common. The next time we saw the Pallid Harrier, it was flying again and this time with a Hen Harrier – it was great to see the two of them alongside each other. They even tussled a little, stooping at each other as they flew across the heathland. Then the Pallid Harrier dropped down again out of view.

It was a lovely way to end the day – and the weekend – out on the heath in the wilds of NW Norfolk, watching the harriers coming in to roost.

21st January 2016 – Winter Rarity Hunting

A Private Tour today. The mission was somewhat different to normal tours – with a concerted effort to find some of the lingering rarities which are around North Norfolk at the moment, as well as catching up with some of our scarcer wintering species. It was going to be an all action day!

It dawned very frosty and with a bit of lingering fog, although the sun was already doing its best to burn that off. We met in Wells and, after a quick look in the harbour on the way which didn’t produce anything noteworthy today, we made our way along to Holkham where we pulled in just off the road to scan the grazing marshes below.

We quickly located a good selection of geese. A long line of birds on the frozen grass beyond the hedge revealed themselves to be mostly White-fronted Geese, with an obvious white blaze around the base of their all-pink bills and orange legs. In with them, was a small group of Pink-footed Geese, very dark-headed with pink legs and a small, mostly dark bill with a pink band around it. There were also plenty of Greylag Geese too, much larger and paler with a large orange carrot of a bill, and a pair of Egyptian Geese.

IMG_5352White-fronted Geese – out on the frozen grass at Holkham

We could hear Pink-footed Geese calling and see odd groups flying back and forth in front of the pines, but it was only when we moved so that we could see round past the hedge and look out further over on the freshmarsh, that we could see just how many were out there.  Thousands of birds were huddled together out on the grass and around the frozen pools. The Pink-footed Geese roost on the marshes here and would normally fly inland to feed during the day, but perhaps the lingering fog and frost had caused them to stay this morning. They were quite a sight!

A careful scan of the marshes and a white shape was just visible half-hidden in the reeds towards the back. When it put its neck up, we could see through the scope that it was the Great White Egret that has been hanging around here for several months. It was hard to see well in the reeds, but thankfully it flew, first to a small area of marsh nearby and then across and into the trees where it perched on a branch in full view.

IMG_5353Great White Egret – flew up into the trees where it was easier to see

That was a great way to start, then we carried on west along the coast. With the remains of the fog burning off slowly, we made another stop at Brancaster Staithe to have a quick look in the harbour. A smart drake Red-breasted Merganser and a pair of Goldeneye were diving in the harbour channel. A little posse of Brent Geese were chattering noisily from the water’s edge, before flying off over the saltmarsh to feed.

P1150205Brent Geese – gathering in the harbour channel

There was a nice selection of waders on view here too. A group of Bar-tailed Godwits and Oystercatchers were roosting on the edge of the water, with a Curlew standing head and shoulders above them. Nearby, a Black-tailed Godwit gave a good opportunity to go through the key differences from the Bar-taileds. A couple of Grey Plovers were higher up on the mud. Where someone had hauled up and washed a load of Brancaster mussels, two Turnstones were picking around in the debris. Down on the sandbars in the channel, we could see several Redshanks but a Greenshank unfortunately only flew up briefly as a Marsh Harrier passed overhead, before dropping down out of sight again.

IMG_5365Bar-tailed Godwits & Oystercatchers – roosting in the harbour

The sun was now starting to come through more strongly, burning off the mist, so we decided to have a drive round via Choseley to see if we could find the Rough-legged Buzzard. Driving along the lane, we spotted a harrier working its way low along a hedge beyond, into the sun from us. It looked slim-built so we tried to catch up with it. As it dropped ahead of us along the side of the road, we got a flash of a white rump patch and it landed briefly, before continuing its journey east across the fields. We could confirm it was a Hen Harrier, a ringtail, working the hedges.

Scanning the hedges all around, we could see our first Buzzard but it was clearly too dark, a Common Buzzard. Over the other side of the road, two more Common Buzzards were perched up in the morning sun, and away in the distance beyond we could see yet another. They were all out warming up in the sunshine, but try as we might we could not find a Rough-legged Buzzard doing the same. We drove round to the corner south of the drying barns, were a couple of cars were just leaving. When we asked what they had seen, we were told they had been watching the Rough-legged Buzzard and, even better, it was still in view. Unfortunately, a quick look confirmed it was actually another Common Buzzard, looking rather pale-breasted in the morning sunshine, but not like a Rough-legged Buzzard should. We had a quick and unsuccessful drive round some of the Rough-legged Buzzard’s other favourite haunts and then decided to move on.

We had a particular request to try for the Pallid Harrier today, which has been gracing various sites around Norfolk since we first saw it back in mid-November. In recent weeks it has been seen inland, around the village of Flitcham, but it typically only makes intermittent flights over the fields here, before disappearing off to hunt elsewhere.

We arrived and stationed ourselves at one end of the fields where a small group were scanning the thick hedge and cover strip in front. There were lots of Chaffinches flying up and down from the field to the hedge and in with them we could see a few Bramblings. Three Yellowhammers flew into the hedge as well and perched up so we could get them in the scope. We could hear Tree Sparrows calling as well. The Pallid Harrier had made a pass over the stubble field here about twenty minutes before we arrived, so we waited hopefully for it to return.

