Tag Archives: Parrot Crossbill

15th & 16th Feb 2018 – Double Brecks

A two-day Private Tour in the Brecks. We were forecast a couple of days of good weather and so it proved. It almost didn’t seem like mid February at times! It was a great time to be out and about birdwatching in the Brecks.

Thursday 15th February

There was still a bit of cloud lingering when we met down in the Brecks this morning. Thankfully, it quickly blew through and we were left with almost wall to wall blue sky and sunshine. It was still cool though, particularly as the breeze picked up mid morning.

It seemed like a good morning to go looking for Goshawks. On our way, we made a quick stop along a quiet lane. One of the fields here has been sown with a seed mix and was alive with birds. As we got out of the car, we could hear a Yellowhammer calling from the hedge.

A large flock of Linnets swirled round and landed up in the trees on the edge of the field, chattering away. In among the Chaffinches perched in the bushes, enjoying the morning sun, we found several Bramblings, duller females and bright orange-breasted males. There were Goldfinches too, and a couple of Reed Buntings which flew out of the crop and landed in the hedge by the road.

Brambling

Brambling – several were on the edge of a field of seed mix this morning

Suddenly all the birds erupted from the crop and flew round calling. We looked across to see a Sparrowhawk, a small adult male, flying low over the field. It didn’t catch anything, but having flushed everything then circled up and drifted off, with bursts of fast flapping interspersed with characteristic glides.

There were a few pools behind the hedge on the other side of road, so we had a quick look to see if anything was on those. There was a surprisingly good selection of wildfowl – as well as Mallards and four Greylag Geese, there were several Teal, a couple of pairs of Gadwall and a single drake Shoveler. A Grey Heron was standing in the sunshine at the back of the water, but flew off as we walked up.

It was starting to warm up, so we headed over to see what the Goshawks were up to. We had not even got the scopes set up when a young male appeared, flying across low over the trees. We had a good look at it through binoculars, before it dropped back down out of view. Then Goshawks were on view pretty much constantly, with at least five different individuals this morning.

Next an adult male Goshawk flew low along the front edge of the wood, before disappearing into the trees and sending all the pigeons out! A few seconds later, it appeared again, circling low over the shelter belt to one side. It disappeared once more behind the trees and the next time we picked it up it came in high from behind us, dropping back towards the wood, stooping sharply at the end and disappearing into the pines.

Goshawk

Goshawk – one of the adults circled in front of us

A pair of Goshawks was displaying for some time off in the distance. They were easy to see with the scope, slow flapping with exaggerated wingbeats high above the forest. Then a big adult female Goshawk appeared much closer, off to our right, circling low over the tops of the trees. It kept disappearing behind the tops, then reappearing again, never gaining any great height. Presumably it was hunting, as it never seemed to break into any display activity. Eventually it dropped down again out of view.

There were lots of other raptors on view here, even when we weren’t distracted by the Goshawks. Two Red Kites hung in the air over the strip of trees behind us. As the air warmed a little, several Common Buzzards came up and started circling. We counted at least eight today, and some of them even started displaying, swooping up and down like a rollercoaster. A Kestrel hovered out over the grass too. As well as the raptors, there were Skylarks singing and a small group of Fieldfares tchacking in the tops of trees behind us.

You could spend the whole day here, watching the comings and goings, but eventually we decided to move on. We went to look for Woodlarks next. As we pulled up by a ride into the forest, a flock of Bullfinches flew out of the brambles next to the road and disappeared behind the trees. As soon as we got out of the car, we could hear a Woodlark singing. We walked up the track a short way and looked across to see it perched high in the top of a tree out in the middle of the clearing. The Woodlark took off, but just flew across and landed again in another tree, still singing, where we could get it in the scope and have a good look at it.

Woodlark

Woodlark – singing from the top of one of the trees in the clearing

As we walked further up the track, another Woodlark appeared, perched in the top of a different tree singing. It took off as we approached and flew round singing – showing off its short tail and rounded wings, and its fluttering display flight. Eventually it dropped down into the middle of the clearing and promptly disappeared into the vegetation.

A little further along, we came across a tit flock feeding on the sunny edge of a block of pines. There were lots of restless Long-tailed Tits, accompanied by several Blue and Great Tits. A pair of Marsh Tits were feeding low down in the dry grass at the base of the trees, given away by their sneezing calls. A Goldcrest appeared, flitting around in one of the trees by the path. A smart male Bullfinch flew across in front of us and landed in the bare branches of a bush the other side.

There were a few more raptors here too, but perhaps not as much activity as we might have expected, given all the birds we had seen earlier. One more Goshawk showed itself very briefly and distantly. The Common Buzzard was much more obliging, flying across the clearing and even hovering briefly out in the middle. A pair of Kestrels showed it how it should really be done!

Common Buzzard

Common Buzzard – one of several up in the sunshine this morning

We walked on further round and into the forest. Several Redwings flew up from the grass by the path and disappeared into the trees. We could see several more feeding in the ivy covering a tree in the sun on the edge further in.

There were lots of tits on the sunny edge of the pines – Coal Tits, Blue Tits, Great Tits and a couple more Marsh Tits too. A flock of Long-tailed Tits flew out of the plantation into the deciduous trees the other side of the path, accompanied by a Goldcrest and a Treecreeper. We heard both Great Spotted Woodpecker and Green Woodpecker calling.

It was time for lunch now, so we headed back round to the car. Our destination for most of the afternoon was to be Lynford, but on our way we drove round via some pig fields. There were lots of gulls out on the mud among the pigs – mostly Black-headed and Common Gulls. A couple of adult Lesser Black-backed Gulls were hiding in with them and a single 1st winter Great Black-backed Gull perched on one of the pig arcs.

There were lots of Jackdaws and Rooks in the pig fields too, and a huge flock of Starlings – presumably some we would be seeing later in the day! A Red-legged Partridge was hiding in the winter wheat in the next field and a pair of Egyptian Geese flew over.

As we walked out along the path beside the Arboretum at Lynford, we stopped to have a look from the gate. There were lots of tits on the feeders, and more coming down to drink at the stone trough. Several Chaffinches were picking around down in the leaves, and a single Brambling was in with them.

