Tag Archives: Pink-footed Geese

4th Nov 2016 – Late Autumn Birding, Day 1

Day 1 of a 3 day long weekend of tours today. The last of our scheduled Autumn Migration Tours, we were looking to catch up with some lingering migrants and also see the arrival of many of our winter visitors. It was mostly cloudy all day, but not too windy today, good birding conditions for the time of year.

Our first destination of the day was Burnham Overy Staithe. We climbed up onto the seawall and set off to walk towards the dunes. As we did so, we heard Waxwings calling and looked over to the hawthorns further along just in time to see six of them flying off across the path in front of us and heading off west. A nice way to start the day.

The Waxwings had moved on but the bushes were still alive with birds as we walked past. Lots of thrushes were feasting on the berries, probably fresh in from the continent and hungry after their long journey over the sea. There were plenty of Blackbirds and with them a few Redwings and Song Thrushes. Several Robins chasing around in the bushes were also probably winter migrants. Out on the grazing marsh, a flock of Starlings were down in the brambles and a steady stream of small groups of Starlings were passing west overhead.

It was high tide and small parties of Brent Geese were flying around over the harbour or heading out across the grazing marshes. We could see three grey geese half hidden behind a line of reeds out on the grass and looking more closely we could see that they were White-fronted Geese, the white around the base of their bills showing when they lifted their heads.

img_8064White-fronted Geese – three were on the grazing marshes this morning

Further along, at the corner of the seawall, we could see loads more geese out on the marshes. They were mostly Greylags, larger and paler with a large orange carrot of a bill, and Pink-footed Geese, smaller and darker grey with a more delicate and mostly dark bill. In with them we found four Barnacle Geese. Unfortunately it is hard to know whether they were wild birds which had arrived with the Pink-footed Geese for the winter, or perhaps more likely feral birds from the flock in Holkham Park!

The geese were mostly distant, but two Pink-footed Geese swam in from the harbour and started feeding on the grass at the bottom of the seawall, giving us a closer look at their pink legs and feet and the pink bank around the dark bill.

6o0a7088Pink-footed Goose – two were feeding at the base of the seawall

While we were watching the geese, we received a phone call to let us know that a Great White Egret was flying across the harbour behind us. We turned to see it drop down onto the saltmarsh the other side, over towards Scolt Head. Through the scope we could see its long neck and long yellow-orange dagger of a bill. Even at that range, it was clearly much bigger than the Little Egrets, several of which we could see dotted around the harbour.

We made our way swiftly out to the dunes and turned west towards Gun Hill. There were a few photographers with massive lenses lying prone on the grass ahead of us and we could immediately see their target. The Isabelline Wheatear has been here for almost two weeks now. They are a very rare visitor here – breeding from Turkey across through southern Russia, they winter mostly in Africa, so this one was well off course. It seems to be finding plenty of food in the short grass though.

img_8139Isabelline Wheatear – has been in the dunes for almost two weeks

The more typical Northern Wheatear is a regular passage migrant here, but Isabelline Wheatear is paler and sandier-coloured. In flight, it has a similar black and white tail pattern, but the black terminal band is much broader. A great bird to catch up with here.

After admiring the Isabelline Wheatear for a while, we set off past Gun Hill and out to the beach. The tide was starting to go out and we could see more waders on the emerging mud. A couple of Grey Plover were feeding in a muddy creek. Several Bar-tailed Godwits were in the water by a sandbank along with two Curlew. Further over, we could see a Ringed Plover and several Dunlin. Small groups of Wigeon had gathered on the banks of the harbour channel.

Walking round onto the other side of the point, we started to scan the sea beyond the spit at the eastern end of Scolt Head. A surprise find here was a late adult Arctic Tern, fishing just offshore. It kept flying up and down just beyond the sand and diving periodically into the water. A Red-throated Diver moulting out of summer plumage drifted east and a juvenile Gannet flew past further offshore.

We had been told that there were some Snow Buntings on the beach, so we walked round along the tide line and eventually spotted nine of them flying towards us. They landed out on the beach at first, but then returned to the high water mark where they proceeded to feed on the piles of saltmarsh vegetation which had been washed up, looking for seeds. We edged closer to them and were watching them through the scope when they flew again – and promptly landed right in front of us. Stunning views!

6o0a7206Snow Bunting – there were nine on the beach by Gun Hill today

We made our way back along the beach, stopping to scan through a nice selection of waders which had gathered around the channels out on the sand north of the boardwalk. The silvery grey and white Sanderling contrasting with the much darker and longer billed Dunlin. More Ringed Plover were walking around on the sandbanks. A Bar-tailed Godwit was wading deeper in the water.

Crossing back over the dunes towards the grazing marshes we could hear birds calling plaintively and looked up to see a small flock of Golden Plover whirling over the grass. They settled down again and we had a look at them through the scope. While we were standing there, a flock of about a dozen Blackbirds came in from the direction of the sea and headed inland. Then three Mistle Thrushes flew in calling too and made their way in over the seawall.

It was time lunch, so we made our way quickly back towards the car. Scanning the grazing marshes on the way, we spotted some birds flycatching from the bushes in the distance. They were Waxwings, possibly the ones we had seen earlier having returned or more likely another group. There are large numbers of Waxwings arriving along the coast at the moment. They are irruptive, coming here in very variable numbers each winter, moving out of Scandinavia in response to cold weather or a lack of berries. After a couple of fairly lean winters for them, this looks like being a good Waxwing year!

We hurried back along the seawall and positioned ourselves where we could see them. The Waxwings were perching in the tops of the bushes and making little sallies up into the air after insects. Others were perched in the hawthorns, preening or eating berries. We counted six out on the grazing marshes at first – then as we walked back along the seawall, four were perched in the bushes just below, and we could still see at least four further over. Waxwings are such stunning birds and full of character with their spiky hairstyles! Suddenly they started calling and flew off towards Burnham Overy Staithe.

6o0a7251Waxwings – at least 8 were in the bushes on our way back

After a late lunch at Holkham, delayed due to our time spent admiring the Waxwings, we drove down to the end of Lady Anne’s Drive and walked out through the pines towards the beach. The saltmarshes here used to be a regular site for wintering Shorelarks, but they haven’t been here for nearly five years now. The numbers along the whole Norfolk coast have dropped in recent years and it seemed that seeing large flocks of Shorelarks could be a thing of the past. However, just like with Waxwings it looks like this winter could be a year for Shorelarks. A large flock of Shorelarks has gathered at Holkham in the last couple of weeks.

As we walked down along the edge of the saltmarsh, we could see several people ahead of us. They were not here to see the larks but were walking their dogs – they were off the lead and one of them, a spaniel, was haring about over the whole of the saltmarsh, back and forth. Disturbance from dogs may be one reason why Holkham doesn’t get Shorelarks every year like it used to do. When we got to the place the birds have been favouring, we were pleased to see that some were still left. There were only ten of them though, as we proceeded to stop and admire them.

As we watched them, another flock of about 25 Shorelarks flew back in and joined them. Then another similar sized group returned to. It was hard to count them all, as they were moving all the time and some were hidden in the saltmarsh vegetation but there were at least 62 in total, an amazing number and the most we have seen for many years.

img_8217Shorelark – the Holkham flock numbered at least 62 today, an amazing number

While we were watching them, a covey of nine Grey Partridge strolled out of the dunes and across the path and proceeded to feed on the edge of the saltmarsh, next to the Shorelarks. A very odd combination!

Having enjoyed great views of the Shorelarks, we made our way out to the beach. The tide was out but we stopped by the dunes to look at the sea. We could see lots of Common Scoter scattered across the bay, numbering several hundred in total. Closer inshore, we picked up a group of five Long-tailed Duck just off the beach. Before we made our way down to the shore for a closer look, we had a quick scan of the sea.