Thankfully we hadn’t been waiting very long when we got a surprise. There were others looking out over the fields a short way further along the road, but they hadn’t shouted anything across to us. It was only when a minibus pulled up alongside that we were kindly informed that the Pallid Harrier was actually being watched in a tree over there! We hastened down and sure enough, there it stood. We got a great look at it in the scope.

IMG_5369Pallid Harrier – perched up in a tree at Flitcham

We were just making our way a little further along to join the crowd there for a closer view when it became clear it had taken off – apparently, someone had got a little too enthusiastic and had tried to go into the field, so scaring it off. Very helpful! It disappeared off over the fields beyond, so we had a quick look to see if it would loop round and do a circuit over the stubble again, but there was no sign of it. We had a number of other things we wanted to see today, and with our main target here achieved, we decided to move on.

As we walked along the road, we could hear Tree Sparrows calling again and when all the finches flew up into the hedge from the weedy strip beyond, we got a good view of a Tree Sparrow right in front of us. Historically a common farmland bird here, they are now getting very scarce and it is always nice to catch up with them. There were also lots of Bramblings in the hedge here too.

P1150210Brambling – lots were in the hedges at Flitcham

We made our way back towards the coast, and dropped down towards Titchwell via Choseley. We pulled up to talk to another birder in the layby where we had been earlier and were told the Rough-legged Buzzard had been reported again about half an hour earlier. A quick scan and there it was, perched in a tree in the distance. It really stood out with its striking pale head and contrasting black belly patch, very unlike the Common Buzzards we had seen earlier.

IMG_5375Rough-legged Buzzard – flashing its black-banded white tail in flight

We had a quick look through the scope, then drove round to get a better look. The Rough-legged Buzzard was still perched in the tree across the field in front of us, watching us. Then suddenly it dropped down and flew a short distance across the field, flashing its distinctive mostly white tail as it did so, before flying up into another tree. When it landed we could see why – it had joined another Rough-legged Buzzard which was already sitting there. Two Rough-legged Buzzards for the price of one! We had a fantastic view of them in the scope. In the end we had to tear ourselves away.

IMG_5389Rough-legged Buzzards – two sat in a tree together!

We had originally thought we might have a look at Titchwell, but a discussion about some of the other good birds along the coast led to a change of plan. With our luck running, we had seen most of the birds we had hoped to catch up with quite quickly, so we had time to play with. We hopped in the car and headed back east, all the way to Cley.

There has been a Grey Phalarope in the area for several days now and it had been showing this morning from the new Babcock Hide on what used to be Pope’s Marsh. We made our way out to the hide and as soon as we got in there, we could see everyone looking at the mud below. There was the Grey Phalarope, right in front of the hide. Stunning views!

P1150282Grey Phalarope – right in front of Babcock Hide

Grey Phalaropes are more often to be seen swimming, twirling in circles to stir up the water and picking for food brought to the surface, or even out on the sea. They are mostly pelagic in the winter, surviving out in the Atlantic, generally only forced in by adverse weather. This one had presumably been blown inshore by the storms we had last week, and had come in to feed up on the marshes.

The water levels have gone down on Watling Water, the new pool in front of Babacock Hide, for the first time. There was a great selection of other waders out on the exposed mud. There were lots of Dunlin, with three larger Knot in with them, down by the water’s edge – a good chance to see the two alongside. A good number of Ruff were feeding higher up the mud, along with a few Redshank. Around the edges of the islands, we could see a few Snipe, well camouflaged against the reeds.

There were several Pied Wagtails around the drier margins of the mud, along with a number of Meadow Pipits. Then, from behind one of the islands, a Water Pipit appeared with them. Larger than the Meadow Pipits, greyer brown and less streaked above and plainer, whiter below.

IMG_5399Water Pipit – feeding around the edge of Watling Water

Having seen what we wanted to see so quickly, and so well, we had time to try something else. We drove further along the coast to Weybourne to look for the flock of Redpolls which has been feeding in the fields here for some weeks now. However, the field was harvested a week or so back and when we arrived the few remaining weeds were quiet. We walked up and down the road briefly, but all we could find was a Grey Wagtail which flew up and landed on the wires above briefly. It seemed like our luck had finally run out.

We were just packing up to leave when a flock of about 20 small finches flew in and circled overhead, before dropping down and landing in the hedge nearby. They were Redpolls and we could just see around half of them perched in the top. They were mostly face on to us and several were clearly rather brown around the cheeks and even washed onto the upper breast, Lesser Redpolls. One was clearly different, very frosty around the cheeks and breast, contrasting strongly with the black chin and red ‘poll’, with no brown tones on the underparts and bolder black streaks on the flanks – this was a Mealy Redpoll. Another bird hopped up from lower down in the hedge, and perched back on. It was less distinctive than the first from this angle, but still had a grey (rather than brown) face and looked a rather cold grey brown above with a distinctive pale rump streaked through with black – another Mealy Redpoll.