Down at the bridge, there was not much seed out today. Still there were lots of tits coming to feed on the leftovers. We had particularly good views of Marsh Tit here, always a good spot for this localised species. Several Siskins were twittering in the alders above.

Marsh Tit

Marsh Tit – showed well down at the bridge

When we got to the paddocks, there was no sign of any Hawfinches feeding here today. There were several Greenfinches in the trees. A flock of twenty or so Redwings flew across and landed in the hawthorns, where we got one of them in the scope. A Mistle Thrush perched in one of the hornbeams, enjoying the afternoon sun, where it was joined by a second which flew across from the pines behind us. We could hear a Song Thrush singing.

As we walked on round the paddocks, we spotted a Hawfinch high in the fir trees, sunning itself in among the cones. It dropped down, but shortly what was presumably the same bird flew back in again and landed in the very top of the same tree. Here, we had a great view of it through the scope, noting its huge bill and head, the white tip to its tail and, when it spread its wings to stretch, the white wing bar.

Hawfinch

Hawfinch – showed well in fir trees by paddocks

Eventually the Hawfinch flew off. There was nothing else of note in the trees here today, so we walked back and round by the lake. A Reed Bunting flew up into the bushes by the path as we passed. We heard another Song Thrush singing and eventually managed to track it down, in the alders at the back of the lake, just to complete the set of thrushes for the day!

Standing looking across to the back of Lynford Hall, we heard another Hawfinch calling from the other side of the lake. We had just started scanning the trees to see if we could find it when it flew out, across the lake and over our heads before disappearing off in the direction of the paddocks.

A Little Grebe seemed to be laughing at us, until we spotted it, wrestling with a small fish behind the island. There were several Gadwall on the lake too – the most underrated of ducks, and always worthy of a closer look. There were a couple of Greylag and a few Canada Geese too.

Gadwall

Gadwall – a very smart, intricately patterned drake

The light was starting to go now, so we set off back to the car. As we drove up towards Swaffham, we could see thousands of Starlings swirling in the skies above the town. They were fairly spread out tonight, in several different groups, and hard to count – but there must have been 20,000 birds at least!

The Starlings spent ages whirling round in the sky, flying backwards and forwards, working up the courage to come in to roost. Quite a lot went down over towards the town centre tonight, before some of the others finally started to come down into the bushes in front of us. It was mesmerising watching the flocks, like watching fireworks, bursting. in the sky as they swirled. Amazing to watch!

Starling murmuration

Starling – thousands coming in to roost tonight

It was almost dark and most of the Starlings seemed to have gone in already when the ones from the town centre started to fly up again and came over to join the others in the trees in front of us, wave upon wave of them appeared out of the gloom, it seemed like it would never end. As it finally settled down again, there was an amazing amount of excited chattering from the trees. What a great way to end our first day.

Friday 16th February

After a light frost overnight, it was crisp and fresh this morning but with sunshine and blue skies, a cracking winter’s day. The winds were lighter too, compared to yesterday, so it didn’t feel so cold.

We started the day with a walk along the river. We could hear a male Grey Wagtail singing under the bridge as we approached and we then watched the pair flying back and forth over the river, perching on the brick walls and some drainage pipes.

Grey Wagtail

Grey Wagtail – singing underneath the bridge this morning

There were several Mute Swans and Little Grebes swimming and diving on the river as we walked along. We could hear a Redwing calling and looked up to see it perched high in the treetops in the sunshine. There were lots of Siskins twittering from deep in the alders, and we managed to see a couple flying back and forth across the river. A couple of Great Spotted Woodpeckers were drumming and a Green Woodpecker yaffled from the trees, always a good sign along here.

They were not the woodpeckers we were really hoping for, but as we rounded the bend in the river we could hear two Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers calling. We found a couple of people with scopes and cameras already there, and we were told one had just been showing in the tops of the trees but had dropped back down out of sight.

Thankfully, the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker continued to call occasionally and we could follow the sound. After a nail-biting few minutes when we weren’t sure whether it would show itself again, the female Lesser Spotted Woodpecker flew out and landed high in a bare poplar in front of us. We got it the scope and had a good look at it, the black and white barred back and the black crown of the female. It showed very well for us in the poplars for several minutes, flying between the trees, before it flew back into denser birches behind. We heard it call again much further in.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker – this female showed very well in the poplars

The Lesser Spotted Woodpecker then went quiet for a time. There were several other birds to look at in the interim – a Goshawk appeared through the tops of the trees before heading off over the river. There were lots of tits singing – spring must be just around the corner now – including a coupe of Marsh Tits.

Then we heard the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker call again further along the river. It was still well back in the trees, but we hurried along to see if it would come out again. We were just in time, as the female flew out over our heads, over the river, and dropped down further back in the trees the other side.

Having had such great views of the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, we decided to walk back and try our luck with something else. On the way, we heard a Water Rail squealing from the wet reedy vegetation under the trees. A Woodlark was singing too, in the distance from a clearing in the forest beside the river.

Back at the bridge, we made our way up a small path through the trees to the churchyard. It was quiet here at first, even in the churchyard despite the sunshine on the firs here. We did head a Goldcrest singing and saw it flitting around in the tops. It was busier on the open side by the road. We found more tits and a noisy pair of Nuthatches which piped loudly at us from the trees.

What we had hoped to find here was a Firecrest and it did eventually appear. Unfortunately it was only very brief, moving through the vegetation very quickly, before it disappeared high up into the trees and we lost sight of it. Despite searching, we couldn’t find it again.

The Parrot Crossbills at Santon Downham have become very elusive again in recent days. We drove round to the car park where they sometimes come down to drink, but there had been no sign of them all morning again. There were lots of people waiting here, so we decided to try somewhere else.

The Parrot Crossbills have also been seen in the car park at St Helen’s before, so we decided to look round there. We have seen them come down to drink at the river here, so we had a walk along the bank but it was all very quiet. Given the complete absence of any sightings of Parrot Crossbills at either site this morning, we decided we would give up on them and try something else. We were just walking back towards the car, discussing what to do next, when we heard chipping calls and looked up to see 15-20 Parrot Crossbills flying past.