We got a glimpse of a diver as it disappeared beneath the water and it looked very contrasting, black and white, and we felt sure we had seen a white flank patch. When it finally resurfaced, our suspicions were confirmed – it was a smart winter plumage Black-throated Diver, a nice find as it is the rarest of the three regular UK divers in Norfolk. It was diving all the time, but each time it reappeared we got it in the scope and eventually everyone got a look at it.

By this stage, the Long-tailed Ducks had unfortunately flown further out into the bay, but we still made our way down to the shore. We got a flock of Common Scoter in the scope for a closer look – they appeared to be almost entirely pale-cheeked females/1st winters. Then a more careful look through the various flocks revealed a couple of Velvet Scoters too, larger and darker faced, with two smaller white spots. They were loosely associating with one of the groups of Common Scoter but still keeping to themselves. Conveniently the Velvet Scoter were at the front of the flock which made them easier to pick out.

The sun was already setting and we were starting to lose the light already, so we made our way back across the saltmarsh, the Shorelarks flying in again and landing right beside us as we did so. There was a little group of Brent Geese in the taller vegetation and we stopped briefly for a look through them. One stood out – it had a slightly white flank patch than the others and a somewhat better marked collar.

It was a Black Brant hybrid – not contrasting enough for a pure Black Brant. This bird is regular here every winter, the progeny many years ago of a wandering Black Brant which got in with the Russian Dark-bellied Brent Geese which winter here and ended up pairing up with one of them. The parents are long gone, but the hybrid young still returns.

As we walked back towards the car park we could already hear the high-pitched yelping of Pink-footed Geese. We stopped on the south side of the pines to admire the stunning sunset away to the west, across the grazing marshes. At first, there were only a few small lines of geese which flew over and landed with some Pink-footed Geese which were still feeding on the grass the other side of Lady Anne’s Drive.

Then away in the distance, over Holkham Park, we saw them coming – skein after skein of geese, several thousand strong in total. As they got closer, they were accompanied by a  cacophony of yelping. The Pink-footed Geese circled round against the bright pinks and firey oranges of the sky, before whiffling down onto the grass to roost. It was a truly stunning spectacle – and a great way to end the day. One of the greatest sights and sounds of a North Norfolk winter.

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6o0a7306Pink-footed Geese – coming in to roost at Holkham at sunset

 

29th Sept 2016 – Hi, Honey

Day 2 of a two day Private Tour today. It was raining when we met up in Wells, but thankfully the weather front cleared through on our way east along the coast and it was dry, and even sunny at times, through the rest of the day. A very gusty, blustery WSW wind had its pluses and minuses!

It had looked like it might be too wet and windy for Stiffkey Fen this morning, but as the rain appeared to be clearing, we decided to give it a go. A small group of House Martins were flying around over the copse by the path. A Goldcrest stopped to preen in the trees above our head as we walked down by the river. As we walked down along the footpath, we could hear Greenshanks and Wigeon calling from the Fen. As we got to the steps, a small group of Pink-footed Geese were flying west just beyond the seawall – a harbinger of things to come this morning.

From up on the seawall, there is a great view across Stiffkey Fen. It was immediately clear there were lots of birds, but no Spoonbills, which we had really hoped to see. The tide was already on its way out, so perhaps they had already made their way out onto the saltmarsh to feed. There were lots of other birds though. Stacks of duck having arrived here for the winter included lots of Wigeon and Teal, plus a fair few Pintail. In amongst them, we could see quite a few Ruff and down towards the front, lots of Black-tailed Godwits.

A few Greenshank flew off calling, four in total, towards the saltmarsh. It was only when we got a bit further along that we could see there were still 19 Greenshank roosting on the Fen, round behind the reeds. On the other side of the seawall, we heard calling and turned round to see two Kingfishers flying off from the fence around the sluice outfall. They shot past us and over the gate out towards the fields.

img_7441Greenshank – one of at least 23 at Stiffkey Fen today

We walked on round towards the harbour. One of the Greenshanks had dropped down into the channel and was feeding in the shallow water opposite the seawall. We got a nice look at it through the scope. Nearby, on the mud, there were lots of Redshank and a couple of Grey Plover too.

Scanning across the harbour, we could see lots of birds out on the emerging mudflats exposed by the receding tide – Oystercatchers, Black-tailed Godwits, Curlew, Grey Plover. There were a few Bar-tailed Godwits too, and we got one in the scope along with a few Black-tailed Godwits for comparison. In amongst the Black-tailed Godwits’ legs, were several Turnstones.

Much further over, out to sea, we could see three or four juvenile Gannets plunge-diving off the Point. There was also a steady stream of little groups of Pink-footed Geese arriving in off the sea, perhaps fresh in from Iceland for the winter. Even further out, we could just make out a Marsh Harrier battling in against the wind, still a long way out over the sea. Another migrant presumably just making its way on from the continent.

It was at this point, scanning between the mud around the harbour and the sea beyond, that we picked up a very distant bird coming in over the sandbar at the entrance to Blakeney Harbour, about 2km away. It was quite low over the sand and beating its wings hard. It was clearly a buzzard and immediately looked long-tailed and small-headed so, despite the distance, we had a pretty good idea what it was. Thankfully, having battled in to the headwind for a while, it tacked and came straight over the harbour towards us. Gradually we were able to confirm our suspicions – it was a juvenile Honey Buzzard, possibly fresh in from over the sea.

6o0a3095Honey Buzzard – this juvenile battled in against the wind over Blakeney Harbour

As it came in over the mud on the nearside of the harbour, all the birds took flight and the Honey Buzzard several of the local gulls started mobbing it. It started to circle higher and we lost it for a minute in the melee. When we picked it up again it was just to the east of us and flying in over the saltmarsh on its own. When it got over the fields, it turned back west towards Stiffkey Fen, flying behind us, where it attracted the attention of the local crows and a male Marsh Harrier, which also started to mob it. At that point it changed direction again and drifted off east and away.

Through the scope, we could see the Honey Buzzard’s distinctive shape – as well as the long tail with several basal bars and small cuckoo-like head, we noted the pale patch under the primaries contrasting with the darker and strongly barred secondaries, the dark carpal batch and underwing coverts. The yellow cere confirmed it was a juvenile. Honey Buzzard is a distinctly uncommon bird here at this time of year, with just a few seen on migration, so this was a great bird to see. More than compensating us for the lack of Spoonbills perhaps!

Making our way back up onto the seawall, another flock of Pink-footed Geese was making its way west and started to whiffle down onto the Fen for a rest and bathe, presumably tired after a long journey over the sea. It was great to watch and listen to them as they dropped down and we got a good look at them through the scope, alongside the local Greylags for comparison.

6o0a3103Pink-footed Geese – dropped into the Fen for a rest on their way

As we walked back along the seawall towards the footpath, we stopped for one last scan and noticed a large white bird in among all the geese on one of the islands. A Spoonbill, at the very last! Even better it was not asleep! It was an adult, preening itself with its long black bill with distinctive yellow tip. A perfect finish to a very successful couple of hours here.

img_7458Spoonbill – had appeared on the Fen on our way back

We had planned to visit Cley today, but with reports of a Lapland Bunting at Weybourne for the last few days, we decided to continue on to there first. We parked in the car park and walked west along the coastal footpath. It was exposed and very blustery here, but at least the sun was out now.

A couple of Meadow Pipits flew up from the grass beside the path and we could see a flock of Goldfinches further along in the bushes, but otherwise it was rather quiet here. We stopped a couple of times to scan the rough grass the other side of the fence and we had not gone too far when we heard the distinctive call of a Lapland Bunting – a dry rattle interspersed with a rather clipped but ringing ‘teu’. It flew in over the low ridge beyond the fence and circled over, but dropped back into the long grass on the ridge out of view. We stopped for a few minutes to see if it might reappear, but there was no further sign. It was perhaps too disturbed at this time of day, with walkers and dogs, for it to come out closer to the path. Still, it was nice to see it in flight and hear it.