Unfortunately, they didn’t stop long and flew off strongly west over the field. Still, we couldn’t believe our luck that they should just drop in for us like that. We wanted to end the day at the raptor roost, but we still had a little time to play with, so we drove back to Cley and stopped at the Visitor Centre.

A Red-necked Grebe has been around the reserve for the last few days and was reported from Pat’s Pool today – supposedly visible from the Visitor Centre. We had a quick scan from the car park, but couldn’t see it anywhere around the open water. With the water levels very high, four Avocets were huddled together on the edge of one of the few remaining islands. We decided to pop into the Visitor Centre and get a hot drink to go and use the facilities quickly. While we were waiting, the Red-necked Grebe suddenly appeared close to the bank, wrestling with a small fish. It was distant, but we could see it clearly through the scope.

IMG_5402Red-necked Grebe – a record shot, on Pat’s Pool today

It disappeared again, then as we returned to the car we could see it further out on the water, diving. We got a better look at it from the car park and it quickly became clear why it was hiding close to the edge. It caught another fish and immediately a Black-headed Gull flew over and started to harass it. The Red-necked Grebe dived, but when it resurfaced half way to the bank, the gull was after it again. This happened three times, before the Red-necked Grebe got over to the bank and finally swallowed its catch.

We finished the day at Warham Greens. There was a nice flock of Linnets and Yellowhammers in the hedge of the walk down to the front, with the odd Reed Bunting in with them. When we arrived, one of the first birds we saw was a Barn Owl which was hunting up and down over the rough grass on the edge of the saltmarsh.

P1150355Barn Owl – hunting along the front at Warham Greens

We had really come for the raptors. A couple of Marsh Harriers were circling over the back of the saltmarsh and a single ringtail Hen Harrier drifted in from the east, further back. In the end we saw 2-3 ringtail Hen Harriers, one flying closer across the saltmarsh and away inland, presumably for some last hunting, and another perched preening out in front of us. Then we picked up a Peregrine standing on a sandbar out on the beach. We just needed a Merlin to complete the set here and a careful scan of the saltmarsh eventually produced its reward, with one perched on the top of a bush. Then we decided to head back.

What a day! Pallid Harrier, two Rough-legged Buzzards, Grey Phalarope, Great White Egret, Red-necked Grebe, Water Pipit, Mealy Redpoll, plus a host of other good raptors, waders, geese, ducks and farmland birds. There aren’t many places you could see all of those – welcome to Norfolk in winter.

26th November 2015 -Raptor Quest

A Private Tour today in North Norfolk. The main reason for the day was to go to the Harrier roost in the afternoon. That left the morning open for some other birding. When we met up first thing, the mention of Pallid Harrier was met with an enthusiastic response so we decided to start the day up at Snettisham to see if we could catch up with it.

It was a misty morning as we drove west towards the Wash. Several small groups of Pink-footed Geese were flying inland from the coast to feed. There had been a Waxwing by the main road in Snettisham earlier in the morning, but there was no sign of it by the time we got there. A quick drive round the immediate area looking for likely berry bushes produced a pair of Mistle Thrush and a Green Woodpecker, which flew over the road and disappeared into a garden. However, we didn’t spend too long looking as we wanted to get out to the edge of the Wash to look for the Harrier.

The sun was already starting to burn the mist off as we arrived on the seawall. A large cloud of Golden Plover was swirling around out over the Wash and we watched as they settled themselves back onto the mud.

P1130008Golden Plover – a vast flock swirling round over the Wash

We made our way quickly down to the southern end of the RSPB reserve, past the last of the pits, where a small crowd had gathered to scan the saltmarsh for the Harrier, although there had been no sign of it so far. Still, it was a glorious morning to be looking out over the vast mudflats of the Wash. The tide was out, but there were still a few waders to see – Bar-tailed Godwit, Grey Plover, Dunlin and Curlew.

We could hear Pink-footed Geese calling and further out, in the mist, we could make out long lines of grey birds out on the mudflats. As the mist cleared, we could see they were thousand upon thousand of Pink-footed Geese. Normally the Pink-footed Geese roost out on the Wash overnight and fly inland to feed on the fields during the day. But last night was a full moon, and when the moon is full the geese reverse their habits, feeding during the night and roosting during the day. They spent all the morning standing out on the mudflats, with small groups occasionally circling round before landing back down again.

P1130019Pink-footed Geese – after full moon, spent the day out on the Wash today

A Common Buzzard was perched out on a fence post across the saltmarsh and several Marsh Harriers flew back and forth, but it seemed there was no sign of the Pallid Harrier. It has been present here for over a week now but has been seen most reliably in the afternoon. We wanted to visit the raptor roost at Warham later today, so we had to try our luck at Snettisham this morning. As the sun burnt of the mist and seemed to warm the air a little, the raptor activity appeared to increase.

We decided to have a walk round towards the seawall, but we hadn’t got very far when we saw some signs of excitement among a few people further ahead of us. When we caught up with them, it seemed like it had all been over nothing until somebody spotted a bird of prey sitting on a post half hidden among the Suaeda bushes. We were still looking into the sun, but it appeared to have a pale collar – it was the Pallid Harrier! We made our way up onto the seawall from where the light was a bit better.