They seemed to be heading down towards the river, right where we had just been looking. We rushed back, and found the flock of Parrot Crossbills in the poplars. We could hear them calling and subsinging as we approached and looked up to see several perched in the branches above our heads, in the sunshine. We got the scope on them and had a great look, two red-orange males and a grey-green female. We could see their huge crossed bills and thickset bull necks.

Parrot Crossbill

Parrot Crossbill – perched subsinging in the branches above us

Several of the Parrot Crossbills dropped down into the alders the other side of the river. They were clearly working up the courage to come down to drink, perching in the trees around us calling for ten or more minutes. Slowly more followed the others into the tops of the alders and eventually they started to drop lower through the branches. Finally they flew down onto the river bank on the far side, two or three at a time, to drink.

Parrot Crossbills

Parrot Crossbills – came down to drink on the far side of the river

We got the Parrot Crossbills in the scope as they landed down on the far bank and watched as they each gulped down a few beak-fulls, then quickly flying up to be replaced by a couple more. What a magic moment! Eventually, when it appeared that most had drunk their fill, as quickly as they had arrived the whole flock flew off north-west. We had counted at least 15 in the trees, but there seemed to be as many as 18 as they flew off.

Well satisfied with the encounter, we headed round to Lakenheath Fen next, for lunch. After a bite to eat, we headed out to the reserve. At the feeders by the visitor centre, there were lots of tits and Reed Buntings. We decided to head out to the Washland viewpoint first.

When we got up onto the bank, the first thing we saw were two Whooper Swans out on Hockwold Washes. Through the scope, we could see the wedge shaped patch of yellow on their bills. There were lots of ducks too – Shelduck, Wigeon, Gadwall, Teal and Shoveler. A few Tufted Ducks were diving down on the river in front of us. A Curlew flew up fro the fields beyond and circled round calling.

Whooper Swans 1

Whooper Swans – these two were out on Hockwold Washes

Another big white shape at the back of the Washland revealed itself to be a Great White Egret. Through the scope, we could see its long yellow dagger-like bill. As a fisherman approached along the far bank, the Great White Egret flew off east, but shortly after what we assumed was the same bird flew back west, high over the river. We watched it dropping away round the back of the poplars towards New Fen, but then when we looked back at the far corner of the Washes, there was a Great White Egret, exactly where the first had been. Could there have been two?

Great White Egret 1

Great White Egret – feeding at the back of Hockwold Washes

There was a family at the Washland viewpoint too and they spotted a small bird creeping around among the wet grass on the near bank of the river. It was a Water Pipit – through the scope, we could see its pale supercilium and black-streaked white underparts. Another Water Pipit flew across and disappeared into the vegetation on the other side and we heard a third calling away to our right.

We walked on west along the riverbank. We had been warned it was muddy – and they weren’t wrong(!) – but we picked our way carefully along. There were lots of birds along here, particularly a surprising number of Stonechats. We must have seen at least six, perching up on the dead thistles and seedheads in the grass. There were lots of Cetti’s Warblers too, though they were much less obliging, calling from deep in the bushes. A flock of Fieldfares flew towards us across the river and over our heads.

Stonechat

Stonechat – we saw a surprising number along the river today

There were lots of Canada Geese and Greylag Geese feeding on the grass either side along the river. They were mostly sorted into separate flocks, but an odd looking bird with one of the groups of Greylags was a Canada x Greylag Goose hybrid.

A Little Egret was feeding on the edge of the river, much smaller, with an all dark bill. Then we looked up to see two Great White Egrets flying together, heading back east the way we had just come, towards the Washland. We had certainly seen two Great White Egrets now!

Great White Egret 2

Great White Egret – two flew along the river together

The Whooper Swans roost in the winter on the Washes but feed during the day in the fields. Once we got beyond the West Wood, we heard more Whooper Swans calling and looked across to see a family party flying in from the south. They flew across behind us, over the river, before dropping down towards the fields beyond.

As we walked on west, more Whooper Swans flew across, looking stunning in the afternoon light. It is a great sound, the honking of winter swans on a sunny February afternoon in the Fens. When we got round the bend in the river and could see across to the fields the other side, we could see a huge long line of white shapes gathered in the distance. Through the scope, we could see they were all Whooper Swans, at least 100 of them and probably much more as many were hidden behind the trees.

Whooper Swans 2

Whooper Swans – flying across to gather on the north side of the river

There was no sign of the Cranes on the far side of the river today, but it was possibly just too disturbed over there now. A couple of vehicles were driving up and down the track and we could see a man pigeon shooting, tending to his decoys on the edge of the area where the Cranes often like to feed. A distant Grey Heron was not the right shape or shade of grey!

Another Great White Egret flew up from the marshes across the river – presumably a third bird, as we had watched the other two flying off the other way. There were lots of Lapwings in the fields and three distant Roe Deer too. A Chiffchaff called from somewhere in the reeds nearby.

On the walk back, we cut in across the reserve. We had a sit down at the Joist Fen Viewpoint, a quick rest before the long return journey. It was a glorious winter’s afternoon, still and delightfully tranquil just sitting and looking out across the vast expanse of reeds (at least the F16s from Lakenheath were not flying overhead at that stage!). Several Marsh Harriers quartered low over the reeds and three Common Buzzards circled up over the trees.

It would have been very easy just to sit and watch the reeds and contemplate for hours, but it was getting on now so we reluctantly tore ourselves away. As we walked back along the path, flocks of gulls were flying overhead, heading off to roost. A female Kestrel perched up in the poplars in the late sunshine, but almost every time we got within range and lifted the cameras, she flew off a short distance, refusing to be photographed!

Kestrel

Kestrel – was refusing to be photographed on the walk back

Back at the Visitor Centre, a Bank Vole was scuttling around under the feeders. It hid in a hole in the vegetation and darted out repeatedly. Then it found a discarded crisp on the ground and hauled it back into the hole. That was the last we saw of it – presumably it was enjoying the crisp!

It was time to head for home now. It had been a great couple of days in the Brecks, with some fantastic weather and some exciting birds, all the best the area has to offer at this time of year.