Back to Salthouse and we stopped at the Iron Road. The muddy pool here is looking increasingly dry now and there were no birds on the remaining mud. A Little Egret was feeding in the low reeds at the back and a dark juvenile Marsh Harrier flew past. Another flock of Pink-footed Geese were flying in from the east and dropped down onto the marshes before they got to us.

On our way to Babcock Hide, as small bird flew across the grazing marshes and disappeared in the direction of the hide before we could get a good look at it – a Whinchat. Fortunately, looking back in the direction from which it had come, we found a second Whinchat perched on some dead thistles. We had a much better view of that one through the scope.

img_7467Whinchat – on the grazing meadow on the way to Babcock Hide

With little change in the water levels recently, the mud around the scrape from Babcock Hide was also looking rather dry. The ducks are enjoying it here though – mostly Teal, but also a handful of Wigeon, Gadwall and Shoveler. This is a good place to see birds moving along the coast though, and as we sat there a party of seven Swallows flew through on their way west and about 80 Lapwings flew over too.

After lunch round at the Cley visitor centre, we made our way out to the hides in the middle of the reserve. There were some nice waders right in front of Teal Hide – a mixture of Ruff and Black-tailed Godwits. Three Ruff picked their way across the mud just beyond the bank – a very educational mixture of two larger juvenile males and a single much smaller winter adult female.

6o0a3129Ruff – smaller adult female in front, larger juvenile males behind

Doing a good job of hiding in the vegetation around the edge of the island, we found the two Little Stints which had been reported earlier. Tiny waders, they were picking around on the mud in amongst all the short rushes. A Dunlin just behind them provided a nice size comparison, highlighting just how small they are.

A female Marsh Harrier circled out over the scrape from the reedbed and flushed all the birds, and the smaller waders all landed again out in the open. It was only at this point that we realised there were actually four Little Stints on here, all smart juveniles. They stood with all the Dunlin out in the open for a few seconds, then made their way quickly back into the cover on the island.

A Greenshank had been sleeping over on the far side of the scrape, but had also been flushed by the Marsh Harrier and landed on the near edge just along from the hide. It was walking towards us and we had a good look at it, looking very smart in the afternoon sunshine. Before it got to the hide, it took off and flew straight across right in front of us and dropped over behind us.

6o0a3143Greenshank – flew across right in front of Teal Hide

The mass arrival of Pink-footed Geese was a real theme of the day today and yet another flock dropped in to Simmond’s Scrape briefly, on their way west. Work is underway to reprofile the scrape at the moment and it was probably the approach of the returning excavator (after what appeared to be a rather extended lunch break) which quickly flushed them again. Their higher pitched, yelping calls contrasting with the deeper honking of the local Greylags.

6o0a3138Pink-footed Geese – another flock dropped into Simmond’s Scrape briefly

With all the activity, there was nothing much on Simmond’s Scrape today. A nice Comma butterfly was enjoying the sunshine in the shelter of the hides by the door to Dauke’s. There were also lots of dragonflies around the reserve, despite the wind – Common Darters and Migrant Hawkers.

6o0a3150Comma – enjoying the afternoon sun

It was still very blustery round at the beach car park, but we made our way along the back of the beach towards North Scrape. A Whinchat perched up on the fence at the end of the Eye Field, but apart from a few Shelduck and smattering of other ducks, North Scrape itself looked disappointingly quiet. A few juvenile Gannets were circling offshore and plunge diving.

With a dark shower cloud approaching, we decided to make our way quickly back. As it was, there were no more than a couple of spots of rain. As we drove back along Beach Road, first a Stonechat and then a Wheatear flew up and landed on the fence posts.

6o0a3157Wheatear – on the fence along Beach Road

There was still time for one last quick stop, so we headed back for the shelter of Wells Woods. It was quiet initially walking through the trees – the blustery wind was penetrating even deep into the woods. As we made our way into the Dell, we came across a large tit flock. It was moving quickly, over our heads and back the way we had come. We tried to follow it, but lost it for a few minutes, eventually hearing the Long-tailed Tits calling and catching up with it just as it set off again.

Finally the birds found a slightly more sheltered spot in the trees, with even a bit of late afternoon sunshine catching the leaves, and stopped moving quite so quickly. At this point, we got a little time to watch them. As well as the Long-tailed Tits, there were Blue, Great and Coal Tits in the flock. With them were at least three Chiffchaffs and a Blackcap, a couple of Treecreepers and lost of Goldcrests. The Chiffchaffs were flitting around in the low brambles and wild roses, occasionally flycatching for insects. We had great views of a couple of Treecreepers climbing up the pines.

When the tit flock started to move off again it seemed to be heading up into the tops of the pines, so we went back and carried on through the Dell. When we got to the other side, we realised we were running out of time, so we turned to head back towards the car. We hadn’t gone far when we found ourselves surrounded by the tit flock again. Watching a tiny Goldcrest down in a wild rose at our feet was a great way to end two very exciting days of autumn birding.

6o0a3177Goldcrest – feeding down at our feet

23rd Sept 2016 – Autumn Delights, Day 1

Day 1 of a three day long weekend of Autumn Tours today. It was a glorious day to be out – sunny, blue skies, and warm after the sun saw off the typical cool of an autumn morning. Not great perhaps for bringing in new migrants, but a lovely day to catch up with those already here.

Our first destination was Wells Woods. As we walked across the car park, we could hear Pink-footed Geese calling, their distinctive high-pitched yelping, and we looked up to see a small skein of about thirty flying west. A sign that autumn is definitely here, with geese arriving for the winter!

There were Long-tailed Tits calling from the pines as we walked past the boating lake and just beyond, in the top of a birch, we picked up a Chiffchaff. We started to walk along the path to the right, but heard a Yellow-browed Warbler calling behind us, so headed back to the junction and took the other fork. We could hear Bullfinches calling on the other side of the track, as we stood scanning the trees where we thought the Yellow-browed Warbler should be. There were Goldfinches in the treetops and a Chaffinch in a hawthorn by the path.

After a while, the Yellow-browed Warbler called again and we managed to find it flitting around low down in a birch tree. It was hard to see at first, but we got a few glimpses of it before it flew across in front of us and went up into the treetops.

6o0a1903Yellow-browed Warbler – elusive at first, in the birches

It seemed to disappear, so we were going to move on, but as we walked past the tree we found the Yellow-browed Warbler again, in a bush the other side. This time it showed much better. It was still on the move constantly, but over a period of time we all managed to get good views of it. We could see its bright pale yellow supercilium (its ‘brow’) and double wing bars.

6o0a1908Yellow-browed Warbler – with pale yellow ‘brow’ and wing bars

While we were watching it flitting around in the birches, we noticed a second bird in the same tree, which turned out to be a second Yellow-browed Warbler! It has been a great autumn already for this species, and there have been perhaps between 15-20 in the trees between Wells and Holkham alone. Breeding in Siberia and wintering in SE Asia, Yellow-browed Warbler used to be much rarer here, but they are now a scarce but regular visitor at this time of year, perhaps due to westward expansion or a shift in migration strategy. Whatever is behind it, they are still great little birds, lovely to see.

6o0a1936Yellow-browed Warbler – two were in the birches together at one point

Finally, when the Yellow-browed Warblers made their way back deeper into the trees, we carried on into the woods. As we walked quietly through the trees, we could see more birds flitting about ahead of us. First a Garden Warbler appeared in a birch right in front of us. Larger and more lumbering, it eventually came out into full view. Then a Blackcap flew appeared in the same tree and flew across in front of us.

A Pied Flycatcher appeared briefly, but flew round out of view behind a large hawthorn. We were just watching a Blackcap in the top of the bush, when the flycatcher shot off up into the pines. A minute or so later it was calling from the birches further back, so we walked round to try to see it. The Pied Flycatcher proved tricky for everyone to get onto, feeding very high in the trees and either perching motionless or flicking quickly between the birches, before zooming off over our heads.