IMG_3217Pallid Harrier – appeared on a post as the sun burnt off the mist

The Pallid Harrier perched on the post for several minutes, looking around. We could see its pale collar and solid dark neck sides (the ‘boa’), and the small pale patches above and below the eye. It started preening and we could see the white patch at the base of its tail. Then it took off and flew low over the bushes – the very pointed wings were particularly noticeable, much slimmer than a Hen Harrier. Then it flew up over the seawall and disappeared over the other side. What a great bird!

While we were up on the seawall watching it, we heard a flutey call behind us – a Woodlark was flying over. As we started to make our way back, our attention was drawn to a Spoonbill out on the saltmarsh on the edge of the Wash. It had disappeared into the vegetation at first, but shortly after emerged again and even put its head up so we could see its spoon-shaped bill. Most of the Spoonbills which were here in the summer have long departed. It is not unknown for one to spend the winter here, but it is still unusual.

P1130026The Wash – it was a beautiful day to be out at Snettisham

We made our way slowly back, stopping to scan the mud from time to time. With the sun out and blue skies above, it was a stunning view. We could see the vaste hordes of Pink-footed Geese clearly now. We didn’t have a chance to count them, but there have been at least 11,000 here in recent weeks. The Wash is famous for its vast flocks of Knot, but most of the waders were miles out along the water’s edge, given that the tide was out. A single Knot was feeding along the mud along the near edge of the vegetation.

IMG_3255Knot – only one was close in, most were far out over the mud today

There were lots of ducks out on the mud as well. In the tidal channel, below a large flock of Mallard closer to us, we could see a couple of Wigeon. Further out were massed ranks of Teal and a large number of Pintail as well.

As we walked back along the path, the flock of Golden Plover would periodically shoot up into the air and wheel round calling, before dropping back down. Out on the mud, they positively shone in the sunshine, a golden streak across the flats.

P1130035Golden Plover – slowing in the sunshine, out on the mudflats

We stopped to have a look out on the pits. Amongst the Greylags and Mallards, there were several Goldeneye. A smart male surfaced nearby. Further over, looking back into the sun, a spiky-haired Red-breasted Merganser swam away from us and a couple of Little Grebes were diving. In all the excitement, the morning was slipping away so, with one eye on the clock and our plans for the afternoon, we decided to move on.

Heading back round the coast, our next stop was at Thornham. As we drove down to the harbour, the first thing we saw was a couple of Rock Pipits chasing each other around the boats and jetties.

P1130048Rock Pipit – on one of the jetties at Thornham Harbour

There has been a little flock of Twite here recently, and we had hoped to catch up with them quickly. We walked out along the seawall towards Holme, and there was no sign of them at first. A couple of Curlew were feeding out on the saltmarsh. Then a little flock of finches flew inland over the path ahead of us, and turned back towards Thornham. A short while later, we heard the distinctive call of a Twite and turned to see three flying towards us. They looked like they might land but, unfortunately turned and flew out across to the back of the saltmarsh.

We stood for a while and scanned the marshes either side. We could see a large flock of small birds, Linnet, out towards the beach. Suddenly a small falcon zoomed in low and scattered all the birds. A Merlin, it raced through and disappeared over the bank towards Holme. Lots of Skylarks and finches flew over to the grazing marshes. A promising looking flock of smaller finches landed in the top of a tree over towards Thornham and despite waiting for a while they seemed to show no sign of coming back our way. Only when we had walked all the way back did they fly off and made their way back to where we had just been waiting!

We didn’t want to waste too much time here, so we made our way back to the car. A couple of Brent Geese were feeding on the saltmarsh right next to the car park.

P1130057Brent Geese – feeding on the saltmarsh by the car park at Thornham

Heading on back east, we took a detour inland off the coast road and up to the hinterland behind Brancaster. There had been a Rough-legged Buzzard reported here earlier in the morning but, several hours later, it always felt like a slim chance it would still be there. We ate our lunch up on the high ground, scanning for raptors, but there was not a trace of it.

Back along the coast road after lunch, we made a quick stop at Holkham. There was an enormous number of Pink-footed Geese here today, out on the grazing meadows. As we had seen at Snettisham, they were presumably day-roosting today due to the full moon. We scanned the wetter fields and could see lots of Greylags and a couple of Canada Geese. It took us a while to find any White-fronted Geese today, but we did eventually.

P1130069Pink-footed Geese – out on the marshes during the day today

There were several Marsh Harriers out quartering the marshes and a Buzzard came in and landed in one of the tall trees in front of us. A juvenile Peregrine flew in towards us, carrying something it had caught in its talons. When it got to the trees, a Sparrowhawk flew up and seemed to chase after it.

Once again, we made our way on east and stopped at Warham. On the way, a Barn Owl was out quartering over a grassy field by the roadside. We parked and walked down towards the coast. The hedges either side of the track once again held quite a few Blackbirds and the odd Song Thrush. A few tits and a couple of Goldcrests working their way along ahead of us. The weedy cover strips along the edges of the fields seemed to contain a few finches and buntings – including Linnets, Reed Buntings and several Yellowhammers.