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11th Feb 2018 – Winter, Broads & Brecks #3

Day 3 of a three day long weekend of tours, our last day, and it was time to head down to the Brecks today. The weather forecast was the best of the three days, and even though it was perhaps a little cloudier than we were expecting, it was largely dry and there were some nice bright spells particularly in the morning.

As we stopped briefly in Swaffham on the way down, the sun was out and the sky was blue. With a good breeze blowing, that meant it looked like perfect conditions for Goshawks, so we headed straight over to a favourite spot. We weren’t even out of the car before we saw our first Goshawk – a young female, big and bulky, brown above and orange-tinged below, was circling just above the trees. We all jumped out and had a good look at it, before it disappeared back over the tops.

Over the next hour or so, we were rarely without a Goshawk up in the air. An adult, silvery grey above and white below, was displaying away in the distance, with heavy exaggerated wingbeats. Then another adult appeared much closer, low over the trees, flying around behind us where it caused pandemonium amongst the pigeons and corvids in the field.

An adult male Goshawk appeared high overhead, dropping towards the trees in a long flat glide. As it got closer, it started to descend quickly and we looked over to see why – another juvenile Goshawk, this time a young male, was starting to display over the tops of the firs. The adult swooped at the youngster, but the latter wasn’t giving up easily and twisted, talons up to defend itself. The two of them chased through the treetops for a couple of seconds before disappearing into the trees.

Goshawk

Goshawk – great views of at least 5 different birds this morning

But the best moment of all was when an adult female Goshawk came slowly across over the edge of the trees in front of us. It was a nice flyby and gave us a great look at it, but halfway across it suddenly turned towards us and dropped down in front of the trees. It was flapping powerfully now, with purpose. Ahead of it, a male Pheasant was strutting in the field with its back to the trees, oblivious. The Pheasant realised just in time, panicked and ran towards a cover strip in the middle of the field. It dived in, the Goshawk turning sharply and looking to follow it, but decided against it at the last minute. Wow!

There were a few other raptors up too this morning. A Red Kite drifted lazily over the trees. Several Buzzards circled up, as did a couple of distant Kestrels. A Sparrowhawk flew across, much smaller than the Goshawks and with bursts of much faster flapping flight.

It had clouded over, so we decided to move on to look for Woodlarks. There were none singing when we arrived at a favourite clearing – it was rather cold in the breeze now, with the sun in – so we decided to have a walk round to see if we could find one. We didn’t have to go too far, before we heard a Woodlark calling, the distinctive ringing double ‘tlu-lee’, and looked up to see it flying high towards us. A second Woodlark called from the ground in the middle of the clearing and the first circled round and dropped down nearby.

Before we could get the scope on it, the two Woodlarks were off again, flying across the path and landing in another clearing a bit further over. They were quickly followed by a second pair, which flew over in the same direction but landed in the top of a young oak tree. We got a look at them distantly through the scope before they too dropped down into the grass.

We walked over to see if we could get a closer look. The grass in this clearing is much longer and the Woodlarks were very hard to see at first on the ground, out in the middle. We scanned carefully from along the edge, looking down the line of each row of newly planted trees, before we heard one calling softly. By positioning ourselves carefully, we could see one of the Woodlarks creeping around in the grass.

Woodlark

Woodlark – creeping around in a grassy clearing

When we lost sight of the first, we spotted a second Woodlark nearby. It perched on a small mound of bare earth for a couple of seconds, sub-singing quietly. Then something spooked them, and all four Woodlarks came up out of the grass and flew round calling, before landing back down again.

Otherwise, the clearings here were rather quiet today. A Common Buzzard appeared briefly above the trees, but raptor activity seemed to have tailed off a bit now. With our mission here accomplished, we decided to move on.

There has been a flock of Parrot Crossbills around the Santon Downham area since November last year, but they can be very elusive. As specialised pine cone feeders, they have lots of trees to choose from here – Thetford Forest is the largest lowland pine forest in the UK! However, they need to drink regularly and will sometimes come in to the same puddles for water. After disappearing for a few days, they had been seen coming to drink yesterday at one of the car parks, so we thought we would have a go at catching up with them.

When we arrived at the rough forestry car park, there were a few people standing around looking down at the muddy puddles. They told us the Parrot Crossbills had been seen coming to drink earlier, which was definitely a good start. We drove round to one of their other favoured areas nearby, but there was no sign of them there. However, we did bump into someone we knew who told us he had seen the Parrot Crossbills coming to drink over an hour before. That meant they were just about due to come back for more, so we headed straight back to the first car park to await them.

It seemed an opportune moment for an early lunch, while we waited for them to appear. We hadn’t even finished unpacking the sandwiches before we heard the Parrot Crossbills calling and turned to see them landing in the top of the oak trees just across the road. We got them in the scope, as they perched there calling quietly, working up the courage to come down to drink. There were at least 15 of them.

Parrot Crossbills 1

Parrot Crossbills – perched in the trees before coming down to drink

Eventually, the Parrot Crossbills flew across and landed in a smaller tree right on the edge of the car park, just beyond the puddles. Then one or two at a time, they dropped down to the water’s edge and started drinking. From where we were parked, they were only a few metres away from us and we enjoyed stunning views as they came down to the ground.

Parrot Crossbills 2

Parrot Crossbills 3

Parrot Crossbills 4

Parrot Crossbills – great views as they came down to drink in the car park

Close up, we could see the Parrots Crossbills’ huge bills and heavy, bull-necked heads, packed with the muscles for pulling open tightly closed pine cones. They were a mixture of red or orange males and grey-green females. Most of them look like they are probably young birds, presumably the class of 2017, though they are not always easy to age.

Parrot Crossbills are very scarce visitors here. Breeding mainly from Scandinavia across into Russia (with smaller numbers in Scotland too), like other crossbills they are an irruptive species, moving south and west in response to any shortage of cones in their home range, but rarely making it as far as southern England. So it is a real treat to see them here, and to see them so well.

Lunch had been forgotten with all the excitement, but after the Parrot Crossbills had finished drinking and flown off back to wherever they were feeding, we turned our attention to our food. Having not had to wait long to see them, we now had a bit of time to play with, so we decided to walk down along the river bank after lunch.