While trying to see the flycatcher, we found ourselves in a sheltered glade of birch trees. This was alive with birds. As well as several more Chiffchaffs, there were a couple of smart Willow Warblers, similar to a Chiffchaff but brighter lemon yellow washed on paler underparts, a stronger face pattern, sleeker outline with longer wings, and paler legs. There were also several Goldcrests and we got great views of them flitting constantly around in the trees, flashing their golden crown stripes. Another Yellow-browed Warbler started calling further back in the trees.

Most of the small birds here are probably migrants, though a few may have bred in the pines. Many will be on their way south from Scandinavia, stopping to feed up here having crossed the North Sea. The Willow Warblers will soon be on their way down to Africa and across the Sahara. Even the tiny Goldcrests, weighing barely more than a 20p piece, make the long sea crossing to get here for the winter. Amazing!

Eventually we had to tear ourselves away and we walked round through the trees and back out onto the main path. The clear scrubby area just south of the path was fairly quiet, apart from a Blackcap or two flushed from the brambles. However, with the sun starting to warm things up nicely, the first Common Buzzard of the day circled overhead.

6o0a1943Common Buzzard – circled overhead as the day warmed up

We carried on west to the drinking pool. There is not too much water in here these days, but still just about enough for birds to drop down for a drink or to bathe. As we arrived, a Blue Tit had just finished and was preening in one of the low bushes on the edge. A Coal Tit dropped in next, followed by a Goldcrest. We could hear more Goldcrests calling, but couldn’t find any other birds of note around the pool.

Continuing further along, it seemed rather quiet at first – perhaps because it was getting warm and the birds had retreated into the trees. We could hear a few tits calling quietly so we stopped on the path and immediately caught a flash of another Pied Flycatcher as it disappeared into some oaks. Unfortunately, it didn’t reappear, but some movement in the same tree alerted us to yet another Yellow-browed Warbler – which promptly did the same trick before anyone could get onto it. It was very thick and dark in the trees, with all the leaves still on the oaks. A Goldcrest low in the birches by the path proved easier to see and gave lovely close views.

We tried to follow the tit flock as they made their way through the trees, hoping to see what else might be with them, but they moved off quickly and the undergrowth was too thick. We went back to the main path and tried to get ahead of them, but they didn’t come our way. We decided to make our way back.

Along the main path, we finally ran into one of the big mixed tit flocks that can be found in the woods at this time of year. We heard the Long-tailed Tits calling first, and the next thing we knew that were all around us. There were Blue Tits, Coal Tits and Great Tits too. One of the Great Tits found a large and very hairy caterpillar. We watched as it took it to a branch and, holding it with one foot, proceeded to pull all the hairs off before pulling it apart and eating it.

6o0a1959Great Tit – pulling the hairs off a large, hairy caterpillar

As well as all the tits, there were lots of Goldcrests with the flock and a couple of Treecreepers. We had great views of them as they worked their way methodically up several trees alongside the path.

The raptor action was hotting up even more, as the warming air provided plenty of thermals. A Red Kite circled low over the trees while we were watching the tits, before being mobbed by a Common Buzzard as it gained height. Three more Common Buzzards were soaring ever higher into the sky. A couple of Kestrels circled over too, but views of a Sparrowhawk were typically brief as it shot low over the trees.

6o0a1967Red Kite – circled low over the trees

With all the warm weather, there were lots of insects out today. Butterflies included good numbers of Red Admirals, several Small Coppers and a few Speckled Woods enjoying the autumn sunshine. Dragonflies were represented by numerous Common Darters and a couple of Migrant Hawkers.

6o0a1941Red Admiral – enjoying the autumn sunshine

After a very enjoyable and successful morning in the woods, we headed back to the car for lunch. We decided to go up onto the harbour wall to sit and enjoy the view while eating. A Wheatear was feeding on the rough ground just below the path, along with a Meadow Pipit.

6o0a1975Wheatear – feeding on the harbour wall

The tide was in and out in the middle of the harbour we could see a large flock of Brent Geese spread out across the water. On the shingle spit in front of us, we could see a little group of roosting waders, Ringed Plover, Dunlin and Turnstone. More yelping calls alerted us to another flock of Pink-footed Geese flying in from the direction of the sea.

6o0a1980Pink-footed Geese – we saw several small flocks flying in

After lunch, we made our way along the coast to Stiffkey Fen. The hedges here are rather overgrown now and full of berries, but we saw little on the walk out. There is a much better view all round from up on the seawall and amongst the hordes of birds out on the Fen, we could immediately see a line of white shapes. Two of them were feral white ‘farmyard’ geese in with the Greylags, but the other thirty were all Spoonbills.

6o0a1988Spoonbills – 15 of the 30 on Stiffkey Fen today

The Spoonbills were mostly asleep, doing what they seem to like doing best. Periodically, one would wake up for a shuffle or a preen, and we could see its long, spoon-shaped bill. The majority if not all of these will most likely have come from the breeding colony just along the coast at Holkham, the only breeding Spoonbills in the UK. At the end of the season, they like to gather in large flocks along the coast. It has apparently been a good breeding season for them this year.

img_7129Spoonbills – occasionally one would wake up and show off its bill

The tide was just starting to go out on the other side of the seawall, and lots of birds had come onto the Fen to roost, not just the Spoonbills. There were lots of waders – mostly Black-tailed Godwits and Redshank. In with them, were quite a few Ruff too. We could hear Greenshanks calling, but they seemed to be hiding out of view at the front, behind the reeds. Over towards the back, a good number of Lapwing had gathered and we found a Common Snipe stabbing vigourously into the grassy bank. As the mud started to appear in the harbour, little groups of Redshank began flying off from the Fen and out over the seawall to feed.

The number of ducks on here continues to increase, as more and more return for the winter. The Fen was packed with Wigeon today and, as we stood and watched, several more groups flew in to join them, possibly fresh arrivals from their Russian breeding grounds. Looking through them, we could see a good number of Pintail too. Down at the front were more Teal and Mallard and in with them, we found a smart drake Gadwall, already emerging from eclipse plumage.

As we walked round to look in the harbour, a Greenshank flew overhead calling, from the direction of the Fen. Out on the mud, we could see lots of Oystercatchers and a fair few Curlew. Scanning through them closely, we found several Bar-tailed Godwits as well. Further over, on the edge of the receding tide, were all the Grey Plovers.

There were more Brent Geese in the harbour too, and a large selection of gulls. All the birds were nervous and we could see why as a Peregrine circled over, mobbed by a Herring Gull, before disappearing off west. A short while later, a second Peregrine appeared, a larger bird, presumably a female, which put all the birds in the harbour up again.

On the walk back, we could hear Greenshanks calling again and this time found two further up the channel below the seawall, with several Redshank. We got one of the Greenshanks in the scope and had it side by side with a Redshank, a nice comparison. On the other side of the seawall, a Kingfisher flashed low over the reeds but disappeared down into the river channel before everyone could get onto it.

We still had time for one very quick last stop, so we called in at Stiffkey Greenway on the way back. We had planned to walk west towards the whirligig but a group coming back from that direction told us it was all quiet that way. However, they did also tell us they thought they had seen a Red-breasted Flycatcher earlier the other way, in the campsite wood, so we thought we should check that out instead.

There was no sign of the flycatcher, but it was fairly disturbed in there, with several dog walkers passing us on the path. A flock of Long-tailed Tits passed overhead, pausing to feed in a large sycamore. As we stopped to turn round and head back, a Kestrel in the field on an untidy pile of straw was enjoying the late afternoon sunshine. It had certainly been a lovely day for it – great to be out birding.

img_7138Kestrel – enjoying the late afternoon sunshine

25th September 2015 – Titchwell Time

Day 3 of a 5 day Autumn Tour today. Back on the coast, we made our way west to Titchwell this morning, to explore the reserve. It was a lovely day – a bright start, plenty of sunny intervals with only patchy cloud.