Down at the front, we stopped and scanned the saltmarshes. It didn’t take long before a Hen Harrier appeared, a ringtail (a generic term for a juvenile or adult female). It made its way west along the far edge of the saltmarsh towards East Hills. Shortly after, a second ringtail Hen Harrier appeared. There were also a few Marsh Harriers around, circling over the marshes getting ready to roost.

A small falcon appeared, then chased by a second. One of them perched up on the top of a post and we got it in the scope – a Merlin. It stayed for ages in the same place. We had seen the big flocks of waders way off in the distance, over on the beach, zooming around a couple of times – normally a sure-fire sign that a bird of prey is nearby. Eventually we found a Perergine perched out on the beach.

We had hoped to see a male Hen Harrier and finally one appeared, flying in over the short grass on the far side. It was a bit distant, but we got it in the scope – we could see it’s silvery grey body plumage and black wing tips. Pretty soon after that, we lost count of the number of Hen Harriers. It was hard to tell whether the next sighting was a new bird or one that we had already seen earlier. We certainly saw 1-2 grey males and 3-4 ringtails.

IMG_3263Linnet – a lively flock was in and out of the hedgerow behind us

There was a good size flock of Linnets buzzing in and our of the hedge behind us while we were there. A Fieldfare flew in over our heads, possibly a new arrival. We could see Hen Harriers flying back and forth out over the saltmarsh right to the last, but eventually the light got too poor and we decided to head back. We could hear a couple of Bullfinches calling on the way.

It had been another fantastic day – Pallid Harrier was the undoubted highlight, but it was great to see so many other birds as well.

15th November 2015 – Three Harrier Day

Day 3 of a long weekend of tours today, the last day. It was forecast to be windy, and that was certainly the case, gusting up to 48mph at times. It was also forecast to be mostly dry, but once again the Met Office let us down! At least it was just showers, and most of them were light. Still, it is worth going birding in almost any weather, because you never know what might turn up – and today was a very good case in point, with a surprise in store at the end of the day…

We started at Holkham. There were a few Pink-footed Geese along Lady Anne’s Drive as is usual at this time of year, loafing around on the grazing marshes, so we stopped to get a good look at them in the scope. Conveniently, there were some Greylag Geese nearby for comparison. We could see the smaller size, darker head and smaller darker bill of the Pink-footed Geese. We could also see their pink legs, if not their feet. A little further over were some feral Egyptian Geese as well.

IMG_2921Pink-footed Goose – we stopped to look at them along Lady Anne’s Drive

There was a big flock of Wigeon out by the pools along the road as well, along with a few Teal and Mallard. A few raptors were even braving the wind – a couple of Marsh Harriers circling distantly and a Common Buzzard hanging on the wind over towards Wells. A second Common Buzzard was more sensibly perched in a tree nearby.

IMG_2886Common Buzzard – perched in the trees by Lady Anne’s Drive this morning

We parked down at the north end – there were not so many cars there this morning – and walked out through the pines towards the beach. It was more sheltered on the north side of the trees and we could hear Coal Tits calling as we walked. There were several tiny Goldcrests feeding down low in the brambles by the path and we paused to watch one just in front of us – the UK’s smallest native bird, it was probably a struggle for them to find food in the conditions this morning.

We walked out across the saltmarsh and flushed a Rock Pipit from beside the path, which flew off calling. Several Skylarks also took off as we passed. There was a small party of about 20 Brent Geese feeding nearby, so we stopped to have a quick look at them. One was subtly different – a fraction darker on the back and belly, with a slightly whiter flank patch and collar – but it was not as striking as a Black Brant, like the one we had seen the other day. This was a Black Brant hybrid or intergrade – the offspring of a Black Brant which had paired with one of our more typical Dark-bellied Brent Geese several years ago. Brent Geese are remarkably site faithful, often returning to exactly the same place every winter. This Black Brant hybrid is a regular in these parts, so it was nice to see it back here again.

IMG_2899Black Brant hybrid – among the Dark-bellied Brent Geese

We watched them for a while, and the Black Brant hybrid reacted aggressively when any of the other geese got too close. It gradually became clear it was part of small family group, paired to a regular Dark-bellied Brent Goose and with a couple of juveniles in tow. It would be interesting to see what these birds look like when they are grown up, but it seems likely that they are largely indistinguishable from normal Dark-bellied Brents, which can be rather variable in appearance themselves anyway.

Out on the beach, we found some shelter in the lee of the dunes and scanned the sea. It was much rougher than yesterday, but similarly quiet bird-wise at first. After a while we picked up several Great Crested Grebes – and a couple of them were very close inshore, only just off the beach. A Red-throated Diver was a bit further out and diving constantly, which meant it was nearly impossible to see among the waves. We walked further west and stopped to scan again. This time, a smaller grebe further along caught our attention – looking through the scope we could see it was a winter plumage Slavonian Grebe, a scarce winter visitor here and a nice bird to see.