Brambling

Brambling – at the feeders by the bridge

At the feeders by the bridge, a Brambling flew up from the grass and perched briefly in the trees. In the poplars by the river, a Great Spotted Woodpecker was drumming. We had hoped we might get lucky and run into a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker here, but it was rather cold and cloudy now and the trees were rather quiet as we walked down along the river bank.

A Treecreeper called from the poplars and we could just see it high in the trees, though it was hard to get onto and then disappeared back out of view. A few Siskins flew back and forth overhead, calling. There were couple of Little Grebes diving in the river. We stood and listened in the trees for a couple of minutes, but all was quiet. We decided we were better off spending the rest of the afternoon elsewhere.

On the walk back, a couple of Water Rails squealed from the back of the reeds below the poplars. We saw some movement the other side of the river, and picked up a Mistle Thrush, a Song Thrush and a Redwing, all feeding in the same area in the rough paddocks below the alders.

We headed round to Lynford Arboretum for the rest of the afternoon. Hawfinch was our main target here and as it was cool and cloudy now, we decided to head straight down to the paddocks. We were quickly rewarded with a distant Hawfinch in the fir trees at the back, so we made our round for a closer look. It was perched on the edge of the trees, so we could get a good view of it from this side, its huge head and massive bill, strong enough to crack cherry stones, and its ornamental shaped inner primaries.

Hawfinch

Hawfinch – good views perched in the edge of the firs

A second Hawfinch flew in and landed in the tree next to it, the two of them staying there together for several minutes before dropping back into the trees. Rather than wait to see if any more Hawfinches would come in this afternoon, we decided to go and explore the arboretum.

A quick walk round the lake produced a few waterbirds for the day’s list – a few Canada Geese and a single Greylag, several Mallard and a pair of Gadwall, and another Little Grebe. A flock of Redwings were flushed out of the alders and flew out to the hornbeams in the middle of the paddocks, where we could get a good look at them through the scope.

There was some seed put out for the birds on the pillars and posts around the bridge, so we stopped a while to see what would come in. There was a steady stream of tits – Blue, Great, Coal and Long-tailed Tits, plus several Marsh Tits giving us nice close views. A Nuthatch chased everything else off the peanut feeder hanging in the tree above and spent several minutes jabbing ferociously at the peanuts. A Treecreeper worked its way up one of the trees right next to the bridge, so we could get a good look at it. There were several Siskins in the trees here too.

Marsh Tit

Marsh Tit – coming to seed put out on the bridge

It was time to start thinking about heading back now. There has been a Firecrest around the car park here on occasion, but when we got to the car there was no sign of it. We stood for a while and listened, but there were just a few Blue Tits, a Robin and a couple of Nuthatches piping noisily from high in the trees.

It was only as we were getting in to the car that we heard the Firecrest call from the trees nearby. It flew across and disappeared into some dense young firs, still calling. We walked over and could just see it flitting around on the edge of the trees, before it disappeared in deeper, out of view.

As we made our way back north, driving into Swaffham, we could see thousands and thousands of Starlings whirling over the town. It was quite a spectacle. There has been a murmuration here for the last couple of winters, and numbers really start to grow at thsi time of year, presumably as birds start to make their way back towards the continent. We stopped in the market place and watched them for a while, whirling round overhead. They were quite spread out this evening, but it was still amazing to watch them all, there must have been at least 30,000 birds!

Starling murmuration

Starlings – part of a huge murmuration over Swaffham this evening

The Starlings were a nice way to round off our three days. It had been very exciting stuff, the best of late winter in the North Norfolk, the Broads and the Brecks. We had seen some great birds, lots of great moments and good company too.

5th-6th Dec 2017 – Two Winter Days

A Private Tour across two days, this was not a standard tour but we had a specific list of birds we wanted to see. December can be a very good month to go looking for some of our scarcer wintering species. We were blessed with good weather too – a bit dull under the blanket of cloud, but dry and rather mild for the time of year.

Tuesday 5th December

Our first destination was down in the Brecks at Santon Downham. We wanted to catch up with the Parrot Crossbills which have been here for a couple of weeks now. They were initially to be found around the picnic site at St Helen’s, but have started to wander more widely into the forest now, where they can be much harder to locate. Fortunately, our luck was in today. As we drove into the car park we could see a cluster of long lenses by the side of the road, pointing up into a small clump of trees.

As we got out of the car in the car park, we could hear Parrots Crossbills calling – they have a deeper and less sharp call, more of a ‘peek, peek’ than the familiar ‘glip, glip’ of Common Crossbills. We looked across and could see one or two perched in the top of the beech tree in the corner of the car park by the road.

There seemed to be more Parrot Crossbills – and better light – on the other side of the trees, where all the cameras were focused, so we started to make our way round. Just at that moment, the Parrot Crossbills started to drop down to a tiny puddle in the road, right in front of the assembled photographers (though it took them a while to notice!). We were a little further away, but still only about 10 metres from them. Stunning!

6O0A3517Parrot Crossbills – coming down to drink at the puddle in front of us

We had a great view of the Parrot Crossbills while they were drinking. A couple of times they spooked, for no apparent reason, and flew back up into the trees but quickly returned to the puddle again. It was amazing how many could pack themselves into the tiny area of water! We could see their deep, heavy bills, much bigger than a Common Crossbill’s, and their big heads with thick necks. Parrot Crossbills use their large bills and cheek muscles to prise open the tightest of pine cones to get at the seeds.

6O0A3546

6O0A3528Parrot Crossbills – amazing how many could fit into a tiny puddle!

There were a variety of different colours amongst the Parrot Crossbills. The more obvious males were red or orange, some of the latter with a scattering of golden yellow feathers. The females were grey-green, with a brighter yellow-green rump. There seem to be a high proportion of young birds in this group, 1st winters, with a varying number of pale tipped greater coverts forming a pale bar across the wing.

After dropping down to drink several times, the Parrot Crossbills flew up into one of the beech trees and sat around preening and calling. One or two of them started to pick at the beech nut capsules, trying to extract the seeds. Then most of them flew and landed in some pine trees in the middle of the car park where we could watch them doing what they do best, snipping of the pine cones and then taking them to a convenient branch where they could methodically work their way round them prising open the scales and extracting the seeds.