The car park was not too full when we first arrived, but we knew it would fill up fast. We walked round the corner to explore the overflow car park before it got too busy. Several Blackcaps were feeding in the brambles, which are now laden with fruit. We saw both black-capped grey male and rusty-capped browner female/young birds. A Chiffchaff was flycatching from an elder tree. There were also a few Chaffinches around the bushes and a smattering of tits – a Coal Tit flew over and a flock of Long-tailed Tits made its way across. The highlight was a male Bullfinch which fed quietly in the brambles just long enough for everyone to get a good look at it in the scope.

P1090747Common Darter – basking in the morning sun

As we walked out along the main path, there were lots of insects in the vegetation along the bank, including several dragonflies, enjoying the early morning sunshine and out of the wind in the lee of the trees – Migrant Hawkers and Common Darters. Out on the grazing meadow, there were lots of Lapwings and several Curlew in the long grass.

The grazing meadow pool is still pretty dry – still no sign of the landowner reflooding it (it is not part of the reserve). The Lapwings seemed to like it here too, but it doesn’t seem to attract much else. A cock Pheasant looked beautiful catching in the sun on the edge of the vegetation. A little further along, we stopped to scan the reedbed pool. There was a good raft of Common Pochard and Tufted Duck out there again today, plus a Little Grebe and a couple of Mute Swan cygnets.

We made our way to Island Hide first. The water has dropped and with a strong westerly wind recently the remaining water has been pushed over to the far side of the reserve. Consequently, the waders were a little distant today and reduced in number. We found a couple of small groups of Dunlin and two Ringed Plover with them, but not so many small waders and no sign of the Little Stints today. A little group of Avocet were asleep over towards the back. There were only a couple each of Ruff and Black-tailed Godwit.

IMG_1157Common Snipe – not so well camouflaged on the fresh green vegetation

The edge of the reeds nearest the hide had been lacking in activity initially, but a Common Snipe dropped in and we all turned to have a good look at it. It was nervous out in the open, and not particularly well camouflaged in the lush green vegetation out on the exposed mud. It was trying to feed, but kept stopping and looking round, before hurrying across.

While we were watching the Snipe, a sharp-eyed member of the group spotted a Water Rail just behind it, working its way along the edge of the reeds. It kept disappearing into the reeds out of sight, before emerging again, never venturing too far out into the open. At one point, when it disappeared from view, it started calling – loud squealing, a little reminiscent of a pig. It was great to hear it as well as see it.

IMG_1147Water Rail – working its way furtively along the edge of the reeds

It was a bit breezy for Bearded Tits to be showing their best today, but they have been seen regularly feeding along the edge of the reeds in recent weeks. We eventually found one doing just that today, but it had chosen the reeds at the very far side of the freshmarsh!

The number of ducks on the freshmarsh has been steadily growing in recent weeks, as birds return for the winter. There are already a good number of Teal and Wigeon present. At this time of the year, the males are still mostly in dull, female-like eclipse plumage, meaning they are not looking their best. Amongst them we also found a few Shoveler and a Gadwall or two. Two paler brown ducks at the back of the freshmarsh, with swan-like necks and rounded heads, were a couple of Pintail.

From round at Parrinder Hide, we added a couple more birds to the day’s list. Right over in the back corner, we found a Spotted Redshank asleep amongst the ducks and gulls. At first, all we could see was its red legs and its very pale underparts catching the sun. Very occasionally, it would wake up for a second and flash its long, needle-fine bill. A little later, when we looked back, it had multiplied – three Spotted Redshanks asleep!

Out in front of the hide, just along the bank, four geese were feeding. Most of the geese here are Greylags, but one of the four was slightly smaller, with a darker head and smaller, darker bill. It was a lone Pink-footed Goose and it was great to see it alongside the Greylags to compare and contrast. Unfortunately, it appeared to have an injured wing, so it was more likely a bird which had spent the summer here rather than a returning migrant. Despite this, it was a harbinger of things to come.

P1090777Pink-footed Goose – this apparently injured bird was with the local Greylag

We checked out the other half of Parrinder Hide as well, but the Volunteer Marsh was pretty quiet. A few waders consisted of mostly Common Redshank and Curlew, plus a couple of Grey Plover and a single Bar-tailed Godwit.

P1090811Common Redshank – one of the few waders to favour the Volunteer Marsh

As we got back to the main path from Parrinder Hide, we saw a larger flock of waders flying in from the direction of the beach. They headed straight for the freshmarsh, whirling round for a while before settling on the mud, a mixture of Bar-tailed Godwits and Knot. They shuffled nervously for a short while. It was not high tide, so presumably they had been disturbed from the beach, and shortly afterwards we saw them flying back out there.

There was more activity on the tidal pools. This seems to be the preferred feeding place for the Black-tailed Godwits which remain on the reserve at the moment. One particular individual came right down in front of us, feeding. It looked around when the cameras started firing off and even raised its wings just enough to give us a great flash of its black tail.

P1090850Black-tailed Godwit – helpfully flashing its black tail for us

This seems to be the preferred place at the moment for most of the waders to roost when they are pushed off the beach. Clustered round the muddy islands were little groups of Dunlin with a few Turnstone and Ringed Plover in amongst them. Further over, the Oystercatcher were gathered separately on the saltings. In front of them, on a muddy spit, was where the Grey Plover had chosen to rest. While scanning through the Grey Plover, we came across a bird asleep with them, face on but with a much paler white front. When it woke up and started preening our suspicions were confirmed, a very elegant Greenshank.

IMG_1168Greenshank – roosting with the Grey Plover on the tidal pools

Suddenly, a flock of birds appeared from the beach again and whirled round over the Tidal Pools. It was great to watch them – mostly Knot but with a couple of much larger Bar-tailed Godwits and a single black-armpitted Grey Plover in amongst them. After circling round a couple of times, they landed on the same muddy spit. Again, the Knot shuffled nervously in a little gang before they seemed to gain confidence and settled down to bathe and preen.

IMG_1177Knot – a nervous flock whirled over the tidal pools before eventually settling

The tide was coming in, but the rocks were still not covered by the time we got out to the beach. However, we could see why the waders had been pushed off so early – a little phalanx of photographers had made their way right out onto the rocks. We did see a couple of Sanderling running along by the waves on the other side of the beach and another four which flew past just offshore, very pale silvery grey above and white below.

Carefully scanning, we managed to pick up a few birds on the sea today. A single drake Common Scoter was just offshore and the yellow top to its bill showed really well in the sunshine. A smart summer adult Red-throated Diver also appeared just off the beach and again the lighting was just perfect to be able to catch its red throat as it turned. There were also several Great Crested Grebes out on the sea, starting to look increasingly pale-faced. A Sandwich Tern flew past just offshore.

While we were standing on the sand, we heard a slightly hard but ringing ‘teu’ call and looked up to see a small brown bird flying towards us over the beach. It circled overhead and we could see that it was a Lapland Bunting. We see them more generally in winter, so this was an early one but not abnormally so. They can be scarce, so this was a great bird to see. Unfortunately, it didn’t land but seemed to turn towards Brancaster before coming back round behind us into the sun and disappearing over the saltmarsh towards Thornham Point.

P1090878Pink-footed Geese – small flocks were flying in off the sea all afternoon

While we were on the beach, we also heard the distinctive high-pitched honking of Pink-footed Geese and looked up to see a skein of about 50 birds coming in over the sea. Unlike the unfortunate bird we had seen earlier on the freshmarsh, these were migrants arriving fresh on their journey from Iceland. It was to be a theme of the rest of the afternoon – a fairly constant stream of little groups of mostly 30-50 birds passing east overhead. On our way back later in the day, we even saw a small flock of Pink-footed Geese whiffling down onto Holkham freshmarsh – which may be their home for the winter now. It was fantastic to see such real migration in action, these birds are such a major part of winter birding in Norfolk.