We made our way even further west, to try to get a better look at the Slavonian Grebe. We got another brief glimpse of it and decided to brave the top of the dunes to get a bit of height. This should make it easier to see things in the waves, but this time it didn’t help us and there was no further sign. At that point a squally shower rolled in, so we beat a hasty retreat to the shelter of the pines. Just into the trees, a tit flock was moving through – we could see Long-tailed Tits, Great Tits, Blue Tits, Coal Tits and Goldcrests as they moved quickly through. We only heard a Treecreeeper calling as the flock disappeared further in.

On the other side of the trees, we made for Joe Jordan Hide – just in time, as the rain picked up again for a while. It was a good opportunity to sit and scan the grazing marshes, and there was a nice selection of commoner birds to see here. The highlight was a small party of White-fronted Geese, though they were hard to see at times feeding down in the wet boggy bits. When they stuck their heads up, we could see the distinctive white surrounding the base of the bill, from which they get their name.

When the rain stopped, we started to make our way back. A tit flock was calling from the trees on the south side of the path and we watched as they flew one by one back towards the pines across in front of us. As well as all the species we had seen previously, a Treecreeper flew out and landed on a pine tree briefly.

We stopped again at Washington Hide. There were several Marsh Harriers circling over the marshes and we picked up a female on a kill out in the grass. We could see her bending down to rip at whatever she had caught, then looking round nervously. A very pale, white-breasted Common Buzzard was perched in the trees over the other side. A striking bird, again in its regular spot here, but a pitfall for the unwary. We had hoped the Great White Egret might put in an appearance, but it was very exposed on the pool in front of the hide and the wind was whistling around the edges of the reeds.

On our way back to the car, we had a quick look at Salts Hole. As well as a few Wigeon and Mallard, there were several Little Grebes as usual. Only one was braving the middle of the pool today, the others lurking around the edge of the reeds where it was more sheltered.

IMG_2907Little Grebe – only this one braved the choppy waters out on Salts Hole today

We drove to Wells beach for lunch. The car park is still in the process of being dug up and resurfaced and the acres of tarmac feel a little too metropolitan – it would now not be out of place in the city centre. Certainly, there is no chance of any puddles any more for the birds to come down and drink. Still it was a little more sheltered here than at Holkham.

We had a look out in the harbour afterwards. With the choppy conditions out at sea, we thought there might be some ducks or grebes taking shelter, but there were perhaps too many dog walkers out on the shore today. However, there was an excellent variety of waders feeding on the exposed mud or roosting on the sand. The first thing that struck us was the large flocks of Oystercatchers. Scanning through, we found one Bar-tailed Godwit and a single Knot in with them.

IMG_2925Oystercatchers and Knot – roosting on the beach at Wells Harbour

Further over were more Knot and lots of Dunlin. In among the latter were several similarly sized Ringed Plovers. Out on the sand were a few silvery white Sanderling, running around like clockwork toys. Down along the edge of the harbour channel were several much darker Turnstone. There were also a few Grey Plover, and lots of Curlew and Redshank. Not a bad selection of waders – a fairly typical variety for intertidal mud flats. Further out across the harbour, a large flock of Brent Geese were lining the channel.

We scanned across to the saltmarsh the other side of the harbour, beyond East Hills, where a Marsh Harrier was quartering. As we panned over, a smaller, slimmer harrier appeared. As it banked we could see it was paler below than the Marsh Harrier and then we caught sight of a white square at the base of the tail above – it was a ringtail Hen Harrier. Further over through the scope, we saw a Merlin towering up into the sky chasing after a small bird, probably a pipit. They were a little distant, but we hoped to see them close later.

On our way back to the car, we stopped to look at a Common Seal on the sandbank of the outer harbour. It had presumably hauled itself out when the tide was high and was now looking a little stranded at the top of the bank. A large mechanical digger was edging its way towards it – pulling up the sand from along the edge to try to keep the access channel open. Hopefully the seal would be able to get away before it reached it.

IMG_2935Common Seal – pulled out on the bank of Wells Outer Harbour

We had planned to go along to see the harrier roost at Warham Harbour this afternoon. It seemed like a good way to round off the tour. So with the afternoon getting on we went back to the car and made our way east along the coast road from Wells. As we walked down towards the sea, a flock of tits made its way ahead of us along the hedgerow, making the most of the last hour or so of daylight. We flushed a little party of Redwings, which flew off overhead calling. Perhaps fresh arrivals from Scandinavia, coming here for the winter.

When we arrived at the edge of the saltmarsh, one person we know well, Graeme, was already there. Fortuitously, as it would turn out, we stood next to him. Immediately, he drew our attention to a Peregrine perched on a tangle of dead branches out on the beach. As we got our scopes onto it, a second Peregrine appeared and started mobbing it. Then a ringtail Hen Harrier appeared, much closer than the one we had seen from the other side at Wells Harbour. We got a really good view of this one through the scopes.