Having succeeded with our first target so quickly, we now had time on our side. We decided to head straight on to the Broads to look for the next bird on the list – Taiga Bean Goose. After the long drive across to Buckenham Marshes, we parked in the car park and headed out along the track. A Marsh Harrier drifted across the grazing marshes, flushing all the Rooks from down in the grass.

A short way down the track, we stopped to scan the grazing marshes, particularly looking out towards the corner by the railway which the Taiga Bean Geese usually favour when they are here. There was no sign of them, although they do have a remarkable ability for such a large bird to hide in the dips in the ground. There was a big flock of Canada Geese and a small group of feral Barnacle Geese further over towards the river. A pair of Pink-footed Geese flew in calling and landed out on the grass in the distance.

At that point, we received a message to say that the Taiga Bean Geese had not been seen at either Buckenham or nearby Cantley so far this morning. They had done something similar yesterday, only appearing later in the day, and we had plenty of time on our hands, so we were not completely discouraged. We walked a bit further and stopped to scan for the geese again, on the off chance that they had reappeared and were just hiding. A smart adult Peregrine flew across and landed on one of the gates out in the middle.

IMG_9171Peregrine – landed on one of the gates in the middle of the grazing marsh

We decided to walk out to the river, checking for the geese on the way, and hoping they might fly in while we were there. If not, we could always then go somewhere else for a couple of hours and come back for another go later in the day.

Something flushed all the ducks from the pools down by the river – a good number of Wigeon and Teal, plus a few Shoveler with them. They all gradually settled back down again and when we got down to that end of the track, we had a better look at them. There were a few Greylags out here too and another three Pink-footed Geese flew in to join them. But there was still no sign of the Taiga Bean Geese hiding out on the grazing marshes the other side.

6O0A3560Wigeon – there were several hundred on the marshes by the river

A couple of Dunlin were still left on a muddy island on one of the pools and the Lapwing which had also been disturbed gradually started to settle down around them. Two Ruff flew in across the grazing marshes and dropped down out of view. We had a quick look out across the river, then turned to head back. We heard a Water Pipit call earlier, on the way out, but hadn’t seen it, and at that moment either it or another Water Pipit flew over our heads calling and disappeared off towards Strumpshaw.

We stopped to scan the grazing marshes again, as we had done several times on the way out, but this time we noticed a line of geese had appeared while we had been looking out across the river, right over the far side, against the reeds. Where they were, they could only really be one thing and, setting up the scope quickly, we confirmed they were the Taiga Bean Geese. We could see their rather wedge-shaped heads and long bills, and as they turned and caught the light, we could see the quite extensive patches of orange on their bills.

IMG_9227Taiga Bean Geese – at the far side of the grazing marsh, against the reeds

A little further back along the track, we were a little bit closer and stopped for another look. We could see at least 13 Taiga Bean Geese, but some were well hidden down on the edge of the ditch, so there were possibly the full 18 which is the maximum which have been reported in the last few days.

Taiga Bean Geese are a declining winter visitor to the UK. They have particular habitat requirements and only winter regularly at two sites – here in the Yare Valley in Norfolk or up on the Slamannan plateau in Scotland. The numbers coming here have dropped steadily in recent years, from several hundred in Norfolk in the 1980s and 1990s to just around 20 in the last few years. In milder winters, they have often only stayed for a shorter time, but recently have sometimes departed in early to mid January, having just arrived in late November.

The Taiga Bean Geese will probably take on an increased significance from the start of 2018. When the BOU British List moves to adopt the IOC World Bird List taxonomy from 1st January, Taiga and Tundra Bean Goose will be treated as separate species (they are currently treated as two subspecies of Bean Goose). For those who are interested in ‘ticks’, it will be prudent to come and see the wintering Taiga Bean Geese while you still can!

As we walked back to the car, a pair of Stonechats were feeding along the side of the track, perching up in the tall dead willowherb seedheads. We had enjoyed a remarkably productive morning, with the two of our main target species already under our belts, either of which could easily have taken us much of the day to find.

6O0A3567Stonechat – perched in some dead willowherb

Snow Bunting was the next species on the list, so we headed down to the coast. There are several beaches where you can see flocks of these winter visitors here, but the best option today seemed like the area around Happisburgh and Eccles, where a large group had been seen in recent days. There had also been a Desert Wheatear at Eccles in recent days, but it appeared to have done a bunk overnight – fortunately it was not a target for us today. However,  there were a couple of other things of peripheral interest which we could also possibly see in the area.

Cart Gap seemed like the best place to park, so we stopped for lunch there. After we had eaten, we noticed another Norfolk birder returning to his car and went over to ask for an update on what was about. He told us that he had seen the Snow Buntings but they were a good distance south of us, so we got back in the car and drove round closer to Sea Palling.

As we crossed onto the beach, a beach buggy of sorts was being driven north along the sand. We had no idea what it was doing out here, but as it disappeared round the corner of the dunes, we saw a flock of small birds fly up from the beach and land back down again. The Snow Buntings. We walked further up and found them on an area of shingle on the top of the beach. They flew towards us and landed on the sand up by the dunes. We could see a patch of the sand which looked a different colour there and they gathered into a tight group around it, feeding – someone has put seed out for them here.

6O0A3580Snow Buntings – coming in to seed put out on the beach for them

There was a good size flock of Snow Buntings here – probably at least 60 birds in total. They flew off and landed on the stones again, before coming back to the seed. We watched them for a while – there appeared to be a mixture of paler Scandinavian and darker Icelandic birds in the flock. Eventually, they flew up and landed back in the dunes.

It had been cloudy all day, but the sky seemed to have darkened and the light was fading already. We had a quick scan of the beach and out to sea, but couldn’t immediately see anything beyond a few gulls and a single seal just offshore. Rather than try to drive back round to Eccles, in the limited time we had before it was likely to get dark, we decided to walk back up there along the beach. It wasn’t too far and it was nice to have a walk after spending quiet a bit of time in the car today.

We crossed to the track inland of the dunes and stopped briefly by the field where the Desert Wheatear had been. Three Shorelarks had been reported here earlier this morning, but there was no sign of those either now, thankfully also not a target for today, though always nice to see. What we really hoped to see here was the Arctic Redpoll which had been feeding in the edge of a beet field a little further north, so we didn’t linger here.