After all the excitement, we were a little later than intended getting back to the car for a late lunch. Afterwards, we headed out again to the East Trail and Patsy’s Reedbed. We stopped briefly by the visitor centre to look at the feeders and apart from the usual selection of finches we were rewarded with a single Siskin hanging on the peanuts, a rather washed out grey-green juvenile. We had earlier heard a few flying over, though not in the big numbers of recent weeks, so it was nice to see one close up for a change. As we walked out towards Fen Hide, three Lesser Redpoll circled over calling.

IMG_1196Siskin – after so many flying over, it was nice to get a good look at one today

There was no sign of the Bittern today while we were out at Patsy’s Reedbed – it had been seen earlier, flying over into the reeds at the back. However, there were plenty of duck – more Mallard and Gadwall, including some smart drakes already emerging from eclipse, plus more Shoveler. There were also around 15 Ruff, mostly juveniles in various shades of buff, beige or tawny brown, plus at least three more Common Snipe feeding quietly along the edge. A Marsh Harrier circled over the reedbed and made a pass over the pool, spooking all the birds.

P1090862Shoveler – an eclipse drake

There were also lots of Black-headed Gull dropping in to the water to bathe and preen while we were there. We carefully scanned through them as they gathered, but couldn’t find anything more than the odd Common Gull with them. We were on our way to the Autumn Trail when we glanced back and caught a pair of bright white wings coming in – an adult Mediterranean Gull. It circled over the water a couple of times, before landing out of view in the melee.

We walked round to the end of the Autumn Trail, where it overlooks the back of the freshmarsh. We could hear Bearded Tits calling as we arrived, and two flew over from the bank, across the path and dropped down into the reeds. It was still just a bit too breezy for them to come out, but we could hear pretty constant pinging and caught the odd brief flight view while we stood there.

Scanning the freshmarsh, we couldn’t see anything new but we did get a better view of the Spotted Redshanks. Once again, they seemed to multiply while we were there, with birds dropping in, presumably pushed off favoured feeding areas by the tide. We started off with three and by the time we left we had got up to eight! They were also a bit more active now, preening.

By the time we got back to the car, we didn’t have time for much more today. We made a quick detour up via Choseley, but there was little of note around the drying barns – a group of Collared Doves came down to search for food on the concrete pad, several Pied Wagtails were zooming round, and a few finches perched up on the wires. We had a quick drive round the area – scanning the fields produced a single covey of Grey Partridges and a couple of Red-legged Partridges. A few Brown Hares were mostly lying low. On our way back down to the coast, a small falcon flashed across the field and across the road in front of us, a Merlin, unfortunately too quickly for most of the group to get onto it. Then it was time to call it a day.

18th February 2015 – The Broads at their Best

A Private Tour to the Norfolk Broads today. We were blessed with a glorious, bright and sunny day and we made the most of it, enjoying the sights, and sounds, that the Broads has to offer.

We started with a drive through the area where the Cranes sometimes like to feed. For such large birds, they can be remarkably difficult to pick up, they seem to blend into the landscape at times. Today, we had no such difficulty – two tall, grey shapes appeared in a marshy field close to the road, actually very close to the road! A pair of Common Cranes. We pulled up quietly and sat in the car watching them. They were clearly aware of our presence, but seemingly unconcerned, walking back and forth, mostly with heads down, looking for food, picking at the ground. The slightly larger male occasionally raised his head to look around, checking on our presence, and the small spot of red on his crown caught the light. We had absolutely stunning views.

P1110770P1110779P1110781Common Cranes – this pair were feeding next to the road this morning

Our presence attracted the attention of another car and the Cranes started to work their way further back, clearly now a little more nervous of the increased activity. As they did so, they stopped a few times, heads raised, and broke into bouts of calling, the male starting and the female joining in. The bugling of Cranes is such an amazing sound – the video below shows them feeding and calling.

There were plenty of other things to see on our drive. We pulled up by a short-cropped grassy field which was alive with birds. A huge flock of Golden Plover, some feeding, others sleeping, was interspersed with lots of Lapwing, Fieldfares and Starlings. There are fewer geese along the coast now – a large number of the wintering Pinkfeet appear to have departed already in the last couple of weeks, on their way back north. However, we managed to find a small group of Pink-footed Geese feeding along the edge of a drainage ditch. We stopped to admire them, their pink legs and small pink-banded bills. As the heads were raised occasionally from the long grass, we could see some different birds amongst them, a few of the geese flashing a very bright white blaze around the base of the bill. A small group of White-fronted Geese were mixed in with them and we could even see the distinctive black belly bars of a couple of them.

IMG_2720White-fronted Geese – a few were mixed in with a small group of Pinkfeet

Our next stop was further inland. The herd of wintering wild swans has been rather more mobile in recent weeks, and it is getting to the time when they too may start to depart. We had a quick look at the fields where they have been in recent weeks, but there was no sign, so we headed down to the levels, another favoured area. A tightly packed line of large white shapes quickly revealed itself to be a group of about 35 Bewick’s Swans, the small yellow patch at the base of their bills catching the sun and their distinctive calls carrying to us on the breeze. A little further on, we found another little group of Bewick’s Swans. One in particular was right next to a Mute Swan giving us a great side-by-side comparison, the Bewick’s looking almost goose-like in comparison, much smaller and with a much shorter neck. Whether the flock was just scattered today, or whether some have left, we couldn’t tell. However, we couldn’t find any Whoopers amongst the swans we did manage to locate today.

There is a magical spot just a short drive away and on such a beautiful day, and with the time our own to do with as we pleased today, we decided to divert for a bit of local history. All that remains of St Benet’s Abbey are a few ruins, but it was once one of the richest abbeys in England and was unique in that it was the only abbey not closed down by Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The view from the high ground, amongst the ruins of the great church, looking to the levels all around, is particularly spectacular.

P1110810St Benet’s Abbey – the remains of the gatehouse and the levels beyond

From there, we headed over to the Yare Valley and a break for lunch. We had not even got out of the car at Strumpshaw Fen when we were greeted by a pair of Marsh Tits calling in the hedge in front of us. We stopped to admire one of them, feeding on something, possibly a seed grabbed from the feeders by the Reception Hide. It looked very smart, in buff and pale brown, with black cap and bright white cheeks. After lunch, we headed out onto the reserve for a quick look at Fen Hide. There were lots of visitors today, presumably with it being half term, and it was rather noisy. Consequently, there was not so much non-human activity on the reserve. A single Marsh Harrier quartered the reedbed, pursued by a crow. We didn’t linger too long.

P1110816Robin – enjoying the sunshine at Strumpshaw Fen

It is only a short hop from there to Buckenham Marshes. As usual this winter, there were few geese here, other than several large groups of Canada Geese and a few Greylags. A helicopter flying up the valley even managed to flush those. We saw it coming from some distance, as it put up all the geese from Cantley first – seemingly a nice little flock of Pink-footed Geese still there, though they circled round and appeared to drop down again the other side of the river. As a small group of the Canada Geese flew back later they held a much smaller goose amongst them. A single White-fronted Goose dropped down onto the grass with them, presumably it had been separated from the rest of its kind.

There were still plenty of ducks at Buckenham – still lots of Wigeon feeding on the grass, at least until they were spooked and made for the water in a scramble. Amongst them, we could pick out a pair of Shoveler and several Teal. There were flocks of Golden Plover and Lapwing out on the marshes, but another couple of waders flying in were a couple of Ruff, one a classic winter male and the other a strikingly white-headed bird. Unfortunately, the only Water Pipit we could find flew over our heads calling, and disappeared straight over the river, dropping down over the other side out of view before we could properly get everyone onto it. Otherwise, there were several Meadow Pipits out in the grass. A lone Great Crested Grebe on the river was looking particularly smart in its spring finery.