IMG_2946Hen Harrier – a ringtail, out over the saltmarsh

A male Hen Harrier had been showing before we arrived and after a while it got up from the ground and flew past us – a striking, ghostly, pale grey bird with contrasting black wing tips. They are really stunning birds and such a shame they are so badly persecuted in this country. There were now a few hardy souls gathered to watch the roost, and a shout from further long the line drew our attention to two Merlins chasing each other across the saltmarsh away to the east. The first surprise of the evening was a Bewick’s Swan which flew west along the edge of the saltmarsh, presumably a fresh arrival from the continent coming in for the winter.

Apart from the swan, it was all much as we had hoped, until Graeme mentioned that he had a smaller, slimmer winged harrier out with one of the ringtail Hen Harriers. He knew what it was going to be, but we got onto it and when it turned we could see the distinctive pale collar and solid dark patch on the side of the neck behind, the so called ‘boa’ – we shouted ‘PALLID HARRIER‘ but at that moment it dropped down into the vegetation and disappeared before the rest of the group could get onto it.

There followed a very frustrating 20 or so minutes when neither the Hen Harriers nor the Pallid Harrier were flying. The tension rose as it seemed like the Pallid Harrier might not fly again before dark, until finally all the harriers decided to have a fly round. It was fantastic to see the Pallid Harrier with the Hen Harriers, and at one point it even had a tussle with a ringtail Hen – it was slightly smaller and noticeably slimmer winged, with a more pointed ‘hand’. We could see its plain, pale orangey underparts, as well as the head/neck pattern. Wow! What a great bird to see and such a surprise.

Pallid Harriers breed from Eastern Europe across into Central Asia, wintering in India and Africa. They appear to have spread west in recent years and have been turning up more often in UK, though it is still a rare bird here – it is only the ninth to have been seen in Norfolk! The first of those spent the winter of 2002-03 at the same site, Warham Greens, the only one to have over-wintered in the UK. Lets hope this one sticks around for a while as well.

What a great way to end the weekend. It just goes to show that, however unfavourable the weather may seem, it is still worth going out because anything can, and sometimes does, show up.

15th-20th April 2015 – Bird Migration in Sicily

There have been no blog posts for the last week, not because I haven’t been out and about, but because of where I have been. The island of Sicily, positioned as it is in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, is a great place to witness migration in action, as birds coming north from Africa stop off to feed on their way. It was a fantastic place to visit and I saw some great birds as well as some magical places.

P1000038Pantano Longarini – looking beautiful in the early morning sunlight

On the first day, I headed down to the marshes of Cuba and Longarini. Right from the outset it was clear that migrants had arrived overnight. Lots of Tree Pipits buzzed overhead and there were large numbers of Whinchat and Northern Wheatear in the fields. A careful look through them revealed the first Eastern Black-eared Wheatear of the trip – by the end of my visit I had found at least six, at various sites, all females.

IMG_4138Eastern Black-eared Wheatear – a female

The waterbirds were the main reason for the visit here, and I particularly wanted to spend some time watching Ferruginous Ducks. I was not disappointed – at least 20 were on Pantano Cuba, which afforded the best views, with more distant birds also on Longarini and another three on Pantano Bruno. I saw them most days and was lucky to be able to watch them displaying on several occasions.

IMG_4141Ferruginous Duck – a smart chestnut drake

There were lots of Garganey out on the water too, and a smattering of other ducks. A couple of pairs of Black-necked Grebe eventually showed themselves, amongst the more common Great Crested and Little Grebes. The Purple Swamphen were hard to see amongst the reeds, but the Purple Herons were more obliging. One of the highlights of the morning was seeing a flock of 9 Purple Herons, presumably migrants, fly in to Pantano Cuba. A flock of 19 Gull-billed Terns overhead was also quite a sight!

P1000091Purple Heron – this one was trying to hide amongst the vegetation

On day 2, I headed over to the marshes at Vendicari early in the morning. The Greater Flamingos were the first things to catch the eye – at least 150 of them from the first hide overlooking the largest of the marshes. There were also lots of Spoonbills feeding, plus a few Squacco Herons and a single Black-crowned Night Heron standing on the mud.

P1000098Greater Flamingo – always a spectacular bird to see

There has been lots of rain in Sicily this last winter, and the water levels at Cuba and Longarini were high – great for the ducks. In the shallower water at Vendicari, there were lots more waders. As well as plenty of Black-winged Stilts, there were several Marsh Sandpiper, lots of Wood Sandpiper including a flock of 10 which flew in over the beach, many Little Stints running around on the mud and a few moulting adult Curlew Sandpiper with them, to name but a few.

IMG_4147Marsh Sandpiper – there were several of this charming wader at Vendicari

Vendicari is a very popular reserve for tourists and school groups so, as the number of people increased, I headed off north. Close to Siracusa, the headland of Capo Murro di Porco is renowned as one of the best places to find rare migrants in Sicily. A flock of 11 Bee-eaters was resting on the wires as I arrived, occasionally swooping out after flying insects. There were also lots of Tree Pipits amongst the low Mediterranean garrigue, but few signs of other migrants. However, the highlight was a single young (2nd cal year) Pallid Harrier which swept across the headland and away to the north. I was pleased to see this but little did I know what was to come tomorrow!