When we arrived at the beet field, there was no sign of anything feeding in the weeds along the edge and at first the hedge looked empty too. There was a large bush sticking out from the hedge much further down and we could see there were some birds perched on the near side of it. We got them in the scope and could see they were Redpolls, a good start.

There appeared to be a mixture of darker Lesser Redpolls and slightly paler Mealy Redpolls, but one bird in the middle of the bush stood out. It was face on to us, busy preening, but looked much paler, whitish below, paler faced. It turned briefly and puffed itself up and we could see a large pale rump. It was the Arctic Redpoll. Once again we were fortunate, because after watching it for a few minutes, all the Redpolls took off and flew away across the field, presumably heading off to roost.

It was starting to get dark by the time we got back to the car, passing the Snow Buntings again on our way. It had been a very successful day.

Wednesday 6th December

With the pressure off, after all our successes yesterday, there was only one more species on the list of the most likely targets which we really wanted to find today, Lapland Bunting. There have been a few in the clifftop fields at Weybourne for a few weeks now, but they can be very mobile and elusive. We headed over there to see what we could find.

As we walked down the track towards the Coastguards Cottages, we could hear Pink-footed Geese calling. We looked across to see hundreds of them circling over the fields before dropping down out of view to feed on an area of recently cut sugar beet. A Grey Wagtail flew over calling, an odd place to find this species, so possibly a migrant.

When we got to the gate, the stubble field which the Lapland Buntings have been favouring looked quite deserted. Appearances can be deceptive though. We could see some Skylarks flying round and landing in the grass on the clifftop, so we made our way round to that side. Unfortunately, as we walked over the hill, we met a dog walker coming the other way right along the edge of the stubble, just where we had planned to look, flushing all the Skylarks and Meadow Pipits out of the grass as he approached us.

Most of the birds appeared to drop back down into the stubble, down at the bottom of the hill. Then we spotted a flock of Linnets down there too, which flew up, circled round, and dropped back in to the stubble not far in from the grassy edge. That looked the best place to try. Finally, as we walked slowly down the hill, carefully scanning through the Skylarks which flew up from the stubble as we passed, we heard a Lapland Bunting calling, a distinctive dry rattle, followed by a clipped ringing ‘teu’. It didn’t appear to have come up out of the field but flew in from behind us, high overhead, and dropped down into the stubble over where we were headed.

At least we had seen a Lapland Bunting in flight – now finding one out in the middle of the stubble would be a bigger challenge. We continued on down the hill and stood on the grass opposite where it had seemed to land, scanning the field, but we could barely see anything in the vegetation. We needed a break, and after a while we got one. The Linnets took off and whirled round over the field. As they came back in low over the stubble, a Lapland Bunting flew up to join them and this time we could see where it landed.

Even though we had seen roughly where it had landed, it still took us quite a while to find the Lapland Bunting on the ground. We scanned back and forth across the area repeatedly, at first finding nothing but Skylarks and the odd Linnet. Finally it came out of the thick stubble into a slightly more open patch, and we got a good look at it through the scope. It was creeping around like a mouse, head down, not like the much bolder Skylark just behind it. We managed to stay on the Lapland Bunting for several minutes, despite it disappearing in and out of the stubble and furrows at times. Eventually we lost sight of it again and we decided to head back to the car.

Black Redstart was also on the wanted list, but we knew it would be unlikely we could find one at this time of year. There had been the odd one reported in very disparate parts of the coast in recent weeks, but they all seemed to be one day birds, possibly just passing through. As we still had some time available, we thought we might as well give it a go on the off chance. Sheringham can be a good place for them sometimes and, although there had been no reports from there for over two weeks, it seemed worth the long shot – especially as it was not far away.

We had a good look around the Leas, the ornamental garden and the boating lake, round the back of some of the buildings they sometimes favour, but not surprisingly we drew a blank. We decided to have a walk along the prom and a look out to sea. There were a few Red-throated Divers moving offshore and a Guillemot was diving out on the sea. Four Common Scoters flew east.

6O0A3604Turnstones – feeding on seed put out for them on the Prom

There were lots of Turnstones along the Prom, with a large group feeding on some seed put out for them by ‘The Tank’. There are usually at least a couple of Purple Sandpipers on the sea defences along here too and just past there we found one, feeding on one of the seaweed encrusted slipways. It flew back towards ‘The Tank’ and we followed it, finding it feeding on the concrete blocks just below the Prom.

We started to make our way back and a second Purple Sandpiper was feeding on the blocks further back. We watched it slipping and sliding on the seaweed as it tried to clamber up and down the faces of the concrete.

6O0A3618Purple Sandpiper – feeding on the seaweed-encrusted sea defences

We had already found all the target species which we had identified as likely possibilities prior to the tour. Rather than enjoy a couple of hours of general birding on our way back along the coast for the rest of the afternoon, looking for some of the other specialities you can find on a winter’s day in North Norfolk, with a long drive ahead, the decision was made to head for home. We called it a day: mission accomplished.

28th Nov 2017 – Parrot Crossbill Invasion

Back in early October, a number of Parrot Crossbills appeared in Shetland. Like other crossbills, this is an irruptive species, occasionally moving south and west out of their normal home in Scandinavia and further east in response to food shortages. The last major irruption was in late 2013 and it seemed like we might be on for another big arrival this winter. However, as we moved through October the invasion seemed to fizzle out in the Northern Isles.

Then on 23rd November, a report emerged of 6 possible Parrot Crossbills at Santon Downham, down in the Brecks on the Norfolk/Suffolk border. It took a couple of days before they were seen again and their identity was confirmed, but since then the numbers there have grown steadily. At the time of writing, the largest count so far has reached 42!

I finally managed to get down to see them on 28th, when there were already over 30 Parrot Crossbills present. As soon as I arrived, they were to be found feeding in a small clump of Scots Pines close to St Helen’s car park. They are great birds to watch – snipping off cones with their massive bills, then carrying them to a nearby perch. There, they hold them in one foot and start to attack them, using their distinctive crossed mandibles to lever open the scales before extracting the seeds with their tongues. Periodically, they will pick up the cone with their bill, rotate it, grab it again with their foot and start to work on the scales on the other side.