P1110822Wigeon – still good numbers at Buckenham today

Halvergate has been a favourite destination this winter, and we headed over there next for an afternoon coffee break. A quick scan as we got out of the car immediately revealed the resident (for the winter) Rough-legged Buzzard perched on one of its favourite posts. We had a good look at it through the scope, – we could see its blackish belly patch and just about even the feathered legs from which it gets its name – but it wasn’t doing much, only lazily flying from one post to the next. We really wanted to see it fly properly. Thankfully, after a short wait, just enough to whet the appetite, it obliged. It flew straight towards us and proceeded to hover several times, holding its position long enough to allow us to get great views of it through the scope, flashing its white tail base as it went. After showing off for a few minutes, it obviously figured it had given us what we were waiting for and went straight back to its post again!

IMG_2732Rough-legged Buzzard – on one of its usual posts

A little further along was another small group of 44 Bewick’s Swans. Several of these were really close to the road, so we stopped and got out to admire them. They were totally unconcerned with our presence and we were able to study them closely through the scope.

IMG_2762IMG_2749Bewick’s Swans – our second group of the day

A couple of Marsh Harriers were quartering the marshes and one smart male came alongside us as we stopped by the road. A pair of Kestrels perched in the hawthorns as we turned round in a gateway. A Chinese Water Deer was trying to hide in a ditch. However, it was possibly still too bright for the Short-eared Owls to come out and we faced a difficult choice – whether to hang on here for them or head back for the harrier roost. In the end, reluctantly, we chose the latter.

The sky was just starting to turn a delicate pink hue as we arrived at Stubb Mill. There were only a couple of Marsh Harriers already out over the reeds, with the others presumably taking advantage of the weather to stay out hunting for as long as possible. They started to drift in, in ones and twos, as we watched. Then a ringtail Hen Harrier appeared low over the marsh in front of us, flashing its white uppertail patch, as it swept past towards the roost. It was followed shortly after by a second ringtail Hen Harrier, this one quite a pale bird, possibly a young (2cy) male. As the light started to fade, the ghostly grey shape of a male Hen Harrier appeared, but unfortunately he was much more distant, trying to slip in through the trees unnoticed. A small shape perched up in one of the trees was surely a Merlin, but it was getting late by that stage.

P1110844The view from the Stubb Mill watchpoint

There were other things to see here as well, as well as the raptors. A pale shape out in the bushes turned out to be a Barn Owl on closer inspection. It sat for some time preening, before eventually setting off for an evening’s hunting. A Tawny Owl hooted from the trees behind us. As the dark descended, the Woodcock started to emerge. Flying fast, they swept out of the trees in ones and twos, swerving low round the bushes before dropping out towards the marshes.

Earlier, a couple of long necks had appeared above the reeds, their black and white faces revealing another pair of Cranes feeding out across the marshes. However, it was almost dark before the other Cranes flew in to roost, some distant bugling alerting us to their setting off – perhaps they were also taking advantage of the lovely bright evening to feed as long as possible. A line of about 20 shapes appeared through the gloom, but most of them appeared to drop down before they got to us, only 5 of them flew on and across past the trees in front. We had been rather spoilt by our views of the Cranes this morning, but as we walked back to the car with the last of the sun’s orange glow on the horizon, we were serenaded by the sound of bugling from across the landscape. An unforgettable end to a glorious day in the Broads.

3rd January 2015 – Inaugural Owl Tour

The first tour of the New Year and the first Owl Tour of the winter today. It did not feel like a promising start with rain from the off – never ideal weather for owls. However, the forecast suggested the rain might pass through by late afternoon and, not to be put off, we set off to have a go.

Little Owls tend to like sunny days or warmth in the air, and will often sit out in the sun even in the depths of winter. Cold and rain did not seem like a likely combination to tempt one out. Arriving at the first Little Owl site and a quick scan revealed no sign. Still, we set up the scope and set about looking for other birds. Several flocks of geese were flighting from the coast, heading inland to feed; a large flock of Curlew was feeding in a stubble field; a Fieldfare flew up into the trees and a Great Spotted Woodpecker passed overhead.

P1100721Brent Geese – flying inland to feed this morning

Keeping one eye on the farm buildings in front of us, suddenly a shape appeared within the roof – a Little Owl! Unfortunately it was very brief and only one member of the group managed to see it before it disappeared back inside. However, we now felt a lot more confident and after a short wait (spent watching a Stoat running around among the buildings!), the Little Owl appeared again and this time sat still long enough for everyone to see it. A great start, with one species of owl under our belt already.

From there we meandered through the countryside inland from the coast, trying a number of different sites for owls, with no more success – it was just a bit too cold and wet. However, we did come across a beautiful pair of Red Kites, which flew out from a tree by the road as we passed. We stopped to watch them as they circled over the field and landed in another tree a safe distance away, from where we could get great views of them through the ‘scope. While we were standing there, several lines of Golden Plover flew overhead and inland and a Mistle Thrush perched up the hedge. We also came across a very good number of Kestrels on our travels – a good sign, possibly reflecting a productive breeding season last year.

IMG_2117Red Kite – we got great views of a pair of these majestic birds today

With the rain now redoubling its efforts to put us off, we headed down to Titchwell to seek shelter in the hides (and a hot drink in the cafe!), during the quieter owl time in the middle of the day.The water levels on the freshmarsh have been raised for management purposes, which means that most of the islands are now under water. The Brent Geese were enjoying it, as well as a large number of Pochard and a few Tufted Duck. A few ducks and small group of Avocets were clustered onto the few remaining small islands. A Water Rail and several Bearded Tits called from the reedbed, but did not feel like showing themselves.

Despite the high water levels, we still managed to see a very healthy selection of wildfowl and waders. Ducks included Wigeon, Teal, Mallard, Shoveler and Shelduck. The Volunteer Marsh was alive with waders, including more Avocets, Grey PloverLapwing, Knot, Dunlin, Black-tailed Godwit, Redshank and Turnstone. Out on the beach we added Bar-tailed Godwit, Ringed Plover and Oystercatcher to that list. The sea was fairly quiet, though a nice raft of Red-breasted Mergansers was out on the water. However the highlight came on the way out, when a commotion at the tidal pools saw ducks and waders scatter in all directions as a young Peregrine appeared and proceeded to stoop repeatedly and distinctly ineffectually into the melee! It also flushed the mixed flock of Twite, Linnet and Goldfinch which had been on the beach and which flew overhead.

P1100731Black-tailed Godwit – there was a good selection of waders at Titchwell today

After lunch, a hot drink and an attempt at drying ourselves out, it appeared that the rain might be easing – as had been forecast earlier on. The aim of the day was to find owls, so we set off in search of them again, in the hope that an end to the wet weather might tempt them out. A short drive back to Burnham Overy and we set off across the grazing marshes.

On the way out, we stopped to look at a couple of male Bullfinches which flew ahead of us along the hedgerow – such stunning birds, and well worthy of a proper look as they eventually perched up and allowed us to get the scope on them. We also disturbed a little covey of four Grey Partridges which stayed long enough for us to get great views, as they moved quietly away from us through the grass.

P1100741White-fronted Goose – three were by the track at Burnham Overy

The fields either side of the track held an excellent selection of geese. As well as the large flocks of Pink-footed Geese out on the grazing marsh, a small flock of Greylag right by the path contained an additional small number of Pinkfeet which gave us a chance to see their pink legs and bill detail up close. In the same field, slightly further out, were three European White-fronted Geese, the white forehead blaze of the two adults being much more obvious than that on their accompanying youngster. A small group of Brent Geese and a few Canada Geese made up the numbers. There were also lots of waders – several hundred Golden Plover, plus a good selection of Lapwing, Curlew, Dunlin and Snipe.