In the afternoon, I headed for Portopalo, the town at the south-east corner of Sicily. Down at the port, I spent some time watching the Audouin’s Gulls circling round amongst the fishing boats. Nearby, a couple of Slender-billed Gulls and a 1st summer Mediterranean Gull were standing on the beach with a Gull-billed Tern. Around onto the headland nearby and a few Scopoli’s and Yelkouan Shearwaters were lingering offshore – they were seen off most coastal headlands visited.

P1000163Audouin’s Gull – several were hanging around each of the fishing ports

An early start on day 3 saw me heading up into the hills. Cava Grande de Casabile is a spectacular limestone gorge, and a popular tourist destination, but it can also be good for birds. I had particularly wanted to see the local race, cantillans, of Eastern Subalpine Warbler and here I managed to catch up with several of them, calling and singing. There were also lots of lovely hillside birds to look at, such as Rock Sparrows and Cirl Bunting. Despite this, it was a frustrating morning. A male Semi-collared Flycatcher hovered briefly by the entrance to the car park, but then was gone. After a thorough search, I briefly caught sight of it perched before it flew into the gardens and did not reappear. Eventually, I gave up and moved on.

It was still early so, on a whim, I decided to have another look at Capo Murro di Porco. It seemed even quieter than yesterday when I arrived. Then, around 11am, it all changed. A harrier appeared and, as it worked its way past really close, it was clear that it was a Pallid Harrier. Then another Pallid Harrier came past – at first, I wasn’t sure whether I might have been double counting. That marked the opening of the floodgates and, over the next 90 minutes it rained harriers. At least 35 Marsh Harriers and 20 ringtail harriers passed overhead – it was hard to keep count. Amongst the latter, Pallid seemed to significantly outnumber Montagu’s Harrier, but all of them appeared to be young (2nd calendar year) birds. Many of them continued out to the end of the headland and were watched disappearing out to see to the east.

P1000185Pallid Harrier – one of many through Murro di Porco

Harriers were not the only birds passing through. At least 25 Red-footed Falcons went past in the same time period, including a little flock of 9 birds which passed just overhead. There were also a couple of Lesser Kestrels and a Hobby. Hirundine migration had also picked up and there were lots of House and Sand Martins in the move. Swift migration had also started in earnest and amongst the hundreds of Common Swifts, I could pick out a small number of Alpine Swifts. It was a truly amazing sight to stand there and watch all these migrating birds streaming through. Then, just as quickly as it had started, it all dried up and the birds stopped coming.

That should have been enough for one day, but there was more to come. Late afternoon, I headed down to Portopalo harbour again. Out on the headland there was one small fenced off area amongst the low Mediterranean vegetation. There were no birds anywhere else but the fence was alive – with flycatchers the key feature. Amongst the Spotted & Pied Flycatchers was a cracking male Collared Flycatcher.

IMG_4193Collared Flycatcher – this very smart male was with Pied Flys at Portopalo

I finished the day back at Pantano Cuba, where two stunning White-winged Black Terns were hawking over the lake. A flock of at least 28 Blue-headed Wagtails dropped in to feed before heading off into the reeds to look for a roost site. A Red-throated Pipit flew over calling. What an awesome day, one I will never forget.

The following morning, there was no sign of any flycatchers at the site where they had been the day before near Portopalo – but they had obviously moved straight through. However, over at Pantano Cuba, there was more to see. A tight group of 13 Wood Sandpipers and 6 Greenshank were present, though struggled to find anywhere to land. We eventually found a handful of flycatchers as well, mostly Pied but also one Spotted Flycatcher. With them were a couple of smart Wood Warblers.

In the afternoon, I was very privileged to be taken to the site of a Lanner nest. For the first couple of hours, it was very quiet. Just a couple of Buzzards and a pair of Ravens up overhead. Then finally the male appeared, though strangely on closer inspection he appeared to be a young bird, born last year. The female appeared by the nest shortly afterwards. We watched them on and off for an hour or so, but their behaviour was confusing and suggested they may not be breeding this year. If the young male was the new other half of the pair, he may have been too young to breed successfully this year.

IMG_4214Lanner – unfortunately perched up against the light

On my final morning, I got up early and went for a quick look around Cuba and Longarini again. The Ferruginous Ducks put on an especially good show for me, just before I had to leave. While I was standing there, I could hear a Penduline Tit flying overhead calling but unfortunately I couldn’t get to see it.

I still had time to call in briefly at Capo Murro di Porco on my way to the airport and well worthwhile it was too! Another couple of Pallid Harriers passed overhead and out over the sea.  Out by the old lighthouse, a small party of wheatears included two Eastern Black-eared Wheatears. Then a walk round one of the damper areas produced a couple of Tawny Pipits and a small flock of flava Wagtails. The latter included a single Black-headed Wagtail. The walk back to the car finally flushed a couple of Richard’s Pipits.

IMG_4218Tawny Pipit – this one appears to be covered in yellow pollen

P1000154‘Sicilian’ Sparrows are a confusing mix of Italian & Spanish types

That is simply a few edited highlights of my trip. There were so many magic moments and I really cannot recommend it enough for a spring visit.