Parrot Crossbills can be hard to see when they are feeding quietly in dense pine trees – the only clue to their presence is often the sound of pine cones being dropped once they are finished with them. It is only when they suddenly fly out from the trees where they are feeding, calling loudly, that you can appreciate how many are really there.

I watched the Santon Downham Parrot Crossbills for several hours on the morning of 28th, feeding in the pines, loafing around in a nearby oak or some bare poplars nearby and coming down to drink. A few of the photos from that morning are below.

Parrot Crossbill 1

Parrot Crossbill 2

Parrot Crossbill 3

Parrot Crossbill 4

Parrot Crossbill 5

Parrot Crossbill 6

Parrot Crossbill 7

Parrot Crossbill 8

Parrot Crossbill 9

Parrot Crossbill 10

Parrot Crossbill 11

Parrot Crossbill 12

Parrot Crossbill 13

As well as the Parrot Crossbills at Santon Downham, other flocks have since been found in Berkshire and Suffolk. It seems like there may well be more yet to be found elsewhere and any large block of pine trees is worth checking to see if there may be any Parrot Crossbills there.

In the invasion of 2013/14 the Parrot Crossbills stayed well into March, so with a bit of luck this year’s birds might be around for a while yet, if you want to come and see them for yourself.

Sept/Oct 2017 – A Week in Shetland

Not a tour, but a week spent up in the Shetland Isles between 27th September and 4th October. The weather was not great – gale force winds on several days, and lots of rain – but it was still possible to get out birding most of the time. It was an opportunity to go and check out some new sites, as well as catch up with some of the more unusual birds which were around while I was there. Here is a selection of photos from the week.

Breeding as close as Scandinavia but wintering in SE Asia, Rustic Bunting is a very rare visitor to Norfolk. They are much more regular in the Northern Isles, but even so there was a bit of a deluge over the last week. I managed to catch up with two. The first Rustic Bunting on the Mainland was found up at Melby, Sandness. I saw it on several occasions but it was always quite flighty, when I was there.

Rustic Bunting 1Rustic Bunting – seen around the wet fields at Melby, Sandness

The second Rustic Bunting I saw was at Lower Voe, which I stopped off to see on my way back from Esha Ness on my last morning. It was initially rather elusive, moving round between gardens and the beach, but eventually settled down to feed along the side of the road where it showed very well.

Rustic Bunting 2Rustic Bunting – my second of the week, at Lower Voe

The other rarity highlight was the arrival of several Parrot Crossbills towards the end of the week. This is an irruptive species, moving out of Northern Europe in search of pine cones. We were fortunate to have a very obliging group in North Norfolk not so long ago, over the winter of 2013/14. But it was still nice to catch up with some more Parrot Crossbills this time – I saw at least 6, in the spruce plantations at Sand, making very light work of any spruce cones they could find.

Parrot Crossbill 1

Parrot Crossbill 2Parrot Crossbills – there were at least 6 in the spruce plantations at Sand

Esha Ness is a stunning location and well worth the visit anyway, but I did eventually manage to locate the juvenile American Golden Plover which was hanging out with the flock of Eurasian Golden Plovers. It was generally rather distant though, hunkered down at first against the gale-force winds, before flying off into one of the fields to feed.

American Golden PloverAmerican Golden Plover – hunkered down in the wind

The juvenile Little Stint was much more obliging, landing in the road right in front of the car, before running over to feed around the shallow pools in the grass nearby. A Curlew Sandpiper feeding in the grassy fields with the Golden Plovers looked rather out of place.

Little StintLittle Stint – feeding around the shallow pools with a Rock Pipit for company

There were lots of scarcities too – a good arrival of Little Buntings, seen at several sites….

Little BuntingLittle Bunting – this one in one of the quarries at Sumburgh Head

…and numerous Red-breasted Flycatchers too.

Red-breasted FlycatcherRed-breasted Flycatcher – one of many, this one also in a quarry at Sumburgh

Yellow-browed Warblers, perhaps not surprisingly these days, were numerous.

Yellow-browed WarblerYellow-browed Warbler – several were seen most days, this one at Quendale

There was only one Red-backed Shrike around during the week, a juvenile for a couple of days at Fladdabister. It was often to be found hunting in a couple of small gardens, right outside the front windows of the houses!

Red-backed ShrikeRed-backed Shrike – this juvenile was at Fladdabister

I also saw two Great Grey Shrikes during the week, one by the beach at Grutness and the other at Dale of Walls.

Great Grey ShrikeGreat Grey Shrike – this one at Dale of Walls in the rain

There were good numbers of commoner migrants passing through, especially earlier in the week. Redstarts were regularly seen, sometimes in slightly incongruous places.

Common RedstartRedstart – this one on the pavement by the road in a housing estate

There were several Spotted Flycatchers around too, but I only saw one Pied Flycatcher during the week, in one of the plantations at Kergord. It can’t have been easy for them to find food, in the wind and the rain.

Spotted FlycatcherSpotted Flycatcher – trying to find a sheltered spot to feed

Bramblings and thrushes, particularly Song Thrush and Redwing, were arriving too. I was slightly disappointed to only see a handful of Mealy Redpoll, as I left too early for the arrival of the Arctic Redpolls just after I departed.

BramblingBrambling – birds were arriving during the week

It was also nice to catch up with some of the commoner birds. The Wrens on Shetland are a separate subspecies, zetlandicus, darker with longer bill and legs compared to the ones at home.

Shetland WrenShetland Wren – a distinct subspecies

Rock Doves are common around the crofts and fields. It many parts of the UK, they have interbred with Feral Pigeons, but the ones here still look pretty pure.

Rock DoveRock Dove – seen around the crofts and fields

Twite are also still fairly common here, with small groups encountered on most days.

TwiteTwite – small groups were seen on most days

Most of the seabirds which breed here over the summer months have now departed, but there were still plenty of Black Guillemots around the coast. This one was particularly obliging, catching crabs just off the beach at Melby.

Black GuillemotBlack Guillemot – several were seen around the coast

It was a very enjoyable week up in Shetland and I will definitely be going back again next year!