With the rain stopping and the sky brightening to the west, we hurried on to the seawall. No sooner had we got there than the Short-eared Owls were up. Out across the grazing marshes, first two birds circled up into the sky, chasing each other round and round. Then a third bird appeared below them – it seemed to be swooping down repeatedly and a closer look revealed it was actually mobbing a Common Buzzard sat on a gate. The first two Short-eared Owls circled up ever higher, until one eventually peeled off and  flew over the seawall ahead of us and out onto the saltmarsh. It turned and flew back towards us and landed in the grass giving us stunning views in the scope, even of its striking yellow eyes (irides!). It sat for some time, preening, looking round, flying a short distance before landing back again.

IMG_2125Short-eared Owl – we saw three today but this one sat out for some time

We also stopped to look at the Rough-legged Buzzard, sat on one of its usual posts, and a very pale Common Buzzard which does a good impression of a Rough-legged for the unwary. However, they were slightly overshadowed by the performance from the owls.

Next it was time for the Barn Owls to start appearing. First a glimpse of one in the distance by the pines, then a second way off over the marshes, until finally one appeared closer to us. We watched it for some time, hunting over the grass and perched up on a post. With the afternoon getting on and the light starting to go we walked back towards the car. The Barn Owl was still hunting over one of its favoured fields and we stopped to watch it flying back and forth and pausing to hover, much closer now. It eventually flew off over the hedge at the back just as yet another Barn Owl appeared over the track right in front of us, almost overhead, and headed out around the field which the other bird had only just vacated, flying along the field margin close to where we were standing. Such amazing birds. We thought that was probably the best of it – four Barn Owls at Burnham Overy alone!

P1100748Pink-footed Goose – several thousand came in overhead to roost at dusk

As we walked back to the car,we could hear them first, yelping and cackling, before the skeins of Pinkfeet started to appear from the west. Several thousand came in overhead, circling down to land on the grazing marshes or flying on further to Holkham. This is truly one of the great sights of an evening on the marshes and of a winter’s day in Norfolk.

However, the day was still not done and we drove on round to Holkham to have a last look over the marshes there. A short walk down the track and yet another Barn Owl appeared, quartering the field in front of us. It flew round and round before turning and heading straight towards us, landing on a post just into the edge of the field. It sat there for several minutes with the moon up in the sky behind it, as if it was showing off just for us. Wow!

P1100755Barn Owl – this one gave us stunning views at dusk

We walked round to Salts Hole, with the sound of the Pinkfeet out on the grazing marshes, and watched the last of the sunset to end the day. Despite the rain and cold – what a great first Owl Tour of the season.

P1100765Sunset at Salts Hole

 

23rd-24th December – Out & About

No tours over Christmas, but after a few days catching up on admin and getting ready for the festive season, I managed to get out on a couple of days to do some birding, explore some different sites and make the most of some great winter weather.

Tuesday 23rd was clear and bright, so I headed up to the North Norfolk coast. First stop was at Wells. There were several hundred Brent Geese in the harbour, bathing and loafing, and a quick scan through them revealed one which was slightly different – a bit darker, with a more obvious white flank patch and quite well defined white collar. However, it was not striking enough to be a true Black Brant, and after a longer period of observation it was possible to see slate grey tones to the body plumage – it was one of the regular Black Brant x Dark-bellied Brent hybrids. There have been up to three hybrids in the Wells area for many years now and in some lights they can look very convincing – a pitfall for the unwary. It is always a useful exercise to spend time watching them.

P1100504Black Brant hybrid – one of the regular Wells birds

A quick look in the woods at Wells revealed little but the regular tit flock. There were clearly lots of visitors up for the festive season taking their dogs for a walk on the beach or through the pines, so it was rather too disturbed.

At Holkham, there were several groups of Pink-footed Geese in the fields along Lady Anne’s Drive and a good number of Brent Geese as well. A short walk along the edge of the pines produced a pair of Goldeneye on Salts Hole and a Barn Owl enjoying an afternoon hunting session over the grazing marsh.

P1100515Goldeneye – this pair was on Salts Hole at Holkham

On the other side of the grazing marsh, opposite the church, a large group of geese was feeding on one of the grassy fields by the road. There were lots of Greylag and Pink-footed Geese, but in amongst them were also a small number of Eurasian White-fronted Geese. There were about 13 in total, scattered amongst the other geese – what appeared to be two family groups and a separate pair.

There were also lots of geese on the walk out at Burnham Overy. As well as the ever-present Pinkfeet, there were a couple of Barnacle Geese in amongst them. A group of Brent Geese was feeding on the grazing marsh beside the path and a quick scan through them revealed yet another Black Brant x Dark-bellied Brent hybrid. This is also a regular returning bird, which can usually be seen here and has been coming back to exactly the same area for many years. It is possibly one of the most convincing Black Brant look-alikes from a distance, with a very bold white neck collar and flank patch, but spending some time up close to it always becomes clear that the body plumage is not dark enough and has grey tones to it and the collar is not quite right for a pure Brant. It was also fascinating to watch how its appearance changed with the light, with the grey tones becoming much more obvious in the late afternoon sun.

P1100545Black Brant hybrid – two in one day! This is the regular Burnham Overy bird

The large flock of Golden Plover put on their usual spectacular display, regularly flushing from the field for little apparent reason, swirling round for a minute or so before landing back in the grass where they blend in surprisingly well. Up on the seawall, a couple of Short-eared Owls were out hunting over the grazing marsh. It was great to spend some time watching them, the distinctive stiff-winged seesaw action of their wings rendering them instantly identifiable even at a distance. While watching one over towards the dunes, a Rough-legged Buzzard appeared in the air above it, hanging in the wind and hovering before drifting off towards the pines. A short while later, and with the light starting to fade, two Rough-legged Buzzards appeared in the sky together and swept round each other for a few seconds before heading off in different directions.

The walk back was accompanied by a spectacular sunset over the saltmarsh towards Burnham Overy Staithe. As I got back towards the car, the Pink-footed Geese started to fly back in from where they had been feeding on the fields inland. A couple of enormous flocks came in low overhead, each several thousand birds strong, in long lines and v-shaped skeins, accompanied a cacophony of high-pitched yelping. This is one of the sights of a Norfolk winter’s day – truly spectacular to see.

P1100576Sunset over Burnham Overy Staithe

With clear skies forecast for Christmas Eve, a quick trip to the Broads seemed a good option, to check out a few different sites. It was a beautiful morning. Walking down towards the marshes at Cantley, the hedgerow was alive with birds and a few Rooks sat around preening in the sunshine. There were lots of geese on the grazing marshes – mostly Pinkfeet but also a good count of at least 70 White-fronted Geese.

P1100583Rook – in wonderful morning light

The Rough-legged Buzzard at Halvergate has been showing very well recently, and as I was driving past, I could not resist a quick stop to watch it again. As usual, it was out hovering over the marshes, flashing its white tail base.

P1100593P1100592Rough-legged Buzzard – hovering over the marshes at Halvergate

A quick walk out along the north wall at Breydon Water added a few more birds to the day’s list in spectacular scenery. A ringtail Hen Harrier was out, quartering over the fields. A twittering call revealed a Snow Bunting flying past – it always seems slightly strange to see one away from the beach, over the fields. Several Rock Pipits flew up from the saltmarsh calling and also a flock of about 30 small finches. From their calls, it was clear that the latter consisted of a mixture of Linnets and Twite. About half of the group flew round overhead, out over the fields before coming back and landing in a hawthorn bush by the path – a quick count revealed at least 15 Twite and a single Linnet, before they flew off again.

P1100606Twite – this small flock perched up briefly by the seawall

A quick drive round via Horsey produced a couple of Common Cranes again feeding in one of the fields by the road. I couldn’t resist spending some time watching them.

P1100615Common Cranes – this pair was at Horsey again

I finished the day exploring the area around Martham. The Pink-footed Geese were coming off Heigham Holmes, a constant stream of small and larger groups and big skeins. A male Stonechat flicked across the path and landed in the reeds on the edge of the ditch. I spent the last of the light watching a pair of Barn Owls hunting silently over the marshes.

P1100626Barn Owl – a pair were hunting at dusk